Momentum is building towards the start of another college basketball season, and anticipation is building among some of the nation’s top programs to replicate what they did last season. With the preseason AP Top 25 poll out, there is a lot to dissect among the nation’s best going into what should be a very competitive season.
How many Big Ten teams made it?
Last season marked potentially the best season in the Big Ten’s history, as 12 of the league’s 14 teams were in the top 34 of KenPom’s efficiency rankings. The next highest conference, the Big East, had five.
The ACC sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament following the 2016-17 regular season, and sent three more to the NIT. Those 12 combined teams accounted for 80 percent of the league. Last season, the Big Ten was in position to send nine to 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament, depending on how the conference tournament shook out.
The nationwide confidence in the Big Ten was prevalent in the preseason men’s basketball AP Top 25 poll, as seven teams made the cut (Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers and Michigan), with another receiving votes (Indiana). The Big Ten had eight teams in the nation’s top 30 (27 percent), and three in the top 10.
It is pretty remarkable how the Big Ten can duplicate, and even top, last season. Jalen Smith, Kaleb Wesson, and Daniel Oturo all departed for the NBA Draft, and first-team All-Big Ten players Cassius Winston and Lamar Stevens graduated. The return of some of the league’s star players helped outweigh the loss of half of its top 10 from 2019-20.
Iowa’s Luka Garza will be in contention for a lot of national accolades during his senior campaign, including Player of the Year. His return gave the Hawkeyes seven of their top eight scorers from a year ago. Illinois shot up the board when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn announced they were coming back, giving them two all-conference players. Wisconsin returned all but one player from the rotation that won a share of the regular season title.
And that is just among the league’s top three teams. Michigan State has a lot of talent once again, Rutgers returned almost all of their top players, and Ohio State has the incoming transfer talent to replenish their roster. The list goes on, making the conference the deepest in the country.
What helped the conference last season was the decision to go to a 20-game league schedule, which built up the resumes of a lot of the programs in the middle. That, in turn, gives those teams that sit right around .500 stronger resumes than mid-majors that dominated their regular season, due to the weight that every Big Ten game carried. That format, barring any COVID-19 adaptations, will be in play this season.
To be fair to other leagues, there is a lot of depth among some of the other top conferences in the country. The Big 12 had half of its teams place in the top 20 of the AP Poll, and the SEC and ACC have some depth as well, but no conference has the top-down depth like the Big Ten does this season.
How even is the playing field at the top?
Michigan State received 60 of the 65 first-place votes in last season’s preseason poll, one of the few almost-unanimous number one teams over the past few preseasons. The more common sight in recent memory is for a few teams to be vying for that top spot. The 2020-21 poll saw three teams with double-digit votes, the first time that has happened since the 2017-18 season. All three have legitimate cases for the nation’s top spot.
Gonzaga reached the top of the preseason AP Poll for the first time in program history, which is hard to imagine considering Mark Few’s longtime success in Spokane. That accolade is well-deserved, considering they have the best frontcourt in the nation, along with some solid depth at the guard position.
Gonzaga and Baylor were separated by just four votes, the fewest between the top two teams since 2013-14, when five votes stood between Kentucky and Michigan State. The Bears, who were the nation’s top team for a five-week span last season, have arguably a deeper roster than a year ago, led by the talented duo of Jared Butler and MaCio Teague.
Villanova, a March mainstay, came in at number three in the poll and accumulated 11 first place votes. Jay Wright’s guys should be right back in the mix for a Final Four run with essentially their entire rotation back and a talented incoming transfer in Caleb Daniels.
Are mid-majors at a disadvantage in the poll?
Gonzaga is obviously a mid-major, but let’s set them aside. It isn’t common for mid-major programs to flood the early polls, as they enter when they build their resumes during nonconference play. This season is unique for many reasons, but the nonconference slate for pretty much every team has been adjusted to some extent.
Mid-majors are at a clear disadvantage in a season where travel is limited, tournaments are cancelled or moved, and a lack of opponents to find. As is, the system currently in place makes it hard for them to sneak in on the bubble, making it conference tournament title or bust for many. Trying to combat this, many coaches at this level will schedule a large collection of matchups against high major programs, or find local mid-majors that will help boost their chances. Due to health and travel protocols, it has been a mad scramble to piece together schedules. In many ways, scheduling has turned into the philosophy of “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
The heavy emphasis on conference play could hinder some teams as well. Not having a marquee victory from nonconference play suddenly becomes more visible when a mid-major drops a game they shouldn’t in-conference.
As the weeks go on and the polls get released, it will be intriguing to see how mid-majors factor in this season, since it presents a unique challenge to some of the country’s most exciting programs at the level.
Where are the usual guys?
The preseason poll was able to stay “on-brand” with 2020 by throwing one twist at fans: Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and North Carolina are all outside of the top five. They combine for an average ranking of seven in the preseason poll dating back to 1962, making it even more unusual that there is only one team above that.
In their defense, the top ten (and really 15) of this poll is heavily loaded, and there can be a lot of shuffling among these teams throughout the season. It isn’t like 2020-21 will be a down year for any of these programs, people just aren’t accustomed to seeing all of them sixth or below. It is a real indicator of how evenly-matched everyone is this year.
Pretty much all of them have a realistic shot at their conference title, however, so there isn’t a large gap to be made up. Should it be expected for one or more to be in the top five by season’s end? Absolutely. Is it weird to see all of them on the outside looking in right now? Absolutely.
(Cover Photo: Associated Press)