Ten college basketball teams on track to end droughts and make their return to the NCAA Tournament in 2019
The longest drought dates back to 2005; the Big Ten and Pac-12 have the most representation below
A lot of fan bases will have their thirsts quenched on March 17, 2019. That's Selection Sunday. It's 156 days from this story's publication date.
It'll be here sooner than you think.
And when the field of 68 is released, a lot of programs will be in that bracket that a) weren't bracketed in 2018 and b) in many cases have gone years or even decades without dancing. That's always a fun part of March, to see schools and their bases rallied by getting back into the fun of it after one, two, three or 10 years away. Who's going to be a part of that this season? I've got a good feeling about 10 teams.
Here's a drive-by preview on the squads with really good chances of getting back to the promised land. I went. I think I'm beating that mark this season. Teams are listed in order of tournament drought length. And for the more cynical side, I did submit a cluster of 2018 tournament invitees .
Last NCAA appearance: 2005
Key nonconference opponents: Potential games vs. Saint Joseph's and West Virginia (Myrtle Beach Invitational Nov. 15-18), vs. Alabama (Nov. 29 in Orlando), at Missouri (Dec. 2)
Of the three teams I missed on last year, UCF is the only one I'm going back to the well for. (Sorry, Stanford and UConn, just not seeing it for 2019.) The Knights might be the best squad in the American this season. B.J. Taylor, who only played in 16 games last season because of injury, is back. He's a critical lead guard, someone to complement the unique size dynamic of 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, who's now a senior. The schedule isn't too tough or too easy -- it's just right. The school's football team has ridden a wave of good pub for its performance last season and this one. Now the basketball team is ready for a closer look. Johnny Dawkins figures to have one of the finest defensive squads in college basketball.
Last NCAA appearance: 2009
Key nonconference opponents: at Dayton (Nov. 30), vs. Clemson (Dec. 8 in Newark), vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 15), vs. BYU (Dec. 29)
It's hard to go a decade in a major conference without even backing into the NCAA Tournament once. But Mississippi State's done that. In 2018-19, there's no excuse. Ben Howland's Bulldogs will be picked anywhere from second to fifth in the conference this season, making MSU an obvious choice to end its Big Dance drought. The noncon schedule isn't great, but there's enough there, I think. Plus, the SEC sets up as a six-, seven- or maybe even eight-bid league for 2019. Quindarry Weatherspoon is MSU's best player, but more importantly, this team brings back its top six guys. After winning 22 games last regular season, it's hard to envision the Bulldogs even as a double-digit seed. I'm thinking it lands a 5 seed come Selection Sunday.
Last NCAA appearance: 2011
Key nonconference opponents: at Auburn (Nov. 9), at Gonzaga (Dec. 5), vs. Virginia Tech (Dec. 15 in Atlantic City)
Mike Hopkins has everything set up well for him in year No. 2 in Seattle. The out-of-league schedule is plenty respectable and the Huskies have a trio of fine players -- seniors Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle, sophomore Jaylen Nowell -- to guide them to a 25-win season. Keep an eye on Nowell, who cruised under the radar last season but is arguably one of the five most talented and productive sophomores in college basketball. Washington should break through this season not just because of the core returning, but because UW has the potential to be a top-30 team on defense. Accomplishing that in a major conference usually correlates with getting into the NCAAs.
Last NCAA appearance: 2014
Key nonconference opponents: vs. Seton Hall (Nov. 14), at Clemson (Nov. 26), vs. Creighton (Dec. 8)
Tim Miles' team looked good enough to play in last year's Big Dance, but it lacked the résumé to warrant an at-large. This year's nonconference is slightly better, but more importantly, the Big Ten docket for NU should be more rewarding as well. Nebraska gets two cracks at Michigan State and Purdue, plus road shots against Indiana and Michigan. Winning all of those obviously won't happen. Getting six chances against what could be the top four teams in the conference is critical. James Palmer Jr. is the name to know on this team as he's got an outside shot at winning Big Ten Player of the Year.
Last NCAA appearance: 2015
Key nonconference opponents: at Nevada (Nov. 6), vs. Houston (Nov. 24), at Illinois State (Nov. 28), vs. Utah (Dec. 8), at Mississippi State (Dec. 29)
The Cougars play in the West Coast Conference and won't outduel Gonzaga but they will have a beefed up roster thanks to the returns of Yoeli Childs (the best non-Gonzaga player in the league), Nick Emery and T.J. Haws. BYU won 24 games last season but didn't have the goods from November and December. This year, the non-con is much improved. Come March, that road game at Illinois State could be worth triple what it's valued at right now if BYU can steal a win in Normal. If the Cougs can work their way into the NCAA Tournament, it will mark the ninth time in 14 seasons under Dave Rose they've gotten there.
Last NCAA appearance: 2015
Key nonconference opponents: Potential games vs. Florida State and Villanova (AdvoCare Invitational Nov. 22-25), at Houston (Dec. 12), at Missouri (Jan. 26)
Tremont Waters is your sleeper pick for National Player of the Year. He was the most impressive freshman from a season ago who didn't stay in the NBA Draft pool. Now that he's back, he's got talented freshman Naz Reid in the fold and a team that is going to be much improved on defense. The biggest factor for LSU to overcome: defensive rebounds. The Tigers ranked 296th last season in crashing the glass on that end. With the skill this team has this season, if it can get that 296 to even 120, it's going to translate to winning a couple more games.
Last NCAA appearance: 2016
Key nonconference opponents: vs. Marquette (Nov. 14), at Arkansas (Nov. 18), at Duke (Nov. 27), vs. Louisville (Dec. 8)
Anticipation is high in Archie Miller's second season in Bloomington. In-state hero Romeo Langford isn't the only reason why. Langford is the overwhelming pick to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but don't forget how good Juwan Morgan was for the Hoosiers last season. He'll probably be their most important player. IU's a curious case for NCAA Tournament inclusion this season; the nonconference schedule has huge payoffs, but I'm not sure this team is going to be able to have an above-.500 record against the five toughest teams it has outside of Big Ten play. In the Big Ten? I think there's a path to get it done. And Miller has never gone consecutive seasons failing to reach 20 wins.
Last NCAA appearance: 2017
Key nonconference opponents: vs. Washington (Nov. 21 in Vancouver), at Boston College (Nov. 26), vs. Oklahoma State (Nov. 30)
The Athletic posted a 28-voter panel of Big Ten beat writers who collectively predicted the league top to bottom for 2018-19. Stunningly, to me, Minnesota finished ninth. Yes, Minnesota went 15-17 last season and yes it only has one NCAA Tournament trip in five seasons under Richard Pitino. But Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey are unquestionably two of the 10 best players in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers are my sleeper pick to finish in the top three of the Big Ten in 2018-19. I think they're going to challenge for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. I think good things are ahead. The nonconference schedule should have been a wee bit better.
Last NCAA appearance: 2017
Key nonconference opponents: vs. Texas Tech (Nov. 19 in Kansas City), vs. Nevada (Dec. 1), vs. TCU (Dec. 7), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 15 in Tulsa)
The highest-ranked team to miss last year's NCAA Tournament. USC loses considerable talent, so keep that in mind. Chimezie Metu: gone to the NBA. De'Anthony Melton (who didn't play last year due to the FBI investigation): gone to the NBA. Valuable point guard Jordan McLaughlin: graduated. Dynamic wing Elijah Stewart: graduated. Who's back? Bennie Boatwright is a big returnee, but the name to know is Kevin Porter Jr. He could prove to be so good that he plays into the top 20 of the 2019 NBA Draft. USC's won 71 games the past three seasons, which is the most in a three-year stretch in school history. Mark me down for another 24 dubs for the Trojans this season. I'll throw a dart and say they land a 10 seed.
Last NCAA appearance: 2017
Key nonconference opponents: at Houston (Dec. 1), at Baylor (Dec. 21), at Boise State (Dec. 29)
Looking at this list, I think I'm most confident in this pick. Oregon won the preseason Pac-12 media poll. Oregon's got a good-not-great non-con, but if it wins the Pac-12 despite underwhelming in November and December, it's not going to prohibit the Ducks from getting in with room to spare. (Winning at Baylor and/or Boise State I think will be crucial for Oregon landing on the seed line it ultimately thinks it deserves.) Roster-wise, there's a lot to like. Best player? No one really knows. Maybe it's point guard Payton Pritchard, maybe it's five-star incoming freshman Bol Bol. But what about Kenny Wooten? He could be a top-three defender in the Pac-12. Freshman Louis King will get a lot of minutes at the 4 as well. If the Ducks take first place in the conference, they would've be atop the league three times in four years.
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