Blue Ribbon Report Staff
1. Gonzaga—Another year, another Zags team at the top of our preseason poll. Here’s what’s remarkable about that. Last season, the Zags had to replace four of their top six scorers, but because of some astute recruiting and transfer pickups, coach Mark Few and his staff still put together a team that, just as most pundits suspected, had the goods to go all the way to the national championship game.
Evidence of that came early. The Zags became the first Division I team to beat four opponents ranked in The Associated Press Top 20 in its first seven games. And the West Coast Conference tournament championship win against BYU (88-78) was their 23rd straight consecutive double-digit victory, which broke the record of John Wooden’s Bill Walton-led UCLA team in 1971-72 as the longest such streak.
Gonzaga was outmatched by Baylor in the NCAA title game and lost stars Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert from that team as well as key piece Joel Ayayi but retained two stars in forward Drew Timme and point guard Andrew Nembhard, signed another experienced transfer in Rasir Bolton, and brought in 7-0 Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 high school player in the country, along with two other five-star talents—guards Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman.
There is plenty of depth as young players are eager to step into bigger roles.
“I think the real challenge for us this year is going to be how young we are,” Few says. “We’re young. Chet’s going to play. Hunter’s going to play. Nolan’s going to play. And Dom Harris and Julian [Strawther] got minutes last year, but they were backup minutes.”
Few’s history would suggest the Zags will figure things out. Since 2016, their record is 164-16, with two appearances in the NCAA finals.
2. UCLA—The team Gonzaga dispatched in the Final Four with a miraculous shot by Suggs is back, largely intact with a lineup that includes bucket maker Johnny Juzang, point guard Tyger Campbell, and fellow starters Jules Bernard, Jaime Jaquez, Jr. and Cody Riley, all of whom are capable of making winning plays at any time.
To that veteran mix, coach Mick Cronin added five-start wing Peyton Watson and 6-10, 255-pound Myles Johnson, a Rutgers graduate transfer with a 7-7 wingspan who last season averaged 8.5 boards and 2.4 blocked shots.
“I've just been doing this long enough that I know that it's about the players, and we’ve just got good guys on our team,” Cronin told Blue Ribbon.
Good and talented.
3. Kansas—Indicative of how the college game has changed, mighty Kansas had to alter its recruiting strategy a bit to fill some glaring needs.
“We just tried to approach what our needs were,” coach Bill Self says. “Moving forward, we’d like to sign kids from high school with the number of people you know are leaving and maybe fill in recruiting through the portal with the kids that leave who you don’t anticipate leaving. This past year was a little bit different. We were just trying to get our roster filled. So, we probably leaned on the portal more this past year than I think we will be moving forward.”
The portal was good to the Jayhawks. To an experienced lineup that includes center David McCormack, guards Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun and wing Jalen Wilson, Kansas blends in a big-time point guard KU found in the portal—former Arizona State star Remy Martin, the kind of breakdown guy the Jayhawks didn’t have a year ago. The Pac-12’s top scorer last season, Martin was even better (21.5 ppg) in conference play. He was a three-time All-Pac-12 choice and a first-team selection the last two seasons. As a freshman, he was voted co-Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year. Martin’s four 30-point performances last season were the most in the conference, as were his 12 games with 20 or more points.
The portal also provided athletic guard Joseph Yesufu from Drake and Jalen Coleman-Lands, a 6-4 shooter who’s on his fourth college stop having played at Illinois, DePaul, and Iowa State previously. Last season Coleman-Lands scored 20 in both Iowa-State Kansas games.
4. Texas—After Shaka Smart left for Marquette, there was no other choice to coach the Longhorns than Chris Beard, who played at Texas and had built a reputation as a quick fixer-upper at Little Rock and Texas Tech. Within weeks after taking the Texas job, he showed why. Beard and his staff put together what might be the best-ever transfer portal recruiting class. Every year ESPN.com produces a credible ranking of transfers, and the Longhorns nabbed four of ESPN’s top 16—No. 1 Marcus Carr (Minnesota), No. 4 Timmy Allen (Utah), No. 5 Tre Mitchell (UMass), and No. 16 Christian Bishop (Creighton). Texas also signed No. 23 Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt) and No. 30 Devin Askew (Kentucky).
Those battled-tested newcomers will team with holdovers Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey to give the Longhorns, a surprising NCAA tournament washout under Smart’s watch, into a team that has a chance to advance deep into the tournament.
5. Villanova—The Wildcats ended 2020-21 losing two senior starters and an early entry into the NBA Draft, and less than three weeks later got those two starters back. That has Villanova poised for yet another run at a national championship.
The experience and leadership point guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels bring for a fifth season are unparalleled. Guard Justin Moore and forward Brandon Slater also are expected to take a step up, and a healthy Bryan Antoine would add valuable skills—shooting, speed, and defense—to the cause. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s departure certainly leaves a gap in rebounding and interior defense, so coach Jay Wright’s task is to fill that role.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a guy like that,” says Wright, who in the offseason was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and won an Olympic gold medal as an assistant coach for Team USA. “But I think we do have a lot of other guys that have been waiting for that responsibility. I think Justin Moore is in a position to step up. We know what Jermaine and Collin can do, but I think Brandon Slater is in a position to step up. So I do think we’re going to do it differently. We just won’t have that guy.”
6. Michigan—The 2021 offseason saw coach Juwan Howard’s staff remain intact and some key roster decisions all go Michigan’s way. Center Hunter Dickinson, a national player of the year candidate, flirted with the idea of remaining in the NBA Draft and came close to doing so, but ultimately opted to return. Eli Brooks, an invaluable veteran, announced he would use his COVID-allotted extra year of eligibility. DeVante’ Jones, the reigning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, transferred in to take over at point guard.
To that experienced core, Michigan adds the No. 2-rated recruiting class in the country according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
7. Kentucky—You know times are changing when Wildcat coach John Calipari leans heavily into the NCAA transfer portal instead of five-star, one-and-done freshmen. The addition of former Davidson star Kellan Grady and former Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler gives Kentucky an all-transfer backcourt because former Creighton player Davion Mintz, last season’s team leader in assists (77), points (288), and made 3-pointers (56), decided to return as a super senior.
Counting former West Virginia post bruiser Oscar Tshiebwe, Cal could start a lineup with four players who began their careers at other schools. Kentucky also signed former Iowa sharpshooter CJ Frederick and the usual array of decorated freshmen, notably point guard TyTy Washington.
8. Duke—The Blue Devils have the horses to make coach Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour a memorable one. There is the usual influx of freshman talent, a definitive characteristic throughout Coach K’s tenure but especially over the last decade. Duke’s incoming class is ranked fifth in 247Sports’ team rankings, and the group includes a Top 5 recruit (forward Paolo Banchero) and a pair of Top 25 freshmen.
And it’s a roster that includes two graduate transfers, a clear attempt to plug some holes with experience after last season’s youthful team learned some hard lessons on the fly.
It sets up Krzyzewski for a run at a possible 16th ACC tournament title, a 13th ACC regular-season crown, a 13th Final Four push, and maybe even a sixth national championship as a bow on a stellar career.
9. Purdue—With player movement at an all-time high in college basketball this offseason because of the one-time transfer rule, a talented and rugged Purdue team could benefit from continuity.
The Boilermakers return all five starters and 91.3% of their minutes played from a team that reached the NCAA tournament for the 12th time in head coach Matt Painter’s 16 seasons. Butler (94.1%) is the only high-major program that brings back more minutes than Purdue.
“We’re one of four high-major schools in the country that didn’t take a transfer,” Painter says. “So just I think that stability of returning players, plus we have incoming guys that we feel are going to help us, so we’re excited. We’re excited about it, but it’s still a process and you still have to put in the work and come together as a team to have success.”
Led by all-conference center Trevion Williams and emerging All-Big Ten Freshman guard Jaden Ivey, Purdue will enter the 2020-21 season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten title and a lot more.
10. Tennessee—The Vols lost three players to the NBA but responded with a top-four nationally recruiting class that is highlighted by point guard Kennedy Chandler but also infuses coach Rick Barnes’ roster with more length, rim protection, overall athleticism, and shooting ability than he’s had in his previous six seasons. There’s even a transfer who has freshman eligibility—Justin Powell from Auburn—who’s a rangy (6-6) shooter who can also spell Chandler at the point.
To top it off, beloved big man John Fulkerson returned for a super senior season, determined not to go out like he otherwise might have—missing most of the postseason after an elbow to the head in the SEC tournament sidelined him.
“People love him because he’s so selfless,” Barnes says. “He’s all about Tennessee, all about his teammates. He’s a guy that never played for the name on the back of his jersey, but for the name on the front.”
11. Memphis—The Tigers were the off-season’s biggest mover and shaker. They didn’t make giant headlines with their recruiting class, as they did in coach Penny Hardaway’s first season—until August. That’s when standout power forward Jalen Duren, thought to be one of the top three recruits in the 2022 class, decided to reclassify and enroll at Memphis. At the end of the month, the next bit of big news hit when Emoni Bates, the top-ranked player in the 2022 class and a former Michigan State commit, let the basketball world know he was reclassifying and chose the Tigers over MSU, Oregon, and a lucrative G League contract.
Adding Duren and Bates catapulted Memphis from an NCAA tournament hopeful to a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.
12. Baylor—The defending national champions lost four stalwarts from last season’s starting lineup, but still have enough talent to put together another memorable season. James Akinjo, who logged time previously with Georgetown and Arizona, arrives to take over the point, and returning players Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer will join him to form a solid backcourt. Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba also return from the title team and will take on greater roles in the frontcourt.
13. Arkansas—Despite losing several key players from last season’s Elite Eight team—notably first-round NBA Draft pick Moses Moody and seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate—the Razorbacks are a preseason Top 25 team again because coach Eric Musselman and his staff added several transfers to go along with a returning cast that includes SEC Sixth Man of the Year JD Notae, Davonte Davis, Jaylin Williams and Connor Vanover.
The transfer class might have been the best in the country this side of Texas—Chris Lykes (Miami), Stanley Umude (South Dakota), Au'Diese Toney (Pittsburgh), Trey Wade (Wichita State), Kamani Johnson (Little Rock), and Jaxson Robinson (Texas A&M).
14. Florida State—There won’t be any surprises when it comes to the Seminoles. They’re going to play fast and smart, they’re going to defend, they’re going to have a big guy in the middle swatting away shots, get veteran leadership, and they’re going to wear opponents down with a deep bench.
It’s a formula that has helped catapult coach Leonard Hamilton and his program into the ACC’s elite over the last five seasons.
Considering the quality of the returning nucleus, the addition of two talented transfers—Caleb Mills (Houston), Cam’Ron Fletcher (Kentucky)—and a recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally by several major services, there’s no doubt FSU will once again be in the mix for an ACC title.
15. Alabama—Last season the Crimson Tide was the only power conference team to win its league’s regular-season and tournament titles. Alabama might not be that good again after having lost SEC player of the year Herbert Jones and 3-point assassin John Petty, but few teams will match the backcourt of Jahvon Quinerly, JadenShackelford and sensational freshman JD Davison.
16. North Carolina—Hubert Davis’ first season after replacing Carolina legend Roy Williams should be a fun ride, thanks to the return of second-year freshman guards Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton and sophomore big man Armando Bacot to go along with some astute portal acquisitions, including former Oklahoma power forward Brady Manek and 6-11, 234-pound Dawson Garcia, who wowed the Smith Center crowd last January when playing for Marquette, he contributed 24 points and 11 rebounds in an upset win.
17. Houston—Despite heavy personnel loss from its Final Four outfit, Houston is going nowhere, thus its inclusion in Blue Ribbon’s preseason Top 25. “We’ve got good pieces,” coach Kelvin Sampson says. “You know what’s fun? Putting them all together. … We’re set up for sustained success. We didn’t just get good last year. We’ve been good for a while. Things broke right for us.”
Marcus Sasser, Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards and CSU Bakersfield transfer Taze Moore form a solid backcourt, and Fabian White, Jr. and 6-11 UConn transfer Josh Carlton make for a tough, blue-collar frontcourt that can defend the interior and rebound, the latter of which is one of the program’s hallmarks. Carlton is also a good low-post scorer who will open up space for the Cougars’ shooters.
18. Illinois—The return of the mountainous Kofi Cockburn was the big key to the Illini emerging as a preseason Top 25 team, but Trent Frazier’s decision to play a super senior season and the presence of second-year freshman Andre Curbelo at the point are significant, too.
19. Oregon—The offseason was all too typical for coach Dana Altman’s program. Oregon lost its top three scorers and six of its nine top players overall, including a first-round NBA Draft pick (Chris Duarte), a two-way signee (Eugene Omoruyi), two more pro departures, and a pair of transfers. It also had to replace longtime assistant Tony Stubblefield, who left to become DePaul’s head coach, with former Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield. The Ducks added four transfers and two well-regarded freshmen, suggesting they’ll be just fine.
20. Ohio State—The return of forward E.J. Liddell from NBA Draft exploration was good news, and coach Chris Holtmann is going to let the big man work on improving his stretch-four abilities. That leaves more of the post duties to senior Kyle Young. The Buckeyes made a great summertime portal pickup when Louisiana guard Cedric Russell, who would have been preseason player of the year in the Sun Belt, decided to transfer on June 30 and chose Ohio State, where he’ll help ease the loss of Duane Washington, Jr. to the NBA.
21. Michigan State—Everywhere coach Tom Izzo looks, he sees improvement. At the five, Marcus Bingham, Jr., has made big gains. At the four, Joey Hauser has been even more versatile and dangerous. On the wings, fourth-year junior Gabe Brown and McDonald’s All-American freshman Max Christie have changed their official address to the practice gym.
“We’ve been a Top 25 team more often than not over the last 25 years,” Izzo says. “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be that again this year. We have so many guys who have made monstrous jumps. That bodes well for us.”
22. Auburn—The Tigers would have been ranked higher had it not been for the loss in September of 6-6 second-year sophomore Allen Flanigan to an Achilles injury. He’s expected to miss 12-14 weeks. Like fellow SEC Top 25 teams Kentucky and Mississippi State, Auburn mined the portal for as many as three starters—point guard Wendell Green, Jr. (Eastern Kentucky), guard K.D. Johnson (Georgia) and center Walker Kessler (North Carolina). Five-star freshman Jabari Smith, Jr., a 6-10 stretch four-man, will also play a big role.
23. Maryland— Transfers Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) tilt the Terps back to Big Ten contender status. Freshman recruits Julian Reese, James Graham III, and Ike Cornish up the ante as well, joining proven commodities Eric Ayala, Donta Scott, and Hakim Hart.
24. Mississippi State—Point guard Iverson Molinar’s return was huge, and Tolu Smith gives the Bulldogs a skilled big man, but State is another team that was fortified by the portal. Transfers Garrison Brooks (North Carolina), D.J. Jeffries (Memphis), Rocket Watts (Michigan State), and Shakeel Moore (NC State) will all make significant contributions.
25. St. Bonaventure—All five starters, each of whom averaged at least 32.9 minutes per game, return from an NCAA tournament team, making the Bonnies one of the more experienced groups in our Top 25. Big man Osun Osunniyi, the 2020-21 Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year, is an anchor, but St. Bonaventure has great balance and filled some holes with transfers, both from Division I and junior college.
Thanks for reading!
If you like what you’ve read since we started this newsletter more than a year ago, tell your friends about us.
If you want to receive more stories like this one, subscribe to our paid tier for only $7.99 per month (or save $24 per year with an annual subscription).
Also, be sure to snag the 41st edition of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. It’s available exclusively at our website. Just click on the link below.