Brian Rauf | @brauf33 | 08/04/20
Rosters for the upcoming college basketball season are essentially set at this point following the deadline for early entrants to withdraw from the NBA Draft, giving us some clarity regarding who the best teams in the country should be.
A number of key and unexpected returns have significantly bolster the hopes of some teams (hi, Illinois) while others are hurting from defections, be it to the transfer portal or NBA Draft.
We still don’t know how the 2020-21 season will look amidst COVID-19 concerns (though the NCAA believes it can start on time) but we know several teams will be loaded with talent. 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 three months before the start of the regular season? Here’s an updated look at my top 25:
1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Even without Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga is still my clear-cut #1 team going into the 2020-21 season. Mark Few’s squad will return the core of last year’s team that was No. 2 in the country before the season abruptly ended thanks to the return of Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert. Drew Timme also has the talent and skill set to replace Petrusev’s production. 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.
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. That group will be bolstered by a healthy Bryan Antoine, a five-star prospect in the 2019 class who played sparingly as a freshman due to a shoulder injury. 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.
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 Tristan Clark and Flo Thamba can do in 2020-21. High Point transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible after sitting out last season, too, and he should give Baylor even more depth.
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 he will.
5) Iowa Hawkeyes
You can argue Luka Garza vs. Obi Toppin all you want regarding who was the best player in the country last season (it was Garza), but there’s no doubting who the preseason Player of the Year will be. 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. Iowa doesn’t have the upside of the four teams ahead of them, yet their floor is as high as anyone’s.
6) Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini were not in the top 25 mix a week ago. Heck, they weren’t expected to be more than a middling Big Ten team that was simply hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. Then stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both opted to return to Illinois and, well, Illinois’ outlook completely changed. Dosunmu will be 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.
7) Duke Blue Devils
Yes, the Blue Devils experienced their now 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 on to give this young team some relative experience, as will Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape.
8) Kansas Jayhawks
The combination of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike led Kansas to the No. 1 ranking when the 2019-20 season ended and both are gone. However, expectations in Lawrence remain high 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.
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.
10) West Virginia Mountaineers
I am really excited to see what this West Virginia team will do. They return 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. 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.
11) 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.
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 to. But John Calipari’s best teams have always had some sort of what passes for veteran experience (often returning sophomores) and this team doesn’t have that. Keion Brooks is the only rotation piece returning, meaning their six freshmen will all be relied on in a significant way. They will jump into the top 10 if Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr is given a waiver to be immediately eligible.
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 they return everyone but Brevin Pritzl from that group. Their 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. D’Mitrik Trice has proven to be a big shot maker and reliable playmaker as well.
14) Creighton Bluejays
There was a lot of buzz about Creighton potentially being a top five or top 10 team prior to Ty-Shon Alexander’s decision to leave for the NBA Draft. And while that has put a damper on some of the buzz, Creighton is still projected to be one of the nation’s best teams. Marcus Zegarowski emerged as a star surrounded by a plethora of great shooters. If the Bluejays can be respectable defensively again (which may be difficult seeing that Alexander was their best perimeter defender), they may just finish in the top 10.
15) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Speaking of buzz, Texas Tech was also building some before the departures of Jahmi’us Ramsey (NBA Draft) and Davide Moretti (Italy). Those were somewhat expected, however, and Chris Beard still has a solid roster returning. Moretti’s departure means Kyler Edwards will move over to his more natural position of point guard and five-star win 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 if Georgetown transfer Mac McClung receives a waiver to be immediately eligible.
16) 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, they’re still a worthy top 20. Four of their top six scorers will be back from a team that went 23-8 and was really good on both ends of the floor. They 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.
17) 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.
18) Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers was an awesome story last season and was set to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years before…you know. Anyways, the Scarlet Knights are essentially running it back. Jacob Young, Geo Baker, and Ron Harper Jr. are as good of a perimeter trio as you’ll find in the Big Ten, and Steve Pikiell’s squad got a huge boost up front when top 50 center Cliff Omoruyi committed to the Scarlet Knights. With this core, Rutgers should make the Big Dance with ease – and could be looking at a potential Sweet 16 berth.
19) 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.
20) 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, too). 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.
21) 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. His health, along with the depth outside these four, are big question marks for Chris Holtmann’s squad.
22) 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 #2 overall recruiting class. Point guard Caleb Love has all the makings of a star, and five-star big men Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler will form an elite frontline duo 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.
23) 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.
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 their 11-3 run they went on to close the season. But that doesn’t mean they 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.
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. HOWEVAH, the Longhorns literally bring back everyone 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…but let’s just say I’m putting them here despite my better judgment.
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.