Hello, October. Hello, college basketball.
To most rational people, that distinct, damp chill in the air is a harbinger of pumpkin-spice everything, football-packed weekends and sightings of Mr. Autumn Man in his natural habitat. For college basketball fans, it means one thing: Another long offseason is mercifully at its end.
A lot can happen between April and October. By now, Villanova has fully soaked in its post-epic-title-game bath of glory. Tar Heels fans have (hopefully?) emerged from their collective, dissociative daze. A raft of NBA draft hopefuls and four-year graduates waved farewell; a loaded incoming class arrived to take their place. Over 700 transfers found new schools. Waivers were granted.
Official practices began this week; Madness Madness has started; media days are just around the corner; the first games of the season are just 40 days (!!) away. It is, in other words, no longer way too early to take an educated glimpse at the season ahead.
And so we give you the No-Longer-Way-Too-Early Top 25.
The big takeaway: For everything that has changed since April — and Nos. 2-24 have shifted a couple of times already — one constant remains: Duke is still No. 1, because Duke still looks like an absolute juggernaut.
1. Duke Blue Devils
If you’re tempted to overthink Duke’s April-to-October lock-in at No. 1 (particularly after Harry Giles’ knee surgery news), know this: The Blue Devils are just the sixth team of the past decade to quantifiably blend this much one-and-done talent with so many high-contribution returners. (One of whom, by the way, is likely preseason player of the year Grayson Allen.) The previous five rotations of this caliber all earned No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds. Two won titles. Put even more simply: This is the best roster in the country, coached by the winningest man in the history of the sport. So, no, it’s not exactly complicated.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Duke hoovered up the Nos. 1, 3, 10 and 16 prospects in a loaded incoming class … and ended up No. 2 in the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. That shouldn’t be possible, but such is life in the John Calipari era. The names change (goodbye Jamal Murray, hello to Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk!), but the pattern remains the same: Future pros show up, Calipari gels said future pros into a formidable unit in mere months, rinse, repeat. Which is why a team with so little left from last season’s roster (save Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries) can be conservatively penciled in as one of the nation’s best four or five squads — if not by November, then by March.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
Having spent 12 years transforming the Big 12 into his personal John Wooden cosplay shoot, Kansas coach Bill Self has little conceptual room left in which to improve. This team might just explore that space. Freshman Josh Jackson, a No. 1 overall candidate in next June’s NBA draft, is a chief reason why, but dual point guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham aren’t far behind — to say nothing of the terrifying perimeter defense those three could unleash together. Throw in senior center Landon Lucas and a potential breakout year from sophomore forward Carlton Bragg, and it’s no wonder Self seems so excited.
4. Villanova Wildcats
Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu were the heart-and-soul leaders throughout Villanova’s remarkable 2016 national title run; replacing them was always going to be impossible. A big part of Jay Wright’s plan for post-Ochefu life took a big hit in September, when the NCAA ruled five-star freshman forward Omari Spellman ineligible for 2016-17. The good news? Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and destined-to-be-underrated POY candidate Josh Hart will ensure the Wildcats still wield a devastating, floor-spreading attack, while sophomore Mikal Bridges might just thrive as a two-way smallball center. This is still a repeat threat, in other words, even if the odds feel longer at the margins than they did even three weeks ago.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
Exactly one program in college basketball has averaged a top-five finish in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings in the past three seasons. Here’s a hint: It isn’t Kentucky. Or Kansas. Or Duke. Here’s another hint: It starts with a “V” and ends with “-irginia.” Anyone wondering why the Cavaliers deserve a top-five preseason spot after losing players as good as Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill — or, for that matter, why opposing coaches can’t stop making Tony Bennett blush — well, there you have it. (Oh, and it’s only October, and Memphis transfer Austin Nichols already looks like a totally different player. Virginia will be just fine.)
6. North Carolina Tar Heels
In case you worried that North Carolina fans were rendered cynical by the events of April 4, 2016 — or that they had been converted, en masse, by the football-related doings of Oct. 2 — fear not. The Tar Heel faithful look plenty fired up from here. And they should be! Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson may be gone, but Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson and Kennedy Meeks (among others) are still very much in the building, making UNC one of 2016-17’s best blends of sheer talent and hard-won experience. What’s not to like?
7. Oregon Ducks
Before he won over millions of non-Duke fans this past March, Dillon Brooks was Oregon’s most important player. He was its leader in usage, shot rate and assist percentage, and every opposing defense’s trickiest inside-out matchup. It’s no small matter that he will miss an indefinite chunk of the 2016-17 season following foot surgery (particularly in lieu of 6-foot-6 wing Elgin Cook’s graduation in May). Still, coach Dana Altman has so many pieces at his disposal — namely former Villanova guard Dylan Ennis and late-blooming center Chris Boucher, both of whom needed favorable NCAA waivers to remain eligible — that he can afford to be patient with his star.
8. Wisconsin Badgers
The only piece of data one must know about the 2016-17 Wisconsin Badgers is as follows: Their entire 2015-16 roster, top to bottom, remains intact. How one chooses to interpret this data is sure to vary. ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman recently laid out the bearish case on the Badgers, and he may well be right. Here’s the bullish case: Greg Gard took over in mid-December, spent a month completely rewiring his team’s offense and turned a 9-9 start into a 13-4 Sweet Sixteen finish. Imagine what he’ll do with a full offseason. (Item No. 1: Make Wisconsin’s defensive rebounding great again!)
9. Xavier Musketeers
In the past two seasons, guard Myles Davis, a 3-and-D combo guard and eminently willing passer, has been one of Chris Mack’s most reliable perimeter fixtures. Davis’ indefinite suspension casts a fair bit of uncertainty over the 2016-17 Musketeers’ rotation. Assuming he does eventually return, Xavier will remain the biggest threat to Villanova’s ongoing Big East hegemony. But Mack has so many talented guards and wings (Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, JP Macura) that even the worst-case scenario still looks pretty promising.
10. Michigan State Spartans
By now, you know that historically great point guard Denzel Valentine is gone, and with him goes lights-out shooter Bryn Forbes, senior center Matt Costello and freshman one-and-done Deyonta Davis. You are also, no doubt, aware that guard Eron Harris is the Spartans’ only returning starter, and that Tom Izzo recently welcomed a talented recruiting class, led by No. 8 overall prospect Miles Bridges. What we don’t yet know is how Izzo will take the above conditions and nonetheless inevitably build his latest Big Ten title contender/overacheiving Final Four team, but that’s why he’s Izzo and we’re not.
11. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga keeps getting better. In May, the return of center Przemek Karnowski provided the chief source of optimism; even after losing Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Mark Few’s mix of returning players (Josh Perkins) and transfers (former top Washington recruit Nigel Williams-Goss, Missouri forward Jonathan Williams) would remain as relevant as ever. Since then, Few went out and landed Cal graduate transfer Jordan Mathews, an athletic guard who shot 42 percent from 3 a year ago and will be eligible to play immediately. Don’t look now, but this is a really good team.
12. Indiana Hoosiers
Bad news first: Colin Hartman, a key role-playing piece of Indiana’s recent run-and-gun revival, underwent knee surgery in late September after suffering an injury during a non-contact drill. His timetable for return is unknown. If that wasn’t bad enough, Tom Crean has also had to begin his team’s official practice regimen without junior college transfer forward Freddie McSwain and sophomore wing Juwan Morgan, both nursing injuries of their own. Good news: Guards Robert Johnson and James Blackmon were cleared to practice in September, and it is their talent — alongside sophomore center(piece) Thomas Bryant — that will ultimately mean the most for the Hoosiers in 2016-17.
13. Arizona Wildcats
“It didn’t matter that I was nine, or that I didn’t know how I was going to do it; all that mattered was that, someday, I’d make sure my mom would never have to work again. Now, she won’t have to, because I’m going to play for the Adelaide 36ers of the National Basketball League in Australia.” So wrote Terrance Ferguson, a five-star prospect committed to the University of Arizona. Ferguson’s (totally respectable) decision took a bite out of the Wildcats’ 2016-17 ceiling, but Sean Miller recruits so well he can lose a Terrance Ferguson and expect to field a talented Pac-12 title contender anyway.
14. Louisville Cardinals
There may be times this season when certain, let’s say, distractions make it difficult to focus on the quality of Louisville’s actual basketball. We won’t go so far as to call that a shame; given the circumstances, it probably tops out at “bummer.” Still, though: Rick Pitino will take McDonald’s All-American V.J. King and Penn transfer Tony Hicks and a bunch of dudes an average college basketball fan couldn’t pick out of a lineup and mold them into a terrifying, amorphous defensive beast. Pitino always does, and it’s always worth appreciating.
15. Purdue Boilermakers
If Caleb Swanigan has a breakout sophomore season — and he might — the Boilermakers may spend most of 2016-17 making this ranking look conservative. Importance-wise, Swanigan’s return was neck and neck with that of wing Vince Edwards, while the key hole from last season (center A.J. Hammons) can be capably filled by 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. Throw in Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht filling the crucial “someone to get the ball across half court” need, and there’s much to like about Matt Painter’s latest crew.
16. Saint Mary’s Gaels
The first Saint Mary’s team to sweep Gonzaga in the regular season since the mid-1990s pulled a Wisconsin, which is to say that basically its entire roster is intact. The Gaels demolished all expectations (including their own, judging by their nonconference schedule) last season by shooting the lights out; just two teams in Division I (Indiana and Belmont) posted a better effective field goal percentage. If SMC maintains that pace, and makes even marginal improvements on defense, a tournament bid, so elusive last March, will be an afterthought.
17. Syracuse Orange
The transfer market was particularly kind to Syracuse, both in the long-term — center Paschal Chukwu, formerly of Providence, will take the floor this fall after a year on the Orange-bedecked sidelines — and in the short. In August, after a late-breaking and contentious split from Nebraska, graduate transfer Andrew White announced he would take his talents to Central New York. White was a high-usage, high-efficiency perimeter scorer in Lincoln; his addition is a huge boon to a team with a promising frontcourt (especially sky-is-the-limit sophomore Tyler Lydon) but a backcourt left mostly vacant by graduation and the NBA draft. Vacancy filled.
18. Creighton Bluejays
One of the sneaky almost-but-not-quite bubble teams of the 2015-16 season will get a major talent boost in the form of Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster, who burst onto the scene as a freshman and averaged double-figures for two straight years before an epic falling-out with K-State coach Bruce Weber. Assuming everyone gets along in Omaha, Nebraska, Foster’s addition is a promising one to Greg McDermott’s impressively ready-made foundation.
19. West Virginia Mountaineers
This might be Bob Huggins’ most apparently talent-bereft team in at least three seasons. Here’s the thing: We’re not sure that matters. Since Huggins converted his program to its current “Press Virginia” incarnation two years ago, conventional appraisals of the Mountaineers’ talent can’t do a whole lot to tell you how good they’ll actually be. So, sure, Devin Williams made a surprise NBA draft jump. The collective, and how Huggins expertly employs it, may make that point moot.
20. Rhode Island Rams
After a season-long injury recovery, E.C. Matthews is back. He was the primary piece of Rhode Island’s 23-10 2014-15 season, when they finished with a top-15 adjusted efficiency defense. That’s the top reason to be excited about Dan Hurley’s team, but there are others, namely the continuity of the starting lineup. Will Dayton make this pick look silly come February? Maybe! We’ll let the Rams have their fun in the meantime.
21. Connecticut Huskies
Dubbing a team the class of the American Athletic Conference may not be the most fawning of compliments, but it appears to be true of Connecticut. Whether the Huskies will transcend these kinds of jokes (and they already have, forcefully so) will depend on what kind of leap Kevin Ollie coaxes from sophomore point guard Jalen Adams. Losing Daniel Hamilton was a blow, but there’s more talent on the way. Plus, despite all of last season’s frustrations, the Huskies were almost always one of the 15 best per-possession defenses in the country. That’s a pretty good place to start.
22. Maryland Terrapins
After a disappointing second half to his sophomore season, Melo Trimble‘s decision to return to College Park set the stage for an epic junior-year redemption. How so? Because for all of the Terps’ pieces — and Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens, Jaylen Brantley and Damonte Dodd are perfectly viable Big Ten players — Trimble will have nothing remotely resembling the rich talent that surrounded him a season ago. He will have to do even more. Maybe much more. It will be fun to see him try.
23. Iowa State Cyclones
Speaking of point guards eschewing long-shot draft odds and returning to drastically different rosters: Monte Morris, everyone! Iowa State’s resident king of the assist-turnover ratio will ply his trade without Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader by his side, but Morris will have Matt Thomas, Naz Long and potential breakout Deonte Burton to aid in the transition.
24. UCLA Bruins
This was always going to be a fascinating season in Westwood, but that curiosity was only further piqued by UCLA’s August tour of Australia, when hugely touted point guard Lonzo Ball was spectacular in every way … except shooting, in which he was abysmal. Ball made 33 percent from 2 and 17 percent from 3, but nonetheless took 33 percent of the Bruins’ available shots while on the floor. Three games isn’t enough to ignore UCLA’s season-long potential entirely, but it is interesting.
25. Florida State Seminoles
The temptation is so strong to throw a team like Wichita State on this list — out of nothing else but sheer respect for the fact that it has been a half-decade since Gregg Marshall finished a season worse than 17th in adjusted efficiency. Instead, the 2016-17 Shockers will have to settle for that plug and kindly cede the floor to Florida State, where likely lottery pick Jonathan Isaac will join up with last year’s best recruit in FSU hoops history, Dwayne Bacon. The talent is overwhelming.
Honorable mention: Wichita State Shockers, Texas Longhorns, California Golden Bears, Cincinnati Bearcats, USC Trojans, Oklahoma Sooners, Texas A&M Aggies, Dayton Flyers, Seton Hall Pirates, SMU Mustangs, San Diego State Aztecs, Virginia Tech Hokies