- As many of college basketball's best players size up their pro prospects, their schools’ 2018–19 outlooks hang in the balance.
Many of last season’s college basketball standouts have served notice that they’re turning pro by declaring for the NBA draft and signing with agents, thereby forgoing their remaining years of eligibility. Others have announced that they’re entering the draft without hiring agents, leaving themselves the option to return to college after testing the waters. These players have until May 30, 10 days after the league’s annual combine, to decide whether to withdraw from the draft pool.
Among this second group, several of their decisions could have outsized impacts on their teams, the conferences to which those teams belong and the national landscape for the 2018–19 season. Below, we analyze the situations of 36 players on the fence and the 22 teams hanging on their final call.
Auburn: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Austin Wiley
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 9
Auburn put together a shockingly good season under the cloud of an FBI investigation in 2017–18. With all three of Harper, Brown and Wiley in tow, the Tigers could deliver an even more successful campaign without shocking anyone. Wiley did not suit up as a sophomore after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, but he’s a long, nimble big man who projects as a high-level starter in the SEC. Auburn could slot him alongside malleable forward Chuma Okeke and rim protector Anfernee McLemore—who suffered a gruesome ankle injury in February that ended his season—in a fearsome frontcourt.
Although leading scorer Mustapha Heron reportedly intends to transfer, along with starting forward Desean Murray and reserve Davion Mitchell, small forward Danjel Purifoy will be eligible for most of next season, VCU transfer Samir Doughty will be available, and we’ve already seen the damage Harper and Brown can inflict on opposing defenses. Their perimeter shot creation and playmaking last season fueled the Tigers’ finish as the top offense in the SEC during league play on a per-possession basis.
UPDATE: Wiley will return to school for 2018–19, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reports. Goodman also expects Brown and Wiley to return to school.
Clemson: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 16
The chances that Clemson’s stunning success in coach Brad Brownell’s eighth season is the beginning of a sustained uptick rather than a one-year surge will decrease considerably if Mitchell and Reed stay in the draft. The Tigers were already facing the prospect of a weighty rebuilding effort: Graduate transfer Mark Donnal, senior forward Donte Grantham and senior guard Gabe Devoe (the Tigers’ second-leading scorer last season) all have used up their eligibility, and junior forward David Skara is turning pro. Yet with Mitchell and Reed in the fold, Clemson would have two proven commodities in the backcourt, a solid base upon which to build the rest of the rotation.
Lose both Mitchell and Reed, and the Tigers would be down to just one member of their most frequent starting lineup from last season (big man Elijah Thomas). Another top-three finish in the ACC feels unlikely in any case, but Mitchell and Reed returning would put a second consecutive tournament bid well within reach.
UPDATE: CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reports that both Mitchell and Reed will return to Clemson.
Cincinnati: Jacob Evans
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
Although there’s been no official announcement that Evans is definitely jumping to the pros, the likelihood that he withdraws from the draft pool seems slim at this point. Evans is showing up as a late-first round pick in some mocks on account of his intriguing 3-and-D profile, and his public comments suggest he doesn’t plan on extending his stay in the college ranks.
Still, if Evans does ultimately settle on playing for the Bearcats next season, it could tilt the American Athletic Conference race in their favor and enhance their chances of making up for last season’s round of 32 collapse against No. 7 seed Nevada. Evans is a dangerous long-range shooter whose perimeter defense helped Cincinnati close last season ranked ahead of every team but Virginia in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points allowed per possession. He’d be the frontrunner for the American Athletic Conference’s player of the year, and there wouldn’t be a more formidable duo in the AAC than Evans and fellow wing Jarron Cumberland.
UPDATE: Evans intends to remain in the NBA draft.
Creighton: Khyri Thomas
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
The No. 1 spot in any and all preseason Big East polls or power rankings should belong to Villanova, whether or not Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo decide to play another season for the Wildcats (more on that below). But the No. 2 spot feels up for grabs. Reigning regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Xavier is undergoing a head coaching change, and other potential challengers like Seton Hall, Providence and Butler are losing critical upperclassmen.
True, Creighton faces the same challenges of that latter group, with leading scorer Marcus Foster gone after pacing the Bluejays with 19.8 points per game. Thomas would be able to offset the impact of Foster’s loss with his perimeter shooting and stifling multi-position defense, and Creighton could supplement his two-way production with a solid supporting cast. That formula for success falls apart if Thomas leaves, a possibility that—based strictly on pre-draft projections—seems more likely than not at this juncture. As it stands, mocks are pegging Thomas as a late first-rounder.
UPDATE: Thomas will hire an agent and remain in the NBA draft.
Florida: Jalen Hudson
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 21
In his first season at Florida after transferring from Virginia Tech, Hudson bloomed into one of the SEC’s most effective wing scorers, knocking down 40.2% of his 194 three-point attempts and leading Florida with 15.5 points per game. Should Hudson return to Gainesville, the Gators could look to him to shoulder an even bigger share of their offense than he did last season, when he used a team-high 25.8% of his team’s possessions while on the floor, according to Pomeroy. (First-team All-SEC guard Chris Chiozza and sharpshooting wing Egor Koulechov are both out of eligibility.)
Florida is bringing in one of the most highly touted point guards in the class of 2018 in Montverde (Fla.) Academy’s Andrew Nembhard, plus two other top-75 perimeter prospects in McDonogh (Md.) School’s Noah Locke and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy’s Keyontae Johnson, so its backcourt should hold up if Hudson leaves. If he stays, the Gators could rival Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee at the top of the SEC standings.
UPDATE: Hudson will return to Florida for the 2018–19 season.
Kansas: Udoka Azubuike
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 1
You can make a credible argument that the Jayhawks—thanks to a talent infusion including multiple blue-chip recruits and transfers—will have a better team in next year than the one that just won the Big 12 and reached the Final Four. That argument becomes less persuasive if Kansas’s primary big man leaves the program. As a sophomore last season, Azubuike served as the lynchpin of Kansas’s thin frontcourt, leading all qualified Division I players in two-point field-goal percentage, protecting the rim and propping up the Jayhawks’ otherwise feeble rebounding efforts.
Although Kansas may have a solid replacement for Azubuike in incoming freshman David McCormack, a 6'9", 255-pound low-block force out of famed Oak Hill Academy who was named a McDonald’s All-American, his presence wouldn’t do much to lessen the sting of missing out on the chance to watch Azubuike blossom in his second full season. (Torn wrist ligaments limited Azubuike to only 11 games in 2016-17.)
UPDATE: Azubuike will return to Kansas.
Kansas State: Barry Brown Jr.
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 17
While Oklahoma’s Trae Young, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter and Kansas’s Devonte’ Graham hogged the Big 12 spotlight last season, Brown quietly guided Kansas State to a 25-win season, culminating in the program’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 2010. Brown upped both his offensive usage and scoring efficiency, earned a spot on the league’s all-defensive team and converted the contested layup with under 20 seconds remaining that slayed No. 5 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
Getting promising wing Xavier Sneed back for another season already counts as a big win for head coach Bruce Weber, and the Wildcats could emerge as an even more formidable challenger to Kansas, West Virginia and whoever else emerges at the top of the Big 12 if Brown elects to return to the Little Apple for his senior year. A second straight run to the regional finals might be a stretch, but with Brown in the lineup Kansas State can shoot for better than the No. 9 seed it earned last season.
UPDATE: Brown will return to school for his senior season.
Kentucky: Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 5
Two players in Kentucky’s big-man rotation from last season, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard, are transferring, and wing Kevin Knox officially joined head coach John Calipari’s long list of one-and-dones in Lexington earlier this month by announcing that he was jumping to the NBA and signing with an agent*. Those departures hardly depleted Kentucky at the power forward and center positions. Rising sophomore Nick Richards will suit up for the Wildcats in 2018–19, and their stacked incoming recruiting class is headlined by E.J. Montgomery, a 6'10", 200-pound power forward out of Wheeler (Ga.) High rated No. 9 in the class of 2018 by the 247Sports Composite. Kentucky feels like a shoo-in for the preseason top 10 regardless of how many members of this trio opt to return for another season, and if all three came back to Lexington, the Wildcats would land on the short list of national championship contenders.
*Redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo is also hiring an agent after declaring for the draft.
Maryland: Bruno Fernando, Kevin Huerter
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 18
After reaching the tourney in three consecutive seasons, the Terrapins had to settle for watching this year’s rendition from the couch after posting a sub-.500 record in the Big Ten and failing to crack 20 wins. The probability that they’d be resigned to a similar fate in 2019 would increase substantially if both Fernando and Huerter decide that their stints in College Park have drawn to a close.
Maryland needs Huerter’s long-range shooting and Fernando’s interior finishing and rebounding to contend in the Big Ten. Remove both of them from the picture, and the Terrapins would have to hope point guard Anthony Cowan could bear another heavy workload—his 96.7% of available minutes logged during Big Ten play led the league, according to Pomeroy—and that their three top-100 recruits (five-star center Jalen Smith, four-star shooting guard Aaron Wiggins and four-star combo guard Eric Ayala) are ready for the bright lights sooner rather than later.
Michigan: Charles Matthews
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 4
The starring performer on the Michigan team that won 14 games in a row to reach the national championship game has already revealed that he won’t be back in Ann Arbor in the fall. The loss of Moritz Wagner—in addition to starting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and reserves Duncan Robinson and Jaaron Simmons—isn't necessarily a fatal blow to the Wolverines’ Big Ten championship chances, but those chances would be further dimmed by Matthews following Wagner out the door.
Michigan is set to bring in a top-10 recruiting class headlined by top-70 forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns, as well as top-100 point guard David DeJulius. Should Matthews choose to put off his pro career for at least one more season with the Wolverines, he would be a welcome veteran presence in a rotation heavy on underclassmen that nonetheless would stand a good chance to make noise again in the NCAAs.
Michigan State: Nick Ward
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 12
Ward could sop up some of the minutes that went last season to senior Gavin Schilling and Jaren Jackson Jr., a 6'11" big man who was named the Big Ten’s freshman and defensive player of the year and is expected to join Spartans star Miles Bridges in the top half of the first round. Ward has averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game over two seasons since arriving in East Lansing as a top-50 recruit in the class of 2016, but when he’s on the court he is a productive rebounder, shot-blocker and interior scorer. He also has a knack for drawing contact, averaging 11.1 attempts from the free throw line per 40 minutes in his career. Although Michigan State will have to reorient its offense without go-to bucket-getter Bridges, the Spartans would have a sturdy foundation of juniors to work with in Ward, point guard Cassius Winston and wing Joshua Langford. The road to a second straight conference regular-season championship looks manageable.
UPDATE: Ward will return to school for his junior season.
Mississippi State: Aric Holman, Lamar Peters, Quinndary Weatherspoon
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
The improvement the Bulldogs made last season after five straight sub-.500 years in SEC play didn’t register on the national radar, and for good reason. Mississippi State failed to notch any wins of note in the regular season, and by the time it did get hot, reaching the semifinals of the NIT, all eyes were on that other tournament. Depending on the fates of these three players, the Bulldogs won’t have to settle for the consolation bracket next year.
Both Peters and Weatherspoon averaged double figures in points during conference play last season, with the latter putting up a team-high 15.1 points per game. Holman provided a veritable long-range threat (42.7% from three-point range) for a shooting-challenged offense (329th in the country in three-point field goal percentage). Mississippi State is definitely bringing back efficient center Abdul Ado and Quinndary’s brother, Nick—who also had declared for the draft, only to later announce his withdrawal—and it is adding a top-15 recruiting class fronted by Thomasville (Ga.) High’s Reggie Perry, a McDonald’s All American and top-30 prospect in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite.
Nebraska: Isaac Copeland, James Palmer Jr.
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
There was a stretch late last season when it looked like the Cornhuskers were on track to earn their second tourney appearance of head coach Tim Miles’s tenure and their first since 2014. Yet after closing Big Ten play by winning eight of nine games, Nebraska was bounced in the first round of the conference tournament and relegated to the NIT. The Cornhuskers would have a decent shot at dancing next year if Palmer and Copeland decide against going pro.
Only two Big Ten players averaged more points per game against conference competition than Palmer (18.8 points per game) did in 2017-18, while Copeland supplied a floor-spacing element (42.9% from three in conference play) for a meek offense that finished 75th in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. Michigan State likely will head into the season as the favorite to take the Big Ten, but the hierarchy beneath the Spartans looks fluid. Pending the results of other draft withdrawal deadline decisions around the conference, Nebraska could rise to the top of that group if it retains its two leading scorers.
UPDATE: Both Copeland and Palmer Jr. will return to school next season.
Nevada: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 11
Nevada won’t catch anyone by surprise in 2018–19 after claiming a second consecutive Mountain West regular-season title, winning 29 games and making a run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed. Achieving both of those things again would be a distinct possibility if this trio passes up professional basketball for another year in Reno, and the Wolf Pack could reasonably aim for more than that. Caroline and the Martin twins are valuable, interchangeable cogs in an offense that sliced up Cincinnati’s rugged defense during a 22-point comeback in the round of 32 and ended last season ranked seventh in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency.
Nevada probably can make do without them, particularly since multiple transfers who sat out last season in accordance with NCAA rules will now be eligible. Point guard Lindsey Drew also could be available at some point in 2018-19 depending on the progress of his recovery from a ruptured Achilles he suffered in February.
UPDATE: Caroline will return to school next season.
North Carolina: Luke Maye
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 6
Maye’s emergence as a top-level stretch big man in his junior season softened the blow of losing so many key pieces (starters Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, plus reserves Nate Britt and Tony Bradley) from the group that notched a 33–7 record, claimed a regular-season ACC championship and won North Carolina’s sixth national championship in 2017. Maye built on the Elite Eight dagger he dropped against Kentucky last year by anchoring the Tar Heels’ frontcourt as a small-ball center and evolving into a go-to scorer alongside senior floor general Joel Berry II in an offense that led the ACC in points scored per possession during conference play.
The Tar Heels probably could absorb Maye’s departure without too much slippage thanks to their loaded incoming recruiting class—which features the 247Sports Composite’s No. 3 prospect, Orlando Christian (Fla.) Prep small forward Nassir Little, as well as the Tar Heel State’s all-time leading scorer, Greenfield School combo guard Coby White. But Maye’s return would put a second title in three years within reach.
UPDATE: Maye intends to return to UNC.
Purdue: Carsen Edwards
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
Edwards’s leap into a top-line perimeter shot-maker as a sophomore was the driving force behind Purdue finishing the season with the nation’s best offense west of Villanova. That offense would remain potent with Edwards back for a third season, even as senior starters Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Isaac Haas move on after exhausting their eligibility.
The Boilermakers could funnel Edwards as many touches as he wants while getting more mileage out of 7'3" big man Matt Haarms and spacing the floor with guard Ryan Cline and stretch-four Evan Boudreaux, a graduate transfer from Dartmouth. One player expected to man the backcourt with Edwards, guard Nojel Eastern, also has decided to test the draft waters but isn’t viewed as a likely candidate to be selected. Purdue probably isn’t going to match last season’s success no matter what Edwards decides, but his return as a clear-cut National Player of the Year candidate could push the Boilermakers into the Top 25 entering the fall.
UPDATE: Edwards announced he will return to Purdue.
Syracuse: Tyus Battle
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
The Orange got everything they could have out of Battle last season. He played at least 39 minutes in 16 of the Orange’s 18 ACC games and logged a higher percentage of available minutes overall (96.2) than any other D-I player, according to Pomeroy. Battle didn’t wear down despite basically never resting. He lifted Syracuse past No. 3 seed Michigan State to an unlikely Sweet 16 appearance, and he’d have a decent shot at getting his team back to that round in 2019.
Although the Orange’s No. 1 recruit, five-star small forward Darius Bazley, chose to bypass college and play in the G-League, they would bring back most of the rotation that sported a top-five defense last season, according to Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency, and welcome in a top-60 recruit in Immaculate Conception (N.J.) High combo guard Jalen Carey. (Head coach Jim Boeheim’s son Buddy, a three-star shooting guard, also will join the team.) Having Battle around wouldn’t alter the reality that Syracuse will face an uphill battle in cracking the ACC’s top tier during the regular season, but Boeheim has proven this group can be a really tough out in March.
Tennessee: Admiral Schofield
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 10
Every Tennessee player who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season will be back this fall if Schofield pulls out of the draft. Schofield was one of the primary drivers of the Volunteers’ stunning rise from a 16-win team that fell well short of at-large qualification in 2016–17 to a 26-win squad that earned a No. 3 seed. Tennessee could build on that year-to-year leap with another top-four seed if Schofield opts to lengthen his stint in Knoxville.
As a junior in 2017–18, Schofield buoyed Tennessee’s decent-but-not-great offense by scoring more efficiently and using a larger percentage of the Volunteers’ possessions than he did as a sophomore, and he boosted their results on the other end of the floor by pulling down a larger share of opponents’ missed shots than any of his teammates. Tennessee would have a viable case as an SEC title threat with a rotation featuring Schofield, conference player of the year Grant Williams and conference co-sixth man of the year Lamonte Turner.
UPDATE: Schofield has told CBS Sports’s Jon Rothstein and others that he will return to Tennessee.
UCLA: Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 19
The Bruins’ first season post–Lonzo Ball was largely unremarkable outside of a shoplifting incident in China involving a different Ball brother (LiAngelo, who also has declared for the draft). UCLA posted an 11–7 record in a watered-down Pac-12, earned a No. 11 seed in the tournament and was bounced by St. Bonaventure in the First Four. Hands and Wilkes weren’t nearly as productive as some of the other five-star prospects in the high school class of 2017, but that didn’t dissuade them from seeing where they stand in this crop of pro prospects by submitting their names in the draft pool.
A bluechip-stuffed recruiting class is en route to Westwood, but both Wilkes and Hands would be in line to make significant offensive jumps for a potential top-25 outfit after taking a backseat last season to first-team All-Pac-12 point guard Aaron Holiday, who has already hired an agent after declaring for the draft. The Bruins are also waving farewell to senior big man and nightly double-double threat Thomas Welsh.
UPDATE: Wilkes will return to UCLA for his sophomore season, as will Hands.
Villanova: Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 3
Spellman and DiVincenzo are wisely gauging their pro prospects after powering Villanova to its second national championship in three years. DiVincenzo in particular could benefit from more feedback on where he stands in the eyes of scouts after his star turn on the sport’s biggest stage. Should both of them opt for another season at Villanova, the Wildcats would enter the season as the odds-on favorite to take the Big East crown and would be primed to make a legitimate run at a repeat.
Yet losing one or both of DiVincenzo and Spellman—in addition to projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges and potential first-rounder Jalen Brunson, who are signing with agents—wouldn’t completely eliminate Villanova’s title hopes. Head coach Jay Wright doesn’t appear keen on an NBA gig, and the Wildcats could reload with sweet-shooting guard Phil Booth, mobile forward Eric Paschall and an esteemed incoming recruiting class headlined by five-star Hudson Catholic Regional (N.J.) High point guard Jahvon Quinerly.
West Virginia: Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: 15
Starting guards Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. have no choice but to move on, but the Mountaineers could lose two other starters from last season’s 26-win team that garnered a No. 5 seed. Konate drew national attention with his emphatic, two-handed swat of Mikal Bridges in the Sweet 16, while Ahmad only played the second half of 2017–18 after not meeting NCAA eligibility standards.
The Mountaineers could lean on this duo to anchor the frontcourt rotation while working in guards who can fill the scoring, playmaking and defensive void left by Carter and Miles Jr. on the perimeter, such as knockdown deep shooter James ‘Beetle’ Bolden. A major backcourt re-tooling wouldn’t prevent head coach Bob Huggins from leading this group into the thick of the Big 12 race, but West Virginia probably wouldn’t fall too far if Konate and Ahmad head to the pros.
UPDATE: Ahmad and Konate have withdrawn their names from the draft and will return to West Virginia.
Wisconsin: Ethan Happ
SI.com way-too-early Top 25 rank: Unranked
The Badgers’ first season without an NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years ended with Happ converting 10 of his 15 shot attempts for 22 points in a three-point Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan State. Reports of Happ developing a viable long-range jump shot last summer weren’t borne out by his 1-for-11 mark from three-point range as a junior, but one deficiency in Happ’s game shouldn’t detract from his playmaking, rebounding, defensive activity and gargantuan workload: Only four qualifying D-I players used a higher percentage of their team’s possessions when they were on the court, according to kenpom.com.
Happ coming back for his senior campaign would put Wisconsin in good position to avoid another tourney miss. He would complete the return of the Badgers’ entire starting lineup from 2017–18, and guards D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King should also be available after injuries limited each of them to only 10 games last season.