No two NCAA Tournaments can ever or will ever be alike. That's a beautiful thing.
As we gallop toward March -- it's almost here! -- we can scope the scenery of the sport and spot a set of schools who are successfully spinning their seasons for the better. All of the teams listed below did not make last season's NCAA Tournament. Many of them have gone more than a half-decade without dancing.
But now they're on pace. The major-conference teams listed are all single digit seeds in Jerry Palm's latest Bracketology analysis. If you're a single digit seed at this point, you're not prime bubble material. You're cozily in the mix. And as for the mid-major teams, all schools below are currently projected into the bracket. Of course, league tournaments are sure to muck up this picture.
Here are most of the biggest program overhauls in college basketball this season. There are 15 teams that apply. That's nearly a quarter of the projected field at this point. A lot of new blood is coming to the 2018 tournament, meaning the field of 68 is going to have a different vibe and updated appearance.
Don't be surprised when most of these schools show up in the bracket 20 days from now.
Record last season: 15-18 | Record this season: 19-7 | Current seed: 5
The last time the Sun Devils earned a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament was 2006, when Herb Sendek coached ASU to a No. 6 seed. That season was also the last time Arizona State won more than 22 games in a season. ASU has at least six games left -- potentially many more -- so it's got a great shot at its best overall season in a very long time. Bobby Hurley is in his third season with the Sun Devils and has been able to win big thanks to a veteran, three-guard, senior-oriented attack. Tra Holder, Kodi Justice and Shannon Evans have been the stars, with freshman guard Remy Martin stepping in to help.
The Sun Devils are borderline lock status at this point thanks to wins in the non-league slate over Kansas, Xavier and Kansas State. At this stage last season? ASU was 12-14 and doomed to miss an invite to a postseason tournament. Because of the turnaround, Arizona State rewarded Hurley with a five-year extension that will jump to $2.1 million annually this July.
Record last season: 18-14 | Record this season: 23-4 | Current seed: 2
The Tigers are clinging to a No. 2 seed after their loss at South Carolina. But the fact you can even write that previous sentence is outrageous. has already been said and unparalleled season of greatness so far, yet it can't be emphasized enough. The Tigers were an OK SEC team last season, and now they've built up a consistent case as one of the 10 best teams in college basketball. That's been true of Auburn hoops maybe twice before in the past 100 years.
Now, things will get interesting here in the coming weeks, and no, I'm not referring to Pearl's job status. Auburn lost its leading rim protector and ace shot-blocker Anfernee McLemore in that South Carolina game. He dislocated his left ankle and fractured his tibia; he's done for the season. Auburn was already small to begin with, so a swoon could be coming.
Record last season: 17-16 | Record this season: 20-6 | Current seed: 3
Like the Tigers of Auburn, these Clemson Cats have made a leap from average-esque to rarely seen success. The Tigers need one more win to reach 10 in the ACC, which would mark only the sixth time Clemson's won 10 games in league play. And like Auburn, Clemson's managed success despite not having its full roster available. Brad Brownell's best all-around player is Donte Grantham, who went down with a season-ending ACL injury in January. Junior point guard Shelton Mitchell missed Clemson's home loss to Duke because of a concussion.
If you're looking to see how Clemson's broken through this season -- after little was expected -- check out the veteran play. The starting five in November was all juniors and seniors. Clemson's not deep, so that group built up a top-10 defense. The Tigers will make the NCAAs for the first time since 2011, and in doing so, Brownell will hold on to his job.
Record last season: 21-11 | Record this season: 21-5 | Current seed: 9
The American is looking like a three-bid league, which is not what the conference was thinking would be the case back in October. Still, its top three teams are all ranked. Houston hopped into the polls this week after beating Cincinnati and winning at Temple last week. The Cougars have one of the key offensive players in the conference in senior shooting guard Rob Gray, who would be lethal if he could only bump his 3-point shooting numbers into the high 30s.
The Coogs are in year four under Kelvin Sampson, and no doubt this is his best team yet. The program hasn't made the NCAAs since 2010. Houston's not the total turnaround like a lot of other programs on this list, but to only have five losses entering the last week of February is undeniably a big jump.
Record last season: 18-14 | Record this season: 23-5 | Current seed: 12
With Wichita State out of the Valley, Loyola has stepped in and taken in advantage in year one of the post-Shockers era. The Ramblers, coached by Porter Moser, are 13-3 and have lived up to the hype. Coaches in the conference anticipated Loyola would be the best team in the league. The team got off to a 10-1 start and made its loudest statement with a road win at Florida on Dec. 6. For the most part the non-conference schedule hasn't been respectable, but given the way Loyola's won in MVC play, it certainly is setting itself up well for a good seed if it can take the automatic bid.
In fact, if Northern Iowa doesn't steal the auto bid at Arch Madness, 2018 will mark the first time since 2011 that the MVC tournament was won by a team not named Northern Iowa, Creighton or Wichita State. Loyola has never won it; the Ramblers joined the Valley in 2013, replacing Creighton after the Jays joined the Big East. Loyola's last NCAA Tournament appearance: 1985.
Record last season: 8-24 | Record this season: 18-9 | Current seed: 7
Only one program on this list both hails from a major conference and is on track to make the NCAAs as a single-digit seed after having a single-digit-win season last year. The Tigers are doing just fine in their first season under Cuonzo Martin, who has done this despite only having potential top-five NBA pick Michael Porter Jr. available for two minutes -- the entire season.
The Tigers are 8-6 in SEC play. With two more wins, it will be the first time since 2012-13 that Mizzou's won 11 games in the conference. No coincidence that 2012-13 was the last time the program was in the Big Dance. A huge game awaits this Saturday: Kentucky, in Rupp Arena. If Missouri wins, it will complete a sweep of UK for the first time in school history. Even if that doesn't happen, Tigers fans are embracing an unexpectedly nice ride after the Porter news the first week of the season sent them searching for answers from a higher power.
Record last season: 16-17 | Record this season: 22-5 | Current seed: 13
Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy and Steve Prohm all had seasons in which they coached Murray State to two losses or fewer in Ohio Valley competition. Matt McMahon's on the verge of joining them in his third season as coach. The Racers were abnormally mediocre last season -- Murray State is almost never below .500 at the end of a season -- and now things have snapped back into place. The Racers are 14-2 in league play with two games remaining (both on the road). The offense and defense have made big year-over-year improvements.
This team is allowing opponents to make just 30.5 percent of their 3-point attempts, which is top-10 in the sport. Yes, Murray State needs to be under strong consideration for a first-round upset if it winds up on that No. 13-line come Selection Sunday.
Record last season: 18-14 | Record this season: 22-5 | Current seed: 16
Richie Riley's team went 7-11 in the Southland last season. Now it's 12-2 and ranks No. 1 in effective field goal percentage on offense and defense. Senior combo guard Roddy Peters is a usage monster but he is doing what needs to be done. Peters is averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and is shooting 53 percent from 2-point range.
The Colonels, who are based in Thibodaux, Louisiana, last made the NCAA Tournament in 1998. They won't get a lot of pub, but given that we've got them in the field as the auto bid winner from the Southland, it's only right to note the job Riley's done. The Southland Tournament is going to be wild, though. Four teams are within two games of Nicholls State in the loss column.
Record last season: 6-22 | Record this season: 20-6 | Current seed: 15
Potentially the biggest turnaround from a win total perspective in college basketball this season. The Gauchos have gone from six-win team and the cellar of the Big West to elbowing with UC Davis, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton for the top of the leaderboard in the league. Joe Pasternack is in his first year coaching this program. Pasternack is a former assistant of Sean Miller's at Arizona.
He's had quite the dramatic past seven months, to be frank. First, the FBI probe, which affected Arizona and therefore obviously became a part of Pasternack's existence for a time. Then he was affected by the wildfires and mudslides in and around his community in the late fall. And on Jan. 13, UCSB was in Hawaii for a game. That was the same day as the infamous false alarm missile alert.
Record last season: 16-16 | Record this season: 19-7 | Current seed: 4
The Volunteers were expected to finished 12th, 13th or 14th in the SEC. Ha! Rick Barnes is instead keep an overlooked streak alive. Since 1994, Barnes has never gone three straight years of missing the NCAA Tournament. In fact, he's danced almost every year since then, coaching at Providence, Clemson, Texas and now he'll take Tennessee there. The Volunteers have a pair of strong leaders and underrated players in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
Barnes prides himself on his defense, yet here's the thing. In league play, Tennessee rates second in offensive efficiency and eighth on the other side of the floor. The Vols were good on defense for much of the non-conference slate, but that's slipped some here. So keep an eye out, because if UT actually starts playing like the top 10-ranked defense that it is at KenPom.com, it's going to make the second weekend of the tournament.
Record last season: 18-14 | Record this season: 22-5 | Current seed: 3
So many programs on this list that were also featured in a story I wrote for CBSSports.com last week.who, at the time, were ranked in the top 20 of KenPom. Most of those coaches/teams also made the NCAA Tournament selection committee's in-season top 16 list. TTU's Chris Beard obviously being one of them. Give that story a read; I think you'll take away something different from each team. There is no way one to making a surprising season materialize.
With TTU specifically, the Red Raiders are in good position to finish atop the Big 12 standings. And fortunately Keenan Evans' toe is only a day-to-day injury. Evans was hurt in Tech's loss at Baylor on Saturday. He's got a good shot at being First or Second Team All-America.
Record last season: 17-15 | Record this season: 22-7 | Current seed: 5
The Buckeyes were on top of the Big Ten standings for a hot minute there, but OSU losing back-to-back games against bubble team Penn State and no-longer-a-bubble-team Michigan, OSU will have to settle for second place on the ledger at the moment. This of course is fully welcomed by Bucks fans, who probably didn't even think the Buckeyes would make the NIT this season. Chris Holtmann, like a lot of coaches on this list, is in his first year taking over a new program.
Keita Bates-Diop is an All-American candidate. Jae'Sean Tate is one of the best seniors in the Big Ten. C.J. Jackson has gone from problematic turnover machine to being one of the more reliable guards in the conference. It's hard to explain all of this. Holtmann and his staff have a touch for doing more with less. This is truly a honeymoon season.
You want a fun read?, when Holtmann let met tag along behind the scenes and document at the PK80.
Record last season: 11-20 | Record this season: 16-10 | Current seed: 7
Yes, look at that record from 2016-17. Oklahoma had a hangover season after losing Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler, all of whom got the Sooners to the 2016 Final Four. Now Oklahoma's getting a lot of criticism over its six-game losing streak and Trae Young's drop back to earth. But it's still a much better situation compared to a year ago. The Sooners have gone from irrelevance to being one of the most talked about teams in college basketball.
And if Young snaps back to his prior form, this team will be the most captivating one to watch in the NCAAs.
Record last season: 13-15 | Record this season: 19-7 | Current seed: 16
The Quakers are rolling in year three under Steve Donahue, sitting at 9-1 and tied atop the Ivy with Harvard. But Harvard was 18-10 last season. Penn was sub-.500 and finished 6-8 in the league. Now the Quakers are trying to end their longest tournament drought since 1970. The last time Penn made the field was 2007, which came at the end of a run in which the Quakers won the Ivy League seven times in a nine-year span.
The Ivy League is in its second year of a having a four-team playoff for its automatic bid. So this could wind up benefitting or biting Penn in the rear. Donahue has had success in the Ivy, you'll recall. He coached that Cornell team that made three straight tournaments and reached the Sweet 16 in 2010.
Record last season: 18-15 | Record this season: 21-7 | Current seed: 14
We wrap it up with some love for the MAAC. Rider is not a league power in the MAAC, of course. The Broncs have never even won the auto bid out of this league. The school's last appearance in the Big Dance was 1994, when Rider paid rent in the Northeast Conference.
The Broncs are coached by Kevin Baggett, who's in his sxth season but has kept the program fairly solid since he got there. In 2016-17, Rider was 18-15 with a 10-10 record in the MAAC. But you compare that to now, and clearly this team qualifies among the biggest year-over-year improvements in mid- or small-major basketball. The Broncs lead the conference at 14-2, bolstered by sophomore wing Dimencio Vaughn who, to steal a baseball term, is a five-tool kind of player. The tournament's fun when it can include small programs who are either in the Big Dance for the first time ever or are snapping decades-long draughts since they last got there. Rider applies -- it plays with speed. Rider is a fun No. 14 seed, potentially.