Ah, preview season. Is there anything better? For college basketball fans, it’s the perfect time to catch up on all the whirlwind changes of the offseason, including new hires, departures, transfers and blue-chip additions. For Kentucky fans, it’s a chance to get excited about the new hoops season just when football is disappointing us the most. And for writers like us, it really is the best time of year, because doing even the slightest amount of research is usually enough to pass ourselves off as “tuned-in insiders” of the college basketball landscape.
Looking for mid-major sleepers? No problem. Need an update on which blue-blood schools are “up” or “down” in preseason projections? We got you. In search of way, way, way-too-early-bracketology? Totally on top of it. (That’s our specialty, in fact.)
The 2020-21 college basketball season starts in three days, and if you’re like me, you woke up with a hankerin’ for prognosticatin’. So to prepare you for this week’s barrage of things to watch for, here’s five things to watch for in 2021 college basketball previews.
1. “___ is gone, but ___ is back!”
The backbone of any respectable sports writer’s season preview is always the “coming and going” roster report. This involves stating which players do not play for X team anymore, followed by stating which players do, in fact, still play for X team, with preference generally given to players you may have heard of before for any reason. It’s the easiest move out there, but to pull off a successful preview, creative execution of this step is crucial. The trick here is to make it sound interesting. For example:
“After losing eight of nine rotation players from last year’s team, Kentucky rebuilt a top-10 roster for 2021 with three transfers and eight freshmen, including five-star recruits B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke and Devin Askew.”
Not bad, right? Gets to the point. With limited column space, this would more than suffice. But compare this:
“Perhaps no school was bitten harder by the roster upheaval bug than Kentucky, which lost nearly every player from last year’s SEC Champion unit. However, John Calipari is used to building contenders out of scraps. This year is no exception, as he brought in three potentially high-impact transfers—Olivier Sarr, Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin—to go with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, headlined by athletic five-star wings B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke.”
As you can see, while there is essentially no new information added in the second example, it’s much more interesting. Plus it’s several breaths longer, and studies have shown that reading more words makes people feel like they’ve learned something, even if they really haven’t (incidentally, the same studies have shown that saying “studies have shown” something makes people feel better about the validity of that fact, even it’s entirely made-up).
2. Tiers vs. Quadrants
Perhaps the biggest riser in the preview game in recent years has been the use of tiers and quadrants. This is due in part to the arrival of NET, the NCAA’s controversial evaluation tool that divides the whole of college basketball into four quadrants for comparative purposes. It’s also likely due in part to the fact that picking tiers is much easier than ranking 25+ teams based off of nothing but roster changes and everyone else’s rankings. Whatever the reason, it has resulted in a heated debate. Let’s go over some of the pros and cons of each method:
- PROS: flexible; allows for creative organization of random thoughts; preferable for small-scale articles, such as top 25s or conference previews.
- CONS: chaotic; a little *too* subjective; difficult to generalize in more in-depth projections.
- PROS: reliable; even distribution; good for contextualizing mid-major opponents
- CONS: stiff; requires consistency; sucks for teams that just miss the cut
Here at KSR, we’re big on tiers, if you couldn’t tell from Brandon Ramsey’s top 25 breakdown last week. Which method do you prefer?
3. “Keep an eye on ___”
One challenge of covering college basketball every year is picking categories for every team, player, coach and storyline (e.g.: “underrated” squads, coaches on the “hot seat,” “glue guys,” tourney “sleepers,” etc.). Because we’ve created so many of these categories to choose from, it’s usually not that hard. But there are always a few items that we know are important, but just don’t seem to fit in any one category. That’s how they get filed under the default tab, a.k.a. “something to keep an eye on.”
It could be a red-circle matchup on the calendar between a transfer and his former team. It could be an under-the-radar player, à la Isaiah Jackson this year, who is drawing rave reviews in preseason practices. It could also just be Buzz Williams, pictured above, doing whatever it is he does at his latest gig. In this case, you’re being asked to keep an eye on people keeping an eye on things.
Don’t worry, if you think about it enough, it makes sense.
4. Litmus Tests
This one could be a little tricky this year, given the uncertainty surrounding scheduling this year. But if early reports are any indication, writers using the term “litmus test” to describe every notable matchup in the early part of the season is back as strong as ever.
To wit, a quick Google search revealed no less than six articles from major sports sites in the past two weeks that referred to certain games as “litmus tests” for young teams, and as the season gets going it will surely only get worse. Here’s my ranking of Kentucky’s biggest nonconference “litmus tests” this year, in order of litmus-ness:
- Richmond (Nov. 29) — first game against a veteran team with NCAA talent (and a super scary mascot). Litmus test!
- Kansas (Dec. 1) — any time you’ve got a matchup of blue-bloods in Indianapolis, that’s something to watch for. Litmus test!
- Louisville (Dec. 26) — big-time rivalry game the day after Christmas? Brush off those cookie crumbs, boys. Litmus test!
- Notre Dame (Dec. 12) — Mike Brey’s team lost __, but they bring back __, so watch out. Litmus test!
- UCLA (Dec. 19) — another blue-blood matchup, only this one’s in Cleveland. Meh. Still, litmus test!
Finally, the big winner of the 2020 preview season: disclaimers! With roughly 10% of college programs currently on hold due to COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s impossible to pretend that everything is business-as-normal this year. Heck, the fact that this post is being written Thanksgiving week instead of a month ago is all the evidence you need that things are not quite as they should be with college basketball. So before you make any predictions about the season’s first weeks, you must first acknowledge that literally all of it could be canceled at any given moment.
But hey, that’s no fun to think about. Instead, let’s celebrate the sport’s triumphant return with some of my personal favorite disclaimers that I’ve seen this month:
“Fans won’t assemble at Assembly Hall. No Cameron Crazies in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Yet there’s hope and energy for an exciting 2021 season.” –Jay Bilas, ESPN
“It has been a while. Lord, has it been a while. And it’s going to be a bumpy, frustrating ride all winter. But we can’t focus on the chaos and scrambling and lose sight of how great it is simply to have college hoops to watch, period.” –Brian Hamilton, The Athletic
“Questions? Why should anyone think there are a lot of questions concerning this college basketball season?” –Mike Lopresti, NCAA.com
“Though the 2020-21 college hoops season is destined to have a rolling wave of game postponements and cancellations, at least we are going to have a season… So let’s embrace and celebrate the fact we finally have college hoops again.” –Matt Norlander, CBS Sports
“The start of the 2020-21 college basketball season has been pushed back. Instead of opening in early November, it will begin around Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to tip it off, baby!” –Dick Vitale, ESPN
Happy reading, folks!