A 2016-2017 Top 25 eight months before the season begins? Of course. Last year we did this exercise the day after Villanova defeated North Carolina for the title, and Gonzaga didn’t even make the cut. (They did check in at #23 eight weeks later.) 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. Gonzaga (37-2, Lost National Championship)
Deepest team in the country will lose two seniors, but if Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss both return – and they should – the Zags have a great chance to return to the title game. Is it safe to assume the starting five would be Collins-Johnathan Williams-Silas Melson-Josh Perkins and Williams-Goss? And their #1 sub would be 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie, who looked solid as a freshman in limited minutes. That’s deadly. Collins just needs to stop with the ticky-tack fouls, and in 30 minutes a night, he could be a 22-11-4 stud easily. They’ll roll through the conference unbeaten again, and grab a #1 seed. If Collins and Goss leave, they’ll be in the low 20s.
2. Oregon (33-6, Final Four)
Best case scenario for the Ducks – their three best players, Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey – stay for one more run. But if you’re a realist, Bell and Dorsey have played their way into the Final Four and out of Oregon. Freshman Payton Pritchard was very impressive during the regular season. Coach Dana Altman snagged 5-star shooting guard Troy Brown. If Bell and Dorsey bolt, they’re still Top 25, but in the 15-20 range.
3. Wichita State (31-5, 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament)
This seems high, but when you combine what they return, plus their coach, it makes plenty of sense. If they weren’t seeded wrong, the Shockers had the talent to make a run. But they lost to Kentucky (again) early. The good news: The entire rotation returns, led by Landy Shamet, who was a star as a freshman (20 points in the UK loss). Also, Gregg Marshall didn’t leave, so expectations will be high for the Shockers. A Final Four trip is certainly within reach. Center Shaquille Morris could use some help inside.
4. Louisville (25-9), 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Disappointing end to a very good season, but the Cardinals should be a Final 4 contender again. Mathiang moves on, but promising 7-footer Anas Mahmoud and 6-foot-10 forward Ray Spalding will be back on the interior. I’m not sure how long they’ll be able to fend off incoming freshman Malik Williams, though. Can guard Quentin Snider (0-for-9 vs. Michigan) and Donovan Mitchell (19 points, seven rebounds, five assists vs. Michigan) take the next step in the backcourt? Mitchell will test the NBA waters (Darius Perry is his fill-in if he bolts), but the guess here is he returns. If he doesn’t, they’ll slide down into the 10-20 range.
5. North Carolina (33-7, Won National Title)
Lose twin towers Meeks and Hicks, and possibly ACC Player of the Year, Justin Jackson. But with PG Joel Berry back, and underrated wing Theo Pinson, they should be among the nation’s elite again, and possibly even pull off a 3rd straight Final Four trip. The key might be the maturation of 6-foot-10 Tony Bradley, who is mostly a shot-blocker now, but they’ll need his scoring next year. Luke Maye, the Elite 8 hero, needs no introduction. If Jackson bolts, I wouldn’t be surprised if Top 30 incoming freshman Jalek Felton starts alongside Berry.
6. USC (26-10, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Andy Enfield is one of the top young coaches in the country, and he’s going to have a tremendous team next season – even if Bennie Boatwright makes the leap to the NBA, as expected. You know you’ve got a good team when your backcourt returns, and your 6th man might be Duke transfer Derryck Thornton. Center Chimezie Metu (28 points in the NCAA loss to Baylor) should return, and freshman Charles O’Bannon Jr. (yes, his dad went to UCLA) should be a factor instantly. This team will be 8-10 deep and should challenge Oregon for Pac-12 supremacy – or win it outright.
7. Kentucky (32-6, Elite 8)
I can’t write about UK or UNC for the next six months without mentioning that incredible game. For Kentucky, it gets worse: They lose two seniors who were very good in the tournament (Willis and Hawkins), and very likely the team’s three best players: Fox, Monk, and Adebayo. I’ll guess that scoring guard Isaiah Briscoe will return for his junior year, and he’ll be joined by – as usual – a bunch of terrific freshmen. They’ve got four (!) 5-star freshman.
8. Xavier (24-14, Elite 8)
Chris Mack is an excellent coach, and if point guard Edmond Sumner returns for another year, the Musketeers could break through to the Final Four. Trevon Bluiett will be among the best seniors in the country if he returns, and guard JP Macura somehow has another year of eligibility. They’ll really miss glue guy Malcolm Bernard. Perhaps do-it-all guard Quentin Goodwin, who had a strong freshman year, can fill that role. Two freshmen to watch from a strong incoming class: SF Naji Marshall and PG Paul Scruggs.
9. Kansas (31-5, Elite 8)
Let’s start with the bad news, and I’m not talking about Bill Self’s coaching against Oregon. Senior point guard Frank Mason departs, but it doesn’t stop there – Josh Jackson is off to the NBA draft, and senior center Landen Lucas is gone, too. Three massive holes. Devonte Graham is back, and so is sharpshooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, but the best news is transfer Malik Newman – once a top recruit in the nation – is eligible. And elite recruit Billy Preston from Oak Hill arrives. Self’s got three bigs he’s going to have to use and trust (Coleby, Azubuike, and Bragg).
10. Duke (28-9, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Adios Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, thanks for the memories. They’ll almost certainly be joined in the NBA draft by Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard. Toss in seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, and the Blue Devils are essentially starting over. Guard Frank Jackson and center Marques Bolden (assuming he doesn’t transfer?) are good building blocks, and then there are the recruits: 5-star center Wendell Carter and 5-star guard Gary Trent Jr. (yes, his dad was the NBA player). Several Top 20 national recruits are unsigned and – surprise! – Duke is in the mix for them. As usual: 20+ wins, NCAA berth.
11. SMU (30-5, 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament)
The last two times they made the NCAA Tournament, they suffered rough 1st round defeats at the hands of UCLA and USC. They should finally make the leap in 2018. That is, if Shake Milton and Semi Ojeleye don’t turn pro. Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt is expected to have an immediate impact.
12. Arizona (32-5, Sweet 16)
Don’t cry for Sean Miller just yet. Yes, Lauri Markkanen will be taken in the lottery. Allonzo Trier may leave for the NBA as well. Toss in Kadeem Allen graduating, and that’s three of their top eight players. But they reload in Tucson: DeAndre Ayton, the #2 player in the country, will start for Markkanen at center. He’s joined by three 4-star recruits. They’ll be in the mix for the Pac-12 title, and there will be Final Four chatter. If Trier stays, they could open in the preseason Top 3.
13. Villanova (32-4, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Back to the drawing board for Jay Wright, who loses three key seniors from the team that won 69 games the last two years. A backcourt of Jalen Brunson and surprising Donte DiVincenzo will be formidable in the Big East, but they’ll need more from Mikal Bridges (0 points vs. Wisconsin) and Fordham transfer Eric Paschall. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Collin Gillespie, who could be the next Ryan Arcidiacono, a local kid who turns into a star.
14. Notre Dame (26-10, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Lose two key seniors in wing VJ Beachem (2-for-14 in the loss to West Virginia) and guard Steve Vasturia, but the team’s two best players are back for their final year: point guard Matt Farrell and center Bonzi Colson. Top 75 recruit DJ Harvey, from DC high school power DeMatha, should immediately be part of the rotation.
15. South Carolina (26-11, Final Four)
Sindarius Thornwell stayed all four years, and his NBA draft stock soared. It won’t be easy to replace the SEC Player of the Year. But Frank Martin does get back 2nd leading scorer PJ Dozier, the team’s leading shot-blocker (Chris Silva) and solid 6-foot-10 freshman Maik Kotsar. The biggest reason to be optimistic? Delaware transfer Kory Holden (17.7 points two years ago) is eligible and should have an immediate impact.
16. Minnesota (24-10, 1st round of the NCAA Tournament)
Richard Pitino’s Gophers had a great run in February to get to the tournament, and I expect that to carry over into next season. All five starters are back. There were be expectations for this team – maybe the program’s best since the 1997 team that made the Final Four – but the question will be who is the take-over star in crunch time. Is it Nate Mason? Next question: When teams zone them, is there enough 3-point shooting? That could fall upon freshman Jamir Harris.
17. Michigan State (20-15, 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament)
Sparty will lose its best player, Miles Bridges, to the NBA, and they’ll miss guard Eron Harris, but Tom Izzo returns plenty of talent – led by promising freshman Nick Ward (13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) – and a nice recruiting class. Between Ward and incoming freshman Jaren Jackson inside, Michigan State will be contending in the Big 10 again. If Izzo can land big-time recruit Brian Bowen (Jason Richardson is his cousin), the Spartans might be a Top 10 team heading into March Madness.
18. Florida State (26-9, 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament)
Jonathan Isaac, who is prodigiously talented at 6-foot-10, almost certainly leaves for the NBA. But will Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon go, too? If both stay, they’ll have the talent to have a 30-win season and make the Final 4, but the guess here is at least one leaves. Plus, even if they stay, who knows if Leonard Hamilton is actually capable of taking a team to the Final 4. If one/both guards leave, guard Terance Mann will take on a larger role. Christ Koumadje (7-foot-4) showed flashes late in the season and should slide into Michael Ojo’s center spot (graduates). More size arrives in Top 75 recruit Ikey Obiagu (6-foot-11).
19. Virginia Tech (22-11, 1st round of NCAA Tournament)
Even with losing their two best players (Seth Allen, Zach LeDay), Buzz Williams returns plenty and has done well recruiting (point guard Wabissa Bede will crack the rotation). Chris Clarke (11.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg)) is back from injury, and they’ll have balance with Ahmed Hill (11.4 ppg) and Justin Robinson (10.4 ppg). Size will be an issue once again (gave up 17 offensive rebounds in the Wisconsin loss). I think the Sweet 16 is a realistic goal for the Hokies.
20. West Virginia (28-9, Sweet 16)
Press Virginia loses two key pieces (Adrian, Phillip) but their best shooter (Jevon Carter) returns, and it’s Bob Huggins, you can expect a tough, relentless group. Freshman Derek Culver will have to contribute immediately inside, and the player to watch next year is forward Esa Ahmad, who struggled vs. Gonzaga (1-for-3, five turnovers), but should play a much larger role at the offensive end.
21. UCLA (31-5 Sweet 16)
Is it a bad thing when your top four leading scorers leave? Steve Alford probably wanted that Indiana job, because there will be no title talk next year in Westwood. Well, maybe if TJ Leaf stays they’ll have a shot at the Final 4, but that seems unlikely. Aaron Holiday is a nice player, and Thomas Welsh has a feathery touch, but the real reason to be excited (again) is the recruiting class. This team will probably belong to 5-star recruits forward Kris Wilkes and guard Jaylen Hands by January.
22. Florida Gators (27-9, Elite 8)
Lost four seniors from an overachieving team that promising coach Mike White has trending upward. The starting backcourt will probably be Sweet 16 heroes Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. Center John Egbunu (7.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg) returns from injury and forward Devin Robinson is back, too. Transfer Jalen Hudson (spent two years at Virginia Tech) should more than make up for the departures of four seniors.
23. Miami (21-12, 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Getting blown out by Tom Izzo was a surprise, but the Hurricanes will be dancing against next March. Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy are done, but Miami has a loaded class coming in, led by scoring machine Lonnie Walker. He’ll start with Bruce Brown and be a major problem for ACC defenses. The Hurricanes are a year away from Final 4 talk, but by next February, this team is going to scare some people.
24. Cincinnati (30-6, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Usually, when you losing your starting backcourt, there’s a rebuild. But we’re talking about Mick Cronin, a good coach and sharp recruiter. The player to watch next year will be Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart who averaged 23.1 ppg two years ago and should start in the backcourt with Jarron Cumberland. Gary Clark (11-8-6 in the UCLA loss) and Kyle Washington return as starters in the front court.
25. Northwestern (26-12, 2nd round NCAA Tournament)
Chris Collins has the Wildcats headed to the top of the Big 10 with his five leading scorers returning, including star guard Bryant McIntosh, (45 points in two NCAA Tournament games). The league will have a lot of shakeup at the top – Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland will all be worse – opening the door for the Wildcats to challenge Minnesota and Michigan State.
And 7 More
Michigan (26-12, Sweet 16)
John Beilein will be hit hard by graduation, losing his top two scorers – guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin – and role player Mark Donnal. And they might even lose 6-foot-11 shooter Moritz Wagner to the NBA draft (I think he should stay). I like DJ Wilson, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ai Abdur-Rahkman a lot, but it feels like a rebuilding year in Ann Arbor. Keep an eye on Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews.
Oklahoma State (20-13, 1st round of the NCAA Tournament):
If star guard Jawun Evans doesn’t go pro, the Cowboys should be a Top 25 team next season. Evans should contend for B12 POY. Jeffrey Carroll (17.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) returns, and valuable reserves Davon Dillard and Cameron McGriff are back as well. Best recruit they have signed is Zack Dawson, a guard from Miami who should be an immediate contributor.
Alabama (19-15, Missed NCAA Tournament)
Avery Johnson has the program in the right direction. Its best two players return (Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram) and they landed a Top 10 recruit in Collin Sexton, an explosive guard. Will have good depth, expectations will be an NCAA Tournament trip.
UCF (24-12, Missed NCAA Tournament)
Coach Johnny Dawkins has the Knights in prime position to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. Point guard BJ Taylor (17.6 ppg) and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall (11.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.5 bpg) are back, and they’ve got transfer Dayon Griffin (11.3 ppg at Louisiana Tech two years ago) coming in to provide backcourt help.
Ole Miss (22-14, Missed NCAA Tournament)
If you’re looking for a SEC sleeper next year, the Rebels aren’t a bad idea. Guards Deandre Burnett (16.5 ppg) and Terence Davis (14.9 ppg) are back, and 7-foot impact transfer Dominik Olejniczak, who was a starter at Drake two years ago. Toss in Cullen Neal (New Mexico transfer who averaged 9.4 ppg with the Rebels last year) and promising freshman Breein Tyree, plus two Top 125 incoming recruits, and it could be a 25-win season in Oxford.
TCU (24-15, Missed NCAA Tournament)
The NIT champs, led by Jamie Dixon, should be a Top 25 team all next season. Vladimir Brodziansky made the leap from nice player to legit threat (13.5 ppg), and he’ll be back for his senior year. Point guard Alex Robinson (5.6 apg) is underrated. The Horned Frogs should make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Texas (10-21, Missed NCAA Tournament)
Year two at Texas for Shaka Smart was a debacle after losing six key contributors. Top 50 recruit Matt Coleman (Oak Hill Academy) will be the point guard and lead Smart’s offensive attack, which will look more like what he ran at VCU. Coleman will team with Andrew Jones (11.4 ppg as a freshman) will form a good backcourt. Transfer Dylan Osetkowski (11.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg at Tulane in 2015-2016) should be a major contributor, especially if star center Jarrett Allen (13.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg) stays in the NBA draft.