Storylines to follow heading into the 2021-2022 men’s college hoops season
The last two college basketball seasons have been anything but normal. In 2020, the world stopped just as the major conferences were playing their league tournaments and the NCAA tournament was canceled. In 2021, we had games (at least a fraction of the schedule) in front of empty gyms with distanced players, remote broadcasters and an NCAA tournament inside an Indianapolis bubble.
The 2021-2022 season should look a lot like the college basketball seasons we’ve grown accustomed to, even if the landscape of college athletics is changing. It can’t be overstated the seismic changes that are happening in college basketball right now and continuing for the foreseeable future. But balls will be bouncing, fans will be cheering and games will be played and that is what we all want to see and experience.
So as the college basketball season gets started, here are 25 (plus one) storylines to watch this season.
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You may not have heard, but this will be Mike Krzyzewski’s final season as the head coach at Duke. This farewell tour in and of itself is so Duke — many will cherish every moment of it and many will roll their eyes every time it is mentioned. Like Duke or not, Coach K’s impact on college basketball is undeniable. The all-time wins leader. Five NCAA championships. Twelve Final Fours. Fifteen ACC tournament championships. Add into all that is the fact that Duke is coming off a season where they missed the NCAA tournament and entering this season with one of the top freshman classes (and freshman player) in the country.
While the season-long recognition of Coach K may prove annoying to some, the finality of it will be immense as we move into March. His final games against his biggest rivals include his final North Carolina-Duke game that also doubles as his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium (rumor is that four tickets to that game went for $1M at auction). The final ACC tournament and, of course, that final run to win his sixth national championship.
It truly is an end of an era.
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While there will be the end of an era in Durham, there is a changing of the guard down the road in Chapel Hill. Roy Williams stunned many by retiring on April Fool’s Day, with his replacement coming in assistant coach Hubert Davis. Davis was a Tar Heel fan growing up, played for the Tar Heels, and was Williams’ assistant for nine seasons before taking over the first chair. He also had a 12-year NBA career which will endear him to recruits and brings to the UNC program a fresh outlook to a Carolina Way that may need a tweak to modernize it.
Expectations are always high at Carolina and even as Davis goes through his learning curve there are championship aspirations. Davis embraces that just as tightly as he embraces this program.
By the way, the previous five North Carolina coaches won National Coach of the Year awards: Frank McGuire, Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty, and Roy Williams.
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Duke and North Carolina weren’t the only historic programs to make a coaching move this offseason. The Indiana Hoosiers dropped Archie Miller and went back into their past to hire Mike Woodson in one of the most intriguing hires in recent years. Woodson played his college career for Bobby Knight from 1976 to 1980 (the Hoosiers won a national championship the before and after Woodson’s time there) so he ties in the history and success of the program to now, as Indiana struggles to retain its blue blood status. The 63-year old Woodson is also new to college coaching, spending his entire career in the NBA. Though he was head coach of the Hawks and Knicks, he has never had to recruit or run a college program, so there are concerns if he is up to the task in a very competitive recruiting game and navigating the transfer portal.
Some fans weren’t thrilled about Woodson’s hiring while others look forward to having a Knight-era disciple running the program after a run of “outsiders” couldn’t get the job done. It has been 34 years since the Hoosiers won a national championship and 20 years since it has reached a Final Four. Both those goals are likely out of reach in 2021-2022, but getting this team into the tournament — which it hasn’t done since 2016 — is a reasonable enough request.
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Is this … finally … Gonzaga’s year?
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Every year we ask this question: Is this the year Gonzaga cashes in on their first national championship?
It is a fair question and one that is more about respect for the program than an underhanded dig at their lack of bringing home a title. The Zags are a rarity in college athletics. They’ve had two decades of success as not just a mid-major … but a west coast mid-major. Instead of using their newfound fame to better the program by jumping conferences, Gonzaga has stayed put in the WCC and has been able to achieve almost everything they’ve wanted. Almost.
Ah, yes. A championship. For the second straight year, the Bulldogs enter the season as the favorite to cut down the nets. There’s a returning star (Drew Timme), a glue guy (Andrew Nembhard), and a highly rated freshman ( Chet Holmgren) that is similar to Gonzaga’s two teams that reached the NCAA championship game over the last four years. Mark Few will serve a suspension for driving impaired but he should return focused to get that one final mark on what should be a Hall of Fame career.
If they don’t do it this season, well, I guess I’ll ask again in a year.
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Penny Hardaway has joined John Calipari and the retiring Mike Krzyzewski as the top recruiters in college basketball. He’s been able to pull top talent to Memphis and the American Athletic Conference but hasn’t been able to get those players to become an NCAA tournament team. Granted, the Tigers have won at least 20 games in all three of Hardaway’s seasons, the 2020 tournament was canceled and the challenges of the 2020-2021 season were tougher on freshman-heavy rosters, but the fact remains that Memphis hasn’t reached the Big Dance under his leadership.
This Memphis team has freshman phenom Emoni Bates and his classmate Jalen Duren to go along with holdover Lester Quinones and transfer Landers Nolley III. These Tigers have the look of those old John Calipari Memphis teams and especially the Derrick Rose-led squad that reached the national championship game, but can Hardaway coach them to their potential? We will see.
We will also see Hardaway’s work with Bates, whose high school career has been followed and scrutinized. Bates will be learning to be a point guard similar to what Hardaway was at Memphis and in the NBA. If that works out, Memphis could have a huge season and continue to be a major player in national recruiting.
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Speaking of John Calipari, his 2020-2021 Kentucky Wildcats were among the worst in program history and reaching lows Big Blue Nation hasn’t seen in nearly 100 years. Some of that was the lack of impact freshmen that Cal typically attracts to Lexington, while others point to the unique challenges that the pandemic brought to college basketball and the ability for young teams to gel. Whatever it was, Calipari looks to change that immediately with one of the most interesting roster creations during his Wildcats tenure. He has his freshmen, led by TyTy Washington, Daimion Collins, and Bryce Hopkins, but he’s also dipped into the transfer portal to pull out Kellan Grady, Sahvir Wheeler, and CJ Fredrick. All that plus a few returnees will make for the typical slow build through the season with the Wildcats playing their best ball come March. Maybe this isn’t a true championship contender as BBN is used to, but it is a far cry from the one that missed the tournament last season.
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What’s going on in Louisville?
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Kentucky’s rival has had a tough few years. There are the infractions that led to not only Rick Pitino‘s ugly ouster but vacated their 2013 national championship. Then there were Louisville’s ties with the FBI investigation into college basketball (which was also part of Pitino’s removal) that still hasn’t been resolved (more on that in a bit). Now there’s the weird blackmailing situation that forced out assistant coach Dino Gaudio and placed a six-game suspension on head coach Chris Mack.
Mack is already on the hot seat and there’s a sizable segment of the Cardinals fan base that wants to move on. Injuries and COVID affected the Cardinals more than most teams and could be directly tied to Louisville’s uneven 13-7 season. Mack will piece together a new backcourt to surround Samuell Williamson and Malik Williams to hopefully make a run to the tournament. This isn’t a contender for an ACC title or anything but this program needs some stability. Mack needs to provide that.
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FBI investigation lingers
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Even as the NCAA tries to make changes, some things remain the same. The fallout from the FBI investigation is now impacting a fifth college basketball season and the cloud of sanctions lingers over several programs and the entire sport. Oklahoma State has a postseason ban placed on them this season while Arizona, NC State, Memphis, LSU, Auburn, and, most notably, Kansas wait for any sanctions or disciplinary actions coming their way. It has already cost people their jobs and more could come of whatever the NCAA decides the charge the schools with. The likelihood that any of this gets resolved this season is slim, though we could see some action made by the NCAA that does impact this season … perhaps more from news and public relations standpoint than actual firings or concrete sanctions. Still, this just hangs around.
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Coaches on the hot seat
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Every season brings on a new batch of coaches on the hot seat. Northwestern’s Chris Collins was on the talk of the town in Evanston when he led the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament. Things haven’t gone the same since and now Collins finds himself needing a big season to save his job. Frank Martin hasn’t elevated South Carolina since their Cinderella Final Four run in 2017. Last year, Patrick Ewing needed a magical run to a Big East tournament championship to reach his first NCAA tournament as Georgetown’s coach. That bought him a little time but the Hoyas program isn’t where they thought they’d be.
Jerod Haase is in a similar place with Stanford. Cuonzo Martin hasn’t found much success at Missouri since Michael and Jontay Porter were there. Tim Jankovich has let SMU fall off after a 30-5 season in his first year. Tom Crean picked a bad time to have a depleted roster at Georgia. Bruce Weber is on about his ninth life at Kansas State.
Mike Brey (Notre Dame) and Jim Larranaga (Miami) may not get actually fired from their jobs, but there is pressure to get these programs over the hump or it might be time for those ACC coaches to join Krzyzewski and Williams in retirement.
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Fans in the stands
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Let’s start with some things that we missed last season. One was painfully obvious as fans … who for the most part weren’t allowed at games last season … will return to games this season. Cameron Crazies back in Durham, Rock Chalk Jayhawk sang at Allen Fieldhouse, and student sections all over the country cheering for their classmates. The quiet gyms that echoed every dribble, squeaky sneaker, and coach’s scream will be filled with fans, bands, and cheerleaders once again and that energy that college crowds bring to games. The games will be more fun to watch and more fun for the players to compete in with the stands filled with fans.
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NCAA Tournament, as we knew it, is back
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Last year’s tournament was held entirely in the state of Indiana in a bubble-type format, but this season’s March Madness will be back to the way we are used to seeing it. The Final Four will be held in New Orleans, the regional finals will be in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Antonio, and San Francisco and the first week will be held in nine cities from Buffalo to San Diego. While last year’s “bubble” tournament had its flaws (the weight room controversy, VCU’s game canceled) we at least had a tournament and crowned a champion.
Still, to have the tournament all over the country with the pods and the fans and the excitement will be a much-welcomed sight.
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Super seniors and the transfer portal
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An on-court effect of the pandemic was the NCAA’s approval of an extra year of eligibility for all student-athletes who played college basketball (among many other sports) last season. The advent of the new one-time transfer rules allowed for more player movement than has ever been seen in college basketball. “Super seniors” — seniors who decided to use their fifth year of edibility — have kept an infusion of talent and experience in college basketball. Some have stuck with their programs for an extra year, like Villanova’s Collin Gillespie, West Virginia’s Taz Sherman, and Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon. Those players bring a valuable resource to their teams as an extension of their coaches. Others are using their Super Senior season to transfer to a new opportunity elsewhere, similar to a graduate transfer. Remy Martin left Arizona State for Kansas, Kellan Grady transferred from Davidson to Kentucky and Garrison Brooks left North Carolina for Mississippi State, where his dad is an assistant coach.
Technically these Super Senior seasons will happen over the following three seasons as student-athletes who played last season will be able to tack on an extra year whenever their initial eligibility should have been over. How it works this season may set the example for what we may see going forward and how aggressively coaches may use this unique opportunity.
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This is Villanova’s year
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Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats won the national championship in 2016 and then in 2018. With no tournament in 2020, the rhythm suggests that Nova is to win the national championship in 2022. Super senior Collin Gillespie will be back after tearing his MCL at the end of last season and joins returners Justin Moore, Caleb Daniels, Jermaine Samuels as well as freshman phenom Jordan Longino, Wright was inducted into the Hall of Fame as well as being an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic basketball team so he’s had a fantastic summer. Bringing home title number three and putting his name among these names with three or more titles: John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun, and Roy Williams.
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What about Baylor?
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In case you forgot, the Baylor Bears are the defending national champions. Yes, they lost four very important starters from that team and replaced them with a crop of newcomers, but having your program at this kind of level means dealing with the roster overhaul — especially after championship seasons. Arizona transfer James Akinjo joins leading returning scorer Adam Flagler in the backcourt while Flo Thamba returns to anchor the frontcourt that will see Matthew Mayer ascend to a starting role.
There hasn’t been a repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007 and those Gators’ stars ran it back for the second title. That’s not the case in Waco, but how Scott Drew’s team performs this season could go a long way to proving what kind of power the Bears may be for the foreseeable future.
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Well, in one aspect he could be. Like Zion, Banchero is a much-heralded Duke freshman who could very well win national player of the year. Unlike Zion, Banchero’s game seems more NBA-ready from a skill standpoint. Williamson is a physical marvel as a big guy who combines athleticism and power to overwhelm his opponents — especially against college competition during his one season in Durham. Banchero is also an athletic big man but has a more refined skill set — he can create his own shot anywhere on the floor and has a polished mid-range game. He has already been named the ACC preseason player of the year and has already been atop many NBA mock drafts.
While it may be premature to think he could possibly achieve the star power Williamson reached during his lone season at Duke, his national impact as a freshman could be very similar.
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Boeheim, Boeheim and Boeheim
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The Boeheims will be everywhere at Syracuse this season. Of course, Jim Boeheim will be entering his 46th season as head coach of the Orange, and with the retirements of fellow ACC legends Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, there will be questions about how long the 76-year old coach will go.
Certainly, he will treasure this season. Senior Buddy Boeheim will be back and could have an ACC player of the year campaign. He broke out last season, especially after his COVID leave, and became one of the most exciting long-range scorers in the nation. Buddy’s brother Jimmy transferred in from Cornell to give a unique family dynamic for a Syracuse program that will once again fight for a tournament bid.
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While Duke and Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament last year, and North Carolina and Kansas were blown out during the first weekend, the Bruins were the blue blood that lasted the longest in 2021. UCLA went from First Four to Final Four in one of the most exciting Cinderella runs from a historic power that you’ll ever see.
This year, virtually everyone is back from that team. Johnny Juzang became a star during March Madness for his scoring and clutch ability. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a nice compliment to Juzang as an inside-out threat and Tyger Campbell is that tough competitor you want in a point guard. This is a perfect Mick Cronin team that will scrap and claw on both ends of the court and the continuity of the roster may be the best in the country. This is a national championship contender.
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Pac-12 revival to continue?
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The Pac-12 has been the butt of jokes over the past decade as being weak and lacking strong title contenders. The “Conference of Champions” has been next to irrelevant. So last year’s tournament run by the conference (13-5 in the Big Dance) shocked many east of the Pacific and hopefully set the stage for a re-emergence of the league on the national stage. The Pac-12 put four teams in the Sweet 16 and three teams in the Elite 8 while UCLA ultimately reached the Final Four and gave then-undefeated Gonzaga everything they could handle before losing on one of the greatest shots in tournament history.
As we’ve already discussed, UCLA is back as a national title contender. Oregon looks capable of a possible Final Four run. USC and Oregon State each return Pac-12 player of the year candidates and several starters. Arizona looks to get back on track with new head coach Tommy Lloyd and Colorado will continue to fly under the radar as a team no one wants to play.
The league got some of its swagger back last March and it will be interesting to see if the Pac-12 can ride that momentum into 2022.
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One of the nice things that came out of the 2020-2021 season was the casual attire college coaches wore during games. Out went the suits and in came the sweaters and polos. The look caught on with many coaches who preferred the more comfortable choice of clothing instead of the stuffy suits and the NCAA agree with continuing to allow it. With so many changes that have happened in college athletics and ones that are coming, this is one of the simple examples of the NCAA starting to step back on having their thumb on top of everything.
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Every so often you get a highly sought-after recruit who decides to not go the typical route of a power program and decides to create his own path. That’s the case with five-star freshman Patrick Baldwin Jr. who turned down offers from Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Michigan to attend Milwaukee. Not the Milwaukee Bucks or some pro affiliate in Milwaukee — the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
The easy answer to why this happened is that Baldwin Jr.’s dad … Patrick Baldwin Sr. … is the head coach at Milwaukee. But there have been plenty of players who decided to go somewhere other than where their father coached, but Baldwin wanted to support his family and his community. Milwaukee has been to just one NCAA tournament since 2006 and is a far cry from the Bruce Pearl era that of the early 2000s. The senior Baldwin has struggled to find success with the Panthers, who entered this season 47-70 in four seasons and has yet to have a winning season. That could change this year with Baldwin and, likely, his lone season in college. With NBA scouts’ ability to locate talent anywhere, Baldwin’s pro prospects will be fine, and his effect on a middling Horizon League program could end up being significant … even if it’s only for a season.
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Texas at Texas Tech
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On February 1, 2022, Texas travels to Texas Tech in a key Big 12 showdown. It will also be one of the most lively games of the season as Chris Beard makes his first trip to Lubbock since taking the Longhorns’ head coaching gig. Beard had taken the Red Raiders to the 2019 national championship game and put Tech on the map as a force in college basketball. It seemed to be a perfect fit until he left to take over hated Texas. Texas is the big bad school and it didn’t help that months after Beard took the job that the Longhorns announced they were bolting the Big 12 for the SEC. Needless to say, that Texas-Texas Tech game in United Supermarkets Arena will be quite emotional.
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Final season at the Frank Erwin Center
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Speaking of Chris Beard and Texas, this will be the last season the Longhorns will play at the Frank Erwin Center. For 44 seasons the Horns have called the Erwin Center home, but they will be moving into the state-of-the-art Moody Center next season. Sadly, the Erwin Center is scheduled to be demolished which means the arena will be having its own farewell tour. All the concerts, graduations, basketball, and four NCAA tournaments that have been played in “The Drum” will live on in fans’ memories. The final scheduled game for the Longhorns in the building is February 28th against Baylor.
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Oral Roberts was one of the great stories of the 2020-2021 season and their leading scorer broke through. Not only did Max Abrams get to show his talents on the national stage, but he eschewed the NBA draft to make another run at a tournament bid. It may be more difficult for the Golden Eagles with Kevin Obanor now at Texas Tech, but the spotlight is now on Abrams and ORU and the high scorer who stuck with his team instead of moving somewhere else.
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The Ivy League is back
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The Ivy League was at the forefront of making decisions about competing during a global pandemic. They quickly shut down their winter athletics and didn’t have a 2020-2021 season, but are back this year. Yale has taken over as the class of the Ivy, winning four of the last six league championships. Coach James Jones … in his 23rd season in New Haven … has his Bulldogs favored yet again to win the league behind the scoring of Azar Swain. Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Brown will also be contending, with the Crimson boasting Noah Kirkwood and Josh Hemmings, Penn’s Jordan Dingle, and Princeton’s Jaelin Llewellyn as Ivy player of the year candidates.
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Conference realignment and NCAA’s constitution
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We all know that football drives realignment, but it has a major impact on all the other athletics, including basketball. This season, 11 schools are joining new leagues but all are dealing with the smaller conferences. But we do know the major conferences will be undergoing huge changes going forward.
Oklahoma and Texas will be playing basketball in the SEC in a few years, injected two quality programs into a conference that has been improving. The Big 12 will eventually be getting really good basketball programs in Houston (who is coming off a Final Four appearance), Cincinnati, and BYU while UCF has had its moments. The BYU move could force Gonzaga, who views the Cougars as a rival, to evaluate their membership in the West Coast Conference. The AAC and Sun Belt have, in turn, raided Conference USA who is now looking to add members just to stay afloat. Of course, the domino effect will dip into the smaller leagues and shake things up yet again.
As for the power leagues, “The Alliance” between the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 could become clearer over the next few months and how their relationship and scheduling agreements could work.
There is also the NCAA’s attempt to rewrite its constitution and what that could mean for the future of college athletics. This continues the fluid changes happening in college hoops.
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While many of the things that were taken away from college basketball over the last 18 months will be back in 2021-2022, that doesn’t mean that the pandemic won’t have an impact on this season. Safety protocols are in place, but as we’ve seen elsewhere in the sports world it doesn’t keep COVID from striking players and games and it remains a part of a national discussion. Unlike the NFL or college football, college hoops games are played indoors where protocols are different in those venues. The NBA has 29 arenas to try to manage while there are over 300 college basketball campuses, gyms, and arenas that have their own unique challenges in states and cities that have a variety of different rules in place.
There will be players and coaches that will miss time due to positive tests. Hopefully, we don’t have what happened to VCU last season, and a tournament team is eliminated because of COVID issues, but that’s still a possibility. States and local protocols can change over the basketball season — whether they are relaxed or more stringent — making education of those changes a must for coaches and administrators.
As much as we feel this college hoops season is getting “back to normal”, the reality is that “normal” isn’t what it once was.
https://www.yardbarker.com/college_basketball/articles/storylines_to_follow_heading_into_the_2021_2022_mens_college_hoops_season/s1__36443450 Storylines to follow heading into the 2021-2022 men’s college hoops season