One Team That Will Surprise in Each Major NCAA Basketball Conference in 2016-17
Tracy Abrams has missed the last two seasons due to injury, but if he's finally healthy enough to play his senior year, Illinois could be one of the biggest surprises of the 2016-17 college basketball season.
Every year there are multiple major-conference teams who either come out of nowhere to make the NCAA tournament or make an unexpected leap from preseason bubble to Final Four candidate. We had USC and Texas Tech for the former, as well as Oregon and Xavier for the latter last year.
For each major conference (and the three mid-majors almost certain to produce multiple bids), we've pinpointed the one team most likely to join that club this season. They are the teams in the various preseason conference projections that consistently feel a bit too low, given the amount of talent on the rosters.
Several of the conferences have multiple viable candidates. In those cases, the tiebreaking procedure was simply a matter of deciding which one is most likely to reach the Sweet 16.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
In the 15-team ACC, only Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest enter the regular season without much hope of competing in the NCAA tournament. If any of those three teams happen to finish in the top 10 of the ACC standings, it would be a massive surprise—but it's not one we're even going to consider suggesting here.
Instead, the ACC's surprise team is more likely to be one of the teams that enters the season outside the Top 25 before finishing top five in the conference and earning something in the vicinity of a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame all fit that description, but it seems the most surprising team that could legitimately pull it off is Clemson.
A lot of things need to break right in order for the Tigers to get there. Getting back Jaron Blossomgame, Donte Grantham and Avry Holmes is a fine starting point, but they need Sidy Djitte to become a viable full-time center.
Djitte's per-40 numbers as a junior (14.0 points, 13.9 rebounds) were solid and on par with what Baylor's Rico Gathers did as a sophomore (14.5 points, 14.3 rebounds) before blossoming into a full-time stud. Guys like Georgia's Yante Maten and Arkansas' Moses Kingsley made similar jumps when their playing times roughly doubled, but that isn't always the case. Moreover, Djitte has battled foul trouble his entire career (he had 2.8 fouls per game last season), so just staying in the game for 25 minutes might be a challenge.
Even if Djitte can figure it out, Clemson also needs to get solid production out of at least two of its three transfers—Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt), Marcquise Reed (Robert Morris) and Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M; eligible second semester). Reed is the big one, as he was both a great shooter (he shot 41.3 percent from three) and defender as a freshman at Bobby Mo. If he can bring similar production to the Tigers, they'll be in business.
Big 12: Baylor Bears
How in the world did this team not receive a single vote in the preseason Coaches Top 25?
We're not suggesting the Bears are a serious threat to reach the Final Four, but this team is loaded with talent, despite losing three key seniors.
Al Freeman, Johnathan Motley, Terry Maston and Ishmail Wainright are all back as noteworthy upperclassmen. King McClure and Jake Lindsey should both make more of an impact this year as sophomores. And there's a whole army of incoming players led by Manu Lecomte (Miami transfer), Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. (JUCO transfer) and Mark Vital (freshman).
Though Baylor hasn't reached the Final Four since 1950, head coach Scott Drew has turned this program into one that always gets the job done during the regular season. The Bears have spent at least one week ranked No. 19 or higher in eight consecutive seasons, winning an average of 24.4 games per year during that time.
What's bizarre about the insistence on overlooking Baylor because of the three players it lost is that no one seems to care that West Virginia lost three starters—including leading scorers Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams—without adding so much as a top-100 recruit or a single transfer to fill those voids.
The Mountaineers are No. 18 in the Coaches Top 25 because of two seasons suggesting that the "Press Virginia" model can work regardless of the individuals, yet Baylor was denied a single vote after nearly a decade of solid play with only a handful of future NBA players.
A lot of people are going to have egg on their face when Baylor messes around and finishes top three in the Big 12 standings.
Big East: Georgetown Hoyas
The Big East was the toughest conference to settle on because there are so many good options.
Villanova and Xavier aren't surprising anyone since they're both ranked in the top 10 in the preseason coaches poll. On the opposite end of the spectrum, not much is expected from DePaul after losing its entire frontcourt from a team that lost 22 games.
But everyone in between is in play.
St. John's and Providence likely won't contend for a spot in the Big East's top three, but both should be relatively solid. Marquette could make a lot of noise if Matt Heldt has a good enough sophomore year to take some pressure off Luke Fischer in the paint.
The one non-Xavier or Villanova Big East team that we could see getting hot and making a run to the Final Four, though, is Georgetown.
The Hoyas are absolutely loaded in the frontcourt. With Bradley Hayes granted an additional year of eligibility, they have a four-headed monster in Hayes, Isaac Copeland, Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson. They also have Reggie Cameron II as a reserve wing-forward and freshman George Muresan—and yes, that is the son of legendary NBA giant Gheorghe Muresan. The offspring is "only" 6'9" compared to dad at 7'7", but the walk-on could make an impact if there's ever a chance for him to break into this rotation.
And in the backcourt, a pair of incoming transfers could help push this team to 25 or more wins.
Georgetown still has L.J. Peak and Tre Campbell, but look for Rodney Pryor (Robert Morris transfer) and Jonathan Mulmore (JUCO transfer who averaged 26.1 PPG and 5.9 APG last year) to play huge roles. Freshman Jagan Mosely will also provide some value off the bench.
This was the most disappointing team in the entire country last year, but the Hoyas could make up for lost time with a huge 2016-17 campaign.
Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini
Injuries have decimated Illinois in recent years.
Tracy Abrams is now a sixth-year senior after missing the past two seasons due to a torn ACL and a torn Achilles. Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne Jr. lasted just eight games into last season before tearing his meniscus and missing the rest of the year. Leron Black didn't even last that long, appearing in just seven games as he attempted to recover from a meniscus surgery of his own.
Less severe bumps and bruises also took their toll, as only three players managed to appear in all 34 games last season for Illinois.
If the Illini can stay healthy this year, though, they've got a chance to do some damage.
Aside from Kendrick Nunn getting kicked off the team following a misdemeanor battery charge, Illinois' entire primary seven-man rotation is back. And while it's tough to forecast how well Abrams will play in his first regular-season action in 32 months, he should help soften the blow of losing Nunn's 15.5 PPG.
Malcolm Hill is the undisputed star of the show and may well lead the Big Ten in scoring this year, but the younger role players are the ones who will determine whether this is the year Illinois finally does something under head coach John Groce.
Michael Finke got a lot of playing time as a freshman with both Thorne and Black on the sideline. The stretch 4 will now play a key part as a Derek Willis type of guy coming off the bench. Jalen Coleman-Lands also had a solid freshman year and will become even more important with Nunn out of the picture.
This isn't a particularly deep team, but there might be enough horses to make a run at a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten.
Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal
Much like Illinois, Stanford has been marred by injury in recent years.
Stud big man Reid Travis sustained season-ending stress fractures in each of the past two years, appearing in just eight games last season. Robert Cartwright should have been Stanford's starting point guard last year, but a compound fracture in his arm kept him from appearing in a game.
As with the Illini, the Cardinal only had three players appear in every game last season.
They lost Rosco Allen to the NBA draft but are otherwise intact from 2015-16. Minor role players Christian Sanders and Grant Verhoeven are the only other players who aren't returning.
Moreover, the Cardinal add a pair of top-100 recruits in Trevor Stanback and Kodye Pugh. As long as they can keep the injury bug at bay, they have significantly more healthy talent on the roster than what resulted in a 15-15 record last year.
Will they be able to put the pieces together under new head coach Jerod Haase? The Pac-12 media doesn't seem to think so, as the preseason poll shows Stanford projected to finish 10th in the conference this year.
But that's what would make this a surprise, isn't it? We're not saying Stanford will win the Pac-12 or even finish in the top three, but this is a roster that has enough talent to reach the NCAA tournament.
SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks
Really, if any SEC team other than Kentucky makes a significant impact on the national landscape this season, it will be a big surprise. Texas A&M and Florida are the top candidates to finish runner-up to the Wildcats, but neither one is a sure thing nor a preseason Top 25 team.
Thus, second place in the conference is there for the taking, and Arkansas is a legitimate candidate to claim it.
Led by preseason SEC Player of the Year Moses Kingsley, the Razorbacks have a solid group of returnees. They also get back Dusty Hannahs, Anton Beard, Manuale Watkins and Trey Thompson.
If they're going to make some noise, though, it'll be because their incoming transfers contributed in a big way.
On the D-I level, Colorado's Dustin Thomas is the only addition. A wing with some three-point range (31.6 percent from three) and a nose for the glass (2.5 rebounds per game), he'll add some much-needed versatility to this roster. Kingsley, Thompson and Watkins combined to attempt just one three-pointer last season while Beard (2.3 rebounds per game) and Hannahs (2.4 rebounds per game) were among the worst rebounders on the roster. Thomas probably won't start, but he'll be a significant X-factor off the bench.
The JUCO transfers are far more intriguing.
According to 247Sports, Jaylen Barford (No. 1), Daryl Macon (No. 5) and Arlando Cook (No. 6) were some of the best junior college transfers available this year, and they're all going to Arkansas.
Barford averaged an insane 26.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 4.7 APG last year with Motlow State and should immediately start for Arkansas. Macon wasn't far behind at 23.9 PPG for Holmes and ought to at least contribute off the bench as a shooting guard. And Cook should be in the running to start at power forward after putting up 16.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game last year at Connors State.
With teams like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and Michigan State gorging on all the best freshmen, teams are taking different routes to build contenders. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what the Razorbacks can do with all these JUCO all-stars.
American: Houston Cougars
Cincinnati and Connecticut had better do some damage during the nonconference portion of the season because there's not much in the American that will help them boost their NCAA tournament resumes in conference play.
Despite losing Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert, Markus Kennedy and head coach Larry Brown, SMU is looking like the third-best team in the AAC, provided former ACC transfers Semi Ojeleye (Duke) and Ben Emelogu II (Virginia Tech) are able to help fill those voids. Freshman big man Harry Froling will also be pivotal, but even if all three of those additions fall flat, there's enough talent for the Mustangs to get by.
Beyond those top three teams, though, the AAC might be a mess. Tulsa lost seven of last year's eight leading scorers to graduation. Memphis—which already suffered 15 losses last season for the first time in more than a decade—lost four of its five top contributors. Temple will also be looking for help in new places after losing three of its four leading scorers.
And no one in the bottom tier of the conference is ready for any sort of breakout season. UCF, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane each finished last year with 12 or fewer wins. Based on the roster turnover, it would take a small miracle for any of them to finish .500 or better this season.
That leaves just Houston.
The Cougars were last year's surprise team in this conference, winning 22 games and finishing in a tie for third place. But they never really threatened to crash the NCAA tournament, partly thanks to a laughably awful nonconference SOS (Prairie View A&M, Florida A&M and Nicholls were all on the schedule, to name a few).
The roster suffered some casualties. Devonta Pollard and LeRon Barnes both graduated. Ronnie Johnson and L.J. Rose both transferred. But they do still have one heck of a backcourt trio in Rob Gray Jr., Galen Robinson Jr. and Damyean Dotson. They'll need either senior Danrad Knowles or incoming JUCO transfer Valentine Sangoyomi to make a big impact in the frontcourt, but there's a good chance this team finishes third or fourth in the AAC and sneaks into the bubble conversation.
Atlantic 10: La Salle Explorers
The top four teams in the Atlantic 10 are readily apparent. Rhode Island made it into the Top 25 of the Coaches Poll. Dayton didn't miss by much. VCU is always a factor. And Davidson might have the nation's leading scorer in Jack Gibbs.
The second tier in this conference, though, is anybody's guess.
Saint Joseph's lost just about everyone from last season. Two of Saint Bonaventure's three stars graduated. George Washington is a program in shambles after losing four seniors, three transfers and its head coach amid an abuse scandal. Even teams that finished below .500 in conference play like Fordham, Richmond, Duquesne and Massachusetts lost a bunch of key players as either graduates or transfers.
Venture all the way down into last year's basement, however, and you'll find a team that could be a NCAA tournament team this March.
La Salle had an awful 2015-16 season, going 9-22 overall and 4-14 in conference play. 17 of those losses were by a double-digit margin, so it's not as if the Explorers were right on the brink of turning a corner.
But they get all six of last year's leading scorers back and add three sat-out-a-year transfers from fairly big-name programs: Memphis' RaShawn "Pookie" Powell, Syracuse's B.J. Johnson and South Carolina's Demetrius Henry.
According to Scout, all three were top 100 recruits in the class of 2013—Powell was No. 77, Johnson No. 84 and Henry No. 91. That's kind of a big deal, considering the entire conference signed just two eligible top-100 recruits in this year's class—VCU's De'Riante Jenkins at No. 43 and Massachusetts' DeJon Jarreau at No. 67.
La Salle should turn a major corner this year, possibly flirting with a worst-to-first transformation.
West Coast: Loyola Marymount Lions
It's tough to find a surprise team in a conference that hasn't had any surprises in more than a decade.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are both ranked in the Coaches Top 25, so they aren't surprising anyone. Maybe you could make the case for BYU as a pleasant surprise as a team that could break up that WCC duopoly, but the Cougars have won at least 23 games in 10 consecutive seasons. Anything short of 30 wins wouldn't be much of a shocker.
Peering beyond the usual suspects, Pepperdine was the only team aside from Gonzaga, Saint Mary's or BYU to finish above .500 in WCC play in either of the past two seasons and did score a nice win this summer in landing graduate-transfer Chris Reyes from Utah. However, the Waves lost three of their five leading scorers, including frontcourt star Stacy Davis. They'll be mildly competitive for one more season, but this isn't a 20-win roster.
San Francisco has been the other somewhat-consistently-almost-relevant team in the WCC over the past several years, but the Dons lost two of their four leading scorers as transfers, as well as a third to graduation. They're more likely to finish in the bottom three than the top three this year.
Maybe Loyola Marymount is the team to watch?
The Lions went just 14-17 last season, including seven losses to Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and BYU by a combined margin of 131 points. Yet, that was an improvement from the previous season when they went 8-23 and finished dead last in the WCC.
They swept San Francisco and went 1-1 in a pair of overtime games against Pepperdine, so they've already begun to stake their claim as the "Best of the Rest" in this conference.
They get back all three of last year's leading scorers, including Adom Jacko, who was working on a streak of six consecutive games with at least 20 points when he suffered a season-ending back injury in mid-February. To that group of returnees, the Lions are also adding Hawaii graduate-transfer Stefan Jovanovic, who should immediately become their starting center.
Don't bet on seeing LMU in the NCAA tournament, but they might do enough to get invited to the NIT, CIT or CBI for the first time since 2012.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.