The Great Leap Forward
How about Purdue, Maryland, UNLV, Virginia, USC, and Vanderbilt?
Well, here’s the answer: each of those ten teams won a game in the 2007 NCAA Tournament without making the Field of 65 in 2006. To take it a step further, seven of those teams (Oregon, Purdue, UNLV, Virginia Tech, VCU, Washington State, USC) did not even make the postseason in 2006.
What does this mean?
To put it simply: don’t count out any team when discussing potential title contenders in the preseason. Oregon was a #3 seed and reached the Elite Eight; Butler, Vanderbilt, USC, and UNLV all reached the Sweet Sixteen; and every team except VCU was a Top-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This brings us to the 2007-2008 season. With all of the turnover in college basketball following the season, there is going to be a wide-open race for the national title. As a result of the parity, there are plenty of teams that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament or even the postseason that can expect to compete for a spot in the Top 25 throughout the year.
Here are six teams that will make the jump from NIT to NCAA and six teams that will go from no postseason to postseason contender:
NIT to NCAA
North Carolina State: To some, the Wolfpack are getting way too much hype considering they only went 5-11 in ACC play last season. However, Sidney Lowe has amassed enough talent in Raleigh to make a legitimate push at the NCAA Tournament after reaching the ACC Tournament title game a season ago. Brandon Costner is primed to make a name for himself on the national level after an outstanding freshman campaign, while Ben McCauley is a versatile forward who can do a variety of things on the court next to Costner. Gavin Grant is a long and athletic wing that can play multiple positions and produce in every category. Courtney Fells is another scorer on the wing. Throw in McDonald’s All-American J.J. Hickson up front, and the Wolfpack have what it takes to contend in the ACC and reach the Dance.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs made a late run at the NCAA Tournament last season, sharing the SEC West championship before falling short in the SEC Tournament. They lost several players to transfer, though, namely wings Reginald and Richard Delk. However, they return one of the best inside-outside combos in the conference in versatile perimeter player Jamont Gordon and big man Charles Rhodes. Barry Stewart should improve his numbers after a solid freshman season, and Ben Hansbrough is back to run the point should coach Rick Stansbury decide to use Gordon on the wing. Louisville transfer Brian Johnson and athletic Jarvis Varnado will help anchor the inside with Rhodes.
Alabama: Another SEC West squad that will definitely improve and get to the Big Dance this season. The Crimson Tide were extreme underachievers last season, going from preseason Top Ten team to an NIT team. Much of that could be attributed to point guard Ronald Steele’s nagging injuries that bothered him the entire season. If he is completely healthy this season, look out. Richard Hendrix is ready to dominate the SEC in the post, and wings Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley form a dynamite duo on the perimeter. That quartet is one of the best in the country, and should be enough to carry ‘Bama to the Field of 65.
Clemson: The Tigers looked like a sure bet for the NCAA Tournament last season after starting 17-0, but they went only 4-10 the rest of the season, finishing out of the bubble picture heading into Selection Sunday. They do lose starting point guard Vernon Hamilton, but should return enough to finally get over the hump into the Big Dance this season. Sixth man extraordinaire K.C. Rivers returns on the perimeter, while James Mays will continue to be a terror at both ends of the floor. Cliff Hammonds can do a little of everything and Trevor Booker is a productive rebounder and gets points around the rim. At the point, freshman Demontez Stitt will be expected to step in immediately to help replace Hamilton. If he runs the team efficiently, the Tigers will be tough.
Kansas State: The Wildcats amassed a very good resume heading into Selection Sunday last season, finishing the Big 12 Tournament at 22-11 and 10-6 in the conference. However, they did not make the Big Dance due to a weak schedule and the lack of key victories in their profile. This year, new coach Frank Martin has loads of talent and won’t have to sweat before the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced. Freshman phenom Michael Beasley immediately makes KSU a contender every night out, and redshirt frosh Bill Walker is finally healthy and ready to live up to his potential. David Hoskins is a match-up problem for defenders, and Clent Stewart and Blake Young should be able to handle the backcourt duties.
Syracuse: Many thought the Orange should have made the NCAA Tournament last season despite getting left out on Selection Sunday, but there should be no question this year. Jim Boeheim loses all three starting forwards to graduation as well as guard Andy Rautins to a recent ACL injury, but returns guard Eric Devendorf and forward Paul Harris to help lead the way. Further reason for excitement comes from the addition of McDonald’s All-Americans Donte Greene and Johnny Flynn. Greene is a versatile forward, while Flynn is an exciting point guard who will make an immediate impact. This team will be clicking on all cylinders come March.
No Postseason to Postseason Contender
Washington: The first of two Huskies on this list, U-Dub is ready to build off of last year’s 19-13 campaign to reach the Big Dance. Spencer Hawes left school early to become a lottery pick, but Lorenzo Romar has the guns to replace him. Double-double machine Jon Brockman returns down low, while sophomore Quincy Pondexter is primed to make a bigger impact in transition and on the wing. Ryan Appleby can really shoot the ball and Justin Dentmon is a solid point guard who needs to cut down on his turnovers. Freshmen Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday will make immediate impacts.
Connecticut: The other Huskies are coming off of an extremely disappointing season which saw them go from a team that was one shot from the Final Four to a team that struggled to reach the Big East Tournament. Jim Calhoun will not allow this team to miss the postseason for two straight seasons. Shooting guard Jerome Dyson is the next in a long line of terrific UConn scorers, while Jeff Adrien is a beast inside. A.J. Price needs to settle down at the point and run the team efficiently. Down low, 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet will have one more year of development under his belt and should be ready to dominate the Big East inside. If Price plays well at the point, and another wing scorer steps up, the Huskies will be back.
Missouri: The Tigers were sort of under the radar last season, but still managed to go 7-9 in the Big 12 and 18-12 overall. This year, Mike Anderson will have Mizzou primed and ready to go with his “40 Minutes of Hell” approach. It starts with Stefon Hannah at the point. He can score and distribute the ball well, but needs to cut down on his turnovers. Keon Lawrence is another solid scoring guard. Up front, returnees Matt Lawrence and Marshall Brown are double-figure scorers who can mismatches for opposing defenses. Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll adds athleticism and energy to the frontcourt.
Auburn: After Tennessee, the SEC is relatively wide-open next season, and the Tigers have as good of a shot as anyone at making a run at the postseason. They have plenty of talent and experience, which should translate to an increase in victories. Considering they finished one game out of the SEC West title last season, that could mean 20 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth. Josh Dollard and Kovortney Barber lead a group of athletic combo forwards that also includes Quan Prowell. Frank Tolbert and Rasheem Barrett are double-figure scorers on the wing, while Quantez Robertson can run the point with efficiency. If size does not continue to be a huge problem and the Tigers can improve their rebounding, Jeff Lebo’s team could end up in the Dance.
George Mason: Everyone’s favorite mid-major could return to the national scene again in 2007-2008. The Patriots return all five starters, including one of the best duos in the Colonial in forward Will Thomas, who dominated Connecticut two seasons ago, and do-it-all wing Folarin Campbell, who emerged as a go-to-guy last season. John Vaughan showed flashes of his scoring ability at times last season, while Dre Smith was solid on the perimeter. Darryl Monroe and Jordan Carter also return to the rotation. Mason made a run to the CAA title game last season despite a disappointing season overall, but they could get over the hump this year and get back to the NCAA Tournament.
UAB: This could be one of the nation’s most improved teams next season. The Blazers finished only 15-16 (and under .500 in conference play) last season, but could easily reach 20 wins this season and make the Big Dance with a chance to win a game. Mike Davis returns All-Conference-USA guard Paul Delaney III and emerging forward Lawrence Kinnard, but that is not the reason for all the excitement. The addition of three major-conference transfers has everyone in Birmingham looking forward to this season. Robert Vaden is a very good all-around wing from Indiana; Georgia transfer Channing Toney adds scoring to the perimeter; and Walter Sharpe of Mississippi State should be a solid performer down low. Freshman guard Terrence Roderick will make an immediate impact in the backcourt as well, while Reggie Huffman and Keenan Ellis are two more quality newcomers. If the fresh faces live up to their potential, Memphis make actually have a tough game or two in Conference-USA.