As the Butler Bulldogs, the George Mason Patriots and VCU Rams have shown the college basketball world recently, almost anything is possible in March.
Heading into the 2011-12 season, there are again only a handful of teams most would consider to be legitimate national championship contenders.
North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State are worthy of high preseason praise, with exceptional returning talent and highly touted recruits arriving.
Duke, UCONN, Pitt, Kansas, Louisville and other big name schools will get their due as well.
Finding the teams that could surprise (and only COULD, if everything goes right) is a much more difficult task. And by the "teams flying under the radar" in the title, I mean ones that could have a chance at an upset or two come March.
Most are not national title contenders. Most are teams with veteran players who have had at least a modicum of success in the past and might pose a threat to a less experienced group when a season is on the line.
Some are probably just wishful thinking. In May, and sometimes until November, it's all you have.
The return of Perry Jones III was a much-welcomed surprise. He, along with returning forwards Anthony Jones, Quincy Acy and freshman Quincy Miller (you can call them A and Double Q) will provide the Bears with size, skill and depth up front.
Add J’mison Morgan, who didn’t play big minutes last year but could this year, and Baylor’s forwards will be a tough matchup for anyone.
The key for this team though will be in the backcourt. Two of A.J. Walton, Brady Heslip, Gary Franklin and Pierre Jackson will have to step up to run the offense and to get Jones and the other forwards more involved than last season.
Jackson and Franklin seem the likely candidates to fill the role at point. Jackson led the College of Southern Idaho to the JUCO championship last season. Franklin transferred from Cal early in the season last year.
Potential stars JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell return for coach Anthony Grant, as does promising point man Trevor Releford, who finished his freshman season well.
Recruits Levi Randolph and Nick Jacobs could be ready to step in and play big minutes for the Tide, whose biggest concern early could be establishing some of the depth they lost with the departures of Senario Hillman and Charvez Davis.
Kentucky, and to a lesser degree, Vanderbilt and Florida, will get the most preseason hype, but the Tide shouldn't be far behind.
Though most seem to disagree, I thought that Marquette was definitely “on the bubble” last season. Their run to the Sweet 16 dispelled any notion that they were undeserving of the bid.
This year’s team welcomes back most of the key players from that group.
Darius Johnson-Odom and Junior Cadougan return in the backcourt along with Vander Blue, who should be ready for an expanded role this season.
Swingman Jae Crowder is back as are big men Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, a seriously big body who needs to be able to play more minutes.
Jamil Wilson is in from Oregon and recruit Juan Anderson looks to help fill at least some of the void that will be created by Jimmy Butler’s absence this season.
This is a solid team with some quality postseason experience, two things that could carry them to a top five Big East finish.
Losing your point guard and vocal leader is the toughest loss to overcome (okay, Kentucky excepted). Dairese Gary is gone after a stellar career with the Lobos, who now need to find someone to run the show in Albuquerque.
Kendall Williams performed well enough in Gary’s absence at the tail end of the season to give New Mexico optimism moving forward.
Drew Gordon came in from UCLA and was a force, averaging a double-double for the season. Phillip McDonald and A.J. Hardeman return as well to provide New Mexico with other scoring options. And, sophomores-to-be Alex Kirk and Tony Snell, who both had their moments last season, look to be more involved in the regular rotation.
The Lobos won a respectable 22 games last year that included taking out BYU twice. With the Cougars gone and San Diego State in a major rebuild mode, New Mexico should be the favorite to win the MWC and return to the NCAA tournament.
This one is a bit of a leap for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the overall state of the MAC, but there are a number of positives heading into this season for the Flashes.
Although second-leading scorer Rodriguez Sherman is gone, Kent State returns three double-digit scorers from last season’s team, including MAC POY Justin Greene (15.4 ppg, 8.3 rbg).
Also returning for the regular-season champs are Carlton Guyton (12.4 ppg), Michael Porrini (10.1 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Randal Holt (9.9 ppg). Patrick Jackson, a 6’6” small forward, is also eligible after transferring from Rutgers and sitting out last season.
Though they fell one point shy of reaching the NCAA tournament, the Flashes responded to some degree in the NIT by defeating St. Mary’s and Fairfield on the road before falling at Colorado in a tight game.
If they can adjust to new coach Rob Senderoff, and if the lawsuit against former coach Geno Ford isn’t a distraction, Kent State should have a solid season with NCAA aspirations.
The Ducks managed to win 21 games last season, including seven in conference play, in Dana Altman’s first season with Oregon.
Some big losses offensively, including three of their top four scorers, will have to be addressed quickly.
Still, there is enough returning for optimism. E.J. Singler is the top returning scorer, while Garrett Sim, Tyrone Nared and Jeremy Jacob (out for half of last season) return as well. Recruit Austin Kuemper is expected to help up front.
The prize catch for the Ducks is Jabari Brown, a 6’4” shooting guard who is explosive going to the basket. Add Devoe Joseph, who is eligible after transferring from Minnesota, and Oregon has some solid pieces.
Altman likes to play nine or 10 players, so it will be interesting to see how his rotation pans out. If the Ducks can rebound well as a team, they could be a darkhorse in the Pac-12.
Last year’s version of the Bulldogs was a fractured, disjointed mess. That is, of course, the diplomatic version.
The return of enigmatic Renardo Sidney was the cliche good news/bad news situation. If he is completely committed to becoming the player many think he could be, it will be good (or maybe better than that). If he isn’t...
Dee Bost is back (for the whole season) to man the point for Rick Stansbury, while up front State is loaded.
As well as Sidney, C Wendell Lewis returns and 6’11” Arnett Moultrie (transfer from UTEP) is eligible from the beginning of the season.
Recruits Rodney Hood and D.J. Gardner figure to get minutes early at the small forward and shooting guard spots respectively.
From Dana Altman’s current team to his former team, the Bluejays look to be a bit more cohesive in veteran MVC coach Greg McDermott’s second season.
Son Doug was a first-team all-MVC pick in his freshman year, getting him a look for one of the 12 spots on the USA Basketball Men’s Under-19 team this summer.
Antoine Young returns at the point for his senior season and will be joined by sophomore Jahenns Manigat, who improved over the course of last season. Transfer Grant Gibbs (Gonzaga) is eligible in the fall semester as well.
Gregory Echenique will play the full season this time around and could be due for a breakout season. Echenique averaged over 10 points and close to six rebounds per game while playing just over 20 minutes per contest. He also blocked over two shots per game.
Definite contenders in the Valley, the Bluejays could have their sights set on something more.
The coaching change for the Hurricanes has to be a plus heading into the 2011-12 season.
Jim Larranaga is in from George Mason and inherits some solid talent for his first go-round in Miami.
Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott return to lead Miami’s backcourt, while Rion Brown and transfer Trey McKinney-Jones will see minutes as well.
Reggie Johnson (6’10”, 300) declared for the NBA draft but withdrew and will return, giving the Hurricanes a potential double-double threat every game. He is joined up front by veterans DeQuan Jones and Julian Gamble.
Giving Miami even more depth up front is Kenny Kadji, a former top-50 recruit who never found his niche in Florida.
Larranaga has walked into a good situation with the Hurricanes, one that could see Miami near the top of an ACC in transition.
The return of Mike Scott will certainly buoy the hopes of Cavalier fans desperate for a return to winning basketball.
I believe that Tony Bennett can get it done, and this season could see Virginia move into the top half of the ACC.
Scott was having a great start to last season before injuries cut it short. Assuming he is back to full strength, the Cavs will return every significant contributor from last year’s team.
Sammy Zeglinski, Joe Harris, Jontel Evans and K.T. Harrell will take the majority of minutes in the backcourt while Scott, the underrated Assane Sene and top recruit James Johnson will lead Virginia in the frontcourt.
This will be a veteran team with some young talent (Harrell and Johnson) that wouldn’t surprise many with 10 wins in the ACC this year.
After losing the majority of their scoring from 2009-10, last year’s Golden Bears were expected to struggle.
And they did.
However, they still managed to win 10 conference games while providing a very solid foundation for this season.
Alan Crabbe and Richard Solomon were both invited to the Under-19 tryouts this summer, which will only help them build off of solid freshmen seasons.
Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, both seniors, are back to anchor a young but talented group, while transfer Justin Cobbs (Minnesota) could be at the point to start the season for the Bears.
Red-shirt Alex Rossi, Brandon Smith and freshman David Kravish will have utility roles off of the bench as will 6’9” junior Bak Bak.
The depth is questionable for Cal, but coach Mike Montgomery tends to keep it short anyway. If Gutierrez can replicate his season from a year ago, from both the offensive and leadership perspectives, the Bears should top their 10 conference wins.
I was thinking that the Colonials had a decent year in 2010-11, winning 10 games and finishing in a tie for fourth in a solid conference. It was an improvement of four wins over the previous season.
Then Karl Hobbs is fired.
So, in steps Mike Lonergan, who has had his share of success at Vermont, and inherits a team that is essentially intact from a season ago.
Hobbs was another who liked to use his bench, as nine players averaged 10 or more minutes per game. The result was a balanced scoring attack led by Tony Taylor’s 15 points per game.
Forwards Dwayne Smith, Nemanja Mikic and David Pellom return, as does C Joseph Katuka. The 6’10” Jabari Edwards could also see an increase in minutes this season after averaging 2.2 blocks in just 15 minutes per game.
Temple and Xavier are still the teams to beat in the Atlantic Ten, but barring any major missteps, the Colonials could argue for third in a wide-open middle tier of the group.
With a strong returning group that includes Ray McCallum Jr., Eli Holman and Chase Simon, the Titans are poised to challenge for the Horizon League title.
McCallum is quite possibly a future NBA player, while Holman is a tenacious rebounder and defender who averages close to a double-double.
Simon led the team in scoring last season and is joined by Nick Minnerath and Chris Blake, both of whom averaged in double figures in scoring as well.
With everyone back and with McCallum having a year’s experience, the Titans will exceed their 10 conference wins from last season.
As we have come to expect though, they’ll need to go through Butler to grab the Horizon League title.
The Gaels enjoyed a 25-win season in 2010-11, and won 12 of their last 14. Unfortunately, one of those was the MAAC championship game to St. Peter’s.
Still, it was a successful season, and one on which they can build as the top four scorers return.
Scott Machado returns for his senior season after averaging over 13 points per game and nearly doubling his previous high for assists per game with 7.6, which ranked third in the country.
Michael Glover returns to man the paint. Glover averaged a double-double last season (18.4 ppg, 10.1 rbg), while shooting 61 percent from the field. Kyle Smyth and Jermel Jenkins are solid-shooting guards.
Depth up front could be an issue for Iona, but if Glover gets some help, they could be able to surpass their 13 conference wins from a year ago.
With a new coach in tow, the Wolfpack look to bounce back from a terrible season in 2010-2011.
Mark Gottfried is experienced enough, but the knock on him in Alabama was that he wasn’t a good X’s and O’s guy, which was the knock on Sidney Lowe.
Talent shouldn’t be an issue even with the departure of Ryan Harrow and the graduation of Tracy Smith.
C.J. Leslie, DeShawn Painter and Lorenzo Brown were all top recruits. Scott Wood developed into a reliable scoring option last season. And Richard Howell, despite limited minutes was a dependable rebounder (6.5 per game) and scorer (7.4 points per game).
Recruiting is an issue this year, although the clock is still ticking and Gottfried still has a chance to sign someone late.
They could sneak up on some teams this year. Whether it will be enough to put them into NCAA contention remains to be seen.