Coaches explain how their teams went from preseason nobodies to Final Four hopefuls

The NCAA Tournament selection committee's in-season reveal of the top 16 teams in college basketball provided plenty of room for discussion, reaction and -- of course -- criticism. 

(If that's what you're looking for, be sure to check the latest episode of the Eye on College Basketball Podcast.)

But let's look at that top 16 again. Notice anything unusual about it? 

If the tournament started today, the bracket would be loaded up top with non-traditional programs that weren't expected, and certainly not predicted, to be there a couple of months ago. Every college hoops campaign births unforeseeable plot twists, but it's been a long time since so many high seeds were set to go to schools that were unranked outside of the top 25 at the start of the season. 

Virginia as a No. 1, Auburn as a No. 2, Texas Tech and Clemson as No. 3s, Ohio State, Tennessee and Oklahoma on the No. 4 line. That's 44 percent of the top 16. 

None of those teams were in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.

Let's remove Oklahoma from the discussion, though. Many disagreed with the committee's decision to put an eight-loss team on the No. 4 line, which: fine. If you take the other six, though, and throw in a seventh team -- the 21-5 Nevada Wolf Pack -- those are seven squads that were not only unranked in the preseason, but they're also currently ranked and, as of Monday, all were slotted 19th or higher at KenPom.com. (Oklahoma's 31st.)

Certainly a surprising seven. How has this happened?

CBS Sports interviewed the coaches at all of these programs over the past few days to get a better sense of why the masses and metrics were wrong about their teams, what the coaches knew months ago that others didn't and what has surprised those coaches as well. Consider this a cheat sheet for your bracket a month from now, regardless of where this teams end up being seeded. 

RECORD: 22-3 | Projected seed: 2 | RPI: 7 | KenPom: 9 

Bruce Pearl has previously coached at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee and Tennessee. He set the single-season wins record at each program. Now he's eight wins away from doing it at Auburn despite losing two of arguably his three best players for the season due to the FBI's investigation into college basketball recruiting. 

So maybe we shouldn't be so surprised? 

I spoke to Pearl for this story last week. We also got to talking about how his team has been able to go from 18-14 and not playing in a postseason tournament to being in contention for a 1 seed. He noted that his team only has three losses in non-conference play the past two seasons -- one of the best out-of-league records in college basketball in that span. 

"You've got to be competitive before you can be good, before you can really win," Pearl said. "This is not a one-hit wonder. ... They want to say we came from nowhere. No. We had a bunch of freshmen last year, we have eight guys back, and nobody's approached it that way." 

On the 10-year anniversary of his time at Tennessee, the 2007-08 season in which he got the Vols to No. 1 and won 31 games, I asked Pearl about any potential parallels with that team and this one. 

"Tyler Smith at Tennessee and DeSean Murray now, both undersized for their positions," Pearl said. "Bryce Brown is similar to what Chris Lofton did for us. There's J.P. Prince and Mustapha Heron, a left-handed 3 man. There's some comparisons there, I think, yeah."

Pearl isn't totally thrown by this start, though. He's gone to a small-ball approach, sort of a positionless offense, and it's led to Auburn leading the SEC at 10-2 and boasting the No. 6 offense overall. 

"We are executing and taking the right shots in our offense at the end of the shot clock," Pearl said. "That's something we struggled with last season." 

The most surprising factor for Pearl could be his team's resilience through the league schedule. When I spoke to him in mid-December, Pearl was a little anxious to see how his players would respond a month into the SEC schedule. They've done so with aplomb, and now a huge game Wednesday night vs. wounded Kentucky awaits. 

RECORD: 20-4 | Projected seed: 3 | RPI: 4 | KenPom: 15 

Brad Brownell hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since his first season at Clemson in 2011. Yet the Tigers responded to losing a 2017 NBA draft pick in Jaron Blossomgame by getting a lot better -- and almost certainly saving Brownell's job in the process. 

"That's a possibility for sure, no question about it," Brownell said when I asked him job security and what could have been. "I never worried about it too much this year because I felt confident in our team. It's been a process here. I've talked about how we've had a couple of -- I've had to deal with some things. I think we were really ready to turn the corner (in 2014-15), then K.J. McDaniels turned pro. We weren't in position to withstand something like that at the time. Fighting the facility war for 5-6 years here, and doing every  fundraising event and raising money and enough interest." 

After having to play in Greenville, South Carolina for a year while renovations were made, Clemson finally got its new basketball facility in 2016. The team was out of its locker rooms and normal building for a 20-month span. 

"There's been a lot of things in that eight-year period that have been more challenging maybe than I realized when I took over," Brownell said. "Creating facilities, creating interest in our program. Making people care about basketball at Clemson. We really thought last year's team was going to be a team that could break through. We fell a little short. I would like to think our administration saw good things ahead."

It's been almost all good, though here's the surprise for Brownell: Clemson hasn't lost a step despite losing its best player. The Tigers were 16-3 in games that featured Donte Grantham, their best player. But on Jan. 20 against Notre Dame, Grantham tore his right ACL. Clemson lost its next game at Virginia but has won four straight since. 

"We felt really good about our starting five, and we knew moving Grantham to the 4 spot he would play better than he had played there the previous year, when we had Jardon," Brownell said. "Grantham's ability to pass the way he could, we really knew he was going to shine at that position, and being around the glass more."

Clemson, which lacks depth, has an experienced starting five. Like many teams on this list, it's balanced, too. Five players, including the no-longer-active Grantham, average double digits in scoring. Elijah Thomas' post play has been an understate component to Clemson's bump this season. He's held his own while playing center despite standing at 6-foot-9. 

The other factor? Clemson's winning close games. It's 6-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, which is a change from last season's litany of tight losses. With one more conference win, it will mark just the sixth time in program history the Tigers have won 10 league games in a season. 

RECORD: 21-5 | Projected seed: 8 | RPI: 15 | KenPom: 19 

Eric Musselman's got the best team in the Mountain West, and had his best player (Caleb Martin) not gone down in Nevada's 86-78 loss to UNLV last week, the Pack would be much closer to locking up a bid. 

Nevada's an aberration on this list. The other six teams weren't ranked in the preseason because they weren't expected to compete for their league's title. Nevada just lacked enough votes in October to crack the poll; it was considered the Mountain West favorite after making the NCAA Tournament last season as a 12. 

The component to success here is Musselman's varied background and how he works well by putting odd-shaped parts together. He's been an NBA coach, a D-League coach, been an assistant the league and most recently cut his teeth in college as an assistant at Arizona State and LSU before taking the Nevada job in 2015. He's gone the transfer route and is thriving. Caleb and Cody Martin were previously at NC State. Jordan Caroline started at Southern Illinois. Kendall Stephens came over from Purdue. Hallice Cooke was formerly at Iowa State. TreShawn Thurman was at Omaha. More are currently sitting out their redshirt seasons and will be on the floor for 2018-19. 

"People kind of forgot about them, so to speak," Musselman said. "When people looked at our roster and saw Cam Oliver, D.J. Fenner and Marcus Marshall all graduate, those were three of our key components scoring ... and so people kind of felt like we had a lot to make up for in scoring and so forth. We knew Lindsey Drew would get better and I think a lot of guys jumped from their sophomore year. Obviously Jordan Caroline was a key component last year."

Musselman wasn't certain the chemistry would work though. At Mountain West media day he said his team was overrated because he didn't know for sure that this would work. In that respect, going 21-5 has been a surprise. 

"From a coaching perspective and having coached in D-League, I'm used to players coming and going," he said. "For us, integrating new players is not like I've got a lot of years of college experience where I'm used to getting a freshman and grooming the guy. To have an influx of changing rosters is really how I was raised. If you're coaching in the NBA and your GM makes a trade, you might not be part of the trade. With my background, I'm used to trying to figure out a way to integrate a new group of players, I guess. From a chemistry standpoint it didn't affect us at all." 

Nevada lacks depth, though. Foul trouble can plague this team, as evidenced in 104-103 double-OT loss to Wyoming on Jan. 24. 

The bad news for the Mountain West: Musselman has always pinpointed year number four as the breakthrough season. This is another step forward, he said, but 2018-19 will be the leap. 

RECORD: 22-5 | Projected seed: 4 | RPI: 16 | KenPom: 11 

"No way I could I have expected this," Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann told me.

Yeah, and he said that four hours before Ohio State beat Purdue on the road.

Holtmann is a bit of a loving pessimist at heart, the kind of coach who refuses to jinx his team by overstating their outlook heading into any season. This goes back to his time at Butler, but this time it was totally valid. The Buckeyes were an average team last season (17-15) and the roster was uninspiring, or at least it seemed so. Now Holtmann's got the team on top of the Big Ten standings. It's borderline unfathomable and also why Holtmann's arguably the leading candidate for National Coach of the Year.

So what made him think some success was likely? 

"It's unrealistic to expect this kind of start in league play, but I did feel good early on in those months about the leadership of Jae'Sean Tate an Keita Bates-Diop," Holtmann said. "That was my first sense and my staff's first sense that these guys are legitimately about the right things. They were really hungry because they're going into maybe their last year -- certainly Keita, maybe Jae'Sean." 

Holtmann said he didn't probe former Buckeyes coach Thad Matta too much, out of respect, but did recall Matta mentioning that guard play would be a determining factor for the season. And so it has. Andrew Dakich, C.J. Jackson and the currently suspended Kam Williams have exceeded expectations. Remember, OSU lost Braxton Beverly after Matta was fired. At the time, that was viewed as a major wound to patch. 

"We were concerned about our guard depth even with Braxon Beverly in the fold at the very start," Holtmann said. 

Jackson's consistency has been the biggest surprise. He's become a lot better at not turning the ball over. If Ohio State's going to make the Sweet 16, Jackson will need to continue to have a healthy assist-to-turnover ratio. He was benched in Ohio State's home loss to Clemson on Nov. 29. The Buckeyes were 5-3 then. They're 17-2 since and Jackson's been a major reason why. 

With Dakich becoming a reliable defender and being a spot shooter, it's allowed for OSU to have just enough offense to support its extremely good defense. Williams leads the team with 46-percent 3-point shooting. Bates-Diop is in the mix to be an All-American. OSU's performance is a convincing testament to Holtmann and his staff's acumen for coaching and adaptability.

RECORD: 18-6 | Projected seed: 4 | RPI: 13 | KenPom: 12 

I asked every coach what they knew in the preseason that the media and computers didn't. Volunteers coach Rick Barnes was more blunt in his answer than any other.

"It's not that sophisticated," he said. "I don't think you or anyones else knows our personnel. I don't watch enough basketball to be really good at doing the same with other teams. No one really knows. People do the easy thing and go traditional. Coaches are just as guilty. Your job [of predicting conference standings] is almost impossible."

Tennessee is not a traditional pick for SEC champion, yet here are the Volunteers with a 4 seed and a likely future in the NCAA Tournament. It would be the best seed for the Vols since 2007-08, when they were a No. 2. Barnes has a pair of hosses in Grant Williams (15.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Admiral Schofield (12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg). Tennessee ranks top-five in defensive efficiency and has the depth to grind out every minute of a 40-minute game. 

Barnes is also tougher than he looks. He holds his players accountable for how they pride themselves on defense. 

"If they don't play defense the way we know they're capable of playing defense, they won't play," Barnes said. 

Things have clicked in year three all around. And Barnes said there is no room for surprise here. This team is as good as he was hoping for. 

"Coming into the season we felt like we had the depth, and we took a trip this summer that showed us that," he said. "Derrick Walker and Chris Darrington played well [on the overseas trip to Europe]. Every guy we've played significant minutes this season had their moments on that trip."

The Volunteers' seed continues to be helped by that neutral-court win over Purdue at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. It's also beaten a bubble team in NC State and, for the first time since 1999, owns a season sweep over Kentucky. Barnes has been to the NCAA Tournament 22 times. There is a solid case in his favor that he's more underrated, truly, than any active coach with at least a decade's worth of head coaching experience. But in those 22 trips, he's made the Final Four once (2003). Unfair as it may be, he might need one more national semifinal appearance to get his due. If it's to happen, the 63-year-old might not get a better shot the rest of his career than with this team.  

RECORD: 21-4 | Projected seed: 3 | RPI: 12 | KenPom: 8 

If the projections hold and Texas Tech plays to its seed expectation, Chris Beard will coach the Red Raiders to their highest seed in school history. But can you name a player on this team? If not, don't feel all that bad. It's a quality club trying to break through despite its reputation. TTU hasn't often had star players. It's a workmanlike program that is low on college hoops prestige.

But this team is a headache to prep for. And guess what? Beard might actually -- maybe! -- be the coach to finally stop Bill Self's run at Kansas of going 13 straight seasons finishing atop the league standings. Incredible to think that five years ago he was living in  Motel 6 in Myrtle Beach and coaching a semi-pro team. 

Beard is admittedly not a great self-promoter. He apologized for his lack of in-depth answers when I asked what he knew in October that so many others didn't.  

"I just have a lot of confidence in our players and our coaching staff," Beard said. "I think the (preseason) rankings are great for the fans, but there's really no science to it. We've got guys on this roster that have a lot of experience, so we knew we were going be an experienced team coming back. I've always been a big believer in trying to keep your roster old."

Beard made sure to mention how important his staff (Al Pinkins, Chris Ogden, Mark Adams) is. And he, respectfully, takes offense to the notion that he's doing more with less. Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver are freshmen wings who have combined to average 21.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.9 blocks. Smith was ranked 195th in his class, according to 247 Sports. Culver didn't crack the top 300. 

"i respect the question but I think 'unheralded' is a disrespectful to our players," he said. "Both were recruited well by a lot of schools in the league. I don't think our players get respect for how good they are. Tommy Hamilton was a top-100 player. Brandone Francis was a top-100 player who went to Florida to play for Billy Donovan. These guys have done a great job playing together."

Beard's star is senior Keenan Evans, a potential All-Big 12 player. He's right, though. If you're thinking of writing off Texas Tech because of a lack of talent, it's a misguided notion. The team wins with physical man-to-man defense, but six players on the roster have taken at least 50 shots from 2-point range and are better than 50 percent. 

I asked Beard if he had to scout against himself, what would worry him most?

"I would hope competitors would say, 'These guys aren't beating themselves. Never too high, never too low on the floor. If we're going to beat these guys, we have to beat them,'" Beard said. "We don't try to have the best player in the confrnece or the leading scorer in the country. We want an 11 or 12 players leading." 

And similar to Clemson without Grantham, TTU has kept pace in the Big 12 without Zach Smith, who was a preseason All-Big 12 choice. Beard said the broken bone in Smith's right foot, which has kept him out since mid-January, is a week-by-week thing. It's unclear if or when he'll be back. If he does return, the Red Raiders would rightfully have their eyes on an in-state trip to San Antonio for the Final Four. 

"Prince today, frog tomorrow," Beard was quick to note of how fast things can change, then admitted he modified the metaphor from something his former boss Bob Knight once told him. "I think he said peacock today, feather duster tomorrow. Of course i didn't even know what a feather duster was. I think I had to Google it. 

RECORD: 23-2 | Projected seed: 1 | RPI: 1 | KenPom: 1 

This must be unnerving to every coach trying to run down the Cavaliers: "I would love to tell you we invented new ways of doing things, but not really. The core of what we do is pretty much the same. These veteran guys, it's kind of their identity. When it wasn't their turn, they watched Joe Harris, Malcom Brogdon, Darian Atkins, Akil Mitchell, the list goes on. That gave us a good backbone, a good foundation to be alright."

That's Cavs coach Tony Bennett plainly stating there is nothing complicated or secretive about how his team has gotten to be the No. 1 team college basketball. And this successful of a start has been unexpected for him just as it has for you.

"I was uncertain too," Bennett said when asked about his expectations. "We didn't return a double-digit scorer. But we did have reliable guys, in terms of being just rocks for us. Isaiah Wilkins, Jack Salt and Devon Hall, they're the kind of guys that either redshirted or early on were spot players. They had to wait their turns and were quality role players."

Virginia's star players are sophomores Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, but peel back the stats and you'll see how efficient Hall, Wilkins and Salt have been. Champing at the bit for more playing time and damn if they haven't capitalized. Throw in 6-7 freshman De'Andre Hunter, who is already getting NBA buzz, and you'll see the Wahoos are deploying an abundance of wing-type players who combine to play bigger than they are individually. 

"I knew that there was quality but how would it perform when guys had to step into bigger roles?" Bennett said. "I didn't know what to expect. But it's a close-knit team and so connected. They have a clear picture on how they have to play and how we have to play in order to give us the best chances. One of the more united or unified teams I've ever coached. I think we have sneaky-good talent. It doesn't always get the recognition it deserves, but we have good talent. ... Isaiah's one of the best team defenders I've ever had. He takes great joy in being as good of an individual team defender as he can be. Jack Salt is similar, as is Devon Hall."

Virginia is currently, statistically, the most dominant defense in KenPom's 18-year history. Bennett said he was "aware, somewhat, of the stats" but tries not to pay too close attention. Feels it could be a paralysis-by-analysis situation, particularly with this team. 

"I'm so much more qualitative than quantitative," he said. "I think you have some things you can look at. KenPom is amazing and may assistants really dig into that. But you can play a game and play really quality defense and contest shots and guys are hitting tough shots, and you've played a better game than when guys are just off and cold. I think stats can be a little skewed. I don't put a whole lot of stock in that. I think basketball's a little different than perhaps baseball and other things." 

Teams are always off and cold vs. Virginia, though. It's not a coincidence and neither is UVA being a lock to rate as a top-five defense for the fifth time in the past seven seasons. Bennett refuses to buy in totally with metric readings, though. It's kind of amazing. Basic concepts have led to longstanding regular season dominance. 

Will 2018 finally be the year where carryover brings a Final Four appearance? The Cavaliers rank and look like the best team of any listed above. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. This is his 10th season reporting on college basketball for CBS. He also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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