With a hazy future, college basketball practice gets underway

Teams across North Carolina are preparing for an uncertain 2020-21 season

Duke brings in another talented freshman class while also returning veterans Jordan Goldwire (14) and Wendell Moore Jr. (0). (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

College basketball begins its new season the way the last one ended — under a cloud of uncertainty.

The COVID-19 outbreak went quickly to DEFCON-1 during conference tournaments last season, going from full arenas to a premature end to the season.

Now teams are back practicing even though schedules are still being finalized a month from the opening of the season. The Battle for Atlantis has been moved from the Bahamas to South Dakota, and the Maui Invitational will be held in Asheville.

Assuming the games will be scheduled over the next few weeks, there’s still plenty of questions about how many of them will get played. While several other major sports have managed to find ways to play, this will be the first time anyone attempts an un-bubbled indoor sport during the months when the second wave of the pandemic is expected to hit.

Still, at the moment, balls are bouncing and whistles are blowing, so we’ll take a look at the state’s top college programs to see what’s new on the court.

Duke: As usual, the Blue Devils are revamping their roster. Duke welcomes a six-man freshman class led by Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach. They’ll blend with returning senior point guard Jordan Goldwire and wings Wendell Moore Jr., Matthew Hurt and Joey Baker on what promises to be one of the better shooting Duke teams in recent memory.

NC State: The Wolfpack need to replace point guard Markell Johnson and wing C.J. Brice, who had been with the Pack as long as coach Kevin Keatts having come with him from UNC Wilmington. The Pack gets back big man D.J. Funderburk as well as wing Devon Daniels, who both tested the NBA waters and returned. Braxton Beverly will try to replace Johnson, and the Pack adds a five-man freshman class as well as Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen.

UNC: So, about last year …

The Tar Heels had their worst season since 2002, struggling to a 14-19 record and losing star guard Cole Anthony to the NBA Draft. The Heels reload with one of the top freshmen classes in the country, led by guard Caleb Love. They also return Garrison Brooks, who will likely be the preseason ACC Player of the Year, as well as second-year big man Armando Bacot. The shelves appear to be restocked in Chapel Hill following a one-year glitch.

Wake Forest: Just when it looked like Danny Manning might be getting one more year, the Demon Deacons pulled the plug. New coach Steve Forbes, most recently of East Tennessee State, brings energy and excitement to a program that had stagnated. He brought five transfers with him to throw the transformation of the Demon Deacons into high gear.

ECU: Joe Dooley will have an experienced team. All five starters and a total of 14 players return from last season’s 11-20 team. That record is a little misleading since eight of the losses were by two possessions or fewer.

Charlotte: In his second year at Charlotte, coach Ron Sanchez posted the team’s first winning record in six years, improving from 8-21 to 16-13. The 49ers bring back CUSA Freshman of the Year Jahmir Young to lead them.

Elon: The Phoenix will look to improve on a 13-21 season. They must replace leading scorer Marcus Sheffield but return freshman All-American Hunter McIntosh.

App State: The Mountaineers posted their first winning season in nine years under new coach Dustin Kearns. Now they need to replace All-Sun Belt guard Justin Forrest and his 17.3 points per game.

Campbell: The Camels will have plenty of experience back from last season’s squad that finished one game below .500 at 15-16. Eight players who averaged double-figure minutes return.

Davidson: The Wildcats had a disappointing 2019-20 season, finishing 16-14 with a team that was expected to contend for an A-10 title. Davidson returns four starters, led by Kellan Grady.

Gardner-Webb: The Bulldogs were 16‑16 last season but signed the top recruiting class in the Big South, including JUCO All-American Jacob Falko. They also return three starters and get back a fourth who missed last year with an injury.

High Point: Tubby Smith welcomes eight newcomers, led by Livingstone transfer Lydell Elmore, to the Panthers, which is coming off of a 9-23 season.

NC A&T: The Aggies finished second in the MEAC and return NCAA assist leader Kam Langley. A&T also adds NC State transfer Blake Harris and should have plenty of experienced backcourt depth.

NC Central: LeVelle Moton will try to continue his dominance of the MEAC with grad transfer Alex Caldwell joining a crowded, experienced backcourt. He also added JUCO big man Nehemie Kabeya.

UNC Asheville: After an 11-win improvement last year, UNCA added four recruits all 6-foot-6 or taller to shore up its biggest weakness from last year — interior size.

UNC Wilmington: It’s a new look for the Seahawks as former Kevin Keatts assistant Takayo Siddle takes over the program after a 10-22 season.

UNC Greensboro: Last season’s 23-win team adds 7-footer Hayden Koval from Central Arkansas and gets back So-Con Player of the Year Isaiah Miller, who tested the NBA Draft waters.

Western Carolina: Mark Prosser will try to build on last year’s 19-12 team and has plenty of experience to help him. The Catamounts get back three starters and nine players from last season.