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College basketball teams poised for historically great seasons in 2020-21

Last college basketball season, Baylor, Dayton and San Diego State each produced arguably the best team in program history, with all three being serious contenders for a potential No. 1 seed during the season. Which men’s basketball programs could be poised for a similar, all-time great team during the 2020-21 season?

We can use preseason rankings, such as March Madness correspondent Andy Katz’s preseason Power 36 rankings, as a guide.

I used final metrics and rankings from the 2019-20 season, plus preseason forecasts for the 2020-21 season, to identify schools that could have an all-time great campaign. We call this the “Best team since…” power rankings. They’re not a measure of whether Team A is better than Team B, but they’re relative for each school, such that if Team A could have its best team in 40 years, it would be ranked ahead of Team B if Team B is projected to have its best team in 15 years.

We’re looking for schools that have gone years, if not decades, since the last time they had a team as good as their 2020-21 squad projects to be. This isn’t a comprehensive list of all 357 Division I teams, but rather an analysis of some of the notable programs and potential March Madness contenders that could have their best team in at least a decade.

Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images Rutgers's Rono Harper Jr.

1. Rutgers

Best team since…1975-76

Rutgers being ranked last season was a big deal, even if the Scarlet Knights only got to No. 24 in the AP poll and spent just two weeks in the AP Top 25. They hadn’t been there since 1979, when only 20 teams were ranked. Rutgers finally had a breakthrough in Year Four of coach Steve Pikiell’s tenure as the Scarlet Knights finished 20-11, which was their first 20-win season since 2004 and their first time finishing that many games over .500 since 1991. That was the same year they last made the NCAA tournament.

They finished in a tie for fifth place in the Big Ten, posted the No. 6 defensive efficiency nationally, per kenpom.com, and they went an impressive 18-1 at home.

Now, Rutgers is poised for another breakthrough in 2021 as the Scarlet Knights lost just two seniors from last season’s team — Akwasi Yeboah and Shaq Carter, who were third and ninth on the team in scoring, respectively. The Scarlet Knights return 82 percent of their minutes from last season. During February and March they posted a defensive efficiency of 1.00 point per possession allowed, which was on par with teams such as Gonzaga and Villanova, and better than Illinois, Iowa, Creighton and Kentucky.

Katz named senior guard Geo Baker one of the top 10 returning players in the sport and a previous NCAA.com analysis highlighted Ron Harper Jr. as a potential breakout All-America candidate.

It might be time to party like it’s 1976 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, because that’s when the Scarlet Knights went 31-2, peaking at No. 3 in the AP poll and finishing at No. 4, and advancing to the Final Four. Given the Big Ten’s depth this season, with three teams in the top 10 of Katz’s preseason Power 36, five teams in the top 15 and seven in the top 20, it’ll be a challenge for any team to crack the 30-win mark, but this might be Rutgers’  best team in 45 years.

Brad Mills | USA TODAY Sports Images Howard Bison.

2. Howard

Best team since… 1980-81

I identified Howard’s Makur Maker as one of six freshmen this season who could be a generational difference-maker for their respective programs. Enrolling a generational talent at a program could obviously lead to a school having once of its best seasons in a generation (or two).

Howard has made the NCAA tournament just twice, most recently in the 1992 season. Before that, the Bison went dancing in 1981, when they earned a No. 12 seed during a 17-12 campaign. As I wrote about in the story highlighting Maker as one of this season’s great difference-makers, the addition of the 6-11 freshman potentially takes Howard from the bottom of the sport to somewhere in the middle-third of all Division I teams. It would take just 18 wins for Howard to reach its highest win total in a decade, 19 wins for its highest win total in a season this millennium and 25 to set a new program record. The latter could obviously be tough given that DI teams are limited to 25 regular-season games this season, but the point remains that Maker could be one of the most talented players in the MEAC from the moment he steps on the floor and Howard earning even a No. 15 seed could represent a historic season in Washington, D.C.

Casey Sapio | USA TODAY Sports Arizona State Sun Devils.

3. Arizona State

Best team since… 1994-95

Led by senior Remy Martin, who Katz named a top-five point guard in the sport in the preseason, Arizona State could, this season, produce its best team in two and a half decades. In 1995, the Sun Devils went 24-9, earning a No. 5 seed and making a Sweet 16 run behind a frontcourt headlined by future NBA player Mario Bennett.

Katz put Arizona State at No. 14 in his preseason Power 36 rankings and he placed the Sun Devils on the No. 4 seed line in his first March Madness projections for 2021.

If Arizona State is to realize that preseason potential, the Sun Devils have work to do on both ends of the floor. They ranked sixth in conference play last season in both offensive and defensive efficiency, finishing tied for third in the conference standings at 11-7. Under coach Bobby Hurley, Arizona State earned a No. 11 seed in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments, starting in the First Four in Dayton in both seasons. With a 20-11 record last season, the Sun Devils could’ve been bound for another double-digit seed.

Arizona State plays as fast as almost any team in the country and it has an explosive backcourt with Martin and Alonzo Verge, whose most notable game last season was a 43-point outburst off the bench against Saint Mary’s. But the team’s offensive efficiency certainly has room to improve, as the Sun Devils ranked just 108th nationally in that category last season, while shooting 32.3 percent from 3-point range and just 49 percent from two.

Given some of the roster turnover on reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon’s roster, the conference crown could be there for the taking and if Arizona State is the team that wears it, the Sun Devils could have their best team since 1995.

Patrick Gorski | USA Today Sports Images Illinois's Ayo Dosunmu.

4. Illinois

Best team since… 2004-05

From an advanced metrics perspective, Illinois’ 2005 team is one of the best teams in recent memory not to win the national championship. Illinois’ adjusted efficiency that season was +32.68, per kenpom.com, which means on average the Illini were scoring 32.68 more points than their opponents for every 100 possessions.

It’s a mark that’s better than most national champions during the kenpom.com era, so for the 2020-21 Illini to be mentioned as potentially the school’s best team since 2005 should be encouraging and set an extremely high bar for the program this winter and next spring. In case you missed it, Katz projected Illinois as a No. 1 seed in his first March Madness bracket projections for 2021.

Katz has named Illinois’s Ayo Dosunmu, who returned to Champaign for his junior season, as the best point guard in the sport and Dosunmu and big man Kofi Cockburn are potential breakout All-America candidates.

The question for the Illini during the 2020-21 season is whether they can improve from good to great on at least one end of the floor, if not both. Their personnel is there, but Illinois ranked just ninth in offensive efficiency in conference play last season, per kenpom.com, and fourth defensively. For the season, Illinois’s defense ranked No. 35, just ahead of its offense at No. 38.

In a conference where Iowa returns most of roster from a top-five offense and Rutgers does the same from a team that had a top-10 defense, can Illinois separate from the crowd in the conference behind its elite outside-in duo of Dosunmu and Cockburn?

In the last two months of last season, when the Illini went 5-4 to close the season, Illinois’s offense and defense ranked worse than average compared to the rest of the teams in Katz’s preseason Power 36. The individual pieces are there in Champaign and if the Illini can put them all together, they could have their best team since 2005.

Patrick Gorski | USA Today Sports Images Iowa's Conner McCaffery.

5. Iowa

Best team since… 2005-06

The Hawkeyes are getting a lot of preseason love, including a spot at No. 5 in Katz’s preseason Power 36. Senior Luka Garza is the sport’s only returning consensus First Team or Second Team All-American, and if the Hawkeyes are to have a really special season, guard Joe Wieskamp could potentially have a breakout season in which he’s also considered for All-American honors.

Iowa has consistently been a good, if not great, offensive team under coach Fran McCaffery. The Hawkeyes finished No. 5 nationally in offensive efficiency last season, per kenpom.com, just like they did in 2014. They had top-20 offenses in 2018 and 2019, and they ranked in the top 30 in 2015 and 2016.

So buckets should come easy in Iowa City. The key is how good Iowa’s defense will be, because Iowa ranked 12th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency in conference play last season, ahead of only Northwestern and Nebraska, which won a combined 15 games. Among the teams ranked in Katz’s preseason Power 36, Iowa’s defensive efficiency during games played in February and March ranked as the second-worst, which could limit the benefits of 75 percent of Iowa’s minutes returning and a potent offense.

In six of the last seven seasons, Iowa finished with between 19 and 23 wins, making four of the last six NCAA tournaments as a No. 7 seed (twice), No. 10 seed and No. 11 seed.

But the 2021 Hawkeyes, with a potential National Player of the Year campaign from Garza, an All-Big Ten campaign from Wieskamp and a full, healthy season from Jordan Bohannon, could produce the program’s best season since 2006, when the Steve Alford-led Hawkeyes finished 25-9 (11-5 Big Ten) and earned a No. 3 seed.

Those Hawkeyes contended for the Big Ten regular season title, finishing one game behind first-place Ohio State and tying with Illinois. This season’s conference race could be similarly competitive at the top. Katz projected Iowa as a No. 2 seed in his first March Madness bracket projection of the season. Katz’s projections also feature Wisconsin on the No. 2 seed line, and Illinois as a No. 1 seed and Michigan State as a No. 3 seed, which suggests the top of the conference could beat up on each other all winter, potentially making it tough for any Big Ten team to earn an elusive No. 1 seed.

If Iowa’s offense can remain at a top-five level in the sport, if not improve to the best in the country, and if its defense can improve to even average in the Big Ten (think somewhere between No. 30 and No. 40 nationally), the Hawkeyes could have their best season since 2006.

COACH SPEAK: 7 insights from John Calipari, Mark Few and Tom Izzo on college hoops in 2020

Jeff Curry | USA TODAY Sports Images The Bradley Braves.

6. Bradley

Best team since… 2005-06

Last season, Bradley went 23-11, building off of its 2019 NCAA Tournament appearance. The Braves finished tied for third in the Missouri Valley, fueled by the second-best offense in conference play, and they won the conference tournament with three wins in three days at Arch Madness.

Bradley was picked third in the conference’s preseason poll this season, receiving one first-place vote, as the Braves will be tasked with replacing the production of seniors Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell. But if an Elijah Childs-led Bradley team can continue the program’s trajectory with three straight seasons of at least 20 wins and back-to-back conference tournament titles, the Braves could be set up for their best season since 2006, when they earned a No. 13 seed and advanced to the Sweet 16.

LOOKING BACK: The top 10 changes to the NCAA tournament since 1995

D. Ross Cameron | USA Today Sports Images The Stanford Cardinal.

7. Stanford

Best team since… 2007-08

There were only six teams in the country last season that have a better adjusted defensive efficiency than Stanford, per kenpom.com., and two of them were potential No. 1 seeds in Kansas and Baylor. Two others are perennial defensive juggernauts in Virginia and West Virginia. That’s the kind of defensive team that Stanford was last season. The Cardinal put the clamps on its opponents, holding them to under 30 percent 3-point shooting and below 47 percent from inside the arc.

However, Stanford’s offense capped the team’s potential, despite its top-10 defense. The Cardinal turned the ball over on roughly one out of every five offensive possessions, and struggled on the offensive glass.

If Stanford can make strides on that end of the floor, namely taking better care of the ball and rebounding more of its misses, then the Cardinal could realize its No. 24 ranking in Katz’s preseason Power 36 rankings. Katz projected Stanford as a No. 6 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, which would be the program’s best seed since the Cardinal earned a No. 3 seed in 2008 as part of a 28-8 season that ended in the Sweet 16.

Geoff Burke | USA TODAY Sports Images Richmond's Jacob Gilyard.

8. Richmond

Best team since… 2009-10

The Spiders have received their share of preseason love from NCAA.com this offseason. Katz ranked Richmond at No. 25 in his preseason Power 36 rankings and he has the Spiders as a No. 7 seed in his first March Madness bracket projections for 2021. With Richmond returning 94 percent of its minutes from last season and from a team that posted a ridiculous 0.88 defensive efficiency in February and March, the Spiders are among the teams best poised to pick up where they left off last spring.

The Spiders finished last season with a 24-7 record as they finished second in the A-10 standings behind world-beater Dayton. Now, the Flyers could be passing the torch to the Spiders as the team to beat in the conference. If they live up to Katz’s preseason NCAA tournament projection of a No. 7 seed, that would be the program’s best seed since 2010, when Chris Mooney’s Spiders finished with a 26-9 record (13-3 A-10).

The 2009-10 season was the last time Richmond was ranked in the AP Top 25 poll, peaking at No. 23, and there’s a chance the Spiders could eclipse that mark in a matter of weeks into the 2020-21 season.

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