by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

College hoops have arrived and as we like to do every November is provide a quick glimpse at how we see the "top of country" shaping up with our early Top 25. Remember, our unique TGS Hoops publication has been up and running since mid-October with nightly NBA, and now college, coverage, and featured selections available online  Monday thru Saturday at 1215 PM PST on our Basketball LTS!  

1-GONZAGA... No longer going out on such a limb with these sort of predictions for the Zags, with two final-game appearances in four years.  It stung a bit more last April when Baylor ended the unbeaten dream in Indianapolis, and that was before Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert both departed for the NBA.  But fear not for Mark Few, who landed arguably the nation’s top recruit in 7-foot unicorn Chet Holmgren, plus another 5-star recruit, 6-4 G Hunter Sallis, perhaps this season’s Suggs.  Important, too, are holdovers 6-10 Drew Timme, who provides a scoring dimension in the post, and PG Andrew Nembhard, who can show the ropes to another super frosh, PG Nolan Hickman.  There are the usual high-profile non-league challenges (starting with Texas),  but another likely unblemished WCC run puts the Zags in the best position for the number one overall seed into the Dance.

2-TEXAS... We have seen what Chris Beard can do before at Texas Tech...and Little Rock before that. The sky is really the limit, however, at Texas, which undershot expectations during the era of Shaka Smart (who has moved to the less-demanding climes of Marquette). Beard is very likely the winner of the transfer portal, with no fewer than five of those (ex-Minnesota G Marcus Carr, ex-Utah wing Timmy Allen, ex-UMass C Tre Mitchell, ex-Vandy PF Dylan Disu, and ex-Creighton PF Christian Bishop) providing a new and experienced corps for Beard, who never had this much to work with in Lubbock. Along with experience on the perimeter with Gs like the inspirational story of Andrew Jones, plus sr. Courtney Ramey, the pieces are in place for a deep March run.

3-UCLA... The Big Dance seemed a renaissance of sorts for the Bruins, who made the Final Four for the first time since the Ben Howland era and did so against all expectations, the rare Bruins team from recent generations to punch above its weight. Which is what happens with a buy-in from a blue-chip roster to Mick Cronin’s “play defense and rebound or you sit” mantra. It all came together in the Dance and most of the tourney stars are back in the fold, with explosive wings Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez, Jr. staying out of the NBA draft, meaning practically everyone returns for Cronin, augmented by 6-10 Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson and super 6-8 frosh Peyton Watson, both via the same nearby Long Beach Poly program. Though keep an eye on the early knee injury to bullish 6-9 Cody Riley, who had matured into an interior force by last April.

4-KANSAS... Everyone seems to be loving the Jayhawks, who it seems should have more to show from the Bill Self era than just one national title. But a first Final Four in four years looks a possibility after G Ochal Agbaji and F Jalen Wilson pulled their names from the NBA draft, and one of the top Gs in the transfer portal, Arizona State’s Remy Martin, landed at the Phog. Drake transfer G Jospeh Yesefu also comes to Lawrence via the portal, perhaps given Self as much depth and firepower along the perimeter as any coach in the country. Meanwhile, 6-10 David McCormack was developing into a force down the stretch last season, and frontline depth perhaps jumps to the elite level if 6-9 wild card PF Cam Martin can be anywhere near as productive as he was at D-II Missouri Southern, where he scored 25 ppg.

5-DUKE... It’s the last trip around the track for Coach K, who will be handing the reins to asst. Jon Scheyer after the campaign. So it will seem a bit like a season-long testimonial for Blue Devils games. But Krzyzewski might have one last ace up his sleeve in wondrous 6-10 frosh Paolo Banchero, who wowed ‘em in the opener vs. Kentucky and looks the headliner of another star-studded newcomer class in Durham also featuring F AJ Griffin, plus two more diaper-dandies in Gs Trevor Keels and Jaylon Blakes. Coach K has shown a willingness to go with his frosh in recent years and get them up mto speed quickly, and might well do that with the current group, too, especially with some key returnees like 6-5 wing Wendell Moore, Jr. & PG Jeremy Roach still in the fold to offer support. Banchero might even prove more of a force than Zion Williamson from the last super-studded Coach K frosh class a few years ago..

6-MICHIGAN... A lot of people were expecting the Wolverines to make the Final Four last April and were a bit surprised that Michigan was dumped in the Elite 8 by an upstart UCLA. But Juwan Howard’s two seasons in Ann Arbor have been something of a howling success and no reason that the Wolverines can’t be in the national mix again, even if there’s no Wagner on the roster for the first time ina few years (Franz now off to the NBA to join brother Moe). Keeping 7-1 C Hunter Dickinson in the fold for one more year before he decides to jump to the NBA was the biggest development of the offseason for Howard, providing the anchor in which a roster filled with blue-chip frosh will likely appreciate.

7-VILLANOVA... The Wildcats seem to be the consensus pick in the Big East, though Jay Wright has some reloading to do after underrated F Jeremiah Robinson-Earl moved to the NBA. But PG Collin Gillespie personifies the “Villanova guard” and will be back for one more spin after a knee injury sidelined him late last season, providing the necessary on-court leadership that can allow other potential honors candidates such as Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, and Caleb Daniels to continue their maturation. Don’t forget that Wright has won a couple of national titles within the past five years and has waved the magic wand in March before.

8-AUBURN... This has the look of a Bruce Pearl special, as long as star G Allan Flanigan can return from Achilles tendon surgery in September. The target date is around the holidays, and if Flanigan comes back at 100%, then the Tigers become extremely dangerous. Especially if 6-9 super frosh Jabari Smith, Jr. Is as good as advertised. The potential frontline could be devastating with North Carolina transfer C Walker Kessler now in the fold, giving Pearl more size than which he is usually accustomed. The portal also delivered a diverse set of guards--G K.D. Johnson from Georgia, Wendell Green, Jr. from Eastern Kentucky, and Zav Jasper via College of Charleston–all adding unique assets to the mix. Flanigan’s healthy return, however, will be the key to a big season.

9-ALABAMA...They’re still a bit chuffed in Tuscaloosa that they couldn’t get past UCLA in the Sweet 16, but the Tide ought to have another chance at a deep run in March. Especially if blue-chip frosh G J.D. Davison, regarded as perhaps the best recruit in school history, is as good as advertised, giving Bama exception depth at the point with junior Jahvon Quinerly also still in the fold. Star jr. G Jaden Shackelford certainly looks to make amends for his poor showing in the Dance vs. the Bruins as Nate Oats gladly goes with four-guard lineups which can break opponents with withering pace (Bama was 11th in tempo last season) while imposing its will with relentless pressure on the stop end, evidence by ranking third in defensive efficiency last season. With Oats looking a home run hire from two years ago, Bama might soon be considered a basketball school, too.

10-MEMPHIS... We’re going to find out soon enough if Penny Hardaway can really coach, because his roster looks ready to leapfrog Houston and to the top of the loop. They’re hoping in the Bluff City that touted 6-10 frosh Jalen Duren makes more of an impact than the last ballyhooed big to ink with the Tigers, James Wiseman, who barely suited up a couple of years ago. But they’re not even sure in Memphis if Duren will be the headliner among the newcomers, as 6-9 frosh Emoni Bates has already been wowing ‘em in fall practice. Then there’s 6-6 Miami (Fla.) transfer Earl Timberlake, expected to be one of Jim Larranaga’s best players a season ago before injuries limited him to seven games. Former VPI transfer Landers Nolley II was also featured in the NIT. Plus, old pro Larry Brown has returned to assist Penny on the bench. A lot for play-by-play man Dave Woloshin to get excited about at FedEx Forum, we’d say.

11-ARKANSAS... No one works the transfer portal better than Eric Musselman, but even by his standards he landed quite a haul after last season. All among wings Stanley Umude (South Dakota), Au’Diese Toney (Pitt), and G Chris Lykes (Miami-Fla) were featured performers at previous stops, and all bring experience as senior transfers as well as exceptional versatility in Umude and Toney. Another senior, ex-Wichita State F Trey Wade, should allow Musselman to seamlessly play “small ball” this season with his ability to defend bigs on the stop end. Meanwhile, soph G Davonte Davis was one of the breakout stars of the Big Dance as the Hogs advanced to the Elite Eight, along with one of last year’s transfer stars, G JD Notae. Factor in ballyhooed 6-5 frosh Chance Moore, and Mus gets to prove again why he is the master at creating instant chemistry among a new cast. 12-OREGON... Dana Altman usually has his team peaking in March and last season was no exception as the Ducks revved up for a run to the Sweet 16 that no one saw coming earlier in the season. Roster losses were not unsubstantial (note how ex-Webfoot Chris Duarte is already making an impression with the NBA Pacers), but like many Pac-12 coaches, Altman has become expert at working the portal, with the likes of ex-Oklahoma DeVion Harmon, ex-Rutgers Jacob Young, and ex-Syracuse Quincy Guerrier providing many intriguing options for the new rotations in Eugene. 13-PURDUE...The Boilermakers were awfully young last season (one of the nation’s 25 youngest teams, in fact), and a more mature squad might have survived North Texas in the first round of the Dance.  But Matt Painter's Boilermakers are now a year older and (hopefully) wiser, and still have a proven inside-outside look with 6-10 Trevion Williams and 7-4 Zach Edey on the blocks and 6-4 soph G Jaden Ivey looking ready to explode upon the scene after some highlight-reel moments last term. 14-BAYLOR... Maybe we are not showing enough respect to the national champs. But Scott Drew’s 2021 powerhouse had a couple of years to ferment and losing the established perimeter trio of Davion Mitchell, Macio Teague, and Jared Butler creates some roster holes unlikely to be completely filled. Now on his third stop, ex-Georgetown and Arizona G James Akinjo can now be the star of the show. 15-HOUSTON...The gap between the Cougs and the rest of the American looks to be narrower this term (especially in regard to Memphis), with Quentin Grimes now suiting up for the New York Knicks and other key cogs like DeJon Jjarreau and Justin Gorham also gone from the program. Marcus Sasser, a 14 ppg scorer last season, likely assumes the leadership role recently held by Grimes. Unless that duty falls to 6-4 Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards, who performed with plenty of flair in Lubbock and could emerge as the “the man” for UH. Another transfer, ex-Cal State Bakersfield G Taze Moore, is likely to be plugged into a role as a featured “2" this term. A full offseason should also do wonders for 6-8 PF Fabian White, who missed much of last season while rehabbing a torn ACL. But keeping pace with Memphis will likely require both Edwards and Moore hitting the ground running.

16-TENNESSEE... Rick Barnes seems to have all of the ingredients of a team that can match the Sweet 16 run of a few years ago in Knoxville. We’re assuming that Barnes is going to be able to fix an offense that went stale down the stretch last season, promptiong an early big Dance exit vs. Oregon State, and with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to make things right. There will be some immediate pressure on ballyhooed frosh PG Kennedy Chandler, who is going to be asked to pull the strings right away, though Barnes will surround him with plenty of pieces, including ex-Auburn wing Justin Powell, while 6-9 old man John Fulkerson is still around to do the necessary dirty work on the blocks. Barnes thinks he added the shooters he needs, and the QB in Chandler to make it all work. 17-ST. BONAVENTURE...Perhaps the miracle in Olean is that HC Mark Schmidt didn’t lose any of his array of upperclassmen to the transfer portal. Instead, practically the entire team returns from last year’s Big Dance qualifier that fell to LSU in the first round. Senior-laden, with PG Kyle Lofton now a four-year starter and the linchpin of a productive perimeter also featuring fellow seniors and returning starters Jaren Holmes, Dominick Welch, and former Miami-O transfer Jalen Adaway, all double-digit scorers a season ago. What differentiates Bona, however, is a legit post presence in 6-10 Osun Osunniyi, one of the nation’s top shot blockers in recent years and the sort of at-the-rim defender unique in this perimeter-oriented league. The main worry in Olean is keeping Schmidt (with 245 wins the past 14 years) in the fold after what could be a memorable campaign. 18-USC... Andy Enfield worked the transfer market as good as anyone last season and might have hit another homer when ex-Memphis G Boogie Ellis (a San Diego product) landed at Figueroa & Jefferson and proved worth the hype when scoring 20 in his debut for the Trojans in their opening night romp past CS Northridge. The Trojans are going to face a lot tougher than the Matadors soon enough, however, and Enfield is minus some key contributors from last term’s run to the Elite 8, including 6-11 Evan Mobley, now rasing eyebrows with the NBA Cavs. But 6-11 brother Isaiah remains in the SC fold, as do several other returnees that were part fo Enfield’s rotations last season, including multi-dimensional 6-8 former Rice transfer G Drew Peterson. 19-KENTUCKY... Unless we want to totally blame last season on Covid, we can’t believe a Kentucky team could ever finish 9-16 (not even Billy Gillispie sunk to those levels), certainly not under John Calipari. For what it’s worth, Coach Cal seems to have scaled back on the all-out diaper dandy assault (though frosh G TyTy Washington appears a looming star), with new focus on established transfers like four-year Davidson starting G Kellan Grady, one of the “gets” of the portal, and Iowa sharpshooter C.J. Fredrick. They immediately add more experience by themselves than some of Cal’s recent rosters. 20-FLORIDA STATE... Leonard Hamilton might be running out of time to make a Final Four....is this the year? As usual, the Noles will feature depth, length, and athleticism, whith Hamilton hoping that Houston transfer Caleb Mills and perhaps Kentucky transfer Cam’Ron Fletcher (who did not live up to the hype in Lexington) can provide that extra bit of push that could make a difference in March (or maybe April). FSU will also win the intimidation game during the lay-up line in pre-game drills with three 7-footers on the roster!

21-SAN DIEGO STATE... Two years removed from a magical season that was denied a chance by the cancellation of the 2020 Dance to make some real noise, Brian Dutcher thinks his new Aztecs edition might be able to do much of the same, especially with Cal transfer G Matt Bradley widely considered one of the ten best additions in all of the portal. Bradley wasn’t the only add in the offseason, either, with almost 43 ppg arriving from a year ago in transfers Bradley, Chad Baker-Mazara (Duquesne), Tahirou Diabate (Portland), and Jason LeDee (TCU). 22-SYRACUSE... With Coach K hanging ‘em up at Duke after the season, how long is Jim Boeheim (now starting his 46th season at the ‘Cuse!) going to hang around? At least thru the career of son Buddy, who is a legit NBA prospect and longshot for the Wooden Award. Boeheim did lose three other DD scorers from last year’s Dance qualifier, but 6-8 frosh Benny Williams is one fo the most-touted preps to arrive at the Carrier Dome in years. Boeheim’s patented zone hasn’t been as airtight in recent seasons with the offense playing at a faster pace, and we’ve even seen some man-to-man sightings from the ‘Cuse lately. But with a coach who has 1083 wins in his career, dismiss the Orange at your own peril.  23-ILLINOIS... Brad Underwood has proven a great fit in his dream job at Champaign-Urbana, and fortunately had no nightmares in the offseason about 7-foot Kofi Cockburn leaving early for the NBA. Cockburn didn’t and now the Illini have perhaps the best anchor in the pivot of all Big Ten teams. Replacing do-everything Ayo Dosunmu might not be easy, but the experienced backcourt combo of Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo, plus Cockburn, should make the Illini a force to reckon with in the Big Ten. 24-MICHIGAN STATE...Tom Izzo teams are always a scary March proposition, even if Sparty wasn’t last season in a rare chemistry-poor edition that got KO’d by UCLA in the First Four. Now, however, Izzo might have some answers at the point with Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker and touted frosh Jaden Adkins, while holdovers Joey Hauser and Gabe Brown can’t be blamed for the underachieving of last year’s squad. Playing Kansas tough in the opener at MSG suggests Izzo will likely be hanging around in March once again. 25-MARYLAND... Looking for specific needs in the transfer portal on the blocks and another scorer on the perimeter, Mark Turgeon hit the daily double with ex-Georgetown 6-11 Qudus Wahab, one of the top bigs in the portal, and Rhode Island G Fatts Russell, a three-year starter for the Rams who scored nearly 19 ppg two years ago. Wahab’s presence allows Turgeon to move 6-7 Donta Scott out of the post and to his more comfy PF, while early outings suggest Russell and high-scoring 6-5 G Eric Ayala (15 ppg LY) already have proper chemistry on the perimeter.

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