The biggest winner of Monday night's NBA draft early-entry deadline was college basketball in general. Given the uncertainty around the 2020-21 college basketball season, it would have been understandable if several players on the fence chose to stay in the NBA draft or play overseas for a season. Gonzaga's Filip Petrusev decided to do that, and Texas Tech's Davide Moretti signed a professional deal in Italy in the spring. Several top recruits went the G-League route.
As you'll notice by the size of the "losers" section below, however, the majority of undecided players are heading back to college, including legitimate preseason All-American candidates Luka Garza (Iowa), Jared Butler (Baylor), Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois) and Remy Martin (Arizona State). Although there are questions surrounding the college season, there might be just as many around the NBA draft process. The draft isn't until October, there haven't been any agency or team workouts, and most of the NBA is focused on finishing the season in the Orlando, Florida, bubble.
We have no idea how the college season will look in a few months, but if there is a season, there will certainly be star power worth watching -- and an elite 2021 NBA draft to follow.
Shortly after Garza announced his plans to return to Iowa, a Big Ten head coach sent me a text: "It's been a while since I've seen a league as good as the [Big Ten] on paper. Incredible." He's not wrong. The league had as strong an early-entry deadline as any league in the country, with Garza going back to Iowa and Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn returning to Illinois. Michigan's Isaiah Livers announced a couple of weeks ago that he is also coming back. Xavier Tillman decided to remain in the draft, but Michigan State got Aaron Henry back.
Heading into the season, barring any surprise departures, the Big Ten will have three surefire top-10 teams (Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois), another team knocking on the door (Michigan State) and at least four other teams (Ohio State, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan) with an argument to be ranked in the Top 25. No other league will be able to match that on paper -- after a season that likely would have seen the Big Ten get 10 of 14 teams into the NCAA tournament. If the 2020-21 season ends up being conference-only, the selection committee could have a brutal time parsing through Big Ten résumés, especially when some Top-25-caliber teams could have losing conference records.
The drama behind your 2020-21 preseason No. 1
To me, there's a tier of three teams at the top of college basketball entering the fall: Baylor, Gonzaga and Villanova. The early-entry deadline made the debate among those three tougher. Baylor got a huge boost with the return of Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, who will once again form two-thirds of arguably the best backcourt in the country. Gonzaga lost Petrusev, but Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi announced that they are returning to Spokane. Villanova lost Saddiq Bey earlier in the spring, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl never seriously considered a departure. All three teams have legitimate cases to be preseason No. 1, and I'll have to sift through it all before next week's updated Way-Too-Early Top 25!
For most of the spring and summer, Chris Smith looked like one of the true 50-50 decisions among the players to declare for the NBA draft. Even in the days before the deadline, there was no clear consensus as to what Smith would end up doing. On Monday, though, Smith decided to head back to Westwood. Mick Cronin has all five starters back from a team that won 11 of its final 14 games -- and he added Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, who will be eligible immediately. If the Bruins can carry over their late-season momentum, they can compete for a Pac-12 title.
Will Wade's Tigers went 3-for-3 on deadline day. Darius Days got things started by announcing his return in the morning; he provides an inside-outside threat and high-level offensive rebounding. Ja'vonte Smart was next to decide and will once again run the show as the team's starting point guard. The most anticipated decision came from Trendon Watford, though. Watford seemed legitimately 50-50 for most of the process, even appearing to lean toward the NBA draft at certain points. But he's going back to Baton Rouge after an impressive freshman season that saw him average 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. The losses of Skylar Mays and Emmitt Williams sting, but Wade got three starters back Monday -- on top of a talented recruiting class led by five-star scoring guard Cam Thomas. LSU will push Tennessee and Kentucky in the SEC.
Although not ranked in ESPN's top 100 NBA draft rankings, Remy Martin could have gone either way -- but he announced Sunday that he was returning to Arizona State, and Bobby Hurley will have one of the nation's most explosive perimeter groups. Martin was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, and he will team up with Alonzo Verge (another player who withdrew his name from the NBA draft) and five-star guard Joshua Christopher to form an elite trio that will put up points against any team in the country. Martin's return also puts the Sun Devils in position to be the Pac-12 favorites entering the season.
If there is a three-team first tier entering next season, Virginia leads the second tier for me, and the Cavaliers solidified that position when Jay Huff decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft. Although Huff wasn't in most mock drafts, he's a skilled big man who will be asked to shoulder more of the frontcourt scoring load this season. He showed flashes of his offensive ability late in the season, averaging 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in the final three games of the campaign. With Huff back, Tony Bennett returns five players who started at least 10 games while bringing in a talented recruiting class and Marquette transfer Sam Hauser.
Eric Musselman loves to rebuild via the transfer market, but it's a big plus to bring back some high-level players to help the transition. With Isaiah Joe's decision to return to Fayetteville, Arkansas has one of the best offensive players in the SEC to go with a top-10 recruiting class and the addition of six transfers. Joe was hampered by a knee injury last season, missing six games. In those six games, the Razorbacks went 1-5. With a healthy Joe, Arkansas was 19-7. Although all-SEC guard Mason Jones elected to turn pro, Musselman has more than enough reinforcements to push for a Top 25 ranking entering the season.
At the start of the offseason, Creighton had a strong case to be ranked in the top five nationally, as the Bluejays were bringing back nearly every key piece from last season's Big East champions. Unfortunately, Ty-Shon Alexander -- one of the best two-way guards in the country -- decided to leave school and turn pro. But Greg McDermott received good news over the weekend, when projected starters Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney announced that they are heading back to Creighton. With Jefferson and Mahoney back, the Bluejays should enter the season as a top-15 team.
The Volunteers' roster grew on me over the course of the offseason, and that was solidified when starting forward Yves Pons decided to return to Knoxville. Pons wasn't ranked in ESPN's top 100, but he had interest from some NBA teams because of his elite defensive ability and improvement from the perimeter. With Pons back in the fold, Rick Barnes has a potential preseason top-10 team. All the ingredients are there: playmakers and scorers in the backcourt, depth and size down low -- and now there's an X factor in Pons, who can make plays at both ends of the floor. Tennessee might be the SEC favorite, depending on what happens with the waiver request of Kentucky's Olivier Sarr.
It was always clear that the Mountain West wouldn't be as good in 2020-21 as it was the previous season, when San Diego State started 26-0, Utah State won the conference tournament, and Malachi Flynn and Sam Merrill were two of the best guards in the country. But decisions by San Diego State's Matt Mitchell and Boise State's Derrick Alston Jr. to return to school gives the top of the league a boost. Mitchell was a first-team all-conference forward last season, and he should take a step forward with Flynn gone. Alston is a talented wing and was ranked inside ESPN's top 100 NBA draft rankings, but he'll head back to the Broncos and lead perhaps the most talented team in the Mountain West. Neither team will be as good as the Aztecs were last season, but there is still talent in the league.
There's going to be a lot of talent on the hardwood in Tuscaloosa next season, which was confirmed by John Petty's decision to withdraw from the draft and return to Alabama. That followed teammate Herb Jones' making the same decision earlier in the process. Point guard Kira Lewis left in the spring, but with him being a potential lottery pick, it was an expected move. Nate Oats will have plenty of pieces, though. Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly becomes eligible, and Yale graduate transfer Jordan Bruner leads a recruiting class that includes Joshua Primo. Jaden Shackelford (15.0 PPG) also returns.
If you're looking for an early candidate to be this season's mid-major Cinderella, UNI might be the answer. The Panthers might have been the answer last season, too, but they lost to Drake in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley tournament and were likely going to find themselves in the NIT, despite having won 25 regular-season games. Two starters departed, but AJ Green decided to withdraw from the draft and head back to Northern Iowa. Green, who averaged 19.7 points last season, was the 2020 Missouri Valley Player of the Year.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Makur Maker sent shockwaves through the recruiting world in July, when he announced that he was heading to Howard instead of UCLA. The five-star forward is supremely talented and might be the first in a growing trend of elite prospects considering HBCUs. However, Maker still had his name in the NBA draft. On Monday, he withdrew and now seems like a strong bet to end up at Howard. It isn't a surprise, as he has maintained that he did not want to play in the G League and would stay in the draft only if he were a first-round pick, but it's still a huge boost for Howard specifically and HBCUs in general.
Other notable deadline returnees: Jalen Crutcher, Dayton; Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall; Keith Williams and Chris Vogt, Cincinnati; McKinley Wright IV, Colorado; Marcus Carr, Minnesota; AJ Lawson, South Carolina; DJ Funderburk, NC State; Dexter Dennis, Wichita State; Ethan Thompson, Oregon State, Colbey Ross, Pepperdine; Isaiah Miller, UNC Greensboro
When top-10 recruit Ziaire Williams announced his commitment to Stanford in April, the Cardinal looked like the potential Pac-12 favorites and a surefire preseason top-20 team. That was with Tyrell Terry in the fold, though, and Terry announced a few days before the deadline that he is keeping his name in the draft. Terry was one of the most surprising freshmen in the country last season, and he played himself into a likely second-round pick. Although Jerod Haase still has more than enough talent in Palo Alto to make the NCAA tournament, Stanford's ceiling drops considerably, and it's hard to see this squad as a preseason top-25 team.
In a loaded Big Ten, there's a case to be made that the Spartans aren't a top-three team in the league entering the fall. Iowa and Illinois received nothing but good news at the early-entry deadline, and Wisconsin brings everyone back. Although Michigan State got Aaron Henry back, Xavier Tillman Sr. understandably decided to keep his name in the draft. Combined with the loss of senior point guard Cassius Winston, Tom Izzo has to replace his two best players from last season -- his point guard and his big man. I wouldn't cry for Sparty just yet, though. They bring in a talented recruiting class, including ESPN 100 prospects Mady Sissoko and A.J. Hoggard -- who will be tasked with replacing Tillman and Winston, respectively -- and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser.
With him ranked No. 25 in ESPN's NBA draft rankings, the expectation was that Robert Woodard would decide to stay in the NBA draft. Just a few hours before the deadline, Woodard made it official. Ben Howland now enters a crucial year in Starkville after going to just one NCAA tournament in his five seasons in the program. The Bulldogs have won at least 20 games three seasons in a row, but they lose senior Tyson Carter and three early entrants: Woodard, Reggie Perry and Nick Weatherspoon. Woodard was inconsistent as a scorer last season, but he's an impact player defensively who could shoot from the perimeter.
Despite finishing next-to-last in the Pac-12 standings last season, Kyle Smith's first year in Pullman showed some promise. The Cougars went 16-16 and pulled off wins over likely NCAA tournament teams Oregon, Arizona State, Colorado and New Mexico State. But Smith will have to do it in year two without forward CJ Elleby, who kept his name in the draft. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection, Elleby averaged 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds last season -- and capped his career with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists against Colorado.
Other notable deadline departures: Nate Darling, Delaware