Ranking the Top 25 Players for the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Season
Far too often, the biggest stars of men's college basketball ride off into the NBA just as the general public is starting to learn their names.
But doesn't it feel like there is a much larger pool of recognizable returning names (images and likenesses) than usual this year?
Sure, elder statesmen Luka Garza, Corey Kispert and Jared Butler are gone, as are the one-and-done stars like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs.
Drew Timme's reign at Gonzaga will continue for at least one more year, though. Same goes for Kofi Cockburn at Illinois, Hunter Dickinson at Michigan and Trevion Williams at Purdue.
If guard play is more your speed, Collin Gillespie returns to Villanova to rival Perry Ellis for the longest time spent playing college hoops, and we still have Johnny Juzang at UCLA, Buddy Boeheim at Syracuse and first-weekend-of-the-NCAA-tournament-superstar Max Abmas at Oral Roberts.
There's also a fair number of familiar names in unfamiliar places as the transfer portal continues to blossom in popularity, as well as the usual stockpile of freshmen who won't be playing college ball for long.
These are the 25 biggest names to know heading into the 2021-22 season.
25. Andre Curbelo, Illinois
Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn got most of the attention en route to Illinois' No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but Curbelo's "old man game" as a freshman was also a big part of that team's success. Illini faithful would probably prefer he never tee up a deep ball (5-of-31 from distance), but he's going to be the primary ball-handler with Dosunmu out of the picture. Let's see what sort of razzle-dazzle he has in store for his second season.
24. Jalen Duren, Memphis
23. Emoni Bates, Memphis
Bates and Duren were widely regarded as the top two recruits in the 2022 class, right up until they both reclassified to 2021 and signed with Memphis, all in the span of less than three weeks in August. The Tigers weren't even on the radar as a potential Top 25 team prior to that double splash, but they will open the season at No. 12 in the AP poll with these two stars leading the way.
By the end of the year, there will likely be unanimous agreement on whether Bates or Duren was more important to Memphis' success and which one is more likely to succeed in the NBA. For now, though, they're effectively a package deal. Bates gets the slight nod here simply because he'll be better at creating his own buckets and has more versatility. But Duren is going to feast in the paint, make no mistake about that.
22. Alex Barcello, BYU
After two years of shooting 29.7 percent from three-point range at Arizona, Barcello has spent the past two seasons at BYU as one of the most accurate shooters ever. He shot 48.6 percent in 2019-20 and 47.7 percent this past season, attempting more than 100 triples each year. And in 2020-21, he did so while taking on much more of a facilitating role, leading the Cougars in assists at a rate of 4.3 per game.
21. Armando Bacot, North Carolina
Bacot is the last man standing from the Tar Heels' 2020-21 four-man frontcourt, and we're all intrigued to find out what he can do this year in what figures to be an expanded role. He played only 22.7 minutes per game last season, but he led the team in both scoring (12.3 points) and rebounding (7.8). If North Carolina is going to bounce back to its typical level of excellence in Hubert Davis' first season as the head coach, Bacot will be a huge part of it.
20. Andrew Nembhard, Gonzaga
Gonzaga lost quite a few key members of the backcourt with Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi all turning pro, but the Zags do at least get Nembhard back. The former transfer from Florida had multiple assists in all but one game last season and figures to ease seamlessly back into the primary ball-handling role that he held before leaving the Gators. His veteran leadership role of helping develop star freshmen Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis will also be invaluable.
19. Scotty Pippen Jr., Vanderbilt
Far from the national spotlight on a Vanderbilt team that has gone 41-80 over the past four seasons, Pippen blossomed into a legitimate star in his second year of college hoops. With 20.8 points, 1.8 steals and 4.9 assists per game, he ranked second in all three categories in the SEC. Few players in the country are better at drawing fouls, either, as Pippen made 85.0 percent of his 7.6 free-throw attempts per game. Hopefully, Jerry Stackhouse's influx of talent (both recruits and transfers) will improve the Commodores enough for casual fans to occasionally watch Pippen shine.
18. Marcus Sasser, Houston
Houston was gutted by offseason departures, losing four of the six leaders in minutes played. But the Cougars do still have Sasser, who scored at least a dozen points in seven of Houston's eight games played between the conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau primarily ran the offense last season, but Sasser figures to become the do-it-all leader that Rob Gray Jr. was for this team a few years ago.
17. Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
One half of UCLA's Double J Corral, Jaquez often took a backseat to Johnny Juzang in conversations about the Bruins' most important player. However, Jaquez was particularly indispensable after they lost big men Chris Smith and Jalen Hill midway through the season. This 6'6" shooting guard ended up leading the Bruins in rebounds, blocks and steals, all while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range. And it's primarily because of Jaquez's 27 points in the overtime win over Michigan State in the First Four that UCLA even had a chance to go on that magical run to the Final Four.
16. Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse
Say this much for Boeheim: No one was more lethal from three-point range toward the end of last season. He did go ice cold (1-of-9) in the Sweet 16 loss to Houston, but Boeheim entered that game having made 44-of-90 (48.9 percent) of his three-point attempts over the prior nine games. Hard to imagine he'll stay that hot for a full season, but goodness knows he'll still have a permanent green light after the Orange lost four of their six leading scorers. The addition of Jimmy Boeheim (16.7 PPG at Cornell two years ago) might help soften the blow.
15. Jaden Ivey, Purdue
Ivey's full-season numbers were nothing special, but keep in mind he missed several weeks early in the year with a foot injury and then needed a few weeks to get into the swing of things. By mid-February, the freshman shooting guard with a knack for impact defense was Purdue's second-best player. Over the team's final seven games, he racked up 120 points (17.1 per game), 25 rebounds, 13 assists, 12 blocks and nine steals while shooting 15-of-43 (34.9 percent) from downtown. Maybe it was just a late-season hot streak, or maybe it was the precursor to a dynamite sophomore year.
14. Julian Champagnie, St. John's
It didn't do much of anything to improve St. John's as a team, but Champagnie's individual breakout in 2020-21 was mighty impressive. He doubled his scoring from 9.9 to 19.8 points per game, scoring in double figures in each of his 25 games played. The 6'8" guard-forward hybrid averaged more than six three-point attempts per game, making 38.0 percent of them. He also made a big impact on the defensive end of the floor. Can't wait to watch the mock draft community finally "discover" this 3-and-D prospect.
13. Remy Martin, Kansas
After four years of trying to carry a not-very-good Arizona State squad, Martin transferred to Kansas where he's bound to step into the "Who do we have that can just go get a bucket?" void that plagued the Jayhawks last year. They are going to miss Marcus Garrett's presence on defense, but Martin figures to considerably improve the offense of a team that otherwise brings back just about everyone.
12. Marcus Carr, Texas
Speaking of marquee transfers to the Big 12, Carr is the most noteworthy of the seven veterans Chris Beard added to Texas' roster. Carr averaged 19.4 points and 4.9 assists per game for Minnesota, hitting a bunch of clutch buckets early in the season. My guess is he'll revert closer to the 15.4 PPG, 6.5 APG and 5.3 RPG he averaged in 2019-20 now that there's considerably more talent around for him to take on more of a distributing role.
11. E.J. Liddell, Ohio State
With Duane Washington Jr. and C.J. Walker both out of the picture, Ohio State's backcourt situation is a significant question mark. But the Buckeyes are still comfortably in the preseason AP Top 25 largely because of the return of Liddell. One of the nation's biggest breakout stars last season, he averaged 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. But with Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Trevion Williams all coming back, Liddell will need to be even better this year if he wants first-team All-Big Ten honors.
10. Trevion Williams, Purdue
In each of his first three seasons, Williams averaged at least 20 points and 14 rebounds per 40 minutes. As the Boilermakers have given him more playing time, the efficiency of his dominance hasn't much changed. And he became much more of a willing passer, which really opens up what they're able to run on offense. Purdue almost never had Williams and 7'4" Zach Edey on the floor together this past season, but I hope Matt Painter finds a way for them to coexist this year, even if it's just for short spurts.
9. Max Abmas, Oral Roberts
Who among us isn't excited to see what Abmas can do for an encore after helping lead Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16? Sadly, his pick-and-pop partner-in-Cinderella Kevin Obanor transferred to Texas Tech, meaning Abmas will be more of a one-man show this year. But he should continue to flourish even as a solo act. He's too good of a shooter and creator not to.
8. Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Hopefully the third time's the charm for Gillespie, who had the 2020 NCAA tournament taken away from him by a global pandemic and the 2021 NCAA tournament taken away from him by a torn MCL suffered in March. He did play on the Villanova team that won it all in 2018, but he was the seventh man in that rotation. These past two years were supposed to be his time to shine. Now he's back for a fifth year to lead Nova's turnover-averse, three-point barrage.
7. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
Jackson-Davis averaged 19.1 points and 9.0 rebounds last season, but I'm excited to find out what the new-and-improved TJD can do. He certainly could have gone pro, but he instead opted for one more year of college under the tutelage of Mike Woodson, who has more than three decades of playing/coaching experience in the NBA. And with the addition of 7'0" South Florida transfer Michael Durr, Jackson-Davis should be able to spend some time at power forward instead of always playing center. Maybe he'll even *gasp* attempt a three-pointer this year.
6. Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Holmgren is either 7'0" or 7'1" depending on whose measuring tape you believe, but either way, his ability to dribble, pass and shoot from the perimeter should be illegal at his height. This incoming freshman is also an elite shot-blocker, which is basically the only thing Gonzaga was missing last year. He's going to be an instant sensation, and I suspect more analysts would be heralding him as a first-team All-American if the Zags didn't already have the preseason National Player of the Year in Drew Timme.
5. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
2020-21 Stats: 14.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG
Given how integral he was to Michigan's success last year, it's wild to think that Hunter Dickinson wasn't even a starter until a few weeks into the campaign. Senior big man Austin Davis started the first five games of the year at center, and he likely would have kept that job at least a little while longer had it not been for a plantar fascia injury that caused him to miss a month.
It was inevitable that head coach Juwan Howard handed the reins to Dickinson, though, because he was clearly a force of nature from day one. He averaged 18.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks through his first 10 games, and even more important than the blocks were the shots altered/deterred.
At one point—before Isaiah Livers got hurt and before the rigors of Big Ten play cut into their efficiency—the Wolverines ranked among the best in the nation in both two-point offense and two-point defense. They finished the year at No. 3 in the latter category. They rarely forced turnovers, but with Dickinson patrolling the paint, opponents were often unable/unwilling to get up shots within eight feet of the hoop.
But this ranking is assuming a full year of Dickinson's dominance on offense.
He had the occasional gem over the second half of last season, most notably in the games against Ohio State (two) and Iowa, but he got sloppier with the ball, started committing more fouls and was generally more manageable for opponents.
To some extent, that was a product of teams having film on him and adjusting to his old-school style of play. Now it's time for him to adjust to those adjustments and reemerge as a star.
4. Johnny Juzang, UCLA
2020-21 Stats: 16.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 35.3 3PT
One year after serving as the ninth man in Kentucky's rotation, Johnny Juzang transferred to UCLA and became one of the most valuable players in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Perhaps there have been others, but I'm having a hard time remembering any other case of a guy going from an afterthought for one blue-blood program to the MVP of another. It's harder still to think of one who then came back for another season of college hoops, but evidently Juzang had unfinished business with the Bruins after that unforgettable First Four-to-Final Four run.
Juzang started slowly last year. He missed UCLA's first four games with a stress reaction in his foot and merely averaged 10.9 points and 2.7 rebounds through his first 10 games. But those numbers ballooned to 19.0 and 4.9, respectively, the rest of the way, including a quartet of NCAA tournament games with at least 23 points scored.
His three-point stroke (36.9 percent over the final 17 games) was solid, but it was his mid-range game that darn-near knocked Gonzaga out of the dance. I doubt he'll ever be quite the NBA scorer that Joe Johnson was, but we're going to need to start calling this man "Iso Johnny" if he continues honing that pull-up craft.
Now that he has the preseason spotlight that he probably thought he would have when he originally committed to Kentucky, let's see if Juzang (and UCLA) can live up to the hype.
3. Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
2020-21 Stats: 17.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.3 BPG
Kofi Cockburn might be the most physically imposing college basketball player since Shaquille O'Neal. There have been other challengers to that throne—most recently DeAndre Ayton—but Cockburn is a 7-foot, 285-pound block of chiseled marble.
Even in a Big Ten loaded with top-tier big men, it feels like Cockburn can go get a basket or a rebound any time he wants.
When he was a freshman, it often felt like he didn't want it, though. We've seen plenty of big men over the years kind of dial back their intensity while struggling to adjust to college refs, but that wasn't the case for Cockburn, who has only fouled out of one game in his career. He simply wasn't aggressive enough in his first season, settling for lower-percentage shots and not getting to the free-throw line as often as he should have.
But he came back in 2020-21 with a passion for dunking. His field-goal percentage spiked from 53.2 to 65.4, and his rate of free-throw attempts per 40 minutes increased by 25 percent.
It's as if someone finally told him last summer that there's nothing anyone can do to stop him.
Granted, some of that foul rate was courtesy of opponents trying to take advantage of his 55.3 percent free-throw stroke. But if he can improve from the charity stripe and play with even more fire this year, let's just say that Ayo Dosunmu's departure opened the door for Cockburn to average 24 points and 12 rebounds, if he so chooses.
2. Paolo Banchero, Duke
2020-21 Stats: Opted out of final year of high school basketball
Paolo Banchero may have taken last year off from playing hoops, but he clearly didn't skip many leg days at the gym.
The common knock on most top recruits coming out of high school is that they could afford to get stronger and pack on some mass. That won't be a complaint with Banchero, who has sprouted to 6'10", 250 pounds.
While that's not quite a Zion Williamson level of bulk, let's just say there won't be any comparisons drawn to Brandon Ingram or Jalen Johnson.
Despite boasting a current-day Anthony Davis body type (AD was relatively slim in college but is a tank now), Banchero still has a ton of "guard skills" in his tool kit. He can run the fast break. His three-point stroke is pure. And he has never been shy about passing, averaging roughly four assists per game over his final two seasons in high school.
But his bread and butter will be in the paint, where he and returning big man Mark Williams should be the most lethal one-two frontcourt punch in the country. Few teams will have two big men able to stifle this duo, which means either Duke will face a lot of zone defense or Banchero will spend a lot of time guarded by—and subsequently backing down—6'7" forwards who simply cannot handle his strength.
At some point in the next few months, we're going to have a fun time debating whether Mike Krzyzewski's greatest one-and-done freshman phenom was this final one.
1. Drew Timme, Gonzaga
2020-21 Stats: 19.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.3 APG
Now that we're into the NIL era of college athletics, I wonder how much money Drew Timme will make off his "Drew Manchu," which might be the most marketable facial hair in basketball outside James Harden's beard.
Post-dunk mustache salutes aside, Timme was easily one of the country's best players last season.
Being surrounded by Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi (who are now all gone) didn't hurt, but it's equally certain that his presence in the paint helped pave the way for those guys to approach their ceilings. The combination of his mid-range jumper, footwork and willingness to make the extra pass was such a critical part of Gonzaga's having one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball history.
And now that the Zags are adding a 7-footer who is lethal from three-point range (Chet Holmgren), it's probably going to be even harder to guard Timme—especially if he embraces the NBA mold for big men and starts flashing more three-point range.
Timme shot 6-of-21 from deep last year, so he does have that ability. It just wasn't a play they called very often, considering it wasn't a high-percentage shot, it took their best offensive rebounder out of position and it simply wasn't necessary when so many other things worked.
But he somewhat surprisingly came back for one more year to better prepare for the pros, and Gonzaga has a lot of three-point attempts from last season that it needs to replace. Don't be surprised if he tees up at least a trio of three-point attempts in the season opener for what would be the first time in his career, but do be surprised if Timme isn't an All-American at the end of the year.