College basketball rosters for the 2017-’18 season are mostly set following last week’s NBA draft deadline. With that offseason milestone, we have a more clear picture of what to anticipate come autumn — certainly more so than in April, when I compiled my initial Top 25 for Athlon Sports.
I’ll have an updated Top 25 at Athlon next week. In the meantime, your boy has some thoughts on the variety of rankings published over the past week.
Pundits are high on Arizona
The Wildcats lost plenty from a 32-win team that won both a share of the Pac-12 regular-season championship, and the conference tournament. Guard Kobi Simmons was gone one way or another after his role diminished in the final two months; Finnish phenom Lauri Markkanen was among the first underclassmen to definitively enter the draft; Chance Comanche opted to explore his pro possibilities; and defensive-stopper Kadeem Allen graduated.
Yet for everything lost, Arizona actually upgrades in some facets for 2017-’18. UA is a near-unanimous choice for No. 1 across a variety of outlets for the Wildcats’ most hyped offseason in 20 years.
Sean Miller benefited from the trade deadline rule, now in its second year, perhaps more than any other college coach. With Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins opting to return after evaluating their NBA standing, Arizona has perhaps the best set of wings in the nation.
Incoming post player DeAndre Ayton joins senior Dusan Ristic in the frontcourt. Ristic has made marked improvements from season-to-season throughout his college career. If the trend continues, he could develop into one of the best 5s in the nation.
The reclassification of 5-star prospect Emmanuel Akot only adds to Arizona’s depth, and put UA over-the-top as the consensus No. 1.
All this praise adds to the pressure on Miller to reach his first Final Four. His accomplishments are routinely downplayed; Arizona’s won at least a share of four conference titles in his tenure and two Pac-12 Tournaments. The Wildcats have been to three Elite Eights and only bounced from the NCAA Tournament before the second weekend once. Miller’s arrival saved Arizona from extinction as a nationally relevant program.
Still, the program’s 17-year Final Four drought looms over the desert. Despite the heightened expectations, the Wildcats face question marks. UA was at its best offensively last season when Parker Jackson-Cartwright manned the point, but his progress as a defender — and the depth behind him — are two primary uncertainties for the likely preseason No. 1.
USC: Boom or bust
I’m not going to claim I started the USC bandwagon — not enough people pay attention for me to start any bandwagon — but I definitely got a good seat by jumping on early.
Now that the draft deadline’s past, USC’s wagon is now an overcrowded New York subway and I feel like my face is stuck in someone’s sweaty armpit. Probably Jason McIntyre’s.
The Trojans are the en vogue Top 10 pick ahead of the 2017-’18 season. Their standing is somewhat reminiscent of Xavier a season ago, only the Musketeers entered 2016-’17 with more of a track record behind Chris Mack. The lofty expectations now awaiting USC with Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, Shaqquan Aaron and Jordan McLaughlin all back in the fold signify the beginning of the boom period anticipated when Andy Enfield was hired as head coach in 2013.
The thing about expected booms, however, is they can easily turn into busts.
I really do love this USC team. It began to find its groove late in the season, winning two NCAA Tournament games and nearly crashing the Sweet 16. Had the Trojans held on to beat Baylor, I genuinely believe this USC could have made the unexpected run to Glendale that the other completed out of the South Region. Trendy picks often make me nervous, however.
The American Athletic is top-heavy
Anyone with even a passing understanding of recent college basketball knew adding Wichita State to the American Athletic Conference would bolster the conference. The AAC has more than Gregg Marshall and his impressive track record coming in, however.
Wichita State was another big winner from the draft deadline, with Shaq Morris and Markis McDuffie both opting to return. The Shockers aren’t just immediate AAC contenders — they’re 2018 Final Four contenders. Preseason Top 25 rankings reflect that, with Wichita State coming in almost universally as a Top 10 team.
The addition of another contender is a clear positive for the AAC, which saw two excellent teams in Cincinnati and SMU both receive middling 6-seeds in the last NCAA Tournament. Both were pit in brutal matchups during the first weekend of the Big Dance, with SMU drawing a USC team that had already beaten the Mustangs once; and the defensive-minded Cincy facing uptempo UCLA in the Round of 32.
With Wichita State comes more national respect for a fledgling conference. At the same time, Cincinnati and SMU won’t just cede control of the American over to the newcomers.
Both UC and SMU appear in the Top 25 of every major preseason ranking, and each lands in the Top 20 across a few. SMU has preseason Top 10 potential with the addition of Georgetown transfer Akoy Agau late in the week. Shake Milton’s return from testing the draft waters has SMU primed to defend its title against worthy challengers.
My conference can beat your conference?
The childish title to Paul Finebaum’s 2014 book was intended for football. But since the ACC bypassed the SEC on the gridiron in the 2016 season, it seems only fitting the conferences swap roles on the hardwood.
At least, that’s the indication of the latest wave of Top 25 rankings, which heap praise on the SEC.
Make no mistake, the ACC remains college basketball’s pace-setter. It has the defending national champion in North Carolina, a preseason No. 1 contender in Duke, a couple more Top 15 squads in Louisville and Notre Dame, and breakout candidates in Miami and Virginia Tech. Both Florida State and Virginia also have enough pieces to exceed expectations.
However, the SEC is tabbed to build on a surprising 2017, which ended with three teams in the Elite Eight, and one reaching the Final Four. Kentucky will again open the season in the Top 5, reloading with a ridiculous signing class. C’est la vie in Big Blue Nation.
Kentucky’s stranglehold on the SEC will be challenged, however. Florida came a few possessions from reaching the Final Four, and Mike White returns a corps earning initial Top 15 praise. KeVaughn Allen could be poised for an All-America caliber campaign.
P.J. Dozier’s decision to remain in the NBA draft may have docked South Carolina, which isn’t garnering much preseason Top 25 love. Still, Frank Martin is building something for the long haul.
Much of the intrigue in the SEC comes from beyond last season’s Elite Eight, though, with a variety of teams surfacing in various rankings. Texas A&M is expected to bounce back from a decline last season. The Aggies won the conference’s regular-season title in 2016. Arkansas is also projected to build off its Round of 32 run this past March.
The SEC’s biggest X-factor comes from Missouri, which has been dreadful for a half-decade. Nevertheless, the Tigers made USA Today‘s Top 25 on the strength of freshman Michael Porter Jr. That’s high praise for a freshman, especially considering how things unfolded for Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz the previous two seasons. But hey: remarkably high expectations are part of the culture in the SEC.
Not enough love for Purdue
Purdue flies in under the radar. Certainly retaining Biggie Swanigan for another season would have propelled the Boilers into every Top 25 — and perhaps some Top 10s — but as it stands, Matt Painter has a quiet contender.
Draft deadline news wasn’t all bad for Purdue. Hardly. Center Isaac Haas has seen significant improvement in his scoring output each of three seasons at Purdue. He could move into the 15 point-per-game territory as a senior. Fellow returnee Vince Edwards also spurned the draft. An excellent 3-point shooter (42 percent in 2016-’17) and distributor (3.2 assists per game), Edwards has an inside-out game that could be Purdue’s foundation.
The addition of 4-star swingman Nojel Eastern adds athleticism to the veteran lineup.
While Michigan’s retention of Moe Wagner elevated the Wolverines in the general punditry’s assessment, Purdue laid low. But the Boilers may be every bit as good as last March’s Big Ten Tournament champion.