Well, it’s that time again. Now that we’re knee-deep in the college basketball offseason, it’s time to reveal our Too Early Other Top 25 Rankings for the 2020-21 season*. Over the next few days, we’ll release them five at a time until the whole set is out and ready to be blasted by the crazed fans of Twitter. Away we go!
These rankings have at least one thing going for them: It’s not March, so we can call them “too early” rather than “way too early.” Maybe that means they’ll be more accurate than usual. Last year, we rolled out a Way Too Early Top 25 that included San Diego State, Dayton, Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, Utah State and ETSU (good!). It also included Davidson and VCU (not as good!).
Here’s the first five in what will
probably definitely not be a mixed bag of projections:
25. New Mexico State Aggies
2019-20: 25-6 (16-0), WAC regular season champion
Unlike a year ago, New Mexico State does not charge into the season with the bulk of its rotation intact. Yet over the past nine seasons, no matter the players, the results have been the same: the Aggies sitting atop the WAC with 20-plus wins.
Our voters expect no different next year, especially since NMSU held off a late charge from East Tennessee State to keep Chris Jans in Las Cruces, where he’s averaged 27.6 wins per season over his three-year tenure. An injury-riddled campaign in 2019-20 nonetheless saw the Aggies finish strong, as they were riding a 19-game winning streak when the WAC Tournament was called off. Key injuries to departed seniors A.J. Harris, Clayton Henry and Trevelin Queen opened the door for junior guard Jabari Rice, who had a breakout campaign (12.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG), acting as the long-range threat the team sorely needed.
He should play a starring role from the jump next season, and will be joined in the backcourt by point guard Evan Gilyard, who injected athleticism and savvy into the Aggies after becoming eligible midseason. The senior is the rare player to make the switch in the Battle of I-10, having started his career at UTEP. Las Cruces native Johnny McCants will anchor the team in the middle after finishing the season strong (10.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG in WAC play).
This team doesn’t figure to have the overwhelming depth that Jans has deployed the past two seasons given its heavy losses to graduation. But it has a strong nucleus in Rice, Gilyard and McCants, and Jans — a proven recruiter at the JuCo level — adds a pair of athletic pieces in Jason King and Wilfried Liyaki from those ranks. Our voters have faith that this will be enough to put NMSU in the national mid-major conversation yet again.
24. East Tennessee State Buccaneers
2019-20: 30-4 (16-2), SoCon regular season and tournament champion
Say it ain’t so, Steve. One of our favorite and most online coaches has left the mid-major ranks, as Steve Forbes took the Wake Forest job that opened up a few weeks ago. It was a well-deserved move for a coach that had done nothing but win over his five seasons in Johnson City, never winning fewer than 24 games and guiding the Bucs to two NCAA Tournament bids.
After doing the dance with Jans, the program ultimately named Jason Shay as Forbes’ successor. The longtime NCAA assistant gets his first crack at a head job after serving on Forbes’ staff during his entire tenure at ETSU. That could ensure a good chunk of the potential returnees from the school record 30-win team do, in fact, return. That, however, won’t include Bo Hodges, as the first-team all-league selection had reportedly entered the transfer portal even prior to Shay being announced as the new coach.
That removes a gritty two-way wing from the roster, but Shay should have every chance to bring back senior marksman Patrick Good and talented junior point guard Daivien Williamson, which would give ETSU one of the better backcourts in the SoCon. Forbes also nabbed a number of transfers, including several of the graduate variety in former Tennessee guard Jalen Johnson and former Northern Kentucky forward Silas Adheke.
In addition to Forbes and Hodges, ETSU also lost a slew of quality players to graduation, including Isaiah Tisdale, Tray Boyd and Jeromy Rodriguez. That equates to a lot of roster turnover, but our voters have faith in the foundation Forbes built and that Shay will keep finding ways to win in an increasingly rugged league.
23. Little Rock Trojans
2019-20: 21-10 (15-5), Sun Belt regular season champion
The Trojans are four seasons removed from their lone season under Chris Beard, when they won 30 games and launched one of the sport’s coaching stars. Darrell Walker, however, got Little Rock back into the championship picture last season, locking up the Sun Belt regular season title and the No. 1 seed in a conference tournament that never happened.
The Trojans should have every chance to recapture the magic next year. Little Rock returns arguably the Sun Belt’s best offensive player in senior point guard Markquis Nowell and best defensive player in senior forward Ruot Monyyong. The pair of All-Sun Belt first teamers are joined by senior wing Ben Coupet (11.2 PPG, 4.7 APG) and junior forward Kamani Johnson (11.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG) to form a strong, experienced nucleus. They also have a number of breakout candidates in sophomore guards Jovan Stulic and Marko Lukic, and junior forward Nikola Maric, all of whom played solid contributing roles on the Sun Belt champion.
Walker has displayed development chops at Little Rock, helping guide Nowell from a dynamic, shot-chasing freshman into a still-dynamic, Player of the Year candidate who stayed within the rhythm of the offense to produce the most efficient offense in the Sun Belt. Walker talked to MMM in January about that growth from his star:
“Last year, he was more looking to score and I kept telling him you‘re not going to be able to play for me if you’re going to chase shots at 5’7.’’ You’re going to play 35 minutes and get shots in the rhythm of the offense, and he’s learned how to score in the rhythm of the offense and set his teammates up, and that’s a big chunk. He’s matured as a player.”
Counterintuitive as it may be with a 5’7 leader, the Trojans can field giant lineups, with nearly all other members of the rotation over 6’5. It could all set up for another banner season in Little Rock.
22. UNC Greensboro Spartans
2019-20: 23-9 (13-5), third place SoCon regular season
Unlike ETSU, UNC Greensboro held on to its rising coach this offseason, and that should put the SoCon power right back into the mix. Wes Miller’s name was connected to the Wake Forest opening but the defensive whiz is back in Greensboro, where he’s engineered top-78 defenses nationally over the past three seasons.
The Spartans lose a lot of punch from the SoCon’s most efficient defensive unit, as James Dickey and his elite interior defense is lost to graduation. So is fellow starting forward Kyrin Galloway. Those two players were the backbone of the 19th-best shot blocking team in the country.
Our voters’ faith in UNCG likely rests heavily on the possibility of reigning SoCon POY and two-time DPOY Isaiah Miller returning for his senior season. The would-be senior had an incredible year (17.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.1 APG) as he adjusted to life without program great Francis Alonso alongside him in the backcourt. Miller put his name in the NBA draft while retaining his eligibility. If he comes back, he’ll lead an intriguing backcourt with redshirt junior Kaleb Hunter (10.3 PPG) — who took a big leap forward — and sophomore Keyshaun Langley (6.6 PPG, 1.8 APG), whose continued development could give the Spartans more options with Miller off the ball.
While UNCG locked up a great shot blocker on the transfer market — former Central Arkansas center Hayden Koval — it appears he’ll need to sit a year. That puts the onus on players like juniors Angelo Allegri and Mohammed Abdulsalam to replicate some of the rim protecting prowess lost last season. But with one Miller on the sideline and the potential for another to yet again lead the show in the backcourt, our voters are confident the Spartans are headed for more wins in 2020-21.
21. Pepperdine Waves
2019-20: 16-16 (8-8), sixth place WCC regular season, WCC Tournament quarterfinals
Lorenzo Romar’s return to Malibu has so far seen a pair of 16-win seasons, with the potential for more peeking through last year’s campaign. Behind All-WCC first team guard Colbey Ross, the Waves took Arizona, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s to the limit at various points last season, which included a dramatic double overtime loss to the Gaels in the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament.
Ross scored 43 points in that game, and our voters project the senior’s star power to lift Pepperdine in a WCC that may be more vulnerable than usual behind the Zags. He was the only player in Division I to average at least 20 points and seven assists per game, and had the eighth-best assist rate in the country (40%). Like he did against the Gaels in the WCC Tournament, Ross didn’t wilt against the best competition, scoring 20 points or more in games against the Zags, Arizona and USC.
Alongside their star point guard, the Waves return the bulk of a rotation that produced the 85th-most efficient offense in the country per KenPom. That includes junior Kessler Edwards (13.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 43.7 3P%), who was one of the WCC’s most productive players last year and could be ticketed for more, as well as Sedrick Altman, who started 17 games as a freshman.
Edwards’ older brother Kameron is lost to graduation, which removes the Waves’ second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. But the rest of the team is back, and proved more than capable of running the up-tempo system Romar favored with his talent-heavy teams at Washington. He’s got an experienced star pulling the strings in Ross, and another year of playing together could help this group close out the big games next season.