A 2016-2017 Top 25 eight months before the season begins? Of course. Last year we did this exercise the day after Villanova defeated North Carolina for the title, and Gonzaga didn’t even make the cut. (They did check in at #23 eight weeks later.) Due to new NBA draft rules, this year’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 will be far more challenging. As such, we’ll do another one at the end of May, when players who declared for the draft can decide to return to school.
1. Gonzaga (37-2, Lost National Championship)
Deepest team in the country will lose two seniors, but if Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss both return – and they should – the Zags have a great chance to return to the title game. Is it safe to assume the starting five would be Collins-Johnathan Williams-Silas Melson-Josh Perkins and Williams-Goss? And their #1 sub would be 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie, who looked solid as a freshman in limited minutes. That’s deadly. Collins just needs to stop with the ticky-tack fouls, and in 30 minutes a night, he could be a 22-11-4 stud easily. They’ll roll through the conference unbeaten again, and grab a #1 seed. If Collins and Goss leave, they’ll be in the low 20s.
2. Oregon (33-6, Final Four)
Best case scenario for the Ducks – their three best players, Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey – stay for one more run. But if you’re a realist, Bell and Dorsey have played their way into the Final Four and out of Oregon. Freshman Payton Pritchard was very impressive during the regular season. Coach Dana Altman snagged 5-star shooting guard Troy Brown. If Bell and Dorsey bolt, they’re still Top 25, but in the 15-20 range.
3. Wichita State (31-5, 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament)
This seems high, but when you combine what they return, plus their coach, it makes plenty of sense. If they weren’t seeded wrong, the Shockers had the talent to make a run. But they lost to Kentucky (again) early. The good news: The entire rotation returns, led by Landy Shamet, who was a star as a freshman (20 points in the UK loss). Also, Gregg Marshall didn’t leave, so expectations will be high for the Shockers. A Final Four trip is certainly within reach. Center Shaquille Morris could use some help inside.
4. Louisville (25-9), 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Disappointing end to a very good season, but the Cardinals should be a Final 4 contender again. Mathiang moves on, but promising 7-footer Anas Mahmoud and 6-foot-10 forward Ray Spalding will be back on the interior. I’m not sure how long they’ll be able to fend off incoming freshman Malik Williams, though. Can guard Quentin Snider (0-for-9 vs. Michigan) and Donovan Mitchell (19 points, seven rebounds, five assists vs. Michigan) take the next step in the backcourt? Mitchell will test the NBA waters (Darius Perry is his fill-in if he bolts), but the guess here is he returns. If he doesn’t, they’ll slide down into the 10-20 range.
5. North Carolina (33-7, Won National Title)
Lose twin towers Meeks and Hicks, and possibly ACC Player of the Year, Justin Jackson. But with PG Joel Berry back, and underrated wing Theo Pinson, they should be among the nation’s elite again, and possibly even pull off a 3rd straight Final Four trip. The key might be the maturation of 6-foot-10 Tony Bradley, who is mostly a shot-blocker now, but they’ll need his scoring next year. Luke Maye, the Elite 8 hero, needs no introduction. If Jackson bolts, I wouldn’t be surprised if Top 30 incoming freshman Jalek Felton starts alongside Berry.
6. USC (26-10, 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament)
Andy Enfield is one of the top young coaches in the country, and he’s going to have a tremendous team next season – even if Bennie Boatwright makes the leap to the NBA, as expected. You know you’ve got a good team when your backcourt returns, and your 6th man might be Duke transfer Derryck Thornton. Center Chimezie Metu (28 points in the NCAA loss to Baylor) should return, and freshman Charles O’Bannon Jr. (yes, his dad went to UCLA) should be a factor instantly. This team will be 8-10 deep and should challenge Oregon for Pac-12 supremacy – or win it outright.