College Basketball Preview with the Great Pete Gillen

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA college basketball season is set to tip off in a few days on Nov. 25.

Just like the other major sports, things will look quite a bit different this year. Yet as of now, the season is expected to begin on time. To give us a preview of the upcoming men’s college basketball campaign, Brooklyn’s own Pete Gillen — a color analyst for CBS Sports Network — graciously took some time from his busy preparations to share his thoughts on this year’s top teams.

College basketball analyst Pete Gillen is a member of the Holy Name of Jesus, Park Slope, Hall of Fame. (Photo: Getty/Jed Jacobsohn, Allsport)

Gillen played Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball and baseball at St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Angels, both Bay Ridge. He then went on to star in both sports at Brooklyn Prep, Crown Heights, before continuing to play both sports at Fairfield University.

He later transitioned into the coaching ranks, first as a CYO basketball coach at Holy Name of Jesus, Park Slope. He then coached at Brooklyn Prep and later Nazareth H.S., East Flatbush. From there, it was on to a 30-year career as a college basketball coach, including head coaching jobs at Xavier University, Providence College and the University of Virginia (UVA).

Gillen is a member of the Xavier University Sports Hall of Fame, the Greater Cincinnati Basketball Hall of Fame, the 5-Star Basketball Hall of Fame, the Jim Valvano Nike Basketball Hall of Fame, the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame and the Holy Name of Jesus Hall of Fame. After stepping aside from coaching, he joined CBS Sports Network.

Gillen said this year’s college basketball season will be unprecedented but is grateful that there will be some form of basketball being played. He said the most important thing right now is the safety of student-athletes, coaches, referees, broadcasters and fans — in arenas where fans are allowed to attend.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Gillen said. “You have to be able to adapt. I’m sure there will be some cancellations, delays and postponements. The key word is flexibility. Hopefully we can get through the season safely, and hopefully it’s going to be exciting.”

Gillen’s first assignment of the season will be during the Veterans Classic on Nov. 25 as the U.S. Naval Academy takes on George Washington University. He is slated to be there announcing in person, though he’s aware that there might be times this season when he will have to broadcast remotely — something he has yet to do in his long on-air career.

“I love being at the games,” he said. “You have the feel, the excitement and the enthusiasm. I don’t know if you can quite duplicate that. It’s special to see the players. The sneakers are squeaking and people are cheering.

“But this is an unbelievably different year, and we just have to get through it as best we can.”

Heading into the season, the Associated Press ranked Gonzaga University as the No. 1 team. Gillen also agrees that the Bulldogs look strong and said teams including Villanova University, Baylor University, Iowa University and UVA are all primed to make a run to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

He also said a number of the regular powerhouses — Kansas University, Duke University, Illinois University, Kentucky University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina, U.C.L.A., Creighton University, West Virginia University and Arizona State University — will undoubtedly be in the mix.

“I think there are a lot of terrific teams,” Gillen said. “To me, there’s not one team that jumps out as the definite one. In my eyes right now, it’s wide open, with about 15 outstanding teams.”

From a local perspective, Gillen is expecting even more improvement from the St. John’s University, Jamaica, men’s team. He coached against Johnnies’ head coach Mike Anderson back in the late 1990s and has the utmost respect for the terrific coach.

“Mike Anderson has never had a losing season, which is great for someone coaching that long,” Gillen said. “To not have a losing season is impressive.”

The Red Storm will rely on heavy contributions from senior guard Rasheem Dunn and sophomore wing Julian Champagnie, a graduate of Bishop Loughlin H.S., Fort Greene. The six-foot, eight-inch Champagnie is coming off a Big East All-Freshman Team selection.

Gillen said the Big East is once again loaded, so it’s no surprise that St. John’s has been picked to finish in the middle of the pack, behind Villanova, Creighton, Seton Hall University, Xavier, Providence and the University of Connecticut. He has them slated as a postseason National Invitation Tournament team, with a few upset victories leading to a possible NCAA Tournament berth.

During these uncertain times, Gillen knows how meaningful college basketball is to its fanbase. It’s nice that these fans will have something to look forward to after a year filled with many challenges.

“If people can watch sports for a few hours, they can forget about some of the problems,” Gillen said. “Not all of them, but some of the problems we’ve had.”

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