10 hoops teams ready to make NCAA Tournament after missing out last year

It's hard to envision now, but this season's NCAA Tournament is going to have significant changeover from 2017. Be it because of star power coming back, freshman frenzy being introduced to the roster, or the natural maturation process, some teams will be ready to make a leap.

Reasons for their returns to Selection Sunday glory vary, and that's even more of the fun of it. You can get better in so many ways. Of course, schedule winds up being a big component. And this isn't counting small conferences -- only at-large bids -- because their tournaments are hard enough to predict. So here are a batch of 10 teams set to make their grand return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year -- or even longer:

Last NCAA appearance: 2012

Key nonconference opponents: Minnesota (Nov. 25), UCF (Dec. 3), Rhode Island (Dec. 6), Arizona (Dec. 9), Texas (Dec. 22), Oklahoma (Jan. 27)

Considering what the program has achieved, the Crimson Tide's expectations are as high heading into the season as any SEC program. Avery Johnson has a stud freshman point guard in Collin Sexton, who is among the most anticipated first-year players in college hoops. 

But Bama isn't going to be all Sexton, all the time. Fellow freshman John Petty will factor heavily into what's sure to be a fun offense. The Tide finished above .500 in the SEC last season, and Braxton Key was the most consistent reason why. Key's back, and so is another sophomore, Dazon Ingram. Young team, fun team, flawed team -- tournament team.

usatsi-9893844.jpg
Jalen Adams is one of the best point guards in the country. USATSI

Last NCAA appearance: 2016

Key nonconference opponents: Oregon (Nov. 23), Michigan State/DePaul (Nov. 24), Arizona (Dec. 21), Auburn (Dec. 23), Villanova (Jan. 20)

The Huskies have a tendency to disappoint when expectations are high, but that's not the case this season. Sure, Kevin Ollie's team is absolutely expected to take big steps forward after injuries torpedoed any chance of making the 2017 Big Dance, but there's still a lot of wait-and-see with UConn.

If anything, UConn fans are counting on Jalen Adams being the alpha, with plenty of support from Alterique Gilbert in the backcourt. Gilbert missed most of last season, as did Terry Larrier, who I think will be UConn's most important player this season. If those three produce near all-league levels and UConn can get a bump in production from sophomore guard Christian Vital, then Ollie should get this team to the NCAAs with room to spare. UConn gets a good shot for needed nonconference conquests in the Nike-sponsored PK80 tournament.

Last NCAA appearance: 2013

Key nonconference opponents: Iowa State (Nov. 10), Utah (Nov. 16), UCF (Nov. 30), Illinois (Dec. 23)

Tigers fans will not accept anything less than having their team's name called by CBS Sports' Greg Gumbel on Selection Sunday. Cuonzo Martin enters his first season with a lot of steam, having left Cal for Mizzou and lured in Michael Porter Jr., who could wind up battling Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III on mock draft boards from now until the day of the 2018 draft. Porter's the centerpiece -- and he'll be an offensive stat stuffer -- but Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon (both freshmen) and Terrence Phillips (junior) are the other names to know. 

The Tigers have been unwatchable over the past three years. Now they're one of the most interesting teams in the sport -- and I'm predicting they elbow their way into the Big Dance. Look for a huge upgrade on defense. Then there's a tough nonconference slate, which includes the AdvoCare Invitational (not listed above). The Tigers should be a top-six team in a bettered SEC. Let's say ... 10 seed? 

Last NCAA appearance: 2016

Key nonconference opponents: Southern Cal (Dec. 8), Wichita State (Dec. 16), Northwestern (Dec. 22), Alabama (Jan. 27)

The Sooners rode the brilliant offensive firepower of Buddy Hield in 2015-16 to the Final Four, then got stomped out by Villanova in one of the biggest blowouts in national semifinal history. A rebuild was in store last season because OU lost more than just Hield in 2016. But now, in comes Trae Young, a freshman with area code shooting range and a good shot to be the Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 -- if Oklahoma wins up being a top-five team in the conference. At its best, this group could be No. 4. If it fails to put the pieces together (Khadeem Lattin, this must be your year), then maybe seventh in the league. 

I'm betting on OU being top-five in the Big 12, and that's going to be good enough to get back to the NCAAs. Lon Kruger would make his 18th trip to the big stage if the Sooners can reach the field of 68.  The Sooners probably will need to split those four tough nonconference games to put themselves in decent position to get an at-large nod. 

usatsi-9094345.jpg
Jaylen Adams may be the A-10's most dynamic player. USATSI

Last NCAA appearance: 2012

Key nonconference opponents: Maryland (Nov. 24), Yale (Dec. 9), Vermont (Dec. 16), Syracuse (Dec. 22)

There's only one team on this list (Texas A&M) I feel stronger about than the Bonnies. Jaylen Adams is the preseason POY in the A-10 and is someone you'll need to make an effort to watch. But it's not just him. Matt Mobley is also a first team honoree in the preseason in the A-10, making the Bonnies' backcourt the best in the conference. Mark Schmidt could be in line to get his team to the NCAAs -- then land a promotion at a bigger gig come the spring. 

The Atlantic 10's depth is not going to be as good as it's been in many of the past 10 years, so Bonaventure should take advantage of the league from a win perspective, and the nonconference offers up good inventory (Maryland, possibly TCU, Vermont, Syracuse and a solid Yale team). The Bonnies seem like an ideal 8/9 game candidate. 

Last NCAA appearance: 2014

Key nonconference opponents: North Carolina (Nov. 20), Florida (Nov. 23), Kansas (Dec. 21)

With Reid Travis back, the Cardinal are officially the chic breakout pick in the Pac-12. Stanford was picked to finish, solidly ahead of No. 6 Arizona State. The Cardinal return four starters off a team that went 14-17 but was fairly good from a defensive standpoint. It should click this season. Stanford's miserable 3-point shooting (32.3 percent) last season is the one thing to track in November, though. This is a group that's not built to win in modern ways -- Travis might be the best tweener in the country; no other major-conference team has a best player whose game is like his -- but perhaps that works to Stanford's advantage.  

How about this? All of those big nonconference games are on the West Coast, including the PK80 tournament. The UNC game at Maples Pavilion was lined up because Cardinal coach Jerod Haase was a Roy Williams assistant for more than a decade. 

Last NCAA appearance: 1998

Key nonconference opponents: Belmont (Nov. 29), Yale (Dec. 2), SMU (Dec. 5).

The longest tourney drought on the list, but like UCF, TCU mad the final four of the NIT last season. In fact, the Horned Frogs won the thing. In year No. 1 under Jamie Dixon. It's going to be a big year in Fort Worth, because this team brings back basically everyone of impact, something almost no other program on this list can claim. With the reinforcements familiar, that veteran presence is going to be huge in the Big 12. 

You're not used to seeing TCU do much, but the Big 12's going to have something of an up-is-down look this season, including the fact that league favorite Kansas will probably deploy a four-guard offense. TCU's strength will come from deceptively good mid-range ball movement and second-chance points. Mark this team down for at least 23 wins -- and at least a No. 9 seed. What could hurt the cause, if bad losses fester: The schedule is somewhat lacking, though the Emerald Coast Classic could help.

Last NCAA appearance: 2016

Key nonconference opponents: Butler (Nov. 23), VCU (Dec. 5), Michigan (Dec. 12), Alabama (Dec. 22)

Texas almost never misses the NCAA Tournament, but last year was Shaka Smart's worst as a head coach. Andrew Jones returning and Mohamed Bamba (probable top-five 2018 pick) arriving make for a return of Texas-sized expectations. But remember, this team was ranked in the preseason a year ago. Will caution against that, but Kerwin Roach II, Eric Davis and Matt Coleman should all have their moments this season. 

UT isn't going to win the Big 12, but it's got enough flare to pick off a few nice wins and get its named called on Selection Sunday. Given strength of schedule -- including the vaunted PK80 field -- wouldn't surprise me if Texas made the NCAAs similar to how Vanderbilt got in last season. 

usatsi-9893911.jpg
Robert Williams could be a lottery pick. USATSI

Last NCAA appearance: 2016

Key nonconference schedule: West Virginia (Nov. 10), Southern Cal (Nov. 26), Arizona (Dec. 5)

The Aggies also have a tough schedule, and the SEC slate offers up a lot of challenging road games, but the starting five is too good not to think A&M will be dancing. Robert Williams isn't a face you could pick out of a lineup right now, but know that he'll be a top-15 pick next June and likely would have been last June, too. D.J. Hogg will be one of the better stretch fours in college basketball, and Tyler Davis is a matchup problem for almost every team in the SEC. 

This roster, if healthy and jelled, could be one of the most efficient and dangerous on the offensive side in program history. Davis will clean up the trash, and Williams will be wrecking dudes. Prediction: Few teams will have a stronger "better than their record" smell about them than the Aggies. I'm calling a No. 5 seed. 

Last NCAA appearance: 2005

Key nonconference opponents: Missouri (Nov. 30), Alabama (Dec. 3)

They're going to contend with Cincinnati and Wichita State for the AAC regular season title. The Knights are set to be a nightmare on defense, first and foremost because 7-6 Tacko Fall is back. And it's not just that Fall's so tall, but he's become a top-40 player in college hoops; he might average three swats per game this season. B.J. Taylor will probably be a Second Team all-league player, and A.J. Davis is an overlooked piece in the frontcourt that makes UCF so stalwart. 

This group made the Final Four of the NIT last season. The jump will be made in 2017-18. Johnny Dawkins has transitioned into a good situation in Orlando. The Knights' schedule is just tough enough, with the unusual potential chance to play Mizzou twice -- both are in the AdvoCare Invitational a week before their schedule meeting.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

Show Comments Hide Comments
Our Latest Stories