Power-Conference College Basketball Teams Guaranteed to Improve in 2017-18

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 15, 2017

Power-Conference College Basketball Teams Guaranteed to Improve in 2017-18

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    With a lot of help from Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter, Cuonzo Martin should lead Missouri to one heck of a bounce-back year.
    With a lot of help from Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter, Cuonzo Martin should lead Missouri to one heck of a bounce-back year.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Missouri Tigers set a school record for losses in a season in 2016-17, but thanks to a coaching change and a few top-notch recruits, they are guaranteed to be one of the college basketball teams that improves by leaps and bounds.

    While it may feel like the same teams are in the NCAA tournament every year, there are huge swings in college basketball on an annual basis. There were 18 power-conference teams that improved by at least five wins last season, including both Minnesota and UCLA winning 16 more games than they did in 2015-16. On average over the past three years, there have been 18.3 teams that improved by five or more wins.

    Today, we're letting you know who 10 of those teams will be in 2017-18.

    Some will go from good to great, like USC and Michigan State. Others will simply improve from terrible to somewhat competent, like Oregon State and Oklahoma. But what all 10 of these teams have in common is rosters with a lot of returning players and at least one newcomer who is going to make a huge positive impact.

    Teams on the following slides are ranked in ascending order of how much improvement is to be expected. For instance, No. 10 St. John's might land right at the cut line with a five-win increase, whereas No. 1 Missouri could be headed for the most drastic one-year turnaround in college basketball history.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ja'Quan Newton
    Ja'Quan NewtonTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Miami (FL) Hurricanes (21-12)

    Led by Bruce Brown, Ja'Quan Newton, Dewan Huell and new star Lonnie Walker, Miami might win the ACC. With double dips against Pittsburgh, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Florida State as well as home games against Duke and Louisville, the 'Canes couldn't ask for a better schedule to do it with. But frontcourt depth is enough of a concern to keep us from guaranteeing this team wins 26 games.


    Seton Hall Pirates (21-12)

    Four Pirates averaged at least 10 points per game last season, and all four are coming back. But Seton Hall lost starting point guard Madison Jones, as well as reserve point guard Jevon Thomas. Maybe Khadeen Carrington shines as the lead guard, or maybe Jordan Walker starts as a true freshman and leads this team to a Big East title. But after watching Texas A&M go from 28-9 to 16-15 while trying to figure out its point-guard situation, we're not ready to guarantee anything.


    Providence Friars (20-13)

    All seven of last year's leading scorers are back, and Ed Cooley signed a trio of 4-star recruits. And outside of an early home game against Minnesota and a road game against Rhode Island, Providence's nonconference schedule is littered with games it should win. To improve by at least five wins, though, the Friars might need to improve upon their 1-4 record in the NCAA tournament over the last four years.


    LSU Tigers (10-21)

    Johnny Jones did not leave Will Wade much to work with, but LSU should at least have some life this season. Led by Tremont Waters, the Tigers have a strong recruiting class. They also added Southern Utah point machine Randy Onwuasor and North Texas transfer Jeremy Combs while not losing much aside from Antonio Blakeney. LSU isn't going to win the NCAA tournament, but it might finish .500.

10. St. John's Red Storm

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    Marcus LoVett
    Marcus LoVettNoah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

    2016-17 Record: 14-19 (7-11 in Big East)

    Significant Subtractions: Federico Mussini, Malik Ellison, Yankuba Sima, Darien Williams

    Noteworthy Additions: Justin Simon, Marvin Clark Jr.

    Projected Starters: Marcus LoVett, Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, Bashir Ahmed, Tariq Owens

    Key Reserves: Kassoum Yakwe, Marvin Clark Jr., Amar Alibegovic

    Despite not having a single player run out of years of eligibility, St. John's lost more than 20 points per game on guys who either transferred or decided to go pro overseas. Normally, that would be at least a minor problem. However, the Red Storm get back five of the six players who led the team in minutes played, including last year's three stars: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmad.

    Even more important is what the Johnnies are getting via transfer. Justin Simon, a former 5-star commit to Arizona, as well as Marvin Clark Jr., who averaged 16.0 points and 8.8 points per 40 minutes in two seasons with Michigan State, will both be playing after sitting out last year. 

    Simon was never given much of a chance with the Wildcats. With Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Gabe York, Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier all blocking his path to the court, he jumped ship after one season. But he'll now take part in what should be an intriguing backcourt featuring three combo guards. LoVett and Ponds both averaged at least 15 points and three assists per game last year, and that would have been a conservative projection for Simon coming out of high school.

    Defense is the big question mark. Between Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe, the Red Storm can block a ton of shots. However, they don't rebound well and don't defend the three-point line, resulting in a lot of points allowed. Rather than getting better, things were actually getting worse late in the season. St. John's gave up 90.3 points over its final seven games, including a nightmarish finishallowing 108 points in a 68-possession game.

    Maybe Simon and Clark will help in that department, but guaranteed improvement might also be a reach here.

9. USC Trojans

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    Jordan McLaughlin
    Jordan McLaughlinTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 26-10 (10-8 in Pac-12)

    Significant Subtractions: None

    Noteworthy Additions: Derryck Thornton, Charles O'Bannon Jr., Jordan Usher

    Projected Starters: Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, De'Anthony Melton, Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu

    Key Reserves: Derryck Thornton, Shaqquan Aaron, Jonah Mathews, Nick Rakocevic, Charles O'Bannon Jr., Jordan Usher

    Keeping in mind that the goal is to pick teams who will win at least five more games than last season, this one's a leap of faith.

    USC would need to win 31 games to pull that off. Over the last 10 years, an average of 6.6 teams have won at least 31 games. And the Trojans just set their school record for wins in a single season with 26.

    It's hard to care about the odds, though, when we're talking about a team that didn't lose a single significant player while adding a pair of 4-star recruits and a former 5-star recruit. Also, arguably the best player on this roster (Bennie Boatwright) missed 17 games last year, so USC could get better simply by staying healthy.

    Everything about this situation screams "Inevitable improvement!" Had the Trojans won just 18 games last season, there would be no pushback against an argument that they could make the leap to 26-28 wins. For whatever reason, though, people are hesitant to believe a team will go from good to great.

    USC has that potential. We'll have to wait until March to see if the Trojans can reach the Final Four in the randomness that is the NCAA tournament, but this should be a Top 10 team that puts up one heck of a fight for a Pac-12 championship and a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. In the process, you're going to see a ton of people campaigning for Andy Enfield for National Coach of the Year.

8. Stanford Cardinal

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    Reid Travis
    Reid TravisRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 14-17 (6-12 in Pac-12)

    Significant Subtractions: Marcus Allen, Christian Sanders, Grant Verhoeven

    Noteworthy Additions: Kezie Okpala, Daejon Davis, Oscar da Silva

    Projected Starters: Robert Cartwright, Dorian Pickens, Kezie Okpala, Reid Travis, Michael Humphrey

    Key Reserves: Marcus Sheffield, Josh Sharma, Daejon Davis, Oscar da Silva, Trevor Stanback, Kodye Pugh

    Let's put a gigantic "health" asterisk on this one, but there's way too much talent on Stanford's roster to suffer through another losing season.

    Though Stanford doesn't have any current or former top-25 recruits, the Cardinal are loaded with guys in the 26-100 range. Kezie Okpala is an incoming 5-star small forward. Fellow freshman Daejon Davis is a top-40 recruit and one of the best combo guards in the country. Scarcely used Trevor Stanback and redshirt freshman Kodye Pugh were both top-100 guys last year and are breakout candidates this year. And Stanford's entire four-man class from 2014rated as the 12th-best class in the countryis projected to start.

    Factor in a few other pieces from the roster and Stanford has eight players who were once rated as 4-star or 5-star recruits. Barring another visit from the injury bug, there's no way the Cardinal fail to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 or come up short in the quest for a 20-win season.

    Well, there's one way: Failing to make the three-point line an ally. Stanford opponents made 101 more three-pointers last season than the Cardinal did. They shot 32.0 percent (299th in the country) from beyond the arc while giving up triples at a 38.2 percent clip (327th). This was also a major problem in 2015-16 when those numbers were 32.0 and 36.4, respectively. In fact, you have to go back to 2005-06 to find the last time Stanford opponents shot worse than 33.3 percent from three-point range.

    But Okpala should be a big help in both departments. A 6'8" wing who's much more guard than forward, Okpala has the range to make a lot of triples and the height to bother perimeter shooters on defense. If his presence gets the Cardinal to 34 percent both made and allowed, they'll be in good shape.

7. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Kameron McGusty
    Kameron McGustySue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 11-20 (5-13 in Big 12)

    Significant Subtractions: Jordan Woodard, Dante Buford, Darrion Strong-Moore

    Noteworthy Additions: Trae Young, Brady Manek

    Projected Starters: Trae Young, Kameron McGusty, Rashard Odomes, Kristian Doolittle, Khadeem Lattin

    Key Reserves: Christian James, Jamuni McNeace, Jordan Shepherd, Brady Manek

    Oklahoma gets back seven of its leading scorers from last season, but the one guy the Sooners lost creates one heck of a hole to fill.

    In Jordan Woodard's four seasons at Oklahoma, he averaged 11.5 points, 3.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals and shot 38.5 percent from three-point range. By my count, there were only seven players in the countryincluding Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultzto hit each of those five marks last season, let alone over the course of four years. Trae Young should be a great point guard, but to just assume he'll come in as a freshman and effortlessly replace Woodard is a little misguided.

    The real reason to expect improvement on this team is that the returning Sooners have some experience now. Rashard Odomes, Christian James and Jamuni McNeace combined to play a total of 17.5 minutes per game as freshmen in 2016-17 and were expected to be team leaders as sophomores. Three of Oklahoma's other eight leading scorers were freshmen who didn't really get a chance to shine until the second half of the season when all was already lost.

    In other words, Young probably won't immediately be better than Woodard was as a senior, but he is in a better position to succeed because of a more experienced supporting cast.

    Improving by the necessary 9-10 wins to reach the NCAA tournament might be a stretch. However, Oklahoma should at least be a .500 team this year.

6. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Riley Norris (1), Dazon Ingram (12) and Avery Johnson
    Riley Norris (1), Dazon Ingram (12) and Avery JohnsonWade Payne/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 19-15 (10-8 in SEC)

    Significant Subtractions: Shannon Hale, Corban Collins, Jimmie Taylor, Bola Olaniyan, Nick King

    Noteworthy Additions: Collin Sexton, Daniel Giddens, John Petty, Alex Reese

    Projected Starters: Collin Sexton, Dazon Ingram, Riley Norris, Braxton Key, Daniel Giddens

    Key Reserves: Avery Johnson Jr., Donta Hall, Ar'Mond Davis, John Petty, Alex Reese

    Alabama is the first of three SEC schools in our top six, and we also had LSU in the honorable mentions. This should be the best year (most NCAA tournament teams) the conference has had in a long time.

    For the Crimson Tide, the primary reason for optimism is Collin Sexton. Arguably the best guard in the class of 2017, Sexton is an explosive athlete with impeccable instincts and court vision. His ability to drive and finish in the lane will set him apart from the crowd, but he's also a capable shooter, a smart passer and a cornerback on the defensive perimeter who will turn a lot of would-be passes into interceptions and easy buckets.

    Putting that beast of a lead guard on a roster that's getting back six of last year's seven leading scorers is almost unfair. Alabama is also adding Daniel Giddens, a center who was supposed to be one of the stars of Ohio State's 2015 recruiting class. His shot-blocking prowess combined with Sexton's ability to force turnovers could give Alabama the best defense in the country. (Per KenPom, the Crimson Tide were No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, so that's not a huge leap to make.)

    The big question is three-point shooting, as the Crimson Tide made just 31.7 percent of attempts last season as a team. But Sexton should help in a big way therenot necessarily as a shooter, but as a distributor. His ability to penetrate and draw in defenders before finding the open man on the perimeter should improve the accuracy of every player on the team. And last year's most accurate shooter (Dazon Ingram, 42.9 percent) should attempt significantly more than 49 triples this season while spending more time off the ball.

5. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Robert Williams
    Robert WilliamsJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 16-15 (8-10 in SEC)

    Significant Subtractions: J.C. Hampton, Tavario Miller

    Noteworthy Additions: JJ Caldwell, Duane Wilson, Savion Flagg

    Projected Starters: JJ Caldwell, Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg, Robert Williams, Tyler Davis

    Key Reserves: Duane Wilson, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Savion Flagg

    Texas A&M proved last season that it is impossible to have a successful season in basketball without a quality point guard.

    The Aggies were well above average on defense with Robert Williams anchoring one of the best shot-blocking units in the country. They also had three players shoot at least 36.7 percent from three-point range while attempting at least 120 triples.

    But without a reliable point guard, it was all for naught. They struggled from the free-throw line and were often decimated in the turnover battle, ultimately losing 10 games by a single-digit margin.

    This, of course, was not the plan. After losing both Alex Caruso (5.0 APG) and Anthony Collins (4.2 APG) from the 2015-16 roster, incoming freshman JJ Caldwell was supposed to be the starting point guard. But when he was ruled ineligible in September, it became PG by committee among shooting guards J.C. Hampton and Admon Gilder and small forward DJ Hogg. However, that trio barely managed 1.4 assists per turnover as the team stubbed its collective toe time and again.

    Caldwell is eligible now, though, and Billy Kennedy brought in Marquette transfer and combo guard Duane Wilson to help shoulder the load.

    Other than that, this team is pretty well intact. Four returning Aggies averaged at least 11.8 points per game last season, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos is no slouch of a fifth-best returning scorer at 8.1 points. If Caldwell is the answer at point guardand if the entire team worked on its free-throw shooting this summer—Texas A&M has the talent to win a lot of games.

4. Texas Longhorns

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    Andrew Jones
    Andrew JonesTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 11-22 (4-14 in Big 12)

    Significant Subtractions: Jarrett Allen, Shaquille Cleare, Kendal Yancy

    Noteworthy Additions: Mohamed Bamba, Dylan Osetkowski, Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Royce Hamm, Jase Febres

    Projected Starters: Andrew Jones, Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis, Mo Bamba, Dylan Osetkowski

    Key Reserves: James Banks, Jacob Young, Jase Febres, Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Royce Hamm

    While Duke and Kentucky waged a war for the title of most ridiculous recruiting class in college basketball history, Shaka Smart quietly carved out one heck of a class of his own.

    Mo Bamba is the centerpiece that caught everyone's attention when he announced his decision in May, but he's not alone. The Longhorns ended up with five guys ranked in Scout's top 92. Kentucky is the only team with more (eight), and Duke is the only other team with five.

    That's a great starting point for a bounce-back year, even though Texas was terrible after adding four such players in last year's class. The difference this time around is that most of those freshmen (aside from Bamba) will be supplementary pieces to a solid returning core. Rather than needing to start from day one, guys like Matt Coleman and Jase Febres will be pushing Kerwin Roach and company to play better than ever or else lose their jobs.

    The thing that will determine whether Texas wins a few more games to finish at .500 or jumps all the way back into NCAA tournament range will be the play of Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski. The big man averaged 11.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in 2015-16, including 11 double-doubles. Aside from three-point shooting, Texas' biggest flaw last season was poor rebounding, so Osetkowski might single-handedly be responsible for a few wins (or losses) this year.

3. Oregon State Beavers

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    Stephen Thompson
    Stephen ThompsonTimothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 5-27 (1-17 in Pac-12)

    Significant Subtractions: None

    Noteworthy Additions: Ethan Thompson, Alfred Hollins

    Projected Starters: Jaquori McLaughlin, Stephen Thompson Jr., Tres Tinkle, Drew Eubanks, Gligorije Rakocevic

    Key Reserves:  Ethan Thompson, Kendal Manuel, Cheikh N'diaye, Alfred Hollins

    Oregon State isn't going to contend for a Pac-12 title, but it can't possibly be any worse than last year, right?

    A drop-off from back-to-back winning seasons was to be expected when the Beavers lost Gary Payton II and five other guys who played significant minutes. Heading into last year, this team was three sophomores and a bunch of shrug emojis. And the most noteworthy of those sophomores (Tres Tinkle) broke his wrist in the team's sixth game and missed the rest of the year.

    Add in starting center Cheikh N'diaye going down for the count with an injured shoulder one week later and Oregon State's season went from bad to ugly in a hurry.

    But Tinkle and N'diaye are both back to join teammates Jaquori McLaughlin, Kendal Manuel and Gligorije Rakocevic, each of which is a far more established asset in the rotation than he was last November. Wayne Tinkle also picked up a top-50 recruit in Ethan Thompson (younger brother of Stephen) and a second 4-star recruit in Alfred Hollins.

    If rebounding is the key to success at Texas, we've got to mention the turnover issue at Oregon State. The Beavers committed more than 15 turnovers per game last season, with big man Drew Eubanks somehow responsible for the biggest chunk of them. Rakocevic was the only regular who didn't cough up the ball at least 1.8 times per game. If they don't address that problem, they will remain in the basement of the Pac-12.

    With the return of Tinkle and the addition of Thompson, though, they should at least win 10 games this year, regardless of turnover woes.

2. Michigan State Spartans

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    Miles Bridges
    Miles BridgesTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 20-15 (10-8 in Big Ten)

    Significant Subtractions: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis

    Noteworthy Additions: Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling

    Projected Starters: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward

    Key Reserves: Matt McQuaid, Lourawls Nairn, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Kenny Goins

    Let's put it this way: If the Spartans don't improve by at least five wins, it would be one of the biggest whiffs in recent preseason poll history.

    Barring some catastrophic setback in the next eight weeks, Michigan State is all but guaranteed a spot in the Top Five of the initial AP poll. The only team in the last five years to debut in the Top Five and fail to win at least 25 games was the infamous 2012-13 Kentucky team that went 21-12 and lost in the first round of the NIT.

    Granted, no one saw that coming for the Wildcats, but it's hard to imagine the same fate befalling Michigan State with so much proven talent.

    Miles Bridges might be the Preseason National Player of the Year. Cassius Winston ranked second in the nation in assist rate in 2016-17. Nick Ward was second in both offensive rebounding rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. And the most gifted player of the bunch might be incoming freshman Jaren Jackson, who would at least be in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 if not for Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr.

    Where you really get a sense of Michigan State's talent, though, is on the bench. Matt McQuaid is a shooting guard most coaches would kill to have. Gavin Schilling was MSU's starting center in 2014-15 and could be a key piece of the rotation if he's finally healthy again. Kenny Goins could start at power forward for 95 percent of the non-blue-blood programs in the country, and he might rank 10th in minutes played on this roster.

    It took a long time for Tom Izzo to start signing one-and-done types of players. He got two to stay from last season and brings in another one this year for what has got to be his most talented roster ever.

1. Missouri Tigers

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    Michael Porter Jr.
    Michael Porter Jr.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 8-24 (2-16 in SEC)

    Significant Subtractions: K.J. Walton, Frankie Hughes, Willie Jackson, Russell Woods

    Noteworthy Additions: Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter, Kassius Robertson, Jeremiah Tilmon

    Projected Starters: Terrence Phillips, Kassius Robertson, Kevin Puryear, Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter

    Key Reserves: Jordan Barnett, Jeremiah Tilmon, Cullen VanLeer, Jordan Geist

    Whether or not you believe Missouri deserved to be ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, we can probably all agree that this team is going to be significantly better than last year.

    The Tigers did lose three players who started at least 11 games last season, but they bring back all three of their leading scorers to join forces with one of the best incoming groups in the nation.

    At the forefront of that new regime is Michael Porter Jr.—the 6'10" freshman wing-forward who can do just about anything he wants to do on the court. With the height of a center, shooting range of a wing and ball-handling skills of a point guard, there might only be a couple of players in the country who can adequately match up with him in man-to-man defense.

    He's far from alone, though. Younger brother Jontay Porter will probably start at center. Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson should start at shooting guard and serve as the three-point assassin Missouri desperately needed last season. And Jeremiah Tilmon is a top-40 recruit who might not even have a spot in the starting lineup. Has that ever been said before about a 24-loss team?

    The injury bugparticularly if it hits Michael Porter Jr.might be the only thing that can keep this team from winning at least 13 games. The Tigers aren't deep, but they'll have one heck of a seven- or eight-man rotation for what should be the biggest turnaround in the nation.