Court Report: Ranking the top 20 biggest college basketball stories of 2020

A special year-end edition of this week’s Court Report takes a long gaze at the past 12 months to parse out the most significant headlines to spear the sport. Some are obvious, while others you might be startled to realize really did happen back in January or February. With nods to notables such as Bruce Pearl’s roadside shot during the NBA Draft and Clemson getting its first win at North Carolina  in school history, they weren’t quite big enough.  

These were the 20 biggest stories of 2020 in men’s college hoops. For more context on all these stories, links to all original headlines are hyperlinked in parentheses where the dates show.

20. NCAA announces it’s moving the tournament to one geographic area (Nov. 16). I first suggested this move in the summer, and by late fall it was finally decided. This is a significant, necessary decision if we are to have a 2021 NCAA Tournament. Normally the men’s tournament takes place in 14 cities across three weeks. For this season it’s going to be in greater Indianapolis, and based on what I’m hearing, it will take approximately two weeks from first tip to final horn. As first noted in last week’s Court Report, expect the NCAA to announce next week that Indianapolis has been secured, with confirmation of the six or seven venues that will be scheduled to house all 67 games.

19. Oklahoma State assessed one-year postseason ban (June 5). A significant headline because OSU was the first school tied to the FBI’s investigation to receive a verdict from the NCAA. The ban came as a shock for Oklahoma State, and in fact, that decision helped prompt schools like Kansas, Arizona, LSU, Auburn and others to apply for the newly formed Independent Accountability Resolution Process (instead of the traditional Committee on Infractions) in hopes to get a more reasonable verdict. Oklahoma State is currently appealing the COI’s ruling, as is custom. The pandemic might force enough delays in procedure that OSU’s appeal drags on long enough to allow it eligibility for the 2021 NCAA Tournament anyway.  

18. A Georgia Tech assistant changes Election Day in college athletics forever (Sept. 16). This is when the Division I Council officially passed what was dubbed #AllVoteNoPlay, making every federal election day in November a day with no mandated NCAA activities. It was all sparked by Georgia Tech assistant Eric Reveno, who got the movement going with this tweet, which came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and landed amid the daily protests for social justice and anti-racism throughout the world.  

17. Two prominent commitments within days of each other: Emoni Bates to Michigan State (June 29), Makur Maker to Howard (July 3). Many wrongly assumed that the NBA and the NBPA’s collective bargaining agreement would be ratified to allow 18-year-olds to once again go from high school to the draft by 2022 (Bates’ senior year). In reality, it was always more complicated. Relatedly, there was (and still is) skepticism that Bates, who is one of the best high school prospects in a decade-plus, would play one day in college basketball. We’ll have to wait and see, but his father has maintained to me that it’s always been a serious option. Expect the final answer on this in 2021.

As for Maker, he became the highest-rated recruit in modern history to commit to a Historically Black College or University. The decision received a lot of praise and pub. Unfortunately, Maker has been inactive since the end of November due to a groin injury. Plenty inside college basketball had skepticism whether Maker’s Howard pledge would cause copycat commitments eventually. If there’s going to be a big one, it’s 2023 elite recruit Mikey Williams, who for months has said he will think long and hard about the HBCU route. 

Emoni Bates is the No. 1-rated recruit in 2022 and has verbally committed to Michigan State.
USATSI

16. In light of nine Level I allegations, Arizona puts itself on a 2021 postseason ban (Dec. 29). The most recent headline on this list. The nine Level I violations — first reported by The Athletic in November — are the most attached to any school affiliated with the federal government’s (long-since concluded) investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting. Arizona is 7-1, and on Tuesday it announced, surprisingly, it would remove itself from postseason play for 2021 in advance of the school meeting (many months later into 2021) with the judicial group that is heading up the IARP. Whether this winds up being a smart tactic, no one yet knows. 

15. Rick Pitino returns to college basketball (March 14). When he was fired from Louisville in the fall of 2017, Pitino said he couldn’t ever see himself returning to the sport that made him a Hall of Famer. Then, when the Iona gig came open, and some old friends in high places made some moves, college hoops had one of its most successful (and polarizing) coaches in history back. Pitino certainly makes college basketball a bit more compelling. Iona is 5-3 and in the midst of its second coronavirus pause; it is scheduled to resume its season Jan. 15. 

14. Season delayed two weeks, unprecedented scheduling upheaval (Sept. 16). There isn’t really one date that can pin this down, but the vote on the start of the season came Sept 16. And this headline is still ongoing, of course. Hundreds of games were rescheduled or canceled in the two months leading up to the start of the 2020-21 season. We are still seeing daily postponements due to COVID-19. The drama of it all played in behind the scenes, though. Almost every day for almost two months there was something to chase with what events and games were and were not happening or who was in or out of an early season event; the multi-team event subterfuge with event organizers, or coaches agreeing to games and then flaking hours later. The backstabbing and the empty promises were wilder than ever before. It will be interesting to see how it affects the way scheduling is done once the 2020-21 season ends.

13. Duke loses two nonconference games at home for the first time in nearly 40 years; Coach K questions the season (Dec. 8). Whenever Duke loses a home game, it’s a story. Whenever Duke loses a home game outside of ACC play, it’s an even bigger story. Whenever Duke loses multiple home games outside the ACC, it’s a once-every-40-years story. And after that happens, and Duke is 2-2, with its worst start in decades, with Mike Krzyzewski publicly calling into question college basketball even playing prior to January amid a once-a-century pandemic? That transcends the sport. Despite K and Pitino, the two most prominent critics of college basketball starting in November, college hoops is completing games as scheduled at around an 80% rate through the first six weeks of the season. 

12. Will Wade accused by NCAA of paying at least 11 people tied to recruits (Aug. 26). I know this has been lost a bit amid, well … *gestures at landscape* but read that headline again: Will Wade accused by NCAA of paying at least 11 people tied to recruits. This is the NCAA’s claim: Wade “arranged for, offered and/or provided impermissible payments, including cash payments, to at least 11 men’s basketball prospective student-athletes, their family members, individuals associated with the prospects and/or nonscholastic coaches in exchange for the prospects’ enrollment at LSU.” This came after a documentary was broadcast by HBO in March that, for the first time, publicly revealed audio of Wade talking on wiretap and irreversibly incriminating himself. Wade holding on to his job for as long as this has gone on has vexed many within college athletics. The end figures to be coming in 2021. 

11. Bob Knight returns to Assembly Hall (Feb. 8). A lot of people who know Knight well swore he would never return for an Indiana basketball game. But he did. Bygones were bygones, at least for a day, and the General made a brief public appearance during halftime of IU’s 74-62 loss against Purdue. This is something that meant a hell of a lot to thousands of people in Indiana. They can all thank Knight’s former players, who finally convinced him to swallow the grudge and embrace the warmth. 

10. Kentucky starts season 1-6 (November/December). Where this story goes in 2021 will be interesting. UK begins its SEC campaign on Saturday at Mississippi State. It’s mired in its worst start in 109 years. Unless it can win the SEC Tournament, UK will not make the NCAA Tournament. No team has ever started 1-6 in a multi-bid conference and made the Big Dance that same season. This has been bizarre, unexpected, but because Kentucky is Kentucky, it becomes one of the biggest stories in the sport, and grows bigger with each subsequent loss, none more damaging to Big Blue Nation’s psyche than falling to Louisville. 

9. Gonzaga starts season 9-0, talk of undefeated season increases (November/December). The inverse of Kentucky. Gonzaga sits at 9-0, and thanks to four wins over ranked teams — all victories convincing — there is already deserved chatter about GU’s chances of running the regular season table and becoming the fourth team in 40-plus years to do so. If Gonzaga can make the tourney undefeated, it will easily rank in the top five of the biggest stories in college hoops next year. For now, the All American-level troika of Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs have Gonzaga gliding as the biggest story in the sport heading into January.

8. NCAA agrees to (broad) NIL legislation (April 29, Oct. 14). There is still so much to be sorted out with this (the Supreme Court is even going to hear an NCAA case which will impact the boundaries of name, image and likeness legislation), but the bottom line is the NCAA in 2020 finally approved for future bylaws that enable college athletes to make money based off their talents while in college. This was unthinkable, though pushed for, as recently as a decade ago. In January, at the NCAA’s annual convention, the Board of Governors will vote in NIL enactments. The story has much more to go, though, as individual states are granting widespread rights that go beyond what the NCAA wants. The year 2021 will be another huge one for the NCAA, with the very nature of what it means to be a prominent college athlete at stake for generations to come.

Tre Jones’ winning shot on Feb. 8 clinched an epic chapter in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
USATSI

7. Dean Dome Double Buzzer-Beater (Feb. 9). We couldn’t go any further without getting to a game result. In fact, this is the only game result of 2020 that feels right to include. College sports’ biggest rivalry turned in one of its most classic chapters in February. North Carolina had practically won this game a half-dozen times, until it didn’t. Duke’s two buzzer-beaters — the first to tie it, the second to win it — were jump-off-your-couch ridiculous. The one lingering negative about this game was the fact both teams wore hideous uniforms, unfortunately tainting the memory of this epic. Nevertheless, Tre Jones went Duke legend in pulling off this win, tossing a depressingly heavy amount of dirt on what was one of the worst seasons in UNC basketball history. 

6. Obi Toppin wins National Player of the Year, Dayton becomes national sensation amid greatest season in school history (January-March). Baylor. San Diego State. Florida State. All schools that had their best regular seasons in program history in 2019-20 and could have made a Final Four run. But it is Dayton that will be forever remembered as the team that lost its chance — kind of like the Montreal Expos with the MLB strike of 1994 — to win a national championship (even if Kansas, which Dayton nearly beat in Maui, was the best team). Not only did UD have a gaudy record (29-2), the Flyers were freaking fun to watch and one of the most efficient offensive teams of the past 20 seasons. Toppin became a dunking sensation and was as famous as any player in the sport by February. All of this at basketball-loving Dayton. The season that was. The tournament that never could be. 

5. Florida’s Keyontae Johnson collapses (Dec. 12). Thankfully, this story has taken a turn for the tremendous. Johnson is now acting as a coach with the Gators, though his season almost certainly done. But on the morning of Dec. 12, during Florida’s game at Florida State, a frightening vision for college sports. Johnson collapsed after a stoppage in play while the game was in a timeout. Johnson was taken to the local hospital and remained there for a couple of days before being transported to Gainesville, Florida. Updates were consistent but lacking in detail initially, leading to mounting concerns. In the ensuing two weeks, every statement to come out of Florida’s program was better than the previous one, and now Johnson is doing great. But the questions surrounding his collapse remain huge, and the family says it will be transparent about the nature of this incident as soon as the doctors and science are clear about why this happened.

Kansas’ Silvio De Sousa grabs a stool during a fight between KU and Kansas State.
Getty Images

4. Kansas State-Kansas fight highlighted by Silvio De Sousa picking up a stool (Jan. 22). Now this is one that feels like 18 months ago, not less than 12. One of the worst brawls of the past 20 years in college basketball unfolded at Allen Fieldhouse, punctuated by a terrible image: KU forward Silvio De Sousa holding a stool over his head as a brouhaha broke out beyond the baseline, spilling into the stands and marring college basketball’s image in the process. De Sousa never played a game for Kansas again. The image of this brawl was as bad as almost any fight in college basketball in the past 30-plus years. Here’s how big it was: Our story about the fight was the most-read college basketball story on CBSSports.com last season.

3. Hall of Fame coaches Lute Olson (Aug. 28) and John Thompson Jr. (Aug. 31) die within days of each other. Olson built Arizona into a top-10 program — after he turned around Iowa’s program and brought the Hawkeyes to a Final Four. Thompson, who changed Georgetown from a tiny non-entity in college hoops to one of the most dominant programs of the 1980s, is one of the most important coaches in the history of American sports. Both faced health issues in recent times, Olson’s decline being a bit longer than Big John’s. Georgetown basketball defined the 1980s as much or more than any other program in what is regarded as the best and biggest decade in the sport’s history. That Thompson’s death came amid another huge civil rights movement in the United States was a bitter irony. Thompson died at 78. Olson at 85. College basketball lost many greats in 2021; Olson and Thompson passed after Eddie Sutton (84) died in May and Lou Henson (88) died in July. The four men won a combined 2,962 games.

2. Physical and verbal abuse allegations surface against Gregg Marshall, leading to his resignation (Nov. 17). In October, Stadium and The Athletic broke stories on the same night — with disturbing details — about past behavior from Marshall earlier this decade that included punching a player, physically accosting an assistant and nearly coming to blows with an athlete outside the men’s basketball program. Marshall also allegedly taunted a player of Native American descent and was graphically vulgar in other instances. Marshall publicly denied ever assaulting anyone. He could not save his job, and so the most successful coach in Wichita State history agreed to a $7.75 million payout and left the program he built into a top-40 outfit a little more than a week before the season began. 

1. NCAA Tournament canceled (March 12). You already knew what was going to be here. I could write 500 words on what this headline wrought, but the link right there tells it best. It’s the story of how the NCAA Tournament fell apart in less than 24 hours. The night of March 11, Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, putting the NBA season on hold. The next afternoon, the expected became official when the NCAA Tournament in men’s and women’s basketball was canceled. It was the only major American sport — team or individual — to not complete a championship in 2020. The decision was necessary, but the ramifications of it will be felt for years and years throughout college sports. And as an event, it will become one of the biggest headlines in college sports for the next 50 years. 

@ me

Each week I highlight reader questions, so find me on Twitter and @ me with whatever you’d like answered. 

Archie Miller is not getting fired this season, and probably not the next one either. As for the Missouri Valley, yes, this league is potentially — MAYBE — setting itself up for a two-bid season. Drake is 11-0, Southern Illinois is 7-1, Missouri State is 4-1 and Loyola Chicago is 6-2. It’s unquestionably a top-10 league in college hoops this season, and its teams are collectively making 38.2% of their 3-pointers, which is the best rate of any conference.

Washington (1-6) is terrible, but I don’t think so. It would have to continue to torpedo. 

This is right! The Big Ten has nine teams in this week’s AP Top 25, which is that league’s high-water mark, but the Big East set the record back in 2011. That was also the year the Big East put 11 teams into the NCAA Tournament, also a record. The Big Ten may well tie that mark in 2021. 

Final shots

History on Wednesday night: Eastern Illinois’ Mack Smith made a 3-pointer for the 89th straight game, setting the NCAA record previously held by Illinois’ Cory Bradford. D-I college basketball in a pandemic: San Jose State is unable to play in Santa Clara County because of health officials’ edicts. So it’s relocated to Phoenix. On Thursday night, SJSU has a “home” game scheduled against Boise State. The venue is a local fitness club. Seriously!

I confirmed this with Boise State coach Leon Rice. He texted, “Hell yeah and we are so excited to go do it, I got hungry dogs and will play outside if we need to.”

The Big Sky has canceled — not postponed — two league games due to COVID-19. A double dip between Weber State and Idaho State has been taken off the schedule. At this point, all other leagues are postponing matchups with the hope of makeup dates in January, February or March.More cancellations in league play: Detroit is opting out of its next two games, citing mental health needs. This may well be a first in men’s D-I history. From earlier this month: some big-name coaches have joined Eracism, another important and imperative initiative to keep social-justice issues on the forefront. Expect to hear and see more from this coalition throughout 2021.West Virginia’s depth took a hit this week with the news freshman big Isaiah Cottrell is done this season due to a torn ACL. Could be an all-league player by the time he’s a senior.Another team that lost a good one, but for different reasons: Dayton’s Chase Johnson, who is a good player helping UD post-Toppin, is stepping away in the name of his own health and well-being. Some props to 6-3 Saint Louis guard Jordan Goodwin, who is in the running for pound-for-pound most productive player in college basketball. The man has seven double-doubles this season and is averaging 16.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. 
Sources: The NEC is going to a four-team tournament for 2021, down from a customary eight-team field. I’ve highlighted Jordan Sperber’s work in the Court Report previously, and here’s another dandy. Yes, Northwestern lost at Iowa on Tuesday night, but the Wildcats have hopes of making the NCAA Tournament thanks to a revamped offense. It’s pretty drastic. Here’s how.

Published: 2020-12-31 20:48:45

Tags: #Court #Report #Ranking #top #biggest #college #basketball #stories

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