Stuckey: 10 Early Season Potentially Undervalued College Basketball Teams
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With the college basketball season quickly approaching, I wanted to share 10 teams that I think could potentially have betting value early on in the season.
I don’t know where the market will price these teams yet, but I can get an idea of where I stand compared to the rest of the market by looking at other respected power ratings.
This list isn’t meant as instructions to blindly fade each of these teams below early in the season, but rather just to share my thoughts and provide you with better insight on a handful of teams you may not have that much familiarity with.
I really liked what I saw from UCF to end last season. The Knights went just 11-12 but finished 7-3 with a pair of one-point losses to Wichita State and Cincinnati. Their other loss came by eight points in the AAC Tournament to Memphis in a game UCF actually led with seven minutes remaining.
There were initial thoughts that UCF would lose most of its primary contributors to the NBA. However, all three key players decided to return:
- Fifth-year senior point guard Darius Perry (former Louisville transfer)
- C.J. Walker (former 5-star recruit and Oregon transfer)
- Isaiah Adams (former 4-star recruit who shined as a freshman last year)
The whole band basically comes back for head coach Johnny Dawkins, who will have the luxury of returning over 95% of his minutes from last year.
The straw that stirs the drink is Perry, who will have his same running mates and a pair of intriguing new freshmen faces in Darius Johnson and Tyem Freeman.
UCF’s interior defense and rebounding should also get much stronger with the addition of 6-foot-11 UNLV senior Cheikh Mbacke Diong, who was one of the best big men in the transfer portal.
Ultimately, it makes sense that UCF improved late in the year due to the some of the key injuries it suffered early on. The Knights also heavily leaned on a number of underclassmen, who should see rises in efficiency this season.
I expect UCF to continue last year’s late momentum into the early part of this season and eventually secure an at-large bid come March. This roster is pretty loaded.
Similar to what we saw with college football, one of the most difficult aspects of handicapping the early part of this season will be trying to figure out how much to weigh priors for certain teams that were particularly hampered by COVID in 2020-21.
It also was not an ideal season for a first-time head coach given all of the restrictions and abnormal preparation leading up to the season.
The Flames fit the bill for both as Luke Yaklich was not really put in an ideal situation in his first year as head coach of UIC. Yaklich had to deal with numerous injuries and COVID impacts.
I’m a big fan of Yaklich, so I think a full offseason will do wonders for this roster. With the likely top nine in the rotation all being seniors, UIC will be one of the most experienced groups in the entire country.
Last year, the defense was light years ahead of the offense. That isn’t a surprise considering that’s the specialty of Yaklich, who wants to take away the three at all costs. Last year, UIC only allowed an opposing 3-point rate of 26.7% — the second-lowest percentage in all of college basketball.
The defense should continue to progress under Yaklich, but this team will only improve significantly if the offense can make one strides in his second year. Last year, the offense was extremely inefficient, ranking 315th in Adjusted Efficiency, per KenPom.
However, there are reasons for optimism other than improved backcourt health and a full offseason for this experienced roster to work out what Yaklich wants to do.
It starts with the return of Maurice Commander, who I expect to play point more often with the departure of Teyvion Kirk. I think the loss of Kirk — who was one of the main culprits of the inefficient offense — will actually lead to addition by subtraction.
I also like some of the incoming transfers as they should give UIC strong depth and more length on both ends of the floor.
The defense will be there. If the offense can show signs of life early on, this could be a play on team before the market catches up.
Last year, Fresno State ranked outside the top-300 nationally in both experience and Minutes Continuity. Throw in injury and COVID issues early in the season, and it’s no surprise this virtually brand new roster struggled to find its footing in less than ideal circumstances.
However, the Bulldogs did finally find their identity and a lineup that worked late in the year. That should pay dividends early this season under head coach Justin Hutson, who will see the return of over 90% of last year’s minutes.
He has a 7-footer in the middle in Orlando Robinson and some talented athletes to work with. Plus, the addition of uber-talented Arizona transfer Jemarl Baker can only help on the perimeter.
Last year, this group of primarily sophomores showed periodic flashes but didn’t start playing their most consistent ball until the season’s end. Now, they get a full offseason to work out some of the kinks ahead of their second campaign together.
I expect the turnovers to get cut down and the ball movement to improve. That will do wonders for an inefficient offense that went cold for too many stretches last year.
Coming into last season, the Mocs ranked 273rd in Minutes Continuity. It was a work in progress in an unusual season where change wasn’t ideal, especially when you throw in some of the COVID and injury issues they had to deal with.
That won’t be the case this year as UTC only loses Stefan Kenic and returns over 80% of its minutes. It all starts with one of the most underrated mid-major backcourt duos of David Jean-Baptiste and Malachi Smith, who are the engines of the offense.
A pair of senior transfers, Darius Banks and KC Hankton, also only combined to play in about half of the games last year. A full season of both will only lead to a more efficient offense and improved depth.
Additionally, Chattanooga brought in a big man who might sound familiar to you in Silvio De Sousa, who arrives from Kansas. He and another senior transfer, 6-foot-10 UCF transfer Avery Diggs, give the Mocs much-needed size underneath.
They already have the guards and shooting, but now, with these new front-court pieces to better protect the rim, they will have improved lineup versatility.
To me, the Mocs aren’t getting enough preseason love. I think they’re the best team in the Southern Conference.
Coming into last season, the Salukis ranked 341st in experience and 286th Minutes Continuity, per KenPom. Even with the lack of experience, many still had high hopes for this team in head coach Bryan Mullins’ second season.
However, that optimism slowly dwindled as the team was hit hard by COVID and devastating injuries. The Salukis lost highly-touted JUCO transfer JD Muila to an injury prior to the start of the season and then, they lost star sophomore Marcus Domask to a season-ending injury in early January.
The 2020 #MVChoops Freshman of the Year is Marcus Domask of @SIU_Basketball! pic.twitter.com/Wf1pldUjrU
— MVC Basketball (@ValleyHoops) March 3, 2020
With both forwards now ready to rock for the start of this season, SIU returns every primary contributor and over 98% of its minutes from last season.
The frontcourt depth should strengthen after a number of players gained valuable experience in place of Domask and Muila. Plus, I expect significant improvement from a backcourt that relied on many young pieces last year.
Fullerton went into last season with a roster ranked 316th in Minutes Continuity. And it’s not like the Titans got many chances to gel together as a unit after dealing with COVID, key injuries and only getting to play 16 games last year.
You can pretty much throw out last season, but I actually liked what I saw from some key pieces on the perimeter that will be back in the mix for a team that returns over 75% of its minutes.
The Titans had an abundance of capable guards who could shoot the lights out last year, led by Tray Maddox Jr. However, they severely lacked bulk up front.
That should change this year with the arrival of three transfers that should contribute on the low block:
- EJ Anosike (averaged a double-double at Sacred Heart before transferring to Tennessee last year)
- Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia (UCF transfer)
- Lado Laku (from Texas A&M Corpus Christi)
After dealing with many obstacles last year, a fresh start is just what the doctor ordered for Fullerton. Plus, a more complete roster should lead to improvements in both defense and rebounding.
I also expect some shooting regression to come its way after opponents shot just under 40% from deep in 2020-21.
The Golden Flashes must replace First Team All-MAC Danny Pippen, who could fill up a box score as well as anybody in the league. He actually led the team in both scoring (19.8) and rebounding (8.6) in 2020.
They also lost guard Michael Nuga, who suffered a season-ending injury after 13 games. The backcourt production noticeably dropped after losing Nuga, who transferred to UNLV this past offseason.
However, the frontcourt should still be a strength with the return of Justyn Hamilton and Tervell Beck. That duo could lead Kent State to back-to-back top-25 finishes in offensive rebounding rate.
That’s where Kent State wants to live.
The additions of Georgia transfer Andrew Garcia and Rhode Island transfer DJ Johnson should also help soften the blow of losing Pippen while providing solid depth down low.
In regards to the perimeter, Malique Jacobs and Giovanni Santiago do come back to provide head coach Rob Senderoff with experience in the backcourt.
Santiago can really shoot it and Jacobs can lock down on the defensive end.
I’m also excited about the addition of transfer Sincere Carry, who started at point guard for three years at Duquesne. He should get first crack at running the show.
Another reason for optimism at Kent State is a potential bump in locker room morale and chemistry with the departure of Pippen. Rumors of locker room issues popped up late in the year. And Pippen didn’t even dress for Kent State’s season-ending loss in the MAC Tournament.
Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff on his decision to not play star forward Danny Pippen against the Bobcats:
That was my decision and you know that's a decision I'll live with,” Senderoff said.
Pippen had 22 and 8 the last time he played Ohio.
— J.L. Kirven (@JL_Kirven) March 11, 2021
Kent State once again should shine on the glass and has the pieces to lock down defensively. And if the chemistry improves without Pippen, we may see a more cohesive offense as the talent is certainly there.
If the transfers can come in and gel immediately for EMU, the Eagles could be against the spread darlings early on in the season.
I love the hire of Stan Heath, who should implement schemes on both ends that are a better fit than what we saw last year.
It’s also a much improved roster with some of the incoming talent brought in this past offseason.
If you value experience early on in the season, you’re going to love the Red Wolves this year. They return every single contributor from last season.
They are led by fifth-year starting point guard Marquis Eaton and stud big man Norchad Omier, one of the best rebounders in the country as a freshman last year. Those two comprise of one of the most formidable inside-out duos in the entire Sun Belt Conference.
On top of the returning experience, Arkansas State also added a high-major transfer in Desi Sills, who started 47 games over the past three seasons on the other side of the state for the Razorbacks.
Pairing Sills with Eaton and Caleb Fields gives the Red Wolves an extremely dangerous backcourt that will be extremely tough for opponents to keep from attacking the rim.
Desi Sills, Marquis Eaton, Norchad Omier, Malcolm Farrington, & Keyon Wesley all scored in double figures in Arkansas State’s Scarlet & Black Game.
Sills had 33 pts but left the game in the 2nd half with an injury.
Watch postgame press conference here: https://t.co/qsjvo01Rjn pic.twitter.com/3e7QFgoWZX
— Chris Hudgison (@ChrisHudgison) October 21, 2021
And with Sills (who received good news on the injury front and should be good to go for the opener) likely in the starting lineup, there’s plenty of depth and shooting to play around with on the bench.
If Omier can improve a bit offensively and stay out of foul trouble, this team could be undervalued prior to conference play, especially if Sills can naturally assimilate into the lineup.
I like what head coach Greg Paulus is doing with this team.
We should see some positive shooting regression for a team that shot just 31.3% from deep (283rd), one season after shooting 37.2% (25th) with most of the same shooters. I expect bounce-back seasons in that department from both Marcus Hammond and Justin Roberts.
The Purple Eagles did lose Kobi Nwandu, who decided to pursue a professional career. They also recently announced that projected senior starter Raheem Solomon will step away from the team.
Both losses will certainly sting on the defensive end, but Paulus has already impressively demonstrated he can adjust on both ends to fit his roster.
I’ll be interested to see how often he decides to run zone this year.
Niagara does at least play slow and doesn’t turn the ball over. That makes it a potentially intriguing large underdog — potentially early in the season against Xavier and Ohio State. However, the Purple Eagles do completely lack size on the interior, which will plague them in certain matchups.
Ultimately, this is a team on my radar early in the season due to four primary reasons:
- Expected positive shooting regression
- High expectations for Paulus with a normal offseason ahead of his third year
- I also like some of the offseason additions
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