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Teams that could fly under the radar
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Bo Ryan's teams are used to not getting the preseason hype that other Big Ten schools often receive, but that hasn't stopped the Badgers coach from achieving success on the national level. Ryan, in fact, has taken Wisconsin to the NCAA tournament in all eight seasons that he's been in Madison, including a trip to the Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 appearances. And although the Badgers don't have a lot of depth in the frontcourt with the departures of Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft, Ryan can count on an experienced backcourt, led by seniors Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, to surprise some people a few months from now.
Portland doesn't usually get a lot of national attention due to the fact that Gonzaga has dominated the West Coast Conference for the past nine years, although that could finally change this season. After all, the Pilots finished third in the WCC a year ago behind the Zags and Saint Mary's, and they bring back a go-to scorer in Nik Raivio, who led the team with 16 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last year as a junior. Add junior Jared Stohl — the nation's top 3-point shooter last season at 45.6 percent — to the mix and another long-range bomber in diminutive point guard T.J. Campbell, and head coach Eric Reveno has a veteran group that could undoubtedly surprise a few folks this year.
8. Boston College
Al Skinner may have only lost one player from last year's team, but that one player was point guard Tyrese Rice, who did it all offensively for the Eagles the past two seasons. With the departure of Rice and his 16.9 points and 5.3 assists per game last year, Boston College will turn its attention to Vermont transfer Joe Trapani, who finished second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) and first in rebounding (6.6 rpg). Now, the 6-foot-8 forward should have an even better junior campaign this season with the stage cleared and Rakim Sanders, Corey Raji and Reggie Jackson forming a solid supporting cast that has been through the rigors of ACC play before.
7. Kansas State
Michael Beasley put Kansas State back on the national basketball map and back into the NCAA tournament two seasons ago for the first time in 20 years. Last year, despite a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 and a 21-win regular season, the Wildcats missed out on the Big Dance, ending 2008-09 in the second round of the NIT. But this season, Frank Martin's team will have a good chance to make it back into the field of 65 with senior sharpshooter Denis Clemente (15.0 ppg, 36.6 percent from three), junior point guard Jacob Pullen (13.9 ppg, 3.2 apg) and McDonald's All-American Wally Judge, whose 6-foot-9, 248-pound frame should beef up the Wildcats' frontline.
Last season, it couldn't have gotten much worse for the Ducks and head coach Ernie Kent. Two years after winning 29 games and advancing to the Elite Eight, Oregon hit rock bottom in 2008-09, winning a measly two games in the Pac-10 and just eight the entire season. But despite those struggles, there's hope for fans in Eugene this year with the return of speedy point man Tajuan Porter (15.4 ppg, 39.3 percent from three) as well as experienced big men Michael Dunigan (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Joevan Catron (7.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) — and Kent, who is sitting firmly on the hot seat, will be counting all on them to save his job.
5. Seton Hall
The Pirates haven't been a force in the big, bad Big East for quite some time, but Bobby Gonzalez finally has the pieces to take Seton Hall back to the NCAA tournament. That's because the fourth-year coach brings back a big-time scorer in junior guard Jeremy Hazell, who led the team last season with 22.7 points per game and also shot 36.2 percent from three. With Hazell's return also comes more veteran experience, as senior big men John Garcia (8.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Robert Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg) will be counted on to provide the muscle down low and senior point guard Eugene Harvey (12.5 ppg, 4.9 apg) to run the show up top.
Tom Penders has led the Cougars to three 20-win seasons in his five years in Houston, yet he has little to show for them in the month of March. Now after a couple of appearances in the NIT and a trip to the CBI semifinals, the former Texas and George Washington coach is hoping to put an end to the school's 17-year NCAA tournament drought. And after a fourth-place finish in Conference USA last year, he'll have a good chance to accomplish that this season with Houston returning its top two scorers in senior guards Aubrey Coleman (19.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Kelvin Lewis (18.0, 36.9 percent from three).
3. Southern Illinois
Two years after running past Holy Cross and Virginia Tech to reach the Sweet 16, Southern Illinois has fallen off the national radar in a short amount of time. Now, Chris Lowery is looking to put the Salukis back in the spotlight and at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference in his sixth season at the helm. While he'll have to replace the experience of Tony Boyle and Bryan Mullins, Lowery will have a solid inside-outside duo in sophomore guard Kevin Dillard — the team's leading scorer last year at 12.2 points per game — and 6-foot-8 forward Carlton Fay, who posted 10.4 points and 4.6 rebounds as a sophomore.
2. La Salle
Despite only winning a total of 18 games last year, the Explorers finished above .500 in a competitive Atlantic 10 Conference with a 9-7 mark. That wasn't good enough to send John Giannini's team to the postseason, but it's something that he'll build off come this season. After all, with its top two scorers — seniors Rodney Green (17.8 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Kimmani Barrett (11.8 ppg, 5.0 apg) — back in Philly and senior guard Ruben Guillandeaux (10.1 ppg, 3.1 apg) bringing additional experience to the backcourt, La Salle has a chance to shock perennial A-10 powers Xavier and Dayton for conference supremacy this spring.
Up until last year, Kevin Stallings had the Commodores riding a two-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances before it came to a halt when Vanderbilt finished shy of the 20-win mark and went 8-8 in SEC play during the 2008-09 campaign. And though the conference is expected to be much improved this season with Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State boasting some big-time talent, Vandy has a starting lineup that will pose problems for any opponent it faces. Stallings, for one, has a prototypical center in 6-foot-11 Australian A.J. Ogilvy (15.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg), while a dynamic backcourt that features 6-foot-3 senior Jermaine Bell (12.5 ppg, 3.2 apg), 6-foot-7 sophomore Jeffrey Taylor (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and 6-foot-3 sophomore Brad Tinsley (11.0 ppg, 2.8 apg) remains one of the most underrated guard trios in the country.