Predicting the Biggest Underachieving Teams for the 2014-15 CBB Season
We're smack dab in the middle of college basketball's offseason, that long stretch from early April until mid-November when there are no games to keep us entertained. Instead, it's a time reserved a little bit for past reflection, but it's mostly devoted to future expectations.
In other words, hype and hope.
While offseason projections and predictions naturally tend to skew toward the positive, offering fanbases unbridled optimism for the upcoming season, the hard reality is that some teams aren't going to do as well as projected. Based on their expectations heading into the 2014-15 season, anything less than results in line with such projections will result in getting slapped with the dreaded "underachiever" label.
This doesn't mean they'll finish below .500 or miss the tournament, but it does mean they'll fail to meet the expectations that get lumped on them during the offseason.
Here's my prediction of the 10 biggest underachieving teams for the 2014-15 season.
2013-14 record: 22-12, 10-8 in SEC
In his three seasons at Arkansas, Mike Anderson's teams have gotten slowly better but still haven't been able to make that leap into the upper tier of the SEC. But with four starters returning and plenty of depth available to play their fast-paced, frenetic style, this upcoming season could be that breakout year for the Razorbacks.
But most likely, they'll continue to be a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, winning heavily at home and falling frequently on the road. It's the trend that has followed Anderson—dubbed "Homecourt Mike" by Yahoo Sport's Pat Forde—since his days at Missouri. Last season was actually a major improvement in road performance for Arkansas, as it went 3-7 in true road games, compared to 17-2 at home and 2-3 in neutral-site contests.
The Razorbacks will get their chances to show their mettle on the road this fall, as they have games scheduled at Clemson, Iowa State and SMU, according to Scottie Bordelon of the Arkansas Traveler student newspaper. That's on top of the nine SEC road games, meaning roughly 40 percent of the regular-season schedule will be away from the confines of Bud Walton Arena.
The SEC is very top-heavy once again with Florida and Kentucky, but after that, it's wide open. However, Arkansas cannot expect to finish high (and earn its first NCAA tournament bid since 2008) without being able to win away from home.
2013-14 record: 26-11, 10-6 in Atlantic 10
Every NCAA tournament has a Cinderella or two, an out-of-nowhere team that captures the hearts of fans both casual and diehard who love to see underdogs knock off the big dogs. In 2013, it was Florida Gulf Coast and its "Dunk City" style that earned coach Andy Enfield a huge promotion and raise with the USC job.
Last season, that March darling was Dayton, a mostly dormant mid-major program that suddenly came alive in March and knocked off Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford as a No. 11 seed before falling to Florida in the Elite Eight. But unlike many previous surprise NCAA teams, Dayton isn't looking like a one-season wonder thanks to the return of several key players and, most importantly, coach Archie Miller.
Whether the Flyers can make the permanent switch from sleeper to power will depend on what happens this season, but to expect them to automatically become part of the elite is far too optimistic.
The Flyers bring back leading scorer Jordan Sibert and versatile wing Dyshawn Pierre, among others, but the players who departed haven't been replaced by anyone significant. Miller didn't cash in on the late recruiting circuit, as his class ranked 109th nationally, though, that rating didn't factor in the addition of junior college forward Detwon Rogers.
With last year's success comes a much higher profile for Dayton, along with a re-branding of the logo and heavier scrutiny. The Flyers also weren't done any favors by the Atlantic 10 schedule, as they'll play George Washington, Massachusetts, VCU and newcomer Davidson on the road only.
2013-14 record: 29-11, 12-6 in SEC
Hey, are any of those 40-0 shirts still available for sale?
Kentucky went into last season with ridiculously high expectations, fueled by yet another superstar recruiting class loaded with McDonald's All-Americans and potential first-round NBA draft picks. Then the Wildcats stumbled in several high-profile nonconference games, then lost six times in league play (including back-to-back losses to Arkansas at home and at SEC bottom-dweller South Carolina), and suddenly memories of the 2012-13's implosion came to mind.
As we know, Kentucky got it all together at the right time, getting hot in the NCAA tournament and riding that wave into the championship game before falling to Connecticut. The Wildcats then lost far less than expected to the draft, with only Julius Randle and James Young turning pro.
Another big recruiting class is headed in, and all told, the Wildcats will have nine All-Americans on its roster. With all that talent, it's time to start talking perfect season again, right?
If there's such a thing as too much talent, Kentucky might be Exhibit A. We saw it last year when guys like Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee hardly saw the court, and it won't get any better this season. If Calipari can soothe egos and avoid hurt feelings, this could be his greatest coaching job ever. More likely, though, it will be next to impossible for Kentucky to live up to the hype that comes with such a loaded roster.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2013-14 record: 25-10, 10-8 in Big Ten
It would in no way be an overstatement to say Ohio State underachieved this past season. With a veteran lineup that featured longtime contributors like Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross, it was by all intents and purposes a major letdown of a year when the Buckeyes managed just a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and then were bounced right away by upstart Dayton.
Craft, Smith and Ross are all gone, which would initially lead one to believe OSU was in line for a rebuilding year. But the power programs tend to reload rather than rebuild, and despite those departures, Thad Matta has a top-10 recruiting class and a solid transfer ready to provide reinforcements alongside big man Amir Williams and co-starters Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson.
But as well-regarded as 5-star guard D'Angelo Russell and Temple transfer Anthony Lee are, this upcoming season has all the makings of what OSU went through in 2007-08.
That year, the Buckeyes were coming off a trip to the NCAA final and lost three key pieces of that team including point guard Mike Conley Jr. and center Greg Oden. The replacements included Evan Turner and Dallas Lauderdale, but despite a good amount of talent still on hand, OSU missed the NCAA tournament.
A similarly drastic slide isn't expected this season, but neither is a legitimate shot at the Big Ten title despite most teams in the conference also losing important pieces from a year ago.
2013-14 record: 23-10, 12-6 in Big 12
Oklahoma has made great strides under Lon Kruger since hiring him away from UNLV prior to the 2011-12 season. A 15-16 mark that first year was quickly improved on, and the Sooners have made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances while also finishing in second place in the ultra-tough Big 12 last season.
The natural progression would make the upcoming season look promising, thanks to the return of four starters who accounted for nearly 60 percent of Oklahoma's scoring.
Cameron Clark's departure will hurt, even more so because his projected replacement—Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas—will only be eligible in 2014-15 if his hardship appeal is approved by the NCAA. There's no timetable on when that would happen, nor a reliable expectation of whether it will get accepted, so instead the Sooners will likely turn to freshman Dante Buford or senior D.J. Bennett to fill that spot.
So, why the possible underachievement? Look no further than the rest of the Big 12.
While some Big 12 contenders had far bigger losses, they also replaced those departures with pieces that make it very likely they'll be better this season.
Kansas is still the league favorite, despite having two players taken in the top three of the NBA draft, thanks to a mammoth recruiting class, and Iowa State simply replaced one senior guard transfer with another. Kansas State and Texas only got better, adding even more talent to rosters that were already pretty stocked.
In the case of the Sooners, any failure to meet expectations this season may be more a matter of not being able to keep up with their leaguemates than an ability to play well together. Someone has to lose in the Big 12, and Oklahoma is looking like a solid candidate for a rough season.
2013-14 record: 27-10, 12-6 in American
When it comes to assessing SMU's lofty expectations for the upcoming season, one needs only to look to the roster of China professional team Guangdong Southern Tigers. That's where 5-star point guard Emmanuel Mudiay is going to spend what should have been his freshman year of college, taking a $1.2 million contract rather than spend one more season as an amateur.
One player shouldn't make a team, but in the case of Mudiay and the Mustangs, that's how it was looking.
SMU had a breakout season in 2013-14 under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, but a late-season swoon combined with a pathetically soft nonconference schedule prevented it from reaching the NCAA tournament.
Instead, the Mustangs advanced to the NIT championship game, where they lost to Minnesota, and with essentially the same team coming back (plus Mudiay) the projections of being a top-10 team this season were common.
And the souped-up non-league slate reflected such expectations, as SMU traded out the likes of McNeese State, Rhode Island and Texas State for Gonzaga, Indiana and Michigan. All away from Moody Coliseum and its strong home-court advantage.
Let's be clear, though: SMU isn't going to be worse than last season, it's just not going to be that much better. While the American Athletic Conference got much weaker thanks to Louisville's departure, there's still Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis and an improved Houston team to contend with, as well as newcomer Tulsa.
SMU should make the NCAA tourney for the first time in 1993, but projections need to be scaled back to reflect how much not having Mudiay will impact the overall results.
2013-14 record: 28-6, 14-4 in ACC
Jim Boeheim is in the midst of the best prolonged stretch of his long career at Syracuse, with the Orange producing at least 27 wins in six straight seasons. But with that extended time of prominence has come raised expectations, even for one of the nation's most storied basketball programs. This season will be no different, even though it might be for one of Boeheim's least talented teams in recent memory.
Gone are electric freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and reliable wings C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, Syracuse's leading scorer and rebounder, respectively. That's three big holes to fill, and while 5-star forward Chris McCullough and 4-star point guard Kaleb Joseph seem like prototypical Syracuse players, we won't know how they fit into Boeheim's zone system until the games start in November.
And those newcomers may have to be top-flight contributors, because none of Syracuse's returners scream must-see talent. Shooter Trevor Cooney is too inconsistent to be a go-to player over the course of an entire year, and none of the Orange's many long and lean frontcourt holdovers have shown much production in their time in upstate New York.
What also factored into projections of Syracuse's 2014-15 is its schedule, which for the first time in what seems like forever (actually, since the 2003-04 season) includes two true road games in nonconference play: at Michigan, as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and the return of a home-and-home at former Big East rival Villanova.
It will only get tougher once ACC play begins, as Syracuse only avoids Louisville and Virginia in terms of road games against the league's toughest teams but has to travel to Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh with only Duke and Pitt making return trips to the Carrier Dome.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2013-14 record: 21-13, 13-3 in Conference USA
Of all the teams switching leagues in college basketball this offseason—there were 16, for those scoring at home—the one that has the best chance to cash in on the move in terms of increased visibility is Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane are coming off their first NCAA tournament bid in 11 years, putting together a major turnaround after a rough start to last season by winning 11 straight to claim the Conference USA's automatic bid.
The move to the American Athletic Conference had been in the works for many months before that, but with Tulsa's performance last March and a roster that returns four players who started at least 20 games and could start five juniors in 2014-15, the upgrade in competition shouldn't be a major hindrance.
What could be, though, is the school's new leader.
Frank Haith was hired in mid-April, a surprise acquisition that on paper has to look like an upgrade from Danny Manning, who parlayed his two seasons with the program into the Wake Forest job.
Haith was 76-28 in three seasons with Missouri, including a 30-5 mark in 2011-12, but his three Tigers teams were 0-2 in the NCAA tournament (highlighted by a monumental upset to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in 2012) and only got to the second round of the NIT last year.
Michael Peters of the Tulsa World wrote that Haith's move helped his career by "restarting the clock" after perceptions he would go into this next season on the hot seat at Mizzou. He took a reported pay cut, going from $1.6 million per season at Missouri to $1.3 million with Tulsa.
Regardless of the situation it came from, Haith's arrival at Tulsa will add more hype and expectations to the AAC move. But all of the accompanying attention might be too much for those expectations to be lived up to.
2013-14 record: 28-9, 12-6 in Pac-12
While the massive flooding that damaged Pauley Pavilion and other parts of UCLA's campus on Tuesday shouldn't have any direct effect on how the school's men's basketball team will perform this season, it can be looked at as a sign of how in over their heads the Bruins and coach Steve Alford might be in 2014-15.
Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in its first season under Alford, UCLA had its most wins in six years and claimed the Pac-12 title.
But all that success also made the likelihood of mass NBA departures a reality, as sophomores Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson and freshman Zach LaVine all left early for the draft. Throw in the graduation of frontcourt twins David and Travis Wear, and this season's Bruins are going to look entirely different.
Yet the projections to this point seem in line with those for a team that brings a lot more back than UCLA is.
ESPN.com had the Bruins 22nd in its way-too-early poll, and that ranking factored in the likely departures of all three underclassmen, while USA Today's projection of No. 14 came just before Adams turned pro. In terms of Pac-12 stature, Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller has UCLA finishing third despite the losses.
UCLA does have a strong recruiting class coming in, rated No. 7 overall and led by 5-star forward Kevon Looney, while 2013 recruit Isaac Hamilton will be eligible this season after sitting out a year because he backed out on a national letter of intent to UTEP.
But to this point, all we've seen is how Alford can do mostly with the players his predecessor, Ben Howland, recruited. Expectations based on his recruits should be more tempered until there are some results.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels
2013-14 record: 20-13, 10-8 in Mountain West
College basketball loves Las Vegas. It's become a central meeting point for several conference tournaments, and more and more teams are scheduling one-off games or participating in early-season tourneys there. While the NCAA is still leery of holding March Madness games in Sin City, there's no question it's a desirable place for teams to visit.
If only the local school could get back to the elite status it held back in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Sure, UNLV has made the NCAA tourney six times since 2007, but in that span, the Runnin' Rebels have only twice advanced out of the opening round and just once reached the Sweet 16. Last year, they failed to make the tournament despite a very talented team, one that uncharacteristically lost eight times at home.
Dave Rice has essentially an all-new team in 2014-15, with five freshmen and three transfers replacing the wave of departures that included four outgoing transfers and two early NBA draft entrants. All five starters are gone, but the highly rated recruiting class includes 5-star guard Rashad Vaughn and several others who could start right away.
Add in veteran point guard Cody Doolin, a transfer from San Francisco, and it's understandable why CBS Sports' Chip Patterson has UNLV picked to finish second in the Mountain West.
Even with less-than-impressive results the last few years, UNLV remains a hot commodity for scheduling purposes. As a result, the Rebels will face Stanford (and either Duke or Temple) in Brooklyn, host Arizona and visit Kansas. It will be difficult for UNLV to do better than 2-2 in those high-profile matchups, unless its new stars gel right away.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.