MEN’S WHEELCHAIR - EARLY SEASON RANKINGS
Written by Daniel Priest, Josh Moss and Luke Hutchinson
The calendar has flipped over to October and that means that college hoops has returned. It’s one of the best times of the season for basketball fans as preseason optimism reaches a high point.
After being plagued by COVID for the better part of the past two years like many other sports, college men’s wheelchair basketball is looking forward to a hopeful return to normalcy with this season’s schedule.
The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) includes 225 teams and over 1,000 athletes across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The intercollegiate men’s division features some of the top teams in the nation among its 12 members.
With the season upon us, let’s delve into our early season rankings as teams look to secure their slot in the Collegiate Basketball Wheelchair Championship at The University of Texas-Arlington in March.
1. University of Texas-Arlington
It’s fitting that UT-Arlington, the reigning 2021 Collegiate Basketball Wheelchair Champs, are hosting the 2022 tournament. They have a very real chance of celebrating a repeat title in front of the home fans this year. The Movin’ Mavs graduated just one senior off their roster (Bryce Cruz) and now return a bundle of talent from their championship group, including star C.J. McCarthy-Grogan, who represented Australia in the Paralympics in Tokyo this summer. It won’t be easy, but the Mavs are the clear favorites in a league featuring a number of strong squads this season.
2. University of Alabama
The Crimson Tide played a short schedule last year and are a tough team to predict, despite having made the 2020 Finals against UT-Arlington. There’s definitely talent on the roster, with the terrific trio of former no. 1 recruit Peter Berry, veteran Lindy Bridges and Spain’s 2020 Tokyo Paralympian, Ignacio Ortega leading the way. After UT-Arlington, they have the highest upside in the sport. Despite graduating a large number of contributors, Alabama brings back enough high-end players to match, or maybe even outdo, last year’s runner-up season.
3. University of Missouri
Missouri is another legitimate title contender. Back in 2019-2020 (Missouri cancelled their 2020-2021 season), Ron Lykin's Missouri squad won 21 games during the regular season and was among the best teams in the nation. They’ve since graduated some talent (Sidney Attiogbe, Luke Hutchinson, Tyler Malone) and injuries have already forced schedule adjustments. But with their leading scorer (and Canada’s Tokyo Paralympic star) Colin Higgins, returning, the Tigers are ready to compete for the championship.
4. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
The Warhawks round out the top tier of the league this year and could make a deep tournament run if things go their way. Known for strong, consistent recruiting, UW-Whitewater once again is brimming with talent. Though they do not play the same quantity of games as some of the bigger programs in a typical season, this is a group who can play with and beat anyone on a given night. Led by stars Jake Shafer and Ryan Glatchak, look for UW-Whitewater to establish their place in the upper echelon early on this season.
5. Southwest Minnesota State
Though a notch below the top four teams in terms of overall roster talent, the Mustangs could still make some noise this year. After playing their way into last year’s tournament as a No. 4 seed, the Mustangs return nine underclassmen from their roster and boast some of the best depth in the league. With one of the strongest benches in the sport to go along with top-level talent such as sixth-season veteran Walter Johnson, Southwest Minnesota State will be a tough game for every opponent this year.
6. University of Illinois
Here’s where the rankings get a bit tough to sort out, with a number of teams that boast both talent and a range of question marks. The oldest program in the sport (founded 1940), the Fighting Illini took a year off during the pandemic, making it hard to know exactly what they have going into 2021. Matt Buchi's squad lost some talent but brings back the core of what might become a contending squad. A championship probably isn’t in the cards, but there’s enough talent on the roster to make things interesting.
7. Auburn University
Coach Robb Taylor, now coming off Team USA’s gold medal assistant coaching stint at the 2020 Paralympics, has done a wonderful job building this program up from the ground. The Tigers are young but full of high-ceiling talent that should make for a solid team in 2021-2022 after a strong performance in last year’s most unusual National Championship tournament. They’ll feature the talented duo of former All-Rookie team selectee Luke Robinson and former pitcher turned basketball star Sam Armas.
8. University of Arizona
Mike Beardsley's squad was strong in 2019-20 and may well be again. They played teams like SMSU and Illinois very tough and won a few of those matchups. They may be featuring a number of new players in key roles. That unknown means this ranking could be a bit low. What is known is that the future is bright in Tucson, with this year representing a big opportunity to edge towards the elite tier of the sport.
9. Eastern Washington University
A nascent (founded in 2019) program, Eastern Washington has shown flashes of potential despite their inexperience. They’re likely to be overmatched in the short run, but the school seems committed to pushing the program forward.
10. Edinboro University
Edinboro has seen modest win totals for the last couple of seasons, but they should be more competitive in 2021-2022. Longtime coach Jim Glatch has assembled what promises to be a solid roster. And while it remains to be seen how many games they will play and against whom, there’s enough talent here to pull off an upset or two.
11. University of Nebraska-Omaha
The last time we got a good look at the Mavericks, they were finishing up a winless 2019-20 season. But veteran head coach Mike Kult and his senior heavy squad bring plenty of experience to the new season, providing hope for a better record this year. The Mavericks aren’t likely to knock off any of the top teams, but there might be a few victories within reach when they play the bottom half of the league.
12. City University of New York (CUNY)
The CUNY squad is still a fresh face to the Intercollegiate Men’s Division in wheelchair hoops. They joined with the NWBA in 2020 and were set to compete in 2020-2021 for their inaugural season. Due to COVID limiting their games, there’s still a lot of unknowns with this group. That’s not to say it’s impossible that they'll make some noise this season. But much like head coach Ryan Martin, we will be learning about this team as the season progresses
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