1. North Carolina
No excuses for Roy Williams this season. The Tar Heels returned more experienced depth and talent than any team in the country. Marcus Paige, the 6-foot-1 senior, gives North Carolina the all-important point guard and leader. UNC will have to make do without Paige in the early going after he broke a bone in his non-shooting hand, but he's expected back by December. Justin Jackson is my pick to have a breakthrough year in Chapel Hill.
John Calipari got great news when reports surfaced that heralded freshman Skal Labissiere would in fact be eligible. Throw in sophomore Tyler Ulis, who could be the best point guard in the country; freshman scorer Jamal Murray and the return of senior forward Alex Poythress from an ACL injury and the Cats have all the pieces to make another Final Four run.
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Melo Trimble and Jake Layman both decided to postpone their NBA dreams one more year for a return to College Park, which made Coach Mark Turgeon's dreams come true. A pair of transfers from ACC schools — Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke and Robert Carter from Georgia Tech — fortify a team that signed five-star prospect Diamond Stone, who also has a five-star name.
4. Iowa State
It's a double-edged sword for new head coach Steve Prohm. On the one hand, the former Murray State coach replaces the wildly popular Fred Hoiberg and inherits a team with great talent and ridiculous expectations. On the other hand, there is that great talent part, led by the versatile Georges Niang.
Mike Krzyzewski has followed John Calipari into the one-and-done waters, and when Coach K does something he does it well. Coming off another national title, the Blue Devils did lose Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, but Coach K signed Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter to go with a good group of holdovers, led by Grayson Allen, the 6-5 sophomore guard who made a splash during the Devils' NCAA run a year ago.
Some pre-season mags are picking the Jayhawks pre-season No. 1 thanks to an array of returning pieces. Kansas may live up to the hype, especially if freshman forward Cheick Diallo is declared eligible. One more thing to like, Kansas represented the U.S. in the World University Games over the summer, which could have the same effect that Bahamas trip had for Kentucky last season.
Yes, the Big 12 is loaded. Iowa State. Kansas. Don't forget the Sooners. Buddy Hield is back for his senior season. All Hield did was average 17.4 points per game last season. Leading rebounder Ryan Spangler also returns. That's Coach Lon Kruger smiling in Norman.
Some former Kentucky players made great decisions in leaving for the pros. Kyle Wiltjer is a former Kentucky player who made a great decision in leaving for Gonzaga. Wiltjer took advantage of his transfer year, which showed last season. He should be even better this time around. Gonzaga has a chance to be even better, too.
Were it not for injuries down the stretch, Tony Bennett's Cavaliers could have easily made it to Indianapolis. Though Justin Anderson moved on to the NBA, Virginia has eight of its top 10 scorers back from a team that finished 30-4 and won the ACC regular season title a year ago. Look for fifth-year senior Anthony Gill, the former South Carolina Gamecock, to have an even bigger impact this year.
10. Wichita State
Fred VanVleet is back. Ron Baker is back. No they aren't seventh-year seniors. It just seems that way. Those two helped the Shockers to a long undefeated run in 2013-14. Even bigger, Coach Gregg Marshall is back. Alabama packed up the Brinks Truck but couldn't lure Marshall out of Wichita. The Shockers will be good. Again.
11. Michigan State
Tom Izzo is always around. He made another Final Four last season. Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer, should help the Spartans be good this season. Once March rolls around, with Izzo, look for MSU to be very good again.
Jay Wright's team went 33-3 last season before landing with a thud in the NCAA Tournament, beaten in the Sweet 16 by North Carolina State. Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are back for a team that should have little trouble winning the Big East again. After that, the Wildcats are looking for redemption.
Who does Cuonzo Martin think he is, John Calipari? The ex-Tennessee coach turned into a recruiting dynamo during the off-season. Cal signed Jaylen Brown. Cal signed Ivan Rabb. Both those prospects will probably be in the NBA next season, but this season California is the favorite to win the Pac-12.
The Blazers pulled the alarms at the Yum Center last year, upsetting Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament's round of 64. That was probably a year before ex-Kansas assistant Jerod Haase figured his team would start making national noise. William Lee averaged 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds last year as a freshman and should get nothing but better.
The Huskies usually win with high-profile recruits. Kevin Ollie has gone the high-profile graduate transfer route this season. Sterling Gibbs from Seton Hall is one. Shon Miller from Cornell is another. Add that duo to a team that returns four starters from last year's 20-win edition and Storrs is starting to buzz again.
Yes, Sean Miller lost a lot of talent off his Elite Eight team from a year ago. No, we don't care. Miller is still the nation's best coach never to reach a Final Four and he does have another top-five recruiting class. The Wildcats will be down, but not down by that much.
Point guard and team leader Yogi Ferrell returns to spearhead Tom Crean's team. Ferrell is the old. Thomas Bryant is the new. The 6-10 freshman is big, strong and just what the Hoosiers need to get back in the NCAA Tournament again.
Kevin Stallings deftly molded a fab group of freshmen last season that won 21 games and reached the NIT quarterfinals. Seven of his top nine scorers return, including four starters. Continuity counts. The fact All-SEC center Damian Jones chose to return and join the super sophs means the Commodores should be back in the NCAA Tournament.
Johnny Jones might have the nation's best player in Ben Simmons and another fine freshman in Antonio Blakeney. But the Tiger to watch could be Tim Quarterman, the 6-foot-6 junior who began coming into his own last season. Quarterman averaged 5.2 rebounds and four assists per game. Craig Victor, a 6-9 forward from Arizona, will join the team after the fall semester.
20. North Carolina State
Mark Gottfried has recruited well since the former Alabama coach took over the Wolfpack, and last year that paid off with a Sweet 16 appearance in State's fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip. Leading scorer Trevor Lacey surprised Gottfried by turning pro, but Cat Barber should pick up the scoring slack.
Coach Mick Cronin is back from that scary vascular condition that kept him out of most of last season. Larry Davis did a great job filling in, but Cronin is happy to be back and likes his group. Octavius Ellis, the 6-10 senior forward, is the top returning scorer, but the Bearcats win with defense.
Last year's 16-16 finish left the Wolverines with a bad taste and plenty of motivation. John Beilein's team was hurt by injuries. Having Caris LeVert back should help. He averaged 14.9 points per game when healthy. Having the memory of last year's struggles should help Michigan even more.
23. West Virginia
After a tumultuous off-season in which Bob Huggins had to call press conference to calm Mountaineer Nation's nerves, WVU put together a surprising season that saw Huggins' crew reach the Sweet 16 before being obliterated by Kentucky. Led by forwards Devin Williams and Jonathon Holton, West Virginia could be even better this time around.
Chris Mack has three starters back from a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season for the fifth time in the last eight years. Mack slowed the tempo last year to help hide his team's weaknesses, but look for the Muskies to get back to running this season. And keep an eye on Jalen Reynolds, a 6-10 junior who was an emerging star by the end of last year.
Dairy State legend Bo Ryan announced that this would be his last season as the Wisconsin coach. After last year's NCAA runner-up finish, Ryan didn't want to leave in a down year. Now there's talk Ryan may stay longer. Maybe, led by Nigel Hayes, the Badgers will be better than anyone thinks.