Last season's NCAA Tournament was as competitive and enjoyable as it has ever been, but the gap between what can be referred to as college basketball's 7 power conferences and the other 25 appears to be getting larger, with the mass migration of high end graduate transfers to those power conferences being an emerging factor. Although a team from outside that group did play in the Championship game, that team, Gonzaga, was the only one from outside of the power conferences to advance as far as the Sweet 16, and the title was ultimately won by a blue blood. Overall, last year's Tournament saw only 3 teams from outside the power conferences receive at large berths; with Wichita St. moving to the AAC and the WCC being hit hard by graduation and NBA departures, that trend is likely to continue. Some proponents of the power conferences (Jay Bilas at ESPN, for example) have been against the presence of many of the smaller conferences in Division I and in the NCAA Tournament for years (there were 352 Division I teams last season including Grand Canyon, which admittedly might be a little out of control); as the competitive balance continues to degrade, they may eventually get their wish. Here's a quick glance at some of the teams to beat heading into the season, almost completely devoid of small conference representation.
1. Michigan State Spartans
2016-2017: 20-15, 10-8 in the Big Ten; lost to Kansas in the NCAA Round of 32
Preseason Projection: National Championship
Departures: Eron Harris (10.4 ppg., 38.7% 3pt.) and Alvin Ellis III (6.4 ppg., 36.3% 3pt.) graduated
Tom Izzo received one of the best postseason gifts in college basketball when forward Miles Bridges (16.9 ppg., 8.3 rpg., 1.5 bpg., 38.9% 3pt.), a certain lottery pick, decided to return for his sophomore year. All four members of last year's loaded recruiting class were living up to expectations by season's end, and they will now be joined by top 10 recruit and projected top 10 pick Jaren Jackson. At 6-11, Jackson is a high end stretch 4 that will complement bruising center Nick Ward (13.5 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 1.5 bpg. in just 19.8 mpg.) perfectly. The Spartans will have all kinds of perimeter shooting, a point guard that was remarkably efficient as a freshman in Cassius Winston (6.7 ppg., 5.2 apg., 38.0% 3pt.), and should be among the premiere rebounding teams in the country. While the starting lineup will likely be made up of four sophomores and a freshman, Izzo will also have veterans like seniors Lourawls Nairn and Gavin Schilling to turn to off the bench. Michigan State's version of a rebuild, which somehow still managed to include an NCAA Tournament berth and First Round victory, appears to have ended as quickly as it began, and the Spartans should be considered the favorite to win the NCAA Championship.
2. Duke Blue Devils
2016-2017: 28-9, 11-7 in the ACC; lost to South Carolina in the NCAA Round of 32
Preseason Projection: National Title Game
Departures: Luke Kennard (19.5 ppg., 5.1 rpg., 43.8% 3pt.) was the 12th pick in the NBA Draft, Jayson Tatum (16.8 ppg., 7.1 rpg., 1.3 spg., 1.1 bpg.) was the 3rd pick, Frank Jackson (10.9 ppg., 39.5% 3pt.) was the first pick of the 2nd round, and Harry Giles was the 20th pick; Amile Jefferson (10.9 ppg., 8.4 rpg., 1.9 bpg.) and Matt Jones (7.0 ppg.) graduated; Chase Jeter transferred to Arizona
For more information on the Blue Devils, please check out my ACC Basketball Preview.
3. Wichita State Shockers
2016-2017: 31-5, 17-1 in the MVC; lost to Kentucky in the NCAA Round of 32
Preseason Projection: Final 4
Departures: Daishon Smith (4.8 ppg., 38.4% 3pt.)
Gregg Marshall's Shockers return every major contributor except backup point guard Daishon Smith, who should be capably replaced by a similar junior college recruit in Samajae Haynes-Jones. The most important development should come from sophomore point guard Landry Shamet, who seemingly came out of nowhere as a redshirt freshman to adequately and impressively replace Fred VanVleet. Shamet (11.4 ppg., 43.9% 3pt.) provides the team with a clutch shooter and he's tremendously efficient with the basketball (he posted a 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio; the team finished 14th). The team will have plenty of shooting (8th in 3pt% last season) and size, and will of course play outstanding defense (4th in fg% defense, 19th in 3pt.% defense, and 2nd in rebounding margin). The Shockers should also benefit from the improved competition their move to the AAC will bring, which will make them that much more ready to compete by March. Marshall has taken Wichita St. to at least the second round and as far as the Final Four over the past five seasons, and this could be his best team to date.
4. USC Trojans
2016-2017: 26-10, 10-8 in the Pac-12; lost to Baylor in the NCAA Round of 32
Preseason Projection: Final 4
Departures: no major departures
Andy Enfield returns every major contributor to a team that won two NCAA Tournament games a year ago, including athletic forwards Bennie Boatwright (6-10; 15.1 ppg., 4.5 rpg., 36.4% 3pt.) and Chemezie Metu (6-11; 14.8 ppg., 7.8 rpg., 1.5 bpg.), point guard Jordan McLaughlin (12.9 ppg., 5.5 apg., 40.2 % 3pt.), and wing Elijah Stewart (12.3 ppg., 38.6% 3pt.). He also adds a ton of talent, including transfer Derryck Thornton and top 30 recruit Charles O'Bannon Jr.. Thornton was a top 20 recruit that chose to be an early college entrant at Duke. Early entrance hasn't really benefited anyone much to this point (except Andre Drummond, who was already gigantic), but Thornton was able to earn 26 minutes a game at point guard under Mike Kzyzewski, which is no easy task. He should be ready to make a major contribution as a 19 year old for the Trojans, who were already taking great care of the basketball (19th in assist to turnover ratio). Andy Enfield's teams have actually overachieved relative to their talent level at times, and this Trojan team will have as much talent as anyone. A Final Four run should be a very real possibility.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
2016-2017: 23-11, 11-7 in the ACC; lost to Florida in the NCAA Round of 32
Preseason Projection: Elite 8
Departures: London Perrantes (12.7 ppg., 3.8 apg., 37.4% 3pt.) graduated; Marial Shayok (8.9 ppg.) transferred to Iowa St., Darrius Thompson (6.2 ppg., 35.1% 3pt.) transferred to Western Kentucky, and Jarred Reuter transferred to George Mason
For more information on the Cavaliers, please check out my ACC Basketball Preview.
6. Arizona Wildcats
2016-2017: 32-5, 16-2 in the PAC-12; lost to Xavier in the Sweet 16
Preseason Projection: Elite 8
Departures: Lauri Markkanen (15.6 ppg., 7.2 rpg., 42.3% 3pt.) was the 7th pick in the NBA Draft; Kadeem Allen (9.8 ppg., 4.0 rpg., 3.0 apg., 42.7% 3pt.) graduated; Kobi Simmons (8.7 ppg.) and Chance Comanche (6.3 ppg., 3.6 rpg.) entered the NBA Draft