Palestra Back Previews the 2020-21 Season, Sort Of

Those of you excited to have college basketball on the precipice of returning to our lives must be excited about that possibility coming to fruition this week. I say “possibility” because the return of college basketball is very much in flux.

Our season preview will not, in any substantial way, preview basketball on the court. I can’t say with any level of certainty when we will see college basketball played or who will participate.

Typically on the eve of the first, or any, night of college basketball, you could look at a schedule of games that will occur. There will be point spreads assigned to those games. Those games will have a set time and location. That is not true of the college basketball games that might be played this week.

As recently as Sunday morning, the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut was scheduled to host five games between ten teams in two different events on Wednesday. In the 24 hours since, four of those teams have cancelled plans to attend those events or left the Mohegan Sun after arriving. The other eight (because yes, in a swift move of musical chairs, two of the four teams have already been replaced) are awaiting test results.

There might be four college basketball games played at the Mohegan Sun tomorrow. In theory, there could be eight teams ready to play. Everyone grab a dance partner. We’ll figure out timing and television and play basketball.

There might be zero college basketball games played at the Mohegan Sun tomorrow. Could be two. Or three. Hell, in this wild west rodeo, they might scrounge up two more teams before then and get back to the original five scheduled games. This is not a smart, efficient, or forward-thinking way to run a sport.

The NCAA is trying to herd cats, so to speak. That’s not easy, but it’s particularly difficult when your strategy seems to be letting the cats figure it out for themselves. I’ve ranted about the NCAA’s inaction already once in this space and I hope I don’t need to do so again and again as this continues.

I want to watch college basketball this season. I want to see Baylor, Villanova, and Gonzaga. I want to see Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham. I pray that we hear Bill Raftery or Bill Walton’s voice this season. I have absolutely no confidence in when or how those things will come to pass.

Non-conference play is a luxury. You could cancel all of it with the snap of a finger and not change the path to conference tournaments and an NCAA Tournament that fairly determines a national champion. The NCAA won’t do that because they haven’t done so yet and it starts tomorrow.

But again, these games are a luxury. You can move them all around. Play them in any order you choose. Cancel one here, toss an extra one in there. I’m sure there are assistant coaches pulling their hair out right now trying to scout the team they’ll play next, considering that team could change with the drop of a hat. That’s a trivial nuisance in the grand scheme of things.

But if this is how the NCAA and the college basketball powers-that-be are acting now, what confidence do we have that they will figure out a more proper way to handle themselves when the schedule turns to the games that really do matter? On top of that, what risk are you putting these teams into by having them play right now. Go ahead, quote your mortality rates and hospitalization numbers. Tell them to the player, coach, or staffer who experiences severe COVID-19 symptoms.

I am sorry if I am being the wet blanket on your college basketball excitement. Truly, I am. But as a fan and someone who covers the sport, I do so for enjoyment and entertainment, not advertising dollars for athletic programs and TV networks. I don’t see the enjoyment in what’s going on right now. I don’t look forward to debating if a 17-2 Duke team is better than a 10-0 Gonzaga team. There is nothing fun about dreading the loss of a second NCAA Tournament due to a mishandled pandemic.

Remember in March when the Ivy League cancelled their tournament and we slowly started to fear what was next? The Ivy has already bowed out of this season. I would be surprised if another conference did not follow suit at some point, given the trajectory of things. There are more than 7,000 games in a typical college basketball season. How many would we have to cancel for this season to be considered a disaster? How many need to be played to determine a champion? If the NCAA continues to live on the razor’s edge, those are questions we are going to answer.

It pains me to say these things. When the games start, I will watch them, tweet about them, write about them, and I hope, by God, to enjoy them, but obviously I have my doubts.

College basketball is sprinting towards a field covered in landmines. Maybe they are duds and we make it through with a season that resembles normalcy. Maybe enough of the season makes it through with enough caveats, changes, and asterisks, we can justify the final outcome. But with the state of things in place, the possibility of disaster looms. I’m not going to tell you who can make the tournament, because I don’t know if there will be a tournament or how many teams will be invited or how those teams will be selected. I won’t pick a Player of the Year or national champion because those trophies may never be awarded.

I hope I’m wrong, but what about the current situation suggests I’m not?


To simplify things, and provide some actual basketball content in this post, let’s do rapid fire, one sentence team, player, and conference previews:

With former Florida guard Andrew Nembhard cleared to play, Gonzaga is the best team in the country.

There may not be a more important outstanding question mark than Iowa center Luka Garza’s defensive improvement.

Looking for a player to make the leap to stardom across the country, my eyes are on Kansas’s Ochai Agbaji, Michigan State’s Rocket Watts, and Oscar Tshiebwe of West Virginia.

There’s no player I’m more in awe to see still in college than Creighton sharpshooter Mitch Ballock (he has to be like 35 years old).

Ayo Dosunmu from Illinois is going to be the toughest cover in college basketball and might post 30 points per game.

There’s no player I’m more eager to see play than former Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns, now at Ohio State having last played in college basketball in 2018.

No transfer has the juice to swing a conference race like former VCU big man Marcus Santos-Silva at Texas Tech.

Finally, a sentence I didn’t need to write, but just a heads up: Duke, Villanova, Kansas, and Kentucky will be good this year.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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