By Kevin Sweeney
While this blog typically focuses on mid-major basketball, I decided to formulate my way-too-early top 25 now that all NBA draft decisions are in. Let me know your thoughts on these rankings by commenting below or sending me a tweet (handle is @CBB_Central)!
Just a few short days ago, the Wildcats weren’t my preseason #1. However, with talented wing Rawle Alkins returning to school and 5-star forward Emmanuel Akot reclassifying to join an already-stellar recruiting class, Arizona is now the best team in the country. With an all-American level wing in Allonzo Trier leading the way, a dominant post player in DeAndre Ayton joining the fray, along with an excellent supporting cast led by Alkins, PG Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and veteran center Dusan Ristic, the Wildcats may be the early leader in the clubhouse to cut down the nets in San Antonio in early April.
#2. Michigan State
The Spartans are another team that benefited greatly from NBA Draft decisions, as superstar forward Miles Bridges surprised most around college basketball by returning for his sophomore season. Bridges, along with fellow sophomores Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, make up one of the best trios in all of college basketball. Throw in a solid bench and one if the best coaches in college basketball, and it’s easy to see why the Spartans are likely to be one the of the best teams in the country this season.
Another year, another incredibly talented recruiting class brought in by John Calipari in Lexington. 6 (yes, 6) 5-star prospects make up this year’s class, headlined by wings Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, and Jarred Vanderbilt. While it’s certainly possible that these recruits won’t live up to the considerable hype, I trust Calipari and his staff to do what UK does every year: turn “one and dones” into wins.
I have the Wildcats slightly higher than most national projections do, as the losses of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins should hurt Jay Wright’s team. However, they still will have one of the top backcourts in the country, one featuring PG Jalen Brunson and wings Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo. Plus, the Wildcats add an element to their roster they simply didn’t have last season: a dominant low-post force. Omari Spellman, a 5-star prospect who had to sit out last season, will likely start at center and give those outstanding guards more space to work with on the outside.
The most polarizing player in college baseketball, Grayson Allen, is back for his senior season. If he can get his act together, he is one of the premier players in college basketball. Surrounding him will be a group of youngsters headlined by Trevon Dural, a 5-star PG prospect who oozes with potential. The frontcourt is a question mark, as Mike Krzyzwewski will look to sophomore Marques Bolden and freshman Wendell Carter to man the interior. If those 2 perform well, the sky is the limit for this Duke team.
Legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzwewski talks to his team during a time-out: By Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Flickr: 06) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The Jayhawks lose national player of year Frank Mason, a lottery pick in Josh Jackson and steady center Landen Lucas from last season’s team, but KU will once again be favored to win the Big 12. Why? A big reason is the addition of talented guard Malik Newman, a transfer from Mississippi State who averaged double figures in scoring as a freshman 2 seasons ago in Starkville. Veteran guard Devonte Graham will likely move into the point guard role, with Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk filling out a talented guard rotation. Bill Self has won 13 straight Big 12 titles, and I have no reason to believe that streak won’t continue into next season.
When Andy Enfield inherited this USC program, the Trojans hadn’t won 20 games in 4 seasons. Now, as Enfield enters his 4th season in SoCal, his team is projected to be among the nation’s elite. Every major contributor is back from this season’s team, and the Trojans add Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and top recruit Charles O’Bannon Jr to a roster that already includes a talented core that features forwards Bennie Boatwright & Chimezie Metu and guards Elijah Stewart, Jordan McLaughlin, and Shaqquan Aaron. While USC isn’t a typical blue blood basketball school, don’t be surprised to see them near the top of the college basketball world all season long.
There is perhaps no team in college basketball that intrigues me more than Miami. They feature one of the top pure scorers in the country in Bruce Brown, who should build on an excellent freshman season to become one of the nation’s biggest stars in 2017-18. Combine Brown with an excellent point guard in Ja’Quan Newton and 5-star prospect Lonnie Walker, and it’s easy to see why the potential for this team is so high. Watch out for the Canes in the ACC title race this season.
I must admit, I am apprehensive about putting the Gators this high given the loss of Devin Robinson to the NBA Draft and Canyon Barry to graduation. However, Florida does have SEC Player of the Year candidate KeVaughn Allen and brings back key role players like John Egbunu and Chris Chiozza. Mike White will look to a pair of transfers in former Virginia Tech wing Jalen Hudson and former Rice forward Egor Koulechov to fill the void left by Robinson and Barry. If those 2 transfers can step up, the Gators can assert themselves as the top contender to Kentucky in the SEC.
#10. Wichita State
It’s rare that a team moving up in conference is expected to win its league in their inaugural season as members. However, that is the case for the Shockers, who have moved up from the MVC to the American for the 2017-18 season. The Shockers bring back virtually everyone from this past season, including superstar guard Landry Shamet, a player who will finally get the attention he deserves among the nation’s elite by playing in the AAC this season. WSU will be deep, talented, and experienced, a combination that all coaches dream about having.
In the aftermath of the national title game, many considered Louisville to be the way-too-early #1 team in the country. However, after an offseason that saw star guard Donovan Mitchell and forward Jaylen Johnson enter the draft early, the Cardinals were left with a massive void in their roster for 2017-18. They still have one of the top point guards in the ACC in Quentin Snider, but sophomore and former 5-star wing V.J. King must step up for Rick Pitino’s club if they wish to remain in the top tier of the ACC standings.
The Golden Gophers were one of the biggest surprises of the 2016-17 season, finishing in the top tier of the Big 10 and earning a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With the talent they have returning, no one will be sleeping on Minnesota this season. Point guard Nate Mason is a steady hand who will lead this team, while talented forwards Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy continue to develop into Big 10 stars. The Golden Gophers also have one of the nation’s elite rim protectors in Jordan Lynch, who averaged over 3 blocks per game this past season. If players like Eric Curry, Isaiah Washington, and Michael Hurt can provide good bench play, Minnesota could establish itself as one of the elite teams in the country.
Betting on freshmen when you aren’t named John Calipari or Mike Krzyzwewski isn’t usually the best strategy, but it’s what Steve Alford will do this season with many key players departing. The good news for Bruin fans is that Alford has brought in an outstanding recruiting class that can be expected to contribute right away. While LiAngelo Ball won’t make nearly the same impact his brother Lonzo did, PG Jaylen Hands and wing Kris Wilkes will likely step into starting roles immediately. Combine them with the rest of a strong freshman class and a returning duo of Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, and it is clear to me the Bruins won’t fall far from last season’s outstanding campaign.
#14. West Virginia
One thing that is always certain about a Bob Huggins-coached team is that they will play hard-nosed defense that will never give you a play off. No player embodies that more than Jevon Carter, the 21-going-on-40 point guard who is perhaps the best perimeter defender in college basketball. However, Carter is also an excellent guard at the offensive end, and is a big reason why expectations are so high for WVU. If talented forward Lamont West can take the next step in his game, this season has a chance to be a very special one for the Mountaineers.
Avery Johnson has brought basketball back to relevancy at Alabama, and this year is the year the Tide will showcase that to the world. A pair of 5-star guards in Collin Sexton and John Petty will likely be plug-and-play starters on the wing, with talented point guard Dazon Ingram returning to run the show and forward Braxton Key making a big impact with his scoring ability and versatility at the 4 position. The rise of the Tide, along with the improvement of many other programs, makes the SEC one of the most intriguing conferences to watch this season.
While this is, in my opinion, the most talented team Mick Cronin has had during his time at Cincinnati, I have one trepidation about the Bearcats: point guard play. While Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome is a dynamic scorer and playmaker, he isn’t a true point guard, referenced by his sub-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during his final season before transferring to Cincinnati. If Broome can run the show effectively, then the Bearcats will be one of the nation’s elite teams. After all, they have a scary big 3 in Jarron Cumberland, Jacob Evans, and Kyle Washington.
#17. North Carolina
While it feels disrespectful to put the defending national champions this low in a way-too-early top 25, there are 2 major questions to be answered: who is going to put the ball in the basket and who is going to man the frontcourt. The Tar Heels do have one of the best players in the country in Joel Berry, but losing Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley to the NBA leaves a pair of big holes to fill. For some scoring punch, the Heels will look to the likes of Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams, and Seventh Woods to increase their production. Meanwhile, Elite 8 hero Luke Maye and freshman Garrison Brooks project to man the frontcourt in the early going. The talent is there in Chapel Hill, but whether or not it all comes together is another question.
#18. Seton Hall
At one point this offseason, it appeared that there was little to no chance star big man Angel Delgado would return to South Orange for his senior season. However, Delgado had a change of heart and will back with the Pirates this season, immediately making them a top-25 team. With Delgado back and a strong guard unit that includes the likes of Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, and Myles Powell also returning, Seton Hall could easily assert itself as the top challenger to Villanova in the Big East.
#19. Virginia Tech
What a job Buzz Williams has done in Blacksburg. In just a few seasons, Williams has turned a cellar-dweller in the ACC into a top 25 team, and things continue to improve every year. Highly-touted guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker joins a returning group that features 3 returning double-figure scorers from last season. The departures of Seth Allen and Zach LeDay will be difficult to overcome, but I believe that talented forward Chris Clarke will have a huge year to help make up for the loss of LeDay.
Northwestern basketball arrived on the national scene last season with their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. Wildcat fans shouldn’t have to wait nearly as long to hear their names called on Selection Sunday for a second time. 6 of the top 7 scorers on this past season’s team return, including the guard duo of Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. They also have a weapon in Vic Law, whose length, versatility, and ability to knock down triples make him a unique piece at the college level. Center Dererk Pardon could be in for a breakout year as well, and will likely post numerous double-doubles this season.
#21. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have a guy who should be a consensus preseason first team All-American in Bonzie Colson, who plays much larger than his 6-5 frame. Max Farrell, the fearless PG who is the heart and soul of this team, also returns. The biggest loss is shooting, as a pair of veteran sharpshooters in Steve Vasturia and
V.J. Beachem graduated after this past season. If highly-regarded freshman guard D.J. Harvey can make an impact right away, Mike Brey will have his team near the top of his weight.
Losing Caleb Swanigan hurts a ton, but there is still a strong core in place for the Boilermakers to remain near the top of the Big 10. Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards will be the stars, while Purdue can also expect key contributions from 7-2 center Isaac Haas and underrated wing sniper Dakota Mathias. There is no one player that can replace the contributions of Swanigan, but the Boilermakers have the talent and depth to still be a scary team.
#23. St. Mary’s
Gonzaga’s near-undefeated season overshadowed what was yet another outstanding season by Randy Bennett’s squad. From that 29-win team returns 4 starters, including one of the top players in mid-major basketball in center Jock Landale. Landale nearly averaged a double-double this past season, posting 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest. Joining the fray is scoring guard Cullen Neal, a grad transfer from Ole Miss who can bring some offensive firepower for the Gaels. This year, the Gaels will once again be a team no blue-blood wants to play in March Madness.
Ed Cooley has brought the Friars to 4 consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history, and that streak should run to 5 this season. All 5 starters return, while the Friars also bring in top-50 recruit Makai Ashton-Langford. Kyron Cartwright is perhaps the most underappreciated point guard in the country; a true distributor who has grown as an offensive weapon over time. While Providence lacked a true center last season, freshman big man Dajour Dickens joins the team this year. If he can provide some toughness and rim protection, the Friars could find themselves much higher than 24th nationally when all is said and done.
Last season, this Sooner team could just never finish the job. The talent was there, but the young Sooners lost a whopping 12 games by 10 points or fewer. While point guard Jordan Woodard graduates, the rest of that talented core returns, with guys like Kameron McGusty, Rashard Odomes, and Kristian Doolittle only scratching the surface of their potential. Add to that one of the top recruits in the country in sharpshooting point guard Trae Young, and you can see why the Sooners could be in for a special season in 2017-18.
THE NEXT 5: Xavier, SMU, Texas A&M, Rhode Island, TCU