Women's Championship Game • Perspective
Dawn of an era: Staley and South Carolina now set the standard
Women's National Championship • Perspective
Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kentucky tops list of way-too-early top 25 for next season

John Calipari's Kentucky squad has all the pieces to bounce back from a disappointing first-round exit. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
11 min

Let’s get this out of the way: Sizing up the next college basketball season within 24 hours of the previous one ending in the 2020s is not the sort of exercise someone would want thrown back in their face a year later.

Maybe not even a month later.

There are early-entry NBA decisions that will affect the contours of next season, as there always are. To remain in school or to turn pro is a perennial question.

So, too, is the roster churn tied to the transfer portal. As of noon Tuesday — about 12 hours after Kansas snipped the nets in New Orleans — there were more than 1,100 players on Verbal Commits’ transfer list. More names will join them in the coming weeks.

Kansas makes stunning second-half comeback to win national title

The vast majority of those pursuing a transfer have not found homes for next season, and there are bound to be downtrodden programs that reverse their fortunes to an impressive degree. (Think Iowa State or Wake Forest this season.) Someone is bound to benefit from an influx.

Trying to guess who, though, is futile at this point, which means this way-too-early top 25 comes with its share of caveats as college basketball’s cycle begins anew.

1. Kentucky (26-8). The Wildcats were one-and-done in the NCAA tournament after running into Saint Peter’s, and maybe that will prove to be a spark for the program’s first title run in more than a decade. (Yup, it has been that long.) Assuming forward Oscar Tshiebwe and guard Sahvir Wheeler are back, John Calipari will have two major answers in place before a pair of top-10 recruits (per 247Sports) arrive in Lexington. If early enrollee Shaedon Sharpe turns pro without ever playing for the Wildcats, go ahead and swap Kentucky with …

2. North Carolina (29-10). Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time the Tar Heels followed up a one-possession loss in a national title game with a push for a championship the next season. Hubert Davis was a North Carolina assistant when the Tar Heels followed that script in 2016 and 2017, and it’s possible his second team in Chapel Hill makes it back to the final weekend. This assumes Armando Bacot and Caleb Love are back, not to mention RJ Davis. Look for Puff Johnson, who had a fabulous game off the bench Monday, to play a much larger role as a junior.

3. Houston (32-6). Lesson learned. The Cougars withstood injuries to Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to reach the Elite Eight, and they were an advanced metrics darling because they treated every game — including facing East Carolina or South Florida on a random weeknight — as an opportunity to wallop someone and prove a point. Houston usually did. Forward Jarace Walker is a top-10 recruit who will only make the Cougars more dangerous.

4. Gonzaga (28-4). Assuming all-American power forward Drew Timme remains in Spokane for another year, there isn’t much reason to think the Bulldogs will have too much slippage. Chet Holmgren almost certainly will be gone, but Coach Mark Few’s ability to find transfers to plug holes (Rasir Bolton was just the latest) shouldn’t be underrated. Gonzaga will push for an 11th consecutive season with at least 28 wins.

5. Arkansas (28-9). Coach Eric Musselman knows what’s up.

Yes, that’s three Burger Boys — McDonald’s all-Americans — on their way to Fayetteville, and Musselman navigates the choppy waters of the portal with aplomb each year. After back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, the Razorbacks won’t be lacking for talent next season.

6. UCLA (27-8). Perhaps this is a hair low for the Bruins. It definitely will be if they get Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang and Tyger Campbell back in the fold to go with a strong recruiting class led by combo guard Amari Bailey. But do all those guys want to have another go in Westwood after this season sometimes seemed like a let’s-just-get-to-March slog for the Bruins?

7. Baylor (27-7). The Bears were derailed by injuries late in the season, but even without that their second-round loss to North Carolina doesn’t seem particularly shocking in retrospect. That has more to do with the Tar Heels than Baylor, which figures to get LJ Cryer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua back from injury, keep top scorer Adam Flagler in the fold and add top-five freshman Keyonte George. That won’t answer everything, but it will solve a lot.

8. Duke (32-7). There will be a new coach (Jon Scheyer) to go with potentially an almost entirely new rotation. Sure, there will be pressure on Scheyer as he replaces the retired Mike Krzyzewski, but he isn’t going to win five national titles in one year. There should be less pressure on a loaded freshman class (four of 247Sports’ top 13 incoming recruits) than there was on Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and Co. this season.

9. Arizona (33-4). Bennedict Mathurin is probably turning pro. But will Christian Koloko? Or Azuolas Tubelis? The Wildcats are among the teams whose placement is more dependent on the old-fashioned reason for uncertainty at this time of year and not on unanticipated player movement at the college level. There was a lot to like about Arizona’s first season under Tommy Lloyd, and it should be among the Pac-12’s top teams even if the ceiling nationally might not end up quite this high.

10. Kansas (34-6). Let’s play it safe with the Jayhawks, who are going to have some holes to fill as the older players on their championship team move on. At minimum, figure guard Dajuan Harris and forward Jalen Wilson will thrive in even more prominent roles next season, and Coach Bill Self will lean on a freshman class with three top-50 players (including small forward Gradey Dick, the Gatorade national player of the year).

These Jayhawks weren’t top recruits, but they evolved into champions

11. Creighton (23-12). Sometimes teams prove something by being great. And sometimes they do so simply by being good. The Bluejays could have been a forgettable, second-division team in the Big East, but a lineup that usually started two freshmen, a sophomore and a Division II transfer (albeit a really good one) landed a No. 9 seed despite serious injury issues. With 7-1 rising junior Ryan Kalkbrenner a defensive menace and the likes of Trey Alexander, Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard a year older, the Bluejays should be even better.

12. Tennessee (27-8). The Volunteers were playing about as well as anyone in the country heading into the postseason before a second-round loss to Michigan. They have a couple of older, tested guards in Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi, and Zakai Zeigler should be ready for a larger role with freshman Kennedy Chandler making the leap to the pros.

13. Villanova (30-8). The Wildcats probably would have been higher were it not for guard Justin Moore’s Achilles’ injury, which probably sidelines him for at least a portion of next season. No matter. The basketball factory on the Main Line could have Caleb Daniels and Brandon Slater back as fifth-year anchors, an echo of Collin Gillespie’s strong encore this season.

14. Illinois (23-10). This is contingent on Kofi Cockburn remaining in Champaign … and then remaining healthy if he does. This season illustrated the Illini will be built around the 7-footer, and if he’s missing, well, let’s just say Plan B isn’t nearly as good as Plan A. It has been 17 years since Illinois made it out of the first weekend of the tournament, and a March run is overdue.

15. TCU (21-13). The Horned Frogs lose Mike Miles to the pros, and while that doesn’t help, the remaining core looks the part of a Jamie Dixon team. TCU was an elite defensive team and crashed the offensive glass as well as anyone. With that in mind, remember the name Eddie Lampkin, who ranked sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage as a freshman per KenPom.

16. Auburn (28-6). A tough team to peg, especially after the Tigers went 6-5 down the stretch. Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler will head to the NBA; they are no small losses. Top-20 center Yohan Traore will help solve some of those problems, and Auburn shouldn’t be an also-ran. But the Tigers might not flirt with being a No. 1 seed again next season.

17. Colorado State (25-6). If David Roddy is back, the Rams are in business. If the Mountain West player of the year opts to pursue a professional career … Colorado State will be good, just not with this sort of ceiling. The Rams will have strong point guard play with Isaiah Stevens back in the fold, but the 6-6, 255-pound Roddy (19.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 43.8 on three-pointers) is an unusual problem for opponents to deal with.

18. Texas A&M (27-13). Buzz Williams probably isn’t going to have to get on a soapbox and bemoan the Aggies missing the tournament next year. Texas A&M won 11 of its last 13 games, losing only the SEC and NIT finals. Williams is excellent at attracting attention and running a great offense, and the former will follow the latter next season. Henry Coleman III and Tyrece Radford should again be mainstays in College Station.

19. Dayton (24-11). Were it not for a terrible eight-day stretch in November that featured losses to U-Mass. Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay, the Flyers might have broken through this March. As it stands, the least experienced team in Division I (per KenPom) tied for second in the Atlantic 10 and is in line to bring back guard Malachi Smith and big men Toumani Camara and DaRon Holmes. The interior duo is going to be a handful in the A-10 — and for whatever power conference teams Coach Anthony Grant can schedule.

20. Purdue (29-8). The window hasn’t slammed shut on the Boilermakers, but it is a lot narrower than it was when Jaden Ivey was running the point in West Lafayette. He understandably turned pro, and Purdue’s best chance to remain at or near the top of the Big Ten probably will be tied to restoring the program’s defensive identity after going all in on the offensive end. Considering Matt Painter’s track record, the Boilermakers probably will be just fine with Zach Edey as a centerpiece.

21. Texas (22-12). Well, that wasn’t exactly the instant return on investment everyone in the Lone Star State expected on the Chris Beard hire (and the Longhorns’ portal splash). Funny how that works, especially at a school that tends to expect results yesterday. Still, count on Beard to cobble together a roster that can at least match this year’s No. 6 seed.

22. Oregon (20-15). Thus begins the “Erratic 2021-22 Season” portion of the festivities. The Ducks were 16-7 in mid-February before unraveling, and it is a given that Dana Altman will work the portal with gusto. A pair of top-25 freshmen (guard Dior Johnson and center Kel’el Ware) will go a long way in determining if Oregon can be a top-three team in the Pac-12.

Kansas-North Carolina was hoops at its best. Brace for what’s next.

23. Michigan (19-15). There seems to be an eagerness in other quarters to jump on the Wolverines’ bandwagon in the wake of a season that ended in the Sweet 16 — but never saw Michigan win more than three games in a row. Consider this a prove-it placement. This much is certain: The frontcourt should be pretty good if Hunter Dickinson and Moussa Diabate stick around, and Caleb Houstan showed greater promise as his freshman year progressed.

24. Alabama (19-14). The Crimson Tide was even more hit-or-miss than Michigan — at times seemingly destined for a Final Four run, at others ticketed for a first-round exit. It turned out to be the latter in the end. Nate Oats already has two top-20 freshmen in the fold (wing Brandon Miller and guard Jaden Bradley), and he figures to be active in the portal as well.

25. Michigan State (23-13). The Spartans ranked 67th in 2021-22 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, their worst showing in the category since 2005-06. Regardless of who winds up playing a large role, expect Tom Izzo to field a tougher, stingier team.

Twenty more notable teams of varying degrees of intrigue: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida State, Indiana, Iowa, Marquette, Memphis, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Providence, Saint Louis, San Diego State, Southern California, Texas Tech, VCU, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Washington State, Xavier

What to read about college basketball

Men’s bracket | Women’s bracket

Way-too-early top 25: Kentucky, North Carolina, Houston, Gonzaga, Arkansas and Duke should be in the mix again next season.

Rock Chalk, Jayhawk: Kansas forged the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date to beat North Carolina and win the men’s national title.

Gamecocks dominate: The women’s national championship is officially heading back to Columbia, S.C., for the second time in program history after a wire-to-wire 64-49 victory by South Carolina over Connecticut.

Mike Krzyzewski’s last game: Coach K’s career ends with joy and agony in college basketball Armageddon.

One day, two title games: A decade after Title IX, a battle for control of women’s basketball split loyalties and produced two national champions.