By Billy Clemmons
1. Duke is no stranger to the preseason No. 1 ranking and is a near mainstay in the preseason top five. This year, the Blue Devils get that designation because they are the most talented team in the country, led by the best player in the country, and accompanied by the best freshmen class in the country.
2. As always with Kentucky, the freshmen are the story. The fun starts with Malik Monk. Fans got a preview of his freakish athleticism last week at the team’s Blue/White scrimmage. Monk, a 6’3 combo guard, is ranked as the No. 9 incoming recruit in the country by ESPN, but is still just the third-highest rated Kentucky recruit this year.
3. If Kansas is going to live up to its potential, it is going to start with Graham. The guard was named all-Big 12 in the preseason and seems to have accepted the role of leader on the team. He’s added muscle, worked on his shot, and, according to the Kansas City Star, added a mid-range floater. If it all translates into game play, there will be no shortage of ways Graham can beat you.
4. Villanova’s run was so thoroughly dominant and ended on such a picture-perfect note that it’s fair to wonder how any team could follow it. Arcidiacono is gone, as is interior anchor Daniel Ochefu, but many of last year’s critical cogs remain. Quietly, Villanova has won more games than any program in the country over the last three years.
5. Oregon won’t be catching anyone by surprise this year. The Ducks bring back three of their four leading scorers, return a key guard from injury, add another impact JUCO transfer and unveil a trio of four-star freshmen that has the program thinking big. Oregon hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1939 and this team is absolutely good enough to do it.
6. Paige and Johnson are now gone, but Carolina remains in a unique position to thrive because of the values of the program. While blue-blood contemporaries like Duke and Kentucky rely on another influx of stud freshmen, UNC has veteran replacements lined up. The commitment to four-year players is what sets North Carolina apart, and it should pay major dividends again this season.
7. Xavier returns the biggest pieces from a 28-6 team that ranked in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Xavier has star power, it has shooting, and it has a team that will again compete on both ends of the floor.
8. Bennett has an experienced returnee at arguably the most important position on the court for his system, and an All-ACC caliber transfer to help make up for the front-court losses. Toss in a couple of other veterans expected to take a step forward and one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in Virginia history, and you have all the makings of a team with the potential to make it back to a regional final and seal the deal this time.
9. Nigel Hayes is the headliner of the group as the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. The key for the 6’8 forward will be polishing his Swiss army knife repertoire and returning to the offensive efficiency efforts of his sophomore campaign. Last season, Hayes connected on only 37 percent of his field goals and shot just 29 percent from the arc. For Wisconsin to reach its potential, Hayes has to live up to his billing as the Big Ten’s best player.
10. There remains a strong group of veterans here with Arizona, starting with sophomore shooting guard Allonzo Trier. The No. 12 recruit in the RSCI a year ago, Trier is a natural-born bucket-getter. His 14.6 points per game were second among all Pac-12 freshmen, and he did it on an efficient 60.3 true shooting percentage — No. 10 in the conference regardless of class. Trier excels at drawing fouls and can knock down threes (36.4 percent); his next step is developing as a playmaker.
11. That long sought-after trip past the Sweet 16 could come this March thanks to a handful of key returnees who are expected to blossom into full-fledged stars. Yogi Ferrell, one of the most beloved and effective players in recent IU history, and Troy Williams, one of the most gifted, have both moved on, but Crean has the pieces in play to have an even deeper and more complete team than he had a year ago.
12. Izzo loaded up with the biggest and highest-rated haul of freshmen that he’d ever been able to bring to East Lansing. Leading that group is explosive 6’7 forward Miles Bridges, who will be relied upon to shoulder a heavy chunk of the Spartan scoring load right out of the gate. A consensus top 10 player in the 2016 class, Bridges could easily wind up following in Davis’ footsteps by spending just one season playing for Izzo. Fellow top 40 recruits Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston should also compete for starting spots, or at least considerable playing time, from day one.
13. Even with new faces, this should be a classic Louisville team defined by full-court pressure defense hellbent on forcing turnovers. Pitino needs impressive athletes on the perimeter for that system to work and he should have a pair in sophomore wings Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel. Though both had small roles last year, each can be found on basically every list of breakout players heading into the new season.
14. Gone are last season’s top three scorers in Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, and Eric McClellan, but waiting in the wings are transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal), and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri). Add a healthy Przemek Karnowski and the Bulldogs have a lineup filled with all-league talent.
15. The front court will once again be the strength of the team. Expectations for this season changed when Caleb Swanigan decided to return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA draft. Arguably the most decorated recruit in program history, Swanigan was a beast on the glass as a freshman (No. 20 in defensive rebound rate, per KenPom) while shooting 52 percent on two-pointers. He’ll carry a bigger offensive burden this season and should be the team’s primary scoring option.
16. Lonzo Ball, one of the more unique talents that college basketball will have seen in some time. Ball’s talents will allow the Bruins to play a different style than the one which has frustrated fans in The Hills for the last three years. If it works, Alford could finally be able to shed the stigma of a coach who has been uniformly promoted despite having never coached in a regional final.
17. The good news for coach Randy Bennett and company is that Saint Mary’s will be fielding essentially the same team this season as the one that went 29-6 in 2015-16. The Gaels return 98.8 percent of their scoring from last season, losing only freshman guard Franklin Porter — who transferred to play for his father, Terry, at Portland — and his 1.5 points per game.
18.The good news for UConn fans is that Ollie’s work on the recruiting trail has the program in position to again be in the national conversation. The Huskies welcome the country’s No. 8 recruiting class this year, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Alterique Gilbert. The class also includes 6’11 big man Juwan Durham, 6’8 shooter Vance Jackson, and bouncy forward Mamadou Diarra. It’s a badly needed talent infusion for a team that lost its best player (Daniel Hamilton) and two other starters.
19. Syracuse lost its three leading scorers from a team that advanced all the way to the Final Four a season ago.There’s no guarantee that Syracuse will advance to the season’s final weekend like they did a year ago, but this 2016-17 squad ought to be able to piece together a more even and complete season.
20.West Virginia returns a team loaded with talent and potential, but without a clear go-to option in the clutch.That’s not to say that beating next year’s West Virginia team will be any easier than a weekend with the in-laws
21. Whether a team this young can win right away is up for debate, but there’s no question Smart has Texas trending in an exciting direction. This sleeping giant might not be sleeping for much longer.