NEW ORLEANS — The 2021-22 men’s college basketball season is officially in the books following one of the most exciting Final Fours in the sport’s history.
But now that Kansas has cut down the nets and an epic 2022 NCAA Tournament is over, we can look at the season ahead.
Events of the offseason – players entering the NBA draft, late decisions among incoming freshmen and a transfer portal that’s become like an open free agency – are sure to shake things up. And the carry-over of an extra year of eligibility awarded because of the pandemic will continue to keep the sport trending experienced vs. one and done.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now for daily updates sent to your inbox
‘WE’RE LEGENDARY’: Behind the scenes of Kansas Jayhawks’ wild national championship win
But for now, here’s a look at the teams best positioned to be among the nation’s elite come November, when the 2022-23 season tips off:
1. Duke (32-7)
First-year head coach Jon Scheyer, the replacement to legend Mike Krzyzewski, will have talent to keep the Blue Devils as perennial title contenders despite likely losing the core of Duke’s Final Four team in the NBA draft. The 34-year-old coach has a No. 1 class of five-star freshmen coming in, including the top three prospects in the ’22 class Dariq Whitehead, Kyle Filipowski and Derek Lively. They’ll join NCAA Tournament breakout stars Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels, who are expected to be back in Durham, North Carolina.
2. UCLA (27-8)
The Bruins, by many counts, underachieved in 2021-22 after a season in which they unexpectedly reached the Final Four and brought virtually everyone back. The same nucleus is likely to return for Mick Cronin after a disappointing Sweet 16 finish this season, including leading scorer Johnny Juzang and veteran point guard Tyger Campbell. Joining this group will be top-five freshman guard Amari Bailey.
3. North Carolina (29-10)
Brady Manek has no more eligibility left and it’s uncertain whether the team’s stars, Armando Bacot and Caleb Love, go pro. But RJ Davis will be back and coach Hubert Davis has reinvigorated this blue blood program to be an annual contender. Expect elite transfers to want to follow in Manek’s footsteps in heading to Chapel Hill to play for Davis.
4. Kentucky (26-8)
This prediction is assuming Oscar Tshiebwe, USA TODAY Sports’ national player of the year, returns for a Wildcats team that will be looking to avenge a stunning first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s. Coach John Calipari, as per usual, has reloaded with a talented freshman class (top-10 recruits Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston) and he’ll surely strike gold in the transfer portal, too.
5. Gonzaga (28-4)
Stud freshman Chet Holmgren is NBA-bound, but two-time All-American Drew Timme (18.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is expected to be back, giving the Bulldogs their top player to build around. Expect guard Julian Strawther to hit another gear and coach Mark Few to cash in on the transfer portal.
6. Kansas (34-6)
Leading scorer and first-team All-American guard Ochai Agbaji is gone and so is NCAA Tournament breakout star Remy Martin. But defending champion Kansas could potentially bring back big man David McCormack and fellow starters Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr. Then factor in a strong recruiting class led by Gradey Dick and a transfer portal that will surely benefit Bill Self’s team and KU will be right back in the mix.
7. Arkansas (28-9)
Coach Eric Musselman has had the Razorbacks knocking on the door of the Final Four, with back-to-back Elite Eight finishes, since taking over the program. He’s hauled in a top-notch recruiting class, including five-star point guard Nick Smith and Anthony Black, a 6-7 ball-handler who can thrive in all three perimeter positions.
8. Michigan (19-15)
Coach Juwan Howard took the Wolverines all the way to the Elite Eight in his first season but this past season was trending toward disaster before this Michigan group – as a bubble team – staged a reinvigorating Sweet 16 run. Now key pieces from that team are back, freshman reinforcements are coming in and it’s likely 7-foot big man Hunter Dickinson comes back as the most talented player in the Big Ten.
9. Houston (32-6)
Coach Kelvin Sampson should get his nucleus from an Elite Eight team back, including a healthy Marcus Sasser, and five-star freshman Jarace Walker will add even more muscle to blend in with Sampson’s nation-leading defense.
10. Baylor (27-7)
The fact the Bears lost a boatload of talent to the NBA from 2021’s national title team and coach Scott Drew still got the team to come back as a No. 1 seed is proof the Bears belong in the top 10 despite another round of key losses. The Bears return leading scorer Adam Flagler, while trying to replicate a transfer scenario similar to James Akinjo in the portal. Freshman Keyonte George will make an immediate impact.
11. Illinois (23-10)
This prediction is going off the idea of first-team All-American Kofi Cockburn returning for the Fighting Illini, who have underachieved in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments by exiting in the second round. Coach Brad Underwood will likely turn to the transfer portal to add another star, but the returning roster featuring RJ Melendez and Coleman Hawkins remains strong.
12. TCU (21-13)
Virtually everyone important should be back for a Horned Frogs group that nearly knocked off No. 1 Arizona in the NCAA Tournament and fared well (upsetting Kansas) in the Big 12 this past season. Coach Jamie Dixon has a stellar backcourt behind duo Mike Miles and Damion Baugh.
13. Arizona (33-4)
The Wildcats will surely lose first-team All-American Bennedict Mathurin to the NBA draft but coach Tommy Lloyd will have ample talent left to keep Arizona near the top of the Pac-12. Big man Christian Koloko would be wise if he returned for another run in Tucson.
14. Villanova (30-8)
Coach Jay Wright is going to see his veteran-laden roster depleted this offseason but he’ll have Justin Moore back from an Achilles injury and a top-10 freshmen class to rebuild.
15. Creighton (23-12)
Coach Gregg McDermott is likely to see his team be one of many benefitting from the NCAA’s extra season of eligibility granted because of the pandemic, meaning many of his veterans that got Creighton to the brink of beating Kansas this year will be back for more as a seasoned group in 2022-23.
16. Texas Tech (27-10)
First-year coach Mark Adams had a bare-bones roster once he took over the program last year and then the Red Raiders finished third in the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16. So no matter how much talent is leaving, Adams will get this team to be elite again on defense. The top returner should be guard Kevin McCullar.
The Cavaliers are poised to return to more of a contending status after missing the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team this past March. Coach Tony Bennett returns Armaan Franklin, among others, and will have a strong recruiting class to fit his signature system of a slowed-tempo offense and pack-line defense.
Coach Chris Beard hauled in an elite freshman class behind five-star recruits Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris. Expect the Longhorns to hit big in the transfer portal, too, with Beard having the top-rated transfer group last offseason.
19. Alabama (19-14)
The Crimson Tide bring back all the key pieces from an underachieving group this past season. Combine the experience with a top-five recruiting class for coach Nate Oates and Alabama should be back near the top of the SEC in 2022-23.
20. Our Lady (24-11)
Coach Mike Brey figures to bring back a sizeable chunk from a roster that finished third in the ACC and staged a strong NCAA Tournament finish. Even with leading scorer Blake Wesley leaving for the NBA, the Irish should still be in the national equation.
21. Auburn (28-6)
The Tigers will lose their best player in All-American Jabari Smith, but guards KD Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. return in the backcourt from a team that tailed off early but was in line for a No. 1 seed in February.
22. Tennessee (27-8)
There’s a strong chance that standout guard Kennedy Chandler goes pro, but coach Rick Barnes should have plenty left to compete in the SEC, including returning starters Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.
23. Dayton (24-11)
Coach Anthony Grant had the youngest roster in all of college basketball in 2021-22. And yet, the Flyers competed in the Atlantic 10 Conference and were listed as the first bubble team out of the projected field. Expect this mature group to take another huge step in 2022-23 to put the Flyers back on the map.
24. Xavier (23-13)
Sean Miller’s first season back leading the Musketeers should be a good one. He’ll inherit a core pack of players who just won the NIT and likely have an even more seasoned group via the transfer portal.
25. Colorado State (25-6)
Assuming the Rams bring back David Roddy (19.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg), they’ll be positioned to out-duel San Diego State in the Mountain West and stay in the national equation.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: Who’s No. 1 in our preseason men’s top 25?