The 2016-2017 NCAA Basketball season starts this weekend. Here is a look at the top 25 teams heading into the season.
Teams that just missed the cut: Texas A&M, North Carolina State, Seton Hall, Maryland, SMU, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Rhode Island, Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and USC
25. San Diego State
The Aztecs will look to bounce back after missing the Tournament for the first time in seven years last season. Their trademark defense was still stout last year, ranked 4th by Ken Pomeroy, and that figures to continue. The backcourt of sophomore Jeremy Hemsley and junior Trey Kell will be much better with experience. Help arrives from transfers Montague Gill-Caesar and Valentine Izundu. Gill-Caesar will provide a needed boost of scoring, and Izundu will be the new anchor to the defense. Junior forward Malik Pope has the athleticism to be a potential NBA draft pick.
24. Saint Mary’s
All five starters and three key bench players return from last season when the Gaels flew under the radar for 29 wins. That means the craftsmen who produced a staggering 58.4% team effective Field Goal percentage, good for 4th in the country, are all back. Coach Randy Bennett always seems to get the most out of his team.
Despite the disappointing finish to last year, there is a lot to be excited about for the Boilermakers this season. The returning frontline of Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, and Vincent Edwards is as formidable as any in the country. Rapheal Davis will be missed, especially on defense, but junior guard Dakota Mathias and redshirt junior forward Basil Smotherman hope to fill the void. Spike Albrecht transferred in from Michigan to help P.J. Thompson with the point guard duties.
If the Flyers can recover from the tragic death of Steve McElvene, they will have a great season because they have one of the deepest and most experienced teams in the country. Three tough seniors lead the way: point guard Scoochie Smith who sets the tempo, swingman Charles Cooke who provides the scoring, and forward Kendall Pollard who does the dirty work. Josh Cunningham is a talented and versatile forward who transferred in and will fit right away. Do not bet against coach Archie Miller.
21. Ohio State
The Buckeyes will have one of the most versatile lineups in the country, and could play a form of positionless basketball which will allow them to switch everything on defense. Jaquan Lyle, Keita Bates-Diop, Marc Loving, and Jae’Sean Tate all have an impressive combination of size and athleticism. The defense will need to be more consistent than last season, but coach Thad Matta has a history of producing quality defensive teams. Freshmen forwards Derek Funderburk and Micah Potter are worth keeping an eye on.
This team has vast potential, so the key will be fulfilling it. Senior guard Kasey Hill, junior forward Devin Robinson, and center John Egbunu all were solid contributors, but could still do more. Transfer guard Canyon Barry, son of Rick, will be counted on to provide scoring from the perimeter.
The Wildcats once again are incredibly talented. But they suffered a blow when Ray Smith was lost to repeated ACL tears. Sophomore guard Allonzo Trier will lead the show, with skilled freshmen guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons following. Junior center Dusan Ristic will have to improve to boost the defense which was uncharacteristically soft last year. This team has a lot of moving parts, so it may take a while to gel. Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen has the shooting ability to make a splash. Trier will have to elevate his game to put this team back among the national elite.
The Hoosiers have a lot of talent returning, but the graduation of point guard Yogi Ferrell will be tough to overcome. Transfer Josh Newkirk will have the opportunity to fill the spot, and his play will be crucial to the Hoosiers. Guard James Blackmon Jr. returns from a 2016 season lost to injury and will have the chance to be the leading scorer. The frontline is great with sophomore Thomas Bryant who could be a lottery pick in June. Bryant’s improvement on defense turned the Hooisers’ season around last year. Sophomore forward OG Anunoby is a defensive ace with a versatility that gives the Hoosiers a lot of options.
This is starting to look like a classic Huskies team with two ball-handling guards and size up front. The guards are still young, sophomore Jalen Adams and freshman Alterique Gilbert, but they have all the makings of the lead guards of UConn past. Much of the leadership and intangibles will be provided by senior Rodney Purvis. Transfer forward Terry Larrier will help, especially on defense. Center Amida Brimah is back for his senior season to swat shots that make it to the backline of the defense. There is a solid class of four freshmen which coach Kevin Ollie will expect production from.
The return of sophomore forward Ivan Rabb catapults the Bears to contender status. Rabb will be an All-American who will be a national player of the year candidate. The offense will run through him where he is tremendous. Senior point guard Sam Singer has a control that some Cal ball-handlers last season did not have. Wing Jabari Bird will be counted on to provide perimeter scoring; his health is paramount. Two newcomers who will help in the backcourt are grad-transfer Grant Mullins and freshman Charlie Moore.
This may be coach Mick Cronin‘s best team. The Bearcats are lead by senior point guard Troy Caupain and junior forward Gary Clark. Clark is a strong defender and rebounder. This squad can bring their trademark physicality and toughness, but the shooting and offense might be better than usual in part because of Caupain and transfer forward Kyle Washington. Freshman Jarron Cumberland figures to be a perfect fit.
Impact transfer have come to Gonzaga. Nigel Williams-Goss was a highly touted point guard before ever arriving in Spokane. Guard Jordan Mathews and forward Jonathan Williams have also played high-level college basketball. Among returning Zags, guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson will look to bring stability. A lot of game plans will center around big man Przemek Karnowski who will try to remain healthy after back surgery. If he cannot, 7-foot freshman Zach Collins will have a shot.
13. Michigan State
Coach Tom Izzo will have to rely on freshmen much more than he is accustomed to. But the freshman class is stacked, led by standout forward Miles Bridges. The other impact freshmen are Joshua Langford, point Cassius Winston, and big Nick Ward. A few key veterans return as well, with sharp-shooting Eron Harris and lead guard Tum Tum Nairn. Transfer forward Ben Carter will help in the post.
Coach Jim Boeheim says he likes his team, and he knows what he is doing. He has a number of dynamic players. Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon brings a unique combination of outside shooting and defense. Forward Tyler Roberson is a terrific rebounder. Sophomore guard Franklin Howard will cause havoc at the top of the zone defense. Freshman guard Tyus Battle is versatile with size. Another freshman, Taurean Thompson, and transfer center Pascal Chukwu will try to anchor the zone defense. Two more transfers, guards John Gillon and Andrew White will juice the lineup, particularly White who can score in bunches.
The Musketeers have all the ingredients for a banner season. The sizeable backcourt of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett is as good as any in the country. They are flanked by two more tough guards in senior Myles Davis and J.P. Macura. Xavier always plays strong down low and rebounds well, but they are looking for a big man to step up this year. It could be transfer Rashid Gaston.
10. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have another tall, deep, athletic team for coach Roy Williams. But the losses of leaders Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will not be easy to overcome. Junior point guard Joel Berry is smooth and will lead the way. Forwards Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks are athletic enough to excel at the high tempo that Williams likes. There are three intriguing freshmen: forward Tony Bradley, guard Brandon Robinson, and freak-athlete Seventh Woods. This team is very deep, but perimeter shooting could be an issue.
The Bruins are prepared for a bounce-back season after a disappointing 2016. The main reason for this is freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, one of the best in the country. Ball allows senior guard Bryce Alford to play off the ball and get more open three point looks. Senior wing Isaac Hamilton does a little bit of everything and fellow guard Prince Ali, a sophomore, is following suit. Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday is a good outside shooter and underrated overall. The frontcourt may not be as dynamic as the backcourt, but center Thomas Welsh can get easy looks down low. Skilled freshman forward T.J. Leaf will help as well.
The Cardinals have the kind of deep, athletic squad that coach Rick Pitino likes. Junior point guard Quentin Snider is emerging as a standout player. Guard Donovan Mitchell and freshman V.J. King are dynamic in the open floor. Grad transfer Tony Hicks will help secure the backcourt. Up front the Cards are deep and athletic as well. Post Mangok Mathiang works much like former Cardinal Gorgui Dieng. Sophomore forward Raymond Spalding is ready to breakout as a star. Junior seven-footer Anas Mahmoud has vast potential. If Pitino can get this team to play defense like most of his teams do, watch out.
Once the Badgers got comfortable with new coach Greg Gard, they began to play at a level not far off from their 2014 pace. Forward Nigel Hayes is back to cap his great career off with an All-American type season. Likewise senior guard Bronson Koenig has experience that few others can match. The emergence of post Ethan Happ, now a reshirt sophomore, opened opportunities up for a struggling Hayes and Koenig last season. The other two starters – both seniors – guard Zak Showalter and forward Vitto Brown, are perfect role players in that they can score when needed, but mostly thrive off the behind-the-scenes work. The Badgers will look for more contribution from their bench; guard Jordan Hill, wing Khalil Iverson, or post Alex Illikainen could step up. Koenig and Happ will both contend for All-Big Ten spots along with Hayes who is looking to finally prove he is worth a first round draft pick.
Even though the Cavaliers were depleted due to graduation, they are bringing in possibly the best group of newcomers under the Tony Bennett regime, so the drop off will be minimal. Transfer forward Austin Nichols is one of the best big men in the country, capable of working the post on offense and blocking shots on defense. There are also as much as four impact freshmen joining the team. The pulse of the squad is still senior London Perrantes, the best point guard in the nation. A few role players return from last year, including forward Isaiah Wilkins who finished the year strong and will be counted on by Bennett to continue to improve. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can get the same typical impressive intensity on defense from the freshmen. The bottom line is Perrantes and Nichols are one of the best duos in the country and can carry them to a lot of wins.
What can the Wildcats do for an encore after their dream season? They have a lot of pieces, but two of their biggest from last year (Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu) are gone. Josh Hart is the best two-way player in college basketball. Talented guards Phil Booth and Jalen Brunson are ready to step into even larger roles. Senior forward Kris Jenkins obviously causes opposing defenses a lot of problems. Sophomore Mikal Bridges stepped up in the tournament and coach Jay Wright will look for continued improvement from him. Bridges is a uniquely and supremely versatile defender who allows Wright to play various lineups. Transfer forward Eric Paschall will help holdover Darryl Reynolds man the blocks. Many of the best qualities of last year’s championship team are still intact but it is unlikely that the Wildcats repeat their entire 2016 tournament run.
Another year, another hoard of talented freshmen for John Calipari and the Wildcats. As many as five freshmen could have a major impact. Frosh guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are very quick and eager to put on a show on offense. Freshman forward Bam Adebayo is a strong beast. Much of Kentucky’s success will correlate with the play of sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe who played out of position last year, but may have to do so again with Fox and Monk. Two seniors, guard Dominique Hawkins, and forward Derek Willis, will have to provide leadership on and off the court. Perimeter shooting and turnovers could be issues, but this team has many of the traits Calipari likes.
The Ducks have their deepest team in years as they combine a lineup of five good returnees with five intriguing newcomers. The team goes as the versatile Dillon Brooks goes. The athletic frontline of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher makes shots nearly impossible for the opposition. Sophomore Tyler Dorsey is a slick guard who can stroke it from outside. Most impressive among the newcomers is freshman guard Payton Pritchard who will challenge steady junior Casey Benson for minutes at the point. Pritchard has the handles and deep shooting that can cause nightmares for opposing defenses. This team has enough big athletes to play fast without sacrificing much defense. When they get hot from three point land, games will get over in a hurry. Brooks, who can do it all, is starting the year with an injury.
The Jayhawks have a nice blend of returnees and newcomers, making for a deep, big roster. Guards Devonte Graham and Frank Mason are as solid of two-way players as there is in college basketball. Freshman wing Josh Jackson is a stand out who will be a lottery pick. He has veteran toughness and embraces defense. Senior Landen Lucas and freshman Udoka Azubuike will form a nice rotation in the post. Sophomores Carlton Bragg and Lagerald Vick, along with junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will look to break out. Coach Bill Self, known for preaching defense and running a nice high-low on offense, encouraged more three-point shooting last year, and for the most part it worked for the Jayhawks. Shooting and rebounding will be key for Kansas.
If it were not for injuries, there would be talk of this team going undefeated. The Blue Devils would be loaded before the addition of their six noteworthy freshmen. Returning guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard bring a variety of offensive skills to the fold while senior guard Matt Jones is a defensive ace. Likewise senior forward Amile Jefferson, returning from a foot injury, anchors the back of the defense. Three freshmen stand out: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Frank Jackson. Jackson is a heady guard who is improving as a shooter. Tatum is dynamic wing with ball skills who at 6’8″ is not afraid to go down low. Giles is 6’10″with athleticism who is not afraid to lead the fast break. Giles has the most potential on the team but he is battling a knee injury. When completely healthy this is the deepest team in America, but they may have enough to get by without their full arsenal. All their best players can handle the ball, which will make for a lot of unfairly open three-point shots when the offense is humming. Coach Mike Krzyzewski can put a lot of focus on the defense which will be the critical factor to how great this team can be. With all the talent, some chemistry issues could arise, but obviously Coach K is the man to thwart that.