And now, the grand reveal. A CBS Sports college basketball preseason rite of passage, my ranking of every team in men’s D-I hoops, focuses on the projected 68 best teams for 2020-21.
We have your title contenders, your bounce-back stories, your feel-good stories, your you-don’t-know-how-good-they-are-yet stories, your too-hard-to-slot stories, your Sweet 16 stories, your NIT stories, your get-the-season-here-immediately stories.
It’s going to be a crooked, bizarre, unique season. But we will have a season. These are the teams to know. These are the schools that are champing at the bit to get back to playing so they can vie for the first NCAA Tournament in action in what will be two years’ time. I will note that KenPom.com released its rankings in the thick of the night early on Wednesday, but as always, these rankings do not cross-reference or rely on any preseason computer forecasts. My projections are woven together through old-fashioned research and reporting, with some zesty predictions reliably (foolishly!) tossed in for good measure.
From Final Four favorites to smaller-conference spoilers, here’s who to follow in college hoops this season.
CBS Sports preseason rankings: Nos. 1-68
1. Villanova: A teaser: Later this month we’ll be publishing our list of the greatest programs in college basketball history. Villanova’s placement on that list is strong. Recent national titles, plus annual expectations to make the Final Four, that have made it so. Unlike 2019, when Michigan State was the across-the-board agreed-upon pick for preseason No. 1, we have no consensus in 2020. (Fitting.) But Villanova has as good a case as any. Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl — both of whom could win the league’s player of the year — are central to that case. Nova only lost Saddiq Bey; everyone else is back. Expect Justin Moore (HUGE potential), Cole Swider and Jermaine Samuels to round out the starting five. VU also has the best sixth man in the Big East (Bryan Antoine) and a secret weapon in Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels. This isn’t as good as the 2017-18 title-winning group, but it could be better than the 2015-16 club that won thanks to Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater vs. North Carolina.
2. Gonzaga: Mark Few is sitting on 599 career wins, so it’s safe to say the 57-year-old is as eager as anyone in his profession to get this season going. Given how good a team he has this season, it’s understandable. There’s Corey Kispert, who’s a CBS Sports preseason First-Teamer. There’s Jalen Suggs, a top-10 prospect in the Class of 2020 and the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga’s history. There’s Joel Ayayi, who was good enough last season to warrant poking around the NBA pre-draft process. Gonzaga also has sophomore Drew Timmie, a power forward teeming with potential to the point where his ceiling this season is top-25 player in college hoops. Best offense in the sport, potentially. My colleague Gary Parrish has the Zags No. 1 in his rankings. I don’t agree fully, but the margin between the Bulldogs and Villanova is miniscule.
3. Baylor: Scott Drew has guided Baylor into its true golden age. The Bears were 26-4 last season and would have been a lock for a No. 1 seed. Because Jared Butler and MaCio Teague opted to head back to campus, Baylor is inevitably going to set a program record for highest preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 (previously: 12th). This is your Big 12 favorite … for the first time in league history! Butler will be a preseason All-American and Teague joined him on the All-Big 12 preseason first team. Mark Vital is a Mack truck of a power forward and in all honestly could be a top-five defender in the sport. With Freddie Gillespie having graduated, guess what? Tristan Clark is a candidate to step in and start at center — and you might recall that as a sophomore, two seasons ago, Clark was on his way to being one of the best players in the Big 12 before he hurt his knee. He’s taken a long road back, but if healthy, Baylor’s roster should be better than a year ago.
4. Illinois: Fighting Illini fans, enjoy this. Bask in a preseason of hype you’ve been anticipating for 15 years. Illinois benefitted more than any other team in college basketball in terms of having two on-the-fence star players return. I speak of course of wing Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn, who will comprise one of the best 1-2 combos in college hoops. They won’t be everything, but they’ll be plenty for Brad Underwood’s team. Freshman Adam Miller is sure to shine at times, plus Illinois will still have Trent Frazier to give a three-man guard attack that is going to steer them to a high seed. Last season I wrote about Underwood’s offseason overhaul to his X-and-O approach and it unquestionably altered Illinois’ trajectory. Expect a few more tweaks, and with that, a team capable of its first Big Ten title since 2005.
5. Virginia: This is where Virginia’s at as a program: The Cavaliers should expect, almost every October, to be considered one of college hoops’ 10 best teams. That is the bar. UVA had the No. 1 per-possession and points-allowed defense last season; I see little reason that will change in 2020-21. Kihei Clark is still running the offense, which will definitely be better than 234th in the sport (where UVA was last season). Virginia fans are hoping Sam Hauser‘s 44.5% career 3-point accuracy is going to inject weaponry and dynamism into an offensive attack that desperately needs it. I’ve tapped Virginia sophomore shooting guard Casey Morsell as the big breakout player in the ACC this season. And Jay Huff: now’s the time to fully form into a game-changing stretch 5.
6. Kansas: Quick reminder that this was college hoops’ top team last season. The Jayhawks are an annual presence in the preseason top 10 and this year is no different. Speedy Devon Dotson left early for the NBA and the forceful Udoka Azubuike graduated, but the most important returnee was the best defensive player in college basketball, Marcus Garrett. Bill Self told me in the offseason that Garrett’s the best defensive player he’s ever had at Kansas. If his offense improves, look out. Keep an eye on Bryce Thompson, a freshman combo guard who might need a little time but could grow into a top-15 frosh. Silvio De Sousa left the program in mid-October, a hit because KU’s frontcourt isn’t robust. (David McCormack is going to take on a lot.) But in terms of guards and wings, KU’s locked and loaded. That said, KU has a lot to validate a No. 6 ranking, I know. This is going to be the final season of uninterrupted play for KU before NCAA sanctions are expected to land before 2021-22.
7. West Virginia: Bob Huggins has been incredible during this offseason. Here’s what I mean:
The hair, the goatee, the Dude-like flow, all of it needs to stay for the entirety of WVU’s 2020-21 campaign. Huggins has the ‘Eers poised to have just their second top 10 appearance in the preseason AP Top 25 in the past 50 years. (WOW.) WVU is led by Oscar Tshiebwe, the latest in a long line of Huggins players who charges a full battery, is tough, understands the nuances of rebounding and can combine natural skill with a quick learning curve. If some of that can wear off on his older frontcourt teammate, Derek Culver, then WVU will have the best bigs in the Big 12. Miles McBride runs the point and might ultimately become the team’s star, though. WVU brings back four starters from a top-10 KenPom team that was there with Virginia and Kansas as the best defensive squads in the sport.
8. Wisconsin: Greg Gard’s got Wisconsin, a co-winner of the Big Ten regular season in 2020, back to where expectations are at the same elevation they were at for years under Bo Ryan. Greg Gard told me the Badgers have no “best” player: Nate Reuvers, Micah Potter, D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison are all capable of being Wisconsin’s top dude on a given night. That’s not a platitude — it’s true and the tape bears it out. UW won its final eight games to rally and tie Maryland and Michigan State atop the Big Ten standings. There was a little heat on Gard’s seat a year ago, but I’ve always maintained he is the guy and I expect him to be running this program for another decade. Wisconsin enjoyed a dark-horse type of offseason, I guess, but by opening day this team will rightfully be referenced as a Final Four contender.
9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a number of outcome possibilities for 2020-21. Luka Garza returns as the across-the-board-agreed-upon choice for preseason player of the year. He is far and away the most sensible pick; college basketball doesn’t get NPOY winners returning on an annual basis anymore (Garza won the 2019-20 award in the eyes of Sporting News), so this is a time to treasure for Hawkeyes fans. Iowa skillfully had the top O in the Big Ten last season and its scoring ranked No. 5 nationally. The starting five is back, including Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffrey and Jordan Bohannon. This will be a fun team — but it’s also fallible if the defensive lapses continue. Iowa was 12th out of 14 teams in defensive efficiency in the league last season (only Northwestern and Nebraska were worse). Because of that, it seems fair to place the Hawkeyes just outside of the top tier of the sport heading into Nov. 25.
10. Kentucky: Without Olivier Sarr, Kentucky is not a top-10 team. But great news for Big Blue Nation came in late October when Sarr, who left Wake Forest, and fellow transfer Jacob Toppin were declared eligible. They join former Creighton Bluejay Davion Mintz among a boatload of new/veteran faces. Of course, the freshmen normally rule the roost at UK in terms of attention and playing time, so expect these three newcomers to be studs: small forward Terrence Clark, who I think will be UK’s best player by March; point guard Devin Askew, who believe it or not really doesn’t have an analogue predecessor at his position under Calipari; and shooting guard B.J. Boston, who will probably be the best freshman in the first third of UK’s season. I like Kentucky’s roster 1-10 in theory, but there might not be an All-American in the bunch. How that impacts them in close games will be interesting.
11. Creighton: The Bluejays have the league’s pick for preseason Big East player of the year, Marcus Zegarowski. He’ll be damn good, but I have the Jays higher than most because I think Zegarowski’s production gets dampened just a bit due to big seasons from Mitch Ballock (one of the best 3-point specialists in the sport) and Denzel Mahoney, who will come into his own this season and ensure Creighton is right behind Villanova as the best team in the Big East. Losing Ty-Shon Alexander is a blow, but I still expect the Jays to have a top-10 offense. Despite all I have to say about Creighton, one image has stuck with me for months. It’s the ever-lingering snapshot to the final game of the 2019-20 season and so horrifically/beautifully encapsulates March 12, 2020. Hell, it encapsulates Nov. 5, 2020 and almost every other day of the past eight months:
12. Duke: For the first time in a long time Duke is no sure top-10 club. The early season schedule should allow the Blue Devils to get some wins, but Mike Krzyzewski has a group with a lot of mystery about it heading into the season. Will Matthew Hurt develop into a 17 ppg kind of guy? Is Wendell Moore set to become a top-10 defender in college basketball? Will freshmen Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach and D.J. Steward be nearly as good, collectively, as the one-and-done trios to come out of Duke in recent years? After a pandemic-impacted offseason, the Blue Devils will no doubt have undergone a crash course in prep the past three weeks. This is an interesting group with a high ceiling and low floor.
13. Michigan State: The Spartans, for the first time in a while, aren’t a sure thing to be a top-three Big Ten team. Yet, I’ll tell you that Tom Izzo’s league contemporaries are not assuming anything with this group. Michigan State lost one of its best players in school history, Cassius Winston, and that is going to sting. Xavier Tillman staying in the draft is also a big hit. But MSU does look fairly durable for players 1-8 heading into Nov. 25. My guess on the starting five: Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Josh Langford, Joey Hauser and Marcus Bingham. Even beyond that, MSU’s got another four players who will earn burn. Hauser’s addition (by way of Marquette; he sat last season) will keep MSU more reliable from 3-point range than you might be giving the Spartans credit for.
14. Texas Tech: We can stop right here and acknowledge that Chris Beard’s done the unthinkable. He’s put Texas Tech in a position where landing in the top 15 in the preseason on an almost-annual basis is the expectation. If you are a college basketball fan over the age of 35 you understand just how outlandish that is. What contributes to this: reliably adding freshman talent each fall. Nimari Burnett is the newest/latest eventual NBA pick to stroll through Lubbock, and he’ll replace, in part, Jahmi’us Ramsey. Burnett’ll have help with Marcos Santos-Silva, a VCU transfer who fits the mold of a Beard-coached TTU player, plus Kyler Edwards, who might average 16 per night. As expected, Georgetown transfer Mac McClung was cleared, giving TTU even more spark and entertainment value.
15. Tennessee: The silver lining to the Vols losing Lamonte Turner midseason last season is that it prepared UT for life without him. And this season’s team is in no need of talent. Keon Johnson strolls into the fold as a freshman and he’ll be a blast of variety. The Vols will get a quality boost from fab soph Josiah Jordan-James, but the all-around most important player is Yves Pons, who has a physique built by Zeus. Pons is not your typical athletic freak who specializes in blocks, boards and close-range shots. He’ll step out and shoot. My sense: next summer he’ll be a first-round NBA Draft pick. Have to mention power forward John Fulkerson and his glorious locks and ever-expanding game, too. This team’s stocked. The best starting five in the SEC on opening day.
16. Houston: The Coogs should be the American Athletic Conference’s top team for the third straight season. That’s a testament to the culture Kelvin Sampson’s built at UH. This team lost a key piece in Nate Hinton but it’s still in the top-20 genre. Houston’s dangerous due to its deployment of wings and guards: Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser and Caleb Mills, who’s potentially the top player in the AAC. The phrase “they get out and guard you” hit a saturation point more than five seasons ago in college hoops commentary, but Houston meets the definition on an every-night basis. Officially the best era for Houston hoops since Clyde the Glide and Akeem the Dream were starring for the greatest basketball fraternity in college history.
17. Arizona State: This is the most talented and dangerous team in the Pac-12. How rare is this for the Sun Devils? The program has only been in the preseason AP Top 25 four times. Bobby Hurley was briefly duped by star Remy Martin, who pulled a fast one on his coach this offseason before revealing he was indeed returning to ASU. Martin could drop 30 on a given night but he won’t be asked to because ASU brought in five-star freshman Joshua Christopher, its best recruit since James Harden 13 years ago. Also starting: Alonzo Verge on the wing and Taeshon Cherry up front. ASU will be dangerous because its bench could put it over the top: freshman Marcus Bagley’s going to get burn, and sophomore center Jalen Graham is the best backup big in the conference.
18. LSU: The Tigers are top-20 good thanks to the return of Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart, but also with the addition of frosh Cameron Thomas, who is a naturally aggressive scorer and could give Will Wade his last hurrah before the NCAA comes calling with some severe penalties beyond this season. The Tigers have a high floor, which will keep them from floundering in a good-not-great SEC. Watford could be All-SEC First Team by March. Interesting connection: Shareef O’Neal is on his third school, but this time it should be for good. The former five-star prospect is playing where his father built his basketball legacy before becoming a Hall-of-Famer.
19. UCLA: Chris Smith‘s decision to return to Westwood is what makes UCLA a Sweet 16-level squad. Mick Cronin pulled off one of the best in-season turnarounds in college basketball history last season when the Bruins started 8-9 and were mired in irrelevance only to go 11-3 in the final 14 games, finish atop the Pac-12 standings and certainly would have been in the NCAA Tournament had a tournament been held. Total Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff. Smith, a power forward, will combine powers with four other returning starters. Very few teams in my top 30 bring back all starters (although the next team on the list does as well). Alongside Smith: PG Tyger Campbell, SG David Singleton, SF Jaime Jaquez and C Jalen Hill. Cody Riley is a sixth man who gets starters’ minutes. Cronin is already nipping at John Wooden’s heels.
20. Texas: This is it. This is the season Shaka Smart has waited for, the reason he took the Texas job, the example of what UT can be when everything can fall into place. The Longhorns bring back all starters (Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones, Jericho Sims, Courtney Ramey, Jase Fabres) from last season’s 19-12 team. They also add freshman blend-forward Greg Brown, who is going to be a top-10 must-see player, and kept a big with a high ceiling in Will Baker. Looking at this roster, you’ve also got Gerald Lidell, Brock Cunningham and Kai Jones coming off the bench. Smart has a lot of options and the potential is tantalizing. I’m ranking them a bit lower based on last season’s skittishness, but UT clearly has top-10 DNA.
21. Florida: A couple of SEC coaches told me they’d tab UF’s Keyontae Johnson as the guy to be SEC Player of the Year. If that happens Florida’s a top-four seed to be sure. Mike White benefitted by getting Johnson, Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann and Noah Locke back. That’s a really solid quartet, and I’d expect the Gators to be more of a team, with better chemistry, than last season’s up-and-down group. After ranking 61st in defensive efficiency last season, I also expect this to be a top-30 crew in defending the rock. SEC is brawny at the top.
22. Oregon: I think Oregon’s range of outcomes for the Pac-12 goes from finishing first to finishing sixth. Given Dana Altman’s track record, we’ll lean much more toward the former. UNLV transfer Amauri Hardy takes over for Payton Pritchard, which is asking a lot. N’Faly Dante will probably be the team’s most intriguing player. He’s a redshirt freshman center, the latest center oozing with talent put a pin down in Eugene. Chris Duarte, last season’s junior college player of the year, is the guy who could be The Guy, a 6-foot-6 small forward who could be Oregon’s best two-way weapon. Altman will rely on transfers as always. Eugene Omoruyi (via Rutgers), Hardy (via UNLV) and Eric Williams (via Duquesne) should all be factors. C.J. Walker bailed after a year, which I think dings the Ducks.
23. Ohio State: Few coaches have managed to do more with what they’ve got in the past five or six seasons than Chris Holtmann, who has a stud in E.J. Liddell and a late-blooming senior star in C.J. Walker. Kyle Young should be a typically reliable Big Ten bruiser (he had an injury issue last season) and Cal transfer Justice Sueing has been given a lot of praise in the preseason. OSU’s not going to wow anyone. Maybe they’ll play above their talent level, but the defense is undeniable and in the grand scheme, better than most others in the sport. OSU will have variance, though. You’ll see it projected as high as No. 5 and as low as No. 9 in the Big Ten, and it’s got no depth in the backcourt; the Buckeyes announced this week backup PG Abel Porter’s career is. overdue to an undisclosed health condition.
24. Rutgers: The Big Ten does not hold a preseason poll (lame!), so we can’t officially compare preseason expectations for the Scarlet Knights from a year ago vs. now. But I had RU No. 72 in this deal in 2019. I bring all this up to say these are real, true, weighty expectations for Steve Pikiell’s program. Rutgers’ Big Ten ceiling is pragmatically No. 4. Its floor, because it’s Rutgers, is No. 11. I’ll slot Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and company at No. 6 and look forward to seeing this team actually play in an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the early 1990s — because we WILL have an NCAA Tournament in 2021.
25. Indiana: Archie Miller should satisfy the legion of IU fans who are aching for not just a sustained return to relevancy, but hoping to see a team fight to plant a flag in the top five of the loaded Big Ten. Khristian Lander, a freshman combo guard, can change the paradigm for Miller’s team this season, but he’ll learn from backcourt mates Rob Phinisee and Al Durham. Trayce Jackson-Davis‘ return was gargantuan; he’ll be a top-20 player in college basketball if deployed correctly. He’s yet another great Big Ten big. Indiana was weirdly deep-yet-not last season, but the 2020-21 squad has enough talent and experience to win NCAA Tournament games.
26. Louisville: U of L loses as many important players from a season ago as any non-Kentucky or -Duke team in the top 40, but Chris Mack is set up with enough talent to prevent Louisville from slipping out of relevancy this season. I’ll be interested to see how Louisville adjusts without a typical offseason, but look for David Johnson to improve to one of the 10 best players in the ACC, while Samuell Williamson carries the breakout-player tag on this roster. Those two are sophomores who had humble stats a season ago but should spike; the other player who will be tasked with a lot is grad transfer Carlik Jones, who is going to try to go from averaging 20 points at Radford to something close to that at Louisville. They love him there.
27. Alabama: There are some who believe Alabama has top-15 potential. If that’s going to happen, we need to see a different Jahvon Quinerly from the non-factor he was at Villanova. Start there, then hope John Petty Jr. continues to ascend. Herb Jones is still wearing Crimson Tide colors and, hell, he might be the best defender in the SEC. Nate Oats is going to have a team that’s willing and wanting to shoot, a team that should ideally be in great condition to push the pace but also will have enough physicality to make playing the Tide a real headache. If Jaden Shackelford takes a jump, then Bama is a No. 6 seed at worst.
28. North Carolina: The Tar Heels will be a lot better than last season, that I can assure you. But UNC finished 84th at KenPom. So while you’ll see the Heels occupying top-25 territory in many other preseason rankings, I’m going to be a little more cautious. This team is rightfully loaded in the frontcourt (it’s a joke: Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, Sterling Manley, Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler) and that’s how UNC will wind up being a top-four team in the ACC. But the backcourt has a lot of discovery awaiting itself, so let’s see how Roy Williams — tutor of so many great points in Chapel Hill — can inspire freshman Caleb Love, who’ll be tasked with taking over for Cole Anthony.
29. Memphis: Penny Hardaway should thrive with reduced expectations vs. a year ago. Landers Nolley II is immediately eligible as a transfer after dropping 15.5 ppg for Virginia Tech last season, while DJ Jeffries is probably the most talented player in the American. Hardaway’s team brings in another five-star C, Moussa Cisse, and has Lester Quinones back, who has a knack for making the right play. Boogie Ellis at the point is also an adventure with upside.
30. Florida State: The Seminoles will slip a little, but this team is coming off its first regular season conference championship in 31 years. Hell of a stat, that. I think Leonard Hamilton’s going to have the best freshman in the ACC and therefore one of the five best freshmen in the country (Scottie Barnes). MJ Walker is a senior who will be responsible for at least two FSU wins late in games. Hamilton leads an untrammeled player experience. FSU has been better for it.
31. Saint Louis: Atop the A-10 and Travis Ford’s best team since he was coaching Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State. SLU went 23-8 last season and returns its top eight scorers. The Billikens are Sweet 16 material if all clicks. What’s wild about that record from last season: SLU was the worst foul-shooting team in college basketball (57.1%) and wasn’t top-100 in 2- or 3-point accuracy. Shore up the shots and this is a top 25 team. Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Javonte Perkins comprise the senior triumvirate. Stacked squad.
32. Purdue: Defensively, Purdue’s going to slip a slot or 10 because it lost Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern to transfer, which set Matt Painter’s program off the path he was intending. Trevion Williams is now the guy for the Boilermakers, but I’m not so sure he can be an every-game star. Painter’s won with different potions in the past, and I’d expect Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. to be above serviceable in the Big Ten — but they’ll be pushed by two guys who could become wonderful four-year Boilermakers, freshman guards Jaden Ivey and Ethan Morton. I am boosting Purdue because of Painter’s coaching shrewdness.
33. Stanford: Your Pac-12 sleeper to steal the league. The Cardinal have potentially a top-five freshman, nationally, in Ziaire Williams, who will be a star if Jerod Haase wants to turn over the keys. Williams may instead be a wonderful complementary piece for Oscar da Silva, a senior 4-man who could be one of the five best players in the conference. Defensively, Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills give Stanford some husk. Biggest question here is if Stanford can rise up and beat the best teams — that’s been an issue so far in four seasons under Haase.
34. Michigan: I’ve got center Hunter Dickinson tabbed as a top-15 first-year player this season, and he’ll have a nice cast around him to help keep the Wolverines in the hunt for a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. Juwan Howard has a wonderful two-way competitor in Isaiah Livers, who is owed a full, healthy season. Franz Wagner is expected to be the breakout player here, but I’ve got a hunch Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown and returning senior Eli Brooks are going to be consistent contributors to the point where Wagner’s numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet every night. The Wolverines won’t be elite but they’ll be well-rounded and have the No. 15-ranked freshman class, the best in the conference.
35. Oklahoma State: I’m buying in on Mike Boynton and his superstar freshman point guard, Cade Cunningham, a First Team All-American in November and likely at the end of the season. Intelligent playmaker who does not rush the game or force the issue. He’ll be blessed with the return of Isaac Likekele, who will thrive with the target on Cunningham’s back. Despite some bad NCAA news in the offseason, Boynton kept most of the roster intact. And keep this in mind: there is still a chance OSU, which was ruled ineligible for the 2021 postseason by the NCAA, actually has its appeal process dragged out far enough to allow the Cowboys to play in the 2021 postseason. If that is the case, Cunningham could help deliver a red-letter season for the Pokes.
36. Richmond: Chris Mooney is fortunate enough to coach at an institution that doesn’t believe in firing a person years before a contract expires. UR was in the midst of an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought — the Spiders had a good chance to make it in 2020 — but the administration did not cave to fan pressure. Now the Spiders can have their best season in a decade, though there was a mid-October setback. Senor guard Nick Sherod suffered a torn ACL and is done, but UR has plenty in the holster. Two other fifth-year seniors, Blake Francis and Grant Golden, opted to return to try and make some program history. The Spiders also still have Jacob Gilyard, who’s the best defensive player in the conference, and will get a boost from 6-7 sophomore Tyler Burton, whose minutes will go up now that Burton is out.
37. San Diego State: Matt Mitchell becomes the guy responsible to keep SDSU on top of the Mountain West now that Malachi Flynn is off to the NBA. The Aztecs won’t be top-10 quality like a season ago (30-2, 17-1 and likely a No. 2 seed) but they should be good enough on defense to be an NCAA Tournament lock. CSUN transfer Terrell Gomez will give a shot in the arm to Brian Dutcher’s offense.
38. Oklahoma: The Sooners have a wonderful 1-2 of Austin Reaves and Brady Manek, who might wind up as the highest-scoring pair in the Big 12. And Lon Kruger’s got a unit that will play some defense as well, which is a trait that should not be overlooked after some recent teams fell short due to defensive liability. Related to this, most impressively, Oklahoma was the most disciplined team in the sport last season when it came to fouling, only allowing a foul-shot rate of 19.1% (vs. field goal attempts).
39. Maryland: The Terrapins will slip a bit this season, but I’m higher on Mark Turgeon’s team than most. It’s going to be an interesting fit in the Big Ten because Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Jairus Hamilton and Darryl Morsell will comprise a wing-oriented foursome that could be a good zag to much of the rest of the league’s zig with a big man-augmented approach. That’s not to say Maryland won’t have size — of course it will — but it’s production could fall more on the shoulders of players 6-8 and under than any team in the conference.
40. Colorado: McKinley Wright IV enters his fourth season with the Buffs. He’s one of six seniors on Tad Boyle’s team. I really like Evan Battey‘s game; the undersized center could be the breakout guy of note in the Pac-12. The Buffs’ Pac-12 ceiling is No. 2 and their floor is No. 7. NCAA Tournament-quality team, no question about it. Boyle is on the verge of becoming the best CU coach in program history.
41. Seton Hall: The next two teams have the unenviable task of needing to replace one of the five best players in the history of their programs. For Seton Hall we’re talking about Myles Powell. The Pirates lost more than just Powell, though. Romaro Gill was a shot-blocking savant and Quincy McKnight’s presence will leave a void. Now SHU will need its other Myles — Myles Cale — to skyrocket his numbers and be a guard complement to Sandro Mamukelashvili, who will be a Big East Second Teamer at worst. Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken is a team-changer if he’s fully recovered from a foot ailment.
42. Dayton: Obi Toppin departure note is mandated off the top. The Flyers lost more than just the NPOY. This team was capable of winning the national title and is going to be attached to the what-if of the canceled NCAA Tournament more than any other really good team of 2019-20 (Kansas, Baylor, Gonzaga and San Diego State being the others). For this season, Jalen Crutcher becomes The Guy, and he’ll have Rodney Chatman and Ibi Watson back in the fold to keep the Flyers in the upper echelon of the Atlantic 10. We’ll get an early gauge on UD, because it’s Duke’s replacement in the loaded Crossover Classic field in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
43. UConn: The Huskies will be close to NCAA Tournament material in three months’ time. James Bouknight is a ball of fun and he’ll fill it up, but he won’t be the only one. I want to see R.J. Cole take over a few Big East games. He was an outright scoring stud (but volume-heavy) while at Howard his first two seasons. If Akok Akok recovers fully from his torn Achilles by midseason Hurley will have enough defensively to finish five or six games above .500 in a 27-game campaign. Oh, and of course: UConn and the Big East are back together, so 2020 isn’t all bad.
44. Butler: Longtime readers know I like to be daring in spots here, and Butler slotted 44th qualifies. The league’s coaches slotted BU No. 8 in the conference, but no way. This is a senior-heavy group that will be led by Aaron Thompson, who I expect to deftly slide into the void left by Kamar Baldwin. LaVall Jordan’s probably going to have a top-three defense in the conference, meaning Butler will have a shot at beating the less-disciplined teams. Look for Bryce Nze to be among the best glue guys in the league.
45. USC: The Trojans only bring one starter back (sophomore point guard Ethan Anderson). The marquee man to see is freshman Evan Mobley, who is the newbie most likely to challenge Cade Cunningham for top frosh in the country. Mobley finally arrives after Enfield began recruiting him more than three years ago. The Trojans were a 22-win team a season ago. They’ve got mystery this year; I think their range is No. 30 at best and No. 65 at worst. USC has finished between 49 and 55 in four of the past five seasons at KenPom.
46. Northern Iowa: The Panthers were the best team in the Valley a season ago and now are the preseason favorites for the first time in 11 years. UNI finished No. 49 at KenPom; a nudge up is only logical. A.J. Green’s a top-20 shooter in college hoops, while Austin Phyfe is such a great post-player complement, it makes UNI’s actions so tough to consistently defend. Ben Jacobson could find himself in the market for a bigger gig if this team gets to another NCAA Tournament.
47. Marquette: Out goes Markus Howard, but D.J. Carton could be a volume get after transferring from Ohio State. MU has the highest-rated freshman in the Big East in 6-11 forward Dawson Garcia, who was our pick for league freshman of the year. If Theo John is improved, he and Garcia will make for a fabulous frontcourt, while Koby McEwen is going to be tasked with being the step-up guy for an offense that will need a few weeks to find its rhythm.
48. Miami: Do not sleep on the 2020-21 Hurricanes, who were sub-.500 last season. Their maximum for the next four-plus months is No. 6 in the ACC, and I can’t see their floor being worse than ninth. Beyond mighty-mite point Chris Lykes, the Canes have a good 2 in Kameron McGusty. Unfortunately, the recent season-ending foot injury to power forward Sam Waardenburg knocked the U down eight spots in my rankings. Still, a team with good depth.
49. SMU: Your dark horse in the American Athletic Conference. Tim Jankovich has felt the warmth of the hot seat to an extent, but that should not be an issue in the near future. The Ponies have a delightful backcourt with Tyson Jolly and Kendric Davis, the latter of which is a top-three guard in the league.
50. Utah: Timmy Allen is the most undervalued Pac-12 talent heading into Nov. 25. Larry Krystkowiak has seven major minutes-getters back and returns four starters. Losing Both Gach (to Minnesota) stings, but the Other Coach K has done well in replacing higher-end talents for much of his nine seasons in Salt Lake City. Rylan Jones is a name to know. The smaller sophomore point guard was a top-10 freshman in terms of efficiency last season. He’ll be the best point guard in the Pac-12 by the time he’s a senior.
51. BYU: The Cougars were the best team you overlooked last season, finishing 13th at KenPom with a 23-8 record. Would have loved to have seen what Mark Pope’s team would have done in the NCAAs. The big BYU nab in the offseason was Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, whose departure came as a surprise. He might be a first team All-WCC guy. Haarms is 7-2 and he’ll play alongside some redwoods in 6-11 Richard Harward and 6-10 Wyatt Lowell. The games against Gonzaga will be must-watch.
52. Arkansas: Well, this is going to be interesting. According to BartTorvik.com’s data tracking, Arkansas returns just 2.9% of its minutes from last season. That’s not just the lowest in the SEC, it’s the lowest in college basketball. For comparison, Kentucky is the second-least contiguous team, and it even returns 7.6% of its minutes. The Hogs of 2020-21 will be Eric Musselman’s greatest experiment yet, but they are considered old enough and tough enough to be a factor in the SEC. No Isaiah Joe keeps the Hogs out of the top 40.
53. Syracuse: Adios to Elijah Hughes, so what will Jim Boeheim and company do about keeping SU’s offense in the near-upper-class of power-conference hoops? Buddy Boeheim is growing into a reliable scorer but the huge question with Cuse is how this team jells given that seven freshmen have been welcomed into the fold. Marek Dolezaj (good in spots) and Joe Girard (key sophomore season ahead) are back, but this team could have the thinnest rotation in the ACC.
54. Minnesota: Daniel Oturu is going to be forever overlooked as one of the better Big Ten talents of the 2010s, but no matter, because now Minnesota has to move on without him and hope that Drake transfer Liam Robbins can halfway fill those shoes. Marcus Carr‘s decision to return to the Golden Gophers ranked right behind Luka Garza and Ayo Dosunmu as the most important in the Big Ten this year. Carr might become one of the five best players in the conference if he is a notch better his senior season.
55. Missouri: A pop this year for the Tigers. I’ll take a chance. Cuonzo Martin brings back four starters and eight important players total. Expect Mizzou to jump from 11th in the SEC up to possibly No. 7. Between Xavier Pinson, Jeremiah Tilmon, Dru Smith and Mark Smith, that could be 48 points per game there, and Martin should hope so because Missouri’s field-goal shooting (47.0 eFG%) was not as good as its reliability from the foul line (78.0%).
56. Utah State: Seems fairly simple at Utah State. If Neemias Queta is healthy and improved, he’s the best player in the Mountain West. Queta is a big man whose ceiling is top-five-in-the-sport on defense. Craig Smith — a Seinfeld aficionado in addition to a rising coaching star — lost the best player in the Mountain West, Sam Merrill, but USU has Justin Bean and Brock Miller next in line to be consistent producers. Alphonso Anderson as well. The 3-point shooting is the team’s big question (below-average 32.9%).
57. Providence: The Friars will likely take a dip due to losing 57% of their production from last season. But this should be an NIT-level team thanks to A.J. Reeves and David Duke, a tandem I expect to combine to average 30 points and 10 rebounds. If PC is to break expectations and be a top-five Big East crew, forward Nate Watson will have to be able to avoid foul trouble and be a healthy contributor playing 30 minutes per night.
58. Clemson: The most underrated player in the ACC wears Clemson colors: Aamir Simms. He might be good enough to be first team All-ACC come March, while Brad Brownell attempts to make an NCAA tourney for the third time in 11 seasons with the program. I’d expect this to be a top-30 defense in college hoops.
59. NC State: It all starts from the inside out with NC State. The Pack gloat a wonderful sophomore center in Manny Bates (State’s best player on D) and a solid frontcourt mate at power forward, DJ Funderburk, who will give the Wolfpack a chance to steal some games thanks to their defense. This was a 20-12 team a season ago, but the Pack likely slip a few spots this season.
60. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets can aim for the 2021 postseason (after not being eligible for postseason play in 2020 due to NCAA sanctions) and are the wild card of the ACC thanks to their two-guard ACC attack. Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe aren’t household names, but they’ll pace Georgia Tech to another good ACC showing. Josh Pastner managed to go 11-9 in the conference last season and notch its second-best win percentage in the league since 1995-96, which is ASTOUNDING.
61. Saint Mary’s: This is Randy Bennett’s 20th season at Saint Mary’s. He’s coached some of that in the shadow of Mark Few, who’s in year 21 at Gonzaga, but no matter: The Gaels are again built to at least be in the mix to make the Big Dance. Junior C Matthias Tass, who’s coming off injury, was the only SMC player out of 10 selected to the All-WCC preseason first team.
62. Davidson: The A-10 has a chance at producing four NCAA Tournament bids if we have an as-anticipated 68-team field. Davidson will be in that mix thanks to the return of Kellan Grady, who is a household name in the league, but look out for Carter Collins, too. I expect Collins to have a few 20-point nights this season. Davidson was overrated heading into last season but Bob McKillop seldom sees his teams underperform relative to expectations in back-to-back years.
63. Penn State: When we talk about teams who had their long-awaited 2020 NCAA Tournament dreams cut short, one power-conference team overlooked is PSU. A 21-10 group that had its best season on the whole in more than two decades. Now it’s lost a great one in Lamar Stevens but returns a quality 1-2 scoring duo in Myreon Jones and Myles Dread. The Nittany Lions are downgraded further because Pat Chambers resigned Oct. 21 following an investigation. That investigation came after a former player, Rasir Bolton, went public with allegations of racially insensitive language that Chambers owned up to. Jim Ferry, former coach at LIU Brooklyn and Duquesne, will run the team this season.
64. Xavier: Travis Steele doesn’t fully know what he’s got with this team, but he knows everything will be born out of what the adroit Paul Scruggs can provide. He’s the unquestioned go-to guy for the X men. The Musketeers are coming off a 19-13 season and could be on that NCAA Tournament/NIT fringe again. Kyky Tandy, a sophomore guard, has the package to keep X from dropping to the low tier of the Big East.
65. Virginia Tech: Though it’s ranked lower, this is my choice for ACC sleeper. Mike Young’s commitment to fun offense will ensure the Hokies are a worthwhile watch in most games this season. Wabissa Bede is among the hardest-playing guards in major-conference hoops, but the guy to watch is Cartier Diarra, who is a grad transfer by way of K-State. Mark me down for VT winning two or three games this season where it’s a considerable underdog.
66. Cincinnati: I’m not entirely sure what John Brannen has now, but I do know it’s going to be the first time in a long time that UC can’t for sure claim one of the five best or most reliable players in the AAC. That means Brannen will have one of the bigger coaching challenges of his relatively young career. He’ll be up for it.
67. South Carolina: Frank Martin has four starters returning from an 18-win team that registered as a top-50 defense in 2019-20. A.J. Lawson’s back, and he might be a top-10 SEC player. Seventh Woods is looking for a redemption story after not working out at UNC. Hmmm … I really might wind up having the Gamecocks 10-12 spots too low.
68. Furman: They say this is Bob Richey’s best team yet. Forward Noah Gurley will vie with UNCG‘s Isaiah Miller for top player in the SoCon. Clay Mounce is a crafty wing who’s also one of the top five players in the league. This team can end a 41-year NCAA Tournament drought for FU. There’s always a couple mid-major teams that crack into the top 60 or 70; the Paladins fit the profile well and should be in the mix come March.