Cam Wynter (above) and Drexel have much-raised expectations for the 2020-21 season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The start of the 2020-21 college basketball season is, somehow, only two days away.
Even though numerous teams are still going into and out of COVID protocols each week, even though coaches and ADs and conferences are still finalizing schedules and creating contingency plans, even as cases are spiking around the country, the vast majority of Division I programs are getting ready to at least attempt some semblance of normalcy.
I’m not going to use this space to debate whether or not having games right now is a safe and smart idea, or just how likely we are to get through this season. I don’t have the correct answers to either of those questions—and let’s be honest, only a few people do, and they certainly aren’t the ones calling the shots in college athletics.
Penn’s season is already kaput, the entire Ivy League forgoing winter athletics last week, the first and only D-I conference to do so thus far. Numerous D-II and D-III leagues are already off, including the local Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), and some individual schools like Swarthmore have made the decision to look forward to 2021-22 as well.
Assuming that the five City 6 teams who are planning on playing this season get through the year without significant issue, here are a few key storylines to keep an eye on in the weeks and months ahead:
Collin Gillespie’s Ascent to Stardom
On many levels, it makes sense: as the senior leader on one of the best programs in the country, of course Collin Gillespie is going to be in the discussion for National Player of the Year. After all, the 6-3 guard averaged 15.1 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds last year for a team that finished 24-7 (13-5 Big East) and looked very much capable of another deep NCAA Tournament run.
It becomes a little easier to forget that Gillespie wasn’t a Division I prospect until the latter half of his junior year, that he didn’t really start picking up offers until his senior season, that he wasn’t the typical four-star and five-star prospect that Jay Wright has been reeling in with consistency since the 2016 National Championship. That the very same work ethic which took Gillespie from Archbishop Wood rotation player to Catholic League Player of the Year is what also drove him from fringe-level Division I player to player who could very well find himself on an NBA (or at the very least, G-League) roster next year.
And yet, here we are. Gillespie earned preseason All-American second team honors from CBS Sports, was named to the Naismith Trophy Award and Bob Cousy Award watchlists, and was named a preseason Big East first-teamer along with teammate Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Considering he’s improved his scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers in each of his first three seasons, it’s not a stretch at all to see him being one of the top guards in the country this season.
Considering Gillespie’s track record, betting against him at this point seems like a poor idea.
Time for Drexel to put it together
Let’s be fair: the Drexel program that Zach Spiker took over in 2016 was not in good shape. Bruiser Flint had accomplished some great things in his 15 seasons as the Dragons’ head coach, including a fantastic 29-7 showing in 2012-13, but the four years following saw things bottom out with a six-win 2015-16 season that led to his dismissal.
It took Spiker a couple years to cycle through the old recruits who weren’t quite good enough and saw their playing time taken away by younger, more talented players. There were a few setbacks as well: promising guard Kari Jonsson heading home to Finland, and productive forward Alihan Demir taking the graduate transfer route to Minnesota.
There are no excuses anymore. Spiker has a stud inside-out combo in guard Camren Wynter (15.7 ppg/5.1 apg) and forward James Butler (13.2 ppg/11.7 rpg), both juniors by eligibility. He has a reliable third scorer in grad student wing Zach Walton (12.2 ppg). He has some intriguing underclassmen in sophomores Mate Okros (5.5 ppg) and T.J. Bickerstaff (4.8 ppg/3.5 rpg), plus sharpshooting junior Coletrane Washington (5.1 ppg). He has seven of his eight top scorers returning and healthy, plus a solid backup PG from the junior college ranks in Chukka Mekkam.
The small steps that Drexel has taken, winning a couple more games each season to get to 14-19 (6-12 CAA) last year, won’t matter at all if they can’t take a big leap towards relevance this season. The CAA is ready for it: the Dragons were picked third in the preseason poll, garnering seven out of 38 first-place votes, with both Wynter and Butler as first-teamers. The non-league results are meaningless, but if this group can’t compete in the CAA, it doesn’t speak well for the future of the program.
One Explorer’s knee
Jack Clark’s college career thus far consists of nine games, played for La Salle almost two years ago. But what a tantalizing nine games those were.
The Cheltenham product, now a 6-8 guard for the Explorers, was a late-growing, sharpshooting guard who looked like a steal for the Olney school. Then he tore his ACL early in his senior year of high school, and the injury was bad enough that it threatened his freshman year of college as well.
Instead, Clark made something of a surprise return Dec. 1, 2018 against Villanova, scoring nine points on hitting 3-of-4 from beyond. Over the games that followed, Clark played an average of 26.9 minutes, shooting 41.2% overall and 41.0% (16-of-39) from 3-point range, grabbing 4.3 rpg to boot.
Though he clearly wasn’t fully recovered from his knee injury, he looked pretty darn good. Then he re-injured the knee, his continued growth preventing the first tear from healing quite right; not only did he miss the rest of the 2018-19 season, he missed all of 2019-20.
For the first time in nearly three years, Clark is back to full health, and at his current height could be a serious threat in the Atlantic 10. If he’s the player he was, La Salle could be the best it has been since its 2013 Sweet 16 run; that’s not a tremendously high bar to clear (17-16, .515 in 2014-15), but still represents progress for third-year head coach Ashley Howard. But there’s some rust to shake off.
Ryan Daly (above) has a much stronger cast around him as St. Joe's hopes to build under second-year head coach Billy Lange. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
St. Joe’s needs shooters
Last year was rough for the Hawks, who won just six games in Billy Lange’s first season. That was entirely expected following a near-complete roster overturn after Phil Martelli’s controversial dismissal following a quarter-century run on City Ave. Now it becomes a matter of how quickly Lange can turn St. Joe’s into a threat not just to actually win some games, but really be a factor in the Atlantic 10.
Most clear is that the Hawks need to improve on their long-distance shooting. Lange’s squad took nearly half of its shot attempts from beyond the arc, fifth-highest in the country according to KenPom, yet only made 29.7% of those attempts.
There wasn’t really anybody on the roster who shot it well from deep; former walk-on Tolliver Freeman (36.4%) was the only player in the rotation to make more than one-third of his 3-point attempts. Freshman Rahmir Moore (33.3%) was next, followed by Myles Douglas (32.1%), Ryan Daly (31.1%) and Cameron Brown (31.1%) amongst the team’s top scorers.
It’s not clear that any of the newcomers are snipers, either. Dahmir Bishop was 2-of-17 (11.8%) in his limited minutes at Xavier, and Greg Foster Jr. (2-of-14, 14.3%) wasn’t much better in his season at Gonzaga. A third transfer, Jack Forrest, shot 35.2% in his year at Columbia, but unlike the other two he won’t be eligible this season. Neumann-Goretti product Jordan Hall, a 6-8 wing forward, was a near-40% 3-point shooter last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how his shot transitions to the expanded college arc.
Who the Hawks really need to return to form is redshirt junior Taylor Funk. The 6-8 stretch-forward out of Manheim Central (Pa.) hit 39.4% from distance (84-of-213) as a freshman, but 30.5% (54-of-177) as a sophomore and had hit only 25.0% (11-of-44) through seven games last year before an injury cost him the remainder of the season.
...oh, and so does Temple
Among many other things, that is. The Owls are the polar opposite of Drexel, having graduated their top three scorers and four of their top five from a year ago, in addition to losing several reserves to transfer. Four incoming transfers, four true freshmen and one redshirt freshman helped fill out the roster, even though not all of the transfers are eligible and one of the freshmen is already out with a knee injury.
The ‘known quantities’ Temple has on the roster are slim. Senior wing J.P. Moorman has been a solid role player for two years, averaging 5.9 ppg and 4.6 rpg during that span, with similar numbers each year. His classmate and another 6-7 wing forward, De’Vondre Perry, averaged 6.2 ppg and shot 41.3% from deep last year. And junior forward Jake Forrester, a bouncy Indiana transfer and Westtown product, averaged 7.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg but will have higher expectations this year. At least one two of them are going to need to take a massive step forward in production, but it’s possible all three do.
Beyond that, it’s a lot of question marks for second-year head coach Aaron McKie. Will Perry and Moorman have the ball in their hands at the end of the game? Can Forrester improve his rebounding numbers? What will the rest of the frontcourt look like? How will the freshmen adjust?
There aren’t many guards with experience, though Dartmouth grad transfer Brendan Barry will add some of that when he’s eligible in December. Former Wisconsin point guard Tai Strickland is now eligible after sitting last year out, but he’s still recovering from August shoulder surgery. Butler transfer Khalif Battle would help, but the NCAA has yet to rule on his transfer waiver. Redshirt freshman Damian Dunn, who played in one game last year, is a talented 6-5 guard, but just how ready he is for high-level D-I ball is still to be determined.
There’s no team in the city that enters the season with as many question marks as Temple, that’s for sure. But the future of the program still looks bright with its well-stocked freshman and sophomore classes, plus the 2021 group of Hysier Miller, Zach Hicks and Brandon Sanders joining next year. There could just be a good deal of growing pains over the next couple seasons.