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Mike Lopresti | | November 1, 2021

Heartbreak, history and hope: The case for the top 11 men's basketball title contenders

Andy Katz breaks down the 20 best non-conference games this season

Needing a prediction for the college basketball national champion, five months before they cut down the nets in New Orleans? This might help:

Here are the top 11 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll. The eventual winner appeared on that list in 12 of the past 14 seasons, so it’s been a most reliable omen. (Not always, however. Title-bound Connecticut was 38th in the voting in the 2010-11 season, the same neighborhood as Richmond and Murray State). Funny thing about this year’s 11 is how many of them have recent scores to settle with March and early April.

No. 1 Gonzaga

When last seen, the Zags’ unbeaten season was crashing to Earth against Baylor in Indianapolis. That makes two championship game defeats in five years for Gonzaga, coming in different flavors — trailing the Bears for a good 33 seconds into last year's game, leading North Carolina with 110 seconds left in 2017. While falling short on that stage should never be considered a defect — there are 350-odd teams every spring who would love the chance to lose the title game — it can gnaw at a program.

This is the 96th consecutive week the Zags have been in the AP poll, the longest streak in the nation. Next is Villanova at 41. The Zags have been ranked No. 1 in six of the past 10 seasons, owned their league, piled up individual awards and in general, achieved everything a program could dream. Except. One. Thing.

Until that happens, Mark Few’s middle name is Most Accomplished Active Coach Without A Championship. Or at least tied with Bob Huggins.

No. 2 UCLA

Wait a second. West Coast teams at Nos. 1-2 in the rankings? If that seems rather odd, consider the last time it happened in a preseason AP poll was 31 years ago. A Bruins title would end all manners of frustrating streaks; it’s been 25 years since a West Coast champion, while UCLA’s 11th and most recent crown was back in 1995. The glorious past is never far away for the Bruins. “We have the greatest tradition in the history of our game,” coach Mick Cronin said recently. “We don’t play just for us, we play for Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Reggie (Miller), Baron (Davis), Russell (Westbrook) . . . “ But their most recent Final Four came with genuine pain because, yeah, that Jalen Suggs Hail Mary did bank in. The 93-90 overtime loss to Gonzaga in April gave UCLA the very bittersweet taste of being on the wrong end of an epic, and presented a cause for the 2021-22 season.

“We’ve got the chance to do something so special,” returning star Johnny Juzang said.

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No. 3 Kansas

What do you think, a preseason bonfire so the Jayhawks can burn all known copies of the game tape of that 85-51 mashing by USC in the second round last March? Kansas took the worst NCAA tournament margin of defeat in school history and more than doubled it. The Jayhawks will want to atone, of course. Bill Self has presided over a long-standing Big 12 juggernaut at Kansas, but it’s now been 15 years since his one title, so the chase for No. 2 has gone on a while.

The burden of expectation in Lawrence comes with the jersey, so the lofty preseason ranking is no cause for fuss. “I would rather be picked high than not picked high,” Self said. “But the reality of it is, right now it’s a coin flip. We probably look as good as anybody on paper because we’ve returned guys where most of the other programs don’t return as many guys. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

“I think when you play at Kansas, you coach in this league, pressure is something that is usually good. If you can’t deal with that type of pressure, then you’re probably not going to be able to deal with real pressure later on.”

No. 4 Villanova

All together now, you Big East members . . . Thank goodness for Villanova. The league was reborn in 2013 and since then, only the Wildcats have carried the Big East banner so far as the Final Four and championship game trophy podium. Xavier is the only other lodge brother to get to an Elite Eight. To keep the conference relevant in national conversation, Villanova has had to do the heavy lifting.

Still, the Wildcats know how fickle March can be. In the past eight tournaments, Villanova famously won two national championships, and went 6-6 in the other six.

No. 5 Texas

No, that wasn’t a bad Longhorns dream. They really did lose to Abilene Christian in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament. Even Bevo was shocked. It continued an unfulfilling March record for Texas, which might be the aristocracy of its vast state but has been to one Final Four in 74 years (go down Interstate 10 a bit, and Houston has been to six).

Texas Tech transplant Chris Beard has brought in a battalion of newcomers to mix with capable veterans, intending to do something about that. But any applause in November in his world is to be largely ignored. “We spend zero time talking about preseason rankings and things like that,” he said. “I think what matters most is the postseason rankings.

“If you’re ever going to win the fight, you’ve got to be in the fight. I think the first year it’s always a challenge to be in the fight. I’m confident that we will be.”

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No. 6 Michigan

Happy anniversary, Fab Five. Thirty years ago, they showed up in Ann Arbor, and Wolverine basketball — not to mention the fashionable length of playing shorts — were never the same again. Juwan Howard, first of the Fabs to sign his letter of intent way back when, coached Michigan close enough to the Final Four last March to shake hands with it. If only the Wolverines could have found some more offense in the 51-49 regional title game loss to UCLA. To give up only 51 points in a regional title game and still have to go home can be a tad maddening.

It’d be a fun full-circle to complete for the tradition-minded Howard, leading Michigan to the Final Four three decades after he helped get the Wolverines there as a player. “The Michigan block M never gets old to all of us,” he said.

No. 7 Purdue

Remember the Boilermakers’ hasty exit in the 2021 NCAA tournament? In overtime to North Texas. And 2019? In overtime to Virginia. In 2015 and ’16? Two more OT off-ramps. There seems to be a trend here. Besides that, it has now been 42 long years since Purdue advanced to the Final Four, an amazing dry spell for a program that has been a constant force in the Big Ten.

Matt Painter has a veteran and proficient roster with lots of size and is now appealing to a higher authority for the last push.

“You remember the losses more than you remember the wins. That’s terrible. We should cherish quality wins more than remember the tough losses,” he said. “I’m a believer in the basketball gods. You play the game the right way, you carry yourself the right way, when things maybe go against you you’ve got some positive things coming your way. But you have to help yourself.”

No. 8 Baylor

A lot of important names are missing from last April’s championship run, including four starters who scored 62 of the 86 points in the title game against Gonzaga. History confirms the difficulty of the challenge ahead. Only one team in 30 years has managed a repeat — Florida in 2006-07, and the Gators had the same starting lineup both years. But clearly, here’s a program that knows how to win. “We know it’s going to be transition this year because we had basically for the last two years the same team,” coach Scott Drew said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve had to go over that we didn’t have to go over last year.”

No. 9 Duke and No. 10 Kentucky

This time a year ago, nobody could've predicted Oral Roberts would make the Sweet 16 while Duke and Kentucky were not even in the tournament . The fact that the Blue Devils and Wildcats missed the field once was shocking, to imagine it two years in a row is unthinkable.

Both hallowed names have become testaments to how tricky the March road can be, even for the programs in limos. Despite both their deep one-and-done talent pools, neither has made it to the Final Four since 2015.

Kentucky will be marking the 10th anniversary of its last championship. That’s one decade in most places, but an eternity in Big Blue Nation. But before thinking about One Shining Moment, John Calipari just wants to make sure that 9-16 record was a freak of nature. It has been 11 months since Kentucky took the court with a winning record. “I think this year he’s coming in with a different energy,” sophomore Lance Ware said. “Obviously everyone knows about last year. When something doesn’t go as planned, you have to adapt and fix, so seeing him come in with different energy, different drills and stuff like that, it’s great to see that he has a swag about him.”

Meanwhile, a Duke title would be the natural storybook happy ending to the Mike Krzyzewski Age. “We really know we have a mission to accomplish,” Wendell Moore said. The subject of the Coach K Farewell Tour will have a lot of foot traffic all season, even if the man himself has already grown weary of the topic. “You all don’t need to keep reminding me,” Krzyzewski said at one preseason press conference. “I’m 74 and I still have a memory, all right? I’m good.”

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No. 11 Illinois

Loyola Chicago has won a national championship (1963) and also played in a recent Final Four (2018). Down state, the Illini have done neither. Not only that, they were summarily and decisively evicted from last spring’s tournament by the Ramblers, Sister Jean and all. Not only that, Illinois owns only two victories in the past nine NCAA tournaments. Kofi Cockburn, who waited on the NBA and is on the early ballot for national player of the year candidates, could earn quite a legacy by leading a long March run.

So it begins soon. Something Krzyzewski said about the plans for his last ride: “Just go for it, and let’s see what the hell happens.”

Just as they all will, starting Nov. 9.

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