HOUSTON — Even with an ankle-deep layer of streamers and confetti still covering the NRG Stadium floor, the buildup for next year's college basketball season has already begun.
Much of the discussion has centered on the leading contenders to succeed Villanova as national champions next April in Glendale, Ariz.
A clear-headed look at next season is especially difficult this year with four Rivals top 20 recruits not having chosen a school, transfer season only just beginning and dozens of NBA draft prospects still deciding if they intend to stay in school or turn pro. Nonetheless, based on my best educated guesses for who's staying and who's going, here's our ridiculously early look at the best teams for the 2016-17 season.
Key losses: F Brandon Ingram, C Marshall Plumlee,
Key returners: G Grayson Allen F Amile Jefferson, G Matt Jones, G Luke Kennard, G, Derryck Thornton, F Chase Jeter
Notable newcomers: F Harry Giles, F Jayson Tatum, G Frank Jackson, F Javin DeLaurier, F Jack White
Outlook: Allen's announcement that he's returning for his junior season makes Duke a near lock to begin next season No. 1 in the polls. He averaged more than 21 points per game during a brilliant sophomore season, but was projected to be only a borderline first-round pick. With Allen back, Duke has a proven star to go with its experienced role players and talented freshmen. Tatum and Giles are arguably the nation's top two recruits and should emerge as impact players right away if Giles has fully recovered from his ACL tear. Jackson, Duke's third incoming McDonald's All-American, should compete with Thornton for playing time at point guard. And Jefferson's return from injury will bolster Duke's frontcourt and provide leadership, defense and rebounding, though his presence may complicate the Blue Devils' pursuit of five-star center Marques Bolden.
Key losses: G Tyler Ulis (projected), G Jamal Murray, F Skal Labissiere (projected), F Alex Poythress
Key returners: G Isaiah Briscoe (projected), F Marcus Lee (projected), F Derrick Willis, F Isaac Humphries, G Dominique Hawkins
Notable newcomers: G DeAaron Fox, G Malik Monk, C Bam Adebayo, F Wenyen Gabriel, F Sacha Killeya-Jones
Outlook: Here's a scary thought for Kentucky's future opponents: John Calipari has said this may be his best incoming recruiting class. Set to replace Ulis and Murray in the backcourt are Fox and Monk, the former the nation's most prized point guard and the latter the nation's most highly touted shooting guard. The 6-foot-4 Fox is explosive off the dribble, effective making plays and tough on defense too. Monk is a pure scorer who can blow by defenders who play him too tight and knock down jumpers if given free space. Those two could team with Briscoe if he returns to form a formidable backcourt. While Kentucky's frontcourt was the weak link this past season, the rugged, physical Adebayo could help change that. He should be a double-double machine in the paint and an ideal complement to the sweet-shooting Willis. Lee will also be a factor in the frontcourt and Gabriel and Killeya-Jones are capable of making an impact too. Kentucky is also still recruiting elite center Marques Bolden, who will decide between the Wildcats and Duke.
Key losses: G Ryan Arcidiacono, C Daniel Ochefu
Key returners: G Josh Hart (projected), G Jalen Brunson, F Kris Jenkins, F Darryl Reynolds, F Mikal Bridges, G Phil Booth
Notable newcomers: F Omari Spellman, C Dylan Painter, F Eric Paschall
Outlook: There's a decent chance the reigning champions could return all but two rotation players if Hart doesn't enter the draft and nobody else unexpectedly departs. If so, it's entirely realistic Villanova could not only capture a fourth straight Big East title next season but also return to the Final Four. Departing seniors Arcidiacono and Ochefu have been crucial to Villanova's recent success, but the Wildcats have promising replacements for both ready to embrace bigger roles. Ex-McDonald's All-American Brunson will likely share point guard duties with Booth next season after splitting them with Arcidiacono this past season. Reynolds could move into the starting lineup in Ochefu's stead next season, though the senior-to-be will be pushed by Spellman, Villanova's most promising incoming freshman. An early exit from Hart would be a blow, but Villanova has some depth at wing too. The talented Bridges might be the team's best long-term prospect.
Key losses: F Perry Ellis, G Wayne Selden, F Jamari Traylor, C Hunter Mickelson, G Brannen Greene, F Cheick Diallo (projected)
Key returners: G Frank Mason, G Devonte Graham, F Landen Lucas, G, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, F Carlton Bragg
Notable newcomers: C Udoka Azubuike, F Mitch Lightfoot
Outlook: Kansas will again be formidable next season, but there are there are too many unknowns to have a clear idea of how good the Jayhawks can be. Will raw but promising Diallo stay in the draft or seek to improve his stock by playing a bigger role next season? Will Mykhailiuk stay or go? Will Kansas land elite wings Josh Jackson or Terrence Ferguson to help ease the sting of Selden's departure? The one thing Kansas can count on is that guards Mason and Graham should again anchor the backcourt and that Bragg should emerge as the heir apparent to Ellis alongside Lucas in the frontcourt. If Mykhailiuk returns and finally develops into an impact small forward or if Jackson or Ferguson come to Lawrence, that's clearly a strong enough nucleus to keep Kansas in its customary spot — atop the Big 12 for a 13th straight season.
5. Michigan State
Key losses: G Denzel Valentine, G Bryn Forbes, C Matt Costello, F Deyonta Davis (projected), F Marvin Clark, F Javon Bess
Key returners: G Eron Harris, G TumTum Nairn, F Gavin Schilling, G Matt McQuaid, F Kenny Goins
Notable newcomers: F Miles Bridges, G Cassius Winston, G Josh Langford, C Nick Ward
Outlook: For a school that's losing a national player of the year winner, one of the country's most lethal outside shooters and the Big Ten's most improved big man, Michigan State will enter next season feeling pretty optimistic. The Spartans return several key rotation players from this season and add a recruiting class rivaled only by Duke's and Kentucky's. At point guard, Michigan State will have Nairn and the promising Winston. At wing, returners Harris and McQuaid will compete for playing time with the highly touted Bridges and Langford. The frontcourt could be an area of concern if Davis chooses to enter the draft, but Bridges could definitely see playing time at the four spot similar to how Justise Winslow did at Duke his lone season. In addition to Davis' draft decision, the other significant wildcard for Michigan State is the recruitment of Josh Jackson. The nation's most coveted guard is down to the Spartans, Arizona and Kansas and is expected to reveal his choice soon.
Key losses: F Elgin Cook, F Dwayne Benjamin
Key returners: F Dillon Brooks, G Tyler Dorsey (projected), F Chris Boucher, F Jordan Bell, G Casey Benson, G Dylan Ennis, G Kendall Small
Notable newcomers: C Michael Cage, G Payton Pritchard, F Keith Smith
Outlook: It may be difficult for Oregon to exceed expectations in the Pac-12 preseason poll yet again next season. That's because the Ducks figure to start the year as Pac-12 favorites barring a rash of unexpected departures. Oregon could have five of its seven top players back from this season's 31-win Elite Eight team if Dorsey chooses not to enter the draft and Brooks and Boucher follow through on recent pledges to return. The Ducks will also get an influx of talent via a strong freshman class that includes Pritchard, a high-scoring point guard and Cage, a skilled, long-armed center. The wildcard is Ennis, a Villanova transfer who sat out all but two games this past season due to injury. If Ennis is granted a sixth year by the NCAA, he would certainly earn playing time both on and off ball and would provide some insurance in case Dorsey does turn pro.
Key losses: F James Farr, G Remy Abell, F Jalen Reynolds (projected)
Key returners: F Trevon Bluiett (projected), G Edmond Sumner, G Myles Davis, G JP Macura, F Sean O'Mara, F Kaiser Gates, G Larry Austin Jr.
Notable newcomers: G Quentin Goodin, F Tyrique Jones, C Eddie Ekiyor, F Rashid Gaston
Outlook: Whereas the promising Sumner has already said he will return to Xavier next season, two of his teammates have both declared for the draft without hiring an agent. Bluiett is expected to seek feedback and return to the Musketeers, but the fact that Reynolds is 23 years old and already has his degree could lead him to stay in the draft even though he is unlikely to be selected. If both were to come back, Xavier would return every key player from this year's 28-win team besides shooting guard Remy Abell and sixth man James Farr. The Musketeers would be well positioned to challenge for the Big East title and to go deeper in the NCAA tournament than their disappointing second-round exit last month. Even if Reynolds stays in the draft, Xavier still might exceed this past season's accomplishments. O'Mara could see increased playing time and Norfolk State transfer Rashid Gaston averaged 15.5 points and 9.6 rebounds his final season for the Spartans.
8. North Carolina
Key losses: G Marcus Paige, F Brice Johnson, Joel James
Key returners: F Justin Jackson (projected), C Kennedy Meeks (projected), F Isaiah Hicks, G Joel Berry, G Nate Britt, F Theo Pinson
Notable newcomers: G Seventh Woods, G Brandon Robinson, C Tony Bradley
Outlook: While the future is murky for North Carolina as a result of potential sanctions stemming from the NCAA's academic fraud investigation, the team that the national runner-ups will put on the floor next season has the potential to be very good. The Tar Heels lose their All-American power forward and a longtime stalwart in their backcourt, but Johnson and Paige could be their only major losses if Jackson decides not to enter the draft. The potential return of Jackson is critical for North Carolina because he could inherit the role of go-to scorer. Meeks and Hicks should still be a pretty imposing low-post combo, Pinson and Berry seem ready to take on a bigger role and all three freshmen are four-star prospects capable of contributing off the bench right away.
Key losses: G Yogi Ferrell, F Troy Williams (projected), G Nick Zeisloft, F Max Bielfeldt
Key returners: F Thomas Bryant (projected), F O.G. Anunoby (projected), G James Blackmon, G Robert Johnson, F Collin Hartman, F Juwan Morgan
Notable newcomers: G Josh Newkirk, C De'Ron Davis, G Devonte Green, G Curtis Jones, G Grant Gelon
Outlook: Indiana is likely to contend in the Big Ten again next season, but how good the Hoosiers can be may depend on how many of their frontcourt standouts return. Bryant and Anunoby both have first-round potential but could potentially improve their stock by returning, while Williams' athleticism should at least get him some looks if he chooses to forgo his senior season. If even two of those three return, Indiana will be loaded in the frontcourt as Hartman, Morgan and the promising freshman Davis will also be available and capable of making an impact. There's no single player who will replace everything that Ferrell did for Indiana this past season, but Indiana has options in the backcourt too. Newkirk, a Pittsburgh transfer, should compete for playing time at point guard with Johnson. A healthy Blackmon is likely to start at wing and Jones should also see playing time as well.
Key losses: G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, C Mike Tobey, F Evan Nolte
Key returners: G London Perrantes, F Isaiah Wilkins, G Devon Hall, G Marial Shayok, G Darius Thompson, C Jack Salt, F Jarred Reuter
Notable newcomers: F Austin Nichols, G Kyle Guy, F Mamadi Diakite, G Ty Jerome, F DeAndre Hunter, F Jay Huff
Outlook: The only silver lining to Virginia's late-game collapse against Syracuse in the Elite Eight was that it doesn't figure to be the Cavaliers' last chance at a Final Four. The way Tony Bennett is recruiting, the Cavaliers could be back in contention soon. While Virginia graduates four rotation players including the ACC player of the year in Brogdon and another all-conference standout in Gill, the talent entering the program should keep Virginia from falling far. Nichols, a transfer who averaged 13.3 points and 3.4 blocks his final season at Memphis, should provide interior scoring and the rim protection the Cavaliers lacked last season. He'll anchor the Virginia frontcourt along with Wilkins, while Diakite competes for minutes with incoming freshman Huff and returners Salt and Reuter off the bench. Perrantes must take on a greater role as a scorer and a leader next season at point guard, but he'll have plenty of help. Hall and Shayok both have breakout potential at wing and Guy is the program's first McDonald's All-American in seven years.
Key losses: G Damion Lee, G Trey Lewis, C Chinanu Onuaku (projected)
Key returners: G Donovan Mitchell, G Quentin Snider, C Mangok Mathiang, F Raymond Spalding, F Jaylen Johnson, F Deng Adel, F Anas Mahmoud
Notable newcomers: G V.J. King, G Tony Hicks
Outlook: The lingering question hovering over the Louisville basketball program is whether the NCAA will be satisfied with its self-imposed 2015-16 postseason ban or levy further punishment next season. A nine-game suspension for Rick Pitino for failure to monitor his program seems inevitable and scholarship reductions are certainly a possibility, however, the Cardinals have team that can play deep into March next season if its allowed to participate in the NCAA tournament. Whether Onuaku stays in the draft or not, Louisville has an array of big men capable of altering shots around the rim and attacking the glass at both ends. The key for the Cardinals will be whether they can replace the scoring of Lee and Lewis. Snider is a good offensive point guard, Mitchell and Adel are both candidates for breakout sophomore seasons and incoming McDonald's All-American King should also be able to make an immediate impact.
Key losses: C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York, F Ryan Anderson, G Justin Simon, Mark Tollefsen
Key returners: G Allonzo Trier, G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, G Kadeem Allen, C Dusan Ristic, C Chance Comanche
Notable newcomers: F Ray Smith, G Kobi Simmons, G Rawle Atkins, F Lauri Markkanen
Outlook: Monday's announcement that Trier is returning for his sophomore season is huge for Arizona. Not only is the promising 6-foot-4 guard instantly one of the favorites to win Pac-12 player of the year next spring, his perimeter scoring should ease the pressure on the Wildcats' array of talented newcomers to shoulder a heavy load right away. Set to join Trier in Tucson are a pair of top 20 guards, a highly skilled 6-foot-11 stretch forward from Finland and an elite wing prospect who sat out all of this past season with a torn ACL. Throw in veteran point guards Allen and Jackson-Cartwright and returning centers Ristic and Comanche and this is an Arizona team with a good blend of youth and experience. There may be some early growing pains as the newcomers and returners mesh but the Wildcats should be formidable by conference play.
Key losses: None
Key returners: F Nigel Hayes, G Bronson Koenig, C Ethan Happ, F Vitto Brown, G Zak Showalter, G Jordan Hill, F Khalil Iverson
Notable newcomers: None
Outlook: While Hayes undoubtedly intended to enter the NBA draft as a junior before this season began, he might be wise to stay put for his senior year. He endured some rough patches this season as his revamped outside shot deserted him and he transitioned into a leadership role. He also has the chance to be part of another special season at Wisconsin if he returns as the Badgers could return up to 99.7 of their scoring and rebounding from a team that blossomed during the second half of the season and came within a basket or two of the Elite Eight. Hayes would be part of a starting lineup that would include co-star Bronson Koenig, fellow seniors Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter and reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Ethan Happ. Preseason expectations might not match the 2014-15 season, but the Badgers would definitely be expected to contend in the Big Ten and make another deep March run.
Key losses: G Michael Gbinije, G Trevor Cooney, G Malachi Richardson (projected)
Key returners: F Tyler Lydon (projected), F Tyler Roberson, C Dajuan Coleman, G Franklin Howard, G Kaleb Joseph
Notable newcomers: G Tyus Battle, F Matt Moyer, C Paschal Chukwu
Outlook: Syracuse's potential next season hinges on the draft decisions of promising but streaky freshmen Richardson and Lydon. Richardson, a 6-foot-6 wing, turned aside questions about his plans for next year after Saturday's Final Four loss to North Carolina. Lydon insisted he'll be back, but his decision is one that might require further reflection. Scouts are intrigued enough with his potential as a stretch forward that he would undoubtedly be drafted this June, yet a year of not having to man the middle of Syracuse's zone and being able to play his natural position could do wonders for his stock. If Lydon returns, look for him to be the centerpiece of a frontcourt that would also include Roberson and the center duo of Coleman and Chukwu, a 7-foot-2 Providence transfer. Howard is the most likely option to replace Gbinije at point guard with Richardson alongside him at shooting guard if he is back or Battle starting right away otherwise.
Key losses: F Kyle Wiltjer, F Domantas Sabonis (projected), G Eric McClellan, G Kyle Dranginis
Key returners: G Josh Perkins, C Przemek Karnowski (projected), G Silas Melson, C Ryan Edwards, G Bryan Alberts
Notable newcomers: G Nigel Williams-Goss, F Jonathan Williams III, C Zach Collins, G Zach Norvell
Outlook: While the graduation of Wiltjer and likely departure of Sabonis will be a blow to Gonzaga, it's possible the Zags turn out to be better next season than they were this year. That can happen if two transfers make the impact they're expected to and Karnowski returns for a fifth season and regains his pre-back injury form. One of Gonzaga's transfers is Williams-Goss, a former McDonald's All-American who averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists at Washington his final season with the Huskies. He and Perkins are likely to both start and share point guard duties. The other transfer is Williams, who averaged 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds at Missouri during the 2014-15 season. Williams, Collins, Karnowski and Edwards would form a frontcourt good enough to ease the sting from the departure of Wiltjer and Sabonis.
Key losses: F Tony Parker
Key returners: G Bryce Alford, G Aaron Holiday, G Prince Ali, G Isaac Hamilton, F Jonah Bolden, C Thomas Welsh
Notable newcomers: G Lonzo Ball, F T.J. Leaf, C Ike Anigbogu, G Kobe Paras
Outlook: One of this past season's biggest disappointments has the potential to return to national relevance this season. UCLA could return all but one rotation player from a 15-win season and will add four coveted freshman capable of shoring up some of the holes in the roster. Chief among the additions is Ball, a point guard who this past season led his high school team to an undefeated season and a state championship in California's toughest division. The McDonald's All-American will likely be the centerpiece of a backcourt that also includes a volume shooter in Alford, a dynamic on-ball defender in Holiday and a streaky scorer in Hamilton. The addition of Leaf and Anigbogu gives UCLA's frontcourt a skilled power forward and a rim-protecting center — two things last year's team lacked. The development of Anigbogu in particular will be key because this UCLA roster is loaded with players who are better scorers than defenders.
Key losses: C Cameron Ridley, F Connor Lammert, C Prince Ibeh, G Javan Felix
Key returners: G Isaiah Taylor (projected), G Kendal Yancy, G Eric Davis Jr., G Kerwin Roach, G Tevin Mack
Notable newcomers: G Andrew Jones, C James Banks, G Jacob Young
Outlook: This ranking is contingent on the fact that Taylor returns for his senior season since he'd be a long shot to be drafted this June. If he does, Texas will have the Big 12's only returning first-team all-league player. If he doesn't, the Longhorns will be very young and may have trouble replacing his 15.0 points and 5.0 assists per game. Assuming Taylor does return, Texas has a chance to emerge as Kansas' top Big 12 challenger if it's freshman class proves to be ready to make an impact right away. Jones is the most highly touted Texas signee, but Banks could be the most important given the dearth of big men on the roster. Coveted six-foot-9 forward Jarrett Allen could also help bolster the Texas frontcourt and is projected by many to commit to the Longhorns later this spring.
Key losses: G Katin Reinhardt, F Darion Clark, F Malik Martin
Key returners: G Jordan McLaughlin, G Julian Jacobs (projected), F Chimezie Metu, F Nikola Jovanovic, F Bennie Boatwright, G Elijah Stewart
Notable newcomers: G Shaqquan Aaron, G Jonah Mathews, G De'Anthony Melton, F Harrison Henderson
Outlook: Just when it seemed USC was poised to keep ascending after a breakthrough 2015-16 season, Jacobs' draft declaration threw a wrench into those plans. The junior point guard may still return to the Trojans, but his combination of court vision and athleticism is intriguing enough that he might be selected in the second round if he stayed in the draft. Assuming Jacobs returns, USC would probably look quite a bit like this past year's 21-win team. The transfer of Reinhardt was a blow, but Mathews and the Louisville transfer Aaron ought to make up for or even exceed his production. If Jacobs were to leave, that would be harder for USC to replace. Point guard duties would fall exclusively to McLaughlin. And in addition to Jacobs' 11.6 points per game, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and solid perimeter defense, the Trojans would also miss his leadership.
19. West Virginia
Key losses: F Jonathan Holton, G JaySean Paige, F Devin Williams (projected)
Key returners: G Jevon Carter, G Daxter Miles, G Tarik Phillip, F Elijah Macon, F Nathan Adrien, F Brandon Watkins, F Esa Ahmad, G Teyvon Myers
Notable newcomers: F Maciej Bender, G James "Beetle" Bolden, F Sagaba Konate, G Chase Harler
Outlook: West Virginia seemed to be the clear-cut top challenger to Kansas in the Big 12 before Williams chose to declare for the draft last week. The double-double threat's departure is a blow to a Mountaineers team that already must replace the perimeter scoring of Paige and the offensive rebounding of Holton. One of the few certainties for West Virginia is that Miles will start and play off ball. Carter is another likely starter, either at point guard or at shooting guard if either Bolden or Phillip force their way into the starting lineup. The key to West Virginia's season could be whether Macon can gain the consistency he lacked last season and the promising Ahmad can make a jump between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Macon tapered off late this past season and Ahmad spent much of the season trying to get comfortable in Huggins' pressing scheme and only started to make strides on offense down the stretch.
Key losses: G Sterling Gibbs, F Shonn Miller, F Phillip Nolan, G Omar Calhoun
Key returners: G Jalen Adams, G Daniel Hamilton (projected), G Rodney Purvis (projected), C Amida Brimah (projected), F Kentan Facey, F Steven Enoch
Notable newcomers: G Terry Larrier, F Juwan Durham, F Vance Jackson, G Alterique Gilbert, F Mamadou Diarra
Outlook: Three of the seven Huskies who played at least nine minutes in their NCAA tournament finale last month will graduate. Three others have declared for the draft without hiring an agent. So could this be too high for UConn if the Huskies are replacing six of their top seven players? Heck yes. Could it also be too low if the three who are testing the waters all return? That's true as well. The rotation player who's certain to return is Adams, the promising freshman guard who hit the 70-foot heave against Cincinnati that likely got UConn to the NCAA tournament at all. He's hoping to be joined by Brimah, Hamilton and Purvis, but each has a decision to make in the coming weeks. Purvis is on pace to graduate and could play overseas, while Brimah's shot blocking and Hamilton's versatility should at least make both of interest to NBA scouts. Regardless, Adams will be helped by an array of promising newcomers including Larrier, a highly touted VCU transfer.
Others worthy of consideration: Pittsburgh, Creighton, Seton Hall, Texas A&M, Maryland, Purdue, Saint Mary's, San Diego State, Florida State, Dayton, Miami, Virginia Tech
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