Winners and Losers of the First Month of 2020-21 Men's College Basketball Season
As usual, the first month of the men's college basketball season has been full of surprises.
Some teams have been way better than expected. Others have been drastically worse than we could have imagined. And while a few players have gotten out to remarkable starts, no one has been as dominant as Luka Garza.
It's impossible to sum up the entirety of the season to date with just a few winners and losers, but let's give it a shot anyway.
One of the biggest winners of the season's opening month has been Gonzaga. I already dedicated a column to the Zags' remarkable start, though, so we'll focus our attention elsewhere for this list.
Winner: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
There's a long list of people and teams for whom we still deeply wish there had been a 2020 NCAA tournament. Both Dayton and San Diego State could have been No. 1 seeds. BYU was a sneaky, trendy Final Four pick. Virginia was rounding into shape at the right time for a potential second consecutive national championship. Penn State was finally going to go dancing for the first time in nine years under Pat Chambers.
But at the top of the woulda-shoulda-coulda list was Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights last went to the NCAA tournament in 1991. After they lost that first-round game to Arizona State, perhaps they drowned their sorrows by going to see the highest grossing film of the week, The Silence of the Lambs, and then rocked out to the current Billboard Top 100 No. 1 hit, Mariah Carey's "Someday."
Translation: It's been a minute.
They were finally going to end that drought, though, until COVID-19 shut everything down.
The good news in Piscataway is that team wasn't a one-and-done phenomenon. Five of the top six scorers returned to form a team that is currently 6-0 with wins over Syracuse, Maryland and Illinois.
Ron Harper scored at least 26 points in each of those victories and would be an early front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year if the league didn't already have Luka Garza, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Ayo Dosunmu making huge waves.
Rutgers is all the way up to No. 11 in the latest Associated Press Top 25—its highest ranking since ending the 1975-76 season at No. 4 on its way to the only Final Four in program history.
I try not to root for or against any team while objectively covering this sport, but if you're not pulling for Rutgers to win the Big Ten, you either attended one of the conference's other 13 institutions or just hate fun.
Loser: The College Basketball Atmosphere
Having limited or zero attendance has been weird in every sport, but it has been particularly abnormal to watch college basketball games without fans.
Home-court advantage is completely nonexistent. I don't have comparisons to historical home/road splits to support that assertion, but watching Duke games without the Cameron Crazies, Kansas games without the "Rock Chalk" chants and Kentucky games during which it's so quiet you can hear head coach John Calipari barking out basic instructions to his young guys is just eerie and off-putting.
On Sunday, Connecticut's James Bouknight put up 40 points in an overtime effort against Creighton. Gampel Pavilion should have been shaking more and more with each bucket he drained in the second half, but that atmosphere was lacking.
The same day, Xavier's Adam Kunkel drained a stone-cold walk-off three-pointer for a victory over Marquette...in front of about 300 fans.
I know it's a situation beyond college basketball's control, and it's a delight that we're getting to watch games at all. But it has definitely been a challenge trying to get fully immersed in games without the primary element that makes college hoops most endearing.
Winner: Baylor's Backcourt
Within the first 11 days of the season, Baylor was supposed to face Arizona State, Villanova and Gonzaga. The first two didn't happen because the Bears had to pull out of the Empire Classic due to COVID-19 protocol. The latter didn't happen because Gonzaga went on a COVID-19-related pause of its own.
In lieu of those missed opportunities to impress against quality competition, the Bears have been kicking butt and taking names during their 6-0 start.
Baylor's average margin of victory is 32.7 points. Illinois was the only team it defeated by fewer than 30 points, and even the Illini got kind of blown out after hanging tough for the first 30 minutes.
But how can anyone expect to compete with this backcourt?
The Bears currently have five guards—Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer—who are averaging at least two made threes and shooting at least 40 percent from distance. As a team, they are leading the nation with a 47.0 percent clip from three-point range. Butler and Mitchell are also both averaging at least six assists and two steals per game.
To make matters worse for opposing teams, on the off chance that Baylor actually misses a shot, it is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The backcourt has been awesome, but the combined force of Mark Vital, Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua in the frontcourt has been pretty darn solid, too.
We'll have to see what happens when the schedule stiffens up, but Baylor's spot at No. 2 in the preseason AP Top 25 sure seems to be justified thus far.
Loser: Steve Prohm, Iowa State
When Fred Hoiberg left Iowa State for the Chicago Bulls job in early June 2015, the Cyclones were fortunate to sign a guy like Steve Prohm. The coaching carousel had already cycled through Rick Barnes, Shaka Smart, Bobby Hurley, Will Wade and others that year, but it didn't take long for them to lure away a hot commodity with a 104-29 record in his four seasons with Murray State.
The initial few years went pretty well. The Cyclones finished in the AP Top 25 in three of Prohm's first four seasons, winning at least 23 games in each of the three.
But after losing four of the five leading scorers from the 2018-19 campaign, last year was a 12-20 mess. And early returns from this season aren't any better.
Iowa State is 2-4, and the two wins—home games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State—weren't exactly of the resume-strengthening variety. The Cyclones suffered disappointing home losses to South Dakota State and Kansas State, and the 105-77 loss to Iowa was the worst in the history of the rivalry.
Prohm probably isn't on the hot seat just yet, but another two months in the Big 12 meat-grinder might change that.
Heck, just the next four weeks could make things dicey as six of Iowa State's next seven games are against Texas (two), Texas Tech (two), Baylor and Kansas. Even if they win the rematch against Kansas State in the middle of that gauntlet, they're staring at a 3-10 record with a bunch of blowout losses square in the face.
Winner: Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
The one-and-done model is a well-documented trend among elite college basketball players, but Cuonzo Martin has adopted more of a three-and-flee approach in his coaching career.
Martin spent three years as the head coach at Missouri State before taking the job at Tennessee. After three years in Knoxville, he headed out west to become California's head coach. Faced with a complete roster rebuild following his third year with the Golden Bears, Martin instead skipped town and landed at Missouri.
For the first time ever, this was his fourth consecutive year as a head coach with the same program, and I'll be darned if it's not shaping up to be the best season of his career.
Missouri is 6-0 with quality victories over Oregon and Illinois. The Tigers also defeated Wichita State, Liberty, Oral Roberts and Bradley on a schedule devoid of cupcakes. They are already No. 14 in the AP poll, which matches the highest ranking a Martin-led team has ever had. (The 2015-16 California team also spent two early weeks at No. 14.)
Tennessee is looking like the clear cream of the crop thus far in the SEC, but with Kentucky in shambles and Auburn scuffling through a rebuilding year of its own, Missouri might be the second-best team in the conference. That's quite the turnaround after back-to-back losing seasons.
It's neither a flashy nor star-studded situation, but getting back all but one of last year's nine leading scorers has given the Tigers the benefit of having one of the most experienced rosters in the nation, which feels like a bigger advantage than ever given the circumstances of this unprecedented offseason.
Loser: Player of the Year Hopefuls Not Named 'Luka Garza'
It's a little rare that college basketball's national media gets anywhere close to unanimous agreement on a preseason pick for Player of the Year, but Iowa's Luka Garza was the runaway favorite before this season began.
Not only did Garza finish last season at No. 1 in the KenPom.com Player of the Year standings, but he was the only player in the Top 10 to return for another year.
Thus far, he has been even more unstoppable, and laughably so.
Garza put up impressive per-40 numbers (29.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks) with a 35.8 three-point percentage last year, but he has left those numbers in the dust. Heading into Tuesday night's game against Purdue, Garza had per-40 marks of 43.9 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks while shooting 61.9 percent from three-point range.
I can't say I can recall a guy cementing his status as the NPOY favorite in an 11-point loss, but Garza's 30 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in Saturday's game against Gonzaga ended the debate until further notice.
And that's not for lack of trying elsewhere.
Cade Cunningham has been as good as advertised as a freshman at Oklahoma State. Trayce Jackson-Davis had been awesome for Indiana. Gonzaga's duo of Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme will gain momentum in the discussion as long as Gonzaga remains undefeated.
That's far from a comprehensive list of guys who have impressed in these first few weeks. But Garza takes the cake and then some.
Winner: Xavier Musketeers
When Chris Mack left Xavier for the Louisville job after the 2017-18 season, he didn't leave a whole lot behind. The three leading scorers graduated, as did a key frontcourt reserve. Throw in the coaching change and Kaiser Gates unexpectedly declaring for the draft and it wasn't a huge surprise that the Musketeers went straight from a No. 1 seed to missing the NCAA tournament.
But they probably weren't going to make the tournament last year, either, and expectations weren't high for the 2020-21 season. All four of ESPN's college basketball experts had the X-Men projected for no better than a sixth-place finish in the Big East.
Lo and behold, Travis Steele's guys are sitting at 8-0 and have been one of the biggest surprise stories of the year.
It hasn't always been pretty. They needed a bucket in the final seconds to survive at home against Bradley. They needed overtime to beat Eastern Kentucky. The game against Toledo came right down to the wire. And we previously mentioned the buzzer-beater against Marquette.
At some point, that luck is bound to run out. But sophomore big man Zach Freemantle is thriving to the tune of 17.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game while Gardner-Webb transfer Nate Johnson has been unconscious from three-point range (26-of-44). Factor in the veteran leadership of Paul Scruggs on both ends of the floor (16.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 2.1 SPG) and they have something cooking.
They have a huge road game against Creighton on Wednesday night. If they can win that one, we can probably proclaim the Musketeers as the second-best team in the Big East.
Loser: Big Blue Nation
On the one hand, I feel bad harping on Kentucky's poor start over and over again.
On the other hand, it's something of a rebalancing of the scales from that 2014-15 season when we had to rewrite a different version of the same "Kentucky should go undefeated" article twice a week for four months.
The Wildcats fell to 1-5 on Saturday with a 12-point loss to North Carolina. Less than 48 hours later, John Calipari asked/told freshman Cam'Ron Fletcher to "take some time and step away from the team" following his outburst on the sideline during the game.
The sky is falling in Lexington, and perhaps it's for the best that Big Blue Nation isn't even allowed to pack Rupp Arena or any out-of-town venues to witness the demise of its beloved Wildcats.
Take each game individually and the only truly stunning result thus far was the 17-point loss at Georgia Tech, in which Kentucky committed 20 turnovers while only forcing six. But the snowball effect of five consecutive losses has taken its toll on Kentucky fans and, really, college basketball as a whole.
A road win over Louisville on Saturday could be one heck of a Band-Aid—a step in the right direction just before the start of conference play. Conversely, a blowout loss to a Cardinals team that just lost by 37 to Wisconsin would be a new low that Big Blue Nation hasn't felt in at least three decades.