The 2020-21 college basketball season is just days away and, while there are still plenty of scheduling questions for many teams across the country, we know who the nation’s best teams are expected to be once games do get underway.
An elite tier of three teams – Baylor, Gonzaga, and Villanova – has emerged and appear to be a step ahead of everyone else, but there are at least 10 other teams with the talent to either knock them off or enter that tier themselves.
So, which teams look like the favorites as the regular season gets ready to tip off? Here is the final look at my preseason top 25:
25) Texas Longhorns
I am not buying into preseason Texas hype. It’s become an annual tradition under Shaka Smart and every year produces the same mediocre results. That said, the Longhorns literally bring back everyone, added a five-star recruit in Greg Brown, and showed flashes of promise in their hot close to the season. I really like Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones in the backcourt, and I think Kai Jones could be a real breakout big man for Texas. I think they have a high floor because of that experience, and that warrants a spot in the top 25. Now they just have to prove it on the court.
24) UCLA Bruins
I do think there is going to be a little bit of regression by UCLA this year. In other words, I don’t think we’ll see them repeat its 11-3 run to close the season. But that doesn’t mean the Bruins won’t be a solid, dependable team (in typical Mick Cronin fashion). Tyger Campbell and Chris Smith emerged as stars during that run, and their defense improved dramatically. Those things will carry over to the new season, but I don’t think they’ll get the consistent production from role players they enjoyed.
23) Oregon Ducks
I don’t think Payton Pritchard got anywhere near the amount of National Player of the Year love he deserved, and it’s going to be extremely difficult for the Ducks to replace him (as it would be for any program). But that doesn’t mean Oregon doesn’t have a solid core returning. Chris Duarte and Will Richardson are back in the backcourt with former five-star recruit N’Faly Dante — who is talented enough to be the Pac-12’s best player — up front.
22) Florida State Seminoles
It’s going to be really hard for Florida State to replace Trent Forrest, Patrick Williams, and Devin Vassell, but Leonard Hamilton has earned enough respect that the Seminoles belong in the preseason top 25 no matter what. MJ Walker leads a deep returning group, though five-star freshman Scottie Barnes will likely come in and be FSU’s go-to guy right from the jump.
21) North Carolina Tar Heels
There’s no denying that last season was a lost one in Chapel Hill. Even though Cole Anthony is gone, there’s hope for UNC thanks to the nation’s No. 2 overall recruiting class. Point guard Caleb Love has all the makings of a star (I’m picking him to win ACC Player of the Year), and five-star big men Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler will form an elite frontline rotation with Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. The Heels should dominate the glass with them, but there are still plenty of question marks given their youth and the fact they, well, flat-out stunk last year. I’m hesitant to put a lot of preseason faith in them for those reasons even though they have top 10 talent.
20) Ohio State Buckeyes
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to expect from Ohio State. Losing Kaleb and Andre Wesson will really hurt them, as will the transfers of guards DJ Carton (who I think will blossom into a star at Marquette) and Luther Muhammad. But, the Buckeyes to return some solid players in Duane Washington, CJ Walker, and Kyle Young. Harvard grad transfer Seth Towns will be a big factor when healthy, too, though that’s no guarantee. His health, along with the depth outside these four, are big question marks for Chris Holtmann’s squad.
19) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
I completely and wholeheartedly believe everyone is underselling the Yellow Jackets coming into the new season. They finished 5th in the ACC a year ago and return everyone other than big man James Banks. That’s a big loss from a shot-blocking perspective, but Moses Wright has proven he can fill that role (seven-foot freshman Saba Gigiberia will help as well). Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe form one of the better backcourts in the country and should steady what as an uneven offense. A full season with Jordan Usher should help in that area, too. With a rotation that will be almost entirely full of juniors and seniors, this is the time for Georgia Tech’s breakthrough under Josh Pastner.
18) Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Scarlet Knights are essentially running it back with a group that would’ve ended a 30-year NCAA Tournament drought before it was canceled. Jacob Young, Geo Baker, and Ron Harper Jr. are as good of a perimeter trio as you will find in the Big Ten, and Steve Pikiell’s squad got a huge boost up front when top 50 center Cliff Omoruyi committed. Rugters’ biggest pitfall in 2019-20 was their inability to win away from home, but they will go from being a young team (242nd in experience last year) to one of the nation’s most experienced ones, and experienced teams tend to perform better on the road. With this core, Rutgers should make the Big Dance with ease and could also be looking at a potential Sweet 16 berth. Pikiell’s team certainly belong in the top 20.
17) Houston Cougars
Houston would’ve been a top 10 team prior to Nate Hinton’s decision to stay in the draft and Fabian White’s torn ACL but, even without them, it is still a worthy top 20 team. Four of the top six scorers will be back from a team that went 23-8 and was really good on both ends of the floor. The Cougars are a guard-heavy team with some question marks in the middle, but their guards are good. Don’t be surprised if Caleb Mills becomes a national star by March.
16) Arizona State Sun Devils
We don’t give Bobby Hurley enough credit for the job he has done in Tempe, and it looks like he may have his best team in 2020-21. Star guards Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge are back, and they will be joined by talented freshmen Marcus Bagley (No. 27 nationally) and Joshua Christopher (No. 10). The Sun Devils also have quality depth, but they don’t have a ton of size following Romello White’s surprising decision to transfer to Ole Miss. They’re going to have to play small — really small at times — but if they can rebound at an effective rate, I like this group as a sleeper Final Four team.
15) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Chris Beard still has a solid roster returning to Lubbock despite the losses of last year’s two leading scorers in Jahmi’us Ramsey and Davide Moretti. Moretti’s departure means Kyler Edwards will move over to his more natural position of point guard and five-star wing Nimari Burnett — the highest-ranked commit in Texas Tech history — will have an even bigger role. There is still plenty of talent on this roster for them to compete in a loaded Big 12, especially with Georgetown transfer Mac McClung being immediately eligible. If this group comes together quickly, they might be able to compete with Baylor and Kansas at the top of the conference.
14) Creighton Bluejays
Preseason Big East Player of the Year Marcus Zegarowski leads the most hyped Creighton team since Doug McDermott. He emerged as a star surrounded by a plethora of great shooters last year and most of that group is back. If the Bluejays can be respectable defensively again (78th nationally last year), their offense should be good enough to carry them (3rd in AdjO) and potentially challenge Villanova for the Big East title.
13) Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin — somewhat surprisingly — won a share of the Big Ten regular season title after closing the year on an eight-game win streak and returns everyone but Brevin Pritzl from that group. The turnaround really started once Micah Potter became eligible midseason, and the combination of he and Nate Reuvers gives the Badgers one of the best big man duos in the country. However, it’s worth remembering that Wisconsin was only 13-10 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten before that streak when they got absurdly hot from long range. So, while not a top 10 team, their experience and talent warrants a spot in the top 15.
12) Kentucky Wildcats
Yes, Kentucky is going to be uber-talented again given the number of elite prospects that will step foot on campus whenever they’re able. But John Calipari’s best teams have always had some sort of veteran experience (often returning sophomores) and this team doesn’t. Keion Brooks is the only rotation piece returning, meaning their six freshmen will all be relied on in a significant way. Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr gives them a boost, though not one that erases the amount of questions.
11) Iowa Hawkeyes
Garza almost singlehandedly carried the Hawkeyes to a 20-11 record despite losing Jordan Bohannon early in the season, and both he and Bohannon return for the Hawkeyes. Joe Wieskamp is one of the country’s more underrated wings and both CJ Fredrick and Joe Toussaint should improve going into their sophomore seasons. We know Iowa will be great offensively again after ranking 5th nationally in AdjO in 2019-20 because of its returning talent on that end. On the flip side, that returning talent is not great defensively, and the offense isn’t good enough to completely overcome a lackluster defense (especially with its relatively average 3-point shooting).
10) West Virginia Mountaineers
I am really excited to see what this West Virginia team will do. It returns virtually everyone from a team that finished in the KenPom top 10, and I’m expecting guard Miles McBride to become a superstar in his sophomore season, giving them some much-needed perimeter punch. If that happens, along with sustained health from big men Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, the Mountaineers could be looking at a potential Final Four berth given their depth and defense.
9) Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State and Kansas are in very similar positions. The Spartans have to replace an all-time player in Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman with a solid core that will have to take a collective step forward. Joshua Langford’s expected return would be a huge boost, but we don’t know what he’ll look like after missing a year and a half with a foot injury. Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, and Aaron Henry will all have to step up either way. That goes for Marquette transfer Joey Hauser, too, because — while talented — he’ll need to play a bigger role for the Spartans than he did for the Golden Eagles. This is a top 10 team, yet the number of question marks keep them at No. 9.
8) Tennessee Volunteers
While last season was weird for everyone given the way it ended, it was especially weird for Tennessee. The Vols were ranked in the top 25 when starting point guard Lamonte Turner was lost for the season in December and struggled thereafter. However, with defensive specialist Yves Pons returning, the Vols will have a solid returning core with him, Santiago Vescovi, John Fulkerson, and former five-star prospect Josiah-Jordan James. The backcourt will be held down by a pair of highly-regarded freshmen in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, giving Rick Barnes a plethora of high-end talent to work with.
7) Duke Blue Devils
Yes, the Blue Devils experienced their annual loss to key players to the NBA (Vernon Carey Jr., Tre Jones, Cassius Stanley) and transfer portal (Alex O’Connell), but they’re also getting their usual influx of talent, too. The nation’s No. 3 recruiting class consists of six top-50 freshmen headlined by Jeremy Roach, DJ Steward, and Jalen Johnson, all of whom are expected to start. Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt are returning for their sophomore seasons and will be relied upon to give this young team some relative experience, as will Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape.
6) Kansas Jayhawks
Expectations in Lawrence remain high following the losses of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike because a) that’s the way it is at Kansas and, b) the Jayhawks have a solid returning core. Everyone will be expected to take on larger roles, but we know Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, and David McCormack are good basketball players. With five-star guard Bryce Thompson entering the fold, we should expect Kansas to remain among the nation’s best teams.
5) Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini leaped from NCAA Tournament hopeful to a top five team once Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both opted to return to Illinois. Dosunmu is a preseason All-American and Cockburn is an all-conference caliber performer, both of which are always nice to have. With them back in the fold, Brad Underwood’s squad returns four starters from last season’s 20-win team while bringing in a heralded recruiting class, headlined by top 50 players Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. There are questions about their shooting but, if they just become an average three-point shooting team, the sky is the limit for the Illini.
4) Virginia Cavaliers
Remember when Virginia was 12-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC on January 20, and it looked like they might not make the NCAA Tournament? They closed winning 11 of their last 12 games thanks to some newfound offense provided by Tomas Woldetensae. He, Kihei Clark, and Jay Huff will serve as the returning core, but the main reason for excitement in Charlottesville is Sam Hauser. The Marquette transfer averaged 14.9 points per game in his last season for the Golden Eagles and will be featured right away for UVA. Casey Morsell appears to be in line for a breakout season as well. It won’t be easy to replace Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key, but it’s foolish to doubt Tony Bennett – especially when he has as much talent as ever.
3) Baylor Bears
The Bears spent most of the past season ranked No. 1 before stumbling down the stretch. While we’ll never know if they would’ve been able to return to form in time for an NCAA Tournament run, everyone except for big man Freddie Gillespie is back. They will have to fill the hole Gillespie held in the middle, but the Bears have high hopes for what Flo Thamba can do in 2020-21. Baylor is looking to break through their own glass ceiling and make their first-ever Final Four.
2) Villanova Wildcats
Villanova is only losing Saddiq Bey from a team that won a share of the Big East for the sixth time in the last seven years. Questions remain about their lack of size — though the return of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl certainly helps — but Jay Wright has shown us that his small-ball approach really works. They are the class of the Big East and will prove so again.
1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Even though Villanova and Baylor are in the country’s elite tier with the Bulldogs, I believe Gonzaga is clearly the best team in the nation. Mark Few’s squad returns the core of last year’s No. 2-ranked team, headlined by All-American candidates Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert, and Drew Timme. Throw in the arrival the nation’s No. 11 recruiting class, headlined by five-star guard Jalen Suggs, and Gonzaga has a potential juggernaut on their hands. This looks like it could be the year the Zags finally get their first national championship.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.