During the 2020-21 men's college basketball season, Baylor and Gonzaga each produced arguably the best season in program history, respectively, as the Bears won their first-ever national title after earning their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga, meanwhile, took an undefeated record into the national championship game, with almost all of its 31 wins coming by double digits.
We could see other programs produce historically great teams during the 2021-22 men's basketball season, thanks to the right combination of returning experience, additional talent infused through freshman enrollees or transfers and savvy coaching.
I used final metrics and rankings from the 2020-21 season, plus preseason forecasts for the 2021-22 season, to identify schools that could have an all-time great campaign. We'll call this the "best team since..." power rankings. They're not a measure of whether Team A is better than Team B, but it's relative for each school, such that if Team A could have its best team in 40 years, it would be listed ahead of Team B if Team B is projected to have its best team in 15 years.
We're looking for schools that have gone years, if not decades, since the last time they had a team that could be as good as their 2021-22 squad potentially projects to be. This isn't a comprehensive list of all 357 Division I teams, but rather an analysis of some of the notable programs and potential March Madness contenders that could have their best team in quite some time.
Could be the best team since... 1969-70
Last season, the Bonnies went 16-5 in an abbreviated season, finishing atop the A-10 regular season standings, winning the conference tournament and earning a program-best No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. St. Bonaventure hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since the 1970 NCAA tournament — before the teams in the tournament were even seeded — when it advanced to the national semifinals. The Bonnies went 25-3 that season, with two of their three losses coming in the Final Four and in the now-defunct third-place game.
St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt's first season with the school was the 2007-08 campaign, when the Bonnies won eight games to bring their rolling four-year total to 25 wins. Now they can realistically strive to win that many next season as all five starters last season were juniors or redshirt juniors. Each of them averaged between 10 and 15 points per game, which means St. Bonaventure could be an experienced and balanced team next year in the A-10. The Bonnies also added to their roster Wake Forest transfer Quadry Adams.
Could be the best team since... 2004-05
Milwaukee has previously employed talented head coaches, such as Bo Ryan (364-130 at Wisconsin) and Bruce Pearl (145-61 at Tennessee, now 138-92 at Auburn), and it just so happens that its current head coach, Pat Baldwin is the father of one of the most talented freshmen in the country, Patrick Baldwin Jr.
Baldwin and Baldwin, father and son, will team up starting this fall for the Panthers, where the younger Baldwin could be the most talented player the program has ever seen, starting from the moment he steps foot on campus.
Milwaukee has made the NCAA tournament four times, including three times in a four-year span from 2003 to 2006, which peaked with a Sweet 16 appearance as a No. 12 seed under Pearl in 2005. That team went 26-6 — the program's most wins in a season at the DI level and its second-fewest losses.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. also received scholarship offers from the likes of Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA, so it's extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for a player of his caliber to enroll in the Horizon League. If he performs up to his billing, then Milwaukee could have its best time since Bruce Pearl was roaming the sideline for the Panthers.
Could be the best team since... 2007-08
UCLA has been riding high since the 2021 NCAA tournament, where it became just the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Now, the Bruins will likely enter the 2021-22 season as a top-five team in most polls and rankings, and they could receive consideration to be the preseason No. 1 team.
They'll return their core that led them to the national semifinals, as their most significant loss from last season's roster was Chris Smith, who played just eight games before suffering a season-ending injury. Johnny Juzang, who led the NCAA tournament in scoring with 137 points, is the headliner for UCLA next season after considering the NBA draft, and he'll be joined by key returnees Jaime Jaquez (12.3 ppg), Tyger Campbell (10.4 ppg), Jules Bernard (10.3 ppg) and Cody Riley (10.0 ppg). It's a balanced and experienced bunch.
UCLA also enrolled 6-8 forward Peyton Watson, who projects to be among the most talented freshmen in the country this season. Given the Bruins' Final Four run last season (and near upset of then-undefeated Gonzaga), combined with their returning production, UCLA will likely receive its highest preseason AP ranking since the fall of 2008, when it was preseason No. 4. That's because the Bruins were coming off of a season in which they went 35-4, earned a No. 1 seed and made the Final Four after starting the season at No. 2 in the AP poll.
UCLA lived up to its preseason expectations in 2007-08. If UCLA can do the same this season, it'll be the program's best team since then.
Could be the best team since... 2007-08
There are a lot of variables in play at Texas: a first-year head coach; a roster that returns two of its top three scorers while integrating multiple transfers who averaged more than 15 points per game at their respective schools last season; the loss of three players who were selected in the 2021 NBA Draft; a season-ending upset at the hands of No. 14 Abilene Christian in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
But there's enough talent on the floor (namely Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey, Marcus Carr, Timmy Allen, Tre Mitchell) and on the sideline (coach Chris Beard and his new staff) that if the 2021-22 edition of the Longhorns meshes well, they could be pretty darn good.
For as big of a brand as Texas is, the school's men's basketball history leaves more to be desired (Texas made the NCAA tournament only eight times in the first 50 years of the tournament's history, for example.). Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in the 1985 season, Texas has advanced past the Sweet 16 on only four occasions, the last coming in the 2008 season, when the No. 2-seeded Longhorns went 31-7 and lost to eventual national runner-up Memphis in the Elite Eight.
Texas was in the crowded second tier of the Big 12 last season, behind national champion Baylor, and the Longhorns project to contend for the conference crown in 2022, along with Baylor and Kansas.
Could be the best team since... 2008-09
Memphis has been steady under the tutelage of program alumnus Penny Hardaway, who projects to have a roster that's capable of sending the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure, which is entering its fourth year.
Memphis recently landed a commitment from talented center Jalen Duren, who reclassified to the 2021 recruiting class in order to play for the Tigers next season. He'll join returners such as Landers Nolley II (13.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg), DeAndre Williams (11.7 ppg and 5.8 rpg), Lester Quinones (9.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg) and Alex Lomax (6.0 ppg and 4.2 apg), along with transfers Chandler Lawson (4.4 ppg at Oregon) and Earl Timberlake (9.3 ppg at Miami).
The Tigers will have to prove their capable of making the NCAA tournament, let alone contending for a top-four seed or winning multiple games once they're there, but they won the NIT last season (which is often a precursor to greater success in the NCAA tournament) and they had the most efficient defense in the country, per kenpom.com. They've won between 20 and 22 games in each of Hardaway's three seasons as head coach, and 10 or 11 AAC games in the regular season in each season, so now if the additions of Duren and the team's incoming transfers can improve the talent level, Memphis could potentially break through not only make the NCAA tournament, but have an extended stay.
The last time the Tigers did that was in 2009, when a John Calipari-coached Memphis team went 33-4, earned a No. 2 seed and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Could be the best team since... 2012-13
Colorado State has just 10 NCAA tournament appearances and four tournament wins in its history, and its 2021-22 squad could prove to be one of its best in program history. In a shortened season, the Rams went 20-8 (14-4 Mountain West), finishing just a half-game behind San Diego State in the regular season standings and falling in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Coach Niko Medved has led Colorado State to 20 wins in each of the last two seasons and the Rams will return their top seven scorers from last season, led by David Roddy (15.9 ppg) and Isaiah Stevens (15.3 ppg).
While Colorado State had a very good team in the not-too-distant past — the 2012-13 Rams went 26-9, earned a No. 8 seed and won a game in the NCAA tournament after cracking the AP Top 25 during the season — this could potentially be their best team since. Before the '13 season, Colorado State hadn't been ranked in the AP poll since the 1954 season and it hadn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1989, so a strong 2022 season could still resonate strongly for the Rams and their fan base, historically speaking.