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Early top-25 basketball rankings for ’21: Villanova is No. 1

The Hotline typically publishes our look-ahead rankings the morning after the national championship game.

The national championship game would have been tonight.

Yes, we took a small liberty with the timing.

The liberty taken with rosters, on the other hand, wasn’t so small — many of the top talents have yet to disclose their plans.

The deadline to declare for the NBA Draft is April 26.

The deadline to withdraw from the draft is June 15.

The following will be adjusted as necessary.

Also considered (no particular order): Florida State, Rutgers, Louisville, Texas, Florida, Penn State, Connecticut, Ohio State, Indiana, Vanderbilt, Butler, Colorado and Oklahoma State.

1. Villanova: Easy pick at this point in the roster-building cycle because the Wildcats have very little roster building to perform. The Big East co-champions could return their rotation in its entirety. Even if star wing Saddiq Bey departs for the NBA, there are quality replacement options. Three titles in six years (and only five tournaments) is a distinct possibility for Jay Wright.

2. Virginia: The Cavaliers probably won’t be a top-five team when the preseason polls are unveiled, but we’re sold on the combination of an ace defensive coach (Tony Bennett) and influx of offensive talent, led by Marquette transfer Sam Hauser. (Also arriving: four-star wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Shareef’s son.)

3. Baylor: Too many returning pieces to forecast a backslide for the Bears despite their wobbly regular-season finish. They were one of the top defensive teams in 2020, thanks partly to do-everything guard Mark Vital, and a minor uptick in offensive efficiency could catapult Baylor into the Final Four for the first time in program history.

4. Iowa: Our outlook for the Hawkeyes is based entirely on the assumption that Luka Garza comes back and once again performs at a Player of the Year (nationally) level. Add a top-notch supporting cast that includes Joe Wieskamp and C.J. Fredrick, and Iowa just might be the best team in what just might be the deepest conference.

5. Gonzaga: The best program west of Lawrence, Kan. will be loaded — it’s only a matter of degrees. If roster issues break favorably … if five-star freshman guard Jalen Suggs enrolls and the borderline NBA prospects return … the Bulldogs are a Final Four favorite. Even with bad outcomes on those fronts, they’re still one of the 10 or 12 best.

6. Kansas: Expecting the majority of 2021 prognosticators to be selling the Jayhawks, but we’re buying — not compared to their price this March but to the presumed price for next season. Gone: Udoka Azubuike. Possibly gone: Devon Dotson. Returning: Bill Self. He has done much of his best work when faced with murky outlooks.

7. Creighton: Much depends on whether guards Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander return — much, but not all. The Bluejays also must fortify their defense, which ranked 78th in adjusted efficiency (per KenPom). Top 10 in the country but only No. 2 in their conference.

8. Kentucky: Same old story for the Wildcats: Loads of attrition, loads of incoming talent. In this particular case, Big Blue’s recruiting class — the No. 1 class in the country — includes two touted prospects from Southern California: Sierra Canyon’s BJ Boston and Mater Dei’s Devin Askew.

9. San Diego State: Will he or won’t he? If point guard Malachi Flynn returns, the Aztecs should keep humming — all the way to a high seed in the NCAAs. If Flynn departs, then a step back (or two) seems likely. Matt Mitchell is best as a complementary scorer, not the first option.

10. Houston: Nine players averaged 10+ minutes last season for Kelvin Sampson. Only one (Chris Harris) is leaving. So figure on another 20+ win season for the Cougars.

11. Wisconsin: The Badgers closed the 2020 season with an eight-game winning streak and designs on the Big Ten’s automatic bid, and they return a senior-laden lineup that features third-team all-conference picks Nate Reuvers and D’Mitrik Trice. This ranking might be too low by five or six slots.

12. West Virginia: Unlike most teams, the Mountaineers came out ahead in the NBA Draft calculus: Top scorers Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe are returning — along with most of Bob Huggins’ rotation.

13. Richmond: The Spiders won 24 games, bring everybody back and will have a senior-loaded lineup. That’s an ideal combination for the Atlantic 10 title and deep run in the NCAAs. Best bet to emerge as next season’s San Diego State (unless that team is San Diego State).

14. Duke: We could provide the same comment here that was used with Kentucky, for the programs are nearly identical in the level of individual talent and the roster turnover from the one-and-done churn. The Blue Devils must start their reload at point guard following the departure of Tre Jones.

15. Michigan State: Cassius Winston is gone and won’t be easily replaced — that’s a given. If Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry and Josh Langford come back, count MSU as one of the nation’s best. If they leave, there could be more questions than usual in East Lansing.

16. UCLA: Our working presumption is that wing Chris Smith returns — perhaps after testing the draft waters — and joins the rest of Mick Cronin’s rotation to form the best team in the west that’s not located in Spokane. If Smith leaves, a re-evaluation will be in order.

17. Purdue: The inside-outside duo of Trevion Williams and Eric Hunter should form the foundation for a recovery after the Boilermakers’ substandard season in 2020.

18. North Carolina: The stunning lack of talent was a one-off: Roy Williams’ roster for next season includes three of the top-20 prospects in the country, with point guard Caleb Love filling the void left by Cole Anthony.

19. Texas Tech: The recruiting benefits that accompanied the 2019 Final Four run are visible in the current signing class, which includes several four-star prospects and should combine with the returnees to catapult the Red Raiders back to prominence.



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