One could call Villanova an underdog champion last season, but that would be looking at the college basketball landscape through a narrow lens.
Sure, Villanova may not resonate with fans like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina do. And very few thought the Wildcats could win it all in 2016.
In the two seasons prior to 2015-16, the Wildcats had a sparkling record of 52-8, and for the most part, ran roughshod over the ‘new’ Big East. But that never translated to postseason success; in fact, Villanova hadn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009. Jay Wright’s squad was long overdue for playoff glory.
So who’s next? Let’s take a look at some teams that have been very good in the regular season as of late, but haven’t been able to get over the NCAA tournament hump. Could 2017 be their year?
When playing at its peak, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better team in college basketball than Xavier last season.
The Musketeers possessed a top-20 offense and a top-20 defense in 2015-16. Only Villanova, Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma could tout the same.
Xavier will lose two of its key interior forces in James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, but Chris Mack has plenty to work with in 2016-17. Edmund Sumner should only improve coming off of a fantastic freshman campaign, and Trevon Bluiett is an early Big East Player of the Year candidate.
If this team can find a solid rim protector, it has it all: ball-handling, shooting, willing passers, scrappy defensive athletes and a good coach. Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 three times under Mack, but has yet to advance to an Elite Eight. Shots like this from Bronson Koenig haven’t helped the cause:
Perhaps this will be Xavier’s year.
You have to feel for Virginia. With a veteran group in 2015-16 led by seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, last year felt like the Cavaliers’ big breakthrough. It was at the NBA level. In college, not so much:
The bad news for Virginia: Brogdon and Gill are gone. The good news: heralded transfer Austin Nichols is eligible this season, and the Hoos have a very strong recruiting class coming in.
In the past three seasons, Tony Bennett is 89-19. That’s ‘wow’ worthy. So in a sense, it’s shocking that Virginia hasn’t reached a Final Four, but that’s life in the NCAA tournament. One of these seasons, the trend should reverse in the Cavaliers’ favor.
West Virginia Mountaineers
We move from Charlottesville to Morgantown, where Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers had an outstanding 2015-16 season. It did not translate to postseason success.
Despite West Virginia’s 26 wins (15 of which came against upper-echelon Big 12 competition), the Mountaineers were upended by Thomas Walkup and the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks in their NCAA tournament opener.
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That opened a floodgate of critiques of the West Virginia program. Huggins’ vaunted full-court pressure defense may baffle opponents in the regular season, but when teams have several days to prepare between Selection Sunday and the Round of 64, is it still effective? Can you win with such an unorthodox style in March?
For what it’s worth, West Virginia made it to the Sweet 16 in 2015; however, it was blown out by Kentucky by almost 40 points. Devin Williams is gone, but several of Huggins’ feisty guards will return. They’ll likely flourish in Big 12 play once again; the question is whether or not they can make a dent in the tournament.
Frustrated fans that may have been burned by Baylor in the past few NCAA tournaments may want to skip ahead.
The Bears haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2014 despite garnering No. 3 and No. 5 seeds in the past two seasons. Scott Drew also loses Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers, two mainstays of his program. But people rolled their eyes when I wrote about how Villanova was looking scarier than ever in December of last season, and look what happened.
So you’re saying there’s a chance.
Perhaps. Baylor hardly ever lacks talent; Johnathan Motley should capably fill Gathes’ role on the interior, Al Freeman is back and King McClure was extremely productive in limited freshman minutes. He could break out as a sophomore, and point guard Lester Medford got better and better as last season wore on.
In the interest of fairness, I also wrote this about Michigan State going into the 2016 NCAA tournament. It happens. Regardless, Villanova taught us a very valuable lesson: don’t count teams out based on prior postseason blunders. Use the larger sample size at your disposal.