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SI's Preseason Expert Predictions: Men's Final Four, National Champ and More

Plus, our picks for National Player of the Year, breakthrough team, mid-major program to watch and more.

We’re days away from the start of the men’s college basketball season, which means it’s time to lock in predictions for 2021–22. A year ago, Baylor and Gonzaga successfully turned preseason hype into a national championship meeting, but things don’t always work out so neatly.

Nevertheless, Sports Illustrated’s writers and editors are taking their best shot at the 2022 Final Four and national champ, plus National Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and more. Whose time for a breakthrough is here? Which contender is getting a bit too much hype? And which bold prediction do we foresee coming true? Read on for our 2021–22 Crystal Ball.

Kansas's Remy Martin; Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren; UCLA's Johnny Juzang

Remy Martin, Chet Holmgren and Johnny Juzang are all expected to be among the nation's stars.

Pat Forde’s Final Four picks

UCLA: Got there last year and should be better this year. The nucleus of that team returns and is enhanced by Rutgers big man transfer Myles Johnson and a strong freshman class. The slow start of 2020–21 is unlikely to be replicated; the Bruins will be in the mix all season.

Purdue: Overdue for a breakthrough. Boilermakers gagged epically last March, but have all the necessary ingredients—especially massive, block-out-the-sun size—to reach the program’s first Final Four since 1980.

Michigan: Speaking of size: the Wolverines will build around 7' 1" man-mountain Hunter Dickinson in the middle, adding a pair of long five-star freshmen in 6' 9" Moussa Diabate and 6' 8" Caleb Houstan alongside him. Veteran Eli Brooks returns to solidify the backcourt.

Gonzaga: Hard to see another undefeated run to the postseason, because this will be a team that has to grow and coalesce along the way. But Drew Timme’s wise return to school gives it a bellcow, plus a proven point guard in Andrew Nembhard and some big-time freshman talent in Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis.

Dark-horse Final Four team: Arkansas. Razorbacks have a nice combination of returning talent (JD Notae, Davonte Davis, Jaylin Williams) with a new infusion of transfers (four starters at their last schools). They were close last year, losing a hotly contested regional final to eventual national champion Baylor. Might be able to close that gap this year.

Kevin Sweeney’s Final Four picks

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have the nation’s best player (Drew Timme), the No. 1 recruit in the country (Chet Holmgren) and one of the top point guards in the sport (Andrew Nembhard). Enough said.

Texas: It will likely take the Longhorns some time to jell, but this roster is loaded. Much has been made of UT’s deep frontcourt, but I love the backcourt quartet of Marcus Carr, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones and Devin Askew.

Kansas: Bill Self’s team has four starters back and adds Arizona State transfer Remy Martin at point guard. It could prove to be the perfect marriage and get the Jayhawks back to the Final Four.

UCLA: This isn’t the same UCLA team that went on the miracle run to the Final Four. It should be much better on defense thanks to the additions of Myles Johnson (Rutgers) and five-star freshman Peyton Watson.

Dark-horse Final Four pick: Illinois. Excitement is through the roof about sophomore Andre Curbelo’s potential. Surround Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn with a talented group of role players, and the Illini could contend atop the Big Ten again.

Jeremy Woo’s Final Four picks:

UCLA: No team has a stronger mix of continuity, experience and talent. It’s hard to enter a season better positioned than this.

Gonzaga: They’ll blow through their schedule again. The quality of the guard play—which is a tad suspect on paper—will determine the Zags’ ceiling.

Purdue: You’d think someone has to make it out of the Big Ten bloodbath. The Boilers look like the most balanced of the conference’s contenders.

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Texas: It’s pretty hard to take a brand new roster full of transfers to the Final Four. If anyone’s going to figure it out, maybe it’s Chris Beard.

Dark-horse Final Four team: Alabama. If Jahvon Quinerly steps up, there’s enough shooting and depth for the Tide to avenge the way last season ended.

Jason Jordan’s Final Four picks:

Gonzaga: Drew Timme (19 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 apg) is back as is Andrew Nembhard, and Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton should provide a boost along with freshman guard Hunter Sallis. But Mark Few’s pièce de resistance is 7' 0" all-everything center Chet Holmgren, who will elevate the Bulldogs on both ends of the floor.

Kansas: Bill Self returns four starters, who make up four of his top five scorers from last season. The Jayhawks also added one of the most dynamic guards in the country in Arizona State transfer Remy Martin (19.1 ppg.).

Duke: Though they’re trying to downplay the “win it for K” theme to the season, the Blue Devils won’t be able to escape the motivation for their sixth national title being rooted in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season in Durham. Luckily, they have potentially the best player in college hoops in Paolo Banchero and a strong supporting cast.

Michigan: Hunter Dickinson is back patrolling the paint for the Wolverines and Eli Brooks gives Juwan Howard experience in the backcourt, which should help his plethora of young guards develop. Buffalo transfer DeVante' Jones and freshman sniper Caleb Houstan will add substantial firepower on the wing.

Dark-horse Final Four team: Alabama. Nate Oats’s crew lost experienced leaders, but returns, arguably, the most talented crop of guards in the country, including SI99 top-10 prospect JD Davison. Oats’s group will score early and often and lock up defensively.

Molly Geary’s Final Four picks:

Gonzaga: The Zags lost a lot, but this train isn’t slowing down. The Timme-Holmgren frontcourt duo is formidable, and let’s not forget Mark Few has accumulated past recruiting talent, like Julian Strawther, that are ready to step into a larger role.

Kansas: This Jayhawks’ roster seems particularly well-suited for Bill Self’s system. Per Synergy Sports, two key Kansas offensive weaknesses last year were on spot-ups and pick-and-rolls staying with the ballhandler. Not coincidentally, transfer additions Remy Martin and Joseph Yesufu excel at both.

Kentucky: This pick has perhaps the highest variance, but John Calipari loaded up on experience—and shooting—via the transfer portal, creating an atypical Wildcats roster that might just be their ticket back to the final weekend.

Michigan: The Big Ten’s got some making up to do this March, and the Wolverines could lead the way again. The new pieces need to gel around Hunter Dickinson, but Juwan Howard has earned that trust entering Year 3.

Dark-horse Final Four team: Alabama. Nate Oats has another ideal roster for his system on his hands. The Tide’s defense won’t be quite as good, but Jahvon Quinerly will lead what could be a better offense.

Gonzaga's Drew Timme goes for a basket in a recent exhibition game

Timme averaged 19.0 points as a sophomore.

National Player of the Year

Forde: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Sweeney: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Woo: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Jordan: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Geary: Drew Timme, Gonzaga

Freshman of the Year

Forde: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Sweeney: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Woo: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Jordan: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Geary: Paolo Banchero, Duke

Who will win the national championship?

Forde: UCLA. Bruins got a taste of it last year, pushing Gonzaga to the brink before falling short of the title game. The roster is better this year, with greater depth and quality size. The slow start of 2020–21 is unlikely to be replicated, which means a better NCAA seed and an easier path to New Orleans.

Sweeney: Gonzaga. On paper, it’s clearly the best team in the country. The Zags have all the ingredients to win a championship: talent, experience and coaching. Timme’s ability to dominate the paint on offense meshes well with Holmgren’s perimeter skill and shot-blocking ability, while young guards Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman can be brought along as the season goes on. Stars like Timme and Nembhard felt the pain of last year’s title game loss, a game that has undoubtedly fueled them all offseason. This is the year the Bulldogs finally break through and cut down the nets in New Orleans.

Woo: UCLA. I might be biased after watching UCLA extensively in person back in March. But it’s hard for me not to buy the Bruins as legit contenders, even with the Pac-12 somewhat down—they’ve had a taste of the big moments, they have their entire team back and they have two of college basketball’s best scorers in Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang. It’s near-impossible for programs to keep talented rosters intact from year to year in the transfer era. When it happens, you have to pay attention.

Jordan: Duke. Chances are you just rolled your eyes, and, yes, part of me wants part of the movie rights for the Krzyzewski swan song storyline, but with the probable No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft and potential best player in college basketball on the roster in Paolo Banchero, Duke’s chances to pose for sweat-soaked snapshots at Caesars Superdome aren’t that farfetched. Banchero isn’t just a star; he's an underrated facilitator, the likes of which Duke hasn’t had in years. His supporting cast is strong with quality depth in the paint from Mark Williams and Theo John and firepower and athleticism on the wing from Trevor Keels, AJ Griffin and Wendell Moore Jr. If Jeremy Roach gives them consistent production at the point, this pick becomes more popular.

Geary: Gonzaga. If you assume Baylor would have received a No. 1 seed in the canceled 2020 NCAA tournament, the last five men's national champions were a No. 1 seed the year prior. Maybe that’s small-sample noise, but there's something to be said about having players who have been through the pressures of March already, even with roster turnover. Gonzaga played with a huge target on its back all last season, and the fuel that the title-game loss had to bring to Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard and others could create the kind of extra edge needed for another massively talented roster in Spokane.

Breakthrough team

Forde: Colorado State. The Rams return their entire starting five from a 20-win team and have an opportunity to take over as the top team in the Mountain West Conference. They were close last year to earning their first NCAA tournament bid since 2013, and this year they will make the field comfortably. Look for them to be the upset winner of the Paradise Jam and build from there.

Sweeney: Purdue. In a year that saw most freshman-heavy teams flop, Purdue exceeded expectations and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey’s experiences a season ago should serve them well as sophomores, and senior big man Trevion Williams remains one of the sport’s best players. The Boilermakers also have one of the best contingents of role players in the country: Eric Hunter Jr. as a stout defender, Sasha Stefanovic and Brandon Newman as shooters and Mason Gillis as a glue guy. This team may wind up in the top-five nationally when all’s said and done.

Woo: I say this with cautious optimism, but I genuinely think this has a chance to be Matt Painter’s best Purdue team. There’s continuity, two potential breakout stars in Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey, the makings of a big, athletic defense, enough shooting (hopefully), and room for all-around improvement from a team that was good, but not elite in any one area last year. I think the Boilers are better on paper than Illinois and Michigan. What that actually amounts to, we’ll see.

Jordan: Connecticut. I get it, you’re confused. Yes, the Huskies were picked to finish second in the Big East this season, so breakthrough seems like a bit of a stretch, but Dan Hurley’s squad was one-and-done last March in the NCAA tournament and returns a group talented enough to get it to the second weekend this season. Hurley will use a committee approach on the offensive end to combat the loss of James Bouknight; R.J. Cole is capable, Akok Akok is healthy, and the Huskies welcome the No. 13 recruiting class in the SI All-American team rankings. Hurley has length, depth, size and athleticism—the perfect blend to take the next step this season.

Geary: Notre Dame. Achievers of back-to-back Elite Eights not too long ago, Mike Brey’s Irish haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2017. The problem has been a leaky defense that turned downright awful last season, and that has to be fixed if the Irish want to finally return to the dance. But this offense can really shoot it, and the addition of talented Yale big man Paul Atkinson will help make up for the loss of Juwan Durham down low. Most everyone else of note is back, including senior point guard Prentiss Hubb. They’re not going to win the ACC, but I’m betting on an Irish presence next March.

I'm not buying the hype on...

Forde: Memphis. Overwhelming talent? Yes. Quality size? Sure. One of the most celebrated big guard prospects since Penny himself? Yes. But this also is a chemistry experiment that has the potential to blow up in the face of Anfernee Hardaway, whose offenses haven’t been the most cohesive in the past. Maybe ancient assistant Larry Brown does the behind-the-scenes coaching to make this thing work. Wild success or abysmal failure seem like the most likely outcomes, with little chance of something in between.

Sweeney: Villanova. I think the Wildcats are the favorites in the Big East without too much question and very well may be a top-10 team. That said, I’m not sure this group has the top-end talent to be the top-five team many are anointing them as. Jay Wright’s club was pedestrian on defense a season ago and relied heavily upon Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on both ends of the floor. There’s some upside in smaller, switchable lineups with Jermaine Samuels at the five without Robinson-Earl, but this team will struggle up front with good bigs and its perimeter defense may continue to be an issue.

Woo: Kentucky. The Wildcats did their best to reload and should be much better than last season. But I’m not convinced their collection of disparate parts equates to their lofty preseason ranking. I’m intrigued by freshman TyTy Washington, whom I suspect will be relied upon heavily, but frankly, I don’t know how much their roster makes sense, and the lack of dynamic frontcourt talent concerns me. Kentucky should be a tournament team again, but the SEC is tough, and it’s not going to out-talent opponents to death.

Jordan: Villanova. Yes, Collin Gillespie is back healthy, but if you’ve got the Wildcats penciled in for New Orleans you’re severely underestimating the loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The co-Big East Player of the Year and last season’s leading scorer (15.7 ppg) will prove to be a devastating blow to Jay Wright’s squad on both ends, and, while Gillespie’s presence will help address the offensive depletion, it’s the Wildcats’ defense that needs the overhaul. Wright’s crew ranked 206th in field goal percentage defense last season, and doesn’t seem to have the personnel in the paint to address Robinson-Earl’s loss down low.

Geary: UCLA. Look, I’m not denying that the Bruins are poised for big things this season. The kind of continuity they have is rare at the high-major level, and their defense gets a big boost from Myles Johnson and Peyton Watson. But No. 2 is a very lofty ranking, and while I understand it, I need to see more consistency first. Don’t forget, UCLA was 17–9 and ranked 45th in KenPom entering an NCAA tournament it barely made. Something absolutely clicked during that March run, but the level to which it’s sustainable over the long haul will be the difference between whether this is a top-three team or a top-10 team.

St. Bonaventure's Osun Osunniyi dunks the ball

Osunniyi is a key part of a veteran St. Bonaventure squad. 

Mid-major team to watch

Forde: St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies aren’t much of a secret, starting the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time in a mere half-century, since the Bob Lanier days. Underrated coach Mark Schmidt returns his entire starting five from last year and they’re all seniors, a rare luxury in today’s transit college game. Schmidt can afford to bring along a recruiting class heavy on international players at a gradual pace, since he may have the best veteran continuity in the country.

Sweeney: Loyola Chicago. The Ramblers aren’t going anywhere, even without Porter Moser at the helm. Head coach Drew Valentine is the youngest one in Division I, but this is an experienced group that has been through the wars before. Lucas Williamson and Aher Uguak should make this group elite defensively yet again, and the ballhandling trio of Braden Norris, Keith Clemons and Marquise Kennedy should give this offense plenty of firepower. A key: The play of sophomore Jacob Hutson, who Valentine hopes can solidify the paint in the post–Cameron Krutwig era.

Woo: St. Bonaventure. This is probably going to be a popular pick, but the Bonnies start five seniors, are well coached, and should be able to make the most of all their opportunities. Kyle Lofton can fill it up and Osun Osunniyi is one of the top rim protectors in the country. They’re not household names, but they might be in a few months.

Jordan: Drake. The Bulldogs made the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 13 years last season and return a veteran group that should put them in position to build on that momentum. Darian DeVries landed his son, Tucker, an elite scoring guard capable of stepping in and filling it up from the perimeter. Also, talented Omaha transfer Ayo Akinwole joins Roman Penn, ShanQuan Hemphill, D.J. Wilkins, Jonah Jackson and Darnell Brodie. DeVries already has 70 wins in three seasons and this year’s squad has the talent and experience to substantially add to that total.

Geary: Richmond. The Spiders will push St. Bonaventure in the A-10, and like the Bonnies, they bring back an experienced core. Only leading scorer Blake Francis is gone, and they get back wing Nick Sherod from an ACL tear. Richmond disappointed relative to expectations last season, but it also dealt with three COVID-19 pauses that surely made things difficult. I like the Spiders to bounce back and fulfill their potential this winter.

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One bold prediction

Forde: After years of fumbling and stumbling, the NCAA’s investigation resulting from the corruption scandal that erupted in the fall of 2017 will impact this season—unless the affected schools can string this out until spring 2022. Postseason bans and coach suspensions (or outright firings) could be in play for a few schools, especially those that went through the Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP) and do not have the option of appealing a ruling.

Sweeney: TyTy Washington Jr. leads Kentucky to a deep March run. Banchero and Holmgren have been the two freshmen getting the most love this preseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington makes as big (or bigger) an impact as either of them. Everyone around him raves about his poise, and at 6' 3" he’s big enough to impact the game at either guard spot. He has a smooth stroke and great feel for the game. In a year where elite guards are lacking throughout the national landscape, Washington will step up and have an All-American-caliber season for UK.

Woo: Defending champion Baylor fails to nab a top-four tournament seed. The Bears will be competitive, but I’m not certain Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler can carry the scoring alone, and worry about a pronounced lack of shooting on the roster. Without Davion Mitchell to set the tone, this is now an offensive-minded group that will have to find ways to win ugly. I don’t think it totally adds up, particularly relative to where it’s ranked entering the season.

Jordan: Memphis will make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. I get it, you think this isn’t as bold since the Tigers boast two players—Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren—likely to go in the top five of next year’s NBA draft. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that Penny Hardaway has never actually been to the Big Dance since taking over at his alma mater. In addition to welcoming a mind-boggling recruiting class, Hardaway returns Landers Nolley II, Lester Quinones and DeAndre Williams, plus Miami transfer Earl Timberlake to form one of the most talented rosters in the country. The reigning NIT champs will get plenty of much-needed tests in the grueling AAC, but in the end, Hardaway’s group will live up to the hype.

Geary: The 2022 men’s Final Four will feature at least two starters who are one-and-dones. Why is that bold? It hasn’t happened since 2015, when there were five(!). Not only that, but the last five Final Fours combined have seen just two such starting players—Jalen Suggs (in ’21) and Malachi Richardson (in ’16). (A third, Omari Spellman, redshirted for a year before his lone playing season at Villanova.) 

More College Basketball Coverage:

Men's 1–358 Preseason National Rankings
• The Best of the Men's Nonconference Slate
Men's National Player of Year Candidates

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