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Following a COVID-19-impacted season that saw massive cancellations, delays, rescheduled games and unusual adversities for teams, the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season promises to return to more normalcy. Well, somewhat. Factoring into this year will be the added dynamic of NCAA athletes’ compensation and the floodgates opening in the transfer portal thanks to NCAA rules changes.
The 10 biggest story lines:
NCAA “free agency” effect: The NCAA’s long-standing rules requiring Division I players to sit out a season after transferring are no more, widely opening up the transfer portal in what some coaches are calling college basketball’s version of free agency. The move is sure to change the sport, with this upcoming season providing the first glimpse at how stacked teams in the top 25 could look as a result of a transfer-centric offseason. In this new landscape, coaches might spend equal time recruiting players from other teams as much as they do five-star freshmen, and elite mid-major players could take advantage of their breakout seasons as underclassmen.
“There are so many ways to get good fast through the transfer portal,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, “and it’s only going to make high-major teams better. You can plug holes on your team in ways you couldn’t before.”
Texas is a perfect example; under new coach Chris Beard, the Longhorns hauled in three of the five top-rated transfers, starting with Minnesota guard Marcus Carr.
Blue bloods reinvented: Last season could’ve been dubbed the “death of the blue blood,” with usual kingpins Duke and Kentucky missing the NCAA tournament, and North Carolina and Kansas suffering early March Madness exits. UCLA went against that narrative by reaching the Final Four but did so as a No. 11 seed that played with a blue-collar style hardly reminiscent of a powerhouse.
In 2021-22, expect all the kingpins to inch back toward their lofty perch. Duke (13-11 last season) and Kentucky (9-16) have reloaded with five-star talent, and the returnees will be feeding off hunger from last season’s blunders. North Carolina (Hubert Davis) and Indiana (Mike Woodson) will look to jump-start their programs with fresh, new leadership. And then Kansas figures to be a national title contender – alongside UCLA – thanks to the aforementioned transfer portal (Bill Self landed elite Arizona State transfer Remy Martin).
Coach K’s last hurrah: The curtain-calling on the sport’s winningest coach in Division 1 men’s basketball history will be ongoing. Mike Krzyzewski, who has 1,171 wins in 46 seasons of coaching, announced last spring that he’d retire at the end of 2021-22. Associate coach Jon Scheyer was named coach-in-waiting.That means what Duke does this season will be under a major microscope and there will be plenty of “lasts” for Coach K while honoring his imprint on college hoops.
Can the five-time national championship winning coach go out with a bang? Scheyer expects the players to be inspired no matter how much Krzyzewski doesn’t want his retirement to be a focal point. “It’s emotional. We’ll try to use that emotion to drive us,” Scheyer said.
Gonzaga’s revenge quest: The Bulldogs were a perfect 31-0 heading into last April’s national championship game against Baylor. The Bears, of course, ruined the Zags’ undefeated season and kept coach Mark Few from winning his first national title. All-Americans Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert bounced for the NBA, but NCAA tournament breakout star Drew Timme and a balanced core are back for more.
Few landed the country’s No. 1 recruit, Chet Holmgren, and, well, Gonzaga will be a title favorite again. The April net-cutting is about the only thing keeping Gonzaga from being considered a blue blood at this stage, and this season could be considered the revenge tour for the Gonzaga carryovers.
Pac-12’s ascension, ACC demise: Despite being ranked as the fifth-best conference based on the NCAA’s NET rankings heading into last season’s NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 made a statement by going 13-4 including getting three teams in the Elite Eight – two of which were double-digit seeds in UCLA and Oregon State. On top of the league being fun to watch and loaded with returning talent, last year’s Big Dance showcased a trajectory that would allow the conference to garner more respect.
The Pac-12 was affected by COVID-19 cancellations as much as any league, and the NCAA selection committee paid too close attention to a scattered nonconference slate that didn’t favor West Coast teams. Expect the early-season stats to be better and for the Pac-12 to keep rising.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, on the flip side, has been a perennial top league for years but performed poorly all season with zero teams inside the KenPom top 10 last year. ACC programs that aren’t blue bloods or the last two regular-season champions in Florida State and Virginia, respectively, don’t seem to be fully on the rise, putting a resurgent season for the league in jeopardy.
Pay for play: The Supreme Court’s ruling this offseason paved the way for the NCAA to allow its athletes to make money off their likeness. Yet while college sports might be a $14 billion industry, a majority of players won’t get rich overnight. The main thing the new ruling does is allow college stars to appear in advertisements, sign with an agent or make money for public appearances or autographs.
As compared to college football, where players are stars throughout the season, college basketball offers a different type of dynamic in that the sport’s popularity mainly skyrockets during March Madness. How elite players profit leading up to the Dance will be worth monitoring, but once the NCAA tournament begins there will be a more crystallized view of how money can be made – along with the accompanying complications.
Nonconference normalcy: Last season’s erratic scheduling was a nightmare for so many teams. If a team member contracted the coronavirus due to contact tracing, not only would a game be canceled but several weeks of inactivity ensued. Some teams had month-long breaks in December and January. A much-improved nonconference slate returns with top 25 clashes and important games that shape a given team’s NCAA tournament rèsumè.
The super senior season: The NCAA announced last fall that all winter student-athletes would automatically receive another year of eligibility due to COVID-19. That will pay dividends to a wide array of teams, namely Villanova. Starting point guard Collin Gillespie, one of three Big East Players of the Year in 2020-21, had his senior season cut short due to an MCL injury. He’ll get another chance to finish his career on a high note, and coach Jay Wright’s group will be a Final Four contender as a result.
Beloved NCAA tournament format returns: The single-site location format of every game played in Indianapolis was favorable for some, but there’s too much money on the line – and too many promises to host cities – for that to stay in place. March Madness will return to various locations in 2022, with the Final Four finishing in New Orleans.
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Death of the mid-major? A significant caveat to the aforementioned transfer policy is that mid-major teams are likely to get depleted more and more. For mid-major standouts who don’t get five-star offers from elite programs in high school but make the most of their first few years at a smaller program, the lure to go play for a power conference school will be hard to turn down.
And, considering Top 25 teams will have voids they prefer to fill with experienced veterans, the recruitment of players on other teams will mostly hurt the smaller programs. Would Ja Morant stay at Murray State in this new format? Or Steph Curry at Davidson? It’s highly unlikely.
Will this trend mar March Madness? Not completely considering some of the best Cinderella stories are double-digit seeds that win their conference tournaments unexpectedly. But some of the great mid-major teams may not be as great now.
Will the FBI drop the hammer? It’s been four years since the FBI’s probe into bribery and fraud rocked the sport, but games have gone on. Memphis, Louisville, LSU, Kansas, North Carolina State and Arizona are still targets of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, which operates separate from the NCAA. Will punishments come this winter? It remains to be seen.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: Coach K, Gonzaga, super seniors top tip-off stories