Today’s date is Monday, Sept. 20.
Do you realize what that means? College basketball’s season starts in exactly 50 days. We’ve hit that fidgety, September sweet spot: you can’t see the season yet, but you can feel it emerging just out over the horizon.
So let’s give you a taste and forecast of what 2021-22 has to offer in men’s college hoops. Consider this your pre-preseason preview. The offseason is so long, I couldn’t go much further without giving you a hearty, heavy package of goodies to whet the appetite. Here are 50 (really, even more than that) things to know in advance of the forthcoming season.
50. Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement tour starts Nov. 9, when the Champions Classic will be played at Madison Square Garden. Krzyzewski has a 6-2 record vs. UK. Last time these two played it was the worst loss of John Calipari’s career: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and company detonated a 118-84 result on UK (and the sport at large). As for this being Coach K’s final season, just buckle up and watch what you eat, because it will no doubt be nauseating for some of you. Opening night will be a huge to-do, and understandably so.
49. The Champions Classic doubleheader offers the only appealing inter-conference game between power-league teams on opening night. But for the counterculture diehards (who are reading college hoops content like this in the middle of September; I see you and I love you), here are five other tasty opening-night games worth following.
• Oral Roberts at Colorado State: Max Abmas led the nation in scoring last season, got ORU to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed, passed on going into the NBA Draft, and will open up at maybe the best team in the Mountain West.
• Belmont at Ohio: Belmont will have a convincing case as a top-40 team this season, and it will open at Ohio. Last time we saw Jeff Boals’ Ohio squad, it was in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
• Louisiana Tech at Alabama: The Crimson Tide are coming off their best regular season, statistically, in school history. They’ll open up against a Tech team that could win Conference USA.
• Cleveland State at BYU: A pair of 2021 NCAA Tournament teams. BYU should win, but CSU coach Dennis Gates has done as good of a a job as any man who was hired in 2019.
• Morehead State at Auburn: The Tigers make for a fun Final Four sleeper, but Morehead State — coming off an NCAA tourney appearance — has enough coming back to make this one interesting.
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48. Normal nonconference play is basically back. Hallelujah to that. Much like in late 2020, when college basketball was the last major American sport to stage a season in the midst of a pandemic, college hoops will again be the last sport to really give a go of holding a mostly standard regular season in the time of vaccines. The good news is that, whereas last season there was a 27-game limit in the regular season, we are back to the normal number of 31. Hopefully, fewer than 2% of all games wind up being canceled or postponed.
47. Big-time players to know now. This is not my list of the 20 best players in college hoops this season, though these 20 would all fall somewhere in my top 30. The names to familiarize yourself with as we scoot along closer to November are:
Drew Timme, junior, GonzagaKofi Cockburn, junior, IllinoisHunter Dickinson, sophomore, MichiganCollin Gillespie, senior, VillanovaTrayce Jackson-Davis, junior, IndianaChet Holmgren, freshman, GonzagaPaolo Banchero, freshman, Duke Trevion Williams, senior, PurdueJohnny Juzang, junior, UCLAEmoni Bates, freshman, MemphisJalen Duren, freshman, MemphisE.J. Lidell, junior, Ohio StateMax Abmas, senior, Oral RobertsOchai Agbaji, senior, KansasBuddy Boeheim, senior, SyracuseAndre Curbelo, sophomore, IllinoisMarcus Carr, senior, TexasJaden Shackelford, junior, AlabamaJaden Ivey, sophomore, PurdueAdam Flagler, junior, Baylor
46. As for Bates and Duren, they’ll make Memphis as interesting a team as any other. After playing throughout their high school careers as 2022 prospects, both reclassified (as was long anticipated) in August and committed to Memphis two weeks apart. First Duren, then Bates. The latter name you likely know, as he’s been one of the three or four most hyped prospects since LeBron James. (Which was ultimately unfair to Bates.) Duren came on strong in the past year, and in fact passed Bates in 247Sports’ rankings. The time is now for Penny Hardaway and Memphis. Anything shy of a top-four seed, in combination with at least a Sweet 16 run, will be a disappointment.
Jalen Duren went from playing grassroots this July to reclassifying to play for Memphis in November.
45. Memphis won’t have a monopoly on freshman hype. Could the best of the newbies be in a Duke uni? Paolo Banchero — well, I had a coach last week tell me Banchero has the ceiling to be as good/impactful for Duke as Zion. And he was emphatic about it. It’s going to be impossible for any player to upstage Coach K’s farewell season, but Banchero could truly make it even more memorable.
44. What about the reigning champs? Baylor went into last season as a near-universal top-three-level team. The Bears winning the national title wasn’t a shock, though it was historic given the men’s side hadn’t ever done it at that university. Heading into 2021-22, Scott Drew will again have a quality squad, but it’s more likely the Bears fall somewhere between No. 10 and No. 20 nationally. Last season, even amid COVID, the Final Four was the expectation. This season it would be a bonus.
43. As for the other team from the 2021 national title game, Gonzaga will probably be the No. 1 team in the polls when they’re released in October; the Zags already sit at No. 1 here at CBS. Mark Few — who recently found himself in trouble after receiving a citation for driving under the influence; we await what his punishment from the school will be — could wind up having something that has perhaps never been done before: a team with the preseason national player of the year (Drew Timme) and the preseason national freshman of the year (Chet Holmgren). Last year’s Gonzaga team was an all-timer, even with that title-game pratfall vs. Baylor. It’s hard to say this team will be better than the 31-1 squad that finished No. 1 at KenPom, but it can be pretty close.
42. Great news: We are getting a Gonzaga-UCLA rematch. The 93-90 buzzer-beating GU win in OT was objectively one of the five best games in the history of the tournament. The two will face off Nov. 23 in Las Vegas. Credit to Few and Mick Cronin for working through a lot of nonsense behind the scenes this offseason to make sure this game got done. There could be nine players from that Final Four epic who find the floor in the rematch 10 weeks from now.
41. Forget Texas and Oklahoma. Here’s the conference realignment news you completely missed. There are a banker’s dozen (that’s 11) schools in new leagues this season. The Southland was mutilated, so let’s start there. Central Arkansas is leaving to go to the ASUN, while Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State and Abilene Christian all — all of them! — left for the WAC. Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State bolted out of the Ohio Valley and are off to the ASUN (for football reasons), which bloats that conference by three more members, bringing it to 12. Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M are swapping MEAC allegiances for the SWAC. The third team to leave the MEAC (now an eight-team league) is North Carolina A&T, which found a new home in the Big South.
40. We have a new Division I member for 2021-22, so let’s single it out. St. Thomas, a longstanding D-III power, joins the Summit League. This means that, after decades and decades of the state of Minnesota having just one Division I basketball men’s program, there’s now two. And we are now at (a completely unnecessary) 358 men’s D-I programs.
39. One of my favorite decisions of the offseason was Kofi Cockburn deciding to return to Illinois. Was it an overly dramatic, convoluted, drawn-out process? Yes. But that pick could be the difference in Illinois making it to the Sweet 16 next season, which is something that didn’t happen last season despite the Illini being a No. 1 seed. (Loyola Chicago, hello.) Cockburn will have college basketball’s beautifully unpredictable maestro, Andre Curbelo, setting him up. Know this: Brad Underwood’s team was no flash in the pan, even with some important departures.
38. Congrats to everyone at High Point and the University of Idaho. Those are the two schools that will christen new arenas this season. Northeastern, alternatively, plays in the oldest gym in college basketball: Matthews Arena, which has been in use since 1910.
37. And here are the four arenas that will be no more after this season:
Texas’ Frank Erwin CenterVermont’s Patrick GymnasiumGeorgia State’s GSU Sports ArenaLongwood’s Willett Hall
Texas’ impending Moody Center, combined with Chris Beard taking over, will only reinforce that UT has top-five potential as a college hoops job.
Opened in 1977, this will be the final season for Texas’ Frank Erwin Center.
36. Welcome back, Ivy League. Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton and Penn did not play last season. Those players, coaches and support staff will enter this season with more appreciation than pretty much everyone, and deservedly so. I’m tabbing Yale as the team to beat.
35. My trendy mid-major league with the best chance to pick off a few big wins in November: the Ohio Valley. Belmont, Morehead State and Murray State will be streets ahead of the rest of the conference. Though it will be really hard to get two bids out of the OVC, mark me down for at least three collective wins by these schools against power-conference opponents in November and December.
34. Three mid-major schools from traditional one-bid leagues with the best chances at winning a game or two in the NCAAs: Belmont, Loyola Chicago, Buffalo.
33. Seven teams from non-power multi-bid leagues (A-10, Mountain West, WCC) with top-50 potential this season (aside from Gonzaga): BYU, Colorado State, Nevada, Richmond, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, St. Bonaventure.
32. With 74-year-old Mike Krzyzewski on his way out, here are the remaining elder statesmen of the game going forward (That is, if none of them opt to retire in 2022, but I think at least one more of these guys is done after this season.) All are 65 or older. Kansas State’s Bruce Weber (65 in October), Texas Tech’s Mark Adams (65), Houston’s Kelvin Sampson (66 in October), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (66), Tennessee’s Rick Barnes (67), West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (68), Miami’s Jim Larrañaga (72 in October), Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton (73) and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (77 in November). Lon Kruger and Roy Williams would’ve been on this list had they not retired.
31. Want the inverse? Here are the five youngest coaches in the seven major conferences: Cincinnati’s Wes Miller (38), Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton (39), LSU’s Will Wade (39 in November), Xavier’s Travis Steele (40 in November) and Minnesota’s Ben Johnson (40). Of course, Duke will have the youngest of the group in a year; Jon Scheyer will be 34 when he takes over.
30. Ted Lasso’s still a thing — it just won the Emmy Sunday night for best TV comedy — so let’s dedicate this paragraph to identifying college basketball’s version of the most popular character on TV right now. The AP recently had a story about how Chris Beard has made a replica of the show’s BELIEVE sign and put it up near his office. Beard’s a good comp, and in some way it fits. Off-beat personality quirks and occasional one-liners that make you cock your head. But he’s not all-out Lasso. Guys like him, Scott Drew and Mike Brey have some of those vibes. But you know who was college hoops’ Ted Lasso? Roy frickin’ Williams! Alas, he only plays golf now. No, no, I have your answer.
It’s Josh Pastner. Guy literally bought a coronavirus piñata last season and had his team smash it in celebration, then gave everyone candy after a win. He also almost always wears white polo shirts that are doggedly tucked in. Be a goldfish, Josh.
29. There are three new rules being instituted this season.
Increase to six fouls, with a maximum of four fouls allowed per half (experimental trial phase coming in the NIT)
Allowance at the league level for coaches to use technology/live statistics and video on the benchShot clocks will have tenths of seconds on display now — if schools want to invest in new clocks
If the six-foul rule thing completely missed you this past offseason, here’s my explainer.
28. Super seniors and expanded rosters are a one-time perk this season. The NCAA, fairly, is giving every athlete an extra year of eligibility if they want to take it for 2021-22. The normal amount of scholarships allowed is 13, but some programs this season will have 15 or 16 guys available, not accounting for walk-ons. Some Ivy League rosters will be 20 deep.
27. The bonus-year rule, in combination with the implementation of the one-time transfer rule that allows players to be immediately eligible the first time they transfer to another school, led to the biggest offseason of de facto free agency college basketball’s ever seen and probably will ever see. It was a transfer portal free-for-all the past six months. There were 1,834 players who entered the portal by the end of the summer. The two years prior, the number was 1,045 on average — a 76% increase!
The oldest and youngest power-conference coaches in men’s hoops: Jim Boeheim (76) and Wes Miller (38).
26. Non-obvious schools whose football programs will have better seasons than their men’s basketball counterparts: Oregon, Iowa, BYU, Mississippi, Colorado, NC State.
25. Non-obvious schools whose men’s basketball programs will have better seasons than their football counterparts: Auburn, Florida, USC, Houston, Purdue, Texas, Florida State.
24. Big programs with NCAA Tournament droughts of seven years or longer that will be making the 2022 Dance: Washington State (2008). I think this is the only one. (But I’d welcome being wrong.)
23. Power-conference programs with NCAA Tournament droughts of seven years or longer that will NOT be making the 2022 Dance: DePaul (2004), Boston College (2009), Penn State (2011), South Florida (2012), Nebraska (2014), Stanford (2014).
22. There were 60 coaching changes this offseason. I’m labeling seven of those as men who will make the 2022 NCAA Tournament in their new post. (I’m not counting Wichita State’s Isaac Brown because he was promoted in March before making the ’21 NCAA Tournament):
Mark Adams, Texas Tech
Chris Beard, Texas
Hubert Davis, North Carolina
Tommy Lloyd, Arizona
Porter Moser, Oklahoma
Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago
Mike Woodson, Indiana
21. Toughest spot in Year One as a new hire: Earl Grant at Boston College.
20. I have to mention the reigning champs of the America East conference, because this was one of the shockers of the spring. The Hartford Hawks, fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance. And how did the school reward John Gallagher’s program? By voting to demote it to Division III. That won’t happen until 2025, so if this move can be reversed, that reversal will need to take definitive shape in the coming few months.
19. Louisville is really interesting to me. After being the snub of the 2021 tournament, Chris Mack surprisingly let go of two assistants (one of whom attempted to extort him), and now there’s something of a reboot. The program still awaits a verdict from the IARP (that’s tied to the FBI case) … and now there’s also an investigation into the allegations made by former assistant Dino Gaudio. The only reason that exists is because Mack secretly recorded a conversation when he didn’t renew Gaudio’s contract, then turned the recording over once Gaudio made threats. So that triggered Louisville to self-report the violations to the NCAA, once the Gaudio allegations were captured on audio. Wild. Cards have enough to be an NCAA Tournament group, but there’s an even more heightened level of intrigue than normal surrounding this team.
18. Feb. 1 will be a festive night. That’s when Chris Beard will return to Texas Tech. I think 85% of the fan base hates him now. TTU fans will invariably find me and declare my estimation is too low.
17. College basketball’s November and December has steadily gotten better, mostly, over the past decade. It’s still not offering up enough top 40-level games in on-campus environments to satisfy me, but the neutral-site mini-tournament industry still offers a lot of good nonconference matchups. That in mind, here are two dozen nonconference tilts to know now. And this doesn’t include the obvious/aforementioned Champions Classic doubleheader on Nov. 9 to kick off the season. Many of these games are likely to feature two ranked teams.
Nov. 12: Villanova at UCLANov. 13: Texas at GonzagaNov. 16: Virginia at HoustonNov. 18: Ohio State at XavierNov. 23: Gonzaga vs. UCLANov. 24: Michigan State vs. Loyola ChicagoNov. 24: Arizona State vs. BaylorNov. 25: Maryland vs. RichmondNov. 26: Duke vs. GonzagaNov. 30: Duke at Ohio StateNov. 30: Florida State at PurdueDec. 1: Michigan at North CarolinaDec. 1: Louisville at Michigan State
Dec. 2: Kansas at St. John’sDec. 7: Syracuse vs. VillanovaDec. 8: UConn at West VirginiaDec. 9: Texas at Seton HallDec. 11: Houston at AlabamaDec. 11: Arizona at IllinoisDec. 12 Villanova at BaylorDec. 18: Tennessee vs. MemphisDec. 18: UCLA vs. North CarolinaDec. 18: Kentucky vs. Ohio StateDec. 22: Louisville at KentuckyPaolo Banchero has the talent to be one of the best Duke freshmen ever.
Reagan Lunn / Duke Athletics
16. Best eight-team MTE in 2021: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 24-26). The quarterfinals are: Arizona State vs. Baylor, Auburn vs. UConn, Michigan State vs. Loyola Chicago, Syracuse vs. VCU.
15. Best four-team MTE: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 20-21). Tennessee vs. Villanova and North Carolina vs. Purdue, with the winners and losers facing each other the next day. All should be ranked in the top 20 when the games are played.
14. I love when a lottery pick talent chooses the road less traveled and goes to an atypical school. That’s most definitely the case for Patrick Baldwin Jr., who is playing for his dad at Milwaukee. Frustratingly, Milwaukee only has two games vs. high-major opponents this season: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Colorado (Dec. 10).
13. So, that whole FBI thing is still kind of hovering on the fringes of the sport. Yeah. We’re still waiting on punishments. Next week marks the four-year anniversary of one of the darkest days in college sports history … that somehow still hasn’t amounted to much. The schools caught up in the FBI probe into bribery and fraud in recruiting still have not only not been punished, the parameters surrounding their cases are still in a slog. Oklahoma State was ruled ineligible for the 2021 postseason, appealed that decision, played in last season’s NCAA Tournament … and is still waiting for the news of that appeal. Schools like Kansas, NC State, Arizona, Auburn and more are caught up in the Independent Accountability Resolution Process — which exists outside of the NCAA’s direct jurisdiction — and the whole thing has become a farce. But in speaking with multiple well-connected sources over the summer, the anticipation is that a lot of these schools will get news of consequence in the coming months.
12. Let’s roll with some conference champ predictions. The American Athletic Conference is moving toward an unavoidable downgrade, but for now, it still ranks as one of the “Major Seven,” so let’s go there first. As tempting as it is to keep reigning champ/2021 Final Four participating Houston atop the league, Penny and Memphis have no excuses not to win this conference. I’ll go with the Tigers to take the league and head into the NCAAs with a No. 3 seed. Let’s get loose and fire off a dark horse for each of these leagues as well. Here, I go Wichita State.
11. I look around the ACC and I still don’t see an out-and-out great league. The conference had zero teams in the top 14 of KenPom last season and just two (Florida State and Virginia) in the top 33. The league ranked fifth in overall performance, which is below ACC standards. Duke hasn’t won a standalone regular season title since 2006. (HOW.) Will K get it done in his final go-around? I’ll say yes, in large part because of Banchero’s ceiling and potential to be the No. 1 pick. Dark horse: weirdly UNC!
10. Seven of the 10 Big 12 teams danced in March, marking the fifth time in the previous seven tournaments that was the case. Crystal ball tells me it’ll be six ticket-punchers in 2022, with Kansas marking a return to the norm. Texas is the chic pick, Baylor will still be pretty good, but Kansas should have the best team. Big question is if the IARP hands down a huge punishment that affects how the team approaches/adjusts to the season. Dark horse … Oklahoma State, anybody?
9. There’s essentially no argument against Villanova winning the Big East. The most automatic pick of any power conference. Jay Wright’s about to have another 30-win season. Your dark horse pick is going to be Seton Hall.
Fresh off his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, Jay Wright should again have a Final Four-caliber team.
8. I think it’s more likely than not that the Big Ten winds up with multiple teams holding the best record in the league. It happened two of the past three seasons, and may well have happened last season were it not for Michigan not playing three conference games due to COVID. (FYI: The particulars surrounding Michigan’s handling of that three-week layoff still bother some in the conference.) Michigan, Illinois and Purdue will elbow it out for No. 1. Give me Matt Painter’s Boilermakers to be the best of the Big Ten in 2021-22. Dark horse: Michigan State.
7. Gotta be UCLA in the Pac-12, right? Well, the Bruins finished fourth last season behind Oregon, USC and Colorado. The reason Mick Cronin’s team will be the consensus preseason pick to lord over this league is simple: coming off a Final Four, the Bruins bring back as many returning minutes/production as just about any power-conference team. UCLA last won this league’s regular season and tournament championships in the same year in 2008. It was the Pac-10 back then. Arizona’s a fun dark horse nominee here.
6. Down in the SEC you’ll have a lot of buzz about the return of Kentucky, a team that I’ll remind you went 9-16 last season, one of the worst campaigns (we’re talking bottom five) in the 118-year history of the program. I can’t go with UK to win the SEC, but the Cats will easily be a single-digit seed. Instead, give me Alabama. A probable preseason top 10 team that brings back enough while also infusing some tasty talent. Auburn is your dark horse.
5. What else, what else. OK, here’s a quickie off-the-cuff list of stuff I can’t wait to have back: the Maui tournament actually in Maui (it was in Asheville, North Carolina, last season); fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium; fans at all college arenas; Dan Hurley’s perplexed looks heading into the under-12 timeout; people claiming Matt Painter doesn’t get enough credit when that’s actually not true; Eric Musselman finding a way to take his shirt off by the fourth game of the season; pep bands; Ed Cooley; visiting KenPom.com 27 times a day; the throw-it-all-in-a-pot-and-see approach of Texas in the first year under Chris Beard; and the return of Kansas vs. Missouri.
4. Cheers and gratefulness for us all receiving the gift that is Bill Raftery on the mic for another season of college basketball games. We love you, Bill.
3. If you’re wondering whether last season’s successful, single-site NCAA Tournament format is on the table to be repeated in 2022, it’s not. The big bracket will return to its normal ways of holding 67 games across 14 cities. What has been privately discussed in recent months is whether future NCAA Tournaments should opt to hold all the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in one city, a la what’s done at the Final Four. It’s also under consideration that, if the concept is adopted, that city would be the same one as the Final Four — so you’d have the tournament held in the same spot for two weeks. Personally, I like the idea that the regionals go to one metropolis, then the Final Four gets another.
By the by, the 2022 Final Four will be in New Orleans. Selection Sunday is 174 days away.
2. My preseason All-America team. Yep, going to give it to you nice and early.
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Paolo Banchero, Duke
Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Collin Gillespie, Villanova
1. Appreciating a return to college sports as we’re accustomed to seeing them. In talking with coaches the past few weeks, the mood now, in September, is so much healthier than a year ago. Last year at this time there was understandably a lot of frustration, confusion and weathered acceptance of a necessary-but-flawed season forthcoming. Cynicism was at its worst in a profession that demands it. Now? With an overwhelming majority of coaches and players being vaccinated, there is an eagerness and youthful enthusiasm about getting back to (mostly) normal season. Surprises always await, but for many obvious reasons, 2021-22 is going to be special.