Six months after Stanford and Baylor cut down the nets, the 2021–22 college basketball season is just four weeks away. Opening night is Nov. 9, and a slew of exhibitions will be held even sooner, which means teams across the country are well underway with preparations.
After the bizarre season that was last year’s COVID-19-impacted men’s and women’s campaigns, things are looking more familiar heading into this winter. Here at Sports Illustrated, we’re celebrating the near-return of college hoops with a list of 64 reasons to be excited for the season, starting with the departure of a legend and ending with a long overdue change. Without further ado, here we go…
1. The Coach K Retirement Tour
It’s the story line that will dominate headlines all season on the men’s side of college hoops: Mike Krzyzewski’s final ride. The 74-year-old announced in June that the 2021–22 season will be the last of his storied coaching career, with Jon Scheyer already named as his successor at Duke. So expect to hear this phrase a lot this winter: “Coach K’s final [blank].” Coach K’s final nonconference game. Coach K’s final trip to Chapel Hill. Coach K’s final game at Cameron. And so on. There will be many goodbyes, across the ACC and elsewhere, as players, fans and fellow coaches try to share one last memory with a legend. —Molly Geary
2. The Emoni Bates Experience
Since Bates graced the cover of SI as a 15-year-old earning comparisons to Kevin Durant, the hype around him as a prospect has been rivaled by few, if any, top recruits. And while his stock as a future pro faded some in the last year, he’s still one of the most talented players to play college basketball in recent memory. He was sold on Memphis in part by Penny Hardaway’s plan to use him similar to how Hardaway himself played back in the day, as a big point guard capable of creating for himself and others. The spotlight will be bright and the expectations will be high. Watching Bates attempt to live up to all of that should make for one of the biggest story lines of the season. —Kevin Sweeney
3. Return of the student section
While the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t quite behind us, many college basketball programs will see a return to normalcy, thanks to the vaccine. After a season of reduced, at best, capacity (and no fans in many cases, such as with the Big Ten), players and fans alike will no doubt relish the return of the crowd. At the heart of that are student sections, the anchors of the greatest atmospheres in college hoops. A year of watching Duke games without the Cameron Crazies and hearing nothing but bounces and squeaks in places like the Breslin Center, Carrier Dome and Mackey Arena was surreal, but home court advantage will, in many places, roar back to life in 2021–22. —M.G.
4. College basketball’s Moneyball experiment
Kyle Smith has made a career out of challenging rebuilds, and he seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough in his third year at Washington State. He’s done it with an analytics-focused recruiting model that has allowed him to land under-the-radar talent, including star wing Noah Williams. Wazzu has an NCAA tournament-caliber roster in 2021–22, adding top recruit Mouhamed Gueye and top transfer Michael Flowers to an already-strong returning core. —K.S.
5. Fudd, Bueckers and juggernaut UConn
Geno Auriemma’s Huskies haven’t won a national title in five years, which might as well be a full-fledged drought for women’s college basketball’s most prominent program. After winning four straight championships from 2013 to ’16, UConn has lost in four straight Final Fours, failing to get over the hump again last April in a defeat to upstart Arizona. Freshman phenom Paige Bueckers earned the headlines last season and is back to lead another formidable Huskies roster (one that also returns Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa), but the big news is that UConn adds generational prospect Azzi Fudd. Will the 5' 11" combo guard be the piece that “finally” brings the trophy back to Storrs? —M.G.
6. Super seniors’ last ride
One of the unique quirks of this season will be all the fifth- and sixth-year players using their extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This should have two main effects: raising the talent level of the sport across-the-board and seeing plenty of career records broken. We highlighted some of the best men’s returners this summer, a list that includes stars like Collin Gillespie at Villanova and Remy Martin at Kansas. Meanwhile, some of the records you can expect to be broken are the all-time games played record (Jordan Bohannon) and the career steals record (Jacob Gilyard). —K.S.
7. The Champions Classic
As is tradition on the men’s side, the Champions Classic will open the season with a marquee doubleheader on Nov. 9. The 2021 edition will be held at Madison Square Garden and will pit Duke against Kentucky and Michigan State against Kansas. The chaotic nature and timing of this event means you never know quite what you’re going to get—sometimes the teams, full of new pieces, are so disjointed the game is borderline unwatchable. Other times there’s a thriller right off the bat (and still other times, you see a Zion Williamson–led Duke team announce itself with an unforgettable blowout). In any event, we can’t wait for opening night. —M.G.
8. Matthew Mayer’s evolution into an alpha dog
At times last year, Mayer looked like the Baylor men’s most talented offensive player. That’s high praise on a team that featured one NBA lottery pick (Davion Mitchell) and another draft pick (Jared Butler). What Mayer lacked was consistency: He had seven games last season with three or fewer points and nine with 12 or more points. With Mitchell, Butler, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital all departed from that national title team, Mayer needs to step up and be ‘the guy’ every night as the Bears try to defend their championship. When on, he’s capable of scoring at all three levels and taking over games. For Baylor to live up to expectations, Mayer simply has to produce regularly. —K.S.
9. Stanford’s title defense
The Cardinal’s first national championship since 1992 couldn’t have come in a stranger season. Due to local COVID-19 restrictions, they spent weeks on the road and played just six of their 33 games on campus. Now, Stanford will return to a full-capacity Maples Pavilion and get to bask in the glow of its title while seeking another. While Kiana Williams is gone, the Cardinal are in great shape to contend again with another balanced roster led by junior Haley Jones. —M.G.
10. Oklahoma State in the post-Cade era
Perhaps the term “program-changing recruit” gets overused by college hoops talking heads, but Cade Cunningham fits the bill. Cunningham committed to Mike Boynton and the Cowboys over virtually every program in the country, then stayed committed after a postseason ban threatened his chances of playing in the NCAA tournament. The impact of his commitment will be felt beyond his lone season in Stillwater: Other recruits who committed to joining Cade at OSU, like Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, will be impact players on this year’s team. The Cowboys also add a pair of former five-stars from the transfer portal in Moussa Cisse (Memphis) and Bryce Thompson (Kansas). —K.S.
11. HBCU showcases
Men’s HBCU programs will be put in the national spotlight in multiple ways this season. In a very cool first-of-its-kind event this November, the NBA’s Chris Paul is hosting the inaugural Boost Mobile HBCU Challenge on the Phoenix Suns’ home floor at the Footprint Center. The two-day doubleheader event will be televised on ESPN networks and feature Norfolk State, Morgan State, Hampton and Grambling State. Additionally, airing on TNT on Dec. 18, actor Michael B. Jordan is hosting an HBCU showcase that will feature Hampton vs. North Carolina Central and Howard vs. North Carolina A&T. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 17), Notre Dame will travel to Howard for a nonconference matchup—the Irish men’s basketball program’s first-ever trip to an HBCU school and the ACC’s first since 2013. —M.G.
12. Drew Timme (and his mustache)
Timme exploded onto the scene in 2020–21 after a strong freshman campaign, capturing the attention of the sport thanks to his dominant low-post game and exquisite facial hair. The Texas native now returns for his junior season as perhaps men’s college basketball’s best player, a nearly unstoppable force down low thanks to his strength and touch with both hands. He’ll be the centerpiece of a Gonzaga team that enters the season as the No. 1 team in most preseason polls, pairing with top overall recruit Chet Holmgren for one of the most unique frontcourts in recent memory. —K.S.
13. Adia Barnes’s encore
Barnes and Arizona captured the nation’s attention during the 2021 women’s NCAA tournament, crashing the Final Four as a No. 3 seed with a chip on their shoulder before knocking off UConn behind the great Aari McDonald. Barnes’s passionate, viral speech after the Connecticut win—and correct refusal to apologize for her colorful choice of language and gesture—added to the aura and epitomized her team’s mentality. A trip back to the sport’s final weekend will be tough in 2022 after McDonald’s graduation, but we still can’t wait to see what Barnes—who needed just five years in Tucson for a program breakthrough—and her team does next. —M.G.
14. Max Abmas
Abmas was the darling of March Madness in 2021 after his eruption in Oral Roberts’s run to the Sweet 16, scoring 80 points in three games and becoming an NBA prospect in the process. But Abmas’s pro stock faded some at the draft combine, and he elected to return for his junior season at ORU, where he should be one of the sport’s most dynamic players. Expect the diminutive scoring star to again be among the nation’s leaders in points per game and keep ORU a potential giant-killer come March. —K.S.
15. Buddy Boeheim firing from deep
There will now be a triple dose of Boeheim at Syracuse men’s games this winter, after Jimmy transferred in from Cornell to join his sharp-shooting brother, Buddy, and head-coaching father, Jim. If the extra family presence makes Buddy even better as a junior, look out. The guard was on an absolute heater late last season—including in the ACC and NCAA tournaments—until Houston finally put the fire out in the Sweet 16. The younger of the Orange’s Boeheim player duo can pour it on from deep, shooting 38.3% from three on a volume of eight attempts per game last season. Can he lift Cuse to bigger heights? —M.G.
16. A fresh start in Austin
After Shaka Smart (who left for Marquette) and the school finally parted ways after six frustrating seasons on the Forty Acres, Texas went out and poached its new coach straight from an in-state conference rival. Chris Beard, who was coaching at Division II Angelo State as recently as six years ago before a meteoric rise that peaked with a 2019 men’s Final Four trip at Texas Tech, arrives at his alma mater with a $35 million contract in hand and a slew of new enemies in Lubbock. He’s quickly remade the Texas roster and enters 2021–22 with massive expectations, as the Longhorns are considered a preseason top-five team by many. —M.G.
17. The bluebloods’ revenge
If you’re someone who enjoys rooting against men’s college basketball royalty—like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and more—you likely supremely enjoyed the 2020–21 season. The modern bluebloods collectively had an off year, with the Blue Devils and Wildcats even missing the men’s NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 and eight years, respectively. None of the aforementioned five reached the second weekend of the Big Dance, and the national championship game was played by two schools going for their first title in program history. Don’t count on a repeat in 2021–22. The bluebloods are reloaded—via both recruiting and the transfer portal—and this time, the pandemic hasn’t robbed them of valuable spring and summer practice time. —M.G.
18. Sedona Prince’s dunks (and TikToks)
Prince took over the internet last March with her viral video demonstrating the disparities between weight rooms at the women’s and men’s NCAA tournaments. But while her activism has earned her plenty of headlines, the Oregon forward’s play on the floor is deserving of some love, too. Prince towers over the competition at 6' 7" and earned a spot on Team USA this summer at the FIBA AmeriCup. She should be one of the best players in the Pac-12 this season … and might even slam a dunk or two in the process. —K.S.
19. Michigan continues its ascent under Juwan Howard
The first two years of Howard’s tenure in Ann Arbor have gone swimmingly, with Michigan overachieving in both relative to preseason expectations. Each time, though, it had its potential cut down just in time for March; in 2020, of course, the postseason was canceled, and in 2021, key senior Isaiah Livers got hurt during the Big Ten tournament and missed the Big Dance. A No. 1 seed, the Wolverines still reached the Elite Eight before falling to upstart UCLA. This time, there will be no surprise if Michigan comes out of the gate strong. With All-America center Hunter Dickinson and guard Eli Brooks back, as well as Sports Illustrated’s top-ranked 2021 recruiting class having arrived, Howard looks poised to continue building a sustained powerhouse in the Mitten. —M.G.
20. Missouri State’s giant-killing mindset
It seems like every year the Missouri State women are taking down a name-brand program. Last year, the Bears’ biggest victim was Maryland, which they knocked off 81–72 in an early-season contest before a strong run to the Sweet 16. With stars Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin back and the addition of top grad transfer Mariah White (Cleveland State), high-majors should be on notice once again. Missouri State will face Oklahoma State, USC, Virginia Tech and LSU in the month of November. —K.S.
21. Paolo Banchero, the most polished freshman in men’s CBB
Coach K may be retiring, but he’s not doing it before bringing one last top-flight recruiting class to Durham. The crown jewel of his final group is Banchero, a 6' 10", 250-pound power forward from Seattle who ranked No. 2 in the SI99 of the 2021 class (the 18-year-old is also already a playable character in NBA 2K22, thanks to NIL rules). Banchero is about as ready for the college game as they come and should be a formidable interior force for the Blue Devils, with the ability to step out from deep as well. Good luck to ACC defenses. —M.G.
22. BYU goes for three straight top-20 finishes
It isn’t the national TV sensation it was when Jimmer Fredette was firing up threes, but the BYU men’s program has had success under Mark Pope not seen since Jimmer. Pope inherited a ton of talent in Year 1, but had to reload on the fly entering last year and still led the Cougars to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and a top-20 KenPom finish. This year, star point guard Alex Barcello returns for his fifth year of eligibility, while transfers Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight (San Jose State) should further boost a dynamic backcourt. —K.S.
23. The Remy Martin–Bill Self marriage
Kansas recruited Martin out of high school in California, but the diminutive point guard wound up choosing Bobby Hurley and Arizona State. Four years and 1,700 points later, Martin entered the transfer portal for his extra year of eligibility and Bill Self came calling yet again. This time, Martin couldn’t say no. He’s a somewhat flawed player, criticized for not winning enough at ASU and being more of a shoot-first player than distributor. Still, he provides KU with the dynamic shot-creator the Jayhawks clearly lacked last season. If Self can rein Martin in and get him to make better decisions, it could be a match made in heaven. —K.S.
24. The Battle 4 Atlantis
There’s plenty for college basketball fans to take in during Thanksgiving week in the Bahamas. One of the longtime premier Feast Week events on the men’s side, the Battle 4 Atlantis is holding a women’s tourney for the first time. Starting Nov. 20, that eight-team field includes UConn, South Carolina and Oregon—all likely preseason top-10 teams, plus dangerous South Florida. The men’s bracket, which starts Nov. 24, includes reigning champ Baylor, plus Michigan State, Syracuse, UConn, Auburn, Arizona State, Loyola Chicago and VCU. Buckle up for a great week of hoops. —M.G.
25. Veronica Burton stuffing the stat sheet
The Big Ten’s two-time women’s Defensive Player of the Year is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the sport. Burton led the nation in steals last season with 96 swipes in just 25 games and has expanded her offensive game every season. When at her best, she’s capable of taking over games, like she did in a Big Ten tournament win over Michigan with 25 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals. She’s the heartbeat of a Wildcats program that has risen to new heights since she stepped on campus, with a Big Ten championship as a sophomore in 2019–20 and an NCAA tournament win for the first time since 1993 in 2020–21. —K.S.
26. Shaka Smart’s new home
Smart, as previously mentioned, is now the coach of Marquette after his time in Austin never quite worked out. Perhaps a fresh start in his home state is exactly what the 44-year-old needs. Once a hugely hot commodity after his famous Havoc defense helped VCU make a stunning run to the 2011 men’s Final Four, Smart comes to the Golden Eagles still seeking to prove he can win big at the Power 5 level. Marquette likely faces a rebuilding season in Year 1, but if Smart can conjure up some of his old magic, he could at the very least get off on the right foot. —M.G.
27. Division I’s youngest coach takes over at Loyola Chicago
He may have turned 30 years old less than six months ago, but Drew Valentine has the keys to one of the best mid-majors in the U.S. all to himself. Valentine, a former grad assistant at Michigan State under Tom Izzo while his brother Denzel starred in East Lansing, was Porter Moser’s top assistant and a huge part of taking the program to a new level. When Moser left for Oklahoma, Valentine was the obvious choice to maintain continuity. And while Valentine may be young, his team won’t be, featuring two sixth-year players, four fifth-year players and a fourth-year starting PG in Braden Norris. —K.S.
28. The Pac-12’s trying to show March wasn’t a fluke
Bill Walton might have seen the Pac-12’s performance during the men’s NCAA tournament coming, but few others did. Whether it was UCLA’s going from First Four to Final Four, Oregon State’s riding a surprise Pac-12 tournament title to the Elite Eight or USC’s destroying Kansas, the conference was all over March Madness 2021 after years of overall mediocre play and hits to its men’s basketball reputation. Only time will tell, though, whether that tournament will be remembered years from now as a bizarre flash in the pan or the turning point in a Pac-12 revitalization. The Bruins look like true preseason contenders, and Oregon is always dangerous under Dana Altman, but after that? The pressure is on for the Conference of Champions to continue its momentum and send a message during nonconference play. —M.G.
29. Defense wins championships at Houston
There may not be a more blue-collar program in men’s college basketball than Houston under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars’ emergence into a national contender has come on the back of two constants: defense and rebounding. UH plays unbelievably hard, sends all five players to the offensive glass and is extremely well-schooled in its defensive principles. Success has followed, with three top-15 KenPom finishes and a Final Four appearance to show for it in the last three years. Memphis will earn all the preseason love thanks to its super freshmen, but don’t be surprised if Houston tops the AAC yet again. —K.S.
30. Maryland’s terrifying offense
Last March, during the Terrapins’ women’s Sweet 16 loss to Texas, the ESPN broadcast displayed an eye-popping efficiency stat: Maryland, on the season, was scoring 123 points per 100 possessions, the most in Division I. To put that in context, the graphic compared it to the Brooklyn Nets, who were leading the NBA at … 118.4 points per 100 possessions. Now, the Terps bring back almost everyone from that squad, including dynamic backcourt duo Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, forward Angel Reese and sharpshooter Katie Benzan. Get ready for more explosive score lines in College Park. —M.G.
31. The Gonzaga-UCLA rematch
The men’s Final Four meeting between these two teams was unforgettable, with each team trading big shot after big shot until Jalen Suggs’s banked-in winner became a March moment for the history books. Now, the two teams meet again in Las Vegas just before Thanksgiving, and each has plenty of returning production from that game. UCLA returns all five starters from the Final Four, while Gonzaga returns Timme, the likely preseason National Player of the Year, and point guard Andrew Nembhard. —K.S.
32. UNC’s modernization under Hubert Davis
There’s certainly risk involved in North Carolina’s decision to promote Hubert Davis to replace Roy Williams rather than a more experienced option, but perhaps no one in the sport knows the Carolina program’s ins and outs better than Davis. He spoke this offseason about a more modern offense that features bigs who can stretch the floor, and addressed that in recruiting by adding a pair of skilled forwards in Dawson Garcia (Marquette) and Brady Manek (Oklahoma). Plenty of Williams’s principles are sure to be evident in Hubert’s UNC vision, but this multi-talented frontcourt should be fun to watch and will be deployed differently than Carolina bigs of old. —K.S.
33. Fun NIL deals
The name, image and likeness era in college sports is upon us, and both men’s and women’s basketball players can reap the benefits. While many have already signed various sponsorship deals, we can’t wait to see what will be cooked up once the season starts. Think of all the memorable moments that college hoops can bring—buzzer beaters, mammoth upsets, rim-rattling dunks, walk-on heroics, etc. Now imagine the merchandise potential—only this time, with the athletes responsible for the thrills getting a cut. —M.G.
34. Naz Hillmon and Michigan’s continued climb
Hillmon dominated the paint her junior season in Ann Arbor, averaging 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and pouring in a record-setting 50 points against Ohio State in late January. She possesses nearly unmatched strength that allows her to carve out room in the paint and stack buckets. Also returning for the Wolverines are starting point guard Amy Dilk and skilled forward Leigha Brown, creating a trio that should make Kim Barnes Arico’s team a Big Ten contender. —K.S.
35. The 2022 edition of the men’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge
The annual January competition between the two conferences is always an interesting break from league play. This season, the 10-game slate includes some particularly juicy matchups. Kansas will host Kentucky at Allen Fieldhouse for only the second time since 2006, which has the potential to be a top-10 matchup and the event’s headliner. Meanwhile, Tennessee-Texas will mark Rick Barnes’s return to Austin, and he’ll face his former team for the first time since being fired and becoming the Vols’ coach. Finally, don’t forget about Baylor’s trip to Alabama, featuring the Bears going for their fourth straight win in the event. —M.G.
36. The Tommy Lloyd era in Tucson
A longtime Gonzaga assistant under Mark Few, Lloyd had long rebuffed search firms and ADs interested in hiring him as a head coach. That changed this spring, when Arizona coaxed him to Tucson to take over for Sean Miller. Lloyd is known as a dogged recruiter (particularly internationally), a trait that will serve him well as he looks to put a program beset by scandal back on the right track. He has a talented group in Year 1, including returners Azuolas Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin. —K.S.
37. The Caitlin Clark Show
No player exploded more in terms of garnered buzz and attention last season than Iowa’s Clark, who finally started getting country-wide recognition for her dizzying freshman stats when the women’s NCAA tournament arrived. The 19-year-old led the nation in scoring at 26.6 points per game, and she did it shooting 54% from two and 40.6% from three while having a green light as big as a blue whale. If that weren’t enough, Clark was third nationally in assists, taking advantage of the attention shown to her by opposing defenses. A porous D of their own held the Hawkeyes back from anything deeper than their Sweet 16 exit to UConn, but with Clark, Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock all back, expect the points to be flowing again in Iowa City. —M.G.
38. Kentucky’s newfound love of transfers
Something had to change after Kentucky’s worst men’s season since the 1920s, so John Calipari reloaded his roster through the transfer portal rather than just high school recruits. Calipari addressed the major weaknesses of last year’s roster, adding the floor general they lacked in Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, shooting ability from Davidson’s Kellan Grady and Iowa’s CJ Fredrick and an interior force in West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe. That quartet of experienced newcomers should help the Wildcats bounce back in 2021–22, joining a pair of five-star freshmen and some solid returners to assemble one of the better rosters in the country. —K.S.
39. The many emotions of Dan Hurley
Sometimes, the most entertaining part of a college basketball game is the sideline. UConn’s Hurley is one of the most memeable coaches in the sport, with his well-documented passion (in the form of gestures, reactions and facial expressions) during games, sometimes even embarrassing his wife, he’s told the Connecticut Post. And while it occasionally leads to a tense ejection by the refs, there’s no sign the former Wagner and Rhode Island coach intends to change. With his Huskies on the cusp of preseason top-25 status, there could be plenty of fireworks in Storrs this winter. —M.G.
40. Kenneth Lofton Jr.
America’s most lovable big man returns for Year 2 at Louisiana Tech after leading the Bulldogs deep into the NIT as a freshman and starring for Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer. Lofton averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per game in that NIT run a season ago against high-level competition and should explode in his sophomore year. —K.S.
41. The Ivy League is back
At the Division I level, only one basketball conference opted out of the 2020–21 season due to COVID-19: the Ivy League. The Ivies canceled all sports last year in light of the pandemic, and while it did not cause the kind of domino effect nationally that canceling the ’20 league tournaments did, a handful of individual programs also ended up shuttering their seasons early on (such as the Duke women after four games and Howard men after five). After bringing back sports this fall, Ivy League basketball is next on the docket. On the men’s side, reigning champ Yale figures to once again be the favorite, and on the women’s side, Princeton is technically still coming off a magical 26–1 season but no longer has its top two scorers from that squad. —M.G.
42. Alabama’s explosive guards
Nate Oats’s run-and-gun offensive system requires great guard play, and the Tide’s trio of ballhandlers are as dynamic as any in the country. That starts with Jahvon Quinerly, who thrived as a super sixth man of sorts last season. He’s a crafty passer, great with the ball in his hands and shot 43% from deep last season. He’ll share point guard duties this season with five-star freshman JD Davison, one of the most electric young players in the sport thanks to his quickness off the bounce and leaping ability. Add in Jaden Shackelford, last season’s leading scorer, and you have a backcourt unit capable of scoring with any team in the country. —K.S.
43. Aliyah Boston and South Carolina’s revenge
One of the lasting images of the 2021–22 college hoops season was of a heartbroken Boston just seconds after her putback attempt at the buzzer came up short against Stanford in the women’s Final Four. As a freshman, Boston and then No. 1 South Carolina had their chance at the title denied by the COVID-19 outbreak, and after another All-American season as a sophomore, Boston led the Gamecocks to the program’s third Final Four. Now, she’ll look to use that loss to the Cardinal as fuel, with preseason expectations high in Columbia once again thanks to the presence of Boston, fellow junior Zia Cooke and Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso. If it all breaks right, the program could lift its second championship trophy under Dawn Staley. —M.G.
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44. Kofi Cockburn’s dunks
No player in the country dunked more last year than Cockburn, who slammed it home 78 times. With Andre Curbelo throwing him passes full-time this season, that number might rise in Cockburn’s junior season. Just eight players in the last decade have topped 90 in a season, a group that includes Anthony Davis, Tacko Fall and Obi Toppin, among others. Even if Cockburn can’t hit that lofty mark, expect plenty of rim-shaking slams from the Jamaican big in 2021–22. —K.S.
45. Duke–North Carolina … with a twist
Remember the Coach K Retirement Tour? It might reach its peak on March 5. That’s the day rival North Carolina will pay a visit to Durham—in the regular-season finale for both—for the final time with Mike Krzyzewski pacing the sideline. And a month earlier, Feb. 5, will feature K’s last trip to Chapel Hill, sure to be another notable point in the farewells. But something will already feel different this year, of course, since it won’t be Roy Williams’s hand Krzyzewski is shaking at center court. This time he will reach out to the hand of Hubert Davis, named Williams’s successor after his abrupt retirement in April. Duke-UNC always delivers, but the story lines will be especially abundant this time around—and the prices to get in at Cameron Indoor will be astronomical. —M.G.
46. Indiana runs it back after Elite Eight run
There is a not-too-outlandish alternate reality where Indiana played for the women’s national title last year. After all, the Hoosiers were down just two points entering the fourth quarter and were tied with seven minutes to go against Arizona in the Elite Eight before eventually falling to the Wildcats. But with the nucleus of last year’s team back, the sky’s the limit for Teri Moren’s team. This team’s balance set it apart last year, with a talented big in Mackenzie Holmes, skilled wing in Grace Berger and tough point guard Ali Patberg who could all hurt you in big moments. With all three of those stars back, Hoosiers will contend in the Big Ten and nationally yet again. —K.S.
47. Jaden Ivey’s impending explosion
Purdue was quietly one of the nation’s most underrated men’s teams last season, and a promising freshman class could propel the Boilermakers even further as sophomores. At the heart of that group is Ivey, an athletic 6' 4" guard who comes from a basketball bloodline in Indiana (his mother is former Notre Dame star and current Irish women’s coach Niele Ivey). Jaden improved as his freshman year went on, displaying a knack for getting in the lane and scoring and hitting his stride over the season’s final month, when he averaged 15.8 points in his final 10 games. With smart defensive instincts to match his high offensive potential, developing his perimeter shot (25.8% in 2020–21) might be the only thing standing between him and stardom. —M.G.
48. Chris Beard’s return to Lubbock
There won’t be a better game atmosphere this season than when Beard brings his new Texas team into Lubbock for the first time. There was some serious love lost when Beard left Texas Tech for Texas this spring, thanks mostly to Beard’s prior comments about Tech’s being a longterm home and the general emotions when a coach leaves for a rival. Tech then turned around and hired Beard’s top assistant, Mark Adams, known most for engineering Beard’s defense while in Lubbock. The fans will be out in full force, and there’s no chance Beard’s welcome will be a warm one when he walks into the gym on Feb. 1. —K.S.
49. Rhyne Howard getting buckets
One of the nation’s most dynamic scorers and a two-time SEC player of the year, Kentucky’s Howard could be the top pick in the WNBA draft in 2022. But first, she’s back for one more season in Lexington, hoping to push the Wildcats to their first Sweet 16 since 2016. Howard is an all-around star who can score (20.7 ppg as a junior), rebound (7.3 rpg), shoot (48.8% from two, 37.3% from three) and defend (2.5 steals per game), and she’s poised for another stat-stuffing campaign as a senior. Bet on her joining A’ja Wilson as the SEC’s only women’s players to win conference POY three times. —M.G.
50. The Mike Woodson era begins in Bloomington
In need of a new coach after parting ways with Archie Miller, Indiana landed on a former Hoosier who starred under Bob Knight in Woodson. His college coaching credentials are nonexistent, but there’s no doubt Woodson can coach the game at a high level based on his work in the NBA. With the return of Trayce Jackson-Davis up front and a few key transfer additions, Woodson has a roster in place that could make real noise nationally in his first season at the helm. And while Woodson has questions to answer about the program-building side of college coaching, a big first year would be a great tone-setter for things to come. —K.S.
51. Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. back in Westwood
The Bruins’ stunning men’s Final Four run may have been just the beginning of what this UCLA group can accomplish. Amazingly, the team brought back essentially every player of note from that run, plus added Rutgers big man transfer Myles Johnson and five-star guard Peyton Watson, who should greatly help the defense. The biggest news last spring, though, was the returns of leading scorers Juzang and Jaquez. Juzang famously put on a clinic in the NCAA tournament, combining for 57 points in games against Michigan and Gonzaga, and could have opted to strike with the NBA draft while the iron was hot. Instead, he anchors a Bruins team dreaming of more, as Mick Cronin enters Year 3 in Westwood. —M.G.
52. Vic Schaefer’s second year in Austin
Born in Austin and raised in Houston, Schaefer decided to leave his longtime post at Mississippi State for Texas last offseason. His move paid immediate dividends for the Longhorns, as he led UT to a surprising trip to the women’s Elite Eight. While the loss of No. 1 WNBA draft pick Charli Collier is a big one, Schaefer is recruiting at an extremely high level with the additions of two top-10 recruits per ESPN in addition to elite juco recruit Kobe King-Hawea. —K.S.
53. Collin Gillespie tries to go out on a high note
One of the more heartbreaking developments of last season came in early March, when the senior Villanova point guard had to leave the court after sustaining an obvious knee injury and was later diagnosed with a torn MCL. Gillespie was a freshman on the Wildcats’ 2017–18 championship team before taking over as a starter, and he’s served as one of the heartbeats of Jay Wright’s roster ever since. Were it not for the COVID-19 rule granting any player who wants it an extra year of eligibility, Gillespie’s college career would’ve ended in devastating fashion. After exercising that extra year (along with fellow senior Jermaine Samuels), he’ll instead get a chance to chase another national title. —M.G.
54. NC State’s transfer-boosted squad
The Wolfpack earned a No. 1 seed in the women’s NCAA tournament last season, bring back every significant piece from that team and add two of the best transfers on the market. To say that Wes Moore’s team will be dangerous is an understatement. The biggest addition is explosive guard Diamond Johnson, who averaged more than 17 points per game and shot a blistering 45% from three in her freshman season at Rutgers in 2020–21. Johnson’s addition to a team that already has one of the best bigs in the sport in Elissa Cunane gives this offense another element. Mississippi State transfer Madison Hayes should also make an impact after being named to the SEC all-freshman team last season. —K.S.
55. The Big Ten’s big men
For various reasons, the nation’s largest coalescent of elite centers tends to reside in the Big Ten. Last season we had Luka Garza, Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson, Trevion Williams, Trayce Jackson-Davis, E.J. Liddell and more, and this season—well, actually, of that list, only Garza isn’t back in the same uniform. That means it’s going to be another year of dominant interior play in the conference, and that’s to say nothing of Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab, now at Maryland, emerging Zach Edey or next-tier centers like John Harrar and Ryan Young. —M.G.
56. Porter Moser in the Big 12
It took a lot of convincing to get Moser to leave Loyola Chicago, but the allure of a program with championship aspirations in every sport like Oklahoma was enough to get him to ditch Chicago for Norman. Moser built Loyola by emphasizing culture at every step and created one of the great mid-major programs in the country in the process. Oklahoma is a new challenge, namely in recruiting, but Moser hired a strong staff to help him in that area and brought in a transfer-heavy group of newcomers that should give the Sooners a shot at the NCAA tournament. —K.S.
57. Chet Holmgren
Dubbed “Unicorn,” because of his unique abilities as a 7-footer, Holmgren was the SI All-American Player of the Year and arrived at Gonzaga this summer with massive expectations on a team considered by many to be the preseason No. 1. The phenom is an outstanding shot blocker and defender who will help fix one of the Zags’ few weaknesses from 2020–21, and he can score in a myriad of ways and shoot it all the way out to the perimeter. A former high school teammate of Jalen Suggs, Holmgren is the top recruit in program history, and he’ll make the Bulldogs appointment television in many of the same ways that Suggs did. —M.G.
58. Ashley Joens leading Iowa State
The fifth-leading scorer in her sport a season ago, Joens is back for her senior season with a team that could be the Cyclones’ best in more than a decade. Iowa State came up just short of a Sweet 16 berth in 2020–21, losing by two in overtime against Texas A&M in a game that saw Joens tally 32 points and 18 rebounds. Bill Fennelly’s team returns all five starters from that group and should have legitimate second-weekend aspirations at the 2022 NCAA tournament. —K.S.
59. Bill Walton games
College basketball fans typically fall into one of two categories, with no in-between: Bill Walton lovers and Bill Walton haters. Count this writer in the former—whether it’s his rambling factoids, his wacky outfits or his uncanny ability to make it unable to predict what he will do next, the sport’s most eccentric broadcaster is a delight to listen to. And when it’s nearing midnight on the East Coast and you’re watching a Pac-12 blowout featuring two .500 teams, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. —M.G.
60. Patrick Baldwin Jr. playing for his dad
A consensus five-star recruit, Baldwin Jr. could have played at pretty much any college he wanted to for what will likely be his only year of college hoops. He spurned strong interest from Duke to play at UW-Milwaukee for his father, Pat, the coach of the Panthers. There’s virtually no precedent for a player of Baldwin Jr.’s pedigree coming to a program like Milwaukee. There’s also no guarantee that it will be one of the best teams in the Horizon League, even with Baldwin Jr. It should be fascinating to see how good Baldwin is against mid-major competition and whether he can lift the Panthers program to new heights. —K.S.
61. Kim Mulkey takes over at LSU
One of the stunners of the college hoops offseason came when the longtime Baylor coach took the job in Baton Rouge. Mulkey played both high school and college ball in Louisiana and coached for years at LA Tech, so her decision to return home isn’t surprising on its face. But in doing so, the 59-year-old left a program she built into a national power for one in need of revitalization. The Lady Tigers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2018, the Sweet 16 since ’14 and the Final Four since ’08 (they also haven’t won an SEC regular season or tournament title since ’08). LSU is coming off a 9–13 COVID-19-shortened season but brings back All-SEC first-teamer Khayla Pointer and a roster full of experience (former Baylor player Hannah Gusters also followed Mulkey to Baton Rouge). How quickly can one of the sport’s most colorful—and sometimes controversial—coaches put the Lady Tigers on the map? —M.G.
62. St. Bonaventure’s experienced squad
The Bonnies return all five starters from last year’s A-10 men’s champion, and all five of them will be seniors in 2021–22. In total, that returning starting five has played more than 12,000 minutes of Division I basketball. To say they’ve been through the wars is an understatement. Cagey point guard Kyle Lofton plays like a 10-year NBA veteran, while big man Osun Osunniyi is the linchpin to an elite defense thanks to his ability to block shots. This combination of talent and experience makes the Bonnies a preseason top-25 team and a nightmare for opponents to prep for all year long—and that’s not even mentioning the improved depth this team should have thanks to some transfer portal additions. —K.S.
63. Eric Musselman’s next act in Fayetteville
Arkansas broke through in Musselman’s second season at the helm, winning 25 games and reaching the second weekend of the men’s NCAA tournament for the first time since Nolan Richardson roamed the sidelines in Fayetteville. And while several key pieces depart from last year’s squad, it’s clear Musselman has things on an upward trajectory. He added top transfers Au’Diese Toney (Pitt), Chris Lykes (Miami) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota); and rising sophomores Davonte “Devo” Davis and Jaylin Williams are prime breakout candidates after strong finishes the last season. Expect the Hogs to contend for an SEC title. —K.S.
64. Women’s basketball finally gets the March Madness treatment
In what never made sense to begin with, the NCAA for years only used its March Madness trademark branding for the men’s tournament—not the women’s. It wasn’t the most pressing issue in women’s basketball’s fight for equality, of course, but it was a perfect example of how the NCAA’s treatment divide affected even how the tournaments are talked about and perceived in the public (note even the swag given to women’s tournament players at their hotels last March had only generic “NCAA Women’s Basketball” branding, while the male players’ swag was plastered with “March Madness”). After a recent change spurred by a gender equity report, the famous moniker will be used for the women’s Big Dance in 2022. It’s about time! —M.G.
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