In some ways, 2021-22 Kansas set a foundation — or at least followed one — for what a national championship team looks like in the transfer portal era.
The Jayhawks were loaded up with returnees from a team that took its lumps in 2020-21, bringing back five of its top six players after finishing outside KenPom.com's top 25 for the first time since Bill Self arrived in 2003-04. Kansas paired those returnees with new talent, particularly in Arizona State transfer Remy Martin, who provided the extra oomph to get the Jayhawks over the hump in March Madness, even as the Jayhawks' returning players improved.
It's not necessarily a formula unique to Kansas: 2016 Villanova was the last national champion that didn't return three players who started at least eight games in the previous season. And both 2022 Kansas and 2021 Baylor received a key boost from at least one transfer playing his first season for the school. In the Bears' case it was Adam Flagler, who sat out the 2019-20 season after transferring from Presbyterian before debuting as a key cog for Baylor's national title-winning team.
So which teams this year are best equipped to follow that path?
Here's what we're looking for: a team that finished this past year ranked in the top 30 on KenPom, one that returns at least three starters and a team equipped to add an impact transfer or two. In the case of teams slightly off on one of those factors, we've tried to explain why they're here or how they could meet the guidelines.
In one way, the Tar Heels could fit this definition the best of any team on this list, with four returning starters and several other key players from a team that reached the national championship game. The issue comes with the other part: the Tar Heels are currently scholarship-tight, meaning that they can't add a transfer to fill an immediate need. And there is an immediate need: while North Carolina has players who can suit up at the four next year, Brady Manek was among the NCAA Tournament's best players and a huge reason for the Tar Heels' run. Puff Johnson or Dontrez Styles hitting the ground running in bigger roles would help.
The Wildcats will have to wait on NBA decisions to come down, but it's still on the table that Arizona could return four starters in Kerr Krissa, Dalen Terry, Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko, along with other key players. There isn't any replacing Bennedict Mathurin, one of the best two-way wings in college basketball, but the Wildcats have numbers there. Arizona has been linked with a few top transfers, but the biggest key here is coming out of that testing-the-waters phase mostly whole.
Last year might have been Kelvin Sampson's best coaching job, with the Cougars overcoming the loss of potential All-AAC guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to injury and still reaching the Elite Eight and finishing as KenPom's second-best team. Now Sasser, Shead and Mark represent potentially the nation's best backcourt and have experienced options around them in Reggie Chaney and J'Wan Roberts. Two top 40 freshmen are on their way in Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux, and the Cougars are after multiple top transfers as well.
For all the Wolverines' struggles a year ago, Michigan reached the Sweet 16 and finished ranked No. 27 on KenPom. The Wolverines could bring back the 3-4-5 from that team with Caleb Houstan entering the draft while maintaining his college eligibility and Michigan bringing back Moussa Diabate and Hunter Dickinson. And while Davante' Jones and Eli Brooks are gone, Michigan brings back both players' backups in Frankie Collins and Kobe Lufkin, along with Terrance Williams. There isn't a ton of room for maneuvering, but the Wolverines have kicked the tires on a few top transfers and are getting a visit from Princeton's Jaelin Llewellyn this week.
Baylor doesn't technically meet the qualifications yet. The Bears currently have two starters scheduled to return: Flo Thamba and Adam Flagler. But Matthew Mayer left his decision window open, and LJ Cryer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua essentially were extra starters. It remains to be seen what version of Tchamwa Tchatchoua the Bears will get next year after this year's knee injury. The Bears needed to add a four through the portal in case Mayer does close the door on returning, and Baylor did that with a switchable defender with Big 12 experience in West Virginia's Jalen Bridges, then with Caleb Lohner from BYU. Of course the biggest new piece looks like five-star guard Keyonte George, once again giving the Bears one of the nation's best backcourts.
The Horned Frogs are bringing back their top six players from a team that was playing about as well as anyone late in the year. TCU went 4-4 down the stretch, defeating three KenPom top 15 teams in Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas, with three of the four losses coming to Kansas (twice) and Arizona, with the other one coming on a long road trip when the Horned Frogs were playing their third game in five days (and second road game in three days). TCU has been selective in the transfer portal, and another piece could be what puts the Horned Frogs over the top … if they aren't pretty close already.
Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard is a strong returning foundation should Bernard return after testing the waters, and David Singleton and Jaylen Clark help fill out the roster. Then there's five-star players like Amari Bailey and Adem Bona coming in at need spots. If Bernard returns and the Bruins can add just a little bit more firepower through the transfer portal, they could have the kind of season in 2022-23 that some anticipated the Bruins having this year.
The Volunteers look likely to return four players who started at least 21 games this past season (Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are testing the waters) and that doesn't account for off-the-bench dynamo Zakai Zeigler, who appears destined for stardom. The Volunteers already struck on the transfer portal with Indiana State guard Tyreke Key, and it will be interesting to see whether the Volunteers pursue more low-post scoring or trust in the combination of Uros Plavsic and Jonas Aidoo to get the job done there.
The Longhorns are always going to be players in the transfer portal under Chris Beard. And with Marcus Carr, Timmy Allen and Christian Bishop electing to run it back, Beard has the building blocks of a strong team. That's already more than the Longhorns had last year, when even Texas' returning players were essentially starting new with a new coach. Five-star freshmen Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris add some immediate impact talent, but the Longhorns will once again need to go deep in the portal.