Dribble handoff: What major-conference team will have the best bounce-back season in college basketball?

Sometimes it happens even to the proudest of college basketball programs: a run of success interrupted by a season of upsets, injuries and unmet expectations. But those seasons are not always indicative of long-term lapses into mediocrity.

Kentucky, for example, missed the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and then advanced to the national title game in 2014 in one of the best bounce-back seasons in recent memory. Creighton was an example of a great bounce-back team in the 2019-20 season. After finishing 20-15 (9-9 Big East) in 2018-19, the Blue Jays won a share of the league title last season and were a lock for the NCAA Tournament before the event’s cancelation.

As college athletics deal with the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no guarantee that the 2020-21 college basketball season will be played as scheduled. Assuming there is a season of some sort, though, our experts have identified four major-conference teams poised for bounce-back seasons.

Here is who our panelists believe are best-positioned for a resurgence in the 2020-21 campaign after a lackluster 2019-20 campaign. Shockingly, North Carolina was not picked first.

Gary Parrish: Tennessee

Tennessee had a chance to be good — not great, but definitely good — last season. But when Lamonte Turner decided to have season-ending shoulder surgery in December, the Vols’ ceiling was lowered considerably. They immediately lost their next two games, dropped to 8-5 overall, and then limped to a 17-14 record featuring a mediocre 9-9 mark in the SEC.

If there was an NCAA Tournament in 2020, Tennessee would not have made it.

But a bounce-back season is on tap.

Assuming Yves Pons withdraws from the 2020 NBA Draft, Tennessee will return five of its top six scorers and pair them with the fourth-best recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports, headlined by five-star prospects Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. That’s a super-strong roster for Rick Barnes, who will have a realistic chance to finish in the top two of the SEC standings for the third time in a four-year span. In fact, in my opinion, Tennessee should be the favorite in the SEC on paper, just ahead of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who are basically starting from scratch once again. It could take UK a while to get going, if it gets going at all. But the Vols are experienced and talented enough to be terrific from start to finish.

Matt Norlander: UConn

My pick’s different from the other three in a few ways, but perhaps most tangibly in this regard: UConn is the only school mentioned in this roundtable that is coming off a season with more wins than it had the three seasons prior. Not an immediate bounce-back candidate, but follow me here. Dan Hurley guided the Huskies to a 19-12 finish, falling short of the 20-win mark because there was of course no league tournament in the American. But despite that, UConn wasn’t an NCAA Tournament team — even if we’d had a tournament last season. 

That changes in 2021 — and let’s hope we can have a 68-team spectacular back in March.  

Akok Akok, if fully healthy, can be an elite defender. Isaiah Whaley can help give UConn one of its stronger frontcourts of the past seven or eight years. Big name to know is Andre Jackson, an incoming freshman who was a top-50 2020 prospect and should start next season alongside the returning James Bouknight, who has a ceiling of being a top-five player in the Big East. And on the topic of the Big East, your reminder that UConn is back where it belongs. I think this helps the Huskies, who have a shot to be a top-four team in that league in 2020-21. If that happens, UConn’s going to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a bounce-back in more ways than one. 

Kyle Boone: Purdue

A down year in West Lafayette last season was imminent after losing Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. Now, a bounce-back year is impending after the Boilermakers experienced one of their worst seasons in nearly a decade, going 16-15 and barely besting their 15-17 campaign from 2013-14.

Matt Painter is the reason I have no reservation calling my black and old gold-tinted shot here. In each season he’s been at the helm where Purdue has won 16 or fewer games, he’s had his team improve by six wins, on average, the following season. (Only once did the following season result in more losses on top of the fact that he’s only had three losing seasons in West Lafayette over 15 years. He’s a wizard.)

My faith in his coaching gives me comfort but who he’s coaching gives me endless confidence that I will look like an oracle a year from now. Trevion Williams emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best bigs last season while Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic quietly took massive leaps together as sophomores. With that core returning and two promising four-star recruits on their way, Purdue should be in line for a healthy course-correction that leads them back to the NCAA Tournament.

David Cobb: North Carolina

This is a no-brainer. Honestly, it was too easy of an answer for my colleagues, who rightfully fancy themselves as college basketball intellectuals. They are too advanced in mind to bore themselves with explaining why North Carolina will be good again this season.

It’s not a challenging case to make for six reasons. Those six reasons are the six freshmen who comprise the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. All six of them are four-star prospects or better, and three of them are five-star prospects ranked in the top 25 of the 2020 class.

By themselves, the freshmen could lead North Carolina to a better record than the abysmal 14-19 mark the program posted last season. But the Tar Heels also return forward Garrison Brooks, who will be a senior after putting the team on his back last season when freshman phenom Cole Anthony was out with an injury. Brooks’ veteran leadership will be invaluable in a rotation that will otherwise consist mostly of freshmen and sophomores.

North Carolina has not finished with a losing record twice in a row since 1951 and 1952, according to sports-reference.com. With so much talent coming in and Brooks back to lead the way, it’s a safe bet to assume they will bounce back next season.

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