clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NCAA Men’s Basketball: Top-30 teams heading into conference play

New, comments
NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Oakland Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason, I noted that Michigan State had a bright outlook heading into the 2021-2022 season because of the team’s age (MSU is one of the large number of “old” teams, all of which have a leg-up on the rest of the competition), depth (this was a projection that has come to pass as I anticipated), NBA talent (Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Jaden Akins and Max Christie, at least, all appear to be possible future NBA players), and coaching talent (Tom Izzo and crew have rejuvenated their approach, the team’s defense, and the transition attack) to compete for an NCAA title — the outstanding variable remains luck, and fans will have to wait and see on that essential component of any basketball season.

While MSU still appears to be a level or so below some of the top-contenders, this team has a legitimate shot to make a deep conference and NCAA Tournament run. Here are the others...

Now around the mid-point of the season, with most teams having finished non-conference play, it is time to start whittling down the field of “top teams.” The national champion and entire Final Four will likely come from this group of 30 teams, and here is where I see them stacking up right now.

Here are the current depth charts and rankings of the top-30 NCAA men’s basketball teams for the 2021-2022 season:

(Disclaimer: I have no ability to predict the future regarding roster developments and may have completely forgotten, omitted or mis-depth-charted various players due to signings, injuries, transfers or NBA decisions I have not accounted for. Please DO let me know about factual or obvious omissions and errors both with regard to individual players and to teams.)

I view this as a fun collective exercise: please offer your thoughts and critiques and don’t be surprised if I change my rankings and depth charts based on your excellent input!

1. Duke

1 - Jeremy Roach
2 - Trevor Keels, Jaylen Blakes
3 - Wendell Moore Jr., Joey Baker
4 - Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Bates Jones
5 - Mark Williams, Theo John

Duke still has by far the highest talent level in the country despite Mike Krzyzewski sabotaging the team by barely playing Griffin (who will be a top-10 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft). If Coach K starts playing Griffin more minutes, then this team will take off. Griffin is a terrific three-point shooter, has shot-creation ability, and is a strong defender with long arms. Griffin, Banchero, the much-improved Moore, Keels and Williams give Duke the best four-man unit in the college game, and Roach (a pest on defense), Baker (a terrific shooter), and Blakes-Jones-John (a terrific trio of old-heads) gives Duke a perfect lineup. By the end of the season, the Blue Devil should be the favorite to win the title.

2. Baylor

1 - James Akinjo
2 - Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, Dale Bonner
3 - Kendall Brown, Jordan Turner
4 - Matthew Mayer, Jeremy Sochan
5 - Flo Thamba, Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua, Zach Loveday

Love this Baylor squad: the front-court is balanced, tough and defends, and the back-court guys can really score the ball. Brown as the game-turning athlete is sensational, and a future lottery pick. Akinjo is still not a point guard I really trust in a second-weekend game, though I love his moxie. The lack of consistent and effective offense from the post means that the three-point-oriented offense will struggle against a longer, active opponent as Michigan State showed in the first half of their tilt. That being said, Baylor is a safe bet to reach the Final Four at this point.

3. Gonzaga

1 - Andrew Nembhard
2 - Rasir Bolton, Nolan Hickman
3 - Julian Strawther, Hunter Sallis
4 - Chet Holmgren, Anton Watson
5 - Drew Timme, Ben Gregg, Kaden Perry

Gonzaga is still terrific: Timme and Holmgren are still dynamic, Nembhard is still a terrific conductor, and Bolton and Strawther still provide terrific shooting and solid play. Gonzaga’s problems remain the same as last season’s title-losing flaws: perimeter defense and susceptibility to ball-pressure. Nembhard is not an explosive athlete, Bolton is not a lights-out handler and Hickman and Sallis, despite their promise, remain freshmen. Alabama and Duke were able to feast on the perimeter and compete solidly against Gonzaga’s two bigs. If Hickman and Sallis cannot step all the way up to take more minutes and solve the lack of pop in the back-court, then this Gonzaga team will remain vulnerable against top teams.

4. Purdue

1 - Eric Hunter
2 - Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Thompson, Brandon Newman
3 - Sasha Stefanovic, Ethan Morton
4 - Caleb Furst, Mason Gillis
5 - Zach Edey, Trevion Williams

Purdue remains the class of the Big Ten, and presents a match-up problem in Edey that no other team in the country can actually solve if he has a great game. If that were Purdue’s real calling card, then the Boilermakers would remain susceptible, but Williams is terrific and Ivey is a lottery pick off-guard. Purdue should coast to the Big Ten title, and I am betting that this team gives Matt Painter his long-awaited first Final Four. When you have shooting, solid reserve bigs, a dynamic guard, and two behemoth centers, then you are a safe bet.

5. Auburn

1 - Zep Jasper
2 - K.D. Johnson, Wendell Green
3 - Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge
4 - Jabari Smith, Jaylin Williams
5 - Walker Kessler, Dylan Cardwell

Bruce Pearl has another contender on his hands. Led by Jabari Smith, the clear No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (in my opinion), Auburn also boasts size (in Kessler, Williams and Cardwell), shooting from just about every perimeter player and Smith, and dynamic, “stock-driven” defense (Auburn is the No. 1 shot-blocking team in the country and the No. 16 steals team in the country). The SEC looks ripe for the plucking for Auburn, and the Tigers’ ability to have the best player on the court in every game they play should not be underestimated. If the Tigers can reintegrate presumptive NBA-draftee Allen Flanigan (who missed the first 10 games of the season) and get him rolling, then this team has the goods to take down every team in the country.

6. Arizona

1 - Kerr Kriisa
2 - Dalen Terry, Justin Kier, Pelle Larsson
3 - Bennedict Mathurin
4 - Ažuolas Tubelis
5 - Christian Koloko, Oumar Ballo

At this point, Arizona appears to be a notch below the top-five teams in the country, but, probably, the first in the next tier of teams. Kriisa, Terry, Kier, Larsson and Tubelis form a wonderful supporting cast of skilled play-makers and scorers to support the two stars in Koloko and, especially, Mathurin, who should be a lock as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. The Wildcats struggled against Tennessee’s ball-pressure in Knoxville, yet only lost by four points in their first true road game of the season against a top-10-or-so team. For Arizona to ascend into the major-contender tier, it needs to get consistency from Terry, in particular, and for Tubelis and Kier to produce more consistent offense. Fortunately for Arizona, the Wildcats have a real coach now in Tommy Lloyd.

7. Kansas

1 - Remy Martin
2 - Dajuan Harris, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Joseph Yesufu
3 - Ochai Agbaji
4 - Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, KJ Adams
5 - David McCormack, Mitch Lightfoot, Zach Clemence

I am not sure I really believe in this Kansas team. Agbaji’s shooting is regressing, McCormack is not a big I trust in big games, Kansas’ back-up front-court players are simply not “Final Four good,” and because the Jayhawks rank No. 287 in the country in three-point field-goal attempts, which is a disastrous situation for any theoretical contender. If you lose the three-point attempt battle in just about every game, then you are relying on transition layups, post-offense and penetration-oriented half-court sets in every game. Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma all match up well against Kansas in conference. The Jayhawks simply don’t have a dominant matchup, which will make a deep tournament run difficult.

8. Tennessee

1 - Kennedy Chandler, Zakai Ziegler
2 - Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey Jr., Jahmai Mashack
3 - Josiah-Jordan James, Justin Powell
4 - Olivier Nkamhoua
5 - John Fulkerson, Uros Plavsic, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield

When Tennessee is healthy, it is a potentially dominant team because the Volunteers’ two guards (Chandler and Vescovi) cause havoc all over the court, can shoot, penetrate and pass, and have another freshman backup in Ziegler who may be one of the best recruiting pick-ups in Rick Barnes’ career given the context. The Tennessee front-court has a lot of potential if it can settle roles and get more minutes and confidence for Huntley-Hatfield. The challenge is that Barnes habitually mismanages his rotations; this season it is Powell and Huntley-Hatfield who are not playing enough. Powell is the best shooter the Volunteers have, and a heck of a player overall, yet he is only playing 41 percent of available minutes, and has a limited offensive role. Barnes’ refusal to reduce Bailey’s and James’ offensive roles will likely come back to cost Tennessee a Final Four berth.

9. UCLA

1 - Tyger Campbell
2 - Johnny Juzang, David Singleton
3 - Jules Bernard, Jaylen Clark
4 - Jaime Jaquez, Peyton Watson, Jake Kyman
5 - Myles Johnson, Kenneth Nwuba

I still like UCLA, but this team has already lost two significant rotation players to season-ending injuries (Will McClendon and Mac Etienne) and has key big-man Cody Riley on the mend from a meniscus injury. Despite these injuries, UCLA does have a lot going for it still: it returns the entire core from its Cinderella run last season; Juzang, Bernard, Singleton, Jaquez and Campbell still make beautiful things happen on offense and all five can shoot the leather off the ball from range. Riley would have helped a TON in pick-and-roll defense against Gonzaga, where the Bruins got carved up (Gonzaga also just played excellent ball) — can he get back to his peak after his meniscus recovery? Lastly, if Mick Cronin can get more offense from Watson — the defensive super freshman — then this team’s ceiling really rises.

10. Alabama

1 - Jaden Shackelford
2 - Jahvon Quinerly, JD Davison
3 - Keon Ellis
4 - Darius Miles, Juwan Gary
5 - Charles Bediako, Noah Gurley

Nate Oats is giving Quinerly too many shots, and not giving Davison nearly enough responsibility. Shackelford is the clear star, and Ellis, Miles, Gurley and Gary remain the dynamic, long, athletic wing-forward supporters, but Davison is the other potential star on the roster. He needs to play more and he needs to get more offensive opportunities. With an absurd 57.8 percent free-throw rate, Davison should serve as the Tide’s battering-ram, getting opposing bigs and guards in foul trouble early so that Quinerly and Shackelford have more room to operate.

11. Michigan State

1 - Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard
2 - Max Christie, Jaden Akins
3 - Gabe Brown, Pierre Brooks II
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble, Mady Sissoko

This may be a bit high right now for the Spartans, but when Michigan State is healthy and relatively rested it has the makings of a potentially dominant team by the end of the season. Walker and Hoggard form a terrific one-two punch at point guard, Christie, Brown and Akins are superb wings, and Hall and Bingham form a no-nonsense, two-way combination that can lead this team to a top-three finish in conference, and, potentially, a deep tournament run. MSU has already demonstrated the ability to win tight games against high-level competition, and, at this point, simply needs two things: 1.) the Hauser-Marble-Sissoko trio of supporting bigs to figure out their games on both ends and start delivering consistent performances of some sort, and 2.) for Christie to continue to approach his “true” shooting ability. When Christie finds his level (somewhere around 40 percent from three-point range), then watch out.

12. Kentucky

1 - Sahvir Wheeler
2 - TyTy Washington, Davion Mintz
3 - Kellan Grady, Bryce Hopkins, Dontaie Allen
4 - Keion Brooks Jr., Jacob Toppin
5 - Oscar Tshiebwe, Daimion Collins, Lance Ware

Kentucky has played a comically soft schedule (only playing three teams of quality, and losing two of those), but has a real chance to be a great team. The Wildcats have a dominant center in Tschiebwe, who is one of the best players in the nation, and leads their parade to the offensive glass (Kentucky is the top offensive rebounding team in the nation). However, Kentucky only has two real shooters right now in Grady and Washington, while Wheeler, Mintz and Allen scuffle from behind the arc. If Kentucky’s staggering 44 percent offensive rebounding rate can endure against top teams, then that might be enough for the Wildcats to make a run at the conference title.

13. Villanova

1 - Collin Gillespie
2 - Justin Moore, Brian Antoine
3 - Brandon Slater, Chris Arcidiacono
4 - Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels
5 - Eric Dixon, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree

Villanova returns nearly everyone from last season’s dynamite team. It gets Gillespie back for his roughly millionth season, and returns Moore, Slater, Daniels and Samuels. The problem is the Wildcats’ complete lack of size — where the loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl really shows — and their dearth of interior scoring or rebounding. Unless Jay Wright starts playing Cosby-Roundtree or even Nnanna Njoku, this team’s fatal flaw in the front-court will put a hard-cap on how far this team can advance in the NCAA Tournament.

14. UConn

1 - RJ Cole, Jalen Gaffney
2 - Tyrese Martin, Jordan Hawkins
3 - Andre Jackson
4 - Akok Akok, Tyler Polley
5 - Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley

This ranking assumes that Connecticut finally gets healthy this season, stays that way, and really solidifies roles and rotations. UConn’s excellent front-court, terrific athletes, balanced perimeter shooting and solid guard play should make for a real challenge for the Big East title. Sanogo, Akok, Whaley and Polley are one of the better front-courts in the nation, Jackson and Martin are dynamic athletes and competitors, and Cole, Gaffney and Hawkins are fun scoring guards.

15. LSU

1 - Xavier Pinson
2 - Brandon Murray, Eric Gaines
3 - Mwani Wilkinson, Alex Fudge
4 - Darius Days, Tari Eason
5 - Efton Reid, Shareef O’Neal

LSU marks the beginning of the third tier of teams. Reid, Days and Eason are terrifically talented, and getting O’Neal back at some point will be a boost, but the Tigers’ lack of technical footwork defensively in the post, and their poor shot-selection in the face of outstanding shot-blocking indicates just how far this team has to go before it even enters the second tier of teams. Eason, Wilkinson and Fudge pose a stern test to opposing wings and forwards, with Eason a seeming lock to be drafted this summer, but despite their ferocious defense and high-pressure pressing in the full court and half-court, the Tigers have a lot to learn about game-planning for teams and not feeding into other teams’ game-plans.

16. USC

1 - Boogie Ellis
2 - Ethan Anderson, Reese Dixon-Waters
3 - Drew Peterson, Isaiah White
4 - Isaiah Mobley, Max Agbonkpolo
5 - Chevez Goodwin, Joshua Morgan

This USC team has a major issue on the wing in terms of versatility — the Trojans play two guards and three bigs basically all game, every game (USC is the No. 3 team in the nation in terms of “size,” per Kenpom) — but they also cause a lot of match-up problems and hold opposing offenses to the lowest effective field goal percentage in the nation (40.2 percent).

17. Texas Tech

1 - Adonis Arms, Clarence Nadolny, Mylik Wilson
2 - Davion Warren, Kevin McCullar
3 - Terrence Shannon, Sardaar Calhoun
4 - Bryson Williams, KJ Allen
5 - Kevin Obanor, Marcus Santos-Silva, Daniel Batcho

Texas Tech still, foolishly, plays far too slow a pace on offense, but the defense remains excellent. Furthermore, once Shannon and Wilson get reintegrated into the team (Shannon is on the mend from a back injury and Wilson from a knee injury), and once the rotation gets trimmed down a bit, then this team should become quite a formidable group. The Red Raiders defend with tenacity, shoot the ball from deep with balance across the playing group, and present opponents with a terrifying panoply of long, athletic, tough defenders.

18. Illinois

1 - Trent Frazier
2 - Alfonso Plummer, Brandin Podziemski
3 - Da’Monte Williams, Luke Goode, RJ Melendez
4 - Coleman Hawkins, Jacob Grandison
5 - Kofi Cockburn, Omar Payne, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Brandon Lieb

In Curbelo’s absence, Frazier and Plummer have done a solid job getting looks for themselves and others, and the three-point shooting around Cockburn has really come alive. This team lives and dies by its turnovers — when the Illini keep the ball, they have a terrific offense, but when they turn it over, as they have in crucial moments in all three losses, they are a brutal team to watch. The defense remains solid, but does not generate “stocks” (Steals and blocks), which really underscores how athletically limited this team is outside of Cockburn and Hawkins. If the young wings — Goode, Melendez, Grandison, and Podziemski — can shoot the lights out, and if Curbelo can morph into an elite lead-guard, then Illinois can get back to having Final Four aspirations.

19. Texas

1 - Marcus Carr, Devin Askew
2 - Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey
3 - Timmy Allen, Jase Febres
4 - Christian Bishop, Brock Cunningham
5 - Tre Mitchell, Dylan Disu

Chris Beard needs to let go of the rope a bit, and allow his dynamic athletes and scorers to operate. With so many quality players and so few possessions (Texas plays at the No. 357 pace in the nation, out of the 359 teams), the Longhorns invite less-talented teams to stay in games, and to win. He also denies his streaky instinctual players a chance to build rhythm and overcome shooting slumps. While Texas forces a TON of turnovers, it needs to get more shots up even if it pains Beard to see questionable offensive possessions.

20. Loyola Chicago

1 - Braden Norris
2 - Marquise Kennedy, Keith Clemons
3 - Lucas Williamson, Ryan Schwieger, Saint Thomas
4 - Aher Uguak, Tate Hall
5 - Jacob Hutson, Chris Knight, Tom Welch

Drew Valentine’s Loyola Chicago team has a lot going for it; namely, a ton of experience, toughness, excellent defense and outstanding three-point shooting. The Ramblers lack size on the interior, but they are not tiny. Loyola Chicago’s shooting advantage at the three-point line would benefit from more attempts rather than fewer, and Norris, Kennedy, Williamson, Uguak and, when he is back to full speed, Clemons can all play at a higher pace and maintain their levels.

21. Ohio State

1 - Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson
2 - Malaki Branham, Cedric Russell
3 - Justin Ahrens, Gene Brown, Seth Towns, Justice Sueing
4 - EJ Liddell
5 - Zed Key, Kyle Young, Joey Brunk

Liddell really is a star and Ahrens, Branham and Brown have filled in admirably while Towns and Sueing have been on the injured list. If those two can return and provide consistent production, then this OSU team can potentially make another leap.

22. Seton Hall

1 - Bryce Aiken, Kadary Richmond
2 - Jamir Harris, Myles Cale, Jahari Long
3 - Jared Rhoden
4 - Alexis Yetna, Tray Jackson
5 - Ike Obiagu, Tyrese Samuel

With a 25-year-old Bryce Aiken finally healthy after an injury plagued two seasons, this team has enough veterans and scoring (boosted by the addition of Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond) to make things happen in conference play and in the NCAA tournament.

23. Michigan

1 - DeVante Jones, Frankie Collins
2 - Eli Brooks, Kobe Bufkin
3 - Caleb Houstan, Zeb Jackson
4 - Moussa Diabaté, Brandon Johns Jr., Terrance Williams
5 - Hunter Dickinson

Jones and Collins have struggled to run the show, Bufkin has simply not lived up to the hype, and the Dickinson-Diabaté-Johns-Williams front-court has not gelled or played with consistent excellence. Michigan does not take many three-point shots, which should concern Juwan Howard because Dickinson needs space to operate at his most effective level. Houstan and Brooks are the major threats from distance, with Jones chipping in some timely shots as well. If this team is going to really take off, then Bufkin, Williams, and Johns need to really step up off the bench as consistent reserve scorers.

24. Colorado State

1 - Isaiah Stevens
2 - Kendle Moore, Chandler Jacobs
3 - Adam Thistlewood, Jalen Lake
4 - David Roddy, John Tonje, Isaiah Rivera
5 - Dischon Thomas, James Moors

Colorado State is the best shooting team in the country and has beaten every team it has played so far (including some top-50 teams), and has a straightforward flaw that is fixable — they give up way too many three-point shot attempts. If the Rams can do a better job of running teams off the three-point line, then CSU has the goods to make a tournament run.

25. Indiana

1 - Xavier Johnson, Rob Phinisee
2 - Parker Stewart, Tamar Bates
3 - Miller Kopp, Anthony Leal
4 - Race Thompson, Jordan Geronimo
5 - Trayce Jackson-Davis, Michael Durr

26. San Francisco

1 - Jamaree Bouyea
2 - Khalil Shabazz
3 - Gabe Stefanini, Julian Rishwain
4 - Yauhen Massalski, Zane Meeks, Josh Kunen, Dzmitry Ryuny
5 - Patrick Tapé, Volodymyr Markovetskyy

27. Memphis

1 - Alex Lomax, Tyler Harris
2 - Lester Quinones, Emoni Bates, Jayden Hardaway
3 - Landers Nolley, Earl Timberlake
4 - DeAndre Williams, Josh Minott
5 - Jalen Duren, Malcolm Dandridge

28. BYU

1 - Te’Jon Lucas
2 - Alex Barcello, Spencer Johnson
3 - Trevin Knell, Seneca Knight
4 - Gideon George, Gavin Baxter
5 - Fousseyni Traoré, Caleb Lohner, Atiki Ally Atiki

29. Xavier

1 - Paul Scruggs, Dwon Odom
2 - Nate Johnson, Adam Kunkel
3 - Colby Jones
4 - Jerome Hunter
5 - Zach Freemantle, Jack Nunge, Dieonte Miles

30. Iowa

1 - Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis
2 - Jordan Bohannon, Tony Perkins
3 - Patrick McCaffery, Connor McCaffery, Payton Sandfort
4 - Keegan Murray
5 - Filip Rebrača, Kris Murray

Bonus:

31. Houston

1 - Jamal Shead
2 - Kyler Edwards, Taze Moore
3 - Ramon Walker Jr., Robbie Armbrester
4 - Reggie Chaney, J’Wan Roberts, Ja’Vier Francis
5 - Fabian White Jr., Josh Carlton, Kiyron Powell

Honorable Mention (likely NCAA Tournament teams):

Iowa State, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Arkansas, Providence, Saint Mary’s.

Go Green!