Texas Tech reached its first Final Four. So, too, did Auburn last April. Who knew when the season started that both schools could end up having their best rosters ever?
Well, it all depends on how you want the category to be judged or defined.
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For our purposes, let’s just say at least seven teams enter the 2019-20 season with a chance to have their best rosters in at least a quarter-century. Is that fair?
And here’s why:
Seton Hall: The Pirates flamed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March. They have the personnel to make a Final Four run and along the way win the Big East regular season and conference tournament. The Pirates have a possible national player of the year in Myles Powell, who was named the preseason Big East player of the year.
Powell has his running mates Quincy McKnight and Myles Cale back as well. If the bigs — Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ike Obiagu and Taurean Thompson — come through this could be the Pirates' best chance to reach the Final Four since their last appearance in 1989. Seton Hall returns 87.8 percent of its scoring and doesn’t lack for big-shot makers (see: Powell and Cale). The schedule is loaded with games against Michigan State, Maryland and an Oregon team that is a contender in the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively. Trust me on this one: If the Pirates get to Atlanta, this will go down as one of the greatest — if not the top — roster in Seton Hall history.
Memphis: Ooooh. I can already hear the squawking about this pick. How can Memphis be on this list with the talent that has come through the program like its head coach Penny Hardaway and Derrick Rose? The 2008 Rose-led team played for the national title and lost in overtime to Kansas. And this program doesn’t lack for top NBA draft picks.
Still, there is a buzz in Memphis around this potential freshmen five that hasn’t been seen since the ’08 Tigers. The 7-1 James Wiseman is a physical specimen who is tabbed to be the No. 1 pick in June. He will be immovable at times in the post. Precious Achiuwa is a 6-9 point forward. Wiseman and Achiuwa could be Memphis’ version of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett — two freshmen who became best friends while dominating the game at times last season. Now toss in the heralded fellow freshmen Boogie Ellis, Damion Baugh, Malcolm Dandridge and D.J. Jeffries and the Tigers are absolutely loaded. If veteran players like Lance Thomas and Alex Lomax can offer up some guidance then the Tigers have a shot to win the American, get a top-two line seed and do some damage in March. How can this roster be discussed as an all-time great? Reach the Final Four with all freshmen leading it and pull a 2012 Kentucky run to a title.
Davidson: Yes, I know, I witnessed Steph Curry lead the Wildcats to the 2008 Elite Eight on a magical run, losing to eventual champ Kansas in a game that could have gone either way. Curry was ball-dominant and while the roster was sensational, there is a chance this crew could have its own place in Wildcats history.
Bob McKillop has a three-headed perimeter that will be one of his best ever. Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Luke Frampton will be interchangeable at times. All three could go off for 20. How many teams can have one player win the A-10 player of the year one season (Gudmundsson) and then a backcourt mate win it the next season (possibly Grady) when both are back. That could occur this season. The key will be whether or not the frontcourt can be as major a factor and accountable as the perimeter. Davidson has the feel that if shots are falling it could go on another March ride that could put this roster into challenging the Curry one from 12 years ago. Of course, no one is saying that anyone on the roster is equal to Curry. No one. But the depth could be something special.
Utah State: This was an easy one. The Aggies shocked Nevada last season and won the Mountain West Conference. Sam Merrill upstaged the Martin twins — Cody and Caleb — and Jordan Caroline of Nevada and claimed the MWC player of the year. Merrill is back to lay claim to his POY of the hardware again. Neemias Queta came back rather than stay in the NBA draft to offer up a terror on the boards. The Aggies have solid rotation players and the depth is what makes Utah State the prohibitive favorite. But the Aggies have flailed in the NCAA tournament, unable to do much of anything. If, and this is a big if, Craig Smith’s crew can get to the second weekend and reach the Sweet 16 then there’s no question this Utah State roster will go down as its finest. If Utah State gets within a sniff of the Final Four in the Elite Eight — or gets to Atlanta — then forget it — it’s done: best ever.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels have had Matthew Delavedova and Patty Mills play the point for them. They have had Brad Millard in the post. And they’ve had their moments. But this Gaels team may be one of the most balanced. And for that reason, they have a chance to advance to the second weekend, and when that happens — anything goes.
Jordan Ford could be the WCC player of the year. He’s a do-everything point guard with the type of fierce passion for every possession that made Delavedova and Mills so tough to defend. Ford may not have the NBA chops yet, but he’s on pace to be one of the more decorated players ever at Saint Mary’s. Four starters are back on a team that defends extremely well and is getting over any scoring hiccups. The key will be if Saint Mary’s can actually win the big games against teams not named Gonzaga in March. If Saint Mary’s can break through and go on the run it is capable of then this squad will be remembered for years in Moraga, California.
South Florida: The Bulls have lacked history and tradition, mired at times in mediocrity. But this could be the breakthrough season the program desperately needs. Think rival UCF here. The Knights had their record season a year ago, nearly taking down Duke behind a stellar group that included Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins. The Bulls have their big three in David Collins, Laquincy Rideau and Alexis Yetna — the most under-appreciated big man in the country. The Bulls have to get to the NCAA tournament first and if they do that would be the first time since 2012. But if USF can get in and the experience of the aforementioned guards and big can deliver at least one win, maybe two, then there is no question this roster will go down as the program’s best.
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Penn State: Ahh, why not end with this doozy to get the fan base all fired up. Lamar Stevens could become one of the most heralded Nittany Lions ever if he becomes a Big Ten player of the year or a first or second-team All-American. That is all doable. He could be a double-double machine. He came back to deliver an NCAA berth for Penn State and Pat Chambers and to leave a legacy. Now, if the guard play of Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler can deliver on their hype then the Nittany Lions will have the pieces to be in the NCAA tournament and do something once invited. There are a lot of non-believers and those who question if this is all plausible. All of them are outside the Penn State locker room and immediate circle. There will be a great debate about the star power of this roster and its lasting effect — but only if Penn State can finish the season deep into March.
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