Rebounding from a disappointing season by starting strong the next season rejuvenates any program. Here are nine teams brimming with confidence following a solid run through the nonconference portion of the schedule.
College of Charleston
Last season: 9-24 (.273)
This season: 8-3 (.727)
The Cougars boast an all-time winning percentage of .695 since joining Division I in the 1991-92 season. That places the program seventh on the active list, trailing Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, North Dakota State, UNLV and Duke. Heady company for a mid-major, although C of C is coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time in its D1 history. In his second year, coach Earl Grant has a win over LSU and the Cougars appear to be back on track entering their CAA opener Thursday at James Madison. Versatile guard Canyon Barry (22.1 ppg) and a stout defense (65th nationally in pts. allowed per possession) have the folks on Meeting Street feeling good again.
Last season: 10-21 (.323)
This season: 9-2 (.818)
It’s been a rough couple of decades for the basketball lovers in the Bronx. The Rams have had one winning season since 1991-92 and lost at least 20 games in a dozen seasons. Jeff Neubauer, in his first year at Fordham following a successful run coaching Eastern Kentucky, is taking things in a positive direction. The Rams need only one more victory to match their total from each of the last two seasons. They’re built around forcing turnovers (20.5 percent of opponent’s possessions) and knocking down 3-pointers (40.1 percent). The easiest schedule in D1 (per KenPom.com) has helped and bumps will surely appear on the Atlantic 10 road. Still, seniors Mandell Thomas (16.2 ppg) and Ryan Rhoomes (13.5 ppg) have sights set on departing as winners.
Last season: 12-19 (.387)
This season: 9-3 (.750)
So many exciting players wore the Old Gold & White over the last three decades: Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, Stephon Marbury, Dennis Scott. But fun has been elusive downtown Atlanta in recent years - Georgia Tech hasn’t won more than 16 games in a season since its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2009-10. The next two weeks might determine this team’s postseason fate. The Yellow Jackets open the ACC season in demanding fashion, facing North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Notre Dame. The better news? Tech has already defeated Arkansas, Tennessee and VCU on the strength of an elite offense (114.5 points per possession) fueled by terrific rebounding (corrals 41.5 percent of its missed shots).
Last season: 13-19 (.406)
This season: 10-2 (.833)
The 1977 national champions have a rich tradition (.619 winning percentage in 99 seasons) that second-year coach Steve Wojciechowski aims to restore. Assembling a schedule rated 338th (out of 351) in Division I has given the Golden Eagles the chance to build confidence before entering the rigorous Big East schedule. A solid defense that allows 0.92 points per possession and two towering talents in the frontcourt give Wojo’s squad a chance to navigate such treacherous waters. The 6-10 freshman Henry Ellenson averages 16.9 ppg and 9.8 rpg while 6-11 junior Luke Fischer adds 14.5 ppg and 8.3 rpg. Both are in-state products.
Last season: 15-17 (.469)
This season: 12-1 (.923)
Northwestern has never played in the NCAA tournament. It has only been ranked in the Associated Press poll a total of 12 weeks. The Wildcats have been playing basketball for 111 years, and lost nearly 60 percent of the time. It’s a wonderful university known for producing giants in law, medicine, entertainment, journalism and academia. Just not on the hardwood. Former Duke assistant Chris Collins is in his third year of trying to change that. So, overlook the schedule rated 341st and focus instead on a team projected by KenPom.com to have only the third 20-win season in school history.
Last season: 17-16 (.515)
This season: 11-0 (1.000)
The Gamecocks are the only team who had a winning record last season to appear on this list. But first, consider the program’s barren basketball resume. South Carolina hasn’t won a NCAA tournament game since Frank McGuire coached the team in 1972-73. In fact, the Gamecocks have made only four appearances in the field during the last 40 years, most recently in 2003-04. After three years building, coach Frank Martin is trying to start new traditions in Columbia. His team is 20th in the nation in defensive rating (allowing 0.89 pts. per possession), excellent on the glass (top 50 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage), shooting well (40.1 percent on 3s) and likely to be 13-0 when it opens SEC play Jan. 5 at Auburn.
Last season: 12-20 (.375)
This season: 11-2 (.846)
Andy Enfield is building the case for observers who feel a coach should be able to turn around a program by season number three. The Trojans were in dire straits when Enfield took over, having lost 44 games the previous two seasons. They dropped another 41 the last two seasons, but have wins over top-100 KenPom teams Wichita State, Monmouth and Yale (they also lost to Monmouth - which doesn’t seem so bad now - and unbeaten Xavier). A closer look reveals USC has the balance and depth necessary to sustain its early success. The Trojans are currently top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted efficiency, with six players averaging in double figures for an up-tempo offense whose average possession lasts 15 seconds (16th in the nation).
Last season: 12-21 (.364)
This season: 11-2 (.846)
It’s always good to reach late December within one win of the previous season’s total. Especially for coach Barry Hinson’s Salukis, who were 40-57 in his first three seasons. Yes, the schedule has been weak (345th in nation). Regardless, there’s plenty to like about a veteran group that counts two seniors and five juniors in its rotation. Anthony Beane (20.5 ppg, 113.3 offensive rating) is one of the best guards in the Missouri Valley Conference - or anywhere else. His teammates are an efficient lot as well - six of them have an offensive rating of 106 or better. If Southern Illinois can continue forcing turnovers at a high rate (23.1 percent of opponent’s possessions), it could be a factor in the Valley.
Last season: 13-19 (.406)
This season: 9-1 (.900)
Hiring a coach who has won a national championship is one route to rebuilding a program. After two sub-.500 seasons, veteran coach Tubby Smith is providing even more fodder for the third year theory. His Red Raiders handed Arkansas - Little Rock its first defeat and also have solid victories over Hawaii and South Dakota State. Much like previously mentioned Georgia Tech, coach Smith will learn plenty about his team in the next two weeks. After closing the nonconference schedule by entertaining a good Richmond squad tonight, the Red Raiders open the Big 12 like so: Texas, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor. Those lineups will test a defense rated 22nd in adjusted efficiency.