Preseason rankings are fun, but with so much player movement in the transfer portal era, men’s college basketball is harder than ever to predict. Which is pretty fun, actually! Let football have the same small group of teams competing for the national title every year. We’ll take our surprises like Florida Atlantic, San Diego State and Miami in the Final Four.
OK, sure, we like traditional blue bloods in those spots, too. The point here is, there are always teams that sneak up on us despite months of prognosticating. You know who wasn’t ranked by the AP or coaches in the preseason polls a year ago? Big Ten champion Purdue. Or Big East champ Marquette. Or Xavier, which made the Sweet 16. FAU didn’t receive a single vote in either poll.
So as we begin our annual preseason predictions, the first challenge to our panel of 12 voters was to locate this season’s surprise team. We’re basing the subjective word “surprise” with the following important criteria: The team can’t be ranked in either major poll or in KenPom’s preseason Top 25 It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. Here are the teams our voters like to exceed expectations:
Now hear let’s hear some of the reasons why each team was picked:
The Horned Frogs bring back the second-most scoring by percentage in the Big 12 (53.6 percentage) on top of bringing in a strong transfer portal class. Jamie Dixon and staff added five transfers, led by two-time All-CAA selection Jameer Nelson Jr., who averaged 20.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last year at Delaware. Former Kansas and McDonald’s All-American center Ernest Udeh Jr., Oklahoma State second leading scorer Avery Anderson III, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi sharpshooter Trevian Tennyson (career 39. percent 3-point shooter) and Essam Mostafa, who led the Sun Belt in double-doubles at Coastal Carolina round out the impressive group of newcomers.
The Big 12 is as good as it’s ever been, but the Frogs have one of the best backcourts in the conference and the country with good depth that will win those close conference games. Unlike many Big 12 teams, they boast significant depth, with the return of key players like JaKobe Coles, Micah Peavy, and Chuck O’Bannon Jr., enabling them to field a 10-man rotation when necessary.
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TCU has five players on its roster with more than 1,000 career points, including four of the incoming transfers and Emanuel Miller, whom the coaches selected to the preseason all-conference team. — Tobias Bass
You know what’s a really good combination? Elite backcourt play, great 3-point shooting, and loads of experience. The Lobos bring back guards Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House, who combined to average 36 points per game, each shooting over 37 percent on 3s. Now add veteran transfers Nelly Junior Joseph (Iona), Jemarl Baker (Fresno State) and Mustapha Amzil (Dayton). As long as everyone stays healthy, entering 2024, Richard Pitino’s top five will all be over 22 years old with over 100 career games played. In addition, there’s first-team All-Southland grad transfer Isaac Mushila, talented rising sophomore Donovan Dent, and a few nice freshman additions.
The addition of Junior Joseph addresses the Lobos’ primary concern following last year’s 22-12 campaign — replacing center Morris Udeze. Junior Joseph was the MAAC player of the year for Rick Pitino and an Iona team that reached the NCAA Tournament. He’s 6-10, 240 pounds, and protected the rim for one of the best mid-major defensive teams in the country a year ago. The question, now that he’s finally arrived on campus, is if he can anchor the back line of a defense that badly needs to improve. New Mexico ranked eighth in the Mountain West in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 54 percent on 2s last season.
The Lobos will have no problem scoring. The other end will determine if this is a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat. Richard Pitino has coached a top-40 defense once in 11 years as a Division I head coach. If this turns out to be the second time, New Mexico could be this year’s gate-crasher from the Mountain West. After recent years of watching San Diego State, Utah State, Nevada and even Boise State turn into familiar NCAA Tournament programs, it’s time for the Lobos to return to the dance for the first time since 2014. — Brendan Quinn
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Maybe you’ve heard of this Rick Pitino fellow? The only coach in men’s college basketball history to take three different teams to the Final Four? National titles at both Kentucky and Louisville? (“Vacated” does not mean it didn’t happen, folks!)
Uh, yeah. I’m gonna bet on that dude figuring things out again, real quick.
After all: In the last three years at Iona — after Pitino’s exile in Greece, following his dismissal from Louisville — the 71-year-old proved he’s still one of the best in the game, twice leading the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament. In The Athletic’s coaching tiers list last week, Pitino slotted in at (shocker) Tier 1; if I had to pick one coach in the country to win one college hoops game, it’s either Pitino or Kansas’ Bill Self. That’s the list.
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Now you’re letting that caliber of coach, a native New Yorker, set up shop in the area he knows best, in an era where players earning money isn’t frowned upon? Look out.
It also helps that Pitino completely overhauled the roster; 6-11 center Joel Soriano, a top-20 rebounder nationally last season, is the only substantial returner. In came Jordan Dingle, the nation’s second-leading scorer and the Ivy League Player of the Year; Nahiem Alleyne, a reserve on UConn’s title team last season but a key shooter at Virginia Tech before that; Daniss Jenkins, Pitino’s second-leading scorer at Iona; Chris Ledlum, who decommitted from Tennessee to join St. John’s; and Simeon Wilcher, a four-star freshman who was initially headed to North Carolina.
How do all those pieces fit together? I can’t say for certain.
But you know who can? The dude who assembled them — and I’m banking on him maximizing their talent, even in a stacked Big East. — Brendan Marks
Part of this is plain old attrition. The ACC is, at best, in flux and at worst, not very good. Only three teams make the Associated Press preseason poll and only two make it into Ken Pomeroy’s top 25 projections. Of those teams, one comes with huge question marks alongside its name — hello, North Carolina. Miami has a chance to be good again. After that? There’s a lot of wait-and-see and shoulder shrug, which means there are games available to be won. Winning games generally goes over well with poll voters.
One could argue that the shoulder shrug includes Virginia. Fair enough. But the Cavaliers did finish 15-5 in the league a year ago, and 25-8 overall, and they’ve got a team that suits Tony Bennett more than that squad did. Bennett now has two conference defensive players of the year — Reece Beekman, from the ACC, and Jordan Minor from the NEC —and sophomore Ryan Dunn, whose NBA prospects are pinned largely to his defensive prowess.
This should mean Bennett has a team more suited to play the very thing that separates Virginia from everyone else. Namely, good defense. Virginia hasn’t been bad in that department — just not Virginia good. If the Cavs can start looking like themselves again, all bets are off.
There is also, going back to that crazy winning-games-equals-poll-popularity concept, more practicality in siding with Virginia here. The Cavs do not have exactly the hardest schedule in the country to overcome. Florida, Texas A&M, Memphis, Wisconsin and SMU or West Virginia rank as their toughest nonconference foes.
Hence, more wins. — Dana O’Neil
Before T.J. Otzelberger arrived at Iowa State in 2021, the Cyclones were 0-18 in Big 12 play and needed a jolt. Otzelberger quickly rebuilt the roster and confidence of his squad and Iowa State advanced to the Sweet 16 in his first season.
Last year, the Cyclones again qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Otzelberger has parlayed that early success into recruiting power and brought in the highest-ranked recruiting class in ISU history. It also landed him a two-year extension. The Cyclones rank seventh in the 247Sports Composite for 2023 and scored a pair of recruiting wins with five-star forward Omaha Biliew (6-8) and four-star forward Milan Momcilovic (6-8). Biliew is ranked as the 13th player nationally while Momcilovic is 37th. Then four-star, 7-foot-1 center J.T. Rock reclassified to the 2023 class. In addition, top-200 players Kayden Fish and Jelani Hamilton could contribute right away.
Those freshmen, plus returning starting guard Tamin Lipsey (7.3 ppg, 4.4 apg) and portal guards Keshon Gilbert (11.4 ppg at UNLV), Jackson Paveletzke (15.1 ppg at Wofford) and Curtis Jones (15.0 ppg at Buffalo) have the potential to mold Iowa State into a competitive, athletic team right away. With Otzelberger’s defensive insistence, the Cyclones should become one of the nation’s surprise teams this season with gelling capability entering March Madness. — Scott Dochterman
Hyped teams with hyped freshmen have marked Penny Hardaway’s tenure so far, so I kind of like the idea of an under-the-radar team built around players who have had success in college basketball. Penny’s portal plundering has yielded former Alabama point guard Jahvon Quinerly, former Florida State combo guard Caleb Mills and Jordan Brown, a crafty 6-11 center who won the Lou Henson Award as mid-major player of the year for Louisiana last season.
Mills and Brown are 23. Brown is a former five-star recruit who was previously at Arizona and Nevada. Throw in versatile 6-6 wing David Jones from St. John’s, and you have a core of experienced, proven newcomers. They’re part of a team with seven players who are at least in their fourth year of college basketball. And that doesn’t even count DeAndre Williams, who is appealing for one more year with the Tigers (though it does not appear that he’ll get it). Shooting should come from freshman Ashton Hardaway and Jaykwon Walton, a Wichita State transfer. Defense is a fair question after the Tigers lost so many strong defenders. A lot of this will come down to Quinerly finding the balance between aggression and recklessness. — Joe Rexrode
The Scarlet Knights lost some familiar faces to both the portal and graduation, but I like what Steve Pikiell is building in Piscataway — and the way he’s building it. Rutgers always wants to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and it should remain so heading into a season where I think the expectation is, again, that the Scarlet Knights appear poised to finish squarely on that NCAA Tournament bubble. Or better!
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Pikiell is revamping his team’s offensive identity, it seems, with a focus on greater speed and improved 3-point shooting efficiency. The frontcourt will be anchored again by the veteran Clifford Omoruyi, who could be one of the best players in the conference, but the backcourt is where the transition will be felt more acutely. UMass graduate transfer Noah Fernandes will be critical, and Derek Simpson, who came on late as a true freshman a season ago, could be poised for a breakout season. And, by the way, even if this prediction is wrong for this coming season … I’ll just recycle it for next year, when Pikiell welcomes in what will be one of the best recruiting classes in the country. — Nicole Auerbach
(Top photo of TCU’s Emanuel Miller: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)