Ready or Not, Here Comes the 2020-21 Men's College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 25, 2020

Gonzaga's Corey Kispert
Gonzaga's Corey KispertIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

From the folks who brought you March Madness, get ready for November Nuttiness, December Delirium, January Jumble and February Frenzy in a Division I men's college basketball season (attempted to be) played during a pandemic.

Here's a snippet of how things are going:

  • Tennessee announced on Monday afternoon that the Volunteers Classic multiteam event, which was supposed to be held Wednesday and Friday with Charlotte and VCU, was canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing protocol. (Head coach Rick Barnes was among those who tested positive.)
  • A few hours later, VCUnow looking for somewhere to play this weekwas announced as a replacement team in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in South Dakota, though it wasn't yet clear who the Rams were replacing.
  • Shortly thereafter, Stadium's Jeff Goodman reported that Wichita State made the trip to South Dakota, only to have multiple players test positive after they arrived. Thus, the Shockers were the team pulling out of the event.

That all happened within a window of less than eight hours.

So, you know, totally normal proceedings two days before the start of the season.

It's going to be our new normal for the foreseeable future, though.

There will be a ton of games postponed/canceled. (If it's the same rate at which college football games were canceled/postponed in the first three weeks of November137 played and 43 not played means a 24 percent cancelation/postponement ratewe're talking somewhere in the vicinity of 10-12 games called off per day in a sport that typically has 300-325 games per week.)

At any given point, there will likely be dozens of teams "paused" for 10-14 days following a positive test. Much to the chagrin of video coordinators and assistant coaches, there will be instances where a team prepares for one opponent, only to draw an eleventh-hour fill-in instead.

Trying to keep up with all the last-minute schedule changes is going to be maddening.

It's a shame we couldn't implement something innovative like The Athletic's proposal from back in August to divide the country into 44 regional pods for the nonconference portion of the season, thereby eliminating travel and mitigating risk pertaining to the virus. There still inevitably would have been cancellations, but I believe it would have been much less rampant than what we're going to end up seeing. However, without any central governing authoritythe NCAA doesn't actually control/dictate much in terms of scheduling aside from the NCAA tournament—something of that magnitude was going to be impossible to pull off.

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Instead, we're left to cross our fingers and hope for the best as more than 300 teams travel all over the country for the next four months.

But at least they're trying to make this season happen.

Aside from the constant insanity of the changing schedule, what else about the 2020-21 season should we expect to be out of the ordinary?

First and foremost, the best teams are not going to be the usual suspects.

Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu
Illinois' Ayo DosunmuHolly Hart/Associated Press

Oh, Duke and Kentucky will be more than fine. They signed their usual supply of top-notch recruitseach landing six of the top 65 players in the 2020 class, per 247Sports. They'll be expected to reach the Sweet 16 and will rank among the viable candidates to win the national championship.

But after nine consecutive years of both blue bloods opening the season ranked in the Top Eight of the AP poll, Duke and Kentucky check in at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively.

Instead, for the first time, we'll have Gonzaga starting out at No. 1. There's also Baylor at No. 2, which is the first time that program has ever opened the year ranked in the Top 10. And then Iowa at No. 5 and Illinois at No. 8, even though neither of those Big Ten schools has earned so much as a No. 6 seed in an NCAA tournament in the past decade.

The unorthodox Elite Eight atop the early poll is a product of both the sensational returning talent at those four programs and a year in which the tippy-top of the recruiting class has chosen some unconventional routes.

Regarding the first part of that, Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Baylor's Jared Butler, Iowa's Luka Garza and Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu were each named AP preseason first-team All-Americans. And those guys are far from alone as the leaders of those rosters. Those are merely the household names among the deep rotations of talented athletes. Gonzaga and Iowa may well be the two most potent offenses in the country. Baylor should be elite on defense once again. And give me Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn over any other backcourt/frontcourt duo this season.

On the second part, No. 1 overall recruit Cade Cunningham is at Oklahoma Statewhich is not even eligible for postseason play this year. No. 3 recruit Evan Mobley went to USC, which hasn't finished a season in the AP Top 25 since 2007. Similar story for No. 6 recruit Ziaire Williams playing for a Stanford program that has made one NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. No. 18 recruit Makur Maker is at Howard, which went 4-29 last year. And Nos. 2 (Jalen Green), 4 (Jonathan Kuminga), 17 (Daishen Nix) and 20 (Isaiah Todd) each exercised his option to go straight from high school to the G League.

Oklahoma State star freshman Cade Cunningham
Oklahoma State star freshman Cade CunninghamGregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press

So that's five of the top six recruits and eight of the top 20 who either aren't playing college basketball or are doing so for a team that's nowhere close to cracking the AP Top 25.

That atypical distribution of the top talent is why expectations for Duke and Kentucky are a bit lower than usual and why you'll only find a handful of freshmen on any ranking of the best players for this season. In CBS Sports' "Top 100 and 1 Best Players" list, Cunningham was No. 2, Mobley was No. 10, Kentucky's Brandon Boston Jr. was No. 13 and no other freshman ranked in the top 25. There's usually more excitement over the annual crop of one-and-done stars.

But that's not a bad thing. Rather, I'm fully on board with the straight-to-G League option and the proposals to revert back to the early 2000s. That's when guys could declare for the draft out of high school, and that means we'd get more seasons like this one in which way more than a dozen teams could win it all and when the overwhelming majority of top players are guys we've already been acquainted with for at least one season.

We especially need that familiarity this year, since there won't be nearly as much time or opportunity to fall in love with new players.

We may end up debating NCAA tournament resumes with just 12-18 games played instead of the usual 32 or so. While that is going to make things much more difficult on the selection committee, it would be nice to at least get an NCAA tournament this year.

And while the NCAA couldn't do much to ensure a safe start of the season, it has been surprisingly proactive in prepping for the end of it, announcing on Nov. 16 a plan to have the entire 68-team NCAA tournament in one geographic area (presumably Indianapolis).

Whether it will actually be 68 teams or what sort of contingency plans the NCAA has in place in case teams are forced to drop out before or during the tourney cannot be yet determined, but at least having all the teams in the same vicinity will allow for more flexibility.

That's going to be the name of the game this year: flexibility.

Limber up and strap in for a wild ride.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.