Heat Check Top 25: Way-too-early 2020-21 college basketball rankings

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 03/17/2020

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Just like that, the offseason is here. The coronavirus-shorted season closes without an NCAA Tournament, which means we can abruptly turn our attention to the offseason.

People love rankings, so why not get things started with a fresh top 25? To begin, we are assuming every player ranked in the top 60 of ESPN’s latest big board is headed to the NBA. Last year’s draft process saw 175 underclassmen declare with 86 players ultimately entering the draft.

Our newest top 25 is below, which will be updated periodically throughout the offseason.

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Also considered (alphabetical order): Arizona State, Auburn, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisville, Maryland, N.C. State, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Rutgers, Saint Louis, San Diego State, Texas, USC, Xavier

25) Florida
Projected lineup: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Tyree Appleby, Keyontae Johnson, Omar Payne

Will ’20-21 be the season that Mike White’s team lives up to expectations? This past year’s group was No. 6 in the preseason AP poll and underwhelmed throughout the season, finishing 19-12. Kerry Blackshear Jr. is gone and Scottie Lewis is a projected draft entrant while Andrew Nembhard (11.2 ppg, 5.6 apg), Noah Locke (10.6 ppg) and Keyontae Johnson (14.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) expect to be returning starters. The Gators also add a pair of four-star wings in Samson Ruzhentsev and Niels Lane and Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg in ’18-19).

24) LSU
Projected lineup: Javonte Smart, Cameron Thomas, Emmitt Williams, Darius Days, Trendon Watford

Emmitt Williams (13.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) tested the waters last year and came back while Trendon Watford (13.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg) sits at No. 75 in ESPN’s big board. If both players return, LSU could be in for a big season. Will Wade welcomes a freshman class that ranks No. 6 on 24/7Sports, including five-star guard Cameron Thomas. Javonte Smart (12.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) is the guy to watch.

23) Richmond
Projected lineup: Jacob Gilyard, Blake Francis, Nick Sherod, Nathan Cayo, Grant Golden

If you’re looking for a Dayton or a San Diego State in ’20-21, Richmond could fit your needs. Maybe there isn’t an Obi Toppin or Malachi Flynn, but Blake Francis (17.7 ppg, 36.3 3p%) puts up big numbers while Jacob Gilyard (12.7 ppg, 5.7 apg, 3.2 spg) and Grant Golden (13.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.4 apg) join in on the action. Chris Mooney could roll out a starting five of all returning senior starters next season. This team is extremely dangerous.

22) Michigan State
Projected lineup: Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Joey Hauser, Marcus Bingham

Cassius Winston is gone, Xavier Tillman is likely to go pro and Aaron Henry sits right outside ESPN’s top 60 at No. 61. Even still, Sparty likely returns Rocket Watts (16 starts, 9.0 ppg) and sophomores Aaron Henry (29 starts, 10.0 ppg) and Gabe Brown (16 starts, 6.8 ppg). Former top-100 recruit and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser (31 starts, 9.7 ppg in ’18-19) figures to start at power forward. If Marcus Bingham (16 starts, 3.5 ppg) can step up, Tom Izzo’s crew is in good hands.

21) Arkansas
Projected lineup: Mason Jones, Desi Sills, Jalen Harris, Isaiah Joe, Abayomi Iyiola

If Isaiah Joe (16.9 ppg, 34.2 3p%, 1.4 spg) returns, Arkansas could be one of the trendiest preseason teams in college basketball. Currently ranked right outside the top 60 at No. 62 on ESPN’s big board, Joe’s draft decision looms large for a Razorbacks squad that lost five consecutive games when he was sidelined in February. Key projected returners include Mason Jones (22.0 ppg, 3.4 apg), Desi Sills (24 starts, 10.6 ppg) and Jalen Harris (5 starts, 4.2 ppg). Eric Musselman has fantastic additions as well: Abayomi Iyiola (10.8 ppg with Stetson in ’18-19), JD Notae (15.5 ppg, 3.4 apg with Jacksonville in ’18-19), Connor Vanover (15 starts, 7.5 ppg with Cal in ’18-19) and the nation’s 7th-best recruiting class on 24/7Sports that features Moses Moody (ranked No. 9 among 2020 shooting guard prospects).

20) Texas Tech
Projected lineup: Davide Moretti, Nimari Burnett, Kyler Edwards, Terrance Shannon Jr., Joel Ntambwe

Davide Moretti (13.0 ppg, 38.3 3p%) seems primed for the infamous “How is he still in college?” lists next season, and the Red Raiders won’t mind a bit. Chris Beard’s group will combat the expected pro departure of Jahmi’us Ramsey with 24/7Sports’ No. 11-ranked recruiting class, featuring four-star combo guard Nimari Burnett. UNLV sit-out transfer Joel Ntambwe (31 starts, 11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) should be in the mix for a starting frontcourt spot.

19) Houston
Projected lineup: Marcus Sasser, DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes, Nate Hinton, Fabian White

Kelvin Sampson has done a masterful job at Houston and ’20-21 shouldn’t be any different. The Cougars don’t have any projected draft losses and none of Houston’s top six players (based on minutes played) were seniors. Idaho sit-out transfer Cameron Tyson (31 starts, 13.5 ppg in ’18-19) is a major bucket-getter, knocking down 3.3 triples a game as a freshman while shooting 42.9 percent from deep and 87.5 percent at the line. In what expects be a down year in the American, Houston could roll through this conference.

18) North Carolina
Projected lineup: Caleb Love, Anthony Harris, Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot

After an embarrassing season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have recharged. UNC welcomes a trio of five-star recruits as part of the No. 3 freshman class in college basketball. North Carolina is loaded down low with Armando Bacot (32 starts, 9.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg) returning and five-star centers Walker Kessler (7-0/245) and Day’Ron Sharpe (6-10/246) joining the fold. Point guard Caleb Love is another five-star who will run the offense along with Garrison Brooks (16.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Leaky Black (31 starts, 6.5 ppg) provides support while Anthony Harris (torn ACL) and Jeremiah Francis (knee) look to return from injuries. Assuming the ’20-21 squad is healthier and meshes better, North Carolina should be much improved.

17) Tennessee
Projected lineup: Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, Josiah Jordan-James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson

An influx of returning frontcourt starters and the No. 5-ranked freshman class has Rick Barnes’ team right back in the SEC hunt. Shooting guard Jaden Springer is 24/7Sports’ 16th overall 2020 prospect and fellow guard Keon Johnson is right behind at No. 22. Josiah Jordan-James (26 starts, 7.4 ppg) is a sophomore breakout candidate and seniors Yves Pons (10.8 ppg) and John Fulkerson (13.7 ppg) are experienced seniors. Oregon sit-out transfer Victor Bailey (7.4 ppg) is a nice addition for guard depth.

16) UCLA
Projected lineup: Tyger Campbell, Daishen Nix, Jaime Jaquez, Chris Smith, Jalen Hill

Mick Cronin’s second-half turnaround can’t be understated. UCLA’s extremely young squad finished 11-3 and second in the Pac-12 after a tumultuous start. With zero projected draft prospects and only one outgoing senior in Prince Ali, Cronin could have this program right back on the national map. Five-star Daishen Nix is the highest-rated freshman point guard in the country and figures to start from Day 1. A two-man look at lead guard with Nix and Tyger Campbell (31 starts, 8.3 ppg, 5.0 apg) would be fascinating.

15) Ohio State
Projected lineup: C.J. Walker, Luther Muhammad, Seth Towns, Kyle Young, E.J. Liddell

Both of the Wesson brothers are probably gone — Andre is a senior and Kaleb is No. 54 in ESPN’s 2020 big board — but Ohio State still has a formidable roster coming back. Kyle Young (7.5 ppg) and E.J. Liddell (6.7 ppg) do a solid job in the paint and the three-guard trio of C.J. Walker (8.7 ppg, 3.5 apg), Luther Muhammad (7.0 ppg) and Duane Washington Jr. (11.5 ppg, 39.3 3p%) has star potential. OSU picked up the first major victory of the offseason by landing Harvard transfer Seth Towns, a 6-7 forward who won the ’17-18 Ivy League player of the year award. If the Buckeyes get a healthy Towns, they are a legitimate Big Ten title contender. Cal transfer Justice Sueing (14.3 ppg in ’18-19) adds wing depth.

14) Michigan
Projected lineup: David Dejulius, Eli Brooks, Franz Wagner, Isaiah Todd, Hunter Dickinson

Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson’s departures will be felt, but the Wolverines still expect to have one of the best rosters in America in ’20-21. Power forward Isaiah Todd ranks No. 13 in 24/7Sports’ 2020 rankings and 7-2/255 Hunter Dickinson is slotted at 32nd nationally. Elsewhere, Eli Brooks (10.6 ppg) and Franz Wagner (11.6 ppg) started every game this past season and David Dejulius (7.0 ppg) has plenty of potential. Juwan Howard is also projected to land top-10 recruit Joshua Christopher, a 6-5 shooting guard.

13) West Virginia
Projected lineup: Jordan McCabe, Miles McBride, Emmitt Matthews, Oscar Tshiebwe, Derek Culver

West Virginia was one of the younger power-conference teams last year, which could partially explain its offensive woes and road struggles. Eight of the ten Mountaineers who averaged at least 10 minutes a game are back, including double-digit scorers Oscar Tshiebwe (11.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Derek Culver (10.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg). Landing a grad transfer who can hit from the outside would be huge.

12) Iowa
Projected lineup: Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery, Luka Garza

Luka Garza (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) isn’t even considered a top-80 draft prospect by ESPN despite being one of five Naismith finalists after a tremendous junior season. This is good news for Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes, who also hope to return starting point guard Jordan Bohannon (10 games, 8.8 ppg) from a hip injury. If both are on campus this fall, Iowa should be preseason co-Big Ten favorites alongside Wisconsin.

11) Wisconsin
Projected lineup: D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers, Micah Potter

Ten years from now, it might be almost impossible to recall that Wisconsin won the 2020 Big Ten title in the coronavirus-shortened season. Regardless, the Badgers bring back the same nucleus (minus Brevin Pritzl) in what could be a legitimate Final Four contender. The Badgers might be the most experienced team in America with an all-senior starting lineup while adding the nation’s 19th-ranked class on 24/7Sports. Nate Reuvers (13.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is primed for a massive senior campaign.

10) Florida State
Projected lineup: Scottie Barnes, M.J. Walker, Anthony Polite, Raiquan Gray, Malik Osborne

If either Devin Vassell or Patrick Williams return, FSU is a lock for a top-5 prognosis in the preseason poll. Both players are among ESPN’s top 20, though, so that seems highly unlikely. Five-star Scottie Barnes is going to be a ridiculously fun addition, standing 6-8/210 with a point-forward skill set. Guard M.J. Walker (10.6 ppg, 37.1 fg%) could afford a bump in efficiency while Raiquan Gray (24 starts, 6.0 ppg) and Malik Osborne (28 starts, 6.0 ppg) operate the frontcourt spots. Anthony Polite (8 starts, 5.8 ppg) could slide into a wing spot if both Vassell and Williams leave.

9) Oregon
Projected lineup: Will Richardson, Chris Duarte, Eric Williams, Eugene Omoruyi, N’Faly Dante

A pair of high-caliber transfers should help offset the losses of Payton Pritchard, Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston. Duquesne transfer Eric Williams (14.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg in 2019) and Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi (13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg in 2019) are immediate plug-and-play guys in the Oregon lineup. The Ducks also have a handful of breakout candidates on the roster, including former five-star big N’Faly Dante (12 games, 5.8 ppg), whose per-possession stats are a great sign. Other potential risers include Addison Patterson, Chandler Lawson, C.J. Walker and Francis Okoro. It might take some time to mesh, but the Ducks could wind up being really, really good.

8) Kansas
Projected lineup: Marcus Garrett, Bryce Thompson, Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, David McCormack

Udoka Azubuike is graduating and sophomore Devon Dotson is all but gone, but the Jayhawks have plenty of firepower for ’20-21. Guard Marcus Garrett (9.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 1.8 spg) is one of the best defenders in the country and Ochai Agbaji (10.0 ppg, 1.2 spg) is a formidable sidekick. David McCormack (18 starts, 6.9 ppg) can slide into Azubuike’s vacant spot as the starting center, showing plenty of positive strides as an underclassman. Five-star combo guard Bryce Thompson and Christian Braun (18.4 mpg) expect to occupy the other starting roles.

7) Creighton
Projected lineup: Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock, Damien Jefferson, Christian Bishop

Picture this: Creighton won 24 games this past season, has zero players projected to be drafted in 2020, returns five of its top six players and also redshirted Davion Mintz (started 35 games in 2019) while adding four-star center Ryan Kalkbrenner. Mintz — assuming he’s back to 100 percent following a high ankle sprain from the preseason and doesn’t transfer — would be key in improving a Creighton defense that finished 78th in adjusted efficiency. Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 ppg, 39.9 3p%) and Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) could be the best returning guard duo in the nation.

6) Gonzaga
Projected lineup
: Joel Ayayi, Jalen Suggs, Julian Strawther, Anton Watson, Drew Timme

Gonzaga’s offseason could go in several directions. Draft decisions are looming for Corey Kispert (No. 45 in ESPN’s big board) and Filip Petrusev (No. 58); five-star combo guard Jalen Suggs has been rumored to possibly spurn college and go overseas, and Mark Few’s staff will undoubtedly be active in the spring transfer market. If Petrusev is gone, late-season revelation Drew Timme (17 points in WCC title game) will be Gonzaga’s next man up. Redshirt Oumar Ballo — No. 95 in RSCI’s 2019 class — is a 6-10/260 big from Mali, and Anton Watson (4.9 ppg, 5 starts) could see a heavy bump in playing time. Few also adds a pair of four-stars in 6-7/210 Julian Strawther and 6-4/170 Dominick Harris.

5) Duke
Projected lineup
: Jeremy Roach, DJ Steward, Jalen Johnson, Matthew Hurt, Mark Williams

Tre Jones, Vernon Carey and Cassius Stanley are all projected to make the jump, paving the way for another freshmen-led core. Jalen Johnson (6-8/215), Jeremy Roach (6-2/180), DJ Steward (6-3/165) and Mark Williams (7-0/225) are all top-30 recruits on 24/7Sports’ latest rankings. Matthew Hurt would be the sole returning starter, having averaged 20.5 minutes and 9.7 points per game last season. Frontcourt depth could be an issue if Hurt doesn’t take the next step and Williams isn’t as good as advertised.

4) Villanova
Projected lineup: Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

Villanova’s ranking here assumes Saddiq Bey — No. 21 in ESPN’s 2020 big board — leaves for the draft. If Bey (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) returns, the Wildcats have a legitimate argument as the No. 1 team in America. Bey excluded, the Wildcats are set to return six of their seven players who started at least 15 games last year. Collin Gillespie (15.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) would be the leading returning scorer with Justin Moore (11.3 ppg, 39.6 3p%), Jermaine Samuels (10.7 ppg) and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg) also in double figures. Villanova also brings in Caleb Daniels, a 6-4 Tulane transfer who averaged nearly 17 points a game while connecting on 34.6 percent of his 3-pointers a year ago.

3) Baylor
Projected lineup: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Mark Vital, Tristan Clark

With little NBA Draft declaration risk and only one full-time starter in Freddie Gillespie set to graduate, there’s a lot to like about Scott Drew’s team in 2020-21. Baylor could roll out a starting five led entirely by upperclassmen with juniors Jared Butler (16.0 ppg, 38.1 3p%) and Davion Mitchell (9.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) and seniors MaCio Teague (13.9 ppg), Mark Vital (6.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Tristan Clark (five starts in 22 games) spearing the attack.

Baylor should offer a bit more depth than this past season’s 26-4 crew. Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler is a huge addition, scoring 15.9 points per game as a freshman while drilling 108 shots from deep over 36 games. Four-star recruit Dain Dainja stands at 6-9/260 and pairs with junior Matthew Mayer (4.8 ppg, 37.8 3p%) in BU’s frontcourt shuffle. The big question is whether Baylor can remain as physical without Gillespie.

2) Kentucky
Projected lineup: Devin Askew, BJ Boston, Terrance Clarke, Keion Brooks, E.J. Montgomery

You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a Kentucky team ranked worse than No. 5 in the preseason AP poll, and there’s little reason why the streak should be interrupted this fall. The offseason outlook begins with Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, all of whom are among ESPN’s top 60 prospects for the 2020 draft. Assuming the four are gone — Quickley is probably the most likely to return — John Calipari will turn to yet another freshmen-led core.

The Wildcats’ No. 1-ranked class features three top-25 recruits in guards Devin Askew, BJ Boston and Terrance Clarke. Hypothetically, Askew would take over point guard duties while Boston and Clarke play off the ball. Kentucky’s frontcourt is more likely to showcase returners as freshmen Keion Brooks (4.5 ppg, six starts) and E.J. Montgomery (6.1 ppg, 25 starts) expect to stick around at least another season in Lexington.

1) Virginia
Projected lineup: Kihei Clark, Tomas Woldetensae, Jabri Abur-Rahim, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers had an up-and-down followup to the 2019 title. Most of the team’s issues came on the offensive side where Virginia ranked 234th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and couldn’t successfully offset last year’s departing trio of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter. Barring any unexpected changes, though, this program should again be competing for a national championship next April.

Kihei Clark (10.8 ppg, 5.9 apg) returns as one of the top distributing point guards in the country along with 22-game starter Tomas Woldetensae (6.6 ppg, 36.1 3p%), elite rim-protecting big Jay Huff (8.5 ppg, 2.0 bpg) and potential starting guard Casey Morsell (13 starts, 4.0 ppg). UVa has substantial additions as well: Sam Hauser is a sit-out transfer from Marquette who averaged 14.9 points per game in ’18-19 and is a career 44.5 3-point shooter at 6-8/225. Hauser figures to tag along with freshman wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim — No. 40 in 24/7Sports’ 2020 rankings — in a Cavalier lineup that should pack plenty of offensive punch.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.