Where usually thousands of screaming students would fill the stands, there is just a dull silence. Instead of emotion-packed showdowns, the NCAA is experiencing a rash of game cancellations. The frustration level is high in many places. Without question, the world of college basketball looks more different than ever before.
Still, the top college teams are fighting for the prestigious NCAA crown this year and providing an exciting race to the title. FIVE analyzed the on-goings from the first couple of months.
On the morning of December 5, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and his Baylor counterpart Scott Drew released a joint statement announcing the last-minute cancellation of the game between the Bulldogs and Bears. “We’re disappointed to not be able to play one of the most-anticipated games of the season, but we are following the advice of public health officials.” Many NCAA experts had proclaimed the showdown of universities from Spokane, Washington and Waco, Texas as the biggest highlight of the non-conference schedule in the 2020-21 NCAA season. The Bulldogs and Bears filled the top two spots of both pre-season rankings going into the season. In their first games of the season, Gonzaga had knocked off the Kansas Jayhawks (102-90), Auburn Tigers (90-67 and West Virginia Mountaineers (87-82) – three big-time opponents from the power five leagues. Those wins solidified Gonzaga’s status as one of the main title favorites. The Baylor Bears were also coming into the game with three wins. So everything was set up for an exciting matchup of the top two teams of the new season. Well, that is until it was announced that there was a positive case for Covid-19 in the Gonzaga coaching staff in the latest round of tests. A last-minute cancellation of the game was the only thing to do. At the end of the day, it was also just one of many asterisks in a schedule that mirrors the Covid-19 plagued season. In the first 11 days of the 2020-21 NCAA season, which officially began on November 25, 2020, 21 percent of all games had been cancelled. The effects of the rampant Covid-19 pandemic on the college basketball world have been ever-present for months. Before the season even started, the Ivy League announced that no winter sports competitions would take place. And Maryland-Eastern Shore and Chicago State both pulled their teams out of all competitions for the first few months of the season. Numerous teams were forced to take multiple-week long breaks and self-isolate themselves after positive Covid-19 tests. The result is a distorted schedule which looks like a patchwork rug and makes comparisons of individual teams next to impossible. Just how asynchronous and bizarre the 2020-21 NCAA season has proceeded can be seen in the Big East Conference standings. The DePaul Blue Demons are last (at the time of this writing) with a record of 1-2. Due to Corona-related cancellations, DePaul played their second game on December 27 against Providence. In the meantime, conference rivals Rhode Island had already played seven games. And while the Seton Hall Pirates had played six times against Big East opponents after the first week in January and picked up five wins for first place in the standings, the players from the University of Connecticut had only played five times this season. The chaos reached a high point when Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters following the team’s loss to Illinois – the second defeat in four games – that the Blue Devils would not be playing against any more non-conference teams this season. “I don’t think it feels right to anybody.”Krzyzewski was addressing the elephant in the room. Was it morally justifiable to play basketball games in times of a world-wide health crisis and sending students dashing across the country? “Do I think things should be done a little bit differently?” Krzyzewski told reporters. “Yeah. I mean, you know, a lot of kids, kids aren’t going to be able to go home for Christmas, probably a time where they should for mental health. We’re just plowing through this.”Krzyzewski’s stance was not met with approval from all. “Let me ask you a question. Do you think Coach K would be saying that if he hadn’t lost those two non-conference games at home?” asked Alabama head coach Nate Oats. The Alabama playcaller himself faced hefty criticism for his insinuations, which he took back and for which he apologized publicly.
What this story clearly shows is that it’s a tense situation in the NCAA. The only consensus is that it’s an extraordinary season. The first two months of the season did also provide talking points on the court. Here is a look at the top contenders for the 2021 title.
The title favorites: A neck and neck race for supremacy.
When the Bulldogs dropped 102 points on the Kansas Jayhawks in 40 minutes to start the season, they made history. Under head coach Bill Self, who has been with Kansas for 18 years, the Jayhawks had never given up more than 100 points in regulation. Four weeks later, Mark Few’s troops raced past the Virginia Cavaliers 98-75, the first time the 2019 NCAA champs had conceded more than 90 points in seven years.Those are records that impressively underline the offensive firepower and dominance of the Zags. The team from Spokane is rolling over the opposition. The recipe for success has been tempo. The Bulldogs are putting their foot on the gas pedal whenever they can and forcing quick shots. Nearly half of Gonzaga’s points have come in transition or early offense. A big help in this is that every player can run the break as either dribbler or passer – including the big men Drew Timme and Anton Watson. They look to attack the basket directly after every defensive rebound and steal. Freshman ball-handler Jalen Suggs has regularly shown off his passing skills, finding cutting teammates with perfectly-timed feeds. The Zags score the ball highly efficiently (60.9 eFG%, third in the NCAA), commit almost no unnecessary turnovers and spread the scoring load upon many shoulders. The team’s MVP in the first third of the season has been Corey Kispert. The senior is averaging 21.6 points and hitting an absurd 50.8 percent of his three-pointers. If Few puts the trio of guards Suggs, Andrew Nembhard and Joel Ayayi on the court at the same time, Kispert moves to the role as small-ball four. Add center Timme and this lineup has an offensive rating of 141 and a net-rating of plus 54. It’s the NCAA version of the Lineup of Death from the Golden State Warriors.
If a team can challenge the Gonzaga Bulldogs, then it’s the Baylor Bears. The team from Waco, Texas would have likely been the number one overall seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it not been cancelled. The school looked ready last season to reach its first Final Four since 1950. Head coach Drew and his players are giving it another run this season. Even though their schedule to this point appears to be an easy path, the Bears definitely look like a serious title candidate.The departures of big men Freddie Gillespie and Tristan Clarke have hardly been felt. UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is using his length and athleticism to provide rebounding and points around the basket and senior Mark Vital is the personification of the Swiss Army knife on defense for all things steals and blocks. A positive development has been playmaker Davion Mitchell. The junior was an excellent guard defender and ball distributor last season but now Mitchell is also hitting threes at a high volume (50.3 3P%, 4.0 attempts per game) while still hounding opposing point guards (3.5 spg). The guard grouping of NBA talent Jared Butler (16 ppg, 5.8 apg). MaCio Teague (15.9 ppg) and new addition Adam Fagler (10.9 ppg) has been lighting it up from outside in the first 10 games. As a team, the Bears are hitting 43.8 percent of their three-pointers and pairing their high scoring efficiency with a stifling defense.
The pursuers: Title aspirants lying in wait
The Villanova Wildcats have been running a well-oiled machine on offense for years under the guidance of head coach Jay Wright. Regardless of the players in Pennsylvania, Villanova plays a positionless offensive style in which every player can shoot, pass or drive to the basket – and it’s the same this season. Sophomore big man Jeremiash Robinson-Earl started the season in great form (16.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg 2.0 apg) and teams up with guards Collin Gillespie (15.3 ppg, 44.0 3P%) and Justin Moore (13.4 ppg and 2.9 apg) as the central axis of the Villanova offense. The Wildcats are highly efficient and commit fewer turnovers than any other team in the NCAA. The team turns down the tempo to hide their defensive deficits. In the past, Wright has used athletic wings to make for easier switching on defense and keep dynamic opponents in check – players like Saddiq Bey, Eric Paschall and Mikal Bridges. Such a defensive specialist is missing on the wings this season, so the Wildcats aren’t generating many steals and allowing opponents a high shooting percentage in the half-court offense. The loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies (81-73 in overtime) was an example of the Wildcats’ problems this season.
Besides the Baylor Bears, the Badgers are the only team in the country with a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. Experience is the major trump card for head coach Greg Gard’s team. There are five seniors in his starting lineup with each scoring at least 10 points a game. The Badgers move the ball excellently on offense, tiring out the opposition’s rotating defense and setting up good shots. Wisconsin’s 85-48 blowout win over the Louisville Cardinals showed they can put the opponents under pressure with their long-range shooters – hitting 16-of-25 three-pointers – while also defending cleverly as a team. In the first games in the Big Ten season, the Badgers knocked off two other top 50 teams with the Michigan State Spartans and Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Iowa Hawkeyes’ frontcourt features Luka Garza as the top scorer in all of NCAA basketball. Through the first 11 games, the big man is averaging 27.5 points to go along with about 9 rebounds per game. Garza is a mis-match nightmare as an inside-out scorer and can only be slowed in the post through effective double-teaming.But waiting on the wings are three dangerous shooters in Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick to make opponents pay for doubling Garza. The Hawkeyes put up more than 90 points in their first six games and their 122.1 point offensive efficiency is tops in the country. As dangerous as their offense is, the Hawkeyes are just as vulnerable under their own basket. Garza is not a good pick-and-roll defender and is not really a rim protector. If Iowa want to seriously contend for the title, head coach Fran McCaffery will have to develop an effective defensive concept.
by FIVE Magazine #175 – NCAA – Text: Torben Adelhardt