Check out the three most overrated and three most underrated teams in the 2021-22 preseason AP top 25 rankings.
The preseason AP top 25 NCAA Basketball rankings were released on Monday, providing something of a firm pecking order ahead of the start of the regular season on November 9th.
As is always the case with these things, there are teams that are overvalued in the preseason Top 25 along with those that are overlooked. Both Duke and Kentucky were ranked in the preseason top 10 a year ago but both missed the NCAA Tournament. On the flip side, teams like Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma State and USC were not ranked and enjoyed big seasons.
This year’s initial batch of rankings includes what we believe to be similar exclusions. Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech are both ranked in the Heat Check CBB preseason Top 25 yet didn’t crack the AP’s list. Several more, like Colorado State and Mississippi State, are in my personal top 25 ballot.
Make sure you keep an eye on those teams eventually making their way into the Top 25 but looking at the current AP rankings, there are several shifts that should be made. Here are the three most overrated and three most underrated teams, starting with the No. 2 UCLA Bruins.
I understand the preseason hype behind UCLA because I generally have been hyping them up as well even though I’m not here. It’s easy to get! The Bruins return just about everyone from last season’s Final Four run, headlined by superstar wing Johnny Juzang. Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell came into their own during that March run as well — I refuse to call the program with more national championships than anyone else a “Cinderella” — and are preseason All-Pac-12 selections.
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, particularly on the defensive end. That five-game run from the First Four to the Final Four was their best defensive stretch of the season while also coinciding with the best/most efficient offensive basketball Juzang/Jaquez/Campbell have collectively played in their careers.
There will likely be some regression to the mean there, meaning No. 2 is a bit of a stretch. At the same time, I also think they’ll be able to find more consistency given their returning core and the fact they likely won’t have to deal with the intense COVID restrictions in California again. This group is still the Pac-12 favorite with Juzang in the fold, yet it’s a group more in line with the bottom half of the top 10.
John Calipari is hoping 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). Not only are those four a sign of changing times in college basketball, but they also represent a change in philosophy for Kentucky — a change that might propel the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
Kentucky has been a one-and-done factory under Calipari, routinely turning over almost its entire roster on an annual basis as top recruits leave the program to pursue professional options (or transfer), only to have those spots filled by the next batch of top recruits. As a result, UK typically has one of the youngest rosters in the country.
Those prospects have also reflected a recruiting emphasis on athleticism, quickness and size, without any real concern for a prospect’s shooting ability. While the rest of the basketball world has put an increased emphasis on the 3-point shot, it has remained a constant weakness for the Wildcats.
UK ranked in the top 75 nationally in three-point shooting three times in the six-year span from 2010-11 through 2015-16. All four of Calipari’s Final Four appearances with the Wildcats came during that span. The first Final Four team (2010-11) and his lone national title team (2011-12) were his two best shooting teams ever. It’s no surprise to see Kentucky struggling overall (by the program’s lofty standards) as it has struggled from deep. Grady (at least 51 threes in each of his four seasons at Davidson), Fredrick (47.4 percent from three last season), and freshman TyTy Washington should make up the best-shooting backcourt the Wildcats have had since.
Kentucky’s most successful seasons under Calipari have come when the Wildcats have had reliable 3-point shooting and a good amount of experience relative to their norm. UK has been severely lacking in both areas in recent years, and the pieces brought in this offseason should eliminate those weaknesses.
Given their talent base, that’s enough for me to put Kentucky in my top five. While I have Kentucky No. 3 personally, I feel a top-five projection accurately reflects what this team can and will do this season.
Expectations for the Fighting Illini rose significantly when All-American big man Kofi Cockburn announced he was returning to school for his junior season. He is one of three returning consensus All-Americans (joining Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson) and, considering he tested NBA Draft waters last offseason, the decision was unexpected.
However, I’m not buying the notion that his return vaults Illinois back into Big Ten title contention.
Replacing Ayo Dosunmu — another All-American — is no small task, especially considering his usage rate, shot rate and assist rate all ranked in the top 85 nationally. He was the focal point of the Illini’s attack, especially late in games.
Dosunmu earned his reputation as the nation’s best closer because of the way he performed in those clutch situations. Illinois went 8-4 in games decided by seven points or less a year ago, including 7-0 during the last two months of the season. Obviously, both rates far exceed the national average, and that’s largely credited to Dosunmu virtually carrying the offense late in all those contests.
That stretch also helped change the narrative surrounding Illinois after a 9-5 start, as it won 15 of their last 17 games. That 7-0 stretch came during this run and three of those wins came against some of the Big Ten’s worst teams (Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin). The Illini would’ve been looked at much differently if Dosunmu didn’t save them.
By this point, you’ve probably thought, “But they have Andre Curbelo!” And they do! Curbelo was awesome a year ago as a freshman and should be one of the Big Ten’s best guards this season. He also isn’t the scorer Dosunmu was, so there will be some drop-off in that area.
Part of what made Illinois so good in 2020-21 was the combination of Curbelo and Dosunmu providing steady point guard play on a consistent basis. Depth will be a concern this year with three freshmen — all of whom rank outside the 247sports Composite top 90 — expected to play significant minutes.
Illinois is going to be good and will be an NCAA Tournament team. It should even be a fringe-to-lower-end Top 25 team with Cockburn and Curbelo leading the charge. But this group still has too many question marks to warrant a No. 11 ranking.
No one won the offseason like Memphis did. Yes, the Tigers lost some players to the transfer portal in Moussa Cisse and Boogie Ellis, but they also landed some impact players in former five-star prospect Earl Timberlake (Miami) and Oregon transfer Chandler Lawson.
They also landed both Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, who were the top two prospects in the 2022 recruiting class. Both reclassified to play for Penny Hardaway this season, adding two legitimate stars that will have a significant on-court impact to this already talented roster. They give Memphis as much talent as anyone in the country.
To play contrarian, I *somewhat* understand why voters may be hesitant on the Tigers. This isn’t the first time Hardaway landed a star-studded class and he has yet to lead Memphis to the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, there are legitimate reasons why that happened.
Hardaway led Memphis to a surprise NIT berth in his first season, something that quickly raised expectations, especially with the nation’s top recruiting class coming in. That second season did not go as planned, largely because top recruit James Wiseman only played in three games before being suspended by the NCAA and leaving the school. Still, that group looked destined for the NCAA Tournament before it was canceled.
Then, last year, well, COVID threw in a wrench in everyone’s plans, and it was a slow start that ultimately doomed the Tigers into the NIT.
There are no excuses this season. Memphis likely doesn’t need any, either. A portion of the success will depend on them finding reliable point guard play (will the Emoni Bates Experiment work there?), yet this Tigers team has an immense amount of both talent and experience.
Maryland did not get a single vote in the HeatCheckCBB Preseason Top 25 Rankings. Not a single one.
So, to see the Terps at No. 21 in the AP’s rankings was a little surprising, to say the least.
Maryland unexpectedly lost Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins this offseason, with Morsell transferring to Marquette for his fifth year of eligibility and Wiggins declaring for the NBA Draft (currently on a two-way deal with Oklahoma City).
Losing those two is a very, very significant blow. Maryland is now tasked with replacing their top two assist leaders, two of their four leading scorers, arguably their two best perimeter defenders (Morsell is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year), and will also have to change their style of play.
The biggest reason for Maryland’s overachievements a year ago was the way Mark Turgeon used Morsell, Wiggins and Eric Ayala. All three are athletic 6-5 to 6-6 wings with shot-creating and play-making skills. Using those three interchangeably on the defensive end allowed the Terps to play aggressively by switching everything on the perimeter. Offensively, the trio would typically generate at least one mismatch per possession they would try to exploit.
This does not mean Maryland is going to be bad, particularly after landing two quality transfers in Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown). However, depth remains an issue and both Russell and Wahab have holes in their respective games.
I expect Maryland to be an NCAA Tournament team rather safely, but I don’t think this group has the depth or top-end talent to be consistent throughout the rigors of Big Ten play. I’m interested to see what identity the Terps will develop. Whatever it is, I don’t think they have the pieces to warrant being ranked at this point.
Underrated: 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 No. 4 overall pick Scottie Barnes. In that sense, it might be a surprise to see Florida State ranked at all.
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 also have the typical amount of size we’ve come to expect from Leonard Hamilton teams — say hello to 7-3 Naheem McLoed and 7-1 John Butler — and play that gritty, intense brand of defense that gives opponents fits.
Florida State will need a go-to guy or two to emerge if it will take the next step, yet there is no shortage of candidates. Mills was that guy at times at Houston, seniors Malik Osborne and Anthony Polite have taken over games for FSU in the past, and Cleveland should be a huge contributor right off the bat.
Leonard Hamilton’s squad has a very high floor, which puts them in my top 15. I think we’ll find that to be a much truer reflection of the Seminoles as opposed to their No. 20 ranking in the AP poll.