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Almost every program in the country begins the season with optimism and an idea of how the season might break their way, but the reality is that only some schools are destined to meet or exceed expectations and others are fated to fail to reach their goals.
Here’s a look at where we see 10 programs headed in the future, five that are on the rise and five that may never reach their peak again.
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PROGRAMS ON THE RISE
Virginia Tech: It hasn’t been the smoothest transition for Buzz Williams in Blacksburg, but it looks as though the Hokies are now ready to take the next step forward. They’re returning the bulk of last year’s team — namely Seth Allen and Zach LeDay — that went 10-8 in the ACC, won its last five regular-season games and knocked off Florida State in the conference tournament. They also picked off a pair of top ten teams during the year in Miami and North Carolina. No one can motivate a group of players that feel disrespected for being overlooked the way that Buzz can, and that’s what he has this year.
Memphis: I don’t think anyone is expecting Tubby Smith to add to his national championship count with the Tigers, but Smith proved at Texas Tech that he’s still capable of winning more than 40 years into his career. He got the Red Raiders into the NCAA tournament, and the job in Lubbock is significantly more difficult than it is in Memphis, albeit with lower expectations. Still, expect Smith to consistently get the Tigers into the Dance and out of the malaise of the last few years of the Josh Pastner era. His public reputation is negative — part of the fallout from his split with Kentucky a decade ago — but Smith has outperformed expectations at every job that he has had throughout his career.
TCU: The Horned Frogs are dumping money into hoops to climb out of the Big 12 cellar, and early returns suggest its working. They upgraded their facilities in a big way with a $72-million arena renovation and, more importantly, went and got alum Jamie Dixon to leave a stagnant – yet successful – situation at Pitt. Dixon is a proven winner and already is pulling in four-star recruits. The dividends may not be paid in full this season, but the Frogs are on the come up in a big way.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers have had plenty of success in their history, but it appears that first-year coach Rick Stansbury is setting things up for a major upgrade. First, he brought one-time Texas A&M Class of 2017 five-star commit Mitchell Robinson over with him and then added top-60, four-star guard Josh Anderson. There’s not a program in C-USA that can even come close to matching that kind of talent. And while the future is incredibly bright, he’s also added a number of transfers — including Providence’s Junior Lomomba and Washington State’s Que Johnson, both of whom are eligible this season — to bolster the roster this season.
Rhode Island: Last year was supposed to be a breakthrough for the Rams, but the torn ACL of E.C. Matthews derailed those dreams and stuck Rhode Island in mediocrity. Given Matthews’ talent and an almost bonus year of experience from the rest of the roster, things seem to be coalescing for Rhode Island to have a memorable – if not better – season under Dan Hurley. Their back court (Matthews, Jarvis Garrett, Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson) is one of the best in the country.
PROGRAMS ON THE DECLINE
UNLV: It’s not like the Runnin’ Rebels were exactly killing it under Dave Rice, but they were recruiting at a level new coach Marvin Menzies isn’t likely to match. Also, the process for replacing Rice shined a light on how coaches see the UNLV job and the situation at the school. The Rick Pitino rumors never materialized and then they couldn’t pry Mick Cronin from Cincinnati before agreeing to terms with first-year Arkansas-Little Rock coach Chris Beard, whose contract wasn’t approved until two weeks later after a contentious Board of Regents vote. Then Beard bounced for Texas Tech just a couple weeks later, leaving the Rebs with Menzies and a roster that had just two scholarship players on it. The rebuild won’t be impossible, but it will take some time.
Georgetown: After four-straight seasons of being at least a top-six seed in the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas have missed the dance in two of the last three years, finishing below .500 last season for the first time since a 13-15 mark got Craig Esherick fired in 2004. The Hoyas aren’t developing their talent like we’ve seen in the past, and they’re likely to finish in the middle of the Big East pack this season, a couple of red flags that the program isn’t exactly trending upward.
Missouri: This may not even be an accurate spot for the Tigers given they’ve had just 19 wins overall and six in the SEC during Kim Anderson’s first two years in Columbia, but considering Anderson’s 2016 recruiting class didn’t feature a player ranked in the top-200 of 247Sports’ composite rankings and only one returner averaged double-digit scoring last year, rock bottom may still be looming for Missouri.
Stephen F. Austin: This one is almost just by default given the success the Lumberjacks have enjoyed in recent years. Brad Underwood is at Oklahoma State and Thomas Walkup is in the pros, and Stephen F. Austin really can’t improve one what those two accomplished together. One league loss in three years and two Southland Player of the Year awards is basically impossible to match, let alone top. New coach Kyle Keller has a great resume and tons of experience recruiting Texas, but some sort of step back seems inevitable given the heights Underwood brought to the program.
Nebraska: Tim Miles arrived with a lot of enthusiasm four years ago and Nebraska opened a $180-million arena in 2013, but the Huskers have just one NCAA tournament appearance and three losing seasons to show for it. The late grad transfer of Andrew White is a major blow, and Nebraska simply doesn’t have a ton of talent or experience on the roster, nor do they appear to be making any major gains on the recruiting trail. Simply put, Miles is finding out what all his predecessors have – it’s very hard to win in Lincoln.