Last March, a four-seed went on one of the more dominant runs in recent memory. San Diego State and Florida Atlantic reached the Final Four.
North Carolina, everyone’s preseason No. 1, didn’t even make it to the NCAA Tournament.
There is no sport more unpredictable than college basketball, and the advent 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 become the first team to repeat since Florida in 2006-07.
There are no shortage of contenders and storylines, and no clear favorite. It sets up what should be a fascinating year that is sure to include several surprises along the way.
The Post’s Zach Braziller breaks it all down with his preseason Top 25:
That dark cloud hovering over Kansas following the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is gone, resulting in nothing but a few light rain drops. Bill Self now wants to “go for the throat.” That begins with a preseason No. 1 ranking after he landed the big prize on the transfer market, All-American center Hunter Dickinson of Michigan, to join returning starters Kevin McCullar Jr., Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams Jr. along with top-20 freshman Elmarko Jackson. After a surprising second-round exit without the ill Self last March, the Jayhawks will be out for redemption.
One March, maybe 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 Year Zach Edey will again be a high seed in the Dance, and the Boilermakers are likely better prepared for the pressure of March with the painful memory of last year’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 will be sophomores after strong freshmen campaigns, and Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones should provide needed scoring punch on the perimeter.
Look for a big jump in Year 2 for Jon Scheyer and Duke. He not only has his top four scorers back, he brings in the country’s second-best recruiting class. Talent and experience together can be 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 should be even better as a sophomore, particularly since he will 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 only one to depart was Olivier-Maxence Prosper, who was a first-round NBA draft pick. Continuity is so rare these days, and it can be very beneficial when other teams are working in several new pieces. Very little 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 Year in in point guard Tyler Kolek, rim-running big man Oso Ighodaro and lights-out shooting wing Kam Jones, among others.
5. Michigan State
By Michigan State standards, the past three years have been disappointing: one trip to the Sweet 16 and no better than a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten. Expect that to change this year. Tom Izzo has experience and depth with five of his top six scorers back alongside the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country. Last March’s Sweet 16 run displayed this group’s upside.
The Huskies might be more talented this year than last season when they won it all — if projected lottery picks Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle live up to the hype. Steady point guard Tristen Newton returns and sharpshooting forward Alex Karaban is a lethal court-spacing weapon. A lot 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 Four berth last March and could find itself back in that same position again this year. There were 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 year ago, should be a difference-maker in the backcourt. He projects as a better fit running coach Greg McDermott’s high-octane offense than Nembhard, a weaker shooter.
Since 2017-18, Rick Barnes and Tennessee have won at least 25 games four times. They have also yet to get past the Sweet 16 despite being a four-seed or higher in those seasons. Could this be the year? The Volunteers certainly 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 big men Tobe Awaka and Jonas Aidoo have breakout potential.
Two guarantees for the Cougars: They will lose more conference games this year than the past two seasons combined (four), but coach Kelvin Sampson’s team will be ultra-prepared for the tournament. Joining the minefield known as the Big 12 won’t be easy, yet Houston has the talent to not just survive, but thrive. L.J. Cryer (Baylor) and Damian Dunn (Temple) were instrumental portal adds to join 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 year. The three-man transfer haul of Caleb Love (North Carolina), Keshad Johnson (San Diego State) and Jaden Bradley (Alabama) could be potent. Seven-footer Oumar Ballo is coming off a big junior year, and Lloyd tapped into his deep international connections to bring in highly-regarded Lithuanian duo Motiejus Krivas and Paulius Murauskas.
Just three coaches have reached the second weekend in four of the past five tournaments: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson and Eric Musselman, who is as good of an in-season team-builder as there is in the sport. Nobody works the transfer portal and makes new pieces fit better on an annual basis. This year will be another 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), along with top-60 high school recruits Baye Fall and Layden Blocker. By this point, it would be silly to doubt this guy.
The Zags have reached the Sweet 16 in the past eight tournaments, remarkable consistency no other team in the country can match in that span. This year’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 plenty 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 better draw, the Gaels are a Sweet 16 team last March (they faced eventual champion UConn in 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 score against Saint Mary’s, which has been ranked in the top 15 in defensive efficiency each of the past three years. It’s this program’s identity.
14. North Carolina
There may not be a coach facing more pressure than Hubert Davis. In Year 1, he led North Carolina to the national championship game. In Year 2, the Tar Heels became the first team to start the season No. 1 and fail to reach the 68-team NCAA Tournament. With a stocked roster that includes 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 big year or his job could be in jeopardy. The last North Carolina coach to miss consecutive tournaments, Matt Doherty in 2002-03, was fired because of it.
The spotlight will be on second-year coach Kyle Neptune on The Main Line. Villanova’s struggles last year were understandable, given injuries to top guard Justin Moore and one-and-done freshman Cam Whitmore. But this is a Sweet 16 roster, if not better, with a healthy Moore leading the way and a strong supporting cast 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 reminiscent of some of Jay Wright’s best teams: shooting, shooting and more shooting from versatile pieces. The biggest question is the coach.
16. Florida Atlantic
It was a storybook season in Boca Raton, Fla. — the Owls not just winning their first NCAA Tournament game, but going all the way to the Final Four in a stunning 35-win campaign. Coach Dusty May received a contract extension and was able to keep his entire team together. But now Florida Atlantic will 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 up to the AAC this season. It will be fascinating to see how this group follows up that magical March.
Is Jim Larranaga getting better with age? At 73, he returned to his second Final Four, 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 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 better backcourt duo than the Aggies’ tandem of Wade Taylor IV and Tyrece Radford. The two combined to average 29.6 points last year, spearheading the school’s first tournament bid since 2018. Texas A&M added even more perimeter firepower in mid-major transfers Jace Carter (Illinois Chicago) and Eli Lawrence (Middle Tennessee). It has created hype around the program, which was surprisingly picked to finish second in 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 may not happen again this year. Kentucky is again going young when everyone seems to win in March by going old, losing six of its top seven scorers from a year ago. John Calipari has the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class — a group of one-and-done freshmen led by New Jersey’s Dajuan Wagner Jr., 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw and skilled wing Justin Edwards. Croatian import Zvonimir Ivisic could figure prominently as Bradshaw deals with a foot injury, but the most important newcomer could be well-rounded West Virginia transfer forward Tre Mitchell, because of the 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 of the premier guards in the portal, Max Abmas of Oral Roberts. He will join returnee Tyrese Hunter and Central Florida transfer Ithiel Horton to form a lethal backcourt. The key, however, for this team to be a true contender is 6-foot-9 senior wing Dylan Disu realizing his immense potential.
This is modern roster building for high-major powers: transfers and top-50 recruits. Baylor rebuilt its roster that way, by landing MAC Player of the Year RayJ Dennis of Toledo and top-10 freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter. Coach Scott Drew had no choice but to go this route after losing his top three scorers. Only a few schools can count on roster stability these days — everyone else retools each spring.
The Crimson Tide has alternated between strong and underwhelming seasons in Nate Oats’ four years there. To break that trend, Alabama will need its transfer haul to excel. It did bring 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 quality shooter and secondary playmaker, is the lone starter back from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Despite so much turnover, Oats still put together a loaded non-conference schedule that includes Ohio State, Creighton, Arizona, Purdue and potentially Oregon in the Emerald Coast Classic.
After a slow start, Andy Enfield has major momentum at USC with four consecutive 20-win seasons and three tournament berths. Look for that to continue. He has a bona fide star in super-senior guard Boogie Ellis, one of 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 big 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 at least 20 games. It has reached the tournament 11 times in that span. That’s a whole lot of winning DNA that won’t disappear despite last year’s national championship runner-up losing leading scorer Matt Bradley, Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah and versatile wing Keshad Johnson. Instead, look for physical forward Jaedon LeDee to transition from a role player to a key piece, and the returning backcourt of LaMont Butler and Darrion Trammell to be even better.
Get them early. By March, nobody will want 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 skilled Turkish forward Berke Buyuktuncel. Those two, along with last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Adem Bona, should form a deep front line. It, however, likely will take time for this group to develop cohesion, and there are question marks in the backcourt.
Zach Braziller’s Final Four picks: North Carolina, Duke, Arkansas, Creighton