MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Five of the six major conferences have a leader or co-leader that failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season.
That doesn’t mean this is a college basketball season full of Cinderella stories. Four of the major-conference leaders that got left out of March Madness last season have reached a Final Four within the last decade.
But those teams' early success shows how the 2021 rule change allowing players to transfer without sitting out a season has made it easier for established programs to bounce back quickly.
“A lot of kids that are coming over from different rosters are bringing in new skillsets to the team,” said St. John's transfer AJ Storr, who is scoring a team-high 15.3 points per game for No. 11 Wisconsin. “And they already have good skillsets there. They're just adding new pieces. It's like a new piece to the puzzle.”
Wisconsin has sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and Oregon leads the Pac-12 outright after those two teams faced off in last season’s NIT quarterfinals. No. 4 North Carolina, which went 20-13 and turned down an NIT bid last season, is unbeaten in Atlantic Coast Conference competition.
No. 25 Texas Tech is in a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12 after going 16-16 last season, while Seton Hall shares the Big East lead with No. 1 UConn after finishing 17-16 a year ago.
Most of these programs are accustomed to success.
Wisconsin has played in 22 of the last 24 NCAA Tournaments and reached the championship game in 2015. North Carolina won its most recent national title in 2017 and was runner-up in 2022. Texas Tech lost the NCAA final in overtime in 2019. Oregon reached the Final Four in 2017.
The schools just needed to get back to their usual standards. In many cases, they found solutions in the transfer portal.
Texas Tech coach Grant McCasland added five transfers who played in the NCAA Tournament last season: Warren Washington (Arizona State), Devan Cambridge (Arizona State), Chance McMillian (Grand Canyon), Joe Toussaint (West Virginia) and Darrion Williams (Nevada).
All five are averaging over eight points per game, though Cambridge suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. They’ve complemented leading scorer Pop Isaacs, a holdover from last season.
“This team just learns,” McCasland said last week. “We learn as we play. That’s what I love. Their heart is to get better.”
North Carolina lost its leading scorer from last season when Caleb Love transferred to Arizona, but the Tar Heels added Cormac Ryan (Notre Dame) and Harrison Ingram (Stanford) to the starting five and Jae'Lyn Withers (Louisville) and Paxson Wojcik (Brown) to the bench.
Those newcomers have boosted a roster that features RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, key players on North Carolina's 2022 squad that nearly won it all.
“We’ve been having fun all year,” Bacot said last week. “I think the other guys are really starting to see how fun it is, winning at a school this and a program like this, and how much the fans are into it. It’s been great.”
Seton Hall’s starting five includes a pair of transfer newcomers in Dylan Addae-Wusu (St. John’s) and Jaden Bediako (Santa Clara).
All five of Seton Hall’s starters began their careers elsewhere. Kadary Richmond spent one season at Syracuse before transferring in 2021. Al-Amir Dawes (Clemson) and Dre Davis (Louisville) are in their second seasons with the Pirates.
That hasn't hindered Seton Hall's chemistry.
“Our togetherness is through the roof,” Dawes said earlier this month. “No matter what we’re going through — ups and downs — we’re just connected.”
Oregon also added a few transfers during the offseason. Kario Oquendo (Georgia) is averaging over 10 points per game, Mahamadou Diawara (Stetson) has been a part-time starter and Jesse Zarzuela (Central Michigan) is out for the season with an ankle injury.
The Ducks have benefited from the emergence of freshman Jackson Shelstad, and their depth has enabled them to withstand injuries. N’Faly Dante just came back from a knee injury last week and Nate Bittle is nearing a return from a wrist injury that has kept him out since mid-November.
“When we went into the season, we thought our depth was going to be one of our big things, one of the things that we could really count on, when you’re playing Thursday-Saturday, that we would have 10 guys that we could play,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I think moving forward that’s got to be one of our strengths.”
Wisconsin has benefited from a similar formula as Storr joined a roster that returned 92% of its scoring from last season, but Badgers coach Greg Gard wonders if the lack of transfer restrictions eventually could make it difficult for programs to maintain consistency.
“If there's three or four or five bluebloods, I think they will because they'll be in the market for the best transfers and they're probably going to have the top five kids who don't go to the NBA but can you sustain it over the course of time because of the volatility of the roster," Gard said. “I think we're too early in this process to have an answer for that, but that's something obviously I keep an eye on and watch other programs and their rosters as the fluctuation happens.”
It could make it tougher for teams to return to the NCAA Tournament just about every year as Wisconsin has done over the last two decades.
But for now, it also could assure that the Badgers don't get let out of the field for a second straight season.
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.
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