The 2021-22 college basketball season is quickly approaching. Which teams will be erasing last year’s bad memories?
With under two months remaining until the opening tip of the new college basketball campaign, it’s officially time to start taking a deep dive into which teams might be poised for strong years. Perhaps even more notably, which teams fell off the radar last season but could be back in the picture this time around?
COVID-19 played an integral role in how last season played out. Teams were limited in their offseason training leading up the year, in-season “pauses” caused chaos, and game cancelations/postponements greatly shook up preparation. Even some of the nation’s top programs – bluebloods like Duke and Kentucky – were thrown out of sorts and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, this does not discredit any of the teams that were able to succeed. Baylor, for instance, dealt with plenty of turmoil on their way to winning the national championship. The teams that endured are to be lauded, while those that struggled can point to several reasons for doing so. The 2021-22 season represents a new beginning for those talented programs that took a detour last season.
For many, it’s time for a “bounce-back.” There were several programs that posted excellent 2020 seasons only to flounder amidst the shortened season last year. Not all of those programs will return to prominence during this upcoming campaign, but let’s take a dive into 10 that seem destined to do so.
Kentucky experienced the worst season of the John Calipari era during this past season. Their .360 winning percentage was the program’s lowest since 1927. It was just the second time that Cal missed the NCAA Tournament at the helm of the Wildcats. With that in mind, the future Hall of Fame head coach reloaded in a massive way.
In a strategic shift, BBN will be welcoming more incoming transfers than freshmen this season. Most notably, interior monster Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia), steady playmaker Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia), and noted marksmen CJ Fredrick (Iowa) and Kellan Grady (Davidson) are joining the mix. All figure to be major contributors as either starters or crucial reserves. They join returners Keion Brooks and Davion Mintz to form an experienced Wildcats’ core.
It wouldn’t be a Coach Cal-led team without at least a couple of notable recruits, though. TyTy Washington, Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins are all Top 50 prospects in the class and will fight for playing time. Washington might even emerge as the team’s top offensive weapon. Kentucky is much more balanced this season and is loaded with experienced star transfers.
The Wildcats are slotted at No. 4 in our Heat Check CBB Top 25.
Duke Blue Devils
Duke is another traditional college basketball blueblood that shocked the nation by missing the NCAA Tournament a season ago. Their pieces never really came together, particularly defensively, and they were left on the outside looking in at the Big Dance for the first time since 1995. Looking ahead to this coming campaign, the Blue Devils are surely set to bounce back in Coach K’s retirement tour. It also doesn’t hurt that their incoming recruiting class features a pair of *elite* prospects.
Paolo Banchero, most notably, has a strong argument to be the preseason ACC Player of the Year. He is simply that talented as an offensive force that should immediately take over an “alpha” role in Durham. Fellow five-star addition AJ Griffin is also poised to be a lottery pick one-and-done. These two at the 3 and 4 spots in the rotation will form an elite duo. The third key member of the recruiting class, Trevor Keels, should add more of a shooting punch to a backcourt in need of it.
Duke, on the whole, upgraded with its newcomers this year. They also added Theo John (Marquette) as a graduate transfer to help back up returning sophomore Mark Williams. Williams is a major potential breakout player this season, and the same goes for fellow second-year Jeremy Roach. Roach holds the keys to the offense; his improvement will be crucial in determining just how good Duke will be.
Duke has the star power it was missing last season and should be much more balanced with the likes of Banchero, Griffin, and John aiding the defensive frontline.
Auburn played out a self-imposed postseason ban last year, but they were not going to dance regardless. With Justin Powell going down with an early injury and Sharife Cooper not gaining eligibility until late, it was an all-around weird season. Head coach Bruce Pearl is set to return to SEC contention this time around, though, thanks to impressive work in the transfer portal.
Starting in the backcourt, Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky), KD Johnson (Georgia), and Zep Jasper (Charleston) are all coming to campus after averaging double-figures per game at their last stops. Green and Johnson are only going to be sophomores by eligibility this season and they will play instantly significant roles while also shoring up the future of college basketball in Auburn. Green, a 5-11 point guard, shows some shades of Jared Harper with his quickness and playmaking ability.
Losing Allen Flanigan for several months is a critical blow, but the wing can still be filled out by solid returners in Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams, who combined for nearly 20 points per game as sophomores last year. The 4 and 5 spots in the rotation will be manned by newcomers; freshman Jabari Smith is a Top 10 prospect while Walker Kessler is a giant transfer from North Carolina set to explode with more playing time.
Green should be a great leader for Auburn’s up-tempo offense and hopefully, there will be a defensive improvement as well. After three straight seasons ranked in the Top 60 in AdjD, the Tigers slipped to 103rd last season.
Indiana experienced a change in leadership this offseason, firing Archie Miller and replacing him with Mike Woodson. While there were some early concerns about how Woodson would adjust to the world of college basketball recruiting, he quickly made his mark. First and foremost, he was able to lure some key players to return to Bloomington for another season. This included star player Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is set to compete for a spot on an All-America team this year.
The Hoosiers also bring back noted “glue guy” Race Thompson, long-time starting point guard Rob Phinisee, UT Martin transfer Parker Stewart and the entire highly-regarded 2020 recruiting class. This core is solid thanks to TJD’s record, but Woodson did not stop there.
Xavier Johnson (Pittsburgh), Miller Kopp (Northwestern) and Michael Durr (USF) are all high-major transfers looking to finally join a “winning team.” The same could also go for Stewart, who transferred to IU last year but was injured for the season. Additionally, Tamar Bates is a fringe five-star recruit with NBA potential; those types of guys never hurt.
Indiana not only improved its roster this offseason, but the fanbase is hoping it improved on the sidelines as well. Will Mike Woodson be the guy to quickly return college basketball back to the national spotlight in Bloomington? Their best ranking under Miller was No. 34 in 2020; that slipped to No. 50 last season.
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State is the only team on this list that made the NCAA Tournament last season. Perhaps the Spartans are not as in need of a bounce-back as some of the others, but the 2021 season was a noticeable drop-off from prior campaigns. MSU finished 64th on adjusted efficiency, their lowest ranking in the KenPom era; this came on the heels of three straight Top 7 finishes in that category.
While losing Aaron Henry should not be overlooked, the Spartans reloaded their backcourt this offseason. Tyson Walker (Northeastern) is a big-time two-way addition at point guard while Max Christie is a five-star shooting guard capable of potentially leading the team in scoring.
MSU also returned a huge chunk of their core to support their new backcourt. Gabe Brown, Joey Hauser and Marcus Bingham are all back as seniors. While none cracked the double-digit scoring threshold last season, Hauser in particular is likely to do so this time around. Off the bench, Malik Hall may be poised for a breakout while AJ Hoggard should see more playing time.
Most prognosticators are expecting MSU to fall in the No. 25-40 range this season. While that also wouldn’t be up to the program’s usual standards as one of the top teams in college basketball, it would be a marked improvement from the disappointing 2021 campaign.
Louisville was one of the quietest winners of this offseason. Carlik Jones and David Johnson are no longer walking through the door, but head coach Chris Mack dominated the transfer market across all levels. He landed proven high-major shooters in Noah Locke (Florida) and Matt Cross (Miami), plus a pair of star mid-major guards in Mason Faulkner (Western Carolina) and Jarrod West (Marshall). The Cards also traversed the JUCO waters to land El Ellis and Sydney Curry.
This is a loaded crop of new players set to join a core that still returns Samuell Williamson, Jae’Lyn Withers, Malik Williams, and Dre Davis. The reload happened at a critical time as well, as the Cardinals are coming off a season in which they lost six of their last 10 games to fall out of the NCAA Tournament. They finished at No. 59 on KenPom, Chris Mack’s lowest mark since 2013 at Xavier.
With their roster adjustments, a bounce-back seems to be in the Cards. (Get it?)
Injuries and eligibility derailed Butler’s 2020-21 season before it really even began. Most notably, two prospective starters in Aaron Thompson and Bo Hodges missed 27 combined games. Both players – along with Bryce Nze, Jair Bolden, and Christian David – elected to use their “free year” due to COVID-19 to return for this coming season, though. The Dawgs will feature seven total seniors.
Butler’s exceedingly down year (No. 120 on KP) did allow for youngsters to develop their games. Most notably, Chuck Harris is now one of the nation’s top rising sophomores; he became the first freshman to lead Butler in scoring since 1980. Myles Tate is coming off an ACL tear but now has a whole season under his belt as well. Myles Wilmoth is also back. These three sophomores are now battle-tested and can group together with the returning seniors.
Additionally, Ty Groce (Eastern Michigan) is generating a lot of early buzz as a high-impact transfer addition. LaVall Jordan already has two Top 25 finishes in the KenPom rankings under his belt in four years; he has the experience and depth to make a run at another this season. Whether or not Harris takes the leap into stardom could determine their ceiling.
Richmond finished 24-7 in 2020 and was on the verge of reaching the NCAA Tournament when it was canceled. Their No. 46 finish that year on KenPom was the program’s best since 2011. With so many pieces returning, many expected another leap into the nation’s Top 25 last season. With a 14-9 record and a No. 65 ranking, suffice it to say that the Spiders did not reach their ceiling.
Yet again, though, head coach Chris Mooney is bringing back his core and good results could be on the way. Nick Sherod, Jacob Gilyard, Nathan Cayo and Grant Golden are all using their “extra years” to remain in the program for a bounce-back year. Additionally, rising junior Tyler Burton is back in the fold as well. Richmond has a tremendous core and will have a healthy Sherod, something they were without a year ago.
The Spiders could not live up to the hype last season – partially due to injuries – but there should be much less pressure this time around. With all these pieces in the mix, Richmond should be among the favorites to win the Atlantic 10.
Northern Iowa Panthers
Much of the optimism surrounding Northern Iowa entering last season centered around the return of star AJ Green. The 6-4 guard appeared in only three games before missing the remainder of the season due to injury. His loss, coupled with the team struggling defensively, led to the Panthers dropped over 100 KenPom spots from the prior year.
Ben Jacobson has been at the head of the program since 2007 and has brought his fair share of college basketball success to Cedar Falls. With Green back and healthy – as well as the returns of Austin Phyfe and Trae Berhow – UNI could return to contending for the MVC title this season. The big key will be a resurgence offensively. UNI ranked 23rd nationally in AdjO in 2020 behind Green’s scoring and Berhow’s elite efficiency. That number plummeted to 155th last season.
It is also worth noting a pair of rising sophomores. Bowen Born and Nate Heise were thrown into the fire last season and performed solidly. Born in particular showed out, averaging 11.2 points per game. Now with a year of experience under their belts, they can help the trio of Green/Berhow/Phyfe.
New Mexico State Aggies
New Mexico State has *owned* the WAC for the past several seasons, earning the conference’s automatic bid in seven of its last nine tries. Chris Jans has been a major part of that success since taking over the head coaching job in 2018. He went 43-3 (.945) in conference play over his first three seasons, winning the league each year. During this past campaign, though, the Aggies stumbled to just a 12-8 record overall (7-6 in the WAC) and missed the Big Dance. It was an extremely complicated year logistically for the program amidst COVID.
The goal for 2021? NMSU is looking to return to its throne atop the WAC and reach the NCAA Tournament. Coach Jans is back at the helm, and he has a senior-laden group loaded with offensive talent at his disposal. Perhaps most notably, Teddy Allen is arriving in Las Cruces after averaging 16.5 points per game last season at Nebraska. He has been a proven scorer throughout his college basketball career and could be the Aggies’ No. 1 guy.
Additionally, Jabari Rice (13.2 points), Donnie Tillman (11.6 points), and Johnny McCants (10.0 points) are all back after averaging double-figure points per game last season. Add in Clayton Henry as a defensive returner and Mike Peake as a transfer forward from Austin Peay, and it’s easy to be optimistic about NMSU making another run at the WAC title.