Ranking the 10 Best Teams in College Basketball If Players Had to Stay 4 Years
- We must assume that all recruits still would have made the same decisions, because it would be impossible to play the trickle-down effect game to determine where players would have signed.
- Transfers that took place still count. Thus, Kansas would have Malik Newman, Gonzaga would have Nigel Williams-Goss and about 2,000 other transfers over the past three years would have happened.
Duke's Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard and Kentucky's Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo were all lottery picks this past June, but would they even be starters at their respective schools if players had to stay in college for four years?
On the long list of hypothetical topics we come up with over the offseason, this might be the most preposterous. It's practically a miracle when top-10 recruits stay for more than one season, let alone for four. Yet it's one of the more entertaining pieces to write each year.
Florida State and UNLV have little to no hope of receiving a single Top 25 vote when the preseason AP poll is released, but both the Seminoles and Rebels rank in this fictitious Top 10 with four former players "returning" to finish their four-year degrees. On the flip side of that coin, Michigan State is one of the preseason favorites to win it all, but the Spartans just barely made it into the Top 10 because they would only get one player back.
And then there's Duke and Kentucky, where future stars like Gary Trent Jr. and Hamidou Diallo would have to sit on the floor because there isn't enough room on the bench for everyone.
Two rules of thumb to keep in mind before you go arguing about a certain team or player:
In other words, all teams would have their current rosters plus all the players who still would have at least one year of eligibility remaining had they not declared for the draft.
Teams are ranked in ascending order of how unbeatable they would be.
Oregon won 64 games over the last two seasons, and Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey each had at least one year of eligibility remaining. Teaming that trio up with Elijah Brown and Troy Brown would be special.
Florida is a borderline Top 10 team heading into this season, but the Gators would only be getting back Devin Robinson. That isn't nearly enough to keep pace with the teams gaining three or more players from the NBA.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The defending national champions would retain Jackson and Tony Bradley, but they still would have to move on without Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Perhaps Jackson and Bradley would be enough for the Tar Heels to jump to No. 1 in the preseason poll if they were the only team adding former players to the roster, but they need more than that to hold a candle to some of these teams.
It's a shame Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon Jr. and OG Anunoby all decided to leave. It would have been fun to watch Archie Miller work his magic with the entire Indiana roster from last season.
Syracuse may well finish dead last in the ACC this year, but that wouldn't be the case if the Orange still had Malachi Richardson, Tyler Lydon and Chris McCullough. Though, if Duke, Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina all got guys back, too, Syracuse still wouldn't be anything close to the favorite in the conference.
Ben Simmons is a great starting point, but if LSU couldn't win games with him on the roster two years ago, it isn't winning a national championship with him this season.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Markelle Fultz is a fantastic start, but it didn't do Washington much good last season. Getting back Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray, too, would be a big help.
10. Florida State Seminoles
Players Gained: Dwayne Bacon, Malik Beasley, Jonathan Isaac, Xavier Rathan-Mayes
Starting Five: Rathan-Mayes, Beasley, M.J. Walker, Bacon, Isaac
Top Reserves: Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, CJ Walker, Ike Obiagu
There are always a few teams at the bottom of this hypothetical Top 10 that will be lucky to rank in the top half of their respective conference's preseason polls. Generally, these are the teams like Washington, LSU and UNLV that consistently struggle despite regularly bringing in NBA-caliber talent.
Florida State doesn't quite fit the mold of an annual disappointment—after all, it was a No. 3 seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament—but the Seminoles are a bubble team that would be a serious threat to win it all if its former players had been required to get a four-year degree.
The Seminoles would be loaded with perimeter prowess. Though none of the returnees shot better than 39 percent in any of their seasons in college, all four did spend a lot of time at the three-point arc. Bacon, Rathan-Mayes and Isaac combined to make 128 triples last year, and Beasley was the best shooter of the bunch, having hit 55 two years ago. Factor in M.J. Walker as one of the best freshman shooting guards in the country and this 'Noles starting five can make it rain with the best of them.
Unfortunately, the trade-off is a glaring lack of big men. Isaac held his own in the paint last season, averaging 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but he's the only frontcourt player with any college experience. It would be high comedy to watch him try to contend with the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Domantas Sabonis as seniors.
9. Michigan State Spartans
Players Gained: Deyonta Davis
Starting Five: Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Miles Bridges, Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Top Reserves: Matt McQuaid, Nick Ward, Lourawls Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling
Michigan State is arguably the best team in the country heading into the actual 2017-18 season, but the Spartans aren't bringing much additional firepower to this exercise. Deyonta Davis is the lone returnee, and he's frankly no guarantee to start on this roster. In what would now be his third collegiate season, though, we have to assume he'd be pretty close to unstoppable and impenetrable, as he averaged 16.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman.
But even if we replace Davis in the starting lineup with Nick Ward or Gavin Schilling, Michigan State still would be in great shape. If Ward is the replacement, it'd be one of the youngest starting fives in the country (four sophomores and one freshman), but that's OK when your youth is this talented.
The obvious star of the show here is the guy who probably should have left for the NBA: Miles Bridges. It seems the walking highlight reel can pull off just about anything he sets his mind to doing. If he hadn't missed a month of last season due to an ankle injury—and if Michigan State hadn't suffered 15 losses—he would have been a serious candidate for the Wooden Award. Instead, he'll be the preseason favorite to win it this year.
The big question for this team: Will the additional year of experience increase their ability to both force and avoid turnovers? Despite great assist numbers from both Cassius Winston and Lourawls Nairn Jr., the Spartans committed 110 more turnovers than they created in 2016-17. Getting back Davis would help them protect the rim, but defense as a whole is enough of a concern that we almost left Michigan State out of our top 10.
8. UNLV Rebels
Players Gained: Stephen Zimmerman Jr., Rashad Vaughn, Pat McCaw, Derrick Jones Jr.
Starting Five: McCaw, Vaughn, Jones, Brandon McCoy, Zimmerman
Top Reserves: Jovan Mooring, Kris Clyburn, Shakur Juiston
This is UNLV's second consecutive year in the top 10 on this list, as the Rebels would have been regaining even more talent last season. In addition to the four players listed above, double-double machine Christian Wood still would have had a year of eligibility remaining in 2016-17.
But it'd be hard to argue with replacing Wood with Brandon McCoy. The cream of one of UNLV's best recruiting crops in years, McCoy is a potential one-and-done big man who received offers from Kansas, Arizona, Michigan State and several other annual title contenders. Once he has the feel for the college game, pairing him with Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and high-flying forward Derrick Jones Jr. wouldn't even be fair. UNLV could lead the nation in blocks and rebounds.
Yet, the highlight of this roster is probably the starting backcourt.
Rashad Vaughn has yet to tap into his potential in the NBA, but he put up 17.8 points per game three years ago as a freshman at UNLV. It's hard to even imagine how much damage he would do this year as a senior. And Pat McCaw was a bit underappreciated in his time with the Rebels, but he was a key reserve in Golden State's 2017 championship run. In his final season before declaring for the NBA, he averaged roughly 15 points, five rebounds and four assists per game while ranking top 10 in the nation in total steals.
Don't sleep on Shakur Juiston, either. The JUCO transfer averaged 17.3 points and 12.1 rebounds per game last season for national champion Hutchinson CC. There's no chance he would start ahead of McCoy or Zimmerman, but he would be one heck of a frontcourt reserve.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
Players Gained: Josh Jackson, Kelly Oubre, Cheick Diallo, Cliff Alexander
Starting Five: Malik Newman, Devonte' Graham, Oubre, Jackson, Diallo
Top Reserves: Svi Mykhailiuk, Udoka Azubuike, Lagerald Vick, Alexander, Billy Preston, Marcus Garrett
Normally, Kansas is a viable candidate for No. 1 on this list. But following what would have been the senior seasons for Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden, the Jayhawks aren't packing nearly as much punch as they usually do.
With limited exceptions (Kelly Oubre and Josh Jackson), top recruits\ haven't been panning out lately for head coach Bill Self. Cliff Alexander, Cheick Diallo, Carlton Bragg all fell flat, and we have yet to see enough of Udoka Azubuike or Lagerald Vick to know if they were worthy of their recruiting stars.
Put it this way: It's weird that Kansas has signed nine top-50 recruits in the past four years, yet one of the most exciting elements of this roster is a transfer from Mississippi State (Malik Newman). And because none of the highly touted power forwards fulfilled their potential, bringing back former players doesn't address the frontcourt dilemma facing Kansas this year.
Still, how much fun would it be to watch Newman, Devonte' Graham, Oubre and Jackson coexist on the floor? Jackson spent more than enough time as the small-ball 4 last year that we know he would thrive in that role, and adding Oubre to what should already be one of the best backcourt tandems in the nation is ridiculous. (Not to mention bringing Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk and Marcus Garrett off the bench.)
And to be fair to the frontcourt options, Alexander was solid until his eligibility became an issue, and Diallo flashed a lot of potential as a rebounding and shot-blocking machine two years ago as a freshman. Though we never saw either of them come anywhere close to their peak, you have to believe at least one of them would have developed into a collegiate star by now. If you assume both would have been great, then there's a case for Kansas ranking in the top three.
6. Louisville Cardinals
Players Gained: Chinanu Onuaku, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Johnson
Starting Five: Quentin Snider, Mitchell, Deng Adel, Onuaku, Anas Mahmoud
Top Reserves: Brian Bowen, V.J. King, Ray Spalding, Malik Williams, Johnson
If Chinanu Onuaku had stayed for one more year, Louisville likely would have been the favorite to win the 2017 national championship. Even without him, the Cardinals earned a No. 2 seed while relentlessly crashing the offensive glass and defending the paint. But the step up from Jaylen Johnson and Ray Spalding to Onuaku would have been huge.
Just try to imagine Onuaku and Anas Mahmoud side-by-side as seniors.
Oregon's Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell comprised one of the best shot-blocking duos in recent history, but this Louisville front line would have put them to shame. Onuaku ranked 28th in the nation in block percentage in 2015-16, and Mahmoud was No. 4 in that category last year. It's a major shift from the steal-heavy defense the Cardinals levied in the early 2010s with the likes of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, but they would be the toughest team in the country to score against with those big men.
Getting Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel back together for one more go-round would be one heck of a coup, too. All three wings shot well from three-point range, and given the way Mitchell has performed between the NBA draft combine, summer league and preseason, it seems he was just getting ready to explode.
The real strength of this team is the quality depth. Louisville's bench is nothing compared to those of Duke or Kentucky, but the Cardinals have five legitimate starting options and frontcourt depth for days. They don't have quite the same star power of the top five teams, but they have the horses to compete with anyone.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Players Gained: Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Domantas Sabonis
Starting Five: Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Johnathan Williams III, Sabonis, Collins
Top Reserves: Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Silas Melson, Jesse Wade, Joel Ayayi, Jacob Larsen
If the Zags had just one more star, they would have ranked at least a spot or two higher than this. (If Rui Hachimura taps into the potential that NBA scouts are enamored with, perhaps they do get there.) As is, a 2-3 combo of Josh Perkins and Johnathan Williams III isn't cutting it. They'll be a formidable pair this season, but it's a sizable step down from the fourth- and fifth-best starters for the remaining four teams. The overall depth here isn't superb, either.
That said, the reigning national champions didn't quite crack the Top 10, but the runners-up sure would.
Before we knew for sure what Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins would decide to do about the NBA draft, most way-too-early Top 25s had Gonzaga ranked in the Top 10, if not the Top 5. NWG was arguably the most valuable player in the nation last season, and Collins was destined to become a star after averaging 23.2 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman reserve—not to mention the 47.6 percent three-point stroke that he showed off every once in a while.
Now re-introduce Domantas Sabonis to the mix and try to not fall in love.
As a sophomore, Sabonis put up 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. Per KenPom, he finished eighth in the Player of the Year rankings. As the only freshman or sophomore on that list, there's a strong case to be made that he would have been one of the five best players in the nation this year.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Players Gained: Stanley Johnson, Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, Chance Comanche
Starting Five: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Johnson, Allonzo Trier, Markkanen, DeAndre Ayton
Top Reserves: Rawle Alkins, Simmons, Dusan Ristic, Comanche, Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph
We liked Arizona a lot more in this exercise last year when it still would've had Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as seniors. But virtually everyone has the Wildcats in the Top 3 of their preseason rankings, and that team would be getting back several incredible scoring weapons. There's no question they belong in the Top 5 on this list.
There are some minor concerns, though.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a good point guard, but he isn't nearly good enough to give Arizona an edge over Lonzo Ball, Tyus Jones or De'Aaron Fox. Even though they're both 7-footers, Lauri Markkanen and DeAndre Ayton each love to live on the perimeter, which means Arizona would need to turn to Dusan Ristic or Chance Comanche for a more conventional interior presence. And would ball-dominant wing Stanley Johnson and guard Allonzo Trier be able to play together?
Questions aside, the overall talent is undeniable. And after a seasons-long approach to positionless basketball, it's remarkably interchangeable. Most of these teams have at least one position with only one option and multiple with only two viable candidates. Arizona, on the other hand, could just about throw these 11 names in a hat, pull out five and be ready to rock and roll.
One particular lineup that would be fun to watch: Johnson, Trier, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons and Emmanuel Akot. How would anyone defend that plethora of wing-forwards? Or what about Jackson-Cartwright, one of those five guys at shooting guard, Markkanen as a 7'0" small forward, Ayton at power forward and Ristic at center? So many great options for toying with the opposition.
3. UCLA Bruins
Players Gained: Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Kevon Looney, Ike Anigbogu
Starting Five: Ball, Aaron Holiday, Leaf, Looney, Thomas Welsh
Top Reserves: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, Anigbogu, Cody Riley, Prince Ali
Perhaps this ranking is putting a little too much stock in the theory that if Lonzo Ball was already a once-in-a-generation point guard as a freshman, he would become an all-time great as a sophomore. After all, point guard is the most crucial position in basketball, and you'd be hard-pressed to argue any team has a better one than UCLA. But this ranking also has to do with a lot more than the enigma that was Ball.
UCLA was already one of the best teams in the country last season, and the only noteworthy seniors the Bruins lost were Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. While that duo did shoot well from three and combined for nearly 30 points per game, it would be fair to say they're both replaceable, considering neither one was drafted. And with the fifth-best recruiting class in the country, head coach Steve Alford certainly has options for replacing them.
Be sure not to overlook the return of Kevon Looney, either. He hasn't quite hit his stride in the NBA yet, but he nearly averaged a double-double as a freshman while shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range. He was also a quality defender, which UCLA desperately could have used over the past two seasons, and he would be one of the best power forwards in the country as a senior.
Overall, this is a rock-solid roster. The bench—three freshmen, one player returning from a medical redshirt season (Prince Ali) and one player who got drafted despite playing limited minutes as a freshman (Ike Anigbogu)—is more speculation than proven talent, but it would be one heck of a second unit if and when the starters need a break.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Players Gained: Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Harry Giles
Starting Five: Jones, Kennard, Ingram, Winslow, Okafor
Top Reserves: Tatum, Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Jackson, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Giles
The divide between Duke and Kentucky and everyone else is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. The Blue Devils are going to be the near-unanimous No. 1 team in the nation when the preseason polls are released in the coming days, and the entire starting five from that roster would be coming off the bench on this one.
You could certainly make the case that Marvin Bagley III has more talent and potential than any player Duke has signed since at least Jabari Parker, but who are you booting to the bench to make room for that freshman?
In this scenario, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are both seniors, and they're probably combining to average 35 points and 22 rebounds per game, given how dominant they were as freshmen. Brandon Ingram is well-cemented in the starting lineup as a junior, too, probably putting up 15-18 points per game. Heck, Bagley might not even be one of the first two players off the bench with Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum filling those roles.
But Duke and Kentucky have now been holding down the top two spots in Scout's team rankings for four consecutive years, so what else would you expect? They have turned the one-and-done era into an art form, repeatedly replacing outgoing stars with new ones on an annual basis.
As far as the separation between Nos. 1 and 2 are concerned, Karl-Anthony Towns is arguably the best young player in the NBA, while Okafor has become a punching bag on social media over his last two seasons with the 76ers. There's a case to be made that Duke and Kentucky would play to a draw at positions 1-4, but between Towns triumphing over Okafor and Kentucky having even more depth on its bench, the 'Cats get the nod for the top spot.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Players Gained: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, De'Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Trey Lyles, Malik Monk, Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries
Starting Five: Fox, Murray, Booker, Adebayo, Towns
Top Reserves: Monk, Lyles, Ulis, Labissiere, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Briscoe, Humphries, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones
There's no way all of these guys would have signed with Kentucky if the players before them had been required to stay for four years, but goodness gracious has this team had a lot of quality players over the last few years.
Rather than reiterating the case for Kentucky at No. 1, let's try to figure out what the Wildcats would look like if we break down their 20-man roster into four tiers of starting fives:
First Unit: De'Aaron Fox, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns
Second Unit: Tyler Ulis, Malik Monk, Kevin Knox, Trey Lyles, Skal Labissiere
Third Unit: Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Isaac Humphries
Fourth Unit: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Isaiah Briscoe, Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards, Sacha Killeya-Jones
The third and fourth units are more or less what they're bringing to the table this season, but even with the second unit, the Wildcats would be a serious threat to go 40-0. And the first unit would probably win every game by at least a 20-point margin until finally getting a bit of a challenge from Duke in the national championship. We're talking early '90s UNLV-level domination.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.