It’s painful to admit that the college basketball season is over. But when one season ends, it means the next one is upon us.
Most of college basketball’s elite talent is graduating, but the class of 2016 is arguably the strongest recruiting class of this decade.
As the old saying goes: “Out with the old and in with the new.”
The new season is several months away, but it’s never too early to take a look at the potential elite teams for next year. When combining returning experience and talented recruits, which teams are shaping up to be the cream of the crop?
Here is a way-too-early top 10 for 2016-2017.
1. Duke Blue Devils
Two seasons removed from a national title — delivered by an elite recruiting class — Duke looks to be in similar standing for 2016-2017. After this year’s exit in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils should be revamped and loaded with young talent. Coach K is bringing in the nation’s top two players, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, along with five-star point guard Frank Jackson (No. 11 in the ESPN 100). If this wasn’t enough to make Duke a contender, Grayson Allen is returning, and Amile Jefferson is likely to take medical redshirt and join him. Coach K’s chances of reaching John Wooden’s 10 titles are slim, but this team is in prime position to deliver No. 6.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
The 2016-2017 season will mark the return of the blue-chip programs to the top of college basketball. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray are bolting to the NBA, but another year brings another signature elite John Calipari recruiting class. Kentucky recruited three consensus top-ten players who fill essential team needs. The one-and-done system is alive and well in Lexington, bringing in a swarm of elite prospects.
3. Villanova Wildcats
The losses of Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu are big blows for the defending champs. However, head coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats return the rest of their weapons. Josh Hart — a potential player of the year candidate — is back after a tremendous tournament performance. In the absence of Arcidiacano, Phil Booth appears more than capable of teaming up with Jalen Brunson in the backcourt to ensure Villanova doesn’t miss a beat. As long as head coach Jay Wright does not jump to the NBA (highly unlikely), the Wildcats will be a contender next season. And if they are ever at risk of losing, I fully expect Kris Jenkins to hit every buzzer beater for the rest of his college career.
4. Kansas Jayhawks
Coach Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks won their 12th-consecutive conference title with what some were calling Self’s best team yet, led by Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. They were the clear favorites to win it all in the tournament, then Villanova happened. Now, Ellis and Selden are heading to the NBA and Cheick Diallo is testing the waters of the draft process. But Kansas has nothing to fear. Next season, the Jayhawks return arguably the best backcourt in the nation with Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. With the departure of Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, look for forwards Carlton Bragg and Landen Lucas to take the next step and be the new big men on campus. If the Jayhawks can land either small forward Josh Jackson or shooting guard Terrance Ferguson — the two most coveted recruits remaining in the class of 2016 — their potential dramatically increases. Jackson, the No. 3 recruit in the country, is a great two-way player who would immediately fill the shoes of Wayne Selden.
5. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are losing the AP and Big 10 Player of the Year (Denzel Valentine), the best three-point shooter in the Big 10 (Bryn Forbes) and a double-double machine in Matt Costello. But, right on time, Tom Izzo is bringing in his best recruiting class ever, coming in at No. 3 in ESPN’s Class Rankings. With the return of freshmen dominating college basketball, you have to put Michigan State close to the top. Yes, this ranking is strictly on prospects, but I can’t count them out. They are welcoming two five-star prospects (SF Miles Bridges and SG Josh Langford), two four-star prospects (PG Cassius Winston and Center Nick Ward) and are one of the contenders to land 2016’s top prize left on the table, Josh Jackson. If 6-foot-10 big man Deyonta Davis decides to return to East Lansing for his sophomore year, the Spartans go from being a great team to an elite one. Plus, Izzo’s teams are known to spend all year improving, and then hitting their potentials in March. This Michigan State team might not even crack the top 10 in some preseason rankings, but I can’t resist.
6. Louisville Cardinals
This ranking entirely depends on a guy who shoots free throws underhanded and how strong the NCAA is going to come down on the Louisville program amid the current investigation. If Chinanu Onuaka (who averaged 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game this season) returns to Louisville after testing the draft process, they will have one of the best big men in the country. As of now, the Cardinals only lose graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, both guards. But they are welcoming in Tony Hicks, another graduate transfer from Penn, who is the 26th ranked player in the ESPN 100. Louisville also returns a majority of their core. With the addition of a couple of scorers on the wing, Louisville will boast a very strong team if the NCAA doesn’t hammer them down into a dark abyss.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
The runner-up in this year’s tournament is losing star seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, but still boasts one of the best cores of returning players in college basketball. I am completely sold on ACC Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Hicks. I think Hicks will be one of the most dominant post players in the country while filling the big shoes left behind by Brice Johnson. With Paige gone, Joel Berry II is the guy at guard, and his tournament play proved that he is up to the task. Not many teams can come back this strong after losing their two best players and leaders, but North Carolina seems like it can. To ease the loss of Johnson, the Tar Heels will also add five-star center tony Bradley to the post. Down low, the Tar Heels will be strong again. And maybe incoming guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson can add some consistent shooting to a UNC team that was the worst three-point shooting team in the ACC. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, they have their new and improved Tobbaco Road rival to fend off, but they are still capable of keeping their ACC crown.
8. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers are losing Yogi Ferrell, one of the best players in school history, but they will not be taking a step back in 2016-2017. Coming off an injury that sidelined him for the season since late December, James Blackmon Jr. will be back. Center Thomas Bryant is returning for another year in college. And if Troy Williams, who is considering a jump to the NBA, comes back to school, the Hoosiers are legitimate contenders. I’m looking for OG Anunoby, who only averaged 4.9 points a game this season, to come out and have a big year. Yogi will be missed in Indiana, but the Hoosiers are looking pretty scary, adding to the potential dominance of the blue-blood programs next season.
9. Virginia Cavaliers
Tony Bennett and Virginia always rely on experience and development over bringing in elite talent year after year. However, the Cavaliers lose their two dominant products, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. But, they are bringing in a host of new talent to compensate. All four of the Cavaliers’ incoming freshmen are rated as four-star prospects in the ESPN 100. They are also bringing in Memphis transfer Austin Nichols, who will look to duplicate the lost production of Anthony Gill down on the block. London Perrantes will be the senior leader for this team, and he will look to guide the Cavaliers to contention in the ACC.
10. Syracuse Orange
The first No. 10 seed to ever reach the Final Four is looking good heading into next season. While it’s hard to say a Final Four team will have a better season the following year, the Orange will at least be more consistent. Syracuse is bringing in two four-star recruits in shooting guard Tyus Battle (possibly the coolest name ever) and power forward Matthew Moyer. They lose a lot of production with the departure of seniors Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, but freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon have already proven they are the new faces of the Syracuse program. The two freshmen had brilliant tournament performances, causing their draft stock to sky rocket. If they stay, Syracuse could possibly make a return to the Final Four this time around. If they leave, just ignore this lofty No. 1o ranking.
This concludes my Monday Madness college basketball column for this season. Thank you to everyone who followed along on the crazy ride that was the 2015-2016 college basketball season. It was a fun one.
Featured image by Dalton King
Edited by Nathan Odom