Way Too Early College Basketball Top 25 for the 2018-2019 season

Aaron Torresover 3 years


Aritcle written by:Aaron TorresAaron Torres
As weird as it sounds, last night (or was it this morning?) was one of the most important days of the 2018-2019 college basketball season. The deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft was midnight eastern, meaning that today we have a pretty good idea of what virtually every team will look like in college basketball season next year. Sure, there are still a handful of big puzzle pieces that have to be figured out (the transfers of Reid Travis and Mustapha Heron for example) but for the most part we basically know what every team will look like come the start of the season. Therefore, what better day to release KSR’s “Way Too Early Top 25” for next season than today? I’ve done one for years when I worked at Fox Sports, and it only made sense to continue the tradition here. Before we get into the picks, there’s one thing worth noting: I choose my teams a bit differently than some.  I don’t base my rankings solely on raw basketball talent – since rarely does raw talent alone win in college basketball. Instead, I value teams that bring back veterans to go along with star freshmen or All-Americans. Some teams we’ll have ranked higher here than most. Others will be a bit lower. Regardless, it’s time to get to the Top 25 for 2018-2019. Here is our ranking: 1) Gonzaga Bulldogs Key Returnees: Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins, Corey Kispert Key Departures: Jonathan Williams III Key Additions: Brandon Clarke (transfer), Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev I haven’t seen another national poll with Gonzaga at No. 1 (most do have them in the top five however), but the Zags are here for a few reasons. For starters, they return four starters off a 32-win team that made the second weekend of the tournament for the fourth straight year. And had it not been for an injury to Killian Tillie, they probably would have blown past Florida State to the Elite Eight and maybe beyond. They’re also the only school – as best I can tell – who had two legitimate first round draft picks (Tillie and Rui Hachimura) choose to skip the draft and return to school. They also return a wing in Zach Norvell who averaged 13 points per game last year, and their only significant loss (Jonathan Williams III) might be addition by subtraction. He’ll be replaced by San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke, who is a more versatile player who will likely make them even more dynamic offensively. Some do still have concerns about the Zags point guard play, but they have the size, athleticism, talent and experience to hang with – and beat anyone – in college basketball. Two years after playing for a national championship, they are my favorite to win it all in 2018-2019. 2) Kentucky Wildcats Key Returnees: Quade Green, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Jemarl Baker Key Departures: Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt Key Additions: Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans Please understand that having Kentucky at No. 2 isn’t an “I write for KSR” thing. It’s an “I really like the makeup of this team going into next year” thing. And while the losses of Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel did sting on Wednesday, I do believe that the return of P.J. Washington trumps it all. Washington was the final piece of the puzzle for the 2019 Wildcats, a player who provides that physical low-post presence and scorer that the team would’ve lacked without him, and with him this team enters 2018-2019 with no true weakness. They have size, toughness, shooting, versatility and most importantly, a veteran presence on this team. We all know that John Calipari does his best work when he’s got second and third-year players to go along with a star-studded freshman class, and he will certainly have that entering next season. To me, this is by far Kentucky’s best team since 2015, and by far its most genuine threat to cut down the nets since then as well. If this team somehow adds Reid Travis to the fold they will be the unquestioned No. 1 going into the season, but with Washington back I don’t think they necessarily need to add him to complete for a title either. The Wildcats are one of the handful of favorites to win it all in 2019. 3) Kansas Jayhawks Key Returnees: Udoka Azibuke, Silvio de Souza, Marcus Garrett Key Departures: Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman, LaGerald Vick Key Additions: Dedric Lawson (transfer), K.J. Lawson (transfer), Charlie Moore (transfer), Quentin Grimes, Devon Dodson, David McCormick The pieces may be different from last year, but weirdly this roster may be deeper and more versatile than last year’s Final Four club. The name to watch here is Dedric Lawson, a 6’9 transfer who averaged 19 and 9 at Memphis two seasons ago. Ask folks around Kansas, and they believe that he – and not Devonte Graham or Malik Newman – was the best player in the program last year. Other names to watch are point guard Charlie Moore (who averaged 12 points per game at Cal two years ago) and Quentin Grimes, arguably the best pure scorer in high school basketball last year. With them, Kansas is again in line to win roughly their 2,438th straight Big 12 title. And if they win that 2,438th straight Big 12 title, then they are certainly worth of a Top 5 ranking here. 4) Nevada Wolfpack Key Returnees: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew Key Departures: Kendall Stephens Key Additions: Tre’Shawn Thurman (transfer), Corey Henson (transfer), Jazz Johnson (transfer), Nisre Zouzoua (transfer), Trey Porter (transfer), Ehab Amin (transfer), Jordan Brown A lot of you went bonkers when I said on Twitter over the weekend that if the Martin twins returned, Nevada was a Top 5 team heading into the preseason. A lot of you guys wondered, “How can a team from the Mountain West which doesn’t play elite competition possibly be a Top 5 team?” Well, here’s how. First of all, this was a Top 25 team all year last year, that won 29 games, went to the Sweet 16 and was one possession away from going to the Elite Eight. They now return three players (the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline) who averaged at least 16 points per game last year, and four starters overall. And please don’t tell me those numbers were “only” put up against Mountain West teams. The Martin twins began their careers at NC State, meaning that they’re good enough to play for and against anyone in college basketball. Now, that same Sweet 16 team that returns four starters (including three who averaged 16 points per game) has depth, thanks to the addition of a McDonald’s All-American (Jordan Brown) and several high-level transfers. Did I mention that Nevada isn’t coached by some 36-year-old trying to move up the coaching ladder, but a guy who used to coach in the NBA and is one of the most respected minds in basketball? Well they are, in Eric Musselman. Still wondering how Nevada is ranked in the Top 5 heading into the preseason? That’s how. 5) Virginia Cavaliers Key Returnees: DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt Key Departures: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson Key Additions: Kody Stattmann, Francisco Caffaro I’m guessing many of you are surprised to see me rank Virginia this high after I’ve been so critical of Tony Bennett throughout the years. Well, ultimately I think there are two different things at play here. Bennett can be a slightly overrated coach who can’t adjust in March, and also be a guy who has a system which is innately designed to rack up wins during the regular season. So when I look at Virginia, what I see is that they are a club which returns its top three scorers off a team that won 31 games last year, an ACC title and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Which also means that it’s very likely that next season they will again win around 30+ games, compete for an ACC regular season title and compete for a No. 1 seed. If you do all that, you should be Top 5 in the preseason. Even if it will likely end with a crippling, first weekend loss in the NCAA Tournament. 6) North Carolina Tar Heels Key Returnees: Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks Key Departures: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson Key Additions: Nassir Little, Coby White, Rechon Black Truth be told, I like the Tar Heels more than most. Whatever you think about Luke Maye (and I know how plenty of people reading this feel) he averaged 17 and 10 last year and will return to college basketball as one of the most accomplished players in the sport. Cam Johnson was a double-figure scorer who will only get better, and Nassir Little is their first truly elite recruit since Harrison Barnes signed in 2011. Big guys like Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks will only get better. To me, the Tar Heels are one of the more underrated teams heading into the 2018-2019 season. If they can get their point guard play right, they’re a true national championship contender. [caption id="attachment_231331" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America[/caption] 7) Auburn Tigers Key Returnees: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Anfernee McLemore Key Departures: Mustapha Heron (transfer) Key Additions: Austin Wiley (suspended last season), Danjel Purifoy (suspended last season) Auburn is another team that I like more than most. And considering that I probably watched more SEC basketball than any national college basketball commentator last year, I feel good about this opinion. Most will probably drop the Tigers after they lost leading scorer Mustapha Heron this week, but in reality I think it might make them better. Heron was a ball-dominant, me-first player who often slowed down the offense at the sake of getting his own points. With his departure it opens the floor for guards Bryce Brown (16 ppg last year) and Jared Harper (13 ppg) to create and shoot, which they do best. The return of Austin Wiley, who was suspended in the FBI probe, gives them size and physicality down low that they desperately lacked last year. Again, I think Heron’s departure is addition by subtraction and Auburn could be even better going into next season than they were last year. Assuming nothing else crazy comes out in the FBI probe, this team could legit make a run to the Final Four. 8) Tennessee Volunteers Key Returnees: Basically, umm, everyone off last year’s team Key Departures: None Key Additions: None The next two teams in this poll really are the two best examples possible about deciding what you value more in a college basketball preseason poll: The raw talent of a great recruiting class? Or the value and continuity that veterans bring in this sport. Considering that schools like Virginia, Villanova and Cincinnati continue to win year-in and year-out in college basketball without elite level talent, I’ll take the latter. That brings us to Tennessee. The Vols won 26 games last year, are the reigning SEC co-champs and return – quite literally – every player of substance off last year’s roster. Now, because they don’t have elite talent, I do think it makes them more susceptible to an early-NCAA Tournament upset. But it doesn’t change the fact that on paper, they’re a Top 10 team going into 2018-2019. 9) Duke Blue Devils Key Returnees: Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden Key Departures: Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Key Additions: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones I have no idea if having Duke at No. 9 will be considered a hot take or not. But since most writers will have them ranked significantly higher, let me explain my stance (and no my stance isn’t “Cause Duke sucks, that’s why!!”). First off, history tells us that while it’s always easy to put a team like Duke at No. 1 or No. 2 in the preseason thanks to a loaded recruiting class and pure NBA talent, they rarely stay there once the season begins. For the record, Duke hasn’t won a regular season ACC title since 2010 and they’ve been a No. 4 seed, No. 2 seed and No. 2 seed in the last three NCAA Tournaments. That means recent history tells us that at best they’ll likely be is the second or third best team in the ACC and one of the 5-10 best in the country. And that’s assuming that everything goes right, and that their players all gel together effortlessly. https://twitter.com/Aaron_Torres/status/954887574203461635 Except the thing is, I’m not sold it will work at Duke. I’ve argued since the day Zion Williamson committed to the Blue Devils that I don’t like the fit of their three stars – Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish – as big wings who aren’t particularly great shooters. Honestly, that recipe just doesn’t work in basketball these days. If anything I think you could argue that last year was a near best-case scenario for Duke, where they had four freshmen who all naturally fit together and a senior leading them. They won’t have either next year. So is Duke too low at No. 9? Maybe. But I’ll stand by it until the product on the court next year tells me otherwise. 10) Villanova Wildcats Key Returnees: Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Collin Gillespie Key Departures: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVencenzio, Omari Spellman Key Additions: Joe Cremo (transfer), Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater Let’s be clear on something: It never sucks to win a national championship, but this year’s title for Villanova did show there is at least a slight downside. Had the Wildcats not made their title run, there is a zero percent chance that DiVencenzio or Spellman decide to go pro. Now, both are gone. The good news is that Jay Wright’s system is so finely-tuned that they should be OK. Collin Gillespie will go from the likely sixth man role that DiVencenzio played last season to the starting point guard, and the Wildcats still return a pair of double-digit scorers in Booth and Paschall. Wright also welcomes in the best recruiting class he’s had with years, and Quinerly and Swider are both future stars. Yes, the Wildcats had to tumble a bit after this week’s announcements. But make no mistake: They are still loaded and dangerous going into next season. 11) Virginia Tech Hokies Key Returnees: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear Key Departures: Justin Bibbs Key Additions: None In Buzz Williams I trust, and after he basically had an unprecedented run at Marquette several years ago, he seems to finally have things rolling at Virginia Tech. The Hokies return five of their top six scorers from last year – and if you’ll remember, they were already pretty good a season ago. In 2018, the Hokies beat Duke, UNC and Virginia, and also gave Kentucky a run for their money at Rupp Arena. At some point you knew Williams would take the Hokies from a fringe NCAA Tournament team to ACC title contender. That time is now. 12) UCLA Bruins Key Returnees: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, Cody Riley, Prince Ali, Chris Smith, Jalen Hill Key Departures: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh Key Additions: Moses Brown, Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal (pending), Jules Bernard, David Singleton To me, UCLA is a West Coast version of Kentucky. The whole team is basically freshmen and sophomores… but my goodness are those guys good. Kris Wilkes is back after testing the NBA Draft waters and is good enough to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Jaylen Hands is a former McDonald’s All-American who will replace Aaron Holiday at point guard. They should have depth with a loaded freshman class that includes McDonald’s All-American Moses Brown, and top 50 recruits Shareef O’Neal and Jules Bernard. Many believe that Steve Alford is entering a make-or-break year at UCLA, and that sentiment is probably fair. But he’s also entering the season with the most talented team in the Pac-12. 13) Mississippi State Bulldogs Key Returnees: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado Key Departures: None Key Additions: Reggie Perry To me, Mississippi State profiles a lot like Texas A&M at this time last year. The Bulldogs were a fringe NCAA Tournament bubble team throughout much of conference play, but if we’re being honest, probably missed the tournament because of a bad out of conference schedule more than because of their actual talent on the court. Well that same team returns basically intact, with its top six scorers returning to Starkville. At this point there are no more excuses for Ben Howland at Mississippi State, but he honestly won’t need them. The Bulldogs will not only snap their 10-year NCAA Tournament drought, but will be a threat to make noise once they get there. 14) Michigan State Spartans Key Returnees: Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, Xavier Tillman Key Departures: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Tum Tum Nairn Key Additions: Marcus Bingham Jr. After a few years dabbling in the “one-and-done” game with Jaren Jackson, Deyonta Davis and (projected one-and-done, who turned into a two-and-done) Miles Bridges Tom Izzo is back to his old-school roots. There are no obvious future NBA players here, but instead, just a lot of old-school, hard-working grinders. Look for Joshua Langford (12 point per game last year) to be a breakout star not just in the Big Ten, but nationally, and Cassius Winston (13 points, seven assists per game last year) to be one of the nation’s top point guards. With Kevin Huerter’s decision to go pro at Maryland, Michigan State is now the favorite in the Big Ten. 15) Syracuse Orange Key Returnees: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu Key Departures: Matthew Moyer Key Additions: Jalen Carey Syracuse may have gotten the single biggest break at the draft deadline when point guard Tyus Battle decided to return. Virtually no one had him pegged as coming back, but he’ll be back at Syracuse next year and boyyyyyyy do they need him. He averaged a team-high 19 points per game last season. Had he left, I don’t even think you could call the Orange a “fringe bubble team” – they would’ve just been flat out bad. With him back however they return their entire starting five off a Sweet 16 team a season ago. 16) LSU Tigers Key Returnees: Tremont Waters, Brandon Sampson, Skylar Mays Key Departures: Duop Reath, Aaron Epps Key Additions: Kavell Bigby-Williams (transfer), Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days I don’t believe in magic, but Will Wade really is a miracle worker. Last year he took the hot steaming pile of garbage that Johnny Jones left behind and turned a bunch of leftovers (with the obvious, key addition of Tremont Waters) into respectable basketball team. Just weeks after being picked to finish 14th in the SEC preseason poll the Tigers beat eventual Final Four team Michigan in Maui and rode that wave to a ninth place finish in the league. So what is Wade going to do now that he’s got some actual players? We’re about to find out. That’s because in addition to Waters (who, in my eyes, should battle P.J. Washington and Grant Williams for SEC Player of the Year), Wade added four of the Top 60 high school recruits in America. The headliner is center Naz Reid, but don’t sleep on Emmitt Williams, a big, physical wing from Florida. This team will be LOADED next season. [caption id="attachment_235837" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America[/caption] 17) West Virginia Mountaineers Key Returnees: Sagoba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, James “Beatle” Bolden, Wesley Harris Key Departures: Jevon Carter, Teddy Allen Key Additions: Emmitt Matthews, Jordan McCabe Yes, the Mountaineers lose Jevon Carter, the transformational point guard and second team All-American last season. But they return one of the most intimidating front courts in college basketball, including Sagoba Kontate one of the most feared shot blockers in America. Really though, this ranking is a bet on Bob Huggins. The Mountaineers haven’t finished third or better in the Big 12 in each of the last four seasons and finished second in each of the last three. In Hugs and his windbreaker we trust. Until someone knocks West Virginia from the top 2-3 of the Big 12 standings I’m going to keep them right here. 18) Kansas State Wildcats Key Returnees: Dean Wade, Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed, Cartier Diarra Key Departures: None Key Additions: None Kansas State is kind of the exact opposite. I don’t trust Bruce Weber at all, and feel like their preseason ranking (I’ve seen them as high as Top 10 in some polls) is wildly inflated by their run to the Elite Eight. Had Kansas State lost in the second round, would anyone be as high on them? Of course not. Still, they do return virtually every key player off that Elite Eight team, so they probably deserve to be here. It will be interesting to see if they can actually live up to expectations once the season begins though. 19) Nebraska Cornhuskers Key Returnees: Isaac Copeland, James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson, Isaiah Roby Key Departures: Anton Gill Key Additions: None The Cornhuskers are kind of the Midwest’s version of Mississippi State, a team that finished fourth in the Big Ten regular season standings and talent-wise was probably one of the 36 “best” at-large candidates. Like Mississippi State though, they were doomed by an awful out of conference slate and didn’t have a resume that warranted a bid. Well this year they return their top four scorers, including a potential Big Ten Player of the Year in James Palmer (17.2 ppg last year). Not only will they make the NCAA Tournament. They’re a sleeper in the Big Ten. 20) Indiana Hoosiers Key Returnees: Juwan Morgan, Devonte Green, De’Ron Davis, Justin Smith, Zach McRoberts Key Departures: Robert Johnson, Joshua Newkirk Key Additions: Romeo Langford, Jerome Hunter, Damezi Anderson, Evan Fitzner (transfer) The big news here is obviously the arrival of Romeo Langford, who, in my opinion is the most significant recruit that Indiana has signed in my 20+ years as a college basketball fan (you could argue for Eric Gordon or Cody Zeller, but I don’t think either is more important). Still, the thing that no one seems to realize about Indiana is that Langford doesn’t have to do this alone, and he doesn’t need to be the program’s “savior.” Understand, this isn’t a “Ben Simmons at LSU” type deal. One, Archie Miller is a way better coach than Johnny Jones and two, there are plenty of other pieces around him. Indiana returns three of its top four scorers off a middle of the pack Big Ten team a season ago, added a Top 10 recruiting class (highlighted by Langford) and added grad transfer Evan Fitzner. The Hoosiers aren’t “back” to being a title contender. But they’re back to being relevant, and should be a Top 4 finisher in the Big Ten. 21) Washington Huskies Key Returnees: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, Carlos Johnson, Matisse Thybulle Key Departures: None Key Additions: Jamal Bey, Bryan Penn-Johnson Washington is another team that I just can’t figure out why folks don’t have them ranked higher (or in most cases, ranked at all) coming into next season. They were a bubble team throughout most of the 2018-2019 campaign before falling apart down the stretch, but return their top seven scorers off a team that was a wild overachiever last season. With a year’s worth of experience under their belts, there’s no reason to think that this team can’t be a dark horse contender for a Pac-12 title. 22) USC Trojans Key Returnees: Bennie Boatwright, Jonah Matthews, Nick Rakocevic, Shaqquan Aaron, Jordan Usher, Derryck Thornton Key Departures: Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, De’Anthony Melton (suspended last season) Key Additions: Kevin Porter, J’Raan Brooks Because I love you guys, I’m just going to tell you: Pay attention to USC. They’re fast, athletic and are going to play with a chip on their shoulders after they got screwed out of an NCAA Tournament bid last season. They’re also going to turn into your go-to team when it’s 1 a.m. on a Thursday on the East Coast, you can’t fall asleep and you want something to watch. The Trojans will be your team. While USC did lose some key pieces, they welcome back Bennie Boatwright who was their leading scorer two years ago, and Jonah Matthews, a wing who will get buckets in a less crowded backcourt. Jordan Usher plays at 1,000 miles an hour every possession (think of him as Draymond Green without the anger issues) and I’m telling you, Kevin Porter is the best freshman in college basketball no one knows about. Trust me, I saw the dude at the Nike Hoop Summit and he went toe-to-toe with R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish or anyone in this class, and if he wasn’t committed to USC more folks would know about them. Point being, keep an eye on USC. Just trust me on this. 23) Texas Longhorns Key Returnees: Andrew Jones, Matthew Coleman, Kerwin Roach, Dylan Osetkowski, Jericho Sims Key Departures: Mohamed Bamba, Eric Davis, Jacob Young Key Additions: Courtney Ramey, Gerald Liddell, Kamaka Hepa I’m pretty sure I’m the only national writer with Texas in my preseason Top 25, and in this case, I understand why. It’s not as though Shaka Smart has exactly set the earth on fire since his Final Four run in 2011 –if you can believe it, he’s won a grand total of two NCAA Tournament games since making that run. Two wins! In seven years! Still, while this team loses Mo Bamba just about everyone else returns, and this will be his best team in Austin. There are veterans and upperclassmen throughout the roster, as well as three Top 50 freshmen who should all contribute as well. What will be interesting to see however is the health of Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia mid-season last year. Smart says he’ll be back next season. If he’s back, it totally changes the outlook of this team and is obviously an incredibly positive sign for Jones himself. 24) Florida State Seminoles Key Returnees: Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer Key Losses: CJ Walker, Braian Angola Key Additions: None Florida State is deep South Kansas State – a team that has been wildly inflated this off-season because of a 2-3 game stretch in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, they pulled off a few upsets and made the Elite Eight. But that doesn’t change the fact that they were a largely forgettable team for most of the regular season. Sure, they return five of their top seven scorers off last year’s team. But I’ll believe that they’re an upper-tier ACC team when I see it. 25) Louisville Cardinals Key Returnees: V.J. King, Darius Perry, Dwayne Sutton, Malik Williams, Jordan Nwora Key Losses: Anas Mahmoud, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, Deng Adel Key Additions: Christen Cunningham (transfer), Steven Enoch (transfer) I struggled with this one a lot, but went with Louisville in the final spot for a few different reasons. One, while the Cardinals lack depth, basically everyone who will play was a Top 50 recruit coming out of high school. So in other words, they do have talent. I also took it as an incredibly positive sign that after Chris Mack’s arrival, basically every single player who was in the program stayed put. That means they’ve bought into whatever vision it is that he’s selling. Ultimately, I still think this team has a long way to go. But take a young, talented team with one of the better young head coaches in the sport and I think it’s justifiable to squeeze them into the Top 25. [mobile_ad]

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