By Kyle Beery
One of the most eventful seasons in recent college basketball history just wrapped up. Aside from a wild NCAA Tournament loaded with storylines — from the first ever 16 seed to beat a 1-seed, to Sister Jean and the Cinderella darlings of Loyola-Chicago, to Villanova’s second title in three years just to name a few — from November to April, we saw a lot of action.
The focus of college basketball tends to be on the blue bloods and the cream of the crop. With good reason. Villanova was phenomenal this year; freshman phenoms Trae Young, Marvin Bagley and DeAndre Ayton were incredible this season; even UNC and Virginia had great teams, despite being bounced early.
Obviously, every team strives to be in the Big Dance — that’s what makes the sport so enticing. Here’s a look at some of the teams that were on the outside looking in this season but have a good shot at making the tournament in 2019.
2018 Record: 24-11 (11-7 WCC, 3rd place)
2018 KenPom rankings: Overall: 73rd – AdjOE: 110th – AdjDE: 54th
Key Returnees: Yoeli Childs, Elijah Bryant, TJ Haws
Key Departures: None
The Cougars were the team that gave me the idea to do this list. It wasn’t when they beat Saint Mary’s to advance to the WCC championship game, either. No, it was way back in early February when they lost at Gonzaga.
Watching Gonzaga beat BYU 68-60 in a late night game on Feb. 3 really showed me that the Zags were a good team. And it was largely in part because I was so impressed with the Cougars. TJ Haws (22 points, four assists) and Yoeli Childs (14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists) were very impressive against a top 20 defense.
I watched a bits and pieces of BYU throughout the rest of the season, and I expect them to do big things next year. Maybe not Jimmer-era, 3-seed good, but they’ll be a very good team. They could challenge Gonzaga for the top spot in the WCC, even though the Zags are going to be top-notch again next season. Childs is an inside-out threat, while Haws is capable of being a deadeye shooter, though he didn’t quite live up to that billing this season.
While Saint Mary’s showed it’s tough to get an at-large bid out of a middling conference (the WCC ranked 13th this season), BYU should have what it takes to get it done. And that includes what should be a relatively tough non-conference schedule. The Cougars are slated to play in the Maui Invitational (a field that includes Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA, Virginia Tech and others) and will have the annual Holy War matchup with Utah. Just two or three other respectable opponents, and they will have a schedule worthy of an at-large bid if the Cougars can take care of business.
Childs and Elijah Bryant are two reliable scoring options and they’re only getting better. If Haws can kick his three-point shooting back up a notch to where it was his freshman year (40.4 percent in 16-17 vs. 30.9 percent in 17-18), the Cougars will have a very balanced attack that can carry them to the tournament, as long as they get decent contributions from role players.
2018 record: 23-13 (10-8 Pac-12, 6th place)
2018 KenPom Rankings: Overall: 75th – AdjOE: 70th – AdjDE: 98th
Key Returnees:Payton Pritchard, Paul White, Kenny Wooten
Key Departures: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown (possibly)
The Ducks were a bubble team in 2018 and probably could have made the tournament had they not dropped a couple winnable games in the PK80 Invitational against Oklahoma and UConn. Oregon will be the best team next season that didn’t make the tournament this year, and there’s probably no debating that.
Despite losing a lot of production in grad transfers Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh, plus Troy Brown to the NBA Draft, the Ducks should be the favorites to win the Pac-12. If Brown decides to flip the script and withdraws his name from the draft, this team will be the favorites to win the conference and could even end up with a top-3 seed.
Not only are second team All-Pac-12 PG Payton Pritchard (team-high 14.5 PPG) and Paul White (9.4 PPG, 3. 5 RPG) back to lead the team, Dana Altman is bringing in a top recruiting class (3rd on ESPN and 247sports.com; 4th on Rivals.com and Scout.com)
McDonald’s All-Americans and 5-star recruits Bol Bol (No. 1 C), son of NBA legend Manute Bol, and Louis King (No. 5 SF) headline the incoming class. Oregon could be back to where it was a few years ago when it earned a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
2018 record: 18-15 (8-10 SEC, 10th place)
2018 KenPom Rankings: Overall: 66th – AdjOE: 33rd – AdjDE: 136th
Key Returnees: Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Brandon Sampson
Key Departures: Duop Reath, Aaron Epps
The Tigers are in the same boat as the Ducks. Their success is largely predicated on the incoming recruiting class, which ranks in the top-five on all the previously mentioned sites. Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams will add some fire power in the post for the Tigers, while Ja’Vonte Smart is a versatile guard.
LSU struggled in Will Wade’s first season as head coach, but Tremont Waters was impressive with 16 points and six assists per game. He should be an SEC Player of the Year candidate. Throw that recruiting class next to Waters and Skylar Mays (11.3 PPG), and this will be one of the most talented teams in the SEC.
The conference was one of the best in the country in 2017-18 and should be pretty solid again next season. Even if LSU struggles a bit with the top of the league (Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Florida are all expected to be good again), the Tigers are talented enough to stack wins against the bottom of the league and in the non-conference portion of its schedule.
St. John’s Red Storm
2018 record: 16-17 (4-14 Big East, 9th place)
2018 KenPom Rankings: Overall: 74th – AdjOE: 141st – AdjDE: 29th
Key Returnees: Tariq Owens, Marvin Clark, Justin Simon
Key Departures: Amar Alibegovic, Bashir Ahmed, Kassoum Yakwe (transfer)
Question Mark: Shamorie Ponds
It seems like we’ve been saying this for several years now: “St. John’s should be good this year.”
Well, I’m saying it again* this year.
* = predicated on the return of Star point guard Shamorie Ponds
Ponds has declared for the NBA Draft, but he hasn’t signed with an agent. Ponds has been electric during his two years with the Red Storm. He led the Big East in scoring with 21.6 points per game last season and ranked fifth in assists with 4.7 per game.
If he sticks around for his junior year with classmate Justin Simon and will-be seniors Tariq Owens and Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark, the Johnnies really should be good.
This is a team that posted wins against No. 4 Duke and at No. 1 Villanova in a four-day span. Ponds had a combined 59 points in those games, while the three players they’re losing this season combined for 29 (all from Ahmed). If Ponds is back, look out.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
2018 record: 25-12 (9-9 SEC, 7th place)
2018 KenPom Rankings: Overall: 54th – AdjOE: 76th – AdjDE: 40th
Key Returnees: Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
Key Departures: Xavian Stapleton, Eli Wright
Question Marks: Quindary Weatherspoon, Nick Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters
Ben Howland had a very solid squad in 2017-18, they just couldn’t get over the hump and into the tournament. The Bulldogs had a great run in non-conference (12-1 with the lone loss against eventual No. 2 seed Cincinnati), but their best win was against Dayton and the losses piled up in SEC play.
MSU made it all the way to the NIT finals before it lost to Penn State. The Weatherspoon brothers should both be back, but neither one hired an agent, so they may end up returning, as is the case with fellow guard Lamar Peters. If all three of them return — a likely case — that’s a formidable backcourt.
If the three of them get another year with 6-foot-10 forward Aric Holman, the Bulldogs figure to be among the SEC’s best. They suffered a tough three-point loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and had excruciatingly close losses to Vanderbilt and Missouri during the regular season. They were right there on the verge all season, and fans of Hail State should be hoping they get the same core of guys back to have another go at it.
Honorable Mention Teams
These are the non-tournament teams that should be solid next season, but aren’t quite there yet.
- Penn State – Losing Tony Carr to the NBA Draft is a big hit. Of course, there’s always a chance that he decides to withdraw, but that’s unlikely. He’s a stud and will have a solid career at the next level.
- Wisconsin – It’s hard to tell how the Badgers will be, even if Ethan Happ is back. We thought he’d dominate opponents this year, and he struggled a bit, so it’s hard to gauge what type of impact he’ll have next season.
- Utah – Another Pac-12 team that was right on the edge last season, but couldn’t get over the hump. Despite a third place finish in the conference, the Utes missed out on the tourney. Losing David Collette and Justin Bibbins will be tough to recover from, but they still have Sedrick Barefield and Donnie Tillman.
What do you think? Is there any team I left off the list that you think will be a force to be reckoned with next season?
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