College ball is back! As the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball seasons tip off Tuesday, here are the big names and big narratives Boardroom is most excited to follow.
It feels like it’s been years since we watched Baylor and Stanford hoist respective national championship trophies in men’s and women’s basketball last April. But finally, after a long offseason, college basketball is back, as hundreds of young men and women begin their pursuit for March Madness glory (officially, now that the NCAA says it will use March Madness branding for the women as well).
And while we can’t wait to see the student sections filled again, there’s just as much to track off the court.
This is the first season in the NIL era, and players nationwide are taking advantage. It’ll also be a farewell tour for the GOAT of men’s coaches as Mike Krzyzewski begins his final season at Duke. For the women, the best players in the game this season are generally sophomores and juniors, so Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, and Aliyah Boston still have multiple seasons to grow their brands and cut some nets
Let’s talk about the teams, the players, and the storylines Boardroom is following as college ball returns.
Men’s College Basketball
This season should combine the return of the bluebloods — Kentucky and Duke are both Final Four contenders after missing the tournament last year — with a host of schools seeking their first-ever championships. The Wildcats and Blue Devils get things started Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in a game with intrigue on both sides. Kentucky flirted with disaster last week, winning a close game against Division II Miles. For the Blue Devils, this will be Coach K’s final game at Madison Square Garden.
Men’s Teams to Watch
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are the favorites again after reloading from an undefeated run to the national championship game. The Bulldogs return Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard while also bringing in a stacked recruiting class. The headliner? Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 recruit in the country and an early candidate for national player of the year.
Texas: The Longhorns should be one of the five best teams in the country and might be the most interesting of them all. Chris Beard brought Texas back to the forefront by pulling in transfers Devin Askew (Kentucky), Timmy Allen (Utah), Marcus Carr (Minnesota), Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt), Avery Benson (Texas Tech), Christian Bishop (Creighton), and Tre Mitchell (UMass). We’ll see if this sort of All-Star team from 2020-21 can gel into a cohesive unit this time around.
UCLA: On one hand, the Bruins are returning all the key pieces from a Final Four team last year. On the other hand, this was a team that backed into the tournament as a First Four team and ended the regular season with four straight losses. However, one thing’s for sure: Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez can flat-out play. You’ll hear their names a lot in March. Again.
Players to Watch
Drew Timme (Gonzaga): The best returning player in college basketball took perhaps the biggest leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons. Now, the junior gets to build on a year where he put up 19 points and seven rebounds per game on 65% shooting — and he’ll do it for the national championship favorites.
Kofi Cockburn (Illinois): Illinois fans might have a problem with the above statement that Timme is the best returning player, because Cockburn certainly has his own case. He’s a big man in the traditional sense, presenting as a force on offense, defense, and the glass. Don’t bother trying to beat the Illini inside.
Paolo Banchero (Duke): Banchero has the size, skill, and profile (the guy plays for Duke, folks!) to be the biggest name in college basketball this season. He’s a power forward on paper, but can create for himself inside and out, as well as defend just about any position. Good luck matching up with him.
Women’s College Basketball
If you think the men’s game is hard to figure out, the women’s game might be just as wide-open. In fact, the top three teams in the preseason coaches poll (South Carolina, UConn, and Stanford) were separated by just five total points and the Huskies and Cardinal actually tied for No. 2. There have never been more stars in the women’s game, making this the most anticipated season in recent memory.
In addition to Bueckers, Clark, and Boston, high-volume scorers Rhyne Howard (Kentucky) and Naz Hillmon (Michigan) return to their respective teams. NaLyssa Smith (Baylor) will the anchor of a new-look Bears team, and Azzi Fudd (UConn) is the most hyped freshman to come to Storrs since… last year, actually.
Women’s Teams to Watch
South Carolina: The Gamecocks went to the Final Four last year, return everybody, enroll the best recruiting class in the country, and add perhaps the best transfer. Aliyah Boston will rightfully get the most hype, but Dawn Staley’s group is talented up and down the roster. Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson are two guards who don’t get nearly enough credit.
UConn: The Huskies have made the Final Four 14 straight years and it’ll probably be 15 after this season. It makes it almost disappointing that they haven’t won the whole thing since 2016. That can change in Bueckers’ sophomore year as UConn also enrolls her best friend, fellow phenom Fudd. One wild card for the Huskies: Dorka Juhasz. The Ohio State transfer looked amazing in their exhibition win on Sunday.
Stanford: The defending champs bring back almost everybody, but their one loss will hurt. Kiana Williams has moved on to the WNBA, leaving room for Haley Jones to go from one of the best guards in the Pac-12 to one of the best players in the country. Her ability to take charge, along with whether Lexi Hull and Cameron Brink can take the next step, will determine how far the Cardinal can go.
Players to Watch
Paige Bueckers (UConn): The best player in the nation last year is back… and has three more years of eligibility. No one is more electric than the UConn guard, who has a knack for hitting big shots, making jaw-dropping passes, and being one of the biggest personalities in the game.
Aliyah Boston (South Carolina): The walking double-double is probably the best post player in college basketball and will be on the shortlist for national player of the year. She tried to add a three-point shot last year, and if Boston can hit that consistently, I don’t know how anyone goes about matching up with her.
Caitlin Clark (Iowa): College basketball’s leading scorer is back to lead the highest-scoring team in Division I last year. Defense is optional in Iowa City, but with Clark scoring 26.6 per game and handing out 7.1 assists, that’s just fine. It’s not a question of whether Clark has a 40-point game this year. The question is how many times she does it.
Off the Court
The Gender Equity Movement Gains Steam
With the push toward gender equity continuing to gain steam (finally), expect to see more from the women’s game than ever before. ESPN announced this week that it will broadcast more than 330 games across its family of networks, including the first-ever regular season women’s game on ABC in December.
We’re also going to see an NCAA women’s tournament that more closely resembles the men’s. The NCAA finally decided to let the women use March Madness branding, which was among the myriad of issues with last year’s debacle in San Antonio.
Up next: perhaps a joint men’s and women’s Final Four in a few years.
The NIL Arms Race
Since the name, image, and likeness era officially began on July 1, we’ve had a steady stream of college basketball players signing deals to profit off their likenesses. Those deals have ranged from the ordinary, like Cameo requests or player-inspired t-shirts, to much larger, less traditional partnerships. A few of those more notable deals:
- Fudd signed a deal with Chipotle to be an athlete ambassador (missed opportunity for Fuddruckers) and appeared in a commercial for TikTok.
- Banchero inked a deal with trading card company Panini
- Crypto exchange FTX announced that it has signed the entire Kentucky men’s basketball team to an NIL deal that will pay players monthly with their own FTX debit cards.
- Speaking of Kentucky, TyTy Washington signed a deal with Porsche and is reaping the benefits.
- Fresno State’s Hanna and Haley Cavinder signed a deal with Boost Mobile and got a Time’s Square billboard announcement for it.
We’ve also seen student-athletes start signing with agents. Holmgren has signed with WME, while Wasserman now represents Bueckers. Though Bueckers is the biggest star in the women’s game, she’s been quiet in the NIL circuit. She filed to trademark her “Paige Buckets” nickname in August, but as her coach Geno Auriemma noted, she’s far more concerned with bringing a championship to Storrs than cashing the biggest checks right now.