The 2014-15 NCAA Basketball season came to a close with Duke's victory over Wisconsin, which means it is the time of year when experts take on the impractical tomfoolery of absurdly early 2016 rankings. While I am no expert, I have never been one to shy away from impractical tomfoolery, and thus I have taken it upon myself to make an attempt at these rankings.
Obvious caveats apply here—many players have not yet announced their NBA draft decisions, leaving many rosters in flux. Similarly, many top recruits have not announced their destinations yet; 7 of ESPN's top 12 prospects remain undeclared. With all this in mind, let's preview the 25 teams that look to be in the best shape for 2016.
2015 Record: 30-4
Virginia returns every contributor sans Darion Atkins from the squad that won the ACC regular season title and looked borderline invincible until Justin Anderson sustained a finger injury that seemed to derail their late season offense. With a starting lineup boasting 4 seniors, we should see more of the same from the Hoos next year—a ruthlessly efficient defensive team with the leadership and experience to close out close games.
2015 Record: 26-12
Despite the surprise departure of J.P. Tokoto, the Heels return 4 starters from a team that hit its stride in the latter portion of the 2015 season. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson will be an impressive scoring backcourt, and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson will continue to be forces down low. Despite NCAA sanctions possibly looming over the program, Roy Williams will have his best chance at a title in quite some time next year.
2015 Record: 24-9
The Cyclones are yet another team that will return just about all of its main contributors. Despite their demise at the hands of UAB, Fred Hoiberg's team was a force all year, winning their second straight Big 12 tournament title. Monte Morris and Georges Niang should keep the Cyclones' offense as potent as ever, and I think this is the year they end Kansas's regular season title streak.
2015 Record: 28-6
Maryland had an incredibly successful inaugural Big Ten campaign, riding freshman stud Melo Trimble to a 2nd place Big Ten finish. To go along with returnees Trimble and Jake Layman, the Terrapins landed the awesomely named 5-star center Diamond Stone. The talent of this trio, along with Wisconsin's mass exodus, should immediately make Maryland the class of the Big Ten.
2015 Record: 27-9
While the Jayhawks lose Kelly Oubre and (possibly) Cliff Alexander, they were always better NBA prospects than college contributors. Point guard Frank Mason and somehow-not-40-years old Perry Ellis will probably return to a Jayhawk squad that should continue to be one of the deepest and most consistent teams in the nation.
2015 Record: 38-1
I'll freely admit that the ‘Cats could make me look very dumb for ranking them outside the top 5, but there are simply too many question marks surrounding Kentucky right now to forecast another dominant season. We do know that Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress, and Marcus Lee will provide a solid backbone for a Wildcat team that will probably add a few more elite incoming freshmen before everything is said and done.
7. Villanova Wildcats
2015 Record: 33-3
The overlords of the new-look Big East are losing key pieces in Darrun Hillard and JayVaughn Pinkston, but luckily the Wildcats were one of the deepest and most well-balanced teams in the nation last year. Their backcourt should be one of the country's finest, with senior leader Ryan Arcidiacono and Big East Tourney MVP Josh Hart joined by 5 star freshman point guard Jalen Brunson.
2015 Record: 27-12
The Spartans sleepwalked through the majority of this season, before stepping on the gas and claiming a Final Four berth. This ranking may be a bit generous given the departures of Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, but the Spartans should be able to reload. They add 5-star power forward Deyonta Davis and highly regarded West Virginia transfer Eron Harris to a core that includes sharpshooter Bryn Forbes, swingman Denzel Valentine, and bigs Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling.
2015 Record: 30-5
Slotting in behind the Irish is the team they eliminated in the Sweet 16, Wichita State. This ranking hinges largely on the status of Ron Baker. If he elects to return for his senior season, the Shockers will tear through the Missouri Valley with the experienced backcourt of Van Vleet and Baker. If not, bump Gregg Marshall's squad down to the 20-25 range.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
2015 Record: 20-14
One of the most improved teams in the 2015-16 season should be the Hoosiers of Indiana. With the anticipated returns of guards Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., the Hoosiers will retain all the key pieces from their high-powered offense. The addition of top-30 freshman center Thomas Bryant gives them sorely needed size down low. Don't be surprised if the Hoosiers make a huge leap next year.
2015 Record: 32-6
There's no getting around the fact that the Irish are losing their two best players in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. However, this should be the year Demetrius Jackson becomes one of the best guards in the nation, Steve Vasturia continues to be a killer on both ends of the court, and Zach Auguste matures into a consistent low-post threat. The Irish also bring in a great recruiting class, headlined by the incredibly athletic Rex Pflueger and shooting threat Matt Ryan, who should both contribute immediately.
12. Arizona Wildcats
2015 Record: 34-4
Sean Miller's team will be hit hard by early departures, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and Brandon Ashley all likely to end their Wildcat careers early. Throw in the graduation of point guard T.J. McConnell, and the Wilcats will be almost unrecognizable next year. Despite these losses, Arizona adds three top-40 freshmen to a squad that still retains Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York. While they won't be the powerhouse they were this year, I expect Arizona to feast on the weak Pac-12 and remain a top-15 caliber team.
13. Duke Blue Devils
2015 Record: 35-4
The defending National Champs will pay the price for it's 1-and-done founded success, losing probable lottery picks in Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. The biggest key to the Blue Devils' chances at a repeat is Tyus Jones. The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player could come back and wreak havoc on the ACC, but if he decides to enter the draft, Duke looks to have a gaping hole at the point. Freshman talent and Coach K will prevent too steep of a drop-off, but don't expect quite the same caliber of a Duke team next year.
14. Oklahoma Sooners
2015 Record: 24-11
Oklahoma is yet another team who's future depends heavily on the decision of one player—in this case, defending Big 12 PoY Buddy Hield. If Hield departs early, the Sooners could struggle to replace his 17.4 PPG. However, if he returns, there is no reason to believe they can't build off their best season since the Blake Griffin era.
15. Gonzaga Bulldogs
2015 Record: 35-3
America's most consistent midmajor powerhouse graduates its starting backcourt, but Bulldogs should have more than enough firepower at the forward spots to remain relevant. Kyle Wiltjer will continue to get buckets in his final season, and Domanatas Sabonis should see an increased role next to the enormous Przemek Karnowski. Expect the Zags to steamroll the WCC yet again, and coast to another ho-hum top 15 finish.
16. Baylor Bears
2015 Record: 24-10
Baylor was a very well-balanced team last year, with 4 of their starters averaging between 10 and 14 PPG. While they lose two of these players, they return their leading scorer in Taurean Prince, as well as the aptly-named rebound machine Rico Gathers. I expect the Bears to have a similar season to last; they'll use their size to dominate the boards and hang around the top half of the Big 12.
While the Musketeers lose their bespectacled fan favorite, Matt Stainbrook, they will bring back a wide variety of intriguing pieces that could challenge for Big East crown. For starters, Jalen Reynolds is a load in the post that might even out-produce Stainbrook's 2015 numbers. Throw in the über-talented wingman Trevon Bluiett and Indiana transfer Remy Abell, and I like Xavier to have their best year yet in their new conference.
18. SMU Mustangs
2015 Record: 27-7
Larry Brown has transformed the Mustangs into the class of the young American Athletic Conference, winning the AAC behind Conference PoY Nic Moore. The 5'9" scorer returns along with top post threat Markus Kennedy. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye is a bit of an enigma, but regardless of how he performs, the Mustangs have all they need to build off their best season in over 25 years.
19. Butler Bulldogs
2015 Record: 23-11
The Bulldogs retain both of their most important pieces from last year in leading scorer Kellen Dunham and tournament stud Roosevelt Jones. In the parity-filled Big East, I forecast a very similar season for the Bulldogs. They are gritty enough to duke it out with anyone, but they will still be dependent on Dunham's shooting for much of their scoring.
2015 Record: 22-14
The ‘Pack grabbed the country's attention by knocking off 1-seed Villanova, and they will return almost the same exact squad, the only exception being Ralston Turner. The Irish saw how dangerous and talented this team is firsthand, facing as high as an 18 point deficit in Raleigh. However, NC State had their typical problems finishing games, and predicting anything higher than a #20 ranking is too risky for me.
21. LSU Tigers
2015 Record: 22-11
LSU bring in what is probably the country's best recruiting class, pairing #1 overall recruit Ben Simmons with #14 overall Antonio Blakeney. These two stud prospects join a team that wasn't too shabby last year, falling to NC State after some brutal missed free throws late in the first round matchup. I expect the Tigers to be Kentucky's toughest SEC opponent next year.
2015 Record: 36-4
The Badgers will be absolutely decimated by departures, losing Naismith winner Frank Kaminsky and March hero Sam Dekker to the draft. While Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig should blossom in higher profile roles, there will still be a ton of production left to be replaced. Including them in the rankings is more a vote of confidence in Bo Ryan than a reflection of their current roster.
2015 Record: 23-11
The Bearcats received the great news that coach Mick Cronin will return to the sideline for 2016. He will be joined by basically the same team that put a solid 23-win performance last year. This should be a classic Bearcat team that lacks shooting but has a ton of athleticism and defense.
24. Miami Hurricanes
2015 Record: 25-13
The ‘Canes were a frustratingly bipolar team last year, destroying Duke at Cameron Indoor but dropping too many easy games and missing the tournament. They made a run to the NIT final, and they return just about everyone from their potent but inconsistent team. I can't see Angel Rodriguez and Sheldan McClellan missing the tournament again.
25. Texas Longhorns
2015 Record: 20-14
The Longhorns' biggest acquisition this offseason was doubtlessly their new coach, former VCU boss Shaka Smart. This upgrade over the inept Rick Barnes should be immediately visible, as Smart will have the most athletic group of guys he's ever coached. It might take some time for it all to mesh, which is why I have Texas conservatively ranked at 25.
And there you have it! Feel free to point out how obviously wrong I am in the comments below, keeping in mind that we are only 7 short months away from finding out the accuracy of these predictions.