With the 2021 calendar year just over halfway through, it’s already been an eventful year in college basketball. From the return of the NCAA Tournament after its 2020 hiatus to the evolution of new rules allowing first-time transfers immediate eligibility, the sport has given us plenty to unpack.
The COVID-19 pandemic arguably hit college basketball as hard as any sport since it wiped out an entire postseason. That sad reality from 2020 made us appreciate the return of some normalcy for March Madness in 2021, even if the pandemic’s impact was still present in many ways. Things should only improve from here as arenas return to full capacity and schools resume normal nonconference schedules for the 2021-22 season.
But before we look too far ahead, our writers are going to reflect on the first half of 2021 for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff by picking their favorite stories of the year so far in college basketball.
Baylor wins first title
My favorite story from the first half of this year is the most obvious story from the first half of this year — the one that resulted in Scott Drew cutting nets in the state in which he was raised, the one that resulted in Baylor’s first national championship in history. Man, what a story. The idea that Drew inherited a historically irrelevant basketball program overrun with scandal (after one player murdered another player) and slowly built it into something respectable, and then into something excellent, is arguably the greatest Point A-to-Point B climb by any coach at one school in the history of college athletics. And it should be noted that Drew didn’t win this national championship with a bunch of five-star prospects, but instead thanks to the development of multiple players who initially enrolled at other schools — namely Jared Butler (Alabama), Davion Mitchell (Auburn), MaCio Teague (UNC Asheville) and Adam Flagler (Presbyterian).
It should also be noted that Baylor’s path to this national championship featured the Bears beating the Big East champions (Villanova), American Athletic Conference champions (Houston) and the previously perceived best team in the country (Gonzaga) all by double-digits to finish 28-2 on the season and 54-6 over a two-year span that includes the shortened 2019-20 campaign. Again, what a story. And the fact that Baylor will now open next season in the top 10 of the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1, even after losing four starters, is a reminder that Drew and his staff have this program on as solid ground as literally any other program in the sport. — Gary Parrish
Single-site NCAA Tournament
Parrish is right. Baylor winning a national title in men’s college basketball is something special. That’s a huge story, inarguably one of the biggest in sports for 2021. And my man KB’s got some good points on 31-1 Gonzaga directly below. But for me, I’ll go broader on my favorite story amid this wretched pandemic. COVID-19 forced a situation upon the NCAA that we’ll almost certainly never see again in our lifetimes. Holding single-site tournaments in men’s and women’s basketball had some unexpected appeal. It was also, in a practical sense, the only way to successfully stage a 64 and 68-team championship event.
Then there was the on-the-ground camaraderie between the teams. Though they didn’t co-mingle, they saw each other in hotel hallways, ballrooms and more. Coaches told me the 2021 NCAA Tournament had a vibe along the lines of being the best AAU tournament of all time. I was on hand in Indianapolis for the final four rounds of the tournament. That was the best city in which to hold this kind of tournament. At least there was limited fan capacity as well. Watching NCAA Tournament games in Hinkle Fieldhouse is something I’ll never forget, and the same goes for ping-ponging back and forth for four straight days watching every Sweet 16 and Elite Eight game in person, which is something that obviously is not possible in a normal NCAA Tournament.
So for the unprecedented and historic nature of the 2021 tourney, that’s why it’s my pick. And I’ve also been told by sources that the NCAA will consider going to a single-site format for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in future years. Spider out the first weekend around the country, then have one city host the regionals, and another host the Final Four. Make the tournament an even bigger destination event than it already is. — Matt Norlander
Baylor gets its roses as the 2021 national champion, but Gonzaga was the story of the 2020-21 season. The Zags were the preseason No. 1 team and they carried that distinction with a bullet all the way to the title game, becoming the first team since 1978-1979 Indiana State to have an undefeated record (31-0) leading into the NCAA championship (before falling 86-70 to Baylor).
Gonzaga was dominant against non-Bears foes thanks to its top-rated offense led by lottery prospects Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs, and spearheaded down low by mustache-donning Drew Timme. It finished the year ranked No. 1 in scoring margin. No natty to show for it, but years from now we’ll remember Baylor’s title and Gonzaga’s near-perfect season in the same breath. — Kyle Boone
Significant coaching changes
After a 2020 offseason that featured very little movement on the coaching carousel, the 2021 cycle took a wrecking ball to college basketball’s power structure. Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski announcing their retirement plans was not a celebratory occasion for the sport (though there were surely some Duke and UNC haters pleased about the development). But their decisions constitute a changing of the guard that will reverberate for years to come, and it’s a change that should give college basketball fans excitement over what a new era on Tobacco Road will bring.
To be sure, the two legends are simply handing the whistle over to assistants with Hubert Davis taking over for Williams immediately and Jon Scheyer taking over for Krzyzewski after this season. But the departures of two of the sport’s winningest coaches of all time has the potential to make the ACC an absolute free-for-all in the years to come while also giving more oxygen to new power brokers on the national level.
Bidding farewell to Williams and Krzyzewski is bittersweet, but it’s significant on multiple levels and exciting because it represents a new dawn for two of the sport’s top brands. Plus, the farewell tour with Coach K during the season ahead has the potential to bring some special moments. — David Cobb