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After a Last-Second Decision, There’s a New No. 1 in Men’s College Basketball

SportAfter a Last-Second Decision, There’s a New No. 1 in Men’s College Basketball

After the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline passed on Wednesday night, we finally have a clearer picture of what rosters will look like when the season starts in November.

This transfer portal season has been as crazy as ever, and a lot has changed since we last did this exercise on championship night. It’s possible that a few of these teams will make some late portal additions or sign an overseas prospect or two, but today marks the first day when putting out a super-early Top 25 actually makes sense. So here it is, starting with a No. 1 team that is very much there because of the last-second withdrawal decision by a star player.

Previous rank: 6

Projected starters: Mark Sears, Chris Youngblood (transfer), Latrell Wrightsell Jr., Grant Nelson, Clifford Omoruyi (transfer)

Top reserves: Aden Holloway (transfer), Derrion Reid (freshman), Jarin Stevenson, Houston Mallette (transfer), Aiden Sherrill (freshman), Mouhamed Dioubate, Naas Cunningham (freshman), Labaron Philon (freshman)

Nate Oats has assembled the best 3-point shooting team in the country. In addition to Sears and Wrightsell, he signed three transfer guards who all made 50-plus 3s last season, and two of the three (Youngblood and Mallette) shot 40-plus percent from 3. Oats also improved his defense with former Rutgers center Omoruyi, who anchored the fifth-ranked defense in college hoops, and he signed four top-40 freshmen. This is a ridiculously deep roster with arguably the best offensive weapon in the country (Sears) and enviable athleticism and positional size. Alabama’s defense has teeter-tottered between elite and mediocre the last four years with adjusted defensive ranks of third, 92nd, third and 111th. So the Crimson Tide are due to be good on that end again. That’s the only real question mark here, because we know this team will have no problem scoring.

2. Gonzaga

Previous: 2

Projected starters: Ryan Nembhard, Nolan Hickman, Steele Venters, Ben Gregg, Graham Ike

Top reserves: Braden Huff, Michael Ajayi (transfer), Khalif Battle (transfer), Dusty Stromer

Gonzaga returns four of five starters and gets back Venters, the 2022-23 Big Sky Player of the Year who missed last season with a torn ACL. Last year, the Zags took off when Mark Few moved Gregg into the starting lineup at the three. Few has the lineup versatility to go big again if that’s what’s best. Huff would start for most high-major programs. Gonzaga’s bench might just be good enough to form a top-25 team by itself. Battle averaged 26.7 points over his last nine games at Arkansas; Stromer shot 36.6 percent from 3 as a freshman and started 14 games; Ajayi averaged 17.2 points and shot 47 percent from 3 at Pepperdine; and Braeden Smith, who is redshirting, was the Patriot League player of the year at Colgate. Like Alabama, the Zags need to improve on defense, but this is another team that should score easily. Few has smartly surrounded Ike with floor spacers to give him room to feast in the post.

Previous: 3

Projected starters: Milos Uzan (transfer), LJ Cryer, Emanuel Sharp, J’Wan Roberts, Ja’Vier Francis

Top reserves: Joseph Tugler, Terrance Arceneaux, Ramon Walker, Mercy Miller (freshman), Chase McCarty (freshman)

When Tugler suffered a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 27, Houston was the best team in college hoops, according to metrics, and clearly the best defensive team. Houston’s adjusted defensive efficiency was 84.6; the next best was Iowa State at 89.9. The Cougars lost their most important player in Jamal Shead, but the rest of the rotation is back. Uzan has already proven to be a quality Big 12 guard at Oklahoma, and Houston’s only real issue late in the year was depth. Tugler and Arceneaux give a huge boost there. They’re the best two pro prospects on the team. Kelvin Sampson would probably tell you he has seven starters. Also worth noting: Houston has won 30-plus games three straight seasons, and that followed a Final Four run. Always bet on Sampson.

Previous: 7

Projected starters: Dajuan Harris Jr., Rylan Griffen (transfer), AJ Storr (transfer), KJ Adams, Hunter Dickinson

Top reserves: Zeke Mayo (transfer), Elmarko Jackson, Flory Bidunga (freshman), Zach Clemence, Rakease Passmore (freshman), Jamari McDowell

The Jayhawks looked like a team from another era last season. When they were playing well, their ball movement was exquisite, and they ran beautiful offense. But it was hard to sustain without enough shooting and a perimeter scorer who could create his own. It was only the third time in Bill Self’s tenure that KU ranked outside the top 40 in adjusted offense. That’s where the transfers come in. Self addressed the playmaking and shooting problem with Griffen, Storr and Mayo. Self also has more lineup versatility with big wings like Griffen and Storr who can man the four in smaller lineups, and then a more athletic backup five in Bidunga to take over when Dickinson is struggling guarding ball screens. This is still somewhat of a throwback startling lineup with a non-shooter like Adams at the four, but the roster construction makes more sense on paper.

Tamin Lipsey leads an Iowa State team with high expectations. (Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)

5. Iowa State

Previous: 4

Projected starters: Tamin Lipsey, Keshon Gilbert, Milan Momcilovic, Joshua Jefferson (transfer), Dishon Jackson (transfer)

Top reserves: Curtis Jones, Nate Heise (transfer), Demarion Watson, Brandton Chatfield, Nojus Indrusaitis (freshman), Dwayne Pierce (freshman)

The best defense in college basketball last season should be back near the top, as three starters return and T.J. Otzelberger replaces the other two with strong defenders in Jefferson and Jackson. Saint Mary’s had the No. 7 defense last season with Jefferson in the lineup, per Bart Torvik. And Otzelberger has proven he can build elite defenses, finishing top 10 in adjusted defense in his first three years in Ames. The Cyclones are going to guard. Otzelberger also has been nails at finding underrated transfers who thrive in his system. Last year it was Gilbert and Jones. We can probably expect that Jackson, Heise and Chatfield will surpass expectations. This will be the first time Otzelberger’s Cyclones will have to deal with lofty preseason expectations, but it seems like he has the type of culture that will not let that poison their egos.

6. Duke

Previous: 1

Projected starters: Caleb Foster, Tyrese Proctor, Mason Gillis (transfer), Cooper Flagg (freshman), Khaman Maluach (freshman)

Top reserves: Maliq Brown (transfer), Kon Knueppel (freshman), Isaiah Evans (freshman), Darren Harris (freshman), Patrick Ngongba II (freshman), Sion James (transfer)

Jon Scheyer seemed to be trying to bring in complementary players out of the portal, building around the talents of Flagg with low-usage, high-efficiency guys like Gillis, Brown and James. It wouldn’t be shocking if this is the best team in college basketball based on the talent level. With so much youth, I want to see it first. But Scheyer will likely bring two five-stars off the bench in Evans and Knueppel while starting two projected lottery picks in the frontcourt. This team could be elite defensively, as Proctor found his calling on that end last year and both Flagg and Maluach project as high-level shot blockers. Duke has great positional size, with everyone in the rotation at 6-foot-5 or taller. Flagg is the key to the offense. He needs to be able to score and allow Duke to play through him to set up others, similar to how Scheyer used Kyle Filipowski. Leaning on freshmen only works when those are top-end lottery picks. Scheyer is banking on Flagg living up to the hype.

7. Connecticut

Previous: 5

Projected starters: Hassan Diarra, Aidan Mahaney (transfer), Solomon Ball, Alex Karaban, Samson Johnson

Top reserves: Tarris Reed Jr. (transfer), Liam McNeeley (freshman), Jaylin Stewart, Jayden Ross, Ahmad Nowell (freshman), Isaiah Abraham (freshman)

We’re at the point now where you just assume Dan Hurley’s plan will work. He has nailed roster construction the last few years and built offensive and defensive schemes ideal for his talent. Adding shooting this spring with Mahaney and McNeeley was huge, and Karaban decided to return for a run at a three-peat. Hurley’s offense hums when the Huskies can hunt early 3s and they have optimal floor spacing. That’s not the specialty of sophomores Ball, Stewart and Ross. For UConn to hit its ceiling, Mahaney needs to play to his potential. Diarra is more of a complementary guard, and Mahaney basically replicated his freshman season this past year when it was expected he’d make a star’s leap. He replaces the off-the-dribble playmaking from Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer, and that’s why his success is so important. Hurley has again set it up so his centers can split time and give opponents two different looks. This roster doesn’t appear as talented as the last two, but underrating UConn early has also become a yearly tradition.

Previous: 8

Projected starters: Zakai Zeigler, Jahmai Mashack, Chaz Lanier (transfer), Igor Milicic Jr. (transfer), Felix Okpara (transfer)

Top reserves: Jordan Gainey, Darlinstone Dubar (transfer), JP Estrella, Cameron Carr, Cade Phillips, Bishop Boswell (freshman)

Tennessee has been a top-five seed for six straight NCAA Tournaments and plugged any potential holes in the portal. We know this team is going to be elite defensively, because Rick Barnes constructs rosters with defense in mind. The question mark is on the offensive end and replacing Dalton Knecht. That’s likely by committee, but the hope is that North Florida transfer Lanier can step into the go-to guy role. Lanier is coming off a season in which he averaged 19.7 points and shot 44 percent from 3. Zeigler was one of the best two-way point guards in the country the second half of the season and is one of the best setup men in the country, so the ball will likely be in his hands a lot. And this roster has even more shooting than it did a year ago with guys like Lanier, Darlingstone and Gainey all considered knockdown shooters. The wildcard on this roster is Carr. His body wasn’t quite ready as a freshman, but he’s got the tools to be a star. The Vols are so deep on the perimeter that he doesn’t need to be that yet, but a breakout sophomore season could be in the works.

Previous: 11

Projected starters: Jaden Bradley, Caleb Love, KJ Lewis, Trey Townsend (transfer), Motiejus Krivas

Top reserves: Tobe Awaka (transfer), Anthony Dell’Orso (transfer), Carter Bryant (freshman), Jamari Phillips (freshman), Emmanuel Stephen (freshman)

Arizona had the 10th-best defense in college basketball last season and could be even better this year. The Wildcats upgrade on the defensive end with Krivas and Bradley in for the departed Oumar Ballo and Kylan Boswell. Arizona was 20 points per 100 possessions better with Bradley on the floor without Boswell compared to when Boswell played without Bradley, per CBB Analytics. The return of Love is the big story here. He was much more efficient in an Arizona uniform than he was at UNC, and Tommy Lloyd has enough around him that he doesn’t have to go into hero mode. The addition of Trey Townsend gives Arizona more offensive punch from the four spot. Lloyd loves to play fast, and this roster is built to do so.

Previous: 10

Projected starters: JP Pegues (transfer), Miles Kelly (transfer), Denver Jones, Johni Broome, Dylan Cardwell

Top reserves: Chad Baker-Mazara, Tahaad Pettiford (freshman), Jahki Howard (freshman), Chaney Johnson, Chris Moore, Ja’Heim Hudson (transfer)

Auburn returns three of its top four leading scorers from a team that finished fourth at KenPom. The big returner here is Broome, who was one of the most effective big men in the country. Bruce Pearl leaned heavily on his depth last season and will likely do so again, but the one guy who may log heavy minutes is Broome, who will play at both the four and five with Jaylin Williams no longer around. Broome and Cardwell logged only 12 minutes together last season, per CBB Analytics, but they’ll likely start alongside each other this season. Kelly, Georgia Tech’s leading scorer last season, gives the Tigers another consistent scorer on the perimeter. Auburn could elevate into a top-five team if the point guard play is better and not as inconsistent as it has been in recent years. The Tigers addressed that in recruiting by landing Pegues, who averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists at Furman, and Pettiford, the second-ranked point guard in the 2024 class.

11. Texas A&M

Previous: 21

Projected starters: Wade Taylor IV, Zhuric Phelps (transfer), Manny Obaseki, Solomon Washington, Pharrel Payne (transfer)

Top reserves: Andersson Garcia, Jace Carter, C.J. Wilcher (transfer), Henry Coleman III, Hayden Hefner, Andre Mills (freshman)

When Buzz Williams moved Obaseki into the starting lineup with eight games to go, the Aggies became one of the best teams in the country. They won six of eight and ranked as the fifth-best team over that timespan, per Torvik, and ended up losing to top-seeded Houston in overtime. Tyrece Radford, a big part of that run, is gone, but Williams brought in another athletic attacking guard to replace him in Phelps. Payne, who will likely start at center, is an upgrade from what A&M had at that position, and he fits perfectly with this group. He was Minnesota’s best offensive rebounder — ranking 67th nationally — and with Garcia, Washington and Coleman back, the Aggies will likely once again lead the country in offensive rebounding rate. That allowed A&M to still have a good offense during a horrible shooting year, but the shooting should get better. Taylor is bound to shoot it better, and A&M added some shooting off the bench with Wilcher, who made 50 3s and shot 39.4 percent for Nebraska last season.

RJ Davis is back after earning first-team All-America honors. (Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

12. North Carolina

Previous: 9

Projected starters: Elliot Cadeau, RJ Davis, Ian Jackson (freshman), Cade Tyson (transfer), Jalen Washington

Top reserves: Seth Trimble, Ven-Allen Lubin (transfer), Drake Powell (freshman), Jae’Lyn Withers, Zayden High

North Carolina is going to be different without a low-post threat like Armando Bacot on the blocks, but the loss that stings is Harrison Ingram staying in the NBA Draft. Ingram was a Swiss Army knife for the Tar Heels and played a big role in the massive defensive leap they made last season. The offense should still be pretty good, especially if RJ Davis can duplicate or come close to repeating last season. I’m also intrigued to see Cadeau as a sophomore. He struggled shooting the ball as a freshman but he also played a facilitating role at a pretty high level considering his age. If the shot ever comes around, that’s a high-level college point guard. Tyson, a career 44.6 percent 3-point shooter at 6-7, was a smart addition. Lubin gives them some low-post scoring either off the bench or starting at the four. There’s enough talent and experience that it’s an ideal situation for two five-stars to come into. If either Jackson or Powell plays at a one-and-done level and Cadeau makes a sophomore leap, this could be a top-five team.

13. Purdue

Previous: 12

Projected starters: Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer, Camden Heide, Trey Kaufman-Renn, Caleb Furst

Top reserves: Myles Colvin, Daniel Jacobsen (freshman), Will Berg, Kanon Catchings (freshman), Gicarri Harris (freshman), Raleigh Burgess (freshman), Brian Waddell

Purdue’s KenPom finishes in the five years that proceeded the Zach Edey era: 9, 19, 5, 9, 24. It’s going to be difficult to replace Edey, but Matt Painter won a lot of basketball games before Edey showed up and he’ll continue to do so. Painter has a really good core returning, led by Smith, who became a killer in pick-and-roll last season as both a scorer and distributor. If you asked college coaches to rank the best point guards in the country, he’d be near the top. Purdue got a head start on what life without Edey would be like last summer when it went on a foreign tour without him and Kaufman-Renn led the team in scoring. Painter also has three centers on the bench who could be next in line as dominant low-post scorers. The 7-foot-2 Berg has been learning behind Edey the last two years, and then Painter signed two centers in Jacobsen and Burgess. Jacobsen was a standout last weekend at the tryouts for the U.S. U-18 team. When I asked two coaches there who stood out, both mentioned Jacobsen, with one saying he’ll eventually be a star. He’s 7-3, skilled and playing at Purdue, so odds are in his favor.

14. Marquette

Previous: 14

Projected starters: Kam Jones, Stevie Mitchell, Chase Ross, David Joplin, Ben Gold

Top reserves: Sean Jones, Tre Norman, Zaide Lowery, Al Amadou, Caedin Hamilton (redshirt freshman), Damarius Owens (freshman), Royce Parham (freshman)

In the six games that Tyler Kolek missed late in the season, Jones averaged 20.8 points and 4.5 assists. So we’ve seen Marquette operate when it’s the Kam Jones Show, and he cooked. I’m not a big sports betting guy, but if there are futures for the 2024-25 All-America team and you can get good odds on Jones, I’d make that gamble. It’s going to be a different look without Kolek and Oso Ighodaro, but Shaka Smart keeps betting on development and it’s made him look really, well, smart. Gold started to show more as a passer his sophomore season in the Ighodaro role, and he adds shooting to the mix. Joplin should be highly motivated after a somewhat disappointing junior season that included a bad finish when he went 2-of-10 against NC State in the Sweet 16. Ross has had flashes that suggest he can be a really good college guard. The Golden Eagles will need him to take on more of an offensive role. These next two years should really show if Smart’s philosophy of staying out of the portal can work long-term, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt so far.

Previous: 15

Projected starters: Jeremy Roach, Jayden Nunn, Langston Love, VJ Edgecombe (freshman), Norchad Omier (transfer)

Top reserves: Josh Ojianwuna, Jalen Celestine (transfer), Rob Wright (freshman), Jason Asemota (freshman)

That projected starting lineup is tiny — basically four guards and the 6-7 Omier — but it should be able to score pretty easily. Baylor has leaned heavily on the pick-and-roll game in recent years, and Roach and Omier should be a strong combination. Edgecombe is the swing guy on this team. If he’s a high-level producer right away, then the Bears have a chance to be elite offensively. The worry is whether they’ll be able to stop anyone. Omier is skilled enough to play the four, and Baylor does have a lot of size on the bench. Scott Drew could also start the 6-foot-10 Ojianwuna next to Omier and slide the 6-foot-5 Edgecombe to the three, but he’d lose some scoring. It could take some time to figure out the combinations that work, but it helps that Drew has size on the wing off the bench in Celestine (6-6) and Asemota (6-8).

Walter Clayton Jr. pulled out of the NBA Draft and is returning to Florida. (Alan Youngblood / AP)

16. Florida

Previous: 19

Projected starters: Walter Clayton Jr., Alijah Martin (transfer), Will Richard, Sam Alexis (transfer), Alex Condon

Top reserves: Rueben Chinyelu (transfer), Thomas Haugh, Denzel Aberdeen, Isaiah Brown (freshman)

Florida has one of the best guard trios in the country in Clayton, Martin and Richard. All three made at least 70 3s last season and are good enough to carry an offense when they’re hot. The Gators’ issue last season was on the defensive end, and Todd Golden strengthened that by landing two shot blockers out of the portal in Alexis and Chinyelu. One of those two will likely start alongside Condon, the Aussie big man who is poised for a breakout sophomore season. Golden had his best season at San Francisco in his third year. This will be Year 3 at Florida, and I’d bet on it being his best year yet.

Previous: Not ranked

Projected starters: Tre Donaldson (transfer), Rubin Jones (transfer), Roddy Gayle Jr. (transfer), Danny Wolf (transfer), Vladislav Goldin (transfer)

Top reserves: Nimari Burnett, Sam Walters (transfer), Will Tschetter, Justin Pippen (freshman), Durral Brooks (freshman)

It’s hard to completely turn over a roster and have a cohesive group in Year 1, but this is a bet on Dusty May pulling it off. May is really good at role definition and getting his guys to buy in. The Wolverines are going to be huge, starting the 7-foot twin towers and then bringing shooters off the bench in the 6-foot-10 Walters and 6-foot-8 Tschetter. Walters can play the three, Gayle (6-4) could play the two and Jones (6-5) can play the point, so May could conceivably play one of the biggest lineups in college basketball. And you could make an argument that has the potential to be Michigan’s best lineup. May just coached the team that ranked No. 1 in minutes continuity and 276th in average height, so this will be a different challenge. But out of the total portal rebuilds, this is the one I’m betting on that the pieces fit best.

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Elijah Hawkins (transfer), Chance McMillian, Darrion Williams, JT Toppin (transfer), Fede Federiko (transfer)

Top reserves: Kevin Overton (transfer), Kerwin Walton, Devan Cambridge, Eemeli Yalaho, Christian Anderson (freshman)

Grant McCasland has landed the Mountain West Freshman on the Year in back-to-back portal classes, with Toppin following Williams. Both are future NBA players, and Texas Tech has one of the best 2-3-4 combinations in the country. Williams was fantastic the last two months of the season. He had a 10-game stretch when he averaged 17.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and shot 64.2 percent from 3. Toppin gives the Red Raiders another interior scorer and should help the defense. And you could argue McMillian is an upgrade from Pop Isaacs. Isaacs could carry the Red Raiders for stretches, but his efficiency didn’t justify his usage. McMillian is a low-usage, high-efficiency player who is more athletic, a better shooter and a better defender. Hawkins slides into the Joe Toussaint role and Federiko for Warren Washington. Cambridge got a medical redshirt and provides energy off the bench, while both Overton and Walton provide shooting and scoring off the bench.

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Myles Rice (transfer), Trey Galloway, Mackenzie Mgbako, Malik Reneau, Oumar Ballo (transfer)

Top reserves: Kanaan Carlyle (transfer), Luke Goode (transfer), Bryson Tucker (freshman), Gabe Cupps, Anthony Leal, Langdon Hatton (transfer), Rob Dockery (redshirt freshman), George Turkson (freshman)

If going by portal rankings and name recognition, no one had a better offseason than Indiana. Mike Woodson has shown a preference for playing through the post, and he has two of the best low-post scorers in the Big Ten now in Reneau and Ballo.  Indiana had spacing issues last year, but Rice, Carlyle and Goode should help. Rice (27.5 percent) and Carlyle (32 percent) did not shoot the ball well from 3 as freshmen, but both are good foul shooters and it’s within reason to expect progression from deep based on their mechanics and skill. Both should also help in the shot creation department, which was an issue for the Hoosiers last year. Overall, Indiana is just way more talented and deep. Cupps, who started last year, might be sixth in line on IU’s depth chart at guard. All that guard depth also will allow IU some lineup versatility. When one of the bigs goes to the bench, Mgbako can slide to the four and get more shooting and skill on the floor. It’s a huge year for Woodson. Based on this class, Indiana’s donors are coming through financially, but that could quickly change if results don’t follow.

20. Illinois

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Kylan Boswell (transfer), Kasparas Jakucionis (freshman), Ty Rodgers, Carey Booth (transfer), Tomislav Ivisic (freshman)

Top reserves: Tre White (transfer), Ben Humrichous (transfer), Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, Jake Davis (transfer), Morez Johnson (freshman)

This could look like a reach to put Illinois this high, but Brad Underwood has earned the trust. Underwood has prioritized size and skill, and this roster is oozing with upside. Underwood got busy in the portal early and then topped off his class with two international signings whom I’m projecting will both start. Jakucionis, a 6-5 guard, is one of the best young prospects overseas. An NBA scouting contact mentioned Kirk Hinrich as a comp. If Jakucionis were an American, he’d likely be one of the five-stars in this class. Ivisic, a 7-footer, is the twin brother of current Arkansas and ex-Kentucky big man Zvonimir Ivisic. Illinois also added four transfers who play the three or four and stand between 6-6 and 6-10, all of whom can shoot. And the other two freshmen, Johnson and Jason Jakstys, are 6-9 and 6-10 power forwards. Jakucionis, Boswell and Rodgers will be the keys to making it work, as Underwood has gone to a strategy of spreading the floor and leaning on his guards to create advantages. Look for all three to get a shot at continuing the booty ball offense that the Illini adopted for Marcus Domask.

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Isaiah Swope (transfer), Josiah Dotzler (transfer), Gibson Jimerson, Kalu Anya (transfer), Robbie Avila (transfer)

Top reserves: Kobe Johnson (transfer), Larry Hughes II, A.J. Casey (transfer), Kellen Thames

Indiana State led the nation in effective field-goal percentage last season and ranked fourth the year before; Josh Schertz was in Terre Haute for just three seasons. The man knows how to build an elite offense quickly, and he’s got a head start here with both Avila and Swope following him. Avila is, as Schertz calls him, the hub of his offense. He’s one of the most skilled, unique bigs in college basketball, and if you put just a little bit of shooting and speed around him, it’s probably going to work. Swope was Indiana State’s best scorer before knee problems slowed him midseason, and the offseason will allow him to finally get healthy. Schertz was able to convince Jimerson to take his name out of the portal, keeping one of the best shooters in the country at SLU. He’s a perfect fit for Schertz’s system. Dotzler is a player Schertz loved in high school and gets him on the rebound after struggling to crack the rotation at Creighton. Johnson gives SLU a defensive stopper on the perimeter and was a starter last season for West Virginia. He’ll likely battle Dotzler for that final starting spot on the perimeter. It’s a really good roster in the Atlantic 10, and based on Schertz and Avila’s history together, the offense should sing. The Billikens should be the preseason favorite to win the league.

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Jizzle James, Dan Skillings Jr., Simas Lukosius, Dillon Mitchell (transfer), Aziz Bandaogo

Top reserves: Day Day Thomas, Connor Hickman (transfer), CJ Fredrick, Tyler Betsey (freshman), Tyler McKinley (freshman), Arrinten Page (transfer), Josh Reed

Wes Miller had the 19th-best defense last season and quietly landed one of the most athletic fours in the country in Mitchell, who should make Cincy’s defense even better. It’s not going to be easy scoring in the paint against the length of Mitchell and Bandaogo, who are both pogo sticks. Mitchell was once thought to be a one-and-done, lottery-pick talent. He still has the measurables and athleticism to eventually turn into a pro, and maybe a new system and coach will help him reach his potential. The Bearcats were also in need of shooting, as Lukosius was the only real threat from deep last season once Fredrick was injured. They will benefit from Fredrick receiving a sixth year of eligibility and from Hickman, who averaged 14.5 points and shot 40.2 percent from 3 on a good Bradley team. James and Skillings both played their best ball late in the year; if they both make a leap, don’t be shocked if the Bearcats sneak into the top tier of a very deep Big 12.

Zach Freemantle, shown here way back in 2020, should be healthy again for Xavier. (Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

23. Xavier

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Dayvion McKnight, Dante Maddox Jr. (transfer), Ryan Conwell (transfer), Zach Freemantle, John Hugley IV (transfer)

Top reserves: Trey Green, Dailyn Swain, Jerome Hunter, Marcus Foster (transfer), Lassina Traore (transfer), Cam’Ron Fletcher (transfer)

Remember Freemantle? He averaged 15.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on a team that was 17-5 and 9-2 in the Big East before he injured his foot two years ago. After two surgeries, Freemantle is healthy, and Sean Miller has surrounded him with one of the best portal classes in the country. Conwell, who averaged 16.6 points and shot 40.7 percent from 3 for Indiana State, is the up-transfer guard I have the most faith in translating to the high-major level. He has the athleticism and playmaking chops to make an impact. Miller has a good mix of playmakers and shooters on the perimeter and depth at every position.

Previous: 25

Projected starters: Lamont Butler (transfer), Kerr Kriisa (transfer), Koby Brea (transfer), Andrew Carr (transfer), Amari Willams (transfer)

Top reserves: Otega Oweh (transfer), Collin Chandler (freshman), Brandon Garrison (transfer), Ansley Almonor (transfer), Travis Perry (freshman)

It feels like Kentucky is a team full of really good complementary players without a star. But you could have said the same about BYU a year ago, and that team spent most of the year in the Top 25 and had one of the best offenses in college basketball. Mark Pope made it clear he loves shooting and landed two of the best shooters in the portal in Kriisa and Brea. Butler and Oweh give him some athleticism and defensive chops on the perimeter, and Williams and Garrison should do the same on the interior. The one guy who could end up turning into a star is Chandler, a four-star prospect in the 2022 class who spent the last two years on a mission trip. He could change the calculus. But Pope has proven himself as a strong X’s-and-O’s coach, and this is the deepest and most talented roster he’s ever had. Star or no star, this team is probably going to score the ball efficiently and win a lot of games.

25. St. John’s

Previous: NR

Projected starters: Deivon Smith (transfer), Kadary Richmond (transfer), Aaron Scott (transfer), R.J. Luis, Vincent Iwuchukwu (transfer)

Top reserves: Lefteris Liotopoulos (freshman), Zuby Ejiofor, Jaiden Glover (freshman), Simeon Wilcher, Brady Dunlap

Rick Pitino landed two of the best point guards in the portal in Smith and Richmond. Both are ball-dominant guards, and it’s justified to question their fit together, but it’s also justified to bank on Pitino getting the absolute best out of them. Outside of Luis, who averaged 10.9 points after transferring from UMass last season, and Scott (11.0 points per game at North Texas) the roster is mostly unproven. But give Pitino an elite backcourt and a former highly-ranked center in Iwuchukwu, and I’m betting one of the best coaches in the history of the game will figure out a way to win. Those two guards would have been the best players on his team last season, and that group just barely missed the NCAA Tournament.

Next up: Arkansas, UCLA, Louisville, Rutgers, Memphis, Creighton, Maryland, Saint Mary’s, Michigan State, Ohio State, West Virginia, Mississippi State, Georgia, Princeton, Texas, Providence

(Top photos of Ryan Nembhard, Grant Nelson and Dajuan Harris Jr.: Mitchell Layton, Andy Lyons and Christian Petersen / Getty Images)


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