How Iowa State, Wake Forest, Wyoming and several others went from bottom-feeders to March contenders.
Every year, college basketball teams emerge from the trenches of preseason media polls to catch the nation by surprise.
Whether it’s a new coach, key transfer or further development of returning players, several squads across the country find a way to exceed expectations and hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
Without further ado, let’s check out the 12 biggest turnarounds in college basketball in the 2021-22 season.
Shortly after giving Kansas a scare in the NCAA Tournament first round with Eastern Washington, Shantay Legans went to the Rose City to rehaul the dormant Portland program.
In the past 10 years, the Pilots were 34-131 (.206) in WCC play and 1-42 over their last 43 conference matchups. At the time of this writing, Portland sits at 7-6 with a road win over at-large contender San Francisco. The Pilots will be a top-6 WCC seed for the first time since 2010.
Kennesaw State Owls
Amir Abdur-Rahim took over a struggling KSU program in 2019, fresh off a last-place finish in the ASUN. The Owls’ first season under Abdur-Rahim was a disaster, finishing 1-28 and 0-16 in ASUN play as the second-worst team in all of college basketball, per KenPom.
Now in Year 3, Kennesaw has a competitive team that has more conference wins this season (seven) than each of the last three years combined (five). The Owls are up more than 100 spots in KenPom as of this writing. Don’t sleep on this team in the ASUN Tournament: Six of KSU’s eight conference losses have come by six points or fewer.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
After a brief hiatus in the Conference USA tournament picture, Middle Tennessee is back to playing like it was during the Giddy Potts era. MTSU could realistically win as many games this season as each of the last three years combined, if not more.
The Blue Raiders are 21-7 overall and are running away with the CUSA’s East division with a 12-3 record. Nick McDevitt has found his footing in Year 4 in Murfreesboro, experiencing a dramatic uptick on the offensive end. MTSU’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranking was 332nd last year and is all the way up to 96th this season.
Many believed last year was going to be Howard’s breakout season with five-star freshman Makur Maker on campus. Instead, the Bison’s season ended after just five games due to COVID and Maker played a grand total of 47 minutes in a Howard uniform.
Kenny Blakeney has bounced back from the disrupted 2021 season to guide Howard to its best season in years. According to Sports-Reference, this year’s Bison squad is the second best in five decades. While challenges await in the MEAC Tournament — most notably league favorite Norfolk State — HU’s up-tempo attack led by steady freshman guard Elijah Hawkins has been tough to stop.
UNC Wilmington Seahawks
As usual, the Colonial is anything but predictable. Naturally, UNCW — picked ninth in the 10-team league in the preseason — has rocketed up to first place in the conference.
Takayo Siddle is another second-year head coach who has found his footing after a tough Year 1. Serving as Kevin Keatts’ assistant at UNCW and NC State for seven years, Siddle took over the Seahawks in 2020 and has already sparked new life into the program. This year’s team is known for its resiliency, displayed in several double-digit comebacks in conference action.
There’s something about Jeff Linder in Year 2. The former Northern Colorado head coach won a school-record 26 games and the CollegeInsider.com Tournament title in his second season after being picked seventh in the Big Sky preseason poll.
This time around, Linder’s Cowboys were pegged eighth in the ’21-22 Mountain West preseason poll and are currently 22-5 with a league title still in reach. The dynamic duo of Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike has been superb as Wyoming inches closer to its first tournament bid since 2015. The Cowboys were 13-39 in Mountain West play the previous three years before this season’s breakout.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
While the ACC has been dealt its fair share of criticism this season, one of the bright spots has been the play of Steve Forbes‘ Demon Deacons. After five excellent years at ETSU, Forbes took over the floundering Wake program in 2020.
The Deacons finished 14th in ’20-21 but are now widely viewed as the second ACC team that could hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Four of Wake’s starters this season are former transfers, including guard Alondes Williams (Oklahoma), who is widely viewed as the most improved player in college hoops.
After 12 years as head coach at UT Arlington, Scott Cross is back in the head seat at Troy. His first two seasons were ones to forget as the Trojans finished last in the Sun Belt both years.
This year’s team, led by the deepest bench in America (46 percent of the team’s minutes played), will be in the mix to capture the Sun Belt’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. UTEP transfer Efe Odigie has shored up the frontcourt as the Trojans have seen a major improvement on the defensive end. Troy’s next win will be its 20th on the year, a feat the program has accomplished just once since 2011.
Long Beach State Beach
Picked eighth in the preseason Big West poll, Dan Monson’s LBSU squad now controls its own destiny to capture a league title for the first time since 2013. Last year’s team was 4-8 in Big West action and failed to score a win over a team above .500.
This year’s team is a different beast. LBSU is 4-1 against the conference’s top five squads and has a chance to sweep Big West powerhouse UC Irvine for the first time in a decade on Saturday. D-II transfer Joel Murray leads the way with 16 points per game.
Some of us are old enough to remember when Towson was the lovable loser of college basketball. In Pat Skerry’s first year with the Tigers, Towson went 1-31. It was such a big deal that Towson had won a game that ESPN aired a highlight of its 66-61 triumph over UNCW in late January of the 2011-12 season.
Skerry, now in Year 11 with the program, has Towson up to 70th in the NET and 71st in KenPom. With a top 50 offense nationally and an aggressive rebounding unit, the Tigers have the makings of a potential Cinderella if they can capture the Colonial trophy.
Iowa State Cyclones
Easily the biggest turnaround at the high-major level, T.J. Otzelberger has completely overhauled the Cyclone program. Iowa State was the worst power-conference program in the sport in 2021, finishing 2-22 without a win in Big 12 play.
The former UNLV and South Dakota State head coach has seemingly been a perfect fit in Ames. ISU is using a wide variety of transfers — Izaiah Brockington (Penn State), Gabe Kalscheur (Minnesota), Tristan Enaruna (Kansas), Caleb Grill (UNLV) and Aljaz Kunc (Washington State) — to record the second-most Quad-1 wins in college basketball this season. The Cyclone defense, ranked 11th in adjusted efficiency, has been a force.
South Carolina State Bulldogs
Like previously mentioned Howard, South Carolina State has also bounced back in a major way after a one-win 2021 season in the MEAC. First-year head coach Tony Madlock paid his dues as a longtime assistant in high school and Division-I before leaving Memphis for the S.C. State job last March.
All Madlock has done is take a 1-17 Bulldogs program and bring it to 15 wins and a possible top-2 seed in next month’s MEAC Tournament. His son, T.J., is the team’s leading scorer as a freshman.