College Basketball 2020-21 Season Outlook Amid COVID-19 Concerns
College basketball has seen plenty of repeat champions recently with North Carolina, Duke, Villanova, and UConn each winning two of the last 11 NCAA Tournament titles. Name brand programs Louisville, Kentucky, Villanova and Virginia filled in the gaps over that span.
But when it comes to another measurement of college basketball success — producing national player of the year winners — parity is more prevalent. The last 11 Naismith College Player of the Year winners are all from different schools, and a couple of them came from mid-major programs.
BYU guard Jimmer Fredette won the honor in 2011, and Dayton’s Obi Toppin exploded onto the national scene to earn the award last season. Can you guess which program most recently produced two Naismith award winners? It wasn’t Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Villanova.
It was Oklahoma, with Blake Griffin and Buddy Hield winning the award in 2009 and 2016, respectively. The moral of the story is you never know where the best player in college basketball is going to come from. Blue-blood programs produce plenty of quality candidates. But other power-conference programs and even mid-major teams regularly feature players with quality cases for the honor.
As we look ahead to the 2020-21 season, our team of experts took early guesses at who will win the award this season. The only caveat was that Iowa star Luka Garza, a likely favorite for the honor, was off limits as we made our selections.
Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
Cassius Winston was pretty much everybody’s pick to win player of the year heading into last season (for sensible reasons). But the Michigan State point guard didn’t even sniff the actual award that was handed out in the postseason. In fact, he wasn’t even the Big Ten Player of the Year. So, yes, Iowa’s Luka Garza is the obvious pick right now, if only because he’s the only consensus First Team All-American who is expected to return to college. But, obviously, it’s possible somebody else will hold the trophy. And the next-best candidate, I think, is Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski.
Understand, the Naismith College Player of the Year is almost always a big scorer from a good or great team. And Zegarowski should be a big scorer from a good or great team, specifically a Creighton team that’s returning five of the top six scorers from a roster that was good enough to secure the No. 1 seed in the 2020 Big East Tournament. The 6-foot-2 point guard averaged 16.1 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 34.6 minutes per game last season. With his backcourt mate, Ty-Shon Alexander, now gone, there should be more shots available for Zegarowski, who could reasonably average 20 points per contest for a Final Four-caliber team. And that, undeniably, would automatically make him a legitimate candidate for the Naismith award. — Gary Parrish
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
The state of Oklahoma’s going to have a great shot at producing an NPOY for the third time in 13 seasons. As noted above, Oklahoma did it twice, with Griffin and Hield. Now Oklahoma State brings in the ultra-dynamic power point guard Cade Cunningham. His reputation precedes him so much, one opposing Big 12 head coach told me this week, Cunningham’s “the best player in college currently.”
As you tour this post and see other interesting options for preseason NPOY, the reality is that Cunningham’s the only practical choice outside of Garza. If he was draft-eligible now, there’s a good chance he’d be taken before anyone else in the 2020 pool. Cunningham will be given the keys and have the green light right from the jump. Cunningham is listed at 6-6 and weighs approximately 215 pounds. He has great form on his shot, shows NBA-level maturity with his style and decision-making and has enough pieces around him to give OSU a good chance at being NCAA Tournament-worthy. Cunningham is a rare player in how his style at the high school level should seamlessly translate to college, and then yet again to the NBA without much lag. He’s heady enough to take an NIT-level team and upgrade it to a single-digit seed in the Big Dance. But remember: Oklahoma State has been served with a postseason ban for 2021, so unless it can win on appeal, the Pokes will be playing for pride. Cunningham will be must-see. — Matt Norlander
Evan Mobley, Southern California
USC fans bummed about Onyeka Okongwu’s one-and-done departure have nothing to fret about. Because replacing him is an even bigger and better prospect on the way in Evan Mobley, the top center recruit in the incoming freshman class. (Yes, you read that right: better than Okongwu — a likely top-five pick in this year’s draft. Buckle up.)
Mobley is a difference-maker on both ends of the court. At 6-11 with a reported 7-5 wingspan, he’s a destructive force on defense with his long, wiry arms making life impossible for teams looking to score in the paint area. And on offense, he’s a mid-range maestro who can go-go gadget his way into dunking everything — with the shooting touch to extend out to the perimeter to boot. It’s not unreasonable to think he’ll average 20 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks per game for the Trojans as soon as he steps foot on campus.
Of course, beating out Garza and Cunningham will not be easy to accomplish. But he’s a change of pace to the two, with Cunningham a lead guard and Garza a veteran big with great college chops, but without the NBA hype of Mobley. His unique blend of size, athleticism, productivity and NBA projectability will earn him buzz throughout the season as a contender to be college’s top player. — Kyle Boone
Remy Martin, Arizona State
NBA scouts may not be drooling over Remy Martin, but college basketball fans should be. The 6-foot Arizona State point guard developed into one of the top players in the country last season, and it’s crying shame that COVID-19 robbed us of the opportunity to see what Martin would have done in the NCAA Tournament.
In three combined NCAA Tournament games as a freshman and sophomore, Martin struggled. But after averaging 19.1 points per game for the Sun Devils as a junior and coming up clutch in a ton of big moments, he was poised for a special postseason in 2020.
Let’s hope he gets the opportunity in 2021. Because if Martin comes back for his senior season, he’ll be joining an Arizona State roster with loads of talent, which should allow him to grow as a distributor as well as a scorer. And if he incorporates the feedback given to him during the NBA Draft process, he’ll be the best player in the Pac-12. At that point, all he would need is big March moment, and Martin would be on his way to winning the Naismith award. — David Cobb