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Kentucky climbs to No. 5, Baylor still No. 1 in Way-Too-Early Top 25 update for 2020-21



On March 21, we released our first Way-Too-Early Top 25 for the 2020-21 college basketball season. Everything has changed in the seven months since then, and obviously we’re not just talking about the sport itself. For long stretches of the offseason, it looked like we might not ever get to a college basketball season, and if we did, it would be an extremely condensed season — one that might not feature nonconference games.

And while it’s not going to be a smooth ride until the Nov. 25 start date, we’re officially less than one month away from the first games of the 2020-21 college basketball season.

Several things have changed since that initial top 25 — Creighton was No. 2, for example, while San Diego State and Colorado were also ranked before NBA draft departures. However, the tumultuous past several months have left us with similar storylines to what we projected the first few weeks of the offseason. Baylor, Gonzaga and Villanova are the national championship favorites (in some order); Iowa’s Luka Garza is the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the Wooden Award; Kentucky started at No. 5 and ended at No. 5, with plenty of personnel losses and fluctuation in between; and the Big Ten will be the toughest league in the country.

Time to dig into the preseason top 25. Thankfully, it’s no longer way too early. We’re almost there.

1. Baylor Bears
Previous: 1

Scott Drew’s team was near the top of the rankings all of last season, and that shouldn’t change for the 2020-21 campaign. The Bears lost just one starter from a year ago — big man Freddie Gillespie — and are hoping Tristan Clark, his likely replacement, can return to his pre-injury form from the 2018-19 season. But the strength of this team will revolve around the perimeter, where Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague all return from a year ago — and Drew also adds ESPN 100 recruit L.J. Cryer and Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler. It’s an elite defensive group, but also one that can create and make shots. Then there’s Mark Vital, arguably the best and most versatile defender in the country not named Marcus Garrett. Baylor scheduled like a team looking to test itself against the best of the best, too. The Bears will face Gonzaga and Illinois and are also scheduled for the Empire Classic, which includes Villanova and Arizona State. We’ll find out pretty quickly whether Baylor is for real.

Projected starting lineup:

Jared Butler (16.0 PPG, 3.1 APG)
Davion Mitchell (9.9 PPG, 3.8 APG)
MaCio Teague (13.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG)
Mark Vital (6.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
Tristan Clark (4.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG)

2. Villanova Wildcats
Previous: 2

Only once in the past seven seasons has Villanova not earned at least a share of the Big East regular-season title, and the Wildcats enter the season as the favorite to keep that successful stretch going. Jay Wright has a number of lineup options this season, although the loss of first-round pick Saddiq Bey will sting due to his versatility and scoring ability. Collin Gillespie returns as one of the best point guards in the country, while Justin Moore hit double figures in five of his final six games and shot 39% from 3-point range in Big East play. Double-double threat Jeremiah Robinson-Earl should take a step forward and be the best big man in the Big East, and Jermaine Samuels also returns after starting 30 games last season. The fifth starting spot is up for grabs, and Wright can go to several different looks. If he wants to stay with a smaller lineup, Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels is an option; he’s a stronger guard and can also create for others. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has provided solid rebounding and defense off the bench, and Cole Swider is an inside-outside scorer. And don’t forget Bryan Antoine, a former five-star guard.

Projected starting lineup:

Collin Gillespie (15.1 PPG, 4.5 APG)
Justin Moore (11.3 PPG)
Caleb Daniels (16.9 PPG at Tulane)
Jermaine Samuels (10.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG)

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Previous: 3

Gonzaga held the preseason No. 1 spot for a long stretch of the offseason, but Filip Petrusev’s decision to turn pro instead of returning to Spokane dropped the Bulldogs a couple of spots. But they’re still undoubtedly in the top tier of national title contenders and have a number of nonconference opportunities for statement wins against the likes of Baylor, Iowa, Tennessee and more. Mark Few has the pieces to win it all. Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi are back as starters, while Drew Timme is poised for a breakout season in place of Petrusev down low. Anton Watson was a steady performer when he started early in the season before injury, and there’s plenty of frontcourt depth. The key for the Zags will be point guard play, for which Few brings in Jalen Suggs, a future one-and-done lottery pick, who should make one of the biggest newcomer impacts in the country. ESPN 100 guard Dominick Harris and Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook are also entering the fold. This team has talent, depth, versatility and experience.

Projected starting lineup:

Jalen Suggs (No. 5 in ESPN 100)
Joel Ayayi (10.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
Corey Kispert (13.9 PPG)
Anton Watson (4.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG)
Drew Timme (9.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG)

4. Virginia Cavaliers
Previous: 4

Teams hoping to take advantage of a Tony Bennett rebuild had about two months last season to do it — the Cavaliers are back on track and will be the ACC favorite. They finished the season winning 11 of their final 12 games, including victories over Duke and Louisville, and ended up just one game from a league title. And now they’re bringing in some reinforcements. The newcomers start with Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, who is a sneaky-strong candidate for preseason the ACC’s player of the year. Two ESPN 100 prospects are also entering the fold in Reece Beekman and Jabri Abdur-Rahim, and Abdur-Rahim in particular should provide a scoring boost. The biggest issue last season was offensive efficiency; the additions should make that less of a problem. Kihei Clark is a terrific defender and steady playmaker, Jay Huff has pro potential up front and Tomas Woldetensae made six or more 3-pointers on three separate occasions last season.

Projected starting lineup:

Kihei Clark (10.8 PPG, 5.9 APG)
Casey Morsell (4.0 PPG)
Tomas Woldetensae (6.6 PPG)
Sam Hauser (14.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG at Marquette)
Jay Huff (8.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG)

5. Kentucky Wildcats
Previous: 12

Kentucky makes the biggest jump from the last summer update, and it’s a jump that has been somewhat expected. Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr, a third-team All-ACC selection last season, finally received a waiver to play immediately this season, and he should solve what might have been the Wildcats’ biggest weakness. He will slot in right away at the center position, providing an anchor on the interior and balance for what would have been a perimeter-heavy look. Kentucky has three five-star freshmen who are expected to start in the backcourt, with B.J. Boston poised to be the Wildcats’ go-to-guy offensively right away. Keion Brooks Jr. is the team’s lone returnee from last season. Due to the inexperience and all the newcomers, Kentucky might get off to a slow start — but in typical John Calipari fashion, the Wildcats should hit their stride at the right time. And with all the on-paper talent this roster possesses, we’re ranking Kentucky based on that late-season potential.

Projected starting lineup:

Devin Askew (No. 24 in ESPN 100)
B.J. Boston (No. 6 in ESPN 100)
Terrence Clarke (No. 9 in ESPN 100)
Keion Brooks (4.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
Olivier Sarr (13.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG at Wake Forest)

6. Iowa Hawkeyes
Previous: 5

I’m caught in something of a conundrum with the Hawkeyes. On one hand, I think they enter the season as the Big Ten favorite, and I think they have the highest ceiling of the Iowa-Wisconsin-Illinois trio. On the other hand, I think they have the lowest floor of the three due to their inability to consistently defend. But the preseason is all about optimism, so I’ll roll with them atop the league. Luka Garza will enter the season as the clear favorite to win the Wooden Award after running neck-and-neck with Dayton’s Obi Toppin for most of last season. The other four starters from last season are also returning, including third-team All-Big Ten selection Joe Wieskamp. Jordan Bohannon is also back after playing just 10 games last season due to injury; this is a player who averaged double figures his first three seasons in the program and brings playmaking and shooting to the perimeter. But the Hawkeyes have to defend — they were 12th in the league in defensive efficiency last season and haven’t finished better than fifth at that end of the floor since 2016.

Projected starting lineup:

Jordan Bohannon (8.8 PPG, 3.3 APG)
CJ Fredrick (10.2 PPG)
Connor McCaffery (6.2 PPG, 4.0 APG)
Joe Wieskamp (14.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG)
Luka Garza (23.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG)

7. Wisconsin Badgers
Previous: 6

The Badgers return their top five scorers from a team that earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title after winning eight straight games to end the season. On paper, it all adds up to what should be a Big Ten title contender once again. But the question will be whether Wisconsin can continue its late-season form. The Badgers shot 41% from 3-point range over those final games but shot 35.2% from 3 for the season. One of the factors in that improvement, though, was the emergence of Micah Potter. He started three of the final eight games and gave Wisconsin an X factor few teams could handle. He’s 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, he shot 46.9% from 3 in Big Ten play and he was the best defensive rebounder in the league. Potter and Nate Reuvers, an all-conference forward who played his best basketball early in the season, should form one of the best frontcourt duos in the Big Ten. Another potential edge for Greg Gard in what will be a strange season: The Badgers will start five seniors.

Projected starting lineup:

D’Mitrik Trice (9.8 PPG, 4.2 APG)
Brad Davison (9.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG)
Aleem Ford (8.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
Nate Reuvers (13.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
Micah Potter (10.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG)

8. Illinois Fighting Illini
Previous: 7

Illinois skyrocketed up the rankings following August’s early-entry withdrawal deadline, when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn both decided to return to Champaign instead of keeping their names in the NBA draft. Dosunmu is a preseason All-American candidate after proving himself as one of the best point guards in the country — and one of the most clutch players in the country — last season, while Cockburn showed flashes of being a physically dominant interior force. Coach Brad Underwood also brings back three other starters from last season and welcomes two ESPN 100 guards who will push for big roles immediately. Adam Miller is a terrific offensive player and would have been one of the biggest impact newcomers in the country if Dosunmu stayed in the draft, and Andre Curbelo is a crafty playmaker and passer who comes up big when necessary. The Fighting Illini were tough to break down defensively last season, and the influx of scoring pop should help on the offensive end.

Projected starting lineup:

Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 PPG, 3.3 APG)
Trent Frazier (9.1 PPG)
Adam Miller (No. 30 in ESPN 100)
Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG)
Kofi Cockburn (13.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG)

9. Kansas Jayhawks
Previous: 8

The national championship favorite before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the NCAA tournament, Kansas could take a slight step back after losing All-Americans Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike from last season’s team. But Bill Self has lost elite players before and replaced them the next season without missing a beat. So how will he do that this season? David McCormack started 17 games last season and has the physical capabilities to hold down the interior. At the point, expect versatile, elite defender Marcus Garrett to shoulder much of the ballhandling responsibilities. As far as the scoring load, look for newcomers Bryce Thompson, a five-star guard, and Tyon Grant-Foster, arguably the nation’s best junior college prospect, to help in that area, along with returnee Ochai Agbaji and redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson. There are a few more questions than usual in Lawrence, but Self has shown time and time again he can figure it out.

Projected starting lineup:

Marcus Garrett (9.2 PPG, 4.6 APG)
Bryce Thompson (No. 26 in ESPN 100)
Ochai Agbaji (10.0 PPG)
Tyon Grant-Foster (juco transfer)
David McCormack (6.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG)

10. Duke Blue Devils
Previous: 9

Relying on newcomers is nothing new for Mike Krzyzewski, but it’s a little bit different when there’s no Zion Williamson, no R.J. Barrett or no Cam Reddish entering the program. That said, the Blue Devils do have some returning players who can help the transition. Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt are former five-star prospects who look poised for a big step in Year 2, while Jordan Goldwire and Joey Baker have been in the program for multiple years. Of the freshmen, Jalen Johnson will likely make the biggest impact. He’s a matchup problem and a versatile scorer on the wing. Jeremy Roach should man the point guard duties; he’s tough and proved in high school he was a leader and winner. Another five-star freshman, D.J. Steward, might not start immediately, but he provides instant offense and can really shoot it. Mark Williams, a 7-footer, could quietly be the key to this team given his size and defensive ability. There’s a lot of talent and versatility on this roster, so expect Krzyzewski to use different lineups rotations for the first part of the season before settling on something consistent.

Projected starting lineup:

Jeremy Roach (No. 18 in ESPN 100)
Wendell Moore (7.4 PPG)
Jalen Johnson (No. 12 in ESPN 100)
Matthew Hurt (9.7 PPG)
Mark Williams (No. 29 in ESPN 100)

11. Tennessee Volunteers
Previous: 10

I’m a bit higher on Tennessee than most people entering the season, but the Volunteers are absolutely loaded 1-8, and might be even deeper than that, too. Admittedly, they struggled last season, finishing 17-14 overall and 9-9 in the SEC — they wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament had it not been canceled. But four starters are back from that group, including frontcourt stalwarts Yves Pons and John Fulkerson, and guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James. What has me excited for Rick Barnes’ team, though, are the newcomers. Five-star Jaden Springer was the highest-ranked of the Vols’ freshmen, but Keon Johnson is drawing rave reviews in the preseason. Multiple people around college basketball are talking about Johnson as a one-and-done lottery pick type of player. Sacred Heart graduate transfer E.J. Anosike was a double-double machine in the NEC and will bring toughness and rebounding, while Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. has flown under the radar and should quietly make an impact after sitting out last season.

Projected starting lineup:

Santiago Vescovi (10.7 PPG, 3.7 APG)
Jaden Springer (No. 16 in ESPN 100)
Josiah-Jordan James (7.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Yves Pons (10.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
John Fulkerson (13.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG)

12. Creighton Bluejays
Previous: 11

Greg McDermott’s team started the offseason ranked No. 2 in the first edition of our Way-Too-Early Top 25, but the losses of Ty-Shon Alexander (NBA) and Davion Mintz (transferred to Kentucky) dropped them down as the offseason progressed. But the Bluejays should still be a potential second-weekend NCAA tournament team and compete behind Villanova at the top of the Big East standings. Marcus Zegarowski, assuming he’s 100% healthy, is one of the premier point guards in college basketball and perhaps the best player in the Big East. With Alexander gone, Denzel Mahoney will up his scoring load, which shouldn’t be an issue; he averaged 21.4 points per 40 minutes last season and hit double-figures 13 times despite starting just one of 20 games. Christian Bishop, Damien Jefferson and Mitch Ballock, a versatile All-Big East performer, all return as starters up front. There should be more size than last season, which is where Creighton sometimes struggled. Jacob Epperson (6-foot-11) is healthy, while 7-foot freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner is entering the program.

Projected starting lineup:

Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 PPG, 5.0 APG)
Denzel Mahoney (12.0 PPG)
Mitch Ballock (11.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG)
Damien Jefferson (9.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Christian Bishop (8.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG)

13. Michigan State Spartans
Previous: 13

There are very few certainties with Michigan State’s lineup and rotation entering the season. Tom Izzo has to replace All-American point guard Cassius Winston and double-double NBA draft pick Xavier Tillman, and there just isn’t the same level of experience across the board that we’ve seen in East Lansing in the past. That doesn’t mean the roster is without talent and depth, though. Rocket Watts, who played off the ball last year, will likely get the first crack at replacing Winston, with Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry flanking him on the wings. Up front is a mix of returnees and newcomers looking to take the next step. Malik Hall showed flashes last season, starting nine games, but Marquette State transfer Joey Hauser brings shooting and some scoring pop after sitting out last season. Role players Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier could see extended minutes early, but keep an eye on ESPN 100 big man Mady Sissoko, who has generated some positive buzz in the offseason. Oh, and don’t forget about Josh Langford. The former All-Big Ten guard has missed the past season and a half due to foot injuries, but he has a chance to play this season. If he can produce, that’s a huge boost for Izzo.

Projected starting lineup:

Rocket Watts (9.0 PPG)
Gabe Brown (6.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG)
Aaron Henry (10.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG)
Joey Hauser (9.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG at Marquette)
Mady Sissoko (No. 40 in ESPN 100)

14. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Previous: 14

A year removed from reaching the national title game, the Red Raiders never really found a groove all season and would have likely backed into the NCAA tournament after losing four in a row to end the regular season. But Chris Beard has once again overhauled the roster and it’s a bit more balanced than last season — the signature toughness and defensive ability from Beard-coached teams shouldn’t go anywhere, though. Kyler Edwards and Terrence Shannon are both back on the perimeter, but expect five-star guard Nimari Burnett and transfers Joel Ntambwe and Marcus Santos-Silva to provide a major lift for Texas Tech. Burnett can play on or off the ball and is an effective playmaker, Ntambwe has pro potential and Santos-Silva should provide an option on the interior. Another potential impact could come from athletic Georgetown transfer Mac McClung, who is awaiting a waiver, or Wichita State transfer Jamarius Burton, who received a waiver but could end up redshirting anyway.

Projected starting lineup:

Nimari Burnett (No. 21 in ESPN 100)
Kyler Edwards (11.4 PPG, 3.1 APG)
Terrence Shannon (9.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG)
Joel Ntambwe (11.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG at UNLV)
Marcus Santos-Silva (12.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG at VCU)

15. North Carolina Tar Heels
Previous: 15

Throw last season out. The ridiculous streak of injuries that the Tar Heels suffered can’t possibly happen again, and Roy Williams has far more depth to withstand some missed time this go-around. That depth is most evident in the frontcourt, and Carolina might have the most talented post rotation in the country. Garrison Brooks, arguably the best returnee in the ACC, leads the way, with fellow starter Armando Bacot also anchoring the interior. Williams is bringing in two five-star big men in Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, too. Sharpe might have been the best rebounder in high school basketball last season, and Kessler brings inside-outside ability. On the perimeter, returnees Anthony Harris and Leaky Black should provide a good starting point, but five-star point guard Caleb Love will run the show. Love will make a bigger impact than many are anticipating; he’s a terrific playmaker and is ready to go from day one. R.J. Davis provides even more perimeter scoring. It’s hard to truly gauge this team in the preseason, but it should be an ACC contender.

Projected starting lineup:

Caleb Love (No. 17 in ESPN 100)
Anthony Harris (6.8 PPG)
Leaky Black (6.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Armando Bacot (9.6 PPG, 8.3 RPG)
Garrison Brooks (16.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG)

16. Arizona State Sun Devils
Previous: 18

Arizona State is going to be one of the more intriguing and entertaining teams in the country. There’s so much scoring, so much explosiveness, so many offensive weapons — and Bobby Hurley will make sure the Sun Devils are pushing the tempo at all times. Remy Martin should be in the preseason All-American discussion, and while Alonzo Verge only started nine games last season, he scored 43 points off the bench in December; he can flat-out score. Then they added five-star Josh Christopher, the highest-ranked recruit in program history and arguably the best pure scorer entering college basketball this season. If that’s not enough, Portland State transfer Holland Woods received a waiver to play immediately after earning first-team All-Big South honors, and top-35 recruit Marcus Bagley has been generating positive hype for several months. There’s not the same type of firepower up front, but Kimani Lawrence, Taeshon Cherry and Jalen Graham won’t need to do much more than defend and rebound. It’s going to be fun in Tempe.

Projected starting lineup:

Remy Martin (19.1 PPG, 4.1 APG)
Alonzo Verge (14.6 PPG)
Josh Christopher (No. 10 in ESPN 100)
Marcus Bagley (No. 33 in ESPN 100)
Kimani Lawrence (4.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG)

17. Oregon Ducks
Previous: 16

Dana Altman’s team isn’t quite set in stone for the season, as the Ducks are still awaiting a waiver decision on transfers L.J. Figueroa (St. John’s) and Aaron Estrada (St. Peter’s). Figueroa would be a more impactful addition this season, given his scoring ability — he averaged 14.5 points last season and was a dangerous scorer in the Big East the past two seasons. Even without either of them, Oregon makes a strong case as the Pac-12 favorite. Will Richardson could truly break out this season and become one of the best playmakers in the league, and he and Chris Duarte should handle much of the scoring. Transfers Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers) and Eric Williams (Duquesne) will join Chandler Lawson up front, but the two biggest keys might be UNLV transfer Amauri Hardy and sophomore N’Faly Dante. Hardy will be given the point guard duties (unless Richardson takes that role if Figueroa is eligible), while Dante has to be healthy and provide more as a rebounder and shot-blocker.Overall, Altman will need consistency.

Projected starting lineup:

Amauri Hardy (14.5 PPG, 3.3 APG at UNLV)
Will Richardson (11.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
Chris Duarte (12.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG)
Eugene Omoruyi (13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG at Rutgers)
N’Faly Dante (5.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG)

18. West Virginia Mountaineers
Previous: 17

When Bob Huggins has a team of players who have been in his system for a couple of years, good things tend to happen. And for the most part, he will have that this season. The Mountaineers bring back four starters from last season’s up-and-down campaign, where they started 18-4, proceeded to lose six of seven and then finished with a blowout win over Iowa State and a double-digit win over Baylor. The team will be anchored on the interior once again by double-double threats Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver. Both are elite rebounders and high-level shot-blockers who can score around the rim. The issues last year, however, were a lack of consistent perimeter scoring and dreadful 3-point shooting. Will that change? Sophomore Miles McBride could be the key. He only started two games last season, but provided a huge scoring punch in the middle of the season then went cold in Big 12 play. Keep an eye on Jalen Bridges, too. He redshirted last season, but was a former ESPN 100 prospect.

Projected starting lineup:

Jordan McCabe (3.1 PPG)
Emmitt Matthews (6.3 PPG)
Miles McBride (9.5 PPG)
Oscar Tshiebwe (11.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG)
Derek Culver (10.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG)

19. UCLA Bruins
Previous: 19

There was no honeymoon stage for the Mick Cronin-UCLA marriage. The Bruins were 8-9 in mid-January last season, with a home loss to Cal State Fullerton the lowlight of the campaign. But things turned around, and UCLA finished 12-6 in conference play, just one game back of conference champion Oregon — and I think this season will be more like the final two months than the first two months. All five starters are back, led by Chris Smith, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft and just needs to find consistency this season. While five-star recruit Daishen Nix’s decision to go to the G League was a tough blow for Cronin’s program, UCLA did add an immediate impact guard in Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, whose perimeter shooting should help a team that shot just 32.2% from 3 on the season. It’s also worth noting UCLA finished eighth in the league in defensive efficiency last season; Cronin finished in the top 30 nationally at that end of the floor his final nine seasons at Cincinnati. It’ll turn around.

Projected starting lineup:

Tyger Campbell (8.3 PPG, 5.0 APG)
Johnny Juzang (2.9 PPG at Kentucky)
Jaime Jaquez (8.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG)
Chris Smith (13.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Jalen Hill (9.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG)

20. Texas Longhorns
Previous: 20

In mid-February, it looked like Texas’ 2020-21 season would occur without Shaka Smart. The Longhorns were 14-11, 4-8 in the Big 12 and the wheels were falling off. Then they won five in a row, were right in the at-large mix before the pandemic shut everything down — then five-star forward Greg Brown chose to stay home and play for Smart. Smart wasn’t going anywhere. And now he has a team that should win a game or two in March. Every single point, rebound and assist is back from last season, with Brown also entering the fold. The key could be Smart settling on a consistent lineup; eight players started at least 10 games last season, either due to injury or performance struggles, so Smart could settle on five this season. Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones are all double-figure scorers, Jase Febres and Jericho Sims started 23 and 24 games, respectively, but Texas’ late-season surge came without either player in the lineup. Oh, and Brown is a likely one-and-done lottery pick. There’s plenty of options for Smart in Austin this season.

Projected starting lineup:

Matt Coleman (12.7 PPG, 3.4 APG)
Courtney Ramey (10.9 PPG)
Andrew Jones (11.5 PPG)
Greg Brown (No. 8 in ESPN 100)
Jericho Sims (9.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG)

21. Houston Cougars
Previous: 22

When the offseason began, there was a good case for the Cougars to be a preseason top-10 team. Then Nate Hinton decided to keep his name in the NBA draft and Fabian White was lost for the season with a torn ACL. So while Kelvin Sampson’s team dropped in the rankings, the Cougars are still going to be a major factor due to their guard play. DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, Quentin Grimes and potential AAC Player of the Year Caleb Mills are all back from last season. Mills started just seven games, but Sampson could opt to go smaller and move him into the starting lineup. Then there’s Idaho transfer Cameron Tyson and ESPN 100 prospect Tramon Mark. It’s a different story up front, where role players Brison Gresham, Justin Gorham and Arkansas transfer Reggie Chaney will have to hold it down. There are certainly some questions for Sampson to figure out, but he has won 83 games over the past three seasons and is one of the best coaches in the country. That and the ridiculous perimeter talent is more than enough to be a top-25 team.

Projected starting lineup:

DeJon Jarreau (9.0 PPG, 3.7 APG)
Marcus Sasser (8.1 PPG)
Quentin Grimes (12.1 PPG)
Caleb Mills (13.2 PPG)
Brison Gresham (2.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG)

22. LSU Tigers
Previous: 21

After first-place and second-place SEC finishes the past two seasons, respectively, can Will Wade and the Tigers compete for a regular-season title again? It appears they’re going to take a step back after some key personnel losses, but the returning trio of Ja’Vonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days provides a good foundation from which to build. Smart moved to the point guard spot last season and improved as time went on, Watford is an All-SEC caliber performer who can score, and Days is an inside-outside scorer who can rebound. One reason I’m high on LSU is the addition of five-star guard Cameron Thomas, one of the elite scorers in the 2020 high school class. Eric Gaines and Mwani Wilkinson are two other talented freshmen who should make an impact, while the fifth starting spot could also fall to Charles Manning Jr. or Georgetown transfer Josh LeBlanc (once he’s eligible). The past two seasons, LSU has had a go-to guy who would take and make shots, whether it was Tremont Waters or Skylar Mays. If Watford can become that player, LSU should be solid.

Projected starting lineup:

Ja’Vonte Smart (12.5 PPG, 4.2 APG)
Cam Thomas (No. 22 in ESPN 100)
Charles Manning (7.9 PPG)
Trendon Watford (13.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG)
Darius Days (11.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG)

23. Florida State Seminoles
Previous: 24

Over the past four seasons, Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles have won 104 games total, been to two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight, and won the ACC regular-season title last season. So despite the loss of All-ACC guard Trent Forrest and potential first-round picks Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams, it’s impossible to project too much of a drop-off for Florida State. And given how deep Hamilton’s teams have been, he does have reinforcements ready to step in. But the most important piece on the team will be Scottie Barnes, a top-five incoming freshman who is extremely versatile and could initiate offense from the point guard spot despite his 6-foot-9 size. M.J. Walker could lead the team in scoring, and Malik Osborne and RaiQuan Gray are also returning as starters. In terms of reserves ready to take the next step, keep an eye on Rayquan Evans and Balsa Koprivica. And junior college transfer Sardaar Calhoun can really shoot it from the perimeter.

Projected starting lineup:

M.J. Walker (10.6 PPG)
Sardaar Calhoun (JUCO transfer)
Scottie Barnes (No. 4 in ESPN 100)
RaiQuan Gray (6.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
Malik Osborne (6.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG)

24. Ohio State Buckeyes
Previous: 23

It’s going to be a different looking Ohio State team this season. The Buckeyes bid farewell to frontcourt anchors Kaleb Wesson and Andre Wesson and veteran guard Luther Muhammad, and already lost budding freshman D.J. Carton toward the end of the season. There are no clear-cut stars on this season’s roster. While Kaleb Wesson might not have been an All-American, the Buckeyes operated most of their offense through his inside-outside ability. So who’s going to step up? They’ll need one of the returning complementary pieces to be a major factor, and I think one player to keep an eye on is E.J. Liddell. The former ESPN 100 prospect totaled 29 points and 15 rebounds in his final two games last season and should pose a matchup problem. C.J. Walker and Duane Washington will need to shoulder much of the offensive load on the perimeter, too. And then there’s transfers Justice Sueing (Cal) and Seth Towns (Harvard). Towns is still battling through his knee injury, meaning Sueing could find himself in a starting role quickly.

Projected starting lineup:

C.J. Walker (8.7 PPG, 3.5 APG)
Duane Washington (11.5 PPG)
Seth Towns (16.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG at Harvard)
E.J. Liddell (6.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
Kyle Young (7.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG)

25. Florida Gators
Previous: 25

For a number of reasons, the Gators didn’t live up to the preseason expectations last season. Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. didn’t make the projected impact, and the tempo and playing style never seemed to click with the personnel — there was no consistency. Can the Gators improve despite the losses of Blackshear and starting point guard Andrew Nembhard? There’s certainly optimism within the program. Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby will replace Nembhard, while former McDonald’s All-American Tre Mann is also ready for a bigger role. Keyontae Johnson might be the most underrated player in the country, and Scottie Lewis decided to return to Gainesville despite NBA draft buzz. I would also expect Omar Payne to adequately replace Blackshear. He started only seven games last season, but included in that stretch was a 19-point and 11-rebound performance against Auburn. Keep an eye on Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji, too — he’s extremely athletic.

Projected starting lineup:

Tyree Appleby (17.2 PPG, 5.6 APG at Cleveland State)
Noah Locke (10.6 PPG)
Scottie Lewis (8.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG)
Keyontae Johnson (14.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Omar Payne (3.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG)

Next in line

UConn Huskies (previous: Unranked)
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (previous: Next in line)
Memphis Tigers (previous: Unranked)
Louisville Cardinals (previous: Next in line)
Indiana Hoosiers (previous: Next in line)

Dropped out

Arkansas Razorbacks (previous: Next in line)
Richmond Spiders (previous: Next in line)


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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