Try as we do, when it comes to preseason forecasts, it's essentially a varied game of guessing. With a lot of teams, we have a strong sense of what to expect because of the personnel coming back, the schedule at hand or the coaching experience said teams have.
But we're all still guessing. And that makes October and November preseason content enjoyable. The musing on the unknown. And the truth is, there are a handful of teams whose 2016-17 seasons are secrets to all of us. The variance for what to expect is pretty wide, and with that in mind, let's check out 10 such schools. To me, these 10 teams are hard to peg with any accurate sense of confidence. The reasons vary. Maybe two or three of these teams rise up and become top-15 good. Maybe a few will have the bottom fall out and struggle to make the NIT.
The reasons why? We can identify a lot of what we know we don't know, if that makes sense. So here are 10 mystery teams as we get ready for the season to start on Friday. In fact, team No. 1 plays team No. 2 on Friday. Apropos.
Ray Smith's college career is over after a third ACL tear in 30 months. Allonzo Trier's eligibility remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle tucked inside an enigma. Chance Comanche's been indefinitely suspended because he's not a good student at the moment. And remember, Arizona originally planned on having five-star prospect Terrance Ferguson in uniform -- before he bolted on the college ideal this summer. So the Wildcats have gone from a borderline preseason top-10-type team to a club with plenty of questions and a lot of youth. There's talent here, but Trier was (is?) expected to be the team's leading scorer. It's all twisting right now.
Arizona's averaged 27 wins in Sean Miller's time with the program. It doesn't seem likely this team will hit that mark in 2016-17, but on the whole, the Wildcats are so hard to peg right now. Freshman Lauri Markkanen, I think, will be a top-five freshman in the country. His newbie teammate, Rawle Alkins, should also shine. Kadeem Allen will be one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12, I'm sure. It could all come together and Trier could be eligible and this team could still figure into the Final Four conversation. But the variance for Arizona's season is fairly wide right now
The Spartans have injury issues in the front court. ( Read all about them here, plus a primer on what to expect in terms of Tom Izzo's roster and rotation.) Because of this, even though a stellar four-man freshman class should boost MSU, the team is going to be light on rebounding, shallow on depth and heavier on zone. Denzel Valentine, who did so much last season, is gone. So is Bryn Forbes -- who made an NBA roster.
Izzo's coaching ability is doubted by no one. But this team is going to look different, truly, from any other he's ever had. It's a small team. Athletic and fun, and has some shooters, but it doesn't have frontcourt experience, nor does it have bigs who are rugged and can battle with most teams' 4s and 5s. MSU will almost certainly be a top-four team in the Big Ten, but really, on a national scope, there's a chance this team isn't top-30 for the first six weeks of the season. Too many unknowns right now, and the schedule isn't light either. Having said that, never count Michigan State out. Another tough one to call.
Coincidentally, MSU opens up on Friday against Arizona. Should be a fascinating game.
Very intriguing. I feel I'm more bullish on the Panthers than most, especially since they're in the oh-so-stacked ACC. My projection: This team makes the NCAA Tournament. But there are a lot of unknowns at play. For the first time in 13 seasons, Jamie Dixon isn't coaching Pitt. His teams were always slow. Now Kevin Stallings comes in with a very different philosophy. How does he use Dixon's players to his own means to an end on offense?
I think the Panthers will be fun but have many faults. The reason they should be interesting to watch: the roster is still stable. Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Damon Wilson and Chris Jones are back. ... And so is Sheldon Jeter, who transferred out of Vanderbilt when Stallings was the coach there. Awkward? I don't know. This has got to be a first though. A player leaves one school only to see his former coach follow him to his transfer spot a year later.
The Illini have dealt with injuries and suspensions and melodrama in the program over the past two years. John Groce is one of only a few true power-conference hot-seat candidates this season. This team has the talent to be a top-36 at-large candidate this year. I know that. Groce knows that. But you could've said that about other Illinois teams, too, and in general this program is mired in mud. Illinois should not be considered a weaker team than Illinois State, yet that's exactly what it is right now. There's too much uncertainty here.
Will Malcolm Hill be a top-five Big Ten player? And will he need to be in order for Illinois to finish in the top half of the league? Tracy Abrams -- will his health not fail him this season? Will the team learn how to rebound on offense, and can it improve its perimeter D? We talk about X factors a lot in preseason content, and Jalen Coleman-Lands, a potential breakout sophomore, fits the description.
The one thing that's not in doubt: Monte Morris' ability as a lead guard and playmaker. The Cyclones might be a surprise on this list for some, but let's look deeper. Returning players, other than Morris, who should have impact: Naz Mitrou-Long (didn't play most of last season) and Deonte Burton. Who's gone? Georges Niang, Abdel Nader, Jameel McKay, Hallice Cooke and Jordan Ashton, the latter two having decided to transfer.
So now guys like Simeon Carter, a sophomore; Darrell Bowie, a grad transfer from Northern Illinois, and Merrill Holden, a grad transfer from Louisiana Tech, will all be chipping in. There's just so much at play here. ISU is being given a lot of credit for Morris and the program's fairly steady transition last year from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm. For me, the Cyclones could be anywhere from No. 20 to No. 45 in the nation.
6. Seton Hall
In ranking the Hall No. 6 overall in our Big East preview, Pirates fans have found me on Twitter to ask, politely, "Why?" Thinking is, SHU loses Isaiah Whitehead and Derrick Gordon and no one else. The group won 25 games last season and earned a 6 seed in the NCAAs. Now it's the sixth-best team in the Big East?
I think it's possible, yes. Because I was exceedingly high on Whitehead and his value to that team. Also, remember that SHU's streaky run to a Big East title vaulted its seeding. Heading into the conference tournament, the Pirates were considered a 9 at best. Losing Whitehead will leave a void I don't think SHU fills this season -- though I'm very much in on Angel Delgado becoming one of the five best players in the Big East this season. Only one time in Kevin Willard's tenure has Seton Hall lost fewer than 13 games in a season -- and it came last year. So, for me, there's a prove-it-again element at play. Can the defense be as good? I don't think so, and there are questions about how reliable the team will be from deep.
But yes, on paper, there is still potential there. We'll see.
If FSU can't get to the NCAA Tournament this year, Leonard Hamilton might take on the moniker of the most underachieving coach in America. The Seminoles would be a top-25 preseason team had this program shown any consistency over the past 15 years. But Hamilton made just four NCAA tourneys (2009-12) in that span, going 3-4 in the process. Hamilton's had six players in that span, and potentially has another three on his roster this season.
The talent is fun. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon and, now, freshman and possible lottery pick Jonathan Isaac make for an enticing trio. But will we see the Noles find traction in an ACC that could be the strongest college basketball conference in history? Florida State should get up and down the floor a lot, meaning fun play but a propensity for turnovers with this group. Here's the crux of it all: I look at what Hamilton has this year and I think "strong 7 seed" come March. Yet if you told me FSU would not make the field come Selection Sunday, that wouldn't surprise me either.
It's all on Melo Trimble. And because it's all on Melo Trimble, that makes Maryland markedly mysterious. Trimble's sophomore season saw his points average, steals average, rebound average, 3-point average and shooting average fall. And his turnover average rose. This came after Trimble was one of the five best freshmen in America during 2014-15. Does he become a top-15 player of value this season? If so, the Terps will cruise into the NCAAs.
If not, then it gets really interesting. Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Robert Carter, all crucial bigs form last year's squad, have moved on. Damonte Dodd will be asked to do more, and a player named Ivan Bender will be thrown into the mix. Jared Nickens is a tweener forward-type who will probably need to become Trimble's Robin. Dion Wiley can have a breakout season, potentially. There's just so much left to be discovered with this team.
The team was thrown into some chaos more than a month back, when Mike Lonergan was fired after an independent investigation wound up corroborating many allegations that were first made public by a revealing expose in The Washington Post in July. The real concern for the coaches who remained: Would Tyler Cavanaugh stick around? He did -- he had little choice, given the timing of the firing and how close it was to the start of the season.
Cavanaugh, in my estimation, will be a top-50 player in the country this season. But now Maurice Joseph, an interim coach and a young one at that, takes over the program. Had Lonergan stayed on, perhaps the team's issues would've persisted. Now we just don't know what to expect. This team won the NIT last season. It has a positive practice environment and a new sense of energy, including Jaren Sina's important role in the offense. But the schedule is going to be a challenge, and the team lacks a lot of experience. Overcoming that and having Joseph call the shots means GW could be anything from a 15- to a 25-win team this year.
The team's style is going to be drastically different because Tubby Smith's X-and-O approach is about six genres removed from how Josh Pastner coached the Tigers. That switch alone means Memphis is going to be tough to forecast. The Tigers held on to Dedric Lawson, who was a top-15 freshman in America last season. He'll be needed. But what will this team's offense look like? And can Smith do for Memphis this season what he did with Texas Tech last year? Smith was on the short list of coach-of-the-year candidates due to his 19-11 season with the Red Raiders -- a six-win improvement from the season before.
At its core, with its recruiting area, local support, facilities and standing inside the American, Memphis should be a no-doubt-about-it top-40 program in America. Right now, the Tigers are straddling that line. Can they break back to being closer to what John Calipari made them? Smith's coaching ability is not doubted by anyone in the profession. As for this year, the adjustment makes for a season as unpredictable as any other team on this list.