The 2020–21 men's college basketball season kicks off Wednesday, in what's sure to be one of the most unusual seasons in the history of the sport. Already, the opening week schedule has been racked with COVID-19–related cancellations, including high-profile programs such as Baylor, Tennessee and Florida needing to shut down for a week or two.
The show is going on, though, beginning the slow march to what the sport hopes will be a successful return of the NCAA tournament in 2021 (albeit this time, in a bubble). While predicting anything in a year like this is probably foolhardy, SI's college basketball staff, nonetheless, is giving it their best attempt. Who will the final confetti fall on in April? Which contender's hype train is getting out of hand? Read on for our picks in a number of categories, including Final Four, breakout player, mid-major team to watch, one bold prediction and more.
Final Four Picks
Jeremy Woo: Gonzaga, Baylor, Virginia, Wisconsin
Woo's Dark-Horse Pick: Texas
Elizabeth Swinton: Baylor, Gonzaga, Villanova, Kansas
Swinton's Dark-Horse Pick: Michigan State
Nick Selbe: Gonzaga, Virginia, Villanova, Wisconsin
Selbe's Dark-Horse Pick: Houston
Jason Jordan: Gonzaga, Villanova, Baylor, Iowa
Jordan's Dark-Horse Pick: Florida State
Michael Shapiro: Baylor, Villanova, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Shapiro's Dark-Horse Pick: Arizona State
Molly Geary: Gonzaga, Villanova, Duke, Texas Tech
Geary's Dark-Horse Pick: Tennessee
National Player of the Year
Woo: Jared Butler, Baylor
Swinton: Luka Garza, Iowa
Selbe: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Freshman of the Year
Woo: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Who will win the national championship?
Woo: Gonzaga. Picking a champion feels like an impossible task in a year where teams are almost certainly going to deal with schedule interruptions, injuries and other unpredictable fallout from COVID-19. But on paper, Gonzaga has the most balanced team, with a mix of experience, size and skill at different positions that will be tough for other teams to match. I’d venture that this might be a particularly nice year to play an easy conference schedule, and after several matchups with quality opponents early in the season, Gonzaga will be tested enough early on. I have unusually little conviction making this pick, but I would put them in pole position.
Swinton: Villanova. It is impossible to predict how teams will be impacted by COVID-19 throughout the season, but for now, Villanova's depth stands out. Returning eight of its top nine scorers from last season, led by Collin Gillespie, Jay Wright's Wildcats will have an opportunity to make their mark against top competition.
Selbe: Virginia. Does this count as back-to-back titles for the Hoos? Either way, Virginia maintained its elite defense last season, but could not replicate the surgical efficiency on offense that led the program to the national championship in 2019. The Cavaliers shot a woeful 30.4% on three-pointers last season, compared to 40.9% in 2018–19. Sam Hauser and his 44.5% career mark from deep should get Virginia back to where it needs to be offensively.
Jordan: Baylor. I had the Bears in the Final Four last season after a historic run in which they posted the program’s best winning percentage in over a century, going 26–4. Yes, Freddie Gillespie is gone, and that’s big from both a presence and production standpoint, but the Bears return 75% of their scoring and their other four starters—including Jared Butler, who was named Big 12 preseason Player of the Year. MaCio Teague, Mark Vital and Davion Mitchell join him, and UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will be ready to produce immediately. Add in the depth a talented 2020 recruiting class affords them and the Bears have everything and more to cut the nets down in Indianapolis.
Shapiro: Baylor will pair its first Final Four in seven decades with a national championship, finishing a dream that was cut short by the COVID-19 crisis in March. Scott Drew’s squad boasts a deep crew of quality scorers and playmakers, led by Player of the Year candidate Jared Butler. With no true favorite entering the season, the Bears’ depth and scoring versatility sets them apart from the field.
Geary: Gonzaga. Could this be Mark Few's best team in Spokane? The Zags are set to have their usual juggernaut offense, this time with Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme and freshman Jalen Suggs (the highest-ranked recruit in program history) playing the lead roles. The Zags' early games against Kansas, Baylor and Iowa—assuming they happen—will be excellent tests, and if they can go 2–1, they'll be in great position to capture another high seed in March and chase their elusive first national title.
Woo: UConn. The Huskies are in good shape to make the leap to the Big East, having bolstered their rotation with transfers and boasting a potential conference Player of the Year candidate in James Bouknight, who was one of the best freshmen you didn’t hear much about last season. The other factor here is that I think the Big East remains relatively soft—Villanova is Villanova, but it doesn't have much offensive firepower, and my expectations for Creighton and Providence are tempered. UConn has the goods to bust into the top part of the conference and into the Top 25.
Swinton: The Cardinal have not been ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2007–08 but this year's team, coming off a 20–12 season, has the pieces to be competitive in the Pac-12. Stanford's roster is highlighted by size and experience and adds top recruit Ziaire Williams, giving the Cardinal a chance to be nationally ranked at some point this season.
Selbe: Bobby Hurley has taken the Sun Devils a step forward in each season at the helm, and this year’s squad has the pieces to turn one small step into a giant leap. Senior point guard Remy Martin is the head of the snake, but Arizona State boasts as much perimeter talent as any team in the country. The Sun Devils were one of the fastest-paced teams in college basketball a season ago, and their personnel should gel nicely with that approach this year. Expect ASU to contend for a Pac-12 championship and present matchup nightmares in the NCAA tournament.
Jordan: Illinois. The Illini seem primed to make the transition from strong to legitimate Final Four contender with preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu at the controls. He’ll lead a talented group that has balanced scoring, vets and talented newcomers. Dosunmu and his backcourt mate Trent Frazier will get scoring help immediately from freshman guard Adam Miller, and Kofi Cockburn controls all things interior along with Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Coming out of what is, arguably, the best basketball conference, Brad Underwood’s group will be tough and battle-tested, which could propel Illinois to its first Final Four since 2005.
Shapiro: Don’t count out Stanford as the potential Pac-12 champion in 2020–21. Five-star freshman Ziaire Williams should be able to make an immediate impact in Palo Alto, and he’ll be flanked by senior forward Oscar da Silva. This should be a stout defensive squad as well after bringing back 2019–20 All-Defense selection Bryce Willis. Stanford will be in the fight for the conference crown if it can generate enough production from beyond the arc.
Geary: I'm pretty high on Tennessee, as evidenced by my dark-horse Final Four pick. True, the Vols were a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed just two years ago, but they're still seeking the program's first Elite Eight appearance since 2010, and Rick Barnes's first since 2008 at Texas. Last season was more of a transitional one for Tennessee, but it has a really nice mix in 2020–21, from senior leaders Yves Pons and John Fulkerson to sophomore talents Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi to the nation's No. 4 recruiting class, led by five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. Add in former Oregon sharpshooter Victor Bailey and 6' 7" E.J. Anosike, who averaged a double double at Sacred Heart, and you get a team that—even at No. 12 in the AP's preseason ranking—might be flying a bit under the radar.
I'm not buying the hype on ...
Woo: Iowa. Unless the magical powers of continuity solve the Hawkeyes’ defensive woes, I think this is going to be the same story—it’s pretty impossible to win the Big Ten if you can’t stop anyone. It may not prevent Luka Garza from winning all the awards, but as much firepower as it has, I have a hard time seeing Iowa hitting its ceiling in such a deep, defense-oriented league. A lot has to go right for the Hawkeyes to shape up into a legit contender.
Swinton: No. 24 Rutgers is coming off a 20-win season and looking to reach its first NCAA tournament in 30 years, but it is yet to be seen if last season’s success can continue. The Scarlet Knights will have to prove themselves offensively against top Big Ten talent before thinking of making a run in the Big Dance.
Selbe: Illinois is obviously a talented group with potential to win the Big Ten, but the conference is so loaded that there’s going to be a team or two that falls short of expectations. I think the Illini are that team, and a big reason why is their lack of outside shooting. Illinois shot a mere 30.9% on three-pointers last season. Among players who attempted at least 10 shots from three, only Alan Griffin hit over 31% of them (41.6% on 113 attempts), and he transferred to Syracuse. Illinois has plenty of strengths, but its fatal flaw will likely hold the team back from reaching its Final Four potential.
Jordan: Kansas. Just so we’re clear, my opinion is that the Jayhawks would’ve cut the nets down last season. This isn’t last season. I’m definitely buying that Kansas is good, but “national-title hunt” good? Nah. Can’t say that today. If you watched Kansas last season you know that Devon Dotson was the engine and Udoka Azubuike was the wheels; now that they’re gone, Kansas doesn’t have a duo or a combination of players that I can, without hesitation, say can fill that production. Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett and David McCormack all have potential and incoming freshman Bryce Thompson should produce from Day 1, but accounting for that duo’s production and intangibles is a tall order for any collection of players.
Shapiro: It’s not a great idea to bet against Tom Izzo, but I don’t quite buy Michigan State as a true Final Four contender in 2020–21. The Spartans lose both program anchor Cassius Winston and impact forward Xavier Tillman from last year’s team, and Izzo’s squad will be shaky from three throughout the season. We’ll certainly see Michigan State in March. But the Spartans aren’t guaranteed a spot in the Sweet 16 after losing their top two players in Winston and Tillman.
Geary: I, too, have concerns around Iowa's defense. No team has finished in the KenPom top 10 with a defense outside the top 50 in adjusted efficiency since 2014–15 Notre Dame—yes, the one that nearly knocked off then undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight—and that Irish team (one that was No. 2 nationally in offense, led the nation in effective field goal percentage and rarely turned the ball over) honestly might be the blueprint the Hawkeyes need to follow if they're to live up to their top-five AP preseason ranking. Easier said than done, though.
Mid-Major Team to Watch
Woo: Richmond. The Spiders get everyone back, including the diminutive but potent Jacob Gilyard–Blake Francis backcourt, and have a solid playmaking big in Grant Golden, who makes their offense flow. The A-10 is not going to be easy for anyone this season, but Richmond has the ingredients to be relevant in March one way or another. Defense might be an issue, but this is a tough-minded, well-coached group. I liked what I saw from them last year and expect growth.
Swinton: Reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year A.J. Green showed off his offensive versatility last season and will have more opportunities to do the same in 2021. Leading the MVC in points per game last year (19.7), Green will likely lead the way for Northern Iowa again with his size playing a clear advantage.
Selbe: San Diego State. The Aztecs were primed for a high seed in the 2020 tournament and lost a lot from that team, namely Mountain West Player of the Year Malachi Flynn and big man Yanni Wetzell. But there’s still talent on this roster, and the player to lead the charge is senior forward Matt Mitchell. The 6’ 6” Mitchell ranked second on the team in scoring (12.2 ppg) and rebounding (4.8 rpg) while shooting 39.3% on three-point attempts. He and senior guard Jordan Schakel (43.6% from deep) should keep the offense afloat. Defensively, Flynn’s loss might be more impactful, but the Aztecs ranked 10th nationally in defensive efficiency last season and have been strong on that end of the floor under head coach Brian Dutcher.
Jordan: UNC-Greensboro. It’s about time we put some respect on the Spartans’ name earlier in the season. Wes Miller’s squad has won at least 20 games in each of the last four seasons and returns reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year and two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Miller. The Spartans return 70% of their scoring, including Kaleb Hunter and reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year Keyshaun Langley. The Spartans are deep and talented and have one of the youngest stars in the coaching ranks steering the ship.
Shapiro: Richmond will likely end its decade-long tournament drought in 2020–21, and don’t be surprised if the Spiders stay alive until the tournament’s second weekend. Chris Mooney’s squad went 24–7 before the season shutdown last season, and Richmond returns a number of key players from last season. Jacob Gilyard is the best defensive player in the Atlantic 10. Fifth-year seniors Blake Francis and Grant Golden will carry the offensive load. The second Sweet 16 appearance of Mooney’s career is certainly in play in 2021.
Geary: Loyola-Chicago. Everyone's favorite Ramblers are back with what should be their best season since their magical March 2018 run. Remember Cameron Krutwig, the freshman center from that team? He's a senior now and should be as dominant as ever. Lucas Williamson is still around too, and while seniors Tate Hall and Keith Clemons weren't on that Final Four team, they'll be key cogs on this veteran-laden group. Porter Moser has stuck around in Chicago despite offers elsewhere, and he's built up a roster that will take another crack at making some noise in March. To get there, though, it's going to be Missouri Valley tournament title-or-bust, and Northern Iowa might have a thing or two to say about that.
Woo: Greg Brown, Texas. He is the most athletic player in college basketball. He’s more skilled with the ball and a much better shooter than you realize. He’s the best freshman nobody seems to be talking about. I have a feeling Greg Brown is going to be terrifying. Just watch and see.
Swinton: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova. Robinson-Earl had a strong freshman season, averaging 10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds, and is in line to take another step as the Wildcats hold championship aspirations. Surrounded by strong shooters, Robinson-Earl will be an important part of Villanova's game plan and can be a potential go-to option in close-game situations.
Selbe: Drew Timme, Gonzaga. The lane has been cleared out (literally and figuratively) for Timme to take over as Gonzaga’s featured big man. Last season’s WCC Player of the Year Filip Petrušev is gone, and Timme is primed to replace him in the Zags’ starting lineup. Timme averaged 9.8 points and 5.4 rebounds on 61.8% shooting in 20.5 minutes per game as a freshman, mostly coming off the bench. He’s also shown a knack for playmaking, both as a passer and ball-handler.
Jordan: Matthew Hurt, Duke. Hurt came into Duke with a big reputation for being super versatile, with the ability to dominate the game from all three levels, but he didn’t live up to the hype as a freshman, averaging 9.7 points a game for the Blue Devils. Still, he showed flashes of what could be throughout last season and has added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason after struggling with the physicality of the game last year. Hurt thrives in the pick-and-pop, catch-and-shoot and is a capable scoring threat in the post as well. Hurt’s development makes Duke a legitimate Final Four contender, perhaps even a favorite, because of the domino effect of positive things that would open up for the Blue Devils’ offense.
Shapiro: Cade Cunningham will likely win Freshman of the Year, but he could be challenged by another Big 12 standout for the award. Greg Brown is the latest elite prospect to join Texas, but unlike Myles Turner and Mo Bamba, Brown’s skill set should translate immediately to the college game. Brown is a supreme athlete and a menace in transition, and he should be able to generate points outside of the half-court. The arrival of Brown could very well save the Shaka Smart era in Austin.
Geary: Drew Timme, Gonzaga. Timme was insanely efficient as a freshman while backing up Filip Petrusev, and he's taking over the starting job at the perfect time in the Mark Few Carousel of Dominant Big Men. Like Petrušev, Timme will be able to get up and down the floor and expose opposing defenses in the Zags' fast-paced offense, and he'll help the Bulldogs maintain their advantage on the boards on both ends of the floor. If Timme can improve his free-throw shooting a bit (61.1% on 108 attempts as a freshman) when he inevitably takes even more trips to the line, he could put up some monster numbers.
One Bold Prediction
Woo: A champion actually gets crowned. That feels bold, right?
Swinton: The 2021 NCAA tournament will have the most all-time upsets. The record for upsets in a single NCAA tournament is 13 (in 1985 and 2014), and the logistics of the ’21 tournament may provide for more. Since the tournament will be held in one location, and potentially without fans, teams should be well rested and without clear fan advantages. It would be fitting for an unpredictable season to end with the wildest NCAA tournament yet.
Selbe: North Carolina struggles again. The word “struggles” is a relative term—I don’t expect to see the Tar Heels come in last place in the ACC again for a long, long time. But this team looked wayward all season, and morphing from basement-dwellers into a second-weekend NCAA tournament team overnight is a tall task. North Carolina will be improved, and the return of big man Garrison Brooks should put them in the mix for a tournament bid. But it’s premature to peg it as the No. 16 team in the country (its rank in the AP preseason poll).
Jordan: LSU will make the Final Four. I know, I know, but you’ll really crack up when I tell you that I’m not entirely sure I’d consider this all that bold. The Tigers, for all intents and purposes, should’ve been in the AP preseason Top 25; Will Wade boasts one of the most talented teams in the country, with a veteran guard, do-it-all forwards and freshman talent. The Tigers welcomed a top-10 recruiting class, highlighted by Cameron Thomas, arguably, the best scorer in high school basketball last season. Javonte Smart is back running the show after flirting with the NBA draft, as is Trendon Watford, who has real potential to win SEC Player of the Year, and Darius Days is one of the most versatile scorers in the country. If Smart and Thomas find a consistent chemistry, watch out.
Shapiro: West Virginia will win the Big 12. Baylor may be a better bet to win the national title, but the Mountaineers’ dominant defense should wreak havoc throughout the year. Forward Oscar Tshiebwe should compete for All-Big 12 honors in his sophomore season. Derek Culver could lead the conference in blocked shots. If Bob Huggins can find enough scoring punch from his backcourt, West Virginia may very well March Madness as a top-three seed.
Geary: No one from the Big Ten will make the Final Four. In what could prove to be the deepest conference in the country, none of its contenders will survive to the season's final weekend.