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The 5 most interesting unranked college basketball teams of 2018-19

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Some of the most interesting storylines in college basketball this year will reside with teams beginning the season outside the top 25.

Loyola v Kansas State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Associated Press preseason top 25 poll was released earlier this month, an offseason mile-marker which was met, as always, with fury from dozens of fan bases angry over their team’s starting position in the race to March.

While the order of teams 1-25 could provide more than enough material for debate from now through opening night on Nov. 6, the other thing that was evident with the release of the poll was how many genuinely intriguing teams there are that will begin the season unranked.

These five are the most interesting.

Loyola-Chicago

America’s reigning March Madness sweethearts are the first team on the outside looking in at the preseason AP poll, coming just four points shy of usurping Washington for the 25th-spot. The Ramblers return three of their four double figure scorers from last year’s Final Four squad, including 2018 Missouri Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer.

Recent history shows that if a mid-major program that catches lightning in a bottle wants to turn that magical run into sustained success, the succeeding season is of paramount importance.

VCU followed up its 2011 Final Four run with another trip to the NCAA tournament in 2012, where they pulled off a 12-5 upset before a narrow loss to fourth-seeded Indiana. The Rams were able to parlay that success into a move to the Atlantic 10. The team that beat VCU in the 2011 semifinals was Butler, which was following up its stunning run to the 2010 national title game with another runner-up finish a year later. The Bulldogs are now one of the top programs in the Big East. Wichita State outdid everyone by following up its surprise 2013 Final Four appearance with a 35-0 start in 2013-14. The Shockers haven’t slowed down since and are now preparing to enter their second year in the AAC.

The one exception here is George Mason, which stunned the sports world with its miraculous run to the Final Four in 2006. Despite returning a handful of key contributors from that squad, the Patriots fell off significantly in 2006-07. They lost 15 games, finished just 9-9 in the Colonial Athletic Association, and missed out both the NCAA tournament and the NIT. They’ve been to the Big Dance just twice since, and haven’t finished a season with a conference record above .500 since moving to the Atlantic 10 in 2014.

If Loyola wants to become the next big player in the world of mid-major basketball, history says it has to continue climbing during this current uptick. The Ramblers have all the pieces necessary to capture the nation’s attention for the second time in as many years.

Also, Sister Jean is back ...

Now the season can officially start.

Louisville

The Chris Mack era begins after what has to have been the strangest three-year period in the history of Louisville basketball. The Cardinals have dealt with two high-profile scandals, become the first program to ever have to take down a national championship banner, self-imposed a postseason ban that forced a very good team to miss out on the 2016 NCAA tournament, and fired a Hall of Fame head coach.

While there still could be more bad news from the NCAA to come, the task at hand for Mack and his staff is to turn the page and start the process of returning Louisville to its usual spot near the top of the college basketball food chain. The first step in that endeavor may be the toughest, as Mack inherits a roster that lost its three top scorers from a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament a year ago. He also walks into a brutal schedule that features 13 games against teams ranked in the preseason AP poll.

If Mack can somehow get this group back into the Big Dance in his first year, he’ll instantly be hailed as a conquering hero in the Derby City.

St. John’s

Out of all the wild things that have gone down over the last few years, historians seem destined to point to the 2017-18 St. John’s basketball season as the wildest. Ok maybe not, but the point I’m trying to make is that the Red Storm’s campaign a year ago was f—ing madness.

After a 10-2 start, the Johnnies lost their first 11 conference games, including a 17-point home loss to Big East cellar dweller DePaul. How did they break that streak? With a 4-point win over No. 4 Duke and then a ROAD VICTORY over top-ranked and eventual national champion Villanova. The latter upset made St. John’s the first team in college hoops history to beat a No. 1 team after entering the game with a 0-10 record or worse in league play.

After that brief flash of brilliance, Chris Mullin’s team made an equally abrupt return to normalcy. They went 4-4 over their last eight games and finished the season with a 16-17 record. Expectations are higher for St. John’s fourth season under Mullin, who has yet to finish a year with a record above .500. If he doesn’t change that in 2018-19, then he’s likely going to have a significant problem.

The primary cause for optimism in Queens is the return of junior guard Shamorie Ponds, who is back after averaging 21.6 points per game a year ago. The diminutive Ponds figures to once again be one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, but this go-round he’s going to have some significant help.

That help comes in the form of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, who led the SEC champions in scoring last season at 16.4 ppg. Heron received a hardship waiver from the NCAA that made him eligible to play immediately. That waiver also made St. John’s one of the most fascinating off the radar teams in college basketball.

Arizona

Sean Miller is still standing, and so is Arizona basketball after a wild 2017-18 season was even more up-and-down off the court than it was on it. The uber-talented Wildcats won 27 games and the Pac-12 tournament before being stunned by 13th-seeded Buffalo in an 89-68 beatdown in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but that only tells part of the story.

Perhaps more memorable than the surprisingly early March exit were the program’s ties to the FBI probe into college basketball, most notably, the now-infamous February report from ESPN’s Mark Schlabach. Schlabach reported that the FBI had tapes of Miller on a wiretap openly discussing a $100,000 payment to freshman star DeAndre Ayton, who would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Miller immediately denied the allegations in the report, and though Schlabach has stood by his reporting, no corroborating evidence has been produced. As a result, Miller is still coaching Arizona and is likely to remain in that post barring the unearthing of any substantial and damning evidence in the months to come.

Even so, Schlabach’s report and the other allegations made by the FBI and the men they had been surveilling effectively torpedoed Arizona’s 2018 recruiting class. The Wildcats lost all five starters from last year’s team, and are now being forced to replace those stars with career role players, transfers, and freshmen who are (for the most part) not as highly touted as the ones who typically come to Tucson.

Arizona’s still blossoming 2019 recruiting class is already strong, which means the Wildcats figure to be back near the top of the Pac-12 starting in 2020. If they can get there this season, it would represent arguably the best coaching job of Miller’s career to date.

Indiana

The Hoosiers were predictably average in Archie Miller’s first season on the job, dropping a few ugly games but also pulling a couple of nice upsets on their way to a 16-15 record. A similar record won’t be met with equal patience from the IU faithful this year.

All-Big 10 performer Juwan Morgan is back, but the name on everyone’s mind in Bloomington is the same one they’ve been discussing ad nauseum for the past few years. Romeo Langford is the first Indiana Mr. Basketball to sign with the Hoosiers since Cody Zeller, and he might be the most ballyhooed recruit to come out of the basketball-obsessed state since Damon Bailey in 1990. During Langford’s signing ceremony, which lasted nearly an hour, he was referred to as “an icon” and compared to both Oscar Robertson and Abraham Lincoln. That’s the level of hype he’s bringing with him to his first, and more than likely only, season of college basketball.

Only three schools (UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina) have won more national championships than Indiana’s five. That makes it all the more difficult to fathom that the program hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 since 2002. Even if he’s only in candy-stripes for a year, if Langford can carry Indiana back to national relevance, he’ll be revered forever as a Hoosier legend. He’ll also be setting the stage for the period of prolonged success that aching IU fans are hoping Miller is on the brink of producing.