It's back! At least, that's what the upcoming 2021-22 men's college basketball season, which tips off Tuesday, feels like. Amid the backdrop of continued COVID-19 protocols, new NIL rules and Mike Krzyzewski's farewell tour at Duke, arenas will be packed with fans again to see teams battle it out before the men's NCAA champion is crowned on April 4 in New Orleans.
Will preseason No. 1 Gonzaga stay at the top and finally win a national title? Will Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren move No. 12 Memphis into title contention? Who's going to surprise us all? ESPN's experts (Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi) discussed this, and more college basketball storylines, before the action gets going.
Medcalf: I think the Drew Timme-Chet Holmgren pairing is the most pivotal element for Gonzaga. It's just rare to have two elite bigs on the floor together for a national title contender in the modern game. How will they handle the spacing on offense? How will they adjust if teams try to exploit their size and force Holmgren or Timme to defend a wing? That seems to be the thing that coach Mark Few will have to address early on. But those two will learn how to play next to each other throughout the season. That will matter in March and April, if Gonzaga reaches that stage.
In 2016-17, Few had success with Przemek Karnowski as his starter at center and Zach Collins coming off the bench. That was a rotation most opponents couldn't handle, even though Gonzaga lost to North Carolina and its tremendous frontcourt in the national title. This season's situation is a different challenge for Gonzaga. No team in the country is equipped to deal with both Holmgren and Timme on the floor at the same time. If it works, the Zags could capture their first national title.
Borzello: This may be the first time Gonzaga has the "too much talent problem." Even last year, when the Zags had multiple lottery picks and All-Americans, it was pretty much a six- or seven-man rotation, and everyone knew where the shots were coming from. This season, Few will have the Wooden Award favorite (Timme), the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft (Holmgren), a returning starter at point guard (Andrew Nembhard), a third-team All-Big 12 guard (Rasir Bolton), two five-star guards (Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis) and another returner who started 17 games last year (Anton Watson).
Gonzaga shared the ball and the shots effectively last season, but there might be a player or two who see fewer minutes than expected this season. The Zags have rarely had that problem before, mostly because they haven't recruited at this level in the past. It's a good problem; it's just a new problem. Given I picked Gonzaga to win it all, I'm obviously not too concerned about it, but it's something worth monitoring.
Gasaway: It's unusual to see a program win this many NCAA tournament games over the course of two decades or so and not earn a national title. Just five programs have won more tournament games than the Zags since 2000: Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky. Those teams collectively won nine titles over that span: 2000, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017. Gonzaga? Still trying.
The Bulldogs have reached two of the past four national title games, not to mention four of the past six Elite Eights. Few is in his 23rd season coaching, at the still relatively spry age of 58. Recruiting and, more broadly, talent acquisition, is stronger than it has ever been in Spokane, Washington. Finally, the the overwhelming choice of both pollsters and laptops as the preseason No. 1. History counsels us that a program checking all of these rather incredible boxes is going to win a national title sooner rather than later. Is this the year?
Lunardi: Is Holmgren really the player who delivers a national title to Spokane? He may very well be, but remember just how hard it is to reach (and win) that last game in April. The Bulldogs know that as well as anyone, and I have a hard time believing Gonzaga can be as generationally good as it was a year ago. I'm betting once again for the Zags to come up just short.
Gasaway: This is the first head-coaching transition at Duke since the Carter administration and in that time Mike Krzyzewski has won five national titles. North Carolina cut down the nets five times in that stretch and, of course, there's a changing of the guard occurring in Chapel Hill as well. Aside from the Tar Heels, no team has won as many titles in the Coach K era.
So, even if you think you're already annoyed, the question of whether this program can sustain its success after Coach K's departure should be riveting. Duke already has commitments from three top-10 recruits for next season, and it appears Jon Scheyer will be given a running start as the incoming head coach. Then again, UNC and Virginia have both won national titles more recently than the Blue Devils, and the Cavaliers have recorded more ACC wins over the past decade. Has Duke's historic moment already come and gone? Or, with apologies to Duke fans for the choice of metaphor, is Scheyer primed to be the Roy Williams to Coach K's Dean Smith?
Medcalf: The sport always loses something when a legend leaves. And whether you like Duke or hate Duke, it has been a critical element in the college basketball ecosystem under Coach K. So that storyline isn't something anyone can ignore. Could Paolo Banchero lead Duke to the national title in Krzyzewski's final season, making life easier for the producers of the inevitable "30 for 30" documentary about the legendary coach? Maybe. Maybe the Blue Devils flop (a slim chance with Banchero). We'll see. But this is the end of an era. And I think it's probably a moment the sport has really only felt once before: in 1975, when John Wooden retired. It would be 20 years before UCLA would cut down the nets again. Is a similar drought coming for Duke? We're not sure. But we don't say "not since John Wooden" often, so this is a monumental juncture for college basketball with Coach K departing.
Lunardi: I'm neither annoyed nor captivated by the Coach K farewell. Duke stopped being cute a long time ago, but in terms of sustained success, Krzyzewski is exceeded by only Wooden in the annals of college basketball. Some individuals really are worthy of a victory lap, and this is one of those times. Plus the Blue Devils will be more than good enough to contend for a Final Four.
Borzello: Embrace it, because Duke has a super-talented team that should be enjoyable to watch regardless of how you feel about the Coach K farewell tour. Banchero might be the best newcomer in college basketball and a potential No. 1 draft pick, while classmates A.J. Griffin and Trevor Keels could end up being one-and-done, too. Mark Williams is a potential first-round pick, Wendell Moore Jr. has had overwhelmingly positive buzz this preseason, and Jeremy Roach is expected to take a step forward at the point guard spot.
Also, a changing of the guard in college basketball is always fascinating, and Coach K's departure is another step toward closing the chapter on the current era. Roy Williams is already out, Coach K is next, NIL is here -- the landscape of the sport is going to look very different over the next few years, so this is one final chance to see Coach K be the face of college basketball.
Borzello: Buying. I think a better debate would be whether the Tigers are an Elite Eight team. Talent-wise, they're up there with anyone in college basketball. Head coach Penny Hardaway hasn't been to the NCAA tournament yet, and will have to mesh a slew of talented newcomers with several key returners from last season to get there come March, but he has shown an impressive ability to get players to buy in. The Tigers should be an elite, aggressive defense, and the addition of Larry Brown to the coaching staff should help with their offensive efficiency and turnover issues. It also helps to have two potential top-five picks anchoring the team at both ends of the floor in Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.
Gasaway: Buying. The Tigers possess two traits that are rare coming off seasons in which they didn't make the NCAA tournament. One everyone knows already: Hardaway's freshman class that features Duren and Bates, standouts projected as top-five picks in the 2022 and 2023 NBA drafts, respectively. And what people may not be pricing in with the 2021 NIT champions is that this is likely to be one of the best defenses in the nation. Hardaway returns veterans DeAndre Williams, Landers Nolley II and Lester Quinones from a team that had easily the best D in American play last season. All these guys have to do is learn to hang on to the ball.
Medcalf: Buying. Yeah, I'm all the way in on that. You've got the ballhandling Bates, who's developing a bond with Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, while learning the craft of playing to his potential as a big, versatile player from a coach who did that in both college and the NBA. Duren is real, per the reports and the buzz thus far. And the Tigers return some key players from a team that finished the 2020-2021 season ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. Memphis should be talking about the Final Four as a goal, not the Sweet 16. Hardaway is coaching the most intriguing team in America, I think.
Lunardi: Selling. Once again, an incredibly hyped Memphis team is expecting to be among the last standing in March. Haven't we seen this movie before? And didn't the last one end in the relative obscurity of Frisco, Texas? Sorry to be the contrarian.
Lunardi: UCLA (and I'll duck now). Doesn't anyone remember how close this very same team came to missing the 2021 tournament altogether? Or the Michigan State implosion it took just for the Bruins to escape the First Four? I'm not saying it's going to happen, but the list of "surprise Final Four teams" repeating the following year is a lot shorter than the list of those that don't.
Borzello: I'll go with Auburn. There's a bit of a Memphis vibe going on with these Tigers, in terms of taking several returners from a non-NCAA tournament team and meshing them with a bunch of transfers and freshmen. Bruce Pearl has a tremendous amount of talent on his roster, including a lottery pick in freshman Jabari Smith and a former five-star recruit in North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler. Allen Flanigan, who's out until January with an Achilles injury, would have been my pick for SEC Player of the Year if healthy. Georgia transferK.D. Johnsonis a proven SEC scorer, and returnee Jaylin Williams is a double-figure scorer. There's a lot here for Pearl to work with, assuming Wendell Green Jr. emerges as a reliable point guard.
On the flipside, there are some questions. What if Green can't run the show consistently? What if Flanigan doesn't return? What if there are some growing pains with the newcomers? I don't necessarily see "disaster" in the Tigers' range of outcomes, but there are some things that can go wrong to the point where they end up being closer to a bubble team than a top-15 team.
Gasaway: This is the first and last time this will be said about a Tony Bennett team, but as of this moment Virginia is a mystery. If you took Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin and put Miami or Clemson jerseys on them, you're looking at a group that may receive zero votes in the preseason AP poll. Instead, the uniforms say Virginia, so the Cavaliers clock in at No. 25. Say this for the pollsters, Bennett does have a history -- and, by the way, a national championship. There's no way this team will be a "disaster," but would a .500-ish run through a middling ACC and a near miss on Selection Sunday really be so unfathomable for this currently inscrutable group?
Medcalf: How about Baylor? While I think a disaster would have to unfold for Baylor to miss the NCAA tournament, college basketball history says it's not impossible. After back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, Florida was an NIT team. Same with Kentucky after the 2012 national title. Connecticut stumbled into a 9-seed year after Kemba Walker's star turn in the NCAA tournament. And more recently, Virginia struggled through an 8-7 stretch before recovering down the stretch in the 2019-2020 season. The common theme with those squads is that they lost the nucleus that had carried them to a national titles. MaCio Teague, Jared Butler and Davion Mitchellare gone at Baylor. If Matthew Mayer, James Akinjo and freshman Kendall Brown all step up, the Bears' ceiling will remain high. But there are never any guarantees after losing a certified trio of talent.
Gasaway: Has Scott Drew made it cool to go after offensive rebounds again? Baylor didn't shoot as well from the floor as Gonzaga in the 2021 national title game, and the Bears outscored the Bulldogs by a single point at the free throw line. If you viewed the game as a series of diagrammed first-shot sets, the Zags would have won. Yet, as you may recall, the contest was never really in doubt. "Coaching" in college basketball is traditionally seen as promulgating diagrammed first-shot sets and good defense, but Drew points toward an expanded definition more akin to that of the NBA, or even to management in the real world. Instead of haranguing subordinates on diagram adherence, he built a team of empowered warriors trained and trusted to overwhelm the competition with shot volume.
Lunardi: Are we back to "normal" in terms of freshman impact? Last year's pandemic season was dominated by two older teams -- Gonzaga and Baylor -- that returned largely intact from the season before, and had a leg up on everyone else from November to April. Meanwhile, the most prominent "one-and-done" programs -- Kentucky and Duke -- could not overcome the absence of traditional team-building time and missed the NCAA tournament altogether. Coincidence? Maybe. But we're not likely to get a final answer until we see how the 2021-22 campaign plays out.
Medcalf: I'm interested to see if the success of the top freshmen in college basketball -- and the NIL deals they might acquire -- will impact the upcoming recruiting classes' decision to pick college over Overtime Elite, the G League or an overseas option. The latter seemed more appealing before college players could make money via name, image and likeness deals. But if Bates, Holmgren and other first-year standouts succeed on the court and with endorsements, they could influence the next pool of prospects.
Borzello: Realignment has been mostly looked at from a college football perspective, but from a basketball angle, the Sun Belt is going to be a fascinating mid-major league to follow. There are four legitimate title contenders at the top of the league in Georgia State, Louisiana, Texas State and Appalachian State, and they're expected to add James Madison, Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall in the coming seasons. There's a real chance the Sun Belt becomes the best one-bid league on an annual basis if things go right.
Medcalf: Gonzaga*, Kansas, Michigan, Duke
Borzello: Gonzaga*, Kansas, Purdue, Duke
Gasaway: Gonzaga*, Villanova, Michigan, Purdue
Lunardi: Kansas*, Michigan, Gonzaga, Duke
Medcalf: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Borzello: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Medcalf: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Borzello: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Gasaway: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Lunardi: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Medcalf: Juwan Howard, Michigan
Borzello: Matt Painter, Purdue
Gasaway: Juwan Howard, Michigan
Lunardi: Juwan Howard, Michigan
Lunardi: Drew Timme, Gonzaga; Paolo Banchero, Duke; Hunter Dickinson, Michigan; Remy Martin, Kansas;Johnny Juzang, UCLA