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A Wave of Key Summer Returnees Gives College Basketball Something to Build On

For the first time since before the coronavirus shut down conference tournaments and March Madness earlier this year, college basketball had a great weekend.

With the revised Aug. 3 NBA draft withdrawal deadline bearing down on the select group of players who had declared back in the spring but were still weighing their options, hoops fans across the country waited to get long-sought answers to lingering major roster questions. In the end, they witnessed a jolt of talent return to the NCAA, with the overwhelming majority of the remaining player decisions go in favor of another year in school.

Illinois star Ayo Dosumnu kicked the party into high gear on Friday night with a surprise announcement that he will return to Champaign for his junior season. It didn't take long for him to be joined by his teammate, bruising big man Kofi Cockburn, on Saturday afternoon, lifting Illini basketball fans' hopes higher than they've been in a long, long time.

Iowa's Luka Garza vs Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu

Iowa's Garza and Illinois's Dosunmu battle during a 2020 Big Ten meeting

On Sunday, Iowa's Luka Garza joined the list of players to officially withdraw, giving college basketball a likely near-consensus preseason favorite for National Player of the Year for 2020–21. The list of notable names who announced returns to school in recent days continued to grow: Baylor's Jared Butler; Gonzaga's Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi; Tennessee's Yves Pons; Colorado's McKinley Wright IV; Minnesota's Marcus Carr; LSU's Darius Days, Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford; Virginia's Jay Huff; Dayton's Jalen Crutcher; Michigan State's Aaron Henry; UCLA's Chris Smith; Arkansas's Isaiah Joe; Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili; Alabama's John Petty; Howard's Makur Maker; Arizona State's Remy Martin, Pepperdine's Colbey Ross; Oregon State's Ethan Thompson; Creighton's Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney; San Diego State's Matt Mitchell; NC State's DJ Funderburk; and Cincinnati's Keith Williams.

That's an impressive group to bring back to the college ranks this late in the summer. Of course, in a normal year, these decisions would've have been made months ago—the NBA draft is typically a June event, after all. But 2020 is anything but a normal year, and neither college basketball nor the NBA has been an exception to feeling the deep effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

In June, the NBA moved its 2020 draft to Oct. 16, and postponed its combine indefinitely. That left those still deciding whether to stay or go in a tough spot; any combine activities would take place after the NCAA's new withdrawal deadline, making it hard for teams to do their own player evaluations beyond college game tape. Still, virus-induced uncertainty around the entire NCAA left the option of returning to school far cloudier than most years, with no guarantee that there will be a regular and full college hoops season this winter.

As was to be expected, a few of the remaining players who were up in the air did opt to stay in the draft: Michigan State's Xavier Tillman; Stanford's Tyrell Terry; Mississippi State's Robert Woodard and Delaware's Nate Darling. Overall, according to Stadium's Jeff Goodman, 91 of the 156 underclassmen who declared for the draft back in the spring wound up withdrawing (Cal Baptist's Milan Acquaah has yet to announce his decision). The 64 that remained in (41%) is a notable drop, percentage-wise, from 2019, when 87 underclassmen (50.9%) stayed in the draft and 84 withdrew.

What does this mean for college basketball? If at least a partial season happens, it's hard to see this as anything but a win for the sport as a whole. After a brutal spring, which included not just the cancellation of the NCAA tournament but also headlines dominated by a group of top players skipping college for the new G-League Select Team, it should be a welcome sight for college hoops fans to see so many players elect to spend another year in school. They represent the final pieces of the puzzle to picturing how a 2020–21 season might go—perhaps with Illinois and Iowa battling for Big Ten supremacy, or Butler leading Baylor to its first Final Four in 70 years, or Kispert and Ayayi helping Gonzaga lift the first national title in program history. 

Should there be a ’20–21 season, these players will help fill in the pages for real. In the meantime, college basketball can breathe easier for at least one week, focused more on the potential of what could be rather than any negative developments. For a sport that often makes headlines lately for who's not playing it, that's about the best news you can ask for in early August.

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