College Basketball Teams Most Likely to Have Surprisingly Hot Starts in 2017-18
Everyone under the sun is likely going to pick Rutgers to finish dead last in the Big Ten for the 2017-18 college basketball season, but the Scarlet Knights might remain undefeated longer than any other team in that league.
No, Rutgers is not ending its 26-year NCAA tournament drought, but the beginning of its schedule is so dreadful it makes our list of teams likely to have surprisingly hot starts.
A few years ago, TCU shocked the college basketball world by opening the season with a 13-0 record (before eventually missing the NCAA tournament). Given how weak the nonconference schedule was, though, we should have realized the Horned Frogs would win at least 11 of those games without even breaking a sweat.
Those are the situations we're searching for here. These teams aren't going to compete for a national championship. Chances are not one of them will get an invite to the Big Dance. But they are competent enough to beat terrible opponents, and their schedules for the first four to seven weeks of the season are almost exclusively stocked with such competition.
The teams on the following slides are listed in no particular order.
The Schedule: vs. St. Francis NY, vs. VMI, vs. Robert Morris, vs. Cornell, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, vs. Stetson, vs. Delaware State, vs. Mississippi Valley State, vs. North Carolina A&T, vs. Lamar
It's going to be a long year for Duquesne. The Dukes finished dead last in the Atlantic 10 last season and are projected to do so again after losing three of their six leading scorers and getting next to nothing to replace them. They also fired head coach Jim Ferry after five predominantly disappointing seasons, replacing him with longtime Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
But if Duquesne is even remotely competent, it could begin the season 11-0 against what might be the most pathetic nonconference schedule ever assembled.
For starters, the Dukes don't have to leave Steel City until late December, as they scheduled 10 home games and one "neutral-court" game against Pittsburgh. Avoiding the need for any bus or plane trips for six weeks isn't necessarily a bad thing for strength of schedule, but it is when you consider the caliber of opponents they will be facing.
Based on average KenPom rank over the past four seasons, Pittsburgh (52.3) is the best team the Dukes will face, and it's not close. But the Panthers aren't anything like the team they have been in recent years. In fact, they are probably going to be one of the five worst major conference teams in the country. And Duquesne did beat Pitt last year, so who knows?
Beyond Pittsburgh, the toughest opponent is Robert Morris (231.5). The average KenPom rank of the 10 teams aside from Pittsburgh is 294.1.
Last year, only six teams made it into mid-December with an undefeated record—Baylor, Creighton, Gonzaga, UCLA, USC and Villanova—and each of them made it into the NCAA tournament and was ranked in the AP Top 25 by Dec. 12. It would be high comedy if Duquesne gets to 11-0 and AP voters start casting ballots for the Dukes, only for them to turn around and lose 19 of their next 21 games.
Grand Canyon Antelopes
The Schedule: vs. Florida A&M, vs. Robert Morris, vs. Little Rock, vs. Norfolk State, vs. San Diego, vs. UC Riverside, vs. St. John's, vs. Grambling State, vs. North Carolina Central, at Boise State, vs. Mississippi Valley State, vs. Longwood
Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time, and the Antelopes are making darn sure they win enough early games to get noticed by the selection committee.
This schedule is loaded with cream puffs. Home games against Florida A&M, Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State and Longwood are about as easy as it gets when it comes to D-I opponents. The Antelopes will also host UC Riverside, Norfolk State, Robert Morris, San Diego, Little Rock and North Carolina Central, each of which ranked 245th or worse on KenPom in at least one of the past two seasons.
The Lopes travel to Louisville in late December, but there is not a likely loss in the first six weeks of this schedule. They will probably get challenged by St. John's, and that road game against Boise State is no joke, but what we are seeing is 10 games this team should win and two coin flips. The most likely outcome might be 11-1, but a 12-0 start is possible.
If you have been paying any mind to Grand Canyon over the past few years, this hot start wouldn't come as a surprise. Dan Majerle's guys are 49-16 overall and 32-5 at home since the start of the 2015-16 season.
The Antelopes did lose two key players in Dewayne Russell and Darion Clark, but they still have Joshua Braun (1,325 career points) and added Oregon graduate transfer Casey Benson for some invaluable veteran leadership at point guard. They have been building toward this season for the past four years, and it should be fun to watch them blaze through the first third of their games.
Illinois Fighting Illini and Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Illinois' Schedule: vs. Southern, vs. Tennessee-Martin, vs. DePaul, vs. Marshall, vs. Augustana, vs. North Carolina Central
Rutgers' Schedule: vs. CCNY, vs. Central Connecticut State, vs. Cleveland State, vs. Coppin State, vs. Bryant, vs. East Carolina
Illinois and Rutgers might be the two worst teams in the Big Ten.
They might also be the only teams in the conference that enter the ACC-B1G Challenge with undefeated records. Northwestern also has a good chance given its early schedule, but every other team has at least one huge hurdle to clear in the first 18 days of the regular season.
The Fighting Illini and Scarlet Knights appear to have done everything in their power to win their first six games of the season. This is nothing new for Rutgers, which started 11-1 following a pathetic schedule last year before losing 17 of its final 21 games.
Of the two, Illinois has the tougher path, but that isn't saying much. In addition to one game against a non-D-I opponent (Augustana), the Illini play five home games against teams that weren't great prior to getting gutted by graduations. N.C. Central lost all four of its leading scorers. Tennessee-Martin lost five of seven. And neither Marshall nor Southern is in much better shape. Those teams are usually competitive in their minor conferences, but they might all be abysmal in November.
Rutgers also scheduled a non-D-I foe (CCNY) in a 2.5-week stretch that was clearly designed to be as unimposing as possible. A home game against East Carolina is as tough as it gets, and the Pirates are projected to finish in 11th place in the 12-team AAC. Central Connecticut State and Coppin State were two of the worst teams in the nation last year, and Cleveland State only won nine games before losing seven transfers, including leading scorer Rob Edwards.
It will be quite the wake-up call when these teams play an ACC-B1G Challenge game followed immediately by two games against intraconference foes, but a combined 12-0 start is well within the realm of possibility.
East Carolina Pirates
The Schedule: vs. Coppin State, vs. Radford, vs. Central Connecticut State, vs. Cleveland State, at Rutgers, vs. North Carolina A&T, vs. UNC-Wilmington, vs. Delaware State, vs. Campbell, vs. Charlotte, vs. Grambling State
As mentioned on the previous slide, East Carolina isn't exactly expected to compete for a national championship—though as long as the Pirates don't rank dead last in the nation on defense, at least the basketball team will have that bragging right over the football team. But unless Cincinnati or Wichita State manages to run the table, ECU might have the best record among AAC teams at the start of conference play.
The only time the Pirates have to leave Greenville, North Carolina, prior to Christmas is the aforementioned game at Rutgers. While the Scarlet Knights figure to be favored in that game, it wouldn't be a massive surprise if East Carolina pulls off the upset.
Outside of that game, this schedule is comically weak.
Six of ECU's first 11 opponents—Grambling State, N.C. A&T, Central Connecticut State, Coppin State, Delaware State and Campbell—have an average KenPom rank worse than 300 over the past four seasons. Based on that data, they are among the 30 worst teams in the country during that time.
As far as the other four opponents are concerned, we previously mentioned that Cleveland State was (once again) brutally affected by departing transfers, Radford hasn't ranked in the Top 170 on KenPom in any of the past 16 years, UNC-Wilmington lost its head coach and four of its five leading scorers and Charlotte—though it did defeat East Carolina last year—is still finding its way under head coach Mark Price.
If this schedule belonged to North Carolina or South Carolina, you could mark it down for 11 consecutive wins by double-digit margins and start thinking about the rest of the year. East Carolina is an entirely different story, but even the Pirates could go nearly seven weeks without a loss against this slate.
Evansville Purple Aces
The Schedule: vs. Arkansas State, vs. North Carolina Central, vs. Southeast Missouri State, vs. Binghamton, Cancun Challenge (vs. Fresno State, vs. George Mason/Louisiana Tech), at New Mexico, vs. Oakland City, at Bowling Green, vs. Canisius, vs. Austin Peay, vs. Midway
With Wichita State out of the picture, someone has to rise up and become the new team to beat in the Missouri Valley Conference. The obvious candidates based on previous years of success would be Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Loyola-Chicago or the newcomer to the conference, Valparaiso.
Based on strength of schedule—or lack thereof—perhaps Evansville will jump out to a hot start and become an unexpected candidate to win the league.
Given the roster situation, that's a bit of a silly proposition. The Purple Aces lost their leader (Jaylon Brown) as well as a total of six of their top nine scorers from last season. They do get Blake Simmons back from a redshirt season and have a couple of quality veteran guards in Ryan Taylor and Duane Gibson. However, the lack of experience in this frontcourt is jarring and could be a major problem for a team that already wasn't anything close to dominant in the paint.
But perhaps that is why Evansville's schedule is so docile.
Usually, the Purple Aces go up against at least one heavy hitter. They opened last season at Louisville. They used to play Butler on an annual basis and regularly drew opponents like Indiana, North Carolina and Xavier.
This year, that heavy hitter is Duke, but they don't face the Blue Devils until late December. In the 12 games prior to that one, their toughest opponent is a New Mexico team that lost six of last year's eight leading scorers. Evansville's only early opponent that finished in the KenPom Top 100 last season is Fresno State. At No. 98, the Bulldogs barely even made that cut. And the Purple Aces made up for that neutral-court challenge by scheduling not one but two non-D-I opponents (Oakland City and Midway).
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
The Schedule: vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, vs. North Dakota, vs. Troy, vs. Nevada, vs. Adams State, at Utah, vs. Prairie View A&M, vs. Hawaii-Hilo, vs. Utah Valley
Like Evansville playing a game at Duke late in the nonconference schedule, things take a significant turn for the worse for Hawaii. As the hosts of the Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25), the Rainbow Warriors will face Miami (FL) in the opener before likely drawing Davidson and possibly Akron in the consolation bracket. It's not hard to imagine them coming away from that tournament with three losses in four days.
Prior to that event, though, things are looking mighty favorable for the island-dwellers.
2016-17 was a huge transitional year for Hawaii. Of the eight leading scorers from the previous season, three graduated, two declared for the NBA draft, two transferred and one suffered a season-ending injury before the campaign began. As a result, Sheriff Drammeh—who scored 53 points as a freshman in 2015-16—was the top returning player. And the Rainbow Warriors consequently went from 28-6 to 14-16.
But the previously mentioned injured player, Mike Thomas, should be back to full health, Drammeh developed into a legitimate combo guard, Auburn transfer Jack Purchase played well and JUCO transfer Gibson Johnson was an impressive inside presence. It wasn't enough to win many games, but the pieces are there for a bounce-back year.
As far as the schedule goes, Adams State and Hawaii-Hilo are non-D-I programs, Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Prairie View A&M are annually among the worst teams in the country, North Dakota and Troy each lost a pair of critical pieces from last season and Utah Valley had more than twice as many losses to teams outside the KenPom Top 175 (seven) as it had wins against Top 175 teams last season (three).
If the Rainbow Warriors don't win all seven of those home games, it's probably going to be a long season.
That leaves the road game against Utah and the home game against Nevada, each of which Hawaii will be expected to lose but could win. Utah is, at best, a middle-of-the-pack team in a Pac-12 conference that becomes a mess in a hurry after the top four or five teams. And Nevada is a transfer-heavy team that may still be finding its footing just two weeks into the season. It's at least possible Hawaii enters the Diamond Head Classic with a 9-0 record.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Schedule: vs. Alabama State, vs. Florida A&M, vs. Green Bay, vs. Stephen F. Austin, vs. Jacksonville State, vs. North Dakota State, vs. Dayton, vs. North Georgia, at Cincinnati, vs. Tennessee-Martin, vs. Little Rock, vs. Southern Miss, vs. North Florida
The SEC preseason media poll was released Tuesday morning, and Mississippi State is projected to finish 12th in the 14-team league. Suffice it to say, no one is expecting the Bulldogs to win 25 games. And you would have to venture pretty far on to the proverbial limb if you're picking them to reach the NCAA tournament.
But even the 12th-best SEC team could win 12 out of 13 games against this schedule.
The mid-December game at Cincinnati is all but certain to be a loss. The Bearcats are arguably one of the 10 best teams in the country, and they went 18-0 at home last season. So even though Mississippi State is on this list, it would be a little nuts to expect the Bulldogs to enter SEC play with an undefeated record.
12-1, though, is in play.
Their other 12 games all come at home against inferior competition. Alabama State and Florida A&M are always bad. North Georgia is a D-II team, and it isn't one of the good ones. Southern Miss is a disaster, and Stephen F. Austin's first season without Brad Underwood was a far cry from what we have come to expect from the Lumberjacks. Toss in Tennessee-Martin, Jacksonville State and North Florida as teams that haven't been much of a threat at any point in the 2010s, and that's eight easy wins.
Green Bay is a shell of what it used to be in the days of Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown, and it lost eight players from last year's 11-man rotation. It should be a down year for Dayton after losing four senior starters. And Little Rock is even further up a creek without a paddle after losing all five senior starters from a sub-.500 team.
The second-biggest challenge on Mississippi State's nonconference slate might be the home game against North Dakota State, and the Bison shouldn't be much of a threat on the road against a major conference opponent.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.