The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball season begins on Nov. 25, only a couple of weeks after its usual early November start. Among the major American sports leagues, college basketball wasn’t too impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the big NCAA March Madness tournament was canceled, most conferences had already finished their final tournaments by the time things began to shut down in March. Before I begin with my predictions for the season, I think it’d be useful to provide some brief context for the NCAA’s COVID-19 plan.
Normally, college basketball schedules feature a couple of months of play against a varied assortment of teams before beginning conference play. This year, universities have joined together to schedule multi-team events. This way, several teams will gather at one school and play several games against each other, balancing the need to play nonconference games with the need to reduce possible exposure to COVID-19.
Right now, conference play has very few procedural alterations, but that may change as it approaches. While the NCAA still has a lot of thinking to do about player safety, I’d like to look toward the basketball and make my 2020-2021 NCAA college basketball season predictions.
Underdogs to watch
College basketball has a lot of teams; Division-I has a whopping 357 teams. Everyone knows the top 25 teams and the elite programs that float around the top year-to-year. So every year I like to pick a team that I think will exceed expectations. Maybe they won’t be a championship contender, but maybe they could make a run to win their conference or get a six seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, the team I’m picking is the University of Maryland (UMD). The UMD Terrapins were nearly a top-ten team at the end of last year, but they have lost a significant amount of talent since then. Their top two scorers, Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, are both gone, leaving junior Aaron Wiggins as the only remaining 10-point-per-game scorer.
Another factor working against the Terrapins is their conference. The Big Ten Conference is absolutely stacked this year; the Big Ten has a whopping seven teams ranked in the preseason top 25. Maryland is not one of them. That makes it nearly impossible for this team to finish with a good conference record. That doesn’t mean they can’t make a run in the Big Ten tournament, but it will certainly be difficult.
But this team has a lot going for them, too. They have a proven coach in Mark Turgeon; that is especially important in a sport like college basketball. And they have the two most important factors every basketball team needs: a smart backcourt and a big frontcourt. Junior guard Eric Ayala and senior guard Darryl Morsell will be running the show, helping the team in terms of leadership and shooting. Junior forward Wiggins was the 2020 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, and he is only going to keep getting better.
Meanwhile, Terrapins fans are hoping to see a lot from sophomore Chol Marial, a 7-foot-2 center who will hopefully stay healthy enough to get significant minutes this season. Although he has much less experience than the rest of the starting lineup, being 7-foot-2 can often make up for that. If Turgeon can bring this team together and get the most out of his leading players, the Terrapins will be just as competitive as any Big Ten team this season.
Player of the Year
My top two candidates for 2021 Player of the Year are Cade Cunningham and Luka Garza. Cunningham is a freshman guard for Oklahoma State University. He was the top-rated prospect in the 2020 recruiting class and for good reason. He helped Montverde Academy achieve an undefeated record with 14 points per game and over six assists per game. At 6 feet 6 inches and 215 pounds, his body is already NBA-ready. He’s no Zion Williamson, but everything indicates Cunningham’s first season should be a stellar one.
Garza is most people’s favorite to win the award. Garza is a 6-foot-11 senior forward for the University of Iowa who averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks last season. He was the 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year and will almost certainly get the award again this year. He also has touch from everywhere on the court, shooting over 35% from three-point range.
It’s hard to imagine how Garza can improve on his performance from last season, but it’s undeniable that he will. Maybe his free throw numbers will get better, or maybe he will rack up more assists. But overall I expect Garza to become physically dominant, and we will get to witness him do whatever he wants on the court.
I fully expect Garza to win this award. While it’s possible someone like Cunningham steals it from him, predicting that would frankly be a baseless guess. Garza was already one of the best players in college basketball last year, and the rest of the field just doesn’t compare this season.
I said before that Cunningham is no Zion Williamson, but that’s actually a big problem. It takes a special talent like Williamson to win Player of the Year in his freshman season. I just don’t think Cunningham has that special factor, nor do any of the other players this year. So I’m picking the favorite: Garza will be the 2021 NCAA Player of the Year.
There are three teams floating in my head to be the 2021 NCAA Champions: Gonzaga, Villanova and the University of Virginia (UVA). Gonzaga placed first in the Associated Press preseason poll, making them title favorites. The team has amazing returning talent, including senior Corey Kispert, junior Joel Ayayi and sophomore Drew Timmie. They also have one of the best incoming freshmen of the 2020 class, Jalen Suggs.
But Gonzaga has one major weakness; they are losing Filip Petrušev. Petrušev only played for the Zags for two years before deciding to go back to Serbia to play professionally. He was averaging nearly 18 points and eight rebounds. Those numbers are far above everyone else’s on the roster. At 6 feet 11 inches, Petrušev was a centerpiece for their offense, and I’m not sure the void he is leaving will be quickly filled.
Villanova doesn’t quite have the same problems. Sure, Villanova is losing their top scorer Saddiq Bey, but that’s the only significant player they are losing. Besides, the gap between Bey and his teammates was not that large. Senior guard Collin Gillespie is considered by many to be a Player of the Year candidate and will have no problems running the offense. Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are both sophomores who will take a significant leap this season. Overall, the team is solid, and coach Jay Wright has a lot of experience with teams like this.
To me, many of these things are also negatives. Sure, Gillespie will be incredible, but the team is largely relying on players with only one year of experience to do the rest of the work. That can sometimes fly in college basketball, and I can tell that Robinson-Earl is no ordinary sophomore, but it doesn’t scream “NCAA Champion” to me. The team lacks height and is certainly not as good as their previous championship-winning team from 2018.
With those two schools down, let me now talk about the team I am predicting to win it all: the Virginia Cavaliers. I successfully predicted the Cavaliers to win it all in 2019, so they definitely hold a place in my heart. Still, there’s more to this team than emotions. I’ve already said that I overvalue two things: experienced guards and a big center. UVA has both of those things.
Point guard Kihei Clark is entering his third season. While he struggles at times, he is the last remaining starter from the championship-winning team. That experience will help the entire team when Clark has the ball in his hands. The team is losing Mamadi Diakite, but coach Tony Bennett’s system has never been about individual players; he will find other players to put the ball in the hoop.
The notable “other player” who will be scoring the ball this season is Sam Hauser. Hauser is a senior transfer from Marquette University where he averaged 15 points and shot 40% from three-point range on over six attempts per game. His experience and scoring efficiency will fill the scoring void that UVA suffered from last season.
Lastly, I want to highlight Jay Huff. The 7-foot-1 senior center has been steadily improving every season. His presence will be immensely important on both the offensive and defensive ends. Bennett doesn’t use him as much as other teams use their centers, but the simple act of Huff existing can make a big difference in the postseason.
There is a lot of talent in college basketball this year, so the favorites aren’t clear-cut. Plenty of teams have a shot at the coveted championship, and it will be interesting to see how the uniqueness of a COVID-19 season will affect the sport. A lot can happen between now and March, and I’m excited to watch it all.
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