A Final Four picks story? Oh, now you know we’re closing in on the start of the season.
It’s time to examine who we like to not only be the really good teams in the sport, but specifically the squads we’re all-in on to make the 2021 Final Four — and to win it all in Indianapolis next year.
Matt Norlander, Gary Parrish, Kyle Boone, David Cobb and Jerry Palm have all submitted their picks for champ and Final Four attendees. As expected we have some teams getting multiple votes. But we’ve also got some lone-wolf submissions; those picks are explained by each expert below.
Though the 2020-21 college hoops season is destined to have a rolling wave of game postponements and cancellations, at least we are going to have a season. College hoops was canceled on March 12. This is the longest offseason not just of any major American sport in 2020, it’s the longest offseason (258 days) in the history of modern college basketball. So let’s embrace and celebrate the fact we finally have college hoops again.
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The season’s going to be bumpy, that’s assured. It’ll be unique, frustrating, thrilling, but ultimately satisfying on some level because we will get games and we WILL have a 2021 NCAA Tournament. When we get to the tournament, here’s our forecast on the teams most likely to make the Final Four and cut down the nets.
National champion predictions
Baylor: The Bears are a preseason top-two team with a preseason top-two player in America — Jared Butler — leading the path forward. And if that’s not good enough evidence as to why Baylor shouldn’t be considered a title contender, consider that the nuts and bolts of this Bears team won 26 games last season and they bring back Butler, defensive stalwart Mark Vital, and two of the most competitive and fiery guards in the country in MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. How Scott Drew and Co. replace Freddie Gillespie’s two-way impact is the big question here, but if you’ve got a backcourt this deep and this loaded, it’s a starting point most college coaches would dream about to charter a path to a national championship. — Kyle Boone (Also selected by Jerry Palm and David Cobb)
Gonzaga: The coronavirus is going to ravage this college basketball season, but we will have a season. Gonzaga is my pick to win the national championship because it’s set up to weave through the inevitable postponements and cancellations as well as any other team. The Bulldogs have only 16 league games, so its padded nonconference schedule might actually help its case to be a No. 1 seed more than any other team vying for top-tier status in March. Mark Few has scheduled up in the nonconference, he has the best collection of scorers in college basketball and brings in the highest-ranked recruit in school history (Jalen Suggs). Corey Kispert (preseason All-American) and Joel Ayayi will flank Suggs, plus Drew Timme is a year away from being a preseason A-A pick. Gonzaga’s also going to be better on defense (ranked 43rd last season), with an array of tremendous guards. This can be Mark Few’s grand season. He’s made a title game already (2017) and now has all the pieces to make college hoops history. — Matt Norlander (also selected by Gary Parrish)
Final Four predictions
Illinois: This one feels right. Illinois is no longer dormant — it’s relevant. It has one of the five best players in college basketball, Ayo Dosunmu, who won’t have the task of carrying this team. Brad Underwood’s got a viable big in Kofi Cockburn, a trusted vet in Trent Frazier and a promising freshman in Adam Miller. Plus, we can’t forget about Giorgi Bezhanishvili! That’s probably close to 60 points per game alone right there. The only question for me is 3-point shooting and how often and successful the Illini will be there. But I also like to take a few chances and spruce up my Final Four picks. The Big Ten seems too good to not send a team to the national semifinals. Illinois sizes up as the best team in that conference, so we ride with the Illini. — MN
Villanova: The Wildcats are returning everybody except Saddiq Bey from a team that won seven of its final eight games, finished 24-7 and shared the Big East regular-season title with Seton Hall and Creighton. So, sure, Villanova will miss its leading scorer who doubles as a projected first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. But there’s still enough quality pieces in place — most notably All-America candidates Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl — to keep the Wildcats atop the Big East. And if things break just right, Jay Wright, the future Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer, could become, in early April, just the seventh coach in Division I men’s basketball history to win at least three national championships. — GP
Virginia: Had the No. 1 defense in America last season; there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue in 2020-21. Tony Bennett brings in senior sharpshooter Sam Hauser, who sat last season after transferring from Marquette, and will be expected to be the newcomer of the year in the ACC. The Wahoos have championship-caliber experience thanks to Kiheki Clark and Jay Huff still being on this roster. This is the best team in the ACC. Best defense, best starting five, and just maybe the best coach in the conference at this point, all things considered. — MN
Wisconsin: The Badgers return their top five scorers from a team that won its final eight games last season. But Iowa and Illinois have a ton of quality experience back, too. So what separates the Badgers from others in the Big Ten in terms of the potential to make a Final Four run? Defense does. While Iowa may have enough firepower to score its way to the Big Ten regular season crown, Wisconsin is projected by KenPom to have the nation’s No. 2 defense. History shows that an elite defense is more likely to take you further in March than a great offense, and defense is the reason why Wisconsin is a solid pick to be a tough out in the postseason. — DC
Kentucky: Picking Kentucky for the Final Four is admittedly a bit of a flier, but only a bit. As always, this will be a very talented team and maybe more than most years, reliant on freshmen. However, the Wildcats do have the top-ranked recruiting class, led by potential all-American BJ Boston. Nobody handles young and talented better than John Calipari and they are under the radar at the moment, so the heat on this young team won’t be as intense early. — JP
Houston: It’s impossible to gloss over the magnitude of losing Nate Hinton for Houston. But it’s just as impossible to ignore just how much talent Kelvin Sampson still has returning despite Hinton’s departure. Four of the team’s top six scorers from last season are returning for another go-round, including rising sophomore superstar Caleb Mills and former McDonald’s All-American Quentin Grimes, making up what looks to be the AAC’s most talented backcourt. Both Mills and Grimes have room to grow, too, and a leap in production and experience likely means this Cougars team — which won a share of the league last season — still has another level it can go to. That level could be the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1984. — KB
Oregon: Much of this pick is based on an assumption that St. John’s transfer LJ Figueroa will receive an eligibility waiver at some point that allows him to play this season. Figueroa led St. John’s in scoring last season and at 6-foot-6 is an athletic, versatile defender. Though Pac-12 Player of the Year Payton Pritchard has graduated, the Ducks still have solid scoring from their backcourt in Chris Duarte and Will Richardson and have some potential breakout stars in the front court with former top-100 prospects N’Faly Dante and Chandler Lawson. If Figueroa gets cleared, Oregon will have the talent to make its second Final Four appearance in five years. — DC
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