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Mike Anderson, Arkansas among teams looking to take a leap next season
No program last season was more ascendant than UConn, even if the Huskies didn’t look the part until the final six games of the season.
The Huskies were banned from the NCAA Tournament in 2013 due to low APR scores. They came back to go 12-6 in the American, a solid if unspectacular performance by UConn standards.
Then came the Shabazz Show as Napier led UConn to one of the most unlikely national championships since the Tournament field expanded.
Following up that kind of rise will be tough, but there are a handful of candidates of teams that could turn a disappointing 2013-14 into a surprising 2014-15.
Here are our top 12 contenders for programs on the rise for the upcoming season.
College Basketball Teams on the Rise in 2014-15
Talent hasn’t been the issue for Mike Anderson’s teams at Arkansas. For whatever reason, the Razorbacks haven’t been able to put together an NCAA-worthy season. That may change this season as the Hogs return six of their top seven scorers including the inside-out duo of forward Bobby Portis and guard Michael Qualls. After struggling on the road in Anderson’s first two seasons, the Hogs started to prove they could win away from Fayetteville last season.
For the second consecutive season, Georgia was the team no bubble team in the SEC wanted to play. The Bulldogs went 12-7 in the league, but they lacked the non-conference resume to be a legitimate NCAA contender. Maybe that changes this season. After getting hit with untimely early entries to the NBA Draft, Mark Fox has his top five scorers returning.
Gonzaga had a typical Gonzaga season in 2013-14, 29 wins, a West Coast Conference title and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament. The record, though, was somewhat hollow. Gonzaga defeated one top-50 team all year (BYU, twice). With a solid backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. plus the arrival of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga will have top-10 potential.
The Illini won six of its last nine Big Ten games including the league tournament. Not a bad turnaround for a team that reeled off eight consecutive Big Ten losses at one point. After a lost year, John Groce has rebuilt his roster around returners Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. He’ll add another round of transfers and a top-50 freshman forward, Leron Black, to the mix this season.
How could Kentucky be a team on the rise after reaching the national title game? Well, with nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster and now experience, Kentucky should have a more consistent season from beginning to end after last year’s freshman-laden team lost 11 games last season.
The Hurricanes lost nearly every key player from the team that won the 2012 ACC title. Help was on the way, even if it was delayed a year. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClendon (Texas) will be eligible. Don’t count out coach Jim Larranaga, who coaxed an 8-12 ACC season out of last season’s short-handed team.
One starter, Austin Hollins, is gone from the NIT champions. The Gophers still have Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, a duo who helped Minnesota defeat Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa to get onto the NCAA Tournament bubble in the first place. The Big Ten doesn’t figure to be the gauntlet it has been in the last two seasons, so Richard Pitino’s team could take a significant step forward after going 9-11 in the league in his first season.
How can the Cornhuskers’ top last last season when Nebraska reached its first NCAA Tournament since 1998? With the way Nebraska finished, it’s easy to forget the Huskers were 9-9 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten on Jan. 23. With Terran Petteway returning and only one significant departure (guard Ray Gallegos), Tim Miles’ team is set to carry the momentum from last season into 2014-15.
Not much went right in Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC. The Irish played the entire conference schedule without Jerian Grant, who was averaging 19 points per game before he was an academic casualty. The normally stable Irish went 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the ACC, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. With Grant returning alongside senior Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame should top 20 wins in 2014-15.
The NCAA selection committee snubbed the Mustangs, but Larry Brown’s team figures to make the in-or-out decision easier this time around. SMU reached the NIT final last season with just two seniors on the roster. The returning cast alone would make SMU worth watching, but the Mustangs add freshman point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The 6-5 point guard from Arlington could be an All-American and one of the top prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft.
After two subpar seasons, including an early loss to Houston in the 2013 CBI, Texas is in the midst of a resurgence under Rick Barnes that once seemed unlikely. The Longhorns return every key contributor from a team that went 24-11 and finished third in the Big 12. More important for Barnes’ long-term hopes, the Longhorns are pulling major in-state recruits again with the arrival of freshman center Myles Turner.
Larry Krystkowiak has led one of the most impressive turnarounds in the the country in the last three seasons. When he started at Utah in 2011-12, Krystkowiak took over a roster with only four returning players for the program’s first season in the Pac-12. After going 6-25 in his first season, Utah has improved to 21-12 in his third. With Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge leading a now-veteran team, Utah will push for a winning record in the Pac-12 and its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009.