Louisville, NC State and Maryland among the 12 hardest teams to gauge this season

Projecting how teams might perform in the regular season is an inexact science. You can use advanced statistics and prediction models, but in the end you're still hitching your guesses to 18 and 19-year-old's fresh out of high school in many cases. So it's a difficult task — and even more so in the case of the 12 teams we're looking at today.

From most difficult to least difficult, let's take a look at which teams are particularly hard-to-gauge entering the 2017-18 season.

The Cardinals had all the makings of a top-10 team before the recruiting scandal last month that led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, and also put in jeopardy the eligibility status of former five-star prospect Brian Bowen. Louisville could be a top-10 team, but it's hard to overstate how big a deal losing a coach like Pitino is for the program -- and what the scandal has done to the psyche of those still on the roster is an even bigger question mark. Oh, and not to mention the FBI is still digging into the school regarding the recruiting scandal.

New coach Kevin Keatts is replacing the Pack's top 3 scorers from last season, including 2017 NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr., and high-volume scorer Terry Henderson. However with Abdul-Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven, Torin Dorn and Markell Johnson returning, the roster appears strong enough to compete at a high level in the ACC. Factor in graduate transfer Allerik Freeman and incoming freshman Lavar Batts, and it's easy to be bullish on this team. But Keatts is relying on a lot of production from newcomers and unproven commodities which could either turn completely sideways or make him look like a total genius when it all comes together.

The Melo Trimble era lasted so long, it's hard to imagine just how the Terps will lookout with him running the point. Sophomore Anthony Cowan returns after averaging 10.3 points and 3.7 assists per game last season which will solidify the backcourt for Maryland, but it's still hard to imagine Mark Turgeon's team being better this season without one of its most productive players in program history. Cowan and Justin Jackson form a dynamic inside-out duo that could totally surprise teams in the Big Ten and outplay their preseason projection of tied for fifth.

New coach Brad Underwood has to replace the top three scorers from last season, but with a top-30 incoming recruiting class and a graduate transfer ready to start in Mark Alstork, the Illini have the makings of a formidable squad on paper. It's too early to tell if the hodgepodge roster, however, will be able to come together to win big in Year One of the Underwood era. His track record of success leads me to believe Illinois could overachieve and be an NCAA Tournament team, despite the awkward blend of pieces on the roster.

Bruce Weber went from hot seat to safe (and a two-year extension) after a late-season turnaround that included a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament and a win in the Big Dance. This season, though, K-State isn't likely to be among the field of 68 with leading scorer Wesley Iwundu off to the NBA. The X-factor here could be Kamau Stokes, the team's leading returning scorer who made a leap as a sophomore last season. If he and Barry Brown can emerge as the go-to guys on offense, K-State will be fine. But both had were somewhat erratic in terms of their production last season, which means the Wildcats have boom or bust potential.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton inherited preseason All-Big 12 first team talent Jeffrey Carroll when Underwood left for Illinois, but with his new role, he also inherited an ongoing FBI investigation that has cast a cloud over the program. The Cowboys are picked to finish last in the league, and while the talent is there to outperform that projection, the FBI's probe and uncertainty that comes with it makes OSU one of the hardest-to-gauge squads in the country.

Which UConn will we get this season? Will it be 2013-14 UConn, a Kevin Ollie-coached team that made a run through the NCAA Tournament to secure the title as a No. 7 seed? Or will it be a repeat of the 2016-17 season, a largely disappointing campaign plagued by injuries -- and the first losing season since 1986-87? Rodney Purvis is gone, but back is leading scorer Jalen Adams, a dynamic guard who can score it and distribute the rock. It's still anyone's guess where they might finish in the AAC, though. And it's likely to be down closer to the bottom than the top of the standings with the addition of Wichita State in a suddenly top-heavy league that no longer features UConn as its darling.

New coach Mike Rhoades inherits a nice roster abandoned by Will Wade, but it's hard to imagine VCU -- a program now installing its third coach since Shaka Smart since 2015 -- will continue chugging along at its elite level success it has enjoyed over the past few years. The emergence of Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure this season could mean a step back for the Rams -- or it could be another season in which VCU competes for an A-10 title.

Gone is big man Justin Patton, but Marcus Foster, a former K-State transfer, is back for his senior season to continue his reign as the Bluejays' leading scorer. Rising junior Khyri Thomas will be the yin to Foster's yang, but there's still plenty of question marks mainly at point guard and at center. Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph could be the guy to take over at floor general duties, and former four-star center Jacob Epperson might take over down low. But that's a lot of unproven commodities for a team looking to improve on its middle-of-the-road finish in Big East play last season. There's also a lot of talent that suggests Creighton and Greg McDermott might be on the verge of getting over the hump.

As my esteemed colleague Matt Norlander noted this week, the Cardinal are a chic breakout pick in the Pac-12 with Reid Travis, the team's leading scorer from a season ago, back for Jerod Haase's squad. Stanford is picked to finish fifth in the preseason Pac-12 poll, ahead of Arizona State and Utah and just behind a retooling Oregon team. Because of the rebuild both UCLA and Oregon is facing, Stanford could finish as high as third in the Pac-12. But its inability to score it from beyond the 3-point line and a subpar field goal shooting percentage from last season is concerning, and could easily be a big enough concern to project the Cardinal much lower. Stanford will need to win with a superior defense and on the back of Travis; last season, though, Stanford's defense ranked 65th nationally in adjusted efficiency.

The Bulldogs lose leading scorer and assist man J.J. Frazier, which is a blow to the offensive production which ranked right in the middle of the SEC last season. With Yante Maten (18.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) back for his senior season, Georgia has a chance to reach the NCAAs. But Maten won't be able to go it alone, and Derek Ogbeide, a little-used big man who averaged 7.1 points last season, is the team's No. 2 returning scorer. A lot rides on the shoulders of returning point guard Tyree Crump, who was used only sparingly last season, to lead the Georgia offense. That's got to be a concern for Mark Fox, but to take a word from the great Michael Jordan, the ceiling is the roof for this Maten-led crew if they get reliable point guard play.

The national runner-up from last season lost its core including Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Matthews, Zach Collins, and WCC player of the year Nigel Williams-Goss. But the Zags are still plenty intriguing, with Josh Perkins and Jonathan Williams primed to make a leap into larger roles, as is all-name first team candidate Killian Tillie. With Saint Mary's and Jock Landale more equipped to battle for a WCC title this season, however, there's a scenario -- albeit, worst case -- in which the Zags miss the NCAAs altogether. There's also a chance Mark Few's crew makes it to the postseason as a dangerous double digit or high single digit team in the Big Dance. Considering Few hasn't missed the NCAAs since 1999, the latter seems more likely. But just how good this team can be is going to be difficult to peg with no proven stars and no known identity like last season's team.

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