clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The top-25 teams in men’s college basketball for 2021-2022, previewed by our experts

We previewed the preseason top-25 teams in men’s college basketball with the help of the people who know them best.

UCLA v Gonzaga Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

So much has changed in men’s college basketball since early April when the Baylor Bears ended Gonzaga’s bid for an undefeated season in the national championship game. The NIL laws now allow athletes to profit off their likeness and work with agents while in school. Every player in the country was granted another year of eligibility because of the pandemic. The entire All-American First Team from last season has moved on to the NBA.

While there are some familiar programs at the top of the rankings to start the new season, there are also so many fresh storylines. Can Duke make one more deep tournament run in Coach K’s final season? How will Gonzaga and Baylor look after losing their top stars to the pros? Who will emerge as the Player of the Year out of a deep pool of possible candidates?

Here’s a look at the preseason top-25 for the 2021-2022 season, previewed by the SB Nation team sites.

25. Virginia Cavaliers

Projected rotation: G Kihei Clark, G Reece Beekman, G Armaan Franklin, F Jarden Gardner, C Kadin Shedrick

Heading into Tony Bennett’s thirteenth season in Charlottesville, the Virginia Cavaliers are as inexperienced as they’ve been in a while. With only two returners from last year’s rotation, the team will once again have to rely on a pair of transfers and (hopefully) emerging young players. ECU transfer Jayden Gardner will provide needed interior scoring, and former Indiana Hoosier Armaan Franklin will add perimeter playmaking and stellar perimeter defense. Despite his up and down play, senior point guard Kihei Clark should help integrate these new pieces, while sophomores Reece Beekman and Kadin Shedrick are primed for breakout second years.

The roster is unlike any other Bennett team, and will take time to mesh especially in the Wahoo system. But, Bennett’s track record of making ACC contenders out of odd assortments of talent and the high potential of a number of these underclassmen mean this team can’t be counted out of the ACC picture nor a run in March. — Zach Carey, Streaking the Lawn

Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Creighton v UConn Photo by Porter Binks/Getty Images

24. UConn Huskies

Projected rotation: G RJ Cole, G Tyrese Martin, G Andre Jackson, F Isaiah Whaley, C Adama Sanogo

The Huskies bring back a solid amount of experience and depth from last season, but will need to replace former star and current Charlotte Hornet James Bouknight’s production, especially on the offensive end. Cole should be able to handle some of the scoring load after coming into his own last season down the stretch — he was also of the country’s most prolific scorers during the first two seasons of his career at Howard, where he averaged over 21 points per game from 2017-19. Aside from Cole, scoring is probably the biggest question mark with this team, and UConn will need contributions from Martin, Sanogo and graduate student Tyler Polley, the team’s best 3-point option, to handle the rest of the offensive load.

Defensively, the Huskies figure to be one of the best in the country, embracing head coach Dan Hurley’s intensity with a hard-nosed and physical defense. Whaley will serve as the anchor of the defense, and should once again be one of the best defenders in the country with his athleticism and shot blocking prowess. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by a healthy Akok Akok, who played sparingly last season after suffering an achilles injury two seasons ago but should be fully healthy and another imposing paint presence. Martin and Jackson should provide plenty of pressure in the backcourt, and the emergence of Jackson on both ends, plus an extremely talented freshman class, could take this team from a Big East contender to one that could make yet another deep NCAA tournament run. — Dan Madigan, The UConn Blog

23. St. Bonaventure Bonnies

Projected rotation: G Jaren Holmes, G Dom Welch, G Jalen Adaway, G Kyle Lofton, C Osun Osunniyi

Mark Schmidt returns all five starters and 89% of its scoring from the A-10 regular season, and tournament champions in 2020-21. The Bonnies success is based on its defense. They finished the season ranked in the top 100 of six defensive KenPom categories, giving up over 70 points only three times last season. Player-wise, their small-large combo is one of the best in the nation, as big man Osun Osunniyi and guard Kyle Lofton are both on preseason award watch lists for their positions. This is the first time the Bonnies have been ranked since January of 1970 where they made the Final Four. — Nick Lorensen, Mid-Major Madness

22. Auburn Tigers

Projected rotation: G Zep Jasper, G Wendell Green Jr., G Devan Cambridge, F Jabari Smith, C Walker Kessler

For Auburn fans and fans of other SEC teams, this is going to be a team that looks nothing like the ones that Bruce Pearl has trotted out over the past few seasons. Returnees are few, and one of the main pieces of last season (Allen Flanigan) is going to be sidelined with an injury at least until SEC play. However, there’s a reason that the Tigers’ odds to make the Final Four were recently listed at 12/1 — Auburn probably has the most talented roster it’s had under Pearl. Nearly everyone this year is a new recruit or a transfer, and of the starting five from the exhibition Friday night, only Devan Cambridge was even on the squad last year. Still, there’s experience in UNC transfer and former five-star recruit Walker Kessler, and he’ll pair up with a top-five recruit in Jabari Smith, who’s been advertised as a generational talent on the Plains, capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor.

In the backcourt, Auburn has a few more options, with the combination of Jasper and Green coming in from other schools to man the guard spots, and Cambridge will bring a load of experience to help tie things together. Don’t sleep on Georgia transfer KD Johnson, either, or Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell, and Chris Moore, all of whom played extensive minutes and started in different roles last season. Auburn is deep, talented, and Bruce Pearl has been saying all of the things that lead you to believe that he’s got a team capable of winning another SEC title and more. — Jack Condon, College and Magnolia

Penn State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

21. Maryland Terrapins

Projected rotation: G Fatts Russell, G Eric Ayala, G Hakim Hart, F Donta Scott, C Qudus Wahab

Coming into the season, just three players on Maryland’s 16-person roster have not played in an NCAA game before and seven are juniors in college or older. This Maryland team is filled with depth and experience. The Terps are returning senior guard Eric Ayala who started in all but one game last season. Ayala was named to the 2022 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award watch list earlier this fall and is expected to be a leader for this team. Maryland is also returning the junior duo of forward Donta Scott and guard Hakim Hart. Both started in a majority of games during the 2020-21 season, and Scott picked up a spot on the 2022 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award watch list.

Despite losing guard Aaron Wiggins to the 2021 NBA Draft and guard Darryl Morsell who transferred to Marquette after four seasons in College Park, head coach Mark Turgeon reloaded with the transfer portal in the offseason. The Terps added graduate guard Fatts Russell from Rhode Island and junior center Qudus Wahab from Georgetown. Both Russell and Wahab are expected to make an immediate impact on this team. Between players who have been with the Terps for multiple seasons and additions from veteran players from the transfer portal, Maryland has no shortage of players with NCAA experience which may prove valuable in a talented Big Ten conference. – Lauren Rosh, Testudo Times

20. Florida State Seminoles

Projected rotation: G Rayquan Evans, G Caleb Mills, G Anthony Polite, F Malik Osborne, C Tanor Ngom

Once again Leonard Hamilton’s team loses multiple guys to the pros—including another top 5 pick—and once again he somehow finds a way to field a team with depth, length, experience and NBA talent. Blue chip recruits Matthew Cleveland and Jalen Warley will both play early and often, but the best newcomer just might be Houston transfer Caleb Mills. Meanwhile, upper classmen Malik Osborne, Anthony Polite, and Rayquan Evans bring shooting, defense, and an understanding of what it takes to win in March. The floor on this year’s version might be a little lower than the last couple seasons thanks to uncertainty in the front court, but the ceiling is another second weekend run in the Big Dance…or even one step further? — Matthew Minnick, Tomahawk Nation

Elizabeth City State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

19. North Carolina Tar Heels

Projected rotation: G Caleb Love, G RJ Davis, G Kerwin Walton, F Dawson Garcia, F

The North Carolina Tar Heels are going into their first season with longtime assistant coach, Hubert Davis. With Davis as the head coach, UNC will be switching to a more modern offensive scheme, and with that there will be a lot of changes when it comes to what to expect from this team. Now that there will be a lot more spacing on the floor, it should give room for key players to do more damage in the paint. The catch? They will have to knock down shots from the perimeter much better than they have the last couple of seasons, or else the whole plan goes down in flames.

Davis brought in three big-time transfers to help usher in the new era: Brady Manek, Dawson Garcia, and Justin McCoy. Not only do these players have the versatility that Davis is looking for in his new system, but they were all very good players for their former teams. Dawson Garcia was named to the Big East All-Freshmen team after a very impressive 2020-21 campaign with Marquette. Brady Manek is a big from Oklahoma that can shoot the lights out from the perimeter, as well as get the job done in the paint. Finally, Justin McCoy is a high-energy player that transferred from the Virginia Cavaliers, and he is expected to provide a huge spark off of the bench.

Transfers aside, the Heels return Kerwin Walton, Armando Bacot, and Caleb Love, who are all expected to be big-time players for this team. RJ Davis is also a player worth noting, as he looked spectacular in the exhibition game against Elizabeth City State University. If veteran Tar Heels gel with the newcomers well enough, and they are all able to excel in this new system, it’s really hard to say what the ceiling for this team will be. I expect the Heels to surprise a lot of people, and they are a legitimate threat in the ACC. — Brandon Anderson, Tar Heel Blog

18. Tennessee Volunteers

Projected rotation: G Kennedy Chandler, G Justin Powell, G Santiago Vescovi, F Josiah James, F John Fulkerson

Gone are Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and Yves Pons, in are new 5-star prospects Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Chandler is will run the show in Knoxville this season, joining a nice veteran core of John Fulkerson, Josiah-Jordan James and others. Barnes is hoping to blend elite talent with his established pieces, something that he wasn’t able to do in the COVID season last year.

Tennessee’s main issue last season was the lack of a play-maker at point guard, along with the inability to shoot. Chandler should fix the first issue, while Auburn transfer Justin Powell should fix the other. Experienced depth like Santiago Vescovi, Victory Bailey Jr. and Olivier Nkamhoua really round out this roster. These Volunteers have a ton of pieces to work with and should once again be a threat to win the SEC. — Terry Lambert, Rocky Top Talk

Ohio State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

17. Ohio State Buckeyes

Projected rotation: G Jamari Wheeler, G Meechie Johnson, F Justice Sueing, F E.J. Liddell, F Kyle Young

Ohio State returns to the floor looking to wipe the painful memory of last season’s NCAA Tournament loss to Oral Roberts from people’s memories. The Buckeyes lost leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. and defensive specialist Musa Jallow, but they have also brought in a talented recruiting class headlined by Ohio’s Mr. Basketball Malaki Branham and as well as transfers Jamari Wheeler (Penn State), Joey Brunk (Indiana) and Cedric Russell (Louisiana).

E.J. Liddell is a preseason All-American and super senior Kyle Young is one of the top utility guys in the country. Wheeler is the two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and will likely take over the point guard duties. Justice Sueing and Meechie Johnson will look to expand their scoring roles to account for the loss of Washington and Justin Ahrens is one of the top three-point shooters in the country when he is right.

With this roster, The Buckeyes should be at least a top-five team in the conference and a top-five seed in the NCAA tournament. Hopefully, for Chris Holtmann’s standing with the fans, they can finally advance past the first weekend of the Big Dance. — Justin Golba, Land-Grant Holy Land

16. Arkansas Razorbacks

Projected rotation: G Davonte Davis, G JD Notae, F Au’Diese Toney, F Stanley Umude, C Jaylin Williams

Arkansas broke a 25 year Sweet 16 drought last season and Eric Musselman has the Razorbacks positioned to do it again. Replacing Moses Moody, Justin Smith, and Jalen Tate won’t be easy, but we all know how Musselman is a Transfer Portal wizard. Arkansas brings in experience and talent with Miami transfer Chris Lykes, South Dakota transfer Stanley Umude, Wichita St. transfer Trey Wade, and Pitt transfer Au’Diese Toney. The Hogs also return Devo Davis, big man Jaylin Williams, and SEC 6th Man of the Year J.D. Notae.

Last year’s team lacked facilitators and shooters, but that shouldn’t be an issue this year. Lykes, Toney, Umude, K.K. Robinson, Williams, Notae, Texas A&M transfer Jaxson Robinson, and 7’3” Connor Vanover are all capable from downtown.

The challenge for this team will be finding chemistry on the floor. Last year’s squad never had that issue, but this is a new group. 7 players will have to learn a new system, embrace new roles, and gel with teammates. Musselman has always had a lot of roster turnover from year to year so this is not a new challenge. — Jacob Davis, Arkansas Fight

15. Houston Cougars

Projected rotation: G Marcus Sasser, G Kyler Edwards, G Tramon Mark, F Fabian White Jr., F Reggie Chaney

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has turned Houston into a consistently good program. The Cougars are coming off one of their most successful seasons in school history with a Final Four appearance, which had not happened since 1984. Defense has been a strong point and it’s likely to continue. Houston lost some key players but the roster still comes with a lot of talent from returners and some new solid additions. All-AAC guard Marcus Sasser, the second-leading scorer last season, will be back along with Tramon Mark, who played in all 32 games his freshman year. Although Fabian White Jr. only played in 13 games last season, he will also be a valuable returner since he started in 31 games the previous year with a productive 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. The additions of senior Kyler Edwards from Texas Tech and graduate student Taze Moore from Cal State Bakersfield makes the roster stronger. Houston can be expected to be a contender for another AAC title. — Isabel Gonzalez, Mid-Major Madness

Maryland v Alabama Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

14. Alabama Crimson Tide

Projected rotation: G JD Davison, G Jaden Shackelford, F Keon Ellis, F Noah Gurley, C Charles Bediako

Last year was an exciting time for Alabama basketball, as the Tide came together to win their first SEC crown in nearly 20 years. Coach Nate Oats has raised the profile of the program in short order. His playing style is fast and fun for players and suits the modern NBA, which has been a boon for recruiting. His success in that area is critical this season as he tries to replace the SEC Player of the Year in Herbert Jones plus key contributors John Petty, Joshua Primo, Jordan Bruner and Alex Reese.

The talent is there, even if it may take a few games to come together. After flirting with the NBA Draft and the transfer portal, leading scorer Jaden Shackelford returns and will be counted on heavily. Senior Keon Ellis is a legitimate breakout candidate. He brings some of the blue collar mentality we saw out of Jones last season, and is efficient at both ends of the court. Furman transfer Noah Gurley and blue chipper Charles Bediako will be counted on inside. At the point, Oats will rotate the #12 overall recruit on the 247 composite, JD Davison, with returnee Jahvon Quinerly. Quinerly acted as the Tide’s sixth man last season and will likely fill a similar role. Juwan Gary will be another key contributor off of a bench that can potentially go ten deep with blue chippers. This is not your father’s Alabama basketball program.

CBS has Alabama’s schedule rated the toughest in the nation, so there won’t be much time for this squad to come together. The non-conference slate features three of last season’s final four in Houston, Gonzaga, and Baylor, plus Memphis and a likely early season tournament matchup with Kansas. Coach Oats actually wondered aloud if he was putting a bit too much on them. If nothing else, they will be battle tested by the time conference play rolls around. — Josh Chatham, Roll Bama Roll

13. Oregon Ducks

Projected rotation: G Will Richardson, G De’Vion Harmon, F Eric Williams, F Quincy Guerrier, C Franck Kepnang

The No. 13 Oregon Ducks return just two regular starters from a team that went 21-7 and reached the Sweet 16 last season: senior guard Will Richardson and redshirt senior forward Eric Williams Jr.hope to lead this team back to the dance, hopefully with the help of former 5-star center N’Faly Dante who started early but missed the majority of the season due to injury and still won’t be available until December.

Oregon’s biggest issue will be replacing the talents of LJ Figueroa, Chris Duarte and Eugene Omoruyi, the three of which accounted for 62 percent of the Ducks’ points scored last season. Transfer Quincy Guerrier will likely be able to contribute early, considering he averaged 13.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for Syracuse last season, as will De’Vion Harmon formerly of Oklahoma. Also, keep a lookout for two true freshmen centers: Nate Bittle and Isaac Johnson, who will be asked to develop into shot-blocking big men who can regularly hit the three and snatch rebounds. — Adam Chimeo, Addicted to Quack

12. Memphis Tigers

Projected rotation: G Emoni Bates, G Landers Nolley II, G Lester Quinones, F De’Andre Williams, C Jalen Duren

Penny Hardaway has proven he can land top recruits and coach up an elite defense as head coach at Memphis. As he enters his fourth season at the helm, now it’s time he proves he can win. The Tigers have won 20 or more games in every season under Hardaway. They won the NIT last season. Hardaway is still searching for his first NCAA tournament, and this year he has the team to not only make the Big Dance, but go on a long run once he’s there.

Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren will be the headline names as two blue chip recruits. Senior forward De’Andre Williams, who is already 25 years old, might make a bigger impact on the court as the hub of the Tigers’ offense. Memphis has a versatile wing in Landers Nolley and a shooter in Lester Quinones also expected to play big minutes. You can expect the defense to be very good again (Memphis finished No. 1 in defensive efficiency last season), but it’s on Hardaway to figure out a way to make the offense cook with so many talented pieces on the floor. — Ricky O’Donnell

Loyola-Chicago v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

11. Illinois Fighting Illini

Projected rotation: G Andre Curbelo, G Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, Jacob Grandison, Kofi Cockburn

Well, obviously last year didn’t end the way any Illini fan would have hoped for, so this year, in a very weird way, can only get better. While Illinois probably won’t enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed again, a favorable non-conference slate and the size and shooting to compete in the Big Ten should keep Brad Underwood’s team ranked all year long. If Kofi Cockburn plays like the National Player of the Year candidate he’s being made out to be, and Andre Curbelo can take care of the ball, this Illinois team won’t slip up in the Round of 32 to Loyola and has the chance to make a deep run into March. — Stephen Cohn, The Champaign Room

10. Kentucky Wildcats

Projected rotation: G Sahvir Wheeler, G TyTy Washington, F Kellan Grady, F Keion Brooks, C Oscar Tshiebwe

After featuring mostly freshmen-heavy teams under John Calipari, this season will see UK field one of the oldest teams in the program’s illustrious history.

Yes, you read that right. Calipari won’t be able to claim “we’re the youngest team in America” anymore, as he made it a point to hit the transfer portal harder than the high school recruiting trail for this year after last season’s immense struggles. The starting lineup will likely feature 3+ juniors and at least one senior if that tells you how experienced this team will be.

But while this roster has plenty of veterans, most of them have never played with one other, so UK will still have plenty of growing pains as this team develops chemistry.

As for the top players to watch for, expect junior Oscar Tshiebwe to be one of the best defenders and rebounders in America, while TyTy Washington has the potential to become the latest superstar guard Calipari gets into the NBA Draft lottery after one season, as he can score from all three levels and plays the game with a rare level of control and poise for a college freshman.

Though the roster construction is different, I expect this year’s UK team to follow a similar script of past Calipari teams: Early growing pains that cause 2-4 non-conference losses, rounding into form in the middle of SEC play, and a run to the second weekend with a very real chance of breaking through to the Final Four, though that’s the ceiling I foresee for this team. — Jason Marcum, A Sea of Blue

9. Duke Blue Devils

Projected rotation: G Jeremy Roach, G Wendell Moore Jr., G AJ Griffin, F Paolo Banchero, C Mark Williams

Mike Krzyzewski’s swan song is finally here, and the legendary Duke coach is hoping to make the world forget his Blue Devils would have missed the NCAA tournament last year had they not been forced to cancel the season. It’s fitting that Coach K has the potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick on his roster for his last go-around in 6’10 freshman forward Paolo Banchero. He’ll be flanked by another possible top-five pick in freshman wing A.J. Griffin. Around the two superstar freshmen is an experienced group that should lead Duke to a much better season than last year.

Jeremy Roach is a super quick lead guard who needs to improve as a shooter. Wendell Moore is a big combo guard finally looking to deliver on his promise as a junior. Mark Williams is a force inside and should be in for a breakout sophomore season. Duke should also have a solid bench featuring both college veterans (Marquette transfer Theo Johns) and rising freshman (scoring wing Trevor Keels). Like it or not, Coach K has a possible contender in his last season. — Ricky O’Donnell

Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

8. Baylor Bears

Projected rotation: G James Akinjo, G Adam Flagler, F Matthew Mayer, F Kendall Brown and C Flo Thamba

Baylor has a wider range of outcomes this season—pretty obvious when you win the national title—but should be a top 10 team by the end of the season. They return four major contributors from last year’s squad, and have All-PAC 12 point guard, James Akinjo, ready to lead the offense. Baylor thinks it’s a bit underrated, but the Bears understand with Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital gone, it’s understandable.

Scott Drew told me at Big 12 Media Days that the lineup could change, and Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba said they don’t have a starting lineup yet. My guess for the lineup in the NCAA Tournament: James Akinjo, Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer, Kendall Brown and Flo Thamba. LJ Cryer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will play more minutes than two of the starters, and Jeremy Sochan will play major minutes. Langston Love should be in the rotation too. — Kendall Kaut, Our Daily Bears

7. Purdue Boilermakers

Projected rotation: G Sasha Stefanovic, G Jaden Ivey, G Eric Hunter Jr., F Trevion Williams, C Zach Edey

Purdue has one of the most experienced rosters in the nation. It lost one player, reserve forward Aaron Wheeler, to the transfer portal, as he is off to St. John’s. Everyone else from last year’s surprise season returns, so there is a continuity there that is unmatched by pretty much any team in the country. He will be replaced by two outstanding incoming freshmen in Trey Kaufman-Renn and Caleb Furst, the top two players in the state of Indiana last year. Both could be larger individual contributors than Wheeler was.

The offense will center around Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams. Williams is one of the best passing big men you’ll see and demands a double team at the rim. When he needs a breather Canadian sophomore Zach Edey comes in. Edey is a physical force at 7’4” that cannot be guarded one-on-one. He spent the summer playing for the Canadian U-19 team that took bronze at the World Cup and was an alternate on the senior National Team that came close to qualifying for the Olympics. In the semifinals of the U-19 he played against the United States with both Ivey and Furst. Both Edey and Ivey were named to the all-tournament team. The summer for those three (and Kaufman-Renn was invited to the tryout for the U.S. before injuring his hand) only made them better.

The largest question for Purdue is its shooting. Can it find a consistent and reliable three-point shooter to compliment its wealth of talent in the post and the individual gifts of Ivey. Sasha Stefanovic is a fifth year senior that has been around a while and has proven he can get hot in the past. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Newman is also an excellent shooter. This team is talented, experienced, and very deep. Eric Hunter Jr. is a third senior still around from Purdue’s 2019 Elite Eight run who is a solid perimeter defender and can score when needed. Isaiah Thompson is an undersized junior guard who can get hot from three. Mason Gillis was excellent as a redshirt freshman starter last year at the power forward spot, but will begin the season suspended for an off the court incident. Fans are also high on sophomore point guard Ethan Morton, who was limited due to a bout of mono last year. They have all played together for a while now. As long as the shooting clicks Purdue is one of the best teams in the country. — Travis Miller, Hammer and Rails

6. Michigan Wolverines

Projected rotation: PG DeVante’ Jones, SG Eli Brooks, SF Caleb Houstan, PF Brandon Johns, C Hunter Dickinson

The new-look Wolverines’ starting lineup features a transfer point guard for the second straight season (DeVante’ Jones), a senior who has never been a consistent starter (Brandon Johns) and a five-star true freshman (Caleb Houstan). Senior guard Eli Brooks (9.5 points per game) and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson (14.1 points per game) lead the starting lineup in returning production and leadership, while key reserves sophomore forward Terrance Williams, true freshman Moussa Diabate and sophomore guard Zeb Jackson will look to contribute early and often off the bench. Juwan Howard won the Big Ten regular season title last season in his second year as head coach of the Wolverines, and are among the favorites to win it again along with Purdue and Illinois. The Wolverines are tested early with a Dec. 1 road game at North Carolina, a Dec. 4 home game against San Diego State, and pre-Christmas Big Ten games at Nebraska and home against Minnesota, so we should have a solid grasp of what this team is made of before the New Year. — Von Lozon, Maize n Brew

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

5. Texas Longhorns

Projected rotation: G Marcus Carr, G Andrew Jones, G Courtney Ramey, F Timmy Allen, F Tre Mitchell

Something unusual is happening on the Forty Acres — it’s football season, but there’s a palpable buzz around the basketball program, led by first-year head coach Chris Beard. The energetic former Texas Tech head coach hasn’t just put in the work to connect with students, alumni, and former players, he’s landed one of the most talented rosters in program history even though only four players returned from Shaka Smart’s 2020-21 team that won the school’s first Big 12 Tournament title before flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with an upset loss to Abilene Christian.

For a program that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014, the year before the Rick Barnes era ended, a sense of apprehension lingers, the pangs of yearly disappointment stacked one on top of the other. A major question mark surrounds whether Beard can mold a roster of players who were leading scorers and playmakers into a cohesive unit. But there’s also that tremendous hope, too, because few coaches are better suited to take talented transfers like Marcus Carr, Timmy Allen, Dylan Disu, and Tre Mitchell and turn them into an actual team — Beard has been doing it his whole career.

If those transfers mesh with returnees like Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey, Texas has the talent to contend for the Big 12 title and the depth to make a Final Four run. — Wescott Eberts, Burnt Orange Nation

4. Villanova Wildcats

Projected rotation: G Collin Gillespie, G Justin Moore, G Caleb Daniels, F Jermaine Samuels, F Brandon Slater

Villanova enters the 2021-22 season anchored by five-year seniors Jermaine Samuels and BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year, Collin Gillespie. Jay Wright’s squad has a strong backcourt with Gillespie at the point and solid experience around the perimeter. The loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl as an early-entry to the NBA Draft leaves a hole for the Wildcats with their interior game that can partially be filled with the rise of sophomore Eric Dixon. Junior guard Justin Moore is a star in the waiting.

The BIG EAST coaches tabbed the Wildcats as the team to beat in the conference. Fans will be excited by a strong schedule that includes trips to the West Coast to face UCLA and to Waco, TX to play Baylor. ‘Nova will also face Syracuse as a part of the non-conference schedule as well as participate in the Hall of Fame Tip Off where they will play Tennessee (and then North Carolina or Purdue). A Big Five schedule and the BIG EAST Gauntlet will round out the Villanova season as the ‘Cats have their eyes on the school’s third National Championship in six tournaments. - Mike Jacobs, VU Hoops

Eastern Washington v Kansas Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

3. Kansas Jayhawks

Projected rotation: G Remy Martin, G Dajuan Harris Jr, G Ochai Agbaji, F Jalen Wilson, C David McCormack

Kansas returns an extremely deep, talented, and experienced roster. Bill Self typically only goes eight or maybe nine deep in any given year, but has already talked about going ten deep this season. Self was very active in the transfer portal this past offseason, adding Remy Martin from Arizona State as well as transfers G Jalen Coleman-Lands (Iowa State), G Joseph Yesufu (Drake), and F Cam Martin (Missouri Southern). G Christian Braun and F Mitch Lightfoot should still be first off the bench, but Kansas also added four 4-star recruits in G Bobby Pettiford, G Kyle Cuff Jr, F Zach Clemence, and F KJ Adams to the roster.

The Jayhawks placed three - Agbaji, Martin, McCormack - on the preseason All-Big 12 team, and were a runaway favorite to win the Big 12 again in the preseason coaches poll. Additionally, Remy Martin was also selected as the Big 12’s Preseason Player of the Year. Kansas opens the season ranked #3 by the AP and KenPom, and will be a Final Four pick for many from the get-go. With Texas and Baylor in the preseason top-10 as well, the Big 12 is absolutely loaded this year.

As usual, the Jayhawks will play a challenging non-conference schedule as well, highlighted by Michigan State, Kentucky, St. John’s, and Colorado, but KU should have no trouble extending its record.

NCAA Tournament appearance streak to 32. Look for Bill Self to get yet another 1 or 2 seed in March, and with this roster’s blend of talent and experience, don’t be too surprised if you see Self and the Jayhawks cutting down the nets in New Orleans next April. — Mike Plank, Rock Chalk Talk

2. UCLA Bruins

Projected rotation: G Tyger Campbell, G Johnny Juzang, F Peyton Watson, F Jaime Jaquez, C Cody Riley

It should be impossible for the program with the most national championships in college basketball history to be considered a Cinderella, but that’s exactly what happened to UCLA last year after a frustrating regular season barely put them in the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed. Once there, UCLA dodged multiple bullets to make a charmed run to the Final Four before their luck finally ran out on Jalen Suggs’ halfcourt buzzer-beater.

The majority of last year’s team is back. Johnny Juzang returns as the primary option after a breakout run in March and should be one of the top perimeter scorers in America. Jaime Jaquez is another big forward who can space the floor, while Tyger Campbell is a throwback floor general who will get UCLA organized in the halfcourt. Cody Riley and Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson give the Bruins two starting caliber centers on the inside. There’s also potential lottery pick Peyton Watson, a long and athletic true freshman wing who should be an ace defender while scoring on cuts and transition opportunities. The Bruins aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year. — Ricky O’Donnell

Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Projected rotation: G Andrew Nembhard, G Rasir Bolton, G Hunter Sallis, F Drew Timme, C Chet Holmgren

Last year, the Zags were the preseason AP No. 1 team and widely considered the best team in college basketball. We all know how that turned out in the national championship. So here we are, for round two. Once again, the Zags are the preseason AP No. 1 team and widely considered one of the best teams in college basketball. So what is different? Is this team better than last year’s? The Zags lost a lot. Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, and Joel Ayayi all departed for the NBA. However, the pieces that remain are more than enough to generate the requisite level of hype for another Final Four run. Drew Timme was last year’s KenPom POY and is one of the (if not the) best forwards in college hoops. Andrew Nembhard has full control of the offense. Chet Holmgren is a unicorn prospect with a skillset college basketball hasn’t seen packaged into one individual player. The Zags also grabbed another five-star recruit in Hunter Sallis and a low-five/high-four in Nolan Hickman to round out the best recruiting class in school history. Then, you add in highly ranked players we rarely saw last season such as Julian Strawther, a four-star bucket getter, and, if he returns from injury, Dominick Harris, a high-level scorer and defender.

The Zags are so loaded, the only guaranteed starters we know of are Holmgren, Nembhard, and Timme; so take that projected lineup with a grain of salt. This team is much younger than last year’s: 10 of the 17 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores, so there will be some growing pains. Don’t expect the Zags to run the table all the way until the end like they did last season. However, compared to last year, they are much deeper at virtually every position and they have as good of a chance as anyone to cut down the nets in the national championship game for the first time in school history. — Peter Woodburn, The Slipper Still Fits