College Basketball Teams Set to Break Out in 2014-15 Season
Hope springs eternal during the offseason, and there are 10 college basketball teams from major conferences with very legitimate hopes of reaching the 2014 NCAA tournament despite failing to accomplish so much as a winning record in conference this past season.
Every year, there are a handful of teams that flip the script from "terrible" to "tournament" in one offseason. George Washington was 13-17 during the 2012-13 season, but the Colonials made the tournament in 2014. Same goes for Nebraska (15-18) and Texas (16-18).
The season before that, it was Villanova (13-19 in 2011-12), Boise State (13-17) and Oklahoma (15-16) who had the biggest turnarounds to make the 2013 NCAA tournament.
With that in mind, we took a look through the list of more than 50 major-conference teams who finished at or below .500 in conference play in 2013-14 in hopes of identifying the ones most likely to make a leap into the 2015 NCAA tournament.
These are the 10 major-conference teams who somewhat stunk last year but could be smelling like roses next March.
Conferences considered were Atlantic Coast, American, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 and Southeastern.
Key Returnees: Kendall Anthony, Terry Allen, ShawnDre' Jones, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Trey Davis, Deion Taylor
Impact Arrivals: T.J. Cline (Niagara)
The Spiders were playing pretty well for the first two-and-a-half months of the 2013-14 season. On January 25, they were 14-6 and had just completed a three-game sweep of Dayton, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph's.
Within the next 10 days, they lost road games to Saint Louis and VCU, lost leading scorer Cedrick Lindsay to a knee injury and lost Derrick Williams because of family issues that led him to transfer. It didn't take long for them to go from "on the bubble" to "searching for answers."
But if they can avoid a similar dose of midseason adversity, the Spiders should be back in the mix for a tournament bid next year.
Anthony will be back for another year, and he brings a career three-point shooting percentage of 39.2 percent with him. Allen and Davis will return to the post as quality rebounders, as will Nelson-Ododa as one of the better shot-blockers in the country.
Though they do have a few quality returning players, it's Cline that will be the key to the Spiders' success.
Despite a surprisingly overcrowded roster at Niagara in 2012-13, Cline averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman. He frequently dealt with foul trouble, but he was the most efficient scorer on the Purple Eagles by a mile.
He's 6'8", but attempted more three-pointers (119) than he did two-pointers (87). His ability to play the stretch 4 will undoubtedly make him a welcome addition at Richmond, where everyone is expected to be a three-point threat—Davis was the only regular who didn't average at least one three-point attempt per game last season.
With all of the turnover at Saint Joseph's and Saint Louis, Richmond should be battling Dayton, Massachusetts and VCU for positioning in the top four of the A-10 standings.
Key Returnees: Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor, Dallin Bachynski, Dakarai Tucker
Impact Arrivals: Brekkott Chapman (freshman), Kyle Kuzma (freshman), Chris Reyes (JUCO)
Every primary member of the 2013-14 rotation is back for another season.
For some teams on this list, that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing, but the Utes were a good, underrated team last season. Of their 10 regular-season losses, only two (at UCLA and at Arizona) were by more than four points.
In addition to close losses, they had a handful of quality wins but never quite had a chance of making the NCAA tournament because of a positively dreadful nonconference schedule.
Wright and Loveridge were one of the best one-two punches in the nation, combining to average 30.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. Taylor added 10.6 points, 3.5 assists and 39.8 percent three-point shooting.
In stark contrast to that great play from their guards and small forward, the Utes lacked an interior presence. Bachynski gave them quality production at center, but he only averaged 18 minutes per game.
Shoring up that weakness was clearly Larry Krystkowiak's focus for this offseason, as all three of the noteworthy incoming players stand at least 6'7" and should provide an immediate, positive impact at power forward.
Utah's on-court product should be more than worthy of a tournament bid this season. We'll see if the schedule improves enough to make the computer numbers match the eye test.
Key Returnees: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Jabril Trawick, Joshua Smith, Mikael Hopkins
Impact Arrivals: Isaac Copeland (freshman), L.J. Peak (freshman), Paul White (freshman), Tre Campbell (freshman)
Replacing Markel Starks (17.3 PPG, 4.1 APG) will not be easy, but the Hoyas do have one of the highest-rated incoming recruiting classes, with Rivals putting them ninth.
The number of minutes that Copeland and Peak play may hinge heavily on whether Smith is academically eligible to rejoin the team, but both figure to be huge contributors as freshmen.
Copeland is rated as the 16th-best freshman by ESPN 100, and his ability to stretch the court will work wonders for Smith and Hopkins in the post. Peak isn't quite as highly rated (No. 31), but he did partake in the Jordan Brand Classic and figures to be in the running for the starting job at small forward.
Campbell could also get a fair amount of minutes at point guard as the Hoyas try to figure out how to divvy up the 37.0 minutes per game that used to belong to Starks.
Georgetown has the personnel to compete for the Big East title this season—Creighton, Providence and Xavier should all be taking a step back without Doug McDermott, Bryce Cotton and Semaj Christon, respectively.
The big question for the Hoyas is whether they'll be able to avoid off-the-court distractions for a change. Smith was ruled academically ineligible in January of this past season. Greg Whittington suffered the same fate in January 2013 before getting dismissed from the team this past November.
If they can avoid that type of drama, they should improve upon last season's disappointing 18-15 record.
Key Returnees: Will Cummings, Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle, Mark Williams, Josh Brown
Impact Arrivals: Jaylen Bond (Texas), Jesse Morgan (Massachusetts), Obi Enechionyia (freshman)
This one is a total shot in the dark, but someone—anyone—from the AAC has to profit from Louisville's departure to the ACC and Cincinnati's expected fall from grace without Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson.
SMU is the current trendy pick to win the conference, but the Mustangs were already 12-6 last season. Unless they plan on going 21-3, they can only improve so much.
Among the bottom feeders from last year, South Florida (3-15) is losing its two leading scorers, Central Florida (4-14) is losing its three leading scorers, Rutgers is realigning to the Big Ten and Houston would have been the favorite if not for all the drama surrounding TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House trying to transfer.
Tulane and Tulsa could be strong as they transfer in from Conference USA, but I like Temple's chances of getting back into the national spotlight after a dreadful 9-22 season.
Prior to the program's worst single-season campaign in nearly 40 years—and it should be noted that the Owls started the year 5-5 with several close losses to quality teams before losing Dingle to knee surgery—Fran Dunphy had led this team to six consecutive NCAA tournaments.
There's no good reason to doubt his ability to get it back there again.
Losing Dalton Pepper to graduation and Anthony Lee to Ohio State will be tough, but the Owls are gaining three quality players—four if you count Dingle's return to health. That might be enough for a fourth-place finish in the AAC and a two-month stay on the bubble.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Key Returnees: Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Kendrick Nunn
Impact Arrivals: Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall), Ahmad Starks (Oregon State), Darius Paul (Western Michigan), Leron Black (freshman)
For the Illini, 2013-14 was a tale of three seasons.
Over the first two months, they were 13-2 and made a very brief appearance in the AP Top 25. They proceeded to lose 10 of their next 11 games before turning things back around to win six of the last nine.
Most notable about that finishing stretch is that they won consecutive road games against Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa before nearly defeating Michigan in the B1G tournament. If momentum from the end of one season can possibly carry over into the next, that's great news for Illinois.
Even better news for the Illini is that they have arguably the best group of incoming transfers.
Paul (who will be a sophomore) and Starks (senior) each averaged 10.4 points per game during the 2012-13 season. Cosby (junior) tallied 12.6 points per game for the Pirates. Starks and Cosby are also very good three-point shooters, which is something Illinois desperately lacked this past season.
Texas A&M Aggies
Key Returnees: Jamal Jones, Kourtney Roberson, Alex Caruso, Davonte Fitzgerald, Jordan Green, Antwan Space
Impact Arrivals: Jalen Jones (SMU), Alex Robinson (freshman)
The Aggies missed out on the theoretical one-in-seven chance of landing Myles Turner on Wednesday afternoon when the last remaining big-name freshman chose to take his talents to Texas, per ESPN.com, but they should excel just fine without him.
Caruso and Jamal Jones improved considerably throughout the season and will be joined in the backcourt by Robinson—an ESPN 100 point guard.
Fitzgerald averaged 18.5 points per 40 minutes as a freshman but missed the final 10 games of the season because of a knee injury.
Having him back in the fold will be crucial. Fitzgerald finished the season with dreadful shooting percentages, but he was clearly starting to turn a corner before the injury. After shooting 35.1 percent from the field and 20.7 percent from three-point range in his first 13 collegiate games, he shot 40.9 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range over the next 11.
Jalen Jones won't be eligible to play until the second semester, but he should prove to be a huge midseason addition. He averaged 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore at SMU.
The Aggies shouldn't need to improve too drastically to make the tournament next year. They finished the regular season with a 17-14 record, including a season sweep of Tennessee.
Key Returnees: Manu Lecomte, Davon Reed, Tonye Jekiri
Impact Arrivals: Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State), Sheldon McClellan (Texas), Ivan Cruz Uceda (JUCO), Ja'Quan Newton (freshman), Omar Sherman (freshman), James Palmer (freshman)
Talk about turning over a new leaf!
Four of Miami's top seven scorers from last season are graduating, while another (James Kelly) has elected to transfer. The Hurricanes are returning a grand total of three players who played more than 10 minutes last season.
For a team that averaged 61 points per game while playing at the slowest tempo in the country, according to KenPom.com (subscription required), that's probably a good thing.
Miami's backcourt is going to be loaded. Between Lecomte, Rodriguez, McClellan, Newton and Palmer, the Hurricanes will have five guys 6'5" or shorter who are capable of handling the ball and doing a fair amount of scoring.
The question marks are in the frontcourt.
Jekiri is a great rebounder and a more-than-adequate shot-blocker, but he isn't much of an offensive presence and barely averaged 20 minutes per game. That means the Hurricanes will need to rely heavily upon Cruz Uceda and Sherman, as Jekiri is the only returning player taller than 6'6".
Maybe I'm a year early on the Hurricanes' bandwagon and 2015-16 will be their breakout year. Justin Heller will be the only senior on the roster next season, and he played all of six minutes in 2013-14. However, I believe there are enough pieces on this year's roster that they could make a serious run at a 2014 tournament appearance.
Colorado State Rams
Key Returnees: J.J. Avila, Jon Octeus, Daniel Bejarano, Joe De Ciman
Impact Arrivals: Dantiel Daniels (Southern Illinois), Stanton Kidd (NC Central), Gian Luis Clavell (JUCO)
Even if they weren't adding any transfers, you would have to like the chances of a rebound year for the Rams. All four of their leading scorers from last season are coming back—which is quite a difference from this past season as they tried to adjust to life without their five leading scorers from 2012-13.
But they are adding some transfers, and it's a trio of quality ones.
Kidd averaged 14.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in 2012-13. Daniels didn't score nearly as much (7.7 PPG), but he has a career shooting percentage of 58.7 percent. And Clavell ranks 37th among JUCO transfers, according to 247Sports, having averaged 16.6 points per game at Northwest Kansas Tech.
New Mexico and San Diego State were the only Mountain West teams to make the 2014 NCAA tournament, but they could both be headed for rebuilding seasons. New Mexico is losing its three leading scorers, and San Diego State is losing some crucial players in Xavier Thames and Josh Davis.
This should open the door for Colorado State to earn at least a share of a regular-season conference championship for the first time in 25 years.
Ole Miss Rebels
Key Returnees: Jarvis Summers, LaDarius White, Anthony Perez, Aaron Jones, Sebastian Saiz
Impact Arrivals: Roderick Lawrence (JUCO), Stefan Moody (JUCO), M.J. Rhett (Tennessee State), Terence Smith (Tennessee-Martin)
Though Marshall Henderson is graduating and taking nearly 25 percent of Ole Miss' 2013-14 field-goal attempts with him, the Rebels should improve considerably without him.
Rather than reloading with freshmen, Andy Kennedy went whole hog into the transfer market, landing four veteran players who should make an immediate impact.
Lawrence has been rated the 14th-best JUCO transfer by 247Sports. Moody checks in at No. 32 on that list. Rhett nearly averaged a double-double (10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds) last season for Tennessee State. Smith averaged 14.6 points per game and shot 43.8 percent from three-point range.
So, yes, Ole Miss will be just fine without Henderson jacking up 12.6 three-point attempts per game.
Now that he doesn't have to defer so frequently to Henderson, Summers could very likely lead the SEC in scoring next season. He averaged 17.3 points per game while shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three-point range.
With Florida and Tennessee both losing so much from their respective 2013-14 rosters, Ole Miss should be the early favorite to finish in second place in the SEC next season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Key Returnees: Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu, Maurice Walker, Joey King, Elliott Eliason
Impact Arrivals: Carlos Morris (JUCO), Gaston Diedhiou (Spain), Bakary Konate (freshman)
Though they just barely missed the NCAA tournament before winning the NIT, the Golden Gophers technically fit the bill because of an 8-10 record in B1G play last season.
They lost Austin Hollins and Malik Smith from last year's team, but still return an entire starting five loaded with veteran leadership. Mathieu (PG), Hollins (SG), Walker (PF) and Eliason (C) will all be seniors in 2014-15. King (stretch 4) will be a junior.
To that talented stable, they'll be adding a small forward who averaged 13.3 points per game for Chipola College. Morris is a good-not-great three-point shooter who should help fill the gaps created by the departure of Hollins and Smith—who combined to attempt 359 three-pointers last season.
The biggest question for Minnesota is whether Eliason can get back to playing the way he was during the first 10 weeks of the 2013-14 season.
On January 16, Eliason was averaging 6.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. Through 18 games, he had six double-doubles. But over his final 19 games, he failed to top eight points or seven rebounds even once, averaging 3.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
If the Golden Gophers can get five months of the version of Eliason that helped carry them to a 14-4 start to last season with near victories over Michigan, Michigan State and Syracuse, they'll not only get back to the NCAA tournament, but could also compete for the B1G regular-season title.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.