The NBA is currently the focus of the basketball world, deservedly so. And the NBA Draft is currently the focus of college basketball fans looking to keep tabs on the outgoing crop of players. However, there are unlucky people tasked with putting together preseason rankings for the 2017-18 NCAA season.
While not particularly important, these rankings rarely change between now and November, so they typically give a good idea of who will be the most-discussed teams early next season.
No surprise, it’ll look very familiar. Looking at the top 25 that Rob Dauster of NBC Sports updated on Monday, all the usual suspects are there. Arizona checks in at No. 2, followed by North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Duke.
The surprise to casual college basketball fans, however, may be that Michigan State is at the top. Typically, this wouldn’t surprise anyone, as the Spartans are almost always one of the best teams in the country. But, at first look, the No. 1 ranking may seem like a stretch after the Spartans finished with a 19-14 record last season.
But the Spartans are going to enter the 2017-18 season as the favorite in the Big Ten and one of the favorites to win the national title. Why? Because everybody is back. More importantly, everybody is back from a young team that had enough talent to be ranked 12th in the preseason Associated Press poll last season despite entering the year with four freshmen expected to play big roles.
Next season, those freshmen will be sophomores and should be more than ready to compete in a Big Ten that is going to be undergoing a bit of a rebuild after losing a number of its best players to graduation and the NBA Draft.
At the head of the class is Miles Bridges, who was going to be a borderline lottery pick before announcing his intention to return to East Lansing. The 6-foot-7 forward led Michigan State with 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, and will likely have the ball in his hands even more with the departures of Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III on the wing.
Nick Ward was Michigan State’s best player when Bridges was injured last season. The 6-foot-8 big man averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a freshman and easily has what it takes to be one of the better post players in the Big Ten. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by 6-foot-11 Jaren Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American who has the ability to make an immediate impact at Michigan State.
The Spartans will also boast an experienced, steady backcourt with senior Tum Tum Nairn Jr. and sophomore Cassius Winston. Nairn is a non-scoring guard, averaging 3.5 points, 3.6 assists and 2.5 points per game last season. Winston has shown a bit more of an ability to score (6.7 points per game), but his strength is also as a distributor (5.1 assists per game).
Rounding out the rotation in the shooting guard role will likely be the duo of Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid, who averaged 6.9 and 5.6 points per game, respectively, last season.
With all that talent returning with a year of experience under their belt, the safe bet is that Tom Izzo has them near the top of the rankings all season. While Michigan State is considered a lock to be one of the better teams in the country, the rest of the conference is up in the air.
Dauster ranks Minnesota 14th in his preseason poll, thanks to a breakout season that saw the Gophers go 24-9 and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although they were underdogs against, and ultimately lost to, 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee State. But with that confidence-building season and point guard Nate Mason back running the show, the Gophers appear to be talented enough to compete at the top of the Big Ten.
The final Big Ten team in Dauster’s rankings is the other surprise of last season, Northwestern. The Wildcats will likely be playing freer in 2017-18 after going 23-11 and reaching their first-ever NCAA Tournament last season. It won’t be easy to get back there, but head coach Chris Collins appears to have things going in the right direction. He’ll also have plenty of talent back with Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon.
So that’s where things stand at this point. Like last year, there likely won’t be a huge Big Ten contingent in the top 25 next season. But with Michigan State at the top, and likely a breakout team or two, it’ll be interesting to follow how the narratives change throughout the season.