A year ago at this time, UCLA was already home. The Bruins had wrapped up a 15-17 season with a blowout loss to crosstown rival USC in the Pac-12 tournament, their fifth consecutive loss to end the season.
Twelve months ago, Florida State was NIT-bound after getting dropped by Virginia Tech in the conference tournament.
Now, both teams are 3-seeds and own some of the best collections of wins of any teams in the country while UCLA is a Final Four threat.
What changed? Personnel, of course. Steve Alford brought in a top-five recruiting class led by five-star prospects Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf -- two of the best freshmen in the country, and in Ball’s case, a complete program-changer. Florida State landed Jonathan Isaac, a versatile forward who will be a lottery pick in June.
There will undoubtedly be teams taking leaps forward next season. Who will follow UCLA and Florida State and make the biggest jump due to their incoming class?
Texas: Next season will be a key one for Shaka Smart. Smart helped lead Texas to the NCAA tournament in his first season at the helm, but then took a step back and finished 11-22 this past season. The more concerning thing is the tempo at which Texas has played. The Longhorns were No. 303 in pace last season and No. 210 this season. His last three teams at VCU all finished in the top 90. Next season, Smart will have his type of players -- and he will finally have a point guard that can run his system, in four-star Matt Coleman (No. 27 in the ESPN 100). Coleman can push the pace, get into the lane, and will allow Texas’ athletes to focus on scoring and running the floor. If future first-rounder Jarrett Allen and former five-star prospect Andrew Jones also return, Smart will have a very good nucleus. He’s also bringing in ESPN 100 forwards Jericho Sims (No. 66) and Royce Hamm (No. 74), who will add a different dimension to the Longhorns. Throw in the arrival of Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski and Smart has no excuses for not taking a step forward next season.
Oklahoma: For the first time since 2012, Lon Kruger’s first season in charge, Oklahoma missed out the NCAA tournament. The loss of Buddy Hield and two other veteran starters from last season’s Final Four team ended up being too much to overcome, although the Sooners also performed poorly in close games. Jordan Woodard departs after this season -- but Oklahoma is optimistic for next season. Why? The Sooners beat out Kansas and others for five-star Trae Young (No. 15), a local kid from Norman North High School. He’s a big-time playmaker and shot-maker on the offensive end, and could put up huge numbers immediately as a freshman. Four-star frontcourt pieces Brady Manek and Hannes Polla also enter the program, giving Kruger more size up front. Oklahoma will return everyone besides Woodard, including former ESPN 100 prospects Kameron McGusty and Khristian Doolittle. Throw in Kruger’s coaching ability, and this is a team that won’t miss the tournament again next season.
Alabama: When Anthony Grant was in charge at Alabama, the Crimson Tide made the NCAA tournament once in six seasons, but averaged right around 20 wins a season. Avery Johnson has kept that trend alive in his two seasons in Tuscaloosa, winning 37 games but not reaching the tournament. The Crimson Tide are hoping next year is the year, though. Johnson and Alabama made a statement on the recruiting trail in the fall, reeling in five-star guards Collin Sexton (No. 10) and John Petty (No. 21). Sexton had Kansas and others in the mix, while Petty was an in-state prospect that was pursued by Kentucky as well. Sexton and Petty will start immediately for Alabama, and could form one of the most explosive backcourts in the country. Four-star forward Alex Reese is another freshman who should see time. Moreover, Johnson has a young nucleus back next season. The top four scorers return, led by rising sophomores Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram. Don’t forget, former Memphis transfer NIck King also sat out this past season. This team was a top-10 defense this past season -- and should be able to score in bunches in 2017-18.
Connecticut: The Huskies were crushed by injuries this past season, but Kevin Ollie will have more than enough weapons next season to get back to the NCAA tournament. The key addition is ESPN 100 Makai Ashton-Langford (No. 36), who has a great feel for the game and is capable of running an offense and creating for others. Ashton-Langford should form a dynamic backcourt with former five-star point guard Alterique Gilbert, who missed nearly the entire season with a torn labrum. Ollie is also bringing in four-star frontcourt pieces Tyler Polley and Josh Carlton, two breakout performers from last summer. UConn was short on frontcourt depth this past season, and will lose seniors Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah (along with Rodney Purvis in the backcourt). Polley and Carlton should help. Throw in the return from injury of Terry Larrier and Mamadou Diarra, and nearly everyone else coming back, and the Huskies will be loaded with talent -- regardless of whether sophomore guard Jalen Adams enters the NBA Draft.
Washington: Can it happen again? Can Lorenzo Romar and the Huskies have NBA talent and still disappoint? Romar hasn’t led Washington to the tournament since 2011, despite having some of the most-talented players in the country. Two years ago, he had Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray and went 19-15. This past season, he had likely No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and a shockingly terrible season, finishing 9-22 and winning just two Pac-12 games. Next year, the Huskies could have the potential No. 1 pick again: Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 prospect in 2017 and the son of Washington assistant Michael Porter Sr. The thing about next season is that Porter should have a better supporting cast than Fultz. Three double-figure scorers will return -- but Romar is also bringing in three other ESPN 100 prospects: wings Daejon Davis (No. 44) and Jaylen Nowell (No. 54), and point guard Blake Harris (No. 99). Romar knows 2017-18 is an absolute must-win season.