In 2007-2008, Michigan won 10 games in John Beilein's first season at the helm. But last year, the Wolverines improved by 12 wins, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Likewise, LSU was just 13-18 and 6-10 in the weak SEC West two seasons ago. But in Trent Johnson's first season, the Tigers went 27-8 en route to an SEC regular season title and a trip to the second round of the tournament.
Each and every season, there are teams that seemingly come out of nowhere to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Who will be this season's sleepers? (Ed. Note: We are only considering teams not listed here as potential sleepers.)
Boston College: Yes, the Eagles did win 22 games last season, earning a seven seed in the Big Dance. But they also lost Tyrese Rice, their best player and leading scorer. But don't be fooled, the Eagles return a ton of talent. Joe Trapani is a fundamentally sound combo forward that will impress a lot of people this year, and Rakim Sanders is a mega-athlete that has the ability to be an all-league player. Throw Corey Raji and Reggie Jackson in the mix, and the Eagles should have no problem replacing the scoring they lost with Rice. If someone can step up and replace Rice's playmaking ability, BC should make a second consecutive trip to the dance.
Seton Hall: The Pirates return their top four scorers from last season, including arguably the best scorer in the Big East in Jeremy Hazell. Robert Mitchell and Eugene Harvery also return on the perimeter, as does big man John Garcia. But the key to the Pirates season will be the addition of three transfers - Keon Lawrence, Herb Pope, and Jamel Jackson. Bobby Gonzalez has a team that will be able to score with anyone in the country, the question is going to be will they be able to defend well enough to win some more games?
Texas A&M: Losing Josh Carter and Chinemolu Elonu will hurt, but the Aggies do return three starters and their best scorer off the bench. Seniors Donald Sloan and Brian Davis seem like they have been around forever, but they are quality experienced players that are primed to lead this team. Add to the mix four top 150 recruits, and Texas A&M has the horses to be a player in the Big XII.
Kansas State: K-State won 22 games last year, but missed out on the dance due to too few quality wins. They return one of the best starting back courts in the conference with Jacob Pullen and the electric Denis Clemente, which is good enough to win quite a few games on their own. Add to that getting a stellar incoming class, including UConn transfer Curtis Kelly and freshman Wally Judge, the Wildcats are going to have a lot of talent on their roster. There will be some inexperience, but this is a team that no one will want to play late in the season.
(photo credit: Bleacher Report)
Oregon State: The Beavers surprised a lot of people by winning seven games last year in the Pac-10. When seven wins is a surprise, that should tell you about the state of basketball in Corvallis. The best news? Obama's brother-in-law, head coach Craig Robinson, returns seven of his top eight scorers and brings in a good recruiting class, headlined by Roberto Nelson. The Pac-10 may be down this season, but the Beavers have enough talent that they can compete for the third spot behind Cal and Washington. If Nelson can live up to the hype, he will combine with Calvin Haynes and Roeland Schaftenaar to form one of the best inside-outside combos out west.
Niagara: People are going to be talking about Siena coming out of the MAAC, but don't count out the Purple Eagles. This is a team that won 26 games last year (14 in the MAAC, including a split with Siena) and returns four of their five starters from a season ago. With a couple talented freshman joining the fray, Niagara will have the talent to win the league and earn a trip to the NCAA's. Be sure to mark Jan. 9th and Feb. 12th on your calenders - you won't want to miss the Niagara-Siena games this year.
BYU: True, the Cougars lose Lee Cummard, who was one of the best players out west last season. But they also return Jonathan Tavernari and Jimmer Fredette, which will be the best 1-2 in the MWC this season. All told, BYU returns four starters and six of their top seven players. The MWC is consistently one of the best basketball leagues outside of the BCS conferences, and BYU should be the cream of the crop this season.
Oakland: The Golden Grizzlies have two of the keys you need to be dangerous come tourney time - and excellent point guard in Johnathon Jones and a post presence in 6'11" Keith Benson. Losing the perimeter shooting of Erik Kangas is going to hurt, but expect sophomores Drew Maynard and Blake Cushingberry to more than make up for it.
Idaho: Harold Arceneaux. Stephen Curry. All you need in the NCAA Tournament is one unstoppable player and a mid-major has a chance to spring an upset. This year, that player may very well be Idaho's Mac Hopson. As a junior, Hopson averaged a stellar 16.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, and 5.0 rpg. Idaho will need some role players to step up around him to get there, but if the Vandals get into the dance, no coach is going to enjoy game-planning for this kid.
La Salle: Rodney Green could very well be the guy that steals the A-10 player of the year award from away from front runners Jordan Crawford and Chris Wright. Green is a talented scorer and play maker, but he is far from the only player that the Explorers bring back. Kimani Barrett and Ruben Guillandeaux will help carry the back court load, while Yves Mekongo Mbala will pick up the slack inside for the departed Vernon Goodridge. And remember, John Giannini landed Aaric Murray, a 6'10", 250 lb center that most recruitniks believed was top 10 at his position in the class of '09.
Portland: Gonzaga and St.Mary's have had a strangle hold on the top two spots in the West Coast Conference over the past decade. But Eric Reveno brings back a veteran group that many believe could win the WCC this year. The Pilots will be led by 6'5" Nik Raivio, a strong scoring guard that averaged 16.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg. Add into the mix sharp shooter Jared Stohl (45.6% 3's) and point guard TJ Campbell, and Portland has a roster loaded with shooters. If this team gets hot, they will be able to run with just about anyone in the country.