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Evans Seven: Why last year's cellar dwellers can be optimistic

How steep of a climb will it be for last season’s last-place finishers in college basketball? The ascent may be difficult - and also fraught with uncertainty because of the pandemic. But optimism is warranted for various conference's cellar dwellers, which we address in the latest Evans Seven.

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2021 Rankings: Rivals150 | Position

2022 Rankings: Top 75

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ACC: Wake Forest 

Jahcobi Neath
Jahcobi Neath (AP Images)

Granted, there was a three-way tie for last place in the ACC but North Carolina and Pitt both finished with at least one more win overall than the Deacons, which gives Steve Forbes’ team the spotlight. No one, at least over the past 10 years, has stepped into a more dire situation than Forbes, who will have to transform a once-proud program during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. He'll try to rebuild a decimated roster that didn’t get much better over the offseason due to the timing of his hire while sitting in a loaded ACC. Those factors could make the upcoming season a daunting one.

Forbes did a fine job of enrolling graduate transfers Jalen Johnson, Jonah Antonio and Ian DuBose, and he kept Jahcobi Neath and Isaiah Mucius in house. However, with a major hole along the interior, the upcoming season will be about the laying the foundation and setting the culture. The 2021 class is the most pressing need, and landing Robert McCray, who looks like he will outplay his Rivals150 ranking, is a nice start.

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AAC: Tulane 

Kevin Zhang
Kevin Zhang (AP Images)

Things started out so well for Ron Hunter during his first go-around as the head coach in New Orleans, winning eight of his first nine games, which made some believe that he was years ahead in cleaning up the AAC program. Think again. Things cratered quickly as they lost nine consecutive conference games before losing three straight to finish the season.

The question now becomes if Tulane can climb out of the AAC’s basement and who it can rely on to get them there. The roster might be too young, as it doesn't feature a single senior, but there are some worthy pieces to build with, including Jordan Walker and Kevin Zhang.

The Green Wave also got an influx of transfer talent in Jaylen Forbes, Kevin Cross, Gabe Watson and Oton Jankovic. Which players will be eligible is still to be determined, but the enrollment of Sion James should also help. Hunter might be a year away from getting things rolling, but Tulane does appear to be on a path for some of the best days that the program may have ever seen.

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BIG 12: Kansas State 

Selton Miguel
Selton Miguel (Selton Miguel (Twitter: @selton_miguel))

Two games separated Kansas State and the second-worst team in the Big 12, and even though Iowa State lost Tyrese Haliburton to the NBA, the gulf between the teams could become even wider if the returning talent does not improve in Manhattan. Fortunately, Bruce Weber should have enough talent on his roster to rely on. Plus, he has recruited his best class since taking over at Kansas State, so optimism is warranted.

However, surpassing the Cyclones, - or any other program - will not be easy, especially with nine underclassmen on the Kansas State roster. On the plus side: DaJuan Gordon should evolve into an all-league defender, and Selton Miguel has a chance to become the next great Wildcat. Kaosi Ezeagu needs to bring veteran leadership, Mike McGuirl must find his shooting stroke and Montavious Murphy will have to improve his production.

If all that all plays out, maybe Kansas State becomes a plucky bunch come conference play. But the 2021-2022 season is when the Wildcats should make their mark in the Big 12.

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BIG EAST: DePaul 

Romeo Weems
Romeo Weems (AP Images)

Despite all the DePaul jokes, there was talk of a return to the NCAA Tournament last season after the Blue Demons started the year 12-1. But winning just four of the final 19 games did not help the Dave Leitao loyalists. Still, he is slowly building the culture that is needed in Lincoln Park while also enrolling the kind of talent that is needed to compete in a league as strong as the Big East.

Sure, Creighton and Villanova will lead the pack, but other than those two programs there are plenty of questions throughout the conference. DePaul's upside is intriguing, with Charlie Moore, Jaylen Butz and Darious Hall returning and an infusion of graduate transfers that fill specific needs. As long as Romeo Weems develops into the star he can become the Blue Demons could be a surprising team. A top-15 class in 2021 also helps provide a rosy outlook for DePaul's future.

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BIG TEN: Nebraska 

Dalano Banton
Dalano Banton (USA Today)

The transformation of the Nebraska program is ongoing. And while the Huskers have begun to dabble in the high school ranks, as long as Fred Hoiberg is running the show one must believe that the transfer portal will be heavily used each spring. After finishing the season with some sense of urgency after a rather dismal start, Nebraska went about its off-season with a sense of urgency in rebuilding.

Questions remain as to whether Trey McGowens will be eligible this season, but Teddy Allen is going to score many points, Shamiel Stevenson and Derrick Walker will bring toughness, Trevor Lakes is an elite shooter and Kobe Webster will run the show. However, the one name to keep an eye on is Dalano Banton, who possesses the most upside and versatility in the program.

The dearth of off-season practices may hurt the Huskers in terms of on-court chemistry, but talent will not be the reason why Nebraska comes up short in year two of the Hoiberg era in Lincoln.

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PAC-12:  Washington 

RaeQuan Battle
RaeQuan Battle (AP Images)

Things didn’t go as planned for Mike Hopkins last season. After overachieving his first two years in the Pacific Northwest (which led to two consecutive Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards), things took a turn for the worse. Enrolling the mega-talents of Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels was supposed to catapult Washington into the upper-echelon of the league. Instead - whether it was because the pieces didn’t fit or because the importance of Matisse Thybulle was underestimated - the Huskies fell into last place.

Could things be different moving forward? When a team doesn't enroll a single freshman after losing its top two talents, it usually doesn’t equate to a bounce-back season. However, if Cole Bajema and Erik Stevenson receive waivers to play immediately, if Quade Green can remain eligible and if J’Raan Brooks is ready to produce right out of the gates, then the Huskies could surprise. RaeQuan Battle has a chance to be a star, as does Nahziah Carter, and if the well-schooled Hopkins can get all his ducks in a row, Washington could be back toward the middle of the Pac-12.

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SEC: Vanderbilt 

Tyrin Lawrence
Tyrin Lawrence (https://rivals.com)

The SEC may be the strongest that it has been in years, and that doesn’t help Jerry Stackhouse as he tries to revitalize his Vanderbilt program. With strong coaching hires, quality recruiting classes and a number of top faces from the league returning for another year, the depth of the conference is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, finishing the year in last place and then losing his two top talents, Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith, does not work in Stackhouse's favor.

That doesn’t mean that a last-place finish is in the cards again, but it is difficult to envision Vanderbilt finishing anything higher than 12th place. Granted, there is some reason for optimism, thanks to the abilities of DJ Harvey, Scotty Pippen and Dylan Disu. An underrated freshmen class enters the program, too, one that features Myles Stute, Akeem Odusipe and one of the top sleepers in America: Tyrin Lawrence.

Stackhouse is building a roster that highlights versatility and multi-positional ball play, but chances are he won’t get his personnel where he wants it to be until next year. That means this season could bring more growing pains.

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