November 19, 2020

10 Biggest Storylines for the 2020-21 College Basketball Season

It still seems hard to believe and a little unfair that last year’s college basketball season was cut short before the NCAA Tournament because of the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, while the 2019-20 season will remain incomplete, we’re ready to start the 2020-21 college basketball campaign.

Needless to say, it will be a season far different from any that have come before it. We don’t even know with certainty if we’ll get through the entire season. However, we’ll hope for the best as we prepare for the return of college basketball. Assuming the season goes off without a hitch, here are the 10 biggest storylines that fans should be keeping an eye on this season.

Will the Ivy League Set the Trend Again?

Not to play Debbie Downer, but we must mention that the Ivy League has canceled its winter sports this season, including men’s and women’s basketball. If you remember, the Ivy League was ahead of the curve in March, canceling its conference tournament and shutting everything down before the other conferences and the NCAA followed suit. Could this be a bad omen for the rest of college basketball that playing games right now isn’t feasible or perhaps just the wrong thing to do during a pandemic? 

It’s possible but not necessarily the case. Keep in mind scientists understand coronavirus a lot better now than they did in March when it was largely a mystery. Schools and conferences have put in protocols designed to protect players, coaches and other workers essential to college basketball programs running smoothly. Hopefully, that’s enough to play the season with a minimum number of interruptions, especially with how the college football season has continued to forge on. However, the Ivy League canceling its season isn’t exactly an optimistic tone with which to begin the season.

The New Non-Conference Schedule

With the college basketball season starting later than usual, we’re already missing out on a lot of the non-conference season. Regardless of a few lost weeks, there will be fewer non-conference games than in past years. Teams are wary to travel too far or play teams outside of their conference. 

Some leagues have shut down non-conference games while others are setting up neutral-site bubbles so that games can be played safely. While it’s reasonable to accept these new terms, it will change how the NCAA Tournament Committee looks at things come March. If most teams end up playing fewer than five games outside of their conference, it will be difficult to compare resumes from teams that don’t play in the same league. More than ever, the eye test could be critical in guiding what teams make the tournament field.

Slick Rick’s Return

In case you missed the news amidst the chaos last spring, Rick Pitino has returned to college basketball. Following his unceremonious exit at Louisville and a stint at Greek pro team Panathinaikos, Pitino is now the head coach of the Iona Gaels. Whether you like him or hate him, it’ll no doubt be fascinating to see how Pitino fares in his return to the college game, even at a mid-major program. 

While Iona isn’t exactly an unknown program that’s starting from the bottom, the Gaels won the MAAC Tournament and went to the Big Dance four straight seasons from 2016 to 2019, so they are typically among the best teams in that conference. That should help create the expectation that Pitino can lead the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament this year, adding a compelling subplot to March Madness.

Unfortunately, due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program, the start of Iona’s season has been delayed.

Impact Freshmen

While many prognosticators are projecting more experienced teams (you know, sophomore-led teams) to rise to the top of the college basketball world, it wouldn’t be a true college basketball season without substantial hype around several freshmen. Specifically, there will be a lot of eyes on players at programs that have underperformed in recent years in hopes that one or two freshmen can turn things around quickly. It starts with Cade Cunningham, the nation’s No. 1 prospect, who is at Oklahoma State. However, the Cowboys have already been given a postseason ban, so Cunningham won’t play in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. 

Elsewhere, Arizona State’s Josh Cristopher, Stanford’s Ziaire Williams and Texas' Greg Brown could all make their teams worth watching when March rolls around.

Finally, USC is hoping that freshman Evan Mobley can get the Trojans back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 now that he’s been reunited with his brother, sophomore Isaiah Mobley.

Old Faces, New Places

Outside of a few five-star freshmen, fans will want to keep close tabs on established players who switched teams during the offseason. After all, grad transfers and players who receive eligibility immediately are making more of an impact than ever. One player to watch is Carlik Jones, the top transfer, who will be eligible immediately. He averaged 20 points per game for Radford last season and now takes his talents to the Louisville Cardinals, so he’ll challenge himself in one of the best conferences in the country.

Former Big East Freshman of the Year James Akinjo left Georgetown for Arizona. Marquette will try to replace Markus Howard with Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton. Also, 7-3 monster Matt Haarms left Purdue to go to BYU for his final season of eligibility. 

Then there are teams that added multiple transfers in an effort to reload quickly. Texas Tech added Georgetown’s Mac McClung and VCU’s Marcus Santos Silva. Arkansas took a similar approach, bringing in Jalen Tate from Northern Kentucky, Justin Smith from Indiana, and Vance Jackson, who started out at UConn and then transferred to New Mexico.

After such an unusual offseason, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly grad transfers are able to adjust to their new teams, especially for teams that added multiple players through the transfer portal.

The ACC Returns to Glory

In a way, the ACC was pleased that the NCAA Tournament was canceled last season. It gave people a chance to forget just how mediocre the league was as opposed to recent seasons when it was a super-conference. If we had played the NCAA Tournament last year, there would have been just four teams that were locks heading into Selection Sunday. That doesn’t figure to be the case this time around, as the ACC is back (at least on paper). 

Duke and Virginia are once again expected to be title contenders. And while it’d be foolish to think that Louisville or Florida State are going anywhere, the middle of the pack will be much better. After an upsetting 14-19 season, North Carolina should be back near the top of the league. Miami and Syracuse and also projected to be NCAA Tournament teams while Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech will also be in the mix.

Plus, you never want to sleep on NC State, Pitt or Notre Dame. Long story short, the ACC should be back to being the deepest conference in the country and will be amazing to watch.

UConn's Back in Big East

College basketball purists are no doubt thrilled to know that Connecticut is back in the Big East. The Huskies decided to leave the AAC, becoming an independent in football and rejoin the Big East in every other sport. With Dan Hurley settled in as head coach, the Huskies appear to be past all of the craziness that took place during Kevin Ollie’s tenure. 

More importantly, UConn can resume some of its old rivalries with the likes of Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, St. John’s and Seton Hall. Hurley and the Huskies will also be able to get acquainted with programs like Butler and Creighton, who have made their mark in the conference.

Most preseason predictions have the Huskies being a bubble team, which means every game in their new (old) conference will be of the utmost importance.

Howard’s 5-Star

One five-star freshman who deserves special mention is Makur Maker. Not only is he the cousin of NBA player Thon Maker, but the Kenyan-born Australian also sent shockwaves through the college basketball world when he committed to Howard University. He’s without a doubt the highest-ranked recruit to play at an HBCU or a team that plays in the MEAC. Maker’s decision to spurn the blue-blood programs for an HBCU is a grand experiment that could set an example that others will follow. 

Maker is likely to be a first-round pick next year, but how will his draft status be impacted by playing for a small-time program? Perhaps more importantly, will his experience lead more players to attend HBCUs amidst the Black Lives Matter movement?

It’ll also be fascinating to see how his presence helps Howard on the court. The Bison were 4-29 last season. The program hasn’t won a regular-season MEAC title or been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. Will Maker be able to turn that around immediately and help get Howard to the Big Dance? It’s something worth watching.

Best Player and Team?

If you’re looking for the best player in the country this season, look no further than Iowa’s Luka Garza. He withdrew from the NBA draft after averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Hawkeyes last year. The 6-11 big man has some serious skill both around the basket and away from it, making him one of the early favorites for National Player of the Year honors. However, Garza is only one of the reasons why Iowa could be a serious national championship contender this season. Along with Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick, Garza will form an impressive trio for the Hawkeyes. 

But that’s not all Iowa has in the arsenal this year. Jordan Bohannon was given an extra year of eligibility after having season-ending hip surgery last December. Jack Nunge is also expected to return from his injury woes. And don’t sleep on Connor McCaffrey, who led Iowa in assists last season, or his younger brother Patrick McCaffrey, who missed most of last season because of thyroid cancer but was a big-time prospect a couple of years ago.

In short, the Hawkeyes have the best player in the country and a ridiculous supporting cast.

Is It Finally Gonzaga’s Year?

Outside of Iowa, the most intriguing team to watch this year could be Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs. As usual, there’s little doubt that Gonzaga is the best mid-major in the country. But the Bulldogs are also a trendy pick to finally win a national championship. With Filip Petrušev withdrawing from the NBA Draft and Corey Kispert also returning for his senior year, the Gonzaga frontcourt is loaded. The team’s guard play last year wasn’t exceptional, but the Bulldogs bring back Joel Ayayi and add five-star recruit Jalen Suggs, who’s one of the best players to ever sign with Gonzaga. If Suggs turns out to be the real deal, the Bulldogs are a bonafide Final Four contender. 

The best part is we’ll find out quickly how good Gonzaga is this season. Barring any cancelations, the Bulldogs will play Kansas, Auburn, Baylor and Iowa before Christmas. Three of those teams will start the season ranked in the top 10 (Auburn is the only exception) while Gonzaga is the preseason No. 1 in the polls.

It’ll be smooth sailing for the Bulldogs during conference play, but those early-season games should tell us a lot.

Photo: Getty Images