Every year I do a “Way Too Early Top 25” shortly after the college hoops season ends. Under normal circumstances it’s one of my favorite articles to write the entire year, as I take a year’s worth of knowledge, and a little bit of guesswork (who’s staying, who’s going pro and who’s transferring) to try and give my best projection at what the following season could look like.
Again, it’s awesome and one of the most fun things I do all season. This year it was extra fun – even if it was more guesswork than its ever been in the past.
You can probably take a stab at where all the guesswork comes from on my end. Oh yeah, that whole “No NCAA Tournament” thing.
Sure, there are still a few guys who will definitely go pro (Anthony Edwards, Tre Jones, Obi Toppin, whatever) but it’s the next group of guys that makes this whole thing so impossible to project. What happens to the guys who use March to improve their draft stock? Also, what do guys who are fringe picks in some way (whether they’re fringe first rounders or on the fringe of being drafted at all) do in a scneario where the NBA Draft process might have no actual “process” this year? Given that there might not be any pre-draft workouts, what do guys like Immanuel Quickley or Mason Jones do, guys who undoubtedly would have used the next few months to fly across country and improve their stock with individual workouts? By the way, does uncertainty across the globe set up a situation where a few high school guys who planned on going pro overseas will now play college hoops?
Again, projecting this all is insane. But still, the show must go on.
Here is my Way Too Early Top 25 for the 2020-2021 season. It will change throughout the spring and summer once draft declarations become official, and the final few top high school players make their college decisions.
But until then, here is my best projection at what the 2020-2021 season will look like.
1) Villanova Wildcats
Key Returnees: Collin Gillespie, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Bryan Antoine, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree
Key Departures: Saddiq Bey
Key Additions: Caleb Daniels (transfer)
Like so many other teams, it is guesswork – at best – trying to figure out who will return to Villanova next year. But considering this team was already coming off a split of the Big East regular season title, won 24 games last year and didn’t have a single senior on its roster the Wildcats feel like a good place to start.
The expectation is that Saddiq Bey will declare since he’s almost universally seen as a Top 20 pick. Beyond him however, no other Wildcats’ starters are projected to be drafted, and if all four come back, it means the Wildcats return four double-digit scorers off that Big East regular season champ. The list includes Collin Gillespie (15.1 ppg, 4.5 apg), Justin Moore (11.3 ppg), Jermaine Samuels (10.7 ppg), and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg), with depth provided by Cole Swider and Brandon Slater. Bryan Antoine could emerge as a star after an injury-plagued freshman season.
Sure, there could still be some surprise transfers, but if this team doesn’t get hit with a wave of unexpected draft declarations, expect the Wildcats to begin the season right where they’ve ended a few recently: At the top of the polls.
2) Creighton Bluejays
Key Returnees: Ty-Shon Alexander, Marcus Zegarowski, Denzel Mahoney, Mitch Ballock, Damien Jefferson, Christian Bishop, Davion Mintz, Jacob Epperson, Shareef Mitchell, Jalen Windham
Key Departures: Kelvin Jones
Key Additions: N/A
Speaking of Big East regular champions (there was a three-way tie atop the standings) returning almost entirely intact entering next season, I present you the Creighton Bluejays. The Jays won the school’s first regular season title since joining the Big East in 2013 (a three-way tie with Villanova and Seton Hall) and were seen by some as a darkhorse threat to get to Atlanta for the Final Four this past season.
Well, with the possibility that their top six scorers return next year, they won’t be catching anyone off-guard in 2020-2021.
No Jays are currently projected in any NBA mock drafts meaning that they could return All Big East guard Marcus Zegarowski (16 points, five assists per game), Ty-Shon Alexander (17 points, 40 percent shooting), as well as Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock, who also averaged double figures. Damien Jefferson and Christian Bishop are interchangeable parts who also contributed to the Jays success this past season, while Shareef Mitchell and Jalen Windham were freshmen who added experience off the bench last year.
Like so many schools though, the question becomes if in fact this core will return as expected. And in the case of Creighton, the biggest question specificially is Zegarowski. He was one of the best guards in college basketball last season, but has also become a bit injury prone these last few years as well. Coming off a late season knee surgery does he risk coming back to school for another year?
If he does, the Jays will be in the hunt to get to the school’s first ever Final Four.
3) Kentucky Wildcats
Key Returnees: Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontaie Allen
Key Departures: Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards
Key Additions: BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware, Cam’Ron Fletcher
In my heart of hearts do I really believe that Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery will both come back to school? I mean as a general rule, SEC Player of the Year caliber dudes just don’t return to college, which makes me dubious that Quickley returns (especially as his draft stock rose late in the season). And if Quickley doesn’t return, I doubt that Montgomery will come back solo.
Then again, it’s March 24th and we’re supposed to be talking about the Sweet 16 right now – not project a Too Early Top 25. So screw it! I’ve got them both coming back for now. And when you add them in with an improved Keion Brooks and Johnny Juzang, a healthy Dontaie Allen and another No. 1 ranked recruiting class, this team is… LOADED.
The freshmen to watch are of course BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, a pair of McDonald’s All-American wings, set to terrorize the sport of college basketball, especially if Quickley and Juzang are around to provide floor-spacing. Devin Askew could help Quickley run the point, with Brooks, Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware manning the middle down low.
Add in the fact that the Wildcats will probably add at least one player (probably a big man) via the grad transfer market… and woah buddy, it could be another special season in Lexington.
4) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme, Anton Watson,
Key Departures: Killian Tillie, Admon Gilder, Ryan Wooldridge
Key Additions: Jalen Suggs, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris
Of every team in college basketball, you could argue that Gonzaga was one that was impacted the most having no NCAA Tournament. As things stood, the 2019-2020 season might have been the Zags best chance yet to take home the school’s first national title, but like so many schools we’ll never know.
However, like many other schools it could work out as a blessing in disguise. As a general rule, the Zags don’t normally lose players ahead of schedule to the draft (ie: they only declare when they are ready, and are able to maximize their draft value) and because of it could return a big chunk of their production next season.
Yes, Killian Tille – the player who made it all go, as a versatile, pick and pop four – will be gone, as will grad transfers Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder – but even with their departures, we could still see three players return who averaged double-figures a season ago. Filip Petrusev led this team in scoring at over 17 points per game, and with little first round draft buzz seems likely to return, as will wing Corey Kispert who averaged over 14 per contest. Joel Ayayi will take over the role of play-making guard after a breakout season in which he averaged 10 points per game – don’t be surprised if he emerges into an All-American candidate. Forward Drew Timme will add depth down low as well.
The real X-factor though could be guard Jalen Suggs, the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with the Zags. There was talk that the 6’4 point guard could seriously pursue pro options, but with so much uncertainty across the globe, it feels more and more likely that he might end up on campus. If he does, he could be the final piece to a legit national championship puzzle.
5) Baylor Bears
Key Returnees: Jared Butler, Macio Teague, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital, Tristan Clark, Matthew Mayer
Key Departures: Devonte Bandoo, Freddie Gillespie
Key Additions: Dain Dainja, LJ Cryer, Zach Loveday, Adam Flager (transfer), Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (transfer)
Just like Gonzaga above, it’s hard not to feel bad for Baylor with the way things played out this March. There is no doubt that 2019-2020 was Baylor’s best shot in school history to win a national title – a shot that went up in smoke with fear of the coronavirus. Yet with a bunch of fringe NBA Draft prospects now in the ether of uncertainty, this is a team that could return largely intact.
Yes, this team will lose it’s best low post defender in Freddie Gillespie and sharpshooter Devontee Bandoo to graduation, but even with them gone could still return seven of the nine players who played meaningful minutes for a squad that finished 26-4 this past season. Macio Teague and Davion Mitchell are almost certain to be back after finishing second and third on the team in scoring, while Mark Vital, who was second on the team in rebounding should be back as well. Also, sit out transfers Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua received rave reviews this off-season.
Still, even with all those guys back, Baylor’s projection relies on whether or not Jared Butler returns. Butler was the Bears’ leading scorer and heart and soul last season, but is only projected as a second round pick.
If he returns, the Bears will once again be in the mix for not only a Big 12 title, but a national title as well.
6) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Key Returnees: Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, TJ Shannon, Kevin McCullar, Andrei Sarasov, Russel Tchewa, Clarence Nadolny, Avery Benson, Tyreek Smith
Key Departures: Chris Clarke, TJ Holyfield, Jah’mius Ramsey
Key Additions: Nimari Burnett, Micah Peavy, Chibuzo Agbo Jr., Joel Ntambwe (transfer)
For whatever reason it never did “click” for Texas Tech this past season, as the Red Raiders finished the 2019-2020 campaign at just 18-13 overall and squarely on the bubble. But while the season was somewhat of a disappointing result for the 2019 national runner’s up, it could work out better in the long run with most of the team back.
With so many struggles virtually the entire core of the team could return. Davide Moretti will be back for his senior season to provide a steadying hand at point guard, while wings TJ Shannon and Kevin McCullar both showed vast improvement throughout the season. Kyler Edwards is a 2019 Final Four hero like Moretti who should add some perimeter scoring pop.
What’s even more exciting though is everyone who is coming this off-season. Nimari Burnett is the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with the school and should provide some playmaking in the backcourt, while Joel Ntambwe is a transfer from UNLV who the staff believes is a future pro. Micah Peavy and Chibuzo Agbo Jr. are both underrated pieces who could turn into dynamic difference-makers by the end of the season.
Oh, and add in the fact that there’s at least a possibility that Jah’mius Ramsey will come back (after an up and down freshman year) and that the Red Raiders are always active in the grad transfer market, and an already good roster could be even better.
After a down year, the Red Raiders should again spend most of next season inside the Top 10.
7) Virginia Cavaliers
Key Returnees: Kiehi Clark, Jay Huff, Tomas Woldetensae, Casey Morsell, Kody Stattmann,
Key Departures: Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key
Key Additions: Sam Hauser (transfer), Jabari Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman
Full-disclosure: I’ve done a complete, 180 on the Virginia Cavaliers over the last few seasons. Yes, winning the national title in 2019 changed everything for Tony Bennett, but I think you could argue that he was just as impressive this past season. Despite losing three guys to the NBA Draft and struggling out of the gate, the Cavaliers still managed to win 11 of their final 12 games and their final eight, including victories over the top three teams in the ACC standings (Florida State, Duke and Louisville). Had there been an ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers would have been the proverbial “Team no one wanted to play.”
Well in 2020-2021 quite a bit returns, and the Hoos should enter the year as the preseason ACC favorites. Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key graduate, but Kiehi Clark is back at the point guard spot, with Jay Huff down low and Tomas Woldetensae and Casey Morsell should provide perimeter scoring. Also, keep in mind that Sam Hauser (who averaged 15 points per game at Marquette in 2019) is now eligible and Jabari Abdur-Rahim is one of the highest rated recruits Tony Bennett has ever brought in.
Add the really good defense that Virginia always plays with a bit more scoring pop? Virginia should once again be favorites in the ACC next year.
8) UCLA Bruins
Key Returnees: Chris Smith, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jacquez, David Singleton, Jules Bernard, Jake Kyman
Key Departures: Prince Ali, Alex Alex Olesinski
Key Additions: Daishen Nix, Jaylen Clark
In the span of about three weeks in February UCLA went from “completely off the nation’s radar” to “Pac-12 title contender.” Well, with virtually the entire team projected to return there will be no sneaking up on anybody in 2020-2021.
Overall, the Bruins could return eight of their top nine scorers off last year’s 19-12 squad, one which won 11 of its final 14 down the stretch. That includes leading scorer Chris Smith (13.1 points per game), the rugged low-post duo of Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, wings David Singleton and Jaime Jacquez and point guard Tyger Campbell. They also have a solid recruiting class, one built around McDonald’s All-American Daishen Nix and two-way wing Jaylen Clark.
Admittedly, like everyone else there is always a chance a few guys declare. Smith seems destined to one day play in the NBA, and Riley and Hill will be fourth-year juniors who may just want to get a feel for where their draft stock is.
But with the only obvious departure being Prince Ali (who was benched late in the season for Singleton anyway) this Bruins team has a legit chance to make a Final Four run.
9) Iowa Hawkeyes
Key Returnees: Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, CJ Frederick, Joe Toussaint, Connor McCaffery, Cordell Pemsl, Patrick McCaffery*
Key Departures: Ryan Kriener
Key Additions: Ahron Ulis, Jordan Bohanon (redshirt)
It was a weird, up-and-down season for the Hawkeyes. But despite struggles down the stretch (where they lost three of their final four games), the Hawkeyes were still ranked in the Top 25 for virtually the entire 2019-2020 season.
Even better, they could bring back a big chunk of their core.
The first, and most obvious guy is Luka Garza, a consensus All-American, who averaged just under 24 points and 10 rebounds per game this past season. Considering the NBA Draft buzz on him is minimal, you wonder if the Hawkeyes really will get a first team All-American back. Joe Wieskamp (14 points per game) is seen as more of a surefire NBA guy but could probably use one more year on campus, and overall, six of the team’s top seven players could return.
The x-factor though is Jordan Bohanon.
Bohanon was the team’s starting point guard in 2018-2019, but missed all but 10 games this season. Assuming he comes back (he could be eligible to grad transfer) Bohanon could be the final piece of a team that is good enough to get to the Final Four next season.
10) Wisconsin Badgers
Key Returnees: Nate Reuvers, D’MTrick Trice, Micah Potter, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Trevor Anderson
Key Departures: Brevin Pritzl
Key Additions: Ben Carlson
There might not be a single team that is flying more heavily under the radar entering the 2020-2021 season than the Wisconsin Badgers.
One of three teams that split the Big Ten title last season, Wisconsin returns everyone of substance, with their top five scorers all back off a team that won eight straight games to close the season. That includes leading scorer Nate Reuvers (who averaged 13 points per game) as well as Micah Potter who averaged double figures once he was ruled eligible mid-season. And of course, Brad Davison will be back in the backcourt along with D’Mitrick Trice, who led the team in assists at over four per game last season.
The Badgers need to avoid the slow starts that have plagued them since Greg Gard took over. But should be the favorites – along with Iowa – to compete for a Big Ten title.
11) Duke Blue Devils
Key Returnees: Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, Joey Baker, Jordan Goldwire
Key Departures: Tre Jones*, Vernon Carey*, Cassius Stanley*, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White, Alex O’Connell (transfer)
Key Additions: Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach, DJ Steward, Mark Williams, Jaeym Brakefield, Henry Coleman
Of every team in college basketball entering next season, Duke is one of the weirdly harder ones to project. We know they’ll be good because no matter what you think of Coach K, he’s damn good. And we know they will lose Tre Jones (who has already declared) and Vernon Carey. But with so many players who may or may not test the waters to go along with a good, but not elite recruiting class, it really is impossible to project this squad.
With Jones and Carey gone, the biggest variable will be Cassius Stanley. Incredibly, Stanley will be 21-years-old by the start of next season, making it increasingly likely that he declares. But assuming Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore return (again, it’s all assumption), that is two former McDonald’s All-Americans, who could create a nice core for the Blue Devils. That core also includes fellow returnees Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire and another really good recruiting class. Jalen Johnson will be the star on the wing, while steady freshman Jeremy Roach will come up to take the reigns at point guard. DJ Steward could provide some scoring punch from the backcourt as well.
The 2020-2021 Blue Devils might not have vintage star power, but should again be a team that stays in and around the Top 10 all season.
12) Tennessee Volunteers
Key Returnees: Santiago Vescovi, Jon Fulkerson, Yves Pons, Josiah Jordan-James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic, Davonte Gaines
Key Departures: Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, Jalen Johnson (transfer)
Key Additions: Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson, Corey Walker, Victor Bailey (transfer)
Every year a few teams go from completely off-the-radar to conference title contenders (think Creighton this year). And if you’re looking for one in 2021, look no further than the Tennessee Vols.
Yes, the Vols lose second-leading scorer Jordan Bowden after this season – but Bowden was up-and-down for most of 2019-2020. LaMonte Turner will also be gone – but he was out with injury after Christmas.
Because of that, it means that the Vols return everyone (minus Bowden) who played meaningful minutes for a team that was really good down the stretch. John Fulkerson averaged 14 and six will return in the frontcourt along with Yves Pons, while guard Santiago Vescovi should be more comfortable after arriving mid-season from Uruguay. Wing Josiah Jordan-James should add depth, along with Uros Plavsic down low. And there is a Top 5 ranked recruiting class, one which features three Top 50 prospects, including McDonald’s All-American Jaden Springer.
The Vols were on the cusp this season, winning at Rupp Arena late and losing a bunch of close games down the stretch that could have gotten them on the tournament bubble (at Auburn, at South Carolina). With just about everyone back, this could be an SEC title contender.
13) Michigan State Spartans
Key Returnees: Rocket Watts, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Malik Hall, Julius Marble
Key Departures: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens
Key Additions: Mady Sissoko, AJ Hoggard, Joey Hauser (transfer)
Cassius Winston is gone, but assuming that Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry don’t leave early, just about everyone besides Winston returns. Rocket Watts, off of a strong second half of the season will move over to the point guard spot, while Henry, who also emerged late, will become the primary scorer on the wing. Transfer Joey Hauser will add depth and shooting from the three-point line after averaging just under 10 points per game at Marquette two years ago (on 43 percent shooting from behind the arc).
Still, Tillman is the guy to watch here.
Only a junior he could come back… but with a wife and two small children, does he decide to take his chances as a pro? And another factor is what if Joshua Langford returns after sitting out all of 2019-2020 with a foot injury? The 6’5 wing was the team’s leading scorer in 2018-2019 before suffering the injury late, and could return to East Lansing for a fifth year if he wanted. It’s unlikely, but possible.
Point being, this team will be really good entering 2020-2021. But could be even better than projected.
14) Arkansas Razorbacks
Key Returnees: Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Jalen Harris, Reggie Chaney, Ethan Henderson
Key Departures: Adrio Bailey, Jimmy Whitt, Jeantal Cylla
Key Additions: Moses Moody, KK Robinson, Jaylin Williams, Davonte Davis, Conor Vanover (transfer), JD Notae (transfer)
To me, Arkansas is weirdly a lot like Kentucky. Do I really expect Mason Jones to be back after a season where came out of nowhere to lead the SEC in scoring and made some All-American teams? Probably not. It’s the same with Isaiah Joe.
But we can only go based on the information we have right now. And if both do come back…. wooooooooah buddy do the Hogs look loaded and ready to make a run in the SEC.
In that scenario Jones is back after an SEC Player of the Year type season, alongside Joe, Desi Sills and Jalen Harris, and they are buoyed by one of the top 10 classes in America. Look for Moses Moody to be the breakout star with Jaylin Williams adding athleticism down low. Same with Cal transfer Conor Vanover. And if you know Eric Musselman, you know that he will always look to improve the talent on this roster via the grad transfer market every single off-season.
Again, for now we’re projecting Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe to come back. And if they do, well frankly, I might be underrating the Razorbacks at No. 14.
15) Michigan Wolverines
Key Returnees: Isaiah Livers, David DeJulius, Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks, Brandon Johns
Key Departures: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Austin Davis
Key Additions: Isaiah Todd, Zeb Jackson, Hunter Dickinson, Terrance Williams, Jace Howard
Considering that Michigan was forced to make a coaching move in May, the school couldn’t have done much better than what they got from Juwan Howard. Not only did the team win 19 games and reach No. 1 in the country at one point, but Howard proved himself to be one of the savviest recruiters in college basketball in a short time.
And that, more than anything is why the Wolverines are so high on this list. While Michigan will lose program stalwarts Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske off this year’s club, they will bring in a consensus Top 10 recruiting class. Isaiah Todd is the headliner, and assuming he shows up on campus (there have been rumblings of him playing overseas) he’ll lead a class that includes four Top 100 recruits. It feels almost certain that a fifth, five-star Joshua Christopher, will join them as well. Christopher has been seen as a heavy Michigan lean for a while now and could commit at any time.
Then there are the returnees, and the Wolverines should bring back a host of players who played major roles in 2020, including leading scorer Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner and Eli Brooks. All three averaged double-figures last season.
The Wolverines will definitely have a different feel without Simpson and Teske. But should again remain a Top 25 type program.
16) Kansas Jayhawks
Key Returnees: Ochai Abaji, David McCormack, Marcus Garrett, Christian Braun, Silvio De Sousa, Tristan Enaruna,
Key Departures: Udoka Azibuke, Devon Dodson*, Isaiah Moss,
Key Additions: Bryce Thompson, Gethro Muscadin, Tyon Grant-Foster, Jalen Wilson (redshirt), Mitch Lightfoot (redshirt)
Of every team on this list, Kansas is – at least right now – one of the hardest to predict. We know that Udoka Azibuke will be gone, and Devon Dodson will almost assuredly go too. We also know that Bill Self will figure out a way – either via late high school signees, or more likely the transfer market – to improve this roster before next season.
But again, we can only go based on what we see right now. And this roster looks fine, but hardly elite.
The Jayhawks will bring back Ochai Abaji, who had a strong sophomore run in 2020 averaging 10 points per game, and the assumption is that Marcus Garrett will move to the point guard spot. David McCormack will take over some of Udoka Azibuke’s production down low, although if we’re being perfectly honest, no one can replace the big man.
And then from there, it is a bunch of uncertainty. After a surprisingly strong 2020 campaign, can Christian Braun continue to provide wing scoring? Can former Top 50 recruit Jalen Wilson return to form after an injury last year? Just how good will McDonald’s All-American Bryce Thompson be? And again, will there be help on the way via the transfer market?
Kansas will again be good in 2020-2021, because it’s Kansas. And whatever you think of Bill Self, he’s a phenomenal coach. But right now this team feels like its a few pieces short of being a real title contender. We’ll see if that changes over the summer.
17) Florida State Seminoles
Key Returnees: MJ Walker, Patrick Williams, Malik Osbourne, Anthony Polite, RaiQuan Gray, Balsa Kopricava
Key Departures: Trent Forrest, Dominik Olejniczak, Devin Vassell*
Key Additions: Scottie Barnes
On Monday, wing Devin Vassell announced that he would go pro. He will depart alongside steady senior Trent Forrest, and frankly, that sounds like a brutal 1-2 stomach punch to me. Then again, Florida State lost six of its top eight scorers last year too. So yeah, I’m done doubting Leonard Hamilton.
Even with Forrest graduating and Vassell gone, the Seminoles still bring back seven players who played at least 10 minutes per game, as well as one of the best freshmen in college basketball. MJ Walker established himself as one of the most underrated players in the ACC this past season, while Malik Osbourne and RaiQuan Gray became reliable starters. Patrick Williams could be a breakout star if he returns for a sophomore season (there’s some real NBA buzz about him) and finally, there is the arrival of Scottie Barnes, a McDonald’s All-American and Top 10 prospect who will add more punch to an already potent lineup.
Again, I’ve stopped doubting Leonard Hamilton. And this is a team that is again good enough to win an ACC title.
18) Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Returnees: Duane Washington, Luther Muhammad, CJ Walker, Kyle Young, EJ Liddell
Key Departures: Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson*, DJ Carton (transfer)
Key Additions: Seth Towns (transfer), Justice Sueing (transfer)
It’s been a wild, up-and-down few years in Columbus, where each of the last two Ohio State teams have started out red-hot, only to hit a lull mid-season and then again rebound late. But with most of the core back of a team from that won nine of its last 12 games, this is again a team that should start and finish the season around the Top 20.
Andre Wesson is gone and his brother Kaleb will almost certainty declare as well, but the three-headed monster in the backcourt that carried this team late (Duane Washington, Luther Muhammad and CJ Walker) are all projected to return. Kyle Young will do all the little things and EJ Liddell should replace much of Kaleb Wesson’s production in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, the arrival of a pair of big-time transfers (Seth Towns and Justice Sueing) should give Chris Holtmann a couple versatile chess pieces on the wing.
Admittedly I think the talent on this roster should have the Buckeyes a bit higher entering the preseason. But based on how the last two years have played out, let’s stick them here and see what happens.
19) West Virginia Mountaineers
Key Returnees: Derek Culver, Oscar Tschiebwe, Miles McBride, Emmitt Williams, Sean McNeil, Taz Sherman, Gabe Osabuohien
Key Departures: Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler, Brandon Knapper (transfer)
Key Additions: Jalen Bridges
It was an up-and-down 2020 for the Mountaineers. They started the year with no real expectations yet were able to rise all the way to the Top 10 of most national polls – only at one point to lose six of seven games during an especially bad stretch. But while this team had its struggles, it did win its final two of the regular season games to get on a mini-roll heading into the Big 12 Tournament. And – barring unforeseen departures to the NBA Draft – should return a big chunk of its core next season.
Ultimately, the Mountaineers should look much the same in 2021 as they looked to end 2020, with a size advantage down low. Derek Culver and Oscar Tschiebwe both averaged at least 10 points and eight rebounds and should be back to again form the most intimidating frontline in college hoops. Miles McBride will add scoring punch on the perimeter, with Jordan McCabe providing leadership and steady ballhandling at the point guard spot. Jalen Bridges is a former highly-ranked recruit who sat out last year.
While this team did lose a few key players (Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler) to graduation and at least one to the transfer portal (Brandon Knapper) again, this team should play largely like it did last season. Only with a year’s more experience they should be more consistent.
20) UConn Huskies
Key Returnees: James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, Akok Akok*, Brendan Adams, Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Sidney Wilson
Key Departures: Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert (transfer)
Key Additions: Andre Jackson, Javonte Brown-Ferguson, Richie Springs, RJ Cole (transfer)
Dan Hurley has spent the last two seasons building back up the UConn roster from the Kevin Ollie era, and it all seemed to crescendo down the stretch in 2019-2020 when the Huskies won eight of their last 10 games, including victories over Houston, Cincinnati and Memphis.
It also means that as the Huskies get set to return to the Big East, there is real excitement and belief that this will be the Huskies best team since the 2014 title run.
James Bouknight quietly emerged as a star for the Huskies late in the 2020 season. He averaged 13 a game, but scored double-figures in 12 of the Huskies final 13 games. He will be joined by Jalen Gaffney, Brendan Adams and Josh Carlton, who all played major roles for the Huskies down the stretch, as well as transfer RJ Cole and big-time recruit Andre Jackson. Hurley and his staff have also been active in the transfer market early this spring, targeting several of the top players available.
At this point just about the only uncertainty is around the health of two starters – Akok Akok and Tyler Polley – who suffered season-ending injuries late. Even without them, the Huskies should be one of the top few teams in the Big East, and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
21) Rutgers Scarlet Knights:
Key Returnees: Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, Jacob Young, Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy
Key Departures: Akwasi Yeboah, Shaq Carter
Key Additions: Mawot Mag
While the record books won’t technically reflect that 2020 was the year that Rutgers broke it’s NCAA Tournament drought dating back to 1991, it was still a season to remember in Piscataway. And 2021 should be the year that the Scarlet Knights officially punch that tournament ticket – and maybe do much, much more.
Virtually every key piece returns off last season’s 20-11 team, one that ended up finishing fifth in the Big Ten overall. It’s a group that includes dynamic scoring in the backcourt in Ron Harper, Geo Baker and Jacob Young. Myles Johnson is the anchor down low, while Montez Mathis brings energy off the bench.
The Scarlet Knights seemed to peak a bit in the middle of last season, but rallied to put themselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament late. It should be official in 2021.
22) North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Returnees: Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, Anthony Harris, Jeremiah Francis, Andrew Platek
Key Departures: Cole Anthony*, Brandon Robinson, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce
Key Additions: Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Puff Johnson, RJ Davis
It was – outside of a couple games where Cole Anthony absolutely blew up – a largely forgettable season at North Carolina. But despite losing Anthony, the Tar Heels should – at least to a degree – get back to where they’ve been the last few seasons.
Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot will be back as real foundational pieces in the front court, and for the first time in a long time (thanks to that pesky, academic probe) the Tar Heels have a recruiting class that looks like a North Carolina recruiting class should. Caleb Love will take over the play-making duties from Anthony, with Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler adding depth down low. Puff Johnson (brother of former UNC star Cam Johnson) will add scoring on the wing, as should Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis, who were both playing well last season prior to injuries.
This team is still probably a year – or a couple really good grad transfers – from being an ACC title contender. But they should be back in the mix atop the conference at least next season.
23) San Diego State Aztecs
Key Returnees: Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Nathan Mensah, Tre Pullium, Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop
Key Departures: Malachi Flynn*, Yanni Wetzel, KJ Feagin
Key Additions: Lamont Butler, Keith Dinwiddie, Che Evans
It was a historic season for the Aztecs, who went from unranked in the preseason to a 30-2 finish. Now the question is how much of the core comes back for an encore in 2020-2021?
Key starters KJ Feagin and Yanni Wetzel are gone, so the x-factor will be whether All-American Malachi Flynn returns or not. Had the season played out normally, Flynn would have almost certaintly tested the waters, if not just decided to stay in the draft. After all, how much better can a fourth-year junior get after an All-American season like the one Flynn had in 2020 (one where he averaged 17 points, six assists and shot 38 percent from the three-point line)? Again, had the season played out as normal he would have declared and probably stayed in.
But now, who knows?
Without Flynn, this is still probably the class of the Mountain West, a team which will still return several key pieces off last year’s team. Matt Mitchell will still be the go-to scorer after averaging over 11 per contest in 2020, and Jordan Schaekel (10 points per game) will still provide deep shooting. Trey Pullium will take over at point guard and Nathan Mensah will be a shot blocking force down low.
So again, this all falls on Flynn. Right now we’re assuming he is gone, and if so, that makes San Diego State a fringe Top 25 team. If he returns, they should be up into the Top 15 – and maybe even higher.
24) Memphis Tigers
Key Returnees: Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Damion Baugh, Malcolm Dandridge, DJ Jeffries, Isaiah Stokes, Lance Thomas
Key Departures: Precious Achiuwa, Isaiah Maurice
Key Additions: N/A
There’s good news and bad news at Memphis. While the great, Penny Hardaway experiment of 2020 didn’t work out as planned (or well at all) there is a silver lining in it all. That silver lining? Because the Tigers largely underachieved last season, just about the whole roster should be back, with a year’s worth of experience under their belts.
Assuming there are no major transfers (always a possibility, especially after a disappointing season with a bunch of high-profile recruits), most everyone will be back. Obviously James Wiseman is gone (and he has been gone for a while) and Precious Achiuwa will likely follow him to the NBA Draft. But otherwise, a core which went 21-10 should all return. That includes former Top 50 recruits Lester Quinones and Boogie Ellis, as well as soon-to-be juniors Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, who both developed nicely in their second seasons on campus. DJ Jeffries should return healthy from injury after averaging 11 points per game from injury. Furthermore, the Tigers are also right in the mix for two of the elite, uncommitted recruits in high school basketball Jalen Green and Greg Brown. Add one – or both – and you could see the Tigers move up these rankings by the start of next year.
Keep in mind, had Jeffries simply stayed healthy last year this was probably an NCAA Tournament team. With a bunch of pieces back and the possible addition of a high-profile high school player, this team has a chance to once again be really good next year.
Whether they are or not is a different story altogether.
25) Texas Longhorns
Key Returnees: Literally, everyone: Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey, Jericho Sims, Jase Febres, Gerald Liddell, Kai Jones, Donovan Williams, Kamaka Hepa, Royce Hamm, Brock Cunningham
Key Departures: N/A
Key Additions: N/A
Listen we’re going long here, so I’m not going to sugarcoat anything at this point. In terms of a strict basketball-sense, coronavirus provided Shaka Smart the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card, the chance to avoid being fired and survive another year. Now let’s see if he can take advantage of it.
The Longhorns are projected to return everyone – literally everyone – off a team that played its way onto the bubble late. Texas didn’t have a scholarship senior, which means that they could return their Top 12 scorers off last year’s team. Top 12!!!! Now sure, one or two of those guys could transfer, but if this core returns intact there is no reason – literally zero – that they shouldn’t be a Top 20 team and fringe Big 12 title contender. Especially when it’s starting to look increasingly likely that they also land consensus Top 10 prospect Greg Brown as well.
If anything, Texas might have too many guys, but ultimately that’s not an excuse.
For seemingly the 10th straight year, it’s put up or shut up time for Shaka Smart.
Let’s see if he delivers.
Others who just missed the cut: Colorado, Arizona State, Louisville, NC State, Indiana