Note: For some reason, the included links don’t open in a new window unless you right click them and select that option. Sorry about that. — B
WHO'S #1? A TL;DR
I began compiling this list in June and, at varying times, four schools have occupied the top spot.
I couldn't go with Duke, ultimately, though I started there because everyone else was (is, too). Their lack of a true PG is concerning and could (will, in my opinion) lead to struggles. Vindication, thy name is Derryck Thornton! Or something like that.
In July, it was Oregon. Then leading scorer and superstar SF Dillon Brooks hurt his foot.
Vital Returnee: Isaiah Briscoe (G) / Impact Frosh: Edrice Adebayo (PF)
Yeah, I know. UK blogger opts for UK over Duke, in spite of the widely prevailing groupthink otherwise. What a bombshell!
Yet, homerism be damned. I'll openly concede that Duke possesses the premier conglomeration of individual basketball talent in the country. But college basketball teams are not simply the sums of their respective parts. UK basketball fans know that all too well (weepy cough, the 38-1 ‘14-'15 team, sad retch).
2016's Kentucky group possesses the best balance of: 1) talent across all positions; 2) depth (I see an 8-9 man rotation);3) contributing experience (yes, two sophomores [Isaiah Briscoe & Isaac Humphries] and two seniors [Derek Willis & Dominique Hawkins] equal "experience" in contemporary top 25 college basketball); and 4) coaching in the nation. Oh, and several genuinely adroit true PG options.
Vital Returnee: Grayson Allen (SG) / Impact Frosh: Harry Giles (PF)
As I said, Duke is the most talented team overall, but I anticipate that a complete lack of a true PG will cause just as much trouble in November as it will in March. I'm guessing that Coach K is going to regret whatever events led to former 5* true PG Derryck Thornton's transfer to USC.
Allen, senior Matt Jones, and 5* freshman Frank Jackson are SGs, not PGs. It's hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, to be sure, but UK fans know what it's like to have a SG running the offense (Archie Goodwin in ‘12-'13).
Other questions include how Giles' absence and eventual return post-third knee surgery will affect team chemistry and how Allen's contributions will change now that he's the team's best "facilitator" (if 3.9 assists and 2.2 turnovers per game paired with a 19.4 AST% qualifies as "good"). I see a lot of great scorers and a dearth of adept and careful passers in this group of guards.
Vital Returnee: Edmond Sumner (PG) / Impact Frosh: Quentin Goodin (SG)
The slight subtractions from last year's team (F James Farr graduated, and F Jalen Reynolds unsuccessfully departed for the NBA Draft as a junior) are adequately outweighed by the redshirt sophomore version of Sumner (whom you know I love dearly), a burgeoning superstar, the junior version of SG Trevon Bluiett (15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last year), in addition to the returns of contributors J.P. Macura and Kaiser Gates, and a top 30 recruiting class, headlined by Taylor County High Schools' Goodin. Davis does remain suspended, though.
Remember that, last year, this team ranked top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, won 28 games overall, and 14 in the competitive Big East (5 NCAAT bids), including one over eventual NCAAT champion Villanova.
As an aside, look out for coach Chris Mack as a premier recruiter moving forward. He's putting together a top 10 class for 2017 with four 4*s (2 of which are top 100) so far.
#4 NORTH CAROLINA
Vital Returnee: Joel Berry (G) / Impact Frosh: Tony Bradley (C)
UNC won 33 games last season and much of the roster responsible for that tally returns. Coach Roy Williams' main concerns will be whether Berry can excel as the primary focus in the backcourt after Marcus Paige's departure (answer: yes) and if F Kennedy Meeks is able to boldly patrol the paint and glass on both ends of the floor now that Brice Johnson is gone (answer: unlikely).
Vital Returnee: Dillon Brooks (SF) / Impact Frosh: Payton Pritchard (PG)
80% of the Ducks' starting lineup returns and last year's team won the Pac 12 regular season and Tournament. With a healthy Brooks, I'd slot the Ducks in at 3; however, he's suffering from the tricky foot injury.
Even so, with starters Tyler Dorsey (G) and Chris Boucher (PF) back, as well as impact G Dylan Ennis, Oregon owns the west in college basketball.
Vital Returnee: Devonte' Graham (G) / Impact Frosh: Josh Jackson (SG)
KU boasts the deepest (and arguably best) backcourt in the country (Graham, Jackson, Frank Mason, Svi Mikhailiuk, and LaGerald Vick) but are relatively thin in the frontcourt (Landen Lucas is the only real difference maker there; former 5* Carlton Bragg and former UK target Udoka Azubuike are also options).
Still, a likely preseason All-American (Jackson, whom I consider the best player in the country) surrounded by this supporting cast makes KU the clear favorite in the Big 12.
Vital Returnee: Josh Hart (SG) / Impact Frosh: Dylan Painter (C)
Jay Wright finds his reigning champion Wildcats in the top 10 primarily due to the collective presence of ‘16 NCAATstandouts Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson.
Without incoming super-frosh Omari Spellman, who is redshirting for academic reasons, to make up for Daniel Ochefu's now-departed production in the middle, ‘Nova severely lacks skilled size. Get ready for extreme small ball in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Vital Returnee: London Perrantes (PG) / Impact Frosh: Kyle Guy (SG)
Though the Cavaliers lost stars Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, as well as spot big Mike Tobey, to graduation, juniors Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins are prepared to take over.
Perrantes will also find himself on PG award watch lists and no transfer in the country should have more of an impact on his team than former Memphis Tiger Austin Nichols, a big forward who will almost certainly lead UVA in scoring and blocks.
Also, look out: coach Tony Bennett is signing 5*s (Guy) and rounded out his ‘16 class with a trio of 4*s.
Vital Returnee: Allonzo Trier (SG) / Impact Frosh: Lauri Markkanen (PF)
Will this be the year that coach Sean Miller can get a supremely talented roster past the Elite Eight?
Trier's return (though there are loud rumors of a season-long suspension for the super-soph) somewhat offsets former 5* ‘16 commit Terrance Ferguson's decision to spend a year overseas instead of Tucson, but it still seems like the answer will be "no."
That said, as long as Trier is in uniform and guiding along a talent-rich group of freshmen (5*s Markkanen and former UK targets Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons) and returning contributors Kadeem Allen and Dusan Ristic, the Wildcats are firmly entrenched as the Pac 12's second best squad.
Vital Returnee: Nigel Hayes (PF) / Impact Frosh: None
Wisconsin is loaded with experience this season. Coach Greg Gard will rely on just two underclassmen, and they are both sophomores: PF Ethan Happ and SF Khalil Iverson. The rest of his rotation consists of polished seniors and juniors, including Hayes (an All-American candidate), Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter, and Jordan Hill.
#11 MICHIGAN STATE
Vital Returnee: Eron Harris (G) / Impact Frosh: Miles Bridges (SF)
I may be underrating this team, but the Spartans lost so much, most notably AP/NABC NPOY Denzel Valentine.
Still, the group of freshmen is arguably coach Tom Izzo's most impressive assemblage ever; it's ranked #3 nationally. Two former starters, SG Harris and PG Tum Tum Nairn also return. And, perhaps most importantly, this is a Tom Izzo team.
Vital Returnee: Kerwin Roach (SG) / Impact Frosh: Jarrett Allen (C)
Young but brilliant, if any squad is capable of breaking KU's Big 12 streak, it's Shaka Smart's Longhorns. If All-Big 12 PG Isaiah Taylor had returned for his senior season, I'd have this group in the top 5.
The ingredients: 2016 Big 12 All-Newcomer Team members Roach and G Eric Davis, big sophomore G Tevin Mack, a contributing senior in G Kendal Yancy, and a four member recruiting class that ranks 5th in the nation.
That class includes a trio of immediate contributors: C Jarrett Allen (the #17 player in the class and the best big man prospect in the ‘17 NBA Draft, in my opinion), G Andrew Jones (#31), and C James Banks (#63; see my earlier writeup of him here).
I fully expect Smart to develop this group into a dangerous 2-3 seed by NCAAT time.
Vital Returnee: O.G. Anunoby (SF) / Impact Frosh: De'Ron Davis (PF)
IU is among the most talented groups in the Big Ten, especially in the frontcourt (future top 20 NBA Draft picks Anunoby and Thomas Bryant, as well as Davis and Juwan Morgan), but the crucial question is who will replace graduated PG Yogi Ferrell?
The candidates are all unproven: former Pitt Panther Josh Newkirk, 4*/top 50 freshman combo guard (not PG!) Curtis Jones, and freshman Devonte Green. Coach Tom Crean has been talking about a committee approach to the position, which is never ideal.
Also, SG and former UK target James Blackmon, now a junior, is healthy and poised for yet another 15+ point per game season average on the offensive end.
Vital Returnee: Jalen Adams (PG) / Impact Frosh: Juwan Durham (PF)
Coach Kevin Ollie quietly put together a top 10 recruiting class early last summer and standout starters Rodney Purvis (SG; 12.8 points per game) and C Amidah Brimah (4.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per) return.
The sophomore Adams, however, will be on a number of preseason watch lists and is expected to emerge as the Huskies' primary star in ‘16-'17. Even if you don't remember him from last season, surely you remember this.
UConn figures to top the AAC this season.
Vital Returnee: Donovan Mitchell (SG) / Impact Frosh: V.J. King (SF)
Potential NCAA sanctions notwithstanding, U of L should be quite competitive in a loaded ACC. The Cardinals' top three scorers from last season (Damion Lee, Trey Lewis, and Chinanu Onuaku) are gone, but a talented roster remains.
PG Quentin Snider, who started 30+ games last season is back, and projected SG Donovan Mitchell is a monster athlete and overall upgrade over Lee (and the best player on this team). King is coach Rick Pitino's most likely freshman contributor, especially if Mitchell misses time with a concussion.
The frontcourt, lead by a now-healthy senior Mangok Mathiang, is also deep and will feature sophomore Deng Adel, in addition to 7 footers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman.
Vital Returnee: Tyler Lydon (PF) / Impact Frosh: Tyus Battle (SF)
As I've said before, Lydon is what we all expected Skal Labissiere to be last season — a silky and long shot blocker with an excellent jumper and offensive range at the 4. That's a glorious centerpiece for a college basketball team.
Combine Lydon's unique size and skill set with impact transfer/elite scorer Andrew White (a very tall SG who accounted for 16.6 points on 41% 3FG for Nebraska last season), senior F Tyler Roberson (8.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game), and high 4* freshman SG Tyus Battle, and the Orange won't be overlooked pre-NCAAT like they were last year.
Vital Returnee*: Nigel Williams-Goss (PG; sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules) / Impact Frosh: Zach Collins (C)
In 17 seasons at Gonzaga, coach Mark Few has made 17 NCAATs. He's won the WCC regular season 15 times and the WCCT 13 times. He just wins.
Oh, and skilled 7'1'' senior C Przemek Karnowski, who was a preseason Abdul-Jabbar Award favorite last year but was injured early in the season, is now healthy. Few is also working with a trio of All-WCC level transfers: Williams-Goss (from Washington), PG Jordan Matthews (Cal), and PF Johnathan Williams (Missouri).
Vital Returnee: Isaac Hamilton (G) / Impact Frosh: Lonzo Ball (PG)
UCLA was awful last year (15-17) but has some impressive returning parts to add into the mix with coach Steve Alford's best recruiting class (10th nationally) since arriving in Los Angeles.
Hamilton, Bryce Alford, and Aaron Holiday, who combined to account for about 43 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists per game, headline the returnees and 5* 6'9'' PF T.J. Leaf joins Ball and 4* Ike Anigbogu in the heralded incoming class.
Alford can't screw this one up, right?
Vital Returnee: Vince Edwards (SF) / Impact Frosh: Carsen Edwards (PG)
Purdue sports yet another incredible Big 10 frontcourt. Most analysts focus on the towering 7'2'' C Isaac Haas or former 5* Caleb Swanigan, but I prefer the solid and steady V. Edwards, a junior who contributed from everywhere last season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game in just 27.5 minutes per game (his impressive per 40s make me slobber).
The backcourt, though, is somewhat of a question mark, especially with respect to depth. There are a number of viable possibilities as contributors there, but no standouts. Junior PG P.J. Thompson is expected to retain his starting role from last year, but the Boilermakers are thin beyond him. Spike Albrecht, a transfer from Michigan, junior Dakota Mathias, as well as C. Edwards, are other options.
Vital Returnee: Maurice Watson (PG) / Impact Frosh: Kobe Paras (SF)
KSU transfer Marcus Foster brings his dynamic scoring to Omaha to form one of the Big East's finest starting backcourts, along with Watson, a senior who stuffed stat sheets for the Bluejays last year (14.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game).
Creighton should easily secure a NCAAT berth for the first time since 2014 as a legitimate contender in its conference.
#21 VIRGINIA TECH
Vital Returnee: Zach LeDay (PF) / Impact Frosh: Khadim Sy (C)
I may be a year early on Virginia Tech, but coach Buzz Williams went from 11 wins in Blacksburg to 20 in his secondseason, and is in a position to exceed that this year.
Last year's top 25 recruiting class (4*s Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear, and Justin Robinson) are prepared to make an impact and LeDay, now a senior, looks likely to improve on a 15.5 point/7.9 rebound per game campaign from last year.
Vital Returnee: Khadeem Lattin (F) / Impact Frosh: Kristian Doolittle (PF)
Sure, Buddy Hield graduated, along with G Isaiah Cousins and F Ryan Spangler.
But with All-Big 12 candidates Lattin (Big 12 All-Defensive Team last season) and G Jordan Woodard (All-Big 12 Honorable Mention last season) as his core, coach Lon Kruger's Sooners will once again be competitive in the Big 12.
Vital Returnee: Ivan Rabb (PF) / Impact Frosh: Charlie Moore (PG)
Even with Jaylen Brown's departure for the NBA, as soon as Rabb announced he was returning to Berkeley instead of taking a chance in the ‘16 Draft as a potential late lottery pick, Cal became firmly entrenched as a top 25 team. Or was it the spiritual lift the team received when former ‘Cat Marcus Lee announced his intention to transfer there? I kid.
Rabb is now projected as a top 10 pick in 2017 and joins Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks to form a defensive nightmare on the inside for Bears opponents in ‘16-'17. Jabari Bird, a senior SG good for 10.4 points per game last season returns, and Moore also enters the backcourt picture after ace PG Jordan Matthews opted to spend a year at Gonzaga as a graduate student, as previously mentioned.
#24 FLORIDA STATE
Vital Returnee: Dwayne Bacon (SF) / Impact Frosh: Jonathan Isaac (F)
Coach Leonard Hamilton has a pair of future NBA Fs at his disposal in Bacon and Isaac.
Fringe pro G Xavier Rathan-Mayes (last year's team leader in assists), a junior, also returns to a squad with two potential interior contributors who exceed 7' in height — former 4* sophomore Christ Koumadje (7'4'') and Michael Ojo (7'1''; now a graduate student after a medical redshirt last season).
#25 RHODE ISLAND
Vital Returnee: E.C. Matthews (G) / Impact Frosh: Mike Layssard (C)
Matthews, who is now healthy after tearing his ACL in URI's first game last season, is a viable NBA prospect, do-it-all F Hassan Martin returns, and coach Dan Hurley has turned the seven win team he inherited in 2012 into a serious contender for a NCAAT bid out of the Atlantic 10.
Others in Consideration: Iowa State, Maryland, NC State, Texas A&M, Miami, Clemson, Dayton, Seton Hall, VCU, SMU, Wichita State
Did I miss something? Do you think I'm nuts? Let me know in the comments.