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Insider

A look at 15 more underappreciated teams

10/5/2010

Whenever I read preseason rankings such as Andy Katz's top 25 or Dick Vitale's top 40, I immediately think about the massive group in the middle of the college basketball world that feels forever disrespected by not being on such lists. That's why making such a list is never an easy task -- there are plenty of teams with legit arguments.

So I decided to sit down and think of how many teams could end the season on such a list and, if everything worked out, be right in the NCAA tourney discussion. Programs that have a certain buzz about them in college basketball circles are the ones I'll identify here.

In the end, I picked 30 teams that weren't in Vitale's top 40 -- 30 teams worth watching and discussing. I revealed the first 15 on Monday, and below is a list of 15 more to keep an eye on:

Arizona: Derrick Williams is the real deal. He and Wazzu's Klay Thompson are the two best players in the Pac-10. No one is sure whether freshman Jordin Mayes can play some point, but Lamont "Mo Mo" Jones has shown a flair for the dramatic. With Jamelle Horne, Solomon Hill and Daniel Bejarano, the U of A should be NCAA tourney solid, with a chance to be special next season after a boatload of talent comes in.

Connecticut: Although the Huskies lost interest and cohesiveness last season, they never lost effort from Kemba Walker. He will combine with ultratalented Roscoe Smith, Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi to give UConn four legit weapons. In a very young league outside of Pitt, Connecticut could be dangerous if its shooting develops.

Creighton: Greg McDermott is back in the Missouri Valley, this time with many resources and fan support at Creighton. He'll also coach the best inside duo in the conference, Kenny Lawson Jr. and Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique, once the latter becomes eligible in the second semester. Coach Mac's style is different from former coach Dana Altman's, but his résumé and reputation in the MVC should keep the Bluejays devotees packing the Qwest Center, and his winning will win them over permanently.

Dayton: The Flyers have Chris Wright and Chris Johnson, which is a heck of a start. If freshman Juwan Staten can play at the point, the late-game turnover problems that kept UD out of last season's tourney might be a thing of the past. Brian Gregory has recruited a very athletic bunch who defend about as well as anyone else in the country. With a little more offense, they will dance.

Northern Iowa: I'm not sure why so many have hopped off Ben Jacobson's bandwagon. Although Ali Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch are gone, Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Johnny Moran and Jake Koch (Adam's brother) are all still there. UNI will be undersized inside with fan favorite Lucas O'Rear banging around inside, but there's talent on hand to remain in contention in the Valley.

Notre Dame: Why not? The Irish were better late without Gody, and now there will be more minutes for Tyrone Nash and Jack Cooley. After two years away, Scott Martin joins Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough. The biggest question is at the point, where freshman Eric Atkins will get the ball. If he can run the show as well as the coaches think, why not Notre Dame?

Old Dominion: Now for the team that beat Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. Gerald Lee is gone, but essentially five starters return, with super sub Keyon Carter being the fifth. The Monarchs are solid at the point with Darius James and solid inside with Carter and Frank Hassell, and swingman Kent Bazemore is a dark-horse candidate for the CAA player of the year.

Saint Mary's: Although Omar Samhan is gone from the Sweet 16 team, Randy Bennett returns his backcourt of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova as well as forward Clint Steindl. He also welcomes in two transfers in Rob Jones (University of San Diego) and Kenton Walker II (Creighton). With the way SMC shoots the ball and defends as a unit, do not be surprised if it challenges Gonzaga again for the West Coast Conference title.

Seton Hall: As crazy as the Bobby Gonzalez era was, the Pirates nearly made the NCAA tournament even while playing very little defense. Kevin Willard's pace is not that much different from Gonzalez's, but it should work far more successfully in terms of shot selection and defense. Ole Miss transfer Eniel Polynice should help stabilize the backcourt of Jeremy Hazell and Keon Lawrence. The Hall's inside play will be in question thanks to Herb Pope's uncertain health. A lot will be riding on Jeff Robinson's continued improvement.

UCLA: The Bruins should be better a year from now, but keeping the wolves at bay will be difficult. Malcolm Lee must learn to take over games, and Tyler Honeycutt has to take a major step in his development. Look for Tyler Lamb to be called on early to contribute in a crucial season for Ben Howland. UCLA still has enough talent to crack the Big Dance.

UC Santa Barbara: Coach Bob Williams and his Gauchos won the Big West's regular-season and tourney titles last season, and the dynamic duo of Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally return to the Thunderdome. Williams, who won a Division II national championship at UC Davis in 1998, has been building this program back up, and it's paying off now. All five starters are back, and with added confidence and a renewed vigor at home (that place is loud), expect the Gauchos to garner a decent seed and be a major sleeper in March.

USC: Let's stay in SoCal. Transfer Jio Fontan will be eligible around Christmas and should propel USC toward the top of the Pac-10. Fontan was the only player worth watching at Fordham before he left. With Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson and a solid group of newcomers led by Bryce Jones, SC will be sneaky good in February and March.

Utah State: Longtime coach Stew Morrill will once again line up and beat 28 to 32 opponents and hope to get others to buy in to the idea that his group is legit. It is, and Tai Wesley's age and experience will come in handy in and out of league play. By the way, it's not a misprint: USU will indeed play at Georgetown in a buy game! Although even Morrill gives in once in a while, his team's effort does not. Expect another WAC championship.

Vanderbilt: John Jenkins is a stud. If he is more than just an excellent spot-up shooter, the Dores have at least one player who can carry them. Jeffery Taylor is a future pro, Brad Tinsley takes over at the point and Festus Ezeli has really improved at center. Rod Odom is this year's supertalented freshman who ultimately may determine just how good this team turns out.

Wofford: One of the best defensive teams in the country at the end of the regular season, the Terriers and head coach Mike Young should be right back in the NCAA tourney field again with four starters back from a 26-win team. Noah Dahlman is the go-to Terrier, but this is a very unselfish group. Wofford has Minnesota, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgetown and Xavier on its schedule. Each one of those teams should be on all-out upset alert.

Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com. "The Doug Gottlieb Show" can be heard weekdays from 4-7 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com.