Every year there is always more than a handful of teams that people think will build on or bounce back from the prior season and make the jump into contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. This year is no different, here are just a few of the teams hoping to see their names on Selection Sunday.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Trevor Mbakwe the sixth-year senior who two years ago led the team with a double-double. Last year the forward was leading the team again to a 6-0 record when he tore his ACL against Dayton ending his season. Minnesota rallied around the loss of their leader by finishing non-conference play with a six-game winning streak to move to 12-1. The team got off to a bad start in conference play, losing four straight games. The Gophers would finish the Big Ten slate 6-12 and eventually fell in the Big Ten Quarterfinals to Michigan 73-69 in OT. The 19-14 Gophers earned a bid to the NIT and they took advantage of it, making it all the way to New York where they got beat for the title by Stanford 75-51.
Another positive for Minnesota was the fact that guys like Rodney Williams, Jr., and the Hollins boys, Andre and Austin got the experience of being “the guy.” Coming into this year the Big Ten was regarded as maybe the best conference in the country. The Gophers would have an uphill battle considering there were three Big Ten teams (Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan) in the preseason top 10, add to that perennial contenders of Michigan State and Wisconsin and it wasn’t hard to see the Big Ten will be a dogfight.
Minnesota has gotten off to a 7-1 start this season including a 5th place finish in the Battle 4 Atlantis where they beat a 19th ranked Memphis squad and got revenge on Stanford for beating them for the NIT title the year prior. The only loss they suffered was to Duke (who may be the best team in the country) in the Bahamas. They then returned to the mainland and beat last year’s ACC Tourney champions Florida State in Tallahassee 77-68. The most positive sign for Minnesota is that they have four players in double figures and none of them are named Mbakwe, but three of the four are the Hollinses and Williams, Jr. If they can avoid the kind of start they had last season in conference play they might be able trade the lights of the Big Apple for the big lights of the NCAA tournament.
Last year everyone was wondering what happened to Jamie Dixon’s Pitt Panthers, in the Big East you could always count on Pittsburgh contending for a championship, they are always playing on the weekend in New York in March. Last season they lose to Long Beach State and Wagner at home and lose seven straight games to begin conference play,huh? What? Pittsburgh? Yep it happened, and to top it off the team lost Tray Woodall to an injury late in the year. Finishing 5-13 in the Big East the team garnered a bid to the CBI Tournament and beat Wofford, Princeton and Butler before tackling Washington State 2-1 in the championship series to take home the title.
For the first time people asked how would a Jamie Dixon-coached Pittsburgh team bounce back from a season of adversity? Well, the coaches picked Pitt 6th in the preseason poll and the Panthers responded by doing something they couldn’t do last season, protect their home floor with four straight wins to begin the season. Then they traveled to familiar surroundings, MSG where they lost a tight game to Michigan in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, 67-62. They bounced back by beating Delaware 85-59 in the consolation game.
Woodall is back and getting help from others including Talib Zanna and J.J. Moore who are averaging a combined 10.6 points a game more than what they averaged last season. Add to that the promise of seven-foot Kiwi center Steven Adams the pieces and potential is there to ride a 6-1 start to at-large discussion. And would anyone doubt Jamie Dixon?
Is Maryland the 2nd best team in the ACC? It is clear Duke is the class of the league thus far, but who is next? A North Carolina team that has lost to Butler and got blown out by Indiana? An N.C. State team that gets beat by 20 by Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, struggled with UNC-Asheville at home and loses to Michigan? What about Maryland? They are 5-1 with the only blemish coming in a season-opening 3-point loss to Kentucky in Brooklyn.
The Terrapins are coming off a 17-15 season where they finished just 6-10 in the ACC were picked 6th in the pre-season poll and have ripped off five straight wins after the loss to Kentucky, the closest of which was a 9-point win over Lafayette. For such a young roster (only two seniors) regardless of who they have beaten it gives them confidence, what also helps is sophomore center Alex Len is averaging over 15 points and nine rebounds, last season the 7-1 Ukrainian averaged just six and five last year. Pe’Shon Howard has struggled so far (just three field goals in five games) but he should get better as the year goes on should get better as the year goes on after returning from injury. Getting Dez Wells, a transfer from Xavier eligible immediately was a big boost for the Terps, Wells is averaging 12 points and nearly five rebounds a contest.
Given the way teams (outside of Duke) in the ACC have stumbled out of the gate, the door is open for Maryland to stake their claim as the 2nd best team in the conference, with no real tests left before conference play they will have to do so against familiar foes.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys finished last season at 15-18 and lost one of their leaders Jean-Paul Olukemi to a knee injury. Injuries have been one on top of another for Oklahoma State, they enter the season thinking ok we lose sharpshooter Keiton Page but everyone is healthy and we have two freshmen guards in Marcus Smart and Phil Forte who have the ability to make a significant impact.
Sophomore forward who averaged almost 10 points per game as a freshman Brian Williams breaks his wrist and could miss the entire season, then the unthinkable happened. In Puerto Rico Olukemi tore up his knee for a 2nd year in a row in an overtime win against Akron. Like Minnesota did when Mbakwe went down, the Cowboys rallied and beat Tennessee and North Carolina State by a combined 37 points en route to the Puerto Rico Tip Off title.
The Pokes have looked to Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown to shoulder more of the load, and they have averaging 34 points and 12.6 rebounds since Olukemi went down. The freshmen Smart and Forte have contributed like the Cowboys thought they would, averaging over 24 points between them for the 5-0 Cowboys who were picked 3rd in the Big 12. The team is once again riddled with injuries, but unlike last year the Cowboys have a much better base to rely on and should be a threat in the Big 12 as the year goes on.
Look for these four teams to not only be improved over last season but see their names on the screen during Selection Sunday.
Honorable Mention: Arkansas