College Basketball Predictions: 10 Teams That Will Improve the Most in 2012-13

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJune 14, 2012

College Basketball Predictions: 10 Teams That Will Improve the Most in 2012-13

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    A college hoops program can make an awfully big jump in a single season—just ask Indiana—and there’ll be plenty of examples of that phenomenon next year. Sure, usual suspects such as Kentucky and Louisville will be major contenders again, but some of last season’s afterthoughts will be among the most dangerous teams in the country next year.

    Texas squeaked into the 2012 NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, but next year they’ll be a powerhouse in the Big 12. The return of standout point guard Myck Kabongo, plus a terrific bunch of incoming freshmen, should give the Longhorns a great shot at a top-four seed next March.

    Read on for a closer look at Texas and nine other former also-rans who will make a major impact next season.

10. NC State

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    The Wolfpack may seem a strange choice for this list after last year’s impressive Sweet 16 run, but NC State wasn’t actually all that good for most of 2011-12.

    A 9-7 ACC record (tied with Miami, which didn’t even make it to March Madness) left them well off the pace for the conference lead, and even with two upset wins in the postseason, Mark Gottfried’s 11th-seeded team finished a middling 24-13 overall.

    Next year’s squad, though, will be among the ACC favorites and have a great shot at a seed in the top two or three, thanks partly to the return of four starters including forward C.J. Leslie and standout point guard Lorenzo Brown.

    In addition, the Wolfpack bring in three of the country’s top 50 freshmen, led by standout SG Rodney Purvis.

9. Illinois State

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    For a team that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998, Illinois State is in surprisingly good shape for 2012-13.

    New coach Dan Muller inherits a team that finished just 9-9 in conference play (21-13 overall), but he doesn’t lose a single player from last season’s roster.

    Foremost among the returnees is rising senior Jackie Carmichael, a 6’9” PF who led the team in points (13.9), rebounds (9.7) and blocks (1.4) per game.

    Doug McDermott’s return at Creighton will make sure the Redbirds don’t win the MVC, but an NCAA Tournament bid is very much in reach.

8. Tennessee

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    A miserable 9-9 performance out of conference (including losses to Austin Peay, Oakland and Charleston) kept Tennessee out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament despite finishing in a second-place tie in the SEC standings.

    Now that he’s gotten his feet wet in his new job, Vols coach Cuonzo Martin should be set for an even bigger splash next season.

    Among the team’s four returning starters are rising-star PG Trae Golden (13.6 points and 4.5 assists per game, .388 long-range shooting) and Freshman All-American Jarnell Stokes (9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a night).

    The recruiting class is nothing special, but with plenty of talent back from a roster that beat Vanderbilt and won at Florida, Tennessee could eclipse last year’s 19-win total before Valentine’s Day.

7. Houston

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    The 2011-12 Cougars were a thoroughly forgettable team that finished 15-15, but they were also an extraordinarily young team (zero seniors on the roster).

    Everyone’s back except NBA-bound leading scorer Jonathan Simmons, and 6’8” rising sophomore TaShawn Thomas (10.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest) looks ready to pick up some of Simmons' slack.

    On top of all that, the Cougars bring in Conference USA’s best recruiting class, one that’s ranked as high as 15th in the nation (by Rivals.com).

    The headliner in that group, high-flying swingman Danuel House, should turn the nation’s 83rd-best scoring offense into a unit to be feared next season.

6. Texas

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    If J’Covan Brown had stayed for his senior year, Texas might’ve been the outright favorite in the Big 12.

    Even with the high-scoring guard off to the NBA though, a team that sneaked into the NCAA Tournament at 9-9 in conference play is looking at a No. 3 or No. 4 seed instead of last year’s spot on the No. 11 line.

    It all starts with rising sophomore Myck Kabongo, who should be among the nation’s most dangerous point guards after averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 assists per game a year ago.

    He’ll get to set up some big-time post players this time around, thanks to Rick Barnes’ outstanding recruiting class that features stud center Cameron Ridley and two other homegrown freshmen 6’9” or taller.

5. Pitt

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    One might reasonably expect that the departures of seniors Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson would leave Pitt even worse off than last year’s 22-17 squad.

    Nevertheless, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare thanks to the return of some promising big men (Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna) along with superlative point guard Tray Woodall, who averaged 6.1 assists per game when he wasn’t missing six weeks with an abdominal injury.

    Woodall’s also going to get some impressive new weapons, courtesy of a magnificent recruiting class highlighted by 6’10” center Steven Adams (the nation’s sixth-best freshman according to ESPNU).

    The Panthers may still miss the NCAA Tournament thanks to the gauntlet that is the Big East, but they won’t be going 5-13 in conference play again this year.

4. Minnesota

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    By season’s end, the Golden Gophers—who had missed the Big Dance for the second straight year—had lost their top two post players to injury.

    Considering that the roster that was left still fought its way to the finals of the NIT, there’s a lot to build on for 2012-13.

    PF Trevor Mbakwe, lost to a knee injury after seven games, is back for his final season and out to defend the Big Ten rebounding crown he earned in 2010-11.

    With Mbakwe and Rodney Williams leading the way (not to mention an improving backcourt anchored by Julian Welch and Austin Hollins), Minnesota's 6-12 conference record will be in the rearview mirror next season.

3. Arizona

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    Arizona might reasonably have expected a drop-off after Derrick Williams’ departure, but going from the Elite Eight to a first-round loss in the NIT (to Bucknell, yet) was a bit much.

    Fortunately for the Wildcats, the pendulum looks set to swing back the other direction thanks to a monster recruiting class.

    Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski headlines a group that’s ranked a consensus third in the nation, transforming a small team with 6’6” Solomon Hill at PF into a huge one.

    Add in the returning Hill, plus a backcourt of rising sophomore Nick Johnson and sweet-shooting Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, and the Wildcats could well be headed back to the Elite Eight next March.

2. Providence

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    Providence has almost nowhere to go but up after finishing 15-17 last season (including 4-14 in conference, good for second-to-last place).

    For all that, the Friars are positioned to be one of next year’s biggest surprises and an instant upset threat to the Big East powers.

    Among coach Ed Cooley’s returning players are hidden gems Vincent Council (15.9 points and 7.5 assists per game) and LaDontae Henton (14.3 points and 8.6 boards a night as a Freshman All-American).

    Add them to ESPNU’s sixth-best recruiting class, led by scoring machine Ricardo Ledo on the wing and Providence will be surprising a lot of opponents in 2012-13.

1. UCLA

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    2011-12 was a dreadful season by UCLA’s standards, as the Bruins started with home losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee on their way to a 19-14 record and a postseason of watching other teams on TV.

    Amazingly, Ben Howland managed to bring in ESPNU’s top-ranked recruiting class in the nation in spite of last year’s awful finish.

    Between SF Shabazz Muhammad—a premier athlete who could win the conference scoring title—and PG Kyle Anderson, UCLA’s frosh will need very little help to bring Final Four buzz back to Westwood.

    Factor in an underrated frontcourt that returns three 6’10” bruisers—Joshua Smith and the Wear twins, all rising juniors—and the Bruins will be frontrunners for a conference crown and No. 1 or No. 2 seed next season.