Brian Rauf analyzes the only six teams capable of winning the 2022 college basketball national title.
The first Rauf Report of the 2021-22 college basketball season was about the sport’s unpredictability and the inevitability of breakout teams. These are what make the sport — particularly, the NCAA Tournament — so incredibly exciting.
At the top, however, things tend to go slightly more according to plan. Eight of the last 10 national champions began the season ranked in the top 11 of the preseason AP poll, with the 2011 and 2014 UConn teams being the lone exceptions. If you count the lost 2019-20 season, nine of the last 11 teams to finish No. 1 were ranked in the preseason top 11 (Kansas finished No. 1 after the NCAA Tournament was canceled after starting the season at No. 3).
There are always those that fall short (hello, preseason top-10 Wisconsin, Duke and Kentucky last season) but, in short, we generally have an idea which teams will be elite.
That brings us to this assessment: Each Selection Sunday since 2017, I have written an article detailing the only handful of teams that I believe could win the NCAA Tournament. So far, I’m batting 1.000 — every national champion has come from that list (2019 Texas Tech almost got me, though).
This time, we’re taking a crack at things before the season starts.
I believe there are six teams that are in a tier by themselves in this regard and, ultimately, one of them will be cutting down the nets in New Orleans in April.
Keep in mind – this is not a list of teams I think can make a Final Four or can make a long run once the NCAA Tournament rolls around. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised (or might even expect) only two or three of these teams to actually make the Final Four.
These six are the only teams I believe have the potential to put it all together at a level high enough to win a title.
You’re damn right Gonzaga is at the top of the list! I know there’s a lot more skepticism around the Zags after their loss to Baylor in last season’s title game — which is baffling, considering their lone loss was to the champs, and it has played in two of the last four national title games — but I get it. This happens for every program until they actually win one.
Virginia went through it — especially after the UMBC loss — before it cut down the nets. Villanova did, too, before it won in 2016 and 2018. People thought John Calipari wasn’t one of the sport’s elite coaches until he won in 2012 — those people were wrong, mind you, but you get the point. Even Roy Williams was in the same boat until his first title with UNC.
This Gonzaga team has all the pieces. Mark Few’s squad has the preseason National Player of the Year in Drew Timme, the nation’s top incoming freshman in Chet Holmgren, and several key returners.
KU’s brief absence from the Big 12 throne should come to an end this season, as should its tournament “drought” without making the second weekend.
Four of the five starters return from last season’s 21-win team, headlined by preseason first team All-Big 12 performers Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack. Throw in the addition of two elite transfers in Arizona State’s Remy Martin — a two-time All-Pac-12 first-team performer who was actually named Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year — and Drake’s Joseph Yesufu, who averaged 23.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, and the Jayhawks have a wealth of talented experience. Of course, Bill Self also brought in a top-10 recruiting class, which is led by top-50 prospect Zach Clemence.
Expectations should be high in Lawrence given that talent level, yet it’s how those pieces fit together that has the Jayhawks ranked No. 2 in the HeatCheckCBB College Basketball Preseason Top 25.
McCormack eventually developed into one of the nation’s most productive big men down the stretch last season, and assigning him the focal point of the offense helped propel Kansas to a 9-2 record over their final 11 games. I fully expect him to have the offense’s lead role yet again, though the Jayhawks will pack much more of a perimeter scoring punch.
Martin averaged 19.1 points and two made 3-pointers per game each of his final two years at Arizona State. It’s safe to assume he’ll produce at a similar level as KU’s lead guard, which was the biggest hole in their lineup. And, yes, Martin has not been an overly efficient scorer, but he’s a dynamic offensive threat who can score from all three levels — far more than could be said about Marcus Garrett last season.
Yesufu is a three-level scorer as well, though much of his effectiveness came from pick-and-roll sets. Look for that to be an often-used wrinkle when he’s in the lineup.
Those two add needed depth as well, as do super seniors Mitch Lightfoot, Iowa State transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands and D-2 transfer Cam Martin. With the balance, depth, and experience you’d expect from a Self-coached Kansas team, the Jayhawks have the pieces to make a run at another national title.
There’s a scene in the movie The Town in which FBI agent Adam Frawley (played by Jon Hamm) realizes the group of bank robbers he’s chasing has eluded him and made a clean escape. Frustrated that he has missed his chance to catch this group yet again, he deems them the mob’s “Not F—ing Around Crew.”
This offseason, following one of the worst seasons in program history, John Calipari went and got himself his own version of a “NFAC.”
Calipari used his recruiting prowess to raid the transfer portal and landed the quartet of Davidson’s Kellan Grady, Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, Iowa’s CJ Fredrick and 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 — one that should put them back in contention for a championship.
Chris Beard quickly built a dream team of mercenaries after taking the Texas job, landing the only transfer class better than Kentucky’s. The Longhorns landed five players who started in high-major conferences last season in Timmy Allen (Utah), Devin Askew (Kentucky), Christian Bishop (Creighton), Marcus Carr (Minnesota) and Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt). That group doesn’t even include Tre Mitchell (UMass), a two-time All-Atlantic 10 performer.
This group, combined with top-35 prospect Jaylon Tyson and a core of returners headlined by Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey, has turned Texas into a national championship favorite that will begin the season ranked in the top five.
It might take time for all these new pieces to come together, but the roster talent in Austin is undeniable. Beard’s most successful team, the 2018-19 Texas Tech team that reached the national championship game, was also littered with transfers. He got everyone to buy in and excel in their respective roles.
If Beard can do the same with this group, they may very well exceed even the loftiest of expectations. This is clearly the most talented team of Beard’s career. The Longhorns have experience, size, playmakers, and the kind of quality depth coaches dream about.
Carr is a perfect fit for the isolation and pick-and-roll sets run by lead guards in Beard’s offense, particularly in late-game situations. He excelled in those actions at Minnesota while proving to be one of the nation’s most clutch players. Carr will be this team’s closer and leader.
Jones and Ramey provide stability and shooting in the backcourt, both of whom are also quality secondary playmakers. Askew will help in that role off the bench, too.
Bishop, Disu and Mitchell replenish a Texas frontline that lost everyone to the NBA Draft, yet should be one of the nation’s better units. Mitchell should lead that group given his ability to create mismatches, as he routinely punishes smaller defenders inside or can draw larger defenders out on the perimeter. All three were among the country’s leaders in rebounding rate, too, so expect that to be another strength for the Longhorns.
In short, Texas looks to have everything required of a college basketball champion on paper. Any doubts about this group simply come from the fact we haven’t seen them play together yet. If everything clicks as expected, the Longhorns will be capable of beating anyone and everyone.
Reigning National Coach of the Year Juwan Howard has proven to be just that — one of the elite coaches in college basketball — in his short tenure with the Wolverines. He already has a Big Ten title, earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, made the Elite Eight, and landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class in just over two calendar years on the job.
As such, it’s not a surprise to see Michigan ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll given the talent Howard has assembled.
The Wolverines return two All-Big Ten caliber starters in Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson, the latter of whom was named an AP preseason second team All-American. They also landed one of the top transfers available in reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year DeVante Jones, who I listed as the one of the nation’s most impactful transfers because of his defense and ability to create his own shot.
Michigan also brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class in college basketball headlined by five-star prospects Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, both of whom are projected first-round picks in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Not bad, huh?
Howard has proven to be one of the nation’s best defensive coaches and the Wolverines will have a plethora of options on offense. They don’t have overwhelming depth, but they do have more than enough, especially if Michigan’s other highly rated freshmen are able to contribute quicker than expected.
This group is the favorite to repeat as Big Ten champs and one of the favorites to win a national championship because of its well-rounded construction and no glaring weakness.
UCLA actually led my list of overrated teams in the preseason AP poll. How can a team be overrated at No. 2 yet still be on the shortlist of college basketball national championship favorites?
Well, that’s the conundrum that has caused the wide variance of opinions on this group.
On one hand, this UCLA team nearly missed the NCAA Tournament altogether a season ago. 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 Johnny Juzang. Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell have collectively played in their careers. There will likely be some regression to the mean there.
I’m not picking the Bruins in my preseason Final Four because of UCLA’s late-season magic. I don’t expect Juzang to seemingly make every shot like he did during the NCAA Tournament.
But I still expect him to be a really good player. I still foresee the Bruins being a top-10 or top-15 team all season long because of that line of thinking. I don’t think UCLA will be as insanely good as it was in March, but UCLA should still be good enough. Keep in mind, the Bruins will 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.
On the other, we’ve already seen this group nearly win a national championship. They’re bringing just about everyone back and the addition of Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson shouldn’t be overlooked, either, as he will add significant help in areas where UCLA was the weakest: rebounding and rim protection.
This is the only group on the list we’ve seen actually make the Final Four, so we know they have it in them.