Is this list anything more than an exercise in my being able to brag in March, when a surprise team makes the Sweet 16 and I can say I had that team on my surprise list back in October? Answer: No … but that doesn’t mean this list isn’t still a bunch of really educated guesses. I spent time on the July recruiting circuit asking college coaches which teams could outperform expectations this season. Some of these are true surprises. Some have become underdog darlings, teams that everyone suddenly is making such a big deal of that they no longer have the smell of surprise to them -- like a rookie running back who gets tons of sleeper buzz before a season. Here are my buy-low steals of the 2014-15 college basketball season, starting with FGCU, the biggest surprise of two years ago. – Reid Forgrave
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Florida Gulf Coast
A coach close to the program told me this season was the year this team was building for all along, instead of two years ago, when as a 15-seed the boys of Dunk City became a nationwide phenomenon on the way to the Sweet 16. A senior backcourt of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson means two program guys from that Sweet 16 team will be joined by Marquette transfer Jamail Jones. With defending league champ Mercer graduating most of its team, Florida Gulf Coast ought to be the prohibitive favorite to win the Atlantic Sun and could make noise in March.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
I’ll give you one name that, if you start saying it in November, you’ll sound smart come March. That name is Delon Wright, the tall, versatile senior point guard for the Utah Utes. The former JUCO player was pegged by one advanced statistics website, valueaddbasketball.com, as a favorite for national player of the year honors because of his prowess on both offense and defense. He was a terrible shooter last season, making 22.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but that’s not his game. Combine Wright with an upperclassmen-laden team that returns most of its key contributors from last season – especially junior forward Jordan Loveridge and senior 7-footer Dallin Bachynski – and Larry Krystkowiak’s team might end up as a mainstay in the Top 25 in a relatively weak Pac-12.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
It may be a bit of addition by subtraction in losing ultra-talented point guard Semaj Christon to the NBA. Senior point guard Dee Davis has been in Chris Mack’s system for years, and he’s the type of guy who is more than happy to facilitate. Mack told me this is his deepest team since becoming head coach five seasons ago. The front line is beastly, led by crafty senior Matt Stainbrook and ultra-athletic sophomore Jalen Reynolds. Freshman Trevon Bluiett decommitted from UCLA to come to Xavier and is the highlight of Mack’s stellar six-man recruiting class. Don’t forget Indiana transfer Remy Abell. I don’t think Xavier will beat Villanova for tops in the Big East, but I’m picking it second.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsBrad Penner
Simply put, Bob Huggins’ teams the past two seasons had chemistry problems. You could see it, especially when last season seemed divided between two excellent scorers, Juwan Staten and Eron Harris. Harris is now gone, having transferred to Michigan State, so this will be fully Staten’s team. It won’t surprise me if Staten ends up as the Big 12 Player of the Year. The question is whether the rest of Huggins’ team can overcome the malaise of the past two seasons to look like an NCAA tournament team again. Huggins told me he’s excited about this group.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY SportsBrad Mills
I love looking at the two teams in the NIT title game from the previous season to predict possible surprise teams. With two senior bigs, two senior guards and a talented JUCO wing in Carlos Morris, Minnesota returns plenty from last season’s NIT champ, notably its small-but-mighty point guard, Deandre Mathieu, and three-point threat Andre Hollins. This is a team that’s increasingly being crafted in the image of second-year head coach Richard Pitino: fast-paced, fun, always pressing, just like his father’s teams at Louisville. The Golden Gophers should be in line for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. This is a program on the rise.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsRick Osentoski
What Tim Floyd did last season – winning 23 games in a year in which three players were kicked off the team due to sports gambling – was one of the most unheralded great coaching jobs in college basketball last season. This will be a very long and athletic team, with three players 6-foot-10 or taller, and will return Julian Washburn, a dynamite defender and shooter who averaged 13.1 points per game last season, and forward Vince Hunter, the Conference USA freshman of the year. Hunter is a frenetic Aaron Gordon-like player who did several elite camps this summer. Floyd told me he believes this team has a chance to be very good.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY SportsChuck Cook
The best backcourt in the country is probably at Wichita State. The second-best could be at this developing Sun Belt powerhouse. Ron Hunter’s team has three backcourt studs: the coach’s son, R.J. Hunter, a junior sharpshooter who is considered a possible first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft; Ryan Harrow, who transferred from Kentucky after that school’s disastrous NIT season and who averaged 17.8 points at Georgia State last year; and Kevin Ware, whose broken leg in the NCAA tournament made him an icon in Louisville but who has found a new home where he isn’t defined by one injury. If there’s one team on this list that will be a great story if it makes a run to the tournament’s second weekend, Georgia State is it.
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One SEC assistant laughed when I told him South Carolina could be an NCAA Tournament team this year or next. Here’s why I’m right: The Gamecocks went 14-20 last season, but seven of those wins were against SEC teams, including one over Kentucky, and most came after losing their starting point guard. That was one of the youngest teams in the nation, ranking 342nd of 351 Division I teams in experience, according to KenPom.com. Rising sophomore Sindarius Thornwell is an NBA prospect. Crucially, Frank Martin is getting Frank Martin guys. An intense coach like Martin needs intense players who want to play for him – not players stuck with him after another coach got fired. After last season’s six-man recruiting class, this program is filled with Frank Martin guys. Heard it here first.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Does it count as a surprise if a team that made the Elite Eight a season ago ought to contend for the Atlantic 10 crown this season? I think so, because there’s this odd and flawed narrative that Dayton’s run was a fluke after the Flyers sneaked into the tournament. Actually, the fluke was their 1-5 swoon in January, a result of too many injuries. At the beginning and at the end of the season, the Flyers looked like one of America’s best-coached teams, a team on which every player knew where the other four players were on the floor. Yes, Dayton loses second-leading scorer Devin Oliver, but its leading scorer from last season, Jordan Sibert, is a senior this year. Plus the best name in college hoops, sophomore point guard Scoochie Smith, will be getting more minutes.
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY SportsKevin Hoffman
The Seminoles are the team few talk about in the state of Florida, but under Leonard Hamilton this has been one of the nation’s most surprisingly consistent schools. There are plenty of shadows over Hamilton’s program: The shadow of Florida State football, the shadow of Florida basketball, the shadow of the ACC’s worst arena. But would you be surprised if I told you that, since Hamilton was hired in 2002, the Seminoles have been the third-winningest team in the ACC and also have made four NCAA tournaments in a row? A team that barely missed the tourney last season returns two-guard Aaron Thomas, who is primed to become The Guy in his junior season. This team is once again stacked with big, long athletes and should defend at a high level. Redshirt freshman guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes is a player coaches are excited about.