Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season

After the longest, strangest, dumbest season in college basketball history, we’re mere days away from a Mostly Normal Season for the first time since 2018-19. 2019-20 may have appeared normal, but we found out later that it simply wasn’t meant to be. Finally, we get our beloved sport back. It’s time for normalcy.

Which means it’s time to go on the record and make some predictions based off of probably-flimsy metrics that will look silly several months from now. What, you don’t do these things?

Here’s a loose overview of what I’m doing here:

  1. Picking winners for all 32 participating conferences in college basketball.
  2. Selecting some teams I am ‘in’ or ‘out’ on, relative to the national consensus.
  3. A list of superlatives based on recent history, mostly for overachievers and underachievers.

I beg of you to not take this too seriously. I came up with this idea just to flesh out some thoughts I had about the season recently that others may or may not want to read about. All of what I’m doing here is based on my research, along with help from the preseason ratings from KenPom, Torvik, EvanMiya, and Haslametrics. There’s short reasoning provided for each pick, along with where each team ranks in my mini-consensus.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: bunch o’ stuff

Conference Champions

Teams are selected in a very simple way: whoever is the highest-ranked team in the metrics consensus I use wins out. Very difficult! The team’s ranking in this consensus is in (parentheses). I’m also predicting how many teams make the NCAA Tournament from each conference; that is also in (parentheses) next to the conference name. The cutoff to make the Field of 68, at least as an at-large, was to be #48 or higher. (It would be #47, but Oklahoma State was banned from the 2022 NCAA Tournament before I hit publish.) Again, please take this with 0% seriousness.

America East (1-bid league): Vermont (#96). Huge shocker! My vote of confidence goes to the program that is the only KenPom top 150 team in its conference, has the highest amount of experience (2.98 year average, per Torvik), and has been the best team in the conference five straight years. I would only note one thing: they have a moderately palatable path to 18-0 in conference play that will more likely result in 15-3 or 16-2.

American (2): Houston (#11). Between them and Memphis (#13), and only one of these teams has had a functional offense in the last three years. Just outside NCAAT (#48-#63): UCF (#50).

ACC (8): Duke (#12). Coach K’s final run is going to be insufferable as someone who isn’t a Duke fan; I only hope that they aren’t serious title contenders but fear they will be. Only two other ACC teams made the top 25 here: Florida State (#24) and North Carolina (#25). Others in field: Louisville (#29), Notre Dame (#31), Virginia Tech (#43), Virginia (#46), Syracuse (#48). Just outside NCAAT: NC State (#58), Clemson (#59), Georgia Tech (#62).

Atlantic Sun (1): Liberty (#93). Fourth year in a row that they’ll either be in the NCAAT, whether real or hypothetical. However: Jacksonville State (#116) is a real challenger.

Atlantic 10 (1): St. Bonaventure (#30). I personally like the Bonnies way more than #30 and would have them in a top 20, but whatever. They will be very, very good and win a whole lot of games. 6-seed material in my book. Just outside NCAAT: Richmond (#49).

Big East (4): Villanova (#9). Best team seven out of last eight years. Others in field: Connecticut (#18), Xavier (#22), Seton Hall (#39). Just outside NCAAT: Butler (#55), Creighton (#60), St. John’s (#61).

Big Ten (9): Michigan (#3). The Big Ten has four preseason Top 10 teams by the metrics, which means this race is going to be a bloodbath. Any of Michigan, Illinois (#4), Purdue (#6), or Ohio State (#8) would be reasonable winners. Others in field: Maryland (#19), Michigan State (#23), Indiana (#27), Iowa (#35), Wisconsin (#45). Just outside NCAAT: Northwestern (#51).

Big 12 (6): Kansas (#2). Is Kansas. Another bloodbath conference: Baylor (#5) and Texas (#10) project to be awesome, and the postseason race will be as tough as ever. At least one team I have projected as in the field will play their way out due to going 7-11 against Big 12 competition while ranking 37th on KenPom. Others in field: Texas Tech (#16), West Virginia (#38), Oklahoma (#41).

Big Sky (1): Southern Utah (#118). Also very tight: the Big Sky race. Southern Utah ranks 118th; Weber State ranks 120th; Montana, a routine overachiever, is 152nd. Any of those three seem fine.

Big South (1): Winthrop (#139). No more Pat Kelsey, but also only one serious challenger: Campbell (#168).

Big West (1): UC Santa Barbara (#86). They probably should’ve won an NCAA Tournament game last year; while they lose some key pieces from that team, it seems they’ll have more than enough to make another run at it. Challengers include two mainstays: UC Irvine (#110) and UC Riverside (#128).

CAA (1): Northeastern (#125). Honestly, who knows; the last five CAA Conference Tournaments have resulted in five different champions.

Conference USA (1): UAB (#64). This projects as the best C-USA in some time, with three Top 100 teams (Western Kentucky, #89 and Louisiana Tech, #95) lurking on the periphery. UAB actually rates out as the best mid-major squad that isn’t in the WCC, MWC, A10, or MVC.

Horizon (1): Wright State (#102). A likely four-team race involving the Raiders, Northern Kentucky (#136), Cleveland State (#142), and Milwaukee (#175, but with a top 10 pick on their roster) seems fun.

Ivy League (1): Yale (#159). None of these teams played last year, so anything is possible.

MAAC (1): Iona (#137). Only Saint Peter’s (#169) is within 90 spots of Iona.

MAC (1): Buffalo (#84). This is everyone’s mid-major darling not named Belmont, and I’m quite tempted to join them…but Ohio (#87) is right there and they won a game last year. Also lurking: Toledo (#121) and Miami (OH) (#131).

MEAC (1): Morgan State (#230). There are only eight MEAC teams left, and only one other team (Howard, #293) gets out of the 300s.

Missouri Valley (1): Loyola Chicago (#33). New coach and whatnot, sure, but Loyola returns several key players from their Sweet Sixteen squad and should have a high floor regardless of coaching turnover. Three other Top 100 teams: Drake (#66), Missouri State (#76), and Northern Iowa (#99).

Mountain West (1): San Diego State (#34). It would be pretty surprising if this isn’t a top 40 team at year’s end; just a very steady, rock solid program. I would be disappointed if this ends up a one-bid conference, but that’s how it projects. Just outside NCAAT: Nevada (#56). Periphery teams (#64-#75): Colorado State (#68) and Utah State (#75).

NEC (1): Bryant (#191).

Ohio Valley (1): Belmont (#69). They went 26-3 last year but missed the NCAA Tournament by way of playing their worst game at the worst possible time. If any team has the capability to greatly surpass their consensus ranking, it seems like they’d have a good shot. Two other teams within 100 spots: Murray State (#106) and Morehead State (#149).

Pacific 12 (5): UCLA (#7). Every East Coaster’s favorite conference gets a chance to prove that last March wasn’t a fluke and they actually are good. Others in field: USC (#20), Oregon (#32) (can someone explain the Oregon hype to me?), Arizona (#36), Colorado (#47, last team in). Just outside NCAAT: Arizona State (#54), Washington State (#57).

Patriot (1): Colgate (#90). I’m a sucker for this team, which plays aesthetically-pleasing basketball. Closest challenger is #171 Navy.

Sun Belt (1): Georgia State (#109). The Sun Belt normally has great title races but this one actually projects as kind of boring; no team is projected to finish within three games of Rob Lanier’s squad.

Southern Conference (1): Furman (#117). This race, however, should be fun: Chattanooga (#145), Wofford (#147), ETSU (#150), and UNC Greensboro (#156) are all ultra-close.

SEC (7): Tennessee (#14). I hate doing this as a Tennessee fan, but whatever, #14 feels accurate and it’s not like there are objectively-superior rosters jumping off the board. Here’s the thing: I would like to predict that the regular season title race ends in a tie of three teams: Tennessee, #15 Kentucky, and #17 Alabama. #21 Arkansas is close, too, but just a hair behind. Others in field: Florida (#26), LSU (#40). Just outside NCAAT: Mississippi State (#52).

Southland (1): Nicholls State (#253). First Four material.

Summit (1): South Dakota State (#94). Yes yes, Oral Roberts (#157), Sweet 16, I hear you. But Oral Roberts was the fourth-best team in the Summit last year, and they didn’t even have the conference’s best offense: it was the Jackrabbits who held that honor. Had Oral Roberts held onto Kevin Obanor, I think they would be co-favorites for #1.

SWAC (1): Prairie View A&M (#220). Really fun team that I hope breaks into the top 200 by year’s end. Tight race with Texas Southern (#228).

WAC (1): New Mexico State (#103). Last year feels like a COVID blip; I think the team that was the WAC’s best for four straight seasons prior to 2020-21 will probably resume its dominance.

West Coast (3): Gonzaga (#1). Three bids???? Yeah man, three bids. Gonzaga is an obvious one, but BYU (#37) and Saint Mary’s (#44, more later) both project to make the field, too. I like all three teams a lot and am particularly high on SMC. In terms of roster strength, this is the best West Coast Conference I can remember; it’s no longer Gonzaga Plus Scrubs. Five teams are projected within KenPom’s top 70, as many as the AAC. Just outside NCAAT: San Francisco (#53).

Ins and outs

This is meant as a loose collection of teams I like more than the general consensus.

Top 15 team I would have in the top 5-10: Illinois. They returned Kofi Cockburn and basically everyone important that isn’t Ayo Dosunmu. Why is this team in the mid-10s?

Top 25 team I would have in the top 15: St. Bonaventure. Alright, not top 15, but close enough. I legitimately believe the Bonnies are the best non-Gonzaga mid-major and could win 25 games in the regular season.

Top 40 team I would have in the top 25: Xavier. 82.7% of scoring returns and I legitimately think they have seven serious starting options.

Top 75ish team I would have in the top 40: Saint Mary’s. More later. Promise.

Roulette-chip team that I would pick to make the NCAA Tournament and maybe win a game: UCF. No one seems to be talking about UCF, which is fine; it’s not something you should have to do. But I find it strange that a team returning 97% of its scoring from a Top 100 squad that had its preseason starting lineup all together for exactly one game is being treated like a team headed for 9-9 in the AAC. I would have them in a top 50 and think they could seriously contend for an NCAAT bid.

Top 5-10 team I’m least confident in: Uh…probably Kentucky? But in the sense that I think Kentucky is more likely to finish 13th-17th than they are in the top 10. This was originally slated to be Memphis because I expected them to open around 6th-8th but their AP Poll ranking of 12th feels pretty much spot-on.

Top 11-20 team: Oregon. Why is this team 12th? Did I miss something? Oregon got to bypass their Round of 64 game via COVID, blew out Iowa (which was indeed a great win), and then got ran off the floor by USC prior to a late comeback to make it look closer. They return 27% of scoring from a team that finished 16th in KenPom and spent the entirety of February outside the top 30. They look fun, and their roster projects as one of the 20 most talented from a recruiting perspective, but…12th? Why?

Top 25ish team I am not sure makes the NCAA Tournament: Virginia Tech. This has ended up being a split race between two in-state rivals. I strongly considered Virginia because, to be frank, this is the least-robust roster Tony Bennett has had in a decade due to a few different departures. Virginia Tech, however, seems to be slightly more entrenched in the preseason Top 25 and was not very good in 2020-21 (#52 KenPom). They don’t return a massive amount of talent, really; their returning minutes are a bit above the national average, but it’s nothing extreme. I would still have them in a personal top 40 but I don’t quite get the top 25 treatment.

Various Superlatives

These are awards that don’t actually exist but questionably should. None of these are terribly serious. The first half of these are off-the-cuff silly ideas I had that are somewhat statistically backed up; the second half are all stats research pieces from years past.

Team I Feel Most Confident About Going Undefeated in Conference Play: None. Well, Gonzaga. KenPom doesn’t give any team better than 20% odds of going undefeated, and it totals up at about 0.46 total expected undefeateds in conference play. The last normal season of 2019-20 produced two undefeated teams (Dayton and New Mexico State); there have been six in the last four normal seasons combined. I think someone is going undefeated, so I might as well go with the nation’s best team.

My sleeper pick here is Vermont. The Catamounts only have a 2% chance of doing it, per KenPom, but they’re favored in every game against America East opponents. Only four are projected to be within six points, our normal criteria for a Close Game. Essentially, Vermont has to hold serve in 14 should-be wins and win 4 weighted coin flips. It’s a little more plausible to me than 2%.

Sickos Team of the Year: Wisconsin. My criteria here is as follows:

  1. The Sickos Team of the Year must be objectively good on an NCAA Tournament level (top 50 in preseason ratings);
  2. The Sickos Team of the Year must have a top 25 defense;
  3. The Sickos Team of the Year must also have an offense projected outside of the top 100;
  4. The Sickos Team of the Year must play in a Big Six conference, because it’s funnier when the richest among us produce gross stuff.

Here are the STotYs of seasons past:

  • 2020-21 Clemson. 45th overall, 19th-best defense, 107th-best offense, played in a disgusting affair with Rutgers as a 7 seed.
  • 2019-20 Virginia, the Sickos Team of the Decade. 42nd overall, 1st-ranked defense, 234TH-RANKED OFFENSE. Virginia had games where they scored 46, 46, 48, 48, 50, 51, and 52 points. THEY WON ALL OF THOSE GAMES! There may never be a more upsetting good basketball team.
  • 2018-19 Washington. 48th overall, 18th-ranked defense, 110th-ranked offense. Convinced everyone that zone defenses were anything other than excruciating; gave us the Matisse Thybulle YouTube channel, which is okay.
  • 2017-18 Syracuse. 41st-overall, 5th-ranked defense, 135th-ranked offense. This wasn’t Fun Syracuse like 2020-21; this was “win your NCAA Tournament games by scores of 60-56, 57-52, and 55-53” Syracuse. Horrifying.

We’re looking for the teams most likely to give us scores that make you upset when you see them on the ESPN BottomLine. 54-51 win? Perfect. 47-44? Even better. Wisconsin offers us the best shot at this in 2021-22. The Badgers lost seven players from last year’s team and their head coach is perpetually mired in controversy. They play basketball slower than nearly any other team out there. The path to them being interesting is mighty slim, but the path to them being an 11 seed in the Field of 64 that turns a 6-11 game into a barf-inducing 56-53 affair is very real.

Most importantly, Wisconsin contains the Sickos Player of the Year: Brad Davison. Davison is most known for his various ways of “playing with passion” (committing flagrant fouls that get downgraded) and “being a leader” (hitting others in the nuts), but what he should be known for is one of the most ignominious two-point shooting seasons in modern history: 28-for-103, or 27.2%. It’s the single worst 2PT% on a minimum of 100 attempts by a Big Six conference player in at least 15 years. Luckily, Davison is returning for his sixth season with Wisconsin.

Do not watch, unless you love watching gross stuff…which all of us admittedly do.

Chaos Team of the Year: LSU. This award goes to the worst defense among a top 25 offensive team, and it really could not be more fitting. Under Will Wade, LSU has navigated various scandals, recruiting mishaps, roster turnover, and so much more…yet LSU still cannot find a decent defense. Wade’s defenses, through four seasons, have ranked 136th, 59th, 179th, and 124th. This is how an offense that ranks 12th, 4th, and 5th ends up having to be perfect most nights to win games. I love watching LSU because any result is possible.

Team I Expect to be Wrongest On: West Virginia. For one very simple reason: no team had a higher standard deviation among top 40 teams than the Mountaineers, who I’ve seen ranked anywhere from 12th to 46th (excluding a weird 106th-place pick from a rating system I couldn’t identify). I mean, that’s literally anywhere from a 3-seed to the First Four. I would have them around 40th myself, but if they achieve towards the upper end up that range, they’re a top 25 team. I have no idea what to expect here.

Non-AP Top 25 Vote-Getter That Will Be in the Poll at Year’s End: Loyola Chicago. This one is really obvious. Why didn’t Loyola get a single vote? People, their roster is still very, very good; Porter Moser didn’t take it with him to Oklahoma. If they live up to metrics expectations, it’s a team that may only lose four or five games, which should be enough to have them ranked.

WTF Team of the Year: North Carolina State. So, hey, here’s a list of the ten teams with the projected highest average star rating among their rotation for 2021-22.

  1. Duke
  2. Gonzaga
  3. North Carolina
  4. Memphis
  5. UCLA
  6. Villanova
  7. Texas
  8. North Carolina State
  9. LSU
  10. Tennessee

Notice anything extremely freaking weird there? The Wolfpack’s rotation projects to have four former Top 100 recruits, along with a fifth that finished high school as a four-star. Four-fifths of the starting rotation are blue-chip recruits. This would make sense if NCSU was offering anything in the way of notable success under the Kevin Keatts regime, but it hasn’t. Keatts is entering his fifth year at the helm; years 1-4 resulted in a 39-35 ACC record, one NCAA Tournament bid, and zero NCAA Tournament wins.

Casey Morsell (Virginia transfer) is the highest-rated recruit NCSU has had since Dennis Smith, Jr. The team actually returns about 57% of its scoring and, while not the most experienced roster out there, should have a starting lineup of four upperclassmen. Yet they’ll enter the season 71st on Torvik and 56th on KenPom. No other team in that list of 10 above is projected lower than 43rd on KenPom (LSU), and LSU’s excuse is that they only have five agreed-upon good players. Can NCSU surprise and live up to their talent billing? Could this be it for Keatts? Who knows? I’m very intrigued.

Preseason KenPom Top 10 Team That Finishes Outside of the Top 25: Baylor or Duke. Oh yeah baby! We’re going there. In every season since Ken has published preseason ratings, at least one top 10 team has failed to finish inside the top 25. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were terrible – 2017-18 Arizona still finished 28th – but they were certainly underwhelming. Two commonalities here: four of the five had a Minutes Continuity of 45% or lower; four of the five also had below-average levels of experience.

Only two top 10 teams qualify in both of these metrics: Baylor and Duke. The case for Baylor is honestly a hair easier: team that shot 41% on threes for a full season loses two NBA Draft picks, suffers from a national championship hangover, and finishes 27th or so after a struggle-filled gap year where they enter March as a 6 seed. Duke would be pretty funny, though. Coach K’s final year resulting in a surprising underperformance that lands them 32nd in KenPom and barely a talking point at all come March? Sign me up.

Preseason KenPom Top 20 Team That Misses the NCAA Tournament: Houston or Alabama. Which is gross because I think both of them are legitimate top 20 teams that will be hard to beat all year. In five straight seasons, at least one top 20 team has missed the NCAA Tournament at year’s end. (I’m counting 2019-20 as part of the data here, as North Carolina would’ve easily missed the field.) Of those six, there were some fairly obvious commonalities: all six were 200th or worse in both returning experience and minutes continuity. Only two teams project to meet both criteria: Houston and Alabama.

Of course, these teams could just as easily be Baylor or Duke, who also meet both criteria, as well as Kentucky. But I am placing two bets here: 1. It is harder for a top 10 team to miss the field entirely; 2. It is even harder to think of Kentucky missing two straight seasons. Basically, you have a better-than-expected shot that one of Alabama, Baylor, Duke, or Houston are not in the NCAA Tournament field in four months. How crazy would that be?

Preseason KenPom Top 40-65ish Team That Ends Up 15th or Higher: Saint Mary’s. I already really like Saint Mary’s as a buy-low candidate. Their stock has never been lower due to an unusually-bad season last year where they couldn’t find any offense. I think they could overachieve, and history shows they could possibly overachieve in a very special way. In five straight seasons, at least one team from the 40-65 range has ended up in the top 15. Basically, a team that entered the year either on the bubble or barely on the wrong side of it left it as one of the 15 best teams playing basketball.

There were a wide range of criteria that lined up for most of these teams:

  • 6 of 6 had either a top 75 offense or defense the previous season;
  • 5 of 6 were Top 100 teams the previous season;
  • 5 of 6 ended the next season with a top 10 offense or defense;
  • 5 of 6 were at least top 140 in either experience or minutes continuity;
  • 4 of 6 had either a top 55 offense or defense the previous season;
  • 4 of 6 had a top 50 defensive eFG%.

After all of this work, Saint Mary’s was the only team that mostly passed all six tests. I guess this makes sense because of the available 40-65 options, they’re ranked 42nd and would be one of the obvious picks. But it really does make sense: it’s a team that returns literally every minute from 2020-21, had a top 15 defense, still finished 75th despite far and way the worst offense the program has seen in 15 years, and came close enough (62nd) in defensive eFG%. I think it would be wise to bet on a bounce-back year for the offense. Would it really be that shocking if they were a 5 seed in March?

The other team that came very close here was Richmond, who wasn’t as strong defensively last year but similarly returns most of their key pieces and should be healthier than they were a year before. Either SMC or Richmond would be fine picks here.

Where Did You Come From Team of the Year (75th or lower in KenPom to start the season, ends up top 25 by season’s end): Belmont. Or South Dakota State. Or Buffalo. Couldn’t decide. This has happened four seasons in a row and generally coincides with the Mid-Major Surprise of the Year Award (2020-21 BYU, 2019-20 San Diego State, 2018-19 Buffalo, etc.). Think of it this way: all three of these teams are expected to either win their conference or be in a tight first-place battle for it this season. You wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them as 12 or 13 seeds in the NCAA Tournament come March. But you would be a little surprised if Belmont entered their conference tournament at 26-3, 17-1 OVC or South Dakota State was 26-5, 16-2 Summit and getting legitimate AP Poll votes.

Two things have been consistent among the WDYCF Teams: good experience and a fresh, new coach. Each of the four teams to do this over the last four seasons entered in the top 150 of roster experience by average years played; three of the four (excluding 2018-19 Wofford) had a coach in one of his first three years at the school, suggesting possibly being underrated by way of being an unknown quantity. Three teams qualified for both here: Belmont, South Dakota State, and Buffalo. Belmont is the best on paper of this group and is the one I’d select, but I could see real arguments for the other two as well. The misfortune of this is that all three could play like top 25 teams yet still get an 11 seed come March. Tough luck for their future 6 seed opponent, I guess.

Your National Champion Will Be: One of Gonzaga, Michigan, or Kansas. “Oh wow, dude,” you spit. “Really cool. The top three teams in KenPom! Wow! Glad you’re the stats nerd.” To which I say: [REDACTED], and also, it makes sense, you idiot.

The last six national champions have all began the season in the KenPom top 5. Seven of the last nine have also started the season sixth or higher in the AP Poll. Only the three teams above meet both metrics. I feel like staying with chalk here is probably wise, and I’d personally say Gonzaga is most likely to be your next national champion. However, I wouldn’t be shocked at all by a Michigan or Kansas title, and obviously, anything can happen in this crazy sport.

I’m very much looking forward to this season; I hope you are, too. I’ll be here at least twice a week, every week, through the beginning of April. See you here.

One thought on “Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season

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