Different people enjoy college basketball for different reasons. It’s part of what makes the sport so enjoyable for some of us.
At the risk of being self-indulgent, one of the attractions of college basketball for me, from the time first watching the NCAA Tournament in 1987 at nine years old, but even earlier in that hoop season, has always been that you just never know where the next story will come from in this sport. The unpredictability, the joy of a team coming out of nowhere or finding out something about a team you knew next to nothing about-or even a team you thought you knew-is a big part of what makes the sport unique from so many others.
Before that 1986-87 season, absolutely no one would’ve expected Providence-a team that had gone 17-14 the year before and hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1978-to light up the nation with its three-point shooting and advance all the way to the Final Four under a young coach named Rick Pitino. No one could’ve predicted New Orleans-an independent that had never even made the NCAA Tournament before-would finish 26-4 and work its way into the national rankings (they only ranked a top 20 then), advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Those NCAAs also brought first round winners like Austin Peay, Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) and a school called Xavier winning for the first-time ever in the Big Dance. Wyoming made it to the Sweet 16. Tenth-seeded LSU got all the way to the Elite Eight (though the seed indicates a surprise, this was not; the Tigers under Dale Brown went from an 11 seed to the Final Four the year before).
That year also was from a time when TV coverage, while not nearly as expansive as it is now, was much more far-reaching on the national level than it is now. That first year following the sport, I regularly watched games from the ACC, Big Ten and Big East. At the same time, I also watched games from the Atlantic 10, Sun Belt, and became very familiar with a UNLV team that was ranked No. 1 much of the year and featured plenty of star power, yet in today’s climate would be quickly dismissed as a “mid-major.” A still-fairly new network called ESPN, along with publications such as Sports Illustrated, Street & Smith’s and The Sporting News, did wonders to educate one about the entire nation, not just a few conferences media might’ve had fat contracts with.
Once again at the risk of dotting this with too many I’s and me’s, it formed how I’ve followed the sport for 30 years now. If it’s Division I, count me in. Doesn’t matter if it’s North Carolina or North Carolina A&T, I enjoy it all. In fact, small college levels are terrific, too (few understand just how good the basketball is at the NAIA level, for example), but for this website’s purposes we limit our scope to NCAA Division I.
With that stroll down memory lane as something of background, we present our list of 20 teams we think are worthy of watching in this upcoming 2016-17 season. Some are major programs, some even powers of the sport. Some maybe could be tabbed accurately as “mid-majors”, coming from the true middle of Division I. Some could be dubbed as “low-majors.”
All are solid teams, maybe a national title contender, maybe on the rise, maybe with the potential to be this year’s Monmouth. Or maybe they’re just a team with some interesting storylines to follow that should shape the season, or other teams’ seasons. This is not meant to be a ‘best of’ list, just literally a list of teams worth following to see where their seasons go.
We kept a few of the obvious teams out of here. Top 5-type squads typically are off this list; you can find more than enough about Duke and Kentucky in other media sources. So too, for the most part, are chic underdog picks this year such as Creighton, Monmouth, Rhode Island or Saint Mary’s. Of course, some or all of those teams certainly could become a big part of the story of this season, too. We feel pretty good, though, in guessing that one or more of the teams below could be too.
Arizona: For a near-blueblood program that swings to hit it out of the park so much in recruiting, and often succeeds in getting those players, it’s remarkable (but also maybe instructional of the dangers of recruiting those players) just how many questions the Wildcats have entering this year. Last year already came to an unsatisfying end with a first-round flameout in the NCAA tourney, and with Ray Smith’s career over because of injuries and academic questions with several others, there are a lot of questions in Tucson. Sean Miller usually has the answers, though-his Wildcats in their comeback win over Gonzaga was one of the best examples of a team being coached up that we saw all season-but at this point those answers aren’t obvious from the outside.
Butler: The only team repeating from this list from a year ago. The loss of heart-and-soul players Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones seems daunting, yet the esteemed Blue Ribbon Yearbook has the Bulldogs checking in at No. 16 in its preseason top 25. The frontline is terrific with Kelan Martin plus Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman, and while the backcourt is a question mark, when has Butler ever lacked for guard play? We also think many forget just how good transfer Kethan Savage was when he was at George Washington.
Clemson: Brad Brownell’s team provided one of those true out-of-nowhere stories last year in a five-game stretch when it beat Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami (Fla.). The logical follow-up question now is whether his team can do that again consistently enough for an NCAA tourney trip. Jaron Blossomgame is the real deal, worthy of his preseason all-ACC recognition, and we’re curious to see what kind of edge this team gets returning to Littlejohn Coliseum after a year off campus 40 minutes away in Greenville.
Fairleigh Dickinson: The Knights were one of the youngest teams in the country a year ago and still made the NCAAs. FDU is still young-only a single senior-and a smallish team needs to rebound and defend better (keep an eye on 6-9 Malik Miller, a 3-ppg performer as a freshman who has size the stick out in the Northeast Conference). But Greg Herenda’s team plays fast and is fun to watch, and is the NEC favorite.
Florida Gulf Coast: Almost everyone who was part of the Dunk City days has now departed, but while the names and coach are different, the energy, length and athleticism are not. Joe Dooley’s team has talent and size for an Atlantic Sun team, and Marc-Eddy Norelia is one of the best players the nation knows little about. They should get to know him.
Georgia: The Bulldogs don’t return a whole lot of production from a year ago, but the two main returnees are a pretty darn good place to start. J.J. Frazier is sort of a pocket version of Stephen Curry in numbers (16.9 ppg, 4.4 apg, 77 3-ptrs), playing style and right down to the jersey number, and he and frontcourt rock Yante Maten are both all-SEC caliber. There’s room for upward mobility in the SEC, but those two will still need help
La Salle: There may not be a more intriguing turnaround possibility in the country than the Explorers. Dr. John Giannini’s team had a really rough year last year. Really, really rough, to the tune of 9-22 and a number of lopsided losses, including one by-gulp-46 to Miami (Fla.). All five starters are back, though-including high-scoring guard Jordan Price-but more piqueing interest are three touted transfers who are expected to pump up the talent level considerably. From nine wins to the NCAA Tournament? It’s a long climb, but it could happen.
Long Beach State: The 49ers will play another wild non-conference schedule, with trips to North Carolina, UCLA, Washington, Kansas, New Mexico State, Texas, Oregon State, the Boston Celtics and Vanoli Cremona of the Italian Serie A League (just kidding about the last two…probably). As usual, the Beach will play many of them close, and led by 5-7 dynamo Justin Bibbins, the talent is there to pull off a couple wins in those games. Dan Monson’s team also is the favorite in a Big West that is reloading this year but has been capable on the national scene in recent years, as evidenced by Hawaii’s NCAA tourney win over California last year.
Nevada: Eric Musselman is building a program quickly in Reno. The defending College Basketball Invitational champions have a star in the making in Cameron Oliver, a slashing scorer in D.J. Fenner and a heady guard in Lindsey Drew with length and terrific defensive skills. Missouri State transfer Marcus Marshall bears watching-he was a scoring machine in the rugged Missouri Valley. The Wolf Pack are the Mountain West’s best hope to furnish a serious challenger to San Diego State.
New Hampshire: Anyone familiar with college basketball in the far northeast understands just what a feat the Wildcats’ 20-win season was last year. UNH had never won so much as 19 games in a season-ever-until doing so two years ago, and did one better to reach 20 wins last year. Now, UNH is a favorite in the America East, which is wide open after pillars Albany and Stony Brook both had heavy graduation losses. Tanner Leissner is one of the best players in the conference, and Iba Camara helps give Bill Herrion’s team a frontcourt few in the A-East can duplicate.
UNC Wilmington: Under Kevin Keatts, the Seahawks from the CAA belong on an annual list of the most fun teams to watch in the country. UNCW pressures defensively every inch of the 4,700 square feet on the floor, while on the offensive end a group of undersized drivers and shooters can fill it up in a hurry. Their game against Duke was one of the most entertaining in all of last year’s NCAA Tournament, and much returns from that team, including Chris Flemmings, whose versatile offensive game is sometimes unorthodox but always highly effective.
North Dakota: The team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux finally has a nickname, changing it to Fighting Hawks after the NCAA showed once again that it has more time to worry about school nicknames than academic malfeasance. UND won’t be a favorite in the Big Sky, but it does return all five starters and has size, athleticism and perimeter scoring. Get to know the name Quinton Hooker, and don’t be surprised if this is a team making its Division I NCAA tourney debut in March.
North Dakota State: The other Division I team in the state, the Bison seem to alternate Summit League supremacy with South Dakota State (one or the other has represented the conference in the NCAAs each of the last five years) and it very well could be their turn again this year. A.J. Jacobson and Paul Miller are the start of an excellent-and deep-backcourt.
Ohio University: The Bobcats have maybe the best 1-2 inside-outside punch that nobody knows about, a Stockton-to-Malone-esque duo in Jaaron Simmons and Antonio Campbell. Simmons is a pick-and-roll maestro, while Campbell is the reigning MAC Player of the Year. Ohio leaped from 10 wins to 23 a year ago. It’s next step could be to the NCAA Tournament.
Oklahoma: On paper, the Sooners are an NIT team this year. At best. The loss of the consensus player of the year plus two other key starters from a team not noted for its depth should scare anyone away from picking OU, and don’t underestimate the loss of all three assistant coaches in the offseason, either. There’s one good reason to pick the Sooners for another 20-plus win season and a top-five Big 12 finish, though: Lon Kruger.
Old Dominion: The Monarchs won’t get as much publicity as fellow Conference USA schools UAB or Middle Tennessee State entering the season, but keep an eye out for them. ODU plays excellent defense, pounds the glass and takes care of the ball. No longer having Trey Freeman running off numerous screens and scoring 22 points per game will hurt, but it may open opportunities for others, and the Stith brothers-Brandan and transfer B.J.-could both be all-conference performers. The schedule also offers an early opportunity to make a splash as ODU plays in the Battle 4 Atlantis, opening with Louisville.
Princeton: Slightly overshadowed by Yale’s first NCAA tourney appearance in 54 years, the Tigers quietly had a terrific 2015-16 campaign, going 22-7, almost pushing the Elis out of the way for the Ivy League title and nearly winning at Virginia Tech in the NIT. All five starters return, but as big as any of them is the return of 6-8 Hans Brase, an inside-outside threat who will make the Princeton offense even more lethal than it was a year ago when it averaged over 79 points per game. The Tigers could find their way into the top 25.
Sam Houston State: A thoroughly underappreciated program for a number of years, it may be the Bearkats’ time to shine in the Southland. Stephen F. Austin is due for a slide after opening eyes to just how much an SLC team could accomplish nationally, and Jason Hooten’s team is primed to take advantage. All five starters return, as does veteran Paul Baxter from injury. SFA has set the new standard; Southland teams should not just be happy to make the NCAA Tournament, so this team’s goal should be not just to get to the Big Dance, but to win there.
Siena: The Saints are back as a contender in the Metro Atlantic. Five double-figure scorers return for the delightfully quotable Jimmy Patsos. Depth still needs to be built, but Siena can score, rebound, has star power (Brett Bisping and Nico Clareth are particularly names to get to know), and along with Monmouth and Iona should make for one fun race for the top of the MAAC.
Texas-Arlington: The Mavericks are loaded, easily the most experienced team in the Sun Belt. Scott Cross goes 10-deep, and his team rebounds with as much ferocity as any team not named West Virginia. Guard Erick Neal is a terrific passer and can score, too. If Kevin Hervey returns from an ACL injury to the form that had him a darkhorse for All-American consideration early last year, then UTA could certainly make it three straight years of the Sun Belt winning in the NCAA Tournament.
Five more for honorable mention: Florida State, St. Bonaventure, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Valparaiso, USC