A 2016-2017 Top 25 eight months before the season begins? Of course. Last year we did this exercise the day after Duke defeated Wisconsin for the title, and 11 of our Top 16 made the Sweet 16 this March. Due to new NBA draft rules, this year’s way too early Top 25 will be far more challenging. As such, we’ll do another one at the end of May, when players who declared for the draft can decide to return to school.
1. Duke (25-11, Lost in the Sweet 16): Marshall Plumlee is replaceable (Chase Jeter). Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen are not. Besides sharpshooter Luke Kennard and point guard Derryck Thornton (the starting backcourt?), 3-point specialist Matt Jones has another year of eligibility. The best news: Elite prospect Harry Giles will start from Day 1, and Top 5 forward Jayson Tatum probably starts next to him. Also, Duke will have depth (incoming freshman guard Frank Jackson and forward Javin DeLaurier will be rotation guys). Can Giles and Tatum do for Duke what Jones/Winslow/Okafor did in 2015?
2. Villanova (35-5, Won National Championship): Two successful, pivotal seniors graduate – point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu. But another run to the Final Four could happen because barring a surprise about their NBA future, their two leading scorers are back (Josh Hart, 15.3 ppg; Kris Jenkins, 13.5 ppg), and rising sophomore Jalen Brunsonwill run the team. Mikal Bridges feels like a potential breakout star, especially if his offense can match his defense. Freshman center Omari Spellman will be backed up by veteran Darryl Reynolds. The Wildcats will be the best team in the Big East, again.
3. Kentucky (27-9, Last in 2nd Round NCAA Tournament): Even with Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis surely gone, there’s no need to panic. They’ve got three of the Top 10 recruits in the Class of 2016, and it’s safe to assume De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk will be the starting backcourt. Holdovers who should be key players include G Isaiah Briscoe, F Derek Willis & F Marcus Lee. (Yes, I’m going to keep one eye on John Calipari-to-the-NBA, as you really have to do every offseason.)
4. Oregon (31-7, Lost in Elite 8): If the Big 3 – Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell – all return, the Ducks will be a National Title contender. Brooks may try to leap to the NBA. Strong-at-both-ends forward Elgin Cook is a big loss, but center Chris Boucher was given an extra year of eligibility. Two incoming freshman expected to contributor are forward M.J. Cage and guard Payton Pritchard. Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis could be given another year, which would help the bench.
5. North Carolina (33-7, Lost National Championship Game): Lose their two best players (Paige and Johnson), but everyone else from the rotation is back. The big question for the Tar Heels next year could be the one Kansas had this season – who is the team’s star? Is Justin Jackson (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, but only 27% on 3FGs) that guy? Will Theo Pinson’s shot improve? Two Top 50 recruits arrive in Chapel Hill: Tony Bradley (6-foot-10 center) and Seventh Woods (6-foot-2 guard who put together such an insane reel as a 14-year old, look how many views this video has).
6. Kansas (33-5, Lost in Elite 8):What’s not to love about your starting backcourt returning? Mason and Graham will be back, which is a terrific foundation. The problems are bad NBA decisions made by shooter Brannen Greene (going pro, signed with an agent), Wayne Selden (should stay, won’t be a 1st round pick), and freshman Cheick Diallo. You could argue Greene was in Self’s doghouse anyway, so why stay?) Hopefully McDonald’s All-American Carlton Bragg stays, because he could be dominant as a sophomore. Center Landon Lucas will have a freshman to tutor in Udoka Azubuike and another one in transfer Dwight Coleby. Maybe next year Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk finally gets the minutes he needs to show the supposed talent he’s got.
7. Virginia (29-8, Lost in Elite 8): Have reloaded for three straight years, but will they take a step back next season? ACC POY Malcolm Brogdon and interior force Anthony Gill (plus center Mike Tobey) are out of eligibility. Point guard London Perrantes will be the team leader, and improved sophomore guards Devon Hall and Marial Shayok will be major contributors. Based on recruiting – two Top 50 guards and a 6-foot-7 forward in DeAndre Hunter – and Memphis transfer Austin Nichols, don’t expect the Cavaliers to fall far. This is still a Top 20 team.
8. Michigan State (29-6, Lost in 1st Round NCAA Tournament): A great season ended with a thud in one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. And with the defeat, the Spartans lost star Denzel Valentine along with forward Matt Costello and guard Bryn Forbes. Many expect pogo-stick Deyonta Davis to leave for the NBA. Eron Harris, the WVU transfer, will be among the team leaders, along with Lourawls Nairn. Marvin Clark is transferring. Keep an eye on freshman Matt McQuaid making a big improvement. Four incoming Top 50 recruits are why the Spartans open in the Top 10 again – SF Miles Bridges, G Joshua Langford, PG Cassius Winston & F Nick Ward.
9. Xavier (28-6, Lost in 2nd Round NCAA Tournament): Despite a disappointing 2nd round loss to Wisconsin – who can forget Bronson Koenig’s heroics? – the Musketeers should actually be better next year if everyone returns. They lose two key contributors in James Farr (10.7 ppg) and Remy Abell (6.4 ppg) but the stars should be back. Leading scorer Trevon Bluiett is testing the NBA waters after a great sophomore season (as is junior Jalen Reynolds, a long power forward), but dynamic point guard Edmond Sumner, so terrific as a freshman, will become a national name (especially if he improves from deep, only 30% on three-pointers).
10. Syracuse (23-14, Lost in Final 4): Lose two 5th year senior starters (Gbinije and Cooney) but if everyone returns – not a given – the Orange will be a Final 4 contender. Malachi Richardson blew up during the NCAA Tournament and could leave early for the NBA. If he stays, they’ll be a Top 15 team all season. What’s not to love about emerging freshman Tyler Lydon (it feels like he’ll become a star sooner than later)? And don’t forget bouncy junior Tyler Roberson. DaJuan Coleman will be a 5th year senior. The backcourt is thin, but Tyus Battle, a Top 25 recruit, will immediately help.
11. Indiana (27-8, Lost in Sweet 16): The school’s career assist leader, Yogi Ferrell, graduates. (Rising junior Robert Johnson – 8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg – will replace him.) Will Troy Williams leave for the NBA? Center Thomas Bryant might. If both stay, the Hoosiers will have Top 10 potential all season (the guess here is both leave). Keep an eye on OG Anunoby as a breakout star on the team next year, along with James Blackmon, who missed most of the 2015-16 season due to injury. Tom Crean landed two Top 50 recruits: F De’Ron Davis and G Curtis Jones.
12. Wisconsin (22-13, Lost in Sweet 16): Two popular players are back – Bronson Koenig (13.1 ppg) and Nigel Hayes (15.7 ppg) – but the name you should be most excited about is Ethan Happ, who had a monster freshman season (12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and is primed to be a star next season. The Badgers also return rotation cogs like Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter.
13. Connecticut (25-11, Lost in 2nd Round NCAA Tournament): Will coach Kevin Ollie return, or bolt for the NBA? Will do-it-all wing Daniel Hamilton enter the NBA draft? Here’s who won’t be back – 3rd leading scorer Shonn Miller and guard Sterling Gibbs, who made the most 3-pointers on the team. Three starting spots seem locked: Amida Brimah at center and Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis at guard with one enormous if … if all return to Storrs. Maybe incoming freshman Juwan Durham nabs a forward spot? The Huskies have four Top 150 recruits coming in.
14. USC (21-13, Lost in First Round NCAA Tournament): The Trojans limped to the finish, losing eight of their final 11 games. Were swept by Oregon. Then, a flurry of players decided to transfer, but the one who matters is Katin Reinhardt (11.4 ppg, tied for team-high with 60 three-pointers). And then 3rd leading scorer Julian Jacobs (11.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.5 apg) decided to test the NBA draft waters (he could still return). But there’s plenty of good news for Andy Enfield’s team – star bigs Nikola Jovanovic (12.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Bennie Boatwright (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back. So is guard Jordan McLaughlin (13.4 ppg, 4.7 apg). If Jacobs returns – and freshman Jonah Mathews can contribute in the backcourt immediately – could the Trojans win the conference for the first time since 1985?
15. Louisville (23-8, Banned From NCAA Tournament): This could be an interesting offseason for Rick Pitino, but for now, let’s focus on the returning players. Frontcourt players Chinanu Onuaku (9.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2 bpg) and Mangok Mathiang (6.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back to provide size, the only question is how good the guard play will be. Quentin Snider is their best (only?) returning 3-point shooter (40%) and he led them in assists, too (3.5). Guard Donovan Mitchell had a solid freshman season and should slide into the starting lineup. Incoming freshman V.J. King is a Top 25 recruit. Transfer Tony Hicks, who led Penn in scoring for two straight years (but was also suspended four times), will provide scoring.
16. Maryland (27-9, Lost in Sweet 16): Tons of unanswered questions, starting with point guard Melo Trimble. Does he come back for his junior year? Freshman center Diamond Stone probably ended his college career with a rancid 2-of-4 clunker against Kansas. They’ll miss glue-guy Jake Layman and shooter Rasheed Sulaimon, but if they can build the offense around Trimble and Carter, with center Damonte Dodd and 3-point gunner Jared Nickens in complimentary roles, the Terps could again be a factor. If Trimble leaves, freshman Top 50 recruit Anthony Cowan will run the offense.
17. Seton Hall (25-9, Lost in 1st Round NCAA Tournament): This ranking is based on one player – Isaiah Whitehead. He averaged 18.2 ppg last year, and could step into Buddy Hield territory if he returnsto the Pirates. Probably is, he’d be a 1st round pick and who can tell the kid to turn down money? Seton Hall’s 2nd and 3rd leading scorers, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, are also back. Top 100 recruit Myles Powell is a 6-foot-1 guard who should contribute immediately if Whitehead departs.
18. Arizona (25-9, Lost in First Round NCAA Tournament): Allonzo Trier (14.8 ppg) wisely decided to stay in Tucson, and he’ll be the foundation for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. Guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are both Top 20 recruits. As rough as last season was, the Wildcats tied for 3rd in the Pac-12. Depending on what happens with Oregon’s star trio, the Wildcats (or Trojans) could win the league. Arizona would vault into the Top 10 if it can land superstar guard Josh Jackson, the nation’s #2 recruit.
19. Oklahoma (29-8, Lost in Final Four): Three starters will graduate, including the best senior in the country, Buddy Hield. Who’s back? Second-leading scorer Jordan Woodward (13.0 ppg), and forward Khadeem Lattin. Look for promising freshman Christian James to become a big scorer next year. Freshman Jamuni McNeace will step in for Spangler at center. Guard Kameron McGusty is a Top 50 recruit.
20. Notre Dame (24-12, Lost in Elite 8): This one’s easy – if point guard Demetrius Jackson returns for his senior season, they’re a Top 15 team. If not – and he may have nothing to gain staying in South Bend – the Irish are a fringe Top 25 team. V.J. Beachem was a breakout star in the NCAA Tournament, Bonzie Colson will slide into the center spot to replace Zach Auguste and role player Rex Pflueger plus glue guy Steve Vasturia will have to provide more offense. Temple Gibbs, a Top 75 point guard from NJ, may take over the offense.
21. Wichita State (26-9, Lost in 2nd Round NCAA Tournament): The Baker/VanVleet era is over. But the Shockers aren’t falling off the map. Landry Shamet’s freshman year was limited to three games by a foot injury, but he could lead the team in scoring. Young forwards Zach Brown, Shaquille Morris and Markis McDuffie all will move into leadership roles. Former Kansas high school star and one-time Jayhawks guard Conner Frankamp could become the Shockers’ next star.
22. UCLA (15-17 Didn’t Make the NCAA Tournament): Steve Alford will be under some pressure to make a run in the tournament. After a Sweet 16 appearance in 2015, they completely missed the tournament (while USC got in). But don’t panic. The backcourt of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton (16.2 ppg) return, and the first Ball brother, Lonzo Ball, could start on the wing or come off the bench for instant offense. Or does Alford move Alford off the ball and have the freshman run the show? The only significant departure: center Tony Parker, who averaged 12.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg. But Top 20 recruit TJ Leaf (6-10, 215 pounds) and Top 50 recruit Ike Anigbogu (6-10, 240) should provide more at both ends than Parker.
23. Virginia Tech (20-15, Didn’t Make the NCAA Tournament): Given the success seniors have had the last couple years, keep an eye on the Hokies as a major sleeper. Barring injury, suspension, transfers or – gasp! Buzz Williams leaves – the Hokies return everyone. As in, the top eight players who averaged the most minutes. Zach LeDay (15.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Seth Allen (14.7 ppg, must improve on 28% 3FG shooting) provide experience;
24. Washington (19-15, Didn’t Make the NCAA Tournament): Shot in the dark – star freshman Marquese Chriss (13.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Dejounte Murray (16.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.4 apg), both of whom look like future NBA players – stay, and incoming freshman guard Markelle Fultz, a Top 15 recruit – joins them to surprise a lot of people.
25. Florida State (20-14, Didn’t Make the NCAA Tournament): We were a year early on the Seminoles. Freshmen Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley lived up to the hype – finishing 1st and 2nd in scoring. Xavier Rathan-Mayes really struggled in his sophomore year (40/28) playing fewer minutes. And he may have to give up minutes to incoming guard Trent Forrest (Top 75 recruit). The team’s talent is there, the question seems to be chemistry and coaching. If the Seminoles opt for the one big, four scorers, freshman center Jonathan Isaac may beat out Jarquez Smith as the starter.
St. Bonaventure (22-9, Didn’t Make NCAA Tournament): If you’re looking for a longshot, try the Bonnies under one condition: if super sophomore Jaylen Adams (17.9 ppg, 5.0 apg) decides to stay in school. If the 6-foot-1 guard returns to, he’ll need to find a wingman because both Marcus Posley(19.6 ppg) and Dion Wright (16.7 ppg) graduate.
Baylor (22-12, Lost in First Round NCAA Tournament): We’ll all miss enforcer Rico Gathers. And seniors Medford and Prince will be missed, too. But two standout sophomores are back – Al Freeman (11.3 ppg) and Johnathan Motley (11.1 ppg). Forward Mark Vital should be an impact freshman.
West Virginia (26-9, Lost in First Round NCAA Tournament): Devin Williams, their best player, is probably headed to the NBA, so two good sophomore guards – Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, Jr – will lead the team. Junior Tarik Phillip will be back too, and if they can get any solid play inside, they’ll again be in the Top 25 and among the top teams in the Big 12.
Valparaiso (30-7, Lost in NIT Final): Leading scorer Alec Peters, one of the best mid-major players in the country (18.4 ppg, 44% 3-pointers) is back, and so are guards Shane Hammink and Tevonn Walker. This feels like a buy-low opportunity with one big IF – if Peters doesn’t transfer. The Crusaders lost their coach, Bryce Drew, and if Peters can graduate this summer, he can transfer somewhere and be major impact player.