1 Team That Will Surprise in Each Major NCAA Basketball Conference in 2014-15

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2014

1 Team That Will Surprise in Each Major NCAA Basketball Conference in 2014-15

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    Every November, we think we see what's coming. Analysts confidently make their predictions. Readers confidently call those analysts delusional idiots if the predictions aren't sufficiently rosy for the fans' favorite teams or tip the proverbial cap if the writer gives their team some rare respect.

    Every April, we look back at the season that's transpired and find several events that none of us saw coming. Teams that rise up in defiance of all conventional wisdom and crash the NCAA tournament are always fun, and there are several expected also-rans that might pull the feat this year.

    While these nine teams aren't likely to win their leagues, all have the potential to earn an at-large bid from a major conference. Most will need great production from newcomers to accomplish the mission, but there's also either tremendous talent returning or masterful coaching on the sideline. All will make their conference races that much more interesting.

American: Tulsa

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    While Tulsa is one of the spare parts the American salvaged to replace Louisville this offseason, the Golden Hurricane shouldn't be completely written off as also-rans in their new conference.

    The league's coaches understand, voting Tulsa fifth in their preseason poll behind only perennial tournament teams UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati and expected top-25 outfit SMU.

    New coach Frank Haith inherits a team full of veteran juniors, meaning that next season should be even more productive. Guard James Woodard earned All-Conference USA second-team honors, and similar notice should await in the AAC. He's a dangerous scorer from any level who carded a .581 true shooting percentage as a sophomore, leading the team in scoring and rebounding for the second straight year.

    Forwards Rashad Smith and D'Andre Wright could be one of the American's best frontcourt pairs if Wright can keep himself out of foul trouble. For his career, he's averaged 18.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes, but he's offset that production with 7.2 fouls/40.

    Tulsa has size, strength and experience, but it needs a lot more shooting, especially if it intends to overcome rugged defenses like Cincinnati's and SMU's. Still, with 37 years of head coaching experience between Haith and his assistants, TU should come up with ways to counteract any weakness in a middling AAC.

     

ACC: Miami (Fla.)

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    The Miami Hurricanes don't have a ton of returning talent from last year's team, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Coach Jim Larranaga pulling a 17-16 record out of his 2013-14 roster is testament to his coaching abilities, and he's fast becoming a coach who's difficult to bet against.

    This season's Hurricanes don't have a great deal of size or experience, but there's talent for days, especially in the backcourt.

    Veterans Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan were Big 12 rivals at Kansas State and Texas, respectively, now they'll lead Miami's young group of guards. Freshman Ja'Quan Newton was one of the nation's top point guard recruits and redshirt DeAndre Burnett averaged 37 PPG before missing his first college season with a wrist injury.

    The U's weak spot will be in the frontcourt, where depth is in short supply, but there is some bulk on hand. Junior Tonye Jekiri (7'0", 235), grad transfer Joe Thomas (6'7", 235), freshman Omar Sherman (6'8", 220) and junior college import Ivan Cruz Uceda (6'10", 240) will all see minutes out of necessity. Uceda, however, won't be eligible until late December.

    The ACC's middle tierteams like Florida State, NC State, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dameall have their own questions, meaning none can really be considered several steps ahead of the Canes. Miami has plenty of opportunities for signature wins both in and out of conference, and it has Larranaga. That might add up to an NCAA tournament bid.

Atlantic 10: Rhode Island

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    Rhode Island is reeling off of three straight losing seasons, and the end of the misery is in sight. Coach Dan Hurley has a team largely composed of his own recruits, a group that isn't short on potential.

    Two Atlantic 10 All-Rookie selections, guard E.C. Matthews and forward Hassan Martin, lead the way with a nice blend of veteran big men and youth on the perimeter. Juniors Ifeanyi Onyekaba and Jordan Hare are both capable rebounders, and senior Gilvydas Biruta should reach double digits in double-doubles.

    Freshmen guards Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett can both play major roles instantly. Terrell, like Matthews, was a Rivals 4-star prospect, and he'll provide the kind of shooting that the Rams lacked last season. Garrett will push junior Biggie Minnis and senior T.J. Buchanan for minutes at the point guard spot.

    The Atlantic 10's six NCAA teams from last season all lost key pieces, and some will take major steps backward. URI's blend of athleticism and size will equip it well to step forward into the openings and perhaps crash the Big Dance.

Big East: Providence

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    The state of Rhode Island is going to really enjoy this basketball season. We saw the Rams on the previous slide, and the Providence Friars should have a similar opportunity to contend in a scuffling Big East this year.

    Even without iron-man guard Bryce Cotton, PC coach Ed Cooley should still have some scoring options on hand. Forwards LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris will not only seek to replace Cotton's scoring, but also the rebounding of rugged big man Kadeem Batts.

    Harris was a sneaky postseason hero for the Friars last March. He pulled 10 rebounds in 27 minutes in the Big East quarterfinals against St. John’s, scored 14 second-half points on Seton Hall in the semis and finished the year by scoring 13 in the NCAA tournament against North Carolina. Henton should break 1,500 career points and 1,000 rebounds this season, perhaps before conference play even begins.

    Former McDonald's All-American Kris Dunn has to be due for a healthy season sometime, doesn't he? Two right shoulder injuries have severely hampered his career. Steady play from him at point guard will help Providence's offense become more diverse than it was with Cotton dominating the ball.

    Cooley's 57 wins over three seasons in charge have been earned in spite of a crushing array of injuries that have ravaged his teams. A season of good health should put the Friars squarely in the mix to chase down prohibitive Big East favorite Villanova.

Big Ten: Illinois

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    John Groce's teams at Ohio University were usually able to shoot from long distance. His first two at Illinois simply couldn't. The Illini struggled to shoot 32 percent from three-point land in 2013, but that team had enough veteran leadership to reach the NCAA tournament, coming one controversial call from the Sweet 16. Last year's team started 13-2, then fell completely apart for six weeks.

    This season's team has depth, experience and even a little shooting skill. That should all be enough to put Illinois back in the field of 68.

    Transfers Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby have both been 40 percent long-range shooters in major conferences, so the lights of the Big Ten shouldn't be too much for the veteran pair. Sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn helped spark the Illini's late surge, which included tough road wins at Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa.

    While point guard Tracy Abrams will be missed, sophomore Jaylon Tate could be even better if he's handed the keys. Tate is more of a pass-first guard than Abrams has been throughout his career.

    All-Big Ten forward Rayvonte Rice and senior center Nnanna Egwu will look to end their careers with a bang, but even more important could be a guy seeking to begin his with authority. Memphis native Leron Black will give the Illini the post scoring presence that the more face-up-oriented Egwu hasn't.

    Consistency has to be a hallmark of this Illinois team, as another midseason lull will prove fatal in the always-cutthroat Big Ten. With the blend of seniors and baptized sophomores to lead them this year, expect the Illini to be much steadier, if not spectacular.

Big 12: West Virginia

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    West Virginia has seven newcomers and only six returning players. That could lead to some major struggles under your average coach. Bob Huggins, though, is hardly an average coach.

    Huggins' 1991-92 Cincinnati team had several incoming talents, with names like Nick Van Exel, Corie Blount, Terry Nelson and Erik Martin. Not only did they reach Huggins' first NCAA tournament, but those new Bearcats stormed all the way to the 1992 Final Four.

    No one's forecasting anything similar for this season's Mountaineers, but Huggins does have an intriguing cast of characters arriving to surround defending Big 12 scoring champion Juwan Staten. Also the league's No. 2 assist man last year, Staten could capture both crowns if his new teammates produce immediately.

    Two true freshmen, a redshirt and three junior college transfers all have a chance to figure in the Mountaineers' rotation. Junior wing Jonathan Holton and guard Jaysean Paige both add athleticism and versatility to the lineup. Paige was one of the NJCAA's top scorers last season at 21.4 PPG, while Holton led all JUCO players in rebounding two seasons ago.

    Six WVU players stand 6'8" or taller, led by sophomore Devin Williams. Williams closed the regular season with three straight double-doubles, capping a solid season of 8.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Stretch 4 Nathan Adrian, 6'10" banger Kevin Noreen and 240-pound redshirt freshman Elijah Macon will add even more size to the front line.

    Huggins will settle on the rotation that can actually play some defense, a discipline that has proved difficult for his last few teams. And if these Mountaineers do play the way Huggins likes his teams to play at that end, the rest of the Big 12 will have fights on their hands when they pass through Morgantown.

Mountain West: Wyoming

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    Wyoming looked like a solid NIT team until mid-February, when All-Mountain West forward Larry Nance Jr. tore his ACL during a game against Fresno State. The Cowboys lost six of the seven games they played without Nance, including their third straight CBI appearance.

    Nance's doctor cleared him to practice in mid-October, giving him nearly a month to work toward game shape. If he's effective, he may be more capable of swinging the MWC's balance of power than any other single player.

    Fortunately for Cowboys fans, Nance won't have to do it all alone. Guards Riley Grabau and Josh Adams were both double-figure scorers last season, and Grabau shot 42 percent from beyond the arc. Senior forward Derek Cooke will support Nance on the glass after pulling 5.8 RPG last year.

    Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt will need some freshmen to step in and provide some depth, but a Mountain West Player of the Year candidate is a fine piece to build around. If the Cowboys defense is as solid as it was before Nance's injury last season, Wyoming will have some epic slugfests with other defense-first programs like San Diego State.

Pac-12: Utah

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    Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak took the job just as the program was joining the Pac-12. The transition has been as difficult as one might expect, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel this year that isn't an oncoming train.

    The Utes are widely projected as an NCAA tournament team this season, but it's very possible that Utah will prove the toughest challenger for prohibitive league favorite Arizona.

    Utah has an All-American candidate in supremely versatile guard Delon Wright, just like fellow contenders Colorado (Josh Scott) and Stanford (Chasson Randle).

    Wright has a talented supporting cast returning, including forward Jordan Loveridge, a 6'6" wing who was forced to spend much of his time scrapping in the post because Krystkowiak didn't have any other reliable power forwards. This year, the Utes can turn to junior college import Chris Reyes or freshmen Brekkott Chapman and Jakob Poeltl for minutes at the 4, freeing Loveridge to roam the perimeter.

    There are plenty of shooting options on the Utes roster, a claim that even national title contender Arizona wishes it could make. Four newcomers, including the aforementioned power forward trio, stand at least 6'7", giving the Utes a healthy dose of size. All the Utes need is the mental toughness to win the close games after a season in which seven of their nine Pac-12 losses were by four points or fewer.

SEC: Ole Miss

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    The quickest way to surprise in the SEC these days is to make the NCAA tournament when you don't wear Kentucky or Florida across your chest. Tennessee barely managed the feat last year, and this year's field has a few compelling, if unexciting, contenders.

    Ole Miss doesn't have any big names on the roster anymore now that it's come out the other side of the Marshall Henderson era. Guard Jarvis Summers will remedy that situation, entering his senior season with a very legitimate chance at winning the SEC Player of the Year award. Last season, he was the only SEC player to rank in the top 10 in scoring and field-goal percentage and top five in assists.

    Returnees Ladarius White and Martavious Newby have had their moments of brilliance during their careers, but they'll have to fight for minutes against hyper-athletic 5'10" waterbug Stefan Moody and UT Martin transfer Terence Smith, a deadly catch-and-shoot player.

    If the shots aren't falling from that backcourt crew, the Rebels also have five 6'9" big men with Division I experience to clean the glass. Senior Aaron Jones, junior Anthony Perez and sophomores Dwight Coleby and Sebastian Saiz combined for 20.6 points and 17.6 rebounds per game last year. They're joined by Tennessee State transfer M.J. Rhett, who nearly averaged a double-double by himself.

    Rebels coach Andy Kennedy was once on the hot seat before Henderson shot the Rebels into the 2013 NCAA tournament. This season, Kennedy did a masterful job of picking out capable transfers and forming a squad that can get him back to the Dance with only a fraction of the stress.