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College hoops royalty leads Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2017-18

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Stocks rise and fall in Way-Too-Early Top 25 (0:35)

Both participants in the national championship game rank in the top 10 as we turn the page to the 2017-18 college basketball season. But Kentucky's ability to reload with top-level talent places the Wildcats at No. 1. (0:35)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The 2016-17 season is officially in the rearview mirror -- barely. The mirror is having some visibility issues, in fact, what with all the confetti buildup on the back window. More literally, the standard Way-Too-Early Top 25 disclaimer, the one we append each and every year, applies yet again: The end of the current season is nowhere near the best time to evaluate what next season's teams will look like.

This has always been the case, but never more than now. A year ago, the NCAA replaced a draconian draft deadline policy with a vastly more forgiving framework, one that allows players to declare, go through the combine, receive feedback and, provided they don't hire an agent, withdraw by May 24 and return to school, eligibility intact.

In the coming weeks, plenty will do just that. Plenty will leave. Others will transfer schools. Meanwhile, the remaining blue-chip recruits in the 2017 class -- including four of the ESPN 100's top 10, and six of the top 19 -- will announce where they'll play their ball next season. The point is, things could look drastically different by June. For now, though, here's our best guess -- our best, educated, way-way-way-too-early guess -- at how things might look come fall.

So, about those educated guesses.

A year ago, Duke's supremacy was a no-brainer bet: the best team in the country, a national-title favorite, a roster for the ages. Last April's Way-Too-Early No. 1 turned out to be none of those things, of course, proving for the 812,439th time that there are no sure things in college hoops -- especially seven months before the start of practice. The maxim feels especially true this time around. At least for the moment, finding next season's clear prospective No. 1 team feels much more difficult, if not outright impossible, or at least much more open to interpretation.

So, hey, let's go with ...

1. Kentucky Wildcats

You know the drill here: Coach John Calipari is presumably sending a bunch of talented dudes to the NBA (De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo) and replacing them with another bunch of talented dudes (five ESPN 100 prospects in ESPN's No. 1-ranked 2017 recruiting class, plus redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo) hoping to join their pro-bound predecessors forthwith. Whether those newcomers have the same star power as the players they're replacing is up for debate, but if guard Isaiah Briscoe returns for another season and Wenyen Gabriel and Isaac Humphries ably take on bigger roles in the frontcourt, there's no reason Calipari can't mold up another national-title contender in the next 10 or so months. Broadly speaking, almost every top team will have a ton of turnover in 2017-18; why not settle on the one that thrives on turnover every spring?

For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2017-18, check out Kentucky's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


2. North Carolina Tar Heels

After back-to-back Final Fours, the Tar Heels aren't going anywhere. Yes, they will lose key seniors yet again: Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks in the frontcourt; Nate Britt in the backcourt; plus ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who seems all but guaranteed to turn pro after his junior season. But star guard Joel Berry II could return for a fourth year, as could forward Tony Bradley, and that's a big deal in and of itself. Bradley came off the bench as a freshman; he already is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and he might be a first-round pick, if he declares. Meanwhile, five-star shooting guard Jalek Felton will join a deep group already comprising a raft of ready talents. (Even Luke Maye, the "unlikely" hero of UNC's Elite Eight win over Kentucky, had proved his scoring chops all season.) There are a lot of ifs here and a lot of pieces to replace, but coach Roy Williams had a lot to replace after last year's Final Four too, and you saw how that worked out.

For more on how the Tar Heels will look in 2017-18, check out North Carolina's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


3. Louisville Cardinals

Louisville's atypically short stay in the 2017 postseason -- from its one-and-out loss to Duke in the ACC tournament to the second-round NCAA tournament defeat it took to uber-hot Michigan -- shouldn't obscure just how good the Cardinals were throughout the season or how good they will be again next season. Already an elite defensive team, coach Rick Pitino's group will slot in three top-100 talents ready to contribute on both ends next season, while maintaining almost all of the preexisting group. Mangok Mathiang is the only significant senior leaving, while star guard Donovan Mitchell looks to be the most likely potential departure, assuming Deng Adel comes back to campus after testing the NBA draft waters. (Both could ultimately return.) The pieces for another ACC title chase, and a much deeper postseason stay -- led by one of the best tactical minds in the game, mind you -- are very much in place.

For more on how the Cardinals will look in 2017-18, check out Louisville's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


4. Villanova Wildcats

During two straight springs, Villanova has waved farewell to two classes that lifted the program out of early-2010s doldrums and into the ranks of the national elite and oh, by the way, helped win the 2016 national title. Josh Hart followed 2016's love-in with perhaps the sport's best individual season in 2017; Kris Jenkins will forever occupy a vaunted place in hoops lore for his title-winning buzzer-beater. Combined with the losses of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu last April, you might assume Villanova was in for a rebuild. At least a brief one, right? You'd assume wrong. Jalen Brunson will continue his ongoing lead-guard metamorphosis as a junior alongside Donte DiVincenzo, who was already up for it as a freshman, while Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall continue to offer long, interchangeable work at the forward spots. Meanwhile, Omari Spellman -- a redshirt partial academic qualifier expected to be Ochefu's replacement last fall -- will finally step into the limelight, a limelight Jay Wright's program refuses to yield.

For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2017-18, check out Villanova's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


5. Florida Gators

The short version of the history of Florida basketball is roughly as follows: decades of practical nonexistence; a few seasons under Lon Kruger; and Pax Donovana. When Billy Donovan, the most successful coach in Gators hoops history by a laughable margin, left two summers ago, it was safe to wonder whether they could possibly sustain it without him. Wonder no more. Donovan's replacement, Mike White -- the last great hire of legendary Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley's tenure (he retired in October 2016) -- has answered that question only two seasons in. The core of an already emergent Gators squad will remain intact in White's third year, led by KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza, one of the nation's best (and fastest) backcourts. White could start five significant contributors from the current Elite Eight group while mixing in a top-10 recruiting class (led by forward Isaiah Stokes) and two transfers (Jalen Hudson and Dontay Bassett). This was already one of the nation's best teams. It's only going to get better. Billy who?

For more on how the Gators will look in 2017-18, check out Florida's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


6. Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State went 31-5 and finished its season ranked eighth in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency ratings and 15th in the BPI, and here's the scary part: The Shockers were just getting started. The Shockers of November were still adapting to the losses of era-defining guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. It took a few weeks -- and a couple of nonconference losses -- for Landry Shamet to slot in to a more natural point guard role, where he (and sharpshooter Conner Frankamp, playing off the ball) immediately thrived. Nonconference losses, a weak Missouri Valley and the selection committee's laughable reliance on the RPI saddled Wichita State -- a top-15 team, by any measure -- with a No. 10 seed, whereupon it lost to Kentucky (which, for the record, turned around and throttled UCLA) by a bucket in the second round. Everyone is back. The Shockers have business to attend to. And yes, they will be angry.

For more on how the Shockers will look in 2017-18, check out Wichita State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


7. Duke Blue Devils

Given the past 12 months, it's tempting to overcorrect in the "maybe Duke won't be good" direction. Let's not go too crazy: Mike Krzyzewski won't enter 2017-18 with the (legitimately ridiculous) roster he enjoyed a year ago, but he won't exactly be slumming it, either. Coach K and his staff, from associate head coach Jeff Capel on down, continues to recruit at an extremely high level and could yet add another top-10 prospect (or two) to a class that already includes No. 1 power forward Wendell Carter and No. 1 shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden, holdouts from 2016's glittering newcomers, could sing as sophomores. And there remains the possibility that either Grayson Allen or Luke Kennard (with the former more likely than the latter) could return in the face of underwhelming draft surveys. The result won't match the looming behemoth we foretold in Durham, North Carolina, a year ago, but it won't be all doom and gloom.

For more on how the Blue Devils will look in 2017-18, check out Duke's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


8. West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers waved goodbye to two beloved senior starters this spring: Tarik Phillip, a key contemporary of the Press Virginia movement; and Nathan Adrian, crafty Morgantown native par excellence. Beyond that, though? Everyone is back. Jevon Carter will take another leading offensive role, while forcing steals left and right, Daxter Miles Jr. will remain by his side. Forwards Esa Ahmad and Elijah Macon will keep posting, diving and crashing the offensive glass. And coach Bob Huggins will still be plying the turnovers-plus-offensive-boards combo that has led to so much success in recent seasons.

For more on how the Mountaineers will look in 2017-18, check out West Virginia's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


9. Kansas Jayhawks

Once Kansas fans get over another heartbreaking Elite Eight loss, they can take stock of the fact that their Jayhawks just tied pre-modern-era UCLA for the most consecutive conference titles (13!) in college basketball history. Life is good in the Sunflower State. (In the meantime, everyone, please stop talking about what it "means" that Bill Self is 2-5 in the Elite Eight at Kansas -- and 2-7 overall. He has been to nine Elite Eights! The answer is in the prompt!) Will 2017-2018 Kansas add to that streak? Why not? Sure, the Jayhawks lose a ton -- including player of the year Frank Mason III, lottery pick Josh Jackson and senior leader/low-post anchor Landen Lucas -- but they could feature Devonte' Graham in a lead role alongside Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (one of the top point guards in his class two years ago), in addition to top prospect Billy Preston and sophomore center Udoka Azubuike. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk's return at the wing -- not to mention whoever else Self hunts down on the recruiting trail -- could prove crucial. Either way, Kansas will be good. Kansas is always good. The end.

For more on how the Jayhawks will look in 2017-18, check out Kansas' returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


10. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Gonzaga will either be very good or extremely good; these are the only conceivable options. The nation's top defensive team -- and one that often thrived on its inside-out offensive structure -- will be at pains to replace fifth-year senior center Przemek Karnowski, whose role on both ends was central to the Zags' success. That will be especially true if freshman Zach Collins (who nearly matched Karnowski's efficiency in 17 minutes per game off the bench) leaves Spokane, Washington, for the NBA. But if Nigel Williams-Goss returns (and the player of the year candidate very well might, given his relatively meager mock draft showings) alongside Josh Perkins, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson, we'll stick with "extremely good," thanks very much.

For more on how the Bulldogs will look in 2017-18, check out Gonzaga's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


11. Arizona Wildcats

Coach Sean Miller has churned out consistent winners since he arrived in Tucson, and 2017-18 should be no different. Arizona had only one senior (Kadeem Allen) on this season's young roster. It will lose brilliant freshman center Lauri Markkanen, and odds are that at least one or two of its talented wing trio (Allonzo Trier, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, with Alkins seeming the most likely to come back). Still, Miller's recruiting efforts have another star big on the way: No. 1 center (and No. 2 overall, per the ESPN 100) prospect DeAndre Ayton. The Wildcats have a lot of personnel questions to figure out in the coming weeks, but "Miller plus talent" is always a handy equation.

For more on how the Wildcats will look in 2017-18, check out Arizona's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


12. Michigan State Spartans

Shortly after his team's second-round tournament loss to Kansas, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, proud as he has ever been, told reporters his young, injured and occasionally overwhelmed 2016-17 group "gave me everything they could give me." Even if star NBA prospect Miles Bridges fulfills his one-and-done potential (and he seems to be genuinely weighing the options, so stay tuned), three freshmen that arrived with him last summer will form the core of a really good Michigan State group for years to come. The pieces are classically Izzoian in their balance: Nick Ward, the brilliant low-post scorer; Cassius Winston, the preternatural passer at point; and Joshua Langford, the prototypical off-ball wing. This trio clicked more and more as the season went along. The possibilities are endless moving forward. Michigan State will have to tighten up more than a few screws (far fewer turnovers, much better offensive rebounding), and get big contributions from ancillary pieces (Matt McQuaid) and newcomers (especially five-star power forward Jaren Jackson) to justify this optimism. We'll take those odds.

For more on how the Spartans will look in 2017-18, check out Michigan State's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


13. Oregon Ducks

Will Dillon Brooks be back for his senior season? The Oregon forward's early second-round-ish draft stock might be in that tenuous "we know what he is" zone, which is to say the incentives for returning might not be as powerful as they would for many second-round prospects. The flip side of that, of course, is that Brooks might feel confident that he can get the same looks a year from now. The same could be said for forward Jordan Bell, though a dominant senior season on the defensive end might change that calculus somewhat. Either way, if Brooks and Bell are both back alongside Tyler Dorsey, Payton Pritchard, Casey Benson and five-star small forward Troy Brown Jr., this ranking will seem drastically low. If one of two is back, this will be about right. If neither returns, Dana Altman will have a lot of replacing to do. We'll see.

For more on how the Ducks will look in 2017-18, check out Oregon's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


14. Virginia Cavaliers

Despite it all -- "it all" including losses of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey; the early-season dismissal of touted transfer forward Austin Nichols; and an offense that spent whole swaths of the ACC season (and a 65-39 second-round NCAA tournament loss to Florida) being more or less broken -- the Cavaliers still won 23 games, finished 11th in BPI and 12th in adjusted efficiency, posted top-five defensive numbers and swept Louisville in the regular season. It was a pretty good year! The next UVa team will have to forge ahead without London Perrantes, its only consistent source of points, which, given the above, sounds terrifying. More assertive stuff from rising sophomore/man-bun-wearer Kyle Guy (who made 49.5 percent from 3 and needs to take more) could help alleviate some of the offensive woes. In any case, as long as coach Tony Bennett's team keeps guarding like it has, its floor is inherently high.

For more on how the Cavaliers will look in 2017-18, check out Virginia's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


15. Saint Mary's Gaels

Saint Mary's just fielded its best team in school history -- and its most historically unlucky. In almost any other year, SMC probably would have been the West Coast Conference's best team or at least neck-and-neck with a very good Gonzaga squad. In 2016-17, Gonzaga was a next-level, national-title-contending juggernaut, and four-loss SMC's three WCC chances to improve its NCAA tournament résumé all resulted in convincing defeats to the Zags. Which, in turn, resulted in a No. 7 seed -- and a tight loss to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Bummer. Good news? Even with seniors Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau gone, Randy Bennett's team will remain very good (and very Australian), led by rising senior center Jock Landale, the most ruthlessly efficient big man in college basketball. Matching last season's top-15 metrics will be a challenge -- but hardly an insurmountable one.

For more on how the Gaels will look in 2017-18, check out Saint Mary's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


16. Xavier Musketeers

Trevon Bluiett thought long and hard about an NBA departure a year ago, only to return and have yet another huge season in Cincinnati. As of this writing, Bluiett has been quiet about his plans this spring. Which is to say: Like more than a few teams on this list, Xavier's outlook could vary wildly based on what its best player decides in the coming days and weeks. Edmond Sumner, despite still recovering from February's season-ending knee injury, declared for the NBA draft. J.P. Macura, Kaiser Gates, Tyrique Jones, Sean O'Mara and rising sophomore guard Quentin Goodin (who struggled for much of the season but flowered in the Elite Eight run) -- not to mention four four-star prospects, including two top-100 guys -- will be very good even if Bluiett departs but downright scary if he remains in the fold.

For more on how the Musketeers will look in 2017-18, check out Xavier's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


17. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota, the No. 5 seed that lost twice to Wisconsin, caught the brunt of the angst over Wisconsin's underseeding (and subsequent second-round knockout of No. 1 Villanova), and it didn't help when the Golden Gophers fell to Middle Tennessee in the first round. Oh well. Coach Richard Pitino's team might not have been as good as the Badgers, but it did play top-25 defense, and it will return everyone of note moving forward, from point guard Nate Mason to shot-block specialist Reggie Lynch. Pitino also added four-star point guard Isaiah Washington to help Mason on the perimeter; he could fight his way into significant minutes right away. More pressing: This is a team that won eight games in 2015-16. Tourney seed aside, this turnaround was already spectacular. It will probably continue apace.

For more on how the Golden Gophers will look in 2017-18, check out Minnesota's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

First things first: The Fighting Irish are losing two key seniors, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, both of whom stretched the floor and slashed to the rim and key reasons why Notre Dame's four-out offense worked so well all season. Thing is? Notre Dame always loses key seniors. Two years ago, it was Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton; last year, it was Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson. Mike Brey keeps putting really good teams on the floor. Most important, Bonzie Colson -- a revelation as a 6-foot-5, long-armed, small-ball "center" who does a quality poor man's Draymond Green impression -- was only a junior. He'll be back, and any offense built around him -- and engineered by Brey -- is bound to put points on the board.

For more on how the Fighting Irish will look in 2017-18, check out Notre Dame's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


19. Butler Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are suffering their fair share of losses this offseason, from Andrew Chrabascz, one of the Big East's best big men, to Tyler Lewis, one of the nation's best passers from the point. But they're also retaining plenty. Kamar Baldwin and Tyler Wideman are a potent inside-out offensive combo, and George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen could assume point guard duties. The big question is Kelan Martin. Martin spent most of 2016-17 as an inefficient volume scorer, but he had his best, most efficient performances of the season after Butler coach Chris Holtmann began to bring him off the bench down the stretch. If Martin plays like the post-bench version, Butler will be hard to stop. If he backslides, the Bulldogs might not be able to match the firepower that fueled their late-season run to the Sweet 16.

For more on how the Bulldogs will look in 2017-18, check out Butler's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


20. SMU Mustangs

Semi Ojeleye was a blue-chip prospect at Duke who sat out for a season, worked on his game and reemerged in Dallas as one of the nation's best offensive players -- one in possession of clear NBA-level gifts. It's no wonder he's testing the draft waters this spring. If he hears plenty of first-round assurances, it seems unlikely the 22-year-old would stay, at which point SMU's outlook would obviously change. Would a Mustangs team led by Shake Milton be interesting? Absolutely. Would it be a top-20 team? Uncertain. Ojeleye's return would be massive.

For more on how the Mustangs will look in 2017-18, check out SMU's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


21. Miami Hurricanes

Miami coach Jim Larranaga coaxed and cajoled an inconsistent group into a fine campaign (including a crucial 7-2 stretch from Jan. 25 to Feb. 25) by the time all was said and done. He might not need to fight quite so hard next season. The Hurricanes will lose Davon Reed, but they have a top-10 recruiting class on its way, led by perhaps its best recruit in a decade, Lonnie Walker, who turned down Arizona and Villanova en route to Coral Gables, Florida. Ja'Quan Newton needs to be more efficient, but rising sophomore Bruce Brown might be in for a breakout year. Expect less cajoling and more dancing.

For more on how the Hurricanes will look in 2017-18, check out Miami's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


22. Michigan Wolverines

No matter how good a prospect you are, it can be easy to get lost in Kentucky's annual NBA churn. Former Kentucky guard Charles Matthews found refuge from this uncertainty with a transfer to Michigan, and he'll take the floor for coach John Beilein next season. The timing couldn't be better, as Michigan will lose heart-and-soul point guard Derrick Walton Jr., as well as senior off-guard Zak Irvin. (Xavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will help in this regard.) Forward D.J. Wilson's game flourished down the stretch to the point that the NBA seems like a foregone conclusion, and that's a heavy blow, at least relative to the opportunity cost of a fully realized Wilson back on a college floor for one more season. Still, forward Moritz Wagner -- himself an intriguing draft prospect -- could excel with more touches.

For more on how the Wolverines will look in 2017-18, check out Michigan's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


23. UCLA Bruins

Lonzo Ball's lone season in college basketball felt like a raucous, let-the-good-times-roll night on the town. Crazy stuff (mostly passes in the open floor) happened. Crazy things (mostly by Ball's dad) were said. And hey, how about Bryce Alford?! Guy really came out of his shell! Good times, man. Good times. Unfortunately, there is always a morning after, and this one promises to be a doozy. Fortunately, coach Steve Alford has some remedies on hand. Yeoman's work on the recruiting trail has netted the nation's top-two recruiting class, led by guard Jaylen Hands and forward Kris Wilkes, both of whom should help alleviate the losses of Ball, Alford, TJ Leaf and Isaac Hamilton. (Ouch.) If raw talent Ike Anigbogu is back, the Wilkes-Anibogu-Thomas Welsh frontcourt might just be the Pac-12's best. Plus, there's another Ball brother -- LiAngelo Ball, a three-star, 6-foot-6 power forward -- in the mix. He already has a nickname (Gelo), but if we may humbly suggest another, we'd go with "Hair of the dog."

For more on how the Bruins will look in 2017-18, check out UCLA's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


24. Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati has some serious backcourt gaps to fill in, Troy Caupain's chief among them. Good news: Jarron Cumberland was really good off the bench as a freshman. Jacob Evans was already good in big minutes (including 42 percent shooting from 3) not off the bench. And, most important, coach Mick Cronin has the core of what he does -- which should be capitalized, though the editors won't allow it -- back in full force. Gary Clark, who posted a 124.0 offensive rating and 12.3 percent offensive rebounding percentage, while shooting 58 percent from 2, is back. But most important, 6-foot-9 rising senior Kyle Washington, who accounted for 28 percent of Cincinnati's shots and 26 percent of its possessions, is likely to return for his senior year. The backcourt should sort itself out. Cincinnati will do what it does.

For more on how the Bearcats will look in 2017-18, check out Cincinnati's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


25. Baylor Bears

Oregon blurb reprise alert: Will Johnathan Motley be back? Coming off a brilliant All-American junior season, when he elevated his Monstars-level athleticism to frequently dominant heights on both ends of the floor, the Baylor forward's early-second-round status might have peaked. If Motley disagrees, Baylor will benefit. Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., Terry Maston and Jake Lindsey form a solid foundation, but after guard Al Freeman -- and with guard King McClure's leap still in the gestation stage -- Motley is the difference between an above-average team and one that could again push Kansas and West Virginia for Big 12 supremacy. Besides, the last time we did this, the Bears went unranked, without a single vote, in the preseason AP poll, only to earn their first top AP ranking a couple of months later. Coach Scott Drew has earned some deference.

For more on how the Bears will look in 2017-18, check out Baylor's returning players and incoming recruits and ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings.


Honorable mentions: Seton Hall, Purdue, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, Creighton, VCU, USC, Wisconsin, TCU