Up-and-Coming College Basketball Programs to Watch in the 2014-15 Season
College basketball teams nationwide have surprising success every year, but there's a difference between a good season and a program on the rise.
Programs seeking to parlay a good year into continued success need an assortment of factors to make it happen. The right coaching hire, multiple strong recruiting classes—or the right transfers—and solid fan support put a school front of mind for analysts and prospects year after year. Media attention gets a school on TV, getting on TV draws players and the circle continues unbroken.
The schools in this list may not have all the factors in place as of today, but there are signs that each can either extend this past season's success or surprise the world in 2014-15.
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Arkansas coach Mike Anderson hasn't taken quite this long to get to an NCAA tournament at either of his previous stops. He had UAB in the dance in Year 2, Missouri in his third and he now enters his fourth season in charge of the Razorbacks.
Encouraging signs are certainly in place for 2014-15. In Bobby Portis (pictured) and Moses Kingsley, Anderson has already recruited as many RSCI top-50 players to Fayetteville, as he did in five seasons at Missouri. And that's if you count Tony Mitchell, who never even suited up for the Tigers before heading to North Texas.
Portis and forward Michael Qualls brought about sighs of relief when they decided to skip the NBA draft. The two were among the Razorbacks' top seven scorers, six of whom return.
Next year's Hogs are almost completely Anderson recruits, including a pair of transfers, forward Alandise Harris from Houston and ex-West Virginia wing Keaton Miles. While there are no McDonald's All-Americans like Portis among next year's freshmen, Anderson did land some intriguing prospects.
Four-star point guard Anton Beard (Little Rock, Ark.) spurned offers from Memphis, Florida and Florida State, among others, to rectify the in-state school's primary weakness from last season. Texas shooting guard Nick Babb drew interest from Creighton, SMU, Gonzaga and Iowa. A 43 percent shooter from deep in his senior season, Babb can certainly help the Razorbacks in that area.
The Hogs were on the cusp of an NCAA bid before late losses to SEC strugglers Alabama and South Carolina. With the conference still shaky next season beyond Kentucky and Florida, an opportunity exists for a program like Arkansas to re-establish itself as a basketball power.
All the opportunities in front of Arkansas are likewise there for SEC rival LSU. Both carried dark-horse NCAA tournament potential before inconsistent play doomed them down the stretch.
Next season's Tigers will look somewhat different, through moves both expected—see Johnny O'Bryant leaving for the NBA—and surprising, as when three players, including starting point guard Anthony Hickey, left the program this week.
Coach Johnny Jones has already made major recruiting splashes in his first year-plus in charge. McDonald's All-American Jarell Martin played reasonably well as a freshman, but classmate Jordan Mickey (pictured) outplayed him, finishing fifth in the SEC in rebounding and ninth nationally in blocked shots.
That pair will be joined by 4-star behemoth Elbert Robinson (7'0", 320 pounds), but the real big fish arrives in 2015. Australian forward Ben Simmons has already given the Tigers a verbal commitment, taking a step that his national teammate—and projected 2014 NBA lottery pick—Dante Exum never did.
The Tiger backcourt will be much less experienced with the loss of Hickey and the graduated Andre Stringer, but it will certainly be bigger and arguably more talented.
Top-20 junior college recruit Josh Gray will battle Simmons' Montverde Academy teammate Jalyn Patterson and 6'5" sophomore Tim Quarterman at point guard, while 6'4" shooting guard Keith Hornsby brings his 37 percent career three-point stroke to the court after two seasons at UNC-Asheville.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the SEC could double this year's three NCAA tournament bids in 2015. Kentucky and Florida will almost certainly hold down two, while LSU and Arkansas appear best equipped to give chase. Once Simmons arrives in 2015, however, he'll bring a whole new spotlight to Baton Rouge.
The name Pitino carries tremendous weight in college basketball, and that was clearly demonstrated when Minnesota chose a coach with only one year at hoop backwater Florida International on his resume. One year later, Richard Pitino has an NIT championship trophy and most of the team that won it returns.
Six of the Gophers' top nine scorers are back, led by rising senior guards Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu. The duo combined for more than 25 points, six rebounds and six assists per game, with Mathieu ranking in the Big Ten's top 10 in both assists and steals.
None of Minnesota's incoming recruits are rated higher than three stars by 247Sports, but Pitino's biggest successes may lie in the guys he fell just short of getting.
Even though Pitino was late in arriving for the chase, he kept UM in the running for in-state stars Reid Travis (Stanford), Rashad Vaughn (UNLV) and Tyus Jones (Duke). Those top-100 talents are the kind that Minnesota hasn't landed since Royce White and Rodney Williams arrived in 2009. Before that, we'd have to go back to...Kris Humphries, maybe? Rick Rickert?
Minnesota isn't a state that produces a ton of in-state talent, and most of the best recruits in the school's recent history have come from within the borders. The Pitino name, however, should open some doors, especially if the Gophers can get a bump from the NIT title into the NCAA tournament.
Athletic director Norwood Teague, who oversaw a basketball renaissance at VCU, is preparing to renovate many of the school's facilities. In March, the Star-Tribune reported that ground-breaking on a football practice facility is scheduled for December, with a similar building for basketball next on the schedule as funds become available.
Completion of that building will provide even more ammunition for Pitino, as he tries to sell his vision to athletes in and out of his newly adopted home state.
OK, maybe we're a year late here on Nebraska. When a program that's historically been an also-ran in two different conferences ponies up for a brand-new arena, it's a good sign that a commitment has been made to basketball.
Pinnacle Bank Arena bore witness to only one loss in 2013-14, and that was a last-minute heart-breaker to Michigan. It's already become an intimidating stronghold, thanks to the crowd-rousing efforts of coach Tim Miles.
Miles' Twitter exploits are becoming legend, with his latest goodwill gesture to Husker Nation taking the form of grabbing lunch with two random dudes simply because they asked. Glad-handing fans is always a valuable skill, but Miles wouldn't have put the Huskers back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 if he wasn't procuring talent.
Lincoln is sort of like a rich man's Ames, Iowa, far enough off the beaten path that Nebraska will have to become a tremendously sexy program to draw elite freshmen. So like Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, Miles is making a living on the transfer wire, attracting All-Big Ten performer Terran Petteway from Texas Tech, center Walter Pitchford from Florida and power forward Leslee Smith from junior college.
A pair of 3-star freshmen are joining the program this fall, New Jersey point guard Tarin Smith and Oklahoma City center Jacob Hammond. New Orleans wing Jordan Cornish, a former Tennessee commit, is also on the Huskers' radar, but none of these three look like program-changers.
All that said, the 2014-15 season is pivotal for the long-term growth of Nebrasketball. The Huskers are already getting some too-early top-25 love and could make a push for the title in the Big Ten, where the usual suspects (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) have lost a lot of talent recently. Success in that endeavor could bring even more excitement to Lincoln in future years.
The Atlantic 10 has scored 11 NCAA tournament bids over the past two seasons, putting it firmly on the national radar. Most of the six teams that went to the Big Dance this past March, however, will need to reconfigure after losing some important talents.
Rhode Island seems like an odd candidate for improvement, since it also lost a primary piece in leading scorer Xavier Munford. However, everyone else returns to a program that's doubled its win total since coach Dan Hurley arrived from rebuilding his first program at Wagner.
The Rams return A-10 co-Freshman of the Year E.C. Matthews, building around him a core of transfers and relatively unheralded freshmen. Matthews produced 21 points and nine rebounds in a January upset of LSU, then racked his first career double-double with 20 and 10 in a win over Dayton.
Before Hurley ever coached a game at URI, he brought in wing Jarelle Reischel from Rice, point guard Biggie Minnis from Texas Tech and power forward Gilvydas Biruta from Rutgers. Biruta averaged 10.6 points and seven rebounds last season, and the other two became solid bench performers.
URI may sport one of the best groups of post players in the A-10 if forward Jordan Hare completes his intended return to the team. The 6'10" Hare, who left school in October to handle family matters at home in Michigan, averaged 5.2 points, four rebounds and 1.8 blocks as a freshman in 2012-13.
Hare, Biruta, junior Ifeanyi Onyekaba (15.2/14.9 rebounding percentages, per Ken Pomeroy) and rising sophomore Hassan Martin (6.3 points, 5.7 rebounds) will be joined by junior college big man Earl Watson, who fell one class short of being admitted to Wichita State last fall.
Backcourt depth needs some help, but Hurley is close to clinching the services of 4-star shooting guard Jared Terrell, formerly committed to Oklahoma State. Terrell is said to be down to Boston College and URI, while Pitt has also come in with a late offer.
Hurley is proving adept at procuring talent by all possible means, and that stands as a sign of good things to come as long as he's roaming the sidelines in Kingston.
We expected that Larry Brown would do something impressive with the SMU basketball program, as long as he stuck around long enough. What we didn't expect is that SMU would make a Top 25 cameo and push for an NCAA bid in only Year 2.
Year 3 should be even more fun for the resurgent Mustang fan base. Much of last season's nucleus returns, and Brown was able to secure a potential program-changing recruit in the nation's top-ranked point guard prospect, Emmanuel Mudiay.
Mudiay will get the opportunity to play alongside rising junior star Nic Moore in what could prove to be the American Athletic Conference's best backcourt tandem. That's hefty praise in a league with the guard-loaded Connecticut Huskies lying in wait.
Last year's hyped recruit, McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier, struggled to adapt to college ball, but he did shoot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. He'll likely provide capable bench support for Moore and Mudiay.
Power forward Markus Kennedy joined Moore on the All-AAC team, earning a second-team selection for his 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. With the departure of Louisville and its star, Montrezl Harrell, Kennedy almost certainly enters 2014-15 as the American's best post player.
Between ponying up the cash to hire Brown and the $40 million in renovations to Moody Coliseum, the SMU administration has demonstrated its commitment to basketball. Brown put the program in the national spotlight before he even won a game, but if he keeps procuring talent at this rate, the Mustangs will be able to sell a lot of recent success alongside their coach's lengthy and distinguished resume.
A program moving up into what could be a major-level conference is a hugely positive step. Doing so in the midst of a coaching transition can often be a recipe for disaster. Tulsa's biggest accomplishment in the early days of Frank Haith's tenure may be in keeping last season's talented, sophomore-laden nucleus around to compete in the American as juniors.
Four starters return for the Golden Hurricane, including All-Conference USA guard James Woodard (pictured). Woodard averaged 23.3 points per game in Tulsa's run to the conference tournament championship. Woodard and classmates Rashad Smith, Shaquille Harrison and D'Andre Wright give TU the pieces to compete immediately in the new league.
Haith has so far kept his stars in town, heading off the usual transfer exodus that frequently accompanies coaching changes at this level. For a program that has lost multiple transfers over the past few seasons—most notably Eric McClellan to Vanderbilt and Jordan Clarkson to Haith at Missouri—this is a sign of some excitement over the new boss.
SMU, UConn and Memphis should remain among the class of the American, but there is certainly potential for a newcomer like Tulsa to step into the top four.
Questions will always linger long-term, thanks to Tulsa's challenging academic standards and tiny enrollment. However, coaches like Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith and Bill Self have made Tulsa a mid-major power at various points. Haith has more coaching credentials than predecessor Danny Manning did when he was hired, so the potential is there for him to add his name to that distinguished list.
Had Utah taken even the slightest risk in its nonconference schedule last season, the Utes could have slipped into the 2013 NCAA tournament. Victories over doormats like Lamar, Ball State, Texas State and a pair of non-Division I foes had all the nutritional value of a Twinkie deep-fried in lard and raw sewage.
By season's end, Utah recorded 21 wins, went .500 in the Pac-12 and discovered a player who should have gotten some All-American support.
Guard Delon Wright led the Utes in all five of the major counting stats, even blocks. He finished third in the Pac-12 by shooting 56.1 percent from the floor. His 2.5 steals per game ranked 11th nationally. The 6'5" JUCO transfer could have been a first-round NBA draft pick, but he's back for his senior season.
Nearly all of the other Utes are also returning, including rising junior wing Jordan Loveridge. Never a shooter of deadly efficiency, Loveridge's regression in his sophomore year was even more noticeable when compared to the oft-unstoppable Wright, who made 63.3 percent of his two-point shots. Loveridge could contend for All-Pac-12 honors if he improves his ugly 40 percent career shooting rate.
Point guard Brandon Taylor frequently freed Wright up to play off the ball, and center Dallin Bachynski—younger brother of former Arizona State center Jordan—should be primed to play more than 18 minutes per game this year.
Perhaps the greatest excitement on this year's roster may be reserved for 4-star in-state freshman Brekkott Chapman. The 6'8" forward is a skilled shooter and offensive player who'll need to add bulk to handle major-conference rebounding battles.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak has improved the Utes from six to 15 to 21 victories in his three seasons, and he's found a nucleus willing to buy in defensively. Utah ranked 36th in the nation in defensive efficiency last season, per Pomeroy (free link). This is a program that has had its moments in the sun, even in conferences like the WAC and Mountain West. As a Pac-12 member, the ceiling is high.
Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.