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Men's college hoops primer: Top 5 returning players, Final Four favorites, sleepers and more

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College basketball is back, and Gonzaga and UCLA are picking up right where they left off after an impressive Final Four run last season.

Gonzaga is the preseason No. 1 team for the second straight year after adding potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Chet Holmgren to the team. UCLA is right behind the Zags at No. 2 and has one of the top returning players leading the team in Johnny Juzang. The two teams will square off later this month in a blockbuster matchup with a few other must-watch games early in the season.

Here’s everything you need to know for the start of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season.

Top 5 returning players

Drew Timme brings the ball down court.
Gonzaga forward Drew Timme is back this season with some unfinished business. (James Snook/USA TODAY Sports)

Drew Timme, Gonzaga

Timme was recently named to the 20-player watch list for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award and was named a preseason AP All-American, the only unanimous selection. He averaged 19 points and seven rebounds in just 28 minutes per game last season. Timme is returning for his junior year with some unfinished business. With the addition of 7-footer Chet Holmgren in the frontcourt, the Zags are eyeing another run to the championship game.

Johnny Juzang points down during a game.
After testing the NBA draft waters, Johnny Juzang returns for UCLA. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Johnny Juzang, UCLA

After testing the NBA draft waters during the offseason, Juzang elected to return for his junior year and contend for a national championship. The 6-foot-7 shooting guard averaged 22.8 points per game during the NCAA tournament and is ready to run it back this season. Joining UCLA this season is top-10 recruit and potential lottery pick Peyton Watson and four-star point guard Will McClendon. With Juzang and sharpshooter Jaime Jaquez leading the way, UCLA is the team to beat in the Pac-12 this season.

Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

Dickinson was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-American. Michigan won the Big Ten regular season title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Elite Eight. Dickinson’s presence in the lane was a major factor in those achievements. The 7-foot-1 sophomore center is ready to dominate the Big Ten again this season after averaging 14 points and 7.4 rebounds last season.

Marcus Carr, Texas

Carr was the highest-rated transfer to enter the portal last season and left Minnesota for Texas. The Longhorns are entering the season at No. 5, and new head coach Chris Beard went to work heading into his season retaining talent and also adding former Kentucky point guard Devin Askew. Carr has great court vision and reads the pick-and-roll option well, averaging 19.4 points and five assists per game last season.

Jaden Ivey makes a layup.
Purdue's Jaden Ivey had an impressive showing at the NCAA tournament, even in a first-round loss. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Jaden Ivey, Purdue

The sophomore shooting guard is coming off an impressive showing in the NCAA tournament last season where he dropped 26 points in a first-round loss, the most points scored by a Big Ten freshman in the tournament. He’s now on scouts' radars and is due for a breakout season this year.

Best games early in the season

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 4 Villanova, Nov. 12

This is the first big test for both teams. Villanova will be missing junior guard Bryan Antoine for six weeks due to an injury, but senior floor general Collin Gillespie is back.

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA, Nov. 23

A pre-Thanksgiving treat will be played in Las Vegas with Final Four rematch. The first game went down to the wire in overtime with Zags point guard Jalen Suggs hitting a 40-foot buzzer-beater. This is a game UCLA will want for redemption.

Johnny Juzang and Drew Timme battle for a rebound.
UCLA's Johnny Juzang competes for a rebound with Gonzaga's Drew Timme in the second half during the 2021 Final Four semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 3, 2021. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Duke, Nov. 26

Potential No. 1 draft pick versus No. 2 draft pick: Chet Holmgren versus Paolo Banchero. The best head-to-head player matchup all season.

No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 19 North Carolina, Dec. 1

This will be Hubert Davis’ first big test of the season in the post-Roy Williams era. The Tar Heels have returning big man Armando Bacot in the post. On the other side of the ball is Juwan Howard and a young, talented team looking to make another run this season.

Way-too-early Final Four favorites

Gonzaga

The Zags have the top returning player this season (Drew Timme) and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft (Chet Holmgren). Mark Few’s squad will undoubtedly dominate the WCC and receive a No. 1 slot come tournament time.

UCLA

The Bruins shocked college hoops fans last season with their unbelievable tournament run. The secret is out this season after returning almost the entire team and adding two top-50 recruits.

Michigan

In just his second season, Juwan Howard was one game shy of making the Final Four with a team full of players he did not recruit. Now he has a top-three recruiting class coming in led by potential lottery pick Caleb Houstan and returning big man Hunter Dickinson who dominated the block last season.

Duke

Hopefully standout freshman AJ Griffin will return to the court sooner rather than later, after suffering a knee injury in practice last month. There has been no timeline released for his return, but an MRI showed no structural damage and the injury is being ruled as a knee sprain. Even with Griffin out, this will be one last ride for the greatest coach of all time, Mike Krzyzewski, and this team has all the talent and experience to bounce back this season.

Mike Krzyzewski directs his team from the sideline.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has a Final Four-caliber team in his last season. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Way-too-early Final Four sleepers

Auburn

Bruce Pearl landed North Carolina transfer center Walker Kessler during the offseason and added Jabari Smith Jr. — the highest-rated recruit in Tigers history.

St. Bonaventure

The Bonnies have their top-three leading scorers returning this season and the entire starting five back. Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes and Jalen Adaway all averaged 12 or more points last season, and St. Bonaventure should be a mid-major favorite come tournament time.

Belmont

Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy were both first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference last season, and the Bruins held opponents to 91 points per 100 possessions on defense last season. Belmont missed the NCAA tournament last season after falling to Morehead State in the title game and is looking to bounce back and dominate the conference this season.

Nick Muszynski holds the ball away from a defender.
Belmont center Nick Muszynski is a leader on another stacked Bruins team. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama

Nate Oats landed one of the most exciting players to watch in the open court with JD Davison, and he’ll join junior guard Jahvon Quinerly in the backcourt, making it one of the most athletic duos in college basketball.

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