Unranked College Basketball Teams That Will Make Waves in March
The Arizona Wildcats are outside the AP Top 25 for the second consecutive week, but that just puts them prominently on the list of unranked teams who are likely to do damage in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
At this point in the season, we typically have a good idea of who the best teams are. Last year, 20 of the top 24 overall seeds in the NCAA tournament were in the AP Top 25 in the first week of December. The year before that, 18 of the teams in the Dec. 7 AP poll ended up with a No. 6 seed or better. And in each of the past three seasons, every No. 1 and No. 2 seed was ranked in the first week of December.
But there's always room for a few surprises.
Florida State wasn't ranked at this time last year, but the Seminoles got a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance. Same goes for Texas A&M the previous year, and both Notre Dame and Baylor in the 2014-15 season. And in 2013-14, Virginia got a No. 1 seed despite not appearing in any AP poll in December or January.
Who are this year's top candidates to go on that type of run in the next three months?
Teams are listed in no particular order, outside of putting the first three together because of their talented freshman guards.
Based on Trae Young's play in the first few weeks of the season, Oklahoma might be the last team that any title contender would want to draw in the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Oklahoma's defense is OK, but it isn't great. The Sooners gave up 89 points to (currently 1-8) Nebraska-Omaha in the season opener and 92 in their loss to Arkansas. They have allowed at least 69 points in each of their first six games. Part of that is because they push the pace so aggressively on offense, but even after taking tempo out of the equation, they have allowed 473 points on 478 possessions, per KenPom.
But with Young running the show, the Sooners have been so electric on offense that it hasn't much mattered.
The fabulous freshman entered Monday night's game against UTSA averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, shooting 49.0 percent from the field, 41.8 percent from three-point range (on 9.2 attempts per game) and 88.9 percent from the charity stripe.
For the most part, the competition has been nothing special. Arkansas and Oregon are bubble teams, and the other four opponents the Sooners have faced are nowhere close to that. Thus, this isn't exactly on par with what Kemba Walker did for six games in the 2011 NCAA tournament. However, early returns suggest Young is the top candidate in the country to carry his team on that type of magical run this year.
Alabama Crimson Tide
If Trae Young isn't the lead guard who does a fine Kemba Walker impression in March, Alabama's Collin Sexton is another strong candidate for the position.
Sexton had a dud in Sunday afternoon's 65-62 loss to UCF, finishing with seven points, three assists and three turnovers while missing all four of his field-goal attempts. Even with that blemish on his resume, he is averaging 22.1 points per game and is shooting 46.2 percent from distance.
At times, it has felt like Sexton is a one-man show—especially in the game against Minnesota, in which Alabama played 10 minutes of three-on-five due to ejections, disqualifications and injuries. But there are other quality options on this roster. Fellow freshman John Petty has been excellent at shooting guard, Donta Hall is a force in the paint and Dazon Ingram is one heck of a fourth option in the offense.
The big key for Alabama (no pun intended) is the eventual return of Braxton Key.
Last year's leading scorer and top returning rebounder for the Crimson Tide has yet to appear in a game due to a knee injury, and his absence in the paint has been noticeable. Freshman Herb Jones has played a lot of minutes in his stead, and he is having issues with turnovers, fouls and shooting percentage.
Alabama is also anxiously awaiting the return of Ar'Mond Davis, who has been out with a knee injury of his own. The wing-forward will be a nice addition to this team's depth once he's healthy, and he will be a second perimeter shooter for Sexton to have at his disposal as either a weapon or a decoy.
In other words, this is a good team that is far from a finished product, and it should only get scarier with time. Considering the aggressive nonconference schedule that should help expedite the growing-up process, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the Crimson Tide compete for the SEC title.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Alright, fine, I'll give you one more team with a dynamic freshman guard who could be a huge difference maker in the NCAA tournament.
For Virginia Tech, that guard is Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Per 247 Sports, he wasn't even a 5-star recruit, ranked 39th overall in this year's class. But NBA scouts were in love with this Canadian because of his play in events like the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 and the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit. B/R's Jonathan Wasserman had Alexander-Walker projected as the No. 19 overall pick in his preseason mock draft.
Though he hasn't been nearly as electric as Trae Young or Collin Sexton, he hasn't disappointed. Alexander-Walker is averaging 14.9 points per game and has been a solid defender, using his 6'9" wingspan to his advantage on the perimeter.
Alexander-Walker is one of four Hokies shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range while averaging at least 1.4 made triples per game. Ahmed Hill leads the way with 26 makes on 49 attempts (53.1 percent), helping the Hokies lead the nation in effective field-goal percentage.
The most important piece of the VT puzzle isn't a three-point shooter, though. It's Kerry Blackshear Jr.
The 6'10" redshirt sophomore is the only meaningful player on the roster taller than 6'6", and he is thriving early. Blackshear has averaged 24.3 points and 13.7 rebounds per 40 minutes, and his presence in the defensive paint—even though he isn't much of a shot-blocker—is keeping the opposition from getting easy looks at the rim.
He needs to get the fouls under control, though. Blackshear has already been DQ'd twice this season. Virginia Tech lost to Saint Louis in one of those games and needed overtime to beat Ole Miss in the other. When he commits three or fewer fouls, though, the Hokies are 6-0, with each win coming by at least a 24-point margin. As long as he can stay on the court, Virginia Tech can win a lot of games.
Texas is the early candidate for the "Close but no cigar" team of the 2017-18 season. (You may recall Clemson taking that role seriously last year.)
The Longhorns had a 16-point second-half lead against Duke in the PK80 semifinal, but they allowed the Blue Devils to storm all the way back for an overtime victory. Two nights later in the third-place game, Texas trailed Gonzaga by 21 points in the second half. This time, Shaka Smart's bunch was the one that orchestrated the incredible comeback to force overtime, but the Longhorns ran out of gas in the extra frame.
Either one would have been a massive victory for a young team. Instead, they're 5-2 with a win over Butler and not much else. But the way they were able to dominate both Duke and Gonzaga for long stretches of those games was a sign that the Longhorns need to be taken seriously.
In particular, they're going to be a major problem for a lot of opponents on defense.
Mohamed Bamba is a bit of a project on offense, but he has had an immediate impact as the shot-blocking anchor of this defense, averaging 4.0 rejections per game and nearly six per 40 minutes. And with his ability to erase any shot within eight feet of the rim, the Texas guards have more freedom to hunt steals. The Longhorns have done a far better job of forcing turnovers than they did in Smart's first two seasons at the helm.
Will the offense eventually start to follow suit?
Thanks to freshman point guard Matt Coleman, the Longhorns have committed a limited number of turnovers. But they rank among the worst three-point and free-throw shooting teams in the country at 27.2 percent and 62.0 percent, respectively. If and when they start forcing opponents to both respect the perimeter and pay for committing fouls, the Longhorns could be the top challenger to Kansas in the Big 12.
St. John's Red Storm
This question has typically been used for Duke for the past year, but I have to ask: Is St. John's back?
In Chris Mullin's third season as a head coach, the Red Storm (7-1) appear to be ready to compete in the top half of the Big East.
Like the Texas Longhorns, it starts on defense.
St. John's entered play Monday ranked second in the nation in block percentage and third in turnover percentage, per KenPom. Tariq Owens is a shot-blocking machine, and Kassoum Yakwe, Justin Simon and Amar Alibegovic are also making solid contributions on a team averaging 6.6 blocked shots a game.
Meanwhile, five Red Storm players are averaging at least one steal per game, including three who are accounting for at least two pilfers per contest. As a result, St. John's has held five of eight opponents to 56 points or fewer, despite playing at least 69 possessions in each game.
Unlike Texas, the Red Storm has some dudes on offense.
Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark and Arizona transfer Simon are shooting a combined 60.7 percent (17 of 28) from three-point range while averaging 19.2 points per game. They have been everything St. John's was hoping they would be, adding to an already solid offensive core of Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed.
We'll see how it all holds up when the schedule gets tougher. The Red Storm lost to Missouri and scraped by with a three-point win over UCF in their only games against KenPom Top 100 opponents—neither of which ranks in the Top 50. It's too early to guess how they'll fare against the likes of Villanova, Duke, Xavier and Seton Hall in the next few months. But it isn't unreasonable to think St. John's could win a few of those games, which is a big upgrade from how anyone has felt about this team in recent Decembers.
To put it lightly, this has not been the start to the season Sean Miller had in mind for the Wildcats.
They went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis against North Carolina State, SMU and Purdue. Then, in their second game back on the mainland, they needed overtime to survive against UNLV, as Rebels Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston shot a combined 23-of-31 from the field for 54 points.
On the plus side, Arizona has two sensational assets on offense. Allonzo Trier is averaging 23.9 points per game, and Deandre Ayton has been an even more impressive all-around player, putting up 20.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per night. Good luck finding a more dominant inside-outside duo in the country.
The problem thus far has been, well, everything else. This team is a nightmare on defense, and it doesn't have any reliable scorers beyond that pair.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright can score, but he's much more of a distributor and defender than a guy who hunts his own buckets. Dusan Ristic is also capable of putting the ball in the hoop, but outside of the season-opening double-double against Northern Arizona, his production is way down from last season. He simply isn't getting as many opportunities with Ayton soaking up the spotlight in the paint.
The biggest disappointment, though, has been Emmanuel Akot.
When word of Rawle Alkins' foot surgery leaked in the preseason, it was viewed as a setback for Arizona, but also an opportunity to let Akot—the No. 24 recruit in this year's 247 Sports composite rankings—show what he can do. Instead, he has been dealing with knee tendinitis and has not been able to make any sort of impact.
Couple his slow start with an unselfish-to-a-fault point guard, a center who isn't as assertive as he used to be and a bunch of other role players forced to shoulder more of the load than they can be expected to handle, and it's no wonder Arizona is struggling.
The good news is it shouldn't be much longer before Alkins returns, given the slam dunks he was throwing down in pregame warmups before the UNLV game. He ranked second on the roster in total points last season and was one of the better defenders on the team. Whenever he returns, it should kill two birds with one stone, snapping the Wildcats out of this early funk.
Rhode Island Rams
Nevada was going to be our representative from outside the power conferences, but the AP voters did the right thing and put the Wolf Pack at No. 22 in this week's poll.
Instead, let's give a shout out to a Rhode Island team that almost won at Nevada three weeks ago.
The Rams are 5-2 with a home win over Providence and an impressive neutral-court win over Seton Hall. They also smoked a quality UNC-Asheville team 84-60 in their season opener. They even hung with Virginia on a neutral court for 25 minutes before letting that one slip away.
The incredible thing is Rhode Island has done almost all of it without its star player, E.C. Matthews, who fractured his left wrist five days into the season.
Seniors Jared Terrell, Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson and Andre Berry have picked up the slack in a big way, and sophomore point guard Jeff Dowtin has been great with a 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. But the pleasant surprise has been freshman guard Daron "Fatts" Russell.
Russell scored a game-high 20 points in each of the past two contests. He's shooting 44 percent from three-point range and has quickly become one of the better sixth men in the nation. We'll see how much playing time he continues to receive once Matthews returns in a few weeks, but having too many quality options is not a "problem" anyone was expecting from this team after it lost Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.
The big question for Rhode Island is the overall strength of the A-10. The Rams have gotten off to a good start, but after this Wednesday's road game against Alabama, the schedule bottoms out in a hurry. And if they needed to win the A-10 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament last year with a 24-9 record, they might need a 26-6 record this year to be deemed worthy of an at-large bid.
Because of that, this team is the least likely of any featured here to actually make the NCAA tournament. If the Rams get in, though, their guard-heavy attack is going to be a conundrum for some opposing coach(es).
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech was at No. 22 in last week's AP poll, but the Red Raiders slipped to No. 26 following their loss to Seton Hall in Madison Square Garden. Thus, they technically qualify for this list and are arguably the best team on it.
Like several other teams previously discussed, it's the defense that makes Texas Tech special.
It isn't quite Press Virginia, but everyone who steps on the court for head coach Chris Beard is a serious threat to force a turnover. This was also true of his Arkansas Little Rock team that won 30 games in 2015-16, including a first-round upset of Purdue in the NCAA tournament. The teamwide commitment to getting steals was a big reason the Red Raiders stomped Northwestern 85-49 a few weeks ago.
This group also has some some rim protection. Zach Smith has averaged 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes as TTU's power forward, and 6'5" wing-forward Zhaire Smith is averaging nearly a block per game. Norense Odiase isn't much of a shot-blocker, but the 6'9" center is an outstanding rebounder who at least makes opponents think twice about attacking the rim.
In other words, the Red Raiders have active hands all over the court, which is keeping most opponents from scoring. Seton Hall was the exception to that rule, but the Pirates shot 11 of 20 from three-point range and have a primary six-man rotation that is going to cause problems for even better defenses than this.
On the offensive end, Keenan Evans is the clear leader, but there are a ton of viable options. Freshmen Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith rank second and third in scoring. Brandone Francis could not buy a bucket as a freshman at Florida, but he is shooting 47.1 percent from three-point range for the Red Raiders. And DePaul transfer Tommy Hamilton IV has started all seven games at center and is a better player than he has shown thus far.
There are 10 players averaging at least 13 minutes played, and all 10 are capable of putting points on the board and getting after it on the defensive end.
Considering this is the third Big 12 team featured here and that conference already has four teams in the AP Top 25, it's shaping up to be another entertaining regular season in that league.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.