Unceremonious and stunted as it was, the premature, pandemic-spurred conclusion of the 2019-20 season means it’s time to look ahead. And with that, we present our extremely early Top 25 for 2020-21. It’s crucial not to overthink this exercise, given the number of teams waiting out NBA draft decisions, late movement on the graduate transfer market, and a handful of impact recruits still uncommitted. The NBA’s early-entry deadline is April 26, which will only tell part of the story, since players can still return to college later while retaining eligibility (although the potential of a delayed draft may throw that timeline into flux).
With all that in mind, here’s our first set of projections.
It’s way too early to properly anoint a preseason No. 1, but Villanova is set to bring back its entire team save for projected first-round pick Saddiq Bey, who has a strong case to turn pro. Interior defense and depth might be an issue, but as long as Jeremiah Robinson-Earl returns, it should feel comfortable. The Wildcats will have shooting and experience at each position, a senior point guard in Collin Gillespie, rock-solid Justin Moore at the two, Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels on the wing and a potential X-factor in former McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine, who should be due for playing time. It will miss Bey, but on paper Villanova looks like the most stable and most dangerous team at this early juncture.
Provided Filip Petrusev returns, Gonzaga will roll out as much talent as anyone, with Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi at this point expected to return and talented forward Anton Watson on the mend from injury. If Petrusev leaves, Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo provide plenty of cover up front. Mark Few also brings in a strong trio of freshmen headlined by SI All-American Jalen Suggs, although the five-star guard may still opt to forgo college and play professionally in Australia. Without Suggs, point guard becomes a major question, perhaps one Gonzaga could address with a grad transfer. Regardless, there’s talent and size at every position, and if Suggs makes it to campus, Gonzaga will have a strong case to move into the top spot.
Baylor’s ranking will hinge on whether or not Jared Butler decides to enter the draft—if he leaves, it will drop a bit. But the Bears still bring a lot back, including two of the best individual defenders in the country in Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital. MaCio Teague and a healthier Tristan Clark should also return, and there’s some buzz about Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler, who averaged 15.9 points as a freshman and will step into minutes to help juice the offense. Late-game shot creation may still be an issue with or without Butler, but there shouldn’t be a massive drop-off here.
Virginia closed the season with 11 wins in 12 games and will lose only Mamadi Diakite, putting it in pole position in the ACC for the time being. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser will step into his spot in the lineup, which should be an upgrade in terms of shot creation, but a downgrade in rim protection. Virginia eked out close wins despite being downright bad offensively at times, so moving the needle back in that direction isn’t the worst thing, and it’s fair to assume Tony Bennett will have the defense up to speed. So long as Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell and Jay Huff keep improving, the ceiling here is palpable.
The three-point happy Bluejays ran one of the most efficient offenses in the country this season and should have their entire starting five back, with Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander forming one of the better backcourts in the country. They’re probably due for some shooting regression, but incoming freshman shot-blocker Ryan Kalkbrenner could be a key figure in shoring up the defense, and the continuity here should be a major factor. Creighton won’t be the biggest or most athletic team in the country, but should be squarely in the mix to win the Big East.
Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans have both declared for the draft, and operating under the assumption Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards also turn pro, Kentucky will look a lot different but won’t lack for talent. Much will hinge on how quickly SI All-Americans B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke figure out how to play together, with both being scorers who like the ball in their hands, but having an unselfish guard in Devin Askew should help. Those three freshmen should have a lot of responsibility, with Keion Brooks and E.J. Montgomery returning to do the work inside. This is the recipe for a good team, albeit with some question marks.
Duke will lose Tre Jones, Vernon Carey and Cassius Stanley to the NBA, but should be able to navigate just fine thanks to another strong recruiting class. Jeremy Roach and D.J. Steward will have to play big minutes immediately but should be quick studies, and if they can get the most out of the versatile Jalen Johnson, there shouldn’t be much drop-off. Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt should both take steps forward, and there will be options up front, with Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape and incoming freshmen Henry Coleman, Jaemyn Brakefield and Mark Williams all competing for time. There will be a lot for this group to figure out, but the ceiling is obvious.
This ranking obviously hinges on Luka Garza’s return. If he’s back, there’s no reason to think his low-post domination won’t continue, and Iowa should bring back Joe Wieskamp, most of its supporting cast and a healthy Jordan Bohannon, making it the Big Ten’s most dangerous team on paper. The big question will be whether the Hawkeyes can make incremental improvements defensively, with Garza warranting heavy usage but creating some limitations on the other end in certain matchups.
Kansas will have a hole at point guard if Devon Dotson turns pro, but other than that, it’s well-equipped to stay competitive, with Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji anchoring the perimeter, freshman Bryce Thompson likely to contribute, and enough depth in the frontcourt with David McCormack, Silvio De Sousa, Tristan Enaruna and Christian Braun all back. Enaruna has breakout potential as a sophomore assuming his minutes and comfort level trend upward. This won’t be the most loaded Kansas team ever, but it should be plenty solid.
10. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders may lose Jahmi’us Ramsey to the NBA and could use another body up front, but Chris Beard will have another experienced, tough group that can improve on their 18–13 mark. Incoming freshman Nimari Burnett should help boost the offense, Terrence Shannon could be due for a big second year, and UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe should step in and help. After losing a lot of close games this season, improved connectivity and late-game guard play could be the difference-maker. Davide Moretti and Kyler Edwards remain, and Burnett in particular should be a big help.
11. Michigan State
Michigan State enters the spring with a lot of what-ifs, and will need multiple returners to shine in bigger roles with Cassius Winston and potentially Xavier Tillman both gone. If Joshua Langford can get a medical waiver, it should help. But Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry in particular will have to find new levels of scoring consistency, with Marquette transfer Joey Hauser stepping in and freshmen Mady Sissoko and A.J. Hoggard both capable of contributing. Sissoko in particular could be crucial if Marcus Bingham doesn’t step up at center. There’s no shortage of ability, but some projection is required, and Winston and Tillman aren’t the kinds of players you just replace.
This might be Rick Barnes’s most talented Tennessee team and looks like a legit SEC dark horse, with a wealth of talent on the perimeter led by five-star freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. Someone is going to have to come off the bench, whether it’s one of those two or returning point guard Santiago Vescovi, but these are pretty good problems to have. Josiah Jordan-James and Yves Pons have plenty of untapped upside, E.J. Anosike transfers in from Sacred Heart, and productive big man John Fulkerson is also back. If all goes well, the Vols should be extremely tough defensively, and will benefit from having more shot-creators on the roster, even though the backcourt skews young.
Kelvin Sampson’s Houston teams have been nothing if not consistent, and should get pretty much everyone back, assuming DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes return. Sixth man and scoring specialist Caleb Mills will look to follow up a strong freshman year, and Nate Hinton and Marcus Sasser round out a solid perimeter rotation. The Cougars again look like favorites in the AAC, and shouldn’t be slept on. Mills, in particular, was one of this season’s better-kept secrets nationally.
After rattling off eight straight wins to close the season and win the Big Ten, Wisconsin loses only Brevin Pritzl from a well-balanced team and also brings in five freshmen. The tandem of Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter at center created headaches for opponents, and D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison are back again at guard. There’s a chance the Badgers hit their ceiling this season, but there’s also a real possibility they sustain their success. This was a tough year in the Big Ten, and they passed that test with flying colors.
15. Florida State
Even with Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams likely to stay in the draft, Florida State should be in fairly good shape, with SI All-American Scottie Barnes set to be one of the more impactful freshmen in the country and a strong fit on both ends. The only thing this team is missing on paper is a point guard, with Trent Forrest graduating, but at times it may be able to play through the slick-passing Barnes, and will just need reliable ballhandling and sustained perimeter shooting to stay relevant. Junior college transfer Sardaar Calhoun should help boost the offense. The Seminoles still have size and length in spades, and that recipe tends to work well for them.
16. Ohio State
The Buckeyes won’t have a ton of size with Kaleb Wesson turning pro, but they’ll have depth and plenty of shooting at every position. Expect a big impact from frontcourt transfers Justice Sueing (Cal) and Seth Towns (Harvard), who should help stabilize a team that was fairly inconsistent. Improved guard play is a must, but the duo of C.J. Walker and Duane Washington will all be back, and the continuity should help. This team lacks a truly dynamic playmaker, but there’s plenty for Chris Holtmann to work with, so long as the offense can be properly reimagined without Wesson.
After a mid-season turnaround culminated in a surprising 12–6 Pac-12 record in Mick Cronin’s debut season, the Bruins bring back five starters and add five-star point guard Daishen Nix, who has immediate all-conference potential and should elevate the rest of the team with his playmaking and maturity. Another year of comfort should make this group better defensively and capable of grinding out wins. If Cronin can get more out of his returners, they’ll have a real shot at winning the conference.
The Gators get Scottie Lewis back, should return Keyontae Johnson and will have transfers Anthony Duruji (Louisiana Tech) and Tyree Appleby (Cleveland State) eligible, putting them in position to take a step forward as a group. This could be a crowded rotation, but on paper it’s a good problem to have, with Andrew Nembhard, Tre Mann and Noah Locke returning at guard. Florida won’t have Kerry Blackshear to rely on up front, but there’s plenty on the roster to work with, and it will likely bring back more important pieces than anyone in the conference.
19. San Diego State
The Aztecs are one of the toughest teams to place right now, with Malachi Flynn currently mulling a leap to the NBA. If he’s back, San Diego State will likely rank a bit higher than this. If he leaves, it won’t be a Top 25 team, noting how crucial he was in all facets and with starters Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin graduating. They’ll get back Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell and hope for better health from center Nathan Mensah, but there won’t be an easy way to replace Flynn, and for now, this is a wait-and-see situation.
There’s no easy fix losing Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, who were huge parts of the program’s foundation and on-court identity for four years. But Juwan Howard brings in a strong recruiting class that should help smooth the transition, and Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks should all return. Wagner is a breakout candidate who looked significantly more comfortable in the back half of the season, and when Livers is healthy, he’s reliable. There’s talk that five-star big Isaiah Todd could opt to turn pro overseas, but he’ll be an immediate-impact piece if he makes it to campus, along with center Hunter Dickinson, guard Zeb Jackson and forward Terrence Williams, all of whom could contribute. The Wolverines are still waiting on a decision from highly-ranked guard Josh Christopher.
21. North Carolina
It’s hard to see North Carolina falling on its face two straight years, and a strong recruiting class led by guard Caleb Love and bigs Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler will help matters. Expectations may have to be tempered a bit given the imbalanced shape of the roster—the Tar Heels will have to find minutes up front for Sharpe and Kessler while also bringing back Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. It’s pretty hard to space the floor with two centers on the court at all times. But there should be some reason for optimism here, and things can’t get worse.
22. West Virginia
Bob Huggins loses just one key piece from one of the best defensive groups in the country, with big men Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver expected back to do the heavy lifting. West Virginia stumbled down the stretch but had a solid year on whole, and another year of experience for guards Miles McBride and Jordan McCabe and the additions of redshirt forward Jalen Bridges and incoming freshman big Isaiah Cottrell add more depth. Huggins will again have the depth to play his style, and if the offense trends upward, the Mountaineers should be in good shape.
The Longhorns closed the season on a 5–1 run, Shaka Smart did enough to hang onto his job, and the entire team should be back for what could be a legitimate breakthrough. Texas is in strong position with uncommitted five-star and SI All-American forward Greg Brown, who would be a huge shot in the arm for a team that was downright bad offensively at times last season. Bigger things are expected from sophomore Kai Jones, who also has NBA potential. And Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres will all have another year of experience, hopefully leading to more fine-tuned guard play.
Although Rutgers’s NCAA tournament return will have to wait until next year, the Scarlet Knights are poised to build on a surprisingly solid season and bring in freshman Cliff Omoruyi to boost their depth up front. Only one starter graduates, and Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young are among those returning from a team that was staunch defensively and went 11–9 in a deep Big Ten. Steve Pikiell has done a great job, and this group should end up in the top half of the conference.
After going 14–4 in the A-10, the Spiders bring back all five starters for their senior seasons and look like obvious favorites to win the conference. The continuity factor is big here, but there’s also real talent on the roster, headlined by defensive whiz Jacob Gilyard, and a balanced offense led by playmaking center Grant Golden. Richmond could have been positioned to pull an upset or two in the NCAA tournament, but it won’t sneak up on anyone this fall.
Next five out: Oregon, LSU, Arizona State, Stanford, Oklahoma State