As we get closer to the season, why not take a look at some programs with potential of being good, but not great, yet still could have enough on the roster to make some noise come March.
You often read about March sleepers ... in March. Why not get a head start? It's also more challenging to forecast right now, which is part of the fun. I've picked out an array of teams, some from major conferences, others from one-bid leagues, the kind of squads that are set up for strong years but will inevitably be double-digit seeds.
Here are 10 candidates to be threats come time for the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars won 26 games last season, just missed the NCAAs, and now they bring back a big-time talent in shooting guard Nick Emery, plus the return of senior forward Kyle Davis. You know who else is back in the fold? Eric Mika. The 6-foot-10 tyrant in the paint had a two-year mission, but he's now on the court again. BYU is good enough this season, deep enough, to truly threaten Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. The Cougars should once again be a fast-tempo offense. Do-it-all triple-double threat Kyle Collinsworth is gone, but the team should be mature and old enough that they can make up for his absence. Dave Rose has won at least 23 games every single season in Provo since 2006-07. It's high time BYU made a push at the end of the year. I think it will be set up to achieve that come 2017.
When you're talking Bob McKillop and his offense, it's always really fun and, by its nature, a threat to opponents. Jack Gibbs, now a senior, will have a chance at winning league player of the year in the A-10 if the offense winds up running "through" him. I use quotation marks there, because Davidson's sets never really orbit around one guy. Peyton Aldridge is a great No. 2. The Wildcats were a 20-13 team last season. It's reasonable to expect Steph Curry's alma mater to be even better. They'll be 10 deep, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the starting five rotate a bit to start the season -- there's that much diversity on the roster. Will Magarity, a transfer from Boston College, should be factor. As will this kid from Iceland, Jon Axel Gudmundsson. Reason 1,739 to love college hoops: There could be a dude from Iceland who winds up hitting a game-winner in a big spot.
FSU, in my mind, is one the short list of underachieving programs of the past 15 years. Now, part of that is the conference they play in and having to go up against Duke, UNC, Virginia, Maryland (when Maryland was in the ACC), plus butting heads with Miami and Florida for in-state recruits. Not to mention FSU's geography to Georgia, which is always lush with prospects. But still, Leonard Hamilton has made four NCAA Tournament trips in his 14 years with FSU, those four Dance tickets coming in consecutive years (2009-2012). This season, I think FSU gets back because it will have one of the super sophomores in the nation in Dwayne Bacon, plus a scoring machine in Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Terance Mann is going to be X factor-like on the wing. Inside, there's this 6-foot-10 five-star recruit named Jonathan Isaac who could be tremendous. A lot to like in Tallahassee this season.
Houston would have been closer to reaching last year's NCAA Tournament if it didn't play the 350th-toughest (that's out of 351) non-conference schedule. Lack of ambition combined with bad results against those opponents led Houston to falling short. This season, UH brings back a lot. Now, this isn't going to be a parallel of what the Cougs are currently doing in football (man, is that team fun), but Kelvin Sampson absolutely can coach. They bring back of their most important players. This is a program waiting for a resurrection. It's made the NCAAs once in the past two and a half decades. Talk about a school that's due for a good run again. Junior guard Rob Gray Jr. could average 18 points per game. Senior Damyean Dotson (the Oregon transfer who was notoriously part of a trio of Ducks dismissed from the team amid a rape investigation) led the team in rebounding last season.
When you last saw Middle, Kermit Davis was leading his 15th-seeded Cinderella to what I still believe to be the most shocking first round upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State was a team many believed should have been a No. 1 seed. MTSU just romped to a victory -- before being taken out by a Syracuse team that would go on to the Final Four. While it's tough and abnormal for schools from one-bid leagues to go back-to-back years with NCAA Tournament wins, Middle is going to have a good shot because nearly everyone from that team is back. You remember Giddy Potts, right? Giddy Potts! How about this: MTSU was good last year despite shooting 60.6 percent from the foul line, which is an abysmal clip. That's bound to go up this year. And the team should still be good on D. Can Conference USA become a two-bid league, though, because if it can, Middle's chance at breaking through to the Dance again go up. If they get there, they'll be a threat again.
As you can see, plenty of the teams I'm labeling as "threats" here are smaller-type programs. I tried to go with a number of schools that are unlikely to find a spot in the rankings throughout the year. NDSU is a prime candidate. It's another school with a really good football team, but let's look at what Dave Richman has coming back: a reliable defensive team that lost only one senior starter. NDSU is a good candidate for under-the-radar surprise come March because the team could be up against the toughest non-conference schedule in program history. NDSU is my pick to come out of the Summit League. Name to know: Paul Miller. He might shoot 45 percent from 3 this season.
OSU is no under-the-radar program, but this was a team in a lot of disarray last season. It was two years ago that D'Angelo Russell wowed the sport and got the Buckeyes to the NCAAs by pure will of his passing skill. Last season, Thad Matta failed to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2008. Because of this, Ohio State is entirely off the radar. It won't be ranked entering the season. And I think the Buckeyes have a relatively good chance of making the Sweet 16 come March. There was a cleaning-of-house with the roster turnover. Sophomore JaQuan Lyle should be very good, and Marc Loving is an under-the-radar All-Big Ten First Team candidate. Keita Bates-Diop, a good athlete and excellent weapon for Matta, is going to make a big leap this season.
Should be the class of the Ivy in 2016-17. Princeton could be good enough to be a top-50 team in the country, really. With that, you've got yet another example of a smarty school who can go into March and rip a game from a fat big-boy program. Yale did it last year against Baylor, then gave Duke a push in the second round. Harvard (which will be much improved this season) has done it in the past half-decade. Now it's time for Princeton to make its return. Here's the thing many don't realize: Princeton was, in my estimation, one of the three or four best teams last season to not make the NCAAs. Henry Caruso (15.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG), Steven Cook (11.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Spencer Weisz (10.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG) -- all seniors -- are your names to know.
A program that made the NCAAs two times in the past four years. Now the expectations -- from outside -- will dip because Bryce Drew left to take the Vandy job. Who's the new coach? A man named Matt Lottich. He should have an inaugural year eased in thanks to an unexpected decision by Alec Peters, who could have gone pro, but didn't. He could have had his pick of basically any program in America to transfer to in his senior season -- without having to sit a year -- but didn't. He didn't do that even after his coach switched jobs. Valpo will have a chance to get back to the tourney because of it. Peters will be one of the 25 or so best players in America, and so Valpo is worthy of inclusion here.
Washington has produced eight draft picks since 2009, but hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011. No telling what's to come this season, but there could be a Ben Simmons-like situation unfolding. Could UW fail to make the field but have the No. 1 overall pick in the draft? It's possible. Markelle Fultz is a freshman, a talented combo/point guard who has a chance to explode on the college hoops scene. He's not entering his frosh year with nearly the hype or pub Simmons did, and that's for the best. Lorenzo Romar has done well in recruiting -- he's already locked up another potential No. 1 pick come 2018, in five-star Michael Porter, Jr. -- but the fan base has been aching for real post-February impact for a long time. Fultz is good enough to lift U-Dub in spots. Will the rest of the team show, and can Washington be one of the feel-good stories of 2016-17?