Given a choice between entering the weakest NBA Draft in a generation and returning to the most challenging Big Ten Conference season since, well, at least last year, the vast majority of players in that position chose another year of B1G basketball.
That’s how it went all across the college game as the NCAA deadline to withdraw from the 2020 NBA Draft approached Monday at midnight.
This past weekend was the best in college basketball since that memorable pre-pandemic Saturday when Kentucky, Southern California, Butler and Utah State all won on late baskets and presaged a manic March that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was canceled less than a week later.
In writing about the winners and losers from college basketball’s “deadline day,” the most obvious entry on the positive side of the ledger was college basketball itself. The Big Ten Conference, in the space of four days, got back Iowa All-American Luka Garza, center Kofi Cockburn and point guard Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois, point guard Marcus Carr of Minnesota and wing Aaron Henry of Michigan State. That was on top of stretch-4 Isaiah Livers of Michigan, who announced his decision weeks before the deadline.
A year after 43 veteran college players entered the draft as underclassmen and wound up not being selected on draft night, the largest number in the history of the game, scores of tweets and news releases were issued between Friday and Monday announcing that significant players were returning to the college game.
So it’s a lot easier to find the winners in this circumstance, but there are some on the opposite side of the ledger.
WINNER: Baylor. What might have been the greatest season in Bears basketball history did not get the opportunity for the ending it warranted, but this one could. Jared Butler and MaCio Teague averaged a combined 29.9 points for a team whose excellence was built primarily on its suffocating defense, which ranked No. 4 in efficiency. But the offense mattered, ranking No. 17, and those two shooters were the primary reasons. With the backcourt intact, Baylor will enter the season projected as college basketball’s No. 1 team.
LOSER: Stanford. Freshman guard Tyrell Terry was an essential ingredient as the Cardinal compiled a 20-12 record and 9-9 Pac-12 finish, and there was the potential for so much more in 2020-21, especially with gifted forward Oscar da Silva scheduled to return. Terry is not widely projected as a first-round pick, but he said he has gotten enough positive feedback from teams to feel confident in his decision.
WINNER: LSU. The Tigers got back a trio of double-figure scorers who were on the early entry list: forwards Trendon Watford and Darius Days, and guard Javonte Smart. Combined they averaged 37.2 points for the 21-10 Tigers, who finished tied for second in the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers did lose sophomore forward Emmitt Williams, and they will miss his ability to protect the rim. They are bringing in a strong recruiting class. Now, those freshmen will not have to be completely responsible for the program but merely to function as a complement to the strong veterans in place.
LOSER: Creighton. Shooting guard Ty-Shon Alexander was about to become a first-team All-America candidate. ESPN has him ranked as the No. 80 prospect in the draft, while others view him as a second-round pick. He averaged 16.9 points and 39.9 percent 3-point shooting. There still likely is enough in place for the Bluejays to contend in the Big East, but Alexander would have been able to carry a heavy load.
WINNER: Richmond. The Spiders had the best quiet season in college basketball last season. They went 24-7 and were trending toward an NCAA Tournament bid as March advanced, and they’ll be even more imposing this season as guards Jacob Gilyard and Blake Francis and forward Grant Golden return. They averaged a combined 43.8 points, and Gilyard also was good for 5.7 assists per game.
LOSER: Marquette. The Golden Eagles knew they’d be losing a massive chunk of their offense with All-American Markus Howard completing his career. But Brendan Bailey? He averaged 7.1 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore last season. He shot 40.6 percent from the field. Any of that screaming “lottery pick” at you? Whatever ability he has as a basketball player, Bailey will not have the luxury of time to produce it. Pro basketball doesn’t work that way, in any country. Marquette will have a dynamic backcourt with transfer D.J. Carton and fifth-year senior Koby McEwen, but it could have used another year from Bailey.
WINNER: Tennessee. Coach Rick Barnes is building toward another powerhouse season in 2020-21, but it might have been tough to hang at the top of a stacked SEC without big man Yves Pons. He is not an exceptional scorer, but his ability to guard the rim ranks with the best of NCAA basketball.
LOSER: Mississippi State. It was no surprise to see Reggie Perry go after an outstanding sophomore season; it might have been more so that he hung around to deliver that. But also to lose guard Nick Weatherspoon and wing Robert Woodard is a blow.
WINNER: Arkansas. One of the most dynamic shooters in college basketball, Isaiah Joe, was a player who would not have surprised many had he stayed in the draft. He was considered a marginal second-round pick, but that has been enough to convince many in recent years to leave college hoops behind. Joe averaged 16.9 points last year. He was not an efficient shooter, only hitting 34.2 percent from deep, but that was largely because the nature of the team required he fire when open. He was a 41 percent shooter as a freshman. This should be a team that has more options, giving Joe the chance to show that he can be accurate as well as overwhelming. By the way, if he were to stay all four years, Joe is on place to crack the Division I top 15 in 3-pointers made.
WINNER: Alabama. Perhaps John Petty caught my eye early in his career because of his cool hairstyle, but he always has struck me as a winning player. In his freshman year, I watched him score 20 points to help beat Virginia Tech in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. He has been a double-figure scorer in each of his three seasons and last year averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in nearly 34 minutes a game. That’s a player a team misses when he’s gone.
WINNER: UCLA. If you haven’t noticed by now, the Bruins traditionally have not won many face-offs against the NBA. Since 2009, they’ve had 15 players depart through early entry, with only three becoming lottery picks (Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Lonzo Ball) and six either falling to the second round or going undrafted. Perhaps the Bruins’ fortunes have changed. Jalen Hill entered after averaging 9 points and 6.9 rebounds but withdrew in May. Wing Chris Smith waited until the final day, but the Bruins get back their top scorer (13.1 ppg). That means the starting five is intact from last year’s Pac-12 runner-up.
WINNER and LOSER, BUT MOSTLY WINNER: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs will be the projected No. 1 team for many even without All-American big man Filip Petrusev, but it would be unfairly dismissive to declare in advance they’ll be better without him. He averaged better than 17.5 points and 7.9 rebounds and was a huge reason the Bulldogs hit the 30-win mark for the fourth consecutive season. But, with wing Cory Kispert and dynamic guard Joel Ayayi returning from the draft, with a year’s experience in their roles — Ayayi could develop into the next Zags star — this really could be a better Gonzaga team.