It has been two months since Gonzaga lost in the national championship and sent your favorite college basketball opiner into an existential crisis. We have come a long way since I was sending out tweets like this:
It is bad that Gonzaga is going to lose, but the good news is that death will eventually claim us all
— Brian Fox (@RealBrianFox) April 4, 2017
My Gonzaga-fueled depression has abated and I’m ready to look ahead to next year.
Now that the draft deadline has come and gone, and all the top recruits have committed, just about every roster is set. While there will no doubt be teams (much like the Zags last season) who rise up and surprise us, right now these are the 10 teams that look to be in the best shape heading into 2017-18.
Just missed the cut: West Virginia, North Carolina, Xavier, UCLA, Minnesota
Do-everything star Josh Hart is gone, as is 2016 national championship hero Kris Jenkins. But the returnees for the Wildcats are poised for bigger roles, led by point guard Jalen Brunson (14.7 PPG, 4.1 APG last year). Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall, and Donte DiVincenzo also return, as does Phil Booth–who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Big man Omari Spellman will finally be eligible, and four-star small forward Jermaine Samuels will definitely help replace some of Hart’s lost production. The Big East is once again Villanova’s to lose, but it remains to be seen if the Wildcats can avoid yet another early NCAA Tournament exit.
If Donovan Mitchell had returned to school, Louisville might have threatened for the top spot in these rankings. His production will have to be replaced with the wing trio of Deng Adel, breakout candidate VJ King, and five-star freshman Brian Bowen. Quentin Snider (12.4 PPG, 4.1 APG) returns to run the show, and Anas Mahmoud, Ray Spalding, and five-star center Malik Williams will help protect the paint. Louisville will once again be one of the best defensive teams in America, but its ceiling is dependent on how much Mitchell’s offense is missed.
Florida basketball has been my spirit animal for years now because it simply should not be as good a program as it is. It’s an SEC school not named Kentucky, and although it places a lot of trust in quarterbacks who weren’t good enough to make it at Purdue, it is still a football school. But damn it all if Mike White hasn’t already gotten Florida back to the level it was at under Billy Donovan. Despite losing two starters and Canyon Barry, the Gators have a ton of talent and should challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown. Human flash Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen form a formidable backcourt tandem, a healthy John Egbunu and top-60 big man Isaiah Stokes will help lock down the paint, and Rice grad transger Egor Koulachev (18.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 47% 3FG) has a chance to come in and be a star. The last Rice transfer of significance (Arsalan Kazemi) became one of my (and Bill Walton’s) favorite players ever, so I am already all-in on Koulachev.
No, seriously. After an impressive NCAA tournament run, Andy Enfield returns his top eight scorers–led by matchup nightmare Bennie Boatwright (15.1 PPG). In addition to the core of Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, and Shaqquan Aaron, Enfield adds Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and five-star small forward Charles O’Bannon Jr. to the mix. The Trojans’ depth and versatility will make them nearly impossible to defend, but it will be their commitment (or lack thereof) to playing defense that will determine if this team can win the Pac-12.
6. Wichita State
The Shockers are one of those teams that are going to be highly ranked based on the fact that their entire rotation from last year returns (at least at first). Wichita State finished 8th in KenPom and its season-ending loss to Kentucky showed flashes of brilliance and what to expect this season. Leading scorer and rebounder Markis McDuffie (11.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG) is a big piece, but even he isn’t the most important returnee. This is the year Landry Shamet elevates to All-American status. Shamet’s 20 point performance against Kentucky’s future NBA guards was no fluke, and he should be one of the best players in the AAC. Deadeye shooter Conner Frankamp (44% 3FG) and big men Shaq Morris and Darral Willis Jr. round out Gregg Marshall’s hard-nosed core–which will once again be extremely difficult to score on.
John Calipari lost 4 studs to the draft and still reloaded with 5 five-star recruits and 8 top-100 recruits overall. Hamidou Diallo decided to spurn the NBA 20 minutes before the deadline, and his 44.5 inch vertical will no doubt posterize plenty of SEC big men. After relying almost exclusively on Bam Adebayo last season, the frontcourt becomes much deeper with McDonald’s All-Americans P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, and Jarred Vanderbilt. There may not be a more talented team in America, but the lack of anything resembling veteran leadership may keep the Wildcats from becoming a Final Four team.
The Jayhawks lost the national player of the year (Frank Mason), a lottery pick (Josh Jackson), and the most important big man in last year’s rotation (Landen Lucas). So it’s only natural that they’ll take a step back, right? Wrong. Devonte’ Graham is back, and along with Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk (not to mention LaGerald Vick and Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe) will form one of the countries’ best backcourts. The heavy lifting up front will be done by elite freshman Billy Preston and Udoka Azubuike–whose presence was missed after a season-ending wrist injury in 2016-17. It should be yet another Big 12 title for Bill Self.
Luke Kennard is gone, so I can now go back to hating Duke. The only problem with that is that Duke is set to be really, really good. And that’s despite losing Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, Harry Giles, and Amile Jefferson. This is unquestionably Grayson Allen’s team now, and he will be surrounded by a loaded recruiting class that includes the top-ranked power forward, point guard, and shooting guard in the Class of 2017 (Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, and Gary Trent Jr., respectively). In terms of youth, this team will resemble the Blue Devils of 2014-15, and Coach K will certainly be hoping for a similar result.
2. Michigan State
Miles Bridge was the most shocking name to spurn the NBA Draft, and the likely lottery pick’s return makes Michigan State the team to beat in the Big Ten. After having a paper-thin frontcourt last season, the Spartans are absolutely loaded, with rising sophomores Bridges and Nick Ward (13.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG), five-star freshman Jaren Jackson, Gavin Schilling, and UNLV transfer Ben Carter. The perimeter is not as deep but rising sophomores Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston figure to take big steps forward. In what looks to be another down year for the Big Ten, expect the Spartans to dominate.
This is the best chance Sean Miller has had at finally making a Final Four, but he’s definitely thinking bigger than that. The return of both Alonzo Trier (17.2 PPG) and Rawle Alkins (10.9 PPG) gives Miller an elite duo on the perimeter. Replacing Lauri Markkanen isn’t easy, but Miller is counting on a very talented freshman class headlined by 7-footer DeAndre Ayton to come in and contribute right away. The combination of young pieces and a veteran core that also includes Dusan Rustic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright makes Arizona the early favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio.