The 2021-22 men’s college basketball season is right around the corner and we’re here to get you ready for all the action by first taking a quick rewind to reflect on how last season ended.
Here are five storylines to remember from the 2020-21 men’s basketball season, from historic NCAA tournament runs to styles of play and personnel that caught our eye.
An NCAA tournament of seconds
In the first-ever 68-team men’s NCAA tournament, No. 11 seed VCU made an improbable First Four-to-Final Four run. It took 10 years for it to happen again, as a little program by the name of UCLA — only the school with the most men’s basketball national titles — came on the precipice of playing for another after starting the NCAA tournament in the First Four and forcing No. 1 seed and then-unbeaten Gonzaga to overtime in the Final Four.
We don’t need to remind you what happened next.
Despite the heart-breaking ending for the Bruins, their run was still historic. Among the 40 non-No. 16 seeds that have played in the First Four since its debut in 2011, UCLA was just the second to make the Final Four — an occurrence that has happened just five percent of the time for teams with that seed during that span.
Then there’s Oral Roberts, which became just the second No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16, joining Florida Gulf Coast’s 2013 squad. (The Golden Eagles were a missed 3-pointer against Arkansas from making the Elite Eight, too.)
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams starting in the 1984-85 season, just two of the 144 teams that received a No. 15 seed won two games in the NCAA tournament (roughly 1.4 percent). Only nine No. 15 seeds have upset a No. 2 seed — although, there have been five such upsets in the last nine NCAA tournaments — which means that No. 15 seeds have only won in the first round 6.3 percent of the time.
There’s a reason that UCLA — a likely preseason top-five team — and Oral Roberts — a team from a conference that traditionally only sends one team to the NCAA tournament each year — will be on the national radar this fall. Not only do the Bruins and Golden Eagles each return an All-America candidate — Johnny Juzang and Max Abmas, the country’s leading scorer last season — respectively, but each program is coming off of an NCAA tournament run that was just the second of its kind.
The Big Ten plays bully ball
Last season, the Big Ten had two consensus second-team All-American centers who return to the sport this season — Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn — while Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis was named a third-team All-American according to some outlets and Purdue’s Trevion Williams was an AP honorable mention All-American.
Each of those four players could contend for first or second-team All-America honors this season, not to mention Maryland’s Qudus Wahab, a 6-11, 237-pound center who averaged 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game at Georgetown last season, or Purdue’s 7-4 sophomore Zach Edey, who as a freshman blocked nearly 10 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts when he was on the floor while shooting 60 percent from the field.
A significant percentage of the very best players in the sport this season will play the same position for teams that share the same conference.
Parity in performance
According to kenpom.com, the top 10 teams in the country last season played in seven different conferences and nine conferences were represented in the top 15. The West Coast Conference sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament but one of them, No. 1 seed Gonzaga, played for the national championship and a chance at the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976. Similarly, the American Athletic Conference only received two bids but Houston took one of them and marched all the way to the Final Four.
Both the Bulldogs and Cougars finished in the top five on kenpom.com, ahead of any teams from the ACC, Pac-12 or SEC. Loyola Chicago of the Missouri Valley Conference finished higher in the advanced analytics site’s rankings than any team from the ACC or Big East.
With a combined 59-3 record, Baylor and Gonzaga clearly established themselves as the two best teams in the country and the Bears showed, at least on the night the two teams met in April, that there may have been a significant gap between the two of them even.
But on the whole, the best the Pac-12 had to offer could play with the Big Ten. The same goes for the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Big East’s best (read: Villanova) gave eventual national champion Baylor a really tough test in the game’s first 30 minutes. And a school from the Summit League, Oral Roberts, knocked off teams from the Big Ten and SEC on its way to the Sweet 16. As far as competitive balance across conferences and across the country, the sport had a healthy balance of top teams in 2021.
Alabama applies advanced analytics
In January, the Crimson Tide’s football team went undefeated and won another national championship. During that time, Alabama’s men’s basketball team was in the midst of a 10-game winning streak — its longest since it had a 10-game winning streak to start the 1996-97 season — as the Crimson Tide produced what was one of the best two or three seasons in program history.
Alabama went 26-7 (16-2 SEC), sweeping the SEC regular-season and conference tournament titles, before earning a No. 2 seed (tied for the best in program history) and making the Sweet 16 (tied for the second-furthest Alabama has advanced in the tournament). It was not just how much Alabama won last season that was impressive; it was how the Crimson Tide won.
According to kenpom.com, Alabama had the third-most efficient defense in the country, allowing just 87.8 points per 100 possessions, while the Crimson Tide had the country’s No. 30 offense, which played at the second-fastest pace (just over 14 seconds per possession) and 46.5 percent of the team’s shots were 3-pointers. It was very much a modern style of basketball. Ten of the 12 players who averaged more than four minutes per game were at least 6-5 and the team’s bench players were responsible for a third of the Crimson Tide’s minutes, so Alabama’s rotation was deep and its players were versatile.
Last season was Alabama coach Nate Oats’ second season in Tuscaloosa and his program saw a 10-win, year-over-year improvement as the Crimson Tide went from a team that was only one game over .500 in 2020 to a top-10 team in 2021. The future looks bright on the hardwood for Alabama.
Memphis ended last season with a win
And that’s something that only a handful of teams each season can say. Memphis missed the 2021 NCAA tournament but earned a No. 1 seed in NIT and then defeated Dayton, Boise State, Colorado State and Mississippi State to win the tournament. The Tigers finished the 2021 season with the most efficient defense in the country, per kenpom.com, as they blocked 14.4 percent of their opponents’ 2-point attempts, opponents shot just 27.7 percent from three and Memphis grabbed 76.3 percent of available defensive rebounds, which limited opponents’ second-chance opportunities.
Why does all of that matter?
Because Memphis will have two of the most talented freshmen in the country this season — Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren — to go along with returning players such as Landers Nolley II (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Deandre Williams (11.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Lester Quinones (9.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Alex Lomax (6.0 ppg, 4.2 apg).
The Tigers could be a top-five team in the preseason, and if they can maintain their stingy defense while blending their new and returning talent, Memphis should not only make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, but they could have the potential to be one of the last teams standing.