1) Gonzaga (Projected WCC Winner)
Mark Few has proved the doubters wrong over the past four years, which have featured three finishes in the KenPom top-two and a trip to the national title game. However, the Zags have never been able to cut down the nets and win that elusive national title. This is the year. Corey Kispert returns after a big 2019, Jalen Suggs is the best recruit in Gonzaga history, and Drew Timmie and Joel Ayayi are ready to step into the spotlight. This is the best team in the country
2) Villanova (Projected Big East Winner)
Villanova has won two national titles in the past four tournaments, and Jay Wright has a chance to join an exclusive club of three-time winners this year. Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl return, and only Saddiq Bey is gone from a team that probably would have been a two seed last year. This team will contend for a title.
3) Kansas (Projected Big 12 Winner)
The Jayhawks were the best team in college basketball last year, and while Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike are gone from that team, the best defender in college basketball, Marcus Garrett, will return. Freshman Bryce Thompson needs to step into a bigger role if this team is to be a national title contender, but KU is loaded with young studs.
The Bears went 26-4 last year and would have been a one seed, and they look poised to have a similarly great season this year. Jared Butler and MaCio Teague are both back, and Tristan Clark will step into a bigger role after a brutal injury two years ago. The Bears will challenge Kansas for the Big 12 crown.
5) Duke (Projected ACC Winner)
There is no better bet in college basketball than the Blue Devils. Duke has not finished outside of the top-20 in the KenPom era, and have a median ranking of 4th. That’s absurd. This year’s freshman trio: Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach, and DJ Steward, probably aren’t at the level of recent recruiting classes, but Mike Krzyzewski always seems to figure things out.
It’s a common misconception among college basketball fans that because Virginia’s offense doesn’t put up points to the level of other top programs, the Cavaliers have a bad offense. That’s not actually true generally, but the Virginia offense was legitimately awful last year (234th in offensive efficiency, 291st in eFG%, 257th in turnover %). The defense still worked, though, and the Cavaliers finished the 2020 season on an eight game winning streak. Kihei Clark and Jay Huff return, and three-point sharpshooter Sam Hauser comes in to add a spark to this offense. If the offense takes a step forward, and the defense doesn’t regress, the Cavaliers could be back to being a real national title contender.
7) Iowa (Projected Big Ten Winner)
Preseason player of the year Luka Garza gets all the headlines, but there is more to like on this team, from Joe Wieskamp to Jordan Bohannon. I still have some issues with the defense, which struggled last year, but if Garza plays at 2019-20 form and the Hawkeyes can take a step forward on the defensive end, they could contend for a title.
This is the year for Illinois. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn may be the best scoring duo in the country, freshman Adam Miller is a stud, and Brad Underwood is one of the best coaches in college basketball. Almost everyone is back from a 21-10 team, which is a recipe for success.
9) Michigan State
Tom Izzo’s Spartans are often a surefire contender in the Big Ten, but Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman are gone from a team that went 22-9 last year. However, some key pieces are back including Josh Langford. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser will help buoy the Spartans’ shooting. Don’t count Izzo out.
Villanova’s toughest competition in the Big East will be Creighton. The Bluejays return the awesome Marcus Zegarowski, and I expect Mitch Ballock to step into a much bigger role this year. This is a talented roster that could surprise some people.
11) Florida State
The defending ACC champs feel like one of the most underrated teams in the country this year. Head coach Leonard Hamilton is great, and the incoming freshman class should provide some help to returnee MJ Walker, who was pivotal in the Seminoles’ success last season.
12) Texas Tech
If anyone can challenge Tony Bennett for the title of the coach that gets the most of the players that they have, it has to be Chris Beard. The Red Raiders lose Jahmi’us Ramsey, but with newcomers Marcos Santos-Silva, Mac McClung, and Nimari Burnett, I expect Beard to have this team contending for a Big 12 title.
13) Kentucky (Projected SEC Winner)
A trio of transfers: Olivier Sarr, Jacob Toppin, and Davion Mintz will bolster Kentucky’s incoming recruiting class, which is led by Terrence Clark and BJ Boston. The extreme turnover on the roster year over year prevent me from giving the ‘Cats a top-ten ranking, but the talent is there.
14) West Virginia
Bob Huggins will contend for a Big 12 title yet again in 2021, as four starters are back from one of the best defensive teams in the country. Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver are the leaders, and I expect the Mountaineers to surprise some folks this year.
15) Oregon (Projected Pac-12 Winner)
Payton Pritchard is gone, but thanks to Dana Altman’s track record, I think Oregon remains a heavy favorite in the Pac-12. UNLV transfer Amauri Hardy is the name to watch, and a pair of other transfers plus JUCO player of the year Chris Duarte will bolster this squad.
I’m high on Michigan this year, mostly thanks to the fact that I love incoming freshman Hunter Dickinson. Isaiah Livers returns after a great defensive year that was cut short due to injury, and Wake transfer Chaundee Brown is another name to watch. This is a sleeper team in the Big Ten.
Keyontae Johnson may be the best player in the SEC, the Gators also get back Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, and Noah Locke. I expect UF to take a big step forward this year, especially on the defensive end, and for the Gators to challenge Kentucky in the SEC.
18) Houston (Projected American Winner)
Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars looked poised to win the American yet again. Caleb Mills, Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, and Marcus Sasser make up one of the best two-way backcourts in the nation.
The Badgers won their last eight games to finish atop the Big Ten standings last year, and Nate Reuvers and D’Mitrik Trice are back for Greg Gard’s team. I’m a little skeptical of Wisconsin’s offense, but the talent is there and this is a surefire top-25 team.
20) Ohio State
Chris Holtmann has a tendency to get something out of nothing, but he’s got something this year. EJ Liddell is a stud, senior CJ Walker is a certified leader, and the Buckeyes bring in a Cal transfer, Justice Sueing. This is a dark horse in the Big Ten.
This is do or die time for Shaka Smart at Texas. Longhorn fans have not been pleased with his tenure thus far, but all five starters are back from a 19-12 team, not to mention the addition of awesome freshman Greg Brown. This team has tremendous upside.
Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern are gone, but Trevion Williams feels like the type of guy that can step into a #1 role. A pair of good freshmen also join the Boilermakers to push the returnees, and Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the business.
A lot is gone from last year’s group, but a pair of sophomores: David Johnson and Samuell Williamson, seem likely to take big steps forward for Chris Mack. Radford transfer Carlik Jones, who averaged 20 points per game last year at the low-major level will also be an important piece.
Eight Big Ten teams in the top 24 feels insane, but the conference is stacked this year. With freshman Khristian Lander and returnee Trayce Jackson-Davis, this is the year Archie Miller’s Hoosiers finally take a step forward.
25) San Diego State (MWC Winner)
Malachi Flynn is gone, but much of the supporting cast returns from last season’s 30-2 group. Matt Mitchell is the key returnee, and CSUN transfer Terrell Gomez averaged close to 20 point per game last year. This will be one of the best mid-majors in the country again.
27) Seton Hall
29) North Carolina
39) Penn State
44) Wichita State
45) St. Mary’s
— AT LARGE CUTOFF —
47) Dayton (Projected A10 Winner)
48) Northern Iowa (Projected MVC Winner)
49) Vermont (Projected America East Winner)
50) Furman (Projected Southern Winner)
51) New Mexico State (Projected WAC Winner)
52) Western Kentucky (Projected CUSA Winner)
53) Belmont (Projected OVC Winner)
54) Buffalo (Projected MAC Winner)
55) South Dakota State (Projected Summit Winner)
56) Georgia State (Projected Sun Belt Winner)
57) Liberty (Projected ASUN Winner)
58) Wright State (Projected Horizon Winner)
59) UC Irvine (Projected Big West Winner)
60) Winthrop (Projected Big South Winner)
61) Colgate (Projected Patriot League Winner)
62) Hofstra (Projected CAA Winner)
63) Eastern Washington (Projected Big Sky Winner)
64) Siena (Projected MAAC Winner)
65) Stephen F. Austin (Projected Southland Winner)
66) Texas Southern (Projected SWAC Winner)
67) St. Francis (PA) (Projected NEC Winner)
68) Norfolk State (Projected MEAC Winner)