There will be a season.
There will be March.
There will be plenty in between that will be uncomfortable, disruptive and unprecedented — just like every other sport, professional or collegiate, that has returned to competition since the summer.
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There are 353 teams in the NCAA’s Division I — wait, no, that was last season. We’re up to 357. It is a massive enterprise comprising more than 4,200 athletes and 1,400 coaches. To suggest that there is some sort of one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges of conducting this competition, or that delaying it somehow will magically address all of the obstacles, is mere fantasy. But the schools and conferences choosing to compete this winter will do so understanding that it must be done as safely as possible.
That begins Wednesday, with a slate of games that already has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — we lost Baylor vs. Arizona State, most notably — but still includes an attractive battle between UCLA and San Diego State scheduled mere weeks ago after the cancellation of ESPN’s early-season tournaments.
One of those teams is ranked in Sports Grind Entertainment’ Preseason Top 25. We don’t know who’ll be worthy of such an honor at the end, but we do believe college basketball will get there.
Why they’re here: If you’re still of the impression that the Atlantic 10 cannot make a significant impact on the national college basketball season, rewind the tape of the (truncated) 2019-20 season and watch Dayton dunk on most everyone. Truth is, the Flyers could have been back in this company, or Saint Louis. It’s going to be a great A-10 race, but the Spiders have their quartet of double-figure scorers from a 24-win team, led by the sizzling backcourt of Jacob Gilyard and Blake Francis. They’ll be in Kentucky before the end of the month to show you what they’ve got.
Why they’re here: The Wolverines last year were close to elite when healthy, beatable in a brutal Big Ten when not. For the purposes of this discussion, we presume everyone will be available for every game — which, in this season, seems rather daring. But with Isaiah Livers back at 100 percent and Franz Wagner on the opposite wing, defenses are going to have a tough time choosing whom to guard. The issue for UM is that they were so dependent for so long on Xavier Simpson at the point; he made everything work at both ends. That’s a lot to lose.
Why they’re here: There’s so much promising talent here, and Dana Altman is such a marvelous coach that it’s hard to imagine him not conjuring a Pac-12 contender. Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi is the sort of leader necessary to at least begin replacing a program giant such as Payton Pritchard. There are many who believe senior wing Chris Duarte could step forward into a role that would make him one of the league’s most prominent players.
Why they’re here: The Longhorns took a significant step forward last season, and they added an elite frontcourt recruit in 6-9 freshman Greg Brown, which is why there is plenty of optimism about their potential in ’20-21. And yet there still is reason to wonder whether they can find the sort of consistency that keeps a team in this sort of company. Remember, last year’s Horns got handled in a number of significant games — because the offense, which nine times failed to reach the 60-point mark, was far too meager on too many occasions.
21. Florida State
Why they’re here: Yes, the Seminoles lost two lottery picks from last year’s 26-win team. But let’s be honest: Leonard Hamilton keeps his guys moving through the lineup so quickly that it’s hard to keep track of who’s on the floor from minute to minute, let alone who’s on the roster. We just know they’ll be good, they’ll defend, they’ll be unselfish and they’ll be difficult to evict from the planned NCAA Tournament “controlled environment” (don’t say bubble).
Why they’re here: Once the Bruins grasped the majority of what new coach Mick Cronin was trying to impart, they nearly seized the Pac-12 regular-season championship. They were a single shot away from that, and then March was stolen from them like everyone else, so there is plenty to motivate this team. And they’ve got everyone back who really mattered and a jumpshooting transfer — Johnny Juzang from Kentucky — who could be an elite long-range weapon.
19. North Carolina
Why they’re here: If there was no 2020 NCAA Tournament, did the Tar Heels really miss it? Yeah, they pretty much did. There have been few seasons like last winter in Chapel Hill, but the good news: This will not be one. You probably already know this based on their top-25 inclusion, but a reminder might assure Heels fans that it’s OK to come out of hiding. UNC is counting on freshman Caleb Love to provide the outside complement to the powerful Garrison Brooks-Armando Bacot inside game.
Why they’re here: The Tigers were a top-10 pick last preseason, but they barely got out of the starting gate before injury, suspension and, ultimately, defection detonated the roster that was expected to revive one of college basketball’s proudest brands. This team does not have a James Wiseman, so the expectations will not be as high. But it does not have a James Wiseman, so all the Tigers might remain in position to finish off a season that appears nearly as promising.
17. Arizona State
Why they’re here: If college basketball really is a guard’s game, as the cliché goes, then what are the Sun Devils doing all the way down here? They’ve got guards to match with anyone this side of the NBA. Well, the guards make things go, but to climb toward Elite Eight or better status, ASU needs some bigs to step up — quite literally — and complement star Remy Martin, partner Alonzo Verge Jr. and elite freshman Josh Christopher. If someone can protect the rim and retrieve the ball, this could become the program’s first Pac-12 champion. Ever.
16. West Virginia
Why they’re here: Here’s the truth about basically every Mountaineers game played last season: They weren’t scoring, and neither were you. They had the nation’s No. 3 defense, and not just because Oscar Tshiebwe was a mountain underneath the goal. They could gameplan away your favorite options. They could shut down your perimeter preferences. Are there some buckets to be found in a deep freshman class?
Why they’re here: The Cougars went 23-8 last year and still it felt like there was so much more they could have achieved. Maybe that’s because five losses were by a single possession and seven of the eight were by two possessions or fewer. That’s not really a coincidence or accident. The Cougars averaged only one more assist than they did turnovers. Play at the point must improve.
14. Texas Tech
Why they’re here: There are only two players (Terrence Shannon Jr. and Kyler Edwards) remaining of the five who averaged better than 8 points for last season’s slightly disappointing edition of the Red Raiders. So how do they get better? With a bunch of guys who got it done elsewhere before transferring to Lubbock. Marcus Santos-Silva was a double-double machine for VCU. Mac McClung has been scoring points since he showed up at Georgetown. Jamarius Burton was a versatile backcourt player for Wichita State. It’s a new ballgame now in regard to transfers — but it’s also a different challenge to incorporate them immediately.
13. Michigan State
Why they’re here: The Spartans lost the foundation of the two-time reigning Big Ten champions, point guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman, but they also have more promising players than almost anyone in the sport. The questions: Will Tom Izzo find the right mix, and will enough of those guys — Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, Gabe Brown — approach their ceilings? If they do, MSU could be Final Four-good. Again.
Why they’re here: There were several teams that missed out last March on the opportunity to field squads that were at or near program peaks, and Creighton was one. Ty-Shon Alexander could have returned to keep the Blue Jays at that level but chose to chase the NBA Draft, but All-America candidate Marcus Zegarowski and wings Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock still form one of the best perimeters in college hoops.
Why they’re here: Losing point guard Lamonte Turner early last season ruined UT’s chance at another elite season, but top-20 prospect Jaden Springer, in-state star Keon Johnson and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. will join with sophomore Josiah Jordan-James in one of the most potent perimeter attacks in Division I. And Yves Pons is there to swat down unsuspecting opponents’ shots. Point guard Santiago Vescovi doesn’t have to be great. He just has to be better.
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Key returnees: PG Kihei Clark, SG Casey Morsell, C Jay Huff, SG Tomas Woldentsae
Key additions: PG Reece Beekman, PF Sam Hauser
2019 Finish: 23-7, second in ACC
Why they’re here: Because we’d be crazy not to put them here, because it’s well established that Tony Bennett is going to get them into this neighborhood if he’s coaching five guys who wandered over from the rec gym. That’s not to say he didn’t have some talent last season, but the Cavaliers shot 30.4 percent from 3-point range and averaged 57 points and still managed to climb to just beyond the top of the ACC standings. The offense figures to mature a bit, and transfer Sam Hauser is the kind of potent scorer who will blossom with the responsibility to carry the offense.
Key returnees: G Marcus Garrett, SF Ochai Agbaji, C David McCormack, PF Mitch Lightfoot, SG Christian Braun
Key additions: SG Bryce Thompson, SF Tyson Grant-Foster, PG Dajuan Harris
2019 Finish: 28-3, Big 12 champion
Why they’re here: The Jayhawks ended the season with the No. 1 ranking and would have loved to put that up for grabs in the NCAA Tournament. They not only lost that chance, they lost the veteran point guard (Devon Dotson) and center (Udoka Azubuike) who were most responsible for that achievement. The supporting players who filled out that team — Garrett, Agbaji and McCormack — are all capable of more than was required before. This is their chance to have a special KU team built around them.
Key returnees: C Luka Garza, SG Joe Wieskamp, SG CJ Frederick, PG Jordan Bohannon, PG Joe Toussaint, G Connor McCaffery, C Jack Nunge
Key additions: PF Josh Ogundele, F Patrick McCaffery
2019 Finish: 20-11, fifth in Big Ten
Why they’re here: They have the best offense in college basketball. There might be others that rank higher in efficiency or field goal percentage or whatever, but the Hawkeyes can shoot it from every position, can score with the running game and can throw it into the post and allow Luka Garza to dominate. That’s why they’re top 10. Why aren’t they top five? Why aren’t they No. 1? Because to reach that height requires a defense that at least fits into the “very good” category. The Hawks ranked as the No. 97 defense last year, according to KenPom.com. They’ll simply have to do better, somehow.
Key returnees: PF Matthew Hurt, SF Wendell Moore, PG Jordan Goldwire, SF Joey Baker
Key additions: PF Jalen Johnson, PG Jeremy Roach, PF Patrick Tape, SG DJ Steward, C Mark Williams
2019 Finish: 25-6, second in ACC
Why they’re here: The Blue Devils were maybe one retained player away from challenging for the very top of this chart (A sophomore season for Cassius Stanley might have looked a lot better than falling to No. 54 overall in the draft). But bringing back Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt gives a foundation around which the promising freshman backcourt and gifted forward Jalen Johnson can build.
Key returnees: PG D’mitrik Trice, SG Brad Davison, SF Aleem Ford, C Nate Reuvers, PF Micah Potter, F Tyler Wahl, G Trevor Anderson
Key additions: F Ben Carlson, PG Lorne Bowman II
2019 Finish: 21-10, first in Big Ten
Why they’re here: If the NCAA Tournament were played now, Wisconsin would be your national champion favorite. Because the Badgers walk into this season as essentially the same team that walked out of the last one with a share of the conference title and an eight-game winning streak. They can be better, too. Wahl was just a 15-minute player as a freshman and showed off an impressive sense of versatility. Potter took a while to totally latch on to the Wisconsin style but now can punish opponents on a regular basis. Davison’s shooting was streaky last year. He could become more dependable. This is not as talented as the Badgers’ Final Four teams last decade. That doesn’t mean it can’t be as successful.
Key returnees: PG Ayo Dosunmu, C Kofi Cockburn, PF Giorgi Bezhanishvili, SG Trent Frazier, SG Da’Monte Williams,
Key additions: PG Andre Curbelo, SG Adam Miller, SG Austin Hutcherson
2019 Finish: 21-10, fourth in Big Ten
Why they’re here: In Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the Illini have the sort of point/post combination that has fueled so many recent Big Ten contenders: at Michigan State, at Michigan. Cockburn’s presence in the middle energized a redesigned Illini defense that still has more room to improve. Illinois was not an exceptional long-range shooting team, hitting only 30.9 percent from deep, but Hutcherson and Miller might make a difference in that department.
Key returnees: PF Keion Brooks
Key additions: C Olivier Sarr, SG BJ Boston, PG Devin Askew, SG Terrence Clark, PF Isaiah Jackson, PG Davion Mintz, SG Dontaie Allen, SF Cam’ron Fletcher, PF Lance Ware
2019 Finish: 22-8, SEC champion
Why they’re here: The Wildcats are starting over more than most any worthwhile team, but the addition of Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr means they start with a productive, high-major big man at the core of the roster. There are at least two genuine difference-makers — Boston and Clark — among the many talented freshmen. And there may be more. Five-star recruit Devin Askew will get the first chance to run the team, but Creighton transfer Davion Mintz is there for support or to take over if Askew falters. In the 10 seasons after John Calipari took over Kentucky, the Cats have been in the Elite Eight seven times. Go ahead, bet against him. We won’t.
Key returnees: PG Collin Gillespie, SG Justin Moore, SF Jermaine Samuels, C Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, PF Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, PF Cole Swider, SF Bryan Antoine
Key additions: PF Eric Dixon
2019 Finish: 24-7, Big East champion
Why they’re here: Winning a share of the Big East in what obviously was a rebuilding season was a remarkable achievement, as well as a statement about how magnificent this program has become. The Wildcats did it even with Antoine — their most decorated recruit in years — limited because of a shoulder injury that has recurred this season. They did it because their program works, taking promising players and teaching them how to play and how to play together and, eventually, to star. Any one of three Wildcats could be an All-American this year: Gillespie, Moore and Robinson-Earl. It would not be a surprise if more than one pushed that boundary, and if that happens the Wildcats may enter March as a favorite to win a third NCAA title in six years.
Key returnees: SG Jared Butler, SG MaCio Teague, PG Davion Mitchell, SF Mark Vital, SF Matthew Mayer,
Key additions: PF Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatoua, SG Adam Flagler, C Zach Loveday, PG LJ Cryer, PF Dain Dainja
2019 Finish: 26-4, second in Big 12
Why they’re here: The perimeter squad was suffocating defensively and operated with a sizzling chemistry that would have resulted in the program’s first No. 1 seed if a tournament had happened. There’s no college backcourt that can look at Butler, Teague and Mitchell and expect to match up comfortably. Vital is capable of defending nearly every position on the floor. The one question for the Bears is whether they have the ideal replacement for big man Freddie Gillespie. He rebounded and protected the rim in a way they could miss.
Key returnees: SF Corey Kispert, PF Drew Timme, SG Joel Ayayi, SF Anton Watson
Key additions: SG Jalen Suggs, G Dominick Harris, C Oumar Ballo, PG Aaron Cook, SG Julian Strawther
2019 Finish: 31-2
Why they’re here: Last season’s edition of the Zags was one of the most pleasant surprises in the two decades of consistently stunning success in the Gonzaga program. The program had lost two first-round draft picks from the year before and still was able to build a roster that ultimately was stopped only by the pandemic. This team is even more talented, with Timme and Kispert ready to handle bigger roles and Suggs entering as the most coveted prospect in program history. The Zags have broken so many barriers in the past decade: their first No. 1 ranking, first Final Four, first championship game. They’ve left one goal unfulfilled. This team may get that one covered.