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Forecasting next season’s top 25 in college hoops: Alabama leads the way (yes, in basketball)

The return of John Petty Jr. is one big question for Coach Nate Oats and Alabama. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
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With the confetti just about cleared out of Lucas Oil Stadium after Baylor’s celebration of its first NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Monday night, thoughts naturally drift to what comes next.

Of course, that’s anyone’s guess.

The NCAA’s decision to allow an extra year of eligibility means there will be an older group of players on the floor next season, though how large that group is remains to be seen. The expected one-time transfer waiver means everyone who enters the transfer portal (more than 1,000 strong at the moment) will be eligible immediately.

Baylor defeats Gonzaga, earns first men’s basketball national title

Rosters are going to dramatically change in the next few months, probably for more teams than not. This is not a time to be a coach who plans to undertake a methodical rebuild. The sport isn’t necessarily in for a better or worse offseason (and 2021-22 season), but it’s definitely going to be different.

And if you don’t like this top 25, wait a week or two. With so many fifth-year options available, as much player movement as ever before and NBA decisions still to come, this is far from how things will look when next season actually begins.

1. Alabama (26-7): The Crimson Tide put down a marker this year on how it intends to play moving forward: Lots of three-pointers, a fast pace and a stingy defense. Do John Petty Jr. and Herbert Jones come back for another run? What impact does top-10 freshman JD Davison have in a backcourt with holdovers Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford? At this point, Alabama might be in line to have more answers than anybody.

2. Gonzaga (31-1): The roster changes, but the Zags remain an elite team. The Bulldogs are 164-14 over the last five seasons, and all a lot of myopic fans who only pay attention to college basketball for three weeks out of the year will remember about that span are the title game losses in 2017 and 2021. Things will look a bit different in Spokane, with semifinal hero Jalen Suggs probably off to the NBA after his freshman year and Corey Kispert closing out his senior year with all-America honors. This placement assumes a Drew Timme return, but there’s plenty of help on the way (possibly including 7-foot-1 freshman Chet Holmgren) and Gonzaga’s strong history with transfers can only help it in the free agency era.

3. Michigan (23-5): Juwan Howard is on track to bring in the top recruiting haul in the country, according to 247 Sports, which means the Wolverines don’t necessarily have to bring back most of their sizable senior class for another year. But if it brings back some older guys (as well as well-regarded freshman center Hunter Dickinson), Michigan could easily find itself a No. 1 seed next season.

4. Villanova (18-7): The Wildcats have lived and died by the “get old and stay old” mantra, and if they manage to get a little older next year, they’ll find themselves in the hunt for a No. 1 seed. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore should be the headliners as juniors after helping lead a charge to the Sweet 16, and Villanova could be a big-time beneficiary of the extra year of eligibility. The Wildcats’ seniors in 2021 included starters Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels.

5. Purdue (18-10): A recurring thought throughout the second half of Big Ten play was just how good the Boilermakers are going to be when their freshmen become sophomores. That happens next season, and assuming there isn’t a major rush to the transfer portal and junior big Trevion Williams takes another step, Matt Painter’s bunch is going to be a handful. One somewhat troubling loose end: Purdue closed the season with overtime losses to Ohio State and North Texas when it was dramatically outworked in the extra period by both teams.

6. Ohio State (21-10): The Buckeyes had a late four-game slide and were a 15-over-2 victim against Oral Roberts in the first round of the tournament, but they were also an 18-4 team at one point with a roster light on seniors. If E.J. Liddell ultimately returns, bump the Buckeyes up a spot or two. The addition of Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler helps an already strong rotation.

7. UCLA (22-10): The Bruins had three parts to this past season — the 17-5 start, a four-game skid and the 5-1 NCAA tournament run. Mick Cronin’s squad was unremarkable on defense during Pac-12 play but excellent up until its loss to Gonzaga in the semifinals. That problem solved, UCLA should be able to climb to the top of the Pac-12 if its core group — Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Cody Riley — remains intact.

8. Florida State (18-7): Leonard Hamilton’s cast of thousands will invariably rotate in some new members of the ensemble (former Houston guard Caleb Mills, who led the Cougars in scoring in 2019-20, is a prominent addition) while some others depart (like Scottie Barnes and the do-everything RaiQuan Gray). The Seminoles have finished fourth or better in the ACC in four of the last five years. Here’s banking on “better” in 2021-22, especially with the No. 2 freshman class (per 247 Sports) en route to Tallahassee.

9. Baylor (28-2): The national champions will presumably have to reload to some extent. Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell are decent bets to turn pro, Mark Vital is already 24 years old and MaCio Teague gets there this summer. Baylor is bound to take a step back on offense, but the commitment to defense is a program-wide principle. And if this turns out to be overselling the Bears, it’s doubtful anyone in Waco will be too upset.

10. Arkansas (25-7): If we learned anything about Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman from his time at Nevada, it’s that he can deftly build a good roster out of the transfer market. If Moses Moody turns pro, Arkansas will lose some star power, but this year’s Elite Eight appearance could very well be replicated in 2022.

11. Duke (13-11): Maybe the next wave of five-star freshmen — three of them on board, so far — will lead to different results for the Blue Devils. Of course, Duke fielded a quality offense and should have one of the ACC’s top returnees in Matthew Hurt, with key pieces like Wendell Moore Jr. and Mark Williams back in the fold as well. Expect to see the Blue Devils back near the top of the ACC.

12. Kansas (21-9): The bulk of a roster that landed a No. 3 seed is poised to return, and Coach Bill Self (fresh off signing a lifetime contract in Lawrence) has a four-man freshman class ranked sixth nationally by 247 Sports. Maybe the Jayhawks aren’t a top-five team, but they won’t be an afterthought, either.

13. Houston (28-4): The Cougars have won 111 games over the last four seasons, and have ranked 21st or better in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric in each of them. In other words, they can survive the possible loss of star Quentin Grimes and be just fine. Maybe not Final Four fine, but Houston should again be the favorites in the American Athletic.

14. Connecticut (15-8): Back home in the Big East, the Huskies returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. NBA-bound James Bouknight played a big role in that, but senior guard R.J. Cole and sophomore forward Adama Sanogo are going to help win a lot of games for Coach Dan Hurley. So will a recruiting class hovering around the top 10 nationally.

15. North Carolina (18-11): It’s anyone’s guess just how effectively new Tar Heels Coach Hubert Davis will run one of the sport’s Cadillac programs. But he’s probably as well-equipped as anyone to hold together much of a budding young roster that found ways to throttle opponents with increasing frequency as last season unfolded. A young backcourt should be better, and Armando Bacot will be needed to anchor the middle.

16. Virginia (18-7): The Cavaliers are no longer the reigning national champions, and for some odd reason, a fair number of people forgot about that 2019 title when Tony Bennett’s team was bounced in the first round last month. How quickly everyone forgets the four 30-win seasons and five ACC regular season titles since 2014. Jay Huff’s off to the NBA, but Kihei Clark should be back to anchor a team that will undoubtedly be strong at the defensive end. This placement assumes Trey Murphy III is back as well.

17. Kentucky (9-16): The Wildcats can’t possibly be that bad again … right? They surely won’t be as young with former Creighton guard Davion Mintz back, Davidson guard Kellan Grady arriving as a graduate transfer and ex-West Virginia big Oscar Tshiebwe providing a boost in the paint.

18. Maryland (17-14): They don’t raise banners for winning the first week of the offseason, but the Terrapins would be in contention for that title after adding point guard Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) and center Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) to fill gaping holes in a roster that maxed out with a second-round NCAA appearance. A starting lineup with some combination of those two and Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell (who is in the portal), Donta Scott and Aaron Wiggins would be the most experienced of Mark Turgeon’s tenure in College Park.

19. St. Bonaventure (16-5): It was a junior-laden Bonnies team that won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles this season, and a core led by point guard Kyle Lofton and forward Osun Osunniyi is plenty capable of building on that showing. Savvy veteran coach Mark Schmidt has already added a pair of ACC transfers (Wake Forest guard Quadry Adams and Pitt big Abdoul Karim Coulibaly) to help fill out next year’s rotation.

20. Michigan State (15-13): Out goes Rocket Watts, in comes Northeastern guard Tyson Walker (who might have been the Colonial’s preseason player of the year had he remained in Boston) and still in place is a roster that was much, much better in late February than it was in late December (the less said about mid-March, the better).

21. Illinois (24-7): The Illini had two stars in junior Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore Kofi Cockburn. There’s not much more Dosunmu can prove at the college level, but if the 7-foot Cockburn sticks around, it will place a little less onus on Illinois to be active on the transfer wire. The Illini probably won’t be a No. 1 seed again next year, but they should be in the top half of the Big Ten.

22. Oregon (21-7): This year especially, there are certain teams that are going to get a favorable way-too-early placement based on the coach’s track record alone. It feels like Oregon has as much regular roster churn as anyone and has played in the second weekend of the postseason in five of the last eight tournament, so Dana Altman is probably well-equipped to deal with the fluidity of this offseason.

23. Texas (19-8): Another sign of faith in a coach as Chris Beard takes over for Shaka Smart in Austin. While the roster will probably look quite different in a few months, Beard’s track record suggests the Longhorns will be fine. Maybe a lot better than fine. For now, a top-25 season sounds about right.

24. Memphis (20-8): The NIT champions were closer to a breakthrough under Penny Hardaway this season than the last two years. There’s no quibbling with the former Tiger star’s recruiting, and Memphis was an elite defensive team the last two years. Now, can all that talent put the ball in the bucket on a consistent basis?

25. Southern California (25-8): Evan Mobley is presumably off to become a lottery pick, but perhaps a good chunk of the rest of the roster that led the Trojans to the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years will be back? Andy Enfield has won with transfers before, so that’s an option if need be. Regardless, USC is not a one-hit wonder; it is coming off its fifth 20-win season in six years.

20 more notable teams: Arizona, Brigham Young, Colorado, Colorado State, Creighton, Florida, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Louisville, Loyola Chicago, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Seton Hall, Syracuse, Tennessee, Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wichita State, Wisconsin

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