From Gonzaga’s work-in-progress defense to Miami’s made-for-March roster, what are the cases for and against every team in the Heat Check CBB Top 25 as national title contenders?
The college basketball season is finally upon us, and it’s time to let the play do the talking for each of D1’s 363 teams. Heat Check CBB, along with every other media outlet, released their preseason Top 25 with over two dozen teams aiming to compete not only for conference titles, but also to cut down the nets in April.
Let’s take a look at the reason why each team can attain that goal, and the reason why their seasons could end sooner than they would hope.
25. Indiana Hoosiers
Why they will win it all: The Hoosiers are one of the most complete teams from a perspective of continuity and incoming freshmen. Tracy Jackson-Davis has emerged as perhaps the best pick-and-roll big in the country, and the team has one of the best at-rim defenses.
Why they won’t: We already know what we are going to get from players like Jackson-Davis, Race Thompson, and Xavier Johnson. The pressure on Trey Galloway to show marked improvement and Jalen Hood-Schifino to immediately deliver as a top freshman may prove too great for Indiana to take the leap into contention status.
24. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Why they will win it all: The Hurricanes may not have the most inspiring roster for belief in their consistent production, but they do have one of the best offensive backcourts in the country. Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack can flat-out score, and in a six-game stretch, that may be enough to win.
Why they won’t: As much we all like Norchad Ormier as an immediate contributor at the ACC level, he is an undersized 4, which may limit the ceiling of the Hurricane frontcourt. While the team was able to rely on depth in the backcourt for production last year, this depth has been depleted a bit, and relying on an unproven ACC big man could work against them.
23. Florida Gators
Why they will win it all: The addition of Todd Golden would only work if he was able to put together a roster that could fit his system. He has done just that, and Florida has been steadily rising up preseason rankings as a result. Add in the fact that the Gators bring back one of the most underrated big men in the country in Colin Castleton, and it would not be a surprise to see a Tommy Lloyd-esque breakout in Year 1.
Why they won’t: The chances that a coach, who has just one NCAA Tournament game on his resume and a brand-new group of players that need to learn his system, can win six in a row in March is slim. Additionally, the roster talent might not match some of the SEC’s heavy hitters, making national title odds a bit of a long shot in the Sunshine State.
22. UConn Huskies
Why they will win it all: This team has the roster makeup to be one of the country’s best defenses. With tremendous length on the wings and Adam Sanogo in the middle, this Huskies team could make life miserable for opposing offenses every single night.
Why they won’t: Simply put, this team may not have the shot-making prowess necessary to compete with the nation’s top offenses. Andre Jackson and Nahiem Alleyne are the only players who shot over 35 percent from deep last year and neither eclipsed 38 percent. It was always going to be tough to replace Tyrese Martin and Tyler Polley, but failing to do so severely limits the Huskies’ ceiling.
21. Virginia Caveliers
Why they will win it all: Last year was the first time a Tony Bennett-coached defense fell outside the top 40 in efficiency since 2011, and it’s unlikely to happen again. It’s been two seasons since Virginia’s famous pack-line defense ranked top 10 nationally, but with a ton of returning talent and another full offseason to buy in, it would be a shock if Virginia’s defense doesn’t return to its usual dominance.
Why they will not: Offense has always been an inconsistent affair at Virginia, and there isn’t much reason to believe that will change this season. Not a single Cavalier eclipsed 35 percent from deep last season, and Virginia will need its guards to step up in that area. The talent is there, but if Virginia’s season falls apart, the offense will be the likely culprit.
20. Dayton Flyers
Why they will win it all: Dayton finished last season playing like an NCAA Tournament team. With one of the youngest rosters in the county, the Flyers encountered the typical struggles similar teams face early in the year. This year, however, the team has the experience, shooting prowess and star power not only to impress in A10 play, but also to do well against high-major competition.
Why they won’t: There are a lot of issues that were prevalent last season that need to be cleaned up for the Flyers to realize their ceiling. Free throw shooting and turnovers are the two most glaring pitfalls that could ground the team, especially if the average tempo remains slow. If those issues resurface, there might not be enough possessions in a game to overcome those mistakes.
19. Illinois Fighting Illini
Why they will win it all: Illinois has an excellent “position-less” lineup this season, and it will all be led by 5-star freshman point guard Skyy Clark. This gives the team a versatility it didn’t possess with Kofi Cockburn at center, where teams moved the big man around and forced him off the floor at times. The spacing that Terrence Shannon and Matthew Mayer bring should dramatically improve Illinois’ consistent scoring output.
Why they won’t: Winning in the March might not require a mammoth in the middle, but winning in the Big Ten certainly does. Losing Kofi Cockburn, while it might enable the Illini to show more defensive looks, certainly creates a disadvantage when Illinois battles Hunter Dickinson, Zach Edey, Trayce Jackson-Davis and others in conference play. This could end up hurting the Illini more in seeding than it will in actual prospects for March, but if they were to drop to the 7- through-10-seed range, they might not have the guard play to compete with teams like Baylor, Houston or North Carolina on the back end of a two-game stretch.
18. Auburn Tigers
Why they will win it all: In Bruce Pearl we trust. While it is easy to write off the Tigers after losing what was one of the best frontcourts in the country, this team still has plenty of talent on the roster. Johni Broome and Yohan Traore project to be a poor-man’s version of last year’s duo of Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, and Pearl will certainly draw up a scheme to take advantage of this team’s strengths, like he has so many times in the past.
Why they won’t: Wendell Green and KD Johnson are a roller coaster duo in the backcourt. One game they could put up 35 combined points on a Tennessee-caliber defense, the next they could go 0-of-15 from the field or make a careless decision late in a tight game. You never quite know what you will get from the two guards, and the team no longer has the elite frontcourt to make up for these deficiencies.
17. Arizona Wildcats
Why they will win it all: Tommy Lloyd exploded as a first-year head coach last season, and part of this success was the offensive approach he brought with him from Gonzaga. This Arizona team likes to play extremely fast, and as a result they tended to exhaust their opponents, leading to late surges that earned wins last season. This team is still set up to play at that speed, and we have seen teams get hit with 10-point runs that are difficult to overcome.
Why they won’t: Azuolas Tubeless might be the only player with a guaranteed high floor on this team. Oumar Ballo showed flashes while backing up Christian Koloko last season and Kerr Kriisa was incredibly up and down. Outside of those three, there are a lot of unknowns on this roster, even though it would be nice to guarantee a breakout from Pelle Larsson and instant impact from Courtney Ramey. Even then, there is no indication of who the closer will be for the team after Bennedict Mathurin filled the role last year. Dalen Terry, who was expected to take up the torch, also entered the draft.
16. Texas Longhorns
Why they will win it all: There is too much talent on this Longhorns team not to believe that Texas is officially back. Timmy Allen, Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter are an elite trio, and they are joined by two five-star freshmen in Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris. Add in Chris Beard’s track record of getting the most out of his talent (yes, Texas struggled early last year but they figured it out late), and the Longhorns could be in a wide-open race for the Big 12 title and a national championship.
Why they won’t: Whenever you put two ball-dominant guards on the same roster, one of them usually has to give up usage in order to make the chemistry work. With Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter, the decision about who will be the team’s primary point guard in key moments is an important one. Sure, they could play off each other, but if they aren’t able to or either player takes exception to his role, it could be a rough season for Texas.
15. Villanova Wildcats
Why they will win it all: This is the same Villanova team. Jay Wright has stepped away and his long time assistant Kyle Neptune is now the head coach, but a lot of these players were on the very team that went to the Final Four last season. Cam Whitmore is also joining the team after a productive summer where he made many fans believe he could be the best freshman in the country. If he can deliver on that hype after his return from injury, this team will be dangerous, especially when Justin Moore returns.
Why they won’t: Yes, the Wildcats are already experiencing the injury bug, even when you don’t include Moore’s NCAA Tournament injury. If Whitmore and Moore are hindered at all in their recovery process, the Wildcats might not have the depth or the top-end talent to compete for a Big East title, let alone a national championship. This is an “all hands on deck” situation, and the team does not currently have all hands on deck.
14. TCU Horned Frogs
Why they will win it all: The Horned Frogs should have won their game against Arizona last year, and if it happened, we may be talking about a top-10 preseason ranking. Mike Miles is not only the best point guard in the Big 12, he will likely compete with guys like Tyger Campbell and Kendric Davis for the title of best point guard in the country.
Why they won’t: This team’s 3-point shooting is atrocious. Jamie Dixon needed to add shooting to this roster after it shot 30.2 percent from deep last season and lost Francisco Farabello, but the only key addition is 28-percent shooter Rondel Walker. With Chuck O’Bannon representing the only player on the current roster who shot over 30 percent from deep last season, the Horned Frogs will need some serious positive regression if they aim to be more than a tough regular-season team.
13. San Diego State Aztecs
Why they will win it all: The Aztecs have the ceiling of being the best defense in the country, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Nathan Mensah is an elite rim protector, Lamont Butler was one of the peskiest perimeter players in the country last season, and transfer point guard Darrion Trammell has been an elite defender at every stop he has made in his basketball journey. SDSU will be one of the longest teams fans will see this season, and the Aztecs now have offensive weapons to back up their defensive prowess.
Why they won’t: This team frequently plays at a snail’s pace, and it allows teams to set up their half-court defenses on a regular basis. Last season, the Aztecs’ 46.7 percent shooting mark from 2-point range ranked 297th in the country. While Trammell and Micah Parrish can be excellent perimeter options, Jaedon LeDee will need to deliver on his interior scoring promise. Otherwise, teams will work to run San Diego State off the line and force mid-range shots that fueled so many of their offensive droughts.
12. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why they will win it all: Nate Oats’ system relies heavily on players, specifically guards, who can make plays at the rim and hit shots from deep. This year he should have two guys who can do just that with Mark Sears and Jahvon Quinerly providing a formidable two-man backcourt. Add Nimari Burnett and 5-star Brandon Miller on the wings, and scoring should be a pretty routine activity this season for the Tide.
Why they won’t: Last year’s defensive performance for Alabama was a far cry from the top-10 defense the program put together in 2020-21, and offseason improvements might not be enough. Sure, Charles Bediako is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, but the relative lack of length in the backcourt and reliance on new players entering the system could limit how the team’s effectiveness on that end of the floor.
11. Tennessee Volunteers
Why they will win it all: Tennessee is consistently one of the best defensive teams in the country, generating steals without yielding many open shots. With a team of mostly returning players, the Volunteers shouldn’t experience any growing pains on that end of the floor, especially with Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi poised to average nearly two steals again this season. If the offense can find some consistency, Tennessee could go the distance.
Why they won’t: It seems like every season starts with promises of consistent offensive output from Rick Barnes’ squad, and every season there are stretches where the Volunteers struggle to score. This team has a lot of offensive promise, but just one cold streak in March could be all she wrote, especially in later rounds.
10. Creighton Bluejays
Why they will win it all: Last year, the young Creighton players showed flashes that made fans believe they would be stars moving forward. This year, the team will not only have Ryan Nembhard back and another year of experience, but they also add one of the best mid-major transfers on the market in Baylor Scheierman. If the nucleus can remain consistent throughout the season, Creighton’s near-upset of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament might be the team’s floor.
Why they won’t: The nation is expecting a massive improvement across the board for a team that loses its two best shooters after finishing just inside the KenPom top 50. Most of these expectations are based on projecting freshman-to-sophomore leaps, but what if these leaps end up being smaller steps? Everyone has an opinion on which Creighton team will show up this season, but it’s time for the team to deliver.
9. UCLA Bruins
Why they will win it all: Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell are two of the best players in the country, and their impact cannot be understated. Jaquez, an early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year, is built in a “dirty-work, glue-guy” mold but also has the talent to put up 25 points against any defense. Campbell, meanwhile, is one of the best playmakers in college basketball. If these two can stay healthy and maintain their efficiency, Mick Cronin will only need five other players to step into their roles and deliver as tertiary options.
Why they won’t: The Bruins need to prove that Jaquez, or someone else, can be the type of key-moment weapon that Johnny Juzang was for UCLA the past two seasons. Jacquez, while excellent at basically every aspect of the game, was more of a game-flow scorer than one who breaks down opposing defenders in critical moments. Part of that may be due to a lingering lower-body injury that plagued the wing for most of the 2021-22 season, but he will need to prove himself again before UCLA is a contender.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Why they will win it all: Eric Musselman has been on the precipice of the Final Four for two straight years, and he might have his best roster ever this year. At the top of the list is freshman combo guard Nick Smith, who might legitimately be the most dangerous offensive weapon Musselman has ever had as a head coach. Given last year’s inefficiencies, if Musselman can get his new roster to buy in on the defensive end, there is no telling how this season may unfold.
Why they won’t: Part of what makes Eric Musselman’s teams at Arkansas work well is a tradition of hard-working transfers looking to prove they belong at the top level. How, then, will he adjust to having heavily recruited freshmen, intent on proving their worth for the NBA Draft? Like many other defensive-minded coaches, Musselman will need to strike a balance for his top freshmen to buy in, instead of falling apart.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
Why they will win it all: Despite some rumblings about Bill Self’s future, which turned into a four-game suspension, the two-time AP Coach of the Year will still be at the helm for the Jayhawks this season. There is a lot of roster turnover, with Kansas losing most of the key pieces from last season’s title run. But if any coach can figure out how to create a second straight title out of a top-tier freshmen class, it is Self.
Why they won’t: Kansas is one of the few teams still known for utilizing a traditional big man at the center spot, and there are plenty of questions around their talent and depth at that position this season. Ernest Udeh is the only player on the roster who appears to be built to fill in for the departed David McCormack, but like many freshman bigs, his impact will be determined by his ability to adjust to the game’s speed and physicality without getting into foul trouble.
6. Duke Blue Devils
Why they will win it all: With four 5-star recruits and six top-100 talents, Duke has the strongest recruiting class in the country. Coach K isn’t at the helm in Durham anymore, but first-year head coach Jon Scheyer, has put together a roster that shouldn’t skip a beat in terms of its ceiling. If these pieces all blend together seamlessly, this Duke team might establish itself as the favorite heading into Marc
Why they won’t: If the pieces don’t fit, however, the Blue Devils could be in for a disappointing year. This all falls on the shoulders of Scheyer and veteran guard Jeremy Roach. While Roach was tabbed as an All-ACC player in the preseason poll, his on-the-court value to the Blue Devils is likely more subtle than that. He will be the team’s point guard, and while he showed flashes last season, he needs sustained success and involve the other players on the floor appropriately.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Why they will win it all: The formula is simple: a National Player of the Year returns to a team that earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Not only did Oscar Tshiebwe make the decision to come back, but so did Sahvir Wheeler, who has been one of the best distributors in the country. The team has talent up and down, and will be looking to erase the Saint Peter’s loss from everyone’s minds.
Why they won’t: Outside of Wheeler and Tshiebwe, there is a lot of roster uncertainty. The biggest question facing the team is whether the offseason additions are enough to lift the team’s 3-point shooting above the 36-percent mark generally associated with national championship contenders. Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick are the only players to eclipse that mark at a substantial volume, but they are likely to be coming off the bench. Someone in the starting lineup will need to catch fire for Kentucky to find its ceiling.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Why they will win it all: There is a pretty solid chance that Drew Timme and Rasir Bolton become the best inside-outside scoring duo in the country. Drew Timme is one of the top contenders due to his automatic low-post scoring, and Bolton quietly put together Gonzaga’s most efficient season from deep in years.
Why they won’t: The defense is a work in progress, and the exhibition game against Tennessee exposed that to the nation. The issue with works in progress is that sometimes they never actually reach their potential. Chet Holmgren won’t be around to clean up poorly defended drives, and if the backcourt defense doesn’t improve, the Zags will likely lose more than a few high-scoring games.
3. Baylor Bears
Why they will win it all: If not for the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament, Baylor would be poised to earn its fourth consecutive 1-seed. The Bears have talent and depth at every position, but the difference-maker is likely to be freshman Keyonte George. The 6-5 wing should help elevate the team’s offense while maintaining the high-caliber defense we have come to expect.
Why they won’t: It looks like Scott Drew has gone about filling in his team’s 4 spot by trying to recreate the magic he found in Mark Vital during the 2021 title run. Both Jalen Bridges and Caleb Lohner are tough defenders and rebounders on the interior with the athleticism to take a defender to the perimeter. However, they both have been relatively low-impact players on mediocre teams at their previous stops.
2. Houston Cougars
Why they will win it all: College basketball is a guard’s game, and Houston has what appears to be the best group of guards in the country. Not only is Marcus Sasser a preseason First Team All-American, but Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark would also be instant starters only nearly every team in the country. This group will make life miserable for opponents on both ends of the floor.
Why they won’t: Lack of frontcourt explosiveness has never been a huge issue for Houston, which has been one of the best rebounding teams in the country with consistent depth. But this year’s unit might have more question marks than those of the past few years. Freshman Jarace Walker and role players Reggie Chaney and J’Wan Roberts have a huge task filling in for the losses of Fabian White and Josh Carlton.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels
Why they will win it all: This is perhaps the greatest combination of talent and experience in the country, and it might not be all that close. Add in the most Final Four experience of any team, and it’s a formula made for title contention. The highs are going to be extremely high, and the lows should not be as detrimental as last season.
Why they won’t: There might not be any backcourt with a greater range of outcomes than the Tar Heels with Caleb Love and RJ Davis. In a sport where one loss in March ends the team’s season, Love and Davis’ potential inconsistency could be what sinks the ship. The near-collapse against Baylor and actual collapse against Kansas are proof.