With about one month to go before the season tips off November 11, we take a look at 10 of the best teams in the country.
We’re almost there folks. We’re almost ready to start the 2016-17 season. In a couple weeks, Midnight Madness will be upon us, and in less than a month, every team in the nation will tip off and get the year under way.
In the spirit of that excitement, it’s time to create a preliminary preseason top 10 before the actual preseason rankings come out. The Blue Devils are the clear favorite entering the season, but after that things get interesting in determining the order and members of the top 10. Did your favorite team make the cut?
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1. Duke Blue Devils
Even with the questions surrounding Harry Giles’s knee, the Blue Devils are still the clear preseason favorite entering the 2016-17 season.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest college basketball coach of all-time, pulled in a recruiting class that included Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, and Marques Bolden — all of which were consensus top-20 recruits in the Class of 2016. He also returns several key veterans that tip this team over the edge. Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson, Luke Kennard, and Matt Jones are all back for Duke, and I cannot express to you how excited I am to see this team play.
This sort of combination of veteran and freshmen talent is something we very rarely get to see in college basketball. The last team to have a roster similar to this (2014-15 Kentucky) went undefeated until the National Semifinals. The Blue Devils don’t just have depth — something they lacked immensely last season — they have a rotation that is at least nine-men deep.
Duke isn’t guaranteed a national title, but optimism is high in Durham right now, and it is completely deserved.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self has led the Jayhawks to 12 consecutive regular season Big 12 titles. Based on the team he is bringing into the 2016-17 season, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Kansas collected its 13th straight title and tied the record set by John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins between 1967 and 1979.
The Jayhawks return a solid core including senior guard Frank Mason III, junior guard Devonte’ Graham, senior center Landen Lucas, and sophomore forward Carlton Bragg. On top of that Kansas added one of the top recruits in the Class of 2016, Josh Jackson. A potential No. 1 overall draft pick, Jackson can do just about anything with the ball. He’s dominant on the ball, explosive off the dribble, passes well, and has multiple moves to get the ball into the basket.
The combination of Jackson, Mason, and Graham in the backcourt will be lethal. Lucas is a strong presence in the paint and Bragg has the potential to evolve into one of the best forwards in the country this season. This Kansas team will be just as dangerous as it always is, and will more than likely take home yet another Big 12 title.
3. Kentucky Wildcats
Even with all the hype that Duke’s Class of 2016 is getting, Kentucky managed to once again haul in the top-ranked recruiting class. According to ESPN, John Calipari nabbed the No. 5, No. 6, No. 9, and No. 14 members of the Class of 2016.
The Wildcats did not return many players from last season’s team — Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, and Isaac Humphries are the only contributing players back — but Calipari has proven so many times that when given a high number of pro-level prospects, he can mold them into one of the more formidable units in the country.
Freshmen Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, and De’Aaron Fox will be the centerpieces and focal points of this team, and Calipari will find a way for each of them to get the ball in his hands often. It’s yet to be seen how exactly Calipari will use each of his new multi-faceted, NBA-bound freshmen, but one thing is certain: Kentucky will be one of the best teams in the country this year, the freshmen will leave, and Calipari will do it all over again. You know, like he does every year.
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4. Virginia Cavaliers
Trust in Tony Bennett. That’s what every Virginia fan in the country should get tattooed on their arm if they start to worry about their team this season after losing Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, last season’s leading scorers. But it doesn’t matter. Bennett will find a way.
Under Bennett, Virginia has become known for its tight defense and high-effort play. Every possession matters against the Cavaliers because they aren’t going to afford you a plethora of opportunities to get the ball in the basket. It doesn’t matter if you’re Duke, Villanova, North Carolina or anyone else. You’ll be lucky to break 70 against the Hoos.
Guard London Perrantes is back for his senior season and will move from a tertiary scoring target to the primary offensive threat for Virginia. He is more than capable of fulfilling that role. Bennett also landed a knock-down shooter in freshman shooting guard Kyle Guy to add a long-distance element to the offense. As for the rest of the pieces, both under- and upper classmen, Bennett will find a place for them to keep the defense as smothering as it always is, the offensive productive enough to win games.
Never fear, Cavaliers fans. Your team is in good hands.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels
For the second straight season, the Tar Heels failed to bring in a top-10 recruiting class. That might affect North Carolina in the future, but it brought back five, count ‘em, five key players from last season’s squad, which reached the National Title game and came within a heartbreaking shot of possibly winning the whole thing.
Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson have gone away, but Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, and Kennedy Meeks are all back for the Tar Heels, making them one of the most experienced and battle-hardened teams in the country.
As last season’s second-leading scorer, Berry will more than likely become the offensive focal point through which North Carolina moves, but he also showed plenty of proclivity at distributing the ball. He will be able to see to it that this team moves the ball effectively and each player gets his fair share of opportunities to score. The biggest question will be whether or not Meeks can take over as the dynamic threat on the boards that Johnson was last season.
North Carolina might not be loaded with young talent like some of the other teams in the top five, but it is still an extremely talented team with a wealth of experience on the floor. Plus, the Tar Heels get to play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder because of all the attention Duke has received in the offseason. That could make them just a little more dangerous throughout the year.
6. Villanova Wildcats
Ryan Arcidiacono may have been the heart and soul of Villanova’s national championship team last season, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were the two most-talented players on that team and they are both back for another year.
Hart led the Wildcats in scoring and was second in most other categories. He is a dynamic and versatile offensive threat, and he will definitely have a shot at winning Player of the Year this season if he can continue what he did in 2015-16 and improve just a little. Jenkins proved he can handle the pressure with his knock-down jumper, and he will be called upon even more this season for not only heroics, but stable leadership as well.
Villanova also returns several key, under-the-rada pieces in guards Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, and Mikal Bridges, which gives them plenty of depth in the back court once again. However, top-prospect Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible for the 2016-17 season due to academic issues with his high school career. That will hurt the Wildcats’ front court plans a good deal because center Daniel Ochefu left at the end of last season with Arcidiacono.
The Wildcats will still have the high-octane, guard-first offense it has always had, it just needs to figure out how to play its front court to become a true repeat threat.
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7. Oregon Ducks
Dillon Brooks is Oregon’s best player by far. He made Duke fans everywhere cry during his 22-point, six-assist, five-rebound performance in the Sweet Sixteen during which it seemed as if he couldn’t miss from three. He can do just about anything with the ball. He has a plus-jump shot, is explosive on the drive, can dish it out to waiting teammates, and can get after it on the boards. In other words, he is a star and it is no small matter that he will miss an undefined portion of the season following foot surgery.
Still, the Ducks have pieces to work with to keep themselves near the top while they wait for their star to return to the floor. Forward Chris Boucher will need to do his best to fill Brooks’ role for the time being, and he might be able to come close. Boucher averaged 12.1 points per game last season and led the team with 7.4 rebounds per game. He is more of a bruiser than Brooks, but he can get the job done on both sides of the floor.
Transfer guard Dylan Ennis and junior guard Casey Benson will also have an opportunity to rise to the occasion in Brooks’ absence. If they can both establish themselves as key parts of the rotation in the early months of the year, Oregon will become that more dangerous when Brooks is healthy.
Oregon will still be good without Brooks, but it won’t be a national contender again until he returns fully healthy to the floor.
8. Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo. That should be the end of the explanation, right? Even when we look at the Spartans roster and their performance throughout a season and there is no logical reason for them to reach the Final Four, we turn back to the answer we should have seen from the beginning: Tom Izzo.
Michigan State welcomes back only one starter from last season’s team, which, despite it’s early exit in the NCAA tournament, was strong enough to win the Big Ten tournament and claim a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Eron Harris will be asked to bear a large burden this season, but Izzo will find a way to utilize the pieces around him to not make the burden overwhelming.
The Spartans welcome in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, including consensus top-10 recruit Miles Bridges and offensive threat Josh Langford. Izzo will certainly find significant roles for the pair of them in his rotation, and more then likely both will succeed. Don’t worry about the Spartans. They’ll be right where you expect them to be come March.
9. Gonzaga Bulldogs
It’s hard to look at this Gonzaga team, see that it lost both Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, and say that this year’s team will be better than last year’s. Except it might.
7-foot-1, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski returns for his redshirt senior season and will completely bully everyone in the paint both on offense and defense. Guard Josh Perkins, one of last season’s leading scorers, is also back giving the Bulldogs some experience in the front court.
Mark Few also welcomes in three transfer students to his team this season who will all play a significant role in the success of this team. Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, and Jordan Mathews were all top players at their respective former programs and left for greener pastures in Spokane.
It might take a minute or two for this year’s version of Gonzaga to gel, but it has all the pieces to once again be one of the best teams in the country despite the fact that it plays outside of the major conferences.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana is certainly dealing with a few more injuries than it would like to this early in the year, but it’s best pieces are fit and ready to make a run at not just repeating as regular season Big Ten champions but making a deep tournament run as well.
Yogi Ferrell is gone, but dominating center Thomas Bryant returns as one last season’s top scorers and the key rebounder on both the offensive and defensive glass. Bryant exhibited an ability to make moves in the paint both facing and with his back to the basket and now he has had an entire offseason improve those moves.
Guards James Blackmon (Ferrell’s right-hand man in 2015-16) and Robert Johnson are also both back and healthy for Tom Crean. The pair will lead the back court for Indiana and will help keep the run-and-gun going. The Hoosiers also have a couple freshmen in shooting guard Curtis Jones and power forward De’Ron Davis that they can work into the rotation to give the more experienced guys a blow.
Indiana is set to remain atop the Big Ten and battle with Michigan State and Wisconsin all season long for the conference crown.
Edited by Julian Boireau.
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