16. Virginia Commonwealth
Shaka Smart has done a tremendous job building a deep and talented roster. That will be needed this year, not just to run his high effort system, but also to replace graduated seniors Troy Daniels and Darius Theus. Replacing Daniels' 3-point shooting will be a key to the season, as will replacing Theus' defense. It starts with 6-9 senior Juvonte Reddic and 6-5 junior Treveon Graham, who both played more minutes last season than the graduated seniors. The other starters will likely be Rob Brandenberg, Melvin Johnson, and Briante Weber. Weber, for his part, had the highest steal% of any player in the nation. A weakness last year was the inability to get to the line (317th nationally) and giving up too many free throws to their opponents (272nd). Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon should help with the first part, and probably hurt with the second. VCU will definitely drop a game they shouldn't while the other team parades to the line, and their fans can just hope that game won't occur in March.
The Fran McCaffery era has been a jolt to the Iowa program. Not only does he coach a style that is fun to watch, but he has the program poised for their first tourney birth since 2006. They advanced to the finals of the NIT last year, and now bring back all five starters and 10 of the top 11. 6-6 senior Roy Devyn Marble gets all the press, as he's a high volume and somewhat efficient scorer (with the exception of his 33% from the arc), but 6-6 junior Aaron White could be the team's best all around player. He's started 52 games in his two years, and was 3rd team all conference last season. Iowa's primary weakness is that they were 308th in 3-pt%. Considering that this is largely the same roster, expect that struggle to continue.
The Hoyas lost Otto Porter to the NBA, but his loss was supposed to be filled by Greg Whittington. Now it's unclear whether Whittington will play at all this season due to a knee. Their roster, however, is still loaded. Markel Starks is a conference Player of the Year candidate (if not for a certain player from Creighton). And the Hoyas also have 8 players who were consensus top 100 recruits. Of all college basketball teams last year who played with that much talent, the worst conference record was 12-6 and the average was 14-4. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is poised for a breakout year as a sophomore, and while Stephen Domingo won’t make people forget about Otto Porter, he will be a scorer from day one. If the Hoyas get much down low from UCLA transfer Josh Smith then the Hoyas could be every bit as good as last year.
The Zags swept through the WCC regular season last year without a loss, and then won the (horribly formatted) WCC Tournament. But their season came to an end in the round of 32 with a loss to eventual Final Four team Wichita State. Now they've lost the conference's best front court tandem of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. They do still have one of the best back courts in all of college basketball with juniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, and senior David Stockton. With 7-2 sophomore Przemek Karnowski and senior Sam Dower returning, the Zags will have plenty of firepower again. The wildcard is Providence transfer Gerard Coleman. The 6-4 slasher is an absolute menace going to the rim and will make a nice counterpoint to Pangos and Bell who both take far more 3s than 2s.
It's a testament to Buzz Williams that he has to replace his leading scorer (Vander Blue), rebounder (Trent Lockett), and playmaker (Junior Cadougan) and this is still widely considered a top 25 team and a candidate to win the Big East. Somehow, they're still experienced, and will likely start four upperclassmen. I expect the fifth starter to be highly recruited sophomore Steve Taylor, who Marquette had the luxury of bringing along slowly last season. The intriguing part will be the defense, which was solid last year but not great (46th nationally in defensive efficiency). How well will the new starters gel? Offensively, they'll need to find a way to improve on their dismal 3-pt shooting from a year ago (323rd), and are counting on freshman Duane Wilson to carry much of that load.
21. Saint Louis
The Atlantic 10 champs lost five scholarship players, but with the exception of 6-8 Cody Ellis, they were all role players. Four starters return for Jim Crews' 2nd year at the helm, and Saint Louis will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The seniors are likely to go out as the winningest class in school history, and a few of them will also be leaving marks in the record books. 6-5 Dwayne Evans needs 280 rebounds finish his career as one of four players to grab 1,000. And Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr should both finish top-5 all time in steals. They will continue to get it done on the defensive end (No. 6 in the nation in defensive efficiency), and with that much experience and another year working with coach Crews, their offense should be marginally better.
Coach McDermott received two great pieces of news this offseason. First, Doug McDermott – the nation's 2nd leading scorer – would return. Second, Grant Gibbs received a sixth year of eligibility. Having Gibbs back is key as the Bluejays are entering their first season in the Big East. Much tougher competition lay ahead. The scouting report was simple last year. Creighton was going to score (8th in offensive efficiency) but they were also going to get scored upon (80th defensively). With that kind of offense, this could be an elite team, but there's really no reason to think that their defense will be anything close to their offense. They're going to lose some games they shouldn't due to their inability to get stops. But they're also going to be an awful lot of fun to watch, again.
23. New Mexico
Noodles Neal gets a pretty sweet gig in his first head coaching job. The Lobos return four starters, and they're all upperclassmen. It will be interesting to see how the system changes with Steve Alford off to coach UCLA, but this was a high end defense (18th nationally) coupled with an offense that got just enough done (53rd). Losing Tony Snell to the NBA will obviously be huge, but they have JUCO transfer Deshawn Delaney, Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, and one-time Saint Mary's signee Cullen Neal (the coaches son) to help fill that void. We know the team is going to play defense, but the offense remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest concern is outside shooting, where they'll need Kendall Williams to return to something resembling his freshman form (when he made 43% of his 3s) as opposed to the past two seasons (35% and 36%).
Now that the APR issues are behind them, UConn wins actually count this year. They return all five starters from a team that was decent (62nd nationally) on offense, and decent (57th) on defense. Their biggest problem was losing the hidden game of possessions. The Huskies were 278th nationally in grabbing offensive boards, and 319th on the defensive end. That totaled about 80 more possessions extended by their opponents. Considering they ended up in seven overtime games, those 2-3 extra possessions a game they were handing away cost the team a couple of wins, and made them work harder than they needed to in several others. So how is that going to change with essentially the same roster? Good question.
Following back-to-back years where they didn't make the tourney, the Volunteers fortunes should change this year. Jeronne Maymon returns to give Jarnell Stokes some help holding down the interior, and Antonio Barton slides over from Memphis to help fill the void left by Trae Golden (who transferred to Georgia Tech). The key will be a return to playing defense, after the short-handed squad last year finished 122nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, and 11th in SEC play. In Cuonzo Martin's first year, Tennessee was 30th in the nation. Assuming the defensive issues get cleaned up, the offensive challenge will be in replacing Trae Golden who has been in the SEC's top four in assist rate in each of his three seasons.