Photo By: Ben Hershey from Unsplash
South of the border, the NCAA’s other flagship sport began regular season action once again this week. It feels like just yesterday when the Baylor Bears put on a championship-clinching clinic in the men’s basketball final, but the beauty of college basketball is that every year we get to reset and do it all over again.
Perhaps the biggest headline from this season’s college basketball season is the impending retirement of longtime Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski announced his retirement this offseason by way of a very bizarre press conference. Coach K will finish off this season — his 42nd as the head coach of Duke — aiming to add to his case as not just the best college basketball coach, but one of the best coaches regardless of the sport. The Blue Devils opened the season ranked 9th in the AP Poll, and first among ACC teams. Duke boasts a solid roster this season, one that is balanced with five-star recruits such as 6’10 forward Paolo Banchero and the electrifying Trevor Keels, as well as returning vets such as Wendell Moore and Jeremy Roach. Look for centre Mark Williams to have a breakout sophomore season with his ridiculous 7’7 wingspan.
While the Coach K farewell tour may devour a lot of the ACC headlines this year, there are several other teams in the conference to keep an eye on. Staying on Tobacco Road, the North Carolina Tar Heels went through a big coaching change of their own. Head Coach Roy Williams said goodbye to the bench after 18 seasons with the team this summer, and he’ll be replaced this season by Tar Heel great and long time assistant Hubert Davis.
The Heels returned quite a few players from their disappointing 2020-21 campaign, including four current starters with experience on the team. The starting 4-man will be the Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek, who is an early contender for the “How is he still in college?” All-Star team. The veteran experience of the Tar Heels will set them up to be a strong contender in the ACC this year.
Moving over to Big Ten country, and speaking of the elder statesmen of college basketball players, Brad Davison is back with the Wisconsin Badgers for his fifth year in a row. Davison has taken over Perry Ellis’ legacy of never leaving college, and while the Badgers likely won’t be making a whole lot of national noise, they’ll be a scrappy Big Ten foe as always. Still, it’s nice to see Davison remain loyal to his team amidst the flurry of transfers that the sport has seen the last few years.
One school that’s been capitalizing on the robust transfer market is the Michigan Wolverines. Juwan Howard’s squad in Ann Arbor may have been the surprise of last season, making it all the way to the Elite Eight after winning the Big Ten regular season championship. The Wolverines will not be catching anyone by surprise this year, as they come in ranked 6th in the AP poll. This year’s team returns the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate in the 7’1 centre Hunter Dickinson, as well as veteran play from Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns Jr.; two key contributors to last year’s team. Michigan also added Sun Belt Player of the Year Devante’ Jones, the Coastal Carolina transfer, to stabilize the backcourt.
For some Canadian content (because Michigan seems to be Canada’s defacto favourite NCAA team), the team this year features five-star recruit Caleb Houstan, the 6’8 Mississauga product who could very well be Canada’s next NBA lottery pick. Canadian hoops fans should also be monitoring the play of Arizona State’s Bennedict Mathurin, as well as Purdue’s 7’4” behemoth Zach Edey. Both players were teammates and rising stars of the U-19 Canadian National Team this summer.
While much can be made of these traditional college basketball powerhouses on the east coast and in the midwest, the true top dogs for the upcoming season may lie out west. Two final four teams in Gonzaga and UCLA (who played an all-time classic game in the Final Four last year) come into the season ranked numbers one and two in the AP poll, respectively.
Gonzaga lost just one of their 32 games last season, but the one they dropped was the most important of all — the national title game against Baylor. The loss raised even more questions from Bulldog skeptics about their abilities to win in March. Doubters will point to the Bulldogs’ soft conference schedule in the WCC, but Gonzaga has been responding in recent years by scheduling games against especially strong non-conference teams. This year is no exception, as the Bulldogs will take on the likes of Texas, Duke, Alabama, and UCLA before conference play begins in January. After losing three starters from last year’s team to the NBA draft, Gonzaga retooled and added the number one ranked recruit Chet Holmgren, as well as fellow five-star recruit Hunter Sallis. This team has significantly more depth than last year’s top-heavy squad, and centre Drew Timme enters the year as one of the favourites for National Player of the Year. The Bulldogs may even be better than last year’s 31-1 juggernaut.
If you want to talk about depth, the UCLA Bruins may boast more depth than any other team in the country. It’s strange to call a team with more national titles than any other school a Cinderella, but that’s exactly what last year’s 11th seeded Bruins were when they went on their magical March run. It’s incredibly rare in this day and age for a team to return all five starters from last year’s team, but the core pieces of last March’s squad have returned for more. Not only has the triple-J scoring punch of Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez Jr. re-upped, but 5-star Peyton Watson, and Rutgers transfer and standout Myles Johnson have joined a rotation that legitimately goes 10-deep. The Bruins could be scary good this year.
One of the joys of college basketball is that the staggering number of teams ensures that there will always be something for fans to keep an eye on. These are just a few of the interesting squads for the upcoming season, but the country is truly littered with contenders. With fans back in the stands for the first time in a while, this season has the potential to be one of the best in recent memory.