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Did continuity actually matter last season?

It probably did.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

If ever there was a year that having the gang back would help, it was 2020-21.

Or so one would naturally think. The early stages of the pandemic had mixed abbreviated offseason practice schedules with usual roster fluidity to seemingly make teams as unfamiliar with each other and the way coaches around the country wanted to play as ever. That, at least, was easy narrative heading into last season.

But did roster continuity actually matter? Through a simplified lens, the answer seems to be “probably a little,” and that may be a good indicator of teams to watch in 2021-22. Before we launch ourselves into the fast-approaching season, here are the 10 mid-major teams that had the most returning minutes last year per KenPom’s Minutes Continuity stat, which determines what percentage of a team’s minutes were played by the same players as the year before.

Mid-major minutes continuity leaders in 20-21

Team Continuity Rank 20-21 KenPom 20-21 Record 19-20 KenPom 19-20 Record
Team Continuity Rank 20-21 KenPom 20-21 Record 19-20 KenPom 19-20 Record
USC Upstate 1 322 5-18 (5-11) 325 13-20 (7-11)
Drexel 4 158 12-8 (4-5) 244 14-19 (6-12)
Richmond 6 65 14-9 (6-5) 46 24-7 (14-4)
Marshall 9 92 15-7 (9-5) 143 17-15 (10-8)
Loyola Chicago 11 10 26-5 (16-2) 101 21-11 (13-5)
Furman 13 96 16-9 (10-5) 81 25-7 (15-3)
SoDak St 14 113 16-7 (9-3) 119 22-10 (13-3)
CCSU 15 345 5-16 (5-13) 347 4-27 (3-15)
Saint Louis 16 53 14-7 (6-4) 62 23-8 (12-6)

Records are hard to compare given the haphazard nature of the 2020-21 schedule when compared to the full slate that was generally played in the sunny, pre-pandemic 2019-20 season. But looking at KenPom rating, eight of the 10 teams improved, which would seem the natural result of a team that has experience playing together.

There were teams that largely remained static despite the continuity advantage, such as USC Upstate and Central Connecticut. There were others that fell a few pegs, but with the similar contextual background of needing to replace a star player. Richmond lost guard Nick Sherod to a preseason ACL tear (an experience he wrote about for us), and Furman had to replace its stalwart point guard Jordan Lyons, who ran out of eligibility. Nonetheless, both teams were able to remain among the best mid-majors in the country and a factor in their respective leagues.

The real interesting wrinkle comes with the teams that made significant leaps.

Drexel was able to go from a team that finished eighth in the CAA in 2019-20, to a team that was inconsistent in league play in 2020-21, but had the juice to make a three-game run at the conference tournament and make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996. On the other side of the coin, Marshall had arguably its best team in the Dan D’Antoni era that fell victim to the cruelty of the league tournament format with an opening round loss to Rice.

And of course there was Loyola Chicago, which entered the season with big expectations under Cameron Krutwig and did not disappoint with its run to the Sweet 16.

Do those big upticks happen in a normal season that isn’t played against such a different background? Maybe, but the teams with the most continuity from 2018-19 to 2019-20 didn’t fare nearly as well. Air Force had the most returning minutes in the country in 2019-20 and dropped from 8-10 in the Mountain West to 5-13, a season that ultimately say Dave Pilipovich be let go. Similarly, Seattle — which checked in at fourth nationally in minutes continuity — saw its league record improve by one win, but its overall KenPom rating drop 24 places from the year before.

There was a big riser in North Dakota State (fifth in continuity) which went from 9-7 in the Summit and KenPom 202, to 13-3 and KenPom 112. But overall, there wasn’t as much improvement across the board for the teams returning the highest percentage of their minutes.

As we approach another season with a record amount of roster turnover, will continuity (potentially) provide another significant boost? No matter the season that would be the assumption, but if last year is any indication it will be worth keeping a particular eye on Lehigh, Saint Mary’s, Arkansas State, Idaho State, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State, who, according to barttorvik.com’s 2022 projections, return 99.7 percent of their possession minutes.