HOUSTON -- The Way-Too-Early Top 25 always earns its moniker. The first few seconds after the national title game, confetti still wafting in the celebratory air, is a hilariously premature point to try to pin down what the sport will look like in seven months. This is a standard disclaimer. We trot it out every year. We don't pretend otherwise.
And even by those not-exactly-lofty standards, this edition is especially uncertain.
For years, the NCAA imposed a tight deadline that essentially forced players to jump in the draft with little more than second-hand information, filtered through their coaches. This year, players can declare for the draft, participate in pre-draft activities, talk to NBA front offices, even show up to the combine, and -- provided they don't hire an agent, and withdraw their name by May 25 -- return to college with their eligibility intact.
This is a hugely positive, player-first change. It also makes these rankings even harder to nail down. Draft projections used to be a fairly reliable tool. Now? Who knows?
Be forewarned: We feel genuinely, concretely confident about exactly one team on this list. Fortunately, that team is the ...
Two years after a stellar freshman class carried him to his fifth national title, Mike Krzyzewski will once again bring a swath of the nation's top talent to Durham, including forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum -- the sport's top two prospects, period -- as well as guard Frank Jackson, who ranks No. 11. Those future pros will join one of the nation's best pure scorers, guard Grayson Allen, and the rest of an already talented, largely intact roster (including likely medical redshirt candidate Amile Jefferson) that will go two deep at basically every position. In other words, if you enjoy a hearty dose of Duke schadenfreude in your hoops diet -- if you enjoyed the Allen tripping thing and "Incorrect Response"-Gate 2016 -- you should stockpile some winter reserves. Because Duke's next team isn't going to be funny. Winter is coming.
Kris Jenkins has a tidy old-man game. Jalen Brunson sort of reminds you of Andre Miller. In general, the 2015-16 Wildcats played with immense precision and poise. You might have assumed, then, that Jay Wright's Final Four team was stocked with fourth years. In reality? It had two. So, yes, sure, the departures of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu will be hugely impactful, but bringing back basically everyone else -- Jenkins, Brunson, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and, last but not least, national player of the year candidate Josh Hart -- will soften the landing considerably. Also? Wright's team has won 86 percent of its games in the past three seasons. The only major conference team in the last 20 years to do that is Duke, which did it five times from 1997-98 to 2000-02. So, yeah. The Wildcats will be more than fine.
For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2016-17, check out Villanova's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Another Way Too Early Top 25, another offseason roster overhaul, another obvious top-five spot for Kentucky. The standard operating procedure in Lexington, Kentucky, continues apace. Good thing, too, not only because burly forward Bam Adebayo could bring some "man" to 2015-16's underwhelming frontcourt, but because the concept of replacing both Jamal Murray (one of the nation's best pure perimeter scorers) and Tyler Ulis (one of the nation's best players, full stop) would be all but unthinkable for any coach not named John Calipari. If Ulis decides to return for his junior year -- unlikely, but not totally impossible -- well, look out.
For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2016-17, check out Kentucky's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Combined with an Elite Eight loss, the end of Perry Ellis' career, and Cheick Diallo dipping his toe in the draft waters, Wayne Selden Jr.'s announcement last week -- that after a breakout junior campaign he would enter the NBA draft and, yes, hire an agent -- was one more bummer to KU fans could add to their pile. We suggest a simple exercise: Stand in front of mirror, say "Bill Self is my favorite team's basketball coach," five or 10 times, and then see how you feel. Whether Diallo stays in the draft or not, the Jayhawks will still have a devastating Frank Mason III/Devonte' Graham backcourt combo, talented freshman arrivals, a host of rising role players, tons of depth, and a coach coming off his 12th straight Big 12 title. See? Much better.
Let's be real: This ranking is a huge guess. It hinges on two big unknowns. The first: Whether Chinanu Onuaku, one of the nation's best offensive rebounders, interior finishers, and rim protectors returns from this spring's draft fact-finding expedition or stays in the process after May. The second: Whether, and when, the NCAA hammers Louisville for the strippers-in-the-dorms-scandal. Was this season's self-imposed postseason ban enough to sate the committee on infractions? Will the investigation end in the next 12 months? If Onuaku is back, and Louisville isn't debilitated by sanctions, this team (which also adds volume scorer Tony Hicks, a grad transfer from Penn, to its backcourt) will be a force. Stay tuned.
For more on how the Cardinals will look in 2016-17, check out Louisville' returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Having just appeared in the national championship game, North Carolina now heads into an offseason facing more uncertainty than at any time in decades -- if not ever. At the Final Four, NCAA president Mark Emmert indicated the committee on infractions might be sending some certified mail to Chapel Hill within the next month; what the end (or, the beginning of the end) of the paper-class scandal will mean for UNC is anyone's guess. Sanctions could be devastating. They could be minor. No one knows. The good news? Despite losing seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson -- the latter of which just spent five months in permanent beast mode -- and even in a challenging recruiting climate, Carolina will still be led by a core group of extremely talented returning players. Off the court? Anyone's guess. On the court? UNC will be fine.
For more on how the Tar Heels will look in 2016-17, check out North Carolina's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Remember the cafeteria scene in "Jurassic Park?" Of course you do. Dr. Grant asks Dr. Sattler if she's sure a rampant velociraptor has been "contained." "Yes," she replies, "unless they figure out how to open doors." Virginia coach Tony Bennett is that velociraptor. See, Bennett has always relied on player development to make up for the talent gap between his recruits and Duke's or North Carolina's, and now, after three years terrorizing the rest of the ACC, the Cavaliers face personnel losses (Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill) that should be beyond their immediate capabilities. Except -- gasp -- Virginia's 2016 recruiting class boasts not one but two top-10 players at their positions, plus Memphis transfer (and former elite prospect) Austin Nichols, plus London Perrantes and the rest of the returners. What is that? "It's ... Bennett. He's inside."
For more on how the Cavaliers will look in 2016-17, check out Virginia's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Indiana won the Big Ten title outright and beat a Kentucky team many (rightfully) considered a national-title contender en route to a Sweet 16 finish. It was a resounding, narrative-flipping season built in large part on the brilliant work of Yogi Ferrell, who now leaves Bloomington as one of the most productive guards (and players, period) in school history. The return of guard James Blackmon Jr. from injury is among the many reasons to stay bullish on the Hoosiers. Robert Johnson, Collin Hartman, and OG Anunoby, a basketball cyborg incrementally approaching self-awareness, are also on that list. The draft, in the end, might be the difference: If neither Troy Williams nor Thomas Bryant return -- the latter especially -- the Hoosiers will be a fun, competitive Big Ten team. If either comes back, or both, title contention is totally in play.
Given the mid-December retirement of icon Bo Ryan, and the Greg Gard-led phoenix that sprung up a few weeks later, you'd hardly blame Badgers fans for wishing the 2015-16 season was, say, three or four weeks longer. What if this team had found itself in November? How might the season have been different? Next season offers a rare opportunity to test that exact hypothesis. Nigel Hayes is the only potential departure, and even that seems unlikely; Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, and the rest of this team's top nine scorers are likely to return. This team went to the Sweet 16 after a 9-9 start; imagine what it might do with a full year to figure things out.
For more on how the Badgers will look in 2016-17, check out Wisconsin's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
10. Oregon Ducks
The Pac-12 champ and West Region No. 1 seed was also responsible for vanquishing Duke in the Sweet 16, a win that was followed by a mildly overblown controversy. (For the record: We think it's more respectful to take a shot-clock violation and hand the ball over at the end of a game you're obviously going to win, as opposed to firing up a 30-foot 3-pointer ... but we could also see why that could seem patronizing.) Anyway! Oregon was really good, and it's about to be really good again, not only because unwitting Duke antagonist Dillon Brooks returns but because he is joined by Tyler Dorsey and center Chris Boucher. Boucher, one of the more surprising, versatile bigs in college hoops, won an eligibility appeal to play another year in Eugene.
Will Trevon Bluiett be back? Bluiett's All-Big East First Team campaign for a great Musketeers team does not seem to have piqued the NBA's interest; fortunately, the new rules allow him to ask NBA people why that is ... before returning to Xavier. That seems the most probable outcome. Assuming forward Jalen Reynolds does the same -- which also seems also probable -- you're looking at a team that just ran neck-and-neck in the Big East with Villanova bringing mostly everybody back.
12. Arizona Wildcats
How can you tell when your program and/or coach is awesome? When you go 25-9 ... and it's a "down" season. Or when you lose four seniors ... and everyone expects you to get better. Such is life under Sean Miller in Tucson where the Wildcats will bid farewell to leading scorers Ryan Anderson and Gabe York, as well as back-line fixture Kaleb Tarczewski, and enter 2016-17 as a likely Pac-12 co-favorite with a team that just earned a No. 1 seed. Keep a particular watch on guard Allonzo Trier, whose midseason injury reduced his role as a freshman but whose scoring gave Arizona a different dimension, and he could be much better as a sophomore.
Middle Tennessee's shocking win over Michigan State not only ended Denzel Valentine's career, but also those of Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes, both core to the Spartans' rebounding and perimeter scoring success. Replacing those three guys might mean taking a half-step back, at least early in the season, especially if forward Deyonta Davis, a late lottery projection, decides to stay in the draft. Even if guard Eron Harris is the only returning starter, though, Tom Izzo's 2016 class might be his best ever. He'll get them settled in soon enough.
For more on how the Spartans will look in 2016-17, check out Michigan State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
Maryland will lose Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman, both seniors. They will probably also lose center Diamond Stone, a smooth offensive operator and a projected lottery pick after one year on campus. These things feel fairly certain. Far less certain is whether Melo Trimble will follow suit. If he returns -- and if he's healthy all season, and goes easy on the turnovers -- Mark Turgeon's team will still have an elite point guard to play pick-and-pop with Robert Carter. Add Dion Wiley (returning from injury), Jared Nickens (a still-promising sharpshooter), solid, experienced bigs (Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky) and a couple of top-100 freshmen (Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan). This feels like a top-25 team at the absolute worst.
For more on how the Terrapins will look in 2016-17, check out Maryland's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
After the Mountaineers' season ended, rebound-robot forward Devin Williams announced that he would leave for the NBA, and he seemed fairly definitive on the topic. Last week, though, WVU coach Bob Huggins said Williams wouldn't hire an agent. Which is probably wise, because it's no guarantee Williams is even invited to the combine, which tends to make getting drafted in the NBA tough. The Mountaineers will still have most of their backcourt press-application personnel in the mix no matter what Williams decides -- but losing a guy who grabs 15 percent of available offensive boards and 29 percent defensively would, obviously, hurt.
For more on how the Mountaineers will look in 2016-17, check out West Virginia's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
You might have noticed a theme here: Draft decisions are a big deal. Caleb Swanigan's decision to test the waters but not hire an agent is no different, as Swanigan's talent and a full offseason of drills is a frightening prospect for the rest of the Big Ten. Even more frightening? With A.J. Hammons graduated, 7-foot-2 center/kraken Isaac Haas will be released from his bench-minute restraints, set free to roam the countryside, drawing fouls and making free throws. The Boilers need more shooting, and replacing Rapheal Davis won't be easy. But this frontcourt still looks scary.
17. Syracuse Orange
Syracuse lost 14 games this season. It also went to the Final Four. It was a weird 2015-16 across the board, but the freshmen who helped fuel the Orange's late-season explosion -- Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson, namely -- look likely to get this program back into its top-25 comfort zone. Seniors Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije are gone, sure, but assuming Richardson doesn't jump to the draft (and he was noncommital on the topic Saturday night) Jim Boeheim's blend of returners and newcomers (from freshmen Tyus Battle and Matthew Moyer to former Providence center Paschal Chukwu) won't be sweating it out again on Selection Sunday.
For more on how the Orange will look in 2016-17, check out Syracuse's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
18. Oklahoma Sooners
Losing a historic 3-point scoring machine is tough enough; losing two seniors with whom he started well over 100 games is brutal. Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins are all done, and Lon Kruger has a huge task ahead of him. But he also has Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin back, and both players seem capable of larger roles, a la Koenig and Hayes at Wisconsin this season. Similar to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, you just assume Kruger will figure things out.
For more on how the Sooners will look in 2016-17, check out Oklahoma's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
19. Texas A&M Aggies
Billy Kennedy's fourth season was a resounding success that brought him not only his first NCAA tournament berth in College Station, Texas, but a No. 3 seed and a trip to the Sweet 16. At first glance, losing Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Anthony Collins and Alex Caruso should be crippling. It won't be easy, to be sure, but the recruiting work Kennedy has done the past two seasons has given him a deep pool of talent from which to find their replacements. We're particularly high on sophomores Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg, both of whom looked extremely promising in limited minutes as freshman. Tyler Davis already was, and will continue to be, a beast.
For more on how the Aggies will look in 2016-17, check out Oklahoma's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
20. UConn Huskies
The Huskies never quite put it together in 2015-16, but the fundamentals there -- the elite interior defense of Amida Brimah, the budding guard play of Jalen Adams -- were always stronger than the record showed. (Blame a habit of close losses and/or late collapses for that.) Kevin Ollie will add four top-100 prospects to an already mostly intact mix, led by point guard Alterique Gilbert.
Nearly every team in these rankings will be awaiting a major draft decision or two, and some of these teams' seasons will hinge on that decision. None more so than Seton Hall, where sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead, coming off a relentless, high-volume scoring performance and a Big East tournament title, entered the draft without hiring an agent. He seems intent on remaining only if he's not guaranteed to go in the first round. This return is make or break.
For more on how the Pirates will look in 2016-17, check out Seton Hall's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
This spot depends on Monte Morris' draft decision. If he's back, the departure of irreplaceable forward Georges Niang (plus Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay) doesn't look quite so dire. At the very least, ISU's starting lineup will look recognizable. If Morris is gone, though, the Cyclones will have Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas, Deonte Burton and ... that's it.
For more on how the Cyclones will look in 2016-17, check out Iowa State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
No one expected much from Saint Mary's last season, not after it lost four senior starters, including workhorse forward Brad Waldow. Even the Gaels' own nonconference schedule felt calibrated more for ease and confidence building than NCAA tournament cred. Instead, Saint Mary's posted top-five shooting marks from both inside and outside the arc, swept Gonzaga in the regular season for the first time in 20 years, and finished 29-6 overall. All five starters are back. Expectations will be slightly different this time around.
24. UCLA Bruins
Things haven't been great in Westwood lately. After UCLA finished 15-17, Steve Alford-related angst reached a fever pitch; someone started flying banners over campus; and Alford even gave back a year of his contract extension as a gesture of conciliation. The best way to quell the unrest? Win. And with the nation's top point guard, Lonzo Ball, arriving this summer, the Bruins seem likely to do a bit more of just that in 2016-17.
For more on how the Bruins will look in 2016-17, check out ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.
The Bearcats got quality stuff from forward Octavius Ellis, and his low-post production and toughness will be missed. Then again, Mick Cronin's Cincy teams are never low on either attribute, and with Troy Caupain and Gary Clark returning, freshman Jarron Cumberland joining up, and the usual fistfight-level rebounding and defense, this team will be just as tough as ever next season.
For more on how the Bearcats will look in 2016-17, check out Cincinnati's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.