The chalk is the Jayhawks.
One hundred days before the Champions Classic ushers in the 2018-19 season, ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) has tabbed Kansas as the best team in the nation. That ought to set expectations sky-high in Lawrence -- not only for a 15th consecutive Big 12 title but possibly for a fourth national championship, as well.
Though BPI's projections won't come out until the fall, Kansas is rated by the metric as more than two points better than the next-best Big 12 team, West Virginia, and more than a point better than any other team in Division I.
For the unfamiliar, an explanation of how BPI operates can be found here, but the Cliffs Notes version is that it bases its preseason ratings on four factors:
· Quantity of experience on roster.
· Quality of that experience.
· Recruiting rankings for incoming freshmen, with an extra emphasis on five-stars.
· Coach's past performance.
So why is the system so enamored with a team that lost Devonte' Graham, Malik Newman and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk from its starting lineup? Because despite those aforementioned departures, Kansas ranks highly in all four of the categories listed above.
For starters, the Jayhawks are bringing back big man Udoka Azubuike, who, on a per-minute basis, was the most valuable player on the team last year per our opponent-adjusted win shares metric. That starting forward Lagerald Vick also returned only helps, as well.
BPI values quantity and quality of veteran players regardless of where that experience occurred, so Bill Self's investment in the transfer market a year ago is paying dividends for Kansas' rating now.
Most important among the incoming transfers is Dedric Lawson from Memphis, a forward who has been described by Self as the team's best passer and who should be an asset on the boards and as a scorer. Dedric Lawson's brother, guard K.J. Lawson, also jumped from Memphis, and the team also brought in guard Charlie Moore, who averaged 28.8 minutes per game during his one season at California.
Mix in two five-star recruits -- SG Quentin Grimes and PG Devon Dotson -- and Kansas should be able to avoid the depth problems it struggled with at times last season. Lastly, Self's track record speaks for itself and only bolsters the model's opinion of the Jayhawks.
With Kansas leading the way, the Big 12 is also the strongest conference in college basketball in terms of average BPI rating and average BPI rating of the top half of the conference.
But the rest of last year's Final Four...
Don't expect a Final Four repeat.
Although BPI might be infatuated with the 2018-19 Jayhawks, it anticipates a drop-off in quality for the other three teams that played in San Antonio last season.
Let's start with the defending champs, whose downward trend is intuitive. Villanova lost Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson, top-10 NBA pick Mikal Bridges, championship-game star Donte DiVincenzo and starter Omari Spellman.
That would be a tough group to lose even if a Calipari-esque recruiting class were replacing it, and that isn't what Villanova has. The Wildcats are bringing in some solid players, but the 2018 class includes only one five-star recruit -- PG Jahvon Quinerly, the 26th-best player in the class and lowest-ranked five-star, per ESPN -- along with a few four-stars. Sure, this team can still be good with Jay Wright steering the ship, but nowhere near as good as last year's group.
Villanova is ranked 16th by BPI, the lowest rank for a defending champion since Connecticut in 2014-15.
For Michigan, the reality check might be even harsher. The losses of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson were costly enough to bump the Wolverines down to 40th in Division I and ninth in the Big Ten.
And although Loyola-Chicago is returning a fair amount of the team that captivated the nation en route to the Final Four, a few wins in the tournament does not make it a top team going forward. The Ramblers finished the season ranked 49th in opponent-adjusted efficiency, and BPI thinks they are the 86th-best team heading into the 2018-19 season.
Poor outlook for the Pac-12, again
In the 2018 NCAA tournament, there were 15 conferences that had a team register a tourney win. The Pac-12, despite having three teams represent the conference, was not one of those 15. It was a very disappointing result for a conference typically included when referring to the "Power" or "Major" conferences in college basketball.
Referring primarily to football, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was bullish on the conference this past week, saying that, "a handful of season-ending games are not a communicator of a conference's overall strength and competitiveness." He was referring to a 1-8 record in college football bowls, but the 0-3 record in the men's tournament was surely on his mind, as well.
In one sense, he is right that such a postseason performance is not representative of the conference. On Selection Sunday, BPI gave the Pac-12 just a 5 percent chance of going 0-3 in the tournament. On the other hand, BPI expected on average for the Pac-12 to place 1.1 teams in the round of 32, only eighth best among all 32 conferences.
Going into next season, it does not look much better for the Pac-12. The average BPI of teams in the Pac-12 is seventh best among conferences. In fact, the average BPI of teams in the Pac-12 (2.3) more closely aligns with the American (2.6), Atlantic 10 (1.8), West Coast (1.8) and Mountain West (1.8) conferences than it does with the Big 12 (6.8), Big Ten (6.1), ACC (5.9), SEC (5.6) and Big East (5.2) conferences.
BPI sees a drop-off for Arizona and UCLA, two of the best teams in the conference in recent years, because of low percentages of returning minutes and less-than-stellar opponent-adjusted efficiency numbers for those returning players. Arizona State (No. 45 in BPI) is the highest-ranked team in the conference, and it ranks that high only thanks to decent defensive efficiency among its returning players.
The Pacific time zone does have a couple of serious Final Four threats next season ... they just aren't found in the Pac-12. Gonzaga (No. 2) and Nevada (No. 11) rank ahead of Arizona State, as do Mountain time zone schools BYU (No. 32) and New Mexico (No. 35).
Mark Few's remarkably consistent team expects to be dominant again. Of the five biggest contributors to the Zags team that ranked 10th in BPI at the end of last season, only Johnathan Williams is not returning. Look for Gonzaga to be a heavy favorite to win its seventh consecutive conference championship and likely make another run to at least the second week of the NCAA tournament.
Nevada, a relative newcomer to the top level of college basketball, looks to build on its Sweet 16 finish in 2018. The Wolf Pack return just about all of their production from last year and add McDonald's All America center Jordan Brown to the mix. If you did not get a chance to watch the Wolf Pack last year, make time to see twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin along with Jordan Caroline play this season. All three considered leaving early but pulled out of the NBA draft before the deadline.
Expect a closely contested ACC
A margin of just a fraction of a point per game is all that separates the top four teams in the ACC.
North Carolina (sixth in D-I) has the edge over a surprisingly highly rated Syracuse team (seventh), and Duke and defending conference champion Virginia trail behind at ninth and 10th, respectively. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech lingers at 15th. It all sets up a tight race for the conference title.
Perhaps most notable from the top of the ACC is BPI's lack of love for the Blue Devils, who are widely considered one of the best teams in the nation after bringing in the top three recruits in the 2018 class, per ESPN's rankings.
But BPI is a little more pessimistic because, as good as five-star recruits can be, there's more variance in their performance relative to veterans with a track record.
A season ago, BPI ranked Duke 15th and Kentucky (another freshman-heavy team) 20th in the preseason, both far worse than the consensus on those two teams at the time. No doubt, Duke was underrated by that ranking, as its freshmen panned out, but the projection nailed the Wildcats, who finished 19th in opponent-adjusted efficiency.
For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.