Given the unique circumstances of the 2020-21 college basketball season and the crazy offseason that followed with a record-setting number of transfers, it’s safe to assume the 2021-22 season will look vastly different. Young teams that struggled due to limited preseason practice time amid the COVID-19 pandemic are older now, and the NCAA’s loosened transfer rules gave displeased coaches a chance to quickly retool their rosters.
Among the notable teams that missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament were Louisville, Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, Arizona and Memphis, but you can bet those programs won’t all stay down for long. That group doesn’t even account for the disappointing 2021 NCAA Tournament one-and-dones such as Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Ohio State.
Simply put, there are several historically proud programs yearning for a rebound in the rapidly approaching 2021-22 campaign. But who has the talent and coaching to follow through and use the disappointment to fuel a deep championship-type of run? For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the teams they believe will bounce back most authoritatively in the season ahead.
Duke Blue Devils
Duke, just like Kentucky, found itself last season relying on a lot of newcomers who didn’t have anything close to a normal offseason or preseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Combine that with the fact that Cameron Indoor Stadium suddenly offered nothing close to the home-court advantage it normally provides and the fact that the Blue Devils’ highest-rated recruit (Jalen Johnson) quit the team after just 13 games, and it was obvious pretty early that the Blue Devils were in for an unusually bad season.
They finished 13-11 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Naturally, Duke-haters from coast to coast celebrated. But the assumption here is that the Blue Devils will bounce back strong in what will be Mike Krzyzewski’s final season on the sideline. Duke is returning three of its top six scorers from last season and pairing them with a recruiting class that ranks fifth nationally, headlined by the player I think will be the best freshman in the country and eventual first overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft — Paulo Banchero. He’s incredible and should be overwhelming right from the jump.
Am I predicting a national title for Duke? No. My pick to win the 2022 NCAA Tournament is Gonzaga. But, that said, it’s not hard for me to imagine the Blue Devils cutting nets on the first Monday night in April. They have the talent to do it — plus a coach who’s already done it five times previously. — Gary Parrish
My team is sandwiched between the two obvious and practical choices (Duke and Kentucky). But I’ll roll with a squad that’s got dark-horse Sweet 16 potential. Chris Mooney’s Richmond team got off to a 6-1 start last season with wins over Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Loyola Chicago. The preseason buzz was there, and through the first two weeks the Spiders looked legit. Then it all withered away. Injuries and COVID pauses stalled the team’s momentum; the Spiders ended their season with a second round NIT loss and a pedestrian 14-9 record. For 2021-22, l think this team will slide back into a groove. Richmond should be pegged right behind St. Bonaventure at the top of the Atlantic 10.
There are seven significant seniors on this roster, led by one of the best defenders in the country, Jacob Gilyard. Nick Sherod, Grant Golden and Nathan Cayo will also be valuable vet holdovers for what can be one of the best UR teams in history. Because of Mooney’s Princeton-style offense, Richmond’s never a good rebounding team on the offensive end. Aside from that, this squad’s offensive identity and efficiency has the capacity to get the Spiders to 25-plus wins. But they’ll need to stay healthy, which has been a bugaboo in recent seasons. Mark me down for UR landing a No. 9 seed in March. — Matt Norlander
Taking Kentucky for this exercise seems like a major cop-out, if only because Kentucky from my perch is easily the top program that meets this bounce-back criteria. The Wildcats had a lousy year in 2020-21, going 9-16 and missing the NCAA Tournament by a wide margin, but this season they’re on track to course-correct in a major way. For starters, they’ve added a ton of talent from the recruiting trail — including a pair of five-stars in TyTy Washington and Daimon Collins — as well as experience in transfers Sahvir Wheeler, CJ Fredrick, Kellan Grady and Oscar Tshiebwe. So this team is both flush with star power and experienced. Get you a team with both in college hoops and you’ve got a chance to be very good.
That’s exactly what I think Kentucky will be … very good. Will it be great? That I’m not totally sure of right now. What seems clear at this point is that this won’t be a classic John Calipari team; they’re experienced but lack the type of superstar draft prospects we’ve become accustomed to seeing at Kentucky. Still, after last season, that doesn’t seem to be a bad thing. I think the mixture of talent and experience makes for what will be one of the best teams in the SEC, and I expect they’ll be back on track as a tourney team and top-3 seed come March. — Kyle Boone
The Fighting Irish return a ton of experience, including a deep group of guards that comprised one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting units last season. Despite its long-range prowess, Notre Dame finished just 11-15 (7-11 ACC) because of poor depth, defense and rebounding. Those issues haven’t been fully addressed but should be at least be partially remedied this season.
It’s been proven time and again that a combination of veteran guards, impact transfers and quality freshmen is an impetus for success in college basketball. That’s what coach Mike Brey has in his 22nd season leading the program. Former Ivy League co-player of the year Paul Atkinson has arrived from Yale and will pair with Nate Laszewski to make Notre Dame’s frontcourt nearly as formidable as its veteran back court.
If Brey can just get a bit of defensive and rebounding help off the bench, this has the makings of an NCAA Tournament team. There a few candidates to help in that regard, including top-150 freshmen J.R. Konieczny and Blake Wesley as well as returning role players Tony Sanders Jr. and Matt Zona, both of whom got valuable experience as true freshmen last season. Another wild card is fourth-year sophomore Robby Carmody, who has been limited to just 16 career games due to injury. If Brey can find depth and grit from any combination of those five potential bench players, this will be a big-time bounce-back team in 2021-22. — David Cobb