When the NBA’s draft’s early-entry eligibility deadline passed at midnight on Sunday night, it didn’t provide the same clarity it used to before testing the waters again became an option.
Dozens of prominent programs are still awaiting decisions from prospects who have declared for the draft without hiring an agent, leaving open the possibility they could return to school.
But while the landscape for the 2017-18 college basketball season will remain somewhat murky until closer to the NBA draft’s May 24 early entrant withdrawal deadline, the past few weeks have at least provided a few answers. Here’s a look at five programs who are already clear winners because their best prospects have each chosen to bypass the NBA draft process for another year:
1. Michigan State: Only a handful of times in Tom Izzo’s decorated career has he had a championship-caliber roster. Next season should be one of those years. The unexpected return of potential lottery pick Miles Bridges gives Michigan State a star around which to build. Bridges, who averaged 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds as a freshman, is an early candidate for preseason player of the year. Surrounding Bridges will be all but two rotation players from last year’s 20-win NCAA tournament team. The Spartans will also add talented freshman power forward Jaren Jackson and senior center Gavin Schilling, who missed all of last season due to injury.
2. Texas A&M: Had Robert Williams entered the NBA draft after his impressive freshman season, he would have almost certainly been a top 20 pick with a chance to crack the lottery. The athletic, high-upside 6-foot-9 forward instead chose to return to Texas A&M for his sophomore season, gambling that he can improve his stock next season if his skill set takes a leap forward. The return of Williams gives Texas A&M an excellent chance to bounce back from a disappointing 16-15 season. The Aggies return their top five scorers including standouts Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder. If J.J. Caldwell or graduate transfer Duane Wilson can solidify the point guard position and allow Gilder to move off ball, Texas A&M should be a top 25 team next season.
3. USC: Underclassmen have seldom stayed at either USC or UCLA when being selected in the NBA draft is even a remote possibility, but this year could be a rare exception for the Trojans. They’re returning standout center Chimezie Metu and promising freshman guard De’Anthony Melton, both of whom had the potential to be taken in the late first or second round of the draft. They also could still get back stretch forward Bennie Boatwright and wing Elijah Stewart, who declared for the draft without hiring agents. USC won two NCAA tournament games this past season without a senior on its roster. The Trojans could start next season in the top 10 if they return their whole roster and add Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and a promising recruiting class.
4. Arizona: Allonzo Trier’s surprise return gives Arizona a star to build around next season. The 6-foot-5 wing averaged 17.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists last season despite missing the first 19 games as a result of a PED-related suspension. He could have been a second-round pick had he left this year, but he opted to return to school to try to boost his stock and chase a championship. The latter goal is certainly achievable considering the nice mix of talent and experience Arizona should have. Point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and center Dusan Ristic are returning. Deandre Ayton anchors a strong recruiting class. And even if wing Rawle Alkins stays in the draft, the Wildcats are a leading contender to land five-star small forward Brian Bowen.
5. Villanova: Even though All-American Josh Hart, title game hero Kris Jenkins and key role player Darryl Reynolds are all graduating this spring, Villanova has a good chance to extend its run of Big East dominance next season. The Wildcats bring back a strong nucleus highlighted by unanimous first-team all-Big East selection Jalen Brunson, who decided last week to stay in school without even testing the NBA draft process. Brunson averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists last season and should be a preseason All-American candidate next fall. He’ll be surrounded by an excellent supporting cast that includes standout wings Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo, versatile forward Eric Paschall, promising big man Omari Spellman and presumably healthy guard Phil Booth.
Other winners so far: Miami (Bruce Brown returns); Notre Dame (Bonzie Colson returns); Kansas (Devonte Graham returns, Svi Mykhailiuk declares without hiring an agent, Josh Jackson enters draft), SMU (Shake Milton returns, Semi Ojeleye declares without hiring an agent); Purdue (Caleb Swanigan declares without hiring an agent, Vince Edwards returns)
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