Evans Seven: Programs that should trend upward next year
While some of the following teams are just hitting their stride and hope remains for an NCAA Tournament berth, others have already started looking toward next season. In this week’s Evans Seven, we highlight a program from each power league that should be much better next season, thanks to the classes they signed in the fall.
1. AAC: UCONN
It all comes down to talent. Dan Hurley has broken through for a few impressive wins, but the Huskies have also come up with a handful of head-scratching losses.
The graduation of Christian Vital may hurt in the shot-making department, but coming through the door is one of the most athletic players in the 2020 class and a 7-footer with one of the better upsides at the center position. Javonte Brown-Ferguson might be behind in his development compared to Andre Jackson, but he is also a throwback center that is known for his rim running, shot blocking and rebounding. Jackson, on the other hand, will be good for a few SportsCenter Top 10 plays during his college career. He needs to refine his half-court skill-set, but what he can provide on defense should only enhance the Huskies’ success rate and lead the once-proud program back to the NCAA Tournament as it rejoins the Big East Conference.
2. ACC: NORTH CAROLINA
It doesn’t take Roy Williams to state that his team just isn’t that gifted for North Carolina fans to realize that help is needed - and in a major way. On track to potentially miss postseason play entirely - and with Cole Anthony likely to depart for the NBA in the spring - UNC should take solace in its sparkling 2020 class.
While Williams has never been an advocate of leaning on freshmen, his hand may be forced next year, which might not be a bad thing. Enrolling one of the most electric guards in America, Caleb Love, and one of the top scorers, RJ Davis, UNC’s backcourt should be more than dynamic. Throw in a giant shot-maker in Puff Johnson and the twin towers of Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe and UNC could feasibly go from being a program that misses the NCAA Tournament to one that has national title aspirations next season.
3. BIG EAST: XAVIER
Xavier is a more-than-capable NCAA Tournament team, but one thing that the Musketeers do not do that well is shoot the ball. Xavier is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the power conference ranks, as it is making just over 30 percent of it attempts.
Colby Jones might not be the answer to solve this issue, and neither is Dwon Odom, who is more known for his explosive first step and competitive DNA. However, both should only improve the Musketeers in the win column, thanks to their toughness, do-it-all nature and intangibles. But, Xavier should find its X-factor in CJ Wilcher. He is not an above-the-rim type of athlete or multi-positional defender (that is what his two classmates will provide). What he possesses is a lethal stroke that changes the complexion of any game by just being on the floor.
4. BIG TEN: ILLINOIS
Illinois is hovering on the bubble this season, but that shouldn’t be the case next year. Ayo Dosunmu could join the professional ranks, and the jury is out on what super-productive freshman center Kofi Cockburn might do, but Brad Underwood and his staff should feel pretty excited about what they achieved in recruiting a few months ago.
Coleman Hawkins should have a solid four-year career, but it is in the backcourt where the Illini will really find success. Illinois doesn’t struggle in the assists column, but it struggles when it comes to making three-point shots and not turning the ball over. That shouldn’t be the case next year with the addition of Adam Miller, a proven scorer, and Andre Curbelo, arguably the most college-ready point guard in the nation. Those three players won't be a cure-all, but they should make Illinois contenders in league play and beyond.
5. BIG 12: KANSAS STATE
Kansas State can't shoot, whether it is around the basket, from three-point range or at the foul line. The Wildcats don’t rebound and they struggle to protect the basket. Bruce Weber will find a way to squeak out a couple of wins during league play this season, but he also enrolled arguably the best class he has ever assembled since being named the head coach in Manhattan.
He has a great point-of-attack guard in Nijel Pack signed, along with a potent shot maker in Luke Kasubke, who will help K-State with its shooting woes. The program has become known for its staunch defense, and that trend should continue with the enrollment of Selton Miguel, who should cause havoc in the backcourt. Miguel should have the freedom to be an aggressive defender because of Davion Bradford, who is the 5-man the Wildcats are lacking. He is someone who can finish but also change shots.
Together, the top 25 class should get the Wildcats back into contention for a return to the field of 68.
6. PAC-12: UCLA
Granted, UCLA has signed just one prospect. But the talent of Daishen Nix can't be overstated. To say that the Bruins are lacking a go-to weapon this season - or at least someone Mick Cronin can rely upon every night - would be an understatement.
Winning at Washington was a giant step in the right direction, but losing to Washington State, Cal State Fullerton and Hofstra shows that more talent is needed in Westwood. Nix should provide that needed talent. This is not to say Nix will completely change the trajectory of the program, but he is the type of player that makes his teammates better. Nix should be one of the best playmakers in the college game next year, and his services could be just what is missing for the Bruins as they try to crawl back to respectability.
7. SEC: TENNESSEE
Tennessee has fallen on hard times - and not unexpectedly. After all, the program lost two of its best players in school history in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, graduated its starting center and then abruptly lost its starting point guard, Lamonte Turner. It's hard for a program to lose all that and still expect to be an NCAA Tournament team. Maybe Rick Barnes can turn things around and newly enrolled guard Santiago Vescovi will prove to be the hidden potion that makes the Vols a top 25 unit again.
Regardless, Tennessee fans should be very optimistic that things will be much better next year. The Vols are lacking a complete lead guard this season, but that won’t be the case with Jaden Springer on the roster. Throw in uber-athlete Keon Johnson, who will immediately impact both sides of the floor, and one of the more skilled and efficient half-court producers at the forward spot in Corey Walker, and what you have is a program that should be riding high expectations into next season.