By Ells Boone
The 2020-21 college basketball season tipped off on Nov. 25 as teams across the country played their first games. It was the first action since the COVID-19 pandemic cut the 2019-20 season short in March; despite the nine months that have passed, the pandemic is still contributing new factors that are altering the game.
There are no fans at most arenas across the country, players and coaches on the benches wear masks and teams must test negative before being able to play (several programs have already had to shut down and quarantine due to positive tests).
The results so far this season have been as surprising as the games have been exciting. We have already seen several upsets — the University of San Francisco over then-No. 4 Virginia, Richmond over then-No. 10 Kentucky and Virginia Tech over then-No. 3 Villanova — as well as plenty of close matchups between top-25 schools.
National Title Contenders
So far, a few teams have already stuck out to me as potential national title contenders — No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Illinois.
Gonzaga is the top team in the country for good reason. They crushed No. 7 Kansas on national television in their first game and followed up with a solid win over Auburn. The Bulldogs’ freshman point guard Jalen Suggs is averaging 18.0 points per game to go with 7.0 assists through two games, and he is expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Senior forward Corey Kispert and sophomore forward Drew Timme form a dynamic pairing in the front court — averaging 24.0 ppg and 26.5 ppg, respectively. The Bulldogs have a tough non-conference schedule, but if they make it through unscathed, I do not think any team in the West Coast Conference can challenge them.
Baylor is another team that looks primed for a successful season. They are led by one of the best backcourts in the country, with guards Jared Butler (18.5 ppg) and MaCio Teague (18.0 ppg). The Bears will play Gonzaga on Dec. 5, a matchup between what could very well be the two best teams in the nation. Baylor plays in the Big 12, a much better conference than the WCC, so they have less margin for error than Gonzaga during conference play.
The third and final of my national title contenders is Illinois. The Fighting Illini are led by junior guard Ayo Dosunmo (25.7 ppg) and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn (15.0 ppg and 11.7 rpg). Dosunmo is a candidate for National Player of the Year, and this team will go as far as he can take them. Even though they were beat by Baylor, I think Illinois has what it takes to make it through the gauntlet that is the Big Ten this season and go on a run in March. The next game to circle for the Illini is Dec. 8 when they play No. 6 Duke.
There are a few more teams that I think can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in March, but they just are not at the level as the schools above. These teams are No. 3 Iowa, No. 12 Villanova and No. 15 Virginia.
Iowa is led by arguably the best player in the country in senior center Luka Garza. Garza is averaging an insane 33.5 points per game and popped off for 41 points against Southern. The Hawkeyes surround Garza with four shooters, but the one thing that keeps me from placing them in the contenders conversation is their defense. Head coach Fran McCaffery’s Iowa teams have always not been great on the defensive end. They will have to play some inspired defense if they want not only to win the Big Ten but also to make a deep run in March.
Villanova is another confounding team. The Wildcats started their season by beating a quality Boston College team and then took down No. 25 Arizona State. Villanova followed that up by losing to then-unranked Virginia Tech in overtime. The Wildcats’ sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a force down low, and senior point guard Collin Gillespie has the experience necessary to take this team far. The pieces are there for this Jay Wright-led squad, they just have to put them together if they want to return to the national championship game.
Virginia is another team that has not lived up to their preseason ranking just yet. I think they will wind up being a top five team — but after their loss to San Francisco, they do not deserve to be there yet. They rebounded well against St. Francis (PA), but head coach Tony Bennett has some work to do to figure out his best lineup. Marquette transfer forward Sam Hauser impressed with 19 points in his debut, as well as Rice transfer Trey guard Murphy III, who had 21 points in that game against Towson. This may be the deepest team that Bennett has had at UVA, so how he uses that depth will make or break the Cavaliers season.
Previewing the Pac-12
Even though a conference game has not been played yet, the Pac-12 race already looks different than it did in the preseason. Arizona State and Stanford look like the class of the conference so far.
ASU looked good in the Mohegan Sun Bubble, beating Rhode Island and then holding their own in a loss to Villanova. Senior guard Remy Martin was an early favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year, yet so far he has been outshone by his freshmen teammates — guard Josh Christopher and forward Marcus Bagley. The Sun Devils have the firepower to outscore anybody in the conference, but they will have to bring that same tenacity on the defensive end if they want to be the best in the conference.
Although Stanford went 1-2 at the Maui Invitational to start the season, they showed a lot of promise and are certainly talented enough to make a splash in the Pac-12. Senior guard Daejon Davis has upped his play to a new level this year, while freshman forward Ziaire Williams may lead the team in scoring once he settles into the college game. Williams exploded for 19 points in his debut against Alabama but most recently only scored two points against Indiana. The Cardinal may be the best defensive team in the conference. As long as they can get their shots to fall, they should feel that they have a good chance at winning every time they step foot on the court.
Stanford was headed for a top-25 ranking of its own before collapsing against Indiana. However, the Cardinal will no doubt have more opportunities in the future to prove they are worthy of a national ranking. For now, the team will stay in North Carolina and look for a few teams to play until they are able to return to Santa Clara County. In light of the updated restrictions, Stanford has canceled its remaining home non-conference games in December.
Contact Ells Boone at eboone24 ‘at’ stanford.edu.