Harkins 25: Missouri, Clemson emerge in national power rankings

The 2020-21 NCAA basketball is now almost in full swing, with 321 programs having already taken the court for at least one regular-season game. As a result, I think it is finally time to crawl out of my offseason hibernation to return to the Top 25 game. Most teams in the nation have enough of a sample size at this point to draw conclusions from and there are always going to be some preseason biases caked into rankings this early in the year anyway.

And while there have been some early positive (looking at you, Missouri and Clemson) and negative (looking at you, Kentucky) surprises, most results have been predictable in what has otherwise been an unpredictable year. Gonzaga and Baylor entered this season as clear-cut Top 3 teams and both still belong right in that mix. The Big Ten and Big 12 have also shown that they belong as the nation’s top conferences. 

Isn’t it kind of nice to have a few things work out as planned this year?

Anyway, NCAA basketball is built on unpredictability and there are bound to be plenty of shakeups (and not just in scheduling) over the next few months. Now, without any further ado, let’s dive into my first Top 25 national power rankings of this season.

Takeaways from CBB’s two-game series
Rauf Report: Missouri is legit
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Other teams under consideration (in alphabetical order): Duke, Indiana, Loyola-Chicago, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Richmond, Saint Louis, SMU, Syracuse, UCLA, UConn, and Xavier (among others).

25. Saint Louis Billikens (4-0)

Saint Louis shot 34.2% from three (122nd nationally) and 57.1% from the free-throw line (353rd) a season ago while finishing with a 23-8 (12-6 A10) record. 

Through their first four games this season, their shooting numbers have told a completely different story. The Billikens have thus far connected on 46.4% of their 3-point attempts (5th nationally) and 77.5% of their charity stripe tries (35th). It would be unreasonable to expect these excellent marks to continue throughout the entire year, but the Billikens have made substantial offensive strides. They are also 4-0 with a win over LSU.

Gibson Jimerson, most notably, is looking like the true “missing piece” for a team that ranks 28th nationally in year-over-year minutes continuity. Jimerson missed 21 of SLU’s 31 games last season due to injury and his floor-spacing is incredibly important. The 6-5 guard is shooting 12-for-26 (46.2%) from distance to begin this year and is now 36-for-82 (43.9%) in 14 career games. 

His return as a premier threat has also taken some of the perimeter shooting pressure off Javonte Perkins, who is 11-for-19 (57.9%) from deep to begin this season. Jimerson and Perkins are SLU’s leading scorers thus far, combining for 34.8 points per game. Saint Louis’ biggest missing ingredient last season was a lack of shooting ability. If their hot start is to be believed, then the Billikens could be the runaway best team in a vastly-underrated Atlantic 10 this year.

24. Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-0)

Several “Diaper Dandies” have already come to play early this college basketball season. Oklahoma State, though, is perhaps the most loaded with them as their nursery of top-tier freshmen have forged their 6-0 start. Three of the Cowboys’ top four scorers so far this season are first-year players. At the forefront of this group is prospective No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham, who is posting 18.7 points per game thus far.

Fellow freshmen Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, despite coming off the bench, are the third and fourth-leading scorers behind Cunningham and senior Isaac Likekele. Including in OK-State’s 6-0 start are road wins over Marquette and Wichita State. With the grueling Big 12 slate approaching, Coach Boynton’s team has proven itself worthy of being a fringe Top 25 team. 

They push the pace and have been defending at a pretty high level as well. Sophomore big man Kalib Boone has been an underrated anchor thus far with 1.2 blocks per game. Oklahoma State currently ranks 64th nationally with a 12.0% block rate and 47th in 2-point defense (43.3% surrendered). Cunningham is the nation’s top freshman and helps make the Cowboys must-see TV.

23. Louisville Cardinals (4-0)

Louisville has simply handled its business over the first month of the season. The Cardinals are 4-0 thus far with solid wins over Seton Hall and Western Kentucky already on their resume. While it is important to take early-season KenPom rankings with a major grain of salt, Louisville is one of the 11 teams in the nation that ranks in the Top 25 in both AdjO and AdjD.

Radford graduate transfer Carlik Jones has been at the helm of UL’s attack in the early going. He has been remarkably efficient in his new uniform while posting 17.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. Not only will Jones remain the Cardinals’ primary offensive weapon, but he will also be the experienced leader of this otherwise young roster.

Every other major contributor on Louisville’s roster is an underclassmen outside of Jones. This includes early double-digit scorers Dre Davis (fr.), David Johnson (soph.), Jae’Lyn Withers (fr.), and Samuell Williamson (soph.), among several others. This group is loaded with young talent and should only improve as the year wears on. 

22. Arkansas Razorbacks (6-0)

Arkansas’ 6-0 start has largely flown under-the-radar due to a lack of marquee wins. Their best win to date is at home over North Texas. Yet, I was extremely high on the Razorbacks heading into the year and they have impressed thus far. While many other teams have struggled against similar-level opponents, Arkansas has rolled to convincing, double-digit victories in each contest.

They have already climbed over 20 spots on KenPom as Coach Musselman’s combo of impact freshmen and elite transfers seem to be gelling early. We will see how Arkansas’ scoring hierarchy works out once SEC play starts, but they are currently an extremely balanced offensive unit. Six different Razorbacks are averaging at least nine points per game.

Star freshman wing Moses Moody (16.0 ppg) is leading the way as he is looking the part of a future NBA Draft pick. He has started every game and is surrounded by three senior transfers and returning junior Desi Sills. JD Notae has been the most prominent reserve for Arkansas and ranks second on the team at 13.3 points per game. The Razorbacks’ abundance of talent and strong coaching could lead them to finish right near the top of the SEC.

21. Virginia Cavaliers (3-1)

Virginia has experienced a rocky start to the 2020-21 season. Not only have the Cavaliers already suffered a loss to San Francisco, but they also needed overtime to come away victorious over Kent State. It has not been an ideal first month but that doesn’t mean I am selling much of my stock in this team. I trust Coach Bennett’s ability to develop as well as his elite defensive scheming. This team should be just fine given time. The schedule, though, will only get tougher from here as a matchup with Villanova looms prior to ACC play.

On the bright side, Virginia has shot the ball much better this season compared to last. Albeit in only a four-game sample size, transfers Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy are proving why they can be so impactful in the Cavaliers’ offensive scheme. They are combining to average 25.3 points per game while shooting 15-for-31 (48.4%) from beyond the arc. Thomas Woldetensae has also shot the ball well in the early going.

From the freshmen ranks, Reece Beekman has been the one emerging as a key rotation piece so far. I loved Beekman in high school and he will be a star in Charlottesville. The 6-3 guard is averaging 5.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.8 steals in 25.0 minutes per game so far. He has also already usurped a starting spot. Buy. Stock. Now.

Virginia has plenty of room for improvement, but I am a believer that they will turn things around.

20. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6-1)

Texas Tech’s lone loss so far this season came at the hands of my (spoiler alert) No. 3 team in the Houston Cougars. As a result, I am not going to punish the Red Raiders much for that defeat. I do have them ranked this low, though, due to a lack of quality wins to date. Their best win thus far is Abilene Christian, with the rest of their victories coming over sub-200 opposition. Big 12 play is knocking on the door soon and TTU will have their chances to prove that they belong much higher in the power rankings.

Head coach Chris Beard’s team currently holds the nation’s top adjusted defensive efficiency mark and is controlling the “Four Factors” stats pretty well. Most notably, the Red Raiders are forcing turnovers on 30.0% of possessions through seven games (5th-best nationally). They make life extremely difficult on opposing offenses both in the paint and on the perimeter.

The big key will be improvement on the offensive end. The Red Raiders have not been the most efficient scoring group thus far (137th in eFG%) but they have done an excellent job on the offensive glass and have reached the foul line at will. Those trends will hopefully continue, and it wouldn’t hurt if they shot better than 67.5% on those charity attempts moving forward.

Georgetown transfer Mac McClung is leading TTU in scoring at 14.1 points per game.

19. Florida State Seminoles (3-0)

Florida State did not take the court until Dec. 2 but has looked excellent thus far. After a tuneup domination of North Florida, the Seminoles quickly added back-to-back resume-building victories over Indiana (in OT) and Florida. Head coach Leonard Hamilton’s defense is once again forcing a bunch of turnovers and using its length to disrupt offensive sets. FSU lost a bunch of talent this offseason but still looks to be a rock-solid team. Coach Hamilton has truly built this program into an annual contender in the ACC.

Senior guard M.J. Walker has been the leading figure offensively for Florida State through three games at 17.7 points per game. Just behind him, though, are underclassmen Scottie Barnes and Balsa Koprivica. Barnes, a five-star 6-9 freshman, is averaging 11.3 points but also a team-leading 5.3 assists per game. He is living up to the “point forward” label that he earned throughout high school and that will certainly carry over into his NBA career as well.

Anthony Polite is another key figure to watch. The junior is averaging 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game through three contests. He is filling a significantly bigger role this season for the Seminoles and could be the team’s top breakout candidate.

18. Michigan Wolverines (6-0)

Michigan is yet to secure a truly elite win this season, but is an undefeated 6-0 with several “solid” wins. Bowling Green, Ball State, UCF, Toledo, and Penn State are all going to be Top 200-level teams this season that the Wolverines have defeated, and mostly done so with relative ease. UM’s worst performance to date came against Oakland in the second game of the season as they needed overtime to win. On the whole, though, the Wolverines are operating at a very high level with their offense leading the way.

While Franz Wagner is yet to take the sophomore leap that many (myself included) expected from him, the Wolverines are flashing plenty of offensive firepower. Senior leader Isaiah Livers is predictably near the forefront of this but freshman big man Hunter Dickinson is the one leading the team in scoring. The Top 50 recruit is posting 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game in the early going on 73.1% shooting inside the arc. Whether or not this continues against tougher competition remains to be seen, but he is playing at an elite level.

Dickinson has also had plenty of space to operate with three Wolverines slashing from deep at high clips. Livers, Chaundee Brown, and Eli Brooks have combined to shoot 35-for-82 (42.7%) from three to begin the year. Penn State is the only opponent that has held Michigan under 80 once so far this year.

17. San Diego State Aztecs (5-0)

San Diego State suffered significant losses this offseason after a year in the Top 5, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much. With a bevy of proven upperclassmen, they have started this season hot at 5-0 and they haven’t all come against cupcakes either. Early-season victories over UCLA and Arizona State have proven that they are once again one of the best teams out west. Wins over UC Irvine and Pepperdine are not something to scoff at, either. Both of those could be Top 150 victories.

Leading the way has been the senior duo of Jordan Schakel (15.2 ppg) and Matt Mitchell (12.6 ppg). Nathan Mensah has also returned to post 9.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game after missing most of last season due to injury. The Aztecs rank 10th nationally in KenPom’s “experience” rating and that is paying major dividends early. With their veteran offensive talent and elite defense, San Diego State is the clear-cut best team in the MWC.

The Aztecs entered this season with a “don’t forget about us” attitude and they are making everyone remember why they were so good a season ago. Malachi Flynn has departed, but Coach Dutcher still has a squad capable of doing real damage.

16. Wisconsin Badgers (4-1)

I thought that Wisconsin was a tad overrated heading into this season and they have largely met expectations through the opening month. With an experienced core and excellent defense, they have locked down sub-par opponents, suffered a heartbreaking loss to a good Marquette team, and picked up a solid win over Rhode Island. Their 4-1 record is void of a marquee win thus far, but conference play is soon arriving. The Badgers will surely pick up some monster Big Ten victories.

Wisconsin is one of the biggest “knowns” in the country. Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, Brad Davison, D’Mitrik Trice, and Aleem Ford are all back as key contributors from last season’s Top 25 team. We already know what those five can generally bring to the court and the Badgers should remain ranked throughout this year due to their consistent presences. Whether or not they can take the next leap and emerge as a Top 10 team, though, might come down to their underclassmen.

Sophomore forward Tyler Wahl was a glue guy a year ago and has already seen a significant increase in minutes this time around. He is a career 22.2% shooter from distance, though, and improving in that area would be huge for him. Highly regarded freshmen Johnny Davis and Ben Carlson have both performed well to begin their careers and that will need to continue into the Big Ten season. That is easier said than done.

Wisconsin’s starting five is perhaps the most experienced in all of college basketball. Their depth, though, is extremely young and unproven. 

15. Clemson Tigers (6-0)

I understand that I am much higher on Clemson compared to the vast majority of college basketball writers. And sure, the Tigers do not have the historical backing to believe that their hot start is sustainable…but this hot start has been pretty darn good. The Tigers are 5-0 over the opening month of the season with four high-major wins over Mississippi State (by 11), Purdue (by 11), Maryland (by 16), and Alabama (by 8). Not only are they beating these quality opponents, but they are handling business with relative ease.

At the core of the Tigers’ success has been their elite defense. Clemson currently holds the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the entire nation as they are shutting teams down all over the court. This is a partial byproduct of Clemson’s slow pace, but they are allowing just 51.4 points per game through five contests.

They are forcing turnovers on 27.8% of possessions (12th nationally) and are limiting opponents to just 39.2% shooting inside the arc (17th) and 26.1% from beyond it (36th). With elite perimeter defense, the Tigers are forcing teams into inefficient shot selection. ShotQuality pegs Clemson in the 100th percentile in adjusted defensive shot quality rank so far this season. It’s fair to say that statistics are in love with Clemson’s defense just as much as I am.

They are not quite as elite on the offensive end and that is the worry moving forward. Aamir Sims (11.6 ppg) is the leading scorer so far, but it would be great to see sophomore Al-Amir Dawes (9.4 ppg) take a bigger offensive leap than he has shown to this point.

14. RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS (4-0)

Rutgers was a clear-cut preseason Top 25 team and has done nothing to date to dissuade that opinion. The Scarlet Knights boast an early 4-0 record with a solid win over Syracuse mixed in with some cupcakes. One major difference from last year to this one so far has been a change in tempo. Whether or not this trend will continue remains to be seen, but Rutgers is averaging 15.5 seconds per offensive possession this season compared to 17.4 seconds a year ago.

This appears to be having a positive impact on their offensive output while their defense has remained just as elite as it was a season ago. These offensive improvements are being made even with Geo Baker being sidelined for much of the first month due to injury. Once he rejoins the lineup, we might see Rutgers emerge as a legitimate two-way Top 15 team. Perhaps the Scarlet Knights can avoid the “road woes” that plagued them last year with an improved offense.

The upperclassmen trio of Ron Harper (22.3 ppg), Montez Mathis (16.3 ppg), and Jacob Young (16.0 ppg, 6.8 apg) has been leading the way so far. Freshman Clifford Omoruyi has also played well in the early going while sharing the big man duties with Myles Johnson. The latter currently holds the 14th-best block rate (13.2%) in all of college hoops.

13. Missouri Tigers (5-0)

Missouri has burst onto the scene in a hurry this season. Despite entering the campaign without high expectations, the Tigers are 5-0 and can already boast wins over Oregon, Wichita State, Liberty, and Illinois. This final victory not only earned them “Braggin’ Rights” but it also is the primary reason for their skyrocket into my Top 15. 

Missouri’s hot start is evidence that experience and continuity matters in college hoops. This is especially true in a season such as this one when teams had limited preseason practice and did not play exhibitions. The Tigers rank fifth in minutes continuity compared to last season and are ninth in experience (2.49 years). These two factors have gone a long way so far for Missouri and will continue to aid them as one of the top teams in the SEC.

The upperclassmen backcourt of Mark Smith (15.0 ppg), Dru Smith (14.4 ppg), and Xavier Pinson (14.2 ppg) has led the Tigers through the early portion of their schedule. Kobe Brown and Jeremiah Tilmon then hold down the frontcourt and are both rebounding at very high levels, particularly on the offensive end. The Tigers rank in the nation’s Top 100 in offensive rebounding rate (32.5%, 69th), FTA/FGA (38.3%, 83rd), and 2-point percentage (61.2%, 9th).

12. Illinois Fighting Illini (4-2)

Illinois is the only two-loss team in my Top 25 this week. Perhaps I am still overrating the Illini, but this is a team that I am exceptionally high on and their two losses to date have come against my No. 2 (Baylor) and No. 13 (Missouri) teams. They also hold a road win over Duke, which means plenty even with the Blue Devils sitting outside of my rankings at the moment. Illinois still belongs as one of the favorites in the Big Ten. I am not going to overreact to two hard-fought losses against quality opposition.

One of the reasons why I am still so optimistic about Illinois is their shooting ability. A lack of perimeter threats was a huge limiting factor for the Illini a season ago but that no longer appears to be the case. Not only are the Illini shooting 44.3% from deep so far (8th-best nationally), but they are getting contributors from multiple different threats. Trent Frazier (50%), Adam Miller (37.9%), Da’Monte Williams (62.5%), and Ayo Dosunmu (40.9%) have all made at least nine 3-pointers each so far this season (1.5 per game).

This level of spacing has allowed Dosunmu to truly explode as an All-American candidate this season. He is averaging 24.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game on ridiculous shooting splits of .535/.409/.800. Additionally, big man Kofi Cockburn has been given more space to operate underneath as he is scoring 14.0 points per game on 64.6% shooting.

Illinois, surprisingly, has more work to do defensively than it does offensively moving forward. I expect they will turn things around on that end and return to the Top 10 soon.

11. Creighton Bluejays (4-1)

Creighton has “met expectations” through the opening month of the year. The Bluejays have easily handled their business against lesser opponents and their lone loss came right down to the wire on the road against a Top 5 team in Kansas. The most important takeaway for Creighton so far has been an improvement on the defensive end. Even without Ty-Shon Alexander (who left for the NBA), they have made substantial strides.

The Bluejays are limiting opponents to just 41.6% shooting inside the arc (29th nationally) this season and that trend isn’t limited to just their wins over cupcakes. Even Kansas struggled to score inside against Creighton (16-for-44, 36.4% on 2PA). If this continues throughout the rest of the season, Creighton is going to be a dark-horse contender to win it all because their offense is still spectacular. 

Marcus Zegarowski is predictably at the forefront with averages of 15.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. He is then joined in double-figures by fellow upperclassmen Denzel Mahoney (15.0 ppg), Christian Bishop (13.6 ppg), and Damien Jefferson (10.8 ppg). Even freshman big man Ryan Kalkbrenner (9.2 ppg, 1.4 bpg) has been proving his worth early on both ends of the floor.

Creighton has started the season playing well despite struggles from Mitchell Ballock. The senior sharpshooter is still leading the team in minutes played but is just 9-for-30 from distance and is averaging 7.6 points per game. Once he returns to his normal form (11 ppg in both of the last two seasons), Creighton will reach another level.

10. Texas Longhorns (5-1)

I believe that Texas is for real. Even though the Longhorns suffered their first loss of the season during this past week, they once again looked like an excellent team while taking Villanova down to the wire before eventually falling. Through the opening month of the campaign, head coach Shaka Smart (and his tremendous new hair) are 5-1 with wins over Davidson, Indiana, and North Carolina. Although none of those teams cracked my rankings this week, there is no denying that they were and still are strong victories.

The Longhorns are flat-out defending at an elite level so far. Their defensive effective field goal percentage surrendered of just 40.2% ranks 11th in the entire nation and they are really slowing opponents down. Texas was even able to keep North Carolina, which has ranked in the Top 75 of tempo in all 17 years of the Roy Williams’ era, to just a 68-possession game. Although the Longhorns are not great at forcing turnovers, they are committing to contesting every shot.

Texas has been led offensively by the backcourt duo of Courtney Ramey (14.7 ppg) and Matt Coleman (14.5 ppg) while Andrew Jones has struggled a bit out of the gates. Underclassmen frontcourt weapons Greg Brown and Kai Jones have both wreaked havoc in their own separate ways as well as future NBA players. Brown’s athleticism has led to cracking several highlight tapes and leading the Longhorns with 1.2 blocks per game while Jones is finishing on 81.5% of his shot attempts thus far.

9. Tennessee Volunteers (2-0)

Tennessee took the court for the first time during this past week and promptly recorded high-major victories over Colorado and Cincinnati. I had extremely high hopes for the Volunteers in the preseason as a Top 10 team and they have lived up to those thus far. 

Most notably, their defense has been absolutely suffocating, surrendering just 103 total points across their first two games. Not only did the Buffaloes and the Bearcats struggle on their shot attempts, but they also turned the ball over on 29.5% of their possessions. If they thought they would be bailed out by getting to the free-throw line, the Vols also limited their fouls tremendously well. All in all, Tennessee’s defense more than looks the part of making them a Top 10 team. 

The offense, on the other hand, might still have some ways to go. The Volunteers currently rank 308th nationally in effective field goal percentage at 37.9%. Thankfully, they have gotten to the free-throw line with regularity and have been efficient on those attempts, but their halfcourt offense must improve. This needs to start at the top with leading scorer John Fulkerson. The senior forward shot a ridiculous 61.2% from the field last season and has scuffled to an 8-for-21 start so far this year.

Fulkerson is also the lone player to reach double-figures in both games. Frontcourt partner Yves Pons has similarly struggled while Josiah Jordan-James has been horribly inefficient. Santiago Vescovi and freshman Jaden Springer have been solid but need to be more aggressive.

8. Michigan State Spartans (6-0)

I know that I am a tad lower on Michigan State than perhaps the consensus right now. The fact is that the Spartans haven’t done all that much to really move the needle for me yet. I pegged this team as a preseason Top 10 squad and they have looked like just that. Head coach Tom Izzo’s team has handled its business against lower-level competition, has a solid win over Notre Dame, and beat Duke on the road. This ranking isn’t meant as a slight to MSU; I think they are a very good team with a rock-solid core.

Leading the way for this team has been the junior duo of Joey Hauser and Aaron Henry. Hauser, a transfer from Marquette, is leading the team in both scoring and rebounding while averaging a double-double of 13.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. Henry is similarly making multi-faceted contributions with all-around averages of 12.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 2.0 steals per contest. He has simply been fantastic. 

MSU’s other double-digit scorers have been Rocket Watts and Gabe Brown, while senior Joshua Langford has returned to provide experience and perimeter shooting to the lineup. With a talented group and an excellent coaching staff, the Spartans deserve to be among the favorites to win the Big Ten and belong in the Top 10.

7. Villanova Wildcats (5-1)

Villanova’s disappointing overtime loss to Virginia Tech hasn’t disappeared. Outside of that performance, though, the Wildcats have lived up to their preseason billing of being a Top 3 team. They already hold wins over four high-major opponents, including victories over Arizona State and nationally-ranked Texas. With exquisite ball-movement and insane depth of scoring talent, Villanova ranks among the nation’s best offenses and will continue to wreak havoc on defenses.

Senior leader Collin Gillespie is the orchestrator of this unit, averaging 15.2 points and 4.5 assists per game through six games. Gillespie has improved with each season in Philly and is looking to finish his career as an All-American (and two-time national champ). Joining him in the scoring ranks are sophomores Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore, as well as Tulane transfer guard Caleb Daniels. These four are likely to remain the driving offensive forces all season.

Head coach Jay Wright has stuck with an eight-man rotation so far and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Jermaine Samuels is the fifth starter, Cole Swider is the sniping sixth man, and Brandon Slater/Eric Dixon will compete for the remaining minutes. Getting Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree back from injury would help but he is still “ a long way away” from playing. Regardless, this team will put up points in a hurry as one of the Big East favorites.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes (6-0)

Iowa is making a believer out of me one game at a time. While I am still concerned about how their defense will hold up when consistently facing tough competition night-in-night-out, it’s very hard not to be sucked in by their offensive talent. The Hawkeyes simply have the best offense in the entire nation and very few defenses will be capable of slowing them down. They are 6-0 so far this season and are posting 100.5 points per game.

Even if you shut down NPOY frontrunner Luka Garza, other players can (and will) step up. North Carolina tried this tactic and held Garza to just 6-for-20 shooting, but also allowed Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, and CJ Fredrick to combine 64 points on 17-for-30 from three. If opponents choose to focus on locking down the perimeter, then Garza just dominates to the tune of 30+ efficient points. It’s a “pick your poison” situation.

This team spaces the floor incredibly well around Garza and features so many threats that can go off on any night. Wieskamp has taken a clear leap and Bohannon’s return adds an experience factor to the backcourt that was missing last season. And just like that…I’ve talked myself into the Iowa experience this season. 

5. West Virginia Mountaineers (6-1)

West Virginia has quietly played an extremely difficult schedule to open the year. While they might not boast any Top 25 wins, they have steadily faced quality competition without any cupcakes mixed in. Every single one of their seven opponents thus far is ranked in the KenPom Top 110 – that is not something many teams can say right now. Additionally, their lone loss to date came against my No. 1 team (Gonzaga) and they played them tight throughout.

The Mountaineers’ success is founded on its defense. They ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency last year and should continue to dominate on that end due to tremendous minutes continuity. Many of the key defenders from last season are still on the roster and Coach Huggins will prioritize that end of the floor. Their defense has shown some weaknesses early on this year but I expect that they will be able to sort those out and return to an elite level in due time.

Additionally, their offense has looked substantially improved so far this year. Even though sophomore big Oscar Tshiebwe has noticeably struggled, four other Mountaineers have stepped up as double-digit scorers. Upperclassmen Derek Culver (13.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Taz Sherman (12.4 ppg), and Sean McNeil (11.1 ppg) have all been solid while sophomore Miles McBride has taken the big leap that many expected from him. He is averaging 14.6 points and 4.6 assists per game as one of the guiding offensive forces in Morgantown. 

If the defense returns to being in the Top 5 nationally and their offensive improvements are to be believed, then the Mountaineers will be a national title contender.

4. Kansas Jayhawks (6-1)

Kansas, just like West Virginia, is a one-loss team that suffered its lone defeat at the hands of my No. 1 team (Gonzaga). That came on the second day of the season and the Jayhawks have responded by winning their last six games. While a few weaker opponents were mixed into that schedule, head coach Bill Self’s squad has knocked off Kentucky and Creighton en route to reaching 6-1 prior to Big 12 play tipping off this week.

Without Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, some former role players have had to step into much bigger shoes this season. Yet, this is Kansas we are talking about. Coach Self and Co. seem to always have someone waiting in the wings to lead the roster and that has been the case once again in 2020-21. Most notably, redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson and sophomore Christian Braun have taken big leaps into averaging double-figures per game this season.

Additionally, proven upperclassmen Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, and David McCormack are filling significant roles as well. With these five guiding the way, Kansas has plenty of top-line performers that will keep them in the national title conversation. Watch for when freshman guard Bryce Thompson gets more collegiate experience under his belt as well; he should only improve as the year wears on.

3. Houston Cougars (4-0)

I once had Houston ranked as high as No. 7 in my preseason Top 25 and I am still in love with this team’s potential. Even though the Cougars lost Nate Hinton and Fabian White (injury) from a Top 15 team last year, they still returned a ton of talent. This is particularly true in the backcourt and that group of Quintin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, Caleb Mills, and Dejon Jarreau has lived up to the hype so far. Add in a freshman stud in Tramon Mark and Houston owns perhaps the best backcourt in all of college hoops. 

The Cougars are admittedly forced to play small-ball at all times and that might come back to haunt them against bigger teams, but they are so darn good at sticking to their style. Head coach Kelvin Sampson and Co. have embraced the small-ball mentality and really get after it on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Houston is shutting down the perimeter by surrendering just 18.8% shooting from deep (5th-best nationally) on the 64th-lowest 3PAr allowed. Their perimeter defense is also forcing turnovers on 25.8% of possessions (20th nationally).

In the paint, small-ball forwards Justin Gorham and Brison Gresham are protecting the rim on one end and securing second-chance opportunities on the other. They are combining for 2.3 blocks and 5.8 offensive rebounds per game as the main contributors to Houston’s 15.8% team block-rate (12th-best nationally) and 39.6% offensive rebounding rate (7th nationally).

Houston sits at 4-0 so far with three quality wins over Boise State, South Carolina, and nationally-ranked Texas Tech. Putting them at No. 3 might be a bit high compared to consensus, but I am a big believer in the Cougars.

2. Baylor Bears (4-0)

Baylor entered this season as my No. 2 team and they have lived up to that billing. The Bears are 4-0 so far with a convincely excellent victory over Illinois already on their resume. Unsurprisingly, head coach Scott Drew’s team has looked excellent on both ends of the floor with Top 10 ratings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They are forcing turnovers (27.1%, 13th nationally), offensively rebounding at an elite level (41.8%, 4th), and converting on an absurd clip from 3-point range (46.8%, 3rd).

The Bears were a Top 5 team throughout last season and rank 41st nationally in minutes continuity as well. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that returning stars Jared Butler (15.3 points, 4.8 assists), MaCio Teague (14.0 points), and Davion Mitchell (12.5 points, 6.8 assists) are among the team’s leaders this season once again. Upperclassmen forwards Mark Vital and Matthew Mayer are reprising solid roles with the former starting and the latter filling reserve minutes.

Baylor’s newcomers, though, are perhaps what tip them over the edge and into the category of being national title favorites alongside Gonzaga. Presbyterian transfer Adam Flager, most notably, has immediately filled the sixth man role admirably after sitting out last season. The elite sniper is averaging 15.3 points per game off the bench on simply insane shooting splits: 69.2% on 2s, 48.0% from three, 87.5% at the free-throw line. 

Then, add in UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (10.0 points, 7.8 rebounds) and freshman LJ Cryer (7.7 points) as other new faces. With their elite returning core and superb newcomers, it’s easy to see why Baylor has such high aspirations this year.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (3-0)

Living up to sky-high expectations can be extremely difficult. Yet, Gonzaga has 100% looked the part of being the nation’s top team since first taking the court last month. And while the Bulldogs have only played three games thus far, they have more than proven that they belong at the top. They already hold wins over two of my Top 5 teams in Kansas and West Virginia, while also taking down another high-major opponent in Auburn. KenPom lists their early-season strength-of-schedule as the fourth-toughest in America.

Unsurprisingly, Gonzaga ranks among the fastest teams in the nation (14.4 seconds per offensive possession, 15th-quickest) while deploying their top-level offensive unit (2nd in AdjO).  Gonzaga’s offense is simply a relentless attack featuring high-level scorers all over the roster. Five players are averaging in double-figures thus far, including two 20+ point scorers in Corey Kispert and Drew Timme. 

While the Bulldogs have struggled from beyond the arc (29.1% from three), they are dominating the paint. Gonzaga ranks tops in the nation in near-proximity shot attempt rate as they are consistently creating easy looks. They are also hitting 2-point jumpers at an impressive clip (6th in mid-range efficiency against the “average opponent”).

Gonzaga will be the nation’s top team until someone proves otherwise.


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.



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