The Virginia Cavaliers have a chance to make more NCAA Tournament history this season
The college basketball season is set to tip off on Nov. 25, and there's plenty to look forward to after last season's campaign was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, several programs with a shot at their first-ever national championship last spring will get another chance at the Big Dance.
Even with the departure of four of the five All-Americans, there are still plenty of familiar faces to hoops fans. Recent powerhouses like Villanova, Virginia, and Gonzaga should continue to keep up with traditional blue bloods like Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina.
If you're wondering what the biggest storylines for the upcoming season are, look no further than Athlon Sports' coverage of the 2020-21 college basketball season.
10 Things to Watch in 2020-21 College Basketball Season
1. Gonzaga, Baylor, or Creighton could become a first-time champion
One of the worst things about the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament was that schools like Gonzaga, Baylor, Creighton, Dayton, and San Diego State were all stripped of rare, realistic chances to win what would've been their first national title in men's basketball. On a Thursday afternoon in March, three days before Selection Sunday, the rest of the season was abruptly canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic that's ravaged the United States — and who knows if Dayton and San Diego State will ever be in as good a position to cut down the nets after the final game of the season. Anthony Grant's Flyers, specifically, were led by the National Player of the Year (Obi Toppin) and were on track to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It's reasonable to be skeptical of whether those two boxes will ever be checked again at the same time by the Atlantic 10 program. And the 2020-21 season should serve as a reminder of such because Dayton, after losing Toppin early to the 2020 NBA Draft, is expected to take a major step back. San Diego State should do the same in part because of the early departure of All-America point guard Malachi Flynn.
But Gonzaga, Baylor, and Creighton are all ready to take another shot.
Each of those three programs is returning enough important pieces to compete at the top of the sport again — especially Gonzaga. Mark Few's Zags are returning four players who averaged at least 14 minutes per game from a team that finished 31–2, and those veterans will be paired with a top-15 recruiting class highlighted by five-star guard Jalen Suggs. Oumar Ballo, a four-star center from the Class of 2019 who redshirted last season, is another quality addition who will provide options in the frontcourt. So even though Gonzaga could've theoretically been better if Filip Petrusev had withdrawn from the NBA Draft like teammates Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, Few still has enough pieces to guide the Zags to the national title. And, if it happens, it'll be a first championship for the West Coast Conference program — plus the thing that guarantees that Few will someday be voted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
2. Virginia might win back-to-back NCAA Tournaments (with a year in between)
Virginia made history in the 2018 NCAA Tournament when it became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed. Then, the following season, the Cavaliers bounced back incredibly and won the 2019 NCAA Tournament. So now — because there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020 — the Cavaliers have a chance to make (weird) history again, this time by becoming the first program to win back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in non-consecutive years.
On paper, they're good enough to do it.
The Cavaliers are returning three starters from a team that closed the regular season with eight consecutive victories thanks to a defense that ranked first nationally in adjusted efficiency. They'll be joined by former Marquette standout Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds two seasons ago before transferring to Virginia. The 6'8" forward should make an immediate impact and have Tony Bennett in a position to win a fifth ACC regular-season title in an eight-year span, which would be remarkable considering that he coaches in a league with three Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coaches — namely Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Roy Williams (North Carolina). And if the Cavaliers can find enough offense, then yes, a second national title for Bennett is definitely possible.
3. Villanova's Jay Wright has a chance to join the list of three-time title winners
It's wild to think about now, all these years later, but Jay Wright's first few seasons at Villanova were the opposite of encouraging. He was 21–27 in the Big East through three seasons. He missed the NCAA Tournament each time.
But it's been mostly excellence ever since. Wright has led Villanova to 14 of the past 15 NCAA Tournaments —making the Sweet 16 six times, the Elite Eight four times, and the Final Four three times while capturing the national title in 2016 and 2018. The 58-year-old is one of only 15 men's basketball coaches in history to win multiple national championships. If he adds one more, Wright will be on an even shorter list, becoming just the seventh men's basketball coach in history to win at least three national titles. And the good news for Villanova fans is that he has a legitimate chance to join that club this season considering that everybody except Saddiq Bey is back from a team that went 7–1 in its final eight games and won at least a share of the Big East's regular-season championship for the sixth time in a seven-year span. In other words, the Wildcats are both talented and experienced, which are qualities that each of Wright's national title teams possessed.
If Wright does guide Villanova to a third national championship this season, that'll be three national championships in a span of five NCAA Tournaments, and the only other men's basketball coach who has ever won that many in such a short amount of time is UCLA icon John Wooden.
4. Luka Garza is a favorite to be Iowa's first Wooden Award winner
Dayton's Obi Toppin was most people's National Player of the Year last season — but there was a statistical case to be made for Luka Garza. The 6'11" center averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds for an Iowa team that finished 23rd at KenPom. His Player Efficiency Rating of 35.11 was the best in college basketball. He finished No. 1 in the KenPom Player of the Year standings.
And now he's back.
Garza should be considered the preseason favorite to be the 2021 National Player of the Year, if only because he's the only consensus first-team or even second-team All-American from last season to return to college. Beyond that, he'll be the star of a team that should compete for a Big Ten title, and history tells us that the National Player of the Year is usually a non-freshman with big numbers who plays for a nationally relevant team. Heading into the season, Garza checks those boxes better than anybody else. He has the talent, and a good-enough supporting cast, to lead the Hawkeyes to their first Sweet 16 since 1999, first Elite Eight since 1987, first Final Four since 1980, and first Big Ten regular-season title since 1979.
5. An NCAA cloud might overshadow Kansas' season
A whole bunch of prominent college basketball programs were roped into the FBI investigation that led to federal charges against three assistant coaches. One was Auburn. Another was Arizona. Another was USC. Another was Oklahoma State. Another was LSU. The list is quite long. But no higher-profile program, and no bigger-name coach, is dealing with the repercussions of the evidence made public than Kansas and Bill Self.
The NCAA has charged KU with five Level 1 violations — including lack of institutional control. Self is charged with head-coach responsibility violations. So the Jayhawks are potentially facing a postseason ban, and Self a suspension, in part because of the role T.J. Gassnola, a former Adidas consultant and now convicted felon, played in helping Kansas secure commitments from prospects in violation of NCAA rules. Kansas, at this point, has only been charged — not convicted. And the school has promised to fight the allegations, while Self has denied any wrongdoing.
But, undeniably, the whole thing has sullied the reputation of the blueblood program and its Hall of Fame coach who has led the Jayhawks to 15 Big 12 regular-season titles plus the 2008 national championship.
Regardless, KU is still running strong.
The Jayhawks lost their top two players from last season's team that would've been the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the arrival of five-star guard Bryce Thompson, combined with an experienced core of Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, David McCormack, and Christian Braun, should provide Self with enough to compete for what would be a 16th Big 12 regular-season championship — although, the biggest story at Kansas will continue to be the NCAA cloud that's been hanging over Self's program since late 2018.
6. North Carolina is positioned to bounce back
North Carolina coach Roy Williams called last season the toughest season of his career — and for good reason. His Tar Heels were No. 9 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. But then Cole Anthony, the five-star point guard, suffered a knee injury that required surgery in mid-December, at which point things went the wrong way quickly. The result was a North Carolina record that featured five more losses (19) than wins (14). It was a nightmare. But anybody who enjoys jokes at the expense of UNC had better have gotten them off last season because the Tar Heels are set to bounce back strongly (even with Anthony now off to the NBA) thanks to the arrival of a top-three recruiting class featuring five-star prospects Day'Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, and Caleb Love. They'll join an experienced nucleus of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Anthony Harris, and Leaky Black. So North Carolina will be talented, experienced, and capable of pushing Virginia and Duke at the top of the ACC in a way that should make last season's disappointment seem like a random bad year as opposed to the start of the possible decline of Williams' Hall of Fame career.
7. Cade Cunningham could lead Oklahoma State to a fun season
The day Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton added Cannen Cunningham to his staff as an assistant coach is the same day the Cowboys became the obvious leader to land five-star prospect (and Cannen's brother) Cade Cunningham. So it was no shocker when the projected No. 1 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft publicly committed to the Big 12 program. But the celebration didn't last long. The NCAA ensured as much.
The harsh news came in early June — specifically, news that the NCAA was banning the Cowboys from the 2021 postseason, including the NCAA Tournament, because of violations committed by a former assistant. Almost immediately, people started to wonder if Cunningham would de-commit and ultimately enroll at a place where he could actually chase a dream of participating in the NCAA Tournament in what will likely be his only year of college basketball. Even Boynton acknowledged that possibility and promised to help Cunningham find a new school, if that's what Cunningham wanted. But, in a bit of a surprise, the 6'7" guard decided to stay true to his commitment and stick with Oklahoma State. So now he'll be the star of a team that should be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament even if it's ineligible to do so.
8. Rutgers should snap its NCAA Tournament drought
One of the best stories last season originated in Piscataway, N.J. — where Rutgers finished 18–1 at home and was on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. Then, of course, the NCAA Tournament was canceled. So, technically, Rutgers' drought continues.
That's the bad news.
But the good news is that Rutgers should be good again, perhaps even better because the Scarlet Knights are returning seven of the top eight scorers from that team that finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten standings — most notably Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, a pair of guards who combined to average 23.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists last season. Beyond that, Rutgers is enrolling a consensus top-50 prospect in Cliff Omoruyi, a 6'11" center who picked Rutgers over Alabama, Arizona State, Auburn, and Arizona.
It's all a testament to Steve Pikiell.
The 52-year-old former Connecticut player inherited a mess of a program that's historically struggled in men's basketball so much that it's widely considered to be one of the hardest power-conference jobs in the sport. The Scarlet Knights were 279th at Kenpom the season before Pikiell took over. But in Pikiell's first season, they finished 135th. The season after that, they finished 130th. The season after that, they finished 78th. And then, last season, they finished 28th, which was 44 places higher than Rutgers had ever finished in the KenPom era, which dates to 2002. So it's impossible to overstate how impressive Pikiell has been since taking over at Rutgers. And it appears the best is yet to come.
9. Arkansas could snap its Sweet 16 drought
In the 1990s, under Nolan Richardson, Arkansas was consistently one of the nation's strongest college basketball programs. The Razorbacks made six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, and three Final Fours in a seven-year span from 1990 to 1996. They won the NCAA Tournament in 1994. They played in the title game again in 1995. Put simply, Arkansas was awesome, year after year. Which is why it seems impossible that the Razorbacks haven't even returned to the Sweet 16 since 1996.
That's 24 years.
It's one of the wilder things in the sport — that Arkansas, an SEC school with incredible resources and history, is enduring that sort of drought. Every other SEC school except Mississippi State and Georgia has been to the Sweet 16 more recently than Arkansas. That's nuts. And even nuttier is the fact that George Mason and Loyola-Chicago have been to the Final Four more recently than Arkansas has been to the Sweet 16. Think about that.
So will head coach Eric Musselman end Arkansas' Sweet 16 drought? Yes, he probably will — perhaps as soon as this season.
Musselman took Nevada to the Sweet 16 in 2018, backed that with a 29-win season and third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2019, then moved to Arkansas, where he's about to start his second season with a projected NCAA Tournament team. The Razorbacks were headed there last season until Isaiah Joe, a big-scoring guard, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February. They were 16–5 when Joe went down; they went 1–5 without him. So they were on the wrong side of the bubble when the rest of the season was canceled in March. Joe initially withdrew his name from the NBA Draft and looked like he was returning for his junior season, but he changed his mind in mid-August and will instead prepare for the draft.
However, a top-10 recruiting class is coming to Fayetteville, and the Razorbacks have the stuff to make the Sweet 16 for the first time in more than two decades. And, if it doesn't happen this season, odds are it'll happen someday, if only because if Musselman got Nevada operating at the top of the sport so quickly that there's no reason to think he won't do the same at Arkansas very, very soon.
10. Five-star Makur Maker shines a spotlight on Howard
Makur Maker visited Howard last fall and never stopped showing interest in the MEAC program because of a desire to play at an HBCU. But would he really turn down offers from Kentucky, UCLA, and Memphis to do it?
That was always a fair question. It was reasonable to be skeptical.
But just six weeks after the death of George Floyd sparked something of a second civil rights movement, Maker committed to Howard in part to be a trend-setter. In doing so, he became the first five-star prospect to commit to a historically black college or university in the modern era.
Time will tell whether this is the start of a movement or just a one-off. But, either way, Maker deserves credit for at least trying to alter the system. The moment he signed with Howard, he basically forfeited the opportunity to play in big arenas in front of TV cameras — not to mention the chance to travel to road games on chartered planes, to train in first-class facilities, to compete for a national championship. Not everybody would choose to walk that walk, which is why HBCUs will remain big underdogs in recruiting battles against power-conference schools. But if Maker helps the Bison compete for a trip to the NCAA Tournament and solidifies himself as a first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, perhaps that'll be enough to convince other five-star recruits that there's a one-and-done path to the NBA that goes through the less-traveled campuses of HBCU institutions.
(Top photo by Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics)