After an unranked Indiana team upset then-No. 1 Kentucky on a buzzer-beater back in 2011, famous ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale had something to say.
“Oh, oh, unbelievable! Can’t believe it!” Vitale yelled in his familiar hoarse, thick New Jersey accent as the Hoosier faithful stormed the court. It was a simple yet classic call, one of many Vitale has provided throughout his long career.
The COVID-19 pandemic made college hoops feel like a long shot not too long ago. But now, with the 2020 college basketball season upon us, that same Vitale call rings in every college basketball fan’s ears. Unbelievable.
It is only fitting to celebrate college basketball’s unlikely return with a list of possible Cinderella teams. That’s what college hoops is about anyway, right? Celebrating the unbelievable?
In no particular order, here are five underrated teams to keep an eye on this season.
Perhaps one of the scariest sights in college basketball is the Maryland student section, aptly nicknamed the “Wall.” To be fair, a gathering of thousands of college students is a frightening notion, regardless of time or place.
But while home games at Xfinity Center will be much more quiet this season, I really believe that this Terrapins team will make enough noise to make up for it. Granted, Mark Turgeon’s team will be without its two leading scorers from last year, Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, who are currently preparing for the NBA draft. But its next four top scorers from last season, including reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Aaron Wiggins, will return to College Park. If 6’8” forward and Boston College transfer Jairus Hamilton is granted immediate eligibility, the Terrapins, whom analysts have in the bottom half of the preseason conference power rankings, could exceed expectations.
I am high on head coach Eric Musselman, and you should be too. The state of Arkansas has never been known for its amazing college basketball programs — or anything at all, for that matter. But Musselman has gotten it done with no-name programs in the past. Cast your mind back to those formidable Nevada Wolfpack teams of the late 2010s. Those Musselman-led squads made three straight NCAA tournaments, prompting the same question in every college basketball fan’s mind: “Wait, Nevada has a basketball team?”
Now in his second season at a school once known for its football program, Musselman has everything he needs to shock the basketball world again. While the Razorbacks lose most of their key players from last season, they boast experience in the form of graduate transfers galore. Five total transfers, including two from last year and three recent transfers, will need time to jell. But between Musselman’s expertise coaching transfer-heavy teams and an ESPN top-five 2020 recruiting class, I’m excited to see this team turn heads in the SEC.
No, I’m not kidding. Hear me out.
I’m not exactly sure what time zone Utah is in or that I could locate it on map. That being said, I know for a fact that it’s Timmy Allen time in Salt Lake City. As a sophomore last season, Allen led the Utes in scoring and rebounding, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. I’m also excited to see what sophomore guard Rylan Jones can do after an impressive freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.6 points and nearly five assists per game.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak can and will get the best out of this team, even without the help of Both Gach, who transferred to Minnesota this offseason. While Utah heads into this season ranked No. 5 in Sports Illustrated’s Pac-12 preseason power rankings, they could very well finish in the top two and make their first tournament appearance in four years.
The eyes of Texas are upon head coach Shaka Smart after winning the tournament last year. The National Invitation Tournament, that is. For a program like Texas, making the NCAA tournament is the bare minimum. Considering the pressure to perform heading into this new season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Smart called up injured alumnus Kevin Durant in a desperate attempt to get some help and keep his job.
Well, I take that back. I actually would be surprised if Smart resorted to groveling, as Texas has all of the pieces it needs to perform and even make a tournament run this year. Big men Jericho Sims, a 6’9” junior with all of the talent to become the Longhorns’s next NBA lottery pick, and Will Baker, a 7-foot freshman and top-40 prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, will give teams problems inside. Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres will help space the floor with their shooting ability. Keep your eyes on this Longhorns team.
The Bearcats rarely disappoint. And yet, nearly every March for the past decade, I am surprised to see this midmajor team holding its own on the dance floor. I refuse to let myself be surprised this year.
Sure, they’ll go without the playmaking ability of Jarron Cumberland, their best player in recent memory. But head coach John Brannen worked some recruiting magic this offseason, snagging transfer guard David DeJulius from Michigan. DeJulius, whose decision to transfer was a surprise to many given the expectation that he would play quite a lot for the Wolverines this season in order to fill the gap left by Zavier Simpson, will help complete a formidable backcourt along with senior guard Keith Williams. Big man Chris Vogt returns after considering entering the NBA draft. I like this team, especially against an AAC schedule that lacks any real world-beaters.
William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].