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Preseason: Five teams that could end NCAA bid frustration

Dave2015As years pass between trips to the NCAA tournament, Selection Sunday can become frustrating for Madness-starved fan bases.  As much as they love the drama that March brings, they miss the highs and lows of watching their own team try and navigate the bracket.

Fortunately, each year brings new hope, and for the five programs listed below, there’s a realistic sense that this could be the year when Selection Sunday means something again.

ILLINOIS – It’s been seven years (2013) since the Fighting Illini last played in the NCAA tournament.  It’s been even longer (2009-10, per Sports-Reference) since Illinois has posted a winning record in Big Ten play.  Will this be the year those droughts end? We’ll see, but the optimism in Champaign is palpable.  Now in his third year, coach Brad Underwood has assembled enough talent to make the Illini a viable at-large contender.  Four starters return, including point guard Ayo Dosunmu, who could challenge for Big Ten Player of the Year honors.  Illinois also adds seven-foot powerhouse Kofi Cockburn, a freshman from Oak Hill Academy.  To make the necessary leap, however, the Illini likely need two things to happen … 1) find consistent production from bench and role players; 2) learn how to finish (and win) games, especially away from home.

GEORGIA – The Bulldogs have appeared in just two NCAA tournaments in the past decade (2011, 2015), so the fan base is restless for return trip.  And thanks to an infusion of talent, optimism is high in Athens these days.  Anthony Edwards headlines a class of Top 100 recruits who could quickly move the needle.  Returning production for second-year coach Tom Crean includes forward Rayshaun Hammonds.  The question is … with so many new (and young) pieces, how will the Bulldogs will handle road venues in the Southeastern Conference, not to mention Uber-talented teams such as Kentucky and Florida?  Crean will need at least a couple of his other young players to grow up quickly.  If that happens, a middle-of-the-pack finish in the league is attainable, which should put the Bulldogs in the NCAA conversation.

SOUTH FLORIDA – The Bulls participated in the 2012 NCAA tournament.  Prior to that? It was 1992, when South Florida played in the now-defunct Metro Conference.  Coming off a College Basketball Invitational championship, this year’s group is positioned to be in the mix for an at-large bid.  Led by guard David Collins, the Bulls return significant production and could easily reverse several close losses endured a season ago. Toughness and defense are hallmarks of Brian Gregory teams; the Bulls finished fourth in the American Conference last season in scoring defense.  If the offense continues to improve, it could end up being a memorable season in Tampa.

OREGON STATE – The Beavers have earned just two trips to the NCAA tournament since 1990.  The last, a 2016 trip as a seven seed, resulted in a first-round loss.  This year, the hopes for another invitation are understandable.  All Pac-12 forward Tres Tinkle leads a returning group that has the potential for a Top 5 or 6 finish in the league if all goes well.  Depth is the probably the team’s biggest concern.  Guard Ethan Thompson is a solid anchor at the guard position, and Kylor Kelley helps secure the front line.  To achieve their goals, the Beavers may need a few additional pieces to fall into place.  Like many others, an array of close defeats ultimately cost OSU a year ago.  If a few of those turn into victories, stay tuned.

PENN STATE – Happy Valley hasn’t been so happy the past two decades – at least as it relates to college hoops.  The Nittany Lions have made just two NCAA tournament appearances since 2000 (2011 and 2001), missing in 2018 after posting a 9-9 record in the Big 10.  This year’s hopes begin with the return of Lamar Stevens, one of the league’s best all-around talents.  He averaged almost 20 points a game (19.9) last season as the Nittany Lions’ playmaker.  He’s joined by Mike Watkins, who when healthy, is a productive front-line force.  Newcomers include Izaiah Brockington, a sharpshooting transfer from St. Bonaventure and Curtis Jones, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State.  Had Rasir Bolton not transferred to Iowa State, the ceiling would be even higher for Pat Chambers’ crew.  As it is, the Nittany Lions have the chance to compete for a top-half finish in the Big Ten, a result that will likely have them in the NCAA discussion.

Credit to Sports Reference, Athlon Sports, ESPN, and NCAA as references for this post.



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