Last March, a four-seed went on one among the more dominant runs in recent memory. San Diego State and Florida Atlantic reached the Final 4.
North Carolina, everyone’s preseason No. 1, didn’t even make it to the NCAA Tournament.
There isn’t a sport more unpredictable than college basketball, and the appearance of the transfer portal has created extra uncertainty, with teams remaking their rosters now on an annual basis.
That leads us to this season, as reigning national champion Connecticut hopes to turn into the primary team to repeat since Florida in 2006-07.
There aren’t any shortage of contenders and storylines, and no clear favorite. It sets up what needs to be an interesting 12 months that is bound to incorporate several surprises along the best way.
The Post’s Zach Braziller breaks all of it down together with his preseason Top 25:
That dark cloud hovering over Kansas following the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is gone, leading to nothing but a number of light rain drops. Bill Self now desires to “go for the throat.” That begins with a preseason No. 1 rating after he landed the large prize on the transfer market, All-American center Hunter Dickinson of Michigan, to hitch returning starters Kevin McCullar Jr., Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams Jr. together with top-20 freshman Elmarko Jackson. After a surprising second-round exit without the sick Self last March, the Jayhawks might be out for redemption.
One March, possibly this one, Matt Painter will win big, and all that nonsense about him being unable to get it done when it matters will go away. Jay Wright couldn’t win when it counted until he did. Purdue and reigning National Player of the Yr Zach Edey will again be a high seed within the Dance, and the Boilermakers are likely higher prepared for the pressure of March with the painful memory of last 12 months’s loss to FDU — just the second time a No. 16 seed has topped a No. 1 — providing motivation. Particularly since guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith might be sophomores after strong freshmen campaigns, and Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones should provide needed scoring punch on the perimeter.
Search for a giant jump in Yr 2 for Jon Scheyer and Duke. He not only has his top 4 scorers back, he brings within the country’s second-best recruiting class. Talent and experience together is usually a wonderful thing. Seven-foot forward Kyle Filipowski was terrific as a freshman — averaging 15.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists — and needs to be even higher as a sophomore, particularly since he might be joined by senior Jeremy Roach and sophomore Tyrese Proctor. Their return will alleviate the pressure on five-star freshmen TJ Power and Jared McCain to shine immediately.
Marquette is the exception in present-day college basketball. Of its nine leading scorers, the just one to depart was Olivier-Maxence Prosper, who was a first-round NBA draft pick. Continuity is so rare nowadays, and it will possibly be very useful when other teams are working in several recent pieces. Little or no is different for Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles, the Big East’s regular season and postseason champion — which returns the league’s Player of the Yr in in point guard Tyler Kolek, rim-running big man Oso Ighodaro and lights-out shooting wing Kam Jones, amongst others.
5. Michigan State
By Michigan State standards, the past three years have been disappointing: one trip to the Sweet 16 and no higher than a fourth-place finish within the Big Ten. Expect that to vary this 12 months. Tom Izzo has experience and depth with five of his top six scorers back alongside the fifth-ranked recruiting class within the country. Last March’s Sweet 16 run displayed this group’s upside.
The Huskies is likely to be more talented this 12 months than last season after they won all of it — if projected lottery picks Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle live as much as the hype. Regular point guard Tristen Newton returns and sharpshooting forward Alex Karaban is a lethal court-spacing weapon. Lots of leadership and production was lost with Andre Jackson Jr., Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo leaving for the NBA, but coach Dan Hurley reloaded with the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class headed by Castle and added a key piece in Rutgers marksman Cam Spencer.
Creighton fell a single point shy of its first Final 4 berth last March and will find itself back in that very same position again this 12 months. There have been defections — starters Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard transferred — but three of the Big East’s best players returned in two-way inside force Ryan Kalkbrenner, do-it-all guard Trey Alexander and sweet-shooting wing Baylor Scheierman. Plus, Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth, who led the Aggies in scoring, assists and steals a 12 months ago, needs to be a difference-maker within the backcourt. He projects as a greater fit running coach Greg McDermott’s high-octane offense than Nembhard, a weaker shooter.
Since 2017-18, Rick Barnes and Tennessee have won a minimum of 25 games 4 times. They’ve also yet to get past the Sweet 16 despite being a four-seed or higher in those seasons. Could this be the 12 months? The Volunteers actually have the pieces to be in that position — after returning Bronx point guard Zakai Zeigler and double-digit senior scorers Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James. Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht can fill it up from the wing, and massive men Tobe Awaka and Jonas Aidoo have breakout potential.
Two guarantees for the Cougars: They may lose more conference games this 12 months than the past two seasons combined (4), but coach Kelvin Sampson’s team might be ultra-prepared for the tournament. Joining the minefield referred to as the Big 12 won’t be easy, yet Houston has the talent to not only survive, but thrive. L.J. Cryer (Baylor) and Damian Dunn (Temple) were instrumental portal adds to hitch returning starters Jamal Shead and J’Wan Roberts.
Tommy Lloyd has won 61 of the 72 games he has coached at Arizona, producing consecutive strong seasons, and don’t expect the Wildcats to take a step back this 12 months. The three-man transfer haul of Caleb Love (North Carolina), Keshad Johnson (San Diego State) and Jaden Bradley (Alabama) could possibly be potent. Seven-footer Oumar Ballo is coming off a giant junior 12 months, and Lloyd tapped into his deep international connections to herald highly-regarded Lithuanian duo Motiejus Krivas and Paulius Murauskas.
Just three coaches have reached the second weekend in 4 of the past five tournaments: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson and Eric Musselman, who’s pretty much as good of an in-season team-builder as there may be in the game. No person works the transfer portal and makes recent pieces fit higher on an annual basis. This 12 months might be one other challenge for him, after losing his top three scorers to the NBA. But in typical Musselman fashion, he reloaded through the portal by landing potential difference-makers El Ellis (Louisville), Tramon Mark (Houston), Jeremiah Davenport (Cincinnati) and Khalif Battle (Temple), together with top-60 highschool recruits Baye Fall and Layden Blocker. By this point, it could be silly to doubt this guy.
The Zags have reached the Sweet 16 previously eight tournaments, remarkable consistency no other team within the country can match in that span. This 12 months’s team won’t start the season with nearly as much hype — Gonzaga wasn’t even picked to win the West Coast Conference; Saint Mary’s was — but don’t count out Mark Few despite the departures of stars Drew Timme and Julian Strawther. Creighton transfer Ryan Nembhard, the brother of former Gonzaga star Andrew Nembhard, will run the show and have loads of support from returning leading scorer Anton Watson, Wyoming big man Graham Ike and shot-making wing Steele Venters, formerly of Eastern Washington.
13. Saint Mary’s
With a greater draw, the Gaels are a Sweet 16 team last March (they faced eventual champion UConn within the second round). Most of that team returns, most notably dynamic sophomore guard Aidan Mahaney and double-digit scorers Alex Ducas and Mitchell Saxen. It’s easier to get a table at Rao’s than to attain against Saint Mary’s, which has been ranked in the highest 15 in defensive efficiency each of the past three years. It’s this program’s identity.
14. North Carolina
There is probably not a coach facing more pressure than Hubert Davis. In Yr 1, he led North Carolina to the national championship game. In Yr 2, the Tar Heels became the primary team to begin the season No. 1 and fail to achieve the 68-team NCAA Tournament. With a stocked roster that features returning starters Armando Bacot and RJ Davis, five-star freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau and impact transfers Harrison Ingram (Stanford), Jae’Lyn Withers (Louisville) and Cormac Ryan (Notre Dame), Davis needs a giant 12 months or his job could possibly be in jeopardy. The last North Carolina coach to miss consecutive tournaments, Matt Doherty in 2002-03, was fired due to it.
The highlight might be on second-year coach Kyle Neptune on The Major Line. Villanova’s struggles last 12 months were comprehensible, given injuries to top guard Justin Moore and one-and-done freshman Cam Whitmore. But it is a Sweet 16 roster, if not higher, with a healthy Moore leading the best way and a robust supporting forged that features forward Eric Dixon, guard Mark Armstrong and major transfer additions in TJ Bamba (Washington State), Hakim Hart (Maryland) and Tyler Burton (Richmond). It’s paying homage to a few of Jay Wright’s best teams: shooting, shooting and more shooting from versatile pieces. The most important query is the coach.
16. Florida Atlantic
It was a storybook season in Boca Raton, Fla. — the Owls not only winning their first NCAA Tournament game, but going all of the option to the Final 4 in a surprising 35-win campaign. Coach Dusty May received a contract extension and was in a position to keep his entire team together. But now Florida Atlantic can have a bull’s-eye on its back, and have very real expectations. May smartly scheduled well, playing the likes of Arizona and Illinois during non-conference as his team moves as much as the AAC this season. It can be fascinating to see how this group follows up that magical March.
Is Jim Larranaga recovering with age? At 73, he returned to his second Final 4, 17 years after his George Mason run. Don’t count his Hurricanes out of getting back there despite losing top scorers Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller to the NBA. Sophomore wing Wooga Poplar is a breakout candidate, Florida State transfer Matthew Cleveland could possibly be a stud, and guard Nijel Pack and forward Norchad Omier are already standouts used to March success.
18. Texas A&M
Few teams have a greater backcourt duo than the Aggies’ tandem of Wade Taylor IV and Tyrece Radford. The 2 combined to average 29.6 points last 12 months, spearheading the varsity’s first tournament bid since 2018. Texas A&M added much more perimeter firepower in mid-major transfers Jace Carter (Illinois Chicago) and Eli Lawrence (Middle Tennessee). It has created hype around this system, which was surprisingly picked to complete second within the SEC — ahead of Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama.
The Wildcats last reached the second weekend of the tournament in 2019. That’s an eternity in Lexington, and it might not occur again this 12 months. Kentucky is again going young when everyone seems to win in March by going old, losing six of its top seven scorers from a 12 months ago. John Calipari has the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class — a bunch of one-and-done freshmen led by Recent Jersey’s Dajuan Wagner Jr., 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw and expert wing Justin Edwards. Croatian import Zvonimir Ivisic could figure prominently as Bradshaw deals with a foot injury, but a very powerful newcomer could possibly be well-rounded West Virginia transfer forward Tre Mitchell, due to experience he brings.
Rodney Terry earned the full-time job after leading Texas on an Elite Eight run, the Longhorns’ first such appearance since 2008, and followed up by landing one among the premier guards within the portal, Max Abmas of Oral Roberts. He’ll join returnee Tyrese Hunter and Central Florida transfer Ithiel Horton to form a lethal backcourt. The important thing, nonetheless, for this team to be a real contender is 6-foot-9 senior wing Dylan Disu realizing his immense potential.
That is modern roster constructing for high-major powers: transfers and top-50 recruits. Baylor rebuilt its roster that way, by landing MAC Player of the Yr RayJ Dennis of Toledo and top-10 freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter. Coach Scott Drew had no selection but to go this route after losing his top three scorers. Only a number of schools can count on roster stability nowadays — everyone else retools each spring.
The Crimson Tide has alternated between strong and underwhelming seasons in Nate Oats’ 4 years there. To interrupt that trend, Alabama will need its transfer haul to excel. It did usher in three high-level, mid-major talents in Aaron Estrada (Hofstra), Latrell Wrightsell Jr. (Cal State Fullerton) and Grant Nelson (North Dakota State) on top of a top-20 recruiting class. Second-leading scorer Mark Sears, a high quality shooter and secondary playmaker, is the lone starter back from last 12 months’s Sweet 16 team. Despite a lot turnover, Oats still put together a loaded non-conference schedule that features Ohio State, Creighton, Arizona, Purdue and potentially Oregon within the Emerald Coast Classic.
After a slow start, Andy Enfield has major momentum at USC with 4 consecutive 20-win seasons and three tournament berths. Search for that to proceed. He has a bona fide star in super-senior guard Boogie Ellis, one among three returning starters, and the nation’s second-best recruit in guard Isaiah Collier. DJ Rodman, the son of NBA great Dennis Rodman, could have a giant role on the wing after transferring from Washington State. One potential X-factor: Bronny James, LeBron James’ oldest son, a top-30 recruit whose status is uncertain after going into cardiac arrest while practicing this summer.
24. San Diego State
Seventeen of the past 18 years, San Diego State has won a minimum of 20 games. It has reached the tournament 11 times in that span. That’s an entire lot of winning DNA that won’t disappear despite last 12 months’s national championship runner-up losing leading scorer Matt Bradley, Mountain West Defensive Player of the Yr Nathan Mensah and versatile wing Keshad Johnson. As an alternative, search for physical forward Jaedon LeDee to transition from a job player to a key piece, and the returning backcourt of LaMont Butler and Darrion Trammell to be even higher.
Get them early. By March, no one will wish to play the Bruins. What this team lacks in experience, after losing its top five scorers, it makes up for in pure talent. Mick Cronin has a monster seven-man recruiting class with a heavy international flavor led by ultra-talented, 7-foot-3 Spanish center Aday Mara and expert Turkish forward Berke Buyuktuncel. Those two, together with last 12 months’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Yr Adem Bona, should form a deep front line. It, nonetheless, likely will take time for this group to develop cohesion, and there are query marks within the backcourt.
Zach Braziller’s Final 4 picks: North Carolina, Duke, Arkansas, Creighton