It really does feel strange to say, but college hoops is... BACK TONIGHT, PEOPLE!
That's right, it's been since April since we last got an on the court product, which was followed by six months of transfer, NBA Draft decision, extra year of eligibility and reclassification insanity.
But tonight, it all begins again, and with it, it's time to give you our preview - here are my Final Four and national title picks. Plus, my pick for Player of the Year, as well as some surprise teams.
UConn: So first off, let me say this: This is not a homer pick. This is not because I'm a UConn alum. I truly believe that, despite being ranked somewhere on the fringes of the Top 25 to start the season, when it ends, UConn will have it's sixth Final Four trip in school history and first since Shabazz Napier led them to a title.
Let me explain why, but before I do, let me say this: I don't have many gifts in life. I'm not particularly tall, wasn't a great athlete, am not very good looking. But one thing I have an insane ability to do is project teams that are off the radar in the college basketball preseason, that turn into really, really good teams that year.
In 2018, I picked Xavier to go to the Final Four in the preseason - they didn't, but ended up with the only No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in school history that year. In 2019, I was the only media member anywhere who picked Auburn to go to the Final Four in the preseason - they made the first Final Four in school history that year. In 2020, I was the only national media member to pick Baylor to make the Final Four in the preseason - they won 20+ games in a row, and were headed for a No. 1 seed before the tournament was ultimately cancelled (they of course won it that year).
And a lot of the traits that I saw in those teams when I picked them, I also see in UConn: Mainly a team that was really good last year but not great, and returns mostly intact.
I say "mostly" because obviously UConn is missing one big piece: James Bouknight, a lottery pick who is now with the Charlotte Hornets. But here's the thing, even though they lost him, remember, he got hurt in the middle of the season last year and missed eight games with injury. And while UConn struggled without him, the crazy part is, they were playing some of their best basketball before he came back.
Everyone's roles had changed, everyone stepped up. So it's not like this team isn't used to, or comfortable playing without him. And all those guys are back.
The star here is Tyrese Martin, who averaged 10.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, while Adama Sanogo is an emerging big man down low that's a former four-star recruit. RJ Cole will take the reigns at point guard, although Martin will help him as well, and Akok Akok is returning from injury.
It's also worth noting that UConn is one of the schools that benefitted most from having the Covid waiver come into play, as two key pieces elected to use their extra year of eligibility and stay in Storrs. Isaiah Whaley is an underappreciated, do it all glue guy who averaged eight and six last year, and Tyler Polley is a deadly three-point shooter, who averaged 38+ percent from behind the arc in each of his first three years, before struggling while returning from injury last year.
To be clear, I'm not saying that UConn team is the best in the Big East (that's Villanova). And I'm not saying they're going to steamroll to a No. 1 seed, because I don't believe they will.
But there will be few teams as experienced playing together by the time March rolls around, and it will lead them to the Final Four in April.
UCLA: While UConn seems a little bit bizarre, UCLA is a bit more obvious and needs not nearly as much explanation.
But before we get to that explanation, let me first answer what you're already thinking: Yes, I'm aware that they were on a four-game losing streak before their NCAA Tournament run last year. And I don't really care. You know why? Because the team lost its best player (Chris Smith) to a season-ending injury in the middle of the year and needed time to adjust. And because the four teams they lost to prior to the NCAA Tournament were all REALLY good. They lost to three teams who made the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight (USC, Oregon, Oregon State) and a fourth who made the tournament (Colorado).
So save me the "they weren't very good before the tournament" takes.
Instead, let's focus on this: They legitimately return every single player from a Final Four team! And this wasn't some plucky George Mason type crew - they have three guys (Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jacquez and freshman Peyton Watson) who could be first round picks next year, and the most important thing in college basketball: A veteran point guard in Tyger Campbell.
Most importantly, this team basically had one big hole coming out of last year, needing a back-up big man, and got that in the portal with the arrival of Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson.
But again, they literally have every single player off a Final Four team back. What else do I really even need to say?
Texas: I've said this about Chris Beard since the day he took the Texas job and will keep saying it: He wouldn't have left Texas Tech - a place where he was one defensive stop from winning a national championship = unless it was for a place where he believed he could compete for national titles every year.
And while you might not see Texas at that kind of place, Beard does. And he got busy building it up as such this year.
First off, Beard went absolutely crazy in the portal, signing six guys total including five who averaged double-figures at their previous school. That includes Marcus Carr, an All-Big Ten guard at Minnesota last year, and Timmy Allen, an All-Pac-12 wing at Utah. In the frontcourt he snagged Christian Bishop, who started for Creighton's Sweet 16 squad last year, Tre Mitchell, a former Top 100 recruit, who averaged 18 and eight at UMass and Dylan Disu, who was the SEC's leading rebounder a year ago, averaging 15 and nine at Vanderbilt. Oh, and there's Devin Askew, a former Top 40 guard who is like the Longhorns' ninth man.
Did I mention that they also return their top two scorers off a team that was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones?
With that said the biggest question all off-season has been if Texas actually has too much talent - a question I asked Carr when he was on the Aaron Torres Pod a few weeks ago. I thought he gave a good answer (you can listen below) about everyone knowing what they signed up for when they came to Texas, and willing to sacrifice stats for the good of the team.
Whether that's true or not, remains to be seen. What is indisputable though is this: Chris Beard is a coach who has made two Elite Eight's and a national title game in just five years as a Power 6 head coach.
And this is indisputably his most talented team
Kansas: ROCKKKKKK CHALKKKKK JAYHAWWWWWK K-UUUUUUUUU!!!!!!
Sorry, had to get that out of my system for the first time this year. But let me say this: As critical as I've been of Bill Self, the man is a coaching savant. You don't win as many games, in as good of a league as the Big 12 if you're not an OG on gameday. And Bill Self is that.
What is is also about Self, is that his best teams have been ones with veterans and experience and which relied on players who'd been in his system for years. The 2008 national title team, 2012 Final Four team, and 2020 team that would've entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed mostly coming to mind. That 2020 team by the way, was led by Udoka Azibuke, a fringe first rounder and Devon Dotson, a second rounder who is now in the G-League.
So why do I bring it up: This Kansas team fits that bill (no pun intended) to a tee a. They return four of their top five scorers, including wing Ochai Agbagi, who has gotten better every year, and can play himself into the National Player of the Year conversation with a big season. David McCormack is a rock down who emerged late in the season, and Jalen Wilson - who will be suspended to start the season - averaged double figures as well.
Yes, there are concerns at point guard, where Remy Martin is a total wild card, who averaged 19 a game, each of the last two seasons, but also plays completely out of control at times. But I trust Bill Self to get all the bad habits out of him, and get him playing well by March.
National Title Game: Kansas over Texas
If this holds to fruition (and I said it, so of course it will) this could be the fourth different meeting between Kansas and Texas this season, and - depending on what happens in the off-season, maybe their last as Big 12 foes - and in it, I have Kansas winning it all.
Again, this KU squad is just tough and battle-tested to me, and has really none of the questions I have about other teams.
The Jayhawks might not be the most talented squad on paper coming into the season, but they will win it all come March.
National Player of the Year: Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
First off, I have Hunter Dickinson on today's Aaron Torres Pod, and you can listen to it here. I told him he was my National Player of the Year, and he seemed about as excited as a kid is when you tell them they're going to the dentist tomorrow, but really that's besides the point.
Anyway, back to Dickinson, who I feel like is somehow completely underrated coming into the year. I mean, how often does a guy leads a team in scoring and rebounding that wins a power conference (the Big Ten), gets a No. 1 seed and makes a Final Four return to college period? Only that's what Dickinson did after averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds a season ago.
This year, with a lot of the veteran guards on last year's roster gone, even more of the burden will fall on Dickinson. And playing for a good team, that should again compete for the title, Dickinson will win it.
Paolo Banchero (Duke), Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and Johnny Juzang (UCLA) would be my choices for No. 2, 3 and 4 in the Player of the Year race.