The 2021-22 college basketball season is going to provide us with unique freshman talent, a re-emergence of blueblood powerhouses, the best parade of big men the sport's seen in a decade, a Gonzaga team that's good enough to finish what last year's group couldn't, the send-off season of Mike Krzyzewski, the first FULL season of games in two years, a stream of surprises and another 200-or-so fun storylines that will emerge over the next six months.
But before we can get to that, we've got to wrap up the business at hand. It's time to take the cover off the top of my rankings. Below you will find the 68 projected best teams in men's college basketball in 2021-22.
Here you'll find the Final Four big boys, the NCAA Tournament long shots, the inevitably disappointing No. 8 seeds, the mid-major party-crashers, the under-the-radar Sweet 16 chasers, the sleepers, favorites, well-kept secrets and don't-over-look-them treasures ... all just waiting to be watched in this glorious, cosmic-gumbo of a season ahead.
Whereas the first two installments went from ranking the better teams at the top and worked their way down, we're going to flip this and do a true countdown here, starting with No. 68 and winding our way to No. 1. Without further ado!
• THE REST OF NORLANDER'S RANKINGS: 69-200 | 201-358
68. San Francisco: Let's get this rolling with a small surprise. The Dons should be a bucketful of fun with the return of Jamaree Bouyea (likely All-WCC player) and Khalil Shabazz. It's a backcourt duo that could realistically combine to average 40 points, 10 boards and eight assists, thus giving USF its best team this century. The Dons and their coach Todd Golden believe in 3-pointer after 3-pointer after 3-pointer; more than 50% of their shots last season came from beyond the arc. If Golden's guys can tighten up their defense, they'll have an outside shot at making their first NCAA Tournament since 1998.
67. UCF: Johnny Dawkins' team deserves a tad more attention than it has received. The Knights have more than 80% of their production back from a squad that opened last season with prideful wins against Auburn, Florida State and Cincinnati. UCF also ended the season with a 5-1 record. The middle was murky, which is why UCF ended with an 11-12 mark. But C.J. Walker, Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan are the key three for a team that has the coaching capability and the nucleus to finish in the top four of the American Athletic Conference.
66. Saint Louis: Wings Javonte Perkins and Gibson Jimerson will play off the creativity of PG Yuri Collins to give the Atlantic 10 another NIT-at-worst team. The Billikens were a No. 1 seed in last season's NIT, missing the NCAAs on account of a 14-7 record that kept them out due to major schedule disruptions because of COVID. Travis Ford has had an NCAA Tournament-worthy group once in his five seasons with SLU, but this one can be another. Its ceiling is that of a double-digit seed ... if it avoids multiple bad losses.
65. Clemson: No cheating, answer me this: Did Clemson make last season's NCAA Tournament. Pause here. Look away, think, then come back. … OK, the answer is not only yes, but the Tigers were a No. 7 seed. I know. It's kind of wild. Know that Brad Brownell handled last season well and beyond expectation. One reason was his change in 3-point philosophy. The Tigers are 31st in 3-point rate the past two seasons (per KenPom), yet in his prior 17 seasons the teams he coached averaged 156, and it's even lower if you only take his Clemson career into account. Cheers to adaptability. No Aamir Simms means Clemson will launch away all the more. Do I hear 30 treys a game?
64. Georgia Tech: I will put some respect on Josh Pastner's name in this capsule. (Reminder: Pastner is the Ted Lasso of college hoops.) He's 22-15 the past two seasons in the ACC and just coached up the league's 2021 Player of the Year, Moses Wright. Alas, Wright and inspirational PG Jose Alvarado are gone and that's what's going to probably prevent the Yellow Jackets from making back-to-back NCAA tourneys. Though these next two aren't as collectively big and small as Wright and Alvarado were, the new dynamic duo Pastner will rely upon is guard Michael Devoe and forward Jordan Usher. Also: Bubba Parham hasn't popped since transferring from VMI two seasons ago, but the bonus year allows him to fulfill his potential.
63. Creighton: A Sweet 16 team in March, the Bluejays can't avoid dropping back in the herd. Greg McDermott's team is one of just a handful in the power conferences that does not return a starter. This squad is going to be three Ryans and Rati: Ryan Hawkins, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Ryan Nembhard will contribute behind anticipated top scorer Rati Andronikashvili, a Georgian-born combo guard who missed last season due to a knee injury. I'm interested to see how much McDermott can tweak and rejig his program in the months ahead.
62. Colorado: If I gave you 12 guesses as to which school has the No. 1 incoming class in the Pac-12, would you dare think Colorado was even in the top six? Guess what: It's No. 1. The Buffs have the No. 13 overall incoming class, led by C Lawson Lovering. So the future is bright. But the immediate future will probably spell NIT, given that one of the 10 best players in school history, McKinley Wright IV, now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Also, CU lost one of those incoming freshmen for the year because of hip surgery.) Evan Battey, the big man with the big heart, will be the spiritual center for the Buffs.
61. SMU: Let me remind you that the Ponies have one of the best point guards in the country, Kendric Davis. With an assist rate of 46.4%, he led the nation last season in assists per possession. At 5-foot-11, Davis is one of the best pound-for-pound guys in college basketball and he should thrive for a good SMU team in search of a full season. The Mustangs managed only 17 games in '20-21, going 11-6. Now Tim Jankovich has eight new bodies. Projecting this group based off ball from eight months ago is hard. I think making the NIT is the floor, though.
60. Buffalo: This team can be nearly as good as the Nate Oats-coached squad from '17-18 that punked Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. Jeenathan Williams (17.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Josh Mballa (15.3 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and Ronaldo Segu (13.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) form by far the best trio in the MAC. Mballa is one of the best rebounders in America and Williams is considered the dude of all dudes in that league. Quiet, determined, takes no BS. Segu does just enough to set up the other two for success while still getting his own. The Bulls are not anticipated to be a deep team, but so long as they're healthy they'll wind up being one of the toughest, most physically challenging opponents for every team they play this season.
59. Iowa: Jordan Bohannon comes back for the bonus year, and Iowa will need him to be better than ever, but it's going to be Keegan Murray who will be the breakout player in Iowa City, Iowa. The Hawkeyes have the unenviable task of having to replace the best player in school history (Luka Garza). There's … no … really … doing that. This team was a No. 2 seed in March, and given what this roster looks like, a drastic step back in the Big Ten and nationally seems unavoidable. Hey, at least the football team might make the CFP!
58. Utah State: Ryan Odom made a life change that pretty much only a person in coaching would undertake: he moved from Baltimore to Logan, Utah. Odom went 97-60 in five seasons with UMBC, with that one unforgettable/historic 2018 NCAA Tournament appearance. Now he takes over a program that was revived for all three seasons under Craig Smith. Fortunately, Odom will inherit one of Smith's guys -- and one of the best players in the Mountain West: Justin Bean (11.4 points and 7.7 boards). He'll be set up by Utah point guard transfer Rylan Jones, who should fit brilliantly in Odom's offense.
57. Northwestern: I'm projecting the Wildcats to be on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation in the first week of March. Don't think they'll break through, but the NIT is always a win at Northwestern. Chris Collins is in his ninth season and has a group of primary minutes-getters almost entirely composed of juniors and seniors. Maybe the best of the bunch doubles as one of the five best names in the sport for 2021-22. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back Boo Buie! Starters Chase Audige and Pete Nance are also still in Evanston.
56. Saint Mary's: The Gaels will have all starters back from a top-75 KenPom team. Safe to say Randy Bennett's guys should again be a factor in the top three of the WCC and have reasonable sights on making the NCAA Tournament. If Bennett wasn't so insistent on winning games in the mid-60s, SMC would have a chance to have five guys averaging double figures. The formula works, though: the Gaels were No. 1 in 3-point-rate defense and No. 2 in assist-rate defense last season, which follows a pattern Bennett's sustained for years.
55. Providence: Ed Cooley normally doesn't build his teams around an interior, bruising player, but that will be the case with 6-10 center Nate Watson. Here's an early tip: Watson is one of the five best players in the Big East. He'll be helped by key returnee A.J. Reeves; I'll add that the Friars return more than 75% of their production from a .500 team, so PC seems sleeper-ish. There are eight new faces in Providence, with Indiana transfer Al Durham expected to be a big-time Friar within the first few weeks of the season.
54. Nevada: This remains a program thriving off the transfer market. Credit to Steve Alford, who was bequeathed a good situation a few years ago via Eric Musselman and hasn't let the Wolf Pack drift. The Mountain West will have a small chance of being a four-bid league this season, and if that's a possibility come March, Nevada should be in that quartet. I don't think this squad has an outright league star, but the Pack do proudly deploy a quietly proficient backcourt of PG Grant Sherfield and SG Desmond Cambridge Jr.
53. Wisconsin: It's been a bumpy offseason for Wisconsin. Former assistant (and former really good player) Alando Tucker left the program after good local reporting revealed some (not all that unusual) internal strife with some players and coach Greg Gard. This looks like a transition season (five frosh, three transfers), but a reminder to the skeptics (uh, that now includes me? How did I get here) that Bucky's had an NCAA Tournament team in five of Gard's six seasons. Brad Davison's something of an enemy in the Big Ten, but although he's the most well known player, Jonathan Davis is Wisconsin's best. Chucky Hepburn is the future. The freshman point guard is likely to start from the get-go.
52. Washington State: With the football program in a bit of a mess, now's the time for Wazzu hoops to have its best season in more than a decade. It's taken Kyle Smith three seasons; I'd say that's a year ahead of schedule, considering the gig and all the challenges WSU presents. I'd have the Cougars top-40 if not for the loss of Isaac Bonton. Still, there's a flashy new freshman, Mouhame Gueye, and a quality default scorer in South Alabama transfer Michael Flowers. Junior wing Noah Williams should take a jump in efficiency, which will be what gets the Cougars into the top half of a competitive Pac-12.
51. Mississippi State: If this is going to be a season where the SEC can send at least seven teams to the NCAAs, Mississippi State has a beautiful chance. The team was fortunate enough to play 33 games last season, which was more than almost any other in college basketball. That will have a carryover effect. PG Iverson Molinar is back, and boy will that suit Ben Howland's group well. Then there's the incoming batch of transfers, the reason Mississippi State enters this season with more optimism than it's had in almost a decade. Garrison Brooks via UNC, D.J. Jeffries via Memphis and Rocket Watts via Michigan State. It's been a good while since the Bulldogs were interesting. You can no longer hold that against them.
50. Notre Dame: Can this season mark the end of the worst four-year run of Mike Brey's tenure with the Irish? ND's average record in that span: 17-15. No NCAA Tournaments. Average KenPom finish: 69th. Brey hopes '21-22 provides improved dividends. The Fighting Irish have just one starter back and a retooled coaching staff. Why as high as No. 50? Prentiss Hubb is still here; he'll be invaluable, and maybe second team All-ACC. Big Nate Laszewski seems destined to be a more well-rounded player. And I love the addition of Paul Atkinson, who was one of the best players in Yale history and will toughen up the Fighting Irish's identity.
49. St. John's: Ask around the Big East and you'll get a variety of opinions on the viability of St. John's. With Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander back, the interesting quotient continues to be high for a program that hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2000. There's the fairly typical/2021-style heavy influx of transfers; the Johnnies have six of them, plus three freshmen to spruce up the surroundings. Look for former UVM guard Stef Smith and former Purdue forward Aaron Wheeler to be the most important incoming players on the roster. But this is Posh's show.
48. Oklahoma: Porter Moser inherits a program that was a No. 8 seed. Moser handled the transfer portal well, landing the Groves brothers (Big Sky player of the year Tanner and his younger brother, Jacob), who were last seen nearly upsetting Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Moser and his staff managed to retain Umoja Gibson, who averaged 9.1 points in 27 minutes and will transition to being a leader of the locker room. X-factor could be Duke transfer Jordan Goldwire, who will have a shot at running the offense, but more importantly will try to bolster OU's defensive reputation under Moser, who's a very good defensive coach. The hottest name on the carousel gets his new start, and a lot of people are eager to see how this goes.
47. Wichita State: Isaac Brown was done right by Wichita State and promoted to the full-time gig in advance of last season's NCAA Tournament. The Shockers won the AAC's regular season and made the First Four; I anticipate this program will be right around the tournament cutline again. Loving the return of the 1-2 punch of Tyson Etienne (co-POY in the American) and Dexter Dennis. Getting them back -- not to mention the return of heavy-duty big Morris Udeze -- will keep Wichita State in the upper echelon of the American and steady a school that was sheathed in uncertainty a year ago at this time due to the severing from Gregg Marshall.
46. Syracuse: You're not going to believe this, but I've got Syracuse as a bubble team come March. The Buddy Boeheim Show will have its most critically acclaimed season in the shooting guard's senior go-round. In Cuse's five 2021 postseason games, Boeheim averaged 25 points -- and he'll likely improve upon his overall 17.8 average from last season. SU did well for itself in keeping 11 scholarship players, but the incoming guy who will probably see his college career get a bump is former Villanova wing Cole Swider. He hasn't unlocked his potential yet. Same goes for SU point guard Joe Girard III, who needs to take a jump to ensure SU is in the top half of the ACC.
45. West Virginia: First I have to mention that, had Deuce McBride not remained in the NBA (which was the right decision), I'd have WVU in the top 25 if he was on this roster. Could've had a HUGE junior campaign. Alas, the Mountaineers will be a bubble team led by super-senior Taz Sherman and regular ol' senior Sean McNeil. Stretch 4 Jalen Bridges has a huge opening to prove himself now. as well. Big pic: WVU has been rated in the top-10 in offensive rebound rate seven consecutive seasons. I think that streak ends this season, and because of it, I have Bob Huggins' team projected to be a bubblicious one.
44. Virginia Tech: By the middle of February the rest of the ACC is going to more cleanly understand just how good of a coach Mike Young is. The Hokies bring in the No. 13-ranked recruiting class in the conference, but that won't be reflected in the league ledger. Keve Aluma, who began at Wofford when Young was there, has blossomed into one of the 7-8 best players in the ACC. He'll be bolstered by another former Wofford Terrier, Storm Murphy, who should be good for 70-plus 3s, and Naheim Alleyne, a 6-4 junior guard who will no longer be a coveted secret by mid-January.
43. LSU: There remains ongoing fascination/disgust/exhaustion with Will Wade managing to not be fired for as long as he has. He's still here. We don't know when the NCAA angle on that will be resolved. Know this: LSU's 39 SEC wins in the past three years are most in the conference. Wade, for all his detractors and cynics, has delivered in the win column. (Which further angers his detractors and cynics.) As for the on-court product, no pablum here, as LSU as usual is offering up a roster with talent spread about. Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson and Illinois transfer Adam Miller are looking to team up and help returnee Darius Days keep LSU the kind of SEC foil it's always been under Wade. Personally, I'm intrigued by freshman Efton Reid, a former five-star prospect who'll play center.
42. San Diego State: How many coaches can claim they didn't have one player go in the transfer portal in the past 10 months? Fewer than 20. Brian Dutcher is one of them. SDSU has seven seniors on the roster, though it's Cal transfer Matt Bradley who's receiving the lion's share of the shine in the preseason. So with SDSU's pedigree, a preseason First Teamer in Bradley and so much back, why put the Aztecs at 42? This was a No. 6 seed in March, and fact is, the top three scorers (Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Terrell Gomez) graduated. A lil' dip, but this is still one of the best schools out West.
41. Richmond: The Spiders have almost their entire roster back. It's go time for UR, which started well enough in 2020 before COVID and injury setbacks careened a once-promising campaign. Jacob Gilyard (3.57 spg) will set the NCAA record for steals with 28 more. It's a huge relief/bonus that Nick Sherod -- whose knee was shredded a year ago -- is healthy again and in the fold. Hard not to embrace this team; Chris Mooney has been patiently waiting almost a decade for a squad this good. The Spiders will run gorgeous offense, have plenty of size, be one of the oldest teams in the country and have savvy defensive tendencies as well. Heck, I could be 5-10 spots too low.
40. Texas Tech: It's no secret that much of TTU's success under Chris Beard happened because new coach Mark Adams served as the defensive guru. (Kind of like the Buddy Ryan to his Mike Ditka, only without all the melodrama of those '85 Bears.) Adams is the man who built the Red Raiders' ball-stopping mindset into a philosophy that made the program nationally relevant for the first time since Bob Knight was in Lubbock. But I do want to see what happens now that Beard has moved southeast in the state. I love Terrence Shannon Jr.'s game. He'll be a top-10 Big 12 player. Question is, can Oral Roberts' Kevin Obanor (18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds) be as impactful at this level? While Obanor was the higher-profile transfer, word is UTEP transfer Bryson Williams could be just as good.
39. Rutgers: Congratulations to the Rutgers faithful out there, for this is where Steve Pikiell has brought your program. Making NCAA Tournaments and comfortably being projected as a top-50 team in the sport feels toasty, doesn't it? For decades this wasn't the case in Piscataway. Had RU not blown its second round game vs. Houston in the final minute, the Scarlet Knights would've made the Sweet 16 and entered this season with even more hype. Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell are back, and that's big, but the evolution of power forward Cliff Omoruyi will be what sends RU back to the NCAAs.
38. Belmont: The legendary Rick Byrd is rightfully going into the College Basketball Hall of Fame next month. Byrd took Belmont from NAIA status, transitioned it to Division I, got Belmont into the Atlantic Sun, then the OVC, and positioned the program to be alluring enough to join the Missouri Valley. (That's happening next year.) That's happening next year. Why am I bringing all this up? Because there have been some great Bruins teams over the past 15 years, but none have entered a season with as much potential as this year's roster under Casey Alexander. Belmont has 97% of its points back from a 26-4 ensemble that was idiotically snubbed from the NIT. Grayson Murphy (10.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.8 apg) is a dark horse All-American candidate. Center Nick Muszynski should be an efficient terror for the four-out offense that will lord atop the OVC.
37. Seton Hall: Kevin Willard has a 123-69 record the past six seasons. That's third-best in the Big East (Villanova and Creighton). The Hall probably doesn't get quite the amount of credit it should, but with one NCAA Tournament win in that span, it's understandable. I think this will be an overachieving collective in 2022. Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden are the standout wings on a team with, like, nine of them. Another is Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond, who should step in and average 10 a night. If there's a player who will make SHU a fun-but-plausible long shot of the Big East, it's Bryce Aiken, who was injury-riddled again last season. Aiken averaged just 13 games the past four years of his career. He's owed nothing but the best in '21-22.
36. BYU: Well-balanced. Doesn't make a habit of beating itself with the small stuff. Mark Pope is a rising star in coaching. The Cougars will again be Gonzaga's toughest test in the WCC (we only have two more years of this before BYU goes to the Big 12). Alex Barcello has an outside shot at being an All-American if he can improve upon his averages (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 apg on 47.7% from 3-point range) and push BYU to a single-digit seed. It's not unthinkable. The Cougars have some nice balance with TeJon Lucas playing shooting guard, Gideon George emerging at the 3 and leading rebounder Caleb Lohner playing power forward.
35. Florida: The Gators' top two are a power forward with perimeter range/top-10 SEC player (Colin Castleton) and a 6-4 shooting guard from the Big South who is a volume player with a phenomenal name (Phlandrous Fleming Jr.). Mike White has a solid core of seven guys; the next to know among them is probably Penn State transfer Myreon Jones, who I'd think should start. The same goes for Anthony Duruij, who's getting good competition from BC transfer C.J. Felder at power forward. White's had an NCAA tourney team five years running. Prediction: the Gators get there again in six months because UF overcomes the loss of Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis and mostly maintains its place overall in the sport.
34. Michigan State: The Spartans had their worst team in 25-plus years last season, finishing 64th in KenPom's metric. It's their lowest spot by 19 points in KenPom's database, which dates back to 1996-97. Sparty retained two starters and nine scholarship players. Their ceiling feels like No. 4 in the Big Ten, the floor probably No. 8. Either way, both spots obviously put MSU in the NCAA Tourney convo. And Tom Izzo's seemingly higher on this team than some media folk (me included?), which is not the norm. The point guard battle between Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker and returnee A.J. Hoggard could determine MSU's direction. Walker is pretty ballyhooed, but we'll see. Expect growth from center Marcus Bingham Jr. and forwards Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Joey Hauser. I think that's how the bread is buttered. Oh, and freshman Max Christie has this going for him: Izzo says he's MSU's best guard to commit to the program since Gary Harris. Hello!
33. UConn: There's a lot of tempting weapons who will be eager to prove their worth now that James Bouknight is in the NBA. Whether UConn has that dynamic playmaker to ensure this is a top-35 team remains to be seen. I'll take my chances with Dan Hurley. Who'll be the best player? It's TBD. The answer should come from the trio of Adam Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley and R.J. Cole. Whaley could be the top overall defender in the conference. Cole could drop 30 in a night. (Efficiency is the factor.) Sanogo will be the most improved player in the Big East. I think Tyler Polley's capacity as a go-to guy late in games will add a dimension that this team lacked last season. This will be a rugged team, but also one with potential to peel off 14-2 runs. Hitting 80 points will be a special occasion, but there seems to be little doubt that UConn is a top-four Big East squad.
32. Colorado State: Say hello to the best team in the Mountain West. Niko Medved has yet to coach a team to the NCAA Tournament in eight seasons across three schools (Furman and Drake being the others). That ends in 2022. The Rams were a top seed in the NIT and brought back one of the more irreplaceable mid-major guys in the sport in David Roddy (15.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg). Roddy rules; college hoops nerds already know about him, but make sure you catch this guy single-handedly altering games. CSU has eight of its top nine back from last season. Roddy will be most helped by having junior PG Isaiah Stevens directing traffic again. Stevens shot 42% from 3-point range, to boot.
31. Auburn: The Tigers were flawed but fun in 2020-21. Expect more of the same. And had Allen Flanigan (fourth-leading returning scorer in the SEC) not gone down with a right Achilles injury, the Tigers would have a top-25 case. He could be out for the season; we'll see. The star of this team is 6-10 freshman Jabari Smith who, heading in, is poised to be a one-and-done lottery pick. The Tigers have five new starters, and I think the adaptation and jump to the high-major level for Zep Jasper (Charleston) and Wendell Green Jr. (EKU) will be the barometer for Bruce Pearl's squad, which only has 10 scholarship players available heading into November. Biggest curiosity point is if Walker Kessler's shrug emoji of a season at UNC was an aberration or not.
30. Louisville: If there's a guy in the ACC who is going to make a substantial statistical jump for an NCAA tourney-level team, I'll put a tab on Malik Williams to be that guy. He averaged 5.0 points and 6.0 rebounds but he might be a top-five defender in the conference. Williams is who gives the Cards a chance at being top-30 good. Samuell Williamson has enticing elements to his game and will be the MVP on some nights, but the most talented player on the roster is Jae'Lyn Withers, a 6-8 forward who will need to become more assertive. U of L got some setback news in October when freshman guard/forward Mike James tore his left Achilles. He was the best high school player in Florida last year. This program again has had a lot of noise around it in the offseason (extortion attempts and what-have-you), but it's not known if the forthcoming IARP case will impact this season. I tend to think it will not.
29. Arizona: You'll get a spectrum of feedback from around the Pac-12 on what Arizona's forecast should be in Tommy Lloyd's first season. I can promise you this won't be the 29th best team in the sport in November, December or even January. But by the first week of March? Yeah, I'll take a chance and say U of A is playing at the level of a No. 8 seed. An ambitious ranking, I admit. Lloyd is playing with house money in year one, so look for Zona to be loose and free. The most productive player Lloyd did not retain was James Akinjo, but in the end I think that will serve Arizona better. U of A has six new players in the fold, but it's three particular guys still here -- from last season's roster -- who are the most important factors in getting Arizona to the Big Dance in '22: 6-11 Azuolas Tubelis (12.2 ppg), 6-7 Benedict Mathurin (10.8 ppg) and 7-1 Christian Koloko (5.3 ppg) will be an unorthodox trio that could grow into a tricky collective mismatch for many Pac-12 teams.
28. Loyola Chicago: The best mid-major team of 2021 (finished top-20 in most predictive metrics) will again be in the mix to win an NCAA Tournament game or two. The Ramblers made the Sweet 16 as an underseeded No. 8 and the only people they lost of consequence are coach Porter Moser and team MVP Cameron Krutwig. Those are huge losses, natch, but the school promoted from within, giving 30-year-old Drew Valentine a job he's naturally built for. Valentine managed to retain the rest of the roster, led by Lucas Williamson, who personifies how disciplined and dogged this defensive unit is. Williamson will have Marquise Kennedy, Keith Clemons and Aher Uguak flanking him. Braden Norris could be the best shooter in the MVC. LUC is a near-lock to boast a fifth straight season of at least 20 wins.
27. Virginia: I struggled a bit with UVA's placement. The frontcourt is a huge mystery, so it seems inevitable that this year's defense could be a step down from the normal elite-elite status it puts out there. And yet, it's Tony Bennett. I'm not out here trying to have Tony Bennett make me look like an idiot. What are the chances Virginia won't have a top-30 team? Since 2011-12, here's where the Hoos have finished in KenPom: 33rd, 41st, 4th, 6th, 4th, 12th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 42nd, 19th. The odds aren't impossible, but I'll take my chances leaning toward the Cavs comfortably making the NCAA Tournament. They'll need a few months to find a rhythm, though. Senior Kihei Clark and sophomore Reece Beekman are the only players back who averaged more than eight minutes. The transfer who could prove crucial is Jayden Gardner, who averaged 18.0 points and 8.7 rebounds on 50.1% shooting in his three-year run at East Carolina.
26. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lost the 2021 No. 1 NBA pick, Cade Cunningham, but I don't think this team is falling off all that much. In fact, there's a reasonable chance it could be a better unit in 2022. That's because Mike Boynton retained 12 players (80% of the team's minutes), then brought on former five-star recruits Bryce Thompson (Kansas) and Moussa Cisse (Memphis) to bolster his roster. This is a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team again, but I want to see if the Pokes can be smart with their shot selection. I get the feeling a lot of guys are going to be hungry for touches. The biggest names back are Avery Anderson III -- who should have a breakout season -- and Isaac Likekele, who'll pick up some of what Cunningham left behind. I'd go so far as to say this is the dark horse of the Big 12.
25. Xavier: The Big East is too well-rounded not to have two schools in the top 25. Given how the Musketeers bring back nine guys, then welcome in C Jack Nunge from Iowa and PF Jerome Hunter from IU, this is a fairly appealing roster with a second-weekend-in-March ceiling. There are eight returnees who put up averages between 10.0 and 32.7 minutes. It should by far be Travis Steele's best team, and he knows it. The success will likely start with shooting guard Paul Scruggs, but I remain a KyKy Tandy stan. Prototypically fun Big East point guard. X has size too; five players between 6-8 and 7-0 will get run. Expect Steele and his staff to roll out a variety of looks to their advantage, and in doing so, reliably use at least 10 players consistently. X hasn't had an NCAA Tournament team since Chris Mack left for Louisville. That changes in '22.
24. Florida State: It should not surprise you to learn FSU has the No. 2 ACC recruiting class this year to Duke. I won't be duped into thinking FSU will be anything less than a top-four team in that conference yet again. The Seminoles are led by 73-year-old Leonard Hamilton, who shows no signs of slowing. The two inbound transfers are Cam'Ron Fletcher (Kentucky) and Caleb Mills (Houston). Mills' potential in an FSU uni is tantalizing; I feel like he could get a Super-Mario-mushroom bump. RayQuan Evans (aggressive with the ball), Anthony Polite (steadying presence, grown-man defense) and Malik Osborne (matchup headache) will become the familiar faces who average between 10-14 points. There's a lot to make up for here (FSU only returns 34% of its points production), but until I see Hamilton have a major step-back season I won't be overlooking this program.
23. Indiana: Take a scan of the teams I've got in my top 30. I don't think there will be one with a greater shock to the senses -- in terms of what fans are used to seeing -- than IU. Mike Woodson is going to flip this thing in year one. Will it sustain for five or more years? I don't know. Will it work right away? I think so. IU, by my eye, has top-three pure talent in that league. Woodson recently admitted he is grinding his players in practice and working them into a level of conditioning they've never encountered before. It's likely awful right now, but if they can look up in mid-January and still see themselves ranked, much of it will be worth it. Trayce Jackson-Davis is now an obvious top-10 player in America, so it starts with him. It's the little things that add up, though, like keeping former highly touted prospect Khristian Lander and ensuring Rob Phinisee stuck around in Bloomington. Pitt transfer combo guard Xavier Johnson could be a revelation in the Big Ten if he can clean up his flawed habits from his hot-and-cold spell at Pitt. Can't wait to see this group in less than a month; after all, they are my national champion dark horse pick.
22. Maryland: The Big Ten had 12 of its 14 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 for at least one week last season. That set an NCAA record and helped in cementing the B1G as the top league. It's looking like the conference will be the toughest again, a forecast reflected by my top 25. I find myself as a Terps believer yet again. Mark Turgeon could well be here for the long run because, wouldn't ya know it, the wily fella managed to stir up some optimism once more in College Park. Eric Ayala is my kind of Good College Player. Always available, takes smart shots, doesn't demand the ball, shoots well enough, wonderful teammate, good vibe. And now he's the best player on this roster, slightly ahead of Donta Scott (top Terp shooter) and URI transfer Fatts Russell, who will become the James Harden of the Big Ten with how often he'll get to the foul line. (Big Ten fans are going to get so angry.) The X-factor is Qudus Wahab, who crossed enemy lines when he left Georgetown to become a Terrapin after having a transformational sophomore season under Patrick Ewing.
21. USC: Andy Enfield has a chance to prove he doesn't need a top-three NBA pick to coach a top-25 team. Evan Mobley is gone but his brother, Isaiah, decided to come back. Isaiah has a great opportunity to hone his craft and turn himself into a pro in the next six months. He should be First Team All-Pac-12. Mobley will again team up with Ethan Anderson and Drew Peterson on a team that reached the Elite Eight. What else? Boogie Ellis is now a Trojan after a pair of good-not-great seasons with Memphis. The change in scenery will suit him well. The Pac-12, which is coming off 13 wins collectively in the 2021 NCAA Tournament (tying a league record), has an opportunity to re-establish its identity as a better-than-people-think hoops league. It certainly is pacing ahead of football these days.
20. North Carolina: Hubert Davis lost three post guys but the ones back are just as productive -- and evolving. Davis kept 10 players after Roy Williams' retirement, which will give the Tar Heels a fine haul in a gettable ACC. Pretty much everyone agrees that improved point guard play from Caleb Love will determine the barometer for UNC's season. If he hits, it changes the winds of the program. They do have a pair of transfers with different skill sets who cement Carolina as an ACC contender for me: Dawson Garcia (Marquette) and Brady Manek (Oklahoma). Garcia could be a beast, and Manek will probably pop in and out with some needed perimeter presence. It's clear that Armando Bacot is the No. 1 guy, though I want to see how Davis is different from Ol' Roy in how he deploys the offense and uses Bacot and the bigs. If you're wondering who's best here, I'd go Bacot, then Love, then Garcia as UNC's top three by the time we get to February.
19. St. Bonaventure: Let's flash back to this piece last year. Here's what I wrote: "No exaggeration to say there aren't 20 coaches who could average 17.6 wins over 13 years at Bona -- especially when you remember just how decrepit this program was when Mark Schmidt took it over. NIT group at worst, and then if all return for 2021-22, Bonaventure should be a top-60 team." How's top-20 sound, Bonnies? Bona wasn't even close to the NIT last season; these guys were a No. 9 seed! Now, almost the entire roster is back -- including all starters -- from the best team in the A-10. Look out. It all starts with lead guard Kyle Lofton and top-10 center Osun Osunniyi. Don't give Schmidt that much to work with -- it's not going to be fun for ya. The offense will probably be top-50, the defense hovering around top-10. It's entirely lame how other power-conference coaches were too afraid to schedule the Bonnies, so a shoutout to UConn's Dan Hurley and Virginia Tech's Mike Young for being the only coaches to agree to a game -- and do so on a neutral floor. Last season was one of the best Bona teams in program history. This one will be even better.
18. Ohio State: The top three Buckeye dudes are easy to spot and they are all forwards. E.J. Lidell is the alpha combo forward, one of the five best players in the Big Ten and the centerpiece to OSU's conference hopes. Kyle Young is a lunch pail-type power forward/center who looks like he can bench press the practice facility. Justice Sueing is the flexible 3 who cleverly finds the crannies in the defense and can do a little of a lot of things. Chris Holtmann has found success playing those three with two shooters around them, and it's fair to expect more of that formula with the Buckeyes this season. If OSU is going to be a top-20 team, staying healthy is supremely important; I don't see this group being better than eight-deep. Keep in mind Seth Towns' offseason back surgery will keep him out until at least mid-December. Holtmann has again scheduled up, which will serve his team well when it comes time to do the seeding in March. The Buckeyes were a rare victim of a 15-over-2 upset, so motivation in Columbus will not be tough to find.
17. Arkansas: A year ago Arkansas had an entirely new roster, a new coach and I wasn't buying into the hype. I outright refused to put the Hogs in my top 40 (I ranked 'em 52nd), whereas many others saw a tournament team. Welp: my B. Eric Musselman went out and lifted a program back to relevancy, putting together a team like a hastily sewn quilt and guiding them to No. 3 seed and the program's first Sweet 16 since 1996. What I'm saying: Even though the Hogs return a modest 39% percent of their minutes, I'm not making this mistake again. Top-20, baby. Here we are. Arkansas brings on nine new faces to embolden important returning guards Davonte Davis and J.D. Notae. Musselman might have more 6-5 and 6-6 wings than anyone. MOST IMPORTANTLY: I can't wait to see 5-7 Chris Lykes on the floor at the same time as 7-3 Connor Vanover.
16. Tennessee: Look for the Volunteers to land in a similar spot as their 2020-21 ending, where they wound up being a No. 5 seed with some NBA talent peppered on the roster. I'm curious if Victor Bailey Jr. will be the breakout guy in Knoxville. He won't be the star, though; that will be freshman Kennedy Chandler, a 6-1 lead guard who'll light it up. I think Chandler is a top-five freshman this season. Wait until you see this guy go. He's the best of the five -- yes, five -- frosh Tennessee has coming in, as many as any team in a power conference. UT should be a top-20 club because Bailey, John Fulkerson, Josiah Jordan-James and Santiago Vescovi are back. Can't forget Justin Powell by way of Auburn. If Chandler's a revelation and Fulkerson can be as good this season as some thought he would be last season (where you at, Gary Parrish?), then yeah, UT can win the SEC.
15. Duke: The Blue Devils might have the best player in college basketball again. I said might. Wait until you see what Paolo Banchero is capable of. The soon-to-be 19-year-old will most likely put on a display that no other college player can emulate. At 6-10, 250 pounds, Banchero has the formidable build of a high-level NBA power forward already. Thing is, he's got delicate touch, great court vision, elite rebounding instincts and is a plus defender around the rim and in space. Duke missed last season's NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than 25 years; that doesn't seem within the realm of possibility with Banchero on the roster. Behind him, combo guard Wendell Moore Jr. is the clear No. 2 -- and he'll need to make a jump in order for Duke to compete to win the ACC. After that it'll probably either be C Mark Williams or freshman wing Trevor Keels as the Devils' option No. 3. Oh, right: It's also Mike Krzyzewski's final season in what amounts to arguably the most successful coaching career in the history of basketball. The apex of all things Duke coverage -- perhaps matching the craze of Zion -- will crescendo later this winter.
14. Baylor: A pattern should snap this season. Prior to 2021, Baylor's three best NCAA Tournament endings were the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012, and Sweet 16 runs in 2014 and 2017. In three of the four seasons that followed those, Baylor didn't make the tournament. In the other, it was one-and-done. But there's almost no shot BU isn't dancing again in 2022. Hey: the damn Baylor Bears really are the reigning champions in men's college basketball, folks. Anyone over the age of 35 can step back, absorb that, and at the same time realize how INSANE this would have been to consider at any point prior to a few years ago. Scott Drew loses Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital, but Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer, Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua are back, all guys who earned big minutes. New faces: Arizona transfer James Akinjo (could he be the newcomer of the year in the Big 12?) and freshman Kendall Brown, who is a highlight-reel dunker who loves to be coached and has a chance to break into the starting lineup. Baylor gets the semi-rare situation of having very little pressure the year after winning a championship, so much so they can use it as fuel to overshoot preseason expectations from the outside.
13. Kentucky: I resisted going top-10 on UK only because it's hard to totally shake a 9-16 season that ended six months ago. That said, 66% of the Wildcats' mended roster has at least three years of college experience. Its 12 scholarship players with at least a year of D-I hoop to their name collectively average 436 points per guy for their career. That adds up to more than 13,300 minutes played. There's just three freshmen on this team. Wait, we're talking Kentucky, right? What the hell's going on?! John Calipari didn't outthink himself, that's what. He retooled and probably built at No. 5 seed at worst in the process. (With a No. 2 seed ceiling.) I don't have enough space to list every Kentucky player of impact, but I'll give you three I like for different reasons: 1) Davion Mintz's decision to return for a super-senior season will round out a perimeter attack that temporarily stalls the graying of Calipari's hair and pulls UK into the modern era 2) Oscar Tshiebwe dodged having another high-profile big with similar skills come and eat into his role, which will allow Tshiebwe to feast similar to how he did as a freshman at WVU 3) Keion Brooks Jr. is going to be the guy who thrives in any lineup and unlocks UK's offensive potential.
12. Oregon: According to research conducted by media outlet Athletic Director U, Dana Altman gets more mileage out of his transfers than any other coach. And it's not that close. So even though the Ducks don't return Chris Duarte and Eugene Omoruyi, well, say hello to De'Vion Harmon (Oklahoma), Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse) and Jacob Young (Rutgers). They'll all be factors, as will stud guard returning guard Will Richardson (11.3 ppg), who is probably fated to be nationally underrated until we get to February and see just how much he's doing for a top-two Pac-12 team. Have to note: I'm slotting Oregon this high because 6-11 N'Faly Dante is returning, and if healthy, will play a part in the Ducks battling with UCLA atop the league standings.
11. Houston: This is a tad lofty, but I can't see the Coogs falling too far after their first Final Four in 37 years (as a No. 2 seed). Kelvin Sampson brings back five double-digit minutes-getters, most notably the ever-clutch Marcus Sasser, who'll be a preseason All-AAC guy. Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards will look to jolt his career the way Quentin Grimes (now in the NBA) did at UH. Expect Houston to remain elite with its defense; its 37.8% field-goal-percentage resistance on that end of the floor ranked first in the country. We'll probably see these cats win this year's Maui tournament (which is being held in Vegas). The American Athletic Conference will soon be undergoing realignment that, unfortunately, will remove it from the major-conference discussion. (UH is going to the Big 12.) But not this season. This season the league should have two teams with Final Four hopes and another two, at least, in the mix to make the Big Dance.
10. Texas: As you'll see, I'm mildly zagging on two schools in my top 10. (Groupthink is normally precarious.) Whereas most pundits will have Texas in the top five, I'm going to tap-tap the brakes on the UT hype. No one can argue about Texas' talent; I lost count on how many coaches told me in the past six weeks that this is by far the most talented team Beard has ever coached. The Horns rank in the top five of most interesting teams heading into November because of who's in the roster. A haul of six highly regarded transfers are in the fold, most of them coming from teams that were just-OK or worse in the past two seasons. They're all eager to win. Will it all jell? Remember, guards Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones are back. They combined to take 586 shots last season. This is their team. How Marcus Carr, Devin Askew, Tre Mitchell, Timmy Allen and Christian Bishop fill in around Ramey and Jones will determine how dangerously good Texas can be. Fortunately, we get an almost-immediate look. Nov. 13: Texas at Gonzaga. Let's go.
9. Alabama: This is what the best season in program history gets you: top-10 respect the next season. Nate Oats lost some quality players but has enough returning -- and a top-15 recruiting class -- to allow me to be a little daring and project the Tide so high. What hurts: No Nimari Burnett. A torn ACL will keep the Texas Tech transfer/likely sixth man sidelined. Even without him, SEC coaches told me Jahvon Quinerly will emerge as a top-five player in the SEC, with Jaden Shackelford not so far behind. With five-star freshman combo guard J.D. Davison also in tow, Bama should have the best backcourt in the SEC. Early indications are Furman transfer Noah Gurley is bulking up and ready to play the 5 for a team that famously goes all-in on layups, dunks and 3s. The reigning SEC champs will be heavily tested. I expect them to have 28-30 wins by the time their tournament run ends.
8. Memphis: What a carnival of intrigue this will be. Memphis, thank you for making college basketball all the more fun this season. Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren (who enrolled late in the summer) are the five-star prospects and future high draft picks who will command so much of the attention around the most hyped Memphis season since the John Calipari era. But if this is an elite team, the return of starters Landers Nolley II (13.1 ppg) and DeAndre Williams (11.7 ppg) is what sets Memphis up to sustain a top-10 ranking. Bates might play some point, and that's where Memphis has its biggest question mark. Will it be Bates, Lester Quinones (another good player back) or Alex Lomax? If Penny Hardaway -- ironically enough -- can figure out his point guard situation, then the Tigers will be as dangerous as just about any team. Miami transfer Earl Timberlake has a still-rising ceiling that makes Memphis that much more compelling of a composite.
7. Illinois: Yeah, I'm in on Illinois again. The Fighting Illini are about to have their first three-year run of 20 or more wins since 2009-11. Perhaps this kind of thing will become the norm under Brad Underwood. What's more, the team should win at least 24 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years. Kofi Cockburn is the best returning player in the Big Ten and one of the five best hoopers in college basketball. But he won't have to shoulder it all himself. Super-senior Trent Frazier's decision to come back was nearly as important as Cockburn's, as Frazier is a top-shelf defender with moxie. Add in point guard Andre Curbelo, the dazzler, and it's not so hard to sell Illinois as a preseason Final Four contender. The motivation is there; this team got absolutely punked by Loyola Chicago as a No. 1 seed in the second round. "Unfinished business" is the M.O. in the team facilities around Champaign.
6. UCLA: Here's my other mildly contrarian take in the top 10. You're unlikely to see the Bruins this low anywhere else. But allow me to ask: Is it so irrational to put a team No. 6 in the preseason (still fairly high!) when that team was No. 45 at the start of the NCAA Tournament? I don't discount the Final Four sprint; it's why I've got UCLA so high, plus the fact Mick Cronin brings almost everyone back from that same squad that needed OT to get past Michigan State in the First Four. I'm a believer in the Bruins, but I'm going to push back on the groupthink that this will be a top-three school. It's obviously possible, but just as possible is the potential for UCLA -- a No. 11 seed last season -- to impressively settle on the 2- or 3-line come Selection Sunday. The Bruins still have the MVP of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Johnny Juzang, along with someone who could prove to be even better: Jaime Jaquez Jr. The frontcourt is bolstered with Cody Riley back and Rutgers C Myles Johnson, who'll grow into a top-15 center if deployed correctly. Tyger Campbell, nice to see you again. Keep a look out: Peyton Watson will be a freshman to know in short order. Can't wait for that Gonzaga rematch in mid-November. Most of all, it feels great for college basketball to have UCLA not just legitimate again, but a preseason no-brainer top-10 team.
5. Michigan: Juwan Howard should have another Final Four contender ... if his young players' basketball IQs can click with the ones who already understand Howard's style and system. The best of the newcomers is Canadian freshman Caleb Houstan, who will probably be the best freshman in the Big Ten. Moussa Diabate is another five-star face new to the roster, but it's not just freshmen who are adjusting as we speak. Expectations are extremely high for DeVante' Jones -- by way of Coastal Carolina -- as he'll be a starting guard after averaging 19 last season in the Sun Belt. Because Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown have moved on, it leaves Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson to carry the biggest loads. Dickinson will battle with other Big Ten bigs for player of the year. If it's possible, I still think he might be a tad undervalued; I mostly enjoy him because, as he showed at Big Ten media day, he's not shying away from going after Illinois fans. Let's keep the rivalry hot.
4. Kansas: Kansas was bizarrely not a good shooting outfit in 2020-21. In fact, the Jayhawks had an effective field goal percentage of 49.4%, the poorest in ranking (196th, per KenPom) and accuracy in Self's career. With a KenPom team ranking of 27th, it also measured as the worst Self-coached team since Tulsa in 1998-99. (If finishing 27th is bad, then wow. Just wow.) Now the Jayhawks have a smorgasbord of eclectic talent, with Arizona State transfer/preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Remy Martin coming in to spice up the pot. I have no clue how that's going to go, but it will be must-see on account of Martin's penchant to jolt any given possession. Jalen Wilson was an up-and-down promising player last season and could be in for a huge year. I'm banking on him being a top-15 Big 12 guy. Add in the returns of Ochai Agbaji (their best all-around player), David McCormack and Christian Braun and you've got yourself a high-level starting five. Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu will be a spark plug. Self has told reporters he thinks Kansas can go 10-deep. I'll believe it when I see it, but the top eight looks mighty fun.
3. Villanova: Collin Gillespie opting to come back after his torn left MCL is what makes this team -- again -- a title contender. Jermaine Samuels going in for one more tour of duty with the Wildcats also helps significantly, and will matter a ton early because talented-but-snakebitten wing Bryan Antoine will miss the start of the season due to injury. I still feel like Samuels has something more in him he'll show. So if Antoine can get healthy, Villanova will again -- easily -- be the best team in the Big East and position itself for a fourth Final Four appearance under newly minted Hall of Famer Jay Wright. Other familiar names back: starters Justin Moore (could wind up being better than Gillespie) and Caleb Daniels. The knock here is losing Big East Player of the Year Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, but Villanova is a culture built upon itself. The idea is that Eric Dixon will take the jump in minutes and production, with help from top-50 2021 recruit Trey Patterson, and they'll again have one of the best offensive teams in the sport.
2. Purdue: I decided in mid-August this is where I was going to slot the Boilers. At the time I thought I was going to be on an island and likely higher on Matt Painter's team than most others in the media. But as we've gotten into mid-October it's clear that the Boilermakers are viewed as top-five caliber by plenty of knowledgeable hacks around the industry. My biggest reason for this is Painter's undisputed chops as a coach combined with potentially having three of the 30 best players in the country: PF Trevion Williams, PG Jaden Ivey and C Zach Edey, the latter two having flourished in U19 competition over the summer and boosted their stock immensely. Forward Sasha Stefanovic and combo guard Eric Hunter also return, giving Purdue as much all-around dependability as any team in men's college basketball. Painter's had some nice teams over the years that never broke through to the Final Four. I doubt Purdue reaches No. 2 the preseason AP Top 25, but if it winds up in the top five it will mark just the fourth time it's been that high heading into a season (1970: No. 3; 1987: No. 4; 1988: No. 2). Get ready for a powerhouse to emerge in West Lafayette, Indiana.
1. Gonzaga: As you can see with many teams throughout my top 20-or-so, the '21-22 season will be as heavily populated with high-level power forwards and centers as college basketball's had in ages. Many really good teams will win with bigs. With that in mind, it only makes sense to finish with the Zags at No. 1. They'll have the overwhelming pick for preseason national player of the Year (Drew Timme) and the potential No. 1 pick of the 2022 NBA Draft (Chet Holmgren). How many teams -- ever -- have had two such players heading into a season? One of the tastiest storylines heading into November is the fact that Gonzaga had the best record in college basketball last year, again has a case for No. 1 and yet the team -- Timme notwithstanding -- will hardly resemble the Bulldogs we saw last winter. The Zags do bring back veteran PG Andrew Nembhard from a 31-1 program that comfortably finished No. 1 at KenPom, even after getting mobbed by Bayor in the national championship game. Fresh face Hunter Sallis is an athletic wonder who will play point behind Nembhard, and he's joined by fellow five-star guard Nolan Hickman. It's the best frosh class Mark Few's ever had. Gonzaga remains one of the best programs in the sport. Will it ever get better than 2021-22 in Spokane? This should be the best team in college basketball two years in a row.