The Hotline has published early top-25 rankings for many, many years; it has never been more difficult to assess rosters than it is this spring.
Combine the free year of eligibility for seniors with the insanity of the transfer portal and the ever-present lure of the NBA draft, and the projections below are a Jalen Suggs buzzer-beater away from even reaching crap-shoot territory.
And yet, we plow forward.
Note: The NBA draft is July 29. Our rankings will be updated following the mid-July deadline for players to remove themselves from consideration.
Also considered (no particular order): Iowa, Virginia Tech, LSU, Oklahoma, BYU, Georgetown, Winthrop, Georgia Tech, Colorado State, Belmont, Purdue, Drake, Loyola, Colorado, Florida, Louisville, St. Bonaventure, Tennessee, San Diego State, VCU, Wichita State and Syracuse.
1. Michigan: The best front court in the country likely will reside in Ann Arbor. We’re assuming freshman Hunter Dickinson returns, and sophomore Franz Wagner might, as well. The recruiting class is No. 1 in the nation and features two five-star big men, Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. So the question is the perimeter unit, with Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks, Mike Smith and others. Livers, a senior who was injured before the NCAAs, isn’t projected for the first round, suggesting a possible return. The Wolverines won’t need everybody back to stand tall as the team to beat.
2. Gonzaga: Star freshman Jalen Suggs and senior wing Corey Kispert assuredly are moving on, but the rest of the rotation could return intact — including big man Drew Timme and wing Joel Ayayi. And two top-10 recruits, Hunter Sallis and Chet Holmgren, could be headed to Spokane. And there’s talent deep down the bench, waiting its turn. And you know Mark Few will find a player nobody knows on a playground in rural Turkmenistan and turn him into a star.
3. Ohio State: Star forward E.J. Liddell has declared for the draft but retained his eligibility. We believe he’ll return to Columbus, joining Duane Washington and Justice Sueing and giving the Buckeyes a chance to maintain their placement among the elite. The rise in ’21 under Chris Holtmann was a year early. Nobody will be surprised by success next season.
4. UCLA: Key questions involve the return (or not) of Chris Smith, the departure (or not) of Johnny Juzang and the immediate impact (or not) of five-star recruit Peyton Watson. Our guess is that Juzang returns — he’s not projected to be a first-round pick, although his stock is rising and it only take one of 30 teams to determine he’s worth the investment. But the Bruins have the system, the mentality and the momentum to start the season in the top five … and stay there.
5. Villanova: There is unfinished business for Jay Wright’s group, which reached the Sweet 16 despite losing point guard Collin Gillespie to a knee injury prior to the NCAAs. We’re assuming Gillespie returns to join top scorer Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (possibly) and Justin Moore (probably). If healthy and intact, the core is plenty good enough to reach the Final Four.
6. Virginia. Few programs stand to benefit from the free year of eligibility more than the Cavaliers. If top scorer Sam Hauser opts to return to Charlottesville — we’re assuming sharpshooter Trey Murphy comes back — then the Cavaliers should again rule the ACC.
7. Connecticut: Our top sleeper pick — yes, even though James Bouknight is headed to the NBA. We expect coach Danny Hurley’s rapid rebuild of the once-great program to maintain its pace, and for the likes of R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin to thrive without Bouknight. And if the Huskies fall flat, we’ll deny ever writing this.
8. Arkansas: Even without Moses Moody, who’s projected for the Lottery, the Razorbacks are positioned to continued their uptick. Eric Musselman is on the top tier of coaches when it comes to both player evaluation and development. His third year in Fayetteville could very well produce an SEC title.
9. Duke: Hard to imagine the Blue Devils slumping for a second consecutive season, especially with a recruiting class that features three five-star prospects. The highest rated of the group is wing Paolo Banchero, who’s from … Seattle.
10. Alabama: In a worst-case scenario, attrition leaves the Crimson Tide with just enough proven playmakers to hold a spot in the top 10/12. But if either John Petty or Herbert Jones returns — to say nothing of both returning — then Alabama will enter the season as a Final Four favorite.
11. Houston: Quentin Grimes is expected to leave for the NBA, but No. 2 scorer Marcus Sasser could return. And coach Kelvin Sampson has pushed the program to a place where the loss of one player won’t derail momentum.
12. Illinois: Our guess is that Kofi Cockburn returns and Ayo Dosunmu departs. If both return, along with guard Andrew Curbelo, then there’s no reason to expect slippage in Champagne.
13. Baylor: If everything breaks just right and both Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell return, the Bears will warrant a spot in the top five. But we expect Butler and Mitchell to depart — Mitchell is currently slotted for the first round — and a modest rebuild to unfold in Waco.
14. Michigan State: This call is made with much trepidation but based on the presumptive return of top-scorer Aaron Henry and the arrival of freshman Max Christie, the top-ranked shooting guard in the country.
15. North Carolina: Depends on the coaching hire, but there’s more than enough talent for a return to elite status.
16. Arizona: We’re assuming a suspension for coach Sean Miller but not a postseason ban, meaning plenty of motivation for what should be a stout roster led by point guard James Akinjo, wing Bennedict Mathurin and big man Azoulas Tubelis. (We believe Akinjo will return after testing the waters.) The Wildcats aren’t back, to their pre-scandal status, but they are inching forward.
17. Kentucky: We have no idea what’s up in Lexington. But as with Duke, it’s tough to imagine another year like ’21 for Big Blue.
18. Florida State: Scottie Barnes is a projected top-10 pick and not part of our evaluation of FSU. But what of top scorer MJ Walker? He’s a senior but slotted for the second round. If Walker returns, the Seminoles will push Virginia for the ACC title.
19. Oregon: As usual for April, the state of the roster is highly uncertain. We’re assuming Chris Duarte moves on. But what about Eugene Omoruyi, LJ Figueroa and Will Richardson? The other puzzle piece is the health of big man N’Faly Dante. We know the Ducks are welcoming five-star big man Nathan Little, and that Dana Altman will construct a rotation worthy of the NCAAs, even if it takes months to coalesce.
20. Kansas: Only one starter was a senior (Marcus Garrett), and a top-10 recruiting class is secure. But the NCAA hammer looms, casting uncertainty over the proceedings.
21. Memphis: The experienced gained by winning the NIT, combined with a veteran core and touted recruiting class, give coach Penny Hardaway the foundation for a breakthrough season.
22. USC: Evan Mobley is assuredly off to the NBA, where he’s expected to be one of the top-three selections; we believe invaluable guard Tahj Eaddy will depart, as well. But if Isaiah Mobley returns, the Trojans have a big man to build around. Enough other pieces could join him (Drew Peterson, Ethan Anderson) to keep USC relevant. The recruiting class is solid but thus far lacks more Mobleys.
23. Texas: The roster outlook is uncertain. The coaching outlook is not. Chris Beard is a master. This time next year, we expect to slot the Longhorns in the top 10.
24. Creighton: Ranking based entirely on the presumption that guard Marcus Zegarowski returns. Without him, the Bluejays have a long haul back to the performance level they achieved this season.
25. Oregon State: We beavlieve, for now.