Around this time last year, the Connecticut Huskies were unranked in the college preseason polls. Not only that, they were ranked an ignominious tenth in the Big East preseason coaches polls. 5 months and change later, Kemba Walker and Jim Calhoun were cutting down the nets in Houston as NCAA Champions.
True, "once in a blue moon" seasons that culminate in NCAA Championships don't happen terribly often. But surprise teams that make the Final Four? Well, there's more than a handful of those.
I don't have much authority into which mid-major will become the next Butler or VCU (check out SBN's Mid Major Madness for that one), but the next West Virginia or Florida (or, gasp, Connecticut)? I can give that a shot.
After the jump are four teams I think will exceed their preseason expectations. And if all breaks right, they'll crash the Final Four party and you can call me a genius.Vanderbilt Commodores
2010-11 Record: 23-11 (9-7)
2010-11 KenPom Rank: 35
What Went Wrong Last Year: Close losses, more than anything else. Their two non-conference losses (to West Virginia and MissourI) were by a combined six points. Likewise, two SEC road losses to South Carolina and Florida came in overtime, and a road loss to Kentucky was a one-basket game for the final five minutes. No, losing three of their last four regular season conference games didn't help. But turn just two or three of those into wins, and Vandy gets a 3 seed in the tournament instead of a 5. The bad luck continued in the tourney, as a clutch Kevin Anderson basket gave the Richmond Spiders a three point victory and knocked out the Commodores in the second round.
2011-12 Preseason Rank: 7th in ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll
What Goes Right This Year: Excellent experience. Vanderbilt returns everyone and their mothers. John Jenkins is a wickedly efficient scorer (SEC-leading 20.2 ppg, 123.5 ORtg) that will contend for SEC Player of the Year honors. Festus Ezeli is a defensive wizard on the interior (10.6% blk%). And their most talented player, swingman Jeffery Taylor, looks to rebound from a somewhat disappointing junior campaign as a matchup nightmare at the 3. The role players are good, too. Brad Tinsley provides the coveted leadership meme as a senior point guard (2.46 Ast:TO, 36.9% 3pt%), and forward bruisers Lance Goulbourne, Steve Tchiengang and Rod Odom (combined 15.9 ppg and 12.9 rpg) provide valuable frontcourt depth. Honestly, all the pieces just sound like they fit perfectly. If Kevin Stallings can solve the puzzle, the Commodores have all the makings of a Final Four team. They'll be in my preseason top four along with Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio St.
2010-11 Record: 19-15 (9-9)
2010-11 KenPom Rank: 39
What Went Wrong Last Year: General disappointment. Senior point guard and leader Kalin Lucas failed to fully rebound from a major achilles injury, and fellow senior Durrell Summers struggled mightily with the dreaded Eddy Curry Line. Ex-blue chipper Delvon Roe continued to battle injuries and quit basketball after the season ended. And malcontents Chris Allen, Korie Lucious, and Garrick Sherman all left the program at some point during the year. All together, it wasn't a recipe for success. Michigan St.'s first four losses were to UConn, Duke, Syracuse and Texas (very respectable), but terrible inconsistency in Big 10 play put them at a conference record of 9-9, leading to a one-and-done loss as a #10 seed.
2011-12 Preseason Rank: Unranked in Coaches Poll
What Goes Right This Year: The Ewing Theory. Losing Lucas and Summers, two longtime pillars of the program, hurts. But Sparty returns their best player from last year, Draymond Green, a true five-tool talent. He's an excellent rebounder (23.8% D-Reb%), passer (30.6% Ast%), and defender (4.0% blk% and 3.5% stl%). He isn't, however, an alpha dog. Here's where will count on talent infusion. Former high-school All-Americans, sophomores Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, showed glimpses of potential last year but were too often invisible. The Spartans also add talented freshman Branden Dawson, who could become the next Jason Richardson, and Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood, who should step in as a scoring machine (16.7 ppg last year). Most importantly, Michigan St. still has Izzo. In the 12 years between Kentucky's Final Four appearances, Izzo guided the Spartans to six Final Fours (1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010). Wanna bet against that coinflip?
2010-11 Record: 18-13 (7-9)
2010-11 KenPom Rank: 77
What Went Wrong Last Year: They didn't fill the shoes. In 2010, Baylor shocked the nation, making it to the Elite 8 in Houston before falling to eventual champion Duke. Many thought the Bears would return to the Space City as a Final Four participant last year. But last year's Bears greatly missed the interior defensive presence of Ekpe Udoh and the point guard leadership of Tweety Carter. LaceDarius Dunn proved a terrible leader on and off the court. he allegedly punched his girlfriend prior to the season and was suspended for three games, the put up a lot of points without the efficiency (19.5 ppg, 103.1 O-Rg) or leadership (2.1 apg, 0.6 Ast:TO). Erstwhile point guard A.J. Walton also performed no better than adequately, as did the Jones brothers (Perry and Anthony) in the front. Besides home and away wins against Texas A&M, Baylor did nothing of significance on the schedule and flamed out of the Big 12 tournament with a loss to bottom feeder Oklahoma.
2011-12 Preseason Rank: 12th in ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, 3rd (out of 10) in Big 12 Coaches Poll
What Goes Right This Year: Jaw-dropping talent. Baylor starts out the 2011-12 season with a suspension, but this one is a little more welcome. All-everything sophomore Perry Jones III decided to forgo entering the NBA Draft for a second year in Waco. He's suspended for the first five games for improper benefits, but hopes to make a bigger impact upon his return (13.9 ppg & 7.2 rpg last year). With Dunn gone, the offense can now flow through an efficient frontcourt. Returning with Jones are athletic marvels Quincy Acy (team-leading 150 reb & 45 blk) and Anthony Jones (51.7% FG%, 39.4 3-FG%). Also noteworthy: Baylor adds one of the most highly rated freshmen in the nation, Quincy Miller (as well as his close friend, shooting guard Deuce Bello). If Scott Drew can get even adequate point guard play from returnee Walton or transfers Pierre Jackson (JuCo) and Gary Franklin (Cal), this team can wreck shop on both the offensive and defensive interiors.
2010-11 Record: 16-15 (7-9)
2010-11 KenPom Rank: 94
What Went Wrong Last Year: Great Scott! Head Coach Tony Bennett has done an impressive job slowly bringing the Cavalier program back to relevance. Last year, led by seniors Mike Scott and a surprisingly good Mustapha Farrakhan, the Cavaliers were supposed to swashbuckle their way to their first tournament appearance since 2007. Instead, they stumbled out of the gate, losing 3 of their first 6 games to Stanford, Washington, and Wichita St. Then, in an inexplicable loss to Seattle, they lost Scott for good to a season-ending ankle injury. Conference wins against Clemson, Virginia Tech and Maryland proved the Cavs had some mettle. But without Scott, they settled for being decidedly mediocre far too often, finishing just a game above .500.
2011-12 Preseason Rank: Unranked in Coaches Poll, 4nd (out of 12) in ACC Media Poll
What Goes Right This Year: Scott's Tots. The silver lining was that Scott's injury occurred early enough for him to be granted a medical redshirt. He returns, and many pundits believe he could have a similar impact as Jordan Williams had last year for Maryland. In limited time last year, Scott proved to be a double-double machine (15.9 ppg & 10.2 rpg). Another upside of Scott's injury: big man Assane Sene started to shine. He also returns, along with his 20.1% DReb% and 6.7% blk%. Having Sene in the interior should free Scott to wreak havoc on the opponent's weaker big. Virginia also returns plenty of other experience. If Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans were one player, they'd be a top-flight point guard (13.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 1.87 Ast:TO). As it is, they'll spearhead the backcourt and each provide different strengths. Also returning are swingmen Joe Harris and K.T. Harrell, both of whom got more than expected playing time as freshmen last year. Two new freshmen, Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson, were highly productive high school stars (Georgia's Mr. Basketball & Wisconsin Gatorade POY, respectively) that could surprise if Harris or Harrell falter. And so, beyond the Scott star, there's returning experience at key positions. I like the Cavs as a team that could be sneaky good, a la Wisconsin last year.
2011-12 Season Preview: Previous Articles
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Which of my Final Four sleepers do you think will make it farthest in the NCAA Tournament?
Vanderbilt Commodores (250 votes)
Michigan St. Spartans (138 votes)
Baylor Bears (99 votes)
Virginia Cavaliers (71 votes)
558 total votes