- The confetti hasn't stopped falling on Villanova, but college hoops fans have already begun to look ahead to next November. Are the Wildcats the team to beat again? Can anyone run with Duke's historic freshman class? With plenty left to be decided between now and tip-off, here's our first crack at the Top 25.
Yes, we just crowned a champion, but it’s never too early to start thinking about next season. There’s a lot of decisions that still have to be made that will dramatically impact the 2018–19 landscape—NBA draft early entrants, surprise transfers, grad transfers who will arrive with immediate eligibility and some still-unsigned recruits (most notably five-star Romeo Langford, who is down to Kansas, Indiana and Vanderbilt)—but we’ll make our best educated guesses for now based on ideal realistic scenarios for each team. With that being said, here’s our way-too-early top 25 for next season.
Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are definite departures, but Bill Self is set to reload again via a mix of transfers and recruits. Former Memphis standouts Dedric and K.J. Lawson and Cal transfer Charlie Moore will all become eligible next season after sitting the year out, and the Jayhawks’ top-five recruiting class includes five-star guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson and four-star center David McCormack (and as mentioned above, they’re still in on top recruit Romeo Langford). Odds are that Kansas gets one of sharpshooter Malik Newman, whose future in Lawrence is less clear after his breakout March, or center Udoka Azubuike back—if not both. That would make Kansas a favorite to not just get back to the Final Four but win the whole thing.
How do you reload after losing the likes of Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and (very likely) Wendell Carter and Trevon Duval? How about by bringing in the top three 2018 recruits (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson) and Tre Jones, the younger brother of former Blue Devil Tyus Jones who ranks ninth himself in this year’s class? There’s no question that Duke will once again be loaded with talent next season, but the key might be what happens with Gary Trent Jr. The freshman shot 40% from the three-point line this season (43.5% in ACC play), had the team’s lowest turnover rate and was second in offensive rating. If Trent—who is No. 45 on the latest SI.com NBA draft Big Board—returns, the Blue Devils will greatly benefit.
Another team that will sustain key losses, as Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges feel like locks to declare for the draft. But the Wildcats could return plenty, including Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie. DiVincenzo will likely slide in as the team’s top offensive option next year, while incoming five-star Jahvon Quinerly will take over the point guard reins. Villanova will also welcome two other top-50 recruits: forward Cole Swider and guard/wing Brandon Slater. The 6'7" Swider is an excellent three-point shooter who will help stretch the floor and replace some of the perimeter scoring the Wildcats are losing.
The big question here is what happens with Moritz Wagner. The junior was only ranked 61st on SI.com’s latest Big Board, but his strong NCAA tournament could change his outlook. If Wagner returns, the Wolverines could bring back four starters, losing only Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (as well as Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Duncan Robinson). While those losses are nothing to sneeze at, a team once again led by Wagner and Charles Matthews that also brings back young promising players like Jordan Poole and Zavier Simpson and welcomes a top-20 recruiting class should once again be right in the mix.
An extremely young Wildcats team didn’t quite have the season we’re accustomed to seeing in Lexington, but the silver lining for UK is that it likely won’t see a full one-and-done exodus this time around. It would be surprising to see Kevin Knox or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back for a sophomore season and Hamidou Diallo may be gone as well despite a disappointing year, but it’s possible the likes of P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Jarred Vanderbilt will all stick around. Add a junior Wenyen Gabriel and a sixth-ranked recruiting class made up of guards Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro, and it’s easy to envision Kentucky regaining its place among the elite.
6. North Carolina
The graduations of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson will hurt in more than just the box score, as you simply can’t replicate that kind of well-weathered big-game experience. But things are looking up in Chapel Hill anyway, as Luke Maye returns and the Tar Heels will bring in McDonald’s All-American Game MVP Nassir Little as well as five-star guard Coby White and four-star Rechon Black, who make up the ACC’s second-ranked class behind Duke. The biggest question here is who takes over at point guard for Berry and how effective he’ll be—will seldom-used Seventh Woods emerge as a junior?
The Cavaliers’ season ended in disastrous fashion, but it didn’t wipe out the remarkable year they had up until that point. It was clear the loss of De’Andre Hunter made a big difference, and if Hunter comes back for his sophomore year he should be joined by three returning starters in Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Jack Salt. The graduating Devon Hall is UVA’s biggest loss, and both he and Isaiah Wilkins brought a ton to what was the nation’s best defense, but don’t expect a huge drop-off in Charlottesville.
The best-case scenario for Gonzaga this offseason is that all of its underclassmen, including Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, who are probably the team’s best NBA prospects at the moment, return. If that happens, the Bulldogs should be a title contender even after losing starters Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson. Freshman Zach Norvell looked like a budding star in the NCAA tournament, point guard Josh Perkins will be heading into his senior season and Hachimura and Tillie would be an excellent and efficient big man duo. Incoming four-star center Filip Petrusev will provide depth down low.
One of two major surprise teams in the SEC in 2017–18 (see below), the Tigers seem poised to show their success wasn’t a flash in the pan. Backup PG Davion Mitchell has already announced he will transfer, but he had a limited role this season and Auburn could bring back quite literally everyone else, along with the services of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, who spent 2017–18 suspended amid the college hoops FBI probe (the NCAA has ruled Purifoy will miss the first 30% of Auburn’s games next season). Wiley and sophomore starter Mustapha Heron could go through the NBA draft process, but it seems fairly probable both will return. The Tigers didn’t look the same after losing Anfernee McLemore to a horrific ankle injury, but his four-to-six-month recovery timetable should have him healthy for the start of 2018–19.
Like Auburn, Tennessee surprised big time in 2017–18, arriving back on the national stage ahead of schedule. Next season looks even brighter, with role player James Daniel being the only senior set to depart. Admiral Schofield has declared for the draft (without an agent) after a strong junior year, but it seems probable that he’ll return alongside Grant Williams & Co. The Vols largely rode their defense to success this season, and they’ll look for backcourt returnees Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden to take the next step offensively and bring this group to another level.
There’s a legitimate argument that the Wolf Pack should be in the top 10, but we’ll put them just outside it for now. Assuming there are no NBA draft defections—not a sure thing—they’ll bring back their top three scorers in Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline and Cody Martin, who anchored one of the nation’s top offenses this past season. While Kendell Stephens will graduate, Nevada will hopefully get back a healthy Lindsey Drew to once again run the offense after he ruptured his Achilles in February. One of the team’s biggest weaknesses this past season was a lack of depth, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see coach Eric Musselman look to the grad transfer market for aid.
12. Michigan State
Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. are both off to the NBA draft (with agents), but there will still be some key pieces returning that could keep the Spartans from dropping off too far. Nick Ward has declared without an agent and could end up back in East Lansing, while Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid should all be among those back. MSU will lose some of its veteran depth, but Tom Izzo will welcome a five-player class that includes three top-100 recruits.
13. Virginia Tech
After a season that saw it beat Virginia, Duke and North Carolina, Virginia Tech is set to bring back seven of its top eight scorers, losing only wing Justin Bibbs. Nickeil Alexander-Walker looks like a candidate for a breakout sophomore year, while incoming four-star Landers Nolley will help make up for the loss of Bibbs. The Hokies’ path to further success next season will be through improvement on defense, where they finished 70th in KenPom’s efficiency rankings.
The Pac-12 is coming off an extremely disappointing year, and it could be in for another down year next season. But there is reason for optimism in the conference, and it starts with Oregon—especially if Troy Brown returns. He would join Payton Pritchard, Paul White and Kenny Wooten as key returnees, but the biggest reason the Ducks could be in for a big year is their recruiting class. Dana Altman landed four top-60 recruits, including the crown jewel of the class, 7'1" center Bol Bol. With Arizona set for a precipitous drop-off, the Pac-12 may run through Eugene in 2018–19.
15. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have major shoes to fill with the graduation of Jevon Carter, a consummate leader whose elite defensive prowess worked wonders in their vaunted press. Daxter Miles also departs, but West Virginia returns a good chunk of its core, including Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, Wesley Harris and fearsome shot-blocker Sagaba Konate. The backcourt will have a new look, with James Bolden potentially sliding into a starting role and incoming four-star PG Jordan McCabe joining the mix, but it seems likely the frontcourt will be this team’s strength.
The Tigers finally broke through this year, making their first Sweet 16 since 1997, and there’s enough returning to believe it can happen again. They were already playing without the graduating Donte Grantham since January, leaving Gabe DeVoe as the only starting senior from their March run that’s set to graduate. If all return, Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, Elijah Thomas and David Skara will be seniors next season, so this would continue to be a veteran group that now has NCAA experience to boot. If the offense can take the next step, this is a team that can make noise.
17. Kansas State
This isn’t a gut reaction to the Wildcats’ shocking Elite Eight appearance. Even before that, Kansas State quietly finished fourth in the loaded Big 12, and it’s set to bring back its entire rotation. Keep in mind that K-State made its NCAA run without leading scorer Dean Wade, who played a total of eight tournament minutes, and consider the breakout performance sophomore Xavier Sneed delivered. The Wildcats can take that experience now and build off it with major roster continuity, the value of which can sometimes be overlooked in college hoops.
The Terps could be significantly improved next season if center Bruno Fernando sticks around for his sophomore year. He and incoming five-star forward Jalen Smith would be a dangerous pairing down low, while Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter should be back to lead the backcourt and top-40 recruit Aaron Wiggins arrives on the wing. Expect Maryland to be active on the grad transfer market as well, with St. John’s big man transfer Tariq Owens having already visited.
Probably the biggest challenger to Oregon in the Pac-12, the Bruins are still in good shape even after the news that Aaron Holiday is off to the NBA. Should Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands return, the latter of whom can take over at point guard, they’d team with a wealth of incoming talent that also essentially includes Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, two former four-star recruits who sat out last season after being caught shoplifting in China. In terms of new recruits, Steve Alford has the nation’s No. 3 class, headlined by five-star center Moses Brown and four-star forward Shareef O’Neal.
One of the biggest jumps from this season to next could come courtesy of LSU. After the Tigers tied for ninth place in the SEC and went to the NIT, Will Wade is set to bring in the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class. It’s a four-man class, all top-60 recruits, headlined by five-star forwards Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. With a sophomore Tremont Waters, who was third in SEC play in assist rate and was named to the league’s All-Freshman team, leading the offense and multiple other rotation players due back, things are looking up in Baton Rouge.
This assumes Jalen Hudson returns—the junior has declared for the draft without an agent. Florida getting its leading scorer back is key to its hopes next season after losing its next top two in Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov. Five-star point guard Andrew Nembhard headlines a top-20 recruiting class and will team with returning starting shooting guard KeVaughn Allen, while Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone should be back to lead the frontcourt. But Hudson holds the key to the Gators’ top-end potential.
The Horned Frogs had one of the nation’s best offenses and top assist rates this season, and not only should point guard Alex Robinson be back, they’ll return a (hopefully) healthy Jaylen Fisher after a knee injury ended the previous starter’s year in January. Starters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi will also be back, and the incoming class is highlighted by four-star wing Kaden Archie. The frontcourt will have to replace Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky, whose void will be largely filled via redshirts and the freshman class.
23. Florida State
What looked like it would be a rebuilding season for the Seminoles turned into a surprising Elite Eight run, and while they overachieved in the tournament, they can now build on that experience in 2018–19. Braian Angola will graduate and C.J. Walker has elected to transfer, but there’s a lot of young talent here, including M.J. Walker, Trent Forrest and Mfiondu Kabengele, to go along with rising seniors Terance Mann and P.J. Savoy. The big question comes down to forward Phil Cofer, who could potentially receive an extra year of eligibility and whose return would shore up Florida State’s placement here.
24. Texas A&M
The Aggies got in their own way too often this season, but they showed what happens when their talent all clicks in their second-round rout of North Carolina. They could return the bulk of their core from that team, with Robert Williams currently being the only starter definitely on his way out. Tyler Davis has declared for the draft without an agent, and getting the big man back for his senior year would be huge for Texas A&M’s prospects next season. After coming on strong in the second half of his freshman season, point guard TJ Starks should be back to lead the offense, and starters DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder will be entering their senior year.
This one absolutely is a reaction to the Ramblers’ Final Four run, but why not? Loyola-Chicago wasn’t some scrub team that went on an implausible run; instead, it got better and better as the year went on. It started the year ranked 93rd on KenPom, entered the tournament ranked 41st and ended the season at No. 31. Loyola will bring back three key starters: Clayton Custer, Marques Townes and Cameron Krutwig, the last of whom scored 17 points in the Final Four against Michigan ... as a freshman. That’s a strong trio to bring into next season, and Porter Moser’s team has more than earned respect going forward.