If the 2011-12 college hoops season taught us anything, it’s that preseason rankings are frequently way off base (see No. 10 Pitt and No. 17 UCLA). With that in mind, it’s worth considering who the best teams are who look likely to miss out on the Top 25 limelight prior to the start of the season.
One prime example is a Miami team that features over 500 lbs of low-post power between Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson. The Hurricanes couldn’t turn their talent into much success in last year’s 20-13 effort, but with four starters back they’ll be a very tough opponent in ACC play.
Read on for more on Miami and the rest of the 25 best teams who couldn’t crack ESPN’s preseason Top 25.
It’s easy to dismiss the Golden Eagles as a two-man team that lost both men.
Even with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder gone, though, Marquette has enough Big East-level athletes left to be a dangerous opponent next season, thanks in large measure to the return of Junior Cadougan.
Rising senior Cadougan is an outstanding point guard who will keep the offense afloat after averaging 5.4 assists per game last year.
Factor in overlooked big men such as Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner (all 6’8”, 290 lbs of him) holding down the paint, and Marquette should have just enough scoring to win the close games its defense will keep it in.
The loss of NBA-bound Royce White will be a serious blow to what was a 23-11 Iowa State squad, but the Cyclones aren’t out of weapons by a long shot.
Not coincidentally, long shots were one of the team’s specialties last year, and rising senior Chris Babb drained 64 of them from beyond the arc.
Babb and athletic forward Melvin Ejim (9.3 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) will both benefit from big-game experience after knocking off Kansas and (in the NCAA Tournament) UConn a season ago.
They’ll also have some appreciable new talent joining them, as four-star freshman big man Georges Niang arrives and former Michigan State guard Korey Lucious becomes eligible as yet another member of Fred Hoiberg's stable of transfers.
It’s never a good idea to overlook the defending NIT champs—just ask Wichita State, which went from the 2011 title in that tournament to a No. 5 NCAA seed last March.
Stanford isn’t returning as many of its NIT stars as the Shockers did, but the Cardinal still has some big-time players who will benefit from last year’s postseason run.
Next year’s edition will be led by a rising-star backcourt of Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle (a combined 25.5 points and 5.8 assists a night).
Graduation took a heavier toll up front, but don’t sleep on hard-working PF Josh Huestis (4.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in a reserve role last season).
The Gaels are probably one player away from vying for a Top 25 spot again, but the graduation of rebounding ace Rob Jones relegates them to the next tier down.
Even so, any team with a rising senior point guard as good as Matthew Dellavedova (15.5 points and 6.4 assists per game a year ago) is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Jorden Page and Stephen Holt (a combined 18.1 points per game) will join Dellavedova on the outside, with Holt’s 1.8 steals a night keying the defense.
Now St. Mary’s just has to hope that 6’9” Brad Waldow can build on a solid freshman season to become the low-post anchor this team desperately needs.
A disastrous 5-13 Big East finish and the departure of high-scoring Ashton Gibbs have conspired to keep expectations much lower than usual at Pitt. Nevertheless, with star PG Tray Woodall back and healthy for his senior year, there’s also reason for hope.
When not slowed by groin and abdominal injuries last season, Woodall dished out 6.1 assists per game while scoring 11.7 points a night for himself.
He’ll have some serious help next season from a high-powered recruiting class highlighted by 6’10” center Steven Adams.
If the Wolf Pack weren’t stuck trying to replace their top two forwards, they would be in outstanding shape as they join the Mountain West for 2012-13.
Even with Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt gone, though, Nevada’s formidable backcourt will make it much too dangerous to overlook.
The biggest weapon is rising senior Malik Story, whose 94 three-pointers (on .416 shooting) represent the heart of the Wolf Pack offense.
He and Deonte Burton combined for 28.9 points a game a year ago, and big Jerry Evans Jr. (a 6’8” swingman) should get a few more touches of his own on offense next season.
South Florida’s 2011-12 squad managed the unlikely feat of making the NCAA Tournament—let alone winning two games once they got there—without a double-digit scorer.
With four members of last season’s seven-man rotation returning, the country’s No. 7 scoring defense (56.6 points allowed per game) will be an intimidating unit again.
The offense will also have a fighting chance, thanks to the return of the one player who kept it functioning: point guard Anthony Collins.
Now a rising sophomore, Collins dished out 5.3 assists per game despite his teammates’ shooting woes, and if he can pick up his own scoring a bit the Bulls will be in fine shape for 2012-13.
The Missouri Valley Conference probably won’t get two teams into the Top 25 again this year, but Illinois State definitely gives the league a fighting chance.
The Redbirds’ four returning starters are led by rising senior Jackie Carmichael (13.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last year).
In addition to the 6’9”, 240-lb Carmichael inside, Illinois State brings back plenty of three-point snipers on the perimeter. Look for another big year from Tyler Brown after he drained an extraordinary 45.4 percent of his long-range attempts in 2011-12.
Outside the power conferences, where NBA-bound recruits are few and far between, experience counts for an enormous amount.
That’s just one reason that Valparaiso is the Horizon League favorite behind a complete set of five returning starters.
Coach Bryce Drew has reaped the benefits of his father Homer’s overseas recruiting prowess, with the frontcourt tandem of Australian Ryan Broekhoff and Dutchman Kevin Van Wijk combining for 29 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.
If point guard Erik Buggs can raise his game after posting a lackluster three assists per contest last season, the Crusaders will really put a scare into major-conference foes next year.
Last year’s Drexel squad set a school record by winning 29 games, but the Dragons aren’t done turning in eye-opening seasons.
Behind point guard Frantz Massenat (13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a game), Drexel is the decisive favorite for the championship of the new-look CAA next season.
Rising junior Massenat is one of four returning starters for the nation’s fifth-best scoring defense (56.1 points per game allowed).
Look for hulking senior-to-be Daryl McCoy (6’9”, 270 lbs) to fill most of the rebounding void left by star PF Samme Givens’ graduation.
If St. Joseph’s can put all its individual talent into an effective team package, the Top 25 is an entirely reachable goal in 2012-13.
The Hawks’ assets start with a backcourt—Carl Jones and Langston Galloway—that scored better than 30 points per game, thanks in part to Galloway’s eye-popping .474 three-point shooting.
Up front, 6’8”, 260-lb Halil Kanacevic grabbed 8.2 rebounds a night, and he isn’t even the marquee name.
Rising junior C.J. Aiken has ranked in the top four nationally in blocks for each of his first two collegiate seasons, giving the Hawks a defensive stopper who would be right at home in the Big East, to say nothing of the A-10.
There’s a case to be made that the 24-10 Golden Bears (who tied for second in the Pac-12 standings) didn’t deserve their at-large spot in last March’s NCAA Tournament, but they’ll certainly reap the benefits this year.
The experience of playing under the bright lights will be invaluable to Cal’s three returning starters, especially its high-powered backcourt.
Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combined for 27.8 points and 7.1 assists per game last season, and with Jorge Gutierrez graduating, that returning duo should be in for even bigger numbers.
The frontcourt won’t be completely bereft, either, with 6’10” Richard Solomon expected back after losing most of his 2011-12 season to academic shortcomings.
With Florida’s Erving Walker having graduated, Chaz Williams has a great case for being the best little guard in college hoops. The 5’9” Williams turned a .500 UMass team into a 25-12 NIT semifinalist last season, and now he’s back for his junior year.
Williams’ 16.9 points, 6.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game are the key to UMass’ hopes, but that’s not to say he’ll be a one-man show.
Three other returning Minutemen each drained 50 three-pointers a year ago, while Jesse Morgan and Sampson Carter racked up a combined 2.7 steals a night on the defensive end.
Murray State’s once-in-a-lifetime 2011-12 season ended in deflating fashion against a bigger, stronger Marquette team in the Round of 32, but the Racers aren’t going to disappear altogether next season.
With scoring star Isaiah Canaan and his 19 points per game back for his senior year, Murray State is going to be a major-league offense again.
Canaan will be joined on the perimeter by two of last year’s top reserves, point-guard-in-waiting Zay Jackson and swingman Latreze Mushatt.
The Racers won’t be as deep inside this time around, but 6’7” rising senior Ed Daniel (5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game a year ago) will count for a lot by himself on a team that depends on speed more than bulk.
You don’t see many teams improve after losing a 20 point-per-game scorer, but Maryland has a real chance to do just that in its first year post-Terrell Stoglin.
Of course, a lot of that potential depends on whether center Alex Len develops as Terps fans hope he will.
The 7’1” Ukrainian heads into his sophomore year as a dominant defender (2.1 blocks a night) who’s still figuring out the other areas of his game (six points and 5.4 rebounds per contest).
With Len and prize freshman Shaquille Cleare down low, and promising point guard Pe’Shon Howard healthy again up top, Maryland will be a dangerous sleeper in the ACC.
Experience isn’t going to be Xavier’s strong suit next season, with rising sophomore Dezmine Wells the team’s only returning starter. Even so, the 6’5” swingman will have plenty of help in keeping the Musketeers on top of the Atlantic 10 standings.
The Musketeers bring back some serious size up front, with 6’10” Jeff Robinson and 6’8” Travis Taylor likely to get their first starting opportunities now that towering Kenny Frease has graduated.
Even more important, coach Chris Mack has brought in the conference’s strongest recruiting class, anchored by star PG Semaj Christon.
After a year outside the national spotlight thanks to a pedestrian 22-15 finish, Butler has a chance to make a major splash in its Atlantic 10 debut.
Four starters return from last year’s squad, led by 6’11” Andrew Smith and his 10.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Replacing defensive stopper Ronnie Nored at the point won’t be easy, but Butler’s always-physical D will have a stronger offense supporting it this year.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, one of the best pure shooters in the country, will look to finish his college career in style after averaging 15 points a game in each of his previous two seasons against SEC defenses.
Second chances are rare in college basketball, but Miami’s underachieving 2011-12 roster returns nearly intact to take another shot at living up to its potential.
Of the key players in coach Jim Larranaga’s rotation, only guard Malcolm Grant (who struggled mightily as a senior anyway) won’t be back for next season.
6’11”, 250-lb Kenny Kadji and 6’10”, 284-lb Reggie Johnson—21.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game combined—have the muscle to become an overpowering frontcourt if they can put it all together.
They’ll get plenty of outside backup from rising senior Durand Scott (12.9 points and 3.1 assists per game) and a platoon of last year’s supporting players led by sophomore-to-be Shane Larkin.
The loss of PF Keith Wright will likely keep it from making another appearance in the national polls, but there’s no question that Harvard will again be the class of the Ivy League this season.
Moreover, with three starters back from the fourth-best scoring defense in the nation, they’ll still be equipped to make some noise outside of their lightly-regarded conference.
On offense, the Crimson will lean heavily on a talented backcourt featuring Brandyn Curry (4.9 assists per game) and Laurent Rivard (10.1 points a night, .410 long-range shooting).
With leading scorer Kyle Casey also back at forward, Harvard is a good bet to surprise some more major conference foes as they did Florida State and Boston College a year ago.
After a pair of upsets landed it in the 2012 Sweet 16, Ohio returns all five starters as it tries to go from Cinderella to top dog in the Mid-American Conference.
The Bobcats’ chances will depend heavily on how well superstar PG D.J. Cooper follow up a junior year in which he averaged 14.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game.
The 5’11” Cooper is paired with some respectable size inside, with the 6’8” duo of Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely handling the low-post duties.
Ohio’s ace in the hole could be three-point gunner Nick Kellogg—son of former Ohio State star Clark—who shot .427 from beyond the arc last season.
Yet another representative of what’s going to be a deep Atlantic-10 conference, VCU will bring its usual frenzied defense to its new league.
Freshman Briante Weber led the roster with 2.1 steals in just 18.7 minutes a night, and the Rams as a team return nearly 10 steals per game for next season.
VCU also has some punch inside, thanks to 6’9” Juvonte Reddic (10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per contest).
Expect another of last year’s stellar freshmen, Treveon Graham, to step into the offensive void left by the team’s one departing starter, sniper Bradford Burgess.
Rick Majerus’ squad didn’t get much national attention during last year’s 26-8 campaign, but having come within four points of knocking off Michigan State in the Round of 32, they deserve some notoriety now.
Hard-nosed Brian Conklin is gone from that team, but all four other starters return.
Majerus molded his young team into the nation’s eighth-best defense (57.6 points allowed per game), and a year of experience should make it even tougher.
Look for blue-collar forward Dwayne Evans to step into a leadership role as a junior after posting 7.9 points and 7.3 rebounds a night last season.
Coach Bruce Weber’s new team may not have the offensive firepower of his best Illinois squads, but with Rodney McGruder back, it’s not going to be punchless, either.
The rising senior poured in a career-high 15.8 points per game last season, and he’ll be the key to Kansas State’s chances again in 2012-13.
Along with McGruder, three other starters also return from last year’s 22-11 squad, including 6’11”, 250-lb Jordan Henriquez in the middle.
With Henriquez’s shot-blocking (2.4 rejections a night) and McGruder and Angel Rodriguez (2.5 steals per contest between them) on the outside, Kansas State’s biggest weapon will, as usual, be its defense.
First-year head coach Cuonzo Martin did an impressive job putting the Bruce Pearl era in the past in Knoxville, guiding the Vols to a 10-6 SEC finish that left them tied for second place in the conference.
With four starters back from that squad, Tennessee can aim for even greater heights—like the NCAA Tournament bid that eluded them thanks to a 19-15 overall record.
PG Trae Golden will be the main man again after averaging 13.6 points and 4.5 assists a game in a terrific sophomore season.
Up front, Tennessee has some serious bulk (6’7”, 265-lb Jeronne Maymon and 6’8”, 250-lb Jarnell Stokes), and the big guys can play, too—they combined for 22.3 points and 15.5 rebounds a game last year.
The obvious reason for Cincinnati’s absence from the Top 25 is the departure of star PF Yancy Gates, the only big man in coach Mick Cronin’s four-guard lineup a year ago.
Still, three other starters do return from a Sweet 16 team, and even the likely replacement up front (6’8” rising junior Justin Jackson) isn’t exactly a scrub.
The Bearcats still have plenty of dangerous backcourt options, led by senior-to-be Cashmere Wright (4.6 assists and two steals per game) at PG.
Leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick will have a chance to build on his 14.3 points a night, while jack-of-all-trades Jaquon Parker—9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds a game—will provide valuable toughness in a small lineup.