I know, I know, it seems like only yesterday that Kris Jenkins was shooting Villanova to its first NCAA title in 31 years, but as crazy as it sounds, we are just a few days from the start of another college hoops season. And with 20 ranked teams opening their regular season on Friday – including those defending national champion Villanova Wildcats at 6:30 p.m. ET on FS2 – the season will definitely start with a bang.
A lot has happened since the end of last season, which is why we’re going to spend the next few days rolling out plenty of college hoops content to get you ready for the year. And after FS1 college hoops insider Evan Daniels started things off with a Big East preview on Monday, it’s time to look at some of the top players in the sport. Twenty-five of them to be exact.
This is a bit different than some of the other lists you’ve seen floating around the Internet the past few weeks. These aren’t necessarily the 25 “best” players, or best long-term NBA prospects. Instead, these are guys you simply need to know, from stars on some of your favorite teams to under-the-radar players and emerging freshmen you might not be familiar with.
Leaf is the prototypical modern stretch four, a guy as comfortable stepping out and hitting a jumper as he is hanging in the paint. And for the Bruins to reach their potential in 2016-17, he’ll be as important as any player on the roster, including Ball.
Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Do you like monster dunks and freak athletes unafraid to embarrass the competition? Well then, Monk is your guy.
The 6-foot-3 guard is part of another top-rated recruiting class at Kentucky. While he might not be the most important freshman on the Wildcats’ roster (that title probably goes to point guard De’Aaron Fox), he might be the most exciting. Monk has athleticism that has already been compared to Russell Westbrook, highlighted by this dunk in Sunday’s exhibition win. Or maybe this one. Point being, you're going to enjoy watching this kid play.
Tyler Dorsey, SG, Oregon
Dorsey got lost a bit last year on the Ducks’ run to the Elite Eight, but with star forward Dillon Brooks expected to miss some time with injury, don’t be surprised if the sophomore guard breaks out.
He averaged 13.4 points per game as a true freshman last year and should regularly hit the 20-point plateau until Brooks returns. And once he does, watch out. The pair might end up as the best 1-2 punch in college basketball.
Jalen Adams, PG, UConn
Adams’ became a part of UConn, and college basketball lore, when he hit this miracle shot to send UConn’s AAC Tournament game against Cincinnati into a fourth overtime, in an eventual win that saved the season. But while Adams was a nice ancillary piece of the Huskies puzzle as a freshman, he will be counted on to carry a heavy scoring and play-making load in 2016.
Adams is a true point guard in every sense of the word, and when combined with freshman Alterique Gilbert and senior Rodney Purvis, the Huskies will have one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball.
Jarrett Allen, C, Texas
Shaka Smart is building a monster at Texas, and this year’s team will center around Allen, a 6-foot-11 freshman who chose the Longhorns over Kansas and Kentucky, and could be a Top 10 pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
I could tell you more about Allen, but considering that Smart spent several minutes gushing about Allen on the latest episode of The Sidelines Podcast with Evan Daniels, I’ll just defer to that instead.
Chris CovattaGetty Images
Caleb Swanigan, PF, Purdue
When Swanigan enrolled at Purdue last season, he was projected by most as a one-and-done guy. And after averaging 10 points and eight boards in his first season in West Lafayette, he almost did leave for the pros last spring.
Instead, after declaring for the draft and getting so-so feedback from the pros, he decided to return to school for his sophomore season. This year, he could be one of the best low-post players in not just the Big Ten, but all of college basketball.
Lauri Markannen, PF, Arizona
Casual college hoops fans may not know much about the 6-foot-10 freshman from Finland, but NBA scouts do. After leading the FIBA U-20 European championships in scoring this summer, he shot up draft boards, to the point that a college assistant who was in attendance at the tournament told me, “Before it’s all said and done, this guy is going to be a Top 5 NBA Draft pick. Mark it down.”
Only time will tell whether that projection is true, but this is certain: With Ray Smith retiring from basketball after another knee injury and the status of both guard Allonzo Trier and center Chance Comanche uncertain, Arizona will need him to be a star. Right away.
Tyler Davis, PF/C, Texas A&M
The SEC is umm … (how do I put this nicely) … not expected to be very good this year. At least not behind Kentucky. But A&M is one of the few teams that’s a true NCAA Tournament team.
And that's due in large – pun intended – part to Davis, a 6-foot-10 270-pound monster who averaged 11 and six as a freshman last year. I don’t know if there’s a stronger or physically more imposing player in college basketball this season.
Nigel Williams-Goss, PG, Gonzaga
It’s not often a team can lose two NBA players (Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer) and be projected by some to be better than they were the previous year. But that’s the case in 2017 with the ‘Zags.
And there is no bigger reason for that than Williams-Goss, a former McDonald’s All-American who averaged almost 16 points per game at Washington two seasons ago before electing to transfer and sit out last season.
Moses Kingsley, PF, Arkansas
Mike Anderson’s job status could very well depend on making the NCAA Tournament this year at Arkansas. But in what could be a make-or-break year, he’s got Kingsley on his roster. The 6-foot-10 senior was picked as the preseason SEC Player of the Year just a few weeks ago after averaging just under 16 points and nine rebounds last season.
Elijah Brown, SG, New Mexico
You’re more familiar with Brown’s dad – former Cavaliers and Lakers coach Mike Brown – but you better get to know his son this year. After averaging 21 points per game, he was All-Mountain West in 2016. If he improves on those numbers, Brown could be an All-American. And the Lobos could be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013-14.
Edmond Sumner, PG, Xavier
Not all future first-round NBA Draft picks are one-and-done, can’t-miss prospects. Some take time to grow into their games, like Sumner.
The redshirt sophomore burst onto the scene averaging 11 points and three assists last year. And after a big summer, and after adding muscle to his 6-foot-6 frame, he has NBA scouts drooling at the possibility of drafting him next spring.
Carlton Bragg, PF, Kansas
While everyone knows guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham and everyone is excited about freshman Josh Jackson, the success of the Jayhawks' season could rest on the broad shoulders of Bragg.
We know what we’re getting from the three players mentioned above, but can Bragg – a former McDonald’s All-American – replace the 17 points and six rebounds Perry Ellis provided in the paint last season? For the Jayhawks to reach their potential, they’ll need the sophomore to become the star he’s capable of being in the paint.
Khadeen Carrington, G, Seton Hall
A lot has happened since March when Seton Hall gave us one of the great stories in college basketball last spring. There, “The Hall” won their first Big East Tournament in over 20 years and advanced to their first Big Dance in over a decade.
While plenty project the Pirates to step back without last year’s star Isaiah Whitehead, don’t sleep on this year’s squad, in large part thanks to Carrington. He averaged 14 points per game last year and will take on a much larger role with Whitehead now in the NBA.
Chris Boucher, C, Oregon
Boucher might be college basketball’s most versatile player, after averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks last year, while also hitting over one 3-pointer a game.
As this list progresses, it’s going to get a little “freshman-heavy." But in my defense, this is “the year of the freshman.” While there may be guys with more overall talent than Bridges (though not many), few will be asked to carry a heavier burden than Michigan State forward after the Spartans lost four of their top five scorers from last year’s team.
Trimble’s story is known about as well as anyone’s in college basketball. He was a breakout star at Maryland two years ago, averaging 16 points, four rebounds and three assists, and many expected him to turn pro after his freshman year. Instead, he decided to return, saw his numbers regress and was left with no choice but to come back for a third season.
Now a senior, Koenig is good enough – with enough talent around him – to get the Badgers back to a third Final Four in four years.
Ivan Rabb, PF, Cal
You know his name and you know his game after he dominated nearly 13 points and nine boards a game last year, displaying one of the most complete and versatile games in college basketball.
With Jaylen Brown now off to the pros, this is Rabb’s team, and he’s talented enough to lead it. Don’t be surprised if Rabb ends up in the National Player of the Year race before it’s all said and done.
Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
It’s not often anyone says “Poor Coach K” (actually that phrase may have never been uttered), but with three of his star freshmen all going down with injuries this preseason, it’s hard not to feel bad for the Duke coach and his players.
While forward Harry Giles’ status is unknown, and center Marques Bolden’s is too after suffering an undisclosed lower leg injury earlier this week, Tatum should be back and ready to contribute soon. And when he does return, he’ll be a star.
Don’t be surprised if the smooth 6-foot-8 wing averages close to 20 points per game this season and plays his way into the conversation as the first overall pick in next spring’s NBA Draft.
Lance KingGetty Images
Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington
Speaking of “could be the No. 1 overall pick in next spring’s NBA Draft,” meet Fultz, Washington’s latest superstar freshman. The 6-foot-5 guard from Maryland can do it all and has about as cool of a back-story as anyone in college basketball. He didn't even make his high school varsity team until late in his career.
Thankfully, a late growth spurt matched a relentless work ethic, allowing him to become a star late in his high school career before committing to Washington. After Lorenzo Romar has wasted plenty of talent in the past few seasons at Washington – including missing the tournament with two future first-round picks last season – can he get the most out of Fultz and this team in what will likely be his star freshman’s only year on campus?
NBAE via Getty ImagesCameron Browne
Dennis Smith Jr., PG, NC State
We’re hitting a lot of freshmen on this list, but when you see how good these guys you’ll understand why. That's epecially true of Smith.
Looking for this year’s Buddy Hield -- a good college player who could become a bona fide superstar as a senior? Look no further than Blossomgame, who averaged nearly 19 points per game – and like Hart – absolutely dominated at the Nike Skills Academy last summer.
The question isn’t whether Blossomgame is a star; he could be an All-American. It’s whether he has enough talent around him to get Clemson to its first NCAA Tournament since 2011.
Isaiah Briscoe, G, Kentucky
I mentioned Malik Monk at the top of the list – mainly because he’s going to make the highlight-reel every single time Kentucky plays this season – but no player is more important to the Wildcats’ success this season than Briscoe.
Last year, Briscoe got a bit lost in the shuffle with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray in the fold, but that won’t be the case this year. He’ll be needed to fill some of Murray’s scoring void and a huge chunk of Ulis’ leadership for the Wildcats to reach their potential in 2017.
Josh Hart, SF, Villanova
While Kris Jenkins’ stole America’s hearts with arguably the greatest buzzer-beater in the history of basketball in last year’s national championship game, Hart was by far the Wildcats’ most consistent player last year. He is an underappreciated stat sheet stuff who can basically do it all on the court; not only did he lead Villanova in scoring last year, but at 6-foot-6, he averaged nearly seven rebounds per game as well.
Like so many others, Hart tested the NBA Draft waters last spring before deciding to return this season. His sometimes-crooked jump shot looked much improved when I saw him at this summer’s Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles, so don’t be surprised if he’s in the hunt for National Player of the Year honors.