Dribble Handoff: 2021 NCAA Tournament teams poised to miss out on return trip to Big Dance


With historic powers like Kentucky and Duke missing out on the 2021 NCAA Tournament and others such as Michigan State, UCLA, Syracuse and North Carolina barely making it in, last season was a reminder that a ticket to the Big Dance must be earned each season. Only for the select few teams in college basketball is an annual trip to the NCAA Tournament a given at this point. 

Kansas, Michigan State and Gonzaga are the only programs with active streaks of 20 or more consecutive season making the NCAA Tournament. So while several programs are still riding high from their 2021 March Madness appearances with hopes of making it an annual trip, a new season means the brutal reality that many who went dancing last season won’t get an invitation back this season.

Last week, we looked at bounce-back teams for the 2021-22 season and picked four programs we think are headed to the NCAA Tournament this season after missing it in 2021. But those bounce-back teams will have to take the place of someone. So which at-large NCAA Tournament teams from 2021 are least likely to make it back this season? Our writers weigh in for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff.

This really is a difficult question because, when I went through it, there’s not a single team that earned an at-large bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament that I can’t envision also earning an at-large bid to the 2022 NCAA Tournament. In other words, there’s not an obvious answer here, at least in my opinion. But, if forced to pick somebody, I suppose I’ll go with VCU.

The Rams finished 19-7 last season while receiving a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament; point being they were, more or less, a bubble team. The best player on that roster was Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, who is now off to the NBA and playing with the Denver Nuggets. He averaged 19.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.9 steals in 31.9 minutes per game last season. So that’s a massive loss that was always going to be tough to overcome. And then VCU’s postseason hopes took an additional hit in late May when Adrian “Ace” Baldwin suffered a ruptured Achilles. The 6-foot-1 guard hasn’t officially been ruled out for the season, but that injury typically sidelines basketball players for at least 10 months — and 10 months from late May is late March. If you’re familiar with the college basketball calendar, you know that’s not good.

Can VCU make it back to the NCAA Tournament?

Sure.

Mike Rhoades is really good. He’s guided the Rams to each of the past two NCAA Tournaments. Only a fool would count him out. But, that said, there’s no getting around the idea that replacing Hyland was always going to be difficult, and that trying to do it with the additional loss of Baldwin makes everything even more challenging. Those were two of VCU’s top four scorers last season; now they’re no longer available. And that’s among the reasons why I’d probably bet against the Rams making it back to the NCAA Tournament — and the fact that VCU is 81st in the preseason Torvik rankings just underlines the point. Gary Parrish

If you’re not a perennial top-25 program and you lose not just the best player in the sport but also the best player in program history, then your chances of repeating a top-10 season are extremely low. And in Iowa’s case, non-existent. But this is about more than just being a top-three seed again. This is about whether you’ll have enough to be an at-large in 2022. The Hawkeyes no longer have Luka Garza — the obvious void — but it’s more than that. Joe Wieskamp (14.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) has joined Garza (24.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg) in the NBA. Sharpshooter C.J. Frederick (7.5 ppg, 47.4 3-PT%) left for Kentucky and Jack Nunge (7.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) transferred to Xavier. More than 75% of Iowa’s points and rebounds are gone from last season. There’s a lot to make up for a team that was so blatantly built around Garza’s raw offensive ability and its perimeter attack. I don’t think the Hawkeyes will be out of the NCAA Tournament conversation altogether, but I ultimately think this team winds up safely getting slotted into the NIT. Garza was a phenomenal college player. He’ll be missed well beyond the limits of Iowa City.  — Matt Norlander

Syracuse

Hedging against a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Boeheim who returns an All-ACC caliber player in Buddy Boeheim (his son) just feels … icky, especially since Syracuse has only missed the Big Dance six times since 2000. But don’t underestimate just how much of a talent drain funneled out of the Orange program this offseason. 64% of the team’s total points scored last season are not returning thanks to the departures of Quincy Guerrier, Kadary Richmond, Alan Griffin and others. And while they’ve backfilled with some interesting additions — including four-star freshman Benny Williams and transfer Jimmy Boeheim — it’s hard to imagine this team being better-positioned in 2021-22 than it was in 2020-21. That’s not encouraging considering the 2020-21 team was just barely good enough to be at-large worthy. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Boeheim triumvirate meshes perfectly and the Orange are dancing again in 2022. But, on paper, the talent level doesn’t appear to be quite on par with some of the other teams in the top half of the ACC. So, even acknowledging Boeheim’s greatness, simply earning an at-large bid this season would be quite the accomplishment.  Kyle Boone

This isn’t what Wisconsin fans want to hear in the midst of an abysmal football season, but it could be a rough season on the hardwood for Badgers as well. In addition to losing four of their top five scorers from a team that got progressively worse last season before bouncing out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round with an 18-13 record, the Badgers are also dealing with a cultural issue.

Coach Greg Gard, now entering his sixth season, was confronted by veteran Wisconsin players last season over a “disconnect” between him and the team. A recording of the conversation was then leaked to media in June. Though most of the players involved have since moved on, the saga raises questions over whether the Badgers are moving in the right direction under Gard.

Gard signed a strong freshman class, and having a seasoned veteran guard like Brad Davison around will be helpful. But the Badgers finished just 10-10 in league play last season with a veteran roster, and the Big Ten isn’t getting any easier. This team could end up like the 2017-18 Wisconsin squad that finished 15-18 (7-11 Big Ten) and snapped the program’s 19-year NCAA Tournament streak. — David Cobb



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