Biggest Questions Heading into the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Season
Headlined by the Champions Classic, the 2021-22 men's college basketball season will begin Tuesday.
In the doldrums of the offseason, it often felt like that day would never arrive. But, all of a sudden, holy cow, it's November and our favorite sport will soon be a nightly staple once more.
Before we dive into Duke-Kentucky, Kansas-Michigan State and the slate of more than 180 other games on the season's opening day, we have many rather large questions about what to expect from the next five months of hoops.
Will this finally be Gonzaga's year to win it all?
How will North Carolina look without Roy Williams?
How will we all handle the Mike Krzyzewski farewell tour?
Who are this year's sleeper candidates?
Let's explore those questions and five others sure to be discussed for much of this season.
Is Gonzaga Finally Going to Win a Title?
This is my 10th season covering college basketball for Bleacher Report, which means I'm closing in on a full decade of trying to convince people that Gonzaga is, in fact, a very good team.
The Zags have been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in five of the past eight NCAA tournaments, and they were potentially going to be the No. 1 overall seed in 2020 if there had been a Big Dance. During that time, they won 288 games, which is 35 more than the next-closest team, Kansas. And it was only within the past couple of years that head coach Mark Few turned that consistent on-court success into a recruiting pitch that can lure top high school talent.
But because they play in the WCC and because they have yet to win it all—despite six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights and two trips to the national championship during the above stretch—the Zags remain the primary team that people love to shower with doubts and excuses.
For the second straight year, though, Gonzaga will open the season at No. 1 in the AP poll. It wasn't even a close call, either. The Bulldogs received 55 of the 63 first-place votes and finished 103 points ahead of No. 2 UCLA.
And, if anything, it's hard to believe Gonzaga didn't get more first-place votes, considering it has arguably the best returning player in the nation in big man Drew Timme (6'10") as well as arguably the best incoming freshman in the nation in bigger man Chet Holmgren (7'0"). Watching that high-low game coexist should be a ton of fun, and the backcourt acquisitions of Hunter Sallis, Nolan Hickman and Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton will bolster what should be a loaded rotation.
Until they win it all, though, the Zags will remain annoyingly labeled by some as a team that can't.
Will We Be Able to Talk About Anything Other Than Mike Krzyzewski's Retirement?
As a matter of full disclosure, I grew up as a Duke fan. Hanging in my office are a signed Christian Laettner jersey, a signed JJ Redick jersey, a poster that I got autographed by the entire 1996-97 Duke team and, yes, several pieces of Mike Krzyzewski memorabilia. In 2004 when it was rumored that Coach K might go to the Lakers, I was basically inconsolable. When news broke of his plan to retire after the 2021-22 season, I may have gotten a little choked up.
And even I am not looking forward to the constant barrage of TV time and articles that will be devoted to the Coach K Farewell Tour over the next five months.
Remember when 2014-15 Kentucky made that run at a 40-0 season and it was something we had to talk about twice a week for the entire season?
It's going to be like that, except instead of obsessing over a group of 10 players whom most casual sports fans didn't know much about, the most iconic figure in the sport has given us all plenty of notice to prepare travel plans, publish dates and the like.
At least with that Kentucky team, there was the added suspense with the possibility it could have blown it in January or February.
This farewell tour will be a thing no matter what.
If Duke struggles for a second consecutive year, we'll inevitably start blaming the distraction of the farewell tour. If the preseason Top 10 Blue Devils flourish instead, there will be a palpable buzz/fear about the possibility of Krzyzewski riding off into the sunset with his sixth national championship.
It will be exhausting, so brace yourself. But make sure you don't train yourself to completely tune out all things Duke basketball, because Paolo Banchero will be awesome.
Is Texas Back?
Waxing poetic about Texas' potential state of "back-ness" is much more of a college football shtick than a college basketball one, but is it back?
The Longhorns have not won an NCAA tournament game since 2014, and 2020-21 was the first time they finished a season in the AP Top 25 since 2010-11.
Head coach Shaka Smart was supposed to lead this program to new heights after fans spent all those years watching Rick Barnes flame out early in the NCAA tournament. Instead, Smart struggled to even get into the tournament and went 0-3 in the Big Dance in his six seasons at the helm.
Is transfer portal wizard Chris Beard the answer they've been seeking for more than a decade?
Beard did some incredible work over the past few years at Texas Tech, leading the Red Raiders to the first Final Four (and first championship game) in program history. And after most of the stars from that team left, he had TTU back in the tourney as a No. 6 seed two years later with several transfers leading the way.
He wasted no time in hammering that talent pipeline for his new program, adding Marcus Carr from Minnesota, Timmy Allen from Utah, Devin Askew from Kentucky and several others. All told, just the transfer portion of this Texas roster combined for 89.2 points, 36.5 rebounds and 16.9 assists per game in 2020-21, and that's for a team that already has Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres returning for another year.
Expectations are sky-high for the Longhorns, who will open the season at No. 5 in the AP poll—their highest preseason ranking since starting at No. 3 in 2009-10. Of course, that team went 7-10 in its final 17 games, including a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed, so we'll see if Beard can fare better.
Is UCLA the Real Deal?
Isn't it wild how catching fire for two weeks in March can completely change how we feel about a team heading into the following season?
UCLA was 17-9 and had lost four consecutive games in advance of Selection Sunday. The Bruins were the furthest thing from a lock to make the NCAA tournament and in fact needed to play in the First Four just to reach the round of 64. And in that play-in game, they trailed by as many as 14 points and needed a Michigan State collapse just to get the game into overtime.
Had they lost that one, I'm not so sure the Bruins would have even cracked the preseason Top 25.
Instead, they won that game and the next four, silenced anyone who ever questioned Mick Cronin's ability to coach in March and subsequently got everyone to come back for another year. (Chris Smith and Jalen Hill both left, but neither played in a game after Jan. 30, meaning the entire tournament team is back.)
Not only that, but they also brought in Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson to instantly improve their interior defense, as well as a pair of highly touted recruits in Peyton Watson and Will McClendon.
And now they're in the preseason Top Two for the first time since the Kevin Love-Russell Westbrook team in 2007-08.
If Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. play like they did last March while leading a deeper, more talented rotation, the Bruins should also play their way to a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
How Will the Patrick Baldwin Jr. Experiment Go?
Patrick Baldwin Jr. is an uber-talented star of the 2021 recruiting class. He's a stretch 4 if you insist on putting him in some sort of box, but he can do everything. By all accounts, "PBJ" is an excellent three-point shooter, a good rebounder, an above-average defender and just an all-around solid basketball player.
He's the type of phenom who would normally land at a Duke or a Kentucky, if he decided to play college basketball at all.
Instead, he's playing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where his father, Pat Baldwin, has been the head coach of a sub-.500 team for the past four years.
In program history, the Panthers have never produced an NBA player. That will change shortly, because Baldwin has the talent to be a lottery pick—provided this unorthodox decision doesn't somehow stunt his growth or cause the Association to forget about him.
If you want to watch Baldwin average upward of 30 points per game, here's hoping you have an ESPN+ subscription. Milwaukee does have a game against Robert Morris on ESPNU on Dec. 4, but most of its games are only set to be available through ESPN's streaming service.
I, for one, am super excited for the Jan. 7 and Jan. 22 games against Detroit Mercy, which has a fun father-son duo of its own. Mike Davis' son, Antoine, has been one of the highest-scoring players in the nation in each of the past three seasons, averaging 24.9 points per game in his college career.
The 6'9" freshman won't spend much time D'ing up the 6'1" senior combo guard, but it will be highly entertaining to watch them both try to score 40.
Will an Older-Than-Usual Kentucky Bounce Back from Horrendous 2020-21 Campaign?
John Calipari did sign a couple of immediate-impact players in the 2021 high school class. TyTy Washington Jr. is a good bet to start in the backcourt from day one. Fellow freshmen Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins will both factor into the frontcourt rotation.
But after Kentucky's umpteen consecutive years of assembling one of the best, deepest recruiting classes in the nation, that's the entire list of first-year players joining the Wildcats. Calipari brought in more transfers (four) than freshmen (three) this offseason.
Factor in past transfers Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin sticking around as well as Keion Brooks Jr. returning for a third season in Lexington and these Wildcats are unusually old.
Sixth-year senior Mintz, fifth-year senior Kellan Grady and third-year players Toppin, Brooks, Sahvir Wheeler, Oscar Tshiebwe and CJ Fredrick all figure to play significant roles for the Wildcats, who haven't had three or more players with three or more years of experience score in a single season since 2016-17.
Wheeler will give them a reliable presence at point guard, Grady will be a three-point sniper and Tshiebwe will add some much-needed toughness in the paint.
With that much proven collegiate talent, it's almost impossible to imagine a repeat of last year's 9-16 disaster. Maybe there will be some early hiccups until everyone meshes, but Kentucky will almost certainly rank among the four or five teams battling for first place in the SEC.
Calipari already has three 5-star commitments from the 2022 class, though, so things might go right back to normal for Kentucky next year.
Will Reclassifying Stars Bring Memphis Back to Its Glory Days?
While Calipari and Kentucky are skewing older than usual, head coach Penny Hardaway and Memphis opted to rob the cradle by getting Jalen Duren (turns 18 later this month) and Emoni Bates (turns 18 in January) to reclassify from 2022 to 2021 and sign with the Tigers in August.
The duo immediately became top-five recruits in this year's class and vaulted Memphis to No. 1 in the team rankings for the second time in three years.
Will it work out better for Memphis this time?
With any luck, the Tigers will at least get more than three games out of their freshman phenoms. Losing James Wiseman that early in the 2019-20 season drastically changed dropped Memphis' talent level. And once that surefire lottery pick was gone, the lack of experience on that team became clear and quite problematic.
Now, Memphis has two surefire lottery picks, and it has surrounded those young guns with a bunch of veterans. Landers Nolley II, Lester Quinones, DeAndre Williams, Tyler Harris, Chandler Lawson, Alex Lomax and Malcolm Dandridge have multiple years of experience and will help carry Bates and Duren through any first-year issues.
We'll see how it all comes together, but Memphis should at least be an NCAA tournament team for the first time since 2014, and it might be a legitimate Final Four contender for the first time since Calipari left in 2009.
What Will Life After Roy Williams Look Like in Chapel Hill?
Rather than drawing out his retirement over an entire season, Roy Williams abruptly left North Carolina on April 1, leaving many of us to wonder if it was some kind of sick practical joke.
But after 18 seasons and three national championships, Williams did leave the Tar Heels in the hands of his longtime assistant, Hubert Davis.
The last time a legendary coach left things to an assistant in Chapel Hill, the first season went quite well. After transitioning from Dean Smith to Bill Guthridge, North Carolina won 34 games, finished the regular season at No. 1 in the AP poll and made it to the Final Four in 1997-98. And there's at least a chance that this year's team follows that same path.
They're going to need Caleb Love and RJ Davis—each of whom struggled with efficiency as freshmen—to improve significantly, but with that duo, Armando Bacot, Kerwin Walton, Leaky Black and Anthony Harris all coming back alongside key transfers Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia, the Heels at least have enough talent to rival Duke for ACC supremacy.
Davis also has plenty of talent on the way, already boasting the seventh-best collection of recruits in the 2022 class.
But we'll see how the first-time head coach fares once the season begins. Games against Michigan, UCLA, Purdue and either Villanova or Tennessee within the first six weeks will provide us with plenty of early glimpses into North Carolina's potential with Davis running the show.
Who Are This Year's Sleeper Teams?
More often than not over the past decade, at least one team has ended the year ranked in the Top Five after opening the season unranked. Alabama did it last year. Dayton and Florida State both did it the previous year. And in 2017-18, Virginia went from unranked all the way to No. 1.
Who could pull that off this season?
The top candidate is probably Indiana. The hiring of Mike Woodson was widely regarded as...unorthodox. But he inherits one of the best players in the country in Trayce Jackson-Davis and added a trio of potentially critical transfers in Xavier Johnson (Pitt), Miller Kopp (Northwestern) and Michael Durr (South Florida).
Another new head coach who could make serious waves with an unranked team is Tommy Lloyd at Arizona. The Wildcats lost four of last year's six leading scorers, but a loaded 2020 recruiting class returns almost entirely intact to join forces with Eastern Washington transfer Kim Aiken Jr. and freshman Shane Nowell. Surpassing UCLA will be a significant challenge, but Arizona could emerge as the Pac-12's second-best team.
And while St. Bonaventure is No. 23 in the preseason poll, the Bonnies—who were last ranked in January 1971—could shock a lot of people by climbing into the Top Five. All five starters averaged double digits in 2020-21, and they all return in 2021-22. (They're all eligible to return in 2022-23, too, in case you're already on the hunt for a Final Four pick for 17 months from now.)
They'll face Connecticut and Virginia Tech on neutral courts in December and have a possible matchup with West Virginia in the championship of the Charleston Classic. Those look like our best chances to gauge St. Bonaventure's NCAA tournament ceiling, but get ready for this team to win a ton of games.
Recruit rankings via 247Sports.