CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting the results on 10 questions asked.
I often get asked what’s the biggest issue facing college basketball — and among my answers, always, is that the roster-turnover from one year to the next is so vast that it’s hard, bordering on impossible, for casual fans to keep track of who matters within the sport. By the time somebody becomes a household name, he’s usually just months, if not weeks, from leaving school early to enter the NBA Draft.
It’s a problem.
And this year is no different.
Did you realize that 12 of the 15 players who were on one of last season’s three CBS Sports All-America teams are no longer in college? That would be the equivalent of 80 percent of Pro Bowlers not returning to the NFL the following season, or 80% of All-Stars not returning to MLB or the NBA. It’s new faces all around. But it is worth noting that two Final Four teams with high expectations for this season — Gonzaga and UCLA — are bringing back their best players, which provides the sport with some accomplished veterans who starred on college basketball’s biggest stage last April. And that reality was reflected when we asked more than 100 college basketball coaches the following question:
Who will be the best player in college basketball this season?
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Quotes that stood out
On Drew Timme
“Gonzaga obviously has Chet [Holmgren], but they’re going to run everything through Timme. So skilled, can score at will, and is also a guy who can make guys around him a lot better. Creates shots for other guys and is so f—ing smart on the floor. He’s really, really good. Was great last year on a great team. Give him another year, and look out.” “The most talented is Chet Holmgren — but his teammate will be the best. Drew Timme. The game is too easy for him.”
“Timme might not be the best — but he would be the guy I would pick if I could steal a player from any team.”
On Kofi Cockburn
“Give me Kofi. Guys like him change the game in college basketball. When you play Illinois you have to figure out how you’re going to double him and where you’ll double him from. Guarding him one-on-one is hard because he’s so big and strong. He’s such a big man. He’s so hard to guard.”
“The guy that gives us the most problems is Kofi Cockburn. If someone wanted to argue against that, it’s fine. But for us, he’s a mother. And I really like Hunter Dickinson and his ability to pass, but Kofi is so damn big and dominant.”
“Kofi is far from the best prospect in college basketball. But in terms of day in and day out production for a college team, I’d say it is Kofi who will have the biggest year.”
On Chet Holmgren
“Chet will be the best overall player. He’s the most talented kid in college. Unique skillset. Impacts winning. Team dude.”
On Johnny Juzang
“Nobody was better in the NCAA Tournament than Juzang. Just took over games. Carried UCLA to the Final Four. If he picks up from there, he’s the Player of the Year.”
On Paolo Banchero
“Paolo is as gifted as Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. He’s possibly the best college player since those guys. Yes, I think he’s better than Zion Williamson and Cade Cunningham and Anthony Davis and Deandre Ayton, all in college. I’m rolling with Paolo’s production and impact over them. I’m talking that KD, Beasley, D-Rose type of freshman. Paolo is THAT.”
Drew Timme is the only CBS Sports First Team All-American from 2020-21 who returned to school, which makes it unsurprising that he was the most common answer here. The 6-foot-10 forward was the leading scorer and rebounder for a Gonzaga team that played in last season’s national title game, finished 31-1, and is the betting favorite to win the 2022 NCAA Tournament. He’s a proven commodity starring for a big brand, a mustachioed bucket-getter who, along with Juzang, enters the season as the face of the sport.
What’s interesting is that Timme’s teammate, Chet Holmgren, finished tied for third in votes-received, meaning one Gonzaga player or another accounted for 57% of the answers. In all the years we’ve been conducting this series, no school has ever had two players receive this high of a percentage of the votes to this question. That speaks to the firepower Gonzaga coach Mark Few will have at his disposal this season. It’s among the reasons the Zags are No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1.
It’s also worth noting that six of the eight leading vote-getters are returning players who are only back in school — or at least mostly back in school — because they’re considered flawed NBA prospects, which is a reminder that the college game is very different from the NBA. Things that might limit some of these players at the next level — like a lack of size or an inability to guard in space — often aren’t really issues at this level. Just because somebody might someday struggle in the NBA doesn’t mean they won’t flourish and dominate in college. Luka Garza, the reigning CBS Sports National Player of the Year, is the best recent example. And if the voting on this question proves accurate, Drew Timme should be the next one.