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Full-Court Press: Five teams ready to crash the Big Dance
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - While most revel in the excitement of March Madness, some sit at home and use it as motivation.
One of the most celebrated aspects of college basketball is its unpredictability. The 2012-13 season's final Top-25 poll had 11 teams that were not present in the preseason rankings. While schools like Texas, Baylor and Florida State disappointed, Saint Louis, Miami-Florida and Wichita State exceeded expectations.
There were a handful of worthy squads that were left out of the Big Dance in 2013. There were others who had their seasons ruined by bad luck and injuries. Those who failed to achieve their goals are going to be a little more focused on getting rid of the bitter taste that comes with defeat.
Here are some of the programs that missed the NCAA Tournament last season that have serious potential to go dancing in 2013-14:
VIRGINIA - Tony Bennett's Cavaliers were unexpectedly not given an at-large bid in last year's tourney despite collecting some quality victories over Wisconsin, North Carolina, NC State and Duke. Most of Virginia's impact wins came in its home gym where it went 20-2. The Cavaliers went just 3-8 in road tilts and lost both of their neutral-site games. Winning on the road in college basketball is never easy, but Virginia should be able to improve in that area with an excellent returning cast that will have solid senior leadership provided by Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell.
Harris, who led the team with 16.3 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting from the floor as a junior, should be one of the premier players in the ACC next season. Mitchell provided 13.1 points and 8.9 boards per game. Virginia was one of the top defensive squads in the nation last season, allowing only 55.6 ppg. With its top two scorers back, finding an adequate replacement for Jontel Evans at point guard is the only real area of concern. Incoming freshmen London Perrantes and Devon Hall are both capable of playing right away.
GEORGIA TECH - Bennett's squad isn't the only ACC program on the rise. Brian Gregory's Yellow Jackets also make locking down the opposition one of their primary goals every time they take the floor. While other schools in the conference garner most of the media's attention on signing day with All- American commitments, Georgia Tech has been adding four-year players who leave it all on the floor. Marcus Georges-Hunt (10.8 ppg) and Robert Carter (9.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) were the top two scorers on the team last season as freshmen.
Also back are Kammeon Holsey (8.8 ppg) and Daniel Miller (8.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg), who finished third and fourth in the scoring column, respectively. Gregory had a busy offseason looking for a few more pieces to the puzzle. Freshman forward Quinton Stephens will add depth to the front line, and it looked like Travis Jorgenson was going to start at point guard for the graduated Mfon Udofia. However, Jorgenson's chances of being a four-year starter diminished when Trae Golden, who is immediately eligible, elected to transfer in from Tennessee. Golden will have just one year remaining, but his scoring (12.1 ppg) and passing (3.9 apg) skills could make a world of difference. Golden is not the only high-profile transfer being added to the fold.
SMU - Rick Pitino isn't the only Hall of Fame coach with a championship in his display case who is going to be working in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. Larry Brown shocked just about everyone when he announced he was returning to college basketball to coach the Mustangs prior to last season. The legendary coach could only lead SMU to a 15-17 overall record in his first year back in the NCAA and there is reason to doubt that mark will get any better as the program migrates into a much more competitive league.
However, Brown has attracted a skilled crop of players to Dallas. After they sat out last season to satisfy NCAA rules, transfers Markus Kennedy (Villanova), Nic Moore (Illinois State) and Crandall Head (Illinois) will be in the rotation for Brown's second year at SMU. Kennedy and Head both served backup roles at their previous schools, but Moore was a standout freshman for the Redbirds in 2011-12, leading the team in assists (135) and averaging 23 ppg over his final three games, two of which were NIT contests. The 5-foot-9 Moore shouldn't have much trouble racking up assists in his first year with the Mustangs. They return their top five scorers in Jalen Jones (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Nick Russell (14.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) Ryan Manuel (12.1 ppg), Cannen Cunningham (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Shawn Williams (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg). SMU also added two of the highest rated recruits in school history in All-American Keith Frazier and Chicago native Sterling Brown, who is the younger brother of Phoenix Suns shooting guard Shannon Brown.
NORTHWESTERN - The Wildcats kept their title as the only team from a power conference without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, with injuries playing a big role in their disappointing 13-19 finish. The school decided to go in a different direction and fired coach Bill Carmody after eight losing seasons in 13 years. The Big Ten program brought in Chris Collins to be the new leader. Collins, whose father Doug Collins just recently stepped down from his position as the Philadelphia 76ers' head coach, was considered one of the top assistants in college basketball at Duke. Although Jaren Sina, who would have been a building block for the future, reopened his recruiting following the coaching switch and landed at Seton Hall instead, the Wildcats have plenty of returning talent to make a run in 2013-14.
Senior wing Drew Crawford was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending injury just 10 games into last season. The athletic and versatile swingman enters his final campaign with career averages of 13.5 points and 4.6 boards per game. Northwestern also returns a trusty floor general in Dave Sobolewski and a young, developing forward in Kale Abrahamson. Sophomore guard Tre Demps also had a productive rookie campaign, posting 9.7 ppg over the final 23 contests. Freshman shooter Nate Taphorn will be an excellent fit in the team's new motion offense. The coaching change might be just what the doctor ordered for the Wildcats, who have had talented teams but never seemed to thrive in Carmody's Princeton-style offense. Collins was a part of the Blue Devils staff for two NCAA Championship runs. Turning Northwestern into the Duke of the Midwest is a tall order, but he is likely to be the first person to coach the Wildcats in an NCAA Tournament game.
XAVIER - Chris Mack somehow managed to keep the Musketeers afloat last season despite losing Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, Kenny Frease and Dez Wells from his 2012 Sweet Sixteen unit. Xavier missed the NCAA Tournament, but it arrived at a 17-14 overall record and tied for sixth place in a very deep Atlantic 10 Conference. Mack's job will not get any easier next season with the school beginning its membership in the new look Big East, but the Musketeers have a serious All-American candidate starting at point guard.
Semaj Christon was unstoppable last season as a freshman with averages of 15.2 points, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The 6-foot-3 guard may have the option of departing school for the NBA at the end of 2013-14 if he proves his A-10 Rookie of the Year and Second Team All-conference accolades were not a fluke. Xavier lost its best post player to graduation, but it has three incoming freshmen that will be difference makers. Brandon Randolph may have been the fastest high school player in the country last season. He needs some time to master the half court game before he can run the show, but his speed, scoring prowess and passing skills should open things up for Christon. Kamall Richards (6-foot-6) is a thick wing with athleticism and nice touch on his shot. He could develop into a go-to guy down the road.
Mack nearly brought Alexander Vezenkov to Cincinnati from Greece, but the 17- year old European superstar backed out of his commitment on Monday to sign a contract to play professionally in Greece. Vezenkov's decision to stay in Europe could end up being a blessing in disguise because he would have taken away time from Justin Martin, who displayed a well-rounded arsenal of offensive skills with eight straight double-digit scoring games to begin the 2012-13 season. Martin only reached double figures four times in the remaining 22 games, but there is no question that he has the talent to do more next season.
HONORABLE MENTION: LSU, Drexel, Boston College, Texas-El Paso, Oakland
08/07 11:40:39 ET
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