Preseason NCAA Basketball Rankings 2016-17: Super-Early Top 25 Experts' Poll
Goodbye, year of the senior.
Next college basketball season will be a return to the blue bloods dominating with a mix of veterans and one-and-done lottery picks.
The 2015 recruiting class was considered weak, and its influence was minimal, especially because some of the top players, like LSU’s Ben Simmons, attended non-traditional powers. The incoming class this year could have an impact like the 2014 class, and similar to that one, the guys at the top picked power programs.
The No. 1 player of 2016, Josh Jackson, is the one chip left to fall. Surprise, surprise...Jackson is considering three of the usual suspects at the top: Kansas, Michigan State and Arizona.
The team that lands Jackson will move up the rankings, and impending NBA decisions could provide a shake-up as well. With the new NCAA rule that allows players to declare unlimited times and then have the chance to return 10 days following the combine, more players are likely to test the waters than ever before.
That has created more roster uncertainty than we’re used to at this point. We tried to make some predictions on who would go or stay when picking the top 25, but the new rules could bring some surprises.
So here is our 2016-17 preseason poll, as voted on by Jason King, Kerry Miller and myself, with an asterisk—we reserve the right to change our minds once all the dominoes fall in place.
Also receiving votes: Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Florida State, Iowa State and Texas.
Why They're Here: Andy Enfield's rebuilding plan took shape a year earlier than most probably expected. The Trojans went from winning 12 games in 2014-15 to 21 games last year, which earned them an NCAA tourney bid.
Enfield returns his four leading scorers from a young roster that should continue to develop. Look for talented freshmen Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu to make a leap as sophomores and leading scorer Jordan McLaughlin to emerge as one of the top point guards in the country.
Will Change If... Enfield loses more transfers. The Trojans also had starter Katin Reinhardt transfer out, along with Darion Clark and Malik Martin.
Why They're Here: Larry Brown has built a program with sustainability, and when it comes to production, we shouldn't doubt the legendary coach.
The Mustangs will be postseason-eligible again in 2017, and go ahead and count on them getting there. They return three double-digit scorers from last season—Shake Milton, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown—and also add Duke transfer wing Semi Ojeleye. Coach Brown also signed the 15th-best recruiting class, headlined by power forward Ted Kapita.
Milton has the talent and shooting stroke to become a star. He made 42.6 percent of his threes as a freshman. He's listed as a first-round pick in the 2017 mock draft over at DraftExpress.
Will Change If... Brown decides to leave. Not likely at this point, but the coach will always keep you on your toes.
23. Seton Hall
Why They're Here: The Pirates will return all five starters if Isaiah Whitehead decides to return to school—he has declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. Whitehead is not projected to go in the first round, and unless he kills it at the combine and plays himself into the first round, you would think he'll come back to school.
Seton Hall's defense was the strength of the program this past year. The Pirates finished ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency. The offense figures to improve as this core ages, and Whitehead would be one of the best scorers returning to college basketball.
Will Change If... Whitehead stays in the draft. The Pirates could still be a top-25ish team with the other guys they have returning. They also add former Kansas State point guard Jevon Thomas, who is not at Whitehead's level but would help fill the void left by the star guard.
Why They're Here: The potential of Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon was on display in the NCAA tournament, and that's a nice one-two punch to build a team around. Head coach Jim Boeheim also returns starting forward Tyler Roberson, and the Orange add another scoring wing in Tyus Battle.
The biggest question mark is point guard. Franklin Howard is the favorite to land the job, and he played sparingly this past season with Michael Gbinije averaging 37.9 minutes per game.
Will Change If... Lydon or Richardson decides to leave for the NBA. Both are intriguing prospects who helped themselves during Syracuse's run to the Final Four.
Why They're Here: Head coach Archie Miller graduates Dyshawn Pierre but returns the rest of his rotation, including leading scorer Charles Cooke. Dayton's four returning starters will all be seniors, and this class has won 78 games and made an Elite Eight.
Will Change If... Miller leaves. That's not likely, as it's not probable a big-time job opens up that would entice him, but the Dayton coach will always be a hot candidate.
Why They're Here: The Boilermakers could once again have one of the top front lines in college basketball if Caleb Swanigan decides to come back to school to play alongside Isaac Haas. Haas would have been a starter last year for almost any team in America, and Purdue fans should expect a big year.
If Swanigan doesn't return, head coach Matt Painter could elect to go small with Vince Edwards at the 4 and surround Haas with shooters. That will be a hard team to guard. Edwards, Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline all averaged more than one made three per game this past year, and point guard P.J. Thompson shot 41.5 percent from deep.
Will Change If... Swanigan opts to stay in school. He has a chance to be a star on the college level and would likely be Purdue's go-to guy next season.
Why They're Here: Butler has a nice 2-3 combo on the wing with leading returning scorer Kelan Martin and George Washington transfer guard Kethan Savage. Savage averaged 11.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 2014-15.
The Bulldogs also return their starting frontcourt of Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman, along with point guard Tyler Lewis.
Will Change If... Lewis didn't exactly live up to expectations last year, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Butler look to the grad-transfer market for some guard depth or a replacement for Roosevelt Jones at point guard.
18. Texas A&M
Why They're Here: With the graduations of Danuel House and Jalen Jones, the Aggies are likely to turn to sophomore-to-be center Tyler Davis as their go-to option. The freshman year that Davis had (11.3 points per game on 65.5 percent shooting) suggests he's going to be a star. Davis knows how to throw his weight around and has great footwork and touch for a big fella.
Next to Davis up front will be Tonny Trocha-Morelos, who played well early in the season when Jones had to miss some games and Trocha-Morelos was starting.
On the perimeter, the Aggies will rely on Davis' classmates, DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder. Add incoming 4-star point guard J.J. Caldwell, and that's a solid starting five. Head coach Billy Kennedy also signed 4-star power forward Robert Williams, a bouncy athlete who is one of the top shot-blockers in his class.
Will Change If... The Aggies add New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal. According to ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello, Neal is considering A&M, Ole Miss and Ohio State. Neal, who will be eligible immediately, could start at point for the Aggies.
At the very least, he would add some much-needed depth to the perimeter. He averaged 12.3 points and 3.7 assists this past year for the Lobos.
Why They're Here: The Connecticut program is one that likes to feature a two-point guard attack, and head coach Kevin Ollie will be able to do so next season with the addition of freshman point guard Alterique Gilbert to go along with Jalen Adams. Both players are strong off the bounce, and Ollie is going to be able to spread the floor with creators, especially if he plays Daniel Hamilton as a small-ball forward.
The Huskies are always one of the stingier defenses in the country, and they figure to be better offensively with the addition of Gilbert, who is more of a true point guard than Adams.
Will Change If... Hamilton and center Amida Brimah decide to stay in the NBA draft. Both players have declared but haven't hired agents. Brimah wasn't as consistent as the Huskies hoped he would be in his junior season, and he missed 11 games after breaking a finger on his right hand.
Expect both players to return to school.
Why They're Here: Head coach Scott Drew stocked his roster with talented big men, and the next men up are Johnathan Motley and Terry Maston. Motley has been inconsistent the last two seasons, but he has star potential. He scored 20 or more points seven times this past season.
The Bears also hope to have an upgrade at point guard next season with the addition of Miami transfer Manu Lecomte. Lecomte averaged 7.9 points two years ago as a sophomore at Miami. Baylor also returns wing scorers Al Freeman and King McClure, along with do-everything forward Ishmail Wainright.
Will Change If... Baylor's roster looks set. The only thing that could change is the loss or addition of transfers.
Why They're Here: The Bruins underachieved this past season, but they were young and lacking the type of star we're used to seeing on that roster. Help is on the way in 5-star freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Ball is a 6'6" point guard who could be one of the Pac-12's best players right away.
Add Ball to a backcourt that already includes Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali, and that's one of the deepest and most talented attacks in the country.
Will Change If... The roster is set in stone unless some of the returners decide to transfer. As long as it's not a mass exodus, UCLA has enough depth at every position that head coach Steve Alford could afford to lose one or two players.
Why They're Here: The Wildcats will get back to featuring NBA talent in 2016-17 with three 5-star freshmen arriving (guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons, and big man Lauri Markkanen) and the return of Ray Smith, a 5-star wing in the 2015 class who missed last year with a knee injury.
It will be one of head coach Sean Miller's youngest teams, but Miller's talent level will be back to what he's used to working with after a slightly down year this past season.
Will Change If... The Wildcats land Josh Jackson. Other than that, the roster is pretty set with Allonzo Trier announcing that he'll return to school. Trier is the team's leading returning scorer after averaging 14.8 points per game as a freshman.
Why They're Here: Head coach Mark Few has had success with transfers, and he has two really good ones becoming eligible next season in former Washington point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and former Missouri forward Johnathan Williams.
Two years ago, Williams-Goss averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds, and Williams averaged 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds at their respective schools. They'll be the go-to scorers on this team.
Few returns solid guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, and he also signed one of his best recruiting classes. The Zags have five freshmen coming in, led by center Zach Collins, who ranks 42nd in his class.
Will Change If... Veteran big man Przemek Karnowski applies for a medical redshirt and is allowed to play one more season for the Zags. Karnowski, who missed most of the year with a back injury, would be extremely valuable to a roster that is turning over. The 7'1" center is one of the best passing big men in the game and also a beast to stop in the low post.
Why They're Here: If Nigel Hayes stays in school, Wisconsin will return everyone from a team that won 13 of its final 17 games and made the Sweet 16.
Hayes was the team's leading scorer, but I would argue that Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ passed him as the most valuable assets for the Badgers. Hayes would be smart to return to school. He struggled shooting the ball as a junior (a career-low 36.8 percent), and he was often too indecisive when he had the ball.
Hayes is still a difficult matchup at the power forward spot because of his ability to score inside or out, but the Badgers may be better suited to play through Happ and make Hayes a sidekick—similar to the role he played on the 2014-15 team.
Will Change If... Hayes leaves. Even with his drop in efficiency, he's still a valuable asset, and Wisky's ceiling drops if he's not on the roster.
Why They're Here: Best-case scenario, the Hoosiers return a good core led by Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant. Worst-case scenario, they return talented pieces but lose both Williams and Bryant to the NBA. Both have a chance at getting drafted in the first round, so the worst-case scenario is a possibility.
But even if those two do leave, the Hoosiers still have the talent to be a top-25 team with James Blackmon returning and OG Anunoby continuing to get better. It will be tough to replace Yogi Ferrell at point guard, but Robert Johnson is capable of playing the point, and head coach Tom Crean does a good job of putting his scorers in position to succeed.
Will Change If... The decisions of Bryant and Williams are obviously huge. If they do leave, Anunoby could become the go-to guy. He has the potential to be a star and is an intriguing prospect at the NBA level. But is he ready to be a primary scorer? I'm not sure.
Why They're Here: Both Trevon Bluiett and Jalen Reynolds are testing the NBA draft waters, but expect both to return to school.
If they do stay, Xavier will return five of its six leading scorers from this past season. The Musketeers probably dropped a few spots because of recency bias. They lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed to Wisconsin.
Villanova also got a top seed in 2015, lost in the second round and returned its core. What happened the next year? The Wildcats won it all.
Will Change If... Bluiett and/or Reynolds stays in the draft.
Why They're Here: Head coach Rick Pitino was once considered one of the most innovative offensive minds in college basketball. These days, he's as good as it gets at putting together an elite defense.
The Cardinals return a roster full of athleticism (hello, Donovan Mitchell) and plenty of length. Even if Chinanu Onuaku stays in the draft, Pitino has an army of big men who can play a similar role.
Will Change If... Onuaku staying in school would help the cause. He's the program's leading returning scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. Don't be surprised if Pitino hits the grad-transfer market again for some perimeter scoring.
He only signed one high school player in 5-star small forward V.J. King and already has a grad transfer coming in with the addition of former Penn guard Tony Hicks. While King and Hicks will help the offense, the Cards could always use some more shooting.
Why They're Here: It will be tough to replace Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, but is anyone doubting head coach Tony Bennett?
Bennett hasn't been able to reach the Final Four yet, but there's no doubting his system, and now he's starting to recruit at a higher level. Bennett signed arguably his best class ever this year, which is headlined by top-50 guards Kyle Guy (a McDonald's All-American) and Ty Jerome.
The biggest addition for the Wahoos comes via the transfer market in former Memphis big man Austin Nichols. Nichols is a skilled scorer and offers shot-blocking at the back of the pack-line defense. Two years ago, he averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game for the Tigers.
UVA also returns a nice core in the backcourt (London Perrantes, Devon Hall, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson), and starting 4 man Isaiah Wilkins returns to play alongside Nichols.
Will Change If... Virginia doesn't have any early-entry candidates, and it's doubtful one of the top returners will transfer out. At this point, go ahead and hold a spot in the top 10 every year for the Hoos—as long as Bennett is there.
7. North Carolina
Why They're Here: Brice Johnson turned into the best big man in college basketball this year, and he'll be tough to replace. But don't cry for head coach Roy Williams and the national runners-up. He'll simply slide another springy late bloomer next to Kennedy Meeks in Isaiah Hicks, who flashed the kind of potential as a junior that Johnson showed his junior year.
Williams returns starters Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Meeks, as well as Theo Pinson and Nate Britt. Pinson would have been a starter for most teams, and while he's a much different player than Marcus Paige, there's not much—if any—of a drop-off in talent at the shooting guard spot.
Will Change If... Jackson, Meeks, Berry or Hicks leaves for the NBA. All three have a chance to get drafted, but I'm betting they all return.
Why They're Here: The Wildcats have a good core of their national championship team returning, including leading scorers Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Daniel Ochefu will be tough to replace, especially on the defensive end, but the offense is going to be just fine and adds another back-to-the-basket scorer in incoming freshman Omari Spellman.
This team has the profile of a group that will form one of the nation's top offenses, and you know the Wildcats are going to guard. Jalen Brunson already had veteran tendencies as a freshman and is only going to get better with age. Hart is one of the top returning wings in college basketball.
Then Jenkins is a matchup nightmare as a small-ball stretch 4. In addition to nailing one of the biggest shots in college basketball history, he averaged 18.1 points per game over 11 games in March and April, and shot 48.1 percent from distance during that stretch.
Will Change If... Hart, Jenkins or Brunson decides to leave for the NBA. None of the three are projected to even sniff the first round, so it's likely they all return.
5. Michigan State
Why They're Here: Head coach Tom Izzo has put together one of the best recruiting classes he's ever had, led by likely one-and-done wing Miles Bridges, and he has a good returning core, especially if Deyonta Davis returns to school. (Davis is considered a first-round pick, but he could use more seasoning under Izzo and improve his draft stock down the road.)
If Davis does leave, Izzo could unleash Bridges as a small-ball 4. He has the size and strength to play the position. The closest equivalent to Bridges in the college game is Oregon's Dillon Brooks. Bridges is a lefty version of Brooks, only he's more explosive as an athlete.
Izzo also adds 5-star shooting guard Joshua Langford and 4-star point guard Cassius Winston, who isn't a great athlete but has a tremendous feel for the game for his age. Izzo has done well with those types (see: Valentine, Denzel).
Will Change If... Josh Jackson picks Michigan State. The top-ranked player in the class of 2016 was considered a Sparty lean for a long time. Michigan State is competing with Kansas and Arizona for his services.
At this point, I'm assuming that Davis stays, but if he leaves, the Spartans would lose their best back-to-the-basket option and top returning rebounder.
Why They're Here: The Pac-12 champs return a majority of their core, losing only Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin to graduation. Head coach Dana Altman also signed three 4-star recruits, led by point guard Payton Pritchard.
The main reason to like the Ducks is the return of Dillon Brooks. Altman played him at power forward this past year, and he created a nightmare mismatch for opposing defenses. Brooks is one of the best returning talents in college basketball.
The return of center Chris Boucher is also key. Boucher was granted an extra year of eligibility, and he's another unique weapon. You don't find many centers who can provide three-point shooting and shot-blocking.
With Altman's creativity on the offensive end, the Ducks are a puzzle that not many defenses can solve.
Will Change If... Guard Tyler Dorsey decides to leave for the NBA. Dorsey, the team's third-leading scorer in 2015-16, told reporters after the loss to Oklahoma that he wasn't sure what his plans were.
The big question mark is who will return to play with this talented class. The assumption is that Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere will all stay in the draft—remember, UK's entire roster has declared. Isaiah Briscoe could also decide to stay in the draft.
A freshmen-loaded roster has not always guaranteed Calipari success, but not all freshman classes are created equal, and the 2016 class—as in the entire class, not just UK's haul—is considered one of the better groups in recent years.
Calipari also usually does well with freak athletes on the perimeter, and he has two in De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. While 5-star big men don't always see instant success on the college level (Labissiere and Cheick Diallo), it's usually a good bet that highly ranked guards pan out.
Will Change If... Ulis returns.
Bump the Wildcats to No. 1 if they get Ulis back. Fox has the size and game to play shooting guard, and Monk can easily slide to small forward. The one question mark with this group is whether Calipari will once again be missing a back-to-the-basket scorer like last season.
But if Ulis is running the show, he's such a savvy playmaker that as long as he has talented pieces around him, he'll figure out a way to make the offense tick.
Why They're Here: Head coach Bill Self's best teams usually have experience and start two point guards. He checks both those boxes by returning the veteran backcourt of Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham. Who plays next to Mason and Graham on the wing is still up in the air.
Svi Mykhailiuk showed flashes this past season of why NBA scouts have always liked him, but he could end up testing the waters at the combine. The Jayhawks are also in play for Josh Jackson, the top-ranked player in the 2016 class.
Jackson would have the luxury of playing with two talented point guards. (The lack of a trustworthy point guard is one thing that held Kansas back when Andrew Wiggins spent his year in Lawrence.)
Up front, Carlton Bragg should step in for Perry Ellis. Bragg is one of the best shooting big men Kansas has ever had, and he's a great fit in Self's system. His one fault as a freshman was his defense, but that should improve as he adds strength in the offseason.
Kansas also returns the always reliable Landen Lucas and adds some bulk with the addition of incoming freshman Udoka Azubuike and Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby.
Will Change If... Self lands Jackson. One NBA scout told me last week that he would bump Kansas to No. 1 if Jackson lands in Lawrence. The prized freshman would be surrounded by a more seasoned win-now cast than Wiggins had.
The Jayhawks are also still in contention for 5-star recruit Terrance Ferguson. If Self misses on both Jackson and Ferguson, but returns the rest of his roster outside of Wayne Selden (hiring an agent) and Cheick Diallo (declared for the draft), the Jayhawks will still have top-five talent and plenty of depth.
Why They're Here: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has proved he can build an elite offense around one-and-done freshmen. Duke's worst finish in KenPom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency over the last three seasons—all with at least one one-and-done lottery pick—is seventh in 2015-16.
What could makes this group special is its defense. Krzyzewski returns his best defensive player in Amile Jefferson, and incoming freshman Harry Giles will likely start next to Jefferson. Both big men are mobile, and they will protect the paint and get out and guard against ball screens.
Offensively, Krzyzewski landed another uber-talented wing in Jayson Tatum, whose offensive skill set is advanced for his age. Both he and Giles project as top-three picks in the 2017 draft, per DraftExpress. Duke has the perfect blend of young talent and veteran role players (Jefferson and Matt Jones), similar to the 2015 title team.
Will Change If... I haven't even mentioned Grayson Allen, and that's because I assume Allen will go pro. But there's a chance he returns, and that makes Duke's offense even deadlier if he does. Even if Allen goes pro, Duke will still have plenty of depth (and scoring punch) in the backcourt with sharpshooter Luke Kennard, Jones, Derryck Thornton and incoming freshman Frank Jackson.
You could make an argument for Kentucky or Kansas (if the Jayhawks land Josh Jackson), but the only real reason to bump Duke would be if Giles has problems with his knees that delay his return or severely slow him down—he's had surgery to both knees over the last three years and tore the ACL in his right knee in November.
Krzyzewski could get some extra insurance up front if he lands 5-star big man Marques Bolden, which would make an already stacked roster even deeper.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.