Anyone who followed my blog last year knows that I became obsessed with two teams, Georgia Tech and Air Force. You see, I am a college basketball refugee. The schools I attended, Wyoming and Virginia Tech, rarely receive bubble status by February. This year is no different – Wyoming barely beat the Colorado School of Mines last night. At least Virginia Tech is headed in the right direction, but any finish better than 9th in the ACC would be a total shock. So I have to look elsewhere for the teams that are fighting for the postseason.
The common bond of the Jackets and Falcons last season was that they were completely overlooked before the season and ended up getting at-large berths to the NCAA tournament. Georgia Tech was picked 7th out of 9 in the ACC preseason media poll last year and Air Force was picked dead last in the MWC, almost unanimously. These are the stories that make college basketball great.
So who are the teams that could come out of nowhere this year? The surprise teams last year, when you throw in Washington, UAB, and DePaul, all had head coaches that were in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th year with their school. With that in mind, here are six teams that didn’t get a vote in the preseason polls, but have the potential to sneak into the limelight.
1) TCU. They were wildly inconsistent last year, with some impressively big losses. CUSA is wide-open once you get past Louisville, Memphis, and Charlotte. So even though TCU was picked 9th by the media, it’s hard for me to believe they won’t improve on last season’s finish. Barometer game: 11/28 vs. Florida State.
2) Villanova. The Cats shot the ball pretty well last year and got to the free throw line a lot, indicating they were difficult to defend. They will only get better with everyone returning. I’m not sure why they’re not getting more attention. Barometer game: not applicable. ‘Nova has a pathetic – and short – schedule before Big East play begins. They should enter 2005 at 8-0.
3) New Mexico. I’ve talked about New Mexico before. They bring all of their key players back and have a superstar in Danny Granger. They didn’t win a single game away from the Pit last year. The Lobos are picked 4th in the MWC, but the top 3 have new coaches and aren’t invincible. Barometer game: 11/22 at Oregon.
4) UCLA. Ben Howland has never wasted any time building a winner. Even with Cedric Bozeman out for the year, there’s an infusion of Howland recruits that will give the Bruins a chance to compete with anyone in the Pac-10. Barometer game: 12/18 vs. Michigan.
5) West Virginia. This is more in the spirit of what Georgia Tech and Air Force did last year. Coach John Beilein showed some integrity when he booted leading scorer Drew Schifino off the team in the middle last season. Speculation was this would send the team into a tailspin, but the Mountaineers held things together and eventually won a couple of games in the NIT. WVU is picked for 9th by the Big East media, but brings all of their key players back. Barometer game: 11/27 at LSU.
6) Saint Mary’s. They went 9-5 in the WCC but played more like 11-3. The Gaels start four seniors and a junior. Gonzaga is still the best team in the conference, but the WCC could emerge as a legitimate two-bid league. Barometer game: 11/12 2nd round of Coaches vs. Cancer, probably at Cal.