When the preseason NCAA men's basketball top 25 comes out, we will inevitably see Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas at the top, with Villanova, Florida, Virginia, Gonzaga and others who have become NCAA Tournament and Final Four regulars, right behind them.
From possession to possession, minute to minute, game to game, and season to season, the fortunes of teams can change on a dime. It is likely that one or more teams in that top 25 will miss the tournament entirely, while others who may not even be on the radar in November, will earn NCAA Tournament appearances. Also, history tells us that missing the NCAA Tournament one year, doesn't equate to missing it the following year. In fact, we are often searching for those teams that will not only be better, but are capable of making a serious run come March.
Which teams will fit that mold come March 2020 and which teams are capable of not only making the tournament after missing it last year, but making a run all the way to the Final Four in Atlanta? In the past nine years, we have seen five teams make the Final Four after missing the NCAA Tournament the year prior -- VCU (2011), UConn (2014), Syracuse (2016), South Carolina (2017), and Loyola-Chicago (2018). Of those teams, UConn is the only one to make it the championship game, which it ultimately won.
Here are five teams that are positioned to do the same in 2020.
I am all in on Travis Steele and this Xavier team this season. The Musketeers finished the 2018-19 season with a 7-3 mark in their final 10 games, including an overtime loss to Villanova in the Big East Tournament semifinals, and an overtime loss at Texas in the NIT. But Xavier also had wins over three NCAA Tournament teams in St. John's, Seton Hall, and Villanova in that stretch and was playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
Xavier finished the season with a modest 19-16 overall record and went 9-9 in the Big East. The Musketeers endured a tough seven-game losing streak in January, including home losses to Providence and DePaul--two teams at the bottom of the conference last season.
Xavier's big advantage this season is its experience. The Musketeers return their top four scorers from last season, including juniors Naji Marshall (14.7 ppg) and Paul Scruggs (12.3), as well as seniors Tyrique Jones (11.3) and Quentin Goodin (11.0). They also bring in graduate transfers in 6-foot-8 forward Jason Carter from Ohio and 6-2 shooting guard Bryce Moore from Western Michigan. Carter averaged 16.5 points per game last season for the Bobcats, adding both size and scoring ability, while Moore, who sat out last season due to an ACL injury, averaged 9.8 points per game as a junior, shooting 39% from behind the arc. Newcomers Dieonte Miles, Dekeyvan Tandy, Zach Freemantle, Daniel Ramsey, and Dahmir Bishop, lead a top-25 recruiting class, and we could see Miles and Tandy make an immediate impact.
Xavier will have to figure out how to deal with the loss of Zach Hankins, who led the Big East in field goal percentage, and was a defensive force in the paint for Steele's squad. If Xavier is going to make that next step and not only make the tournament, but make a serious run to Atlanta, it will need to improve immensely on the defensive end. According to KenPom, it was ranked 56th in adjusted offensive efficiency, but were 101st in adjusted defensive efficiency. This is another area where Moore will help the Musketeers. The graduate transfer was named to the MAC all-defensive team as a junior.
For Xavier to reach Atlanta, it will not only need to improve defensively, but also improve upon its shooting percentage from the 3-point line, where it ranked 244th in the country last season. That said, the Musketeers will have plenty of experience in their rotation to go along with terrific new additions. They will need to get off to a hot start. Their non-conference schedule isn't a bear, as they should be 9-0 heading into their Dec. 7 showdown with Cincinnati.
Heading into the second season in Steele's system, I expect Xavier will make a serious run at a Big East Championship and will be a trendy Final Four pick come March.
If we learned anything about Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway this offseason, it's that he can flat out recruit. Hardaway is bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports.
The Tigers finished last season with a 22-14 record overall, and went 11-7 in the American Athletic Conference. The marquee win escaped them, however, and following a strong run to the conference tournament semifinals, the Tigers earned an NIT bid, ultimately losing to Creighton in the second round.
Hardaway will welcome seven in the incoming class, which includes top-ranked James Wiseman, as well as Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, DJ Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge and Damion Baugh. It is likely that Wiseman, Achiuwa, and Jeffries will be quickly implemented into the starting lineup, with Ellis and Baugh right there competing for starting roles. Baugh had a terrific international trip for the Tigers, and will see significant minutes as a freshman.
The Tigers lose their top two scorers from last season in Jeremiah Martin and Kyvon Davenport, but will return sophomore guard Tyler Harris, who led the team, while setting a school freshman record with 79 3-pointers. Harris is the only returning player who was in the top-five in scoring for the Tigers last season.
Beyond the influx of talent, Memphis will have early opportunities to see exactly how they stack up on the national stage. The Tigers will host a much improved Georgia team, who will also have a top-10 recruiting class led by Tom Crean, while playing Tennessee, Ole Miss, Oregon and NC State as well.
Memphis is different than any other team on this list. The Tigers won't be relying on experience, because the fact is they have very little. We are used to seeing John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski in this situation, but not Memphis. The same question remains: how quickly will the Tigers learn to play together? The Tigers will have challenging games in the non-conference, which is critical, and they will need to win a couple of those games. The AAC will also offer its share of challenges with the likes of Cincinnati, Houston, Wichita State and UConn, but wins in November and December matter, especially for young teams.
Memphis has multiple NBA-level guys in this class, especially in the frontcourt. We saw last season that it can be difficult to win with freshmen in March, but we've also seen Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 go out and win it all. If I need to pick one team on this list to make it to Atlanta, it's simple: that team is Memphis. It is one of the most talented teams in the country.
NC State Wolfpack
After posting a 24-12 record last season, including a 9-9 record in the ACC and an ACC Tournament win over Clemson, the Wolfpack were on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament and will look to return this season. The selection committee didn't exactly look highly on the Wolfpack's' record last season and they had to settle for an NIT bid, ultimately bowing out to Lipscomb. They finished 36th in the final NET rankings, and while 11 at-large bids went to teams ranked below them in the NET, there was just one team ranked above them also left out: NIT champion Texas.
The issue? NC State's nonconference schedule was ranked dead last in all of Division I -- that's 353rd. The ACC offers a myriad of opportunities, but they didn't take advantage against the likes of Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State. The Wolfpack will need to get at least one of those games this season and their nonconference schedule will also be more challenging. Beyond traveling to Auburn and hosting Wisconsin, whom they played last season, they will travel to Greensboro to play UNC Greensboro and will play Memphis at Barclays Center.
Kevin Keatts brings back a wealth of talent, specifically in the backcourt, led by Markell Johnson. The senior point guard is one of the best in the country. C.J. Bryce, Braxton Beverly, and Devon Daniels are also key returners. Their biggest area of improvement will be in the frontcourt. Keatts struggled to find consistency there last season, but the additions of graduate transfers in 6-10 Danny Dixon (UMKC) and 6-8 forward Pat Andree (Lehigh) should reap rapid rewards. Both big men, especially Andree, can stretch out and make shots from 3-point range. Add redshirt freshman Immanuel Bates to the mix, and the Wolfpack frontcourt is much improved.
The Wolfpack are a serious candidate here to go from out to Atlanta. They have experience to couple with young talent led by incoming freshman Dereon Seabron and redshirt sophomore Atticus Taylor. Keatts' pressing defense can cause difficulties for teams without much time to prepare. The difference maker is Johnson. He is an elite point guard who will have plenty of opportunities to lead the Pack to big wins this season.
Providence is going to make the Final Four this season, because it has Ed Cooley as coach and no other team does.
OK, it isn't that easy, but when Cooley pulled his name from the Michigan search, and was rewarded with an extension to stay in Friartown, it marked the beginning of the next chapter for the Friars. In eight seasons, Cooley has led the Friars to the Big Dance five times, winning just one game -- a last-second win over USC in 2016. That could all change for the better, as Cooley returns one of the most intriguing rosters in the Big East.
Cooley will return his top four scorers from a team that finished 18-16 overall and a lackluster 7-11 in conference. That group is led by senior guard Alpha Diallo, who averaged a team-high 16.1 points, junior center Nate Watson and sophomore guards A.J. Reeves and David Duke also return to the lineup. The key addition comes as a graduate transfer in UMass guard Luwane Pipkins. Pipkins, who averaged 16 points per game last season, including a 36-point performance against Harvard and a 26-point performance against Cooley's team, will profoundly improve a Friar offense that ranked 164th in offensive efficiency according to KenPom.
Pipkins will be in his first season at Providence, but his value can't be understated. The Friars struggled to find consistent production at the point guard position last season, as scoring was often at a premium and ball security was an issue. Their assist-to-turnover ratio was just over 1:1 (491 assists to 445 turnovers). Pipkins presence should help Diallo, Reeves and especially Duke move more into their natural positions, while becoming better, more efficient scorers.
For Cooley and the Friars to return to the NCAA Tournament, they need to take advantage of some opportunities in the Big East schedule. They also have important nonconference opportunities when they take on Florida in Brooklyn and Texas in the Dunkin Donuts Center.
Beyond their schedule, scoring and ball security will be key. They shot just 32.6% as a team from 3-point range and 69% from the free-throw line. That isn't going to cut it. I expect all of these areas will be significantly better.
For me, the two keys are Diallo and Duke. Along with Reeves and Watson, they helped the USA win the Bronze Medal at the Pan American Games this summer. Diallo has proven to be one of the best players in the Big East while Duke is coming off a season in which he was named Co-Freshman of the Year in the conference. Their improvement, to go along with an experienced roster (just two freshmen), and a focus on defensive prowess (41st in defensive efficiency last season), the Friars should return to the Big Dance.
Plus, these guys seem to love playing for Cooley. That can always help carry a team in March.
This Harvard team has the ability to be special. While a Cinderella run to Atlanta is a long shot, the Crimson are a mid-major team that should be on everyone's radar.
They return key players in seniors Bryce Aiken, Chris Lewis and Justin Bassey, to go along with sophomore Noah Kirkwood. Coach Tommy Amaker, who has done a terrific job recruiting at Harvard brings in a talented group of newcomers, but the most anticipated return will be that of senior Seth Towns. Towns sat out last season with a knee injury and could be one of the best players in the Ivy League this season. The 6-7 forward, who held offers from schools like Michigan, Xavier, Purdue and Ohio State, could be the difference maker that Amaker's squad needs.
We've seen Ivy League teams succeed in the NCAA Tournament in years past, including some of Amaker's squads, as Harvard posted wins in both 2013 and 2014, as a No. 14 seed and No. 12 seed, respectively. In 2016, Yale beat Baylor as a No. 12 seed and in 2010, Cornell made it to the Sweet 16.
Harvard lost in the Ivy League title game to Yale last season in New Haven, Connecticut, after beating the Bulldogs twice during the regular season. This season, Harvard will host Ivy Madness. It's possible that Harvard could be in line for an at-large bid with a strong non-conference performance, but it's likely their NCAA Tournament fate will come down to Ivy Madness weekend in March, and that weekend just happens to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts.