Top 25 lists. Sleeper lists. Hot “mid-major” lists. Cinderella lists. Hot seat lists. Coming into a college basketball season, there are any number of lists one can come up with.
We weren’t really looking to make a list under any of those set categories, but we were piqued by the idea of one that is something of a jumble of all of them (well, most of them). With that, we present 20 teams to keep an eye on in the 2015-16 season.
Some of these are Final Four favorites. Some are rebuilding powers. Some are (or should be) trendy sleeper, Cinderella, you-name-it picks that you may not know much about now, but may be hearing from in March.
Truthfully, we can find a good storyline or a good reason to watch any of the 351 Division I teams. These are 20 teams, though, that we think will be making some noise this year, whether it be early in the year or late. Or maybe both. If you’re looking for a list with heavy doses of teams from TV’s favorite football conferences, you may be disappointed; as always, our attempt here is a truly national look at the topic.
Belmont: Last year was supposed to be Murray State’s year in the Ohio Valley, but the Bruins stole the Racers’ NCAA Tournament bid in a scintillating OVC tourney final. Belmont in the NCAAs shouldn’t have been a surprise-Rick Byrd’s teams have now been there seven times in the last 10 years-but it was still a team ahead of schedule. This year’s group should be even better, with Craig Bradshaw bringing the points and the moxie from the backcourt and Evan Bradds a super-efficient post scorer.
Butler: Even as they slip in near the end of many preseason top 25 polls, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk about the Bulldogs yet. There should be. Kellen Dunham is still a premium shooter and Roosevelt Jones is one of the best all-around players in the country. Alex Barlow and Kameron Woods will be missed, but transfers Tyler Lewis (N.C. State) and Jordan Gathers (St. Bonaventure, and nephew of the late great Hank Gathers) will help the backcourt and Andrew Chrabascz will provide beef up front.
California: One of the country’s most touted recruiting classes shows up at a school not really known for such since the days of Jason Kidd and Lamont Murray. It joins a team that already had a solid nucleus with Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Byrd and that many forget got off to a good start last year until fading in the Pac-12. What’s the ceiling? Top 15? That seems a little high, but maybe not.
Central Michigan: The Chippewas in year three under Keno Davis were one of the nation’s biggest surprises last year, and maybe the most underappreciated one. Now CMU returns all five starters from a three-point bombing 23-win team that is the defending MAC regular season champions, led by outstanding guard Chris Fowler and 6-8 sharpshooter John Simons and with an intriguing seven-footer in Luke Meyer.
Davidson: The Wildcats stunned just about everyone by barging into the Atlantic 10 last year and coming out with a regular season title. An already remarkable feat was even more so because Bob McKillop’s team was young-just one senior in the rotation, albeit an important one in A-10 player of the year Tyler Kalinoski. A terrific offensive squad, Davidson shouldn’t change much at all from last year (though a little more interior presence from redshirt Jake Belford would help). But the big question is: did the Wildcats catch the A-10 by surprise to a degree last year? And even if they did, will it matter this year?
Furman: Yes, Furman. The Paladins finished 11-21 last year, but looked nothing like that at the end of the season and as a 10 seed in the Southern Conference tourney very nearly knocked off an excellent Wofford team in the final. All five starters return, including slick guard Stephen Croone. If you’re looking for this year’s Central Michigan (from 10 wins in 2013-14 to 23 last year) or UC Davis (9 wins to 25), Furman is as good a pick as any.
Illinois State: Wichita State and Northern Iowa are the national brands while Evansville and Loyola will be chic picks after postseason tourney titles last year. But don’t overlook the Redbirds in the MVC, who are seemingly always more talented than many think. Athletic ISU could make noise against a tough non-conference schedule; this is, after all, a team that defeated Wichita State at Arch Madness and was 20 minutes from the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland: We also noted the Terrapins in our preseason questions piece, but to recap: are they really a top five team, national favorite even? Or are they a club that won a lot of close games last year against unfamiliar Big Ten opponents and will miss Dez Wells more than anyone thinks? Just remember, it could be somewhere in the middle or even lean towards the latter and this team could still advance deeper in the NCAA Tournament than it did last year.
North Florida: The Ospreys got a taste of the NCAA tourney last year and return almost all of that team, including point guard Dallas Moore and four-year starter Beau Beech. The frontcourt also holds its end up too, proven by UNF’s win at Purdue last year. It’s also a team that came out on top of a couple other tough contenders in the Atlantic Sun and, like many on this list, plays a schedule that will allow it opportunities to make some national noise in November and December. The potential battle with NJIT for the A-Sun title also is a must-watch from start to finish.
South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits and North Dakota State seem to alternate Summit League supremacy, and it looks like this is SDSU’s turn. The backcourt with Deondre Parks, George Marshall and do-it-all Jake Bittle, is terrific. Scott Nagy will miss big man Cody Larson, who provided high-major size and athleticism, but the backcourt may be so good that it won’t matter.
Stony Brook: No program in the country has been closer to an NCAA bid the last five years without breaking through than the Seawolves, who lost a heartbreaker to Albany at the buzzer in the America East final last year. This year, they’ll be a heavy favorite in the conference with Jameel Warney-one of the best post players in the country, period-jet guard Carson Puriefoy, and essentially six starters returning-all five from last year, plus Ahmad Walker, who started in 2013-14 but spent last year at a junior college.
Tennessee-Chattanooga: Even with a new coach (Matt McCall), the Mocs will be heavy favorites in the Southern and have some serious talent returning with conference player of the year contender Casey Jones plus shotblocker Justin Tuoyo. UTC fizzled early last year against a tough schedule but this year has another chance to make an early impression, with games at Georgia, Illinois and Iowa State in November.
Texas A&M: The Aggies were ever-so-close to a surprising NCAA Tournament bid last year (really, a Danuel House injury away), and out of nowhere became a popular spot for some prime recruits coming into this year. With Jalen Jones also returning, there’s enough talent here for a Sweet 16 run, which was almost impossible to fathom just two years ago.
Tulsa: The time is now for the Golden Hurricane, who return all five starters, everyone in their rotation and have nine seniors in all. Tulsa was red-hot the middle of last season-including a sweep of Temple and a win over Connecticut-but started and finished poorly. The non-conference schedule is also manageable but built with opportunities to distinguish.
UAB: No team made more progress from the beginning of last season to the end than the Blazers, who were in rough shape in November but were one of the final 32 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. Like Belmont, the Blazers were a team that arrived a year early, and this year they’ll wear the target as Conference USA favorites but also as a team that can contend for a spot in the top 25. Watch for 6-9 sophomore William Lee, who should get better and better.
UC Irvine: Seven-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye alone makes the Anteaters a fascinating watch, but UCI also returns most of the team that plays a mean 2-3 zone and put a big scare into Louisville in the NCAA Tournament last year. There’s also a non-conference schedule loaded with opportunities to impress. Now Russell Turner’s team just needs good health, as last year’s squad was riddled with injuries until March.
Utah State: Stew Morrill has retired, and it’s college basketball’s loss, but he has left a very nice team for his former assistant, Tim Duryea. Smooth Jalen Moore is the leader, and while the Aggies only went 18-14 last year, they were close to far more; of their losses, nine were decided by eight points or less and only two were by more than 10 points.
Valparaiso: We debated LSU or Rhode Island as our last pick on this list, but went with the Crusaders, even as they are a trendy pick for a lot of preseason love. There’s no denying the ceiling for Valpo is fascinating. The team plays terrific defense and has good size inside and a shot-blocking presence in Vashil Fernandez, and the shorter shot clock could make the D even better. There’s also a go-to scorer (Alec Peters) who can score inside or out. If the players around him (see: Darien Walker, David Skara, etc.) make for a unit that is even a little more consistent offensively, the Crusaders could legitimately be a top 25 squad.
West Virginia: Just because we’re on the edge of our seats looking forward to another year of the Bob Huggins-led Mountaineers picking up the opponent defensively as soon as they exit the locker room, pounding the offensive glass and doing it all by committee. For anyone who wants a faster pace in college basketball, WVU is a reminder that offense isn’t the only end where teams can do so.
Wisconsin: We can’t wait to see what Bo Ryan does with such an inexperienced roster. No one is better at player development, so much so that we shouldn’t even be surprised when a player such as Vitto Brown or Ethan Happ comes out of nowhere and becomes a force this year.
Five more for honorable mention: Hofstra, LSU, NJIT, Pepperdine, Rhode Island