Six months after Stanford and Baylor cut down the nets, the 2021–22 college basketball season is just four weeks away. Opening night is Nov. 9, and a slew of exhibitions will be held even sooner, which means teams across the country are well underway with preparations.
After the bizarre season that was last year’s COVID-19-impacted men’s and women’s campaigns, things are looking more familiar heading into this winter. Here at Sports Illustrated, we’re celebrating the near-return of college hoops with a list of 64 reasons to be excited for the season, starting with the departure of a legend and ending with a long overdue change. Without further ado, here we go…
1. The Coach K Retirement Tour
It’s the story line that will dominate headlines all season on the men’s side of college hoops: Mike Krzyzewski’s final ride. The 74-year-old announced in June that the 2021–22 season will be the last of his storied coaching career, with Jon Scheyer already named as his successor at Duke. So expect to hear this phrase a lot this winter: “Coach K’s final [blank].” Coach K’s final nonconference game. Coach K’s final trip to Chapel Hill. Coach K’s final game at Cameron. And so on. There will be many goodbyes, across the ACC and elsewhere, as players, fans and fellow coaches try to share one last memory with a legend. —Molly Geary
2. The Emoni Bates Experience
Since Bates graced the cover of SI as a 15-year-old earning comparisons to Kevin Durant, the hype around him as a prospect has been rivaled by few, if any, top recruits. And while his stock as a future pro faded some in the last year, he’s still one of the most talented players to play college basketball in recent memory. He was sold on Memphis in part by Penny Hardaway’s plan to use him similar to how Hardaway himself played back in the day, as a big point guard capable of creating for himself and others. The spotlight will be bright and the expectations will be high. Watching Bates attempt to live up to all of that should make for one of the biggest story lines of the season. —Kevin Sweeney
3. Return of the student section
While the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t quite behind us, many college basketball programs will see a return to normalcy, thanks to the vaccine. After a season of reduced, at best, capacity (and no fans in many cases, such as with the Big Ten), players and fans alike will no doubt relish the return of the crowd. At the heart of that are student sections, the anchors of the greatest atmospheres in college hoops. A year of watching Duke games without the Cameron Crazies and hearing nothing but bounces and squeaks in places like the Breslin Center, Carrier Dome and Mackey Arena was surreal, but home court advantage will, in many places, roar back to life in 2021–22. —M.G.
4. College basketball’s Moneyball experiment
Kyle Smith has made a career out of challenging rebuilds, and he seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough in his third year at Washington State. He’s done it with an analytics-focused recruiting model that has allowed him to land under-the-radar talent, including star wing Noah Williams. Wazzu has an NCAA tournament-caliber roster in 2021–22, adding top recruit Mouhamed Gueye and top transfer Michael Flowers to an already-strong returning core. —K.S.
5. Fudd, Bueckers and juggernaut UConn
Geno Auriemma’s Huskies haven’t won a national title in five years, which might as well be a full-fledged drought for women’s college basketball’s most prominent program. After winning four straight championships from 2013 to ’16, UConn has lost in four straight Final Fours, failing to get over the hump again last April in a defeat to upstart Arizona. Freshman phenom Paige Bueckers earned the headlines last season and is back to lead another formidable Huskies roster (one that also returns Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa), but the big news is that UConn adds generational prospect Azzi Fudd. Will the 5' 11" combo guard be the piece that “finally” brings the trophy back to Storrs? —M.G.
6. Super seniors’ last ride
One of the unique quirks of this season will be all the fifth- and sixth-year players using their extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This should have two main effects: raising the talent level of the sport across-the-board and seeing plenty of career records broken. We highlighted some of the best men’s returners this summer, a list that includes stars like Collin Gillespie at Villanova and Remy Martin at Kansas. Meanwhile, some of the records you can expect to be broken are the all-time games played record (Jordan Bohannon) and the career steals record (Jacob Gilyard). —K.S.
7. The Champions Classic
As is tradition on the men’s side, the Champions Classic will open the season with a marquee doubleheader on Nov. 9. The 2021 edition will be held at Madison Square Garden and will pit Duke against Kentucky and Michigan State against Kansas. The chaotic nature and timing of this event means you never know quite what you’re going to get—sometimes the teams, full of new pieces, are so disjointed the game is borderline unwatchable. Other times there’s a thriller right off the bat (and still other times, you see a Zion Williamson–led Duke team announce itself with an unforgettable blowout). In any event, we can’t wait for opening night. —M.G.
8. Matthew Mayer’s evolution into an alpha dog
At times last year, Mayer looked like the Baylor men’s most talented offensive player. That’s high praise on a team that featured one NBA lottery pick (Davion Mitchell) and another draft pick (Jared Butler). What Mayer lacked was consistency: He had seven games last season with three or fewer points and nine with 12 or more points. With Mitchell, Butler, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital all departed from that national title team, Mayer needs to step up and be ‘the guy’ every night as the Bears try to defend their championship. When on, he’s capable of scoring at all three levels and taking over games. For Baylor to live up to expectations, Mayer simply has to produce regularly. —K.S.
9. Stanford’s title defense
The Cardinal’s first national championship since 1992 couldn’t have come in a stranger season. Due to local COVID-19 restrictions, they spent weeks on the road and played just six of their 33 games on campus. Now, Stanford will return to a full-capacity Maples Pavilion and get to bask in the glow of its title while seeking another. While Kiana Williams is gone, the Cardinal are in great shape to contend again with another balanced roster led by junior Haley Jones. —M.G.
10. Oklahoma State in the post-Cade era
Perhaps the term “program-changing recruit” gets overused by college hoops talking heads, but Cade Cunningham fits the bill. Cunningham committed to Mike Boynton and the Cowboys over virtually every program in the country, then stayed committed after a postseason ban threatened his chances of playing in the NCAA tournament. The impact of his commitment will be felt beyond his lone season in Stillwater: Other recruits who committed to joining Cade at OSU, like Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, will be impact players on this year’s team. The Cowboys also add a pair of former five-stars from the transfer portal in Moussa Cisse (Memphis) and Bryce Thompson (Kansas). —K.S.
11. HBCU showcases
Men’s HBCU programs will be put in the national spotlight in multiple ways this season. In a very cool first-of-its-kind event this November, the NBA’s Chris Paul is hosting the inaugural Boost Mobile HBCU Challenge on the Phoenix Suns’ home floor at the Footprint Center. The two-day doubleheader event will be televised on ESPN networks and feature Norfolk State, Morgan State, Hampton and Grambling State. Additionally, airing on TNT on Dec. 18, actor Michael B. Jordan is hosting an HBCU showcase that will feature Hampton vs. North Carolina Central and Howard vs. North Carolina A&T. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 17), Notre Dame will travel to Howard for a nonconference matchup—the Irish men’s basketball program’s first-ever trip to an HBCU school and the ACC’s first since 2013. —M.G.
12. Drew Timme (and his mustache)
Timme exploded onto the scene in 2020–21 after a strong freshman campaign, capturing the attention of the sport thanks to his dominant low-post game and exquisite facial hair. The Texas native now returns for his junior season as perhaps men’s college basketball’s best player, a nearly unstoppable force down low thanks to his strength and touch with both hands. He’ll be the centerpiece of a Gonzaga team that enters the season as the No. 1 team in most preseason polls, pairing with top overall recruit Chet Holmgren for one of the most unique frontcourts in recent memory. —K.S.
13. Adia Barnes’s encore
Barnes and Arizona captured the nation’s attention during the 2021 women’s NCAA tournament, crashing the Final Four as a No. 3 seed with a chip on their shoulder before knocking off UConn behind the great Aari McDonald. Barnes’s passionate, viral speech after the Connecticut win—and correct refusal to apologize for her colorful choice of language and gesture—added to the aura and epitomized her team’s mentality. A trip back to the sport’s final weekend will be tough in 2022 after McDonald’s graduation, but we still can’t wait to see what Barnes—who needed just five years in Tucson for a program breakthrough—and her team does next. —M.G.
14. Max Abmas
Abmas was the darling of March Madness in 2021 after his eruption in Oral Roberts’s run to the Sweet 16, scoring 80 points in three games and becoming an NBA prospect in the process. But Abmas’s pro stock faded some at the draft combine, and he elected to return for his junior season at ORU, where he should be one of the sport’s most dynamic players. Expect the diminutive scoring star to again be among the nation’s leaders in points per game and keep ORU a potential giant-killer come March. —K.S.
15. Buddy Boeheim firing from deep
There will now be a triple dose of Boeheim at Syracuse men’s games this winter, after Jimmy transferred in from Cornell to join his sharp-shooting brother, Buddy, and head-coaching father, Jim. If the extra family presence makes Buddy even better as a junior, look out. The guard was on an absolute heater late last season—including in the ACC and NCAA tournaments—until Houston finally put the fire out in the Sweet 16. The younger of the Orange’s Boeheim player duo can pour it on from deep, shooting 38.3% from three on a volume of eight attempts per game last season. Can he lift Cuse to bigger heights? —M.G.
16. A fresh start in Austin
After Shaka Smart (who left for Marquette) and the school finally parted ways after six frustrating seasons on the Forty Acres, Texas went out and poached its new coach straight from an in-state conference rival. Chris Beard, who was coaching at Division II Angelo State as recently as six years ago before a meteoric rise that peaked with a 2019 men’s Final Four trip at Texas Tech, arrives at his alma mater with a $35 million contract in hand and a slew of new enemies in Lubbock. He’s quickly remade the Texas roster and enters 2021–22 with massive expectations, as the Longhorns are considered a preseason top-five team by many. —M.G.
17. The bluebloods’ revenge
If you’re someone who enjoys rooting against men’s college basketball royalty—like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and more—you likely supremely enjoyed the 2020–21 season. The modern bluebloods collectively had an off year, with the Blue Devils and Wildcats even missing the men’s NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 and eight years, respectively. None of the aforementioned five reached the second weekend of the Big Dance, and the national championship game was played by two schools going for their first title in program history. Don’t count on a repeat in 2021–22. The bluebloods are reloaded—via both recruiting and the transfer portal—and this time, the pandemic hasn’t robbed them of valuable spring and summer practice time. —M.G.
18. Sedona Prince’s dunks (and TikToks)
Prince took over the internet last March with her viral video demonstrating the disparities between weight rooms at the women’s and men’s NCAA tournaments. But while her activism has earned her plenty of headlines, the Oregon forward’s play on the floor is deserving of some love, too. Prince towers over the competition at 6' 7" and earned a spot on Team USA this summer at the FIBA AmeriCup. She should be one of the best players in the Pac-12 this season … and might even slam a dunk or two in the process. —K.S.
19. Michigan continues its ascent under Juwan Howard
The first two years of Howard’s tenure in Ann Arbor have gone swimmingly, with Michigan overachieving in both relative to preseason expectations. Each time, though, it had its potential cut down just in time for March; in 2020, of course, the postseason was canceled, and in 2021, key senior Isaiah Livers got hurt during the Big Ten tournament and missed the Big Dance. A No. 1 seed, the Wolverines still reached the Elite Eight before falling to upstart UCLA. This time, there will be no surprise if Michigan comes out of the gate strong. With All-America center Hunter Dickinson and guard Eli Brooks back, as well as Sports Illustrated’s top-ranked 2021 recruiting class having arrived, Howard looks poised to continue building a sustained powerhouse in the Mitten. —M.G.