USA TODAY Sports' Nicole Auerbach breaks down the the keys of the 2017 college basketball season. usa
USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson offers his preseason top 10 among mid-major teams. Teams considered for the power rankings fell outside the seven power (American Athletic, Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern) and two middle-power conferences (Atlantic 10, Mountain West).
No. 1 Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
This could be the best team in school history. Randy Bennett returns all five starters from last year’s 29-6 team, and expectations are extremely high. The offensive formula for this group is based on balance. There’s no real star, but the inside-out tandem of Australians Emmett Naar (14 ppg, 6.4 apg) and Dane Pineau (11.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg) spearhead the Gaels offense.
No. 2 Gonzaga (West Coast)
The Bulldogs are losing a dominant frontcourt — All-America forward Kyle Wiltjer to graduation and forward Domantas Sabonis to the NBA — but coach Mark Few expects offense for 2016-17 from transfers. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15.6 ppg, 5.9 apg at Washington in 2014-15) has the talent to be an All-American and will be complemented in the backcourt by graduate transfer Jordan Mathews (13.5 ppg at California last season) and returning starter Josh Perkins. Johnathan Williams (11.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg at Missouri in 2014-15) joins 7-footer Przemek Karnowski in the frontcourt to round out a lineup that should put the Bulldogs back in the top-25 mix.
No. 3 Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
The Shockers will have to adjust to life without All-America guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. No matter. 2014 national coach of the year Gregg Marshall will have his team playing with its signature brand of toughness that figures to keep the Shockers near the top of the MVC and in the national spotlight. The winning culture Marshall has created won’t fade with graduation. No returning player put up big numbers last season but key returnees — big man Shaquille Morris, 2015-16 forward and MVC freshman of the year Markis McDue and guard Conner Frankamp, a Kansas transfer — are expected to grow into much larger roles.
No. 4 Alabama-Birmingham (Conference USA)
First-year coach Robert Ehsan inherits a team with five returning starters, including three all-conference players, from last year’s C-USA regular-season champ. Everything about this team spells Cinderella — from great guard play and experience to a likely deep rotation off the bench. Junior forwards Chris Cokley (13.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and William Lee (10.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) carry most of the weight, while sharpshooter Nick Norton (8.9 ppg, 5.1 apg) should take another step to jolt the offense.
No. 5 Monmouth (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Perhaps the most important ingredient to every bracket-busting upset come March is motivation. Don’t expect the Hawks to be lacking it this season after last year’s NCAA tournament snub. Getting an at-large ticket as a midmajor is nearly an impossible task, but Monmouth was beyond good enough — sporting a nation-leading 17 wins away from home on a worthy résumé and wins that included UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown. The key will be not leaving it in the selection committee’s hands this season. MAAC player of the year Justin Robinson (19.3 ppg), a 5-8 guard, gives the team its backbone with his tenacity. Robinson and coach King Rice’s core players are back.
No. 6 Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
The Panthers will transition from a more guard-oriented team last season and turn attention to their frontcourt, where Bennett Koch (7.6 ppg) and Klint Carlson (7.4 ppg) are ready for much larger roles as versatile big men. Also poised for a bigger role is guard Jeremy Morgan (11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg). And Iowa State transfer Jordan Ashton gives the Panthers a much-needed experience boost, as they have 11 new faces between freshmen and now-eligible redshirt players.
No. 7 Harvard (Ivy)
Coach Tommy Amaker hauled in the school’s best-ever recruiting class, which ranked in the top-10 (via ESPN), and that means young talent will be the Crimson’s driving force. That’s not to say there isn’t talent left over. All-Ivy League point guard Siyani Chambers, whose season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury played a big part in ending Harvard’s run of four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances last season, will be the team’s most important player. Another key returnee is big man Zena Edosomwan (13.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg), who gives the Crimson a frontcourt force to help them compete with power teams. Expect the freshman class — four-star recruits Chris Lewis, Robert Baker, Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken — to gradually mesh with the veterans.
No. 8 Princeton (Ivy)
The Tigers likely will benefit from the league’s first year using a four-team tournament to decide the NCAA automatic bid. (It previously was awarded to the regular-season champion). The key pieces are back on coach Mitch Henderson’s squad, which played in the National Invitation Tournament last season and won 22 games. First-team All-Ivy Leaguer Henry Caruso (15 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is one of many veterans who make the Tigers dangerous. Princeton led the Ivy League in offense (79.1 ppg) with strong three-point shooting. If the defense is on par in 2016-17, we’re looking at a quintessential March darling.
No. 9 Middle Tennessee State (C-USA)
Trying to provide an encore to last season will be virtually impossible, considering the Blue Raiders staged one of the biggest upsets in tournament history by knocking off No. 2 seed Michigan State. But that victory was a launching pad into regular success. Two of coach Kermit Davis’ best players are back. Giddy Potts (14.9 ppg, the nation’s top three-point shooter) and multidimensional forward Reggie Upshaw (13.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg) give MTSU enough punch to return for more bracket-shattering.
No. 10 Valparaiso (Horizon)
The Crusaders lost their coach, Bryce Drew, to Vanderbilt, but bring back perhaps their biggest piece to making a deep March run in All-America-caliber big man Alec Peters (18.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg), who bypassed the NBA to stay for his senior season. His return doesn’t make Valpo the clear-cut favorite in the Horizon, as many challengers — including Green Bay — figure to make things interesting. Coach Matt Lottich, who was promoted from Drew’s staff, has a linchpin in Peters to keep Valpo in the mix.
Others considered: Akron, Illinois State, Missouri State, Brigham Young, Long Beach State, Chattanooga, Belmont, Green Bay, Eastern Michigan, Tennessee State.
PRESEASON COACHES POLL TOP 25 TEAMS