Until the start of next year’s March Madness, the Villanova Wildcats are your NCAA Men’s College Basketball National Champions. The Wildcats finished off an impressive tournament run by outlasting the North Carolina Tar Heels in the title game in dramatic fashion, earning just the second national title in the history of their program.
While all college basketball enthusiasts should appreciate Villanova’s championship, another offseason without the excitement of the game can be difficult to deal with, making it understandable if you want to start thinking about next season. Seeing as it’s truly never too early to consider who the top schools in the country will be when the 2016-17 season kicks off, we have our projected top five teams for next season.
While it may be surprising that neither the Wildcats or the Tar Heels hold a spot in our rankings, it is important to realize that these rankings are based off of recruiting classes and returning players. With those factors in mind, we believe these teams have the best chance to cut down the nets in Phoenix next April.
5. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers had a great season in 2015-16, winning the Big 10 regular season title and reaching the Sweet 16. They will lose some key players from that team (namely the spectacular Yogi Ferrell), but Indiana will also retain several key pieces. Freshman center Thomas Bryant was a bright spot during the team’s run — averaging nearly 12 points and six rebounds per game — and should come back even better next season. Others like Troy Williams, James Blackmon Jr., and several underclassmen will return as well, providing strong experience for the team.
To further their case, Indiana will also receive a strong recruiting class, which ranks 17th in the nation. Head coach Tom Crean has brought the Hoosiers to national prominence following a rough start to his tenure with the school, and next season’s team could have the best chance to reach the Final Four — a place the storied program hasn’t been since 2002 — since he arrived in 2008.
4. Arizona Wildcats
After reaching back-to-back Elite Eights, Arizona took a step back this season, losing to Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, with an impressive recruiting class coming in, Sean Miller’s club should be able to rebound and reestablish themselves as one of the top programs in the country. That class ranks sixth in the nation at this point and includes two players ranked in ESPN’s top 20.
Those additions should allow the Wildcats to overcome the loss of several key players from this past season’s squad. While seniors Gabe York, Ryan Anderson, and Kaleb Tarczewski won’t return to Tucson next season, the team will retain some key underclassmen, most notably Allonzo Trier — who decided to forgo the NBA draft and remain a Wildcat for at least one more campaign.
Trier was third in scoring for Arizona with 14.8 points per game in his freshman season and should see an increased role with the aforementioned seniors leaving campus. Overall, the Wildcats are gearing up to return to the top of the Pac-12 in 2016-17 and could be right back in the Elite Eight next March.
3. Kentucky Wildcats
As is usually the case with John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, the team’s roster will receive an overhaul once again next season. Key players from this past season’s squad like freshmen Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere, sophomore Tyler Ulis, and senior Alex Poythress will all move on from the program, meaning that Calipari has to reload once again.
Luckily for the Wildcats, that method has worked since the coach arrived in 2009. In his seven seasons in Lexington, Calipari has led Kentucky to four Final Fours on the backs of a different casts of superstar freshmen — indeed, this is Cal’s M.O., and he makes no bones about it.
Next season will be no different, as the Wildcats have the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation at this point, which includes a mind-boggling five players ranked in ESPN’s top 30. With some key underclassmen returning — think Isaiah Briscoe among others — there’s little reason to think that Kentucky won’t be right back in position to reach another Final Four this time next year.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Similar to Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils are accustomed to reloading with freshman talent season after each season. Leading scorer Grayson Allen (a sophomore who averaged 21.6 points per game in 2015-16) is headed to the NBA next season. So is freshman sensation Brandon Ingram, who could be the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
That’s a lot of firepower to replace — and Duke will lose several key senior players, such as Marshall Plumlee. Coach K has proven to be a master recruiter in his long tenure in Durham, N.C., however, which is why the Blue Devils could be in position for yet another Final Four run next season. Duke’s recruiting class currently ranks second in the country, only behind Kentucky, thanks to the signing of the top two players in ESPN’s top 100 (their class also boasts four players in the top 50).
Those instant impact freshman will come in and contribute to a team that also will see key players like Matt Jones return to campus. If those recruits pan out, the Blue Devils could be hoisting their third national championship trophy since 2010 next April.
1. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are likely still coming to terms with their most recent March Madness campaign, seeing as Middle Tennessee State dramatically upset them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, Tom Izzo’s team should be right back in the mix next season, despite some key losses from this year’s team.
The brilliant Denzel Valentine will move on to the NBA. Other leading scorers, seniors Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, won’t return to campus either, but a strong group of underclassmen will be back in East Lansing, Mich., in 2016-17. Couple that with a great recruiting class and it’s easy to understand why the Spartans will be one of the best teams in college basketball next season.
Michigan State has the third-best recruiting class in the nation at this point and the incoming group of freshmen includes four players in ESPN’s top 50. That class will help replace the enormous loss of Valentine and keep the Spartans rolling in the Big 10. As evidenced by his seven Final Four appearances with the school, Izzo is one of the best basketball minds in the nation and knows how to get the most out of his players. A strong roster could lead the coach to his second championship next season.