Post’s Top 25, Final Four picks for 2021-22 college basketball

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College basketball fans, players and coaches deserve this. Last year’s COVID-impacted campaign was a struggle, played in mostly empty arenas and without a true non-conference season. It was at times joyless — lacking the passion, enthusiasm and intensity that make the sport great.

But everyone persevered and got through it. And now a new season has arrived that promises to be memorable. Sold-out arenas are back. So are many great players.

Some returned after being given an extra year of eligibility, others opted to come back — or in the case of top freshmen, to attend college in the first place — due to the NCAA greenlighting name, image and likeness usage after dragging its feet for longer than one of its never-ending investigations.

Gonzaga and National Player of the Year candidate Drew Timme are chasing that elusive title after falling short last April. Mike Krzyzewski is looking to go out a winner in his 42nd and final season as Duke head coach. Kentucky has reloaded after its first losing season in 32 years. Memphis might be the most interesting team of all, with a star-studded coaching staff and loaded roster featuring elite NBA draft prospects Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.

There are new coaches at North Carolina (Hubert Davis) and Texas (Chris Beard), and the return of championship-or-bust expectations at UCLA.

There is much experience nationwide and much young, next-level talent. And, for the most part, no more Zoom, thankfully. It’s the college basketball we have been waiting for with bated breath. The road to the Final Four in New Orleans starts on Tuesday.

Here is The Post’s preseason top 25:

1. Gonzaga

One of these years the Zags will cut down the nets on the first Monday of April. The longer you pound on the door, the more likely it eventually will fall down, and Gonzaga again has as much talent as anyone. The Bulldogs return one of the best big men in the nation (Timme) and add the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft (Chet Holmgren). They also feature a supporting cast that includes high-level transfer Rasir Bolton (Iowa State), skilled returning players Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson and the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com.

2. Texas

The Longhorns have so much depth, their second unit could make the NCAA Tournament. Managing egos may be Beard’s toughest task in his first season at his alma mater after adding six transfers — including three major difference-makers in Tre Mitchell (Massachusetts), Timmy Allen (Utah) and Marcus Carr (Minnesota). Combine that with the return of starters Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey and the presence of top-40 freshman Jaylon Tyson, and the Longhorns are flooded with talent.

3. UCLA

The entire starting five from the stunning Final Four run returned. Mick Cronin was able to add to that formidable group by landing defensive ace Myles Johnson from Rutgers to complement Cody Riley in the paint and blue-chip wing prospect Peyton Watson. The expectations in Westwood are through the roof. It’s championship or failure.

4. Kansas

For most schools, a second-place finish in one of the best leagues in the country and an NCAA Tournament victory is reason to celebrate. In Lawrence, it’s a dismal year. The ceiling for this group is considerably higher, after bringing back its top three scorers: Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and Jalen Wilson. That explosive trio will be tougher to defend, now that they will be joined by experienced playmaking guards in Remy Martin (Arizona State) and Joseph Yesufu (Drake) who will stretch opposing defenses.

Kansas
Kansas’ David McCormack (33), Ochai Agbaji (30) and Mitch Lightfoot (44).
AP

5. Purdue

Expectations in West Lafayette, Ind., start with getting to New Orleans. Purdue returns its top eight scorers after finishing fourth in the rugged Big Ten — a group led by double-double machine Trevion Williams, on-the-rise guard Jaden Ivey and 7-foot-4 game-changer Zach Edey.

6. Michigan

Experience and elite freshmen: That’s the strong mix Juwan Howard has put together for his third season in Ann Arbor. Back is the anchor, Associated Press preseason All-American Hunter Dickinson, alongside glue-guy senior Eli Brooks. They are joined by intriguing graduate transfer point guard DeVante’ Jones (Coastal Carolina) and a big-time recruiting class headed up by five-star forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabaté.

7. Kentucky

This isn’t the Kentucky our pre-pandemic selves would recognize. It is old, but in a good way, with seven contributors entering their junior or senior seasons. After their first losing season in more than three decades last season, the Wildcats should be a vastly improved shooting team — following the additions of sharpshooting transfers Kellan Grady (Davidson) and CJ Fredrick (Iowa) — and they have a potentially elite two-headed point guard tandem in Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler and five-star freshman TyTy Washington.

8. Illinois

The Illini may boast the nation’s top inside-out duo: physical center Kofi Cockburn and dynamic point guard Andre Curbelo. The elite tandem will be counted on to lead Brad Underwood’s team after the departures of All-American leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu along with contributors Adam Miller and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

9. Villanova

Nobody played national champion Baylor tougher in the NCAA Tournament than Jay Wright’s Wildcats, and that was without Associated Press preseason All-American Collin Gillespie. Only forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is gone from that group, making Villanova a popular Final Four pick. Fifth-year seniors Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels will lead this team, but versatile junior guard Justin Moore is the key. Expect a major leap from him after a somewhat underwhelming sophomore season.

10. Baylor

Baylor won’t replace the production of MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, the trio of guards who led the Bears to the national championship. But they do have plenty of firepower, whether it’s the return of Matthew Mayer, LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler or the additions of Arizona transfer James Akinjo and top-15 recruit Kendall Brown. The frontcourt could be a strength, with Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua back, and the possible emergence of 7-foot sophomore Zach Loveday.

11. Duke

Krzyzewski’s final season is one of the leading storylines of this year in the sport, as Duke hopes to send Coach K out a winner with his 13th Final Four and sixth national title. There is potential for a special season — led by the fantastic freshman trio of potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Paolo Banchero, White Plains native AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels. Sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach will run the show, and if he can take the next step after a solid freshman year, the Blue Devils are positioned to be a threat.

12. Oregon

Nobody turns over a roster more frequently and with as much success as Dana Altman. Oregon seems to feature a significantly new team on an annual basis, yet has reached the Sweet 16 four times in the past five tournaments. This season is no different. Gone are stars LJ Figueroa, Eugene Omoruyi and Chris Duarte. In are impact transfers Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse), De’Vion Harmon (Oklahoma) and Jacob Young (Rutgers), joining holdovers Will Richardson and Eric Williams Jr. Somehow, Altman will make it work. He always does.

Duke
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
Getty Images

13. Alabama

The run-and-gun Crimson Tide will again be a must-watch, a 3-point-happy, perimeter-oriented team that will light up the scoreboard. Leading scorers Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly are joined by five-star freshman JD Davison and Texas Tech transfer Nimari Burnett in a loaded backcourt that will keep SEC coaches up at night.

14. Arkansas

The Razorbacks lost four of their top six scorers from the program’s first Elite Eight team in 26 years. That would mean rebuilding for most schools. For Eric Musselman, it merely meant hitting the transfer market. He landed point guard Chris Lykes (Miami), guard Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh), wing Stanley Umude (South Dakota) and forward Trey Wade (Wichita State). They will join key returners JD Notae, Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams in Fayetteville.

15. Memphis

Penny Hardaway returns his top two scorers, Landers Nolley II and DeAndre Williams, added premier recruits Duren and Bates and a major transfer in Earl Timberlake (Miami). Oh, and his coaching staff now includes Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace. It’s going to be a fascinating season at Memphis.

16. Auburn

Between 7-foot-1 North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler, junior holdover Jaylin Williams and five-star freshman Jabari Smith, Auburn’s frontcourt has sky-high potential. If the transfer-heavy backcourt produces, the Tigers could be Final Four sleepers.

17. Houston

Only Gonzaga (127) has more wins over the past four seasons than Houston (111). Kelvin Sampson has turned the AAC school into one of the very best programs not in a power conference, and despite losing star guards Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau, don’t expect that to change this year. Junior Marcus Sasser, the team’s second-leading scorer last year in its Final Four run, has star potential, and the physical frontcourt stays mostly intact.

18. Florida State

Florida State has become a basketball school under Leonard Hamilton, with three straight trips to the second weekend of the tournament, a trend that could continue this March. The Seminoles will be deep and long, featuring a strong recruiting class highlighted by top-25 freshman Matthew Cleveland, transfers Caleb Mills (Houston) and Cam’Ron Fletcher (Kentucky), and former role players ready for their star turn in Anthony Polite and Malik Osborne.

19. North Carolina

Hubert Davis’ first offseason as a head coach was a strong one. Taking over for retired Hall of Famer Roy Williams, Davis landed two major transfers to restock his frontcourt: Brady Manek (Oklahoma) and Dawson Garcia (Marquette). He was also able to keep his young, promising backcourt in place. Now, we see if the former Knick can coach these players.

20. Ohio State

The stunning early exit from last year’s NCAA Tournament — the second-seeded Buckeyes were eliminated by No. 15 Oral Roberts — overshadowed another strong campaign by Chris Holtmann’s program. Expect Ohio State to bounce back, particularly if transfer guards Jamari Wheeler (Penn State) and Cedric Russell (Louisiana) can fill the void left by leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. in the backcourt. Up front, Holtmann’s group is stacked — with EJ Liddell, Kyle Young, Zed Key and Justice Sueing all back, and transfer Joey Brunk (Indiana) added to the mix.

21. Tennessee

Rick Barnes wanted to test his deep team, and he didn’t mess around — scheduling Villanova, Texas, Memphis and either North Carolina or Purdue in the Hall of Fame Tip-off at Mohegan Sun. His fourth-ranked, seven-man recruiting class, led by top-rated point guard Kennedy Chandler, will get an early taste of big-time college basketball. Fortunately, that group will have plenty of experienced teammates to rely upon: guards Victor Bailey Jr. and Josiah-Jordan James, and forward John Fulkerson.

22. Maryland

Experience won’t be an issue, but cohesion could be. Maryland is working in two key players: Fatts Russell (Rhode Island) in the backcourt and Qudus Wahab (Georgetown) in the paint. The Terrapins also added graduates Xavier Green (Old Dominion) and Simon Wright (Elon). Getting all these new players to mesh with star returnees Eric Ayala and Donta Scott may take time. By March, though, the Terrapins could be very dangerous with a more well-rounded roster than last year’s team that reached the second round of the tournament.

College hoops
Kyle Lofton
Getty Images

23. St. Bonaventure

This has a magical season in Olean written all over it. The entire starting five, all of them seniors who averaged double figures last season, are back after reaching the NCAA Tournament a year ago. And the strong core, led by floor general Kyle Lofton, has more help from a pair of transfers: forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (Pittsburgh) and guard Quadry Adams (Wake Forest).

24. Virginia

First, the good news for the Cavaliers: Fourth-year starter Kihei Clark returns and will be joined in the backcourt by talented underclassman Reece Beekman. Now, the bad news: There is a ton of scoring to make up — after losing the top three of Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy III. Virginia will lean on its defense — no news there — and will count on two new additions, Jayden Gardner (East Carolina) and Armaan Franklin (Indiana), making an immediate impact.

25. Connecticut

There are clearly offensive questions with this team, and I believe Danny Hurley made a mistake not adding a proven scorer from the transfer market. The Huskies struggled to score last year when James Bouknight was out with an elbow injury, and there is no obvious replacement for the firepower they lost when the dynamic guard went to the NBA. But the Huskies are loaded in the frontcourt, where sophomore big man Adama Sanogo is a sleeper Big East Player of the Year candidate. They also will be incredibly difficult to score against in the paint and will return virtually everyone of note aside from Bouknight.

Final Four: Auburn, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Texas

Champion: Gonzaga

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