Welcome to the first college basketball mailbag of the 2020-21 season! With the new year tipping off Wednesday, I figured now would be as good a time as any to answer the pressing questions on your mind.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to have several of this week’s questions center around scheduling given the relentless COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ll also make some picks and talk about why Iowa is slightly overrated. There will soon be actual games to discuss and I can’t want to focus on actual on-court play.
We will post these mailbags every Wednesday throughout the course of the season, so make sure you join the conversation on Twitter at @brauf33. Thanks as always to those who contributed this week.
Let’s start with the fun stuff, shall we?
I’ve held firm on my stance that Gonzaga is the best team in the country, and I’ve only gotten more confident in that thought since news broke of Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard’s immediate eligibility. The Zags return most of the core from last season’s 31-2 team, which includes a preseason All-American in Corey Kispert and a member of my All-Breakout Team in Joel Ayayi. Mark Few also landed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Jalen Suggs.
Gonzaga should have the nation’s best offense for the third straight year along with an improved defense anchored by Oumar Ballo. Here’s a full look at why 2020-21 could be “the year” for the Bulldogs.
What is the “almost there” team that could realistically make a massive jump this season? ex: Arkansas, SDSU, GA Tech – tim (@gwatamole)
I purposefully left the dark horse portion of Tony’s question until now as my answer to him and Tim is the same: Georgia Tech. I absolutely love the upside of the Yellow Jackets and think everyone outside of Atlanta is overlooking this group.
For starters, Josh Pastner’s squad finished fifth in the ACC last year and they were close to having a breakout then as several of their losses were nearly wins (seven were by eight points or less). Georgia Tech returns almost everyone from its rotation, headlined by the veteran backcourt of Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe. Already a great defensive team (16th in AdjD), the Yellow Jackets will be extremely dangerous if their offense continues to develop, which it should given their experience and talent they’ve added over the past year and half.
In the mid-major ranks, I would look at Austin Peay. The Governors can be overshadowed in the Ohio Valley behind Belmont and Murray State, but head coach Matt Figger has two potential NBA players in Terry Taylor and Jordyn Adams and a solid roster around them. Here’s a full breakdown on why I think Austin Peay will be this season’s Cinderella.
Why do you hate Iowa? – MattyMc1 (@triaxmax)
I don’t hate Iowa! I think the Hawkeyes will be a very good team but I also don’t think they’re a top five team as their preseason ranking reflects.
We know Iowa is going to be elite offensively again. They finished third in the country in AdjO last year with Luka Garza leading the charge and, with him back alongside a healthy Jordan Bohannon and the rest of their core, they’re going to be extremely tough to defend. The Hawkeyes are capable of beating anyone because of the way they play on that end.
Yet it’s the defensive end of the court that holds them back and is why I’m hesitant to anoint them as a top five team. Iowa allowed opponents to score over 80 points on eight occasions in 2019-20, including two to cross the 100-point plateau. Yes, defense generally improves with experience and the Hawkeyes will be one of the nation’s most experienced. But they were also experienced last year and still lack quality individual defenders.
I’m not writing the Hawkeyes off by any stretch, but I do need to see them improve defensively.
Love these either-or questions!
The natural inclination is to always go against Texas considering their propensity to underachieve under Shaka Smart, right? Especially with the most talented player in the country suiting up for Oklahoma State?
Against my better judgment, I am going with the Longhorns. They literally bring back everyone and added a top 10 freshman in Greg Brown. This is a top 15 roster on paper and, even if they do the thing they do and underachieve, they should still be a solid tournament team. Oklahoma State still appears somewhat shaky outside of Cunningham, though they certainly have talent. The Cowboys just have more question marks as of now.
I think they’ll still carry the same weight for the games that are able to be played, though there are many more mitigating factors this year. Teams won’t get punished for a lack of non-conference games due to scheduling problems/COVID cancellations, but resume-building wins will still be a thing. For instance, the winner of Thursday’s Gonzaga-Kansas game should have a big advantage when it comes to seeding.
Non-conference games are also important when it comes to comparing conference resumes. The A-10’s status was elevated last year with the way Dayton performed in November and December. The SoCon and Mountain West received similar bumps, too. That aspect is important to remember as well.
I think we’ll have a general idea of who the top six or seven seeds are (24-28 teams) to go along with the automatic bids that are handed out, so there will only be 10-20 spots that need to be filled and most of them will be obvious, too. The bubble conversation is where things could get tricky, especially factoring in the unknown of how analytics will handle this wonky season. There will be much more reliance on the eye test, which will require the selection committee to (hopefully) watch more non-power conference basketball.
I think the biggest impact will be seen with the seeding itself. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a team be severely under-seeded because of resume-boosting games that were canceled, while others will be over-seeded if they’ve been able to play most (or all) of their games.
It will be a wild ride, but we will absolutely still get all the national championship-worthy teams in the field…because there are only about 10-20 of those anyway!
Goggle squad. ALWAYS go goggle squad.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.