For the first time since the end of the college basketball season we can truly assess the sport in full and take stock of how teams size up for 2018-19.
Wednesday's NCAA deadline for players to return to school after testing the waters of the NBA Draft brought finalization for a lot of rosters in college basketball. Sure, there are transfers still to be decided, but for the most part we know for good how college hoops' scenery of talent will settle for next season.
So let's do the mandatory/fun thing and assess which programs came out on top and which teams are in a worse position after this evaluation period. My list is looking primarily at the draft decisions that were considered up in the air in late March/early April. So Duke, for example, isn't listed because the players it lost to the NBA were all expected to go. The same thinking applies to a team like Miami, which is obviously hurt with the losses of Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown, but those two were thought to be gone after this season to start with. Inversely, Wisconsin is a "winner" with Ethan Happ coming back, but it would have been a surprise if he wound up leaving anyway.
The purpose of this column is to arrange the teams based on decisions that could have gone either way or, like in Texas Tech's case, involve a player whose NBA stock popped late in the season and changed the upshot.
For a list of all stay-or-go decisions (there are so many of them).
Auburn could have easily lost Wiley to that professional life, but no. The 6-11 junior is going to play for the Tigers next season after having sat out in 2017-18 due to the FBI investigation. He'll return along with Brown and Harper, making Auburn a preseason top-20 team. The only loss for the Tigers here is Mustapha Heron, who didn't go pro but instead decided to transfer. Bruce Pearl kept his job despite the FBI saga, and if Auburn wins the SEC again next season, it will amount to one of the most unexpected plot twists in college basketball of the past three decades.
Norvell was never going to leave, but Hachimura and Tillie had reasonably interesting decisions to make. Both figure to be top-50 prospects heading into next season. Because they're back, Gonzaga has national title inspirations.
Who's coming back: Udoka Azubuike
The Jayhawks will not lose their entire starting five from their Final Four team. Azubuike is the sole returning player from that group, but his decision to come back ensures Kansas will be a consensus preseason top-three team. The Jayhawks, , are bringing in Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson, via Memphis; Charlie Moore, via Cal; and add a potentially big-time freshman guard in Devon Dotson. Quentin Grimes is another five-star player joining the fold. But for the purposes of winning a national title, getting Azubuike back was big -- perhaps mandatory.
Who's coming back: Isaac Copeland Jr. and James Palmer
Expect a bump for the Cornhuskers next season. This team has enough talent to own some land in what should be an improved Big Ten. Copeland and Palmer are good enough to raise expectations to make the NCAAs. Palmer's developing into a nice pro prospect, thanks in good part to his physical attributes (his wingspan is nearly 7 feet; not bad for a 6-6 wing). The duo will likely combine to average north of 32 points per game. Nebraska doesn't get a lot of press, but it's hard to overstate just how big of a win it was for the team that both of these really good college players decided to return to Lincoln.
The twins are returning, and now Nevada's got a roster that's ridiculously deep and talented. In fact, even though we've got the Wolf Pack at , I might lobby a case that they're too low and that could be because of their league and lack of big-name brand. Bottom line is this: the Martin twins' decision to come back means that Nevada has Final Four expectations. Yes: expectations. This team will be good enough to win a national title. Jordan Brown, a five-star forward, will come in next season alongside Caroline, Lindsey Drew and Josh Hall. Transfers who sat out last year will also enter the fold. In fact, Nevada's at 15 scholarship players and can only have 13 guys taking the university's money. So coach Eric Musselman has to figure out what to do in the weeks ahead.
This was the expected endgame for this offseason, but UNC deserves a mention. The duo could easily combine to average more than 35 points next season if all clicks. Kenny Williams is back, too. UNC is shaping up as a top-10 team. Can't ding the Heels for losing Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. They were seniors, so their exits were already accounted for.
Eastern was expected to stay all the while, but Edwards made Purdue fans wonder after he showed well at the combine. The Boilermakers were a top-eight team in college hoops last season. It will be hard to maintain that, but Edwards is going to potentially be a First Team All-American, so it's a boon that he's coming back.
Who's coming back: Mike Daum
Daum's draftability was up for debate, but he also could have capitalized on the transfer market and pretty much picked his destination. Instead, he stays true to the school that gave him a D-I chance out of high school (Daum wasn't considered a D-I prospect in the eyes of most) and should have a shot at being an All-American in 2018-19. Plus, SDSU will be favored to get back to the NCAAs.
Who's coming back: Shamorie Ponds
Well, this is huge news for the Johnnies. Ponds averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists last season. He's a volume shooter, and not efficient, but a player who lifts the team up with his demeanor and unflinching attitude. He might score 25/game for SJU next season ... if Mustapha Heron isn't on the floor as well. The Auburn transfer is believed to be leaning toward joining the Johnnies, and will be applying for a waiver so that he can play immediately.
Who's coming back: Tyus Battle.
Syracuse. It went from NCAA Tournament hopeful to preseason top 25 squad thanks to Battle choosing to keep on with the Orange.
The Bruins should make the 2019 NCAA Tournament thanks to these decisions. Hands might be the most improved point guard in the country next season, and Wilkes is likely to be a breakout player in terms of his overall profile. He was a good freshman (probably top-20 in the country) last season and could become a top-20 player overall by January. UCLA's season began with the shoplifting fiasco in China, and by the time we get to November, Steve Alford will probably feel like that incident is years old. Speaking of that, do you remember the other two players involved/arrested in those crimes other than LiAngelo Ball? Their names are Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. They'll make their Bruins debuts next season, .
Who's coming back: DeAndre Hunter
This decision was made back on April 20, so its impact has been a bit overshadowed in recent weeks. Still, it's right up there with Battle going back to Cuse as a major decision that will impact high seed lines in 2019. Hunter probably would have been a first round pick, I think, even after his wrist injury kept him out of the NCAA Tournament. He's good enough to keep Virginia in the mix to win the ACC again.
Who's leaving: Jerome Robinson
BC finally got some positive momentum last season, its fourth under Jim Christian. Had Robinson returned, he'd have had a good shot at being the best player in the ACC. Boston College would have had realistic NCAA Tournament hopes for the first time in more than a decade. Instead, Robinson is cashing in (and rightfully so). All hope is not lost: Ky Bowman will be back for the Eagles, but the net loss of Robinson is a toughie.
Who's leaving: Jacob Evans
The Bearcats, overall, will be OK. They've made eight straight NCAA Tournaments under Mick Cronin and will likely go to a ninth straight. But Evans' decision to leave college likely means that Cincinnati will not be a favorite to win the American and will fall well short of last season's 31-5 mark. With Gary Clark and Kyle Washington graduating, the Bearcats will take on a new identity. Had Evans come back, he would have been the chic pick for AAC preseason POY.
Though it was always highly unlikely both players would have stayed, I feel compelled to note that had the Terrapins kept Huerter and Jackson, they would have qualified as a top-10 team heading into 2018-19. But off they go, and Huerter's departure is particularly stinging. Whereas Jackson was an expected move, Huerter's stock got hot thanks to his measurements and performance at the combine. Now Maryland -- which does get big man Bruno Fernando back, at least -- have to make up for Huerter's shooting. The Terps will still battle competitively for an NCAA Tournament bid, but next season will probably be filled with visions that could have been. Consequentially, Mark Turgeon had a little more pressure added to his already pressure-packed gig.
Who's leaving: Tony Carr
You're probably not hearing or reading much about Penn State, but this decision is a doozy. After a strong March, Carr is capitalizing on his opportunity. He deserves this chance, but it's undeniable that the Nittany Lions take a huge hit with him leaving. This program is aching to make the NCAAs, but it's feeling like next season could be another NIT-bound campaign if Carr's value can't be fully replaced in a tougher Big Ten.
Who's leaving: Brian Bowen
South Carolina and Bowen are losers here, as the Gamecocks won't have the services of a former five-star recruit and Bowen is in terrible limbo. Because of his supposed six-figure recruitment, which was flagged and tagged by the FBI, Bowen's future in college basketball was murky at best. He was reportedly told by the NCAA -- in the final days before the deadline -- that he would not be eligible to play in 2018-19. So with that in mind, Bowen had no choice but to stay in the draft ... where he's unlikely to be picked. Perhaps Summer League will provide him a chance to stick on a G League roster.
Who's leaving: Reid Travis
Travis twists the knife for Cardinal fans, who haven't seen their team make the NCAAs since 2014. The big-boned power forward, though, will not head back to Palo Alto. He's going to be a graduate transfer for his final year of college basketball. Kentucky and Villanova are considered the frontrunners to win him over. And now Stanford is out an All-Pac-12 player.
The Aggies are going to fall back in the SEC because their three best players are leaving. Williams, who is a top-20 lock, was always going to go. Davis and Hogg could have been two of the top 10 players in the league next season. Without them, Billy Kennedy has a full-blown reboot.
Who's leaving: Zhaire Smith
Came and went so fast you might've missed him. The athletic stud is going to capitalize and make a lot of money after a good season with the Red Raiders. He can thank not just his God-given DNA, but also TTU's run to the Elite Eight for why he's able to make this move. Chris Beard loses a player who probably would have been a First Team All-Big 12 player.
All of my thoughts on this. In short: Villanova's going to be good again, but history suggests that national champions who lose at least three players to the NBA do not come back stronger. In fact, all the teams who meet that criteria in the past 20 years have failed to come close to being as good as they were the season before. Can Villanova buck that trend? If so, that would mean the Wildcats win the Big East again, get a No. 2 seed or better, and make the Elite Eight.
Danny Manning's team is three steps forward, two steps back with these decisions. Crawford would have been a top-three point guard in the ACC next season, in my estimation, and Moore was still developing as a college prospect. His choice to stay pro was among the most befuddling this year. Both opted to leave despite not being invited to the combine. You seldom see that situation happen with two players from the same school. Wake Forest will rely heavily on Chaundee Brown and Brandon Childress next season; Brown might be the breakout player in the conference, thanks to Crawford leaving. The Deacs will be young to a fault.
|Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell will return, which helps Clemson stay experienced and most likely in the top half of the ACC.
|Juwan Morgan wasn't an anticipated departure, but he stretched out his decision to the final days. He'll back back to play for Archie Miller. With Morgan in the fold, plus the incoming hype machine of five-star guard Romeo Langford, Indiana fans are more than requesting that Miller makes the tournament in year two.
|Lose Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeeous-Alexander, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel. P.J. Washington comes back, as does Quade Green. Can't call Kentucky a loser, though, not when next year's team is expected to be better than last season's squad. Washington could turn out to be one of the two or three best sophomores in America.
|Expected loss of Moe Wagner is offset by the return of wing Charles Matthews, who might well blossom into a top-30 NBA prospect a year from now. The Wolverines almost certainly won't make the Final Four again, but Matthews coming back will go a long way to keeping John Beilein's team competitive in a good Big Ten.
|Jontay Porter did not measure well at the combine. In good part because of that, he's going back to school. His brother, Michael, was a one-and-done, as was expected for the past four years, basically. The Tigers' outlook for 2018-19 is still a bit hazy, but keeping one Porter brother was a boost.
|Lost De'Anthony Melton, as expected, in addition to Chimezie Metu. Bringing back Bennie Boatwright. The Trojans just missed out on making last season's Big Dance.
|Lost Landry Shamet but kept Markis McDuffie. It was a good first year as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but let's see how the second season in that league goes for Gregg Marshall and company.