One Surprise Team to Watch in Each Major College Basketball Conference
Auburn has not been to the NCAA tournament since four years before the original iPhone was put on the market, but the Tigers are one major-conference team with the pieces to surprise in 2017-18.
Jerry Palm of CBS Sports and Joe Lunardi of ESPN each published bracket projections over the summer. As someone entering his sixth season of projecting the tournament field for Bleacher Report, I can assure you bracketology in July and August is about as accurate as trying to forecast what shape the clouds will be six weeks from now.
As pointless as these projections will be by late November, they do give a fairly holistic look at expectations for teams around the country. That helps to determine which teams could emerge as surprises this year.
If a team appeared on either Palm's bracket or Lunardi's bracket, it was removed from consideration here. Every other team was fair game, although teams in their "first four out" and "next four out" buckets were also excluded wherever possible.
From there, it was a matter of poring through the rosters and the data to choose the team from each major conference (as well as the American Athletic and Atlantic 10) with the best chance to dance.
ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack
2016-17 Record: 15-17 (4-14 in ACC)
Significant Subtractions: Dennis Smith Jr., Terry Henderson, Maverick Rowan, Ted Kapita, BeeJay Anya
Noteworthy Additions: Sam Hunt, Al Freeman, Lavar Batts, Lennard Freeman (medical redshirt)
Projected Starters: Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven
Key Reserves: Sam Hunt, Lennard Freeman, Lavar Batts, Shaun Kirk, Darius Hicks
If you don't want any part of North Carolina State preseason hype, I can't blame you. This program has failed to live up to its potential on an annual basis for more than a decade. It's tough to say which year was worse: Opening at No. 6 in the 2012 preseason AP Top 25 before going 24-11 and losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament or going 15-17 last season with several key returnees and the fifth-best recruiting class in the country.
But perhaps the coaching change from Mark Gottfried to Kevin Keatts is exactly what the Wolfpack need?
They have the necessary talent to be competitive. Both Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven have double-double potential. Torin Dorn, Al Freeman and Sam Hunt all have serious three-point range. And Markell Johnson might be the right point guard to tie it all together. (If not, freshman Lavar Batts is an acceptable plan B at the point.) If Lennard Freeman can be a frontcourt asset in his return from injury, even better.
The big question is defense, which is not a strong suit that Keatts is bringing with him from UNC-Wilmington. The Wolfpack ranked 229th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, but the Seahawks weren't much better at 193rd.
In fairness to Keatts, that was a roster problem. His starting frontcourt players were 6'5" and 6'7", so UNC-W's two-point defense was often abused. He'll now have some guys tall enough to work with in the paint. But lack of defensive intensity has been a systemic problem with the Wolfpack for many moons. If Keatts can foster some defensive give-a-darn in Raleigh, there's a chance this team finishes seventh or eighth in the ACC and reaches the NCAA tournament.
Big 12: Oklahoma State Cowboys
2016-17 Record: 20-13 (9-9 in Big 12)
Significant Subtractions: Jawun Evans, Phil Forte, Leyton Hammonds
Noteworthy Additions: Kendall Smith
Projected Starters: Kendall Smith, Lindy Waters, Jeffrey Carroll, Cameron McGriff, Mitchell Solomon
Key Reserves: Brandon Averette, Thomas Dziagwa, Davon Dillard, Tavarius Shine, Lucas N'Guessan
Since Joe Lunardi put eight of the 10 Big 12 teams in his way-too-early bracket, there were only two options for this conference. And when you factor in Kansas State losing seven of its 12 leading scorers—including do-it-all forward Wesley Iwundu and top defender D.J. Johnson—without so much as a single top-300 recruit or immediately eligible transfer to replace them, there was only one realistic option.
Though Oklahoma State lost three of its four leading scorers, there is some hope here. And it starts with Jeffrey Carroll, who received an astonishing lack of national attention last year.
Among returning players who appeared in at least 10 games from the power-conference teams, only Bonzie Colson, Trevon Bluiett, Marcus Foster, Yante Maten and Jerome Robinson had a higher scoring average in 2016-17 than Carroll's 17.5. And he only played 29.1 minutes per game. Now that he's the main Cowboy, there's an outside chance he leads the nation in scoring.
Where Oklahoma State turns from there is anyone's guess, but this team does have seven returning players who averaged between 3.3-5.7 points per game last year. Any one (or two or three) of those guys could have a breakout year as a starter. It also added a graduate transfer (Kendall Smith) who put up at least 15 points per game in each of the past two seasons at Cal St. Northridge.
As with NC State, though, the big question is defense. Oklahoma State was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency last year—yes, even better than UCLA—but it couldn't stop anyone. In their final four games, the Cowboys allowed 360 points on just 280 possessions, which has to be among the worst four-game stretch of defensive efficiency by any team that made the tournament last year.
Big East: Marquette Golden Eagles
2016-17 Record: 19-13 (10-8 in Big East)
Significant Subtractions: JaJuan Johnson, Luke Fischer, Katin Reinhardt, Duane Wilson, Traci Carter
Noteworthy Additions: Harry Froling (second semester)
Projected Starters: Markus Howard, Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatham, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt
Key Reserves: Harry Froling
Let's start out by addressing the elephant in Milwaukee: Overall depth is a big-time concern for the Golden Eagles. They had 10 players log at least 20 minutes last season, and five of those players are gone. They also lost Sandy Cohen—the top-100 recruit from 2014 who never made much of an impact—and they're still going to have to wait another year for 2016 top-60 recruit Brendan Bailey to return from his two-year LDS mission.
None of this year's recruits are as highly touted as the ones Marquette has been signing in recent years, Nebraska transfer Ed Morrow Jr. won't be eligible until 2018-19, and SMU transfer Harry Froling won't be able to play until late-December as a mid-year transfer.
So, what exactly is the plan beyond the starting five?
We'll say this much for Marquette: Those five look pretty good. Markus Howard excelled last year as a freshman. Andrew Rowsey made a smooth transition from the Big South to the Big East, and he should be ready for far more playing time as a fifth-year senior. Haanif Cheatham and Sam Hauser both put up solid numbers last year as primary starters. And Matt Heldt has the height (6'10") to make an impact at center if he can cut down on his career foul rate of 6.5 per 40 minutes.
It gets dicey in a hurry from there, though. Sacar Anim—who missed all of last season and scored just 19 points as a freshman in 2015-16—is the career scoring leader on Marquette's bench until Froling (who only scored 43 points with SMU) becomes eligible.
The Golden Eagles aren't tiptoeing their way through nonconference play, either. They play Purdue, Georgia and Wisconsin and will likely face three other good opponents (definitely VCU; possibly Wichita State and Notre Dame) in the Maui Invitational.
One injury along the way and they might be screwed. But if they can tread water to an 8-4 record before getting Froling eligible, they could sneak into the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.
Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions
2016-17 Record: 15-18 (6-12 in Big Ten)
Significant Subtractions: Payton Banks, Terrence Samuel
Noteworthy Additions: Satchel Pierce
Projected Starters: Tony Carr, Shep Garner, Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins
Key Reserves: Satchel Pierce, Julian Moore, Nazeer Bostick
After several consecutive great-for-Penn State recruiting classes, this should be the year the chickens finally come home to roost for Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions.
They did lose both Payton Banks and Terrence Samuel as graduate transfers to South Florida, but the five players who started the most games in 2016-17 will all be back this year. Three of those guys—Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins—started at least 24 games each as freshmen, and they were a combination of wildly inconsistent and tantalizingly special.
In particular, Watkins was fun to watch. He blocked multiple shots in 25 of 33 games and was dominant on the glass, having averaged more than 13 rebounds per 40 minutes. He also led the team in field-goal percentage by a wide margin, and he made 67.1 percent of his shots over the team's final 12 games. With limited exceptions, he was consistently productive.
Carr and Stevens were another story, but they each started all 33 games and led the team in scoring, despite bouts of ice-cold shooting and a few too many turnovers. As far as first-year players in the Big Ten go, though, they were impressive and showed glimpses of becoming stars as sophomores.
The Nittany Lions also still have Shep Garner to score in bunches, along with Josh Reaves, who ranked 11th in the nation in steal percentage last year.
As with Marquette, Penn State has significant depth concerns. Satchel Pierce didn't do much in his two seasons with Virginia Tech, unless you count committing fouls like he thought that was the objective of the game. Nazeer Bostick barely played as a freshman. And Julian Moore hasn't done much more than eat up about 12 minutes per game in his career. But all three of those players will likely need to be key bench assets for Penn State to win 20 games for the first time since 2008-09.
Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal
2016-17 Record: 14-17 (6-12 in Pac-12)
Significant Subtractions: Marcus Allen, Christian Sanders, Grant Verhoeven
Noteworthy Additions: Kezie Okpala, Kodye Pugh, Daejon Davis, Oscar da Silva
Projected Starters: Robert Cartwright, Dorian Pickens, Kezie Okpala, Reid Travis, Michael Humphrey
Key Reserves: Marcus Sheffield, Josh Sharma, Trevor Stanback, Daejon Davis, Kodye Pugh
Stanford was one of the teams recently featured in a piece on power-conference programs guaranteed to improve in 2017-18. The TL;DR synopsis is that the Cardinal are loaded with guys who were 4-star or 5-star recruits and that, if healthy, it's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which this team finishes below .500 again.
But there's a huge difference between not posting a losing record and actually making the NCAA tournament. Last year alone, 19 power-conference schools finished .500 or better and didn't get an invite. Pac-12 schools California and Utah each finished nine games above .500 and got left out regardless.
To win enough games to avoid a similar fate, Stanford needs to improve at the most basic element of basketball: Scoring and stopping the opposing team from scoring.
When either shooting at least 35 percent from three-point range or holding an opponent below 32 percent from the perimeter, Stanford was 12-2. But when it didn't reach either of those marks, it went 2-15. Those aren't outlandish goals to set, either. Picking another Pac-12 team at random, California hit one of those two thresholds in 28 of 34 games last season.
The Cardinal do have one solid returning shooter in Dorian Pickens (39.6 percent) and a second returning player who was respectable from distance two years ago (Marcus Sheffield, 37.8 percent). They also have a couple of incoming players who could help improve the team's shooting. As far as the perimeter defense goes, the jury remains out on that one.
SEC: Auburn Tigers
2016-17 Record: 18-14 (7-11 in SEC)
Significant Subtractions: T.J. Dunans, Ronnie Johnson, TJ Lang, LaRon Smith
Noteworthy Additions: DeSean Murray, Chuma Okeke, Davion Mitchell, Malik Dunbar
Projected Starters: Jared Harper, Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley
Key Reserves: Bryce Brown, Davion Mitchell, DeSean Murray, Chuma Okeke, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer
As we enter the fourth year of the Bruce Pearl era at Auburn, things are looking good for the Tigers. Among all of the possible candidates here, it was most surprising to find neither Joe Lunardi nor Jerry Palm expects Auburn to dance this year.
Maybe it's because Auburn hasn't made the tournament since 2003. Or perhaps it's a case of the boy who cried "Wolf!" and people are done taking the Tigers seriously after three straight offseasons of buying this team as a sleeper.
Whatever the reason, Pearl's bunch is being overlooked.
DeSean Murray averaged more than 20 points per game at Presbyterian the year before transferring to Auburn. Malik Dunbar put up more than 15 points per game last year at junior college. Scout rates both Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell as top-50 players in this year's class. And all four may come off the bench.
Talent wasn't Auburn's problem last year. Inexperience was. The four team leaders in games started—Mustapha Heron (32), Jared Harper (30), Danjel Purifoy (25) and Austin Wiley (22)—were all freshmen, and Nos. 5 and 6 on that list (Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer) were both sophomores. That might work at Duke or Kentucky where recycling 5-star talent and competing for titles with freshmen has become old hat, but most teams need veteran leadership.
Frankly, it's incredible that Auburn was able to win 18 games and finish at No. 82 in KenPom's rankings while relying so heavily on first-year players. Now that the core is one year older and ready to pave the way for even more talented recruits, the Tigers are going to be a contender in the SEC.
A-10: Saint Joseph's Hawks
2016-17 Record: 11-20 (4-14 in A-10)
Significant Subtractions: Brendan Casper, Javon Baumann
Noteworthy Additions: Pierfrancesco Oliva (medical redshirt)
Projected Starters: Lamarr Kimble, Shavar Newkirk, Charlie Brown, Markell Lodge, James Demery
Key Reserves: Pierfrancesco Oliva, Chris Clover, Nick Robinson, Jai Williams
Saint Joseph's is typically one of the top contenders to win the Atlantic 10, but this past season was not meant to be.
After losing the three leading scorers from the 2015-16 team that went 28-8, the Hawks lost a fourth starter when Pierfrancesco Oliva underwent season-ending knee surgery in October, and they lost their fifth starter 12 games into the season when Shavar Newkirk suffered a torn ACL. All of a sudden, James Demery was the only player left on the roster with any starting experience prior to 2016-17, and he came off the bench for all but one game the previous year.
As a result, they went 4-15 over their final 19 games.
But like Rhode Island's struggles in 2015-16 without E.C. Matthews, the "lost" season for Saint Joseph's wound up being an excellent opportunity to find out what some of these other Hawks can do. Lamarr Kimble showed serious potential at point guard despite struggling with efficiency. Charlie Brown flourished as a freshman and should be a solid wing-forward. And while Chris Clover and Nick Robinson will likely settle into reserve roles, they'll be more prepared when their numbers are called, thanks to a combined 37 games started last year.
If the Hawks expect to turn things all the way back around to compete for the A-10 title, they'll need to do a better job of defending the perimeter. Saint Joseph's gave up nearly two made three-pointers for every steal it had. In both categories, the Hawks ranked in the bottom 40 in the nation.
Playing almost exclusively zone and rarely forcing turnovers is a dreadful combination, and it led to them giving up at least 10 made three-pointers in eight of their first 13 games. Even if they drastically improve their own abysmal effective field-goal percentage, those numbers need to change this year.
American: Temple Owls
2016-17 Record: 16-16 (7-11 in American)
Significant Subtractions: Daniel Dingle, Mark Williams
Noteworthy Additions: Trey Lowe (medical redshirt)
Projected Starters: Josh Brown, Alani Moore, Shizz Alston, Quinton Rose, Obi Enechionyia
Key Reserves: Ernest Aflakpui, Damion Moore, Trey Lowe
Even though four of the AAC teams (Cincinnati, Houston, SMU and Wichita State) immediately came off the board because one of the bracket experts projects them for a bid, there were surprisingly a number of viable candidates from this conference. Perhaps this is the year the American finally makes a real case for consideration as the seventh major conference.
UCF has potential with both Tacko Fall and BJ Taylor coming back for another year. Tulsa should have some spunk after remaining moderately competitive one year after a near-complete roster overhaul. And even though Connecticut lost a ton of seniors and transfers and could be a complete disaster in the frontcourt, it's hard to argue with a stable of guards led by Jalen Adams, Alterique Gilbert, Christian Vital and Terry Larrier.
But our pick is Temple—a team that was somehow simultaneously better and worse than its .500 record last season.
You could argue the Owls were better than 16-16 because they won neutral-court games against Florida State and West Virginia and because half of their losses came by a margin of seven points or fewer. The worse side of the coin is that they lost six games to teams outside the KenPom Top 125 and darn near lost a home game to an awful NJIT team.
However, there are two major reasons this team should be better, the first of which is a more appropriate age balance. Temple was too young last year. There were three freshmen and two sophomores among the eight leaders in minutes played, and one of the two "senior leaders" in that mix (Mark Williams) was the most inefficient player on the roster.
Second is the presumed return to health of two key players. Trey Lowe missed all of last season while recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident, and Josh Brown missed all but five games due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered last offseason. Lowe got a good amount of run as a freshman and had the potential to break out as a sophomore. Meanwhile, Brown averaged 8.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds as a junior and should join forces with Shizz Alston in a dynamic dual combo-guard backcourt.
Fran Dunphy has won at least 21 games in eight of the last 10 seasons, and he has a good chance of pushing that to nine out of 11 this coming year.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.