NCAA Basketball: Seven high-major programs entering rebuilding years

Shaka Smart, Texas

Seven high-major programs are entering rebuilding years. What does the future hold and can they exceed expectations?

Not every NCAA basketball team can be good every single year. Such is the way of the sport. Outside of the rare exceptions, programs fluctuate between having good and bad stretches based on several different factors. Sometimes a school hits on an elite recruiting class that transcends those of the past, or other times early defections due to transfers or the NBA Draft lead to struggles.

Down seasons and stretches happen, and lead to coaching changes that invoke rebuilds. Additionally, graduating one of those aforementioned recruiting classes leads to the same fate. Players can only stay in college for so long (unless they are Jalen Coleman-Lands) and teams need to find replacements quickly. “Reloading” is easier said than done, and only a handful of schools can do so consistently.

For one reason or another, most college basketball programs go through at least one rebuilding year every decade or so. Even some of the most consistent schools.

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As the 2021-22 campaign approaches, let’s take a look at seven high-major programs that appear to be entering rebuilding phases.

Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin has thrived over the years behind the “get old, stay old” mantra. The importance of experience within the program has perhaps been most notable under the leadership of current head coach Greg Gard. His teams have been noticeably better when ranking in the upper half of the country in minutes continuity and experience. With D’Mitrik Trice, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, and Aleem Ford all departing as core contributions from last season, the Badgers will lack their trademark experience:

Wisconsin’s recent roster continuity and experience

Brad Davison is back as the aged veteran to lead the roster, but the Badgers will otherwise feature mainly underclassmen. They were picked to finish 10th in the unofficial preseason Big Ten media rankings and will need to rely on youngsters to overachieve. Sophomore guard Jonathan Davis is the main “star” to watch, while a breakout season from frontcourt players Steven Crowl and Ben Carlson might be on the horizon. Wisconsin has an intriguing freshman class coming in, headlined by potential starting point guard Chucky Hepburn.

Wisconsin is a great program, and managing to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid even amidst its roster turnover is a possibility. The more likely situation, though, is that the underclassmen use this season to gain experience prior to propelling the Badgers back up the rankings in the future.

Creighton Bluejays

Creighton reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974 during this past season. This postseason success was the culmination of several strong years in Omaha, but a massive exodus followed. Marcus Zegarowski, Damien Jefferson, Denzel Mahoney, Mitch Ballock, and Christian Bishop — the team’s top five scorers a year ago — are all gone. Put simply, Creighton is going to feature a ton of new pieces this season.

Head coach Greg McDermott elected to rebuild with extremely impressive work on the recruiting trail. The Bluejays are bringing in the No. 7 overall recruiting class in the country. Point guard Ryan Nembhard is perhaps the most notable of the group as a potential Big East Freshman of the Year candidate. He isn’t even the top-rated player in the class, though. Creighton also brings in Arthur Kaluma (No. 48), Mason Miller (No. 73), Trey Alexander (No. 75), and John Christofilis (No. 147).

These newcomers join second-year players Rati Andronikashvili (missed last season with an ACL tear) and Ryan Kalkbrenner.

Creighton has plenty of talent this season, but there is a clear lack of experience. If the talent wins out, this will feel more like a reloading season than a rebuilding one. With just a No. 8 preseason ranking in the Big East, though, it’s likely this extremely talented group is a year or two away from returning to the top of the conference standings.

Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado has ever-so-quietly been one of the best programs in the Pac-12 over the past decade. Head coach Tad Boyle has led the program to at least a .500 record in conference play in eight of his 11 years at the helm. The Buffaloes were particularly strong over the last three years, compiling a 67-33 (34-22 Pac-12) record and peaking with a No. 8 finish on KenPom last year. Alas, McKinley Wright IV, Jeriah Horne, D’Shawn Schwartz, Dallas Walton and Maddox Daniels all departed this offseason, plunging Coach Boyle into a rebuild.

Only two proven upperclassmen are returning to Boulder in Evan Battey and Eli Parquet. As a result, Colorado was only picked to finish sixth in the preseason Pac-12 poll. But the odds are short on them staying out of the league’s title contention for long. The Buffs have an exciting young core to build around.

Colorado’s highest-rated all-time recruits

Most notably, rising sophomore Jabari Walker oozes star potential after averaging 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season. He is one of the top breakout candidates out west. Additionally, Coach Boyle is bringing in the No. 13 overall recruiting class in the country this season. Seven-footer Lawson Lovering is particularly intriguing as the program’s second-highest rated commit in 247Sports’ database. He is one of three Top 100 freshmen headed to Boulder.

Missouri Tigers

Missouri is only bringing back two contributors (Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett) from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. As a result, the Tigers were slotted at the No. 10 spot in the conference’s preseason poll. Head coach Cuonzo Martin is essentially doing a complete rebuild this season and is doing so with a combination of incoming transfers and freshmen.

The Tigers will feature a completely revamped backcourt this season with the arrivals of juniors Jarron Coleman (Ball State), Amari Davis (Green Bay) and DaJuan Gordon (Kansas State). All three averaged over nine points per game at their last stops and will hopefully add some firepower on the perimeter.

Incoming freshman Anton Brookshire is the long-term guard to watch. Fellow freshmen Yaya Keita, Trevon Brazile, Sean Durugordon and Kaleb Brown are all listed at 6-5 or taller; Missouri has prioritized positional size. This recruiting class is only ranked at No. 50 in the country but needs to be instrumental in pushing the program back to NCAA Tournament-caliber seasons.

Perhaps the most important part of this rebuild is finding perimeter shooting. The Tigers ranked just 326th and 230th in 3-point efficiency, respectively, over the past two seasons. Being able to space the floor is essential in the modern era. Missouri lost seven of its last 10 games this past year, including its first-round NCAA Tournament game. The program has not won a game in the Big Dance since 2010.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota reached the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and 2019, but otherwise finished below-.500 in four of Richard Pitino’s last six seasons at the helm. The Golden Gophers made the coaching change this offseason and new leader Ben Johnson immediately made his mark on the roster. “Rebuild” might not even be the right term for it; Minnesota is undergoing a complete overhaul.

Only one contributor from last season is returning, while 10 newcomers are joining the program. This includes incoming freshmen as well as transfers from mid-majors, JUCOs and D-2 schools.

This season feels like the start of what might be a long rebuild. The Gophers are widely projected to be the worst team in the Big Ten this season, but that doesn’t mean this will be a lost season. Coach Johnson can invigorate the program by taking subtle steps in the right direction, and his massive roster churn will give some insight into his construction abilities. He has already generated some buzz by prioritizing keeping players inside the borders of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota is a fairly old team for one entering a rebuild, but there are long-term pieces to monitor. Most notably, freshman big man Treyton Thompson should see big minutes from the opening tip of the year. He might crack the starting lineup.

Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette is entering its rebuilding phase a year late. The Golden Eagles struggled last season in the post-Markus Howard era and it led to the seemingly inevitable firing of Steve Wojciechowski. New head coach Shaka Smart is taking over a program with tremendous basketball tradition and outstanding resources. He is also coming off an excellent season in which he guided Texas to a No. 3 seed.

Smart’s first season at the helm of the Golden Eagles might be a long one —Marquette is projected to finish ninth in the Big East — but there are reasons to be excited about the future of the program. Coach Smart struggled relative to expectations while at Texas but has still led eight of his last 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. He is a superb recruiter and should instantly improve Marquette’s defense.

Shaka Smart’s defensive reputation

Coach Smart rebuilt Marquette’s roster in his image this offseason. The addition of Maryland transfer Darryl Morsell might reflect this most; he is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Oklahoma transfer Kur Kuath also adds to the defensive identity growing in Milwaukee. In terms of long-term pieces, Justin Lewis and Tyler Kolek (George Mason transfer) were both solid freshmen last season with breakout potential. A six-man freshman class headlines the future.

Texas A&M Aggies

Texas A&M head coach Buzz Williams partook of the transfer market more than just about any program in the country this offseason. He lost three contributors to the portal, but he added seven newcomers (!) via transfer. He has almost completely overhauled the roster in College Station heading into his third season at the helm. The Aggies were only picked to finish 12th in the SEC’s preseason poll but this is as intriguing of a roster as there is. 

Frontcourt transfer additions Henry Coleman (Duke) and Javonte Brown (UConn) both come to the program after seeing measly playing time as freshmen at their last stops. The former was a top-60 recruit out of high school, though. Conversely, Coach Williams targeted more proven players for his backcourt with Marcus Williams (Wyoming) and Tyrece Radford (Virginia Tech). Williams was one of the top freshmen in the Mountain West last season while Radford — who will be a junior — is an elite rebounding guard.

One of the lone returners, Hassan Diarra, is an interesting second-year player as well. In total, the Aggies will likely feature six underclassmen in their core rotation this season. The four aforementioned sophomores are core pieces for the future, as are incoming four-star freshmen Manny Obaseki (No. 33 recruit) and Wade Taylor (No. 119 recruit).

This is a major rebuilding year for TAMU, but there are pieces to be excited about. It will be interesting to watch how they gel together. If the Aggies exceed expectations this season, we could be talking about a potential breakout a year from now.