On Wednesday, the ball will be tipped on a season unlike any other.
There’s no telling how many games will be scrapped amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bar for a successful season has never been lower, following the first cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the entire tournament is slated to take place in one city. There is no clear favorite. A majority of programs will play without fans. Some teams have opted out of the enterprise entirely.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many games are played. Just make it to March.
Here is a look at The Post’s preseason Top 25:
After a three-decade title drought, the annual Big East favorite is set up to win its third national championship since 2016. Despite the departure of leading scorer Saddiq Bey, coach Jay Wright brings back four double-digit scorers, including a pair of potential All-Americans in senior guard Collin Gillespie and double-double machine Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
Gonzaga is the dorky, awkward high school kid who has grown up to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Once a cuddly mid-major underdog, the Zags are a perennial Final Four contender. Coach Mark Few reloads — he lost stars Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie, and replaced them with elite freshman Jalen Suggs and Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook — he doesn’t rebuild.
Unlike Dayton, the Bears are in a strong position to claim the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that was taken from them last season. Scott Drew returns four starters, including preseason All-American Jared Butler. With guard Mark Vital sparking one of the best defenses in the nation, Baylor is banking on reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1950.
The backcourt is flat-out scary, led by returning starters Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, and newcomers like five-star freshman Bryce Thompson and JUCO All-American Tyon Grant-Foster. Small-ball will be the Jayhawks’ calling card. The big question resides in the paint, where a lot will be asked of unproven forwards David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot.
Technically, the Cavaliers are still the defending national champions. Even without the core of the 2019 roster, coach Tony Bennett could cut down another net this season. After a steep step back offensively last season, the nation’s best defense will find support in standout Marquette transfer Sam Hauser — who joins an improving supporting cast, which won 11 of its final 12 games last season.
Depth. Experience. No stars. It may sound boring, but it works for Wisconsin. It sure did last year, as the Badgers reeled off eight wins to close the season and finished tied atop the Big Ten with Michigan State and Maryland. After not having a single player on either the Big Ten’s first or second all-league team, most of the anonymous cast is back to showcase its underrated cohesion again.
Luka Garza’s return to campus gives Iowa the Wooden Award favorite — and a once-in-a-generation chance to secure the school’s first Final Four berth since 1980. The All-American big man will be joined by the entire starting lineup from last season’s 20-win team, but the Hawkeyes will need to improve one of the Big Ten’s worst defenses in order to have a chance at their first league title since the Carter administration.
Last year, sophomore Tre Jones guided the young Blue Devils. This year, the role falls to sophomores Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr., who will help Duke’s five-star freshmen adjust to the college game after taking a back seat to one-and-done stars Vernon Carey Jr. and Cassius Stanley last season.
Even in a shortened season, John Calipari won at least 25 games for the seventh straight year. Now, the Kentucky coach will attempt to bring the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, with 7-foot Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr providing a constant double-double threat. Calipari addresses his seemingly annual task — replacing his top six scorers — with another crop of star-studded freshman, led by dynamic wing B.J. Boston.
Last year’s 17-14 campaign was a blip. The Volunteers will not stay down after bringing in top-20 freshmen guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. Those additions — along with the return of double-digit scorers John Fulkerson, Yves Pons and Santiago Vescovi — should produce a season more similar to the Sweet 16 finish of the previous year.
11. Michigan State
One year ago, the Spartans were the near-unanimous top-ranked team in the nation. Losing do-everything star point guard Cassius Winston — and fellow NBA draft pick Xavier Tillman — leaves a mark. Still, coach Tom Izzo has overachieved more with lesser rosters in the past and retains strong depth — led by Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser. If former All-Big Ten guard Josh Langford can stay healthy, Izzo can accomplish more than expected.
12. Texas Tech
Two year ago, Chris Beard’s transfer-heavy roster reached the national title game, and he returned to the well this offseason — landing Georgetown guard Mac McClung and VCU big man Marcus Santos-Silva, who will join transfer forward Joel Ntambwe of UNLV. A top-15 recruiting class, and experienced guards Kyler Edwards and Terrence Shannon Jr., make Texas Tech a second weekend team.
The Fighting Illini look like a lock to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years. But this season, that isn’t enough. After losing records in his first two years in Champaign, coach Brad Underwood led the program to 21 wins last season. The return of All-American candidate Ayo Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn gives Illinois a chance to claim its first Big Ten title since Deron Williams’ 2005 Final Four squad.
This program has come so far, it can lose its third- and fourth-leading scorers and still be ranked in the AP preseason Top 25 — the first time that has happened since 1983. A third straight AAC crown is very possible, especially if backcourt duo Quentin Grimes and Caleb Mills can build off strong double-digit-scoring seasons.
15. North Carolina
Roy Williams is coming off of his first losing season in 32 years as a head coach. There is no program more certain to improve this season. Following the injury-marred campaign (14-19), ACC Preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks will lead the league’s best frontcourt, while likely one-and-done point guard Caleb Love runs the show.
16. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have had plenty of time to think about last year’s poor finish, when a 3-6 closing record took the shine off what was a phenomenal season up to that point. The core of that group — dynamic forwards Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, and poised lead guard Miles McBride — returns, providing the kind of experience that wins in March.
Reigning Big East Coach of the Year Greg McDermott will again boast an attack among the most efficient and explosive in the nation, giving the Bluejays a chance to seize a second straight regular season league crown. Without Ty-Shon Alexander around, guard Marcus Zegarowski will be in line for All-American consideration, while senior sharpshooter Mitch Ballock creates space for the offensively-gifted roster.
18. Arizona State
The offseason brought more highs (leading-scorer and distributor Remy Martin returned after flirting with the NBA, five-star freshman guard Josh Christopher committed, Portland State transfer Holland Woods was given an immediate eligible waiver) than lows (leading rebounder Romello White transferred to Ole Miss). It sets up Bobby Hurley with a fantastic perimeter attack, but also a massive hole in the paint.
19. Florida State
Perhaps no program in the country receives less recognition than the Seminoles, who won their first ACC regular season title last season, following runs to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. After missing an incredible chance to reach the school’s first Final Four since 1972 with since-departed lottery picks Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams, coach Leonard Hamilton brings in freshman forward Scottie Barnes, a virtual lock to be taken in the top 10 of the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Ducks are so deep, even if L.J. Figueroa receives his immediate eligibility waiver — the NCAA has yet to make a ruling — the former St. John’s star may come off the bench. He’s one of four significant transfers — along with former Rutgers forward Eugene Omoruyi, UNLV’s Amauri Hardy and Duquesne’s Eric Williams Jr. — who coach Dana Altman added to his talented roster. The most important players, though, are guards Will Richardson and Chris Duarte, who will need to fill the void left by do-it-all floor general Payton Pritchard.
Steve Pikiell performed a miracle at Stony Brook. His work at Rutgers has been even better. Though the pandemic robbed the Scarlet Knights of their first NCAA Tournament berth in 29 years, Rutgers returns the core of that 20-win team — including Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Myles Johnson — which will need unrivaled motivation and its trademark defensive intensity to overcome a low offensive ceiling.
COVID-19 may have saved Shaka Smart’s job. The 5-1 finish helped, too. Now he has to make the most of his mulligan by maximizing arguably his most talented team since arriving in Austin five years ago. Not only do the Longhorns return their top five scorers, but they add top-10 freshman wing Greg Brown.
23. Ohio State
Chris Holtmann — who has averaged 22 wins per season in his first three years with the Buckeyes — will rely on a group with experience and depth to make up for its lack of size and stars. After losing standout forward Kaleb Wesson and watching talented guard D.J. Carton transfer to Marquette, Ohio State’s potential hinges on the chemistry of transfers Justice Sueing (Cal), Seth Towns (Harvard) and Jimmy Sotos (Bucknell).
LSU was left out of the AP Top 25, a likely slight against Will Wade since the talent is there on paper. Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart passed on the NBA to rejoin physical forward Darius Days, 7-foot transfer Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington) and five-star freshman guard Cam Thomas, who should make an immediate impact. The Tigers will finish near, or at, the top of the SEC.
Back in March, the 24-win Spiders looked set for their first NCAA Tournament in nine years, but 16th-year coach Chris Mooney now has an even better shot to replicate his 2011 Sweet 16 run, with his top seven scorers returning, including five seniors. Two-way star/5-foot-9 guard Jacob Gilyard leads the sharpshooting unit, favored to win its second-ever Atlantic 10 title.
Howie’s Final Four picks: Gonzaga, Virginia, Iowa, West Virginia
Zach’s Final Four picks: Kentucky, Illinois, Villanova, Oregon