We tend to focus on perennially successful programs in college hoops, and with good reason. If you want to know who will win the 2013 national championship, you're right to start your search with teams that made the NCAA tournament in 2012. Eight of the last 10 teams that have won it all have done so after playing in the previous season's NCAA tournament.
Then again there are exceptions to that rule, and, oddly, they both come from the Big East. Connecticut in 2011 and Syracuse in 2003 both won the national title the season after not getting a bid at all. So pulling off that kind of U-turn is unlikely, but it can be done.
If that unlikely event is going to happen in 2013, here are five candidates who should be eligible to make it happen. None of these teams played in the NCAA tournament last season. All of them should be there this coming March.
The Panthers missed the tournament last year, but that is very likely to be seen in the long view as a one-year hiccup. With a nucleus comprised of Tray Woodall, Talib Zanna, Steven Adams, and J.J. Moore, Pitt can compete with any team in the Big East, if not the nation. Woodall was slowed by an abdominal injury last season, a fact that obscured what was actually a very good performance as a scoring point guard. Just imagine if he's healthy, I thought to myself in the offseason. It's early, but Woodall is playing like a healthy star, dishing an assist on 15 of every 100 personal possessions while committing just four turnovers in three games. Zanna and freshman Adams have both been incredible on the offensive glass in the early going. (Adams has been a supporting player on offense, but he's also blocked a notably robust 16 percent of opponents' two-point attempts.) And Moore continues to be one of the most underrated performers this side of Notre Dame's Jack Cooley. The last time you saw this team in the NCAA tournament, they were losing a game in the round of 32 to Butler in rather memorable fashion, but the Panthers should be creating new and possibly better memories in that category very soon.
The Pac-12 is fairly brimming with good candidates for "U-turn team" status, not the least of which are UCLA and Arizona. But don't forget to add the Cardinal, who are charting an even larger 180 than those programs. This is a team that earned two No. 1 seeds and a spot on the No. 2 line between 1999 and 2001, but things have certainly changed on that front. Fans in Palo Alto haven't so much as heard their team's name called out on Selection Sunday since 2008. That dry spell could end this March, and Dwight Powell can make it happen. The 6-10 junior has been one solid collegiate season away from the NBA for a while now, but he actually lost his job as a starter in 2011-12. Maybe that was the push he needed. Thus far on the young season, Powell is Stanford's leading scorer. He's drained 56 percent of his twos and is pulling down 28 percent of opponents' missed shots. But keep on eye on the Cardinal's home game Sunday evening against Belmont. The Bruins will be a much tougher test for Johnny Dawkins and his men than most fans realize.
I'm on the record as thinking that the Golden Gophers were "a pretty good team trapped in a brutal league" last season, and that furthermore Tubby Smith could have two 2013 first-round picks on his roster in the form of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Those two seniors may bring the pro scouts into the building, but it's actually been 6-4 junior Austin Hollins who's led Minnesota in scoring to this point. Now, am I concerned that in cruising out to an easy 3-0 start the Gophers are already committing turnovers on 22 percent of their possessions? Sure, but when you rebound 51 percent of your misses (not a typo) little things like "turnovers" matter a lot less. I'm already hatching plans to ditch my relatives for a couple hours on Thanksgiving so I can be by the TV while this team takes on Duke at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Saint Joe's isn't exactly sneaking up on anybody this season. The Hawks were, after all, picked in the preseason as the favorites to win the Atlantic 10. Phil Martelli returns all five starters from the group that went 9-7 in the league last season and specialized in outstanding interior D. (C.J. Aiken, take a bow.) In case you were wondering, I'm writing about this team in the past tense because all we know this season is that Martelli's gang can beat Yale to a pulp. However, we're about to gather a good deal more information on Saint Joseph's, courtesy of tonight's game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against Notre Dame. That should be a very good contest. (Oh, and while we're on the subject of U-turn teams out of the A-10, please don't look past Richmond. The Spiders aren't the biggest team you'll see, but Chris Mooney returns much of the rotation from a group that overachieved as youngsters last season.)
Don't be spooked by the Cowboys having to go to overtime to beat Akron yesterday in Puerto Rico. The Zips are likely one of the two best teams in the MAC, so there's no shame attached to that performance for OSU. Now Travis Ford's team will face Tennessee in an all-U-turn showdown. Regardless of how the Pokes fare offshore in November, however, this projects to be a solid team. You'll hear it said that everything in Stillwater this season hinges on Le'Bryan Nash, and, sure, it would be nice if Ford's sophomore star (who many observers presumed would be in the NBA by now) continues to make 40 percent of this threes, as he's done thus far this season. But keep in mind Oklahoma State is more than just Nash. With Markel Brown and talented freshmen like Marcus Smart and Phil Forte, Ford has the pieces in place to make a serious run at the Cowboys' first tournament bid since 2010.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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