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College Basketball Preview 2017-2018

Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Preseason Top 25

1. Arizona Wildcats
KEY RETURNEE: F Allonzo Trier
While fellow Pac-12 rivals Oregon and UCLA suffered major losses this off-season, Arizona returned the bulk of their lineup from the No. 2 seed and Sweet 16 participant. That includes wing Allonzo Trier, one of the best pure scorers in the country. Trier was limited to just 18 games last year as a result of an early suspension, but came back and put up 17.2 PPG over the season's second half. He will be joined on the wing by Rawle Alkins, who flirted with the idea of the NBA, but returns after a strong freshman year. Also returning are veterans Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a methodical, smart point guard, along with Serbian seven-footer Dusan Rustic at center. That veteran core is good enough to compete in the Pac-12 alone, but the addition of five-star big man DeAndre Ayton makes 'Zona even scarier. Ayton is 7'1" with tremendous length but moves incredibly well for size. It will obviously take time for him to adjust to the physicality of the collegiate game, but he has all the tools to be an absolute star and eventual high NBA Draft selection. The Wildcats overall have the talent, experience and depth to make their first Final Four under Sean Miller. The ongoing FBI investigation surrounding the program could be a distraction but if this time can maintain their focus, they are on their way to something special.

2. Duke Blue Devils
KEY RETURNEE: G Grayson Allen
As usual, Duke was hit hard by early NBA losses this spring, as Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson all decided to leave Durham before their eligibility was up. Also per typical Duke standards, they reloaded with fresh, new All-American talent. 6'3" guard Trevon Dural is expected to take over the PG duties, versatile forward Wendell Carter Jr. also arrives, as does fabulous shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. However, those additions pale in comparison to the arrival of forward Marvin Bagley III, considered the top player in the 2018 recruiting class before he opted to reclassify to 2017. Bagley III is a tremendous athlete and can guard multiple positions, which gives this Duke offense so many different options. That wonderful group of newcomers will join guard Grayson Allen and center Marques Bolden. Allen had a wild junior season in which he became well-known for all the wrong reasons, but there is no denying how talented the veteran is when he's playing well. Meanwhile, Bolden didn't see much action in his true freshman campaign in '16-'17 but he's a big, bulky weapon in the low post who could have a breakout season. Expect Duke to have some growing pains as they take some time to gel, but this team could very well be the most talented in the entire country. If Dural can fix their point guard woes, Allen can stay out of trouble and Bagley is as good as advertised, there is no reason why Coach K can't add another National Title to his legendary resume.

3. Michigan State Spartans
KEY RETURNEE: G/F Miles Bridges
KEY NEWCOMER: F Jaren Jackson Jr.
Michigan State was abnormally young a year ago, as a team composed of mainly freshman and sophomores finished off 20-15 overall and was bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that all those youngsters are back and more experienced, particularly sophomore Miles Bridges, who is considered by many to the National Player of the Year favorite. Bridges is an absolutely dominant offensive force that can beat defenders in so many ways, and he would have surely been a lottery pick if he had chosen to go pro. Also back for their second years in East Lansing are big man Nick Ward, along with guards Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford. Ward quietly had a very good freshman campaign, putting up 13.9 PPG and 6.5 RPG in under 20 minutes of play. If he can grow a more effective mid range game, he could make the jump to be one of the premier big men in the Big Ten. Winston is a quick, athletic guard with major upside, while Langford also flashed potential. More good news for the Spartans: veteran forward Gavin Schilling, who missed all of last season, is fully healthy along with former UNLV transfer Ben Carter, who took a medical redshirt last year. The return of that pair, plus the addition of highly touted Indianapolis recruit Jaren Jackson Jr. gives MSU the clear-cut best frontcourt in the Big Ten. If Bridges can keep getting better and Michigan State can stay healthy, the Spartans will return to their first Final Four since 2015.

4. USC Trojans
KEY RETURNEE: F Bennie Boatwright
KEY NEWCOMER: G Derryck Thornton
It is amazing that just two years ago, former "Dunk City" head coach Andy Enfield looked on his way out in Los Angeles. The Trojans struggled mightily early under the leadership of Enfield, but things have changed quickly. This is now a team riding a wave of momentum, and one that could legitimately challenge for a National Title. Nearly everybody is back from this second round team, including two of the best big men in the Pac-12. Bennie Boatwright is a very mobile, well-rounded big man who led the team in scoring a year ago and should only get better. He is joined by junior Chimezie Metu, who is just scratching the surface of what he can be. Metu averaged 14.8 PPG and 7.8 boards per game in '16-'17, but has gotten even stronger and looks like he could be a legitimate superstar this year. Also back are quality guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, both guys who can take over games at any time and know how to get the job done in the tough Pac-12. Add in the addition of Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, an intelligent guard with great upside, and USC can matchup with any team in the country. Blessed with tremendous experience and great depth, I firmly expect it to a special season for the Trojans.

5. Kansas Jayhawks
KEY RETURNEE: G Devonte Graham 
KEY NEWCOMER: G Malik Newman
Dominance doesn't even begin to describe Kansas in the Big 12 over the past decade. The Jayhawks have won 13 straight conference titles, and seem primed to add another one. While they must replace star point guard Frank Mason, Kansas' backcourt could actually be improved. Senior Devonte' Graham remains, and should take over Mason's spot as the leader of the offense. Graham isn't quite the floor general Mason was, but he's a more natural scorer and likely the Big 12 Player of the Year favorite. He will be aided by uber-athletic swingman Lagerald Vick (7.4 PPG last year) and senior Svi Mykhailiuk, a Ukrainian who was incredibly raw when he arrived on campus, but has evolved into a well-rounded offensive player. Arriving in Lawrence this season is Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman as well as former Arizona State guard Sam Cunliffe. Newman was a five-star recruit who surprised many when he choose Mississippi State, but he never really fit in there. There is a good chance he could quickly grow into one of the best pure scorers in the Big 12. Cunliffe doesn't come in with quite as much fanfare, but he is a former Top 50 recruit who will become eligible in December. As good as Kansas is in the backcourt, the frontcourt has some question marks. Sophomore center Udoka Azuikbe is expected to be the star, but he is still unproven, after missing most of last season due to injury. Sophomore Mitch Lightfoot is a rock-solid, intelligent forward and newcomer Billy Preston has a chance to be special but depth is a huge concern. In a league with as much talent as the Big 12, that could be an Achilles Heel for this team. Even so, Kansas is once more stocked to the brim with talent and it never pays to bet against them. Another Big 12 title is not just a possibility, but an expectation.

6. Kentucky Wildcats
KEY RETURNEE: F Wenyen Gabriel
 If not for last-second, insane jumper by Luke Maye, Kentucky would have made their fourth Final Four under John Calipari, and possibly, done even more. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be, and now the Wildcats must move on from the exciting De'Aaron Fox/Malik Monk/Bam Adebayo era. Calipari has once more reloaded with countless McDonald's All-Americans, a list that includes Kevin Knox, Jared Vanderbilt, Nick Richards and P.J. Washington. All four are immensely talented, but Knox jumps out. The wing was offered millions of dollars to play in China for a year, but decided to stick with the college route. He isn't a great shooter, but he is absolutely lethal on the dribble and already a good defender. Kentucky will also lean on some returnees, even though there are very little. Guard Hamidou Diallo enrolled late and took a redshirt year before flirting with the NBA. He didn't play a minute last season in Lexington, but his practice against guys like Fox and Monk should really help him. Sophomores Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard will see big increases in minutes, and it will be interesting to see how they do. Gabriel is a great athlete who showed flashes of brilliance last year, while Jones and Wynyard have huge potential. There is the usual collection of stud talent in Lexington this season but there is even more youth than usual. If Knox and company can step up the 'Cats should still win the SEC. If not, they could open up the door for any number of rising programs in the improving conference.

7. Florida Gators
KEY RETURNEE: G KeVaughn Allen
KEY NEWCOMER: G Jalen Hudson
Few say Florida's Elite Eight run coming prior to last season, but it is clear the program is once more on the rise under head coach Mike White. White will have to replace some veteran leadership, as Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson depart, but there is still plenty back in Gainesville. Junior KeVaughn Allen evolved into the team's best offensive weapon on the team last season (14.0 PPG) and is automatic from the free throw line, while speedy Chris Chiozza is expected to take over Hill's point guard spot. Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson comes in and will provide an instant scoring punch. Hudson still struggles with turnovers but he brings great energy and can get to the rim. In the frontcourt, Florida is hoping center John Egbunu can return to 100 percent and grow into an All-SEC player. Egbunu is a fine defender and terrific rebounder, but he is still growing offensively and recovering from a torn ACL that took him out for the second half of last season. Junior Kevarrius Hayes was pushed into a larger role and showed real progress, while lengthy Gorjok Gak could push for more playing time. If Egbunu does return to form and some of the younger pieces can grow, this can still be a team that controls the paint. Kentucky is probably the more talented team in the SEC, but the Gators have shown they can hang with anyone. Another tournament run is not out of the question, especially if the newcomers can come in and contribute.

8. Villanova Wildcats
Mikal Bridges, Villanova

KEY RETURNEE: G Jalen Brunson
KEY NEWCOMER: F/C Omari Spellman
After a miraculous National Title run in 2016, Villanova fell back to Earth this past March, as they were upset in the second round by Wisconsin. The loss stopped some of the momentum the program was building, but there is still no doubt the Wildcats are the class of a balanced Big East conference. Star guard Josh Hart will be tough to replace (18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG) but junior point guard Jalen Brunson should take over the main leadership role. Brunson, a former five-star recruit, has played very well over his first two years on campus but has been more of a second and third option on the offense. Now that he is the undisputed PG on this team, expect a breakout campaign from the Illinois product. Brunson will be joined in the backcourt by a healthy Phil Booth, sophomore Donte DiVincenzo and swingman Mikal Bridges. Booth missed nearly all of last year but was a key contributor the year prior, so big things should be expected. DiVincenzo isn't a great offensive player, but he is a hard-worker and lockdown defender. Then there is Bridges, who will compete with Brunson for Big East Player of the Year awards. Bridges is an extremely versatile athlete who can shoot the three and get to the rim as well as anybody. His ability to defend multiple positions also gives Villanova much more options on the defensive end. The Wildcats are hopeful for a big year from newcomer Omari Spellman. Spellman was a big-time recruit a season ago, but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and took a redshirt year. Now ready to go, the athletic big man could have a huge season. Jay Wright's team may undergo some adjustment period with the absences of some stud veterans like Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds. But, Villanova has proven they can reload time and time again, and with Brunson, Bridges and Spellman, they have more than enough to once more rule the Big East.

9. Wichita State Shockers
KEY RETURNEE: G Landry Shamet
KEY NEWCOMER: G Samajae Haynes-Jones
Gregg Marshall has done a truly tremendous job building a perennial power in Wichita, Kansas, and now he is equipped with perhaps his best team since he arrived. The Shockers have nearly everybody back from a team that went 31-5 last season and pushed Kentucky to the brink in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The backcourt is particularly strong, with sophomore Landry Shamet, senior Conner Frankamp and Markus McDuffie all returning. Frankamp really runs the offense playing the point guard role and the Kansas transfer is the Shockers' premier shooter, hitting 44 percent last year. Shamet came in last year without much attention but grew into a great two-way player who should be even better as he goes on to his sophomore campaign. Meanwhile, McDuffie, who can play guard or forward, is probably the team's greatest offensive weapon. He isn't much of a shooter, but he is blessed with impressive quickness and athleticism for his size (6'8") and he has a fearless mentality on the offensive end. Wichita is also hopeful newcomer Samajae Haynes-Jones can give them a spark off the bench. Haynes-Jones arrives from nearby Hutchinson Community College and has a diverse offensive game. Up front, senior Shaquille Morris is the key returnee. Morris isn't very lengthy, but his strength and physical nature allow him to carve out space on the low block and have success (9.6 PPG last season). Seniors Rashard Kelly and Darral Willis Jr. are two other key players back. Like much of this team, they aren't necessarily the most talented, but bring plenty of experience and unselfish mentality. There will be an adjustment for Wichita State as they move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the significantly tougher American Athletic, but this team is well-rounded, experienced and very balanced. 30-plus victories and deep tournament run should not only be a possibility, but an expectation this season for the Shockers.

10. Louisville Cardinals
KEY RETURNEE: G Quentin Snider
KEY NEWCOMER: F/C Malik Williams
Prior to the crazy events of this off-season, Louisville likely would've had a very serious case to be the No. 1 team in the country and the class of the ACC entering 2017-2018. However, an FBI investigation that led to the eventual firing of Hall of Fame head coach Richard Pitino and the likely departure of Top 25 recruit Brian Bowen, who is not expected to be cleared to play this year. That leaves this program in somewhat of a bad state, but the talent on this roster should still be able to keep the Cards relevant. Senior point guard Quentin Snider should be back to guide the offense after taking major steps forward last year. Snider isn't the quickest or most athletic, but he is a savvy player who knows how to win in the ACC. On the wing, Louisville will have to replace lottery pick Donovan Mitchell, but returnees Deng Adel and V.J. King should have no troubles replicating his production. Adel, a junior from Australia, emerged as a terrific offensive weapon late in the year a season ago, while King, a former McDonald's All-American has all the tools to have a big year. In the frontcourt, Louisville will lean heavily on seven-footer Anas Mahmoud. Mahmoud emerged as one of the country's premier shot-blockers last season and if he can grow offensively, he could be quite the threat in the paint. Junior Raymond Spalding isn't the defender Mahmoud is but provides great energy at the power forward spot, while true freshman Malik Williams arrives as a potential playmaker. New head coach David Padgett should be able to keep this team together, especially with some veterans like Snider helping out. However, the fallout from the FBI investigation should still impact the team, and expecting a smooth season in Louisville might be too much to ask for.

11. Minnesota Gophers
KEY NEWCOMER: G Isaiah Washington

12. West Virgnia Mountaineers
KEY RETURNEE: G Jevon Carter
KEY NEWCOMER: F D'Angelo Hunter

13. Miami Hurricanes
KEY NEWCOMER: G Lonnie Walker

14. St. Mary's Gaels
KEY RETURNEE: C Jock Landale

15. Cincinnati Bearcats
KEY NEWCOMER: F Mamodou Diarra

16. Purdue Boilermakers
KEY RETURNEE: F Vince Edwards
KEY NEWCOMER: G Sasha Stefanovic

17. Gonzaga Bulldogs
KEY RETURNEE: G Josh Perkins
KEY NEWCOMER: G Zach Norvell

18. North Carolina Tar Heels
KEY NEWCOMER: G Cameron Johnson

19. Texas A&M Aggies
KEY RETURNEE: F Robert Williams 
KEY NEWCOMER: G Duane Wilson

20. TCU Horned Frogs
KEY RETURNEE: G/F Kenrich Williams

21. Rhode Island Rams
KEY NEWCOMER: F Ryan Preston

22. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
KEY RETURNEE: F Bonzie Colson

23. Xavier Musketeers
KEY RETURNEE: F Trevon Bluiett
KEY NEWCOMER: F Kerem Kanter

24. Michigan Wolverines
KEY NEWCOMER: G Charles Matthews

25. Missouri Tigers
KEY RETURNEE: F Jordan Barnett
KEY NEWCOMER: F Michael Porter Jr. 

Player of the Year Watch

Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State
Even though Bridges was nearly guaranteed to be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, he opted to stay in East Lansing and continue to grow. As a true frosh, Bridges showed astounding athleticism and a knack for finishing through contact, but must continue to cut down on turnovers and other mistakes. If he does that, there is no reason why the sophomore can't put together a special season, perhaps culminating in a National Title.

Devonte' Graham, G, Kansas
Last season, Kansas leaned on the play of a veteran guard (Frank Mason) to win the Big 12 and make an Elite Eight trip. With Mason now gone, expect that responsibility to fall to Graham, who has proven he can take over games when needed. The senior is a better shooter than Mason, and can attack the rim very well despite not being the biggest. The star player on a Kansas team that looks to win their 14th straight Big 12 title should be enough to keep Graham in the Wooden Award conversation.

Grayson Allen, G, Duke
It wasn't a great junior season for Grayson Allen a year ago, as the veteran guard became a national villain for his multiple tripping incidents and his numbers dropped nearly across the board. However, Allen hopes that he can put everything else behind him and finish his career in Durham on a high note. The veteran is as explosive with the ball in his hands as they come, and has improved his three-point shot over the off-season. Expect him to have the type of senior season many thought he would have earlier following a breakout performance in the 2015 National Championship Game.

Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri
Prior to Lorenzo Romar's dismissal at Washington, Michael Porter Jr. was set to become a Husky and follow the footsteps of recent No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz. But, when Romar was let go Porter Jr. decided to head elsewhere, ending up at Missouri. For the Tigers, it was the biggest get the program has ever managed, as the nation's top recruit gives them immediate star power. With jaw-dropping athleticism and impressive versatility, Porter should put up huge numbers right away.

Collin Sexton, G, Alabama
Much like Porter, Collin Sexton surprised a lot of college basketball fans by deciding to go to a school not known for its basketball prowess, deciding to play for Avery Johnson at Alabama. Sexton is a special talent who should become a walking highlight reel as soon as he steps on the court in Tuscaloosca. Sexton is absolutely lethal on the dribble and plays above the rim. He isn't a great shooter, but his ability to score in so many different ways should mask some of his deficiencies. Just because he may play at an unorthodox school, don't overlook what the five-star recruit should be able to do in '17-'18.

Breakout Players to Watch

Udoka Azuikbe, C, Kansas
A former five-star recruit, Azuikbe was expected to be the low post presence Kansas was lacking entering last season. However, Azuikbe missed the entire second half of the year due to torn ligaments in his left wrist and never really got the opportunity to show what he can do. Now healthy, expect the sophomore to have a huge year. He has the strength, stamina and power to have a special season for Bill Self's Jayhawks.

De'Ron Davis, F/C, Indiana
Davis was another big-time recruit, but unlike Azuikbe, he didn't have to deal with injuries. Even so, the sophomore still had a turbulent first season in Bloomington, finishing with mediocre numbers of 5.9 PPG and 3.1 RPG. New head coach Archie Miller worked with Davis extensively over the summer to get him more in shape, and the big man dropped 30 pounds. Indiana fans are hopeful the fitter Davis can develop into the feared center many hoped he would be when he arrived in Bloomington.

Kyle Guy, G, Virginia 
It is a new day for Virginia, who said goodbye to long-time stars London Perrantes, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson. The Cavaliers will most likely undergo a rebuilding season, but the losses also give opportunities to new pieces, such as Kyle Guy. Guy proved to be a knockdown shooter in roughly 19 minutes per game last season, knocking down 49.5 percent of his threes. It may be hard to keep those numbers up with more usage, but the sophomore has a smooth offensive game and understands how to defend in Tony Bennett's "Packline" defense.

Storylines to Watch

Looming FBI Investigation
This off-season, a number of big-time programs were hit by FBI investigation surrounding shoe companies and paying recruits. Louisville head coach Richard Pitino has already been fired, as have a number of assistants, namely Auburn's Chuck Person, Oklahoma State's Lamont Evans and Arizona's Emanuel Richardson. Expect the effects from this investigation to continue to be felt across the country, and more dominoes to fall.

Wichita State in the AAC
With Louisville leaving a few years ago and UConn (the conference's most recognizable program) the American Athletic Conference desperately needed some help. Enter Wichita State, one of the best mid-majors in college basketball over the past few years. The Shockers will likely immediately enter the conference as the favorite, and many view them as a serious Final Four threat. A successful season by the Shockers will certainly boost the AAC's credibility.

Same faces, new places
The coaching carousel once more went crazy this off-season, as a number of big-time head coaches took big-time jobs. The biggest was probably Archie Miller, who finally left his post at Dayton to take over and rebuild Indiana. Watching how Miller and his methodical offense play in the Big Ten will be interesting, as will other new head coaches this year. Mike Hopkins proves on from assistant at Syracuse to Washington, Chris Holtmann goes from Butler to Ohio State, and Brad Underwood goes from Oklahoma State to Illinois.

The rise of the SEC
For so long, SEC football has overshadowed SEC basketball. With the exception of Kentucky and occasionally Florida, the conference has quite frankly, been a joke when it came to hoops. That changed this past March when three SEC programs made it to the Elite Eight and one, South Carolina, made the jump to the Final Four. Now, the conference could be the best it has been in years, especially with some prime talent entering the league this season, namely Missouri's Michael Porter, Alabama's Colin Sexton and Kentucky's Kevin Knox.

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