While we’re weeks away from the release of the Associated Press preseason top 25 college basketball poll, feel confident the usual names will appear near the top again. Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are legitimate national championship contenders.
Defending champion Villanova has the personnel to repeat. Storied programs Louisville and UCLA seem prepared to rejoin the title fray.
The sport would feel strange if all those familiar names were mediocre.
RELATED: College basketball unicornsBut college basketball is also a meritocracy. Tradition alone doesn’t win games. A well-coached bunch of talented players can rub shoulders with the bluebloods, win its share of games and championships. Sometimes, such less heralded teams hang around with elite company for more than one season.
These five programs have battled and beaten the game’s heavyweights of late. Let’s peer into their future and see if they have the skills to remain at the party in 2016-17.
SMUThe Mustangs were ineligible for the NCAA tournament last season but that shouldn’t overshadow a 25-5 record and No. 24 ranking in the final AP regular season poll.
Veteran coach Larry Brown resurrected the program in four years. In 2015, he led SMU to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 23 years. The Mustangs earned a top 10 national ranking for the first time since Jon Koncak patrolled the paint in 1984-85. They won 79 games the last three seasons after winning 81 in the previous six seasons combined.
Then, Brown resigned last month on July 8.
Taking his place is Tim Jankovich, who was 104-64 in five seasons at Illinois State before stepping down to become Brown’s associate head coach. With nine seasons, Division I head coaching experience overall, Jankovich understands how to run a program. It should be a seamless transition for the players and staff.
The Mustangs return a solid return three of their five double figure scorers from last season - Shake Milton (10.5 ppg), Ben Moore (11.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Sterling Brown (10.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
Semi Ojeleye, a 6-7 transfer from Duke, becomes eligible and 6-5 guard Ben Emelogu returns after missing last season due to injury.
Prognosis: At the worst, SMU should again contend for the American Athletic Conference title.
Under coaches Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon from 2004-05 to 2010-11, the Aggies won at least 21 games every season. The consistent winning proved the hoops program could thrive in football-crazed College Station.
Billy Kennedy replaced Turgeon on the sidelines at A&M. After a 14-win debut, the Aggies showed gradual improvement each season. In 2015-16 they erupted for a school-record 28 wins, No. 15 national ranking and Sweet 16 appearance thanks to staging the most improbable comeback imaginable to defeat Northern Iowa 92-88 in double overtime.
Rock solid defense around the basket has become a staple under Kennedy. The Aggies have ranked in the top 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency in four of his five seasons. With hulking center Tyler Davis and durable forward Tony Trocha-Morales returning up front, A&M should continue to be a stingy unit.
But, after losing four starters who combined for 43.5 points per game, finding buckets might be more difficult. Especially on the perimeter. A&M led the SEC with 281 3-pointers last season.
Kennedy would love to see Admon Gilder (7.0 ppg) or newcomer Kobie Eubanks emerge as a consistent backcourt scorer.
Prognosis: Top tier SEC program that should be in the mix for a NCAA tournament berth.
The Utes are one of 19 teams to win a NCAA tournament game each of the last two years. They finished 27-9, ranked 13th in the final AP poll. Gonzaga ended their season with a 23-point win in the NCAA second round.
It was their third consecutive 20-win season as coach Larry Krystkowiak has rejuvenated a program that was dormant since the Rick Majerus Era glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They won six games in the other coach K's first season, 2011-12.
Now the Utes must rebuild. For the second consecutive year, their best player was taken in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors. Low post scoring machine Jakob Poeltl went ninth overall in June to join point guard Delon Wright north of the border.
Utah hopes the combination of 6-10 junior college transfer Tyler Rawson and 7-0, 235-pound redshirt freshman Jayce Johnson can man the center position.
Draftexpress.com projects Kyle Kuzma, a 6-9 senior forward, as a mid-second round pick. He averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season, hitting 58 percent of 2-point attempts.
Prognosis: Middle of the Pac-12 pack.
Seton HallIn the three seasons prior to 2015-16, Seton Hall had a 48-50 overall record and 15-39 Big East mark.
But in coach Kevin Willard’s sixth season, the Pirates became a lockdown defensive bunch, won 25 games and a conference championship.
It’s easy to forget Seton Hall was the last team to beat Villanova last season, clipping the eventual national champions 69-67 in the Big East tournament finals.
On the season, the Pirates held opponents to 44 percent on 2-pointers, 31 percent on 3-pointers and were eighth in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (92.8 pts. allowed per 100 possessions).
Leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead departed for the NBA after averaging 18.4 points per game as a sophomore. The Pirates will miss the powerful 6-4, 210-pound guard, but a trio of starting forwards return, paced by Khadeen Carrington (14.1 ppg) and Angel Delgado, who finished second in the Big East in rebounding (9.3 rpg).
They need freshman Myles Powell to contribute at point guard.
Prognosis: Looks like consecutive NCAA tournament berths on deck.
MonmouthIn the first month last season Monmouth beat UCLA, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Georgetown and captured the nation’s attention with their sideline shenanigans. Yet the Hawks lost to Iona in the MAAC finals and did not receive an NCAA at-large bid, heading instead to the NIT where they fell to eventual champ George Washington in the second round.
It all added up to a 28-8 record, which was the program’s fifth 20-win season since joining Division I in the mid-80s and first since 2003-04.
Don’t be surprised if coach King Rice and company go even further this season.
The Hawks lost only one rotation player and return MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson and Rookie of the Year Micah Seaborn, who combined to score 1,167 points last season.
And their schedule presents ample chances to seize the headlines again. Monmouth visits North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis and Syracuse. They should all be nervous.
Prognosis: MAAC favorite, giant slayer