If my math is correct, we are officially on Day No. 126 since the NCAA Tournament was cancelled, and the sports world as we knew it shut down.
Yet after a few days following the season where everyone kind of looked around and said “what the heck are we doing?” I noticed something interesting: A bunch of college basketball programs really began to make the most of a pretty lousy situation. It was impressive to see the number of coaching staff’s who – just days into the pandemic – began using their time at home productively, learning Zoom and eventually putting together the finishing touches on their 2020-2021 rosters, while looking ahead to the years beyond. While some programs sputtered, it was impressive to see the number of schools that just put their heads down and go to work.
So with that, I figured we should spotlight a few programs who have really stood out and “won” the off-season so far. Now to be fair, there are some programs that really didn’t need to do all that much (Tennessee, Duke and Villanova have all pretty much had their rosters set since the day the season ended). And some, like Gonzaga and Baylor are still waiting on big-time NBA Draft decisions to determine whether they’re “winners” or “losers” this off-season.
But right now, here are the programs that have stood out this off-season.
Off-season attrition has become a rite of passage at Kentucky, yet there haven’t been very many years where the program was hit quite as hard as it was in 2020. As has been well-documented, all five starters entered the NBA Draft, and just one player who saw minutes last year returned.
Yet, as best I can tell, “sulking” doesn’t really seem to be John Calipari’s modus operandi. And to the credit of him and his staff, few programs plugged holes on the transfer market quite like the Wildcats did this off-season.
Now admittedly, there was already plenty of talent coming in via the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in high school basketball. But as I wrote earlier this spring, it truly has been impressive to watch John Calipari alter his recruiting approach, and realize the value that the transfer market does bring to college basketball programs in this era. This year the Wildcats jumped two feet in, grabbing – in my opinion – the best player available in Olivier Sarr, as well as a guard with high-major experience in Davion Mintz to give the backcourt extra depth. Jacob Toppin, who will sit out next season, is a guy who A-10 coaches believe can eventually evolve into an NBA caliber wing.
On top of that, the Wildcats have seemingly positioned themselves well in the 2021 recruiting class, as they appear to be the favorite to eventually land Top 10 prospects Paolo Banchero and Jaden Hardy.
Not a bad off-season. Not bad at all.
The Spartans certainly didn’t have as many holes to fill as other teams on this list, and are one of the few programs anywhere in America that wasn’t all that active on the transfer market. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t do big-time work this off-season.
In a credit to Tom Izzo and his coaching staff, the Spartans made maybe the biggest recruiting wave of the summer, securing the commitment of Emoni Bates, the top prospect in the high school class of 2022, and a kid largely considered to be the best talent anywhere in high school basketball. Whether Bates ever plays college hoops or not is another question altogether, but it never hurts to get a commitment from a potentially generational talent like Bates. And if that weren’t enough, just days later, Max Christie, a Top 10 prospect in the class of 2021 committed. It’s worth noting that while Bates may never play college ball, the exact opposite could be true as well: He could actually reclassify and enroll early with Christie, potentially giving the Spartans a chance at signing the No. 1 class in the country in 2021.
Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there is increasing buzz that the two Michigan State players who have tested the draft waters – forward Xavier Tillman and wing Aaron Henry – could both return to East Lansing for another season. While it still remains speculation at this point, if each returns, the Spartans likely have a Top 10, and maybe Top 5 team heading into 2020-2021.
Like Kentucky, when the season ended, Arizona lost virtually its entire roster. Overall, the team’s top six scorers all left, including three freshman who all entered the NBA Draft. And unlike Kentucky, Arizona didn’t – at least at the time – have a top ranked recruiting class to replace them. In early March, the Wildcats had just two high school players committed for the 2020-2021 season.
That’s also what makes what Sean Miller and his staff have done the last four months so impressive: They have figured out a way to sign a consensus Top 10 class, and did it while inking just one guy this spring who played high school basketball in the United States last season.
So how did they do it? By going international.
That’s right, at least for one off-season Sean Miller is college basketball’s Pitbull. He’s Mr. Worldwide (for the sake of everyone, let’s hope Miller doesn’t wear tight white pants on the sidelines this season).
Since March, the Wildcats signed five players with international roots (including one who did in fact play high school ball in the US last year), three of which ended up as Top 100 prospects according to 247 Sports. That includes Lithuanian forward Azuolas Tubelis (please don’t ask me how to pronounce that name) who the staff believes would have been a McDonald’s All-American caliber player had he played his high school ball in the United States. It also includes two others (French big man Daniel Bacho and Estonian point guard Kerr Krissa) who many believe are a bit better than their rankings indicate as well (to be fair to the recruiting guys, it’s hard to evaluate international recruits. There just isn’t as much tape as the American kids, and it certainly isn’t as easy to see them in person).
Add in a quick hit on the grad transfer market (Seattle guard Terrell Brown) and Miller again has a team capable of competing at the top of the Pac-12.
Speaking of teams who had a sneaky good off-season in the Pac-12, there is an argument to be made that no staff, anywhere, did more work than USC’s.
The Trojans were headed for an NCAA Tournament bid in March, only to see the season end, which led to the departure of their top five scorers. In the bigger picture, the Trojans lost lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu and four seniors, as well as two other players who elected to transfer.
To their credit USC already had five-star big man Evan Mobley set to replace Okongwu, but then got to work on the transfer market, signing five – FIVE – different transfers. That includes three grad transfers who all averaged double-figures, and two sit out transfers. One of those sit out guys is a kid named Joshua Morgan, who is 6’11 and won the Big West Defensive Player of the Year award at Long Beach State last season.
Furthermore, since the pandemic began the Trojans also nabbed two Top 100 recruits in the class of 2021, and currently sit with the No. 1 ranked recruiting class for next year as well.
Again, this was just a monster off-season for the Trojans staff.
Yet if there was one team that you could argue did as much this off-season as the Trojans, it was Alabama. And what was especially impressive is that like we mentioned above with Arizona, the Crimson Tide coaching staff basically put together a Top 15 class out of thin air the last four months.
Since the season ended, Alabama has signed five-star guard Josh Primo, one of the top junior college players in the country (Keon Ellis), one of the top grad transfers on the market (big man Jordan Bruner) and convinced four-star Alex Tchikou to reclassify and be part of the 2020-2021 roster. Oh, and if that’s not enough, forward Herb Jones announced that – after testing the draft waters – he will return to school, and the possibility exists that John Petty (who was actually better than people realize last year) could be back as well.
With those additions, and the style the Crimson Tide plays, they should be one of the most entertaining teams in college hoops next year.
With a couple returnees, three sit out transfers and a four-man freshman class coming in, Arkansas didn’t have very many scholarships to work with this off-season. But the staff certainly made the most of the ones they had.
Overall the Razorbacks added three grad transfers to their roster. The most notable was Justin Smith, who was Indiana’s leading scorer last year. They also added Vance Jackson, a versatile wing and microwave scorer from New Mexico, and Jalen Tate, a 6’6 guard who played at Northern Kentucky.
And when you add in the pieces from last season with the sit out guys and recruits, a team that didn’t start a single player over 6’6 last year will look a whole lot different in 2020-2021. The Razorbacks will be bigger, more athletic and deeper than they were a season ago, and are an SEC program (like Alabama) that is absolutely trending in the right direction.
While I would never say “getting hit with a one-year postseason ban” is a good thing, because of what happened next, it’s hard to keep the Cowboys off this list. Following the sanctions, the NCAA announced that any player currently in the Oklahoma State program could transfer, and be eligible immediately. Yet outside of one key contributor and another deep on the bench, the rest of the roster returned intact.
The big news of course was the return of Cade Cunningham, the aforementioned No. 1 ranked player in the class. Cunningham had no shortage of options – including contracts in the professional ranks – yet decided to do his one year between high school and the NBA in Stillwater. Beyond him though, the Cowboys return a team that – if they can somehow win an appeal – is good enough to make the NCAA.
So yeah, considering the circumstances, things could have been much worse in Stillwater. The only question now is if in fact they can win that appeal.
It wasn’t a flawless off-season at Louisville after JUCO All-American Jay Scrubb decided to enter the draft. But what was impressive was how quickly Chris Mack and his staff bounced back from Scrubb’s departure. They signed two grad transfers to help fill the void, including Carlik Jones (who averaged 20 points per game at Radford last season) and Charles Mineland, a wing who played major minutes on a good San Francisco team last season.
What might be more impressive however is the work that Chris Mack and his staff have already put into next year’s class. We already mentioned that USC has the No. 1 class in 2021 for right now, and right behind them is Louisville at No. 2. They grabbed the best JUCO in America heading into next season El Ellis, and picked up quickly rising point guard Bobby Pettiford in June as well.
Like Louisville there was some roster attrition in the wrong direction for Tech this off-season. Davide Moretti decided to go pro in Italy rather than return for his senior year. And recent rumblings are that Joel Ntambwe – better known as “Jonathan Kuminga’s brother” – may follow baby bro to the pro ranks. Ntambwe was expected to be a major contributor for the Red Raiders this coming season, and his loss, so late in the summer is less than ideal.
But in terms of just attacking the transfer market, you could argue that Texas Tech is right there with Kentucky in terms of the quality of players they brought in. Mac McClung is a proven commodity after averaging 15 points per game last season at Georgetown, while Marcos Santos-Silva was one of the best big guys in the portal this off-season after averaging a near double-double at VCU. Jamarius Burton has already announced he’ll sit out next season after averaging 10 points per game at Wichita last season.
Beard also rounded out his 2020 high school class with big man Vlad Goldin and got a jump on the 2021 class with a commitment from four-star wing Jaylon Tyson.
It’s time to give a little love to the little guys, and along with pretty much everyone else on this list, the Colonials and their coaching staff did some big-time work this off-season.
Jamion Christian and his staff have completely upgraded the talent on the roster, as George Washington signed three players who began their careers at high-major schools. That includes former Top 150 prospect James Bishop (who played last year at LSU) and Ricky Lindo, a talented wing who spent the last two season at Maryland. They also received a commitment from 2021 prospect Tafara Gapare, a wing from New Zealand who is already ranked in the Top 100 nationally by the recruiting services. He could go down as the highest-ranked recruit to ever sign with the school.
If you’re looking for a team on the rise in the A-10, the Colonials are your squad.
Two words: Makur Maker. That’s all I really need to say.
While I’m still dubious that Maker ever actually makes it to campus (there are still two weeks until the NBA Draft deadline) his simple commitment put Howard basketball on the map, and made them a talking point nationally. That not only is great for Howard basketball, but also the university and college basketball as a whole.
Plus, even if Maker never actually does play a game for the school, it still opens the door for other top high school players to seriously consider, and possibly commit to, HBCU’s.
Finally, I spoke about it on today’s Aaron Torres Podcast (attached below), but it’s been a long time since Penny Hardaway got a real, public win “win.” There was the whole James Wiseman saga, a disappointing 2020 season, Jalen Green saying he would have gone to Memphis… if he’d gone to college, Mike Miller leaving, on and on and on.
Therefore, you can’t overstate how big the commitment of five-star center Moussa Cisse was for the Tigers on Wednesday. He not only fits a big need on the roster, but also wraps a pretty productive off-season for the Tigers. Despite that disappointing season, Memphis didn’t lose anyone to transfer (and will essentially return intact) and picked up two nice pieces on the market as well, in Virginia Tech wing Landers Nolley II and Evansville’s DeAndre Williams.
There won’t be nearly as much hype about Memphis heading into next season. But they should be a much better team.