Looking Forward: Which programs are on the rise as we head into 2016-17?

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some programs on the rise heading into next season.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’ second season in Blacksburg proved to be more successful than many expected, as the Hokies won ten ACC games (20 overall) and played in the Postseason NIT. What can they do for an encore? In all honesty the pieces needed for the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007 are in place, with six of their top seven scorers from a season ago due to return led by forward Zach LeDay and guard Seth Allen. Expecting the Hokies to contend for the ACC title may be a bit much, but it’s fair to expect them to work their way into the Top 25 and the NCAA tournament in 2016-17.

Creighton: The Bluejays, picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll, nearly played its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble thanks to a much-improved big man in Geoffrey Groselle, transfer Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff, and guard Isaiah Zierden. Groselle’s gone, but given the combination of returnees and the addition of former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster the Bluejays could be in line for another leap forward. The key for Greg McDermott’s team will be the return of Watson, who’s going through the NBA Draft evaluation process.

Wisconsin: At one point last season the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play, with it appearing highly unlikely that Greg Gard would have his interim tag removed. But Gard’s team turned things around, winning 22 games and reaching the Sweet 16. Provided Nigel Hayes, who’s currently going through the NBA Draft evaluation process, returns to school the Badgers will be on the short list of Big Ten title contenders. Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ lead four other starters who will be back, and Andy Van Vliet (who the NCAA sidelined for last season) will help in the front court as well.

USC: The Trojans’ progression was a year ahead of schedule, as after producing consecutive 12-win seasons they earned an NCAA tournament berth in Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm. USC does have some questions in the form of guard Julian Jacobs and forward Nikola Jovanovic both going through the NBA Draft process, but if both return the Trojans will be a contender in the Pac-12. Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are among the returnees for a team that could return five of its six double-digit scorers — Katin Reinhardt being the lone departure — from last season.

UCLA guard Bryce Alford, center, attempts to move the ball past Kentucky guard Charles Matthews, right, as Jamal Murray, left, helps defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

UCLA: Staying in Los Angeles, this is a big year coming up for Steve Alford. The Bruins were a major disappointment last season, but the combination of some key returnees and a recruiting class led by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf should propel UCLA back into the Pac-12 and national conversations. Ball should be handed the keys to the show from the start given his abilities at the point, which should result in plentiful scoring opportunities for the likes of Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh. How good this team can be will depend on two things: how well the pieces mesh, and an improved commitment on the defensive end.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 last season, but the way in which they got there wasn’t what we’ve grown accustomed to with regards to Mark Few’s program as they needed the WCC automatic bid to ensure a spot in the field. Even with the departures of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga has the tools needed to be better in 2016-17, as a backcourt that made strides as the season progressed will be a year older with Josh Perkins and Silas Melson leading the way. Also, Przemek Karnowski will be back on the court after missing last season with a back injury.

Florida State: Leonard Hamilton received some good news, as both Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes decided to return after briefly flirting with the NBA Draft. They’ll be asked to lead the way for a team that adds a solid recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Jonathan Isaac, and putting points on the board won’t be much of an issue. If they can get back to defending at the level we’ve come to expect from Hamilton-coached teams, Florida State can make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.

Rhode Island: Dan Hurley’s Rams began the 2015-16 season viewed as a team that could contend in the Atlantic 10. Then the injury bug hit, with E.C. Matthews being lost to a torn ACL and multiple key contributors (including Hassan Martin) missing time throughout the course of the year. URI’s healthy again, and with Four McGlynn being the lone major contributor out of eligibility 2016-17 should see the Rams rebound and make a run at the Atlantic 10 title.