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An Early College Basketball Top 25 for 2015-16

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About a month has passed since Duke defeated Wisconsin for the 2015 championship, and we’ve already had a busy offseason.

Coaches have been fired and hired and headed to the NBA. Underclassmen have put their names into the draft or elected to return. Most transfers and incoming freshmen have found their landing places.

In that case, now is as good a time as any to revisit our early top 25 for the 2015-15 season. Since we last took a snapshot of the national scene, our top two teams, Virginia and North Carolina, lost key players while Duke, Kentucky and — surprise! — Cal added key recruits.

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1. Kentucky (38-1, 18-0 SEC)

Losses: F Karl-Anthony Towns, C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Aaron Harrison, G Andrew Harrison, F Trey Lyles, G Devin Booker, C Dakari Johnson

Returnees: G Tyler Ulis, F Alex Poythress, F Marcus Lee

New arrivals: C Skal Labissiere, G Isaiah Briscoe, G Charles Matthews, G Mychal Mulder

Outlook: In a rare string of recruiting losses, Kentucky lost out on guard Brandon Ingram (Duke), Cheick Diallo (Kansas), Malik Newman (Mississippi State) and Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) in postseason commitments. Kentucky filled one spot with Mychal Mulder, a standout shooter from the junior college ranks. 

2. Duke (35-4, 15-3 ACC)

Losses: G Quinn Cook, C Jahlil Okafor, F Justise Winslow, G Tyus Jones

Returnees: F Amile Jefferson, G Matt Jones, G Grayson Allen

New arrivals: F Chase Jeter, G Luke Kennard, F Sean Obi, G Brandon Ingram, G Derryck Thornton

Outlook: If 2015 proved Duke could win a championship with a roster full of freshmen, the 2016 recruiting class proved Mike Krzyzewski could reload just as quickly. The team won’t be as stocked as the championship team, but the key holes have been filled with a big man (Jeter), a shooter (Kennard), a point guard (Thornton, who reclassified from the 2016 class to 2015) and a big, versatile shooter that has served Duke well in the past (Ingram). 

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3. North Carolina (26-12, 11-7 ACC)

Losses: F J.P. Tokoto

Returnees: G Marcus Paige, F Brice Johnson, F Kennedy Meeks, F Justin Jackson, F Isaiah Hicks, G Nate Britt, G Joel Berry

Outlook: North Carolina was a candidate for preseason No. 1 the first time around with every key player returning. Since then, J.P. Tokoto elected to leave for the pros. Carolina should still be very good, but Tokoto was a standout defender. His departure tempers expectations a bit.

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4. Kansas (27-9, 13-5 Big 12)

Losses: G Kelly Oubre, F Cliff Alexander

Returnees: F Perry Ellis, G Frank Mason, G Wayne Selden, G Brannen Greene, F Jamari Traylor, F Landen Lucas, G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk

New arrivals: F Carlton Bragg, F Chieck Diallo

Outlook: Losing Oubre and Alexander is notable, but not unexpected in the big picture (even if both had uneven freshman seasons). The biggest victories came in recent weeks. Ellis decided to return to school, and Kansas was able to add top-10 forward Cheick Diallo, a freshman who should be an ideal fit in Kansas’ system.

5. Maryland (28-7, 14-4 Big Ten)

Losses: G Dez Wells, G Richaud Pack, F Evan Smotrycz

Returnees: G Melo Trimble, F Jake Layman, G Jared Nickens, G Dion Wiley

New arrivals: C Diamond Stone, F Robert Carter Jr.

Outlook: Maryland was one of the biggest surprises in 2014-15, finishing second in the Big Ten. Next season will bring legitimate expectations. Melo Trimble and Jake Layman are back. Moreover, landing the top-10 prospect Stone was a major coup for Mark Turgeon. Forward Robert Carter Jr. also will be eligible after averaging 11.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds at Georgia Tech in 2013-14.

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6. Virginia (30-4, 16-2 ACC)

Losses: G Justin Anderson, F Darion Atkins

Returnees: G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, C Mike Tobey, G London Perrantes

Outlook: Virginia’s hopes of being a preseason No. 1 are probably dimmed with the surprising departure of Justin Anderson to the NBA Draft. That said, the Cavs’ preseason hopes last season were dampened when Joe Harris was believed to be an irreplaceable void. Virginia won the ACC regular season title anyway.

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7. Michigan State (27-12, 12-6 Big Ten)

Losses: G Travis Trice, F Branden Dawson

Returnees: G Denzel Valentine, G Bryn Forbes, F Matt Costello, F Gavin Schilling, F Marvin Clark Jr., G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.

New arrivals: G Eron Harris

Outlook: Michigan State will miss Trice’s scoring punch and Dawson’s rebounding. Harris, who averaged 17.2 points per game for West Virginia in 2013-14, will help the former. Tum Tum Nairn will hold down the point guard spot and take over leadership of the team as just a sophomore. 

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8. Iowa State (25-9, 12-6 Big 12)

Losses: G Bryce Dejean-Jones, F Dustin Hogue

Returnees: F Georges Niang, G Monte Morris, F Jameel McKay, F Abdel Nader

New arrivals: G Hallice Cooke, G Deonte Burton

Outlook: The biggest story of the Iowa State offseason will be coach Fred Hoiberg’s recovery from open-heart surgery. The Cyclones are in good hands with Niang and Morris still on board. As usual, transfers — Cooke from Oregon State, and Burton, a point guard from Marquette — will round things out. The Cyclones are still in contention for two graduate transfers (Michigan’s Max Bielfeldt and Providence’s Tyler Lewis).

9. Gonzaga (35-3, 17-1 West Coast)

Losses: G Kevin Pangos, G Byron Wesley, G Gary Bell Jr.

Returnees: F Kyle Wiltjer, C Przemek Karnowski, F Domantas Sabonis, G Kyle Dranginis, G Eric McClellan

Outlook: Wiltjer could have left to begin a pro career somewhere, but his return means he’ll be a potential national player of the year candidate. Replacing Pangos at point guard will be no small issue. Otherwise, this is a team built for another run. The replacements include a handful of players who saw few if any minutes last season — McClellan (who was dismissed from Vanderbilt before landing at Gonzaga), Josh Perkins (who missed all but five games with a broken jaw) or redshirt Bryan Alberts.

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10. Oklahoma (24-11, 12-6 Big 12)

Losses: F TaShawn Thomas

Returnees: G Buddy Hield, G Isaiah Cousins, F Ryan Spangler, G Jordan Woodward

New arrivals: G Rashard Odomes

Outlook: The return of Hield, the Big 12 Player of the Year, is key as the Sooners look to stay in the mix in the Big 12. Most of the key pieces are back, but losing Thomas means the Sooners will rely even more heavily on the backcourt.

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11. Notre Dame (32-6, 14-4 ACC)

Losses: G Jerian Grant, G Pat Connaughton

Returnees: F Zach Auguste, G Demetrius Jackson, G Steve Vasturia, F Bonzie Colson

Outlook: The departures of Grant and Connaughton probably mean Notre Dame won’t come within a hair of the Final Four again, but there are plenty of pieces for Notre Dame to make noise in the ACC. Colson is a future star.

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12. Wisconsin (36-4, 16-2 Big Ten)

Losses: F Frank Kaminsky, F Sam Dekker, G Traevon Jackson, G Josh Gasser, F Duje Dukan

Returnees: F Nigel Hayes, G Bronson Koenig, G Zak Showalter

New arrivals: G Brevin Pritzl

Outlook: Hayes’ decision to return to school is critical. The Badgers won’t be Final Four contenders again, but don’t forget that the Badgers were a consistent top-four Big Ten team regardless of personnel before this run in the last two seasons.

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13. Indiana (20-14, 9-9 Big Ten)

Returnees: G Yogi Ferrell, G James Blackmon Jr., F Troy Williams, G Robert Johnson, G Nick Zeisloft, F Hanner Mosquera-Perea

New arrivals: F Thomas Bryant, F Juwan Morgan

Outlook: Tom Crean could be well-positioned to return to the good graces of Indiana fans next season. Nearly everyone is back, and the frontcourt will get some desperately needed help from the 6-10 Bryant, a McDonald’s All-American.

14. Villanova (33-3, 16-2 Big East)

Losses: G Darrun Hilliard, F JayVaughn Pinkston, G Dylan Ennis

Returnees: G Josh Hart, G Ryan Arcidiacono, F Daniel Ochefu

New arrivals: G Jalen Brunson

Outlook: Hilliard was the closest thing Villanova had to a star player last season, but this was a balanced team with six guys averaging nine or more points per game. Losing Ennis, a graduate transfer, hurts. Nova adds the five-star point guard Brunson to a team that will already have a senior point guard in Arcidiacono.