College Basketball 2020-21: What’s This Going to Look Like?

A little more than eight months ago, many of us were looking forward to the NCAA tournament, as we do every March. The 2019-20 season wasn't the most star-studded by any means, but it was certainly a unique one. Non-blue bloods like Dayton, San Diego State, Creighton, Florida State, and Seton Hall all had championship hopes.

Of course, the shock of COVID-19 extinguished those hopes in a matter of 48 hours, as college hoops went from giving out automatic bids on March 10 to canceling the entire championship tournament on the afternoon of March 12.

Since that Thursday, not one minute of college basketball has been played, and the scheduled start of the season of Nov. 10 was pushed back to Nov. 25. Worst of all, the pandemic continues to rage. Still, the season will start.

What can we possibly expect in a season that's going to feel much different than any in modern memory?

This much is certain: there will be at least one fewer conference taking part in this Division I season after the Ivy League canceled winter sports for all schools last week.

If the Ivy League sitting out is a 100% chance, I feel it's about a 95% chance that there will be an NCAA tournament in March and April 2021. While college basketball isn't the irreplaceable cash cow to big athletic departments that football is, the NCAA as an organization is going to pull out every stop to make sure a tournament gets played. Too much stands to be lost if there's no March Madness for two whole years.

I haven't exactly been batting 1.000 with predictions about how basketball seasons will be structured recently, but if you made me put money on it, I would assume that the NCAA tournament will take place with fewer than 68 teams. After all, Division I basketball, as a 350+ school league, is much more stratified and Balkanized than FBS football. Should the pandemic stay roughly on its current track, smaller conferences in basketball just aren't going to have the resources to safely play games and declare a champion. The big-money leagues will.

However, like we're seeing in college football at the moment, postponed or canceled games are something we'll just have to get used to.

That means we'll also have to get used to records that don't look normal — like a 16-6 team overall winning a conference championship after playing a mere handful of non-conference games. Or perhaps a team that's played 15 conference games having to be classified in the same standings as one that played 19. Once we get into early March, conference tournaments may well be a bridge too far for leagues that have a large geographical footprint like the Big East or Conference USA.

I have to admit that, below the top 10 or so conferences, I'm not looking forward to the possibility that some conferences won't be represented in whatever form the NCAA tournament takes this season. While the Ivy League not sending a team to March Madness won't have mattered to the national championship, several more leagues pulling out would lessen the beauty of a true, national championship with every conference's champion taking part.

However, the top conferences look to be very competitive this year. The Big Ten, which probably would have been a 10-bid league had Selection Sunday existed this year, could be won by any of Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State. The Big 12 figures to have a Kansas/Baylor elite again, but Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Texas stand to make noise, as well.

The ACC looks to be a bit down this year, but Duke, Virginia, or Florida State should win the regular season. In the SEC, Tennessee is projected to bounce back after a rebuilding year, and Kentucky will rack up wins with young talent as always. Villanova is a clear favorite in the Big East, but Creighton is a strong No. 2.

Out West, the Pac-12 is wide open, but UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona State were all neck-and-neck in the conference preseason poll. But the Pacific Time Zone's likely best team is once again Gonzaga. While conference games are going to make up the vast majority of everyone's games from mid-December on, the Zags' March seeding fate will almost certainly be determined by four marquee games in November and December.

College basketball is going to feel uneven and possibly incomplete in some ways this season. But there will still be many strong teams and great games to forward to from November to early April.

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