Winners and Losers of Men's College Basketball's 2020 Return

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 30, 2020

Winners and Losers of Men's College Basketball's 2020 Return

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    Villanova's Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
    Villanova's Jeremiah Robinson-EarlJessica Hill/Associated Press

    The first few days of the 2020-21 men's college basketball season were a hectic, glorious mess.

    More than 75 games scheduled to be played between Wednesday and Sunday were postponed or canceled, but many were added on the fly, tooincluding one game against Virginia Tech that Villanova probably wishes it hadn't stayed in Connecticut a couple of more days to play.

    Nos. 3 (Villanova), 4 (Virginia) and 6 (Kansas) in the preseason AP Top 25 already suffered a loss. No. 8 (Illinois) was pushed to the limit before eking out a last-second win over Ohio. No. 9 (Duke) committed 22 turnovers while merely beating Coppin State by 10 points. No. 10 (Kentucky) lost a home game against Richmond.

    Just a weird start to what is bound to be a weird season.

    But it was a lot of fun to have college basketball back in our lives, and there were a few positives and negatives that stood out from the crowd as the big winners and losers from Thanksgiving weekend.

Winner: The Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic

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    West Virginia's Jalen Bridges
    West Virginia's Jalen BridgesJosh Jurgens/Associated Press

    The Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic was a microcosm of all the headache and resiliency that went into making college basketball happen this fall.

    Initially announced on Nov. 29, 2019, the plan was to have Creighton, Duke, Memphis, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Utah, West Virginia and Wichita State participate in the 2020 Battle 4 Atlantiswhich has been one of the best, if not indisputably the singular best, multiteam events on an annual basis since 2011. Considering four of those teams (Creighton, Duke, Ohio State and West Virginia) appeared in the preseason AP Top 25, there's little question it would have been a fantastic few days on Paradise Island, per usual.

    But because of COVID-19, the event was canceled in mid-September. In its place, the Crossover Classic popped up and invited all of the Battle 4 Atlantis participants to instead play in a tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Less than a month later, it was announced that seven of the original eight teams would be playing in the event, with Dayton replacing Duke.

    Then, it was time to scramble.

    Utah was the first team to pull out of the Crossover Classic, doing so on Oct. 31. Ohio State and Dayton bailed on Nov. 5 and 6, respectively. Texas A&M dropped out on Nov. 17. Creighton did the same two days later. And then Wichita State had to withdraw on Nov. 23less than 48 hours before the start of the eventwhen it arrived in South Dakota, only to have multiple positive tests.

    But like a cartoon character plugging holes in a dam with its fingers, the Crossover Classic just kept finding replacements and ended up putting together quite the entertaining 12 games of college basketball.

    West Virginia was the biggest winner of the event, going 3-0 behind 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game from Derek Culver.

    Two of the late additions had an impressive three days as well. VCU went 2-1 with junior guards Vince Williams and KeShawn Curry both setting career highs in scoring. Expectations for the Rams were considerably lower than usual in a year when they had to replace five of their six leading scorers, but early returns are encouraging.

    And Western Kentucky looked pretty darn good with Charles Bassey filling up the box score. The junior McDonald's All-American missed most of last season because of injury, but he was impressive in wins over Northern Iowa and Memphis and the close loss to West Virginia in the championship game.

Loser: UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA head coach Mick Cronin
    UCLA head coach Mick CroninGregory Bull/Associated Press

    There's almost always one ranked team that comes out and immediately lays an egg.

    Last year, it was Florida. After debuting at No. 6 in the AP poll, the Gators got smoked by Florida State, lost to Connecticut and almost lost to Towson, all within their first four games.

    In each of the two seasons before that, West Virginia started out in the AP Top 15, only to immediately suffer a loss. In 2017-18, the Mountaineers went to Germany and lost by 23 to Texas A&M. In 2018-19, they began 0-1 with a home loss to Buffalo and then lost a neutral-site game against Western Kentucky a week later.

    In 2016-17, Connecticut was No. 18 in the preseason AP Top 25, started out 0-2 with home losses to Wagner and Northeastern and has not been ranked since.

    You get the idea. It's just a matter of trying to figure out which team will flop in spectacular fashion.

    This year, UCLA is that poor, unfortunate soul.

    The Bruins were No. 22 in the preseason AP Top 25, but they certainly won't be ranked in Week 2 following a 15-point loss to San Diego State and a triple-overtime game against Pepperdine.

    There was no shame in losing at San Diego State last year, but the Aztecs are nowhere near the Final Four threat they were with Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin leading the way. UCLA simply looked dreadful for much of this game, getting outscored 25-9 over a stretch of nearly 15 minutes that spanned halftime. The Bruins never got back within striking distance after that.

    Granted, playing at Viejas Arena is no walk in the park. The Aztecs stunned Gonzaga three years ago and have gone 41-6 overall at home over the past three seasons. So if UCLA had bounced back with a strong performance against Pepperdine, perhaps we would have been willing to overlook that disappointing opener.

    Instead, the Bruins needed three overtimes to survive against a mid-major that shot 9-of-41 (22.0 percent) from three-point range. Pepperdine does have one bona fide major-conference talent in Colbey Ross, but even he committed six turnovers and needed 25 field-goal attempts (and 12 free-throw attempts) to reach 33 points.

    UCLA was without both Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang (stress reaction) and big man Jalen Hill (knee) for both games, but it should have had more than enough talent to blow out Pepperdine anyway.

Winner: Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmeYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Gonzaga had the most potent offense in the nation last year, ranking first with 87.4 points per game and finishing the year at No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Six different Bulldogs averaged at least 10 points per game, but they lost four of those six leaders.

    If you thought that meant they would be taking a step backward in 2020-21, think again.

    In the marquee game of the first few days of the season, last year's unstoppable force plowed straight through one of last year's most immovable objects. Kansas was elite on defense in 2019-20 and still has an absolute star on that end of the floor in Marcus Garrett.

    You wouldn't know it from the final score, though. No. 1 Gonzaga scored at will in a 102-90 victory over No. 6 Kansas.

    Impressively, the Zags eclipsed the century mark in a regulation game with just six three-pointers. They did so by shooting 77.3 percent from inside the arc. Drew Timme led the way with 25 points, but super freshman Jalen Suggs (24) and veteran leader Corey Kispert (23) weren't far behind him.

    The Suggs and Kispert parts weren't all that surprising, but Timme's domination of the KU frontcourt was a staggering development. We knew the sophomore was a huge breakout candidate with both Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie out of the picture, and we knew Kansas had a bit of a question mark down low sans Udoka Azubuike. But we didn't realize he would be this good this fast nor that the Jayhawks would look so helpless in defending the paint.

    Gonzaga turned around the next morning and put a similar hurting on Auburn in a 90-67 blowout. Timme went for 28 points and 10 rebounds, so he clearly wasn't a one-hit wonder in the opener.

    Once again, the Zags only made six three-pointers, and they were a little sloppy in the turnover department (29 total giveaways in the first two games)—two things to keep an eye on for the scheduled game against Baylor on Dec. 5. But early returns indicate this team is extremely deserving of its No. 1 ranking.

Loser: Virginia Cavaliers

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    Virginia's Kihei Clark (0), Sam Hauser (10) and Justin McKoy (4)
    Virginia's Kihei Clark (0), Sam Hauser (10) and Justin McKoy (4)Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    After what Virginia did to Towson on Wednesday afternoon, I never could have guessed I'd be writing about the Cavaliers as one of the biggest losers of the first few days.

    They struggled from three-point range for the vast majority of last season, but they were on fire against the Tigers. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser made each of his three three-point attempts, and Rice transfer Trey Murphy III canned six of eight from distance. The Wahoos shot 15-of-29 as a team and racked up 89 points. Impressive stuff from a team that had been held to 85 points or fewer in 56 consecutive games.

    But two days later, that newfound offense went missing again.

    Virginia shot just 3-of-12 from distance and managed a pedestrian 60 points in a loss to a San Francisco team that opened its season with a loss to UMass Lowell.

    The bigger problem for Virginia was actually its perimeter defense, as the Dons shot 13-of-28 (46.4 percent) from three-point range and only committed eight turnovers.

    You rarely see numbers like that against Tony Bennett's defense, but when you do, it doesn't end well. It was just the eighth time since the start of the 2013-14 season that an opponent made at least 10 threes and shot at least 45 percent from distance against the Cavaliers, and all eight of those games were Virginia losses.

    The Cavaliers could have won this one, though, if anyone had taken the reins on offense.

    Virginia is slated to face both Michigan State and Villanova within the next three weeks. Thus, it won't be long before we find out whether the team that annihilated Towson or the one that couldn't buy a bucket against San Francisco is the real version of the 2020-21 Cavaliers. Suffice it to say, though, we didn't think the No. 4 team in the country would ever look that bad.

Winner: Luka Garza, Iowa

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    Iowa's Luka Garza
    Iowa's Luka GarzaCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Luka Garza scored at least 20 points in each of his final 16 games last season, and the eight-and-a-half-month-long offseason evidently did nothing to slow down his momentum.

    In the season-opening 97-67 win over North Carolina Central, the preseason front-runner for National Player of the Year scored 26 points in just 24 minutes. He shot 11-of-14 from the field with seven offensive rebounds, three blocks and two steals.

    And that was the less impressive of his two outings thus far.

    Two days later against Southern, he had 36 points and was a perfect 12-of-12 from the field...

    At halftime.

    He didn't do much in the second half, but he finished that blowout win with 41 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.

    All told, he's shooting 88.0 percent from inside the three-point arc and 75.0 percent beyond it, averaging a preposterous 50.6 points, 14.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per 40 minutes.

    Sure, we're talking about two home games against teams from the MEAC and the SWAC. You probably expect a NPOY candidate to get whatever the heck he wants against opponents of that ilk. But it doesn't always work out that way.

    In fact, it often doesn't.

    In two games against Houston Baptist and Grambling State last year, Dayton's Obi Toppin had a combined total of 25 points in 52 minutes. Frank Kaminsky had 10 points and no rebounds in a game against Nicholls State. Doug McDermott played well against Alcorn State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (45 points in 49 minutes), but he wasn't as dominant as Garza was this week.

    If you want to wait until upcoming games against North Carolina and Gonzaga to fully immerse yourself in Garza's sensational numbers, that's your prerogative. But it's never too early to start marveling at what the big man for the Hawkeyes is doing.

Loser: Northern Iowa Panthers

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    Northern Iowa's AJ Green
    Northern Iowa's AJ GreenJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The unfortunate thing about an eight-team tournament field made up entirely of top-100 teams is that some squad with realistic NCAA tournament aspirations is going to suffer three losses in three days.

    In the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, Northern Iowa was that bad-luck team.

    Last year, the Panthers went 25-6 overall with an 11-1 record in nonconference play, including a pair of wins away from home against major-conference opponents (Colorado and South Carolina). They likely weren't going to receive an invitation to the NCAA tournament after their 21-point loss to Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinals, but this was a good team that was in the mix for an at-large bid all season long.

    With all three of their leading scorersincluding reigning MVC Player of the Year AJ Greenback for another season, the hope in Cedar Falls, Iowa, was that the Panthers would be able to put together a similar campaign and go dancing for the first time since 2016.

    Unfortunately, one of those leading scorers (Trae Berhow) did not make the trip to South Dakota in accordance with COVID-19 protocols, and that probably cost Northern Iowa a couple of wins.

    The Panthers were right there in all three games. Against Western Kentucky, there were multiple times in the final two minutes when they had the ball with a four-point deficit, but they couldn't quite close the gap. Against Saint Mary's, they simply collapsed down the stretch, blowing a 16-point second-half lead. And in the finale against Utah State, an eight-point second-half lead turned into a six-point deficit in what felt like an instant, and the Panthers ended up losing by double figures.

    All that amounts to, though, is a bunch of shoulda woulda coulda in an 0-3 start to the year. And 0-3 may well turn into 1-6, as three of Northern Iowa's four remaining scheduled nonconference games are all on the road. They should win the home game against Green Bay, but those road tilts against Richmond, Wisconsin and Marshall are likely losses.

Winner: Mike Young, Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young
    Virginia Tech head coach Mike YoungJessica Hill/Associated Press

    For the second consecutive year, Mike Young has led Virginia Tech to one of the most surprisingly hot starts in men's college hoops.

    Last season, the former Wofford head coach inherited a Hokies team that had to replace all five of its leading scorers. CBS Sports, ESPN and Athlon Sports each had Virginia Tech projected to finish either next-to-last or dead last in the ACC. And while the Hokies did wilt in a big way over the second half of the season, they started the year 6-0, punctuated by a stunning neutral-site victory over Michigan Statewhich was ranked No. 1 on KenPom and No. 3 in the AP poll at the time.

    This past offseason's exodus wasn't quite as drastic, but VT did lose leading scorer Landers Nolley II and starting stretch 4 P.J. Horne. To make up for it, Young added four transfersKansas State's Cartier Diarra, Delaware's Justyn Mutts, Iowa's Cordell Pemsl and Keve Aluma, who followed Young from Wofford but was required to sit out last season.

    Now in his second year of rebuilding this program, Young added a second win over the No. 3 team in the country, upsetting Villanova in overtime Saturday night.

    Villanova went on a 21-6 run in the second half to open up a 52-40 lead with less than nine minutes remaining, but the Hokies didn't lose faith. They made four of their next five three-point attempts to close the gap and then benefited from Villanova missing the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones in the final three minutes. (The Hokies also benefited from the referees mistakenly rewarding Villanova with a one-and-one instead of two free throws on VT's 10th foul of the second half. At that point, Villanova led by one with 10 seconds remaining, so that was kind of a massive blunder.)

    The Hokies almost won in regulation, but a controversial foul with 1.3 seconds remaining allowed Villanova to send the game to overtime. Those five extra minutes belonged to the Hokies, though. They salted away an 81-73 victory at the free-throw line to improve to 2-0 on the young season. (They moved to 3-0 the following night with a 76-58 victory over South Florida.)


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


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