Going into the 2015 Final Four, Kentucky was looking to make history.
The Wildcats were 38-0 heading into their semifinal tilt against Wisconsin, and they were two wins away from becoming the first undefeated Division I team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
So much for that.Wisconsin spoiled Kentucky’s party in dramatic fashion, and it deserves tons of credit. But the Wildcats were still a historically great team; Kentucky’s All-American backups had All-American backups. For a while, it was as if UK was playing a different sport than everyone else. John Calipari did try to implement hockey substitution patterns, after all.
In the end, the Wildcats proved to be mortal. But there’s more to the story – 2014-15 featured several other juggernauts. Arizona featured three NBA players in its starting lineup; Wisconsin had the Naismith winner in Frank Kaminsky; Duke rode Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and a solid mix of veterans; Villanova had a better regular season two years ago than it did in its national championship year; Virginia was at the peak of its defensive powers. The list goes on and on.
2015-16 was different. If 2014-15 was the year of Goliath, 2015-16 was the year of David. Two seasons ago, eight teams finished the season with four losses or less. Last year? All 351 Division I teams dropped at least five games. After Stephen F. Austin upended West Virginia on Friday night of the 2016 NCAA tournament, one perfect bracket remained.
Both seasons were extremely fun, but they couldn’t have resembled one another less. And 2016-17 is looking eerily similar to 2014-15.
We’ll start with Duke, which will likely start the season ranked first in every preseason poll. The Blue Devils return Grayson Allen, who is the only All-American in the country to go back to his school. They also welcome back Amile Jefferson (averaged a double-double last season before his injury), Luke Kennard (11.8 ppg last season) and Matt Jones, a viable 3-and-D specialist.
That’s quite a bit to work with in itself. And it tells about 20 percent of the story.
Duke rolls in the most highly-touted college basketball recruiting class since Kentucky two years ago, and the rest of the country is on notice. Center Harry Giles, forward Jayson Tatum and guard Frank Jackson are all blue-chippers, and center Marques Bolden is the icing on the cake. Or maybe it’s the fact that the Blue Devils have Coach K captaining the ship. Duke has 10 guys (if you include Chase Jeter) who could start on just about every team in America next season. The undefeated chatter will be rampant from the get-go.
It doesn’t stop there. Villanova is bound to be a powerhouse once again. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are gone, but the Wildcats return every other key contributor from their championship squad. Nova adds talented freshman big man Omari Spellman and former Atlantic-10 Freshman of the Year Eric Paschall, too. The Wildcats have everything they need to compete in 2016-17.
Kansas failed to reach the Final Four in 2016, but they were the most consistent team in the country last season. And they’re just as talented, if not more so, this year. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham formulate a superb returning backcourt, and Kansas will welcome freshman Josh Jackson into the fold, who is the best prospect Bill Self has coached since Andrew Wiggins. Kansas went about 11 deep last season, and that will be true once again this year.
Oregon was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago, and the Ducks return five of their top seven scorers. When talent meets continuity, good things happen. You can likely pencil Oregon in for 30-plus wins in 2016-17; Dillon Brooks is a dark horse Naismith candidate.
Kentucky had a down year by its standards last season, but the Wildcats will welcome another incredible freshman class to Lexington. Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk and De’Aron Fox should form a ‘Big Three’ for the Wildcats, and Isaiah Briscoe will return. Kentucky is a cut above the rest of the SEC.
Villanova brought its A-game in the 2016 tournament, and that proved to be unbeatable. You can stack its performance up against just about any team in NCAA tournament history and feel good about it.
But with that said, consistent dominance from November through April is key in this discussion. By that standard, there’s a good chance that all five of the teams listed above are more talented than any squad was in 2015-16.
College basketball was incredible, exhilarating and magnificent last season. Expect more of the same in 2016-17; albeit with entirely different aesthetics.