In the last seven days, I haven’t had any “come to Jesus” moments about a college basketball team. However, it’s clear how much of a transition period 2021 could be for college athletics and there are some teams that are much better than I thought they would be. Let’s jump right into what’s on my mind this week around the sport.
The Division I Council made a decision that should’ve been made a long time ago.
On Dec. 16, the D-I Council granted waiver to allow Division I transfer student-athletes in all sports to compete immediately this year. For the purpose of this column, that means all college basketball players who were either denied a waiver or waiting approval to play in 2020-21 are now eligible:
Division I Council grants waiver to allow DI transfer student-athletes in all sports to compete immediately this year. pic.twitter.com/PNCuiCLWK0
— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) December 16, 2020
Quite frankly, this should’ve been done a long time ago. Once again, there was no rhyme or reason as to why some players were getting waivers and others weren’t. Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard received a waiver and so did Texas Tech’s Mac McClung. Butler’s Bo Hodges had a waiver denied after leaving his previous school due to a coaching change and Butler transfer Khalif Battle was granted immediate eligibility at Temple (despite the reason he transferred not being much more than being unhappy about playing time). In short, the NCAA wasn’t making much sense, but then again, they usually don’t.
Well, they got something right and they made a logical decision. Among some of the programs and players most impact were DeAndre Williams at Memphis, Dayton’s Elijah Weaver, Creighton’s Alex O’Connell, Oregon’s LJ Figueroa and the aforementioned Hodges at Butler. Of course, the list is longer, but there were plenty of programs that got better because of Wednesday’s decision.
To be clear, this is not the same as the one-time transfer exemption that is on the table to be voted on in 2021. The one-time transfer rule would mean every student-athlete can transfer without the penalty of having to sit for a year as a result. That’s a whole different conversation that I’m sure we’ll get to in the coming months, but the point is this ruling is specifically regarding the 2020-21 collegiate season in the context of COVID-19’s impact on college sports. With that being said, it might be a foreshadowing of the decisions the NCAA will make come 2021 when there could be some fundamental changes at the college level.
For the first time in over 30 years, the Supreme Court will hear a case surrounding the NCAA and what it means to be a college athlete.
According to ESPN, “The high court on Wednesday agreed to review a court decision in an antitrust lawsuit the NCAA has said blurred ‘the line between student-athletes and professionals’ by removing caps on compensation that major college football and basketball players can receive.”
The last time the Supreme Court heard an NCAA case was in 1984. That case essentially set up the multi-billion dollar industry that is media rights for college football broadcasts. So yes, this is a big deal. Essentially, the case deals with the issue of putting a cap on the benefits a student-athlete can receive and whether or not they have to be tethered to education. There should be a decision by June, which would be far later than the changing of name, image and likeness rules in the NCAA. That could happen as early as January.
Of course, I do not want to reiterate too much information that was reported by ESPN, but you can find the article about the case here.
The takeaway here is as follows: 2021 is going to be a massive transition year for college athletics. Players benefiting from name, image and likeness seems almost inevitable at this point, states are proposing and passing laws (like California Senate Bill 206) about NIL and transfer rules are getting closer and closer to mirroring the eb and flow that trades and free-agency create in the professional sports world.
I’m not particularly interested in having that “is this right vs. wrong” debate right this second, but pay attention to how much different the foundation of college sports changes over the next 12, or even six, months. It’s going to be a wild ride and we’ll have conversations about college sports that we’ve never had before.
The Marquette Golden Eagles are good.
Two years ago, Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowksi had Markus Howard, who would ultimately finish his career as the most prolific scorer in Big East history, and the Hauser brothers. You know, Sam and Joey, the ones who proceeded to leave and are now crucial parts of top-20 programs, Sam at Virginia and Joey at Michigan State. Flash forward two years later, he’s got no Howard and no Hausers, but he has a good basketball team. One that seemingly has a much higher ceiling than I thought it did.
The Golden Eagles now have wins over Wisconsin and Creighton. At the time, Wisconsin was fourth in the AP poll and the Bluejays were ninth. Ohio State transfer DJ Carton might be the most important transfer of the season and he gets better every game at the point guard position. He had 20 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals in Marquette’s most recent win over Creighton. So far, Koby McEwen has been much better than he was last season. He’s currently averaging 15.7 points per game (9.5 last year) while shooting 13% better from beyond the arc on more attempts per game.
Theo John and Jamal Cain are impactful college basketball players like they’ve always been, but freshmen Dawson Garcia and Justin Lewis are the reason Wojo has a better team than many thought. Garcia (a top-40 freshman) is averaging 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while Lewis (top-90 freshman) is averaging 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. Garcia was the much more attractive prospect, but Lewis has established himself as just as important of a piece to Marquette’s success this season.
Before I go on complimenting the Golden Eagles, it’s fair to remind everyone that they are just 5-2 with losses to Oklahoma State and UCLA. Those are respectable teams but certainly not teams that anyone is considering two of the best in the country at this point in the season. With that being said, this is exactly the type of season Wojo needed to save his future in Milwaukee. The season is young, but this team is clearly good, and they’re doing it without the attention of having an all-american or the preseason recognition of being one of the best teams in the conference.
It also speaks to the fact that having the best player in the Big East doesn’t lead to success. No one on this team is as talented as Howard was, however, they are 33rd at KenPom and rank in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Last season, they ranked 14th at KenPom in offensive efficiency but just inside the top 75 defensively and it was pretty obvious how to stop them from scoring. If Howard wasn’t on, the Golden Eagles weren’t going to win. This year, they have weapons all over the floor.
Prior to the season, I thought Marquette’s ceiling was fourth, maybe third, in the Big East. Three weeks into the season, I think Wojo’s group could finish second in the Big East if things fall right and Creighton doesn’t fix some of their weaknesses. I would still pick the Bluejays to finish second behind Villanova, but the gap is much, much smaller than I thought it was. Props to Wojo.
CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander reported this week that the Big East is having serious conversations about playing part of the Big East schedule in a controlled environment similar to Mohegan Sun’s “Bubbleville”. All I”ll say is, clearly Mohegan Sun and the other controlled environment multi-team events worked better than teams travelling for every game. I wish the Big East, and the rest of the college basketball world, wouldn’t look at these “bubbles” as Plan B. They should be Plan A. They are safer for the athletes and the much more efficient way to get the most out of this season. I just hope they aren’t waiting around for things to get worse or they run out of time to make it happen.