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The Other Top 25 2020-21: Gonzaga should be a national championship favorite

The Zags start at No. 1 in our poll and might be No. 1 nationally.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Brigham Young Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

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!

*if necessary

There are few guarantees in college basketball, but there are usually a couple in The Other Top 25. One of them is that Gonzaga is going to be up there, probably at 1 or 2. The other is that the remaining four teams will be somewhere in the hunt for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

This year is no different.

The Zags are No. 1 in The Other Top 25 and might start the 2020-21 college basketball season (if it happens) as the top team in all the land. Yes, this is like the 85th consecutive year that we have put Gonzaga in or near the top spot in the preseason. So it’s easy to take for granted exactly what Mark Few has managed to do in Spokane. He’s turned a West Coast Conference school that had one magical tournament run when he was an assistant into a program that performs on the same level as the bluebloods of the sport. Every year.

Gonzaga isn’t the only team from outside the power conferences with the ability to make a run in March 2021. As you’ll see here, the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley are both primed for big years.

In the A-10, it’s not the usual suspects, either; Travis Ford finally has it rolling at Saint Louis (we think), while Chris Mooney hopes to prove us right after we tweeted #ExtendMooney into existence.

In the Valley, Northern Iowa and Loyola University Chicago are the two clubs to keep an eye on. Both return the core of solid teams from last year, making the MVC a potential multi-bid league for the first time in the post-Wichita State era.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Iowa at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

5. Northern Iowa Panthers

2019-20: 25-6 (13-4)

There were few occurrences weirder last February and March (pre-quarantine) than watching Northern Iowa blast Drake by 27 in Des Moines, only to see the Bulldogs come back and win by 21 less than a week later in the Missouri Valley quarterfinals. That loss probably popped what would have been UNI’s bubble and have doomed an awesome Panthers team to the NIT.

Thankfully, that same group returns in 2020-21, led by reigning conference player of the year AJ Green. Last year, Green became just the third sophomore ever to win that award, joining Fred VanVleet and Doug McDermott. He’s scored over 1,100 points in his two seasons thanks to a 44% mark from three in conference play and a 92% rate from the line overall. Green is the best shooter in the Valley, and if he can make strides in his ability to defend and distribute, he’ll have the Panthers in the AP Top 25 conversation.

UNI is returning more than just the best player in the conference. By his side — or, rather, down low — will be Austin Phyfe, the league’s best big man not named Cameron Krutwig. Phyfe is one of the most efficient players you’ll ever see — he led the MVC in offensive rating (132.6) and shot 69% (nice) from the field in conference play. He also ranked in the top two in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, and effective field goal percentage. For that reason, the two best players in the conference might play their home games in Cedar Falls.

With those two, it’s easy to see why the Panthers had one of the most efficient offenses in the country last year (No. 23 per KenPom), and that’s not even factoring in Trae Berhow, who was second on the team in scoring and shot 42% from three. He’ll be back as well.

There’s not much of note coming in either on the transfer market or in the freshman class, but that’s ok. The one key, according to Ben Jacobson, will be if Tywhon Pickford can step up and fill the void left by Isaiah Brown’s graduation. Brown was MVC defensive player of the year last year, but Jacobson thinks Pickford can help make up for his loss.

“We’re counting on Ty to come in whenever we would get back, this summer or the fall, and immediately step into that spot. He’s shown that he can do some of those same things defensively. Now we need him to do it for longer and we need him to do it every practice and every game.”

MVC Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

4. Loyola University Chicago Ramblers

2019-20: 21-11 (13-5)

Loyola’s best shot at becoming more than “the team that made the Final Four that one time” is in 2020-21. Almost the entire team is returning from a group that won 13 games in the Valley and played its best basketball in February, which included a win at then-reigning conference champion Bradley on Senior Day.

Krutwig, the only guy other than AJ Green to get a player of the year vote, will return for his senior season. I could sit here and spew stats at you, but a better use of your time would be to go read what Kyle Cajero wrote about him back in December. TL;DR: Krutwig can score, rebound, and assist, and he can do all those things well.

Thanks to his role on the Final Four team in 2018, Krutwig is the guy everyone will know. But he’s certainly not the only player capable of earning all-conference honors. In fact, Tate Hall was All-Valley Third Team and on the All-Newcomer Team last season. The transfer from University of Indianapolis is a three-point marksman who picks his spots well, and as you just read in Kyle’s piece (I know you read it), is excellent in transition.

On the other end of the court is the Ramblers’ honoree on the All-Defensive Team from last year, Lucas Williamson. The lock-down defender ranked fourth in the Valley in steal percentage and, as the Loyola Phoenix points out, forced UNI’s Green to commit 14 turnovers over two games last year.

Returning everyone from an already-good team is a great way to get into The Other Top 25. Adding someone like sit-out transfer Brandon Norris, finally eligible this season, can put Loyola over the top. Norris was a Horizon League All-Freshman Team member and ranked 23rd in Division I with a 2.75 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2018-19. He and Williamson will give Loyola the most annoying, suffocating backcourt in the league.

St Louis v Dayton Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

3. Saint Louis Billikens

2019-20: 23-8 (12-6)

One of the 4 million college basketball mysteries that the COVID-19 pandemic has left us with is what could have been for the Saint Louis Billikens. They had put together their best season yet under Travis Ford, thanks to a red-hot finish to the regular season. SLU won its last five games, including a win at home over VCU and at both Rhode Island and George Mason. A second-straight Atlantic 10 championship was certainly possible (before you laugh, remember: The Billikens lost to Dayton by two and by five in 2020).

The core of Ford’s first true recruiting class is entering its senior season, led by Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Javonte Perkins. Those three also happen to be the Billikens’ three leading scorers and rebounders from last year. Aside from returning every important player from last year’s team, Saint Louis also adds Marten Linssen, a transfer from UNC Wilmington that averaged 10-and-five for the Seahawks last year. He is eligible to play immediately.

Last year’s Billikens were known for a few things, some good and some bad. The good: they were one of the best defensive units in the country, ranking 44th nationally in defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and keeping their opponents under 70 points in each of their last seven games.

That defense started with the rising seniors. French was second in the A-10 in block percentage and holds the school record both for career blocks and blocks in a season. Meanwhile the 6’3 Goodwin had 10 games last season in which he recorded three-or-more steals. As a team, Saint Louis held opponents to just 44% from inside the arc — the 23rd-best mark in the nation.

It seems like we just can’t write something up about Saint Louis without mentioning that the Billikens were comically bad from the foul line. Will this make a big difference next year? Who knows. But they ranked 353 out of [checks notes] 353 Division I teams in free throw shooting, making just 57.1% of their attempts (1.4% worse than 352nd-ranked UAPB). French is a major part of that. He took more free throws than anyone on the team (155) and made 51 of them. That’s under 33%.

That seems like it could be a big deal in a close game. Idk. Anyway, Saint Louis is good enough that it shouldn’t matter TOO MUCH. The Billikens will dance again in 2021 (season-pending).

NCAA Basketball: Richmond at Auburn Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

2. Richmond Spiders

2019-20: 24-7 (14-4)

Take out Dayton, which was just stupid-good last season, and Richmond was the best of the rest in the Atlantic 10. Not many could have seen that coming. Mooney hasn’t brought his team to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and patience was wearing thin among the Spider faithful. As mentioned above, fans will have to wait to dump Mooney a little bit longer and their (forced) patience should pay off in 2020-21.

Like the Billikens, Richmond also ended the season red-hot, losing just once after Jan. 28 and winning on the road four times in that span. And as great as Saint Louis’s junior class was last year, Richmond’s was even better, led by Blake Francis and Grant Golden. Uh...and Jacob Gilyard and Nick Sherod and Nathan Cayo. Those five were, in order, the team’s leading scorers and will all be seniors in the fall. And those top four could all make arguments to be on the preseason all-conference first- or second-team.

Francis and Golden will get the most attention as the two most potent offensive threats, but the team is so much more than those two. Gilyard led the nation in steals and steals per game. Sherod shot 44% from three. Cayo shot 56% overall and ended the season on a tear.

Apart from the seniors, Richmond will get a boost in the backcourt from Tulane transfer Connor Crabtree and incoming freshman Isaiah Wilson. Neither will compete for starting minutes next season, but both should provide some backcourt depth for a team already with an embarrassment of riches at guard, once you also factor in Andre Gustavson, who started six games and had his share of nice moments last year.

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

2019-20: 31-2 (15-1), WCC Champions

Gonzaga has been an NCAA Tournament stalwart and reached that elusive Final Four a couple years back. The national championship still hasn’t come, but now that Mark Few is recruiting at an elite level — in addition to being an elite coach — it seems like only a matter of time.

2021 might be that time.

The Zags lost just twice last year — both losses coming to KenPom top 20 teams — and could bring back national player of the year candidate Filip Petrusev (these rankings will be adjusted if he remains in the NBA Draft, but let’s face it, Gonzaga might stay No. 1 anyway).

For now, let’s say everyone who can return to Gonzaga will do so. Petrusev came out of nowhere last year to beautifully fill the frontcourt void that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke left. That’s a main reason why the Bulldogs defied preseason expectations to be one of the best in the country again, despite Killian Tillie battling injury.

The main reason. Not the only reason. Freshman Drew Timme was awesome in his rookie year and became a model of efficiency on both ends of the court. Then there’s Oumar Ballo, who redshirted last year, but was the top international prospect in the nation, according to Jonathan Givony.

The Bulldogs’ interior can compete with any in the nation. No question. But the backcourt might be a question ma- [checks roster] nope. This team is loaded. And incoming top-10 recruit Jalen Suggs will make it even better. Suggs headlines a three-man recruiting class that also includes four-star wing Julian Strawther and four-star combo guard Dominick Harris. They’ll join Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert on the wing and, well, I’m not really sure how you beat this team. Kispert shoots 44% from three and Ayayi can take over for Ryan Woolridge at the point as an adept scorer, distributor, and defender.

Gonzaga’s gonna be fun as hell.

Other teams receiving votes: Nevada, South Dakota State, Buffalo, San Francisco, Stephen F. Austin, Delaware, Winthrop, UMass, UIC, Bowling Green, Georgia State, Eastern Washington.