The 2019-20 college basketball season was as good as a season can get, especially in recent memory. Next season could be even more intriguing.
With no true top team, programs like Dayton and Seton Hall got on the map, while the North Carolina’s of the world had some unforeseen struggles. Now, with the offseason providing hope for next October, all 300-plus programs across 32 conferences have their eyes set on one ultimate goal – that no team got this year – a National Championship.
With that being said, some teams have added pressure. Whether it was a failed experiment in prior years, the jump to a new conference, or the recent lack of national relevance, some teams face added pressure in 2020-21. For next season, these ten teams need to start turning it around:
The Wildcats enjoyed a fantastic 2019-20 by most school’s standards, and an okay one by their’s. John Calipari’s team comprised of mostly one-and-done players off to the NBA went 25-6 (15-3). Calipari has built his program on the value of making it and excelling in the NBA. Recent products include John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Devin Booker, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
However, what his players haven’t done are performed in the NCAA Tournament. While the Wildcats have made some short runs, they haven’t reached a Final Four since 2015, and have only one one championship (2012) since ‘Coach Cal’ got to town.
There could be a bigger problem than repeated Elite 8 appearances, but with that talent, it’s become increasingly apparent that the Kentucky fanbase is eager to return to the promised land.
Image of CBS Sports
The Huskies enjoyed a nice run to the end of last season, winning five straight games to close out the season, including a home floor upset over 21st ranked Houston. A final record of 19-12 also gave UConn their first winning season since 2016, which seems even weird to type out into a sentence.
Head Coach Dan Hurley has been the reason for this recent success. After taking over from Kevin Ollie, the fiery Hurley has totally revamped the mojo of the team, and has brought in some nice talent, including Andre Jackson, a four-star recruit by most accounts.
While Hurley has passed the test so far in his run in Storrs, Connecticut, the real one awaits next season. UConn will head back to the Big East, the conference that led them to three of their four National Championships. Not only will this help them out in terms of television watchability, but it looks to pave an easier way on the recruiting trail.
A strong Big East in 2019-20 shows no signs of dipping down, as the Huskies will have to compete with the likes of Villanova and Creighton, among others, who are already receiving lots of early recognition for next season. A strong showing in year one, and UConn could be back to relevance. A lackluster one, and it could be back to the drawing board.
Coming next on this list is the Syracuse Orange. Once known as a ‘Beast of the East’, the Orange have undeniably fallen in recent seasons. After a 2016 Final Four appearance – their second in four seasons, Syracuse has struggled, missing the NCAA Tournament once, and losing to Baylor in 2019. If not for a surprise Sweet 16 run in 2018, the annual ‘Jim Boeheim is too old to coach anymore’ phrase may be on it’s way back.
Given all of that, it is still an Orange team with some hope. 2019-20 ACC scoring champiion, Elijah Hughes is currently testing NBA Draft waters, and with the basketball season sure to be affected even more by Covid-19, Hughes could realisticly come back for his final year of eligibility, on a team that already returns four of it’s five starters from last season.
However, Orange fans must plan for the worst, as Hughes has been on numerous draft boards, anywhere from the early to late second round. This would mean another projected finish in the middle of the pack in the ACC, which doesn’t seem to bode well with a program that used to be top dog (or fruit if you want to play that game) in the Big East, year after year.
After a 12-1 start to the season, everything seemed just dandy for the Blue Demons. This wasn’t just any old 12-1 start either. It included a 15-point victory AT Iowa, wins over Texas Tech, Minnesota, and Boston College, and the one loss to a talented Buffalo team.
Then the Big East happened. DePaul lost five straight contests before finally picking up their first conference win over Butler on January 18th. They wouldn’t win again until late February, and finished the season at a dismal 16-16 (3-15), especially considering their start.
On a bright note, they do look to bring back most of their talent. No key players have decided to enter the transfer portal yet, so DePaul could return Charlie Moore, Paul Reed, Jaylen Butz, and Romeo Weems. Those four players accounted for nearly 50 points per game last season, and in a Big East Conference who loses stars in Myles Powell and Markus Howard, it could make for a transition period for a talented and experience DePaul roster.
The biggest question mark is Dave Leitao. DePaul decided to bring back their head coach – who is in his second stint in Chicago – on a contract extension that runs through 2024. However, the end of last season didn’t really sit well with DePaul fans, and that extension comes as a surprise to most of the college basketball world. DePaul needs to perform well next season, or else it could make for a rebuild yet again.
Image of ballislife.com
The Andy Enfield era has gone through a lot of ups and downs. After needing a few years to install his system, USC had three straight 20-win seasons, which included two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Then, a 16-17 final record in 2019 hinted at putting his job on the hot seat, but he was able to post a solid 22-9 record last season to quiet some of the doubters.
That brings us to an interesting 2021 outlook. Oregon brings back talent, but graduates Payton Pritchard, the heart and sole of their team. This virtually makes the entire Pac-12 open for anyone looking to dethrone the Ducks.
Bring in USC. Not only do they have the coach in Enfield, and what should be a talented returning roster, mostly depending on Onyeka Okongwu, but they also landed Evan Mobley, the undisputed top center in the Class of 2020, listed by some as the top overall prospect in his class.
The pressure here really lies with Enfield above all else. He’s got a solid returning squad, in an open Pac-12, with a dominant force down low. If the pieces fall in place, watch out for USC in 2021. If they don’t, watch out for a new job opening in Southern California.
5. San Diego State
Dependent on Malachi Flynn’s decision of returning to college or entering his name into the NBA Draft, SDSU is in for a whirlwind of an offseason. However, if Flynn does return, SDSU is a clear favorite to not only win the Mountain West Conference, but also for a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The junior guard averaged nearly 18 points per game last season, to go along with 4.5 rebounds per game, and an impressive 5.1 assists per game, according to ESPN.com. Needless to say, Flynn is a game changer, as his impact can be felt in more ways than one.
The Aztecs had a fantastic 2020, going 30-2 overall. However, a last second loss to Utah State in the Mountain West Championship Game left some people with doubts on if SDSU was for real. With no ‘Big Dance’ in 2020, we’ll have to wait and see if Flynn can carry his team in 2021.
Image of SI.com
Like SDSU, Iowa’s outlook for 2020-21 is also continued on an all-world talent’s decision to return to college or forgo his eligibility to go to the NBA.
Luka Garza was EVERYTHING for Iowa in 2019-20. At 6-feet-11-inches and 260 pounds, Garza is a beast down low. However, his touch from outside really lifts him above the competition, and made him a strong candidate for National Player of the Year awards.
During his junior campaign, Garza nearly averaged a double-double, as he scored almost 24 points per game, coming just shy of averaging 10 rebounds per contest. At nearly 36% from behind the arc, his three-point shooting talents posed as a threat for anyone tasked with defending Garza, who led Iowa to a 20-11 (11-9) record in the Big Ten.
Arguable the best conference in 2019-20, the Big Ten lost some real quality players. With guys like Cassius Winston, Lamar Stevens, Jalen Smith, and Anthony Cowan Jr. all either graduating or most likely heading to the NBA, Luka Garza and Iowa’s path to a Big Ten title would practically be laid out in front of them. The two other Iowa players who averaged double-digits in points per game last year have multiple years of eligibility remaining, meaning that the big three of Iowa could be extremely hard to defend.
The outlook looks bright for Iowa next season, but crazier things have happened. On paper, its Fran McCaffrey’s most talented team of all-time. Contingent on Garza’s decision, we’ll see how Iowa reacts to the early season praise.
3. Whoever lands Jalen Green
The top uncommitted recruit in the Class of 2020, Jalen Green is arguably the best player. At 6-feet-5-inches, Green is a combo guard who has a flashy highlight reel, shown of by his ability to drive the lane and finish on anyone, three-point range, and a mid-range game much better than most people his age.
Right now, the 247sports.com ‘Crystal Ball Prediction’ has Green ending up at Auburn, but that could obviously change. He isn’t actually listed as the top prospect in his class, but as someone who has actually seen Green play, let me tell you, he is an absolute game changer.
Auburn, or whoever lands Jalen Green needs added pressure, simply for the fact that he will be the best freshman by far in 2020-21.
Speaking about freshmen! One that didn’t exactly pan out this past season was James Wiseman. The most skilled recruit in the Class of 2019 certainly showed out, but his season was cut short after the NCAA ruled him ineligible, after finding current Tigers HC Penny Hardaway, guilty of helping Wiseman’s family move and helping them with money.
What could be seen as a nice gesture by Hardaway was seen as a recruiting violation by NCAA eyes, and Wiseman wouldn’t be allowed to see a college court again.
More importantly, it marks Hardaway’s big time class as a failed experiment, and draws attention at his future with the Tigers. If Hardaway can build his trust back with Tigers higher ups and the fanbase, we’ve seen in past years that it’s a program that can build some success. However, Hardaway can’t allow the Wiseman issues to falter him.
A 21-10 record wasn’t awful, especially given the circumstances, but it certainly put him under the bus for a little while. Expect Hardaway’s job to be on the hot seat if Memphis can’t rattle off another 20-win season.
1. North Carolina
This really shouldn’t come as any surprise. After landing Cole Anthony, one of the best players in the Class of 2019, UNC looked to be atop the ACC. Then, Anthony’s injuries took over, but not before he solidified himself among the top players in the country.
But the damage was done. After a 6-1 start to the season, Roy Williams completely lost control as the Tar Heels spun off the track. They dropped nine of their next eleven games, and even after Anthony’s mid-season return, it was too late. At 14-19, it was North Carolina’s worst record in nearly two decades – something Williams was not proud of.
That alone should tell you how bad Tar Heels fans – a fanbase who is so used to winning – wants to win in 2020-21. Oh, and should I also mention that Carolina owns one of the top recruiting classes this season as well? The Heels are set to bring in THREE five-star talents to go along with two other four-star level guys. This type of talent along with a returners from a young team last season just speaks to the hype that will be around next season on Chapel Hill.
Carolina, the move is yours.
Featured image of ACCsports.com