Another college basketball season tips off on Friday. It is most definitely lit, fam. Since we are now entering the most wonderful time of the year (until March, of course), I’ll be swapping my college football rankings for basketball. At this point in the season, giving you a top ten for football is overkill–our playoff rankings are all that really matters.
Though several players on top teams are nursing injuries, this should be the most fun college basketball season since the last one. There is a great mix of talented newcomers and veteran-laden teams, as several teams look like especially strong candidates to knock Villanova off its perch. Let’s check out who the best teams are heading into the season.
Just Missed the Cut: Arizona, Michigan State, Louisville, Gonzaga, Purdue, Connecticut
Projected Starters: G Josh Newkirk (JR/6-1/195), G Robert Johnson (JR/6-3/195), G James Blackmon Jr. (JR/6-4/200), F OG Anunoby (SO/6-8/235), C Thomas Bryant (SO/6-10/255)
The post-Yogi Ferrell era begins with a team that is probably deeper than any Tom Crean has had so far at IU. Anunoby is primed to be the next Crean project who blossoms into a star, following the likes of Victor Oladipo and Troy Williams. Newkirk, a transfer from Pitt, takes over Ferrell’s role and Blackmon is poised for a huge offensive season after missing most of last year. While Crean teams typically feature a lot of shooting (and this one is no exception), the talent and depth on the frontline is exceptional. Besides Anunoby and Bryant (the top two pro prospects in the Big Ten), the Hoosiers boast Juwan Morgan, JUCO transfer Freddie McSwain Jr., and freshman stud De’Ron Davis. Few teams will be able to keep up with the Hoosiers for 40 minutes.
Projected Starters: G Bronson Koenig (SR/6-3/190), G Zak Showalter (R-SR/6-3/185), F Nigel Hayes (SR/6-8/240), F Ethan Happ (R-SO/6-10/232), F Vitto Brown (SR/6-8/235)
Wisconsin returns the entire rotation from a team that was one of the best teams in the country in the second half of last season. Actually, the Badgers return the entire roster. This is a vintage Bo Ryan team (even though Greg Gard is now the man in charge). After a couple years of playing a more wide-open offense, the Badgers are back to running the swing–infuriating opponents with their efficiency. Koenig and Hayes form a formidable 1-2 punch, but Happ may end up being the key for this team. After averaging 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, Happ seems poised to become a First Team All-Big Ten player. Wisconsin should battle Indiana for the Big Ten title in what is always a fascinating contrast of styles.
Projected Starters: G Edmond Sumner (SO/6-6/186), G Trevon Bluiett (JR/6-6/205), G JP Macura (JR/6-5/203), G Malcolm Bernard (SR/6-6/202), F RaShid Gaston (SR/6-9/239)
Myles Davis is suspended indefinitely, and if he ever returns he’ll likely be starting. But even without him the Musketeers are loaded. Not only does Xavier return leading scorer Bluiett, Sumner, and breakout candidate Macura, but also brings in talented transfers Bernard (14.4 points, 7.7 rebounds in 2015-16 for Florida A&M) and Gaston (15.5 points, 9.6 rebounds in 2014-15 for Norfolk State). Few teams are better at running a four guard offense than Xavier, and all that size on the perimeter will give opponents fits. Another two seed is well within reach.
Projected Starters: G London Perrantes (SR/6-2/197), G Devon Hall (JR/6-5/207), G Marial Shayok (JR/6-5/196), F Isaiah Wilkins (JR/6-7/225), F Austin Nichols (JR/6-9/234)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Virginia is going to be really good on defense. The Hoos have finished as a top-five defensive team each of the last three seasons according to KenPom, and he has projected that Virginia will lead the country on that side of the ball. There’s not an obvious front-runner to replace Malcolm Brogdon as the offensive leader, but there will be plenty of time to figure that out. What makes this team especially dangerous is that Tony Bennett is starting to add top-tier talent. Virginia has four top 100 ranked recruits in this year’s class, spearheaded by Kyle Guy (who will likely be starting before long), as well as one of the best frontcourt players in the country in Memphis transfer Nichols. If the blue bloods of the ACC were hoping that Virginia would have a down year, they’re about to be very disappointed.
6. North Carolina
Projected Starters: G Joel Berry II (JR/6-0/195), G Nate Britt (SR/6-1/175), F Justin Jackson (JR/6-8/210), F Isaiah Hicks (SR/6-9/242), F Kennedy Meeks (SR/6-10/260)
North Carolina overcame outside shooting woes last season (except for that ridiculous performance in the Sweet 16, I’m definitely not bitter) to come within a second of winning the title. The same issues may persist, but this team has the talent to make another deep tournament run. Theo Pinson will be out until around the start of ACC play with a broken foot, which will give youngsters like Tony Bradley, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods, and Brandon Robinson plenty of early-season opportunities. The two biggest questions are these: can Berry and/or Jackson effectively replace Marcus Paige as the go-to scorer, and can Hicks still be as efficient a player in a much larger role? If the answers to both questions turn out to be yes, the Tar Heels can beat anyone.
Projected Starters: G Dylan Ennis (SR/6-2/195), G Tyler Dorsey (6-4/SO/195), F Dillon Brooks (JR/6-7/225), F Jordan Bell (JR/6-9/225), F Chris Boucher (SR/6-10/200)
Brooks, who became one of the biggest stars in the country last season, is still out with a left foot injury but should return later this month. In his absence I would imagine Casey Benson (and his 5 to 1 assist to turnover ratio) will be in the starting lineup, but the Ducks shouldn’t expect to be without Brooks for long. Dana Altman is probably the most underrated coach in the country, and this may be his best team yet. Besides Brooks (who led Oregon in usage, shot rate, and assist percentage last season), the Ducks boast a phenomenal shot-blocker in Boucher and a deadly backcourt in Dorsey and Ennis. Oregon is the favorite in the Pac-12.
Projected Starters: G Jalen Brunson (SO/6-3/190), G Josh Hart (SR/6-6/215), F Kris Jenkins (SR/6-6/235), F Eric Paschall (SO/6-7/250), F Darryl Reynolds (SR/6-9/240)
KenPom absolutely loves this team, projecting the Wildcats to be a top-3 team on both sides of the ball. And why shouldn’t he? Everyone except Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu returns for the defending national champs. Five-star forward Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible last month, but Reynolds, Fordham tranfer Paschall (15.9 points per game in 2014-15), and potential small-ball center Mikal Bridges should more than make up for the loss of Ochefu. Hart will be a player of the year candidate, and Phil Booth will continue to provide a spark off the bench. The battle between Villanova and Xavier in the Big East should be a ton of fun to watch down the stretch.
Projected Starters: G Frank Mason III (SR/5-11/190), G Devonte’ Graham (JR/6-2/185), G Josh Jackson (FR/6-8/207), F Carlton Bragg Jr. (SO/6-10/240), F Landen Lucas (SR/6-10/240)
Bill Self’s rolling death machine looks poised to cruise to its 13th straight Big 12 title. Kansas’ starting backcourt returns (Mason and Greene combined for 24.2 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.6 rebounds last year), and adds a potential #1 draft pick in Josh Jackson on the wing. Bragg and the ultra-efficient Lucas (64.3% from the field) should thrive in expanded roles. Someone to keep an eye on is Svi Mykhailiuk (aptly nicknamed “The Ukrainmaker”), who should finally break through as a big-time offensive threat. It seems like every year we anoint a Big 12 team as a strong bet to end Kansas’ Big 12 streak–think Marcus Smart’s Oklahoma State team or Iowa State the last couple years–but I’m honestly having a hard time seeing anyone unseat this particular Jayhawk team.
Projected Starters: G De’Aaron Fox (FR/6-3/187), G Isaiah Briscoe (SO/6-3/210), G Malik Monk (FR/6-3/200), F Derek Willis (SR/6-9/228), F Bam Adebayo (FR/6-10/260)
Kentucky basketball under John Calipari is like the Hydra–no matter how many heads you cut off (or in this case, how many talented players leave for the NBA), even more come to take their place. Consider this: Duke signed the Nos. 1, 3, 10, and 16 prospects in this year’s incoming class, and still didn’t have a better class than Kentucky. Fox is lightning in a bottle, Monk is an uber-athletic slasher and scorer, and Adebayo is a walking double-double. Kentucky returns very little besides Briscoe and Willis, and leadership will have to come from someone. Even if it takes some time for this team to gel, the SEC will offer very little resistance this year.
Projected Starters: G Grayson Allen (JR/6-5/202), G Matt Jones (SR/6-5/204), G Luke Kennard (SO/6-6/202), F Jayson Tatum (FR/6-8/205), C Marques Bolden (FR/6-11/245)
Even with Harry Giles out for the foreseeable future, Duke is scary good. Ted Cruz Jr. is one of the favorites in the National Player of the Year race, and he’ll be joined on the perimeter by one of the most likable Duke players in recent memory–Luke Kennard (seriously, most likable Blue Devil since Ryan Kelly, absolutely love his game). Freshmen Tatum and Bolden are talented enough to force Amile Jefferson to a reserve role, which should tell you everything you need to know about Duke’s incredible depth. There aren’t any obvious weaknesses, unless Giles is unable to get healthy. If he can get healthy, Duke will start four first round picks.