Winning consistently from season to season can be a challenge in college basketball these days. Only 11 programs have played in at least five consecutive NCAA tournaments. Kansas has the longest run. It’s participated every year since 1990, a streak of 26 tournaments. Joining the Jayhawks in the rarefied air of double-figure appearance streaks are Duke (20), Michigan State (18), Gonzaga (17) and Wisconsin (17).
Premier programs North Carolina and Kentucky have each missed out on March Madness once since 2010. (Although the Tar Heels enjoy the longest streak in history, making the NCAA tournament field for 27 years in a row, from 1975 to 2001). Altogether, only 27 of the 351 Division I members made the 68-team field the last two years.
It’s tough out there.
The playing field grows stiffer each season as schools change coaches, invest in facilities and recruiting, and scour the globe to find the players who can put their team in position to have a chance to survive and advance through the bracket.
The five programs listed here missed out on last year’s NCAA tournament. But each has the personnel in place to make another run at a bid this March.
California (18-15 last year)
Cuonzo Martin’s second squad in Berkeley is built to make a big jump. The Golden Bears were picked second in the Pac 12 preseason poll, in part because of the addition of sensational freshmen Ivan Rabb, a 6-11 center and Jaylen Brown, a 6-7 forward. The tandem and a pair of returning 7-footers should strengthen a frontcourt that allowed opponents to shoot 47 percent on 2-point attempts last season.
Tyrone Wallace spurned the NBA to return for his senior season. He’s a 6-5 guard who averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game last season, and one of three returning Golden Bears guards to average double figure scoring a year ago.
If Cal can shoot better than 65 percent from the free-throw line, it should aid a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
The Bluejays continued adjusting to their new life in the Big East last season. They also moved on without 2014 National Player of the Year Doug McDermott, whose father, Greg, is also the Bluejays’ coach. The younger McDermott, who led Creighton to 28 wins per season his final three years, takes his shots for the Chicago Bulls now. On the heels of its first losing record in 17 years, Creighton feels confident it has the requisite skill and athleticism to play better defense and rejoin the Big East’s upper tier.
Geoffrey Groselle is a 7-foot center who averaged 9.1 points per game and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. Maurice Watson Jr. is a confident and quick point guard. James Milliken (9.6 ppg, 38.5 percent on 3-pointers) leads a loaded backcourt that should keep Creighton in sight of the bubble as February turns to March.
Florida State (17-16)
After making four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2009-2012, scoring has been a chore for the Seminoles the last three seasons and they’ve landed in the jumbled middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Help has arrived in the form of three talented freshmen wings, led by Dwayne Bacon. They’ll play alongside guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who led the Seminoles with 14.9 points per game last season but needs to upgrade his 3-point shooting (28.1 percent) and trim his turnovers (104). Both were team-wide issues.
Leonard Hamilton’s teams are built around long, athletic wings and tall defenders at the basket. With more scorers on the floor, don’t be surprised if the Seminoles upset some of their highly ranked ACC rivals and dance again.
Michigan coach John Beilein is one of college basketball’s greatest offensive minds. The Wolverines led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2013, when they reached the NCAA tournament championship game, and again in 2014. But no program can withstand the exodus of talent they’ve experienced in recent seasons. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all departed Ann Arbor before their eligibility expired, leaving Beilein with an offensively challenged group last season.
This season Michigan should return to the upper half of the Big Ten, thanks to the return of combo guard Caris LeVert, who missed the last six weeks of last season with an injury, guards Derrick Walton, Aubrey Dawkins and power forward Ricky Doyle.
If the Wolverines’ frontcourt can halt the layup parade (opponents shot 50.8 percent on 2-pointers last season) their NCAA tournament hiatus should last only one year.
Mississippi State (13-19)
From the moment they hired coach Ben Howland - who led UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08 - the Bulldogs have been ascending. They added explosive freshman Malik Newman, an elite scorer, to a solid group of five returnees that have combined to start more than 300 games in Starkville.
Howland has been the Coach of the Year in three different conferences during his career, and he’ll surely address the Bulldogs rampant turnover problem (23.3 percent of possessions, 337th in the nation). Newman, slowed by turf toe in the preseason, is expected to be ready for the season opener. He’ll boost an offense that shot 31.1 percent on 3-pointers last season, managed 61.8 points per game and ranked 255th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Mississippi State was picked eighth in the SEC in the preseason poll, but has the tools to exceed those expectations and contend for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.