The college basketball season is always fundamentally reshaped by the NBA Draft Deadline, because the decisions players make to stay with their teams or jump to the NBA dramatically affect the composition of rosters for the coming season. A lot of moving pieces are in play here, so after all the fits and starts and readjustments and revoked intentions, here’s how the top five stacks up:
1. Arizona Wildcats
There is a general agreement that Arizona made out the best of any team, even though Lauri Markkanen (as expected) went to the NBA and Chance Comanche (not expected) moved to the pros. The Wildcats still benefited from the decisions of Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins plus Dusan Ristic to stay in Tucson for another season. Alkins was the most unexpected. Arizona has a very quick, agile and versatile team with players who can handle multiple positions and create a lot of different combinations for head coach Sean Miller. With Parker Jackson-Cartwright also staying and new recruit Emmanuel Akot reclassified for 2017 – a change of fortune which added a big new piece to the Arizona arsenal – the Wildcats have accumulated a lot of resources that give them a clear path to San Antonio, site of the 2018 Final Four.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
The stay-in-school decision which might have surprised college basketball pundits more than any other was the choice of Devonte Graham, a veteran at Kansas who had transferred from Virginia Commonwealth, to return to Lawrence for another year. Graham gives Kansas a veteran backcourt and a foundational player who can ease the transition from last year’s team, which was dependably run by point guard Frank Mason. Graham will stabilize and solidify the backcourt, and Svi Mykhailiuk will also give Kansas a familiar wing player with appreciable skills. This team will not suffer on the perimeter. Then come the reinforcements in the paint. Kansas gets Malik Newman, a highly-regarded transfer from Mississippi State. Then realize that big man Udoka Azubuike returns from injury. If he can stay healthy, Kansas will not be outmanned in the paint.
3. Michigan State Spartans
The decision which was as surprising as Graham’s was the move by Miles Bridges to come back for another year. Bridges should be a top-five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Michigan State has him back for another season under Tom Izzo. The Spartans also bring back Nick Ward, a powerful bruiser who will grab rebounds and finish plays near the rim. Then comes Gavin Schilling, who was given an extra year of eligibility after being injured last season. Michigan State will be extremely physical in the paint, a relentless defensive team.
The Spartans are coming off of a terrible season, so a lot of people might be surprised to see them in this spot. However, Tom Izzo teams aren’t usually kept down for too long. They were 10-8 in Big Ten play last year, which landed them seventh in the conference. They were just 20-15 overall. That will change in 2017-18 as their team figures to be much stronger.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats are never out-recruited under John Calipari for the best freshmen in the country. Another elite class comes to Lexington, but the Cats needed at least one piece to return to have the nucleus of a title contender. Wenyen Gabriel is that piece. Kentucky will reload, much as it always has, and it’s up to Calipari to make everything work.
Last season, the Wildcats finished 32-6 overall and won the SEC. They were 16-2 in conference play and really weren’t challenged much by anyone outside of the Florida Gators. However, their NCAA Tournament run didn’t go as planned. We’ll see if Calipari’s 2017-18 squad is any better.
5. Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are rivaling Kentucky in terms of recruiting one-and-done players. Trevon Dural leads the big new class for Mike Krzyzewski. Yet, he and other new recruiting arrivals are joined by Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden, who both decided to stay in school. Duke should be an elite team as long as it can stay healthy, which it couldn’t do last year.
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