Duke has been built up as a preseason superteam the last two years only to ultimately fall short in March. What makes this year different? You can start with raw talent: the Blue Devils have the top three incoming recruits in the country for the first time in the modern era with R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish. Unlike a season ago when Duke was built around two freshmen big men (Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III), this year’s trio of stars are all wings with versatile skill sets who can impact the game in multiple ways on both ends of the floor.
This Duke team will not be a pushover on defense like last year’s squad. It will have a more stabilizing presence at point guard with its fourth freshman star, Tre Jones. There’s also a solid veteran supporting cast in place, led by junior big man Javin DeLaurier. Meanwhile, Barrett, Williamson and Reddish are each so individually talented that there’s a legitimate chance they go 1-2-3 in June’s NBA draft. It might feel like Duke has a purported superteam every year at this point, but it’s never had one quite like this.
The Jayhawks have an embarrassment of riches this season, combining proven veteran talent with blue chip freshmen to form what feels like the deepest team in college basketball. Dedric Lawson will be the headliner as a dynamic 6’9 playmaking power forward who averaged nearly 20 points per game last time he played at the college level for Memphis. Lawson will be matched in the front court with Udoka Azubuike, the monstrous center who shot 77 percent from the floor last year but famously struggles at the foul line. Freshman David McCormick provides depth up front even without ineligible forward Silvio De Sousa.
The backcourt features potential top-10 draft pick Quentin Grimes, a sturdy 6’5 guard who can score from all three levels and play on- or off the ball. He’ll be flanked by veteran sharpshooter Lagerald Vick, shifty transfer point guard Charlie Moore (via Cal), and freshman floor general Devon Dotson. The Jayhawks just have so many different ways to beat you.
The Zags are all about balance, versatility and experience. Junior Killian Tillie is an inside-out big man who established himself as one of the most efficient scorers in the country last season, hitting 48 percent of his threes to buoy a 67 percent true shooting percentage that ranked No. 16 nationally. Zach Norvell, a redshirt sophomore shooting guard out of Chicago, was the breakout star of the Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament run last year after dropping 28 points on Ohio State in the round of 32. Josh Perkins was a starter on the national runner-up team two years ago, giving the Zags a big lead guard who lacks athleticism but brings knockdown shooting prowess.
The x-factor is Rui Hachimura, a 6’9 forward out of Japan who can swing from the three to the five depending on what look Mark Few wants to give opponents. Hachimura, who came on strong last year and was a monster for Japan in FIBA U19 games over the summer, can be a first round NBA draft pick with continued development. Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall each profile has high-impact transfers, providing depth in the front court and on the perimeter, respectively. The Zags have a proven coach, a winning culture, and very few holes in the rotation.
4. North Carolina
It’s crazy to think North Carolina has only had one top-10 draft pick (Harrison Barnes) in the last 10 years. Nassir Little is going to change that. The 6’7 wing shot up the rankings towards the end of his senior year, winning MVP at the McDonald’s All-American Game and projecting as the type of long, versatile and active wing teams at every level covet. Little is a premier talent, but he’s far from the only draw at UNC. A strong veteran core returns, led by big man Luke Maye, combo forward Cameron Johnson and off-guard Kenny Williams. The common thread between those three? They each offer the potential for knockdown shooting from three-point range.
The Tar Heels lose Joel Berry, who is one of the most decorated point guards in program history. He’ll be replaced by five-star freshman Coby White, a score-first combo guard who will need to prove his facilitating chops for this team to reach its potential. Sophomore centers Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman will be a factor, too. Carolina has experience, shooting, and star power. Defensive improvement for a unit that only finished No. 38 in efficiency last year and offensive cohesion will be two things to watch.
Virginia isn’t going to forget the pain of last season’s unprecedented loss to 16th-seeded UMBC anytime soon, but the best way to start getting over it is by reminding everyone that this is one of the country’s most reliably successful programs. Virginia plays to a system as much as any school in the country. You know you’re going to get determined and efficient pack-line defense mixed with an offense that delivers just enough at a tortoise’s pace. This year’s team comes with the added benefit of a trio of perimeter stars who combine high-upside with proven productivity.
De’Andre Hunter is a shot-making wing who could be a lottery pick with a big redshirt sophomore year. Kyle Guy is a flashy but effective scorer in the backcourt, where he teams with junior Ty Jerome, a point guard with an immense all-around skill set on both ends of the court. The front court — Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt, Jay Huff — should offer a nice complement even if the individual players aren’t as well known. Get your laughs in at UVA while you still can because Tony Bennett is going to have another stacked team once again.
Another year, another loaded Kentucky team. At this point, John Calipari rosters almost have to get graded on a curve, which begs the question: just how good is this one? There remains some debate. The Cats don’t have an obvious top-five future draft pick like they normally do, though freshman swingman Keldon Johnson could make a run at the lottery with a big year. He’ll be joined by Tyler Herro on the wing, the type of prolific shooter this roster badly needed.
Even with Herro, shooting will be an issue for Kentucky again, as it was last year. The hope is that a deep and experienced front court can make up for it. P.J. Washington feels like a potential star in his sophomore season as a long and strong big man who can beat you up inside or attack you with his face-up game. Reid Travis is the biggest transfer in the country, after spending four years at Stanford establishing himself as a monster interior scorer and rebounder. Travis has also blocked nine shots combined the last two years and doesn’t shoot it, which could factor into Calipari’s crunch time lineups. Kentucky looks great on paper, but they have real questions to answer before we know how good they truly are.
Nevada was a Sweet 16 team a year ago that returns its three biggest stars, adds more depth via transfers and debuts one of the most touted freshman recruits in program history. You can start with Martin twins, Cody and Caleb, who pulled out of the draft to return for one more season. They complement each other well — Caleb averaged nearly 19 points per game, while Cody is the superior defender and passer — and serve as the backbone of a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.
Jordan Caroline, a powerfully built 6’7 forward with an inside-out game, also returns. Trey Porter, a 6’11 center from Old Dominion, and Nisre Zouzoua, a 6’2 scorer from Bryant, headline a group of five transfers that should all factor into the rotation. Jordan Brown, a McDonald’s All-American center out of California, offers the type of front court talent you rarely see in the Mountain West. That’s a fitting description for this entire roster: Nevada might not be a power-five powerhouse, but they sure feel like one.
The Vols were picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC last year before coming into their own as a dominant defensive team with inside scoring, a touch of shooting and a smothering defense. By the end of the year, Tennessee had a share of a conference title and were a trendy pick to make a deep tournament run before becoming another victim for Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella journey. Now almost every key piece is back, forming a six-deep rotation of junior and seniors.
Grant Williams, a 6’7, 240-pound big man, returns as the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Admiral Schofield is a worthy co-star as another 240 pound bruiser who also hit 64 threes at a 40 percent clip last season. Kyle Alexander is the final piece of the front court as a big-time shot blocker and offensive rebounder who should build off a breakthrough junior year. The guards -- juniors Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner — form a steady perimeter attack and all shot at least 38 percent from three last season.
Villanova is coming off one of the most dominant national championship runs of the decade, putting together a historically efficient offensive season that put four players into the first round of the NBA draft last June. As it stands, this should feel like a rebuilding season for Nova, yet they’re still a bonafide top-10 team because of the return of two seniors who averaged double-figures in scoring and the arrival of a promising recruiting class.
Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are the holdovers, and will serve as the backbone of this year’s team. Paschall is the ideal Nova big man: a tough and active rebounder with springs in his legs who can also stretch the floor from three-point range. Booth is a savvy veteran guard who will get to see what he can do in a bigger role this year. There’s also McDonald’s All-American freshman Jahvon Quinerly, who fills the sizable shoes of Jalen Brunson with a flashy but functional game defined by highlight reel ball handling ability. Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree finally get to show what they can do in the front court, while oversized wing Cole Swider looks like a freshman to watch. Nova won’t be as good as last season, but they’ll still be damn good.
All Auburn did last season was set a program record for victories and win a share of the SEC title in the face of an FBI investigation that saw an assistant coach get arrested and two starters ruled ineligible. What does Bruce Pearl and co. do for an encore? The majority of the roster returns, including star center Austin Wiley and junior forward Danjel Purifoy, who have been cleared following the investigation. Point guard Jared Harper also returns as a playmaking floor general who doubles as a pesky defender.
The loss of Mustapha Heron to St. John’s as a transfer hurts, but Bryce Brown (16 points per game) provides a reliable scoring punch on the wing around a stacked front court. Expect a big play defense, a quick strike offense and another year where the sum of the Tigers feels greater than individual parts.
11. Michigan State
This feels like a more traditional Michigan State roster. After failing to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament the last two years with rosters highlight by future NBA studs Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans have a veteran group this year with no apparent draft picks. The 2016 recruiting class that was once highlighted by Bridges still has three holdovers that act as the backbone for this team. Point guard Cassius Winston is one of the country’s top facilitators, big man Nick Ward is automatic offense inside, and Josh Langford will be looking for a breakout campaign with a bigger role. The Spartans don’t have as much hype this year, but it feels like that’s usually when they’re at their best.
Year One of the Will Wade era proved LSU basketball was trending up. It’s Year Two when the Tigers are expected to take a massive leap. Sophomore Tremont Waters could be one of the best point guards in America. Waters isn’t the biggest or fastest lead guard in CBB, but he’s a high volume and accurate three-point shooter and gifted playmaker. There’s a slew of newcomers around Waters, led by a pair of five-star recruits in the front court: Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams. Williams is an ultra bouncy forward who dunks everything, while Reid is a bruiser with soft touch from the perimeter. Keep an eye on the transfers, too: Kavell Bigby-Williams adds interior depth from Oregon, and Marlon Taylor arrives from the JUCO level as a high-flying wing.
The lethargy of the Johnny Jones era is gone. LSU basketball is one of the most exciting programs in the country.
Oregon is fully reloaded after breaking a five-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances under Dana Altman. All eyes will be on Bol Bol, the 7’2 son of Manute Bol, who doubles as a knockdown three-point shooter and fearsome shot blocker. Louis King is another blue chip freshman, a dynamic scorer who will fill it up on the wing. There’s also a strong veteran contingent, led by productive point guard Payton Pritchard and versatile big man Kenny Wooten. Throw in Ehab Amin, a late transfer by way of Nevada/Texas A&M CC, for scoring punch off the bench, and Altman suddenly has a ton of different looks he can go to.
14. Virginia Tech
Buzz Williams is slowly building Virginia Tech from the ground up, stringing together three straight 20 win seasons and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances after the program missed the Big Dance for nine straight years. Could this be his best team yet with the Hokies? Justin Robinson is the type of dynamic senior point guard it takes to win big games. Nickeil Alexander-Walker provides size and shooting next to him, and could be poised for a breakout year in his sophomore season. Also keep an eye on Chris Clarke, an athletic combo forward in the mold of another player Williams once coached: Jae Crowder. If the bench can find a contributor or two, expected the Hokies to be a pest in the ACC once again.
15. Kansas State
There was a growing assumption that Bruce Weber may have been on the hot seat at Kansas State last season until a startling Elite Eight run changed the narrative in Manhattan. The Wildcats benefitted from UMBC’s historic upset, but they also took out a heavily favored Kentucky team in the Sweet 16, and did it all without injured star Dean Wade. Now everyone is back — Wade included. K-State won’t catch anyone by surprise this year as Barry Brown and Xavier Sneed will join Wade in carrying the offense. This remains first and foremost a team with a defensive identity, and that shouldn’t change with raised expectations. Now the rest of the country is waiting to see if Weber’s Cats were a one-year wonder in March, or if this is only the start of an emerging contender.
Syracuse was firmly on the bubble going into Selection Sunday again last season only to make the field, pull a giant upset over Michigan State, and reach the second weekend of the tournament. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Orange return everyone from last year’s team, most notably go-to scoring guard Tyus Battle. Oshae Brissett is a potential breakout candidate as an oversized wing scorer entering his sophomore season. Paschal Chukwu is a 7’1 shot blocker who will hold the zone together. Syracuse might not make it look pretty, but they always seem to get the job done.
17. West Virginia
To believe that West Virginia deserves this type of preseason ranking is to believe that Bob Huggins always has something up his sleeve. The Mountaineers lose star point guard Jevon Carter and second leading scorer Daxter Miles. Most of the key returning pieces play up front, led by the country’s most intimidating shot blocker, Sagaba Konate, and combo forward Esa Ahmad. This could be built up as a rebuilding year for most programs, but Huggins has guided WVU to the Sweet 16 three times in the last four years with lesser expectations. He’ll figure something out again.
The Gators have veteran shooters on the wings, one of the better shot blockers in the country, and a freshman point guard at the controls who is already creeping up on NBA radars. Mike White is building Florida into something big (just look at next year’s recruiting class), and this year’s team should only reinforce that. KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson are a terrific offensive combo playing next to incoming floor general Andrew Nembhard, the 6’4 Canadian who put himself on the map during the FIBA U18 tournament. Kevarrius Hayes returns as a rim protector. There’s also a pair of top 100 freshmen (Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke) set to provide depth and stability for the future. The Gators are coming.
TCU broke a 20-year NCAA tournament drought last season. What can Jamie Dixon do for an encore? It starts with replacing his two leading scorers and figuring out how to integrate star guard Jaylen Fisher coming off knee surgery. TCU built a blistering offense that ranked in the top-10 in efficiency last season, and there’s potential to do it again. Fisher is joined on the perimeter by Alex Robinson and Desmond Bane; Robinson is one of the Big 12’s best facilitators, while Bane is one of the conference’s top shooters. The front court could make all the difference this year. TCU welcomes JUCO transfer Yuat Alok and his versatile skill set as well as Kevin Samuel, a 6’10 center who was a former four-star recruit. The Big 12 offers no nights off, and TCU’s ascent only makes the conference that much tougher.
Marquette has as much shooting as any team in the country. Star guard Markus Howard dropped 52 points (and 11 threes) in a game against Providence last year and appears poised to become one of the biggest stars in the sport as a junior. He has an ideal running mate in Sam Hauser, a 6’8 wing who made 95 threes at a 48.7 percent clip last year. While the offense ranked No. 12 in efficiency last year, the defense was No. 182. The hope is that Edward Morrow, a transfer from Nebraska, can add the rim protection and interior toughness needed to fix that side of the floor.
Michigan loses three key pieces from last year’s team that went all the way to the national title game, but also returns enough proven contributors and high-upside pieces to deserve a spot in the preseason rankings. Charles Matthews is back to act as the de facto replacement for Moritz Wagner as Michigan’s new star. Sophomore shooting guard Jordan Poole is expected to be a breakout candidate, while Isaiah Livers and freshman Ignas Brazdeikis will be counted on to fill the void of front court shooting. The Wolverines also return two of their best defensive players: center Jon Teske and point guard Zavier Simpson. Count on John Beilein to find a way.
Carsen Edwards just might be the best player in college basketball. That’s the first thing you need to know about Purdue this season. The junior point guard will be in the spotlight all year long, but it’s the strength of his supporting cast that will determine just how good the Boilermakers are. Ryan Cline is a proven shooter at off-guard, but the rest of the lineup has something to prove. That includes 7’2 center Matt Haarms, sophomore wing Nojel Eastern and Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux.
23. Florida State
Florida State finished eighth in the ACC last year only to become one of the final eight teams standing in March Madness. The Noles’ run included upsets over favored Xavier and Gonzaga that they were able to pull off because the roster was big and athletic enough to play with anyone in college basketball. That remains the case this season. Forward Phil Cofer and wing Terance Mann return as seniors to provide proven scoring punch, while Trent Forrest takes over at point guard for C.J. Walker. If sophomore guard M.J. Walker lives up to his recruiting hype, it could push FSU over the top.
Washington’s first year under Mike Hopkins offered the exact type of turnaround the program was hoping for post-Lorenzo Romar. The Huskies jumped from nine wins to 21 wins in a season that included signature victories against Kansas and Arizona. Now it’s about making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. Jaylen Nowell returns after being one of America’s most productive freshman guards a season ago, averaging 16 points per game. He’ll be joined by 6’5 senior Matisse Thybulle, a lockdown perimeter defender who posted the fourth best steal rate in the country. Noah Dickerson is back as well to add dependable post scoring. This is a hyper-athletic roster ready to make a jump.
The sales pitch on Indiana starts with the 1-2 punch of Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. Langford gets all the attention as the five-star freshman who chose the Hoosiers after a record-setting high school career in the state. Morgan, a bruising senior big man, lacks Langford’s NBA hype, but has established himself as one of the great interior scorers in the country. Archie Miller should have enough to work with in the supporting cast, starting with junior guard Devonte Green and junior big De’Ron Davis. Hoosier fans are clamoring for a winner after two straight sub-20 win seasons. They have to make it count in their only year with Langford.