Sports Illustrated’s 2017-18 college basketball projections are a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner, SI’s Chris Johnson and SI’s Jeremy Fuchs. The system uses college and AAU statistics, recruiting rankings and coaching data to project every Division I player and team. For a deeper look at how the system works, read this explainer. In the next installment of our preview, we’re revealing how our model stacks up every Division I team at the outset of the season according to projected margin of victory, which we calculated by combining each team’s predicted offensive and defensive output. SI’s 1–351 ranking has been more accurate than similar 1–351 rankings produced by ESPN, CBS Sports and noted analyst Ken Pomeroy for three consecutive years.
Our offensive efficiency ratings are based on the projected individual statistics for all 351 teams. You can check these out in our previews for the nation’s top nine conferences (American, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC). While defense is far more difficult to project than offense, blocks, steals, height (particularly in the frontcourt), athleticism, the number of elite recruits in the lineup and coaching history all have some predictive power.
With that, let’s dive into the rankings.
Arizona gets the nod as our No. 1 team thanks to an enviable blend of proven veterans and freshman talent. Junior guard Allonzo Trier averaged more than 20 points per game on high efficiency over the final 10 games of last season and senior center Dusan Ristic has shot over 55% in the paint three years running. Big man DeAndre Ayton, a projected top-five pick in the 2018 NBA draft, is the linchpin of the Wildcats’ recruiting class, a loaded five-man haul that also includes two wings with the potential to make significant impacts right away: Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot. The FBI’s investigation into corruption across college basketball casts a dark cloud over the program, and it’s understandable that some have preemptively dinged Arizona for fear that one or more players could be declared ineligible. But we’re evaluating the Wildcats on the assumption that everyone who is believed to be eligible right now will be during the season. If that’s the case, they’re going to roll over most of their opponents.
Our No. 2 team, Michigan State, is led by a Hall of Fame coach, boasts plenty of experience and, crucially, has not been mentioned in connection with the FBI probe. The Spartans bring back the most formidable sophomore class in the nation. There’s a lot more here than Miles Bridges: Frequent foul-drawing big man Nick Ward, floor-spacing wing Josh Langford and savvy floor general Cassius Winston could be just as important to the Spartans’ success. All four players earned high marks from recruiting services when they were in high school, and they’re ready to drive Michigan State deep in the NCAA tournament this season after all of them logged over 650 minutes of playing time in 2016–17. The Spartans also will have senior forwards Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter back after they missed last season with knee injuries, and they reeled in Jaren Jackson Jr., the No. 9 recruit in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite that incorporates data from multiple sources. Jackson, Schilling and Carter will help shore up a frontcourt that lacked depth last season.
Why isn’t Duke (No. 3), the No. 1 team in the preseason Coaches Poll, ranked higher? College basketball’s most irritating superstar and most striking Ted Cruz look-alike, Grayson Allen, is back in Durham, and the Blue Devils welcome the No. 1 prospect in the country, power forward Marvin Bagley III, after a late reclassification to 2017 from ’18. But let’s pump the brakes on hyping up Duke’s recruiting class. Even if Bagley is as gifted as scouting reports imply, this is still a young team, and SI’s model isn’t looking past head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s less-than-stellar track record coaching defense in recent seasons. Let us be clear: The Blue Devils are a national championship threat. Their title odds should be similar to the ones assigned to Arizona and Michigan State. There’s not a lot separating those three squads.
Another team that has the horses to cut down the nets in San Antonio next spring is Wichita State (No. 4), which brings back every player of note from a team that ranked in the top-10 nationally last season in Kenpom’s adjusted margin-of-victory after pushing Kentucky to the brink in a round-of-32 loss in Indianapolis. The Shockers won’t be at full strength from the jump, as guard Landry Shamet and wing Markis McDuffie are both rehabilitating foot injuries, but come Selection Sunday, every other team in the field will be crossing its fingers hoping it doesn’t get slotted into their region.
Josh Hart is a Los Angeles Laker now, but his loss shouldn’t slow Villanova (No. 5) down all that much. Jalen Brunson is capable of upping his scoring output after being more of a table-setter the first two seasons of his college career, and Donte DiVincenzo is primed to break out as a junior, inspiring a revival of his old nickname, the Michael Jordan of Delaware. Don’t forget about Mikal Bridges, an advanced stats hero thanks to his efficient offense (projected 131. 6 ORtg) and high steal and block rates.
This might be the best team Mick Cronin has had at Cincinnati (No. 6). Every valuable defender is back, and the frontline isn’t short on offensive quality, either: We project Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington all to average double-figures in points per game, with both Clark and Evans scoring at highly efficient rates. Meanwhile, Jarron Cumberland is poised for a sophomore leap after living up to the expectations that attended his arrival as a top-70 recruit last season, and Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome’s passing and shooting ability could be the difference between the Bearcats settling for an early-round exit from the NCAAs and a trip to the Elite Eight.
Kansas (No. 7) is going all-in on transfers. Not only is Mississippi State import Malik Newman expected to play a huge role for the Jayhawks this year, but they’re compromising their depth by giving out three scholarships to newcomers that are sitting out in 2017–18 (Cal’s Charlie Moore, Memphis’s Dedrick Lawson and Memphis’s K.J. Lawson). The tight rotation may be an asset: The Jayhawks could be invigorated by the availability of more playing time and jell into an imposing, well-balanced unit well before March. On the other hand, a crippling injury or a player performing at a subpar level might open the door for another Big 12 team to break Kansas’s streak of 13 consecutive conference regular-season titles.
It is hard for a team heavily reliant on freshmen to dominate opponents over the course of a season, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get hot in the tourney. Since John Calipari took over at Kentucky (No. 8) in 2009, there have been seven teams that have given over half their minutes to highly touted incoming freshmen. (More specifically, we’re talking about circumstances where nearly every rotation player was a top-100 recruit, and there were multiple top-10 recruits on the roster.) Two of those seven squads won it all:
Both Duke and Kentucky meet the criteria for that table this year, but we have the Wildcats ranked eighth because they don’t appear to have as many players tracking toward one-and-done stints in 2017–18 as they have during much of Calipari’s tenure. Kentucky should be stout defensively thanks to its terrifying combination of length and athleticism, but it could have a hard time figuring things out on the other end of the court, particularly if none of its freshmen proves a consistent three-point shooter. And with teams like Missouri (wing Michael Porter Jr.) and Alabama (guard Collin Sexton) reeling in A-list prospects, and squads such as Florida (No. 10) and Texas A&M (No. 29) countering with seasoned rotations, this may be the strongest version of the SEC in a decade. Accordingly, we project the Wildcats to drop more league games than they typically have under Calipari.
West Virginia (No. 11) won’t have junior power forward Esa Ahmad for the first half of the season after he failed to meet eligibility requirements, but the Mountaineers are going to be as suffocating as ever once Big 12 play begins. Head coach Bob Huggins got great news at the draft withdrawal deadline when guard Jevon Carter decided to return for his senior season. Of course, his decision was bad news for the rest of the Big 12, which will have to spend another season trying to find a way to avoid surrendering possessions to the player who ranked 12th in the country in steal rate in 2016–17, and the team that led the country in turnovers-forced percentage.
USC (No. 13) returns its top eight scorers from last season and adds Derryck Thornton, a former top-20 recruit who transferred from Duke, plus Charles O’Bannon Jr., a 6' 6" shooting guard from Las Vegas rated the No. 36 recruit in the RSCI. The Trojans are another program that got swept up in the FBI investigation, but their outlook on the court is rosy. USC stacks up as Arizona’s clear-cut No. 1 challenger in the Pac-12.
Duke is rightly viewed as the frontrunner in the ACC, and it has a real shot to win it all next spring. But it would be a huge mistake to overlook Notre Dame (No. 16), for two main reasons. First, the Fighting Irish project to have the No. 4 offense in the country and, as such, there won’t be a night in conference play when their opponent—particularly one that may have a tough time consistently getting stops, like the Blue Devils (projected 46th on defense)—can feel comfortable after opening up a sizable lead. Second, Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s senior center, is a physical marvel. Despite standing just 6' 5", 240 pounds, he’s a two-way force in the paint who cleans the glass, blocks shots and scores efficiently. Colson is one of our top five candidates for National Player of the Year.
Purdue (No. 17) may have lost double-double automaton Caleb Swanigan to the NBA, but the rest of its rotation returns mostly intact, and hulking senior Isaac Haas (7' 2", 290 pounds) can help fill the low-block void Swanigan leaves behind. Don’t sleep on the Boilermakers’ two Edwardses: Carsen, a sophomore point guard who shined with Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo this summer, and Vince, a playmaking forward who knocked down 42.3% of his 111 three-point attempts as a junior in 2016–17.
North Carolina (No. 18) is short on proven contributors in the frontcourt, but Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson is already familiar with the competition he’ll face in the ACC, and it would be foolish to dismiss a team that brings back a battle-tested veteran like Joel Berry II at point guard (although the senior won’t be ready for the start of the season because he broke his hand when he punched a door after losing in a video game). If you have not seen Alabama’s (No. 21) Collin Sexton play yet, prepare to be dazzled. He is the kind of prolific scorer that almost single-handedly can raise a team from the bubble to the Top 25.
It’ll be interesting to see how Northwestern (No. 22) handles the pressure of a preseason Top 25 ranking after it reached the tournament for the first time in program history in 2017. The Wildcats haven’t traditionally enrolled players like junior Vic Law, a highly regarded prospect from Chicago who’s turned into a pivotal three-and-D rotation piece. They also bring back Bryant McIntosh, a double-digit scorer for three consecutive seasons who was named preseason first-team All-Big Ten last month, as well as redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon, a stretch forward who sat out most of ’16–17 after undergoing knee surgery.
The main reason we’re so bullish on UCF (No. 28) is the defense of 7' 6" junior center Tacko Fall, who rated in the top 15 nationally last season by swatting 11% of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts while he was on the floor. Keep in mind that the Knights won 24 games in 2016–17 despite having only seven scholarship players. With more depth and several key transfers—even with the loss of former Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins, the son of head coach Johnny Dawkins, to a season-ending injury—UCF should have little trouble reaching the tournament for the first time since 2005.
Rhode Island (No. 31) loses frontcourt cogs Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a backcourt with more quality depth than the Rams’ group of E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson, Jeff Dowtin and Jarvis Garrett. Also, keep an eye on Daron “Fatts” Russell, a three-star point guard prospect from Philadelphia.
Assuming the roster is not impacted by the immediate fallout of the FBI inquiry, Bruce Pearl will have his best team since he got to Auburn (No. 33) prior to the 2014–15 season. Shooter Mustapha Heron, stud big man Austin Wiley, summer tour standout Bryce Brown and voracious rebounder DeSean Murray, a transfer from Presbyterian, will put the Tigers in position to earn a tourney bid. We rank Auburn fifth among six SEC teams projected to make the NCAAs, six spots ahead of Missouri (No. 39), one of the most challenging high-major teams to size up entering the season. The Tigers upgraded their roster this offseason, but it would be misguided to think they can compete with Kentucky and Florida at the top of the conference, even though they’re adding the potential No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft, Michael Porter Jr., along with his talented brother, Jontay, and a coveted transfer from Canisius, Kassius Robertson.
SI likes Porter Jr. to pace all freshmen with a 19.3 points per game average this season, but Trae Young—a player with whom Porter once said he considered joining to form a recruiting “package deal”—is going to light up the Big 12 while putting up big-time scoring numbers for Oklahoma (No. 40). We project the Norman, Okla., native and sophomore shooting guard Kameron McGusty, rated No. 38 in the class of 2016 RSCI, to combine for 29 points per game in propelling the Sooners back into the tournament after they fell short of an at-large bid last season for the first time since ’12. Watching Young in ’17–18 should be just as much of a priority as tuning in to Buddy Hield was during his stellar NPOY campaign in ’15–16.
Archie Miller’s first Indiana (No. 46) squad won’t be representative of his tenure in Bloomington; he needs some time to replenish the roster with hand-picked recruits. But the former Dayton head coach can get Indiana to the Big Dance this season. Our model pegs the Hoosiers as the worst team to claim an at-large bid.
Steve Prohm is set to begin a major rebuild at Iowa State (No. 50), which loses its four leading scorers from last season, including first team All-Big 12 point guard Monte Morris. The Cyclones don’t have anyone on their roster capable of even coming close to replicating Morris’s production, but incoming recruit Lindell Wigginton, rated No. 31 in the RSCI, could be the conference’s most impactful freshman not named Trae Young. Wigginton isn’t the only newcomer Iowa State will lean on to help cope with the major personnel turnover. The Cyclones are counting on Zoran Talley Jr., a 6' 7" forward from Old Dominion whom we project to average 13.5 points per game, tops among all Big 12 transfers with prior Division I experience. Two other transfers who will fortify Iowa State’s rotation: Princeton’s Hans Brase and UTSA’s Jeff Beverly.
Injuries crippled Saint Joseph’s (No. 78) in 2016–17, but if the Hawks are fully healthy, our model likes them to perform much better than they did last season. Health also held back Oregon State (No. 99). If the Beavers’ top players can stay on the floor and four-star recruit Ethan Thompson is as good as advertised, they’ll make significant strides after finishing outside the top 250 in adjusted margin of victory in 2016-17. Another team in position for a big rise from last season is UNLV (No. 96), thanks in no small part to the addition of top-10 recruit Brandon McCoy and Milwaukee transfer Jordan Johnson. Yale (No. 90) brings back the electric point guard who dropped 31 points in 2016’s tournament upset of Baylor, Makai Mason. All four of these squads are set to make huge leaps in the rankings this season.
When Mitchell Robinson chose to forgo a probable one-season stint at Western Kentucky (No. 100) in favor of preparing for the NBA draft, a decision that capped one of the strangest recruiting sagas in recent memory, it robbed us of the tantalizing possibility of watching a future first-round draft pick feast on mid-major competition. Still, the Hilltoppers stand out as Middle Tennessee’s (No. 83) biggest threat in Conference USA. Justin Johnson is a proven scorer and rebounder, Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden can get buckets in bunches, and Dwight Coleby and Darius Thompson bring high-major pedigrees to a relatively weak league. Throw in top-70 recruit Josh Anderson, and Western Kentucky still has loads of upside even without Robinson in uniform. The Hilltoppers could use some more depth, though.
Utah Valley (No. 109) is filled with players who once populated major-conference rosters: Brandon Randolph (Xavier), Kenneth Ogbe (Utah), Jake Toolson (BYU), Isaac Nielson (BYU) and Akolda Manyang (Oklahoma). If the Wolverines can win the WAC tournament, they could be a sneaky-good upset pick for the first round of the tournament. That said, our model does not project Utah Valley as the conference’s No. 1 team. That distinction belongs to New Mexico State (No. 98), which adds underrated Texas Southern transfer Zach Lofton and former Ohio State guard A.J. Harris. Another WAC team to monitor is Grand Canyon (No. 120). Returning senior guard Joshua Braun might be the conference’s best player, and the Antelopes bring in Oregon transfer Casey Benson after winning 22 games last season.
South Dakota State’s (No. 131) Mike Daum averaged 15.2 points per game as a freshman, upped that total to 25.1 as a sophomore, posted offensive ratings that ranked among the top three in the Summit League during conference play both seasons and might have the best nickname in college hoops. The Dauminator is back to, you know, dominate as a junior. He’s capable of getting the Jackrabbits to the tourney for the third consecutive season.
Manhattan (No. 189) endured a rough year, but the Jaspers could bounce back after returning Rich Williams, a 14.8 points-per-game scorer in 2015–16 who redshirted last season. No conference may be more wide open than the Big Sky. Our model likes Weber State (No. 143) in large part because of head coach Randy Rahe’s excellent track record, but seven teams have a legitimate shot at claiming the conference crown, including a Northern Colorado squad (No. 195) that gets back redshirt senior guard Anthony Johnson, who didn’t play last season but averaged 15.8 points per game in ’15–16. Another good pick for the league champ might be Montana State (No. 176), which is headlined by draft prospect Tyler Hall, a 6' 5" wing who drained 43.1% of his 267 three-point attempts as a sophomore last season.
One of the most notable aspects of Texas Southern’s (No. 236) approach under head coach Mike Davis has been the use of transfers to bolster the roster in a talent-deprived conference. Nicholls (No. 213) head coach Richie Riley is following a similar blueprint for this season. His team includes three relatively efficient returning players who averaged between seven and 11 points per game last year; two frontcourt role players in Kimani Jackson and Jeremy Verhagen who put up solid statistics at Colorado State and Northern Colorado, respectively; Tevon Saddler, a transfer who averaged 13.4 points per game for UNC Greensboro in 2014–15; Roddy Peters, a former top-50 recruit who previously played at Maryland and South Florida; and two other high-major transfers, Legend Robertin (Clemson) and Maurice O’Field (Arizona State) that could be more effective against lesser competition. It’s now or never for the senior-heavy Colonels, and SI’s lineup-based model pegs them as the No. 1 squad in the Southland.
Transfers can help teams like Nicholls and Texas Southern, but they can also hurt them: While Texas Southern is bringing in former top-100 prospect Trayvon Reed and UMass’s Donte Clark, it’s also waving farewell to Zach Lofton and Jalan McCloud, who left for New Mexico State and East Tennessee State, respectively.
Campbell’s (No. 242) Chris Clemons tied with Daum for second in the nation in scoring with 25.1 points per game last season, and he put up 51 points in an upset of league favorite UNC Asheville (No. 132) in the conference tournament. Prepare for more thrilling basketball between the Fighting Camels and the Bulldogs in 2017–18. UNC Asheville is the most talented team in the league and, presumably, will have come up with a better game plan for keeping Clemons in check.
Northwestern State’s (No. 259) Jalan West is entering a nearly unprecedented seventh year of eligibility. The former 20 points-per-game scorer’s return to action is great news for college basketball and even better news for a Demons team that finished 293rd in the country in adjusted margin of victory last season.
Pittsburgh (9%), Kentucky (11%) and North Carolina Central (11%) return fewer minutes than Mississippi Valley State’s (16%), but all of them are recruiting higher quality players than the Delta Devils (No. 351). This is going to be a rocky transition season in the SWAC for head coach Andre Payne.