Perhaps the most interesting part of the 2019 NCAA Tournament was the fact that the two teams that eventually played for the national title are not known as powerhouses in the sport, at least not traditionally.
Virginia has grown into arguably the healthiest and most sustainable program in the country given the way they identify recruits, develop players within their program and win at a high level year after year. Texas Tech, on the other hand, has grown into being a juggernaut in the Big 12 on the strength of their ability to get players to buy-in from the moment they set foot on campus.
The result is that today, as we enter the dog days of the 2019 summer, both the Cavaliers and the Red Raiders are sitting pretty as two of the top 10-15 programs in the sport.
So who’s next?
Which programs are on the verge of making a similar leap?
To put together a list, we eliminated every team that has either made a Final Four or won a regular season title in one of the top nine conferences in the last five years. Here is what we came up with.
There are four teams that meet the criteria for eligibility on this list that really should not be in this discussion.
LOUISVILLE: The Cardinals are one of the top ten programs in the sport. They won the 2013 national title, their third national title in the last 40 years, and, I’d argue, the biggest reason they don’t currently have a regular season title of Final Four to their name in the last five years has as much to do with strippers, Adidas and a conference that includes Duke, UNC and Virginia as anything. Put another way, it only took Chris Mack one year to get the Cardinals to the point where they are entering the season as a top ten team.
FLORIDA: In 2014, Florida was the best team in college basketball, winning the SEC outright, the SEC tournament and getting to the Final Four. They won back-to-back titles less than 15 years ago and Mike White has them heading into this season as a preseason top ten team. Arbitrary cut-off dates are the only reason they qualify.
MEMPHIS: Near the end of John Calipari’s tenure with the Tigers, they were one of the most powerful programs in the sport. Remember, if he doesn’t leave for Kentucky before the 2009-10 season, then John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry and maybe even Eric Bledsoe would have suited up for the Tigers that year. That would have been arguably the greatest recruiting class of all-time to this day. We’re now ten years removed from that, however, and while Memphis hasn’t reached those heights since, they have put a man in charge that may be capable of getting them there. Penny Hardaway is already making waves on the recruiting trail and it shouldn’t be long before they are hanging banners again.
OHIO STATE: I’m not sure if people realize this, but during Thad Matta’s heydey, from 2005-06 through 2012-13, the Buckeyes were probably the best program in the Big Ten. In those eight years, they won five Big Ten regular season titles, four Big Ten tournament titles, reach seven NCAA tournament, got to the Sweet 16 five times, made it to a pair of Final Fours and came one Joakim Noah away from winning a national title with Greg Oden and Mike Conley on their roster. And it’s not like that success came out of nowhere. The Buckeyes won four Big Ten titles between 1991 and 2002 and reached the Final Four in 1999. The fact that they are eligible for this list has more to do with Thad Matta’s health than anything else. Chris Holtmann will get them to the promised land sooner rather than later.
CHASING PAST GREATNESS
UCONN: UConn has won four of the last 20 national titles. When Jim Calhoun retired, they were a top ten program in the sport. But then Kevin Ollie took over as the Big East split up and the Huskies were relegated to the American. Ollie drove the program into the ground as the fanbase got frustrated with a lack of relevant rivals, and as a result, new head coach Dan Hurley led UConn to their third straight season below .500 in his first season at the helm. He’s still a year or two away from really getting the program back on track, but with a return to the Big East coming in 2020-21, things are trending in the right direction.
MARYLAND: The Terps have yet to really get back to where they were during the height of the Gary Williams era, when they were going blow-for-blow with Duke in the ACC. Remember, won a national title in 2002. Since Mark Turgeon has taken over, he’s done a lot of the right things. He’s recruiting well, he’s winning games and he’s building rosters that look good on paper. The problem is that we haven’t quite seen the results on the floor. For example, in 2015-16, the Terps entered the season ranked No. 1 by a handful of projections only to finish the years 27-9 overall with a 12-6 mark in the Big Ten and a No. 5 seed. This year, Maryland once again looks to be a preseason top ten team with the likes of Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith and a loaded sophomore class. All Turgeon is missing at this point is the actual on-court production.
UCLA: The Mick Cronin era is going to be a fascinating one to follow. He’s spent the past 13 years running one of the most successful programs in Cincinnati, but he did so playing a style that was all about physicality, toughness and defense. If Cincinnati won the fight, so to speak, they were going to win the game. UCLA has not exactly been known as a program built on toughness, or defense, or physicality, or, in recent years, winning. There is talent on their roster right now. How will those players adjust to a new regime is yet to be seen, and it will be one of the most fascinating subplots for the next few years.
SO WHO IS ACTUALLY PRIMED FOR A LEAP TO GREATNESS?
BAYLOR: The perception of Scott Drew has done a complete 180 in the last half-decade. For a while, the running joke was that he is a recruiter that cannot coach. In recent seasons, the exact opposite has been true. Drew has developed players within his program while at the same time managing to be one of the best in the business at identifying prospects that will fit into the way he wants to play. Last year was the perfect example. Baylor entered the season with exactly zero expectation, and despite dealing with a ton of injuries – including a season-ending injury to his best player, Tristan Clark – the Bears managed to win 20 games and get to the NCAA tournament. They will enter this season as a top 15 team.
USC: Andy Enfield has proven that he knows how to get it done on the recruiting trail. He has two five-stars enrolling at his program this season. He has the top player in the Class of 2020, Evan Mobley, enrolling next season. The issue with USC is that the Trojans have not been able to have the success on the floor match what their potential is on paper. We’ll see if that changes this season.
ALABAMA: Alabama’s decision to hire Nate Oats was a bit of a weird choice. Oats had a ton of success at Buffalo, but he is a guy that spent his entire basketball life in Wisconsin, Michigan and Upstate New York. Now he’s running a program in the deep south. He’s going to have to find a way to recruit the region to compete with the teams at the top of the league (Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn), but the early returns are promising. Oats managed to keep his most important pieces, Kira Lewis and John Petty, in town.
N.C. STATE: I’m a big Kevin Keatts fan and I fully believe that he is going to find a way to get that program somewhere near where N.C. State fans want it to be. The big question, however, is going to be what kind of hit is the program going to take as a result of the NCAA charging them based on violations that were committed by Mark Gottfriend and Orlando Early and that turned up as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption.
GEORGETOWN: I’m bullish on the Hoyas. I know they were a laughing stock in recent seasons because of their non-conference scheduling, but there was a method to the madness. Patrick Ewing was trying to get some talent into the program and build a base level of confidence with what he actually had on his roster. It has seemed to work, as Georgetown entered the 2019 Big East tournament with a real chance to play their way into an at-large bid. It didn’t work out that way, but with a promising pair of sophomore guards and some success recruiting local talent, I think Georgetown has a chance to reclaim past glory.
SETON HALL: If the Pirates are going to have that major breakthrough, this might be the year for it to happen. They return everyone from a 20-win team, including an All-American in Myles Powell and a trio of terrific role players in Quincy McKnight, Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili. Villanova is more talented, but Seton Hall has more experience and a very real chance to do what Xavier did in 2018 and win the Big East regular season title. My one concern is that this may be what the ceiling is for the Pirates, but if they live up to my expectations – as a top ten team – that’s a pretty high ceiling.
PROVIDENCE: Eventually, Ed Cooley is going to breakthrough. He is a terrific, well-respected coach – there’s a reason that he almost got the Michigan job despite having only one year in his coaching career with single-digit losses – that had been to five straight NCAA tournaments at a middling job. He also has an influx of young talent in his program, namely David Duke and AJ Reeves, and sooner or later the Friars are going to have a season that is reminiscent of Seton Hall this year, Marquette last year or Xavier two years ago.
THIS IS THE LIST OF TEAMS THAT WERE ELIMINATED FROM THIS DISCUSSION
Arizona, Auburn, Cincinnati, Davidson, Duke, Gonzaga, Houston, Indiana, Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Loyola IL, LSU, Michigan, Michigan State, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Purdue, South Carolina, SMU, Syracuse, Temple, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Utah State, VCU, Villanova, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Xavier