The NCAA Hoops season officially tips off today. Illinois, Purdue, Texas, Houston, UConn, Alabama, Maryland, and Syracuse hit the court opening night but everyone will be looking forward to the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. Kansas faces Michigan State followed by what will be a cherished, possibly final, meeting between Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari.
The parity on the women’s side finally makes UConn a bet you have to think about. The rest of the field is finally getting the publicity they deserve; not a coincidence as there are fascinating storylines across the country.
Here are 21 things to look forward to as we run through winter in hopes of dancing through March Madness. Welcome to the MMH NCAA 2021-22 Season Preview.
- Mike Krzyzewski lays claim to the most wins in Division I men’s college basketball history. He is also hanging up his whistle and clipboard after the season. Entering his 47th season, Coach K will be looking to add to his 1,170 victories, 27 combined ACC titles, 35 NCAA Tournament berths, 12 Final Four trips (tied for most ever with John Wooden), and five national titles. He could cap that career with a storybook ending, especially since he could have been fired if not for the first title run back in 1991. He had been on the job for a decade and had gotten Duke in the conversation but had yet to prove a champion. The rest is history. The Krazies will be reliant on Jon Scheyer to see if he can keep the Duke Dynasty alive going forward. It may already be on life support and this season is just one last jolt from Coach K’s recruiting cache. But we’ll get to the Four Horseman leading Coach K’s Last Ride of a season later. Just know that this final season will feel familiar to all, with Duke again ranked in the AP Top 10.
- This will be the first season with fans back in the stands. Cameron Indoor Stadium being empty for Coach K’s farewell tour just would have felt wrong.
- Geno Auriemma used to have UConn on a perch even higher than Duke in the early-90’s. Now the women’s game has much more talent, and that talent is flowing to other teams looking for playing time. They’d rather slay Auriemma’s beast than play for him. Well, not all the talent. UConn is still an AP top-five team and a very good Final Four bet. However, South Carolina, Stanford, NC State, Maryland, Baylor, and even old UConn rival Tennessee is back challenging for the top spot. Hell, 16th seeded High Point dropped 59 on UConn last year. The 8th seed used to not even clear 45. The game has caught up to Auriemma and he is the best bet for the next Hall of Fame coach to follow Coach K into retirement.
- Fans are in the stands and, even better, some teams get to return home. Stanford’s women played 27 road games last year due to California’s Covid protocols, including winning the title. Haley Jones will look to put a ring on it again this year.
- HBCU programs will get a new platform and national media attention. Chris Paul teamed with Boost Mobile to create the HBCU Challenge, which will be hosted by the Phoenix Suns. The two-day doubleheader event will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2. Norfolk State, Morgan State, Hampton, and Grambling State will get to make the trip to an NBA arena. Then you’ve got Michael B. Jordan hosting an HBCU showcase with Hampton vs. North Carolina Central and Howard vs. North Carolina A&T. Finally, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 17), Notre Dame will travel to Howard for the Fighting Irish’s first-ever trip to an HBCU school and the ACC’s first since 2013.
- Mark Few has won every game except the one that matters most. Gonzaga has built a program that consistently flirts with the Final Four, but Few has never won a ring. Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis are at Gonzaga for a year to help Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard and lead another Bulldog run at the National Championship. They’ve fallen short in two of the last four title games, but this could be the year the trophy heads up to Spokane for a summer.
- Was UCLA’s Final Four run a capital F Fluke? They were an 11 seed, in the First Four, sure, but they also were a Jalen Suggs 37-footer away from the title game. UCLA did not lose a player from last year’s team, so they are experienced, but this is the one-and-done era. Talent wins titles. UCLA’s unheralded bunch is getting a lot of love from the pollsters but the NBA Draft Big Boards tell a different story.
- Did someone say one-and-done? That’s like hearing breaking glass and being conditioned to seeing Stone Cold Steve Austin but for Coach Cal. Kentucky’s Calipari is starting to feel the heat now that the rest of the top-tier coaches are using his talent luring playbook against him. Coach Cal can put you in the pros, but last year he could not win games. Big Blue won only nine last season so to steady the ship, Cal zigged so he could compete with the Zags. Cal brought in transfers! Former Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler, former Davidson combo guard Kellan Grady and former West Virginia big Oscar Tshiebwe join the team to add some physical grit to the glamour and finesse of this storied program.
- Texas basketball is on the rise, both the school and the state. While Big Blue is down, the Burnt Orange of Longhorn Nation fosters hopes of a title with Chris Beard coming over from Texas Tech. The Red Raiders will still have enough talent to compete and Baylor has stepped up in a big way since those scandals rocked the administration. Arguably, the program should not exist, but here we are.
- Jay Wright is beneath the radar, just where Villanova likes it.
- Memphis under Penny Hardaway is back to being relevant in a big way for the first time since D. Rose left town. Will Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren move No. 12 Memphis into title contention? The Preseason polls say they’ll drop out before the Elite Eight. Penny has not been to March Madness yet but he added Larry Brown to the staff. Brown has won at every level and shepherded Allen Iverson to the NBA Finals. He can handle a freshman tantrum. Another assistant, Rasheed Wallace, also might have something to say about the matter.
- Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe stayed to fill a Cade Cunningham-sized void. Moussa Cisse (Memphis) and Bryce Thompson (Kansas) came to Oklahoma State because they believe the program was more than a one-year wonder as a waypoint for a surefire draft pick that wanted to experience something different than the blue blood schools had to offer.
- Back to the women’s game and parity. Adia Barnes and Arizona got everyone’s attention with their Final Four from the three seed. They even slayed UConn behind the great Aari McDonald. The victory speech by Barnes went viral. Can they go back to The Dance, or will they get dumped out in conference play, creating another tough road to the top?
- Max Abmas went off last March to the tune of 80 points in three games. He is on the NBA map and will be featured on ESPN highlight reels every time he drops a 30 ball. But can he do it consistently now that defenders know they can make a name any night they play Oral Roberts? Abmas went to the NBA combine but came back when he saw what he’d be up against on a nightly basis. He can still hide somewhat being an underdog in every big game against a Power 5 opponent. Even if he never goes pro, we all still have a date with the electric playmaker again in March.
- Getting together for Thanksgiving will be easy for some Orangemen. There is a trio of Boeheims at Syracuse now with Jimmy (Cornell) transferred in to join Buddy and their head-coaching Hall of Fame father, Jim. Buddy is the best of the bunch, bouncing several teams out of the NCAA and ACC tournaments before Houston swept them out of the Sweet 16.
- Kim Mulkey’s first season at LSU will be under a microscope. LSU is dealing with several scandals and a huge buyout of Ed Orgeron. Mulkey, coming from Baylor, has dealt with scandals, but also kind of escaped one. How will she jump into this job? Mulkey is a three-time national champion, 11-time Big 12 tournament champion, and 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Now, she comes back to her home state to help steady a ship that has been capsizing for most of the past decade.
- Mulkey is trying to end a drought at a program. The Big Ten is trying to end a conference winless streak. The last time a Big Ten team won a national championship was Carolyn Peck’s Purdue Boilermakers in 1999. Maryland won as an ACC member in 2006. The Big Ten has four other teams in the top 17 (No. 8 Indiana, No. 9 Iowa, No. 11 Michigan, and No. 17 Ohio State) but they just need one to break through at the Final Four to end the championship drought.
- Sedona Prince’s dunks and TikToks both go viral. Dunking in the women’s game is becoming more normal. Inferior facilities for the women compared to the men is also the norm, unfortunately. Prince showed the world the discrepancy last March by documenting the weight rooms at the women’s and men’s NCAA tournaments. Her activism has earned her plenty of headlines and the WNBA will eventually give her a larger platform. She earned a spot on Team USA this summer at the FIBA AmeriCup. She might win PAC-12 player of the year. You’ll hear her name on Draft Day. You’ll hear her voice on the issues that matter.
- The college-to-pros pipeline works one way for players, but traffic is light in the coaching lane. Juwan Howard’s first two years in Michigan have been a story of overachievement. Sadly, that 2019-20 team had their season canceled. Isaiah Livers got hurt at exactly the wrong time, robbing last year’s team of their true tournament potential as a number one seed. Michigan managed to reach the Elite Eight anyway before being upended by a white-hot UCLA. All-American center Hunter Dickinson and guard Eli Brooks look to help Howard hammer home the winning culture this year and no one should be surprised to see them back in the Elite Eight.
- Hubert Davis is starting his own journey at UNC. The Tar Heels are hoping that Davis being a true blue UNC alum will overcome some coaching and recruiting hiccups to start this experience. Replacing Roy Williams was never going to be an easy job for anyone, but Davis should get the benefit of the doubt navigating the complexities and politics of running an NCAA program. He talked about modernizing the offense with forwards Dawson Garcia (Marquette) and Brady Manek (Oklahoma). It’ll be interesting how many adjustments he has to make, and how much time he is allowed on the job if things do not go well.
- This brings us back to Coach K. He started in the U.S. Army and ends his career in NIL Nation. Football had its turn. Now it’s time for athletes hitting the books and the hardwood to get some attention…and some of those sweet, sweet NIL dollars. March Madness is still the biggest moneymaker for the NCAA. Every moment between now and the third month of the year is a marketing opportunity with merchandising potential. It’s time to cash in. It’s time to tip off.
It’s Tuesday, November 9, 2021, and it’s time for NCAA basketball every day for six full months. Let’s go!