James Akinjo’s waiver approval gives Baylor a boost in the latest Top 25 college basketball rankings for 2021-22.
The last couple of months have featured a nonstop cycle of college basketball news. The first wave included the onslaught of the transfer market. Over 1,500 players have entered the portal this offseason, leading to the drastic roster turnover across the country that still has heads spinning. Then came the announcement of Coach K’s impending retirement, amidst several other major stories.
Put simply, there hasn’t been much time to breathe and truly look ahead to the 2021-22 campaign that is now five months away.
And while the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline is still approaching, rosters seem to be pretty close to set. There will still be some ongoing adjustments, including reclassification candidates and perhaps another transfer wave, but the initial hurricane of news has passed.
With that said, the team at Heat Check CBB met to hash out our early offseason Top 25. Our voters consisted of Lukas Harkins, Andy Dieckhoff, Brian Rauf, Eli Boettger, and Connor Hope.
Our Top 25, which will be continuously updated throughout the offseason as news breaks, features blurbs on each team written by Harkins and Rauf. Now, let’s dive in:
Receiving votes: Xavier, Indiana, Mississippi State, Colorado State, VCU, UConn, Oklahoma State, Washington State, Arizona, Ohio
25) Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State has a lot of questions to answer … but it is still Michigan State. Head coach Tom Izzo simply finds a way seemingly year after year, even when preseason projections aren’t kind. The Spartans lost Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, and Rocket Watts this offseason, and recovering from that will not be easy. Joey Hauser and Gabe Brown are solid returners and reinforcements are arriving from the 2021 recruiting class.
Max Christie is the most notable of the incoming recruits. The 6-6 wing is regarded as a five-star recruit and could fill the “star void” in the absence of Henry. MSU’s recruiting class also features a pair of other Top 75 recruits in Pierre Brooks and Jaden Akins, both of whom will be worth monitoring as potentially important pieces. Coach Izzo also pulled Tyson Walker from the transfer market. Walker averaged 18.8 points per game at Northeastern while also being named the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year. -Lukas Harkins
24) Virginia Tech Hokies
Efficiency metrics were never particularly kind to Virginia Tech last season despite its strong resume. COVID-19 also struck the Hokies worse than most. That makes projecting this coming season a bit tricky. Still, with Keve Aluma electing to return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters, expectations should be rightfully high in Blacksburg.
Aluma is an ACC Player of the Year candidate and much of his returning cast is back around him. This includes four players who averaged at least 8 points per game: Tyrece Radford, Nahiem Alleyne, Justyn Mutts, and Hunter Cattoor.
The Hokies were one of the more efficient offensive teams in the nation last season and head coach Mike Young is only continuing to stock up pieces that fit his system. Adding Storm Murphy from his old Wofford roster is a great example. A top-tier shooter and solid playmaker, Murphy is coming to VT having averaged 17.8 points per game last season. He is a big addition to help make up for the losses of Wabissa Bede and Jalen Cone. -LH
23) Auburn Tigers
Auburn was one of the country’s youngest teams a season ago and return several key pieces in the backcourt, namely Allen Flanigan. The departures of players like Sharife Cooper, Justin Powell, and JT Thor will hurt, but Bruce Pearl added five-star big man Jabari Smith and UNC transfer Walker Kessler, a five-star prospect in the 2020 class.
Those two should vastly improve Auburn’s frontcourt and give this roster more balance. We know they’re going to play extremely fast and shoot (and make) a lot of threes, but the Tigers made their Final Four run when they had a solid internal presence to complement. Smith and Kessler are expected to fill that void. -Brian Rauf
22) LSU Tigers
Will Wade’s squad isn’t expected to compete for an SEC title, but that doesn’t mean this roster full of newcomers won’t be good. Five-star center Efton Reid highlights a good recruiting class and should start in the middle. LSU is also bringing in four transfers, headlined by Adam Miller (Illinois) and Xavier Pinson (Missouri).
The Tigers will be able to score with just about anyone. Defense, however, figures to be a different story. LSU struggled mightily on that end a year ago and none of their new pieces are noted defensive stoppers. -BR
21) St. Bonaventure Bonnies
St. Bonaventure snuck up on a lot of people last season. The Bonnies did not start the year with a ton of expectations but steadily moved up the national ranks. They hit their season-low on KenPom (No. 77) in early January but then continuously rose while reaching their high point (No. 25) on Selection Sunday. Head coach Mark Schmidt’s team earned a No. 9 seed to the Big Dance and that might not be the ceiling for this group. SBU returns every major contributor from last year and is set to make some noise out of the A10.
Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes, Jalen Adaway, Dominick Welch, and Osun Osunniyi are all back. That goes without mentioning the addition of Abdoul Karim Coulibaly from Pittsburgh. The Bonnies were one of the best defensive teams in the nation last season, holding opponents to just a .455 effective field-goal percentage. With all of their key pieces back, it is reasonable to expect much of the same. Offensive improvements will be key in St. Bonaventure realizing its full ceiling. -LH
20) Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee earned a No. 5 seed to the NCAA Tournament last season behind a star-studded freshman duo of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. With both headed to the NBA Draft this offseason, though, the Volunteers needed to find replacements and they did just that. Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield are much different players than Johnson/Springer but follow in their footsteps as five-star freshmen poised to star in Knoxville.
Even with three major departures (Yves Pons is also gone), Tennessee is still bringing back four players who averaged at least 8 points per game last season. Victor Bailey, John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi, and Josiah-Jordan James are all running it back for another year. Additionally, head coach Rick Barnes brought in Justin Powell as a big-time shooter that might be a one-year rental of a sophomore transfer before heading to the NBA.
Powell is not to be the forgotten man in Tennessee’s loaded group of newcomers. He shot 44.2 percent from three during his 10 games at Auburn last year; considering Tennessee’s shooting struggles last season, he could be the missing piece to put them over the top. -LH
19) Florida State Seminoles
Let’s start our run of ACC teams with Florida State! The Seminoles have some major roles to fill as they are losing four of their top five scorers from last season’s team, headlined by projected lottery pick Scottie Barnes.
However, as we’ve come to expect from FSU over the last decade, it is simply reloading. Five-star wing Matthew Cleveland headlines a talented incoming recruiting class and will be joined by Caleb Mills, who was last season’s AAC Preseason Player of the Year before he left Houston.
This is a veteran group that will be deep, talented, and have more perimeter scoring pop than your typical Florida State team. They will need a go-to guy or two to emerge if they will take the next step, but Leonard Hamilton’s squad has a very high floor. -BR
18) North Carolina Tar Heels
What should we expect from the Tar Heels under new head coach Hubert Davis? It might take some time for him to find his footing as the leader in Chapel Hill, yet some talented returners should keep UNC in the Top 25 for most of the season.
Starters Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, Caleb Love, and Kerwin Walton all return, along with offensive sparkplug R.J. Davis. Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek‘s should really help UNC’s shooting, a significant weakness for the Heels over the past two seasons.
North Carolina will likely employ a smaller lineup than we’ve seen in years past as it forms a new identity under Davis. Whether this group can compete for an ACC title, though, will depend on the development of Bacot and Love. -BR
17) Virginia Cavaliers
In Tony Bennett we trust! If Trey Murphy remains in the NBA Draft, as expected, Virginia will have to replace their top three scorers from last season. That said, the Cavaliers landed a huge addition via the transfer portal in Jayden Gardner, a versatile 6-7 forward who averaged 18 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting during his three seasons at ECU.
Expect Gardner to carry the offense and Kihei Clark — yup, he’s still around! — will steady the ship on both ends of the court. If Reece Beekman takes a step forward and Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin contributes as expected, the Wahoos will be solid once again. -BR
16) Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State dropped out of the top five following Duane Washington Jr.’s decision to stay in the NBA Draft. EJ Liddell returning is a huge help as he will be one of the frontrunners to win Big Ten Player of the Year, especially since his frontcourt running mate Kyle Young is exercising his extra year of eligibility. Justice Sueing and Zed Key are the other major returners for head coach Chris Holtmann, but the Buckeyes bolstered their lineup in the transfer portal better than most.
Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, namely, is a dynamic defender already with two All-Defensive nods in the Big Ten. He has also shot better than 35 percent from three in each of his past two seasons. Another big newcomer will be Malaki Branham, a near-five-star recruit from the same high school as some guy called LeBron James. Branham has good size for an off-guard and can impact games on both sides of the ball.
Ohio State’s 2021 postseason was memorable for all the wrong reasons, but it still landed a No. 2 seed after a great regular season. Now set to return a large chunk of their rotation while adding Wheeler to the mix, the Buckeyes still deserve Top 15/20 consideration without Washington. -LH/BR
15) Duke Blue Devils
Duke missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since before its entire roster was born. A bounceback season, though, is not just projected but should be expected. Unlike last summer, the Blue Devils will have a full offseason to integrate their recruiting class and build quality team chemistry that can contribute to winning basketball. Coach K knows how to work with a young roster and he will surely go out with a bang before retiring after the season.
Leading the way for this group will be five-star freshmen Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, and Trevor Keels. Banchero is the biggest star of the bunch as the No. 2 prospect in the class, though Keels’ shooting ability will be crucial in developing quality spacing. Duke also features a few key returners in Jeremy Roach, Mark Williams, and Wendell Moore. Those six will make up the core rotation for the Blue Devils and, while young, this is one of the most talented teams in the country.
Quality defense and 3-point shooting will be the major keys for the Blue Devils to reach their ceiling. They need to do both well. -LH
14) Houston Cougars
Houston will be the class of the American yet again and could be in contention to return to the Final Four. AAC Player of the Year Quentin Grimes is gone while both DeJon Jarreau and Fabian White are leaving the door open on a return to school. Having one or both of those players returning would be huge for the Cougars but even if that doesn’t happen, Kelvin Sampson’s squad is set up for success in 2021-22.
Marcus Sasser — who was Houston’s leading scorer in both the Elite Eight and Final Four — is back for a more prominent role, and Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards should fill the void in the backcourt next to him nicely. If Tramon Mark and Reggie Chaney take steps forward as well, the Cougars will remain relevant nationally. -BR
13) Maryland Terrapins
Maryland has quietly been one of the better programs in the nation over the last several seasons. The Terps have danced in six of the last seven years (they were projected to make it in the COVID year) and have ranked in the KenPom Top 50 every season in the Big Ten. While losing Darryl Morsell is a blow this offseason, Maryland restocked via the transfer market and is bringing back its fair share of talent.
Qudus Wahab and Fatts Russell are a pair of high-major transfers who have both proven their worth on good teams in the past. Wahab posted a 6.2% block rate with Georgetown last season while Russell was a go-to player at Rhode Island. With more talented teammates around him, Russell should exhibit far better efficiency marks than he did as a Ram.
In terms of returners, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins are the ones to watch. Both averaged around 15 points per game last season and are currently testing the NBA Draft waters. Donta Scott, Hakim Hart, and James Graham (who reclassed to 2020) are also key players coming back while Julian Reese represents a big-time freshman forward. -LH
12) Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas took a gigantic leap into the national spotlight last season in Eric Musselman’s second year at the helm. His combination of terrific transfers and a freshman star paid major dividends as the Razorbacks reached the Big Dance with a No. 3 seed. On the downside, the program lost three double-digit scorers this offseason in addition to Desi Sills transferring out. In the customary Musselman way, though, the Razorbacks are reloading thanks to tremendous work in the transfer portal.
Chris Lykes (Miami-FL), Stanley Umude (South Dakota), Kamani Johnson (Little Rock), and Trey Wade (Wichita State) were all solid players at their last stops and will play major roles in Fayetteville. Adding in Jaxson Robinson from Texas A&M, a former Top 75 recruit, only makes this transfer class even better. Building via transfers has grown in popularity in recent years, but nobody does it more consistently than Musselman.
It is also vital to mention the main returning pieces. This includes JD Notae, who averaged 12.8 points per game last season upon transferring into the program. Devo Davis, Jaylin Williams, and KK Robinson are all also returning as Top 100 players from Arkansas’ 2020 recruiting class. Chance Moore is another four-star (2021 class) joining the program this year. -LH
11) Oregon Ducks
Oregon lost a ton of talent this offseason with three double-digit scorers all graduating, including future first-round pick Chris Duarte. This left some major questions for head coach Dana Altman to answer and he did so in a big way. The Ducks hit the transfer market hard this offseason and came away with three monster additions.
Jacob Young (14.1 at Rutgers), Quincy Guerrier (13.7 at Syracuse), and De’Vion Harmon (12.9 at Oklahoma) each scored double-figures per game at their last spot, all of which were at the high-major level. Oregon was perhaps the biggest winner of the transfer market in the entire country. The Ducks are also bringing in five-star big man Nate Bittle, who committed to the program last fall and will anchor the center spot as a freshman.
The optimism in Eugene is not just due to the newcomers, though. Will Richardson missed Oregon’s first 12 games last season with injury but will be healthy for this whole upcoming campaign. He can now blossom into the star many thought he could be last season. The Ducks are also bringing back Eric Williams, who started 21 of 24 games last season. -LH
10) Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue landed a No. 4 seed last season and now returns the vast majority of its rotation. It is also important to note that the Boilermakers have now finished in the KenPom Top 25 in six consecutive seasons. Matt Painter has built this program into one of the Big Ten’s best. Purdue has the potential to compete for a national title this season but that hinges on two players, in particular. One box is already checked in Trevion Williams, a likely preseason All-American who briefly tested the NBA Draft waters but will return to West Lafayette.
Additionally, rising sophomore Jaden Ivey needs to live up to the hype. The former four-star recruit put up 11.1 points per game last season and is a trendy breakout pick this season. He must improve his 3-point shot (25.8 percent) but is a smooth-scoring off-guard who could be the second star that the Boilermakers need to get over the top. Purdue also brings back the likes of Eric Hunter Jr., Sasha Stefanovic, Zach Edey, Mason Gillis, and Brandon Newman as key pieces.
Chemistry should not be a problem with this group; the Boilermakers are taking what was a very good team last year and running it back with more experience. The Boilermakers also add freshmen Trey Kaufman and Caleb Furst. These were the 2020 and 2021 Gatorade POTYs in Indiana, respectively. The future is pretty darn bright in West Lafayette. -LH
9) Texas Longhorns
Chris Beard wasted no time and raided the transfer portal seemingly as soon as he arrived in Austin. That approach worked for him at Texas Tech, yet this might be his most notable transfer class to date. The Longhorns are bringing in four players who started in power conferences last season in Timmy Allen (Utah), Devin Askew (Kentucky), Christian Bishop (Creighton), and Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt), along with one of the best transfers on the market in Tre Mitchell (UMass).
Add those players to a group of solid returners headlined by Andrew Jones and Jase Febres, and things look pretty good for Beard’s initial voyage with his alma mater. Depth might be something of a concern, but the Longhorns have a very high floor with their talent and coaching. -BR
8) Villanova Wildcats
Villanova has now finished outside of the KenPom Top 11 in three consecutive seasons. While the Wildcats have still been excellent overall during this stretch, compiling a 37-14 Big East record, it has been a step back from prior campaigns. They had previously landed in the KenPom Top 11 and received either a No. 1 or 2 seed at the NCAA Tournament for five straight years. The hope is that the 2021-22 roster, which brings back essentially all but Jeremiah Robinson-Earl from last season, can return the program back to the top-tier of national title contenders.
Leading the way for this group will be likely preseason All-American Collin Gillespie. A 6-2 guard who has improved with each season in Philly, Gillespie returns having averaged 14 points and 4.6 assists per last season. His injury near the end of last year put a huge wrench in Villanova’s postseason plans. The other key returners around him include backcourt mates Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels, as well as Jermaine Samuels, who will likely be a go-to option this time around.
Villanova will be guard-oriented this year and has the potential to be a blast to watch. Perhaps the biggest key will be what they get out of Eric Dixon and Nnanna Njoku. -LH
7) Baylor Bears
Simply put, the Bears aren’t going anywhere. And with Arizona transfer James Akinjo receiving a waiver, we could see Baylor leap into the Top 5 in no time. -BR
6) Kentucky Wildcats
No, Kentucky is not too high. In fact, when we look back on this at the end of the season, the Wildcats might actually be too low!
John Calipari is looking to shake off a rough 2020-21 season and looked to the transfer market to do so, bringing in a special group (Davidson’s Kellan Grady, Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, Iowa’s CJ Fredrick, West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe). That group provides much-needed shooting, backcourt depth, and elite frontcourt production, and will be the key if Kentucky makes a long run in March.
Of course, Kentucky is also bringing in an elite recruiting class, headlined by five-star guard TyTy Washington, and return several rotation players. Expect a strong bounce back year from the Wildcats. -BR
5) UCLA Bruins
The Bruins are going to return just about everyone from last season’s Final Four run, though Johnny Juzang‘s pending NBA Draft decision is going to play a huge role in their preseason expectations. Assuming he returns, however, this team will be extremely dangerous. The addition of Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson shouldn’t be overlooked, either, as he will add significant help in areas where UCLA was the weakest (rebounding and rim protection).
That all looks good on paper. That said, it is important to remember that the Bruins were in the First Four for a reason. Consistency escaped them and the trio of Juzang/Jaime Jaquez/Tyger Campbell collectively played the best basketball of their careers in March. There will likely be some regression to the mean there, but this group is still the Pac-12 favorite with Juzang in the fold. -BR
4) Kansas Jayhawks
Remember five months ago when people thought Kansas was in shambles? Hah! The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Jayhawks are the favorite to win the Big 12 after a one-year absence from that throne. Four of their five starters are projected to return, and that group will be joined by two elite transfers in Arizona State’s Remy Martin (a two-time All-Pac-12 first-team performer) and Drake’s Joseph Yesufu, who averaged 23.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Throw in a top 10 recruiting class and Bill Self‘s coaching pedigree, and you have a legitimate Final Four favorite in Lawrence yet again. -BR
3) Alabama Crimson Tide
Nate Oats is quickly turning Alabama into not “just a football school.” The Crimson Tide landed a No. 2 seed at the Big Dance last year and the momentum continues to grow. This preseason rankings ceiling is dependent on whether Jaden Shackelford and Joshua Primo return to school (currently testing NBA Draft waters) but there are a lot of other pieces to be excited about as well.
A trio of former five-star guards will be heavily featured in ‘Bama’s perimeter offense with Jahvon Quinerly (2018 class), Nimari Burnett (2020 class, transfer from TTU), and JD Davison (2020 commit). The frontcourt features another highly touted recruit in 6-10 Charles Bediako as well as Furman transfer Noah Gurley (All-SoCon).
Coach Oats proved that his system can excel on both ends of the floor last season and the potential to do so again is high. This team is extremely talented. -LH
2) Michigan Wolverines
Reigning National Coach of the Year Juwan Howard is returning two All-Big Ten caliber starters (Eli Brooks, Hunter Dickinson), landed one of the top transfers available (DeVante Jones), and is bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class (headlined by five-stars Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate).
Not bad, huh?
Howard has proven to be one of the nation’s best defensive coaches and the Wolverines will have a plethora of options on offense. They will be the favorite to repeat as Big Ten champs and one of the favorites to win a national championship. -BR
1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
You who just scoffed at this — stop it!
Gonzaga returns Drew Timme, who should be the Preseason National Player of the Year, and star point guard Andrew Nembhard. Mark Few also landed the nation’s no. 2 recruiting class, headlined by top overall prospect Chet Holmgren and five-star guard Hunter Sallis. This group is as talented and as proven as anyone.
While they haven’t won a national title yet, the Zags have made six straight Sweet 16’s, including four Elite Eight appearances and two national championship games. Gonzaga will enter 2021-22 as the favorite to claim that elusive first title. -BR
Header image courtesy of Trevor Brown/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.