By Jason Earle
The 2016-17 college basketball season has finished at last, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t already looking towards next season here at WPTS. Though some players are still deciding on whether they will take their next step and declare for the NBA Draft, it’s time to take a look at where the teams shake out for the start of next season.
Seemingly every year now the Cats and Blue Devils are placed 1-2 in the preseason poll. It’s the same story with John Calipari year after year. Once again, he’ll lose a star-studded freshman class headlined by Malik Monk, DeAaron Fox, and Bam Adebayo and replace it with some more young talent. Karl Anthony-Towns, a Calipari product and NBA star, was younger than every starter in the National Championship game this year. In comes another group of talented Kentucky freshmen in Nick Richards, P.J. Washington, Quade Green, and Jarred Vanderbilt. All four are ranked in the top 25 of the 2017 class according to ESPN.
The Blue Devils seem to be taking a similar approach as the Wildcats in acquiring the premier players of each year’s recruiting class. Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum will depart after their freshman seasons, but Duke brings in a couple of top ten recruits in Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. Additionally, Frank Jackson is expected to return for his sophomore season while Grayson Allen is still on the fence. If both return, the Blue Devils could be bound for another ACC title in 2018.
Arizona must deal with the loss of freshman big man Lauri Markkanen, but Sean Miller will replace him with seven-footer DeAndre Ayton. The question mark will be if Ayton, the #2 recruit of the 2017 class according to ESPN, can provide game inside and outside like Markkanen could. The Cats are also anxiously awaiting the decision of Allonzo Trier, the team’s leading scorer last season. Regardless, it looks to be another good year for Sean Miller’s crew. Maybe Miller will finally reach the Final Four in 2018.
Another group that will have to suffer through the departures of some stellar freshmen, the Bruins look to improve upon their most recent successes and continue the upward trend of UCLA basketball next year. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are gone after a single season, but Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands will look to take the reigns of a young UCLA team. Oh, and the next Ball brother, LiAngelo, begins his UCLA career that will likely last longer than his older sibling’s.
Whether it’s meaningful or not, Josh Jackson has yet to declare for the NBA Draft. If, by some miracle, Jackson elected to return, Kansas would probably jump a couple more places in the rankings. However, the loss of Frank Mason III is a huge one, especially in a year where the Jayhawks don’t bring in an outstanding recruiting class. 6’10” forward Billy Preston is really the only bright spot in next year’s group. But Bill Self has found ways to keep his players at KU, as Mason stayed for four years. Devonte’ Graham will return for his senior season and hopefully take some of Mason’s role as the veteran guard leader of the Jayhawks.
- West Virginia
The Mountaineers’ recruiting class for 2017 is far from stellar, but they bring back a ton of talent including four of their top six scorers. Jevon Carter will return and likely lead the offensive production again while Esa Ahmad, Daxter Miles Jr. and Elijah Macon will all make solid contributions as well. Bob Huggins’ group is likely to be a Big 12 title contender once again and could provide a tough challenge for the Jayhawks atop the conference.
The Gators bring back leading scorer KeVaughn Allen in addition to Chris Chiozza, the man who hit the miracle floater from three point range to send Florida to the Elite Eight. If Devin Robinson returns for his senior season, Florida keeps a dynamic 6’8” forward to lead the team as a veteran. The Gators don’t lose too much from their Elite Eight team of last season. They’re tournament-bound once again and have the potential to make a deep run.
- North Carolina
This was the year for North Carolina to win a title, because the roster is about to take a major hit. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks graduate while Justin Jackson will almost certainly declare for the NBA Draft. Joel Berry II, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, has yet to make his NBA decision but would be a vital asset if he elects to return for his senior season. Tony Bradley and Theo Pinson are both expected to hang around for another year and provide additional offensive production. Roy Williams is another coach who prefers to develop his players and maintain them for multiple seasons, and Jalek Felton is his headline recruit, a 6’3” shooting guard that would pair well with Berry if he comes back.
Donovan Mitchell’s future will play a big role in the future of the Cardinals as a team. If he returns for his junior season, Mitchell would indubitably be one of the best returning players in the country and would likely make Louisville a national title contender. Even if he doesn’t come back, the Cards keep Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, and Anas Mahmoud with an incoming class that features 6’11” Malik Williams and another point guard in Darius Perry.
Nigel Williams-Goss, it’s all on you. If the Wooden Award finalist returns for his senior season, the Bulldogs have the potential to make another Final Four run. Przemek Karnowski graduates while Zach Collins will likely turn pro. Josh Perkins would be the best player on the team if Williams-Goss departs, and that’s not a Final Four group with little incoming talent.