Duke, Villanova lead Way Too Early top 25 for 2016–17 season

Thanks to a stellar recruiting class and the return of star Grayson Allen, Duke will be the team to beat to start the 2016–17 regular season.
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Who’s got next? There will be familiar faces at the top of the rankings next season, but the defending champs don’t get the honor of remaining on top for long.

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1. Duke Blue Devils

The Blue Devils will be bolstered by a star-studded freshman class that could feature the top two picks in the 2017 NBA draft, forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, as well as the return of sophomore guard Grayson Allen. Senior forward Amile Jefferson, who missed the second half of this season with a broken foot, will provide senior leadership.

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2. Villanova Wildcats

The national champs are only graduating two of their top eight players. Freshman point guard Jalen Brunson is ready to assume the helm of the program, and coach Jay Wright is adding another quality recruit in Omari Spellman, a 6' 9" forward from St. Thomas More (Conn.) Academy.

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3. Kentucky Wildcats

John Calipari has instructed all of his players to test the NBA draft waters, but enough of them will return to put the Wildcats in position to chase another title. Many recruiting experts have ranked Kentucky’s incoming class, headlined by uber-scoring guard Malik Monk, as the nation’s best.

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4. Oregon Ducks

The Ducks have to sweat out the draft decision of 6' 4" freshman guard Tyler Dorsey, but they will prove that their No. 1 seed was no fluke as they bring back versatile sophomore guard Dillon Brooks as well as shot-blocker Chris Boucher. They are also hoping to senior point guard Dylan Ennis, who has petitioned the NCAA for an additional year after missing most of this season with an injury.

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5. Kansas Jayhawks

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6. Michigan State Spartans

Tom Izzo is saying goodbye to Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, and he could lose 6' 10" freshman big man Deyonta Davis to the NBA draft. But he is also bringing in one of the best freshman classes he has ever recruited, anchored by 6' 6" forward Miles Bridges from Huntington (W. Va.) Prep.

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7. Wisconsin Badgers

The flip side to the poor play of 6' 8" junior forward Nigel Hayes in the NCAA tournament is that it is far less likely that Hayes will make the jump to the NBA. The Badgers did not have a single senior on the roster this season, and 6' 9" freshman forward Ethan Happ is poised to make a huge leap forward next season.

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8. North Carolina Tar Heels

The runner-up team is losing seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but they still have a strong corps or returnees led by 6-foot sophomore point guard Joel Berry II and 6' 8" junior forward Isaiah Hicks. Incoming freshmen Tony Bradley, a 6' 10" forward from Florida, and 6' 2" guard Seventh Woods will have a chance to earn minutes right away.

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9. Xavier Musketeers

The Musketeers won’t be sneaking up on anyone next season thanks to the return of five of their top six scorers. Freshman point guard Edmond Sumner is a potential preseason player of the year in the Big East, and 6' 10" junior forward Jalen Reynolds will be one of the league’s top post scorers and rebounders.

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10. Louisville Cardinals

Assuming it is unlikely the NCAA extends the program’s postseason ban, the Cardinals will be right back in the thick of things thanks to the return of forward Chinanu Onuaku and rising star Donovan Mitchell, a 6' 3" freshman jumping jack. Rick Pitino added yet another graduate transfer in Tony Hicks, who was Penn’s leading scorer his last two seasons.

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11. Indiana Hoosiers

It won’t be easy moving on without Yogi Ferrell, but freshman center Thomas Bryant has already announced he’ll return. If junior forward Troy Williams joins him, then the Hoosiers will be ready to chase a second straight Big Ten title. Tom Crean signed a terrific four-man recruiting class headed by De’Ron Davis, a 6' 10" forward from Aurora, Colo.

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12. Texas Longhorns

The steady improvement of Shaka Smart’s freshman class spurred the Longhorns to their second-half surge, and junior Isaiah Taylor is going to be one of the top point guards in the Big 12. As Smart gets a roster of longer, quicker players, he will be able to re-institute more of the Havoc system that produced such great success at VCU.

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13. Virginia Cavaliers

The Cavaliers will feel the loss of graduating seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, but we thought the same would happen after Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins left last year. Tony Bennett has plenty of returning veterans, most notably junior point guard London Perrantes, and he will also be adding Austin Nichols, the 6' 9" transfer from Memphis who could have been an all-league performer if he had played this season.

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14. Arizona Wildcats

Freshman guard Allonzo Trier’s decision to return to school means the Wildcats will have plenty of production and leadership in the backcourt next season. The biggest remaining question is whether dynamic 6' 6" wing Terrance Ferguson, who recently de-committed from Alabama, is going to choose Arizona. If he does, the Wildcats will likely be a preseason top 10 team.

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15. Syracuse Orange

This projection assumes that freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon both eventually decide to return to school. If they come back to Syracuse, they will be joined by Tyus Battle, an outstanding 6' 6" wing from New Jersey.

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16. UCLA Bruins

The Bruins’ youth led to a miserable 2015–16 season, but they will be served next season as players like 6' 3" freshman guard Prince Ali and 6' 10" sophomore Jonah Bolden mature. Steve Alford brings in a star-studded class led by California natives Lonzo Ball, a 6' 5" guard, and T.J. Leaf, a 6' 10" forward.

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17. USC Trojans

The Trojans made some major strides this season with a rotation that was dominated by non-seniors. Sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin, junior shooting guard Julian Jacobs and freshman stretch-four Bennie Boatwright should be headed for breakout season. Shaqquan Aaron, a 6' 7" transfer from Louisville, will add another quick, aggressive guard to the deep roster. Will Andy Enfield be ready to revive Dunk City?

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18. Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Bulldogs got unlucky when 7' 1" center Przemek Karnowski was lost for the season because of a back injury, but his return for another year will bolster a frontcourt that was hurt by Domantas Sabonis’s decision to turn pro. Mark Few will also add two former McDonald’s All-Americans, including Nigel Williams-Goss, a 6' 3" junior point guard who sat out last season after transferring from Washington.

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19. Maryland Terrapins

Freshman forward Diamond Stone has already bolted for the NBA, so much will depend on whether sophomore point guard Melo Trimble decides to do the same. He would do well to have the chance to play alongside Dion Wiley, who missed all of last season with an injury. Junior forward Robert Carter should benefit from another off-season of improvement plus the chance to own the paint by himself.

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20. Seton Hall Pirates

Sophomore point guard Isaiah Whitehead’s dazzling season ended with a horrendous performance in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Gonzaga. That should convince Whitehead to return to Seton Hall, where he will be on the short list of favorites for Big East player of the year. The Pirates are only losing one senior, and they are adding pure-shooting freshman Myles Powell as well as Jevon Thomas, a 6-foot point guard who transferred from Kansas State.

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21. Saint Mary's Gaels

The Gaels are returning all five starters from their West Coast Conference regular season champs. Hopefully Randy Bennett will put together a more challenging nonconference schedule to give his team a chance to secure an at-large bid if it needs one.

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22. Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati almost lost its coach, Mick Cronin, to UNLV, but it did lose a pair of stalwarts in senior guard Farad Cobb and power forward Octavius Ellis. Still, Cronin will have a more versatile and veteran roster next season, led by 6' 4" junior Troy Caupain and 6' 7" sophomore forward Gary Clark. The Bearcats also add a top-100 recruit in 6' 4" guard Jarron Cumberland.

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23. Florida State Seminoles

Few people realize just how good of a job Leonard Hamilton has done recruiting the last couple of years. He will add another stud in 6' 10" forward Jonathan Isaac from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He will join a young but loaded team featuring Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon, who had outstanding freshman seasons. Sophomore guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, another gifted scorer, is entering his name in the draft but not hiring an agent.

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24. West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers will be deep and loaded again next season. Sophomore Daxter Miles Jr. and 6' 9" junior center Devin Williams will anchor the starting five, while 6' 3" junior guard Tarik Phillip should benefit from the chance to move up. Once again, Bob Huggins did not sign any McDonald’s All-Americans but he is one of the best in the business as spotting players who will excel in his up-tempo system.

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25. Rhode Island Rams

Dan Hurley’s Rams will likely be the preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10 thanks to the return of 6' 5" junior guard E.C. Matthews, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.