At this point on the college basketball calendar, rosters for the upcoming season are usually settled and we have a fairly complete idea of the landscape. Obviously, this is not a normal calendar — and the question marks surrounding rosters and rankings reflect the unknown that has impacted everything else in the world.
But we’re inching toward some answers. The deadline for players to withdraw from the NBA draft and maintain college eligibility is Aug. 3; there are only three ESPN 100 seniors still uncommitted; and waiver approvals are already starting to come in from the NCAA.
Which remaining decisions will have the most impact on the 2020-21 season?
Gonzaga will enter next season as the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country if Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi all return to Spokane, Washington. Those three players were at the heart of a team that finished 31-2 and would have been a contender to win the national championship. If all three leave, then Mark Few will have to replace all five starters from last season. But I think there’s a decent chance that Few will get all three back — to go with potential breakout sophomore Drew Timme and elite freshman guard Jalen Suggs. Kispert is the only one of the three to appear in ESPN’s most recent NBA mock draft, but he is only at No. 41, far from a lock first-rounder. There are questions as to how much Kispert could improve his stock by going back for his senior season, but the chance to return and lead the way for a national title favorite could outweigh that. If Kispert leaves and Petrusev and Ayayi return, I still think there’s a good chance the Zags could be preseason No. 1. But we have to wait and see.
Representing the single biggest decision that will impact the college basketball landscape next season, Luka Garza will enter the campaign as the Wooden Award favorite if he decides to return to Iowa for his senior year. He told ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in May that he wouldn’t leave if it’s too risky. Garza doesn’t appear in ESPN’s mock draft, which could be considered “risky.” I’ve always been under the impression that Garza would return to the Hawkeyes next season, which is why I have them at No. 5 in the current Way-Too-Early Top 25. Without Garza, they might not even be a preseason top-25 team despite the return of four other starters and Jordan Bohannon, who played just 10 games last season. Garza’s return would give Fran McCaffery one of the nation’s best offenses once again.
Scott Drew had arguably the nation’s best backcourt last season, and he is hoping to get the band back together for another year in Waco, Texas. But Jared Butler and MaCio Teague both entered their names into the NBA draft. Butler was one of the best point guards in the country last season and one of the best players in the Big 12, and he is more likely to get drafted out of the two. Butler is currently projected as a second-round pick. Teague isn’t ranked inside ESPN’s top 100 players. Drew would be better prepared to replace Teague, with high-scoring Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler waiting in the wings. If Butler keeps his name in the draft, even if Teague comes back, it would drop Baylor out of the consensus top three nationally.
Whether Olivier Sarr can play for the Wildcats next season is going to be the biggest waiver storyline of the offseason. He left Wake Forest following the coaching change in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and ultimately committed to Kentucky. Sarr, a 7-foot center, earned third-team All-ACC honors last season and was arguably the best transfer all spring. He would immediately start at center for the Wildcats, and John Calipari doesn’t have any comparable alternatives if Sarr isn’t eligible to play right away. Sarr also has said he wouldn’t stick around in Lexington if his waiver was denied and he was forced to sit out before playing. Sarr being eligible would push Kentucky into the top five nationally, but his waiver being denied would leave Kentucky in the top 15 to 20 due to questions down low.
5. Jonathan Kuminga, uncommitted
There aren’t too many high school recruits still available, but Jonathan Kuminga is the best one — even though it’s unlikely he’ll ever play college basketball. In fact, Kuminga is still a member of the 2021 class despite graduating from The Patrick School (New Jersey) earlier this month. The expectation is that Kuminga will reclassify into 2020; where he would go from there is the big question. He released his five options last month: Kentucky, Duke, Auburn, Texas Tech — and the NBA’s G League. It’s the last option that has generated the most buzz in the past few weeks, with Kuminga potentially joining up with Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix on the new G League team. If Kuminga does go to college, Texas Tech is the most likely option given his brother, Joel Ntambwe, plays for the Red Raiders. But Kuminga’s next stop might be in the pros.
There are still a lot of question marks in East Lansing right now. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry entered the NBA draft, while Langford is hoping to return for one more season with the Spartans after missing the last season and a half with foot injuries. Henry is most likely heading back to college, despite being ranked inside the top 60 of ESPN’s rankings. Tillman is a different story: He isn’t a lock first-round pick, but staying in the draft is a legitimate possibility. Tom Izzo said on the radio last week that both Henry and Tillman are on campus and working out. Langford is a true question mark: He has had multiple foot surgeries over the past two years, and it’s unclear how healthy he would be even if he returns. Right now, the Spartans are inside our preseason top-10, but if Tillman leaves, they would undoubtedly drop.
Arizona State was on the verge of going to its third straight NCAA tournament last season; it would have been the first time since the early 1960s that the Sun Devils danced in three straight seasons. And the Sun Devils should be right back in the mix again next season, with or without Remy Martin. But Martin would take them from outside the top 25 to perhaps the Pac-12 favorite. He would team up with Alonzo Verge Jr. (another NBA draft early-entry candidate) and five-star guard Josh Christopher to form one of the most explosive perimeter trios in the country. Martin has a case for preseason All-America consideration after averaging 19.1 points and 4.1 assists last season. He isn’t ranked inside ESPN’s top 100, though, and should return to Tempe (as should Verge).
Texas Tech was one of the biggest winners — if not the biggest winner — of the transfer market, landing Mac McClung and Marcus Santos-Silva with the chance both will be eligible next season. Santos-Silva’s status won’t be in the NCAA’s hands; he is taking classes this summer in order to graduate and be eligible immediately. But McClung will come down to a waiver. The athletic guard left Georgetown after an injury-plagued second half of the season, and he is hoping to replace Davide Moretti, who left in May to pursue professional options overseas. Chris Beard loses three starters from last season’s team but brings in a top-15 recruiting class. If both McClung and Santos-Silva are eligible immediately, this is a borderline top-10 team in the preseason.
The Pac-12 should be much improved next season, with three teams in the Way-Too-Early Top 25 and another team (UCLA) knocking on the door. But Stanford has as good a chance as any to win the league — assuming Tyrell Terry comes back. The Cardinal haven’t won the regular-season title since 2004, but Jerod Haase will bring back all five starters from a team that was on the precipice of an NCAA tournament bid, while also adding elite forward Ziaire Williams. But Terry is the key, as his return would give Stanford one of the best point guards in the country. He enjoyed a terrific freshman season in Palo Alto, California, and he has fought his way into the top 50 of ESPN’s NBA draft rankings.
Illinois could swing anywhere from inside the top 15 nationally to looking like a bubble team over the next couple of months. Brad Underwood is awaiting NBA draft decisions from Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and it’s unlikely both players will return to Champaign. While Dosunmu isn’t in ESPN’s mock draft, the general expectation is that he is leaning toward keeping his name in the draft. He had a terrific sophomore season and hit a number of big shots for the Fighting Illini. Cockburn has a better chance to come back, and he should, given he isn’t ranked in ESPN’s top 100. Underwood has potential replacements for Dosunmu, with ESPN 100 guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo entering the fold, so the Illini are more prepared for his departure.
Despite not having any players mulling a withdrawal from the NBA draft, Memphis has plenty on the line over the next couple of months. We’ll get to a recruiting decision later in the rankings, but for now, we’ll focus on potential waiver decisions for two transfers: Landers Nolley (Virginia Tech) and DeAndre Williams (Evansville). Both players were rated in the top 15 of ESPN’s sit-out transfer rankings, with Nolley slotting in at No. 4 and Williams sitting at No. 15. But both are expected to apply for waivers to play immediately, and it’s unclear if either player would even wait around until 2021-22 to suit up if a waiver was denied. Nolley averaged 15.5 points as a freshman in the ACC, while Williams (who will be 24 years old before the season starts) put up 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds before missing most of conference play due to a back injury.
True to Eric Musselman’s past tendencies, Arkansas is undergoing as many personnel changes as anyone heading into next season. The Razorbacks lost Mason Jones to the NBA; Jimmy Whitt Jr. and Adrio Bailey to graduation; and Reggie Chaney and Jalen Harris to transfer. But they had three transfers sitting out, and the Razorbacks are bringing in four ESPN 100 prospects and three graduate transfers. Isaiah Joe has a real chance to lead the team in scoring if he returns to Fayetteville though. Arkansas went 1-5 without him last season and 19-7 with him in the lineup. Even with all the talent coming in, Musselman needs an experienced go-to-guy — and Joe would be that player. Joe is ranked No. 60 in ESPN’s draft rankings.
13. Moussa Cisse, uncommitted
We were supposed to have a decision by now from Moussa Cisse, who was originally expected to announce his decision in early June. But the five-star center delayed his decision, and now we wait to see where he will play his college hoops next season. Cisse reclassified into the 2020 class in late May and told ESPN’s Jonathan Givony he was considering Kentucky, LSU, Florida State, Georgia, Memphis and Georgetown. By all accounts, it’s a real battle between LSU and Memphis down the stretch. Had Cisse committed a few weeks ago, LSU would have been likely the destination. But Memphis is making a push, and Cisse (along with waivers being granted to Nolley and Williams) could make the Tigers a second-weekend NCAA tournament team. Cisse going to LSU would provide a defensive anchor inside and allow Darius Days and/or Trendon Watford to create matchup problems.
While not ranked in ESPN’s top 100 draft rankings, Yves Pons does intrigue some NBA teams. He is a terrific defender, and he made about one 3-pointer per game last season. That said, he should return to Knoxville next season. And if he does, I think Tennessee is a legitimate preseason top-10 team. Rick Barnes has guards and playmakers, he has scorers on the wing and he has depth and options up front. But Pons is the type of X factor every Final Four-caliber team needs: Someone who can make plays at both ends of the floor. I might be higher on the Volunteers than most, but Pons returning to Tennessee would make them the preseason favorite to win the SEC.
L.J. Figueroa, one of the more underrated players nationally, announced his commitment to Oregon recently — and his social media statement was clearly laying the groundwork for a potential waiver. In his announcement, Figueroa wrote that “circumstances which were out of my control forced me to transfer and look for a new opportunity.” I’m already fairly high on Oregon as things stand, but adding Figueroa to the perimeter would give Dana Altman another scoring option on the wing. The Ducks are replacing Payton Pritchard, and Will Richardson and Chris Duarte are expected to shoulder the offensive load. Figueroa, who averaged better than 14 points during each of the past two seasons at St. John’s, would help form a dangerous scoring trio.
For now, LSU is outside the preseason top 25 and not included in the five teams knocking on the door of the rankings. But there are a lot of moving parts in Baton Rouge right now. We already mentioned the pending decision from five-star senior Moussa Cisse, but Will Wade also is waiting on NBA draft decisions from Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days. Of those three, only Watford is ranked in ESPN’s top 100 draft rankings, and he is slotted in at No. 73. In other words, it would be in the best interest of all three players to go back. And if Wade gets all three back — plus Cisse — he has a team that could push for a preseason top-25 ranking.
If Isaiah Livers goes back to Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard will have a starting five that will keep Michigan in contention for the top-25 all season. If Livers leaves, then suddenly Howard has to replace arguably his three best players from a team that went 19-12 and finished .500 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines were a completely different team with a healthy Livers last season, going 6-6 in games when Livers was out or left early due to injury. He shot better than 40% from 3-point range and would be the favorite to lead the team in scoring again next season. With Livers just inside ESPN’s top 100 draft rankings, going back to Michigan would make the most sense for all parties. As for Chaundee Brown, he could pursue a waiver to play immediately next season. He averaged 12.1 points at Wake Forest last season and would add some experience and scoring pop on the wing — or as an insurance policy for Livers.
I don’t particularly see a reason for Jay Huff to stay in the draft this year; he isn’t found in the top 100 of ESPN’s NBA draft rankings, and he averaged 8.5 points last season. But I think he has NBA potential, and another year in Charlottesville will help. It also would solidify what I think is a clear-cut preseason top-5 team with Huff in the fold. Tony Bennett would bring back Huff, Kihei Clark, Tomas Woldetensae and Casey Morsell, while also adding two ESPN 100 prospects and talented Marquette transfer Sam Hauser. Huff would be an anchor at the back of the defense, and he is someone who can create matchup problems with his 7-foot-1 size and ability to step out and make shots.
Mick Cronin’s first season in Westwood was a bit topsy-turvy. The Bruins started off 8-9, with home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton. But they finished with seven wins in their last eight games and competed for a Pac-12 regular-season title. And Cronin could return all five starters from that team — if Chris Smith returns. Smith is a talented forward who continues to get better, and he is still only 20 years old despite entering his fourth year of college. But Smith is listed outside the top 60 in ESPN’s NBA draft rankings, and he could use another year to answer some of the questions scouts have about him. Jalen Hill already removed his name from the draft in May; Smith following suit would be huge for the Bruins.
20. Makur Maker, uncommitted
Makur Maker still has a few major decisions to make. The No. 16 player in the ESPN 100 for 2020, Maker has his name in the NBA draft and also hasn’t decided where he would go to school if he withdrew from the draft. Maker has made it clear he doesn’t want to go the G League route, so if he doesn’t like his NBA draft status, he’ll go to college. Where would he go? Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, told ESPN recently that UCLA, Howard, Kentucky and Memphis were the four schools in the most contact, but sources told ESPN that UCLA and Howard could be considered the front-runners. Obviously, Maker would transform Howard in the MEAC, but going to UCLA would give Mick Cronin a difference-maker in the frontcourt.
Other decisions to watch: DeJon Jarreau, Houston; Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall; John Petty, Alabama; Karim Mane, uncommitted; Matt Mitchell, San Diego State; McKinley Wright, Colorado; Derrick Alston, Boise State; Marcus Carr, Minnesota