Predicting the Most Improved College Basketball Teams in the 2014-15 Season
There's no real downtime in the world of college basketball, not for the players and coaches and certainly not for those of us who cover the sport as media or follow as fans. The "offseason" isn't so much about relaxing and taking a break between the end of one grind and the start of the other as it is a time to start looking ahead to what's coming next.
It's also the time to make predictions—lots and lots of predictions.
There are plenty of way-too-early top-25 rankings—we're not immune: here's our projection of the best teams for the 2014-15 season—and lists touting the best freshmen, best upperclassmen and best overall players. Look around enough and you'll find predictions on which 68 teams will make the NCAA field...eight months from now.
This prediction, though, is more about hope than hype. With about 350 teams in Division I, it's easy for a program to get lost in the mix if it doesn't have a good season, and the reasons why things didn't go well are different for every school. But for some of the teams that struggled in 2013-14, it's not too far-fetched to think things will be a lot better next season as long as a few things go their way.
Here's our prediction for the 10 teams that will be the most improved programs in college basketball in 2014-15.
2013-14 Record: 14-16, 6-12 in SEC
Starters Returning: 2
Of all of the offseason hires during the college basketball coaching carousel, none were as splashy as Auburn landing the big fish that was Bruce Pearl.
The former Tennessee coach, who had been off the court since getting fired in 2011 in the wake of an NCAA recruiting scandal centering around a backyard cookout, Pearl gives instant credibility and name recognition to a program that last made the NCAA tournament in 2003.
But it's more than just having a fancy new coach that puts the Tigers in contention for most improved team in the country in 2014-15. There's also the draw that Pearl brings to recruits and, especially in this first season, high-profile transfers.
Auburn picked up two players who started (and starred) at their previous schools and who will be eligible immediately as graduate transfers. Most notable is Antoine Mason, the former Niagara guard who averaged 25.6 points per game last season, and also joining the Tigers is former New Mexico State guard K.C. Ross-Miller.
Both transfers should slide right into the starting lineup, which loses three starters from last year (including leading scorer Chris Denson) but still has senior shooting guard KT Harrell and his 18.3 scoring average from 2013-14. Throw in 6'7" forward Cinmeon Bowers, rated as the top junior-college transfer available in the 2014 class, and Auburn has a much-improved group.
The Tigers also benefit from being in the SEC, which, despite having two teams (Florida and Kentucky) that were in the Final Four, is still pretty weak after that. Auburn could finish as high as third if Pearl can wrangle together this lineup and use the magic that got Tennessee into the Sweet 16 or better in three of his six seasons.
2013-14 Record: 14-17, 4-14 in Big East
Starters Returning: 4
Butler's smooth-sailing run of success at the mid-major level suddenly found itself in the perfect storm of competition upgrade and last-minute coaching upheaval in 2013-14, contributing to the program's worst season in nearly a decade. But with plenty of experience coming back, including an injured star, the Bulldogs should be back on track this year.
Brandon Miller enters his second season at the helm, but it's the first in which he has had a full offseason to prepare. He had joined Butler's staff in April 2013 as an assistant, only to get abruptly promoted to head coach in July when Brad Stevens made the surprise jump to the NBA's Boston Celtics.
And then the already daunting prospect of moving from the Atlantic 10 to the revamped Big East became even more ominous when small forward Roosevelt Jones, the Bulldogs' top returning scorer and rebounder, injured his wrist during a team exhibition trip to Australia in August 2013 and was lost for the season.
The 6'4" Jones, a junior, is expected to be at 100 percent for the 2014-15 season, and he'll rejoin a lineup that returns three players who started all year and a fourth (6'7" sophomore forward Andrew Chrabascz) started Butler's final 10 games.
Leading scorer Kellen Dunham is back, and Butler also added Indiana graduate transfer Austin Etherington, a 6'6" forward, who will help bolster the frontcourt. The Big East won't be as strong as last season, with teams such as Creighton and Providence losing major scoring output, so look for Butler to go from ninth place in 2013-14 to NCAA tourney contention in 2014-15.
Colorado State Rams
2013-14 Record: 16-16, 7-11 in Mountain West
Starters Returning: 3
Larry Eustachy's first season in Fort Collins was a huge success, with the Rams making the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since the 1960s. Year two under Eustachy? Not so good.
After winning 26 games and finishing second in the ultra-deep Mountain West, CSU plummeted to an eighth-place tie. That was despite playing a veteran lineup that featured three redshirt juniors and a senior, but the Rams struggled with their outside shooting and went a combined 1-7 against the conference's better teams.
CSU loses big man Gerson Smith and guard Jon Octeus, who graduated early and transferred to UCLA for his final season of eligibility. But returning are the Rams' top two scorers, forward J.J. Avila and guard Daniel Bejarano, a duo that combined to average 32.9 points per game as well as 15.7 rebounds.
The Rams also add former N.C. Central forward Stanton Kidd, an All-Conference selection in the MEAC in 2012-13 before sitting out last season, as well as an underrated recruiting class 3-star combo guard Jeremiah Paige. Former Louisville forward Chane Behanan was also in line to join CSU, but he opted to declare for the NBA draft instead.
Whether CSU will be in line for a bounce-back year will get an early test when it plays in the Alaska Shootout against the likes of NCAA darling Mercer as well as UCSB and talented big man Alan Williams.
2013-14 Record: 18-15, 8-10 in Big East
Starters Returning: 3
John Thompson III's tenure at Georgetown seems to include one off year every five seasons, and that pattern continued in 2013-14. Coming off a conference regular-season title (but another embarrassing early exit from the NCAA), the Hoyas were picked to finish second in the Big East.
They ended up seventh and out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Georgetown's season was all sorts of inconsistent and aberrant, with wins over Creighton, VCU and Michigan State (the last coming in February in a neutral-site game, when MSU was among the hottest teams in the country) but also losses to Northeastern, Seton Hall (twice) and finally DePaul in the first round of the Big East tournament.
Losing beefy center Joshua Smith at midseason to academics didn't help, but he was far from the only reason for the up-and-down year. Losing Jabril Trawick for a while with a broken nose altered the distribution of scoring and rebounding.
Georgetown only loses one key player, though, but it's a big one: Markel Starks averaged 17.3 points and a team-high 4.1 assists, but leading scorer D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera should be able to handle the point guard duties for Starks in his junior season. Thankfully, the Hoyas can replenish all over the court with a star-studded recruiting class that ranked 11th overall.
Of that group, small forward Isaac Copeland is the one to watch. The 6'9", 187-pounder is a 4-star prospect and should start right away in a frontcourt that could feature the 6'10", 350-pound Smith (if he gets his act together) or 6'9", 223-pound senior Mikael Hopkins.
Grand Canyon Antelopes
2013-14 Record: 15-15, 10-6 in WAC
Starters Returning: 3
Of the teams on this list, Grand Canyon is the only one we can definitively say won't be in the NCAA tournament in 2014-15. It's not because the Antelopes won't be worthy of an invite; it's because they're entering just their second season of Division I basketball and won't be eligible until 2017-18.
GCU did play in the postseason last year, losing to Pacific in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament, but with another offseason of preparation, it should be in contention to fare even better this season.
Coached by Dan Majerle, who had a storied career as an NBA star for the hometown Phoenix Suns, Grand Canyon is making major inroads on both the recruiting trail and the transfer market for such a new program.
While the team lost three transfers to Central Arkansas—where previous Grand Canyon coach Russ Pennell is now in charge—and graduated leading scorer Killian Larson, the Antelopes also are bringing in a ton of new blood.
Highlighting that haul is Royce Woolridge, a 6'3" senior guard who transferred from Washington State and will be eligible right away. Also coming in is 6'11" junior-college transfer Tobe Okafor and several freshmen, including ones from Australia and Senegal.
And GCU will get some high-profile chances to make a name for itself in 2014-15, with visits to Indiana and Kentucky as well as home games with Harvard and New Mexico.
2013-14 Record: 19-14, 9-9 in SEC
Starters Returning: 2
In the case of Ole Miss, improvement from this past letdown season will come through addition by subtraction—and some addition, too.
Gone is mercurial, exciting—and yet constantly frustrating—scorer Marshall Henderson, the darling of the Rebels' run to the third round of the NCAA tournament in 2012-13. He found himself in and out of the lineup last year because of his on- and off-court antics.
Henderson averaged a team-best 19 points per game, but his fondness for jacking up three-pointers like big men go for dunks and layups made him as much a liability as an asset.
His loss shouldn't be felt at all in terms of production, as senior guard Jarvis Summers (who averaged 17.3 points on far fewer shots) is one of the best shooters in the country.
He made 48.6 percent of his field goals and 42.3 percent of his threes, and without having to share touches with Henderson, he should have no trouble averaging 20-plus in 2014-15. And he'll also have a solid supporting cast made up of Division I and junior-college transfers.
M.J. Rhett, a 6'8" forward from Tennessee State, and Terence Smith, a 6'4" guard from Tennessee-Martin, should both slide into the lineup along with one of two JUCO pickups, Rod Lawrence or Stefan Moody.
We're not expecting Ole Miss to challenge Florida and Kentucky for the SEC title, but finishing in the top four or five—and being better than nine games off the pace, like last season—is very doable for the Rebels.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2013-14 Record: 15-17, 6-12 in ACC
Starters Returning: One
The move from the Big East to the ACC wasn't expected to be an easy one for Notre Dame, but no one could have predicted the Irish would finish tied for 11th and end up with a losing record for the first time in Mike Brey's 14-year tenure as head coach.
To do so would have required predicting midseason transfers and academic-related suspensions, the latter taking Notre Dame's top scorer off the court and turning the team into a listless offensive team that lost 15 of its final 18 games.
Jerian Grant averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists in the 12 games he played before being ruled ineligible, and without him in the lineup Notre Dame didn't have a go-to scorer. Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and Garrick Sherman all averaged 13 points per game, but none had the ability to go off like the 6'5" Grant could do.
Grant's return helps negate Atkins and Sherman's departure due to graduating, while junior forwards Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett will move into the starting lineup as the Irish's big men inside.
The recruiting class wasn't spectacular, but swingman Bonzie Colson could be a pleasant surprise as a super sub for a Notre Dame team that will once again face a stacked schedule that includes hosting Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
2013-14 Record: 9-22, 4-14 in American
Starters Returning: 3
Year in and year out, Temple has been one of those very reliable programs that always seems to be in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid and maybe a few wins. It was that way throughout John Chaney's long tenure and has pretty much remained as such since Fran Dunphy took over nine years ago.
Then last season happened, as the bottom completely fell out for the Owls. Early home losses to Kent State and Texas Southern signaled trouble was afoot, but it just kept getting worse for a team that had lost four starters from the year before and then saw swingman Daniel Dingle go down with a knee injury midseason.
Temple again has to rebuild, as leading scorer Dalton Pepper graduated and power forward Anthony Lee transferred to Ohio State. There's also the uncertainty of when former Clemson guard Devin Coleman will be available, but the Owls will have Texas transfer Jaylen Bond available at the start of the season along with 4-star power forward recruit Obi Enechionyia likely in the lineup.
The American got a lot easier with Louisville leaving and getting replaced by East Carolina and Tulane (as well as Tulsa), so Temple has a few more winnable games on the schedule right away. But it will also face Duke and either Stanford or UNLV in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in November as well as the longstanding Big 5 clash with Villanova as early tests.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
2013-14 Record: 14-18, 6-12 in Big 12
Starters Returning: 2
Last year marked the first time in the long career of Tubby Smith, he of the elite group of coaches to lead four different programs to the NCAA tournament and owner of a national title with Kentucky, that one of his teams ever finished with a losing record. Yet it was Texas Tech's best season since 2009-10 and marked a three-game improvement over the year before Smith arrived.
And while Tech graduated two starters and saw another one transfer (along with the Red Raiders' top reserve), there's plenty of reason to believe this program could be in line for its first winning season since Pat Knight piloted the Raiders to 19 wins and the NIT semifinals five years ago.
A lot will depend on how good the players whom Smith has brought in will mold with the remainder of the patchwork roster he inherited. Only junior Toddrick Gotcher is a holdover from the previous regime, and the 6'4" guard is expected to be a full-time starter after starting 22 games a year ago.
He'll team with guards Randy Onwuasor and Robert Turner as well as forward Aaron Ross—player Smith added before last season—and a six-player recruiting class featuring junior-college signees Justin Jamison and Devaugntah Williams. Smith will have plenty of options and can mix and match guards and forwards to find the best lineups, though he'll still be outmatched against most Big 12 teams.
Getting into the NCAA tournament isn't likely, but getting over .500 is.
2013-14 Record: 21-12, 9-9 in Pac-12
Starters Returning: 4
For this final team, we're not looking at a program that's coming off a bad year. In fact, Utah probably performed about as well as expected considering how deep and rigorous the Pac-12 was.
But with nearly all of its best players returning, a few key additions and a coach with NBA head coaching experience and two NCAA tournament berths under his belt, 2014-15 could be the year of the Utes out west.
We're not saying Utah is going to beat out Arizona for the conference title—though it did give the Wildcats a pair of major scares during the regular season in 2013-14—but it should be in line for the program's first NCAA bid since 2009.
Since Larry Krystkowiak in 2011-12, there's been nothing but improvement from the Utes. From six wins that first season to 15 a year later to 21 last season, the Utes have been on the rise for a while, and now this upcoming unit will feature three juniors and two seniors in the starting lineup.
Leading that group is point guard Delon Wright, whom Bleacher Report College Basketball National Columnist Kerry Miller has tabbed as the best senior in the nation for 2014-15.
The 6'5", 178-pound Wright led Utah in scoring (15.5 points), assists (5.3) and steals (2.5) per game and was the team's second-leading rebounder with 6.8 per game. Oh yeah, he also led the Utes with 43 blocks, more than double what 7-footer Dallin Bachynski, the team's projected starting center, had last season.
But Utah is far more than just Wright. He's got a great group around him, including junior forward Jordan Loveridge and junior guard Brandon Taylor. Bachynski, who only averaged 18 minutes per game a year ago, still managed to score 6.8 points and pull down 4.9 rebounds in that limited time on the court.
The Utes will likely feast on the many Pac-12 teams that are expected to have down years this season, especially after they've been steeled by a nonconference slate that includes a visit from Wichita State and a three-game stretch in December at rival BYU, against Kansas in Kansas City and at UNLV.
All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.com.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.