Lukas Harkins | @hardwiredsports | 08/17/20
As the summer draws to a close, a potential college basketball season looms in the near future. Amidst concerns regarding the ongoing pandemic, it is impossible to determine exactly how this season will be played, but the NCAA does appear determined to make it happen at this point. As a result, why not plunge ahead and dive into which teams might be poised to be the best in the nation if a season occurs?
With the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline in the rear-view mirror, rosters across the country are more-or-less set in stone. There are, of course, several pivotal waiver requests still being processed but there is no set timetable for when those will be completed. As things stand right now, a clear three of Baylor, Villanova, and Gonzaga (in whichever order) seems to be the consensus at the top of preseason rankings but who knows if that will prove true on the court?
College basketball’s unpredictability is arguably one of the main reasons why the sport is so popular and even those aforementioned top three are entering this season with a few questions to answer. But as the season approaches, let’s take a stab at who might headline the college basketball landscape over the next several months. Here is the updated way-too-early look at my way-too-early Top 25 for the 2020-21 college basketball season.
This has been updated following Isaiah Joe’s decision to re-enter the NBA Draft.
25. UCLA Bruins (2019-20: 19-12 | Kenpom: 78th)
UCLA’s first season under head coach Mick Cronin started rocky, but the team gained momentum down the stretch. With an 11-3 finish, the Bruins rose from the depths of the bubble to become a likely NCAA Tournament team. Chris Smith and Tyger Campbell were the leaders of this resurgence and both are returning for this coming season. In fact, most of UCLA’s rotation is coming back to Westwood while the program is also adding a pair of solid pieces in Johnny Juzang and Jaylen Clark. Prince Ali was the only contributor to depart this offseason (graduation).
Thanks to their strong finish to last season, the Bruins should enter this year with plenty of confidence. Returning so much of their core will also give them more cohesion than most teams in the nation. UCLA’s defense was a bit of an issue last season, but I expect that this will improve given Coach Cronin’s reputation on that end. We saw some in-season developments last year, as improved stopping was a major contributing factor to their excellent finish. That will hopefully carry over.
24. Arizona State Sun Devils (2019-20: 20-11 | KP: 63rd)
Arizona State hovered around the NCAA Tournament bubble for the third consecutive season during this past campaign and likely would have once again snuck in. In fact, the Sun Devils could have been in line for their third straight No. 11 seed. And even though they are losing Rob Edwards and Romello White this offseason, I believe that this could be ASU’s true breakout year. Head coach Bobby Hurley is returning two double-digit scorers (Martin and Verge) and added some elite recruits as well.
Remy Martin will assuredly reprise his starring role as one of the best players in the Pac-12 for this coming season but his new running mate in the backcourt should be quite superb as well. Five-star shooting guard Josh Christopher put together one of the best high school careers in recent history and will be facing high expectations. Additionally, Top 50 wing Marcus Bagley will also join the core as a potential contributor in Year 1. The Sun Devils will likely have to seriously embrace small-ball during this campaign, but they have a solid group of potential stars and return plenty of depth.
23. Arkansas Razorbacks (2019-20: 20-12 | KP: 47th)
Edit: Arkansas was previously ranked at 16th prior to Isaiah Joe electing to re-enter the NBA Draft.
Arkansas is another team that will be experiencing a ton of roster turnover this offseason. With five eligible transfers and a four-man recruiting class joining the mix, the Razorbacks will be working with a ton of new talent. This can be a difficult challenge, but there are few that I trust more with transfer integration than Eric Musselman. Losing Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, and Jimmy Whitt Jr. (among others) shouldn’t go overlooked, but the Razorbacks have a ton of new talent to work with.
Leading the way the group of returners will be Desi Sills, who scored double-figures per game last season. From the transfer market, Arkansas is adding Horizon League DPOY Jalen Tate to its backcourt while Vance Jackson (New Mexico), Abayomi Iyiola (Stetson), and JD Notae (Jacksonville) are all joining after each scoring double-digits per game at their last spots. Connor Vanover (Cal) can add significant size to the frontcourt.
Furthermore, the Razorbacks landed a pair of Top 50 recruits in KK Robinson and Moses Moody that could be immediate stars. I am especially high on both and they are the main reason why I still have Arkansas ranked after Joe’s recent decision. Moody is the higher-rated player and perhaps the better fit to offset what Joe is leaving behind, but Robinson is quite superb in his own right. They will form one of the best freshmen duos in the country, in my opinion.
Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams are Top 100 prospects as well and could crack the rotation. To put it simply, there is no shortage of talent in Fayetteville. This is a team that could be super exciting to watch. Although there are a lot of new faces, there is a good mix of experience and youth.
22. Florida State Seminoles (2019-20: 26-5 | KP: 15th)
Florida State was certainly not immune to departures this offseason. With Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams, Trent Forrest, and Dominik Olejniczak all departing either for the professional ranks or due to graduation, the Seminoles have some major holes to fill after turning in just a five-loss campaign in 2019-20. With that said, though, head coach Leonard Hamilton has more than earned the benefit of the doubt recently. FSU has finished in the AP Top 25 in three of the last four seasons and could do so again.
At the core of this optimism is the arrival of five-star recruit Scottie Barnes. A likely “one-and-done” forward, Barnes can fill the team’s star role next season and his versatility is a perfect fit in Coach Hamilton’s system as a two-way monster. There is a strong group around him as well. M.J. Walker, Malik Osborne, and RaiQuan Gray are all returning, as are a fair number of former reserves. Highly-touted JUCO transfer Sardaar Calhoun is also joining the mix. The Seminoles might not be a Top 5 team again, but they should still hover around the Top 25.
21. Richmond Spiders (2019-20: 24-7 | KP: 46th)
Richmond largely flew under-the-radar last season due to Dayton’s dominance in the Atlantic 10. Nonetheless, though, the Spiders turned in KenPom Top 50 campaign that likely would have ended in an NCAA Tournament appearance. The season could have been even more special if they were able to stay healthy, as leading scorer Blake Francis missed six games. Looking ahead to 2020-21, Richmond is returning its entire starting lineup, which will feature five seniors. Experience and cohesion go a long way in college basketball, and the Spiders have an abundance of both.
Perhaps most importantly, Francis and Jacob Gilyard form one of the nation’s most under-appreciated backcourts. 6-foot-10 big man Grant Golden is also a skillful performer with his combination of scoring and playmaking. Richmond was rock-solid on both ends of the floor last season and should continue to be a very smart unit. They rarely turn the ball over and they force opponents into mistakes. The Spiders also aren’t just returning their same top five – watch out for rising sophomore Tyler Burton to make a big splash as the sixth man.
20. Alabama Crimson Tide (2019-20: 16-15 | KP: 60th)
Alabama started last season relatively strong with a 12-7 record before winning just four of their remaining 12 games after that point. This poor finish essentially pushed the Crimson Tide out of the bubble conversation but they look poised for a resurgence in Year 2 under head coach Nate Oats. While losing Kira Lewis is a big blow, ‘Bama is still bringing back four starters and has a strong group of newcomers joining the mix as well. Most notably, former five-star guard Jahvon Quinerly (transfer from Villanova) will help to fill big minutes and Jordan Bruner (transfer from Yale) is a versatile addition to the frontcourt.
Coach Oats also made his mark on the recruiting trail by securing the No. 9 overall group in the nation according to Rivals. This group features four four-star talents as well as one of the top JUCO transfers in the nation (Keon Ellis). Josh Primo is perhaps the freshman to watch most as he will likely fill the sixth man role. I am a bit wary of the Crimson Tide due to their high number of newcomers, but Jaden Shackelford, John Petty Jr., and Herb Jones form a dynamic returning trio of starters that give me confidence that this team can be a contender in the SEC. Bruner will also add experience to the rotation. There is just so much talent in Tuscaloosa.
19. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2019-20: 20-11 | KP: 28th)
Rutgers entered this past season having not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since the 1990-91 campaign. Yet, behind an elite defense and a balanced offense, the Scarlet Knights turned in a 20-win season that likely would have warranted a single-digit seed in the Big Dance. It was an impressive breakthrough season for head coach Steve Pikiell, and it could just be the start of a strong run in Piscataway. Rutgers graduated Akwasi Yeboah after this past year, but the rest of the major contributors are all coming back.
Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. are going to be at the forefront of guiding this squad but most of the supporting cast is back as well. Additionally, four-star big man Cliff Omoruyi is a consensus Top 60 prospect and should provide big minutes as an anchor in the frontcourt. His defensive-oriented playing style will allow him to logically fit into the rotation right away. This season could represent a huge inflection point for Rutgers. Will the team build on last season’s success or fall back down the Big Ten standings?
18. North Carolina Tar Heels (2019-20: 14-19 | KP: 84th)
North Carolina struggled last season…but this is still North Carolina we are talking about. If you’re expecting the Tar Heels to experience back-to-back down years, I don’t know what to tell you. Even though Cole Anthony is headed to the NBA, head coach Roy Williams is returning a strong frontcourt duo in Garrison Brooks/Armando Bacot while bringing in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. Considering their struggles last season and the overall youth of this roster, I’m wary of slotting them *too* high, but the Tar Heels deserve to be in the preseason rankings.
Diving a bit deeper into UNC’s newcomers, Caleb Love is the epitome of an incoming star. An elite guard that can both fill it up and distribute, Love is a five-star prospect that consistently rose in recruiting rankings throughout his high school career. He just keeps finding ways to improve his game and that should be evident in Chapel Hill as well. You can then add in Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler as two more studs for UNC’s frontcourt, as well as R.J. Davis as an undervalued scoring guard. While Coach Williams is returning some solid depth pieces (Leaky Black, Andrew Platek, etc.), it will be the freshmen that determine this team’s ceiling.
17. Texas Tech Red Raiders (2019-20: 18-13 | KP: 21st)
Texas Tech was a difficult team to judge throughout last season. To put it simply, their NCAA Tournament resume never really matched up with their extremely high advanced metrics. After losing their final four regular-season games, Texas Tech was slotted as a No. 10 seed in the final update to the Bracket Matrix, a seed far lower than you would expect given their Top 25 rankings in systems such as KenPom. The program then also suffered several key losses this offseason with Jahmi’us Ramsey, Davide Moretti, TJ Holyfield, and Chris Clarke (among others) all departing.
Texas Tech is essentially only returning three contributors (Kyler Edwards, Terrence Shannon Jr., and Kevin McCullar) from last season and will thus be rather reliant on its newcomers. Thankfully, star head coach Chris Beard did an excellent job filling these holes with transfers and recruits. Joel Ntambwe (UNLV) and Marcus Santos-Silva (VCU) will both be eligible right away and a strong recruiting class headlined by Top 50 prospects Nimari Burnett and Micah Peavy will also be impactful. It might also be worth mentioning the potential of Mac McClung (Georgetown) to receive a waiver.
Additionally, those previously mentioned returners are pretty darn good. Perhaps most notably, Shannon could be poised for a massive jump. As long as Coach Beard is at the helm, I’m a believer in Texas Tech.
16. Kentucky Wildcats (2019-20: 25-6 | KP: 29th)
Kentucky unsurprisingly put forth a strong season in 2019-20 that would have likely resulted in landing a Top 4 seed at the NCAA Tournament. Also unsurprisingly, the program once again experienced a massive exodus of underclassmen talent as a result. The Wildcats lost six players to the professional ranks within the first few weeks of the offseason and also saw Johnny Juzang elect to transfer (Nate Sestina graduated as well). With eight key departures, Coach Cal will be working with an almost brand-new roster for the 2020-21 season. Only Keion Brooks Jr. is returning as a rotation piece from last year.
In typical Kentucky fashion, though, the program is reloading with one of the nation’s top-rated recruiting classes. The Wildcats’ group features five-star recruits BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, and Devin Askew, as well as a trio of four-stars. Boston, most notably, is an elite shot-maker that could be the team’s top offensive option from the opening tip. I am high on him as possibly the second-most impactful freshman in the entire country.
The biggest remaining offseason storyline to follow is Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr’s waiver request. If approved, the Wildcats will jump into my preseason Top 10. The Third Team All-ACC performer would raise the floor for this squad with his production and experience.
15. Oregon Ducks (2019-20: 24-7 | KP: 17th)
Dana Altman seriously does not get enough credit for how successful Oregon has been over the past several seasons. Not only have the Ducks made the NCAA Tournament seven* of the past eight seasons (*including 2020) but they have won at least 20 games in every single one of Altman’s 10 seasons at the helm. He is quite simply one of the best in the sport. Losing Payton Pritchard, Shakur Juiston, and Anthony Mathis shouldn’t go overlooked, but Coach Altman deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Additionally, it is not as though the cupboard is bare in Eugene. Even with those substantial losses, Oregon is returning double-digit scorers Will Richardson and Chris Duarte to lead the way offensively. I am especially high on Richardson’s potential to emerge as a go-to star. The Ducks are also bringing back a quartet of highly-regard sophomores that could thrive with more opportunity. This also goes without mentioning now-eligible transfers Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers), Eric Williams (Duquesne), and Amauri Hardy (UNLV), as well as a Top 100 freshman point guard in Jalen Terry.
Oregon has talent…and plenty of it. This is not a team to overlook.
14. Houston Cougars (2019-20: 23-8 | KP: 14th)
After going 13-19 in his first season at the helm, head coach Kelvin Sampson has now won 20+ games in each of his last five campaigns with Houston. The Cougars might not have received a ton of publicity during this past campaign, but they were excellent. Behind a superb group of guards and a dominant small-ball frontcourt, they ranked 14th in the final KenPom rankings. Their balance (Top 25 in both AdjO and AdjD) was superb and it’s reasonable to expect this guard-centric system to thrive once again in 2020-21.
With Caleb Mills, Quinten Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, and Marcus Sasser all coming back, you would be hard-pressed to find a better perimeter quartet in the nation. Mills, in particular, was perhaps the most under-appreciated freshman in the country last season. He should receive more attention as a sophomore as a national star. Add in Tramon Mark (Top 100 guard) and Cameron Tyson (Idaho transfer), and this guard-centric unit is even deeper.
The concern for Houston will be replacing its frontcourt duo of Nate Hinton (NBA Draft) and Fabian White (torn ACL). This is easier said than done but there are some pieces to watch. Brison Gresham should be on the watchlist after posting 2.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game in limited minutes last season while incoming freshman Kiyron Powell fits this system perfectly. If the Cougars can find suitable fixtures in the frontcourt, they have Top 10 potential – their guards are that good.
13. West Virginia Mountaineers (2019-20: 21-10 | KP: 10th)
West Virginia surprised many last season when it jumped out to a 7-0 start with five KP Top 100 wins. That opening streak was not a fluke, though, as the Mountaineers deployed one of the nation’s best defenses to finish in line for a No. 5-6 seed to the NCAA Tournament. While their offense was far from efficient (bottom ~100 in 3P%, 2P%, and FT%) shooting the ball, they ranked best in the country in offensive rebounding rate and got to the foul line with consistency.
Looking ahead to this coming season, West Virginia deserves to reside safely in the preseason Top 25. Head coach Bob Huggins is returning most of his core, including rising sophomore studs Oscar Tshiebwe and Miles McBride. The latter has the potential to emerge as the go-to perimeter scorer that the team was missing a year ago. At the very least, WVU should remain elite inside thanks to the frontcourt duo of Tshiebwe and Derek Culver.
I might honestly be undervaluing the Mountaineers with a No. 13 placement. If they develop offensive consistency on the perimeter with either a McBride breakout or a Jordan McCabe resurgence, there will be a Final Four contender
12. Iowa Hawkeyes (2019-20: 20-11 | KP: 23rd)
I know this might seem criminally low for Iowa. I’m aware. The Hawkeyes are essentially “running it back” after being a Top 25 team last season and that includes returning Luka Garza, who should be on everyone’s shortlist for National Player of the Year. Additionally, Joe Wieskamp is returning for his junior season while rising sophomores CJ Fredrick and Joe Toussaint could be poised for leaps. There is no shortage of returning talent. In reality, it’s not outlandish to say the Hawkeyes will have the nation’s No. 1 offense in 2020-21.
But…do they get any better defensively? The Hawkeyes ranked just 97th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last season, and that was their best mark since the 2015-16 campaign. While “running it back” likely means another superb offense, it could spell similar struggles when it comes to getting consistent stops. That should be worrisome for those projecting Iowa to be a Top 5 team for this coming season.
For reference, every single KenPom Top 10 team over the past five seasons has exhibited at least a Top 50 defense. I don’t see the Hawkeyes hitting that mark. Their offense will make them quite dangerous, though.
11. Wisconsin Badgers (2019-20: 21-10 | KP: 22nd)
Wisconsin is another Big Ten team returning the vast majority of its rotation after being ranked in the Top 25. Brevin Pritzl (graduation) and Kobe King (midseason transfer) will no longer take the court in Madison, but every single other major contributor is returning. Additionally, the roster is also extremely experienced as the team will trot all five seniors in the starting lineup.
Trice, Davison, Ford, Potter, and Reuvers are all seasoned veterans that have played plenty of minutes at the collegiate level (often together). With that group leading the way and underrated sophomore Tyler Wahl reprising his reserve role, the floor for this team is very high. Furthermore, Wisconsin has one of its best-even recruiting classes (on paper) coming in. If the Badgers can receive strong contributions from a couple of their newcomers (such as Ben Carlson, Lorne Bowman, or Johnny Davis), that could take them to the next level.
The biggest key, though, will be whether or not the Badgers can maintain their hot shooting to end last season. I have already detailed this concern in the past (see here for more), and that is why I have rated the team just outside of the Top 10. Could they continue to torch the nets and emerge as one of the national title favorites? Absolutely, but I am more hesitant than others to be that high on the Badgers. Regardless, though, this is going to be a very good team.
10. Michigan State Spartans (2019-20: 22-9 | KP: 7th)
Michigan State did Michigan State things last season. The Spartans won 20+ games for the ninth consecutive season, earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, and likely would have received a Top 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Tom Izzo just knows how to win and nobody should ever be surprised by the success he brings every single year. The same goes for projecting MSU in 2020-21.
Losing Xavier Tillman to the NBA Draft is a huge deal, and I don’t think anyone in East Lansing will disagree with that. My argument for keeping Michigan State in the Top 10, though, is that Coach Izzo still has plenty of options in the frontcourt. Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier are both returning to the program, and the Spartans are also bringing in Top 100 big man Mady Sissoko. Either with a breakout star or by committee, MSU’s frontcourt will be just fine. This is especially true when you remember Marquette transfer Joey Hauser will be eligible after sitting out last season.
When it comes to the backcourt, there is a similarly gigantic hole to fill with Cassius Winston graduating. Once again, Michigan State has other pieces to return to. Namely, Rocket Watts showed superb development throughout last season and could be poised for stardom as a sophomore. AJ Hoggard is also coming in as a highly-regarded freshman and there is a possibility that Josh Langford returns to play solid minutes.
Additionally, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, and Malik Hall will all be back after averaging 15+ minutes per game each. Coach Izzo has the talent to work with, and the Spartans have finished outside of the KenPom Top 20 just twice over the past 13 seasons. This is a program that I feel comfortable trusting.
9. Creighton Bluejays (2019-20: 24-7 | KP: 12th)
Creighton is a tricky team to place heading into this coming season. This is because, while the Bluejays are returning the majority of their rotation from being a Top 15 squad, they lost arguably their most important piece. Ty-Shon Alexander was the best two-way player on the roster last season and his departure (NBA Draft) could be a major blow to a team that already struggled on the defensive end of the floor. With that said, they are another contender to be the nation’s No. 1 offense and appear to have improved their frontcourt.
Leading the way for this group will be star guard Marcus Zegarowski. While he is coming off a late-season injury, Zegarowski is a Big East POTY frontrunner when at 100%. Three other starters are also returning alongside him, with Mitch Ballock, Damien Jefferson, and Christian Bishop. The final starting spot will likely be filled by Big East 6MOY Denzel Mahoney – not exactly a bad option. Memphis transfer Antwann Jones shouldn’t be forgotten after sitting out last season, either.
The Bluejays will also have Jacob Epperson (hopefully healthy) and Top 100 big man Ryan Kalkbrenner in the frontcourt. These two will likely both come off the bench, but they can add much-needed size to the rotation. Being “too small” will no longer be a major concern for Coach McDermott. The defense is a concern, but the Bluejays can still put their opponents away quickly with a barrage of perimeter jumpers.
8. Tennessee Volunteers (2019-20: 17-14 | KP: 68th)
Tennessee is the only team in my Top 18 that finished outside of the KenPom Top 50 a season ago. With that said, though, there are plenty of viable reasons to be excited about this group. Most importantly, the Volunteers are returning arguably the nation’s most underrated core with the frontcourt duo of Yves Pons and John Fulkerson leading the way coupled with a pair of rising sophomores oozing with star potential in Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.
Not only are the Vols returning four starters, but they also have a superb group of newcomers joining the program. Their No. 4 overall recruiting class not only features a pair of five-star guards in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson but also Top 100 forward Corey Walker and two-sport stud Malachi Wideman (he committed to UT for football). Furthermore, the Volunteers have a pair of solid transfers joining the mix in Victor Bailey (Oregon) and E.J. Anosike (Sacred Heart).
While the Vols’ overall record last season might not look great, it’s important to remember that this team ranked at No. 27 on KenPom before Lamonte Turner’s season-ending injury. Springer and Johnson, along with a more experienced version of Vescovi, will help to bolster the backcourt. There will be a lot of new faces in Knoxville in 2020-21, but head coach Rick Barnes is excellent.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini (2019-20: 21-10 | KP: 30th)
Illinois was perhaps the biggest winner of the NBA Draft deadline. With both of their stars, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, electing to return to Champaign, the Fighting Illini jumped from a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team to being ranked in my Top 10. Returning two All-Conference caliber players will be the main storyline for head coach Brad Underwood, but there is plenty of talent around them as well. Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili are returners that started >22 games each last year.
The biggest key for Illinois will be 3-point shooting. The Illini shot just 30.3% from distance a season ago (310th nationally) and their best perimeter threat transferred to Syracuse. This is where incoming four-star recruit Adam Miller could make his biggest impact. The local product out of Morgan Park is heralded for his elite-level shot-making, particularly from distance. Frazier could also experience a resurgence after shooting just 30.9 percent from three on 165 attempts last season. He hit 40.6 percent on 197 attempts as a sophomore.
Illinois’ recruiting class also features another Top 50 guard in Andre Curbelo and an underrated versatile forward in Coleman Hawkins. Both should also compete for minutes.
6. Duke Blue Devils (2019-20: 25-6 | KP: 5th)
Duke is one of the nation’s blueblood programs and it proves why every single season. Under Coach K’s leadership, the Blue Devils can consistently reload with superb recruiting classes despite heavy departures. For reference, the program is yet to finish outside of the Top 20 during the KenPom era. Even after losing Carey, Jones, and Stanley this offseason, it’s easy to bet on Duke remaining a Top 10 team.
Unlike some other seasons, though, this optimism is not solely centered around Duke’s incoming recruiting class. Of course, at least a couple of the six freshmen will fill the “starring” roles on the team as Top 50 additions, but some talented rotation players are returning to Durham as well. This includes sophomores Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore, who could be poised for major breakout campaigns now that they have a year of collegiate experience under each of their belts.
The Blue Devils will also be bringing back Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire as reserve pieces, while Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape will help bring experience to the frontcourt. From the freshman class, Jalen Johnson, D.J. Steward, and Mark Williams are my main three to watch. Jeremy Roach is also rock-solid at the point guard slot.
5. Kansas Jayhawks (2019-20: 28-3 | KP: 1st)
Including this past season (based on the Bracket Matrix), Kansas has earned a No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament in nine of the 17 years that Bill Self has been at the head of the program. The Jayhawks have also never received lower than a No. 4 seed over this stretch. I think that summarizes the consistency of this program and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into 2020-21 as well. Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson are gone, but Coach Self has a solid group of returners coupled with key newcomers to work with.
Most notably, the backcourt duo of Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji will likely lead the way. These two upperclassmen hovered around ~10 points per game last season apiece. Garrett also emerged as one of the nation’s top defenders. The Jayhawks will then be returning David McCormack, who will be looking to take another step forward with more responsibility in his junior season. Off the bench, the likes of Christian Braun and Tristan Enaruna will be back for Year 2.
This is already a strong core to work with, but Coach Self has some reinforcements joining the fray as well. Most notably, JUCO star Tyon Grant-Foster and Top 30 recruit Bryce Thompson will both compete for starting spots. They are each regarded as high-level scorers.
4. Virginia Cavaliers (2019-20: 23-7 | KP: 42nd)
Virginia suffered major departures after winning the 2019 National Championship and it showed to begin last season. While Coach Bennett was still able to deploy an elite defense ranked at No.1 in the country, the Cavaliers struggled to score consistently in the absences of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and DeAndre Hunter. The most obvious example of this was the team’s drop-off to 30% shooting from three after connecting on nearly 40% the year prior. These offensive woes contributed to sitting at 15-7 and just 54th on KenPom in early February.
Well…that’s when Virginia decided to seemingly flip a switch and win its final eight games. This resulted in the program’s ninth consecutive 20+ win season and the Cavaliers finished second in the ACC. The hot run also sets them up to potentially defend their national title in 2020-21. They have a strong returning core and at least one newcomer oozing with immediate star potential. The losses of Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite are certainly not insubstantial, but the likes of Kihei Clark, Jay Huff, Tomas Woldetensae, and Casey Morsell (among others) are all coming back to Charlottesville.
Woldetensae and Morsell, most notably, will be entering Year 2 with the program and should make strides as shooters. Furthermore, Marquette transfer Sam Hauser will be a preseason ACC Player of the Year frontrunner after sitting out last season. He averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as the second option for the Golden Eagles and is an elite shooting threat (career 44.5% from three) with great size at 6-foot-8.
They then add in a recruiting class anchored by Top 50 prospects Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Reece Beekman. Freshmen often struggle to contribute right away for Coach Bennett, but those two emerging as key pieces would be icing on the cake.
3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS (2019-20: 31-2 | KP: 2ND)
Gonzaga, even without the NCAA Tournament where it traditionally reaches at least the second weekend, still managed to pull off a 30-win season in 2019-20. Additionally, the balanced offensive juggernaut out west managed to secure the nation’s No. 1 offense (by adjusted efficiency) for the second consecutive season as they, quite simply, couldn’t be stopped. The Bulldogs finished the season with Top 50 rankings in eFG%, Turnover %, Off. Reb %, FTA/FGA, 3P%, and 2P% on the offensive end of the floor. They were Top 50 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency as well.
It was simply another superb season in Spokane, and expectations will once again be high for this fall. Thanks to the returns of Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, and Drew Timme, Gonzaga deserves to be firmly entrenched in title talks. It also doesn’t hurt that Coach Few added five-star guard Jalen Suggs to the mix, along with two other Top 75 recruits and SIU transfer Aaron Cook. The program also has a few hidden gems already on its roster, such as Oumar Ballo.
There’s simply no sense in underrating Gonzaga. The program is a powerhouse and a national championship in the near future feels inevitable. (Note: Before arguing that the Bulldogs should be higher than No. 3, I will say that they are much closer to No. 1 than No. 4 in my rankings. This top group is all close and Gonzaga lost the most this offseason.)
2. Villanova Wildcats (2019-20: 24-7 | KP: 18th)
Villanova was a Top 20 team throughout last season and earned a share of the Big East regular-season title. That a highly impressive campaign for just about any program in the nation, but it honestly felt like a down season for head coach Jay Wright. But with the vast majority of his rotation coming back for 2020-21, you can safely bet on the Wildcats returning to serious national title contention during this coming campaign. Losing Saddiq Bey to the NBA Draft was significant, but he was also the program’s *only* offseason departure.
Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Cole Swider are all back after averaging at least six points per game each last season. That even goes without mentioning a few other depth pieces such as Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Additionally, we might finally see a healthy version of former five-star recruit Bryan Antoine. Oh, and Caleb Daniels, who averaged 16.9 points per game at Tulane, will be eligible after sitting out last year while former Top 100 recruit Eric Dixon is fresh off redshirting.
This roster is loaded and I’m not sure there’s much else to say about that. Coach Wright has a ton of talent and experience to work with on this roster – that bodes well.
1. Baylor Bears (2019-20: 26-4 | KP: 3rd)
Baylor was arguably the best team in the country last season and is returning most of its top contributors. That means the star backcourt of Jared Butler and MaCio Teague is back in Waco, as is do-it-all forward Mark Vital and defensive stopper Davion Mitchell. With that core intact, as well as returns from Tristan Clark (hopefully now healthy), Matthew Mayer, and Flo Thamba, there’s plenty to be excited about. That goes without mentioning the newcomers joining the program to aid in offsetting the departures of Freddie Gillespie and Devonte Bandoo.
In particular, I believe that the Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler is not discussed enough. Flagler averaged 15.9 points per game as a freshman in 2018-19 on 38.6% shooting from distance (280 attempts) and spent all last year learning Baylor’s system while sitting out. He will be a valuable addition to the backcourt along with Top 100 recruit L.J. Cryer. The frontcourt also picked up some newcomers with recruits Dain Dainja and Zach Loveday, as well as UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua.
Scott Drew is an underrated head coach and he has plenty of talent on this roster. Will this be the year that Baylor returns to the Final Four for the first time since 1950? It just might be.
Other teams to monitor (alphabetical order): Florida, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, Michigan, Northern Iowa, Ohio State, Saint Louis, Seton Hall, Texas, and UConn (among others that I have forgotten to include).
Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.