Under-the-Radar College Basketball Teams Most Likely to Do Damage in 2015-16

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 4, 2015

Under-the-Radar College Basketball Teams Most Likely to Do Damage in 2015-16

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    While everyone obsesses over Arizona and California as Final Four candidates who will likely battle for the Pac-12 men's college basketball crown, Oregon and Oregon State are quietly lurking as two of the country's best under-the-radar teams.

    Identifying teams that are both under-the-radar and capable of making some NCAA tournament noise is a delicate balance, but we think we came up with a pretty good definition.

    According to the Bracket Matrix, seven prognosticators (including yours truly) have posted a projected bracket since June 1which is more or less when all of the offseason shuffling begins to come to a halt.

    There are actually nine links on the site, but the "Wilson Rankings" are entirely based on previous seasons and don't account for current rosters, while the "College Sports Madness" is doing a countdown that won't result in a full bracket until the first day of the season. Both were excluded from consideration.

    In the seven remaining brackets, we noted where each team was seeded.

    Under the theory that a team isn't really under-the-radar if more than 50 percent of people expect it to be one of country's 40 best teams in, schools that received a No. 10 seed or better in at least four of the seven brackets were removed from the pool of candidates. Also, teams that failed to receive a single at-large vote were removed for being too far below-the-radar.

    Conveniently enoughthe "formula" was concocted before the research was conductedwe were left with 25 teams; 20 of which are ranked on the following slides in descending order of how surprising it would be to see them in the 2016 Sweet 16.

    In hopes of reducing the number of "Where's [insert favorite team]?!" comments, here is the full alphabetical list of 39 teams that did too well in the projected brackets to be included. If your team is neither on this list nor in our rankings, take solace in the fact that you can scream, "Nobody believed in us!," if and when Oklahoma State or South Carolina makes the tournament.

    Over-the-radar teams: Arizona, Baylor, Butler, California, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Dayton, Duke, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Maryland, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Purdue, San Diego State, SMU, Texas, Texas A&M, UCLA, Utah, Vanderbilt, Villanova, Virginia, West Virgina, Wichita State, Wisconsin and Xavier

Honorable Mentions

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    Buried somewhere beneath the under-the-radar teams is a quintet of schools that at least one of the seven bracketologists believes in. We're just not entirely sure why.

    UNLV Rebels

    The Rebels have a pretty strong incoming class made up of Stephen Zimmerman, Derrick Jones and Mercer transfer Ike Nwamu, but what exactly are they bringing back? Patrick McCaw is the only returning player who averaged at least 6.0 points per game last season.

    Illinois State Redbirds

    This was a very strong, underappreciated team in 2014-15, but is everyone aware that the Redbirds lost Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter and Reggie Lynch this offseason? If you're going to insist on putting a second Missouri Valley team in the projected field, Northern Iowa, Loyola-Chicago and Evansville might all be better options.

    Stanford Cardinal

    Stanford's frontcourt depth is out of control, but what's the game plan for this backcourt after losing Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown? Robert Cartwright, Marcus Allen and Dorian Pickens might all need to have breakout seasons in order for this team to have a shot at the tournament.

    Temple Owls

    The midseason addition of Jesse Morgan was the catalyst that elevated the Owls last season, so what will they do this year without him and without leading scorer Will Cummings? The AAC is substantially stronger than it was this past year, so Quenton DeCosey will need to be some kind of special to lead this team to enough wins to dance.

    Arkansas Razorbacks

    I can at least appreciate the rationale behind the other four teams, but in what world does Arkansas have one of the 48 best rosters? Four of the other six bracketologistsincluding Joe Lunardihave the Razorbacks in their projected field, so this wasn't even a case of one rogue prognosticator with a cloudy crystal ball. It's somehow the majority opinion.

    With all that they have lost to graduation, NBA draft or dismissal, the Razorbacks' best player is Anthlon Bell, and their only options in the frontcourt are Moses Kingsley (3.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG last season) and Willy Kouassi (4.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG with Kennesaw State).

    They probably won't finish dead last in the SEC, but a 20-win season and tournament appearance would mandate a full-blown Coach of the Year campaign for Mike Anderson.

20. VCU Rams

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    Projected Starters: JeQuan Lewis, Melvin Johnson, Korey Billbury, Justin Tillman, Mo Alie-Cox

    Top Reserves: Jordan Burgess, Doug Brooks, Michael Gilmore

    It would be one thing if the Rams had just lost head coach Shaka Smart, but the ensuing domino effect of losing Terry Larrier, Tevin Mack and Kenny Williams all but ensured that a rebuilding year is in VCU's near future.

    There's a reasonable chance, however, that Will Wade will be able to postpone that process for at least one season, because despite all that VCU lost, there's still a very solid A-10 roster at work here.

    JeQuan Lewis will never be quite the defensive wizard Briante Weber was, but he proved to be plenty capable of running an offense last season. Melvin Johnson and Oral Roberts transfer Korey Billbury are both strong three-point weapons, as is Doug Brooks off the bench. And Mo Alie-Cox is an offensive-rebounding and shot-blocking beast in the paint, despite standing just 6'7".

    Are any of those players ready for stardom, though?

    Without a doubt, Weber and Treveon Graham were the heart and soul of this team last season. Replacing their multi-category production will be difficult enough before also needing to fill the void of their veteran leadership.

    Though its peaks will likely be higher than its valleys are low, VCU appears to be a team that will have its fair share of both. With Rhode Island, Dayton and Davidson each in great shape for a run at the A-10 crown, there might not be enough room in the conference hierarchy for the Rams to stumble their way into the tournament again this year. But anyone who thinks they'll be a train wreck without Smart will be surprised by their quest for 20 wins.

19. Memphis Tigers

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    James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Ricky Tarrant, Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell, Dedric Lawson, Shaq Goodwin

    Top Reserves: K.J. Lawson, Avery Woodson, Nick Marshall

    Memphis was delivered a pretty massive blow when Austin Nichols decided to transfer to Virginia. Not only did he lead the Tigers in scoring by a pretty wide margin, but he also nearly led the nation in blocked shots per game. Had he returned for another year, Memphis probably would have received some votes in the preseason AP Top 25.

    Even without him, though, this could be a strong rotation.

    The players we have already seen at the collegiate level should be solid assets. A starting backcourt comprised of combo guards Ricky Tarrant and Kedren Johnson will give opponents fits. Shaq Goodwin is a stud in the paint. And Trahson Burrell and Avery Woodson were two of the country's better JUCO transfers last year.

    Thus, if Dedric and K.J. Lawson are able to deliver on high expectations, Memphis could do some serious damage in 2015-16.

    CBS Sports' Gary Parrish wrote about the Lawson brothers two summers ago when they were both being heralded as top-15 players in their respective classes. They aren't quite as highly ranked anymore, and Dedric has since reclassified to join this year's crop of recruits, but this is still a pair of outstanding players who could very well both start as freshmen.

    As is the concern for VCU, though, Memphis is in a suddenly strong conference. Connecticut, SMU, Cincinnati and Tulsa are all shaping up as teams that could win the AAC, leaving Memphis as the likely fifth-best team in a conference that will probably only send three or four teams to the tournament.

    Considering the Tigers unexpectedly lost Nichols, that's not a bad place to be. They're one breakout player away from making a strong bid for the NCAA tournament.

18. Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Projected Starters: Duane Wilson, Jajuan Johnson, Sandy Cohen, Henry Ellenson, Luke Fischer

    Top Reserves: Haanif Cheatham, Traci Carter, Matt Heldt

    This roster is not exactly dripping with experience. The team's only senior has played six minutes in his career. Half of Marquette's projected eight-man rotation is made up of freshmen, and the top option to start at small forward (Sandy Cohen) played sparingly last year as a woefully inefficient freshman.

    And yet, we like what we see, especially in the frontcourt.

    The Golden Eagles certainly don't have much depth in the paintHenry Ellenson, Luke Fischer and Matt Heldt are the only players on the roster taller than 6'6"but that PF-C one-two punch of Ellenson and Fischer could be one of the country's best duos.

    After sitting out the first semester following his transfer from Indiana, Fischer made a big, immediate impact in Marquette's undersized rotation. In 24 games, he averaged 11.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks and converted on 61.3 percent of his two-point attempts.

    Few people paid much attention to him while Marquette scuffled its way to 19 losses, but his numbers weren't all that different from Texas' Myles Turner (10.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.6 BPG) or Utah's Jakob Poeltl (9.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG). One might even argue that Fischer's numbers were more impressive, because he didn't have the luxury of padding his stats against awful teams for the first month of the season.

    Now, Fischer has an excellent running mate in the post. Rated by 247Sports as the third-best power forward in this year's classfor sake of context, Kevon Looney, Noah Vonleh, Anthony Bennett and James Michael McAdoo held that spot in the previous four classesEllenson should make a huge splash and has to be considered the early favorite for Big East Freshman of the Year.

    Great as the frontcourt should be, the backcourt leaves something to be desired. Losing both Matt Carlino and Derrick Wilson leaves Marquette without an established point guard. If Duane Wilson can lock down that job, though, while Cohen delivers on his 4-star potential, Steve Wojciechowski just might get to go dancing in his second season as a head coach.

17. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Jalen Coleman-Lands, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Leron Black, Mike Thorne Jr.

    Top Reserves: Jaylon Tate, Maverick Morgan, D.J. Williams

    Two months ago, it wouldn't have taken much to convince me to put Illinois in my midsummer projected bracket. Despite losing four of their six players who averaged better than 5.0 points per game, the Illini were looking quite strong, with Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne Jr., JUCO transfer Darius Paul and Tracy Abrams' return to fill out their starting lineup.

    However, Abrams' triumphant return from a torn ACL was cut down by a torn Achilles in late July, and Paul was suspended from the team in mid-August after being arrested and charged with vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest during the team's trip to France. Given this isn't even remotely his first disciplinary issue with Illinois, it wouldn't be a surprise if this suspension eventually turns into another dismissal from the program.

    All of a sudden, the Illini are forced to rely heavily on a freshman point guard and a power forward who didn't even average 15 minutes per game last season.

    That isn't to say Illinois is incapable of success with Jalen Coleman-Lands and Leron Black in the starting lineup, but the likelihood of a 20-win season undeniably drops by a considerable margin.

    With a big three of Thorne, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, though, anything's possible. That's a trio that can do some serious scoring.

16. Syracuse Orange

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    Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Kaleb Joseph, Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, Tyler Roberson, DaJuan Coleman

    Top Reserves: Malachi Richardson, Chinonso Obokoh, Tyler Lydon

    It's not nearly the gut punch that Memphis and Illinois have received this summer, but Syracuse's prospects for the 2015-16 season took a hit when the university announced that Moustapha Diagne will enroll at a two-year school instead of becoming a freshman at Syracuse.

    With Rakeem Christmas graduating and Chris McCullough going pro, Diagne was likely going to be a big piece of Syracuse's interior game plan. If nothing else, he was an insurance policy for if and when DaJuan Coleman fails to log more than 305 minutes for a fourth consecutive year.

    Without Diagne in the picture, the Orange are left with Coleman and Chinonso Obokoh as their only options at center. Those two big men combined to score 10 points last season, so you're way too optimistic if you don't see any potential issues there.

    Tyler Roberson came on strong in the absence of McCullough, but he wasn't a great scorer by any means, converting on just 44.9 percent of his two-point attempts.

    The frontcourt situation could be a real adventure this year.

    The backcourt is looking strong, though.

    Former Duke transfer Michael Gbinije had a very nice 2014-15 season and will likely be Syracuse's MVP this year. Kaleb Joseph struggled early and often as a freshman, but he turned things around nicely once he stopped shooting and became a pass-first point guard. He committed more than two turnovers only twice in his final 21 games. And everyone knows Trevor Cooney can shoot it with the best of them.

    Syracuse's real key to success, however, is its defense. Particularly in a season with new rules that will encourage pretty much every team in the nation to experiment with playing zone, Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone will be a huge advantage for the umpteenth consecutive year. In what should be a lot of low-scoring affairs, the aforementioned guards ought to be enough to propel the Orange to a good number of wins.

15. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Charles Mann, J.J. Frazier, Kenny Gaines, Derek Ogbeide, Yante Maten

    Top Reserves: Juwan Parker, E'Torrion Wilridge, William Jackson

    Credit to Mark Fox for getting Georgia to a place where the Bulldogs are one of those teams you just throw into a preseason projected bracket after you've already slotted all the teams you really believe in. Five of the seven brackets surveyed had the Bulldogs in the field, but all five have them as a No. 11 seed.

    Quite similar to Syracuse's situation, Georgia has three solid guards, but it's not much in terms of depth or frontcourt presence.

    Yante Maten is the only returning player taller than 6'6" who averaged at least a point per game last season, and he was much more of a defensive specialist than an offensive juggernaut, finishing the season with 57 made field goals and 45 blocked shots.

    As a result, freshman center Derek Ogbeide and scarcely used sophomore center Osahen Iduwe will inevitably be thrown into the fire time and again as the Bulldogs try to figure out life after Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic.

    Don't be surprised if Georgia ends up in a similar boat as Indiana from a season ago, forced to rely almost exclusively on its perimeter game in lieu of interior weapons on either end of the court. That might not be the end of the world, though, as J.J. Frazier and Kenny Gaines are both excellent shooters who benefit nicely from Charles Mann's incessant slashing.

    But somewhere along the way, someone needs to make a leap. Whether it's Maten developing into a reliable scorer, Juwan Parker blossoming into a SEC Sixth Man of the Year candidate or one of the freshmen performing well above his 3-star ranking, that one TBD piece would be the difference between a ninth-place SEC finish and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

14. Providence Friars

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    Projected Starters: Kyron Cartwright, Kris Dunn, Jalen Lindsey, Rodney Bullock, Ben Bentil

    Top Reserves: Junior Lomomba, Alex Owens, Quadree Smith

    Before we broach the subject of what Providence will look like this season, can you even imagine how bad the Friars would be if they hadn't somehow convinced Kris Dunn to return for another year?

    Because of Dunn and Dunn alone, Providence has a shot at making some noise this season. A surefire lottery pick in 2016 if he doesn't suffer any more injuries, he averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game last year.

    Baseball has WAR, and college basketball has BPMa statistic calculated by Sports-Reference.com as an estimate of how many points per 100 possessions a player is better or worse than a league-average player. Duke's Jahlil Okafor scored a 10.9. Dunn registered 11.8.

    He was a one-man army, and he might need to be one again, with Ben Bentil and Jalen Lindsey serving as his top teammates. Both had solid freshman years and should be prime candidates for a breakout season, but that's non-negotiable if the Friars are going to have enough reliable pieces to win 20 or more games.

    Rodney Bullock hasn't played a game in two years, and he'll be expected to be either the team's fourth- or fifth-best player. If Bentil and Lindsey are unable to develop into a Big East roster's second- and third-best options, this team won't be doing much of anything in that conference.

    But they know who their star is, and he might be the country's best player. That's enough for Providence to enter the season as a fringe tournament team with a good chance of getting there if the role players are able to make expected improvements.

13. Boise State Broncos

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    Projected Starters: Mikey Thompson, Anthony Drmic, Chandler Hutchison, Nick Duncan, James Webb III

    Top Reserves: Kevin Allen, Lonnie Jackson, Montigo Alford

    Boise State has two very talented players in Anthony Drmic and James Webb III, a pretty solid stretch 4 in Nick Duncan and a handful of question marks that could result in a fantastic season.

    Particularly when Drmic went down for the season after just seven games, Chandler Hutchison was supposed to be a big factor for the Broncos as a freshman, but he never really got going. However, they have little choice but to turn to him in a big way this year with Derrick Marks, Igor Hadziomerovic and Robert Heyer all out of the picture.

    Also due to that backcourt attrition, either Mikey Thompson or Boston College transfer Lonnie Jackson will likely serve as the primary ball-handler, even though neither is anything close to the triple threat Marks was for the past few years.

    Still, Drmic and Webb should be enough to make Boise State a serious contender in the Mountain West conference, and the Broncos aren't too far away from making some noise at a national level. If Hutchison or one of the point guard options steps up in a big way this season, Boise State could get into the discussion with Gonzaga and Wichita State for the title of the country's best mid-major.

12. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Peter Jok, Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury

    Top Reserves: Dominique Uhl, Isaiah Moss, Brandon Hutton

    It's almost mathematically impossible, but Iowa seems to be in an incessant state of a starting lineup full of upperclassmen.

    Somehow, despite losing Aaron White, Gabriel Olaseni, Josh Oglesby and Trey Dickerson, the Hawkeyes will likely have a starting five made up of four seniors and a junioreach of which was a significant contributor last season.

    Jarrod Uthoff should be the star of the show, following in the footsteps of White and Roy Devyn Marble by scoring at least 16 per game in his senior year. And Peter Jok should fill the role that Uthoff played last season, blossoming into a reliable double-digit scorer as a junior.

    One of the biggest unknowns, though, is whether Adam Woodbury can be an "every down back" after losing his running mate of the past three years (Olaseni). On a per-40-minutes basis, he has averaged a double-double in his career, but he has only played 17.9 minutes per game. What type of marginal utility should we expect from an increase to 30 or more minutes per night?

    And if Jok is taking Uthoff's 2014-15 job, who takes Jok's spot?

    On both fronts, Dominique Uhl is absolutely critical for Iowa. Aside from Uthoff and Woodbury, he's the only returning player taller than 6'6" who scored more than two points. As the primary reserve for both frontcourt players, he'll need to play upward of 20 minutes per game. It could be a tournament-berth-altering advantage for the Hawkeyes if he could average seven points and five rebounds per game in the process.

11. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Projected Starters: I.J. Ready, Malik Newman, Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware

    Top Reserves: Aric Holman, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Travis Daniels

    An intriguing mix of veteran leaders and immediate-impact freshmen, Mississippi State is sneakily under-the-radar as a team that people have an eye on, but don't completely believe in. Case in point, Joe Lunardi has the Bulldogs as the first team out of his field.

    Without a doubt, it's the freshmen (and new head coach Ben Howland) who have prognosticators cautiously optimistic about Mississippi State for the first time in a few years. Malik Newman is going to be one of the country's top scorers, regardless of years of collegiate experience. And a coach could do a whole lot worse than a pair of just-outside-the-top-100 freshmen as his first and second players off the bench.

    Come for the new blood, but stay for the upperclassmen.

    They may not have much experience actually winning in college, but Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas and Travis Daniels will all be seniors. And I.J. Ready is hardly a spring chicken with 42 starts already under his belt entering his junior year.

    Relying entirely on multiple freshmen on a young roster is a scary proposition for coaches not named John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski. But banking strongly on one outstanding freshman while surrounding him with a plethora of upperclassmen is a luxury that rarely comes along.

    It's the type of formula that has Villanova in great position to win a third straight Big East title, and it could be something that carries Mississippi State to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

10. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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    Projected Starters: Shaquille Harrison, James Woodard, Marquel Curtis, Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan

    Top Reserves: Rashad Ray, D'Andre Wright, Tarekeyi Edogi

    If we liked the amount of experience on Mississippi State's roster, we absolutely love what's suiting up for Tulsa in 2015-16. The Golden Hurricane have nine(!!) seniors on the roster, seven of which led the team in scoring last year.

    Their fall from grace in 2016-17 will be pretty intense, but enjoy the ride this year.

    Interestingly enough, it's the senior who ranked seventh in scoring last season that might be most important to their cause.

    Otherwise a pretty undersized roster, Brandon Swannegan is the anchor in the paint who somehow didn't have a starting job until mid-February. The 6'9" forward led the team in block percentage by a staggering margin, recorded the highest percentage of offensive rebounds and even ranked third on the team in steal percentage.

    He doesn't shoot much at all, but he does all the things that make James Woodard's and Shaquille Harrison's buckets count for so much.

    Defense was this team's forte last season, and with Swannegan in the starting lineup, the Golden Hurricane held opponents to 59.5 points per gameand that includes one overtime game and one blowout loss to Murray State in the NIT. With effectively the entire roster still intact, expect more low-scoring affairs en route to another season with at least 20 wins.

9. BYU Cougars

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    Projected Starters: Nick Emery, Chase Fischer, Kyle Collinsworth, Kyle Davis, Corbin Kaufusi

    Top Reserves: Nate Austin, Jamal Aytes, Cory Calvert

    At a conventional glance, BYU appears to be in some trouble. The Cougars lost three of their top five scorers to graduation, lost their seventh- and ninth-best scorers to the transfer market and their recruiting class consists of one, 3-star freshman.

    But this is BYU we're talking about. They seem to always have multiple impact players returning from LDS missions or surfacing out of nowhere, and four of their eight most important players fall into that boat.

    At long last, Nick Emery will make his college debut this season, two years removed from a 4-star rating in 2013. He'll be joined by Utah State transfer Kyle Davis (9.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG), UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes and Cory Calvert, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2012-13 before leaving for his mission.

    BYU will also get Nate Austin back, who was granted a medical-hardship waiver after missing most of the 2014-15 season with a hamstring injury.

    Once we connect all the pieces, the Cougars actually have a pretty respectable rotation for Kyle Collinsworth to go to war with.

    It will be interesting to see how lethally this starting five coexists. Collinsworth and Emery both have excellent court vision. Emery and Chase Fischer both have limitless range. Collinsworth, Davis, Austin and Corbin Kaufusi are all very good rebounders. And this is a defense that has been considerably above-average at creating steals for the past seven years.

    The Cougars have all the boxes tentatively checked. It's just a matter of whether they come together in time for the annual win against Gonzaga necessary to get into the tournament.

8. Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Projected Starters: James Robinson, Sterling Smith, Chris Jones, Jamel Artis, Michael Young

    Top Reserves: Sheldon Jeter, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Damon Wilson

    Jamie Dixon has won more than 73 percent of his games as the head coach of Pittsburgh. That alone would seem to suggest that the 19-15 record posted in 2014-15 was a strange blip on an otherwise strong radar.

    When Durand Johnson was ruled ineligible on the day the season began, an already-young roster became even less experienced. Of the nine leading scorers from last year, seven were freshmen or sophomores.

    That made for a bumpy ride, but it laid the groundwork nicely for a bounce-back year, as practically everyone other than Cam Wright and Josh Newkirk will be back in the fold for a team that also welcomes three new transfers and a solid freshman shooting guard.

    Translation: Pittsburgh is deep and talented.

    Moreover, the Panthers are led by one of the best, veteran point guards in the nation. In the past two seasons, James Robinson has averaged 4.6 assists per game and 3.5 assists per turnover.

    That type of steady hand will go a long way if and when Damon Wilson or Sterling Smitha 40.2 percent three-point shooter who attempted 5.4 triples per game over the past two seasons with Coppin Statestarts raining threes and Jamel Artis and Michael Young continue to blossom into candidates for All-ACC honors.

    It would almost take a miracle for Pittsburgh to break into the top five of the ACC standings, but something in the vicinity of a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament is very much a possibility.

7. Davidson Wildcats

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    Projected Starters: Jack Gibbs, Brian Sullivan, Jordan Barham, Peyton Aldridge, Jake Belford

    Top Reserves: Oskar Michelsen, Jordan Watkins, Nathan Ekwu

    Despite losing Tyler Kalinoski, the Wildcats still have plenty of pieces to make a legitimate run at extending their nation-leading streak of four consecutive seasons with an outright regular-season conference title. (Kansas has 11 straight Big 12 titles, but several were not outright, including the 2013 crown shared with Kansas State. Technicalities are fun.)

    Jack Gibbs is first and foremost on the list of reasons to buy stock in Davidson. The now-junior guard missed a handful of games with a torn meniscus, but he averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range. Throw in the 1.5 steals per game, and those are Shabazz-Napier-with-a-more-accurate-stroke numbers, so Gibbs is kind of a big deal.

    His backcourt running mate has had a pretty solid collegiate career, as well. Brian Sullivan is averaging 12.8 points and 3.0 assists in his two years with Davidson while converting on 36.7 percent of his 7.2 three-point attempts per game.

    However, Jake Belford is the guy who will likely determine just how strong Davidson can be.

    The Wildcats have hardly been an elite defensive team over the past seven years, but they were especially vulnerable in the paint in 2014-15 after losing Belford to a foot injury just six games into the season.

    Freshmen Peyton Aldridge and Oskar Michelsen played as well as they could in his absence, but Davidson's opponents shot better than 51 percent from two-point range. As a team, the Wildcats ranked in the bottom 25 percent nationally in block percentage on both offense and defense.

    The perimeter assault from Gibbs, Sullivan, Aldridge and Michelsen is pretty phenomenal. Only VMI averaged more made three-pointers per game than Davidson did in 2014-15, and the Keydets shot just 31.7 percent while attempting 141 more triples than any other team in the country. Thus, there's a strong argument to be made that, in terms of volume and percentage, this was the country's best long-range team.

    If Belford is able to stay healthy and improve the team's interior defense, it would be a huge boost for a team that already won 24 games last year.

6. Valparaiso Crusaders

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Keith Carter, Tevonn Walker, Darien Walker, Alec Peters, Vashil Fernandez

    Top Reserves: E. Victor Nickerson, Derrik Smits, Shane Hammink

    A minor-conference team that only one bracketologist awarded a spot among the at-large candidates, Valparaiso kind of beat the system to earn a spot on the list.

    Anyone who doesn't have the Crusaders projected to win the Horizon League clearly didn't do his homework. Not only did they go 28-6 in the process of winning last year's regular-season and conference-tournament titles, but they get back all nine of their players who scored at least 30 points last season, thanks to the official ruling in late July that Vashil Fernandez is eligible for one more year.

    Meanwhile, Oakland lost two of its top three scorers, Green Bay lost three of its best four and Cleveland State lost all four of its top scorers. Those were the only other teams to win at least 10 Horizon League games last season, so it really wouldn't be a surprise at all if Valparaiso ran the table in conference this year.

    (At least the Crusaders play road games against the No. 3 and No. 1 teams on this list. I'm not ready for a third straight season of 40-0 talk lingering into mid-March or later.)

    As far as the individual players are concerned, Alec Peters is the one most everyone either already knows or soon will. If Kyle Wiltjer is anywhere on your list of preseason candidates to win the Wooden Award (he should be), Peters needs to be on there, too. How's this for eerily similar?

    2014-15 Wiltjer: 6'10", 16.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 46.6 3P%
    2014-15 Peters: 6'9", 16.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 46.6 3P%

    Getting another year of Fernandez as well as the double-digit-scoring Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker to go along with Peters is just icing on the cake.

    The Crusaders probably won't open the season ranked in the AP Top 25, but if everyone stays healthy, it'll only be a matter of time before they get there.

5. Florida Gators

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    Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Kasey Hill, KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, Dorian Finney-Smith, John Egbunu

    Top Reserves: Brandone Francis, Kevarrius Hayes, Alex Murphy

    Thus begins a run on the Florida and Oregon schools. Not entirely sure why so few people are buying stock in the Gators, Seminoles, Ducks and Beavers, but let's just say we won't be surprised if all four are dancing in March.

    With Florida, it's not hard to understand the concerns. Billy Donovan led this program to 14 of the last 17 NCAA tournaments, but now he's off to the NBA. Along with Donovan, the Gators lose Michael Frazier, Eli Carter, Jon Horford, Chris Walker and Jacob Kurtz, otherwise known as five of their top nine scorers.

    That's a lot to replace on a team that didn't even win 50 percent of its games, but the Gators' incoming crop of players could make a pretty imposing lineup all by itself. In addition to a trio of 4-star freshmen and a quality JUCO transfer, they're also getting South Florida transfer John Egbunu and Brandone Francisa highly rated recruit in 2014 who was ineligible to play as a freshman.

    Combine all that talent with guys such as Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson who have already proven plenty capable of delivering at the collegiate level and you've got a roster that should be a lock for a spot in the SEC's top five.

    Four major things plagued Florida last season. By Ken Pomeroy's metrics, the Gators were the country's fifth-most unlucky team.

    According to ESPN's RPI and SOS metrics, they had the country's fourth-most difficult schedule. Frazier missed seven games late in the season and was frankly never the stone-cold assassin he had been in the previous two years, as illustrated by KenPom.com stats. And perhaps the biggest problem of all was that Walker never developed into the stud we were promised, leaving Florida without a true, dominant post presence for the first time in many moons.

    Suffering 17 losses was a pretty big surprise, but it's hard to believe the Gators were even able to win 16 gamesone year after losing four of their six primary players, no lessgiven all those extra conditions.

    Health and luck permitting, they should bounce back in a big way this year.

4. Oregon State Beavers

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    Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Gary Payton II, Malcolm Duvivier, Langston Morris-Walker, Olaf Schaftenaar, Daniel Gomis

    Top Reserves: Stephen Thompson Jr., Tres Tinkle, Jarmal Reid

    What more can I say about a team I have been in love with since the offseason began? Oregon State was No. 5 on my list of teams most likely to have a breakout year (the top three were ineligible for this list, and No. 4 on that one is No. 2 on this one). The Beavers were also No. 2 on my list of teams most likely to break lengthy tournament droughts, and Gary Payton II was No. 4 on my list of the nation's best seniors.

    In a nutshell, this is an extremely good defensive team that managed to hang onto all of its important playersa complete 180 from the previous season when they had easily the worst defense in the Pac-12 before losing all five of their leading scorers for one reason or another.

    Payton is their catalyst on both ends of the court, but the Beavers are more than just The Mitten. Daniel Gomis is an excellent shot-blocker. Olaf Schaftenaar is a 6'10" three-point assassin. And while Langston Morris-Walker and Malcolm Duvivier both had fairly inefficient seasons, they were much better the previous year and arguably just had some difficulty adjusting to new and increased roles.

    If those two guys can return to 2013-14 form while getting solid bench production out of freshman shooting guards Stephen Thompson Jr. and Tres Tinkle, Oregon State is going to surprise a lot of people by making a serious run at a top-three finish in the Pac-12.

3. Rhode Island Rams

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    Projected Starters: Jarvis Garrett, Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews, Kuran Iverson, Hassan Martin

    Top Reserves: Four McGlynn, Earl Watson, Leroy Butts

    Lack of depth could become an issue as the season progresses, but Rhode Island has arguably the Atlantic 10's best six-man rotation.

    E.C. Matthews is a gifted scorer, tallying 999 points in his first two seasons with the Rams. He's certainly not the country's most efficient shooter, but he did score at least 16 points on 21 occasions last season, including each of Rhode Island's final 10 games.

    Meanwhile, Hassan Martin was one of just two players in the country to average at least 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game while making at least 60 percent of his two-point attempts.

    The other was Eastern Washington's Venky Jois, who we highlighted a few weeks ago as probably the best player that 90 percent of said country has never heard of. Martin is an incredible defensive presence and is practically efficient enough on offense to make up for Matthews' volume scoring.

    Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell both performed admirably last year as freshmen who logged more than 25 minutes per game and should be ready to take the next step as this team's primary backcourt duo.

    Four McGlynn averaged 11.0 points and shot 38.8 percent from three-point range in his three seasons at Vermont and Towson. He may be brand-new to the A-10, but he's a strong preseason candidate for A-10 Sixth Man of the Year.

    But what really pushed Rhode Island over the top and into the A-10 driver's seat was the acquisition of Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson. He didn't see eye-to-eye with Josh Pastnerfew players seem to latelybut he was a top-50 recruit in the class of 2013. Rhode Island hasn't signed a top-50 recruit in at least a decade, if ever, so there's a decent chance he makes an immediate and massive positive impact for the Rams.

    At any rate, they desperately needed another big man, as the 6'9" Iverson is now the tallest player on Rhode Island's roster. If he even remotely delivers on his potential from a few years ago, Rhode Island should have little trouble getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

2. Florida State Seminoles

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    Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Devon Bookert, Dwayne Bacon, Montay Brandon, Jarquez Smith

    Top Reserves: Phil Cofer, Boris Bojanovsky, Malik Beasley

    Even though there are seven ACC teams all but unanimously in the consensus fieldone person managed to omit Miami, even though the other six all have the 'Canes as a No. 7 or betterFlorida State is the conference's third member on this list. The prevailing sentiment is that the ACC will send either eight or nine teams to the Big Dance this year, but there's a bit of discord as far as who those final teams will be.

    Without a doubt, my money is on the Seminoles ultimately securing a bid. With the possible exception of Mississippi State, there's not a team in the country that profited more from the "players gained" minus "players lost" equation.

    Aaron Thomas left after six games last season, so he doesn't really count as a player lost. That leaves Kiel Turpin as the only casualty from last year's roster, and he ranked eighth on the team in scoring.

    So, yes, the addition of the country's eighth-best recruiting class was a pretty big win for Leonard Hamilton. It's not just the caliber of players, either, but also that they drastically address the team's biggest need: three-point shooting.

    At 31.3 percent, the Seminoles were one of the country's worst three-point shooting teams. To combat that problem, Hamilton signed not one, not two, not three, but four shooting guards, including Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley, who are both ranked as top-10 shooting guards.

    Fix that deficiency and Florida State becomes a team that can win 25 games. The Seminoles have frontcourt depth for days, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes is one of the country's better volume-scoring point guards.

    We're not exactly ready to declare that this is a Final Four-caliber team, but a single-digit seed is absolutely feasible. From there, anything's possible.

1. Oregon Ducks

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    Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Tyler Dorsey, Dylan Ennis, Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Jordan Bell

    Top Reserves: Dwayne Benjamin, Casey Benson, Kendall Small

    Oregon probably shouldn't even count as eligible for the list. Six of the seven bracketologists have the Ducks in their projected field, and if I was redoing mine today, there's no way the Ducks would still be a No. 11 seed.

    However, they technically meet the criteria, even though I have them projected for third place in the Pac-12.

    Long story short, Oregon isn't sneaking up on anyone. Joseph Young may be gone, but the Ducks still have an immensely talented rotation, thanks in part to freshman Tyler Dorsey and Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis.

    The best and the brightest pieces, though, were already in-house.

    Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell were perhaps the country's two least appreciated freshmen last season. Much like Tulsa's Brandon Swannegan, Bell didn't do much shooting, but he was such an incredible defensive and rebounding asset that he was arguably the team's MVP. And Brooks paired incredibly well with Elgin Cook to form a tandem of forwards that averaged 24.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

    JUCO transfer and versatile sixth man Dwayne Benjamin also had a pretty stellar debut year with the Ducks, averaging 14.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes and leading the team in steal percentage.

    Don't sleep on Ahmaad Rorie or Casey Benson, either. The now-sophomore guards displayed both the passing and shooting ability to sub in for either Dorsey or Ennis.

    Throw in freshman Trevor Manuel and JUCO transfer Chris Boucher as capable frontcourt reserves, and there isn't a single weakness on this roster that necessitates keeping Oregon out of the preseason AP Top 25. Whether the voters actually recognize that will determine just how far below the radar the Ducks open the season.

    Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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