Congratulations everyone, we’ve made it to 2020. Hope you all had a safe and happy New Year’s celebration and that you’re enjoying a nice, sorta-hangover-free New Year’s Day on your couch, watching waaaaaaay too much football and gorging on bad food one last time before you hit the gym for a fresh start this year.
This is, after all, the year we all finally get into shape.
Anyway, over the last few weeks it seems like every college basketball writer in America has shared his best of 2010’s list – best player, best team, best coach, best assistant coach, best under the table payment to a recruit, whatever. And it was fun, it really was.
Still rather than looking back, I figured it’d be better to look ahead at what’s to come in 2020, with the biggest questions that will hit college basketball in the upcoming 365 days. For fun, I decided to break the list into two parts, “Stuff that will happen this season” which is basically everything from now until the Final Four in April, and what could happen into the off-season and into the beginning of the 2020-2021 season.
Some of it is pretty obvious, some of it is projecting, and some of it is a bit off the wall, but let’s have some fun, and look at the biggest questions across the sport in the coming 365 days:
Rest of the 2020 Season:
Will a dominant team emerge in the 2019-2020 season?
It’s been the single biggest storyline of the early college basketball season: Is there a great team in college basketball? On paper it seems like the answer is no, as six teams have already occupied the No. 1 spot in the polls.
And in looking ahead to what’s coming the rest of this season, it doesn’t appear as a great team will eventually emerge either.
Gonzaga won’t play enough good teams between now and March for us to figure out if they’re “great” or not, Duke seems to be too banged up, and everyone else – Louisville, Kansas, Kentucky, whoever – seem to have too many holes. Maybe it will be Villanova or someone else we’re not looking at right now, but given what we’ve seen so far this season, and given the dearth of great NBA talent in college hoops, it seems unlikely.
Instead, what seems much more likely is that this season plays out like 2011, 2014 or 2016, seasons where there are a lot of good teams, but no truly great ones. It really does feel like one of those seasons.
Will a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate emerge?
While so much of the focus has been on the “no great teams” narrative, what has been equally fascinating to me – and not talked about nearly as much – is that there don’t appear to be any great players in college basketball this year either.
By this time of the season, it feels like we’ve always had either an elite freshman (Zion Williamson, John Wall, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose) emerge as a legitimate National Player of the Year, or a veteran step up into the spotlight (Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Buddy Hield, whoever).
Only this year it’s been the exact opposite. On the freshman front, Cole Anthony had his moment in the spotlight, then went down with injuries and Anthony Edwards had like 10 big minutes in Maui and has been quiet since. Speaking of injuries, they slowed down Myles Powell’s run at Player of the Year, and Obi Toppin at Dayton has been good, but not so good that he feels like a National Player of the Year candidate.
Add it up, and it all leads to the most wide-open Player of the Year race I can ever remember, one where if I asked you today “Who is your National Player of the Year right now” you seemingly couldn’t give a real answer. Who would it be? Maybe Payton Pritchard?
If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the National Player of the Year race, nothing does.
Where the heck are we going to get 36 at-large bids from?
I know, I know. Every year we say that it’s a “weak bubble” in college basketball, but umm, have you seen the sport this year? With the ACC, SEC and Big 12 all performing well below normal expectations, I’ve got to ask: Where the heck are we going to get 36 at-large bids from?
Now admittedly, we will still get plenty of those bids from the traditional conferences, with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East all trending to probably get a few more additional spots than normal. Then? As I wrote last week, it feels like it could be a banner year for mid-major and not-quite-high major conferences. The AAC (which I wouldn’t call a “mid major”) looks like it will get at least three on paper with Memphis, Wichita and Houston, and the A-10 is in good shape to get two or three as well. As I wrote last week, the WCC (home of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU) could get three bids, and the Mountain West is in good shape to get at least two, with San Diego State and Utah State establishing themselves early.
Of course, with so much uncertainty in the power conferences it also leads to…
Who are going to be the teams that come out of no where to make a big NCAA Tournament run?
The great thing about a season that’s as unpredictable as this one, is that it almost always leads to an unpredictable NCAA Tournament. If you got bored by all the higher seeds winning in last year’s NCAA Tournament (remember, all the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16), well, you probably won’t have to worry all that much about that this year.
Which leads me to this: Who the heck are the teams that are going to come out of nowhere, to make a serious run in the tournament? It could be a low major team that makes an unexpected run to the Sweet 16, or a mid-major who goes to the Final Four. Heck, it could be the second, third or fourth best team in a conference during the regular season playing for a national championship.
Again, it’s impossible to predict who those teams will be. But mark my words, they’re coming.
Off-Season of 2020
Can Memphis continue to recruit at the level they did in 2019?
Anyone who has gotten this far in a college basketball recap article knows plenty about what Penny Hardaway has done early in his tenure at Memphis. When he arrived at the school, he promised to bring in the best players not only in the city but from across the country. And to his credit, in his first full recruiting cycle he delivered.
In 2019, Memphis landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, headlined by James Wiseman. But as we all know, Wiseman played for Hardaway in high school. And it’s always easier to build the No. 1 class in the country when you’re able to build it around a star player that you have a personal relationship with. It’s also easier to get other players to commit once that first great player signs on.
Which leads to the fascinating part: Can Penny still bring in elite players, when he doesn’t have one of his former high school players to build the class around?
So far, the results are umm, incomplete at best, as Memphis has a grand total of… zero recruits committed for the 2020-2021 season.
Now in defense of Penny (a guy who I’ve grown to like and respect) he really didn’t have any big names except Wiseman committed at this point last year, and locked in Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones all after the regular season ended last March. So this isn’t exactly foreign territory for him. And it’s also hard to recruit too much when you’re not quite sure who will come back, with at least Achiuwa likely going pro, and a few others likely to at least test the waters.
It will also make for a fascinating spring for Hardaway at Memphis. He is in on a couple big-time players (Jalen Green, Greg Brown etc.) and his ability to close on them will answer a bunch of big questions entering the 2020-2021 season.
Mainly, how good will the 2021 Tigers be? And is Penny really a threat to John Calipari, Coach K and the rest of college basketball’s power brokers long-term? Or was he a one-year wonder?
How many high school players will choose the overseas route?
Listen, no one loves college basketball more than me, but unfortunately this is just a new reality with covering the sport. Until the one and done rule is changed (if it’s changed), every off-season we will have to wonder which players will seriously consider alternative routes to college basketball. We’ve seen a few guys train for a season with no major repercussions on their draft stock (Mitchell Robinson, Darius Bazley) and more recently we saw RJ Hampton choose to play in Australia for a season this year rather than go to college.
The question now is how many guys will choose similar steps.
A Top 40-ish prospect named Marjon Beauchamp has already announced he will sit out next season to train, and the belief around high school hoops is that at least a few of elite high school players will look into the overseas option. Makur Maker certainly will if he isn’t eligible for the NBA Draft, with Jalen Green (likely choosing between Memphis and Oregon if he goes to college) and Isaiah Todd (currently committed to Michigan) seemingly the most likely names.
There have been a ton of other guys who’ve been rumored, and more will certainly come as we get closer to the end of the season and summer. Again, this is just the new reality for college basketball.
Will Cade Cunningham mark the return of the “Super Freshman” in college basketball?
One guy who we don’t have to worry about going pro is Cade Cunningham, who will be suiting up at Oklahoma State next year, with his brother in a suit right next to him. And no matter what you think of the move, it will be a boon for college basketball.
Look, I’m not saying that Cunningham can have a “Zion level impact” on college basketball next season because well, he isn’t Zion and Oklahoma State certainly ain’t Duke. But, I do think he’s a player who is good enough to truly compete for National Player of the Year and bring the star power that college basketball is so sorely lacking this year.
And before anyone comes after me and says “There’s no way a guy at Oklahoma State can win National Player of the Year” remember, that Trae Young nearly won it two years at Oklahoma without a single, other NBA player alongside him.
Cunningham – thanks to a strong recruiting class this past season, and potentially other freshmen he could bring with him – will have more talent around him than Young did.
And at least for one year, should be part of the re-emergence of the “Super Freshman” in college basketball.
Will we get another “Super Team” at Kentucky?
I know it’s a little early to start discussing, and I know that Kentucky fans are tired of having their freshmen over-hyped in the summer only to not deliver in the winter, but while it’s early, the 2020-2021 Wildcats have a chance to be really good.
One, I just don’t know how many guys will be leaving after this season for the pros. Tyrese Maxey seems like a lock, I suspect Ashton Hagans will join him, and we’ve heard since the draft deadline last summer that this would be the last hoorah for Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery too. I’m not sure I totally, 1000 percent buy that either is ready (though Richards certainly looked the part on Saturday against Louisville) but as we all know, draft decisions are rarely about being “ready” any more.
Yet even with those guys plus Nate Sestina gone, it would mean that Kentucky would still return Immanuel Quickley, Keion Brooks, Kahlil Whitney (who just doesn’t seem anywhere close to ready – no matter what the mock drafts say) and Johnny Juzang.
Just as important though, I think next year’s freshman class has a chance to be really special.
Again, I know some fans are tired of the endless hype, but I have said since the days they committed that I believe both BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are legit Top 10 type picks, with Boston emerging this season as one of the legitimately great scorers in all of high school basketball. Clarke is right there, and while he is young, I believe Devin Askew will be ready to step in and compete right away as well.
That’s a nice little core to build off of, and my guess is that Kentucky still adds at least one grad transfer big man down low, and potentially another high school big guy as well.
Add in all those pieces and you’ve got a heck of a team, with some real “super team, No. 1 in the country” type potential.
What will the coaching carousel bring?
After jobs like Louisville, UCLA and Indiana opened over the last few years, and some unexpected ones opened last summer (Alabama, Arkansas, St. John’s) it’s looking like a relatively tame college hoops coaching carousel this off-season. The biggest job on paper that could open is Texas, and even right now Shaka Smart might be able to do enough to salvage his situation there. Which means that we’re looking at a season where spots like Boston College, Georgia Tech and a handful of other small-time gigs might be the ones who are looking for new coaches.
Woopty freaking doo.
Still, even though it appears to be a slow cycle, let’s never forget that something unexpected always seems to pop up. Last year it was John Beilein deciding, in the middle of May, that he was going to take his shot at the NBA, and in other years it was Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens going pro, and Thad Matta deciding to step down in the middle of the summer.
Obviously, this year comes with even more added intrigue with so many programs currently under NCAA investigation in the never-ending fallout from the FBI probe from a few years ago. Could that mean that Bill Self gets out from under the posse at Kansas and finally takes a stab at the NBA? That Sean Miller is toast at Arizona? That another school could be in trouble?
Again, it’s impossible to know. But mark my words, something will happen.
Finally, what else will happen?
One of the things that frustrates the casual sports fan about college basketball is that so much changes so quickly in the sport. But heck, that’s also what all of us diehards love so damn much. Whether it’s because of recruiting, NBA Draft decisions, coaching changes, kids getting better over the summer, so much can change, and so quickly.
And really, the best question to ask is one that there’s no way we can possibly project: What will happen that no one will see coming? No one could have predicted a few off-seasons ago that the FBI would get involved with college basketball (hopefully nothing that drastic happens again) and who would have predicted on January 1, 2019 that Beilein would end up in the NBA, or that one of the top high school players in the country (RJ Hampton) would not only reclassify, but play in Australia?
So what’s ahead for the 2020 calendar year?
And that’s the best part.