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Mike Lopresti | | November 19, 2020

These 20 questions loom large leading into the 2020-2021 men's basketball season

7 biggest storylines entering the college basketball season

Questions? Why should anyone think there are a lot of questions concerning this college basketball season? Just because we didn’t know until September when it might start, and nobody knows for certain really when it might end, and...

Well, you get the gist of it. The operative word for this season? Maybe. So let’s play 20 questions for a year the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

1. What the heck is going to happen once the games start?

Nobody has any earthly idea, and we’re not talking about the final scores. Here is what will face every coach, player and fan: Today is not a given, tomorrow is uncertain, next week is anybody’s guess. Games will be scrubbed and practices lost, count on it. But how many, and involving whom?

The Ivy League is already out. Others might follow, if the infection numbers keep climbing. The opening two weeks to the season could be very tasty with the likes of Kentucky-Kansas, Michigan State-Duke, Villanova-Texas, Gonzaga playing Kansas, Tennessee and Baylor, and Baylor facing Arizona State, Illinois and Gonzaga. But will they all actually take place? College football has been in constant postponement mode, and they play once a week. Makes you wonder what’s going to happen in a sport with games every night, and more than double the number of schools are involved. And it’s all indoors.

2. How chaotic will this season be in the coaching profession?

Let’s see, Pat Chambers and Gregg Marshall are already gone from Penn State and Wichita State before the season even started. Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim already tested positive for the virus, as have several other coaches. Connecticut, the prodigal son of the Big East, was preparing to say hello again to its old conference buddies ("hey, move over, will you Villanova?") when someone came up positive, and Dan Hurley had to shut down his program for two weeks. What was the question again?

3. Will homecourt advantage take the season off?

Really, cardboard figures in the stands aren’t all that intimidating. Would you believe . . . The Cameron Crazy Cutouts? Doesn’t have quite the same ring, or aura, to it. There will always be an advantage in not having to travel, especially this season when — besides bad weather and bus breakdowns — visiting teams have to worry about avoiding microbes. But the home advantage should be milder. Just a guess: Fewer big comebacks by home teams. The roar of the crowd is always good fuel to light a rally, and this year, it’ll be a lot quieter.

4. The word "breakthrough" gets used a lot these days, but that usually concerns a Covid vaccine. What breakthroughs on the court could be most compelling?

Once upon a time, Gonzaga was the little engine that could. Now the Zags could argue they are the mightiest program in America without a national title. Sooner or later, it has to happen, right? They seemed capable of the final step last spring, but never got the chance. Now they’re ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, and we’ll see if Mark Few’s machine is so self-sustaining, it can actually lose 52 points a game from the lineup and still remain among the elite.

RANKINGS: Here's our complete AP top 25, instant reaction, analysis | Full AP top 25 rankings

5. Anyone else?

Baylor hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1950, but the Bears bring nearly everyone back from a 26-4 team. The door is open. P.S. The last national champion from the state of Texas was the famous racial barrier breakers from Texas Western in 1966. Wait a second. Come to think of it, that’s the only national champion from the nation’s second most populated state. By the way, California, the most populated, has had 15.

6. Another breakthrough come to mind?

Iowa’s last Final Four trip was 41 years ago, and its last Big Ten season title was 1979. In the farmland, they don’t like the word “drought,” but Luka Garza and his band of merry Hawkeyes could put an end to both with their rollicking offensive ways. But they’ll have to play a little defense, too.

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7. Maybe a last one?

Know what Northwestern, Bradley and Loyola Chicago have in common? They’re all schools from the state of Illinois who have been to the NCAA tournament in the past four years. Know who from that state hasn’t been since 2013? The Illinois Illini. They’re accustomed to much better in Champaign, but with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn (below) both deciding against the NBA, the Illini return one of the better 1-2 combinations in the nation, and might end up the team to beat in the Big Ten. Illinois' Kofi Cockburn.

8. Are Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova really The Big Three?

Until someone proves differently, they are. Too bad for Villanova that the 2020 tournament never happened. The Wildcats won the national championship in 2016 and ’18. They seem unbeatable in even numbered years. In the past four odd-year tournaments, they never got past the first weekend, and 2020-21 is certainly going to be odd in more ways than one. But returning eight of the top nine scorers trumps numerology.

9. What about Virginia?

You mean the still-defending national champion Cavaliers? Does the trophy have dust on it by now? They aren’t far behind the Big Three. Transfer Sam Hauser was a 44.5 percent 3-point shooter at Marquette. Add some long-range firepower to Tony Bennett’s perennial quicksand of a defense, and it sounds a little scary.

10. This question is as annual in November as basting a turkey. Is it time at last for a Big Ten national champion?

To update the number, it has now been 21 years since Michigan State won the last title for the conference. In the span since, the Big Ten has put 14 teams in the Final Four, and gone 0-7 in championship games, so you can’t say the league isn’t trying. But still, for a conference with so much renown and so many tournament bids, it’s certainly conspicuous. The Big Ten appears loaded this year, with seven lodge members in the Associated Press preseason top 25. The league never, ever lacks for good teams, it just hasn’t been able to come up with anyone powerful enough — and maybe lucky enough —  to be the last contestant standing. Or maybe there haven’t been enough true monster players. The Big Ten had only four names called in this year’s NBA Draft. The SEC had 12. Michigan State is the usual suspect to end the wait, but Izzo has some holes to fill. Might it be you, Iowa? Wisconsin? Illinois? Anyone?

11. Why should the Pac-12 hope that the Big Ten never ends its dry spell?

Because if the Big Ten ever does, more people might notice that the Pac-12 slump is much worse. The league last produced a national champion in Arizona in 1997, and has had only two appearances in the title game in the 22 tournaments since. In other words, Butler has played for as many championships this century as the entire Pac-12 conference. The only league team in the Final Four in the past 12 years was Oregon in 2017. Loyola Chicago has gone as often.

12. Any Pac-12 hopefuls out there this year? Arizona State's Remy Martin

Arizona State starts the season as the highest conference team in the Associated Press poll, and that’s No. 18. The Sun Devils should be entertaining to watch, as Bobby Hurley has them annually the highest scoring team in the conference. Remy Martin (above) is an All-American and Alonzo Verge Jr. scored 43 points in a game last season — off the bench.

UCLA was on the move late last season, and returns everyone. Oregon is always hanging around. But fact is fact. When it comes to prominence in the West, the Pac-12 is looking way up at Gonzaga.

13. Anyone remember who the No. 1 ranked team was when the season went dark?

That would be Kansas, but so much has happened since then, it’s not hard to forget. The Jayhawks will miss Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, but Marcus Garrett might be the nation’s best defender, and Kansas never lacks for talent. The schedule will test if they’re up to their usual high bar. They have 12 games — 44.4 percent of their schedule — against teams in the preseason top-25.

14. Is North Carolina back?

The Tar Heels better be, with Garrison Brooks back and a strong recruiting class. Roy Williams just turned 70. They go 14-19 again, and he’ll look older than Moses.

15. What about the royal couple?

Fresh faces galore at Duke and Kentucky, but that’s nothing new. Still, there must be more uncertainty than usual; it’s the first time in 11 years one or the other isn’t in the top three of the Associated Press pre-season rankings. Know how many double figure scorers the two powerhouses combined return? None. Kentucky lost 94 percent of its points, Duke 70 percent. The customary resupply barges laden with blue chip freshmen have arrived, plus there is transfer help. But it might take a while for noted chemists Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari to find the right formula, and this season, there will be less time for lab work. Maybe much less time.

16. Who is probably one of the biggest proponents of playing the entire NCAA tournament in Indianapolis?

Has to be Krzyzewski. He’s 9-1 in Indy in Duke tournament games, and won three of his five national championships there.

INDY: Why the NCAA tournament and Indiana is a match made in college hoops heaven

17. Who’s the hottest freshman?

Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham was probably looking at the NBA draft the other night and thinking about what outfit he will wear next year. He’s a 6-8 multi-skilled guard who should make the Cowboys better in a hurry. But unless the NCAA changes its mind about sanctions against the program — the appeal decision is still pending — he won’t be seen in the NCAA tournament.

18. Who could be this year’s Dayton?

Dayton Athletics Dayton's Jalen Crutcher.

In other words, who could be the team that barges into the Final Four and tells the establishment to make room? Nobody was hurt worse by the NCAA tournament’s cancellation than the Flyers, with a once-in-a-generation contender. Their answer to the question of who this year’s Dayton will be is probably  . . . well, Dayton. The Flyers do have a stellar backcourt, with Jalen Crutcher (above) returning as one of the main men from last season. But Obi Toppin’s departure leaves a hole the size of Ohio.

A better choice might be Creighton. The Bluejays were another team on fire when the lights went out, sharing the Big East season title, and might have made serious March noise, if given a chance. They return five of their top six scorers, and the No. 11 spot is their highest in a preseason poll in school history. For the record, Creighton’s last Sweet 16 was 1974.

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Know who else would be nice to see show up in a Final Four, though given their ACC pedigree, it’s hard to call them a party crasher? The Florida State Seminoles. Leonard Hamilton’s program is being overlooked a tad. Again. Florida State should be very, very good. Again.

19. Why will so much national attention be on a team that went 4-29 last season?

That would be the Howard Bison, whose roster now includes 6-11 Makur Maker, the first five-star freshman to choose an Historically Black College in anyone’s memory. How it turns out for him and his team might help decide if he is a blip, or a trend-setter. Howard will likely set a school record in press credentials.

20. What is the fondest wish for every college basketball coach, player, official and fan for this season?

That it not end like the last one did.

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