Predicting Which College Basketball Teams Will Have Breakout Years in 2015-16
The California Golden Bears headline our list of breakout teams for the 2015-16 college basketball season, as the Golden Bears are all but guaranteed to drastically improve upon last year's 7-11 Pac-12 record.
This past season, there were 11 teams from the nine significant conferences* that made the 2015 NCAA tournament despite posting conference records of .500 or worse and missing the Big Dance in 2014. The Butler Bulldogs, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Purdue Boilermakers each posted an overall record below .500 in 2013-14 before earning a single-digit seed in the 2015 tourney.
Suffice it to say, it's hardly an uncommon phenomenon for a team to make a major leap in the span of one offseason.
There were 54 teams from the significant conferences that missed the tournament this past March and failed to post winning conference records. Many of those teams remain hopeless causes for the foreseeable future, but 10 stand out as obvious contenders to flip the script and do some damage in the upcoming season.
The following 10 teams are ranked in ascending order of how utterly shocking it would be to see them miss the tournament again.
*Significant conferences identified as those that have sent at least three teams to one of the past three NCAA tournaments: Atlantic Coast, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 and Southeastern.
Before diving into the top 10, here are six other teams that could legitimately make some noise after disappointing 2014-15 campaigns. On the scale from "totally impossible" to "extremely likely," these teams rank in the "We're not putting any money on them but can absolutely see their turning things around and making the tournament" range.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (12-19 overall, 3-15 in ACC)
The Ramblin' Wreck was substantially better than the record indicates. Of Georgia Tech's 19 losses, 15 were decided by seven points or fewer, including a road game against Duke and a pair of games against Notre Dame. But thanks to absolutely horrendous three-point shooting, the Yellow Jackets had difficulty putting teams away and closing gaps in a hurry.
Adding Virginia Tech's Adam Smith (81-of-191 from three-point range last season) will be a much-needed shot in the arm for a team retaining most of its key players.
Florida Gators (16-17 overall, 8-10 in SEC)
Florida made the NCAA tournament 14 times under former head coach Billy Donovan, but will the Gators remain nationally relevant without him? In addition to Donovan, they lose Michael Frazier, Jon Horford, Eli Carter and Chris Walker. Michael White is inheriting a solid roster, once you factor in transfer John Egbunu and redshirt freshman Brandone Francis, but that's an awful lot of transition for one offseason.
South Carolina Gamecocks (17-16 overall, 6-12 in SEC)
Losing Tyrone Johnson is a tough pill to swallow, but just about everyone else is back. More importantly, head coach Frank Martin signed a 5-star shooting guard in Perry Dozier. Like Georgia Tech, this was an abysmal three-point shooting team last season, so Dozier could be South Carolina's savior.
Houston Cougars (13-19 overall, 4-14 in American)
Kelvin Sampson's first year back in the college coaching game didn't exactly go according to plan, but there's reason to believe Year 2 will be much better.
The additions of Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson and Oregon transfer Damyean Dotson and the presumed return to health of L.J. Rose should make for a strong backcourt to go along with what was already a solid frontcourt of Danrad Knowles, Devonta Pollard and LeRon Barnes.
Syracuse Orange (18-13 overall, 9-9 in ACC)
If DaJuan Coleman is back and able to play legitimate minutes all season long, Syracuse could be good. If not, the Orange will need to put an awful lot of faith in incoming 4-star guys like Malachi Richardson and Moustapha Diagne. Simply put, we're not looking for coin flips in our top 10.
USC Trojans (12-20 overall, 3-15 in Pac-12)
You can always count on one team to rise from the ashes. Temple went from 9-22 in 2013-14 to 26-11 this past year. Purdue finished in dead last in the Big Ten two years ago before rebounding to go 12-6 in the conference and earn a No. 9 seed in the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Could USC be that team this year? Without a single senior on last year's roster and just a couple of minor players who transferred, it will pretty much have the whole gang back for another year while also adding a pair of 4-star freshman forwards in Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright. Pairing Jordan McLaughlin and Katin Reinhardt with a deep stable of talented big men could make the Trojans unexpected contenders in the Pac-12.
10. UNLV Rebels
2014-15 Season: 18-15 (8-10 in Mountain West)
Key Returnees: Patrick McCaw, Dwayne Morgan, Goodluck Okonoboh, Jordan Cornish
Impact Arrivals: Stephen Zimmerman (Freshman), Derrick Jones (Freshman), Jaylen Poyser (Freshman), Ike Nwamu (Mercer), Jerome Seagears (Rutgers), Ben Carter (Oregon), Tyrell Bellot-Green (JUCO)
Four of the top five scorers from last year's team are gone. Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood bolted for the NBA. Jelan Kendrick and Cody Doolin are out of eligibility.
Under normal circumstances, this would be cause for massive concern.
However, UNLV has one of the best incoming classes in the nation. 247Sports ranks head coach Dave Rice's collection of freshmen and JUCO transfers as the 10th best in the country. Factor in Jerome Seagears, Ben Carter and Ike Nwamu as incoming transfers, and the Rebels are overflowing with talent they didn't have a season ago.
Despite all they lost, what they're bringing back isn't too shabby. Let's not forget that UNLV had one of the best recruiting classes in the country last season as well—and that the team expects big things from Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh as they enter their sophomore years.
The only real question is whether the roster will be able to mesh. There's plenty of talent, but you never know how the team chemistry will play out. With multiple options at every position, though, it should be only a matter of time before the Rebels find some combinations that work.
By conference season, they'll be ready to challenge San Diego State for the Mountain West title.
9. Colorado Buffaloes
2014-15 Season: 16-18 (7-11 in Pac-12)
Key Returnees: Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson, Wesley Gordon, Xavier Talton, Dominique Collier, Tre'Shaun Fletcher, Tory Miller
Impact Arrivals: Josh Fortune (Providence), Kenan Guzonjic (JUCO)
Outside of Arizona, the Pac-12 has been disappointing over the past few years. The conference hasn't been represented in the Final Four since 2008 (UCLA), and Arizona is the only team to have appeared in the Elite Eight since then, doing so three times.
But this should finally be a strong year for the Pac-12. Arizona, California and Utah all figure to open the season ranked in the AP Top 25. Both Oregon schools and UCLA are in great shape as well.
Arizona State could be a sleeper team with head coach Bobby Hurley at the helm. And we've already mentioned USC as a potential breakout team.
If Colorado can also make some noise, this could be the conference of champions.
The Buffaloes might be in a rare position of addition by subtraction. Askia Booker was a good player, but he took too many shots. In fact, he ranked fifth in the nation in percentage of shots taken last season, according to KenPom.com.
For a guy like Boise State's Derrick Marks, who shot 42.6 percent from three-point range and 52.0 percent inside the arc, that's fantastic. Take all the shots you possibly can when you're that accurate. But Booker shot 32.9 percent and 42.1 percent, respectively. Remove his points from free throws, and Booker averaged 0.9 points per field-goal attempt—an unacceptable ratio from your top scorer.
To an extent, he did so much shooting because nobody else would. With Booker out of the picture, though, guys like Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon will need to take more shots. This is a good thing, given their high efficiency ratings.
The addition of Josh Fortune will give the Buffaloes a reliable three-point threat to help counterbalance what should be a strong interior attack. Winning nine games in this conference is going to be a challenge, but they could conceivably pull it off.
8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2014-15 Season: 13-19 (6-12 in SEC)
Key Returnees: Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, I.J. Ready, Fred Thomas, Travis Daniels, Demetrius Houston, Fallou Ndoye, Oliver Black
Impact Arrivals: Malik Newman (Freshman), Quinndary Weatherspoon (Freshman), Aric Holman (Freshman)
The Bulldogs are the only team in our top 10 with a new head coach, but that's likely a good thing, considering former head coach Rick Ray went 37-60 in his three seasons at the helm.
In his place, Mississippi State made the splash hiring of former UCLA and Pittsburgh head coach Ben Howland. The move has already paid big dividends, as Howland was able to get commitments from 5-star point guard Malik Newman and 4-star power forward Aric Holman.
Those two freshmen should be more than capable of filling the roles previously reserved for departing seniors Roquez Johnson and Trivante Bloodman.
In addition to the young guys, Howland will have some serious veteran leadership from the senior quartet of Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas and Travis Daniels. It should prove to be the mix of new blood and old faces that a rebuilding program desperately needs.
Let's face it, though: Newman is the key to everything. Mississippi State's two biggest weaknesses last season were turnovers and three-point shooting, but Newman could help the Bulldogs drastically improve in both of those departments.
We're not expecting Howland to get back to the Final Four, but there's a decent chance that he'll lead a team back to the NCAA tournament this year.
7. Creighton Bluejays
2014-15 Season: 14-19 (4-14 in Big East)
Key Returnees: James Milliken, Toby Hegner, Isaiah Zierden, Zach Hanson, Geoffrey Groselle
Impact Arrivals: Maurice Watson Jr. (Boston University), Cole Huff (Nevada), Justin Patton (Freshman), Ronnie Harrell (Freshman)
Now is the time to find out how well Greg McDermott can coach.
A lot of people said something along those lines at the start of last season, but it wasn't fair. Creighton lost more than just Doug McDermott. The Bluejays also had to move on without Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat. Replacing four starters in one offseason is almost impossible for any coach.
McDermott is still combating a significant amount of turnover this summer, but he should have the necessary incoming pieces to make it happen.
Mo Watson Jr. was one of the best point guards in the country two years ago, averaging 13.3 points, 7.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game for Boston. He will immediately be a starter and a star for Creighton. Cole Huff is a great transfer as well. The 6'8" forward made better than 40 percent of his three-point attempts in 2013-14, and let's just say McDermott has some experience in getting the most out of similar players in the past.
Creighton also adds a pair of quality freshmen. Ronnie Harrell redshirted last year but could start immediately at small forward. Justin Patton is a true freshman who should get significant playing time in the post.
If Isaiah Zierden is healthy—and that's been a big, shaky if over the past couple of years—the Bluejays should have one of the most complete rotations in the Big East.
6. Pittsburgh Panthers
2014-15 Season: 19-15 (8-10 in ACC)
Key Returnees: James Robinson, Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Chris Jones, Sheldon Jeter, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Johnson
Impact Arrivals: Sterling Smith (Coppin State), Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond), Rafael Maia (Brown), Damon Wilson (Freshman), Rozelle Nix (JUCO)
Unlike most of the teams on the list, Pittsburgh was a couple of unfortunate bounces away from making the tournament last year. An overtime loss at Virginia Tech in late January kept the Panthers on the outer fringe of the bubble debate before consecutive losses to Wake Forest, Miami and Florida State killed any hope of dancing.
They were close, though, and they get the vast majority of their important pieces back for another run at it.
The Panthers were lacking a scoring guard last year. Durand Johnson probably would have been that guy, but he was suspended hours before the season began and has since transferred to St. John's. That left Cameron Wright and Chris Jones to shoulder the load, neither of whom was up to the challenge.
Fortunately, head coach Jamie Dixon is bringing in a pair of players capable of filling that void.
Sterling Smith averaged 13.9 points and made 41.8 percent of his 5.9 three-point attempts per game last season for Coppin State. Smith was also a respectable defender, averaging 1.4 steals per game. The other option is 4-star freshman Damon Wilson Jr. He's more of a slashing point guard than a spot-up shooting guard, but any guard willing and able to put the ball in the hoop is a welcome addition.
If one of those two pans out nicely while James Robinson, Jamel Artis and Michael Young continue to play at a high level, Pittsburgh will help the ACC make a strong case for the best conference in the country.
5. Oregon State Beavers
2014-15 Season: 17-14 (8-10 in Pac-12)
Key Returnees: Gary Payton II, Langston Morris-Walker, Malcolm Duvivier, Olaf Schaftenaar, Daniel Gomis, Jarmal Reid, Cheikh N'diaye, Victor Robbins?
Impact Arrivals: Stephen Thompson Jr. (Freshman), Tres Tinkle (Freshman), Drew Eubanks (Freshman)
Oregon State scored one of the most surprising wins of the entire 2014-15 season when it upset Arizona in mid-January.
If the Beavers can put the ball in the hoop with some regularity this year, they'll have a few more tricks like that up their sleeves.
If you'll recall, this team was supposed to be a colossal disaster. The top three scorers from the 2013-14 roster graduated. The fourth-best scorer (Eric Moreland) declared for the NBA draft—and played a grand total of two minutes this season. The fifth-best scorer (Hallice Cooke) transferred to Iowa State.
Head coach Craig Robinson was fired.
It was the ultimate rebuilding situation. Considering that Oregon State had finished .500 or worse in 22 of the previous 24 seasons and missed the NCAA tournament in all 24 of those seasons, we were less than optimistic about a quick turnaround.
Yet, thanks to new coach Wayne Tinkle and JUCO transfer Gary Payton II, the Beavers were able to improve to 17-14. And thanks to zero graduating players and a strong recruiting class, there's no good reason to think they won't continue to improve this year.
As mentioned several times already this offseason, they desperately need to locate a reliable shooter. Olaf Schaftenaar was the only player on the roster who shot better than 33.3 percent from three-point range. As a team, Oregon State barely averaged five made triples per game.
If either Stephen Thompson Jr. or Tres Tinkle can fill that void—or if Langston Morris-Walker or Malcolm Duvivier improves his stroke over the summer—Oregon State will become a difficult team to beat.
4. Florida State Seminoles
2014-15 Season: 17-16 (8-10 in ACC)
Key Returnees: Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Montay Brandon, Devon Bookert, Phil Cofer, Jarquez Smith, Boris Bojanovsky, Michael Ojo, Robbie Berwick
Impact Arrivals: Dwayne Bacon (Freshman), Malik Beasley (Freshman), Terance Mann (Freshman)
Take one look at all the players the Seminoles are bringing back, and you're forced to wonder why they weren't better last season. They have five quality players at 6'8" or taller (much taller in the case of 7'3" Boris Bojanovsky), an excellent combo guard in Xavier Rathan-Mayes and a solid shooting guard in Devon Bookert.
This team should have made some serious noise.
But you don't have to look too hard at head coach Leonard Hamilton's recruiting class to figure out what he's looking to improve. Dwayne Bacon is a 5-star shooting guard. Malik Beasley and Terance Mann are 4-star shooting guards. Even JUCO transfer Benji Bell is a shooting guard.
Aside from Bookert, Florida State was a three-point train wreck last year. It shot 31.3 percent as a team. Take Bookert's 39.3 percent shooting out of the equation, and the rest of the roster shot 28.1 percent. Even with Bookert, the team averaged just 4.5 made triples per game.
That wasn't the lowest rate in the country, but it was close.
With the likes of Bacon and Beasley coming in, though, Florida State should be significantly better from behind the arc. Assuming the Seminoles frequently go with a three-guard lineup, that should also help to improve their poor turnover rate from last season—on both offense and defense.
Here's one more reason to buy stock in Florida State: The Seminoles have arguably the most favorable of the unbalanced ACC schedules. Their four home-and-home opponents are Clemson, Miami, North Carolina State and Syracuse.
Three of those four may be in the NCAA tournament discussion all year, but at least they don't have to play Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame or Virginia twice.
3. Vanderbilt Commodores
2014-15 Season: 21-14 (9-9 in SEC)
Key Returnees: Damian Jones, Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Luke Kornet, Jeff Roberson
Impact Arrivals: Nolan Cressler (Cornell)
Now that we're into the top three, it would be a major surprise if these teams did not make the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Florida State and Oregon State will probably go dancing. Pittsburgh and Creighton might make the field, too. Mississippi State, Colorado and UNLV at least have a shot.
Vanderbilt, however, feels like a lock. Rated as the 36th-best team in the country by KenPom.com, the Commodores were the only team in the top 40 to not make the tournament last year. They can thank seven consecutive losses in January for that dishonor. But they were beyond competitive in pretty much every loss they suffered.
KenPom.com also rated Vanderbilt as the seventh-most unlucky team in the nation. With five freshmen in their eight-man rotation, the Commodores had a knack for losing close games.
On the plus side, they were also one of the best three-point shooting and shot-blocking teams, and the players most responsible for success in those categories are back for another year of college experience. Adding Nolan Cressler to the mix should make the Commodores more efficient on offense.
If you're not buying Vanderbilt, though—pray tell—who comes out of the SEC this year? Kentucky will obviously be extremely good. Texas A&M and LSU should both be strong. The rest of the conference is completely up for grabs.
Led by Damian Jones, Wade Baldwin and Riley LaChance, the Commodores should be in a great position to thrive. They already won 21 games last season, so they need to improve only in the slightest to reach the tournament this year.
That shouldn't be a problem.
ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman ranked Vanderbilt No. 17 in his preseason top 50, saying, "I'm going with the Commodores as the second-best team in the SEC. Kevin Stallings is a terrific coach—and he has a pro up front in Jones. The guards also have experience, and everyone of note is back."
2. Michigan Wolverines
2014-15 Season: 16-16 (8-10 in Big Ten)
Key Returnees: Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., Aubrey Dawkins, Kameron Chatman, Spike Albrecht, Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
Impact Arrivals: Moritz Wagner (Freshman)
The Wolverines were one of the worst offensive rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the country last season. Losing Max Bielfeldt—who led the team in offensive rebounding percentage and was one of its more capable shot-blockers—isn't going to help matters.
But even though it doesn't have a frontcourt worth bragging about, Michigan will still be a surefire tournament team if its incredible guards can stay healthy this year.
Injuries aren't to blame for all of last year's struggles. Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. missed 27 combined games, but each played 38 minutes in the inexplicable loss to NJIT. However, the Wolverines were still trying to find their footing at that early stage in the season, adjusting to life without Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford and Mitch McGary.
Playing much of the season without LeVert and Walton kept Michigan from reaching its full potential last year, but it may have been a blessing in disguise that helped prepare the team for a deep run in 2015-16. Without those injuries, we probably never find out how well Aubrey Dawkins can play or how capable of being the primary ball-handler Spike Albrecht is.
With those two guys playing better than we realistically expected at the start of last season and LeVert and Walton back in the mix, it's almost like head coach John Beilein is gaining a strong recruiting class without actually doing so.
Maryland, Indiana and Michigan State should each be extremely good. Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin will each be solid. Success in the Big Ten will not come easily.
But you might be crazy if you don't think this Wolverines roster can scrounge together at least nine conference wins—especially since it doesn't have to play Indiana or Michigan State on the road.
1. California Golden Bears
2014-15 Season: 18-15 (7-11 in Pac-12)
Key Returnees: Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, Sam Singer, Kingsley Okoroh, Kameron Rooks
Impact Arrivals: Ivan Rabb (Freshman), Jaylen Brown (Freshman), Tyson Jolly (Freshman)
This one is an absolute no-brainer.
Based solely on returning players, Cal was already in decent shape for a bounce-back year. Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird make up possibly the best three-headed backcourt in the country.
The Golden Bears struggled during the nearly two-month stretch in which Bird was either out of the lineup or still recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, but they probably win 21 or 22 games and make the tournament last year if he stays healthy.
All three of those guards will be back for another year and are getting some help from the fifth-best recruiting class in the country. Never mind where the full class ranks against others, though, because California is getting two of the seven best freshmen in the nation—both of whom are desperately needed frontcourt players.
If Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown are even remotely as good as advertised, the Golden Bears are more than just a tournament team.
They're a could-absolutely-win-the-tournament team.
Back in May, California had 20-1 odds of winning the 2016 NCAA tournament, according to Odds Shark, good for ninth best in the nation.
At the end of April 2014, there were six teams with odds of 18-1 or better to win the 2015 title, as reported by Pro Basketball Talk. All six earned at least a No. 4 seed, and North Carolina was the only one that didn't earn at least a No. 2 seed.
Offseason futures aren't a perfect science, but it would be a huge surprise if Cal didn't go at least .500 in the Pac-12 and make the NCAA tournament.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.