Every college basketball season has a few surprises. Teams that are expected to merely make up the numbers in their conferences become surprising contenders and find their way into the NCAA tournament.
La Salle was expected to finish mid-table or worse in the Atlantic 10 last season by publications like Lindy's and Blue Ribbon. Illinois, Oklahoma State and Oregon were similarly maligned.
So who are the teams that can upset the prognostications in 2013-14? It's not just about the talent on hand, but it's also a function of scheduling. Will the RPI look strong enough when a team leaves the floor after its conference tournament?
These eight teams—presented alphabetically—aren't projected among the elite to start this campaign, but don't be surprised if their results make them at-large candidates come Selection Sunday.
NOTE: The key word is "at-large," meaning that teams from expected one-bid conferences will not be represented here.
Under former coach Nolan Richardson, Arkansas basketball was a monster. It fed on NCAA tournament victories and once gorged itself on a national title. Unfortunately, the monster has been starving with only one win since 1999.
Richardson disciple Mike Anderson aims to get back into the March main event, and he's added a few boss Hogs to help him get there. McDonald's All-American Bobby Portis leads a revamped frontcourt that also includes rookie eraser Moses Kingsley and Houston transfer Alandise Harris.
The backcourt is full of experience, but most of its explosiveness left when B.J. Young went pro. Arkansas needs shooting from senior Mardracus Wade and sophomore Anthlon Bell, while senior Fred Gulley should get a chance to prove himself at the point after dishing five assists in a season-opening win over SIU Edwardsville.
The Hogs have a few respectable non-conference tests, such as home tilts with SMU and Clemson. Plus, Sun Belt favorites Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama could be stronger than expected. Most of Arkansas' résumé capital, however, will be earned in Hawaii.
The Maui Invitational will pit Arkansas against Cal in round one, with either Syracuse or Minnesota in the second game. Either Baylor or Gonzaga could await in a third-place or even championship game.
SEC scheduling is not kind to Arkansas, making the Hogs play Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia twice. The Hogs need a winning record in those 10 games to have a good chance of a solid mid-table finish.
The Atlantic 10 took hard body blows when Butler and Xavier bolted for the Big East and Temple left for the American Athletic Conference. While erstwhile favorites VCU, Saint Louis and La Salle remain, the A-10 could be open for one more team to score a tournament bid.
George Washington could sneak in and steal its first berth since 2007.
An awful shooting team last season, GW seeks returns to form from senior Nemanja Mikic and Indiana graduate transfer Maurice Creek. Creek was a 16-PPG man as a freshman before beginning a calamitous run of injuries. Mikic drained 75 threes as a freshman, a number that has steadily dropped since.
Combo guard Kethan Savage stuffed the box score in GW's opener, putting up 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals.
Ex-Villanova forward Isaiah Armwood and sophomore center Kevin Larsen form a solid post duo, but sophomore wing Patricio Garino, a dangerous defender, will be missed as he recovers from a broken finger. All the Colonials lack is depth, which coach Mike Lonergan hopes can develop during a tough-but-not-impossible non-league schedule.
GW plays at MAAC favorite Manhattan and Kansas State, which lost its opener at home to Northern Colorado. Home games include Rutgers, Boston University and Georgia, and a regional battle against Maryland could also put a check on the résumé.
A trip to California for the Wooden Legacy will be huge. GW will start off with Miami and could face Marquette in round two. The third game will be against either Charleston, Creighton, Arizona State or San Diego State, any of which would be solid-to-excellent wins.
Don't chuckle too hard. After all, Georgia Tech has international-caliber talent.
Sophomores Robert Carter and Marcus Georges-Hunt were both invited to try out for USA Basketball's U19 team that would go on to win the world championship this summer. Arizona was the only other school to send two players to tryouts.
Those two, along with classmate Chris Bolden and senior post duo Daniel Miller (pictured) and Kammeon Holsey, will give the Ramblin' Wreck a solid nucleus to build around. The immediate eligibility of Tennessee transfer Trae Golden gives Tech an experienced point guard.
The Yellow Jackets need to shoot more consistently than last season (last in ACC in effective FG%) and keep control of the ball, and their hope is that Golden will help with one or both.
Tech's biggest scheduling challenge is a home game against Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Jackets also travel to Georgia and Vanderbilt, with a trip to Brooklyn for the Barclays Center Classic thrown in. Tech will face Ole Miss, then either Penn State or St. John's the following day.
Duke, Notre Dame, Clemson and Boston College are Tech's two-time opponents in ACC play, giving the Jackets a tough road to a .500 conference record. Still, 8-10 in this year's ACC should get just about anyone onto the bubble, at least.
Right now, you're asking, "Wait. How's LSU under the radar?" Answer: The Tigers are an SEC team not named Kentucky, Florida or Tennessee. Considering that it's still football season, most LSU fans are only faintly aware the school has a basketball team right now.
That's unfortunate, because coach Johnny Jones has stocked the roster quickly, bringing in a very strong recruiting class. McDonald's All-American Jarell Martin and four-star power forward Jordan Mickey will provide tremendous support for All-SEC big man Johnny O'Bryant.
On the perimeter, 6'6" swingman Tim Quarterman will join veterans Anthony Hickey, Andre Stringer, Malik Morgan and wing Shavon Coleman. The depth and versatility of the Tigers' bench will stand them in good stead if injuries strike.
The schedule may be a stumbling block, however. Outside of the Old Spice Classic in Kissimmee, Florida, LSU's only major non-conference test appears to be the opener at UMass. A trip to Texas Tech and a home game against UAB before Christmas may be tricky, but the Tigers have major talent advantages over both.
That Florida tournament may be LSU's national coming-out party. The Tigers start off with Atlantic 10 contender St. Joseph's, then will face either Memphis or Siena. Waiting in round three could be Purdue, Butler, Washington State or the tournament's white whale, Oklahoma State. A championship in that event could launch the Tigers into the nation's top 10 or 15 if everything falls right.
In conference play, LSU faces Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas A&M twice, a nice balance between winnable games and potentially major résumé wins.
Oklahoma was in last season's NCAA tournament, so how can they be under the radar this year? Losing 37 points and 15 rebounds per game, as the Sooners did with Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M'Baye, will do that to you.
Coach Lon Kruger, however, should not be doubted. He's missed the dance only twice in the past seven years, with 16 bids overall in his last 23 collegiate seasons.
OU has plenty of size in its backcourt, with three guards standing 6'4" and another at 6'7". Unfortunately, there's not much in the front line, which will put Oklahoma at a disadvantage against bigger teams like Baylor.
Here's the rub, though: The Big 12 is not all that big this season, and it's not all that talented either. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and perhaps Iowa State are the only teams that are considered likely tournament bets.
The Sooners will have little margin for error in either their league or non-conference schedules. They've already survived their toughest guaranteed non-league game in beating Alabama in Dallas. From here, OU knows it's taking on Seton Hall in Brooklyn and Texas A&M in Houston, with a hope that the Brooklyn tournament also yields a meeting with Michigan State.
Oklahoma could win 20 games with this schedule, but one or two bad losses could leave it as the 2014 version of Virginia—done in by a struggling RPI and grumbling all the way to the NIT.
Providence scored an opening-day victory that will loom large in March when it toppled Boston College in overtime. The game pitted two teams that will figure in the bubble conversation all winter, and the Friars' victory set them up to make a hot start to the season.
There are a few more chances for résumé wins in Providence's non-conference schedule, including battles with UMass and Kentucky, the latter in Brooklyn. The Friars' November trip to the Virgin Islands will pit them against Vanderbilt, with La Salle, Maryland or Northern Iowa lurking as potential opponents.
If PC can reach Big East play with only a loss to Kentucky on its ledger, a .500 conference record would leave the Friars at 21-10. That mark would be more than sufficient to put Providence back in the dance for the first time in a decade.
A shoulder injury to point guard Kris Dunn could damage PC's backcourt depth if it turns out to be a long-term problem. Defending Big East scoring king Bryce Cotton would be forced to run the point.
Purdue isn't used to attending some other party in March, but it was shunted off to the 2013 CBI. This despite having the exact same Big Ten record as NCAA third-round teams Illinois and Minnesota. The Boilermakers were done in, however, by bad losses like Oregon State, Eastern Michigan and Northwestern.
This season, Purdue loses only shooter D.J. Byrd and big man Sandi Marcius, while adding three talented freshmen, two graduate transfers and regaining the services of redshirt freshman Jay Simpson. There is talent in West Lafayette, but the veterans need to show greater consistency.
Last year's team stunned Wisconsin in Madison, dominated Michigan late before stumbling, then stomped Minnesota to finish the regular season. The Boilers followed that up by losing to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament. Like we said: consistency.
Purdue has once again struggled to assemble a potent non-league schedule, with most of its tough tests being part of contractually mandated events. The Boilers host Boston College as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, then meet Butler in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.
Purdue is guaranteed a game with Oklahoma State at the Old Spice Classic, but results need to align to get meetings with Butler (again), Memphis or LSU.
Of course, the Big Ten is always a tough march. A .500 season in the conference would be a solid result, but Purdue can't stumble against the likes of Siena, Rider or Eastern Michigan (again).
The Mountain West Conference will have to work all of its RPI mojo this season to earn five NCAA bids again. Still, new member Utah State could manage a berth if it adapts quickly to the new—and more dangerous—surroundings.
Coach Stew Morrill has taken the Aggies to eight tournaments in his last 14 years. Last year, the WAC was ripe for the taking, but injuries robbed USU of star guard Preston Medlin and forward Kyisean Reed, plus forward Danny Berger suffered near-fatal cardiac arrest in a December practice.
Medlin and Berger are back, along with center Jarred Shaw and swingman Spencer Butterfield, to form a talented, experienced nucleus. They're beginning play in a conference where foes like San Diego State and UNLV have lost important pieces and must now reload.
The non-conference schedule isn't fearsome, especially since the Aggies only leave the state of Utah once, for a trip to UC-Santa Barbara. They do have to travel to play at Weber State and against BYU in Salt Lake City. Those are, unfortunately, the Aggies' only stiff tests unless one counts major-conference cupcakes USC and Mississippi State.
That BYU game may be the only one USU can even remotely afford to lose. In the conference, State must run the table against the weaker members while pulling multiple wins over contenders like New Mexico, Boise State and SDSU. That may be doable, since the Aggies have lost all of 13 home games in Morrill's 15 years.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: takeaways from opening night.