The following five teams each missed the NCAA tournament last season. There's a chance, however slim, that all five could hear their names called on Selection Sunday. To me, that qualifies as dramatic improvement.
Allow me to introduce you to the Turnaround Five:
1. Missouri Tigers
Quite understandably, few paid much attention to this team last season. Since then, Missouri has hired a new coach in Cuonzo Martin and signed potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft in the person of Michael Porter Jr. So yes, Mizzou is a pretty easy pick for inclusion on this list.
If Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz have taught us just one hard-earned predictive lesson, it's that any college success recorded by a one-and-done star's team heavily depends on said star's teammates. So the added good news for fans in Columbia is that this roster has a slightly above-average percentage of its possession minutes returning from last season (in the form of Terrence Phillips, Kevin Puryear, Jordan Barnett and Jordan Geist). Throw in the aforementioned freshman star's younger brother, Jontay Porter (who reclassified to join this recruiting class), fellow freshman Jeremiah Tilmon and Canisius graduate transfer Kassius Robertson and it's clear that Martin will have sufficient bodies on hand to execute the widely anticipated program U-turn.
Just how dramatic will the turnaround be? This team will make a fair number of preseason top-25 lists, due in equal measures to merit and the fact that it's fun to write about a team with a potential No. 1 pick that just went 2-16 in SEC play. (Guilty.) So let's be clear: A turnaround would still be unmistakable, even if it parked the Tigers outside the top 25 yet put them in bubble contention with a conference record at .500 or slightly above. That seems about right as a baseline for this group.
2. TCU Horned Frogs
My pick here comes with an asterisk. Statistically speaking, TCU this season might not be truly day-and-night better than the very good Horned Frogs of 2016-17. Nevertheless, if Jamie Dixon's men do indeed end the season as, say, a shoo-in for the middle of the NCAA tournament bracket, that's dramatically and qualitatively different than going to (and yes, winning) the NIT.
This kind of shoo-in status appears to be the most likely scenario for a group that returns all five starters from its lineup in the NIT title game. In Big 12 play last season, TCU actually outscored its opponents on "effective" (turnover-less) possessions. The problem, from the Frogs' perspective, was that there were too few such trips. Conference opponents never gave the ball away, and the sheer volume of shots they recorded took its cumulative toll on Dixon's defense. A normal number of takeaways this season could help propel Vladimir Brodziansky, Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Kenrich Williams & Co. to the program's first NCAA bid since 1998.
3. San Diego State Aztecs
After posting a 46-8 record in Mountain West play over the previous three seasons, SDSU went just 9-9 in conference in 2016-17. That alone suggests this team is due for a rebound.
Maybe Steve Fisher sensed the same thing and consciously positioned his successor for success. In any case, new head coach Brian Dutcher is entering Year 1 with three returning starters on hand. If nothing else, Dutcher's front line will be formidable. Assuming Malik Pope can return from a high ankle sprain suffered in the offseason, he'll be joined down low by Kameron Rooks. A graduate transfer from Cal, Rooks recorded nine rebounds and four blocks in just 16 minutes against SDSU in November. The Aztecs staff apparently made a note of that performance.
4. Auburn Tigers
Bruce Pearl started four freshmen last season, and that youthful group still managed to score 1.07 points per trip in SEC play. Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley are all back, and better still, they're all sophomores. For good measure, fifth starter Bryce Brown, now a junior, also has returned.
True, this same bunch of youngsters also allowed conference opponents to score a whopping 1.13 points per possession in conference play last season. I'm not nominating Auburn as the next South Carolina on defense, but assuming Pearl's guys can merely make progress on that side of the ball, the Tigers should be able to outscore a fair share of their opponents in 2017-18. Even as a bunch of freshmen, Pearl's guys were already able to hit 3s and take decent care of the ball while playing at a (very) fast pace. That could spell good things to come for Auburn, if replacement-level defense does indeed materialize.
5. Texas Longhorns
I've already showered praise on Texas for potentially having one of the best defenses in the country this coming season. With freshman Mo Bamba defending the rim and the rest of the Longhorns pressuring the ball and on occasion forcing turnovers, Shaka Smart's men project to make things exceedingly difficult for opposing offenses.
Speaking of offense, UT wasn't very good at scoring last season, despite (and this is quite strange) ranking as the best 2-point shooting team in Big 12 play. Fewer turnovers will enable Andrew Jones, Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis to finally reap the rewards of all those makes inside the arc. Improvement will be the watchword on both sides of the ball in Austin this season.