From Jud Heathcote and Magic Johnson through Tom Izzo and Draymond Green, the Michigan State basketball team had never been ranked atop the Associated Press poll to start a season.
Izzo’s No. 1 Spartans received 60 of 65 first-place votes in the AP’s preseason poll, released Monday. No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Kansas were the only other teams to receive votes in the top spot.
Izzo expressed surprise that no Spartans team — including Johnson’s 1977 national title winner — had begun the season top-ranked.
“It’s almost bizarre to me, because I would’ve thought Magic’s team was No. 1,’’ Izzo told The Associated Press. (Those Spartans were No. 7 in the preseason poll.)
Duke, No. 1 for much of last season, and Louisville were fourth and fifth in the rankings. Florida, Maryland, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Villanova filled out the Top 10.
Izzo, in his 25th year as Michigan State’s head coach, has a national title and eight trips to the Final Four, which is the fifth best total all-time. Heady company, to be certain, but the four coaches ahead of Izzo — Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Dean Smith and Roy Williams — have accounted for a combined 20 national titles to Izzo’s one.
The biggest reason for the optimism this season is the return of player-of-the-year candidate Cassius Winston.
The senior point guard is joined by Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford from last season’s 32-win team that made a surprising run to the Final Four before falling to Texas Tech. And that was with Langford missing much of the season with a foot injury.
Is there pressure on Izzo to hang another banner in the Breslin Center?
By the time of this season’s Final Four, it will have been two decades since the Spartans’ last title. And Izzo has an experienced quarterback in Winston, who averaged nearly 19 points per game last season with 7.5 assists.
Henry, a sophomore who was infamously berated by Izzo during the Spartans’ first-round win over Bradley in March, brings tools on both ends of the court.
Michigan State’s weakness may lie in the frontcourt, where there are not a lot of big bodies after the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Tillman.
Kentucky has a top-five ranking for the ninth straight season and Kansas for a seventh. The Wildcats, who lost Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson to the NBA, have five-star freshman Tyrese Maxey who will try to fill the offensive void. Kentucky is the top defensive team in the nation, according to KenPom.com’s first 2020 numbers.
The Jayhawks get back 7-foot senior center Udoke Azubuike, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury.
KenPom’s top two teams from 2018-19, national champion Virginia and Gonzaga, which was ousted in the Elite Eight by national runner-up Texas Tech, both enter this season with new looks.
The Cavaliers, No. 11 in the preseason poll, must replace De’Andre Hunter, the fourth pick in the NBA Draft, and, somewhat surprisingly, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
The No. 8 Zags, meanwhile, appear to have reloaded.
Gone are Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, both first-round selections in the NBA Draft. But Mark Few secured the services of one of the top graduate transfers this season in former Texas A&M guard Admon Gilder. With the return of a healthy Killian Tillie, it looks like more of the same in Spokane, Wash.
Pomeroy has the Cavaliers and Bulldogs fifth and ninth, respectively, in his initial ratings.
But what are preseason rankings really worth?
We’ll get a bit of an idea on Nov. 5 with a doubleheader featuring the top four teams at Madison Square Garden in New York: No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky, preceded by No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke. It’s going to be a great way to kick off the college basketball season.