Road to the Final Four: Five Teams on the Rise

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Road to the Final Four: Five Teams on the Rise
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Baylor

The future looked so bright for Baylor basketball last season. An NCAA Tournament team returned the majority of its talent and was poised to play well into March. Scott Drew's defensively challenged team withered in Big 12 play, fading to a 5-11 record in conference play.

But a late season surge put the Bears in the Big 12 Title game, which garnered an NIT bid. The senior-laden team reached the finals before losing to Penn State under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

Gone are three stud seniors, Curtis Jerrells, Kevin Rogers, and Henry Dugat. Leaving with them is four years of awful Baylor defense. What's left is a core of players that gives Drew one of the most athletic squads in the country.

After last season's disaster, Baylor's future almost certainly has to be up.

Junior LaceDarius Dunn is poised to be one of the Big 12's best scorers after stepping up as the team's most dangerous weapon last year. This is Dunn's team now with Jerrells and Rogers gone.

The rest of Baylor's backcourt comes with uncertainty, as Dunn's backcourt mates will generally be very young. Senior Tweety Carter will likely be the first man off the bench, but a strong recruiting class fills out the rest of the guard spots in the rotation.

A.J. Walton is Coach Drew's point guard of the future, and may start the season off the bench. He'll likely be starting ahead of Carter by Big 12 play if Walton plays to his potential.

Dunn's future predecessor at the wing position bolted from Memphis after John Calipari bailed for the Bluegrass State. Nolan Dennis will some day be a prolific scorer and will provide pop off the bench, much like Dunn did when he was a freshman.

Baylor's frontcourt will look much differently this year and will greatly improve the Bears' defense. Impact transfer Ekpe Udoh gives Baylor an inside presence that can anchor the center or play alongside seven foot center Josh Lomers. Sophomore Quincy Acy should fill Kevin Rogers' shoes pretty well, but will be a bigger factor defensively.

The real future for Baylor lies with next year's recruiting class. It's just a two-man class for now, but the top prospect is a top 10 recruit nationally. Power forward Perry Jones could be the missing piece that turns Baylor into an elite team.


Cincinnati

The Bearcats were so good for so long under coach Bob Huggins. When Huggie Bear left town, the program spiraled downhill despite enjoying the benefits of competing in the Big East.

Cincinnati looked within the program at one of Huggins' former assistant coaches to turn the program around. Mick Cronin received a monumental task to turn the 'Cats back into a nationally recognized program.

Cronin's task is now closing in on completion as Cincinnati is a Big East sleeper that should be bound for the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier took over for a few years as the premier basketball program in the Queen City, but Cincinnati is closing in on taking that title back. The Bearcats landed several highly rated recruits over the past few seasons, including stud forward Yancy Gates right from Cincinnati.

With a roster that features two of the Big East's most underrated and under-recognized players, Gates and guard Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati has the building blocks of a fantastic team. Two fresh faces in the backcourt gives Cronin four dangerous weapons.

UC won the Lance Stephenson sweepstakes to give Vaughn a scoring complement in the backcourt. Red-shirt freshman Cashmere Wright missed all of last season with a knee injury, but Wright will likely start from day one to give the 'Cats a pure point guard.

Cincinnati can finish as high as third in the league if the frontcourt is consistent. A strong finish will further increase Cronin's ability to recruit across the Midwest and compete with Big Ten schools for recruits.

 

Oregon State

Having Barack Obama as a "friend" of the program is quite the recruiting tool for coach Craig Robinson. President Obama is Robinson's brother-in-law which makes the President of the United States Oregon State's most notable supporter.

Famous Oregon State alumni may soon want to come out of the woodwork to throw their support behind the program and coach Robinson is turning the Beavers into winners.

OSU's Princeton Offense fits in nicely in the Pac 10 where the slower the brand of the basketball the better. Robinson has the right pieces to succeed this season after improving OSU's win total by an astounding 12 victories in 2009.

The offense improved from 264th in offensive efficiency in 2008 to 95th in 2009 as Robinson's players fully bought into his system.

With off-season losses at a minimum, Oregon State should improve again behind one of the most effective weapons in a Princeton Offense: the passing big man.

Roeland Schaftenaar is a tremendous low-post passer who helps keep the offense moving, but the senior center can also put the ball in the hoop.

Robinson also has more newfound offensive firepower with freshman Roberto Nelson, who will support the team's leading returning scorer, Calvin Hayes.

The Pac-10 will go through one of the worst seasons the conference has seen this decade, which gives Oregon State a chance to emerge as one of the three best teams in the league this season.

 

Minnesota

When Tubby Smith left Kentucky to take the job at Minnesota, he wasn't walking into a national championship-caliber roster like he did in Lexington. Smith's Golden Gophers team went from a putrid nine wins in 2007 to 20 wins and an NIT berth in 2008.

Minnesota took another step forward last season and reached the NCAA Tournament. In addition to an outstanding recruiting class, Smith loses nobody important from last year's team, giving Smith an effective mix of established veterans and talented young guns.

Minnesota will have the ability to go 12 or 13 players deep, and Smith has pretty much every kind of role player on his bench. The Gophers will be able to adjust to the teams their playing and wear them down with their outstanding depth.

Smith needs to keep the program moving forward and build off of this year's great recruiting class. Next year's class isn't setting up to be anything special, but that could change if Minnesota can land Cory Joesph, one of the best point guard prospects in the country.

 

Florida International

The 12 other teams in the Sun Belt Conference should be scared silly of Florida International's potential. Hiring NBA great Isiah Thomas put FIU on the national scene and an instant contender in the Sun Belt...in 2010-2011.

The Golden Panthers lost SBC Freshman of the Year Freddy Asprilla after he decided to transfer out and Josue Soto, who left to play pro ball in Puerto Rico.

Thomas brought in a very solid four man recruiting class composed of all JUCO transfers. Swing man Marvin Roberts will be one of top newcomers in the conference while Phil Gary Jr, Antoine Watson, and Stephon Weaver will fill out the backcourt.

Florida International's 2009-2010 season will be a chance for Thomas to install his offensive system and defensive packages. His four-man class this year will be the backbone of the future, when his outstanding 2010 class arrives on campus.

Power forward Dominique Ferguson is considered a top 40 recruit and as a freshman, could end up being the Sun Belt's best player in 2010. Thomas also has a second commitment from point guard Phillip Taylor, who will likely be the second best freshman in the league next year after Ferguson.

FIU won't be very good this year, but the future looks very bright for the South Florida program. The Golden Panthers do have three chances this season to pull off miraculous upsets against potential top 25 teams, North Carolina, Tulsa, and Florida State.

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