Our 2016-17 season preview continues with a look at five teams on the rise. Check back every day for more college hoops preview content.
NEVADA: After winning 24 games and a CBI title last March, the Wolf Pack could be poised for an even bigger breakthrough this season. Second-year coach Eric Musselman has made Nevada a destination for high-major-caliber recruits and prized transfers. Sophomore Cameron Oliver blossomed into a 20-point, 10-rebound threat late last season and could be the Mountain West’s top big man this year. He’ll have plenty of promising newcomers around him, from high-scoring ex-Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall, to freshman point guard Devearl Ramsey, to transfer forwards Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) and Leland King (Brown). With several more coveted transfers set to be eligible next year and proven recruiters Dave Rice and Yanni Hufnagel joining the staff, Nevada is poised to contend in the Mountain West for years to come. The only concern is Musselman parlaying his success into a higher-profile job.
OREGON: As its football program has slipped from its perch as the Pac-12’s best, the Oregon basketball program is mounting a serious challenge to Arizona’s conference supremacy. Not only did the Ducks win 31 games last season, sweep the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and advance within a victory of the Final Four, they’re also poised to potentially be even better this year. Five of last year’s top seven players are back including combo forward Dillon Brooks, shooting guard Tyler Dorsey and the shot-blocking interior duo of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher. Former Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis also received a waiver granting him another year of eligibility, meaning he should compete for playing time at point guard with incumbent Casey Benson and prized freshman Payton Pritchard. Long over are the days of Dana Altman having to cobble together an NCAA tournament contender with castoffs, overlooked recruits and one-year transfers. Now the Ducks can also compete for elite prospects as well.
RHODE ISLAND: Hailed as a program on the rise entering last season, Rhode Island instead had a promising season derailed by injuries. All-league guard E.C. Matthews tore an ACL in the Rams’ season opener and defensive standout Hassan Martin battled knee and ankle issues all season before shutting things down in February. Both of Rhode Island’s two cornerstones are healthy now, which has led to renewed optimism that the Rams could be poised to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999. Matthews headlines a deep, talented backcourt that also includes playmaking point guard Jarvis Garrett, two-way standout Jared Terrell and Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson. Martin will start alongside onetime top 50 recruit Kuran Iverson in the frontcourt. Rhode Island is one of three leading contenders to win the Atlantic 10 this season, joining Dayton and VCU. If the Rams can generate a few more easy baskets either in transition or at the rim, they could be the team left standing come March.
VIRGINIA TECH: When Buzz Williams took over at Virginia Tech, the Hokies had amassed a 10-42 ACC record during the previous three years. Slowly but surely, Williams has transformed the program from a perennial laughingstock to an opponent that can no longer be taken lightly. Four starters including standouts Seth Allen and Zach LeDay return from a team that won 10 conference games and earned Virginia Tech’s first postseason bid in five years. Virginia Tech is also very deep thanks to the return of guard Ahmed Hill (knee) and forward Ty Outlaw (illness) and the arrival of freshman guard Tyrie Jackson. When Williams had veteran starters and dependable reserves at Marquette, his teams typically played tough, hard and beyond their talent level. Expect similar from Virginia Tech, which is capable of challenging for an upper-division ACC finish even in a year in which 10-12 teams in the league could realistically contend for NCAA bids.
WESTERN KENTUCKY: Whether as head coach at Mississippi State or an assistant at Texas A&M, Rick Stansbury has proven he can land elite talent. Now the newly hired Western Kentucky coach is demonstrating he can also do it at a less prestigious destination. Five-star center Mitchell Robinson and consensus top 50 guard Josh Anderson are Stansbury’s biggest coups, but neither will join the Hilltoppers until the 2017-18 season. In the meantime, Stansbury has bolstered his current roster with three prized graduate transfers — guards Que Johnson (Washington State), Pankcake Thomas (Hartford) and Junior Lomomba (Providence). That trio will anchor Western Kentucky’s backcourt. The Hilltoppers will lean on top returning scorer and rebounder Justin Johnson in the frontcourt along with Tennessee transfer Willie Carmichael and 7-footer Ben Lawson. That nucleus should be enough to propel Western Kentucky into contention in Conference USA before the Hilltoppers ascend to national relevance the following year.
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