Another Unpredictable Season

David Chavez, Contributor

The college basketball season has arrived, and the Associated Press preseason Top 25 is filled with powerhouse programs like Kentucky, Duke, and Arizona. These top teams are all expected to shine during the season and contend for conference and tournament championships, as well as the national championship. However, there will be many surprises and disappointments throughout the season. The charm of college basketball is its unpredictability. Across the country, teams will try to create that unpredictability by surprising us all. Here is a breakdown of teams primed to be surprises. These teams may have high expectations and will exceed them or have lower expectations and will surpass them by a large margin.

#19 Michigan State (1-0)

Michigan State lost significant personnel to graduation and the NBA. Floor general Keith Appling graduated while Gary Harris and Adreian Payne were drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft. The Spartans reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament but the season was a little disappointing due to the talent and experience the team had. This season, Coach Tom Izzo will not have the high expectations from last season, but the Spartans can still be successful and surprise many despite their losses. Holdovers Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice will lead the Spartan attack. Trice is an efficient point guard that can shoot from the perimeter while the 6-5 Valentine is a playmaker that can create offense for the team. Forward Branden Dawson, who missed 10 games last season, is a capable scorer and will have to replace Payne’s production from last season. Matt Costello and freshmen wing Javon Bess will also have to contribute big. After Wisconsin, the Big Ten is wide open. The Spartans could be in play to finish in the top two or three in the conference. Izzo-led teams are usually efficient and disciplined. If that pattern continues, Michigan State will be able to compete with the top teams in the country.

 

Notre Dame (2-0)

Notre Dame struggled in their first season in the ACC, finishing with a 15-17 record. The Fighting Irish will be looking to improve their win total this season, which will be made easier by the return of guard Jerian Grant. Grant was suspended last season, and the Irish struggled without him. With Grant in the fold, Notre Dame could turn in a solid season this year. Notre Dame also returns senior wing Pat Connaughton. Both players are seasoned veterans who will try to carry the Irish. Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson and canter Zach Auguste will have their roles expanded. Jackson underperformed last season playing off the ball but he will be playing the point this season. Guard Steve Vasturia and Austin Burgett will also be key contributors. If they have step up, Coach Mike Brey can exceed expectations and finish in the top half of the ACC.

 

Northern Iowa (2-0)

While Wichita State will get all the attention in the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa has a team that will contend for the league’s championship. Northern Iowa teams have been known for their stingy defense under Coach Ben Jacobson, but the Panthers were less than stellar on that side of the ball last season. That was the primary reason for their 16-15 record, despite averaging 72.8 points per game. The Panthers will continue to have that offensive firepower this season, led by Seth Tuttle. Tuttle is the premier low post player in the league. He averaged 15.4 points per game last season. Tuttle will be surrounded by senior guard Deon Mitchell and senior forward Nate Buss. Both averaged double digits the previous year. Northern Iowa will also have sharpshooter Matt Bohannon contributing from behind the arc. Mitchell will be a key player to bring stability on both ends of the court. If the Panthers can improve their defense, they will have a highly skilled team that could potentially challenge Wichita State for the league title. They could also earn a NCAA Tournament berth, which would be their first in five years.

 

St. John’s (2-0)

St. John’s 2013-2014 season was chaotic. Coach Steve Lavin started 12 different players last season and had to handle the off-the-court issues of some of his top players like shot blocker Chris Obekpa and point guard Rysheed Jordan. This season projects to be less volatile. The Red Storm return leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison, who averaged 17.5 points per game last season. He will be paired with Jordan, and form a dynamic backcourt duo. Obekpa will be a force on defense, and the additions of Junior college transfer Keith Thomas and prep star Adonis Delarosa will help offset the departure of second leading scorer JaKarr Sampson. The Red Storm have plenty of talented players, but will they be able to put it all together? If Lavin is able create team chemistry and keep his players focused on basketball, the Red Storm could find success throughout the season and ultimately in March.

 

Providence (2-0)

The Friars were a huge surprise last season. After being picked to finish last, Providence won the Big East Tournament title, their first in 20 years. So can the Friars do it again? Providnece will be without guard Bryce Cotton, who graduated. Cotton was the Big East Tournament MVP and averaged 21.8 points per game. He also provided tremendous energy on defense. Kadeem Batts is also gone and sharpshooter Josh Fortune transferred to Colorado. Coach Ed Cooley will try to duplicate last season’s success with a new crop of players. It will all start with LaDontae Henton. The senior forward blossomed during the Big East Tournament, averaging 17 points and more than 12 rebounds per game. If Henton can continue that type of production, the Friars will have a much easier time winning. 7-0 Carson Desrosiers, 7-2 freshmen Paschal Chukwu, and top 100 recruit Ben Bentil will join Henton in the post. That could make up a powerful frontcourt rotation. Guard play is a question mark for the Friars. Kris Dunn, the former McDonalds All-American, has been plagued with injuries in his college career. If he can stay healthy for a full season, The Friars could be a legitimate contender in the Big East once again.

 

Florida Gulf Coast (2-0)

Florida Gulf Coast is best remembered for their run to the Sweet 16 in 2013. Last year, the team shared the Atlantic Sun regular season title but lost in the tournament championship game to Mercer and missed out on a return to the NCAA Tournament. That Mercer team would go on to upset Duke in the Big Dance. The Eagles return 9 players from last season’s 22-13 team. The Eagles will be led by senior guards Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer, perhaps the league’s top two players. Thompson is the school’s all-time leading scorer and both players averaged double digit points last season. With the departure of Mercer and East Tennessee State from the conference, FGCU is left as the king of the conference. The Eagles are remembered for their performance in 2013, but this year’s team could be better. They are a mid-major to look out for in March.

 

UCLA (2-0)

Coach Steve Alford and the UCLA Bruins are coming off a successful season where they finished second in the PAC-12 and fought their way to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament last season. However the Bruins lost 5 major contributors from last season, most notably Kyle Anderson, Zach Lavine, and Jordan Adams. All three were selected in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft. UCLA may be inexperienced but their roster is filled with talented players. UTEP transfer Isaac Hamilton, who sat out last season, has become familiar with Alford’s system during that time. The former McDonalds All-American will share the backcourt with steady point guard Bryce Alford. The Bruins will also rely on freshmen forward Kevin Looney. One of the most touted recruits in the country, Looney has averaged 18.6 points and 11.5 rebounds in his first two games of the season. The competition will stiffen but UCLA could surprise in the PAC-12 if the newcomers can step up. If they do, they will be a team to look out for.

 

#25 Utah (1-0)

Utah is not known for their basketball program but that will change at least for this year. Utah could be the biggest threat to Arizona in the Pac-12. The Utes are led by star point guard Delon Wright. Wright is a star in the making who fills up almost every statistic on the box score. He can beat defenders of the dribble with ease and get to the rim. If he can improve his three point shooting, Wright could become nearly unstoppable. Utah also has a deep team surrounding Wright. Jordan Loveridge will man the small forward position while Dallin Bachynski, Jeremy Olsen, Jakob Poetl, Chris Reyes and Brekkott Chapman will fight for minutes in the post. Wright’s ability to play both guard spots will also give Coach Larry Krystkowiak room to play with lineups and rotations. The Utes will be a team to watch because of Wright, but they could also surprise and contend for the Pac-12 title.

 

UTEP (1-0)

The UTEP Miners played admirably last season after three players were dismissed form the school in January due to accusations of betting on sports. At one point they were at the top of the Conference USA standings at 10-2 in the league. The Miners, however, lost four of their last seven games of the season. UTEP is looking to rebound from last season’s disappointment and it looks like they will. Coach Tim Floyd could have the best team UTEP has had since he took over the program in 2010. The Miners will have four returning starters, particularly forwards Julian Washburn and Vince Hunter. Washburn is a defensive wizard, who has been a two-time member of the conference’s All-Defensive team. As a freshmen, Hunter led the team in scoring in league play and won C-USA Freshmen of the Year. Both forwards will be in the conversation for the league’s most valuable player. The Miners also return Matt Willms and Cedrick Lang, who will be major contributors in the frontcourt. A key for the Miners will be guard play, but senior guard C.J. Cooper and a handful of newcomers will try to fill those roles. The Miners have length which will help them have a stellar defense. UTEP’s talent and skill in the frontcourt could propel them to a C-USA championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

 

#12 Villanova (2-0)

Yes, Villanova is ranked no.12 in the country. A team ranked that high is unlikely to catch people by surprise but Villanova continues to be an underappreciated team. The Wildcats were dominant last season, and had a record of 29-5. Two of those losses were to Creighton. There are several teams ranked ahead of them with far more question marks. Villanova has four returning starters from that squad along with a key player off the bench. It all starts with point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. The floor general had only 48 turnovers all of last season. If he can be just as efficient and provide a little bit more scoring, Villanova will make some major noise in March. Coach Jay Wright also has Jay Vaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, who both averaged 14 points per game last season. Hilliard was named most improved player of the Big East last season, along with 6-11 Daniel Ochefu who also returns for the Wildcats.  Villanova is expected to win the Big East but is rarely in the conversation of potential national championship contenders. Regardless of the attention, Villanova is a team that can make the Final Four.

 

West Virginia (2-0)

For the second straight year, Coach Bob Huggins and West Virginia missed the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers will try to end that streak. They will be led by senior guard Juwan Staten, who was the Big-12’s most improved player last season when he averaged 18.1 points per game. Staten is a dynamic and physical guard who can score and create for others. There is room for improvement with his perimeter shooting, but if Staten can produce like last year, the Mountaineers will be a formidable foe for the top teams of the conference. West Virginia lost their second and third leading scorers from last season but Huggins could have a better team as the team’s chemistry should be improved. Redshirt freshmen Elijah Macon and Rhode Island transfer Jonathan Holton will man the frontcourt. If Macon and Holton can find success in the post, which the team lacked last season, the Mountaineers will have a more balanced team which will lead to more wins. If the players surrounding Staten adapt to their roles, West Virginia will be much improved and make the NCAA tournament this season.

 

 

David Chavez may be reached at [email protected]