Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
College basketball is a zero sum game. For every winner, there’s a loser. For every ascendent program, there’s a descending one. Here, you’ll find five programs on their way up, and five headed the other way.
PROGRAMS ON THE RISE
Wichita State: At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that there’s a lot of room to move up for the Shockers given all they’ve accomplished over the last five years (five NCAA tournaments, an undefeated regular season and a Final Four being the highlights), but Wichita State remains on the come-up. The move from the Missouri Valley Conference, which after the defection of Creighton became destined for one-bid league status, to the American isn’t a radical move, but it’s an important one. It keeps the Shockers insulated against a bad conference tournament showing by upping their chances for quality RPI wins and will keep them in the national conversation throughout the winter months – rather than just as Selection Sunday approaches. Plus, every spring that passes with Marshall still in south central Kansas is further evidence that he’s not leaving unless the best of jobs comes along. Oh, and he’s got a top-10 team this year. The Shockers are solidifying themselves among the nation’s elite.
Alabama: The Tide have been pretty mediocre in Avery Johnson’s first two seasons as a college coach, going 37-30 overall and 18-18 in SEC play. This year, though, Alabama looks like a top-25 team after Johnson reeled in a top-10 recruiting class, headlined by potential lottery pick Collin Sexton along with top-100 prospects John Petty and Alex Reese. Alabama looks like it’s becoming a player on the national recruiting stage, and it’s setting up to make Tuscaloosa an interesting place for hoops.
Texas: The Longhorns shouldn’t be on a list like this given the money that their athletic department operates with and the fertile recruiting grounds within driving distance of Austin, but after things languished in the final years of Rick Barnes’ tenure and then cratered with an 11-22 season in Shaka Smart’s second year, it’s exactly where Texas is. Things are looking up, though, as Smart looks to be gaining a footing in the program, recruiting the likes Mohamed Bamba, Matt Coleman and the rest of a five-man 2017 recruiting class made up of top-100 players. Texas is back on its way to being Texas, which is to say a national power.
Northwestern: After going 0-for-program history, the Wildcats finally broke through with an NCAA tournament appearance last year, even winning a game before bowing out to Gonzaga on the Bulldogs’ way to the national championship game. They’re even in better position this year to make a run with nearly everyone from last year’s team returning, plus coach Chris Collins looks to be setting the program up for success in the future, having already secured commitments from two four-star recruits in 2018. Northwestern, much like their north side Chicago baseball neighbors, are finally selling something more than hope.
Ohio State: As much success as Thad Matta had in Columbus, it’s inarguable that the Buckeyes ran into tough times in the last few years, missing back-to-back NCAA tournaments and seeing a heralded recruiting class all transfer out of town. Matta’s one of the game’s best, but a move to Chris Holtmann helps secure the future for Ohio State. Holtmann helped Butler transition from the A-10 to the Big East without the Bulldogs ceding any ground. He’s an excellent fit from just about every perspective, and makes Ohio State’s return to the top of the Big Ten seem likely.
PROGRAMS ON THE DECLINE
Louisville: This one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Tuesday’s federal charges that apparently claimed that the Cardinals landed five-star prospect Brian Bowen courtesy of $100,000 payable to his family from adidas would make this “on the decline” designation fit by itself. Coupled with the fact Louisville hasn’t even made it yet through the NCAA appeals process for its prostitution scandal, yeah, this ain’t going in the right direction for the Cardinals. It’s hard to see how legendary coach Rick Pitino makes it through this with a job, and how the athletic department as a whole makes it through well enough to keep the basketball program among the country’s elite without a significant – and lengthy – hit.
Syracuse: Yeah, the Orange made the Final Four in 2016, but they did it after sneaking into the field after a 9-9 ACC season. On the years sandwiching that Final Four, Syracuse missed the tournament. Jim Boeheim’s 2017 recruiting class didn’t have a top-100 player in it and the Orange only have two of their top-seven scorers back from last year. Syracuse does have a top-25 commit in 2018, but there’s a lot of work to do in upstate New York.
Oklahoma State: There’s a lot to this one. Let’s start with the fact that Lamont Evans was one of the four assistants charged Tuesday as part of the FBI corruption investigation. Evans was hired in 2016 by Brad Underwood and then promoted to associate head coach by current head man Mike Boynton, Jr. this spring. So that’s not good. In more traditional trouble, the Cowboys have developed a reputation for being cheap on hoops. While mega-donor T.Boone Pickens lavishes the Oklahoma State football program, hoops is languishing. Underwood left reportedly due to feeling unappreciated financially (he was making about $1 million), and instead of going out and making a statement hire, they just elevated Boynton from assistant to head coach for the same annual salary as Underwood. So just a year after a universally praised move of hiring Underwood, Oklahoma State finds itself with an unproven coach, a damaging reputation for hoops prioritization and a part of perhaps the biggest scandal in college basketball in a generation or two. Not great.
Connecticut: Since winning the 2014 national championship, Kevin Ollie’s program has missed the NCAA tournament twice in three years. Last year, the Huskies lost the last four games of the regular season to end things with a thud. Their 2017 recruiting class didn’t feature a top-150 recruit, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that they’ll finish in the top-half of the American this year. Things are not trending in the right direction in Storrs.
Cal: The Bears opted for continuity when they elevated Wyking Jones from assistant to head coach after Cuonzo Martin skedaddled to Missouri. What’s continuing, though, isn’t all that pretty. Cal made just one NCAA tournament in three years under Martin, and this year it looks as though the Bears may finish in the cellar of the Pac-12. They do already have two top-100 recruits in the fold for 2018, but the immediate future looks difficult in Berkeley.