Years from now, the 2020-21 men's college basketball season will be remembered for three things. No. 1: Baylor winning the national championship. No. 2: Gonzaga going 31-0, then getting rolled by Baylor in the NCAA title game, thus failing to become the first men's team since Indiana in 1976 to finish with an unbeaten record. But the third item may well be the biggest: a season problematically held amid a pandemic. It marked the first time in more than 25 years that teams played regular-season schedules of fewer than 25 games.
With that unique season came unusually poor performances from some teams, as challenges affected rhythms and routines. Hundreds of games were either canceled or postponed. Expect '21-22 to have some reversion, since scheduling should (mostly) return to normal. Next season, there will be teams that hop into the rankings that haven't been there in a year or two -- or longer.
Though we are still miles and miles away from my annual preseason ranking of every team in men's college hoops, I've sifted through the major conferences and identified five of the most likely candidates to experience a jolt back into relevance. An especially good thing for college hoops: some of these programs are the ones that mean the most to the sport.
Last season: 13-14, ineligible for postseason
Best players returning: Allen Flanigan (14.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Jaylin Williams (10.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Devan Cambridge (8.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Best incoming player: Jabari Smith (No. 4 prospect in Class of 2021, per 247 Composite)
Outlook: In the preceding four seasons before 2020-21, Auburn's record on average was 25-10. Bruce Pearl took the Tigers to the NCAAs in 2018, made the Final Four in 2019, then would have had something like a No. 5 seed if there was a 2020 tournament. Last season was expected to be a step back. And now, losing 20-point-per-game dynamo Sharife Cooper, in addition to JT Thor, that stings but Auburn is bringing aboard some serious weaponry and variety with its transfers. K.D. Johnson, via Georgia, should average double figures. Walker Kessler only scored 4.4 points while at UNC, but nobody would be shocked if he was a double-double guy immediately under Pearl. And then there's a hidden gem in Wendell Green Jr., who averaged 16 per game with Eastern Kentucky. The Tigers will be a top-six team in the SEC and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season: 13-11, missed NCAA Tournament for first time since 1995
Best players returning: Wendell Moore Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Jeremy Roach (8.7 ppg, 2.8 apg)
Best incoming player: Paolo Banchero (No. 2 prospect in Class of 2021, per 247 Composite)
Outlook: I am not betting against Mike Krzyzewski in his final season. It is true that Duke is going to transition with one of the two or three biggest exoduses Coach K's ever dealt with (Matthew Hurt, Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward, Jordan Goldwire, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman III and Patrick Tape are all gone), but the incoming talent will almost certainly bump the Blue Devils back into the polls and get K to the 36th and final NCAA Tournament of his illustrious career. Duke is bringing back Mark Williams, who could be the sleeper player in the ACC, in addition to Joey Baker. Marquette'sTheo John is playing a grad year with Duke, and two other top-30 prospects will be in the mix: Trevor Keels and A.J. Griffin. I'm not sold on Duke being a top-10 team, but it should be top-three in the ACC.