The college basketball season is set to tip-off on Nov. 9, and there's plenty to look forward to after the thrilling return of March Madness last spring.
Led by star forward Drew Timme, Gonzaga will try to win its first title after nearly going undefeated, while Coach K is aiming to go out on a high note after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. And, of course, there is plenty of returning star power on the All-America teams.
If you're wondering what the biggest storylines for the upcoming season are, look no further than Athlon Sports' coverage of the 2021-22 college basketball season.
10 Things to Watch During the 2021-22 College Basketball Season
1. Coach K's final season will dominate the sport
It should never be surprising when a 74-year-old announces his intention to retire given that most people in the United States are retired well before they even reach 70. But, that said, Mike Krzyzewski letting the world know, back in early June, that this season would be his final season as Duke's coach still qualified as somewhat shocking, if only because it's hard for most to even remember a time when the man long ago nicknamed Coach K wasn't standing on the sideline inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. He's been there since 1980.
But this season — Krzyzewski's 42nd at Duke, and 47th as a Division I head coach — will indeed be his last. And his last season is coming immediately after a season that resulted in a career-worst 10th-place finish in the ACC. But this campaign is also a season in which Krzyzewski will have the type of top-shelf talent that should allow his Blue Devils to compete for the 2022 national championship, and that is one reason why Duke is the biggest story in the sport this year, possibly from start to finish.
Paolo Banchero is another reason. He's a 6'10", 250-pound forward who is considered by some to be the likely No. 1 overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. He's strong enough to overpower people around the rim and good enough with the ball to play in space away from the rim. He can dunk hard or pull confidently and comfortably from the 3-point line. In other words, he's just an awesome and versatile prospect and player. And if Coach K gets to 1,200 career victories while competing for a 13th trip to the Final Four and sixth national championship, rest assured, Banchero will be the biggest reason why, both figuratively and literally.
2. Gonzaga will be national title contenders again
There are scores of people with Twitter accounts who are always anxious to remind everybody who follows them, and many who don't, that Gonzaga has never won a national championship. And, in fairness, it's true — the Zags have never won a national championship. There's no getting around that fact. But the frustrating thing about the people who type that over and over again is that they're often implying that Gonzaga will never win a national championship because Gonzaga hasn't yet won a national championship. And, needless to say, that's a nonsensical point that's both illogical and dumb. The Zags have been really close multiple times.
They've played in two of the past four title games — and were actually leading the 2017 title game against North Carolina with less than two minutes to play. If you play that out 10 times, they probably win at least half of them. That alone proves the Zags are capable of getting this done. And, odds are, as long as Mark Few, a sure-bet future Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer, keeps assembling teams that have the pieces necessary to do it, eventually, he'll do it.
It could happen this season.
Yes, the Zags are loaded once again. They have the best returning player in college basketball and a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft currently in the program — and they're two different people! The former is Drew Timme, a 6'10" forward who averaged a team-high 19.0 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds last season for a Gonzaga team that started 31–0 before losing to Baylor in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. The latter is Chet Holmgren, a 7-foot center who comfortably floats around the perimeter and was the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2021, according to 247Sports. Those two will headline a team that has an experienced point guard in Andrew Nembhard, another five-star freshman in Hunter Sallis, and a supporting cast talented and experienced enough to give Few another realistic chance to bring Gonzaga the national championship that's evaded him so far but probably won't forever despite what the skeptics insist.
3. UCLA wasn't just a team that got hot in March
The wildest story of the 2021 NCAA Tournament wasn't Baylor winning the event. The Bears were considered legitimate contenders from the jump and never once looked like anything but. So that Big 12 program winning it all should've surprised absolutely nobody.
But UCLA making the Final Four? Now that was surprising — especially considering the Bruins entered the NCAA Tournament on a four-game losing streak as a No. 11 seed in the bracket and were placed in the First Four, which meant they had to win five games to make the Final Four. Incredibly, they did it via victories over (in order) Michigan State, BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama and Michigan. And then they played Gonzaga to overtime in a national semifinal, where they lost when Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga's one-and-done star, buried a 37-foot buzzer-beater.
Do you know how many players from that run are back? All of them.
UCLA is returning every player from a team that made the Final Four and finished 11th at KenPom. That's strong. And though some have suggested that the Bruins are merely a team that got hot in March, the truth is that any program that returns every player from a team that finished 11th at KenPom should be considered a real national title contender — especially when that program is also enrolling a five-star freshman, in this case Peyton Watson, a 6'8" wing from Long Beach who figures to improve the Bruins defensively because of his length, athleticism and versatility. So discount UCLA at your own risk. And if the Bruins end up in the Final Four for the second straight season, it won't be anything close to as surprising as it was last season.
4. Oregon could win a third straight outright Pac-12 title
So UCLA should be considered the favorite in the Pac-12 based on everything you just read. But Mick Cronin's Bruins aren't the only good team in the league. They have challengers — most obviously Oregon, which has won back-to-back outright Pac-12 titles.
Dana Altman has had an incredible career, the last 11 years of which have been spent at Oregon. He's guided the Ducks to eight top-three finishes in the Pac-12 in those 11 seasons and won four of the past six Pac-12 regular-season championships, and now he has a chance to make it five of the past seven, and three straight, thanks largely to how well he and his staff secured talent this offseason via the transfer portal. The Ducks enrolled De'Vion Harmon from Oklahoma, Quincy Guerrier from Syracuse and Jacob Young from Rutgers — each of whom were key players on NCAA Tournament teams who averaged at least 12.9 points last season. That's obviously nice and why it's not crazy to think Altman could have the Ducks in contention to win what would be a third straight outright league title and maybe, just maybe, also have them in the Final Four for the second time in a span of five NCAA Tournaments.
5. Kentucky's bounce-back season is on tap
Kentucky started last season 1–6 and basically never looked like, or became, a quality team. The Wildcats were unbelievably bad and the biggest disappointment in the sport. They finished 9–16, which represented the worst record of any John Calipari-coached college team since he guided UMass to a 10–18 record in his first year as a Division I head coach way back in 1989.
Even UK fans seemed to turn on Calipari.
But anybody who likes goofing on the Wildcats should probably get all of their jokes in before this season because Calipari spent the offseason remaking his staff and roster in a way that suggests Kentucky is about to get back to its winning ways. In the simplest of terms, last season's problems could be this season's strengths.
So what were last season's problems?
There were three main ones — the first being that the Wildcats had zero quality point guards on the roster, the second being a lack of quality shooters and the third being a lack of experience. Well, now UK has multiple quality point guards, multiple proven shooters and tons of experience in the program thanks to the enrollment of five-star point guard TyTy Washington, former Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler, former Davidson combo guard Kellan Grady and former West Virginia big Oscar Tshiebwe. Washington, Wheeler and Grady can all serve as primary ball-handlers; Washington and Grady are considered plus-shooters; and the addition of Tshiebwe means Kentucky is likely to start four non-freshmen, one of whom (Grady) has already played four years of college basketball and scored more than 2,000 points at the Division I level. In terms of experience and versatility, this team will probably be closer to some of Calipari's great Memphis teams than most of his great Kentucky teams. But, either way, the bottom line is this: The Wildcats really could go from finishing seven games below .500 one season to winning a conference championship the next.
6. Chris Beard can win big in Year 1 at Texas
Chris Beard’s career has been exceptional by any standard through six years — the first coming at Little Rock, the next five at Texas Tech. It’s not unreasonable to assume he’ll someday guide Texas to its first national championship in men’s basketball history. In fact, the 48-year-old has already assembled a roster good enough to maybe do it in what will be his first year as head coach of his alma mater.
Beard convinced double-digit scorers Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey to return for at least one more season. Then Beard enrolled five transfers who averaged double figures in points last season —Marcus Carr (Minnesota), Tre Mitchell (UMass), Timmy Allen (Utah), Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt), and Christian Bishop (Creighton). So now the Longhorns will have established high-level players in the starting lineup and on the bench. And when you combine that with the idea that Beard is regarded by many as one of college basketball’s best tacticians, it’s not hard to imagine him winning a second Big 12 title in a four-year span at two different Texas institutions.
7. Baylor probably won't slip too far
The Baylor Bears will enter the season as the reigning national champions but will look very different than they did the last time they played. Jared Butler is gone. Davion Mitchell is gone. MaCio Teague is gone. Mark Vital is gone. That's four starters out the door from a team that finished 28–2. So a drop is expected and likely unavoidable. But it's possible, if not probable, that the drop won't be too significant considering the Bears are returning five players who averaged double digits in minutes last season — most notably Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua — and pairing them with Arizona transfer James Akinjo and five-star freshman Kendall Brown, the latter of whom is a 6'8" wing who has been described by recruiting analysts as a high-level slasher and versatile defender.
Is that enough to compete for another national title? Perhaps not. But Scott Drew and his staff members — among them associate head coach Jerome Tang, who is long overdue for a head-coaching opportunity at the Division I level — have built this program into a consistent winner. In the past 11 postseasons, Baylor has made eight NCAA Tournaments, advanced to the Sweet 16 five times, to the Elite Eight three times, to the Final Four once and, of course, won the whole thing. The Bears have also won the NIT and finished second in another NIT in that span. So discounting the Bears, at this point, is unwise. They might not cut nets again this April like they did last April. But barring something unexpected, they should stay nationally relevant.
8. Jay Wright has a chance to become a three-time national champion
The list of coaches who have won at least three national championships in Division I men's basketball history includes only six names — John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5), Adolph Rupp (4), Jim Calhoun (3), Bob Knight (3), and Roy Williams (3). The most likely candidate to join the club next is definitely Villanova's Jay Wright. He led the Wildcats to the national championship in 2016 and did it again in 2018. Now he's returning four of the top five scorers from a team that won the Big East last season by multiple games, meaning he should have enough to compete for what would be his third national title. And what's important to note is that such wouldn't be the case if not for the NCAA deciding to give every basketball player an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arguably nobody benefited from that more than Villanova.
It's what allowed Collin Gillespie, the reigning Big East Player of the Year who averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds last season, and Jermaine Samuels, who averaged 12.0 points and 6.4 rebounds, to return for a fifth year of college basketball. That's massive and precisely the thing that makes Villanova a bigger favorite in its league than any other team is in any other league save Gonzaga, not to mention a legitimate national championship contender under Wright, who was earlier this year elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
9. Mark Turgeon might finally get Maryland fans off his back
Wright has been so consistently great at Villanova for most of the past two decades that the program's fans adore him and probably hope the 59-year-old coaches at least another decade and possibly into his 70s. Mark Turgeon, who is also working at a school that won a national championship before he arrived, isn't quite so lucky.
It's just an awkward deal. If not for the 2020 NCAA Tournament being canceled because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Turgeon would have led Maryland to six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments. He's finished in the top three of the 14-school Big Ten in four of the past seven seasons. That's good, most would agree. But in 10 seasons with the Terrapins, Turgeon has made only one Sweet 16 and never advanced further than that. So a good portion of Maryland's fans are unsatisfied, so much so that there was a real belief in basketball circles that Turgeon might try to leave Maryland after last season for, perhaps, Wichita State, where he coached from 2000 to 2007.
Problem is, the Wichita State job never opened. Isaac Brown, who replaced Gregg Marshall last preseason on an interim basis, had his interim tag removed in March. So with that possible option off the table, Turgeon remained at Maryland. And in an attempt to ensure he'd have a chance to be good again, he got super-busy in the transfer portal. Maryland added Fatts Russell from Rhode Island and Qudus Wahab from Georgetown. Those two will presumably join Eric Ayala, Donta Scott and Utah transfer Ian Martinez in the starting lineup to create what has a chance to be Turgeon's best team ever in what will be his 24th season as a head coach.
Is an Elite Eight or Final Four possible? Sure. And Turgeon would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity because the only way he'll ever get his own fans to lighten up and finally believe in him is by winning big — and not just in the regular season.
10. Walker Kessler could be the nation's "most improved" player
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl thought he had Walker Kessler out of high school. He recruited him hard, established the Tigers as the so-called leader and felt confident he'd eventually secure a commitment from the five-star prospect from Georgia. Then Kessler visited North Carolina. And that, as they say, was that. The 7'1" center ultimately signed with the blue-blood Tar Heels. But Pearl maintained his relationship with the family. And when Kessler got buried on UNC's bench behind three players who were either more experienced (Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks) or more talented (Day'Ron Sharpe), Auburn was perfectly positioned to land Kessler after he entered the transfer portal.
So Kessler is now an Auburn Tiger — just one year later than expected. And considering he averaged only 8.8 minutes per game as a freshman, there's a decent chance he'll end up on some "Most Improved Player" lists by the end of this season simply because he'll get the minutes necessary to produce at a high level, as he did last season when given the opportunity. Kessler played at least 20 minutes in a game for North Carolina only twice — in a 78–70 win over Florida State in February and in a 101–59 victory over Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament opener. Against FSU, he finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Against Notre Dame, he got 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks. And that's why most are expecting a really nice sophomore season. History suggests that when he plays, he performs. And, at Auburn, he's going to play a lot.