Which teams are a bit of a mystery entering the upcoming year? Check out our list below as we identify five mystery teams entering the 2016-17 college basketball season. In no particular order…
Illinois: If this team stays healthy, it’s a top-half team in the Big Ten.
If Illinois doesn’t have any hiccups, it can be as versatile as any team in its conference.
If things aligned right, I could date Minka Kelly.
Well, maybe that’s not true, but the first two definitely are.
One year removed from arguably the most injury riddled season a head coach has ever had, John Groce is back to attempt to lead the Illini back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Groce has a star in Malcolm Hill, a burgeoning offensive talent in Jalen Coleman-Lands, and a quality frontcourt quartet in Leron Black, Mike Thorne, Michael Finke, and Maverick Morgan.
Now comes the hard part: making it throughout the season without any setbacks.
A year ago, Groce saw his starting point guard (Tracy Abrams), power forward (Black), and center (Thorne) all miss essentially the entire season due to injuries, and then this spring he had to dismiss his best player, Kendrick Nunn, due to an off-court incident.
The talent is there for this program to compete for a berth in the field of 68.
Will that happen in 2017?
Time will tell.
USC: The Trojans were set to be a top-15 team and compete for a Pac-12 regular season title before two starters — Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic — left school early to pursue professional opportunities.
What do their departures mean for USC entering next season?
Lots of uncertainty.
This team boasts two legitimate NBA prospects in sophomores Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu as well as a pair of quality college guards in Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart.
But can McLaughlin excel as he takes over for Jacobs as the Trojans’ primary floor general?
Not based on what we’ve seen in the past.
USC was in complete control in the NCAA Tournament against Providence before several ball-handling errors by McLaughlin cost the Trojans a late five-point lead.
Andy Enfield needs freshman guard De’Anthony Melton to provide quality reserve minutes and fellow newcomers Jonah Matthews, Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville), and Charles Buggs (Minnesota) to all contribute.
The Trojans definitely have talent, but they need McLaughlin to take care better care of the ball and be capable of leading a team if this program is to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
It could be feast or famine at the Galen Center.
La Salle: John Giannini had his best season as a Division 1 head coach in 2013 when he relied on multiple transfers.
La Salle won 24 games that year and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Wichita State.
Could something similar be brewing in North Philadelphia heading into 2016-17?
The Explorers only won nine games last season, but an influx of transfers — Pookie Powell (Memphis), B.J. Johnson (Syracuse), and Demetrius Henry (South Carolina) — has again ignited a buzz around La Salle’s program.
Those three players should all likely be starters along with an All-Atlantic 10 caliber talent in Jordan Price (19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds) and burgeoning “Glue Guy” Tony Washington (7.7 points, 7.4 rebounds).
Giannini also has quality reserves in his arsenal like Cleon Roberts, Amar Stukes, Johnnie Shuler, and Yevgen Sakhniuk, who should all be more comfortable in their roles than there were a year ago.
There’s absolutely no way to tell if this group is going to mesh together, but one thing is certain: There is enough talent in the Explorers’ program to compete with Rhode Island, Dayton, and VCU atop the Atlantic 10.
New Mexico: The Lobos are only a combined 32-31 over the past two years and lost their third-leading scorer, Cullen Neal, who transferred to Ole Miss.
It remains to be seen whether or not New Mexico is better without Neal — the son of Lobos’ head coach — Craig Neal, but it’s tough to win at any level when you don’t have a reliable point guard.
Freshman Jalen Harris and sophomore Jordan Hunter are the likely candidates to run the show for Neal, who boasts the best inside-outside combination in the Mountain West Conference with Elijah Brown and Tim Williams.
Sam Logwood and Obij Aget also return as proud veterans that New Mexico can lean on, but it remains to be seen if this nucleus of players can exude the consistency it takes to win at a high level throughout the course of a season.
The jury is still out in Albuquerque.
Pitt: Jamie Dixon led the Panthers to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 13 years during his tenure as head coach in the Steel City and it will be interesting to see if Kevin Stallings can keep Pitt in the top of half of the ACC.
The former Vanderbilt head coach led the Dores to seven trips to the field of 68 in 17 years, but navigating the best conference in college basketball is a different breed of cattle.
Stallings returns a quality nucleus of veterans with Mike Young, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter, Chris Jones, Ryan Luther, and Cameron Johnson, but there’s no clear-cut option for the Panthers at point guard and that alone will keep any coach awake when his head hits the pillow.
Sophomore Damon Wilson was the likely choice to fill that role, but Stallings now seems committed to using Artis at the most important position on the floor.
A brilliant offensive mind, Stallings made his name at Vanderbilt by using innovative philosophies to get his best players shots.
Now at Pitt, he inherits a team with pieces that are more burly and versatile than he’s used to.
It remains to be seen how that marriage will work in a season where the Panthers have the talent and experience to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time in 14 seasons.
Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of theCollege Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.