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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

College basketball 2023-24: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and four Pac-12 teams make Top 25 cut as regular season tips off

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The Pac-12 placed just two men’s basketball teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 rankings, fewer than any other major conference. The Hotline is a tad more optimistic.

We see at least four teams capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament in the Pac-12’s final season of existence.

Arizona and USC are the obvious picks; Colorado and UCLA also possess reasonable paths into March Madness. Anyone else? We won’t dismiss Arizona State or Oregon as at-large contenders. Beyond that, the pickings are a tad thin.

Presenting the Hotline’s Top 25 rankings for a season that begins Monday.

1. Kansas: Hunter Dickinson’s arrival (from Michigan) adds one of the nation’s top players to a stout group of returnees. It might take time for the pieces to coalesce – two-thirds of the roster is new – but the Jayhawks could be the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed come Selection Sunday.

2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were a lock for the upper echelon of the sport the moment center Zach Edey announced his return. The 7-foot-4 scoring and rebounding machine is one of five returning starters from a team that won 29 games, then flopped in the NCAAs.

3. Duke: You need a Duke degree to count the number of blue-chip prospects – the list starts with Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach – but even a high school dropout could sense the pressure building on second-year coach Jon Scheyer to make a deep run in March.

4. Marquette: The Big East regular-season and tournament champs return all their key players except forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper. The primary issue for the Golden Eagles: Their conference, which includes the defending national champs, is absolutely loaded.

5. Michigan State: The Spartans are exceedingly well positioned for a prolonged run through the NCAAs as a slew of blue-chip recruits join coach Tom Izzo’s gifted group of veterans. Topping that list: all-everything guard Tyson Walker. The Big Ten looks like a two-team race.

6. UConn: The 2023 national champions were whacked by attrition (no surprise) but appear equipped to navigate the roster transition with a stellar incoming class that includes Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer. Get the Huskies early or good luck to you.

7. USC: Few programs fared better in the offseason than USC, which welcomes back guard Boogie Ellis and welcomes in guard Isaiah Collier, the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Add a talented frontcourt – keep a close eye on Vince Iwuchukwu, a former five-star prospect – and coach Andy Enfield has arguably his best roster.

8. Houston: The return of guard Jamal Shead and arrival of wing LJ Cryer (from Baylor) will help the Cougars handle their first season in the rugged Big 12. The elevated competition could adversely impact Houston’s seed but will fortify the roster for the NCAAs.

9. Arizona: We remain convinced that the departures of forward Azuolas Tubelis (NBA draft) and guard Kerr Kriisa (transfer portal) will benefit the Wildcats come March as their minutes shift to tougher, more athletic players. If the transition leads to a few more early-season losses, so be it. Success will be judged by the number of wins in the NCAAs.

10. San Diego State: What does the encore look like? The NCAA Tournament runner-up must manage soaring expectations and increased attention. The returns of Lamont Butler, Jaedon LeDee and Darrion Trammell will help immensely on that front, as will the arrival (from USC) of guard Reese Dixon-Waters, who fits perfectly with the Aztecs on both ends of the court.

11. Tennessee: The Vols cleaned up in the transfer portal and are the team to beat in the SEC if guard Zakai Zeigler fully recovers from his torn ACL by the time conference play begins – and if they find a bit more offensive pop.

12. Creighton: The Bluejays return three double-digit scorers from a team that won 24 games and added a key transfer in guard Steven Ashworth (Utah State). But one of the top-12 teams in the country is merely the third best in the stacked Big East.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats returned to their one-and-done blueprint for roster construction as the pressure on coach John Calipari increases. The results were impressive: They signed the top recruits in the country at three positions. Come March, Big Blue should be plenty dangerous.

14. FAU: Our faith in FAU remains strong seven months after the miraculous Final Four run. Why? Because all five starters return, as does coach Dusty May. But the move into the American Athletic Conference means elevated competition, more losses and a tougher path back into March Madness.

15. Arkansas: Meet the most talented team in the SEC thanks to the combination of a stellar recruiting class, two impact transfers (Tramon Mark from Houston and Keyon Menifield from Washington) and two first-rate returnees (Devo Davis and Trevon Brazile). Don’t dismiss the Hogs as a Final Four threat.

16. Miami: The Hurricanes have a huge void to fill following the departure of guard Isaiah Wong, but coach Jim Larranaga’s program should contend. After Duke, the ACC is wide open.

17. Gonzaga: We simply don’t see the same level of talent in Spokane that existed for years under coach Mark Few. Transfers Ryan Nembhard (from Creighton) and Graham Ike (Wyoming) will help offset the loss of Drew Timme, and the West Coast Conference remains Gonzaga’s for the taking. But the broader trajectory appears to be flatlining.

18. North Carolina: From NCAA Tournament runners-up in 2022 to mere observers in 2023, the Tar Heels regressed massively. Armando Bacot and R.J. Davis are back, but the race for second place in the ACC (behind Duke) depends on the newcomers in Chapel Hill, including Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and Notre Dame transplant Cormac Ryan.

19. Colorado: The second tier of Pac-12 contenders starts with the Buffaloes, who welcome back forward Tristan da Silva and guard KJ Simpson. Two newcomers, big recruit Cody Williams and transfer Eddie Lampkin (TCU), help form a core four that should propel CU back into the NCAAs.

20. Villanova: The Wildcats thrived in the transfer portal with Washington State’s TJ Bamba and Richmond’s Tyler Burton (to name just two). Add returnees Justin Moore and Eric Dixon, and the post-Jay Wright dip we saw in 2023 could be fleeting.

21. Texas A&M: The Aggies have won 52 games the past two seasons but none in the NCAAs, so the pressure on fifth-year coach Buzz Williams is substantial. Four returning starters should help deal with the heat.

22. Saint Mary’s: Led by guard Aidan Mahaney, one of the best players on the West Coast, the Gaels should win 20 games (again) and return to the NCAAs. But just as the floor is high because of Randy Bennett’s stellar coaching, so is the ceiling low due to the lack of high-end talent.

23. Baylor: Any program that averages 26 wins per season (over the past four years) while playing in perhaps the nation’s best conference warrants a spot in our rankings. But the challenge is steep for coach Scott Drew after the triple-whammy departures of Adam Flagler, Keyonte George and LJ Cryer.

24. St. John’s: It should come as zero surprise that first-year coach Rick Pitino acquired considerable talent in a short period of time with the Red Storm. (The list includes Oregon State transfer Glenn Taylor.) By March, we expect to see St. John’s participating in the NCAAs – and the NCAA investigating St. John’s.

25. UCLA: The roster turnover was immense, but coach Mick Cronin is more than capable of creating a whole greater than the parts. He won’t have much margin for error, especially in what should be a competitive conference race. But look for an upside surprise in Westwood.