Years from now, the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season will be remembered for three things. No. 1: Baylor winning the national championship. No. 2: Gonzaga going 31-0, then getting rolled by Baylor in the NCAA title game, thus failing to become the first men’s team since Indiana in 1976 to finish with an unbeaten record. But the third item may well be the biggest: a season problematically held amid a pandemic. It marked the first time in more than 25 years that teams played regular-season schedules of fewer than 25 games.
With that unique season came unusually poor performances from some teams, as challenges affected rhythms and routines. Hundreds of games were either canceled or postponed. Expect ’21-22 to have some reversion, since scheduling should (mostly) return to normal. Next season, there will be teams that hop into the rankings that haven’t been there in a year or two — or longer.
Though we are still miles and miles away from my annual preseason ranking of every team in men’s college hoops, I’ve sifted through the major conferences and identified five of the most likely candidates to experience a jolt back into relevance. An especially good thing for college hoops: some of these programs are the ones that mean the most to the sport.
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Last season: 13-14, ineligible for postseason
Best players returning: Allen Flanigan (14.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Jaylin Williams (10.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Devan Cambridge (8.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Best incoming player: Jabari Smith (No. 4 prospect in Class of 2021, per 247 Composite)
Outlook: In the preceding four seasons before 2020-21, Auburn’s record on average was 25-10. Bruce Pearl took the Tigers to the NCAAs in 2018, made the Final Four in 2019, then would have had something like a No. 5 seed if there was a 2020 tournament. Last season was expected to be a step back. And now, losing 20-point-per-game dynamo Sharife Cooper, in addition to JT Thor, that stings but Auburn is bringing aboard some serious weaponry and variety with its transfers. K.D. Johnson, via Georgia, should average double figures. Walker Kessler only scored 4.4 points while at UNC, but nobody would be shocked if he was a double-double guy immediately under Pearl. And then there’s a hidden gem in Wendell Green Jr., who averaged 16 per game with Eastern Kentucky. The Tigers will be a top-six team in the SEC and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season: 13-11, missed NCAA Tournament for first time since 1995
Best players returning: Wendell Moore Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Jeremy Roach (8.7 ppg, 2.8 apg)
Best incoming player: Paolo Banchero (No. 2 prospect in Class of 2021, per 247 Composite)
Outlook: I am not betting against Mike Krzyzewski in his final season. It is true that Duke is going to transition with one of the two or three biggest exoduses Coach K’s ever dealt with (Matthew Hurt, Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward, Jordan Goldwire, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman III and Patrick Tape are all gone), but the incoming talent will almost certainly bump the Blue Devils back into the polls and get K to the 36th and final NCAA Tournament of his illustrious career. Duke is bringing back Mark Williams, who could be the sleeper player in the ACC, in addition to Joey Baker. Marquette’s Theo John is playing a grad year with Duke, and two other top-30 prospects will be in the mix: Trevor Keels and A.J. Griffin. I’m not sold on Duke being a top-10 team, but it should be top-three in the ACC.
Trayce Jackson-Davis’ return is reason for optomism at Indiana.
Last season: 12-15, missed NCAA Tournament; Archie Miller fired
Best players returning: Trayce Jackson-Davis (19.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Race Thompson (9.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Best incoming player: Pitt transfer Xavier Johnson (14.2 ppg, 5.7 apg)
Outlook: The Hoosiers may well wind up being a chic preseason Top 25 pick. With Miller out and Mike Woodson now the coach, the transition will be drastic … but potentially wonderful immediately. Jackson-Davis will probably be a preseason First Team All-America selection. Rob Phinisee (7.1 ppg) also returns, as does Khristian Lander, who could thrive as a sophomore after enduring a skittish first season. An X-factor could be Parker Stewart, who averaged 19 points for Tennessee-Martin and maintained his commitment to IU after Miller was fired. The Hoosiers aren’t going through a full-blown overhaul in terms of player personnel, but the coaching switch, I think, will be pay immediate dividends. I don’t want to oversell to an eager, hungry Hoosiers fan base, but the roster is encouraging. No question on that. Mark me down for Indiana receiving a No. 6 seed next March.
Last season: 9-16, missed NCAA Tournament; first sub-.500 season since ’88-89
Best players returning: Keion Brooks Jr. (10.3 ppg), Dontaie Allen (5.4 ppg)
Best incoming player: West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe (10.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg for career)
Outlook: Expect one of the primary talking points for next season to be the resurgence of blue bloods. I’ve got Duke, IU and UK all back on track and all making the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky is going through its typical roster overhaul, but I’d be shocked to see UK fail to crack 20 wins at minimum next year. Who’s out: Brandon Boston Jr., Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew and Olivier Sarr have all left. Point guard Davion Mintz is yet to officially decide, but I anticipate he returns. Jacob Toppin (5.2 ppg) will be pegged as the breakout guy on this roster, and I’d agree with that presumption. Kentucky will be stacked. Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler (14.0 ppg) will see his numbers dip but his value increase. Davidson transfer Kellan Grady (a career 17-point-per-game guy) adds to Kentucky’s blatantly obvious and necessary approach to improve its perimeter attack, as Grady will complement Iowa transfer C.J. Fredrick. Tshiebwe might be a monster; he clashed with WVU’s staff and bolted in-season, so some new scenery could see him return to his freshman-year form. Freshmen to know include TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins, both of whom are of the five-star variety. Looking like a No. 3 seed.
Last season: 11-15, missed NCAA Tournament for third straight season
Best players returning: Prentiss Hubb (14.6 ppg, 5.8 apg), Nate Laszewski (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Best incoming player: Yale transfer Paul Atkinson (17.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Outlook: I’m thinking Mike Brey has three years max left in him to coach, and next season’s team could dictate that timeline. Notre Dame should return to relevance after a hiatus from that status in recent years. The Fighting Irish lose just one double-digit scorer (Juwan Durham) while returning plenty of veterans. Dane Goodwin, Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz combined to score 29 points per game a season ago. Hubb will be one of the five best players in the ACC, which will only help the presence and opportunity for Laszewski and Atkinson, who I suspect will be one of the two or three best 1-2 big-man attacks in the conference. There’s a couple of four-star prospects incoming as well. Notre Dame was an 11-15 team with the No. 21-ranked offensive attack last season, per KenPom. That bodes well for a right-the-ship ’21-22. I’ve got the Fighting Irish finishing in the top five of the ACC race and having their best season since 2016-17.