The return of college basketball began Tuesday with the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, featuring powerhouses in Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. For those programs, expectations are always sky-high each and every season. Here’s five teams flying under the radar that may surprise people this season and make a run in March:
Last season, Ben Howland’s team reached the NIT semifinals, beating the likes of Nebraska, Louisville and Baylor. The Bulldogs will look to build on that postseason success in 2018-2019 and threaten Kentucky for the SEC title. Getting the Weatherspoon brothers and Lamar Peters to return to school and pass on the NBA Draft was huge. There is optimism in Starkville for the Bulldogs to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2009.
The Golden Eagles kryptonite last season was getting stops and defending the 3-point line. With the departure of sharpshooter Andrew Rowsey, look for Junior guard Markus Howard to be the primary playmaker. Howard, and the addition of one of the most heavily-pursued graduate transfers in Joseph Chartouny from Fordham, should make for one of the best duo’s in the Big East. If they can improve on the defensive side of the ball, this team could surprise a lot of people.
The Cornhuskers have yet to win a NCAA tournament game in their program’s history. Tim Miles gives folks in Lincoln optimism this season as this may be their most talented team in recent years. James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland decided to return after testing NBA waters, meaning Nebraska returns their top four scorers from a year ago. In what should be considered a much weaker Big Ten in a long time, the Cornhuskers should finish in the top four and be in the mix for a bid on Selection Sunday.
If the Ramblers of Loyola Chicago taught us anything last season, it’s to never underestimate an underdog. Their magical run to the Final Four also displayed the importance of fundamentals and team defense. With the return of Clayton Custer, and key contributors in Townes, Krutwig and Williamson, Porter Moser’s squad will be the clear-cut favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference and look to win multiple games in the NCAA tournament once again this year.
Chris Mack’s ability to get his players to play tough and unselfish is a big reason why they made the list, but the Cards still possess a team capable of winning a lot of games. The losses of Spalding, Adel, and Mahmoud certainly hurt, but sophomores Jordan Nwora and Darius Perry look capable of carrying this team. Not to mention, Connecticut transfer Steven Enoch will look to use his size and leaping ability to give Mack an athletic big man to play down low. Louisville will most likely have the number one Strength of Schedule (SOS) in the country this season. That means Chris Mack’s team has plenty of opportunities to pick up marquee wins. This is a team and coach you probably wouldn’t want to face in late March.
Honorable Mention: Virginia Tech, LSU, Washington