A year ago at this time, we kinda/sorta had an idea there would be a college basketball season. We did not know what it would look like. We did not know how many games would be cancelled and how many would be played. We did not know, for certain, how the NCAA Tournament would operate.

But we did know who would be really, really good.

Sporting News was not unusual in ranking Gonzaga and Baylor at the top of the preseason rankings for the 2020-21 season. The Associated Press poll placed Gonzaga at No. 1 and Baylor No. 2. So did CBS Sports. And neither did we get it exactly right. But those teams did wind up playing for the 2021 NCAA championship. It was obvious those teams would be a level above everyone else last season, and that’s how it turned out.

It’s not as clear this season. Gonzaga is our No. 1 team for the second year in a row, as if we’re going to keep trying until they get it right. That’s not the reason. It’s more about bringing back the player who may be the best in college basketball (Drew Timme) and bringing in the player who may be the best freshman (Chet Holmgren), and about them being coached by a future Hall of Famer in Mark Few.

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It’s also about the competition having a lot of promise and maybe a few flaws.

There is not a huge difference among the top dozen or so teams on our list.

It’d be inaccurate to say this season is unpreditable. We’re predicting it right here. But predicting it accurately will be no easy feat. 

1. Gonzaga

Coach: Mark Few

Key returnees: C Drew Timme, PG Andrew Nembhard, PF Anton Watson

Key additions: PF Chet Holmgren, SG Hunter Sallis, PG Rasir Bolton

2021 finish: 31-1, NCAA runner-up

Why they’re here: The Zags are pretty close to a universal selection as this year’s No. 1 team, which may trick everyone into believing this is a team that has no issues, has it all figured out like Florida’s intact championship team at the start of 2006-07. The truth: This is a team with two returning starters, one of whom will not be playing the same position as last year. All-American Drew Timme is back and figures to be even better, and Andrew Nembhard – who was a fulltime point guard at Florida before transferring – should have more control of the offense with Jalen Suggs gone. That’s a lot, of course, and that’s before you add in five-star recruits Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis. Holmgren is a freakishly talented big man who will change games with his ability to block shots, advance the ball, play away from the lane and to finish around the rim. So it’s not crazy to believe this team will win it all. We think it’ll happen, or they’d be ranked somewhere else. Just know that there’s a possibility, however small, it might not work.

2. UCLA

Coach: Mick Cronin

Key returnees: PG Tyger Campbell, SG Johnny Juzang, SF Jaime Jacquez, C Cody Riley, SG Jules Bernard, SG David Singleton, SG Jake Kyman, PF Mac Etienne

Key additions: SF Peyton Watson, C Myles Johnson

2021 finish: 22-10, Final Four

Why they’re here: Everyone saw what this UCLA team is capable of achieving – because they did it when everyone was watching. The Bruins’ run through March was unexpected, but it wasn’t a fluke. Their defense improved throughout the NCAA Tournament, with three of their last five victims falling under 1.0 points per possession. Being this kind of great, though, is a big step. First, Juzang has to be ready to be extraordinary from November through April; it can’t just be getting on a roll late. And it’ll be harder because teams will gameplan against him. Finding the right mix between reliable veteran Riley and the transfer Johnson will be a challenge. And it’d be silly to waste a lottery-level talent like Watson, but there are veterans at nearly every position. Coach Mick Cronin showed his critics last March what he is as a coach. Now, he’ll have to do it again.

3. Illinois

Coach: Brad Underwood

Key returnees: C Kofi Cockburn, PG Andre Curbelo, SG Trent Frazier, SG Da’Monte Williams, SG Jacob Grandison

Key additions: SG Austin Hutcherson, PF Omar Payne, SG Alphonso Plummer

2021 finish: 24-7, NCAA second round

Why they’re here: They’ve got the best center in college basketball and maybe the best point guard – isn’t that a great place for the Illini to start? Well, progress from there will have to include Cockburn adding more versatility to his game and, more important, Curbelo showing he can make a jumpshot. And beyond that, there’s whether Hutcherson is the approximation of Duncan Robinson – from Division III star to Division I standout – as his practice performances suggest, and what role Plummer will fill on a team that has three veteran guards. And who provides the length to make the perimeter defense work at last season’s elite level?

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4. Texas

Coach: Chris Beard

Key returnees: SG Andrew Jones, PG/SG Courtney Ramey, F Brock Cunningham, SG Jase Fabres

Key additions: PG Marcus Carr, PF Tre Mitchell, PF Christian Bishop, SF Timmy Allen, PG Devin Askew, PF Dylan Disu

2021 finish: 19-8, NCAA first round

Why they’re here: The Longhorns could start a team comprising entirely transfers and be formidable, but there also are some nice pieces still in place from last year’s Longhorns. What Beard will have to accomplish as coach, though, is to get nearly everyone involved to understand what really goes into winning. The holdover players did win a conference tournament title, but they blew a lot of that goodwill by going out and losing in their first NCAA Tournament. Only Bishop among the newcomers has been a significant player on a successful team. When he arrived at Texas Tech, Beard took a moderately successful team built by Tubby Smith, added some fresh pieces and transformed the Raiders into a force. So this is a little like that. But only a little.

5. Purdue

Coach: Matt Painter

Key returnees: C Trevion Williams, C Zach Edey, SG Jaden Ivey, PG Eric Hunter, SG Sasha Stefanovic, SG Brandon Newman, PG Isaiah Thompson, F Mason Gillis

Key additions: SF Brian Waddell, PF Caleb Furst, F Trey Kaufman-Renn

2021 finish: 18-10, NCAA first round

Why they’re here: If they can find a consistent, productive source of 3-point shooting – in the biggest games, in the biggest moments – the Boilers are very much a threat to win their first NCAA championship. That’s a bit of an “if”, though. They ranked 335th in the percentage of field goals that came from long distance, according to KenPom.com. That’s partly because Williams and Edey are so overwhelming inside, but it’s also because Stefanovic has been inconsistent and Ivey – who could become a star – hasn’t yet shown the confidence to make deep shooting a major part of his arsenal.

6. Kansas

Coach: Bill Self

Key returnees: SF Ochai Agbagi, C David McCormack, PF Jalen Wilson, SG Christian Braun, PF Mitch Lightfoot, G Dajuan Harris

Key additions: PG Remy Martin, SG Jalen Coleman-Lands, PF Cam Martin, PG Bobby Pettiford, G Joseph Yesufu, PF Zach Clemence

2021 finish: 21-9, NCAA second round

Why they’re here: Honestly, it’s starts with the simple fact they’re always here. Give Self even close to a significant complement of talents and he’ll turn out an elite team. He’ll have to do more conjuring with this group than he usually does. There’s a strong group of returning players as well as a boatload of transfers and freshmen. There are few better at blending so many elements into a cohesive team, but the second-most important ingredient will be the improvement of one of those returning players – most likely Agbagi or Wilson – into a legitimate first option.

7. Duke

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Key returnees: SF Wendell Moore, PG Jeremy Roach, C Mark Williams, SF Joey Baker

Key additions: PF Paolo Banchero, SF AJ Griffin, SG Trevor Keels, PF Theo John, PG Jaylen Blakes

2021 finish: 13-11

Why they’re here: It’s pronounced Ban-Care-oh. You’re going to want to remember that. Because he may not have a Zion Williamson impact, but he has the ability to become the preeminent freshman in college basketball and maybe even the best player in college hoops this season. Some of that comes down to whether the point guard position is solid enough to get him the ball as often as possible in dangerous positions, and some to Banchero playing with Zion-style toughness and belief. Because Banchero is so dynamic, this could be a terrific defensive team, but, again, a lot depends on Roach doing an effective enough job controlling the ball at the point of attack. If you’re getting the idea that the point guard position will dictate how successfully Duke recovers from last season – and how it sends Coach K into retirement – you’re catching on.

MORE: Fan bids $1M for four seats to final Duke home game

8. Kentucky

Coach: John Calipari

Key returnees: PF Jacob Toppin, SG Davion Mintz, SG Dontaie Allen, PF Keion Brooks, PF Lance Ware

Key additions: SG CJ Frederick, PG Sahvir Wheeler, PG TyTy Washington, PF Daimion Collins, F Bryce Hopkins, SG Kellan Grady, C Oscar Tshiebwe

2021 finish: 9-16

Why they’re here: There are seven new players expected to contribute, to some degree, in addition to more returning production than Kentucky typically has enjoyed under Calipari. There is no team-changing prospect such as John Wall or Anthony Davis, but this group of newcomers has a baseline of college production already established. Tshiebwe, Grady, Frederick and Wheeler already have experienced individual success, and all but Wheeler have been on successful teams. For Kentucky to be this good, Grady and Tshiebwe will need to be special, Brooks must take the next step toward becoming UK’s top threat and either Wheeler or Washington or both will need to deliver as the primary point guard.

9. Michigan

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Coach: Juwan Howard

Key returnees: C Hunter Dickinson, G Eli Brooks, PF Brandon Johns

Key additions: G Kobe Bufkin, SF Caleb Houstan, PG Frankie Collins, PF Mousa Diabate, SG DeVante’ Jones

2021 finish: 23-5, NCAA Elite Eight

Why they’re here: Having a player like Dickinson is a terrific place to start. He’s a force on the inside who could blossom into a 20-point scorer if that’s the direction Howard chooses to take this offense. And that might not be a bad idea, because most of the players he’ll be relying upon are either unproven at the Division I or high-major level. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the Wolverines’ potential, it’s only to say Dickinson will need to maintain his production from beginning – all five of his single-figure scoring games came after Jan. 15 – to end.

10. Villanova

Coach: Jay Wright

Key returnees: PG Collin Gillespie, SG Justin Moore, SF Jermaine Samuels, SG Caleb Daniels, F Brandon Slater, SF Bryan Antoine

Key additions: SF Trey Patterson, PF Nnanna Njoku

2021 finish: 18-7, NCAA Sweet Sixteen

Why they’re here: We list Patterson as a newcomer even though he was in the program last spring because he enrolled early and appeared in only two games – and because his addition might be the most important ingredient to Villanova’s attempt to remain a Final Four contender. The departure of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and (to a lesser extent) Cole Swider creates a frontcourt vacuum that Patterson’s dynamism will be crucial to filling, even though he’s truly a wing. The backcourt is loaded like few others, but the challenge will be keeping opponents away from the rim – which was a huge problem even with Robinson-Earl.

11. Memphis

Coach: Penny Hardaway

Key players: SG Landers Nolley, G Lester Quinones, PF DeAndre Williams, C Jalen Duren, G/F Emoni Bates

2021 finish: 20-8, NIT championship

12. Oregon

Coach: Dana Altman

Key players: C N’Faly Dante, G Will Richardson, G De’Vion Harmon, PF Quincy Guerrier, C Nathan Bittle, F Eric Williams

2021 finish: 21-7, NCAA Sweet 16

13. Baylor

Coach: Scott Drew

Key players: SG Adam Flagler, PF Matthew Mayer, C Jonathan Tchamwa Tchathoua, PF Flo Thamba, G James Akinjo, SF Kendall Brown, SG Langston Love

2021 finish: 28-2, NCAA Champions

14. Arkansas

Coach: Eric Musselman

Key players: SG JD Notae, SG Au’Diese Toney, G Chris Lykes, SG Davonte Davis, C Connor Vanover, F Kamani Johnson

2021 finish: 25-7, NCAA Elite Eight

15. Auburn

Coach: Bruce Pearl

Key players: SG Allen Flanigan, C Walker Kessler, PF Jaylin Williams, PF Jabari Smith, SG Devan Cambridge

2021 finish: 13-14

16. Ohio State

Coach: Chris Holtmann

Key players: PF EJ Liddell, SF Justice Sueing, PF Kyle Young, SG Justin Ahrens, C Zed Key, PG Jamari Wheeler, SG Malaki Branham, C Joey Brunk

2021 finish: 21-10, NCAA first round

17. Alabama

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Coach: Nate Oats

Key players: PG Jahvon Quinerly, SG Jaden Shackelford, PG JD Davison, C Charles Bediako, PF Noah Gurley,

2021 finish: 26-7, NCAA Sweet 16

18. Houston

Coach: Kelvin Sampson

Key players: G Marcus Sasser, C Josh Carlton, F Fabian White, SG Tramon Mark, SG Kyler Edwards

2021 finish: 28-4, NCAA Final Four

19. Florida State

Coach: Leonard Hamilton

Key players: SG Anthony Polite, SG Caleb Mills, PF Malik Osborne, SG Rayquan Evans, SF Matthew Cleveland, C Naheem McLeod, SG Jalen Warley

2021 finish: 18-7, NCAA Sweet 16

20. Saint Bonaventure

Coach: Mark Schmidt

Key players: PG Kyle Lofton, SG Jaren Holmes, SG Jalen Adaway, SG Dominick Welch, C Osun Osunyiyi, C Karim Coulibaly

2021 finish: 16-5, NCAA first round

21. Michigan State

Coach: Tom Izzo

Key players: PF Joey Hauser, F Malik Hall, C Marcus Bingham, SG Gabe Brown, PG Tyson Walker, SG Max Christie

2021 finish: 15-13, NCAA First Four

22. Maryland

Coach: Mark Turgeon

Key players: SG Eric Ayala, PF Donta Scott, PG Fatts Russell, C Qudus Wahab, F Hakim Hart

2021 finish: 17-14, NCAA second round

23. North Carolina

Coach: Hubert Davis

Key players: PF Armando Bacot, PG Caleb Love, SF Leaky Black, PF Brady Manek, PF Dawson Garcia

2021 finish: 18-11, NCAA second round

24. Connecticut

Coach: Dan Hurley

Key players: PG R.J. Cole, SG Tyrese Martin, PF Isaiah Whaley, SF Tyler Polley, C Adama Sanogo, SG Jalen Gaffney

2021 finish: 15-8, NCAA first round

25. Tennessee

Coach: Rick Barnes

Key players: PF John Fulkerson, SG Victor Bailey, PG Santiago Vescovi, SG Josiah Jordan-James, PF Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, C Jonas Aidoo, PG Justin Powell, PG Kennedy Chandler

2021 finish: 18-9, NCAA first round





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