The Blue Devils haven’t finished atop the regular season conference standings since 2009-10 – when they tied with Maryland – and haven’t won it outright since 2005-06. But in the last six years they’ve also never finished lower than 2nd. They’ve been the most consistent team in the ACC, and there’s no reason to assume otherwise this year. Only this year's ACC isn't like last year's ACC, due to the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh. And Duke is better than them all.
Nine of Duke’s players are former consensus top 50 recruits, and only three other teams in the nation have that many consensus top 100 recruits on their roster. Without Mason Plumlee in the middle this will be a much different looking Duke team, but Coach K is a master at coaching to his roster, and his roster is absolutely loaded. They have a veteran point guard in Quin Cook. They have do-everything Rodney Hood, who many Duke insiders say was the best player in practice last year (he had to sit out because of transfer rules). And they have Jabari Parker, who very well could end up as the best freshman in the nation.
There's no team with more NBA talent than Kentucky. The same was true last year as well, and that team finished in the NIT. Obviously I have more faith in this year's edition to pick them No. 2, and that's primarily due to one player: Julius Randle. Despite all of the Wiggins talk, Randle is better built to have a massive freshman year. I can't imagine a scenario where he doesn't dominate at his position.
Combine Randle with Willie Cauley Stein and Alex Poythress, and that's an awful lot of trouble when it comes to other teams rebounding the ball. Poythress rebounded 9% of his own team's misses last year, and Cauley Stein grabbed 12%. Randle might be a better rebounder than both of them. Kentucky has the talent to attack the basket from every position, and then they're going to feast on extending possessions with offensive boards. If he can get these guys to play defense, then they should be a No. 1 seed in the dance.
Kansas, like the teams above them, is an immensely talented squad. But this is a unique team for Bill Self, as he'll be more reliant on young players than virtually any of his past teams. KU lost all five starters, and though he's plugging those holes with a ton of talent, it still makes the Jayhawks difficult to pick. It starts with Andrew Wiggins who has appeared on tons of 1st Team All American lists. But I've never been on that horse. Is he a great player? Obviously. But his elite status is due more to his ceiling that where he is currently. I can see 1st Team All Conference, but I'm not believing the bigger superlatives under I see him peform.
Joel Embiid and Wayne Seldon are two more 5* freshman that Self has at his disposal. The key, however, might be a sophomore. Perry Ellis was arguably the best reserve in the nation last year. Now he has to be the consistent and calming force on this team.
The defending champs took a blow when Chane Behanan was suspended, but they still have the talent to win it all even if he doesn't return. Russ Smith could very well be the national player of the year, and he has plently of veteran players around him to help. Last year's squad was elite on both ends of the floor. They were 4th in offensive efficiency and one slot better on the defense. This year's team will be elite defensively for certain, and how good the offense is will determine how far they go.
Montrezl Harrell should be ready to take on a larger role. His offensive skills are still limited, but he's a freak athlete and in Louisville's offense he'll get plenty of opportunties to stand around the rim and dunk everything in sight once his teammates get doubled. Wayne Blackshear is another efficient player who will have a bigger role this season. Then there's JUCO transfer Chris Jones. The key to the season might be Pitino reigning in Jones' natural desire to shoot on every possession. If he can turn Jones into an efficient scorer, then there's no limit to this team.
5. Michigan State
This might be Tom Izzo's best shot at a title since he won it all in 2000. He's got a great system team. The starting lineup should be two seniors, a junior, and pair of sophomores. They've all got talent, and they all know what they're doing. Adreian Payne will probably average a double double, and then theres guard Gary Harris who is poised to explode as a sophomore. In fact, how well the back court grows could be the deciding factor toward how far this team goes. Their offense was 'just' 27th last year in offensive efficiency, and to win it all they'll need to improve on that. Keith Appling didn't shoot the ball well last year (or the year before), but he was lights out as a freshman. Also, his assist rate slipped last season.
Defensively, the team just has to replace Derrick Nix. They were one of the best units in the nation last year (7th overall), and they have the experience back to likely push that into the top-5.
Picking the Gators this high assumes that their players stop screwing around and actually see the court. When their roster isn't suspended, they have about as many consensus top 100 players on it as any team in the nation. In short, they're loaded. And they've been loaded. Which shows how a part of the fanbase (the dumb part) can be disappointed by back-to-back-to-back Elite 8 appearances.
They lost three players who were all high volume and all very efficient. But they also had two gems of transfers sitting the season out on the bench. Of course, now, both of those transfers (Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris) are suspended along with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin. Oh, and 5* recruit Chris Walker wasn't cleared for the Fall semester. But they do have Kasey Hill (another 5* recruit), Patric Young, Will Yeguete and a host of others. They get Wisconsin early, but then shouldn't really be challenged until December when they get UConn, Kansas, and Memphis.
7. Ohio State
Ohio State lost their best player and have no impact recruits of note (too much talent in front of them, what a problem!), and still they should be a top 10 team. That's a testament to the program built by Thad Matta. Deshaun Thomas' jump to the NBA leave a huge scoring void which must be filled, but Matta has the parts to get it done. Seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. anchor the back court, while juniors Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, and Amir Williams hold down the front court.
Defensively, this team should be fine. The veteran rotation is well versed in the system and they had the 12th best defense in the nation last year (defensive efficiency). Offensively though, there is potential for issues. Ross is the only high volume player on the team, and he hasn't been very efficient. Lenzelle Smith might be that guy, but he's never been asked to carry a heavy load.
8. Oklahoma State
Travis Ford has done a fantastic job updating the talent for the Cowboys. He has two 5* recruits, surrounded by a peppering of consensus top 100 players. Le'Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart are asked to do the heavy lifting, but neither are efficient scorers. Their development and shot selection is key to the season. Phil Forte and Markel Brown are both capable of stretching the defense, but both need to make more of their 3s. This team was 271st in the nation last year in 3-pt%. Efficient scoring, or the lack thereof, is the main question mark heading into the season.
On defense, this team will be elite. They were 15th in the nation last year in defensive efficiency, and basically return everyone. Michael Cobbins is a bit small to hold down the middle, but he should be one of the better rebounders in the conference. This team only allowed opponents to make 42.4% of their 2s last year, which was 14th best in the nation. Even though they're small down low, they play great team defense and once again teams will try to beat them on the perimeter.
The Hoos are blessed with the ACC's best returning player (Joe Harris) and the most underrated player (Akil Mitchell). That's a one-two punch which is going to cause all sorts of problems for opponents. But the reason they're this high is the emergence of future stars in sophomores Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey. Anderson played a major role last year and really came on at the end of the season, and Mike Tobey looked fantastic in international play this summer.
Their main loss was veteran point guard Jontel Evans, but he was such a scoring liability that opponents barely guarded him. Now it will be much more difficult to immediately double team Joe Harris on every touch. This did leave a question mark at point guard. The Hoos will likely play long stretches where they don't have a true point on the floor. Coach Bennett's concern was obvious, as he signed two point guards to last year's class.
John Beilein officially has Michigan in reload mode. National player of the year Trey Burke is gone, as is fellow first rounder Tim Haradaway Jr., yet they're left with hopes of returning to the championship game. The biggest concern is sophomore Mitch McGary's back, and he'll be sitting out he first game. If he can't play for long stretches, that leaves Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford assuming much larger roles than anticipated. There aren't too many questions about the rest of the lineup. Glenn Robinson is back, and he should be able to carry more of the scoring load, though he certainly won't be classified as high volume. Nik Stauskus is also back, and he can make it rain about as well as any player in the nation.
Two of the other roles will go to stud freshman. 5* Zak Irvin is on the wing, while Derrick Walton will do his best to make people not pine for Trey Burke. Good luck with that, kid. But even with potential questions at point, this team has enough talent to find workarounds.
The biggest knock on Syracuse is that they lost a ton of minutes. But the Orange roster is completely stacked. They have a great balance of experience and youth, and like last year they’ll make their living on the offensive end by extending possessions. They return three players who all grabbed at least 9.6% of their own team’s missed shots.
On defense, not only do they have all the right players to run Boeheim’s zone, but most of the ACC coaches haven’t spent years trying to defeat it. And since the only former Big East team they play twice is Pitt, expect tons of ugly possessions vs the Orange for the duration of the season. Freshman PG Tyler Ennis will step in as the starting point guard, and while he's talented and poised, the Orange don't have much depth behind him should something go wrong.
With the turmoil at UCLA, Arizona has firmly established themselves as the class of the conference. Sean Miller has done this by landing a ridiculous amount of talent. Arizona has five players who were consensus top-25 players out of high school. The rest of the conference has three combined. But the most important player might be the most unheralded. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell was remarkably efficient at his old school, and has had a year of practice in Miller's system. He's a great, but low volume, shooter (42% career 3-point shooter), he has a steady hand at point guard, and his steal% on defense would have been at or near the top of the PAC 12 in each of his first two seasons.
He's surrounded by a host of elite talent, as the other four starters were all consensus 5* recruits. The key will be getting them to play defense. Arizona's offense was 10th nationally last year in offensive efficiency, but they were only 47th on defense. Considering they lost three senior starters, the new guys are going to have to catch on quick.
In the past two years Memphis has dropped a total of three conference games, going 35-3 in regular and post-season conference play. Now they take a significant step up in competition level, and are no longer the conference favorite. But this doesn't mean that they won't be a better team than last year. They'll certainly be a much different looking team, in any case. Star Will Barton jumped to the NBA, D.J. Stephens graduated, and Antonio Barton and Tarik Black transferred. Coming in was Mizzou transfer MIchael Dixon Jr. and a pair of talented freshmen.
Josh Pastner's team never really clicked on offense last season. They turned the ball over too much, and they gave away too many points at the free throw line. With so many new faces playing big roles it's impossible to anticipate how the offense will be different this year, but they have skilled players and the starting back court will have played together for a year now.
14. North Carolina
It’s been since 2008-09 that UNC last had an offense that ranked in the nation’s top 10 (offensive efficiency). Expect UNC’s offense to be back this year. Now that Marcus Paige has a year running the system under his belt, he should be much better prepared to run Roy Williams’ high octane attack. PJ Hairston could make ‘the leap’ to a 1st team All American type season, and he’s surrounded by an embarrassment of riches.
What could keep UNC from earning a 1 or 2 seed in the dance will be their defense. Last year they were 55th nationally, and while I expect that to improve, they certainly won’t be an elite defensive team. The guards allow too much penetration, which inevitably leads to open 3s. Their opponents shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc last year than any time in the past decade.
It's tough to lose your entire front court and come back and still be a top 15 team. But that's the program that Bo Ryan has built – they just plug in new pieces and go win games. One of the biggest new pieces is actually a familiar face. Josh Gasher, who could win the award as the most efficient player in the nation if only there were such an award, returns after missing all of last year. He'll pair up in the back court with senior Ben Brust who blossomed in Gasher's absence.
The front court will be anchored by 6-11 Frank Kaminsky and potentially a true freshman in PF Nigel Hayes. But the real star is out on the wing in Sam Dekker. After a solid freshman campaign, he should be in the mix for the Big Ten Player of the Year. He sets up his game by being a knock down shooter at 6-7, but can just as easily pump fake and get to the rim.
16. Virginia Commonwealth
Shaka Smart has done a tremendous job building a deep and talented roster. That will be needed this year, not just to run his high effort system, but also to replace graduated seniors Troy Daniels and Darius Theus. Replacing Daniels' 3-point shooting will be a key to the season, as will replacing Theus' defense. It starts with 6-9 senior Juvonte Reddic and 6-5 junior Treveon Graham, who both played more minutes last season than the graduated seniors. The other starters will likely be Rob Brandenberg, Melvin Johnson, and Briante Weber. Weber, for his part, had the highest steal% of any player in the nation. A weakness last year was the inability to get to the line (317th nationally) and giving up too many free throws to their opponents (272nd). Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon should help with the first part, and probably hurt with the second. VCU will definitely drop a game they shouldn't while the other team parades to the line, and their fans can just hope that game won't occur in March.
The Fran McCaffery era has been a jolt to the Iowa program. Not only does he coach a style that is fun to watch, but he has the program poised for their first tourney birth since 2006. They advanced to the finals of the NIT last year, and now bring back all five starters and 10 of the top 11. 6-6 senior Roy Devyn Marble gets all the press, as he's a high volume and somewhat efficient scorer (with the exception of his 33% from the arc), but 6-6 junior Aaron White could be the team's best all around player. He's started 52 games in his two years, and was 3rd team all conference last season. Iowa's primary weakness is that they were 308th in 3-pt%. Considering that this is largely the same roster, expect that struggle to continue.
The Hoyas lost Otto Porter to the NBA, but his loss was supposed to be filled by Greg Whittington. Now it's unclear whether Whittington will play at all this season due to a knee. Their roster, however, is still loaded. Markel Starks is a conference Player of the Year candidate (if not for a certain player from Creighton). And the Hoyas also have 8 players who were consensus top 100 recruits. Of all college basketball teams last year who played with that much talent, the worst conference record was 12-6 and the average was 14-4. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is poised for a breakout year as a sophomore, and while Stephen Domingo won’t make people forget about Otto Porter, he will be a scorer from day one. If the Hoyas get much down low from UCLA transfer Josh Smith then the Hoyas could be every bit as good as last year.
The Zags swept through the WCC regular season last year without a loss, and then won the (horribly formatted) WCC Tournament. But their season came to an end in the round of 32 with a loss to eventual Final Four team Wichita State. Now they've lost the conference's best front court tandem of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. They do still have one of the best back courts in all of college basketball with juniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, and senior David Stockton. With 7-2 sophomore Przemek Karnowski and senior Sam Dower returning, the Zags will have plenty of firepower again. The wildcard is Providence transfer Gerard Coleman. The 6-4 slasher is an absolute menace going to the rim and will make a nice counterpoint to Pangos and Bell who both take far more 3s than 2s.
It's a testament to Buzz Williams that he has to replace his leading scorer (Vander Blue), rebounder (Trent Lockett), and playmaker (Junior Cadougan) and this is still widely considered a top 25 team and a candidate to win the Big East. Somehow, they're still experienced, and will likely start four upperclassmen. I expect the fifth starter to be highly recruited sophomore Steve Taylor, who Marquette had the luxury of bringing along slowly last season. The intriguing part will be the defense, which was solid last year but not great (46th nationally in defensive efficiency). How well will the new starters gel? Offensively, they'll need to find a way to improve on their dismal 3-pt shooting from a year ago (323rd), and are counting on freshman Duane Wilson to carry much of that load.
21. Saint Louis
The Atlantic 10 champs lost five scholarship players, but with the exception of 6-8 Cody Ellis, they were all role players. Four starters return for Jim Crews' 2nd year at the helm, and Saint Louis will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The seniors are likely to go out as the winningest class in school history, and a few of them will also be leaving marks in the record books. 6-5 Dwayne Evans needs 280 rebounds finish his career as one of four players to grab 1,000. And Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr should both finish top-5 all time in steals. They will continue to get it done on the defensive end (No. 6 in the nation in defensive efficiency), and with that much experience and another year working with coach Crews, their offense should be marginally better.
Coach McDermott received two great pieces of news this offseason. First, Doug McDermott – the nation's 2nd leading scorer – would return. Second, Grant Gibbs received a sixth year of eligibility. Having Gibbs back is key as the Bluejays are entering their first season in the Big East. Much tougher competition lay ahead. The scouting report was simple last year. Creighton was going to score (8th in offensive efficiency) but they were also going to get scored upon (80th defensively). With that kind of offense, this could be an elite team, but there's really no reason to think that their defense will be anything close to their offense. They're going to lose some games they shouldn't due to their inability to get stops. But they're also going to be an awful lot of fun to watch, again.
23. New Mexico
Noodles Neal gets a pretty sweet gig in his first head coaching job. The Lobos return four starters, and they're all upperclassmen. It will be interesting to see how the system changes with Steve Alford off to coach UCLA, but this was a high end defense (18th nationally) coupled with an offense that got just enough done (53rd). Losing Tony Snell to the NBA will obviously be huge, but they have JUCO transfer Deshawn Delaney, Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, and one-time Saint Mary's signee Cullen Neal (the coaches son) to help fill that void. We know the team is going to play defense, but the offense remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest concern is outside shooting, where they'll need Kendall Williams to return to something resembling his freshman form (when he made 43% of his 3s) as opposed to the past two seasons (35% and 36%).
Now that the APR issues are behind them, UConn wins actually count this year. They return all five starters from a team that was decent (62nd nationally) on offense, and decent (57th) on defense. Their biggest problem was losing the hidden game of possessions. The Huskies were 278th nationally in grabbing offensive boards, and 319th on the defensive end. That totaled about 80 more possessions extended by their opponents. Considering they ended up in seven overtime games, those 2-3 extra possessions a game they were handing away cost the team a couple of wins, and made them work harder than they needed to in several others. So how is that going to change with essentially the same roster? Good question.
Following back-to-back years where they didn't make the tourney, the Volunteers fortunes should change this year. Jeronne Maymon returns to give Jarnell Stokes some help holding down the interior, and Antonio Barton slides over from Memphis to help fill the void left by Trae Golden (who transferred to Georgia Tech). The key will be a return to playing defense, after the short-handed squad last year finished 122nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, and 11th in SEC play. In Cuonzo Martin's first year, Tennessee was 30th in the nation. Assuming the defensive issues get cleaned up, the offensive challenge will be in replacing Trae Golden who has been in the SEC's top four in assist rate in each of his three seasons.