The Associated Press released their annual preseason men’s basketball poll this week, and with it comes the unofficial start of the NCAA college hoops season! The Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate their first-ever preseason number one ranking, but the Zags aren’t the consensus top team by any means, as three other teams received first-place votes.
The Baylor Bears finished just one point behind Gonzaga, and the Villanova Wildcats and Virginia Cavaliers also received first-place votes. The rest of the top ten rounds out with Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Duke, and Kentucky. The top twenty-five is overrun with teams from the Big 10 and the Big 12, with both leagues vying for the title of the best conference in the country as we inch closer to opening night, coming later this month.
Baylor came within a single point of No. 1 Gonzaga for the top spot in the preseason AP Top 25. The Bears have their highest preseason ranking heading toward the delayed Nov. 25 start of the season.
Full poll: https://t.co/ZJG5mhe2jI pic.twitter.com/zu8mP8nFxr
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) November 10, 2020
In this article, we are going to take a look at four teams that could make it all of the way to Indianapolis and cut down the nets at the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. The Corona Virus robbed us of a 2020 Final Four, and hopefully, this year, we can crown a champion and play the greatest sporting event in the world, March Madness. Is it too early for a Final Four preview? Not if you ask me. Let’s get started!
Gonzaga Bulldogs – West Coast Conference
The AP polling committee may have been torn on which team is the best in the country, but I’m not. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the best team in the nation, and I’m not sure it’s all that close either, at least on paper. The Zags were many people’s pick to cut down the nets last year, as they spent time at number one and hit the tourney as a lock for a one seed.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) November 9, 2020
Mark Few’s team finished their season tied with the Kansas Jayhawks as the betting favorites to win it all, and it looked like Few was finally going to get an opportunity to drop the title of the greatest coach to never win a national title. But alas, it was not meant to be for the 2020 Zags, and they now hit 2021, again as the betting favorites to take home the first title in team history.
The big loss for the Zags will be the defending West Coast Conference player of the year Filip Petrusev. Petrusev was concerned about the 2021 season running as planned after seeing last year’s tournament get canceled, so he decided to jump to Serbia to play pro ball, and wait for the NBA draft, where he is expected to be a late first-round draft pick. Losing a talented big like Petrusev is always going to hurt, but the Zags have plenty of depth to fill in for the loss.
The other guy that the Zags had to say goodbye to was senior Killian Tillie. Tillie was the lone holdover from Gonzaga’s run to the national championship game in 2017 and was a fan favorite. While Tillie was skilled, he could never seem to stay on the court, as he was always battling one injury or another. Losing the senior is going to hurt the Zags more on the leadership side than on the floor, as he averaged fewer than 20 minutes a game the last two seasons combined.
We just talked about the Zags losing their two best big men, but the reason that doesn’t have me overly concerned, is sophomore Drew Timme. Timme was one of the highest-rated recruits in program history last season, and while he saw limited action, when he was on the floor, he was amongst the most efficient bigs in the nation. In 20 minutes a game last year off the bench, Timme went for 10 points, 5 boards, and 1 block, while shooting 61% from the field.
Less Petrusev and Tillie means more Timme, and that is a really good thing for Gonzaga. But it’s not a one-man show in Spokane this year, as the Zags have the deepest roster in school history. Corey Kispert was first-team all WCC last year and returns this year as the senior leader. Joel Ayayi had a bit of a slow start to his season last year, but by the end of the year, he was one of the best all-around guards in the country and has All-American upside.
Go in and vote for our guys!https://t.co/GIyZasaY0U pic.twitter.com/BuiM1YMCzA
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) November 7, 2020
Gonzaga also brought in grad transfer Aaron Cook from Southern Illinois and two top-100 freshmen in Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther. But the big name that is new to the program is blue-chip recruit, Jalen Suggs. Suggs was a top-five recruit in the country and is the highest-rated freshman the Zags have ever had. In a testament to just how deep this Zags roster is right now, Suggs is expected to be a one and done future NBA lottery pick, and he is going to have to fight for minutes at guard with Ayayi and Cook.
Suggs is a superstar athlete that we just haven’t seen in Spokane and leads a Zags recruiting class that is the highest rated in program history. Mark Few has done everything except win a national title, and this roster is the best he has ever had. Is this the year that the slipper finally fits for Gonzaga?
When you look at the 2020 non-conference schedule for Gonzaga, it more than makes up for what might be a mediocre West Coast Conference this season. Gonzaga opens their season up against Kansas, and they follow that game up with a matchup with Auburn the following night. They also have games scheduled against Iowa and Baylor.
A quick glance at the just-released AP Poll shows Kansas ranked 6th, Iowa ranked 5th, and Baylor ranked 2nd. Auburn isn’t in the top twenty-five just yet, but the Tigers are coming off of a 25-6 season last year and went to the Final Four in 2018, when they won 30 games, so that won’t be an easy game either.
We will have a really good idea just how good this Zags team is by Christmas, and if they can navigate through the non-conference unscathed, they seem destined to be the nation’s top team all-season long and coast to the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Illinois Fighting Illini – Big 10
The Big 10 is absolutely loaded this season! You could make a case for as many as half a dozen teams to be legit Final Four contenders in what I see as the nation’s top league this year. But if I had to name just one team to represent the Big 10 in Indianapolis, I am going with the Fighting Illini of Illinois. The Illini are ranked 8th in the preseason poll, behind fellow Big 10 teams Wisconsin and Iowa. Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Rutgers are all right behind the Illini in the top twenty-five.
So, why do I like Illinois to emerge as the top team from a stacked league? Two main reasons, top-line talent and an elite head coach. Illinois has two of the best players in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Both of those guys can be impossible to guard when they are on their game, and at the end of the day, the team with the most talent tends to win the most games, and I don’t see any team that has two players as great as Cockburn and Dosunmu in the Big 10.
Best. Ever. https://t.co/rurKwgDPDj pic.twitter.com/swxJD44BX8
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) November 10, 2020
And as for that head coach? Brad Underwood can flat out coach basketball. Underwood rose to fame by turning Stephen F Austin into a perennial tournament team and took the Oklahoma State Cowboys to the Big Dance in his lone season in Stillwater, before heading to Champaign to coach Illinois. There were some growing pains in his first couple of seasons in Illinois, but he looks to have his type of roster now, and the sky is the limit for the Illini.
Illinois returns the bulk of its team that finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the Big 10. We can speculate all day long about what would have happened last year in the NCAA tournament, but there weren’t many teams playing better than Illinois at the end of the season, as they had won five of their last six games and finished the season with ten wins against top-40 teams.
They lose guard Andres Feliz, but that loss will barely be noticed, as Underwood has multiple guys fighting for playing time at the guard position. This team was young last season, and should only be improved, as they didn’t lose any key contributors.
The headliners are Dosunmu and Cockburn, as both guys could potentially be All-Americans by the end of the season, and both could have easily left for the NBA. When they decided to return to Champaign this year, the hype on Illinois went through the roof. Illinois hasn’t had this much talent at one time since the 2004-2005 team that went 37-2 and finished as national runners up, with guys like Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) November 9, 2020
Cockburn is a beast and a monster of a man at over 7 feet tall and nearly 300 pounds. After limiting his minutes early in the season, Underwood took the handcuffs off of Cockburn late in the season, and he turned into a double-double machine. Dosunmu was another guy that really turned it on late for Illinois as he scored 16 points or more in the final eight games of the season. He scored double digits in all but four games last season, and in three of those four games, he scored nine points. If he can work on and improve his three-point shot, Dosunmu could get national player of the year votes.
Illinois was one of my sleeper teams last year in the NCAA tournament. They were playing really good basketball, and Brad Underwood has a history of finding ways to win games in the tournament. The Big 10 regular season is going to be grueling, so don’t be shocked if this team loses its fair share of games. But this article isn’t about which teams are going to win a bunch of regular-season games, it is about which teams are going to make it to the Final Four.
The Big 10 is going to have this team battled tested, and when they hit the tournament as a four or five seed, they are going to be a team that no one seed is going to want to see in their bracket. If the Illini can find a way to hold that momentum that they started at the end of last season and hit the ground running this year, this is a squad that is capable of winning the Big 10. Do not sleep on Illinois, this team is going to be a very tough out in March.
Baylor Bears – Big 12
While my pick for the best league in the country in the Big 10, you can also make a compelling case that the Big 12 is the best conference in the nation. Kansas, Texas Tech, and West Virginia are all going to be very good, but my pick for the best team in the Big 12, is the Baylor Bears. Baylor has something that the rest of these top-tiered Big 12 teams don’t have, and that is experience.
📰 BREAKING: Baylor is No. 2 in the preseason @AP_Top25❗️
It’s the highest preseason ranking in program history. The Bears received 24 of 64 first-place votes and are 1 point back of Gonzaga.
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) November 9, 2020
Baylor stumbled a little bit down the stretch last season as they lost three out of their final five games after starting the season 24-1. Despite the late-season struggles, Baylor was still going to compete for a one or two seed and would have been a tough out with their suffocating defense and efficient offense. Looking ahead to this season, the Bears bring back everything, with the exception of Freddie Gillespie. The Bears are expected to start three seniors and two juniors, giving them the most experienced starting five in the Big 12.
Gillespie is the only Bears loss, and he will be missed, as he averaged close to a double-double last year at forward. He was also a stopper of the defensive end of the court, as he averaged more than two blocks and a steal a game. While losing talent like Gillespie is never easy, the Bears have several guys that could step into his role, and Baylor shouldn’t see a big drop off in production.
It is very rare that we see a program that gets the talent level that Baylor does, start a group of guys that are as experienced as Baylor will this year. Jared Butler was a borderline superstar last year in his sophomore season and is a high-volume shooter than can drop 20- points on any team in the country.
He is also amongst the best perimeter defenders in the country, with almost two steals a game last year. If he can take another big step up this year, like he did last year, when he got better everywhere, he could be the best guard in the nation.
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) November 5, 2020
As far as replacing Gillespie, Baylor will look to Mark Vital as the starter, but they have a trio of freshman that could end up picking up most of the slack. Dain Dainja, Zach Loveday, and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua all fit the mold of Gillespie, who went from a D-3 transfer to an integral part of the Bears rotation.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew doesn’t get much attention in the Big 12, but he has taken the Bears to the NCAA tournament nine times during his stint in Waco, including six out of the last seven years. That includes two trips to the Elite Eight, and Drew is near the top of the list of best coaches to not make a Final Four and could erase his name from that dubious list this year.
I don’t think that Baylor is going to start the season out by going 24-1 again. But they are a team that is going to win a lot of games and will be right there with Kansas and Texas Tech for the Big 12 title at the end of the season. Don’t let the late-season struggles distract you from the fact that this team won in Lubbock and Lawrence last year, in back to back games no less!
Baylor had a weak non-conference schedule last year that saw them rack up lots of wins against weaker competition. But they went out and scheduled games against Gonzaga, Seton Hall, Arizona State, and potentially Villanova early in the year, and we will get to see right away what this team can do against elite competition.
You would be just plain stupid to bet against Kansas in the Big 12 as they have owned the league for decades, but after seeing Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike both leave the program, the time might be right for Baylor to swoop in with their deep and experienced roster, and win their first-ever Big 12 regular-season title. The Bears are that good.
Villanova Wildcats – Big East
The Villanova Wildcats can never be too far away from any national championship conversation, as they have won two titles under head coach Jay Wright since 2016 and have been a two seed or higher in the NCAA tournament in six out of the last seven years. This program had to hit a little bit of a reset button in 2019, and despite a very young roster last year, still finished tied for the Big East regular-season title and were projected as a two seed in the tournament.
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) November 9, 2020
When your down years are that good, you know your program is one of the absolute best in the nation. That young roster grows up some this year, and while they did lose Saddiq Bey, superstar Collin Gillespie returns for his senior season and leads a more experienced squad that is the heavy favorite to win yet another Big East title. The Wildcats are ranked 4th in the preseason AP poll, and at least a couple of guys out there see what I do in this Villanova team, as they got eleven first-place vote.
The reason that I am so high on Villanova is that they didn’t lose anything besides Bey. And while losing a Big East first-team player like Saddiq Bey is never easy to recover from, Jay Wright still has plenty of talent, and just like in the past when they have lost NBA level talent, it likely won’t slow them down much at all. Wright has built a machine at Villanova, and the Wildcats don’t rebuild, they reload.
Collin Gillespie returning for his senior season makes the Wildcats a team to watch. Gillespie is one of the favorites to take home Big East player of the year honors and could be an All-American as well. When you look back at all of the teams that have won the national title in the last couple of decades, one thing sticks out for nearly all of them, strong guard play. Having a senior leader at point guard is invaluable, and Gillespie just might be the best senior point guard in the country right now.
Collin Gillespie appreciation post 👊
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) November 10, 2020
Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore are returning starters that averaged double-digit points for Villanova last season, and the Wildcats have a very balanced attack when it comes to scoring the basketball. When it comes to raw NBA level talent, there isn’t a better player on this roster than Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
The big man was a heavily recruited freshman heading into last season and lived up to the hype, averaging close to a double-double. Most thought that he was going to bolt to the NBA, but after sticking his toe in the NBA waters, he decided to return to Nova for his sophomore season, and he is a candidate for a breakout season that could see him as a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft.
I am not going to say that the Big East is down this year because the league does have several teams that could be sleeper Final Four caliber squads. Teams like Creighton, Providence, and Seton Hall could be quite good. That being said, no team has a bigger gap between them and the rest of their league, at least in terms of major conferences, than Villanova has right now over the rest of the Big East.
Villanova is head and shoulders above the rest of this league, which tells me that they are again going to be in contention for a one or two seed, which has turned into their birthright for much of the last decade under Jay Wright. It is always easier to go deep in March when you hit the Madness sitting on a top line, and no team is a bigger lock for a one seed, outside of Gonzaga, than the Villanova Wildcats.
The 2020-2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball season kicks off November 25th. The season will be about a month late due to Corona Virus concerns, but at this point, it’s looking like March Madness will likely still come in March, which is a great thing.
In the days and weeks leading up to the start of the season, we here at TheSportsGeek are going to be providing all of the analysis and breakdowns you need to make money betting on college hoops in 2020-2021. And once the season does officially get going, make sure you check out our free college basketball picks page, where we give you free daily picks each and every day of the season!