N2K’s WAY Too Early Favorites To Win the 2017 NCAA Tournament

Yeah, it’s already that time to start looking ahead to next year in college basketball. The season really never stops, with recruits signing daily and transfers coming and going changes the landscape of college basketball daily. But even with those changes, there are few schools who have already separated themselves from the pack.

Just Missed The Cut

North Carolina Tarheels– Too many important pieces lost and a lack of a strong recruiting class leaves the Heels off. North Carolina has too many unproven players on their roster to be taken as a serious threat.

Oregon Ducks- They return a lot of key pieces, but last year just seemed a bit too great to be true. The addition of a stronger Pac-12 will bring difficulties to the Ducks.

Villanova Wildcats– The recently crowned champs lose their heart and soul Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and could also lose Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, who declared for the NBA draft.

UCLA Bruins

I understand the Bruins didn’t live up to expectations and didn’t even play in the NCAA Tournament, but hear me out. They are projected to return every single scholarship player, outside of Tony Parker, and while that may not sound like a good thing from a team that had average success, experience is unteachable and huge in March.

UCLA brings back a host of backcourt options, including coach’s son Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday. Also returning is big man Thomas Welsh, who showed big time improvements from his freshman campaign to his sophomore one.

But what makes UCLA true contenders is their recruiting class led by National Player of the Year Lonzo Ball, who is ESPN’s #5 overall recruit. Ball led his Chino Hills team to a 35-0 record and won state and national titles. Ball averaged 23.4 points, 9.3 assists and 9.2 rebounds per game, numbers that would make Oscar Robertson blush.

But UCLA also adds another top 10 freshman in TJ Leaf. Leaf can score from inside or out, can run the court and has impressive hops for a 6’9″ power forward.

Also joining Leaf and Ball with be four star Ike Anigbonu, who projects as a big time rim protector. But you can’t sleep on three star wing Kobe Paras. Paras gained worldwide fame after dunking on LeBron James at the age of 15 while playing in the Philippines.

UCLA is certainly a dark horse, but with lower expectations and a strong recruiting class, ranked 4th overall by ESPN, could be enough for the Bruins to make a run.

Lonzo Ball
Lonzo Ball

 

Virginia Cavaliers

Replacing Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Anthony Gill will be tough, but Tony Bennett’s squad should still be ready to go next season.

The Cavaliers bring back lead guard London Perrantes, who will be this year’s version of Perry Ellis, and Marial Shayok. There are a lot of breakout candidates on this roster and Tony Bennett’s defensive system will once again make them contenders.

While Virginia has never been a hot bed for recruits, they have managed to pull in some solid players in the class of 2016.

Sharpshooting guard Kyle Guy is the best of the bunch, but Ty Jerome was the 8th best point guard according to ESPN, and he’ll provide some backcourt depth. Joining these guards are skinny big man Jay Huff, who stands 6’10” 195 pounds, so he might have to redshirt to put on weight.

The player that could really put this team over the top in the coming seasons is 6’7″ wing DeAndre Hunter, a huge sleeper in the 2016 class. He’s an exceptional athlete who also posses a good looking shot from mid range and three point range. With a little more polish on his game, he could have a Paul George-like rise.

Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks are losing a bunch of talent this year including seniors Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis and juniors Brannen Greene and Wayne Selden, both of whom hired agents to enter the NBA draft. Freshman Chieck Diallo also put his name in the NBA draft but did not hire an agent, meaning he could still return for a sophomore season.

Definitely returning for Kansas are the backcourt combo of DeVonte’ Graham and Frank Mason. The Jayhawks will also be bringing back 6’8″ wing Svi Mykhailiuk, who has been a breakout candidate the last two seasons, but has yet to live up to his immense potential.

In the front court, Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg, who will both have to take on expanded roles in the offense. Bragg rarely saw the court as a freshman, but has a good shooting stroke for a big man.

But the front court should get a big boost in incoming freshman Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike adds a huge amount of beef to the front line, standing 6’11” 270. He’s a monster down on the blocks and is an immovable object below the basket. Azubuike showed out in the McDonald’s All-American Game, scoring nine points, bringing in eight rebounds and blocking two shots.

The best part of this Kansas roster could still very well be uncommitted recruit Josh Jackson, who ranks 3rd on the ESPN Top 100. Jackson is in the mold of Andrew Wiggins coming out of high school, who also played at Kansas. With the Jayhawks currently needing some help on the wing, expect Bill Self to make a strong push for Jackson as National Signing Day nears.

Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson

Arizona Wildcats

The upcoming Wildcats roster could be the deepest one under coach Sean Miller, who has built quite a program in Tuscon.

Zona will lose main pieces Gabe York, Caleb Tarczewski and Ryan Anderson, but the returning squad could be lethal. Getting Allonzo Trier back for his sophomore season was  huge boost, and he’ll be part of what should be an insanely talented backcourt with Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen and incoming freshman Kobi Simmons. Simmons is a 6’5″ combo guard who is a blur with the basketball. Simmons can drive and dish with the best of them, but needs to work on his shot to become a true star.

Arguably the biggest addition to this team could be Ray Smith, who sat out his freshman year with a torn ACL but has Paul George potential written all over him. Joining him on the wings will be freshman Rawle Alkins, who is an aggressive driver to the basket and has plenty of athleticism.

The bigs up front should be solid as well, giving the Wildcats a well balanced and talented roster. Dusan Ristic returns for his junior season and former top 100 recruit Chance Comanche could break out after being lost in the shuffle his freshman year. Incoming Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen should provide valuable depth and will compete for a starting job right away.

The Wildcats are also on the lookout for Josh Jackson, and if they get him, him, Smith and Alkins could be special on the wings in the fast break.

Michigan State Spartans

Much like Kansas, Michigan State loses a ton of talent, led by Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello. But what Michigan State brings back is only trumped by what they have for incoming freshmen.

The returning talent would be enough to consider Michigan State anyways, especially with Tom Izzo roaming the sidelines. Leading the charge in 2016 will be Lourawls Nairn, Eron Harris and potentially Deyonta Davis. Davis was a stud in limited action as a freshman and could still enter the NBA draft and be a first round pick, but he hasn’t decided whether to return to school or enter.

Fellow freshman Matt McQuaid played well in his limited role, and he’ll be back as potential breakout candidate along with Marvin Clark Jr.

But in a surprising yet great twist, Tom Izzo has raked in top 40 recruits, led by five stars Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. Bridges is an explosive athlete on the wing and can throw down dunks with ease. Langford has an incredible story and can score inside and out. Joining the two five stars will be point guard Cassius Winston and big man Nick Ward.

But Sparty is the final team in the running for Josh Jackson and could be considered the favorite to land the Michigan native who plays his high school ball in California. Jackson is a close friend with Miles Bridges, who has been recruiting him to play for Izzo ever since he signed his National Letter of Intent.

Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky made headlines a few weeks ago when coach John Calipari announced that every eligible player will put their name in the draft, but not all of them hired an agent.That does not include Alex Poythress, who was a senior this past season.

The only players that could not declare were freshmen Tai Wynyard and Isaac Humphries, who aren’t old enough to play in the NBA, per rules.

But it seems as though most of the players will be returning outside Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis, depending on what other players hire agents. That being said, Kentucky should bring back a deep and talented roster, which doesn’t include their number one overall class for 2016.

Notable projected to return players in the backcourt are to-be sophomores Isaiah Briscoe and Charles Matthews, both of whom were top 50 recruits in 2015. Kentucky doesn’t bring back much on the wings, but Matthews is certainly capable of sliding over to small forward, something he could do with the guard recruits Kentucky hauled in. Up front, Wynyard and Humphries return along with Marcus Lee, who put his name in the draft but will likely return for his senior season.

John Calipari is known for getting top flight recruits who spend just one year under his guidance and become stars in the NBA. Derrick Rose, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns are just some of the names he’s coached. His class this year could be his best yet.

He brought in 4 five star recruits, led by power forward Bam Adebayo, who dunks everything, high flying guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox and Wenyan Gabriel, an unfinished project who was a late bloomer but has loads of potential. Also not be outdone is Sacha Killeya-Jones, who was the 27th overall recruit.

Calipari has buit and empire at Kentucky, and this is his new batch of Wildcats that are primed to run through the SEC once again.

Malik Monk Dunk
Malik Monk

Duke Blue Devils

Duke returns every important piece of a Sweet Sixteen team outside of potential number one pick Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee. Grayson Allen deciding to come back really puts this team over the top, and he’ll likely enter next year as the top candidate to win Player of the Year and Most Hated Player.

Also returning for Duke are to-be sophomores Luke Kennard, Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter. Kennard became a valuable third scoring option down the stretch for Duke, Thornton was up and down, but overall solid, while Jeter had little success in his first season under Coach K. Sean Obi will also look to turn it around after a miserable season at Duke following his transfer from Rice.

The roster is projected to have two seniors in defensive ace Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson, who missed the majority of the season with a foot injury. Jefferson was a senior last season, but applied for a medical redshirt, and if it’s approved he’ll be able to play one more season.

But the Blue Devils also have a stacked recruiting class. They currently have the top two overall prospects and the number two class, according to ESPN rankings, signed and committed to play in the fall.

Harry Giles, the number one overall recruit is a special big man in the mold of Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber, and although he’s recovering from a torn ACL, he could be ready to go for the season opener.

Jayson Tatum is a small forward from Missouri, and he reminds people of Paul Pierce with his ability to hit mid range shots and get to his spots without having great athleticism. Frank Jackson is a five star combo guard from Utah, and he was a late riser in the rankings, but won the JamFest at the McDonald’s All-American Game. The final big name for Duke is Javin DeLaurier, a bouncy power forward from Virginia.

Frank Jackson
Frank Jackson

Duke has the look of a team that could run nine or 10 deep if they really wanted to. The Blue Devils project to have an inordinate amount of depth, something they sorely lacked in the 2015-2016 season.

 

Cover Photo via DukeReport

Other Photo via 247Sports

Gifs via DailyBruin, TheBigLead and MakeAGif

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