The last time we were watching college basketball, we saw players being taken off the court during conference championship week and the NCAA tournament canceled. The Big East played a tournament game with no fans ... which most people found so strange ... and then their game was shut down at halftime.
College basketball wasn't the only sport that was shut down that week in March but it was one that didn't come back. Until now.
College hoops is set to start up during the Thanksgiving holiday but it is doing so with a lot of unknowns. It was only recently that schools released their schedules and no one knows exactly how well this will go. Still, it will be great to see college basketball back in action in any capacity!
With any new season there are fresh storylines that will carry us through the year. This year, is certainly no exception.
You could argue that no major sport was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic than college basketball as they lost their championship last season when the NCAA tournament was canceled. Like other sports, college hoops will have a truncated season with an eye on flexibility if outbreaks occur. They will have a better ability to move things around than football or baseball since rescheduling isn't as big an issue. Still, as we've seen around sports and the world, this isn't close to going away and we may be seeing the worst of it coming this winter. The Ivy League already shut down their hoops season and different programs or conferences could find themselves making similar decisions at some point. All eyes will be on March to see if the tournament will be able to be played.
One effect of the pandemic will be on the crowd sizes at various venues around the country. While it will vary state to state and school to school, it is unlikely we will see anything close to a full arena this season. The most glaring example will be Duke's decision to not allow any fans in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the foreseeable future. No Cameron Crazies. No Krzyzewski-ville. Duke will play games without blue-painted fans screaming, chanting, taunting, pointing or bouncing in Cameron's bleachers. One of the best home court advantages in sports will be missing this season and will be replaced by the eerie echo of shoes squeaking and basketball bouncing (and maybe a few four letter words from Coach K).
Back in March, the Ivy League was the first conference to cancel their postseason tournament. At the time, some thought it was a bit drastic but instead it foreshadowed the shutdown of the entire sport. The Ivy has already canceled the 2020-2021 college hoops season and some are wondering if this is another sign of a broken season. It is too early to tell but there could be other conferences following suit. The Patriot League, for example, has already eliminated non-conference games and conducts itself in a manner that mirrors the Ivy League. There is also the likelihood that smaller conferences and schools won't be able to afford to test athletes when there isn't the amount of money being generated, and decide they'd be better off with no season. Ivy League basketball may not be at the forefront of fans' minds but not having them play is a big loss to the sport.
One silver lining in all of this was the NCAA's decision to grant all athletes who compete in winter sports an extra year of eligibility. It will not only allow everyone the opportunity to play a fifth season but it also factors into various redshirt decisions. Sometimes a player may redshirt just because he knows he won't get much playing time that year but with this ruling, there really isn't any reason to sit out a season as this is basically a free season. This could also have some long term effects to various statistical records as players could play five full seasons. With sparse (if any) crowds, will there even be a senior night ... especially since seniors could still come back to school.
There will be more eyes on Iona than usual as a Hall of Fame coach will be walking their sideline. Rick Pitino is back in college basketball as the new head coach of the Gaels. As you may have heard, Pitino was fired from Louisville in 2017 after he was tied to a federal investigation into a "pay to play" scheme at the school, which came on the heels of an escort sex scandal that ended with the Cardinals' vacating their 2013 national championship. There is no doubt Pitino can coach, and should have Iona as a team to watch over the next few years.
Don't forget that there are several programs who are on thin ice with the NCAA due to the FBI probe. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Southern Cal, TCU and NC State are among the high profile programs who either have already received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA or an investigation is ongoing. Obviously each school is vehemently challenging the charges against them and are prepared for a lengthy battle with the NCAA and the infractions committee. Who knows if anything comes down this year but it certainly is a dark cloud that hangs over the universities and the sport.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 Maui Jim Maui Invitational will be held in Asheville, North Carolina. Not only is the event moving 4,500 miles away but will be playing a week later than usual. The schools who receive an advantage with the move will be North Carolina and Davidson, who will playing much closer to home. Even though it is disappointing to not have this event in Hawaii, at least it is being held as some other events like the Battle 4 Atlantis have been canceled. The field also consists of Texas, Indiana, Providence, UNLV, Stanford and Alabama.
UConn is back in the Big East in 2020. The Huskies were an original member of the conference in 1979 and was left in limbo after the league's breakup in 2013. UConn has been playing in the AAC for the last seven years, where they won a national championship in 2014. This is the first expansion of the new Big East, which is different than the one the Huskies left. It is doubtful UConn can contend for a conference title but they should be in the top half of the league.
This is a question we've been asking for several years now, yet it is still relevant in 2020-2021. Gonzaga broke through with a Final Four appearance in 2017 where they held a late lead in the national title game before ultimately losing to North Carolina. Last year, the Zags were ranked No. 2 in the nation when the season was halted and lost out on a chance to make that title run. Despite losing a lot from that team, Mark Few has built a program that reloads instead of rebuilds and will be hovering around the top of the rankings again. The Zags open the season with a tough slate, including facing Kansas in Fort Myers and Baylor in Indianapolis, to supplement what should be a cakewalk schedule the rest of the way. Get to know names like Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi.
Lou Garza's decision to spurn the NBA Draft and stay in school may be the biggest "addition" of this season. Garza won the Sporting News National Player of the Year award last season along with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award, Big Ten Player of the Year award and becoming a consensus first team All American. Iowa is a national championship contender because of Garza, but he's also surrounded by a very deep and experienced team that could win the Hawkeyes' first Big Ten regular season title in over 40 years.
Speaking of Iowa, could they be the first Big Ten team to win a national championship since 2000? One of college hoops' unexplained streaks is the Big Ten's inability to win the NCAA tournament despite having plenty of teams who were capable of doing so. In fact, since Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State won the big dance 20 years ago, a Big Ten team has reached the national title game seven times with each of them losing. This season, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois are top ten teams with Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State sitting in the tier just behind them.
The last NCAA Tournament game we saw was Virginia beating Texas Tech in a classic 85-77 overtime thriller in 2019. By all calculations, that makes the Cavaliers the defending champs -- a title they will hold for 884 days when the 2021 national championship game is played. The thing is ... Virginia very well could be playing in that 2021 title game. Tony Bennett has added a nice recruiting class and Marquette transfer Sam Hauser to help Kihei Clark run a more efficient offense. If freshmen Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman and Carson McCorkle can acclimate themselves into the Cavs' way of doing things then the Hoos could winning back-to-back titles.
Speaking of Virginia's championship season, the team they beat will be putting together an interesting roster this season. Texas Tech will welcome Georgetown transfer Mac McClung, VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva, UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe and Wichita State transfer Jamarius Burton this year. McClung and Santos-Silva led their former teams in scoring last year while Burton led VCU in assists. Ntambwe was UNLV's best three point shooter when he last played in 2019. Chris Beard will be tasked with integrating all of this talent into his carefully crafted Red Raiders culture.
It was a matter of when, not if, Wichita State parted ways with head coach Gregg Marshall ... ending the best era of Shockers basketball. Marshall has been accused of physically assaulting players and coaches and, despite his power and influence with boosters and the university, he didn't survive the investigation. During Marshall's thirteen seasons, the Shockers went to one Final Four, won one NIT championship and moved from the Missouri Valley Conference and into the AAC -- a major move for the program. It remains to be seen what happens to the Shockers going forward.
Wichita State may not be the only job opening this year. Arizona's Sean Miller and LSU's Will Wade have been embroiled in the federal investigation, while hot seat standards Jim Christian (Boston College) and Dave Leitao (DePaul) take their normal positions on this list. There is also some heat on the Kansas Jayhawks and Bill Self. With some big names available, this could set up to be a wild coaching carousel this year. Could Archie Miller be in danger at Indiana if they think they could lure Billy Donovan? What about Jim Beilein? Could Thad Matta or Tim Miles get back into coaching? They could if the right job opens up.
North Carolina had an unusually bad 2019-2020 season. Freshman sensation Cole Anthony was relied on too much, the Tar Heels were decimated by injuries (including Anthony) and an unusual amount of late game meltdowns created a 14-19 season -- the worst mark in Roy Williams' career. The Heels bring in the No. 2 ranked recruiting class to go along with ACC Preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks in hopes to quickly turn things around. Carolina will rely on a talented, albeit inexperienced, backcourt and a stacked stable of bigs to get back to Roy's preferred style of power play.
One of the crushing effects of the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament was that several non-traditional powers had arguably their best chance to win a national championship. Not only did Gonzaga have a good look at a title, but Dayton, San Diego State and Creighton were highly ranked and looking at high seeds when the brackets came out. Gonzaga and Creighton will still have Final Four hopes, but we will have to wait and see who emerges from the mid-major ranks to make a run up the rankings. Remember that no one thought Dayton or San Diego State were going to challenge for No. 1 seeds before last season began. Add in there non-traditional power programs like Baylor, Illinois and Iowa and we could see a program have a Virginia-esque breakthrough next spring.
Last year saw several interesting hires in college basketball. With a year under their belts in their new jobs, who is ready to make the big jump? Juwan Howard took over an already made program at Michigan and has been hitting big in recruiting. Alabama's Nate Oates also has done well in recruiting and last season developed Kira Lewis into a lottery pick. Mike Anderson has laid the foundation for his "40 minutes of hell" at St. John's. Buzz Williams is building his Texas A&M program up nicely while Mick Cronin had his UCLA Bruins hot down the stretch to end last season.
This will be a year where upperclassmen will shine. Iowa's Luka Groza, Villanova's Collin Gillespie, Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, North Carolina's Garrison Brooks, Arizona State's Remy Martin and Kansas' Marcus Garrett are preseason All-Americans who will challenge for National Player of the Year awards. Mix in juniors like Baylor's Jared Butler, Virginia's Kihei Clark and Western Kentucky's Charles Bassey and the old guys should be the featured players in 2020-2021.
Some seasons, the talent of the freshman class is so good it can consume the nation (see: 2018-2019) while other years feature the newbies having to figure things out as they go along. While there isn't any can't miss stars from the 2020 class, there are some big time talents coming into college basketball. They aren't the household names they usually are due to the high school all-star circuit getting canceled due to the pandemic. Cade Cunningham should make the biggest impact on an Oklahoma State program that is facing a postseason ban. USC's Evan Mobley will be a sensation with his size and athleticism. Zaire Williams is the highest rated recruit in Stanford history and could become an Anthony Edwards-like performer. The blue bloods continue to reload as Duke (Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach), Kentucky (B.J. Boston, Terrence Clark) and North Carolina (R.J. Davis, Caleb Love) bring in deep and talented classes once again.
Last year, Dayton was the Atlantic 10 school that soared up the rankings and was in play for a No. 1 seed before everything shut down. This year, that school could be Richmond. The Spiders looked to have earned a tournament bid last year with a 24-7 record and return all five starters ... who are all seniors. They run that slow-paced cutting offense that frustrates opponents. Diminutive Jacob Gilyard runs the offense to perfection while Blake Francis is a smooth scorer. While there's no promises that the Spiders will reach the heights Dayton did last season, they do have the look of a mid-major that could do some damage come March.
Hawaii always has interesting scheduling challenges but this year takes it up a notch. With a reduced non-conference schedule, an attempt to reduce travel and the state of Hawaii's rigorous COVID-19 rules has made for a unique situation. The solution is interesting to say the least. Hawaii will play two-game series this year, where they will play the same opponent on consecutive nights in the same city. For instance, the Rainbow Warriors will open their Big West season hosting Cal Poly on December 27th and December 28th, then travel to UC Riverside for games against the Highlanders on January 8th and 9th. That schedule will continue that way for the remainder of the conference season.
UConn's women's team hasn't won a national championship in four years, marking their longest title drought since 1996 to 1999. For anyone else in sports that's not dire news, but it is for a program that won 10 national titles in a 17-year span. Sure, the Huskies have been good enough to cash in on a title over the last four seasons (they entered the NCAA tournament undefeated in 2017 and 2018) but they haven't been the absolutely dominant program they once were. They've lost more games over the last two seasons than they have during the previous five years combined. They aren't filling the preseason All-American teams this season and will be leaving the cozy confines of an overmatched AAC (where they went 118-0) for the Big East. Don't get me wrong; UConn is very much elite and good enough to win another title but they've lost that intimidation edge they've owned for so long.
During the summer, the feeling was that the MEAC wasn't very stable as several member schools are looking at jumping ship. North Carolina A&T (Big South), Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman (both to the SWAC) have already announced they will be leaving the conference in 2021 and Norfolk State has been looking at their options. Could the league survive the financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic? That question remains to be seen, but the conference got an on-court boost when Makur Makur committed to Howard in an effort to lift up the basketball programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Purdue transfer Nojel Eastern joins Makur with the Bison while Morgan State, North Carolina A&T, Delaware State and Coppin State also hit big on the transfer market. This should be a competitive league in 2020-2021 with everyone gunning for NC Central.
We touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating that the 2021 NCAA tournament needs to happen. The cancellation of last season's March Madness was devastating to college basketball fans and the sport's bottom line and the NCAA doesn't want that to happen again. So what will the tournament look like? It really is up in the air. There are sites that are scheduled to host the tournament but none of them can be sure that will be the case when the time comes to play the games. Will there be bubbles? Will there be limited venues or cities used? Will the tournament expand, as some (most notably the ACC) have called for? Will there be teams on standby in case there is an outbreak somewhere? With the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all playing their postseasons in neutral site bubbles, we can expect the unexpected by the time March rolls around for college hoops. As long as there is a Big Dance, I don't think anyone will mind if it looks a little different.