The college basketball season is quickly approaching.
Games begin November 25th so we are less than two weeks away from tipping things off. That means it is Preview Season’! Two things that are synonymous with college basketball previews are Top 25 rankings and putting teams into tiers. Also, a lot of writers will put out a randomly numbered list of highlights and topics about the upcoming season. In order to showcase my Big J journalist skills, I’m going to combine them all. That is right folks, a tiered ranking of a yet to be determined number of thoughts heading into the 2020-2021 college basketball season.
Tier One: Thoughts on the AP Poll
1. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year?
The Bulldogs spent a lot of time a year ago atop the college basketball rankings and finished with a 31-2 record but obviously was not able to finish the job thanks to the coronavirus canceling the NCAA Tournament. In 2019 Gonzaga won 33 games and earned a #1 seed, but fell to Texas Tech in the Elite 8. Outside of making it to the NCAA Final in 2017, the postseason has typically been a disappointment for the former Cinderella team. That stage as tournament darlings was over a decade ago now and Gonzaga features five-star recruits as a perennial powerhouse now. Will this season be the year that Mark Few and company cuts down the nets?
2. Is North Carolina Back?
Okay, it’s not like UNC ever really went anywhere, but 14-19 is not something you typically experience in Chapel Hill. This season, the Tar Heels feature a trendy All-American pick in Garrison Brooks and return two other starters from a year ago. Roy Williams also signed the second-best recruiting class in the country headlined by a five-star trio of Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Walker Kessler. Things are looking up in Chapel Hill.
3. Where is LSU?
I dislike Will Wade as much as anyone. It is literally ridiculous that he is still employed as a college basketball coach. However, LSU is going to be really, really good this season, and leaving them out of the Top 25 is laughable. Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford, and Darius Days give the Tigers one of the top returning casts in the country. Additionally, Will Wade brought in the #6 recruiting class featuring five-star Guard Cameron Thomas. It is all about where you finish, not where you start and there is no doubt that LSU will finish the season in the Top 25.
Tier Two: Sound Smart at a Sports Bar
4. Richmond is Still Making the NCAA Tournament
I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t have many opinions on Richmond basketball if Kentucky wasn’t playing them in the third game of the season. However, since I am more plugged into what the Spiders are doing this season than normal I can tell you that they are really, really good. When Nick Sherod tore his ACL and was announced as being out for the season, a popular take on Twitter was “Dang, Richmond was going to be an NCAA Tournament team this season.” Well, I’m here to tell you that they STILL are an NCAA Tournament team. Don’t sleep on the Spiders.
5. Illinois is Legit and Better than Iowa, but Michigan State Will Still Win the Big 10
This one admittedly may end up not making you smart if it doesn’t come true, but you’ll sound like a big brain college basketball guy or gal if you just go ahead and claim it now.
Illinois is one of my favorite teams heading into this season led by Preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu and last year’s Big 10 Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn. Iowa is overrated (more on that later). Then you get to Michigan State. A general rule of thumb to live by is to not bet against Tom Izzo. The Spartans return Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, and Foster Loyer from a team that won 22 games last season. Also, Joshua Langford is back after nearly two full seasons away due to injuries. They signed a pair of four-star, Top 75 recruits as well who can play a role early on.
I’m in on Sparty this season and you should be too.
6. UConn is Underrated
Sophomore Guard James Bouknight is back and is someone I think can develop into an All-American this season. Seniors Tyler Polley and Josh Carlton are back also to provide some veteran leadership. Akok Akok should be back sooner rather than later as well and has a chance for a breakout season. Mix in four-star recruits Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo and you have the makings of a team that will be very dangerous in March Madness.
Tier 3: Coronavirus
7. Currently 20+ Teams Have Had to Pause Practice
Yeah, this one stinks. Let’s just move on!
College Basketball programs on pause due to COVID-19:
Bethune Cookman (OUT)
Ivy League (8)
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 15, 2020
Tier 4: Big 10 Overrated/Underrated/Properly Rated
8. Overrated: Iowa
There is a very good chance that Luka Garza is the best college basketball player in the country. Iowa is getting healthy too in the offseason so they will have guys such as Jack Nunge and Patrick McCaffery back in the lineup. However, let’s just pump the breaks on a team that went 11-9 in the Big 10 last season. The Hawkeyes return a lot of production and definitely have the talent to compete towards the top of the Big 10, but I just don’t see why they are being projected as a Top 10 team in the country.
9. Underrated: Ohio State
This is simply a pick based on potential. The Buckeyes have some injury concerns that will end up playing a big factor in how good they can be. If Seth Towns can contribute at a high level, Musa Jallow makes a full return, and Kyle Young can stay healthy this team could be really good. Veteran guards C.J. Walker and Duane Washington Jr. are back as well to provide a steadying presence in the backcourt. E.J. Liddell and Justin Ahrens are primed to step into bigger roles also. On the recruiting front, they have Meechie Johnson who should be eligible around the semester break as someone who can provide some depth at the Guard spot, and a pair of three-stars in Eugene Brown III and Zed Key. Go ahead and buy stock in the Buckeyes. They have a lot of talent.
10. Properly Rated: Indiana
Oh, Indiana. What do we make of you this season? Trayce Jackson-Davis and Joey Brunk give them a very good 1-2 punch down low. Jackson-Davis has even been a trendy All-American pick. However, similar to my opinion on Iowa, IU went 9-11 in the Big 10 last season so I’m not ready to crown them this season. Incoming five-star Guard Khristian Lander will definitely help in the backcourt and the Hoosiers do have several pieces that should add up against a solid team. If I had to bet I think they will be better than last year and probably just inside the bubble to make the NCAA tournament.
Tier 5: Coaches on the Hot Seat
11. Steve Prohm (Iowa State)
Prohm is entering his sixth year out in Ames and sports a 95-73 record including a trip to the Sweet 16 in his first season. However, Iowa State is coming off of a 12-win season. Regardless of what happens this year he is probably safe, but that seat is going to get really hot if the Cyclones fail to win over 20 games.
12. Richard Pitino (Minnesota)
Rick’s son has been the boss at Minnesota for seven seasons now and even won Big 10 Coach of the Year in 2017. However, the leash is starting to get a little thin. The Gophers have finished under .500 in two of the last three seasons including a 15-16 mark a year ago. Another sub .500 year could be Pitino’s last.
13. Jim Christian (Boston College)
This is the one that is probably most likely to happen. Coach Christian has won just 13 and 14 games in the previous two seasons and doesn’t have that good of a team in 2020 to save his job. He is just 75-116 as the Head Coach at Boston College.
14. Shaka Smart (Texas)
I do not think this one will happen because I actually think Texas can be really good this season. However, there is probably no coach in the country that needs a good season more than Shaka Smart. Entering his sixth season at Texas, Smart is 90-81 overall.
Tier 6: How Does the SEC Shake Out?
15. LSU is the Real Deal
We’ve already touched on this some earlier, but they bring back a lot and have some elite talent coming in. I really think LSU will finish second behind Kentucky and ahead of Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference. If you are high on Tennessee (which I agree with) then you should be even higher on LSU. They return just as much but were the better team a year ago.
16. Don’t Underestimate Florida (Regardless of Your Mike White Opinion)
I hate to break it to you, but Florida is good. I know that Mike White teams in Gainesville have traditionally underperformed but this team has some serious talent. Scottie Lewis has true breakout star potential as an All-SEC caliber player and I expect Keyontae Johnson to be the front runner for SEC Player of the Year. Add in Noah Locke, Tre Mann, and transfer Tyree Appleby and you have a top tier SEC team.
17. Who Makes the Leap to Compete for an SEC Title?
I am very high on Alabama and Arkansas this season. Both have very talented rosters and are very well-coached. When it comes to Tennessee they bring so much back and add some elite talent via a top recruiting class that will bolster an already very good roster. One team out of that group will end up in the Top 3 of the SEC standings. I think it will be Tennessee just because of the experience of their roster and I love Rick Barnes. However, John Petty Jr. is an SEC Player of the Year Candidate and Arkansas features a revamped roster thanks to some of the best transfer players in the country. The SEC has an absolute gauntlet of good teams this year so who survives will be very interesting. Stay tuned to my Twitter for the official SEC picks sometime next week.
Tier 7: The Year of the Transfer
18. Mac McClung & Marcus Santos-Silva (Texas Tech)
After recently receiving his waiver for immediate eligibility Mac McClung will be suiting up this season for Coach Chris Beard at Texas Tech. McClung led Georgetown in scoring last season putting up 15.7 points per game. Marcus Santos-Silva joins the squad as well after averaging 12.8 points and 10 rebounds per game at VCU. The two impact transfers will join Terrence Shannon Jr. to make up a very talented Red Raiders team that is ranked #14 in the preseason poll.
19. Landers Nolley II & Deandre Williams (Memphis)
Penny Hardaway has led Memphis to consecutive 20-win seasons, but last year felt a little underwhelming after landing the top prospect in the country in James Wiseman. Wiseman only played a few games before deciding to sit out the season and focus on preparing for the NBA Draft. At the time of posting this article, one-time Kentucky target Deandre Williams has yet to be granted a waiver for immediate eligibility, but Landers Nolley II is good to go. A 6’7” Guard, Nolley II averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds as a Freshman at Virginia Tech.
20. Carlik Jones (Louisville)
Rated as the best graduate transfer in the country by ESPN, Carlik Jones will suit up for Chris Mack and the Cardinals this season. Jones averaged 20 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists last year leading Radford to their second straight conference championship. Louisville will have a strong backcourt with the addition of Jones and Preseason All-ACC selection David Johnson.
21. Jordan Bruner (Alabama)
In the Southeastern Conference, one of the most notable additions among the many transfers is Alabama landing Jordan Bruner. Bruner was named First Team All-Ivy League last season after averaging 10.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game at Yale. Coach Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide will feature one of the most balanced rosters in the league with the addition of Bruner down low.
Tier 8: All-American Picks
Luka Garza (Iowa
Corey Kispert (Gonzaga)
Remy Martin (Arizona State)
Jared Butler (Baylor)
Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State)
Ayo Dosunma (Illinois)
Collin Gillespie (Villanova)
Marcus Garrett (Kansas)
Marcus Zagarowski (Creighton)
Keyontae Johnson (Florida)
Olivier Sarr (Kentucky)
Sam Houser (Virginia)
Chris Smith (UCLA)
Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia)
James Bouknight (UConn)
Tier 9: Former Kentucky Coaches to Follow
22. Billy Gillispie (Tarleton State)
Billy Clyde is back at the Division I level after a stint in the JUCO ranks at Ranger College.
23. Rick Pitino (Iona)
Slick Rick is back as well, but his return may have to wait a little bit longer as Iona is one of the teams that have had to shut down due to coronavirus concerns. Their first few games appear to be in jeopardy.
Tier 10: Early Season Best Games to Watch
11/25: Texas A&M vs. #15 West Virginia and #2 Baylor vs. #18 Arizona State
11/26: #6 Kansas vs. #1 Gonzaga
11/27: #4 Virginia vs. Florida, #1 Gonzaga vs. Auburn, Seton Hall vs. Louisville
Tier 11: Check in on Howard
24. Makur Maker & (Maybe) Nojel Eastern
It remains unclear whether or not Purdue transfer, and brief Michigan commit, Nojel Eastern will be granted his eligibility. However, watching five-star recruit Makur Maker play at the low-major level is reason enough to tune in at some point. Howard won just four games last season so there is a lot of work to be done before they are actually competitive, but adding a couple of high-major caliber players is certainly a good place to start.
Tier 12: Positivity
25. Over 90% of College Basketball Teams Remain Active!
Over 90% of Division 1 college basketball programs are still up and running despite a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
CAN'T WAIT for November 25th!
Have a great Sunday! https://t.co/VYeLZzIQ4k
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 15, 2020