The Hinson Angle: A college basketball preview

The best sport in the world is back!

Oliver Hinson

     It seems like just yesterday, I was looking at my phone in disbelief as the whole world shut down due to COVID-19. In reality, it’s been over a year since things have been normal, and the realm of sports has felt every bit of the wrath, with college basketball arguably taking the biggest blow. While every other major sport returned to regular operations after less than a year of abnormality, college hoops has not had fans in the stands since March 2020, an absence of over 18 months. As a fanbase, the start of a season that we can actually call normal is an insane thought, but believe it or not, that’s what Tuesday holds. A promise that the wait is over. A promise that it was worth it. There’s 358 teams hoping to make their mark this year, but 3 stand out to me as favorites. Without further ado, here’s the Hinson angle.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Gonzaga is the best team in the country, and that’s not a debate. Every poll says so, every magazine says so, and every *objective* fan says so. But let’s examine why that is. Among the Zags’ returning players is junior Drew Timme, a 6-10, 235-lb. forward who swept this year’s preseason player of the year awards from CBS Sports and the Atlantic after a monster season in 2020-21. Timme averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds on a blistering 66 percent from the field, the tenth best mark in the nation, and his Bulldogs kept an undefeated record up until the championship game, where they lost to Baylor. Alongside the All-American were Corey Kispert and freshman sensation Jalen Suggs, who provided 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game, as well as what would prove to be one of the season’s most memorable moments: a game-winner from halfcourt to beat UCLA in the Final Four. Both Suggs and Kispert were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in July, and although their absences created big holes for the upcoming team, let’s just say Mark Few did his best to fill them. The long-tenured coach put his recruiting skills to the test this year and came up big, landing #1 prospect Chet Holmgren, a 7-foot center with a 7’6” wingspan that handles the ball like a point guard, displays the ability to shoot from beyond the arc, and deflects almost anything that comes his way on the inside, averaging nearly 5 blocks per game during his senior year at Minnehaha Academy (the same high school that Suggs attended). Other key contributors to watch include last season’s Sixth Man of the Year in the West Coast Conference, senior Andrew Nembhard, as well as five-star prospect Hunter Sallis, grad transfer Rasir Bolton, and newly projected starter Julian Strawther. The Zags will get their first action on Tuesday against Dixie State; shortly after, they will host #5 Texas as part of a home-and-home series (which will be completed next year), and in late November, they will face #2 UCLA in a Final Four rematch, immediately followed by a neutral-court matchup with #9 Duke. It shouldn’t take long to see if the Bulldogs live up to the hype.


UCLA Bruins

Experience is the name of the game for UCLA. The Bruins return nearly their entire roster from last year, losing only Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, both of whom suffered departures last season that forced second-year coach Mick Cronin to find new options. Arguably the biggest among these options was Johnny Juzang, the hometown product who transferred from Kentucky after his freshman year and immediately provided a boost in the starting lineup. Juzang averaged 16 points and 4 rebounds as a sophomore, but he kicked it up a notch in the NCAA tournament, scoring 137 points over six games to lead his team from the First Four all the way to the Final Four as an 11 seed, one of the craziest “Cinderella stories” the tournament has ever seen. However, that’s not to say that they didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. The Bruins had been widely chosen as the Pac-12 favorite to start the season, and they were ranked 22nd in the preseason AP poll. Smith’s torn ACL proved to be devastating, as the former Pac-12 Most Improved Player had been a crucial part of the team’s offense, and his absence led to a number of disappointing losses, including three straight to end the regular season, as well as a defeat against Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. After Juzang found his rhythm, though, nothing could stop this team, and their journey to the semifinals included wins against 2-seed Alabama and 1-seed Michigan. This year, their experience is a weapon that should not be taken lightly. A lot of other teams may cite their sparkly new freshmen as evidence they’re headed for a big season, but let’s take a look at some past March Madness winners. Baylor’s 2020-21 championship squad included juniors Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, as well as senior MaCio Teague. In 2019, Virginia’s championship team was spearheaded by Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. In 2018, we had National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and the Villanova Wildcats. Justin Jackson and North Carolina. Kemba Walker and UConn. The list goes on. No matter how many star freshmen you have, it takes someone who’s seen a thing or two to lead a team through the tourney. Just ask the 2019 Duke Blue Devils about that one. Even so, UCLA felt the need to make a splash in the 2021 recruiting class, nabbing five-star forward Peyton Watson to round out an already impressive team. The Bruins’ early-season matchups include a home opener against Cal-Baker on Tuesday, a prime-time ESPN matchup against Villanova on Friday, and, as previously mentioned, a chance for redemption against the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs on Nov. 23. If Juzang, Watson and co. are truly as good as the polls say they are, it might be time for this historically good program to reclaim their place in the spotlight of college basketball.


Duke Blue Devils

Sigh. I know, I know. It can be really hard to hear good things about the Duke Blue Devils, but what else can we expect from them? After all, it’s the final season of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s illustrious coaching career, a tenure which has included 42 years at Duke, 5 years at Army West Point, and nearly 1,200 wins. This is the farewell of farewells, a trip down memory lane that is sure to make every game a must-watch. That is, assuming the Blue Devils can forget about last season. 2020-21 was sort of an anomaly for Duke, as they finished 13-11 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in over 20 years. Jalen Johnson left midway through the year to prepare for the draft, and after the season ended, they got hit even harder, losing Matthew Hurt and DJ Steward to the NBA and Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman, and Jordan Goldwire to the transfer portal. The Blue Devils were forced to build from the ground up this offseason, and they did so, adding a trio of five-star prospects in Trevor Keels, AJ Griffin, and Paolo Banchero, the last of whom is projected to go first overall in the 2022 draft. In addition to their newcomers, Duke hopes to see a marked improvement in junior Wendell Moore Jr., a former five-star prospect who did not make much of an impact across his first two years, but is said to have seriously upgraded his game over the offseason. Also among the returnees is sophomore Mark Williams, a 7-foot center that experienced very little playing time during the beginning of last season, but picked it up after entering the starting lineup, averaging 12 points and 2 blocks over his last eleven games. Williams ended his season with a 23-point, 19-rebound performance against Louisville in the ACC tournament, and was poised to make an even bigger run had the Blue Devils’ season not been ended by a positive case of COVID-19. 2021, in fact, marks the second year in a row that they finished their season with a win, despite not winning the NCAA tournament. This year, they enter the season with a spot in the AP Poll and the weight of the world on their shoulders, although some point to their lack of depth as a weakness. While this is a valid concern, as Coach K is likely to only play a 7 or 8-man rotation in most games, one must be reminded that Duke’s championship squad of 2014-15 had a similar composition, with only 8 real contributing players seeing action throughout a typical game. If anyone knows how to run a team under any circumstances, it’s Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils will essentially tip off the entire college basketball season on Tuesday night, facing #11 Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. Other key matchups include a Black Friday game with #1 Gonzaga and a road game against #17 Ohio State for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It’s looking to be a bounce back year for ole’ Mike and his Devils, and I doubt March Madness will be Duke-less this year.


Oh, and one last thing. Were you hoping to score tickets to Duke’s senior night against UNC? Well, good luck. Tickets start at over $5,000.