We’ve been waiting for the 2020-21 college basketball season for eight months and we’re finally days away from tip-off. No one knows what to expect between the COVID-19 pandemic, scheduling issues, teams going on temporary shutdowns, and games being played in front of little or no crowds — but we do know that teams will be suiting up on Nov. 25.
In these Rauf Reports, which will be published every Monday and Friday, we will take a look at my biggest takeaways from the prior week of action and look ahead at what the upcoming week of games may hold. There will also be tidbits of information I’ve gathered from people, players, and coaches across the sport, along with any other random thoughts about the game.
That is where we start this season’s first Rauf Report — with a (somewhat) random thought. I’ll also touch on my biggest breakout team, let you in on my biggest sleeper team, and give you my picks for both the Final Four and the national championship.
Let’s dive into it.
We just need to get to the season
I know we’re just days away from the start of the season, but with programs temporarily shutting down seemingly every day due to COVID-19 protocols and contract tracing, it has still felt as if the season is in jeopardy. There has been some talk about pushing the start of the year back — Rick Pitino has been a big advocate of this — and/or about playing conference-only schedules, though the chances of either happening seem like a long shot at this point.
The bottom line is this: There isn’t anything that can be done in order to play the season without any hiccups. We’ve seen this in every sport that couldn’t produce a bubble environment. Major League Baseball dealt with team shutdowns and college football continues to deal with several game cancellations on a weekly basis.
Everybody is taking steps to put on a season as safely as possible, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride no matter what. The most important thing is to be flexible: flexible with scheduling, flexible with rotations (should a player have to miss time due to COVID protocols), flexible with NCAA Tournament criteria — anything that can be done to get as many games played as possible.
And that’s why I say we just need to get to Wednesday and get the season underway. Once it has started, it has started. Going past the point of no return will force everyone to be flexible (like we’ve seen with college football), and nothing short of a nationwide shutdown will cause the entire sport to stop. So many people have already put in so much work to ensure the season can take place. We just need to get going and we will figure out the rest as it comes.
The biggest trend to watch
To me, the most interesting trend I’ll be watching is how much of an edge experienced teams will have over inexperienced ones. Teams relying on new faces, whether those are freshmen or transfers, haven’t had anywhere near the full amount of offseason work they normally have to get used to playing with each other. That early practice time is also crucial for establishing roles, figuring out a rotation, and so forth. Making matters worse, in-season practice time may be limited for some teams as well.
Experienced teams usually get off to faster starts anyway, but that gap in early-season success could be as significant as ever.
That gap always closes, however, about two months into the season. That’s historically been about the amount of time inexperienced teams need to fully establish themselves internally and start producing a better on-court product.
Will that timeline remain the same this year? Or will it be pushed back significantly because of the lack of offseason work?
Many blue bloods — particularly Duke and Kentucky — rely on the sheer talent of their highly-rated freshmen to eventually win out over the experience gap. Most of the time, the talent proves itself. But how long will it take the Blue Devils, Wildcats, and other teams with similar roster constructions — Oklahoma State may be the most intriguing example — to close that gap?
The coaching carousel isn’t going to move much
This is the prevailing notion among people from various programs around the country that I’ve talked with. Every athletics department is pinching pennies after losing revenue from the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament and lack of a full football season. We’ve seen several departments cut athletic programs entirely (though this has mostly affected non-revenue producing Olympic sports) and trim the size of their support staff.
As such, most schools don’t have the funds to afford to pay the buyout to get rid of a coach and only a handful have the ability to fundraise to get the necessary dollars to do so. There was also minimal coaching movement this past offseason, as programs valued stability above all amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this virus doesn’t seem to be going away in the next few months, so I’d expect that situation to stay the same.
These factors won’t keep coaches like Indiana’s Archie Miller or Texas’ Shaka Smart off the hot seat, but they do lower the bar those coaches have to clear in order to return for the 2021-22 season.
Yes, there has already been one major head coaching change, as Billy Kennedy takes over for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. There is also a high-major job opening at Penn State. It is notable, however, that both Pat Chambers and Gregg Marshall were let go from their respective positions following internal investigations of improper off-court behavior. Don’t expect many coaching changes to be made strictly based on performance on the court.
Georgia Tech is this season’s breakout team
Now, let’s finally focus on some on-court predictions, shall we?
If you’re looking for this season’s breakout team, look no further than Georgia Tech. I think this team is talented enough to be ranked in the top 20 nationally and could finish in the top four in the conference. It’s easy to forget how well they played against ACC foes last year (finished 5th in conference) and how close they were in several of their losses (seven were by eight points or less). The Yellow Jackets had an elite defense under head coach Josh Pastner a season ago (16th in AdjD) and should improve offensively given their continuity and experienced guards.
Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe have formed one of the ACC’s best backcourts over the last couple of seasons, and both should take another step forward in 2020-21. They lead a Georgia Tech group that brings back everyone other than big man James Banks. Thankfully for Pastner, senior Moses Wright appears to be ready to step into that rim-protecting role.
This is the season Josh Pastner has been building toward since he took over the Yellow Jackets. With a roster full of upperclassmen, now is the time to make their move up the standings. If they can become more consistent offensively — which they should be able to do, given their experience and talent — they will make the jump.
Cinderella dancing at the Governors’ mansion
Austin Peay has been successful in their three seasons under head coach Matt Figger, finishing in the top four in the Ohio Valley Conference every year and winning at least 21 games each of the last two years. However, they remained a step behind conference heavyweights Belmont and Murray State, keeping them from making a real impact on the national stage. That should change in 2020-21, as the Governors look poised for a breakout season thanks to their returning talent, including stars Terry Taylor and Jordyn Adams.
Adams and Taylor are legitimate offensive stars and both could be selected in the 2021 NBA Draft. There wasn’t a lot of size on the team around them last year, though. Figger has added some bulk via the transfer portal with Mike Peake (Georgia) and Corbin Merritt (Oklahoma). If this group improves defensively — they should, as Figger comes from the Frank Martin coaching tree — they have a chance to be extremely, extremely dangerous.
Here’s a full breakdown on why I’m high on the Governors to be this season’s Cinderella.
Only three elite teams
A consistent theme last season was the lack of any “truly elite” teams. Six different teams held the nation’s No. 1 ranking, the most in any season in college basketball history, and it wasn’t until the very end of the season that it looked like there might finally be one elite team. (That was Kansas, to be clear.)
We won’t have that problem this season.
Baylor, Gonzaga, and Villanova all look to be borderline juggernauts that will hold top spots in the rankings all season long. Baylor returns virtually everyone from a team that spent most of last season ranked No. 1 in the country, a group that includes preseason All-American Jared Butler. Gonzaga also brings back most of their minutes after finishing No. 2 nationally last season, and they welcome in a top recruiting class headlined by five-star guard Jalen uggs. Villanova’s in the same boat as the other two. All three programs have elite coaches, too.
Virginia is another team with the potential to get into the mix if their offense gets up to speed quickly. Kansas could sneak into this conversation, too, if their role players step into more prominent roles. Duke and Kentucky are always dangerous, and this year will be no different if their talented freshmen come together.
But, even if any of those teams do reach their full potential, the trio of Baylor, Gonzaga, and Villanova look — on paper, at least — to be a step ahead of everyone else.
Baylor, Zags, Vols, Nova will make the Final Four
Because they’re a step ahead of everyone else, I must put all three of the teams noted above in my preseason Final Four. All three have the experience, talent, guard play, and coaching to make deep NCAA Tournament runs. Assuming they are all placed into different regions, I think all would be favored to make it to the last weekend in Indianapolis.
The team I think will join them is Tennessee. The more I’ve dug into the Volunteers this offseason, the more I like them.
Tennessee was ranked in the Top 25 when starting point guard Lamonte Turner was lost for the season in December, and the team struggled thereafter. However, with defensive specialist Yves Pons returning, the Vols will have a solid returning core with Pons, Santiago Vescovi, John Fulkerson, and former five-star prospect Josiah-Jordan James. The backcourt will be held down by a pair of highly-regarded freshmen in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, giving Rick Barnes a plethora of high-end talent to work with. Those youngsters will also help solve Tennessee’s shooting woes from last season.
Their talent and roster construction should make the Volunteers one of the nation’s most well-balanced teams, and they now have the experience they lacked a year ago. I think Tennessee could win the SEC with relative ease.
Gonzaga wins the national championship, convincingly
While I believe all four of the teams just mentioned are excellent, I also believe Gonzaga is clearly the best in the country. Mark Few’s squad returns their core, led by All-American candidates Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert, and Drew Timme. Throw in the arrival of the nation’s No. 11 recruiting class, headlined by five-star guard Jalen Suggs, and Gonzaga has a potential juggernaut on their hands.
Offensively, they play a beautiful system, with a handful of players going off for 20 points any given night. All of them are unselfish, too. Timme should step into the role held by the departed Filip Petrusev without much problem, given his skill set. With the addition of Suggs, it won’t be a surprise if the Zags sport the nation’s most efficient offense for the third year in a row.
That offense was good enough to offset Gonzaga’s least-efficient defense since 2011 and, while their offense will be more than good enough to carry them again, there are signs of defensive improvement. Ayayi and Suggs are big guards with athleticism and toughness, and big man Oumar Ballo will give them a rim protector they have been lacking. Gonzaga won’t be Virginia on that end of the court, but they don’t have to be.
Thanks to their experienced, talented, and all-around dynamic roster, this looks like it could be the year the Zags finally get their first national championship.
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.