ROUNDBALL DAILY

Five programs who might surprisingly be in the hunt in the 2020-21 college basketball season

Almost out of nowhere, Baylor has become a legitimate national title contender. Mandatory Photo Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

2020 has been a pretty mundane year, no?

There’s not much going on, from politics to weather patterns to the general physical wellbeing of everyone on the planet. I’d say it’s been a pretty chill year, right?

So if you’re looking for something to break the monotony and predictability of 2020, may we suggest this college basketball season.

This year’s college hoops campaign will obviously be unlike any other, with few–if any– fans in arenas, regional-only non-conference games, the Maui Invitational being held in Asheville, N.C. (no for real, I’m not making that up) and, most entertainingly, a bunch of non-traditional teams fighting for their places in the national conversation.

Last season was shaping up to be one of the craziest in recent memory before the pandemic hit. We even wrote that it was drunk in a cute little personification of the college basketball season (feels like I was drunk at the time?)

Regardless, things were getting messy up in there.

Dayton (!) was getting rowdy, bragging about its chances of winning a national title, Baylor somehow found itself at No. 1, Rutgers was ranked, and North Carolina was passed out on the floo— I mean, sitting in dead last in the ACC.

This season could prove to be just as lit, with no clear-cut favorite, and a bunch of intriguing teams near the top of the rankings.

Baylor 

The Bears are like an AAU program that has seen a dramatic investment and suddenly has the horses to play with the big boys. Sure, Baylor has been hanging around with the blue bloods for a while, like an annoying lackey, but if you remember the horrific scandal surrounding the Dave Bliss era and the crackdown that followed, it’s shocking to consider just how far it has come in the last decade and a half.

This was an irrelevant, abysmal athletics program mired in one of the worst scandals in the history of college sports back in 2004. Baylor was stripped of scholarships and banned from playing non-conference games in 2005. But one hire– Scott Drew– has flipped the program from reprehensible example to Final Four contender. The turnaround has been remarkable, and it probably isn’t talked about enough.

Drew has brought in some pretty good players in his time, from LaceDarius Dunn to Royce O’Neale, Jonathan Motley, Taurean Prince and Isaiah Austin, and Baylor has reached the Elite Eight twice in his tenure, but this year’s group will be favored to take the next step and get to the Final Four.

Junior Jared Butler (16.0 PPG, 3.1 APG) is one of the top guards in the country, and fellow backcourt mates Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital are terrific defensive players. Mitchell, a 6-2 junior, and Butler could both be drafted next season, which would bring the number of Bears in the NBA to five.

For the first time in forever, someone other than Kansas will be favored to win the Big 12, and this group will finally have an opportunity to make a real mark on the national men’s basketball scene.

Iowa

While everyone in the NBA is gushing over Luka Doncic, there’s another Luka– Garza– who has been turning heads in the college game. The 6-11, 260-pound Hawkeyes big man came in just behind Dayton’s Obi Toppin in the race for last year’s National Player of the Year, and could be the favorite to earn the honor this season.

Garza is incredibly skilled, surprisingly athletic for his build, and has a tremendous feel for the game. He’s a traditional big (23.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG), but has a good shooting touch (35.8% from 3) and has improved by leaps and bounds since arriving in Iowa City. This should be Fran McCaffery’s best team, and there’s buzz that they could be a Final Four contender, if they can match a dynamic offense with some toughness on D.

 

Illinois

Head coach Brad Underwood consistently did one of the best coaching jobs in the nation while at Stephen F. Austin, which he transformed into a monster mid-major that no one wanted opposite its name in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Underwood’s mojo has begun to coalesce in Champaign, where the Illini have risen from Big Ten also-ran to potential national contender.

NBA prospects Ayo Dosunmu (6-5 guard, 16.6 PPG) and Kofi Cockburn (7-0 center, 13.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG) both spurned the draft to return to campus, and the team will return five players who started 22 games last season. That’s just what Underwood excels with– an experienced team that has gelled over the years. His philosophy is beginning to take hold, and there’s plenty of optimism that this team will improve on its 21 wins from last season and challenge for the Big Ten title.

Creighton

The Bluejays are used to hanging around the Top 25, but this year’s group has a chance to climb higher in the rankings than it has since Doug McDermott was raining 3s and boxing everybody out. Creighton returns five experienced players and will bring back 6-2 junior guard Marcus Zegarowski, who averaged 16.1 points and 5 assists per game last season. Zegarowski could be in the conversation for Big East Player of the Year. This program could have easily fallen into the basement of the hyper-competitive Big East, which consists of basketball schools that have significant geographical advantages and much more tradition. But head coach Greg McDermott has steadied the ship, stepped up his level of recruitment, and succeeded in a league that could have swallowed it up. Being the class of the Missouri Valley year in and year out is one thing, but the Big East is a different beast, and it’s commendable that Creighton is in position to make national noise this season.

Rutgers

Bristol, Conn. native Steve Pikiell (CT stand up!) has things rolling at Rutgers, and is on the verge of doing the impossible– getting the Scarlet Knights to contend in a major conference. It’s akin to what Greg Schiano did for Rutgers football, though Pikiell hasn’t had that one magical season– yet. For this program to have spent any time at all in the Top 25 (as they did last year) is like Mr. Deeds showing up to claim his inheritance. The athletic Ron Harper Jr. (12.1 PPG, 5.8 APG), who is the son of former Chicago Bulls guard Ron Harper, and 6-4 junior Geo Baker (10.9 PPG) will lead the way as this team chases a spot in the national rankings, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.

 

Also see:

Which mid-majors will be the best in the 2020-21 college basketball season?

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