College basketball season is almost here. Inarguably the best time of year. As such, I present you with my hymn to the pillory.
Fledgling legends lurk around the national stage’s periphery, waiting only for the passage of time to narrate their illustrious tales for them. Neurotic middle-aged men across the Midwest don oversized pastel night gowns — considered “women’s clothing,” but I aggressively deem that limiting and reductive — with Lisa Frank-like renderings of jungle creatures and dreadful animal puns to watch Kentucky basketball games. Or maybe just one.
College basketball fans are in for one of the sport’s most interesting — in a good way, this time — seasons in recent memory. While most offseasons involve significant turnover for just the bluebloods (primarily NBA Draft departures) and scandal-ridden programs, this past offseason resulted in unprecedented turnover, from the banner names of the sport on down to the single-bid leagues because of the NCAA’s new one-time transfer rule.
From an analytical and predictive perspective, that makes things even more exciting and impossible than usual. Normally, the “thought mathematics” of preseason rankings consists of (last season’s result) + (additions) – (departures) + expected returnee development. However, the (additions) and (departures) components of the equation vary wildly – meaning INCREASED EXPONENTIALLY – from the norm this year.
Simply put, this level of turnover will create chaos when it comes to setting reasonable expectations.
Considering those circumstances, I implore you not to treat these rankings as a traditional preseason ranking.
While there is indeed something to be read into the numbers to the left of the school names, please do not get hung up on them. I present this as more of a tiered structure of schools based on their contender potential in March and April based on what I (think I) know today, as well as a scattershot compendium of player names you need to know (ahem, Grant Sherfield).
*TIER I – THE BEST BETS*
I’m not dumbass Davey Scatino, but if I were, these are the teams I would bet my sporting goods store on as the likeliest schools to cut down the nets in New Orleans on April 4, 2022.
MVP: Jaime Jaquez (F)
X-Factor: Johnny Juzang (SG)
When choosing a #1, I try to keep it simple. And I’m using the “thought mathematics” included above to do just that. Interestingly enough, while that may be the safe approach to these rankings in a vacuum (i.e., going with a known commodity), UCLA’s placement here does not feel even remotely safe. Especially since it’s being published on a Kentucky blog.
UCLA is a big-conference Final Four team returning everyone who played for it in February and beyond (Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, now gone, were injured in December and January, respectively), adds a lottery-level one-and-done (Peyton Watson), and a 2021 Big Ten All-Defensive Team transfer from Rutgers who averaged 2.4 blocks per game in fewer than 25 minutes (Myles Johnson) to a roster of future pros, among other tertiary pieces. That, my friends, is an absolute unicorn of an offseason in modern college hoops.
And for those who think I’m basing this ranking primarily on the Final Four appearance, I’m not. It obviously has to be part of the consideration, but I would rank this team top ten even without it.
The only reasonable argument against my ardor is that the Bruins’ run to the national semifinal last season was a fluke. Only time will tell, but UCLA has a starting lineup of four future pros (I’m a massive Jaquez fan) alongside a First Team All-Pac 12 Tyler Ulis-like PG who would be on the NBA radar if he were taller (Tyger Campbell), plus one of the best bench swings in the country (Jules Bernard), along with plenty of depth that has Final Four experience.
I mean to say two deeper things there, so catch a fade with me for a minute. First, to me, UCLA was not a “Cinderella” last year. True modern Cinderellas are mid-majors with little to no NBA talent, no history, etc. I’m talking 2006 George Mason, 2010 Butler, 2011 VCU, 2013 Florida Gulf Coast, etc. Secondly, I see this popular narrative out there that UCLA was a bad team before going on their run. They were objectively not.
UCLA was a slightly above average big conference squad (bouncing around the 40s at KenPom) that was cruising toward a 6 to 8 seed (at 17-5) until it experienced a very poorly-timed dip to finish the season (a four-game losing streak), which meant that it “backed into” the Tournament.
And many people — mostly people who dislike UCLA, interestingly enough! — forget that all four of those losses were to eventually successful Tournament teams: at Colorado (who won a NCAAT game), at Oregon (Sweet 16), USC (Elite 8), and Oregon State (Elite 8). So yes, those were all losses, but it turns out that that was a murderer’s row against schools that were obviously ascending.
I selected Juzang as the Bruins’ x-factor, because if he brings his 3FG% to somewhere around 38 and plays a little defense, he’s likely a First-Team All-American (A-A) and UCLA’s potential is unlimited…but can he? I ask the question with the emphasis on the part about defense.
I think this is a well-rounded and deep group that is even better as an assemblage than it is individually. They may not turn out to be the best at anything (though they should be a premier perimeter shooting squad and a top-quarter defensive team), but I don’t see them being any worse than well above average at anything, either. Steady teams make runs and the Final Four experience from last year will only bolster UCLA’s steadiness.
MVP: Drew Timme (F)
X-Factor: Chet Holmgren (extraterrestrial)
Yes, my top two college basketball teams come from the west coast.
The Gonzaga hype train has morphed into a hype…hyperloop at this point. And I think it’s commonly (and rightfully) accepted that it’s deserved. Mark Few is one of the best coaches in the game, Timme will justifiably be the preseason National Player of the Year (NPOY), and Chet Holmgren will likely join him on preseason A-A teams. Add in the depth there, and that Andrew Nembhard pairs even better with Hunter Sallis than he did with Jalen Suggs last year, and only the most stubborn of contrarians would argue that the Zags aren’t top-shelf.
You also must give them credit for scheduling UCLA (November 23) and Duke (November 26) in such a short span of time. But let’s all get our angry letters ready for CBS/ESPN now, because those games are in Las Vegas on weeknights and will inevitably tip off at 1:20 a.m. EST.
MVP: Hunter Dickinson (C)
X-Factor: Moussa Diabate (PF)
Only potential depth issues can stop the Wolverines this season, and “potential” is the key word there. There may be no depth issues in Ann Arbor if some of the secondary freshmen play to their abilities.
Preseason NPOY contender Dickinson returns, alongside 3-and-D wing Eli Brooks, and likely breakout senior Brandon Johns. Coastal Carolina PG transfer DeVante’ Jones (who UK recruited) leads the backcourt.
But it’s freshman Caleb Houstan who has me so high on Michigan’s potential this year. I love this kid. He profiles as the optimal one-and-done: while he will surely develop as the season progresses, he will step onto the court on day one and play (both with his body and mind) like an upperclassman. Even as a reclassification from 2022, I think he’s ready for the NBA now.
He is a tall and long (6’8’’) prototypical stretch F and while he’s extremely skilled in just about every area of the game (especially as a shooter and defender of all positions at the college level), it’s his versatility that is so astounding. It appears that, whatever he is asked to do, he does it willingly and extremely well. He is an absolute ace on offense, whether he has the ball in his hands or not. And despite his slight frame (205 pounds), he can bang a little bit near the basket. He also passes like a G (in every sense of that term, LOLOLOL).
Putting the five players that I’ve mentioned together, I think it makes up the premier starting lineup in college basketball. Surrounding the most effective interior big man in the game (Dickinson) with shooters (at least two of whom can also get to the basket at will) is simple and obvious, but also genius. Michigan’s offense is going to destroy teams in the halfcourt.
Speaking of the freshmen, Juwan Howard filled the roster out with another 5* (Moussa Diabate, who has the look and skill set of an under the radar one-and-done) and two other top 50 players, one of whom is PG Frankie Collins. If Collins can find enough floor time, he’s a candidate to be a 4* one-and-done. I’m not sure anyone knows how good he really is, considering he played in Jaden Hardy’s shadow at Coronado High School in Nevada.
If Howard sticks around at Michigan, he’ll win a title in the next decade. This very well could be the year.
*TIER II – THE SECONDARY CONTENDERS/THE JUMBLE*
This really is a jumble and ranking these teams in a vacuum was particularly vexing. I wrote this piece over a few months and the order changed what seemed like every few days. Michigan spent some time in the group and Memphis and Villanova spent some time out of it (switched with, at times, Arkansas, Alabama, and Houston).
All of these teams are extremely talented, but unlike the groups in the top tier, I think they are either vulnerable to certain matchups – which is what success in the NCAA Tournament often comes down to – or less likely to survive an off night if their Plan A isn’t clicking.
MVP: Marcus Carr (PG)
X-Factor: Christian Bishop (PF)
Chris Beard won the transfer portal. If I had to rank the kids who transferred last offseason, four of the top fifteen or so landed in Austin. He pulled three All-Conference players (Marcus Carr from Minnesota, Timmy Allen from Utah, and Tre Mitchell from UMass) to go along with Dylan Disu from Vanderbilt and Bishop from Creighton.
I listed Bishop as the squad’s x-factor because I have the feeling that he’s going to explode now that he’s not playing in Marcus Zegarowski’s shadow.
A secondary x-factor who I feel the need to note is returning G Courtney Ramey. The Longhorns have an absurd amount of scoring, defense, distribution — and even rebounding — among its backcourt members, but only Ramey can be relied upon to score from the outside on volume. He doesn’t need to shoot 41% again like he did last year, but he’ll need to be fairly close to that. Jase Febres can also shoot the triple, but it’s doubtful he’ll have many chances with this much offensive firepower around him.
As far as perimeter scoring goes, Mitchell and Disu have also shown adeptness there on limited attempts in the past.
The group that Chris Beard has assembled in Austin may not out-talent some of the teams that are in this tier (I’m primarily thinking Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke), but I love the fit and the undeniable depth.
I’m also just saying…it may not be this year, but Beard is going to win a title sooner rather than later.
MVP: Trevion Williams (F)
X-Factor: Sasha Stefanovic (G)
I would use a UCLA-super-lite argument for putting Purdue here. The Boilermakers were a 4 seed last year (and yes, I know they got bounced by a 13 in the first round), lost just one rotation player (Aaron Wheeler, who averaged 3.9 points and 4.4 boards per game), and return a very talented core that has plenty of chemistry and experience playing together.
Williams will get preseason A-A buzz, and based on their stellar performances at this summer’s FIBA Under-19s, 7’4’’ C Zach Edey and SG Jaden Ivey figure to make huge leaps this season as All-Big Ten talent. Ivey looks like a ‘22 lottery pick to me.
Matt Painter is an excellent coach who’s had some great teams over the last 15+ years, but has never made a Final Four. If he can’t do it this time around, I’m not sure he ever will.
MVP: Oscar Tshiebwe (F)
X-Factor: Keion Brooks (F)
Our ‘Cats land here, in kind of the middle of the second tier, because I could make arguments for them being in the back of Tier I just as strong as I could make for them being in the front of Tier III. This team’s talent, depth, experience, and composition is uniquely excellent, and on paper, I think the fit will work (especially now that UK has an arsenal of shooters [led by CJ Fredrick, Kellan Grady, and Dontaie Allen] and a boulder in the post [Oscar Tshiebwe]), even if it takes a month or so to work itself out.
But I am still slightly wary of the fact that six of the top seven guys in the group are newcomers, and the non-newcomer (Brooks) still has plenty of potential, but the calf injury that delayed the start of his season prevented him from finding any real rhythm. So will we see the “23-11 against Tennessee” Brooks or the “4-4 against Florida” Brooks? I tend to lean strongly towards the former, if only because of the help around him, but it still remains to be seen.
Now that that’s out of the way (you may perceive the previous two paragraphs as overly negative, but don’t forget, I still have them at #6), let me gush. I don’t see any glaring weaknesses on this roster. While it may not be the typical super-elite defensive team we’re used to from Cal UK squads, it will still be great on that end, and I think it will be the most productive and efficient offensive team we’ve seen since the ’15-’16 sophomore Ulis squad (though almost certainly a better NCAA Tournament result).
I can’t see how this team isn’t top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency at KenPom by the middle of January. That’s a title profile.
Also, POINT GUARDS, Y’ALL.
MVP: Jalen Duren (C)
X-Factor: DeAndre Williams (SF)
At the very least, Penny’s Tigers are going to burn the AAC to the ground. They may drop a league game to Houston, but an undefeated conference season is absolutely on the table. Generally speaking, talent wins out in most sports. But talent really wins out in college hoops when you have two lottery talents at a school playing in a mid-major conference, and Duren is a candidate for the #1 pick in the NBA Draft in 2022 and Emoni Bates is in that conversation for 2023.
But Memphis’ roster doesn’t just consist of those blue chippers. This is the deepest and most talented group Hardaway has put together there.
Current mock drafts be damned, given how well Williams played on both ends last year, I think he can make the leap to NBA prospect. He’s 6’9’’, averaged 2.2 steals per game last season and his shooting range extends out past the perimeter. Further, G Landers Nolley (the team’s primary sharpshooter) returns, alongside Lester Quinones, to form one of the tallest, longest, and best rebounding backcourts in the country.
The coaching staff also brought Earl Timberlake, one of the better secondary Gs in the portal, in from Miami. Timberlake is a fierce rebounder and defender who was on an All-ACC Freshman Team trajectory until he suffered several injuries that ended his season last winter.
Like UK, I think KenPom is going to love the Tigers.
They play Alabama and Tennessee in the same week in December (the 14th and 18th) and those are must-watch games.
MVP: Paolo Banchero (F)
X-Factor: Mark Williams (C)
If there’s one team in this grouping that I’m underrating, it’s probably Duke.
As UK fans, we love to talk about the intangible known as “Cal’s Revenge Tour” and I think there is something to that which will give the ‘Cats an extra sharp edge this year. While Duke’s season last year wasn’t as disastrous as UK’s, the Blue Devils went .500 in a slightly down ACC and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. Add to those circumstances that Mike Krzyzewski is retiring after the season, and I see the same type of “Revenge Tour” edge working to Duke’s advantage this year.
Pivoting to the roster, there is plenty to like, though it is rather top-heavy. If I had to rank benches among this Tier, the Blue Devils will be at or near the bottom. But the starting lineup? It’s incredible, especially in the frontcourt.
Banchero is a surefire top three pick in 2022 (and likely to be one of the best players in the country), Griffin should go in the back of the lottery at worst (though he will likely be sidelined for some time due a sprained knee), and Williams appears poised to continue the breakout that he started last March — remember his 23-19 game against Louisville in the ACC Tournament? — and possibly work his way into the first round. That’s a monstrosity of size and talent right there.
Former 5* returnees Jeremy Roach and Wendell Moore form the starting backcourt, which is very solid, and 6’5’’ 5* freshman SG Trevor Keels has one-and-done potential coming off the bench as a comprehensive scorer.
Returning to the depth comment, there’s really not much to highlight behind those six guys. But those six are good enough to make Duke a secondary contender.
MVP: Remy Martin (PG)
X-Factor: Ochai Agbaji (G)
You’re not going to find a deeper assemblage of guards in the country than the one in Lawrence. Joining the aforementioned Gs at the top of Bill Self’s rotation will be Iowa State transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands (who drained a bunch of 3s and scored 40 points against the Jayhawks last season), last year’s MVC Sixth Man of the Year Joseph Yesufu (from Drake), and returnee Christian Braun (who was a defensive terror in KU’s win over UK last season and is one of the better rebounding Gs in the nation at 6’6’’).
But the frontcourt is suspect. I am a Jalen Wilson fan, but David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot, in the combined 700 years they’ve donned Jayhawk uniforms, have never really consistently risen above “average Big 12 big.” That leaves Division II transfer Cam Martin and freshmen who appear to be multi-year projects to fill out the rest of the group. Believe it or not, Kansas has only one top 50 recruit coming in, and he’s right inside of it (PF Zach Clemence).
MVP: Collin Gillespie (PG)
X-Factor: Bryan Antoine (SG)
Jay Wright’s Wildcats are a near-lock to win the Big East and possibly 1-seed material depending on how they fare in autumn non-league games against UCLA (November 12), Tennessee (November 20), and Baylor (December 12). They lost Big East Co-Player of the Year Jeremiah Robinson-Earl to the NBA and Cole Swider (he’s at Syracuse now), but they have more continuity than other Big East schools, which will benefit them greatly.
My concern about Villanova when Tournament time rolls around is that I see a group of good to very good players, but no transcendent — basically, NBA level — talents, especially among the bigs. No sand here, but not much granite, either.
Gillespie (2021 Big East Co-Player of the Year) and Jermaine Samuels return as super-seniors, which neither would have done if they had a shot at the NBA. Still, they are premier college players and form one of the best player leadership groups in the country.
Former 5* Bryan Antoine should finally show what he’s capable of and if he fully realizes his potential (and fully recovers from an unfortunate early October knee injury), Villanova could be even better than I expect. Finally, Justin Moore is back, hoping to return to his sharpshooter form that he seemingly lost last year.
The Wildcats don’t have any players over 6’7” (that’s how tall Samuels is) who would be a significant part of any of the other Tier II teams’ rotations. That’s not ideal.
*TIER III – THE WILD CARDS*
These are the good, not great, squads. They have clear and resounding strengths, but what I see as potentially fatal weaknesses, as well.
11. NORTH CAROLINA
MVP: Armando Bacot (C)
X-Factor: Caleb Love (PG)
I debated putting UNC last in Tier II, but I don’t fully trust the backcourt. Leaky Black never ascended to where I expected him to and I’m not overwhelmed by the other depth. And while I didn’t expect Love to be Cade Cunningham 2.0 last season, I was concerned to see him in the bottom third of ACC PGs last year. That said, the potential is there for him to elevate Hubert Davis’ inaugural Tar Heel squad to the upper echelon.
Aside from that, the Tar Heels bring ACC POY candidate Bacot back and Davis used the transfer portal to land two starters from other big programs (Brady Manek from Oklahoma and Dawson Garcia from Marquette) along with Justin McKoy, a rotation big from Virginia.
Excellent name factor on this team – Leaky, Dontrez Styles, and Puff Johnson.
MVP: JD Davison (PG)
X-Factor: Charles Bediako (C)
Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide were ahead of Villanova on this list until SG Nimari Burnett (a former 5* who transferred from Texas Tech) tore his ACL. With Burnett, Alabama had one of the best backcourts in basketball, but losing him knocks them down slightly.
Still, this G group is is a solid fit for Oats’ system. Jahvon Quinerly returns (43.3% from 3 last year) alongside Keon Ellis (38.9% from 3) and Jaden Shackleford (Second Team All-SEC). The centerpiece of the bunch, though, is likely 2022 top five pick JD Davison, who has shades of Ja Morant as monster two-way super-athlete who does everything but shooting consistently extremely well. Davison is ready to play in the NBA now and likely has a shot at SEC POY. Quinerly-Shackleford-Davison will make up one of the filthier three-G lineups in the nation.
We’ll call the bigs a soft question mark with tremendous potential. Bediako, an underrated 4* 7 foot freshman who could be one of the premier post players in the SEC, will start at C and Juwan Gary, who has the tools to be one of the better players in the nation, will likely start. First off the bench will be three-time All Southern Conference scorer and shot blocker Noah Gurley.
Alabama’s most obvious challenge will be whether kids other than Quinerly and Ellis can step up to fill the perimeter shooting void that John Petty, Josh Primo (a lottery pick), and Herb Jones (an early second-rounder) left.
MVP: Kyler Edwards (SG)
X-Factor: J’Wan Roberts (PF)
Like UCLA, the Cougars are a Final Four that returns a remarkable portion of last year’s roster.
However, losing 2⁄3 of its excellent backcourt (Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau) knocks them back to this spot. The other third of the core G group (Marcus Sasser) returns and will likely man the PG spot while Texas Tech transfer Edwards (42% from 3 last season) will start at the 2. Can CSU-Bakersfield transfer Taze Moore or returnee Tramon Mark fill the void that the alums left behind? We’ll see.
MVP: Kennedy Chandler (PG)
X-Factor: John Fulkerson (F)
Even as a freshman, Chandler will be one of the most dynamic drivers and creators in the country. He’ll make everyone around him better; most notably, his presence will open SG Santiago Vescovi up to do what he does best, and that’s splash triples.
I listed Fulky as the Vols’ x-factor, but I’ll also be watching Auburn transfer (and Kentucky native, IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW) Justin Powell very closely because I have no idea what to make of him. When he was on Kentucky’s radar (according to the media, at least), I zipped through a few of his games — he only played in ten before suffering a concussion at the beginning of SEC play — and he either looked like a future superstar (for example, a 26-8-2 line against Memphis) or a role player (7-6-3 against Gonzaga). There wasn’t much in between. If he plays like the former and keeps the turnovers in check, Tennessee could be in play to win the SEC.
MVP: Quincy Guerrier (PF)
X-Factor: N’Faly Dante (C)
Believe it or not, in the last five seasons that culminated in a NCAA Tournament, head coach Dana Altman has a pair of Sweet Sixteens, an Elite Eight, and a Final Four. This iteration of the Ducks also feels likely to play into the second weekend, at least.
Oregon lost a lot (most notably, killer two-way lottery pick SG Chris Duarte), but likely all-league performers Will Richardson (PG) and Eric Williams (F) return and Dante (a former UK recruit who will now be a junior having never played a full college season due to the doofs at the NCAA clearinghouse and a torn ACL) has put on some muscle and seems poised to be one of the premier defenders in the country.
Altman was also one of the winners of the transfer portal, landing former starters from Syracuse (Guerrier, who should be preseason All-Pac 12), Oklahoma (CG De’Vion Harmon, who appears to have been a primary UK portal target), and Rutgers (Jacob Young, one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten last season).
Unlike last year, Oregon projects as a top-tier defensive team and slightly above average offensive team. How well the offense gels and produces should have a significant impact on Oregon’s postseason success.
MVP: James Akinjo (PG)
X-Factor: Kendall Brown (SF)
I have no idea what to do with Baylor, so I dropped them here. Yes, they won the title last year and no one should ever sleep on a Scott Drew team ever again, but they also lost three of the best Gs in program history in a single offseason (Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, and MaCio Teague), along with premier role player (also a G) Mark Vital. And they only bring in one impact transfer — Akinjo, First Team All-Pac 12 last year, will be very impactful, for what it’s worth — and one recruit ready to contribute: jack-of-all-trades 5* 3 Brown.
Which means Baylor’s success likely hinges on the development of the kids who are back from last year’s net-cutters, especially the Gs.
And on that, call me very skeptical. Adam Flagler will slide in nicely alongside Akinjo in the starting backcourt and is a safe bet to make the All-Big 12 Second or Third team, but I’m very wary of LJ Cryer as the first guy off the bench and Matthew Mayer plays a little G, but is better-suited to being a big 3 and will likely start there. That leaves Dale Bonner (who I admittedly have never watched, but was apparently one of the best players in DII last season) and two players who combined for less than seven minutes per game last year to round out the unit.
MVP: Devo Davis (G)
X-Factor: Jaylin Williams (F/C)
The Razorbacks are the third team in this ranking whose frontcourt worries me. If only Justin Smith had returned as a super-senior, I would’ve put Arkansas in the middle of Tier II, but he did not. I list Jaylin Williams as the x-factor because I think there is an opportunity there for him to ascend to the zenith of SEC bigs during the course of a season. He has all the physical tools.
Arkansas will start at least two transfers (PG Chris Lykes from Miami and Au’Diese Toney from Pitt) and how far Eric Musselman’s squad goes may depend on how much it has to rely on All-Summit First Teamer Stanley Umude as a primary scorer as a swing. The names at the top of Arkansas’ backcourt are proven distributors and creators, but I don’t know how efficient they’ll be as scorers outside of Davis (who I love). JD Notae does return, and he could be one of the top-tier sixth men in the SEC next year.
I want to believe. I looooooooooooooooove Musselman almost as much as I love vertigo flowers. But it feels like this squad’s ceiling is a Sweet Sixteen.
*TIER IV – I MIGHT BE CRAZY…*
HEAR ME OUT, BRUH.
18. TEXAS TECH
New head coach Mark Adams (a longtime Chris Beard assistant) quietly put together a remarkable offseason recovery in Lubbock after Beard’s departure for Austin and he’s not getting near enough credit for it.
He convinced three starters (including Third Team All-Big 12 swingman Terrance Shannon) to return from last year’s team – which unfortunately drew eventual Elite Eight member Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament – and landed one of the better hauls from the transfer portal, headlined by Sardaar Calhoun (Florida State’s top G off the bench last season) and Max Abmas’ best pal at Oral Roberts, Kevin Obanor (a PF who shot 46% from 3 on 4.3 attempts per last season).
I think Boogie Ellis (coming from Memphis) will turn out to be the most underrated team-changer to come out of the transfer portal, and PG is the most important position in modern day college basketball. And the Trojans have a Boubacar (Coulibaly, not Aw) this season.
There aren’t any NBA-level players on this deep roster, but it’s full of solid college players, headlined by one of the best bigs in the Pac-12, Isaiah Mobley (Evan’s brother). I see the Trojans as the third-best team in an improving Pac-12.
This is all about new head coach Mike Woodson (who I love): 1) hiring one of the best assistants in the sport to help acclimate him to the college game (Dane Fife, who comes to Bloomington after a decade at Michigan State, where he was often mentioned as Tom Izzo’s successor); 2) recruiting and hitting the transfer portal with his NBA style of play in mind; and 3) retaining one of the best players in the country in F Trayce Jackson-Davis. On that third piece, if I had to choose three kids as preseason NPOY candidates, they would be Timme (Gonzaga), Dickinson (Michigan), and Jackson-Davis. He is that good.
The Hoosiers will likely start a trio of high-end transfers (Parker Stewart from UT-Martin, Xavier Johnson from Pitt, and Miller Kopp from Northwestern) alongside Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson (who has been at IU so long, he was first recruited there by Tom Crean), who I think will finally realize his potential under Woodson. Rob Phinisee and Khristian Lander (a former 5*) return, adding valuable depth, and Tamar Bates is a top 30 4* SG who could easily work his way into one-and-done status under Woodson’s tutelage.
No, IU will not win the Big Ten, but I would not be surprised if it turns out to be the third-best team in the league, after Michigan and Purdue.
Despite losing one of the best players in the program history (McKinley Wright, career #6 in scoring, #1 in assists), I think the Buffaloes are well-positioned to headline the second tier of the resurgent Pac-12 along with USC.
Jabari Walker (Samaki’s son) is at the top of my list of breakout performers for this season. Though he disappeared in Colorado’s second round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida State, it was Walker’s two-way performance that powered their lopsided victory over Georgetown in the first round. He scored 24 points (5-5 from 3) and blocked two shots.
And did you know that Colorado has a top 15 recruiting class coming in, including immediate impact 4* K.J. Simpson (once committed to Arizona), who has a professional future, and 7’ C Laweson Lovering, who was recruited heavily by Baylor?
*THE (OTHER) MID-MAJORS TO WATCH*
These squads are mostly here because they survived the transfer portal attrition better than the typical mid-major. But they’re also brand names for people who pay attention to smaller leagues, coached by aces, and some even have NBA-level talent.
The Spiders return everybody but Blake Francis, including a handful of super seniors from a team that beat two SEC schools last season (yeah, I know, UK and Vanderbilt).
The Atlantic 10 is stacked at the top this year, likely the best it’s been since Butler and Xavier were still part of the league. I could the conference getting as many as four NCAA Tournament bids this year if someone steps up behind Richmond, St. Bonaventure, and Saint Louis.
23. ST. BONAVENTURE
I’m not sure I’ve seen the larger media rave about a non-Gonzaga mid-major in the offseason more than it has this one about the Bonnies. And that’s fair because Mark Schmidt not only returns the entire starting lineup from a team that won the A10 outright, he also fared better than mid-major coaches in mining the transfer portal for big-conference kids (in this case, Karim Coulibaly from Pitt and Quadry Adams from Wake Forest).
I still believe that if BYU hadn’t run into the UCLA buzzsaw in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, it would have made it into the second weekend.
Like St. Bonaventure, the Cougars return a great deal of its production from last year (namely, G Alex Barcello, who averaged 16.1-4.7.-4.3-1 last season, earned All-WCC honors and garnered some All-American votes) and brought in some impact transfers (Te’Jon Lucas from Milwaukee and Seneca Knight from San Jose State).
The Bulldogs are another mid-major squad that was excellent last year (26-5, #33 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom) and returns every player but one. If healthy, G Roman Penn will be one of the best in the mid-majors. The top of the Missouri Valley Conference will be crowded, but Drake should be good enough to secure an at-large bid if Loyola-Chicago gets the auto-bid, which is entirely possible.
I wanted to give the Murray State Racers some love here – and I think they’ll have a bounceback season – but Belmont figures to take the OVC crown back from Morehead State. The Bruins return the best player in the conference (C Nick Muszynski) and the OVC’s reigning DPOY (Grayson Murphy).
*MISCELLANY, TIER A — BOOM/BUST, I GUESS?*
I could see these teams playing well into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament or barely making the Tournament.
Had Allen Flanigan not been injured (and it was the dreaded Achilles), I probably would have placed the Tigers in the very back end of Tier III. Bruce Pearl did as much excellent work as anyone in the transfer portal, landing Walker Kessler (UNC), Wendell Green (EKU), K.D. Johnson (Georgia), and Zep Jasper (College of Charleston), and Jabari Smith will be one of the best freshman bigs in the country.
But Flanigan’s Achilles makes me very nervous and this is an extremely top-heavy group.
I’m really just putting the Wolfpack here because I needed to include 2021 Martinez Kris Dunn Award winner Grant Sherfield somewhere. Sherfield, who began his career at Wichita State, is a two-way monster with very long arms (HOPEFULLY HE WILL BE BETTER THAN WADE BALDWIN) and was First-Team All-Mountain West last year and its Newcomer of the Year. Only average athleticism holds him back.
I guess I’ll go the boom/bust route by saying that this is one of the not very many mid-majors that kept most of its stars (Desmond Cambridge is also one of the best players in the MWC), which is great, but…Steve Alford is still the head coach, which is not so great. Anyway, Nevada should be the co-favorite in the MWC, along with Colorado State and San Diego State.
The Huskies will be one of the premier defensive squads in the country this season, but unfortunately defense can only carry a team so far. James Bouknight is now a NBA Rookie of the Year candidate for the Charlotte Hornets and while there are candidates to fill his role on offense (which was as much about his dynamism as it was about production), I don’t think any of them come even close to Bouknight. But if anyone can coach Tyrese Martin or R.J. Cole up to do it, it’s Dan Hurley.
30. OHIO STATE
E.J. Liddell is one of the best players in the country and Justice Sueing is one of the better frontcourt pieces in the Big Ten. But when I look at this roster, I see a bunch of “precipice” guys who’ve shown potential on occasion but haven’t really broken out. I’m talking about Zed Key, Justin Ahrens, Seth Towns (out with a bad back), and Kyle Young, mostly.
And who will replace Duane Washington’s production in the backcourt? Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler was solid on a bad roster in State College, Musa Jallow and Meechie Johnson don’t look the part yet and top 40 4* freshman Malaki Branham is a project. I listed seven names there; if four or more break out, the Buckeyes could make a run. If it’s just one or two, they could be looking at an 8 or 9 seed.
The Terrapins are probably a fine basketball team. I’ll admit they’re in the section involving “bust” because I greatly dislike Mark Turgeon. Just like every year, Maryland is quite talented, but I fully expect Turgeon to squander that talent.
On the other hand, I think this is the second-most talented team he’s had in College Park (behind the 2016 Sweet Sixteen group with Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone) and even a blind squirrel finds a nut every decade or so.
As a SEC-related aside, if you want my LSU take, remove all Maryland mentions in the previous two paragraphs, replace them with LSU and that’s it. LSU will be talented as they always have been under Will Wade, but I don’t expect them to do much based on their recent history.
*MISCELLANY, TIER B — NO WORDS FOR, BUT ME STILL LIKEY*
ILLINOIS (yeah, they’re probably too low), ST. JOHN’S, FLORIDA STATE, COLORADO STATE, OKLAHOMA STATE, WICHITA STATE, VIRGINIA
*#1 IN MY HEART, #95 AT KENPOM*
MVP: No idea.
X-Factor: Absolutely no idea.
All I know about Marquette is that they lost their only two players of note (D.J. Carton to the NBA and Garcia to UNC), which is bad, but SHAKA, I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU.
No, I did not forget Michigan State. I just don’t really think they’re better than any of the teams above and, unless freshman PG Max Christie turns into a lottery pick (something that only Sparty fans, for the most part, seem to be forecasting), I think they end up in the 9 to 11 seed range, potentially making a second straight First Four appearance.
Also, I choose Fs Marcus Bingham and Julius Marble as breakout candidates every year, and they make me look like a doof every time. So, of course, now that I’m withdrawing my support, they will average 100-50 combined.
Thanks for reading and let me know why I’m dumber than the dead in the comments.