Another college basketball season is upon us, and with it brings a new group of players who will define the 2021-2022 season.
The men’s game will look completely different than last year after so much turnover at the top of the sport. Both Baylor and Gonzaga lost their biggest stars to the NBA from the teams that met in the national title game. Each of the First Team All-Americans has moved on to the next level, opening the door for fresh faces to emerge as the best players in the country.
There wasn’t nearly as much turnover in the women’s game, where four of the five First Team All-Americans return this year. Stanford returns the bulk of a team that won the national championship, and they’ll face strong competition from loaded South Carolina and UConn teams in particular.
As college basketball kicks off, here’s our list of the 20 most important players in the country.
Paolo Banchero, F, Duke
Banchero doesn’t need college basketball, but he’s spending one season at Duke anyway. The 6’10 freshman entered the year as our projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft due to a combination of size and skill no player in America can match. Think of Banchero as a supercharged Julius Randle: a big, strong forward who can create his own looks in isolation, rip mid-range jumpers, and finish inside. This is the rare 18-year-old talented enough to be getting buckets in the NBA right now. Coach K is lucky to have him as his final one-and-done superstar.
Paige Bueckers, G, UConn
Bueckers was a sensation as a high school player out of Minnesota after a star-studded youth career with USA Basketball, and she fully lived up to the hype as a freshman at UConn. All the 5’11 point guard did her college debut was earn AP National Player of the Year honors while establishing herself as a dynamic scoring and passing threat. The Huskies’ season ultimately ended in the Final Four, which qualifies as a good year anywhere but UConn. Bueckers is about to be the biggest star in college hoops this season in either the men’s or women’s game, but she’d rather have a national title on her resume. She should be must-see TV as a sophomore.
Chet Holmgren, F, Gonzaga
The first thing you notice about Holmgrem is how incredibly skinny he is for a 7-footer. The next thing you notice is the aggressive mentality he plays with that belies his thin frame. Gonzaga’s freshman phenom is a monster rim protector who will spend his one-and-done season amassing a lengthy highlight reel of blocked shots for the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Holmgren can be even more tantalizing offensively, showing flashes of a dribble-pass-shoot skill set rarely found in a freshman big man. If he it all comes together, Gonzaga will be favored to make another Final Four run, and Holmgren will have a chance to vie for the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick in June.
Haley Jones, G, Stanford
Jones was the first top-ranked recruit to sign with Stanford since Chiney Ogwumike back in 2009 when she arrived on campus 10 years later. After a knee injury cut short her freshman year, Jones returned better than ever last season as a sophomore. The do-it-all forward was the team leader in rebounding while finishing second in scoring and assists. She enjoyed a star-making run in the NCAA tournament, winning Most Outstanding Player honors after dropping 24 points in the Final Four against South Carolina, and 17 points against Arizona in the victory in the national title game. Jones is poised for a big junior year for a Stanford team that will be a championship contender once again.
Johnny Juzang, G, UCLA
After getting lost in the shuffle as a freshman at Kentucky, Juzang transferred to UCLA and blossomed into a superstar during the Bruins’ shocking run to the Final Four last season. The 6’6 junior guard lacks top-end athleticism, but makes up for it by being one of the best shot-makers in the country. With range out to the three-point line and a deep bag of step-backs he can unleash to get off a clean look under duress, Juzang is built to be the primary scorer at the center of UCLA’s national title aspirations. Juzang and the Bruins aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year.
Aliyah Boston, C, South Carolina
Boston is the anchor of South Carolina’s preseason No. 1 ranked team. One of the best defensive players in college basketball, Boston is a 6’5 big who can protect the paint and own the glass. She’s also a skilled interior scorer on offense, and started to stretch out the range on her jump shot last season, going from 12 three-point attempts as a freshman to 49 as a sophomore. The scary thing about Boston is how much room her game has to grow even after a First Team All-American sophomore season. She should be the best center in the country this year as a junior.
Hunter Dickinson, C, Michigan
Dickinson is a throwback low-post threat who consistently torched single coverage for Michigan as a freshman. The 7-footer has the strength to establish position on the block, and a beautiful lefty hook shot he can go to for consistent offense. As a sophomore, Dickinson can get sharper as a passer when double teams crash down in the paint. Defensively, Dickson lacks elite mobility but knows how to wall up at the rim to block shots. The Wolverines’ Final Four aspirations start with Dickinson being a legitimate National Player of the Year contender.
Rhyne Howard, F, Kentucky
Howard is a 6’2 wing who has proven to be one of the best scorers in college basketball since she enrolled at Kentucky. Now a senior, Howard is a three-level bucket getter who has posted back-to-back seasons of averaging more than 20 points per game. There might not be a more versatile shot-maker in the country. Watch her at the college level while you still can — Howard enters this year being touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
Andre Curbelo, G, Illinois
Kofi Cockburn might be the best player on Illinois, but sophomore Andre Curbelo is the reason to tune in for Illini basketball. There may not be a more creative point guard in the country. Curbelo is a brilliant passer who is always inventing new angles to set his teammates up for success. Even with a shaky three-point shot, Curbelo constantly has defenses at his mercy with a tight handle and unparalleled vision. He should be in for a starring role in his second season in Champaign after the departure of All-American Ayo Dosunmu for the NBA. Illinois is a must-watch team with him at the controls.
Caitlin Clark, G, Iowa
If it wasn’t for Bueckers, Clark would have been college basketball’s biggest freshman phenom last year. A top-five recruit out of Des Moines, Clark chose to stay home and play her college ball at Iowa. She was arguably the best player in the country from the minute she stepped on the floor. Clark led the nation in scoring (26.6 points per game) and finished second in assists (seven per game). She was deadly as a shooter, hitting 40.6 percent of her three-pointers on 9.5 attempts per game. The 6-foot guard can do it all on the court. She should only get more dominant as a sophomore this season.
Ochai Agbaji, G, Kansas
Bill Self pulled the planned redshirt off Ochai Agbaji midway through his freshman season, and he’s been ascending up the college basketball world ever since. Now a junior, Agbaji is the primary option for a Kansas team that starts the year in the top-five of the polls. A strong and athletic 6’4 guard, Agbaji can hound opposing ball handlers defensively and attack the rim on offense. His three-point shot gets a little better every year. If that trends continues again this season, a run at All-American status could very well be in the cards.
NaLyssa Smith, F, Baylor
Smith is one of the most decorated players in college basketball as she enters her senior year. The 6’2 forward was the Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American last season, and was extremely productive in Baylor’s run to the Elite Eight. Smith destroyed opposing defenses by running the floor hard in transition while showing off a killer face-up game from the elbows in the halfcourt. She should be nothing less than one of the top players in the country once again.
Jaden Ivey, G, Purdue
Ivey was the No. 87 ranked recruit in the country entering Purdue. A year later, he’s now positioned to make a run at NBA draft lottery status if he can have a big sophomore year. The 6’4 guard has elite speed with the ball both in transition and when dusting a defender off the dribble in the halfcourt. Ivey is also a long, active perimeter defender who posted a nearly five percent steal rate last year. He needs to get much better as an outside shooter, but Ivey has all the tools to be the leading man of a great Purdue team this year.
Naz Hillmon, F, Michigan
Hillmon put up some ridiculous numbers during her standout junior season at Michigan. She averaged 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game to win Big Ten Player of the Year over Clark. The 6’2 forward is a battering ram as an inside scorer, and she’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the country when her teammates miss. Last season included a 50-point, 16-rebound game over Ohio State. She’s ready to bully the Big Ten one more time as a senior.
Jahvon Quinerly, G, Alabama
Quinerly feels like he’s been in the spotlight forever. He was caught up in the sweeping FBI investigation as a five-star recruit and changed his pledge from Arizona to Villanova. He transferred to Alabama after one season, sat out a year, and quickly emerged as the floor general of a Tide team that pushed the pace at every opportunity. Quinerly is the man at the controls again this year for a reloaded Bama team with Final Four aspirations. His story isn’t finished yet.
Azzi Fudd, G, UConn
Fudd is the top incoming freshman in the country after a standout prep career at Maryland powerhouse DeMatha. The 5’11 guard joins Bueckers in a star-studded UConn backcourt after the pair won multiple gold medals together with USA Basketball. Fudd is known as a knockdown shooter, and she should make a living spotting up off Bueckers’ drives to the rim. UConn is comically stacked again, and Fudd is their next superstar.
Emoni Bates, G, Memphis
College basketball fans will likely be treated to two years of Bates at Memphis, because he’s too young to enter the 2022 NBA Draft. While he may not be the Kevin Durant clone some considered him to be in his early high school days, Bates is still a 6’9 perimeter player who can rip deep threes and handle the ball like a guard. His shot selection and thin frame can often undermine him, but when Bates is on there are fewer players in the country with superior tough shot-making ability. Penny Hardaway has Memphis thinking big with Bates and fellow top freshman Jalen Duren anchoring the lineup.
Cameron Brink, C, Stanford
Brink was the No. 3 recruit in the country heading into her freshman year at Stanford last season, and she immediately proved to be one of the best bigs in college basketball. The 6’5 center finished among the nation’s leaders in blocks, and then anchored the middle of the Cardinal defense during their charmed run to the national title. Brink should be in for an even bigger role this year offensively, and she’s been working on expanding her shooting range. She feels like a star-in-the-making in every sense.
Andrew Jones, G, Texas
Jones entered Texas as a McDonald’s All-American way back in 2016. After a promising freshman year, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Jones returned to the Longhorns full-time for the 2019-2020 season and has been a dependable contributor in the backcourt ever since. Now Jones is in his sixth college season on a Texas team that starts the year in the top-five. New head coach Chris Beard has reloaded the roster with transfers, but Jones remains a starter as well as one of the most inspiring stories in college hoops. If Texas can live up to the hype, Jones will deserve all the attention he gets.
Zia Cooke, G, South Carolina
Cooke turned into a star during her sophomore season at South Carolina, establishing herself as the leading scorer on a Final Four team. The 5’9 guard is a threat to pull-up off the bounce if she gets an inch of daylight, improving to a 39.3 percent three-point shooter last season. Cooke was at her best in the biggest games, hitting five threes in a Sweet 16 win over Georgia Tech and scoring 25 points in the loss to Stanford in the national semifinals. If South Carolina gets back to the sport’s biggest stage this year, Cooke will be the guard driving their success.