College Basketball 2015-2016 Sneak Peek
The Top Five
1. North Carolina Tar Heels
While Duke is still celebrating their national title, it could be their interstate rival's time to shine next season. The Tar Heels return essentially everything, including All-American caliber guard Marcus Paige, to a team that was nearly an Elite Eight squad this past season. Brice Johnson has already announced he will return for his senior season and he could form a scary combo up front with Kennedy Meeks. Though, perhaps the two players in line for a huge breakout will be sophomores Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, both who are sure to stay. Jackson was North Carolina's best offensive weapon at the end of the year, and Pinson has an exciting mix of size and athleticism. While the ACC will certainly not be a breeze, it's about time Roy Williams leads a UNC team back into the Final Four and possibly beyond.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Only at Kentucky, could a team possibly lose up to seven players to the draft and still be considered a legit title threat but those are the expectations in Lexington these days. Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Karl Anthony-Towns are locks to go pro with the Harrison twins most likely joining. And, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Devin Booker all could join as well, although they would most likely be second-round picks. Even with that uncertainty, Calipari does at least return two steady veterans in guard Tyler Ulis and forward Alex Poythress, who missed essentially the whole year with an injury. Add to that a recruiting class that includes the usual fair share of studs (Skal Labissiere is considered the top player coming in this year), the Wildcats will certainly be in the mix even with a ton of potential losses to the pros.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
It must have been frustrating for Tony Bennett and Cavs fans alike. Despite being the most consistently strong team in the ACC, Virginia wasn't playing well at the right time and stud wing Justin Anderson was never again fully healthy, amounting to a deflating third round loss to Michigan State. But, Virginia will have a ton back for 2015-2016, including their floor general London Perrantes, effective wing Malcolm Brogdon and big man Mike Tobey. Add to that Anderson, who does have suitors on the next level, but could be motivated to return to Charlottesville after the end to last year. Much like North Carolina, a brutal ACC won't make anything easy but the Cavs have the defense, leadership and experience to be much better this year.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Mark Few and the 'Zags were painfully close to making their first Final Four together but ran into a better team in Duke. Though, the good news is that Spokane will once more will be loaded with talent, and that elusive Final Four could become reality in 2015-2016. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer was superb as a junior but isn't much of an NBA prospect, meaning he should stay. Joining massive Przemek Karnowski and sophomore Damontas Sabonis up front, Gonzaga could have the nation's best frontcourt. The loss of four-year contributor Kevin Pangos will hurt, but Josh Perkins, who missed most of 2014-2015, can step up big time for the Bulldogs.
5. Maryland Terrapins
After three unexciting years at Maryland, Mark Turgeron had his breakthrough in 2014-2015 in the Terps' first Big Ten season. The Terrapins were constantly neck-and-neck with Wisconsin all year inside the conference and even beat the Badgers once and earned a four seed before losing in the third round. The thing is, what Maryland has back is downright scary and they could become the Big Ten's top dog in just their second year in it. Sophomore guard Melo Trimble is returning and could have a huge year, while stretch four Jake Layman is also slotted to come back to College Park. Add to that the improvement of guard Dion Wiley and five-star center Diamond Stone and this is a really good team. The adjustment period from a surprise contender to force could be a challenge, but Maryland is a legitimate Final Four threat in 2015-2016.
Four Others to Watch
Kansas Jayhawks: Picking against Kansas in the Big 12 would be dumb, no matter how much Iowa State and others have risen. The Jayhawks have not so quietly won 11 straight conference titles and return a solid core, including guards Frank Mason and most likely Wayne Selden. While the loss of Cliff Alexander after just one year (was really too raw to make an impact this year) hurt Kansas' frontcourt they are still obviously a lofty threat.
Villanova Wildcats: Jay Wright once more has top-notch talent in Philly, where the Wildcats will have four-year starter Ryan Arcidiacono back at point guard, along with quickly improving big man Daniel Ochefu and solid Josh Hart. Add to that the addition of Jalen Brunson, a five-star prospect in some scouting services, and the Wildcats will roll to a Big East title. The question for Wright and the program, can they actually do something in March this time?
Duke Blue Devils: Don't expect the defending champs to lie back and not attempt a repeat. While Okafor and Winslow are locks to go pro, with Quinn Cook graduating, Coach K still has superb talent. Tyus Jones could stay and even if he doesn't, Grayson Allen proved he deserved a much larger role. Rice transfer Sean Obi is sure to make an impact, while Duke once more brings in an impressive recruiting class.
Iowa State Cyclones: Although the Cyclones killed many people's brackets last year, they should be improved this next season. Big man Georges Niang has already announced he plans to come back and he could be the Wooden Award front runner. Jameel McKay is a great rim protector and athlete and could break out this next year, while the backcourt of Naz Long and Monte Morris is full of talent. Plus, Fred Hoiberg is nearly certain to add his usual fair share of transfers this summer.
Other Interesting Storylines:
Smart at Texas: Although he said no to Illinois, Minnesota and UCLA, Shaka Smart had to move on sometime. Texas is one of the better jobs in college basketball, as Austin is a great city and the recruiting potential is great there. Smart will most likely have stud junior Isaiah Taylor at his disposal, and it will be very interesting to see how his "Havoc" defense transitions to the Big 12 and Texas.
Ben Simmons and LSU: LSU isn't usually the destination of top talents, but Australian forward Ben Simmons decided to join the Tigers, immediately electrifying a program that was on the rise under Johnny Jones. While Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin could have formed a scary duo with Simmons, they are off to the NBA. Even so, seeing the amazing athleticism and vicious dunks of Simmons could make Baton Rouge basketball alive again.
Who is the favorite in the Pac-12?: Arizona could legitimately lose five starters this off season (T.J. McConnell is graduating, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley going pro, Kaleb Tarczewski still considering). While Sean Miller is great, he won't even be able to completely recover from that. Oregon will also take major steps back without Joseph Young, perhaps leaving Utah as the team with the least flaws, although they will be without Delon Wright.
New Faces in the SEC: SEC basketball has been oft-criticized the past few years for it's lackluster performances and little competition to it's impressive football situation. But, the fresh waves of new coaches should rejuvenate the conference. While Alabama was unable to land Gregg Marshall, they still managed to reel in Avery Johnson, while Tennessee hired Rick Barnes. Add to that the continuation of the Bruce Pearl era at Auburn and Frank Martin and South Carolina finally in position to compete and it will be an interesting year in hoops in the Southeast.