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THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD
June 28, 2006

SCS.comWhat do Ohio State, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Memphis, and Georgetown have in common? How about Tennessee, Bradley, George Mason, Indiana, and Northwestern State?

Still thinking...?

Well, here's the answer: each of those ten teams won a game in the 2006 NCAA Tournament without making the field of 65 the season before. To take it a step further, five of those teams (Ohio State, Bradley, Tennessee, George Mason, and Northwestern State) did not even make the postseason in 2005.

What does this mean?

To put it simply: don't count out any team when discussing potential title contenders in the preseason. Memphis was a #1 seed and reached the Elite Eight; Ohio State and Tennessee were both #2 seeds; Georgetown, Bradley, and Wichita State all reached the Sweet Sixteen; and we all know about George Mason.

This brings us to the 2006-2007 season. With all the turnover in college basketball following the season, there is going to be a wide-open race for the national title. As a result of the parity, there are plenty of teams that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament or even the postseason that can expect to compete for a spot in the top 25 throughout the upcoming year.

Here are five teams that will make the jump from NIT to NCAA, plus five more teams that will go from no postseason to postseason contender:

NIT TO NCAA

Louisville

The Cardinals didn't make the NCAA Tournament last season, and they lose star guard Taquan Dean. So why the optimism? Well, to put it simply, Louisville is loaded. Juan Palacios and David Padgett are a very good inside duo, while Brandon Jenkins and Terrence Williams form a solid perimeter tandem. If Palacios and Padgett play to their potential, the Cardinals are going to be very difficult to defend because of their ability to play inside and outside with those two players. Moreover, Rick Pitino is bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Earl Clark, a McDonald's All-American, and Derrick Caracter could have major impacts, while Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith will form an excellent backcourt duo for years to come. With the Big East lacking a truly dominant team this season, don't be surprised if Pitino has Louisville near the top of the standings.

Hofstra

One of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Pride is going to be in the mix once again come March. While they lose their starting frontcourt duo of Aurimas Kieza and Adrian Uter, one of the best perimeter trios in the country returns to lead Hofstra. Loren Stokes is very good at getting to the basket, while Antoine Agudio is one of the best mid-range scorers at the mid-major level. Throw in solid point guard Carlos Rivera, and Hofstra is going to look a lot like last season's Villanova team. If Chris Gadley and incoming freshman Greg Washington can anchor the interior, the Pride should win the Colonial title and make some noise in the Big Dance.

Florida State

The Seminoles were on the bubble this past season, but should be comfortably in the Big Dance next year. The loss of Alexander Johnson to the NBA Draft hurts, but Leonard Hamilton should have this team ready to go. Al Thornton is one of the conference's toughest matchups and can carry FSU. Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann also return as starters in the backcourt. Add Auburn transfer Toney Douglas to a deep perimeter group, and the Seminoles should have the goods to make a run in the ACC. The only thing stopping them from contending for a conference title is their lack of a go-to post player. But no one is going to want to play this team late in the season.

Oklahoma State

While the Cowboys struggled last season in what was a rebuilding year, they are going to be loaded next season. The top ten scorers return for new coach Sean Sutton, and OSU also brings in McDonald's All-American Obi Muonelo to add to the mix as well. He and JamesOn Curry should form a very good scoring combo on the wing. Mario Boggan is a beast on the interior, and Torre Johnson is one of the best sixth men in the country. Marcus Dove is a lock-down defender, while David Monds is a productive forward. If they can get consistent point guard play from Byron Eaton and Jamaal Brown, the Pokes could compete for a top three finish in the Big XII.

Michigan

While the NIT runner-up loses four players that started at least six games, the Wolverines should be able to avoid a third consecutive late-season collapse and finally make the jump to the NCAA Tournament. The loss of Daniel Horton is going to make a huge impact, but incoming freshman Deshawn Sims should contribute immediately on the wing. Returning big man Courtney Sims is one of the best post players in the country at times, while the athletic Brent Petway can rebound and block shots on the interior. The perimeter should be loaded. Dion Harris and Lester Abram form an excellent duo, while Ron Coleman has potential. If Jerret Smith can effectively replace Horton at the point, Michigan will be in the field of 65.

Honorable Mention: Creighton

The Bluejays seemed like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament throughout the season, but a so-so March put them on the wrong side of the bubble. However, star Nate Funk was granted another year of eligibility after missing all but six games last season due to injury. With him, Creighton defeated Final Four squad George Mason on the road by 20 and Big XII bubble team Nebraska by 26. He gives the Bluejays a chance to win every night out. Anthony Tolliver also returns to anchor the interior, while Josh Dotzler has a chance to be one of the best point guards in the conference. Nick Porter and Dane Watts are two more contributors for Creighton. Southern Illinois and Wichita State are getting all of the hype in the MVC, but the Bluejays are going to be a tough out.

NO POSTSEASON TO POSTSEASON CONTENDER

Georgia Tech

An 11-17 team this past season, the Yellow Jackets return their top seven scorers and bring in two of the top recruits in the country. Javaris Crittenton is a super-scorer at the point, while Thaddeus Young is a future NBA star. Both should start right away and will make immediate impacts on the ACC. Tech also returns an excellent inside-outside duo in shooter Anthony Morrow and inside force Ra'Sean Dickey. Jeremis Smith is a big-time rebounder down low. They may struggle early in the non-conference season, but once the freshmen get used to the level of the ACC, the Yellow Jackets are going to be a nightmare to play in the postseason.

Georgia

Even though the Bulldogs lost seven of their last eight games to end the season, they could be a team to watch this season. Eleven of their top twelve scorers return, including one of the most underrated perimeter groups in the country. Levi Stukes and Sundiata Gaines form an excellent combo, while Channing Toney also starts. Mike Mercer and Billy Humphrey, both sophomores-to-be, were two of the best bench contributors in the SEC. Dave Bliss and Steve Newman are going to have to provide solid rebounding and defense down low. While their stable of guards is deep and talented, if the Bulldogs don't get enough inside production, they won't be able to reach their full potential. All of that adds up to what could be a sleeper team in the conference.

Virginia Tech

Like the two aforementioned teams, the Hokies had an awful season, finishing 4-12 in the ACC and losing six of their last seven. However, unlike the two above teams, Virginia Tech was supposed to be a potential NCAA Tournament team last season. Maybe the predictions were a year off, because the Hokies have the goods to make a run at a bid next season. Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon form one of the most versatile backcourts in the country, as both players are good scorers, rebounders, defenders, and passers. Coleman Collins is one of the most underrated big men in the country, but he is somewhat inconsistent. Deron Washington is a very athletic forward who is a good all-around player. If the Hokies play together as a team, expect them to be in the thick of things come March.

Kansas State

This pick is more about the coach than the players. The biggest change in the coaching world this offseason was the Wildcats picking up former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins. If he instills the same principles he used with the Bearcats, this team will improve immediately. However, all-conference performer Cartier Martin was suspended indefinitely, and it is not clear when he will be back. They need him to return if they want to receive an NCAA bid. Even without him, though, KSU is going to be tough. David Hoskins and Lance Harris are solid players on the wing, while Akeem Wright and Clent Stewart also contribute on the perimeter. Throw in recruits Blake Young and Jason Bennett, and Huggins has a team that can compete with anyone.

DePaul

After a positive non-conference campaign last season in which the Blue Demons went 7-4 and beat teams like California, Creighton, and UAB, they struggled in the Big East en route to a 5-11 conference record. However, with the return of their top 13 players and 99.1% of their total minutes played from a year ago, fans can expect more results like the ones they had in the non-conference season. Sammy Mejia is an excellent wing that can do it all, while Draelon Burns is one of the best sixth men in the country. Inside, Wilson Chandler and Karron Clarke are formidable options at both ends of the floor. The Blue Demons also bring in point guard recruit Will Walker, who could make an immediate impact in the backcourt. Don't be shocked to see DePaul making a case for an NCAA bid.

Honorable Mention: Southern California

After an encouraging 17-13 season (in which the Trojans were inexplicably left out of the NIT), USC took some hits in the offseason with some unfortunate news. First, starting point guard Ryan Francis was tragically shot and killed in May. Next, star guard Gabe Pruitt was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester. However, the Trojans could be a tough team to beat come March. Nick Young is one of the most talented players in the country, and could develop into a household name this season, while Pruitt is an all-conference guard. Lodrick Stewart is also very solid on the perimeter. Up front, incoming forwards Davon Jefferson, Taj Gibson, and Kevin Galloway are expected to combine with returnees RouSean Crowell and Abdoulaye Ndiaye to comprise a formidable frontcourt. If they can find someone to replace Francis at the point, look out for them in the postseason.

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