The 2020-21 college basketball season is kind of, sort of in full swing at this point, as teams have gotten their feet wet even as COVID-19 shutdowns have happened in programs across the country.
Thanks in large part to COVID, December has been marked both by what has happened on the floor, but also what hasn’t. Here’s a review of some of the top storylines.
BYU rolls past Utah in rivalry game
For another year, the BYU Cougars will have bragging rights after beating the rival Utah Runnin’ Utes at home on Saturday.
After the teams both played a few games before Saturday, it appeared on paper that it could be a good contest (and the rivalry games almost always are) but then it became apparent why the Cougars were picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference and the Utes were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12, as BYU won 82-64.
In short, a Cougars team that has a nice mix of veterans and youth got contributions from a bunch of players, while a Utah squad that is mostly just young didn’t.
It will be interesting to see how the two teams evolve over the rest of the season. BYU’s challenge will be living up to the expectations it has had since it had a great 2019-20 campaign, while Utah’s task will be developing the youngsters.
Top two teams in the country sidelined
On Dec. 5, a matchup between the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs and the second-ranked Baylor Bears was supposed to take place, but that morning, Gonzaga called the contest off because of two positive COVID-19 tests among players.
The Bulldogs ultimately made the call to cancel the next four games on their schedule after that, against lower-level opponents Tarleton State, Southern, Northern Arizona and Idaho, meaning their next scheduled contest is another marquee one, Dec. 19 against the third-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Bears got one game in after Dec. 5, but on Saturday announced that all basketball activities were being paused because of positive COVID-19 tests. Their Big 12 opener on Sunday against in-state rival Texas was postponed, as was a game Tuesday against Tarleton State. This comes after head coach Scott Drew tested positive a few days before Thanksgiving.
Over the past few days, a growing number of prominent national voices have opined about whether or not the college basketball season should even continue. The Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel wrote on Friday, for example, “See the lengths we’re willing to go, not to curb the virus in our country but to make sure our schools are playing a college basketball season that nature is trying so hard to stop.
“Feels weird, bordering on wrong.
“Is it wrong? I don’t have that answer, and if I claimed otherwise you’d need to stop reading right now, because clearly I’d be lying. There is no singular answer, nothing black-and-white to say in response to all this gray.”
Utah programs not immune
In addition to the COVID-19 problems earlier in the fall that forced teams to delay the start of their seasons, a number of in-state schools have been affected more recently.
Most notably, an outbreak within the Utah State Aggies initially meant that head coach Craig Smith was not in attendance as his team played BYU on Dec. 5 and College of Idaho on Dec. 8 after he tested positive, but last Saturday’s game against Weber State was canceled, as is Tuesday’s contest against Dixie State.
The good news is “USU is anticipated to add a game to its schedule at the end of the week. More details of the additional game will be released as plans are finalized,” the school said in an announcement Sunday.
UVU might have the best rebounder in the country
Individual stats are weird at this point not only because sample sizes are still small even for teams that have played at least close to a normal schedule, but also because a bunch of squads have played only a game or two.
That said, keep an eye on UVU big man Fardaws Aimaq. The 6-foot-11, 245-pounder from Vancouver, Canada, is averaging 15.6 rebounds per game over five contests, which is perhaps enough to make it feel sustainable.
Aimaq’s average led the country for a time (the junior tallied a whopping 20 boards to go along with 27 points, three assists and two blocks in a 93-88 loss to the Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday), but IUPUI’s Elyjah Goss pulled down 16 rebounds Saturday in his team’s first game of the season, so he’s got the edge in average.
Watch as the sample size grows, however. Can Aimaq remain elite? UVU is scheduled to face Utah on Tuesday in Salt Lake City.
Watch Luka Garza
The Iowa big man was one of the best players in college basketball last season, but he’s taken it to another level this year and has been simply dominant as the Hawkeyes are one of the best teams in the country.
Garza is averaging 30.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and an assist in 26 minutes per game. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, he’s long been a rather old-school, back-to-the-basket type player, although he has really developed his 3-point shot this year. He’s shooting almost 69% from beyond the arc, which is surely unsustainable, but it’s still fun to watch him be so dominant.
Garza’s play has called into question whether he’s a legitimate NBA prospect. He’s not Nikola Jokic (he doesn’t have the passing chops of the Denver Nuggets center, for starters, and Jokic is one of the best players in the world), but he kind of looks like him out on the floor with the way he maneuvers in the paint and runs, and his shot from distance looks similar.