Bracket Bits: Ten teams that could surprise
With the dawn of a new season, optimism reigns supreme. That in mind, here are 10 teams that could surprise during the upcoming 2015-16 college hoops campaign; teams who enter November a bit under-the-radar, but with the potential to compete for an at-large bid in March.
Here we go (in alphabetical order) …
Arizona State – The Sun Devils welcome Bobby Hurley as their head coach. They also return several key players, led by point guard Tra Holder. Guard play should be a strength for ASU, with Gerry Blakes and Andre Spight, a junior college signee. If the offense can score efficiently, the Sun Devils could be in the mix for at-large consideration – perhaps a year ahead of schedule. Key Non-Conference Games: NC State, Creighton, Texas AM, Kentucky, UNLV
Auburn – While Bruce Pearl and the Tigers may still be a year away from a successful run at the NCAA Tournament, the depth of talent at Auburn has certainly improved. With resources in place, look for Pearl to look push tempo and integrate his open-court style. They’ll need contributions from several newcomers, but if the pieces come together, the Tigers could be a factor down the stretch. Key Non-Conference Games: UAB, Colorado, Xavier, New Mexico
Evansville – With seven contributing players returning, including center Egidijus Mockevicius and guard D. J. Balentine (both All-MVC selections), the Purple Aces could push Illinois State and Northern Iowa as the top challenger to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. Who else will step up to create depth and balance? The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining the Aces’ ceiling. Key Non-Conference Games: Belmont, Providence, Arkansas
Houston – Four starters return for Kelvin Sampson. The question is how well a host of newcomers gel with the talent already in place. Two of the most notable arrivals are Ronnie Johnson (Purdue) and Damyean Dotson (Oregon). If the Cougars find a blend that works, they could be in the conversation come Selection Sunday. It might be a big if, but one worth watching. Key Non-Conference Games: Rhode Island, LSU
Marquette – With the arrival of a strong recruiting class, led by Henry Ellenson, there’s a lot of optimism around the Golden Eagles. Youth and inexperience took a toll the past couple of years, although the Eagles were much improved as last season progressed. Key holdovers include Luke Fisher and Duane Wilson. Marquette will also have the services of Minnesota transfer Wally Ellenson, Henry’s older brother. The Golden Eagles may still be a year away, but if the Steve Wojciechowski finds the right mix, a return to the NCAA’s is possible.. Key Non-Conference Games: Iowa, LSU, Wisconsin
Northwestern – The question has been asked in Evanston before: Is this the year? There’s enough depth and experience to believe it could happen. Start with the return of guards Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps. Then add in Alex Olah and graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren up front. Overall, the Wildcats return their top four scorers and a host of players who can shoot the ball from beyond the three-point arc. With more depth, and a solid core, if the Wildcats learn how to win and close out games, the answer to the question above could be yes. Key Non-Conference Games: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, DePaul
Oregon State – It’s been 25 years since the Beavers heard their name called on Selection Sunday, but the feeling in Corvallis is different this season. Gary Payton, Jr. is a big reason why, but he’s not alone. Coach Wayne Tinkle brought in a Top 25 recruiting class, including his son, Tres. The Beavers were tenacious on defense a year ago. If the returning contributors and incoming talent blend offensively, there’s reason to believe a trip to The Dance is possible. Key Non-Conference Games: Iona, Valparaiso, Kansas, Tulsa
Pepperdine – With most of their key players returning, the Waves have a chance to crack the top tier of the West Coast Conference. They lost two close games to Gonzaga a year ago, beat BYU twice, and were one of the better defensive teams in the league. With Stacy Davis and Jett Raines, Pepperdine can compete across the front line. The biggest question mark is scoring. Last year, the Waves averaged just over 63 points a game, which ranked them 270th among D-1 teams. Key Non-Conference Games: UCLA, Louisiana-Lafayette
South Carolina – The Gamecocks will be young in spots, but for the first time in Frank Martin’s tenure at SC, his team is blessed with talent and depth. Guard play should be a strength, with the return of Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice, and the arrival of McDonald’s All-American P.J. Dozier. If front-court scoring and rebounding hold up, the Gamecocks will be competitive. Can they beat a few of the SEC’s upper tier teams? That’s the million-dollar question. Key Non-Conference Games: Clemson, St. John’s, Memphis
UNLV – Coming off a disappointing campaign, will the Rebels regroup and reach their potential? Coach Dave Rice hopes so. The pieces are certainly in place, with the arrival of another strong recruiting class, led by seven-footer Stephen Zimmerman, a McDonald’s All-American. Replacing leading-scorer Rashad Vaughn won’t be easy, but the Rebels do return guards Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish. On paper, UNLV is more than capable of competing for a Mountain West title. If the paper talent meshes into a consistent on-court performance, the Rebels will be in the mix. Key Non-Conference Games: UCLA, Oregon, Wichita State, Arizona State, Arizona
Others Considered: a few other under-the-radar teams to keep an eye on … Akron, Fresno State, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, St. Joseph’s, Southern Cal, Temple, and Utah State.
For the purposes of this article, I didn’t include Valparaiso or Stephen F. Austin, two quality mid-major programs that could certainly win a game or two this March (assuming they make the tourney). Neither of those teams will be a surprise to anyone.