The 2019-2020 college basketball season was a roller coaster of a season for some teams. These teams were able to dig themselves out of a hole with a rough start, only to get better and better throughout the course of the season. The list will go from the least improved team at #10 to the most improved at #1.
10. Siena Saints (2019-20 Record: 20-10 Overall & 15-5 MAAC)
Siena had a rough first half to the season starting off with a record of 7-9. However, part two to the season was a complete 180. The Saints went 12-1 to close out the season before it was cancelled. Siena's scoring production was the main reason why the Saints were much improved after the halfway mark of the season. Three players posted large scoring totals this past season for Siena. Jalen Pickett had six games with 20+ points, Elijah Burns had four games with 20+ points (six additional games with 19 points), and Manny Camper with four games with 20+ points.
9. Winthrop Eagles (2019-20 Record: 24-10 Overall & 15-3 Big South)
Winthrop started out with a brutal non-conference schedule with a record of 4-7. During their first seven losses, Winthrop played their opponents close with losses to Fresno State, Tennessee Tech, and East Tennessee State (2020 Southern Conference Champions). Winthrop lost their four other games to Coastal Carolina, Furman, TCU, and #1 Duke. With the tough non-conference schedule, the Eagles played close in the games they lost. Their largest loss was only by 13 points at Duke. Even with a losing record in non-conference play, Winthrop showed promise with a win at #18 Saint Mary's. After a 4-7 start, Winthrop rallied off 14 straight wins for a record of 18-7 (12-0 Big South) through February 8. They finished their season with a record of 24-10 (15-3 Big South) and a Big South Conference Tournament Title.
8. Boston University Terriers (2019-20 Record: 21-13 Overall & 12-6 Patriot League)
BU started out the season with a record of 3-2 with quite a surprise. Their third win happened to be on the road against South Carolina (the first win in program history against an SEC school for the Terriers). After the win at South Carolina, it seemed like BU had lost their magic, and that the Terriers were bound for another rough season. BU would then lose the next five straight games, putting them with a record of 3-7. Three of the teams that the Terriers had lost to on the five-game losing streak during late-November into early-December had abysmal records to close out the season; BU lost to Tennessee-Martin (9-20), George Washington (12-20), and Binghamton (10-19). Things started to click mid-December for the Terriers and they managed to squeak out multiple close wins throughout the season. Once conference play began in January, they got better and better during every game. In February, BU put together a remarkable 16-point comeback with 9 minutes remaining on Senior Day versus Bucknell. Led by Senior Max Mahoney (15.5 PPG & 8.3 REB), BU stuck together for one incredible comeback season to bounce back from a 3-7 start. The Terriers had lost their first two meetings against Colgate by 9 points and 16 points, but the third meeting for BU was the charm, as the Terriers knocked off top-seeded Colgate in the 2020 Patriot League Title Game. This marked BU's first Patriot League Tournament Title in program history.
7. UConn Huskies (2019-20 Record: 19-12 Overall & 10-8 American)
Season two for head coach Dan Hurley resulted in a winning record at UConn. The Huskies had their first winning season since the 2015-16 season in which they went 25-11. UConn had 12 losses this past season. Eight of those losses were by six points or less (three losses were in double-overtime and one loss in overtime). The Huskies started out the season with a 10-9 record (1-5 in the American) and things didn't start to go their way until late-February. That's when UConn went on a five-game win streak to close out the season. Senior guard Christian Vital helped in a big way down the stretch averaging 24.6 PPG during his last five games. It would have been interesting to see if UConn could have stolen a bid into the tournament this past March, as they closed out the season on a red-hot run. Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this season because March Madness was cancelled.
6. Virginia Cavaliers (2019-20 Record: 23-7 Overall & 15-5 ACC)
The defending national champions were supposed to be a Top 25 team consistently throughout the season. The defense was solid once again for Virginia, as they had the number one defense this past season allowing opponents to a low average of only 52.4 PPG. The offense however, was like nails on a chalkboard. Virginia had the third worst offense in points scored per game this past season, only averaging 57 PPG. Everything went well for the Cavaliers to start the season. It wasn't until February 8 that Virginia had their first game in which they scored 70 or more points as a team (with a 80-73 loss at Louisville). The Cavaliers started with a 7-0 record and held their first seven opponents to 55 points or less. During their eighth game of the season, Virginia suffered their first loss in blowout fashion (lost to Purdue 69-40). In mid-January, there was uncertainty that Virginia would even make it into the NCAA Tournament. On January 15, the Cavaliers had an 11-5 record (3-3 ACC) with two bad losses to Boston College and Syracuse, and a third loss to Florida State. The worst record in conference play that Virginia would get to would be a record of 4-4. The Cavaliers finished the season winning their last 12 of 13 games (including an eight-game win streak to close out the year). Defensively, Virginia was just too impressive for their opponents to score on. They held the number two ranked offense in the nation, the Duke Blue Devils, to just 50 points (32.5 points below their season average). Their last win of the season was against #10 Louisville. With the defense of Virginia, it would have been interesting to see how far they could have gone in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament riding an eight-game win streak before the season was stopped.
5. Texas Longhorns (2019-20 Record: 19-12 Overall & 9-9 Big 12)
Texas got out to a solid start by going 9-1 through their first ten games. It wasn't until their second loss, a blowout 70-48 loss at Providence in December, that we started to question Texas being a tournament team. In January and February, things got even worse for the Longhorns. Head coach Shaka Smart was in the hot seat as the team seemed to be destined for another NIT bid. The low point of the season for the Longhorns occurred on February 15. On that date, Texas had lost by 29 points at Iowa State (11-14). A game in which Texas shot the ball poorly at 29 percent from the floor and allowed the Cyclones to light them up shooting at 57 percent. With that loss to Iowa State, Texas was not even close to the tournament bubble with a record of 14-11 (4-8 Big 12). However, 18 days later on March 3, Texas had not yet given up and climbed out of a deep hole and back into the NCAA Tournament projections. The Longhorns went on a five-game win streak following the loss to Iowa State. Three of those wins were against projected tournament teams versus West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma.
4. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2019-20 Record: 17-14 Overall & 11-9 ACC)
Ineligible for the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Georgia Tech had little to nothing to play for this past season. Their improvement however, is encouraging for next season as they will be eligible for the tournament in 2021. The Yellow Jackets struggled from the beginning of the season in November up to late-January with an 8-11 record through their first 19 games. It looked like Georgia Tech would finish with their third straight losing season. However, things started to turn around. The Yellow Jackets won their last six of seven games to end the season (one of those wins was an upset victory over #5 Louisville). Georgia Tech ended their season with a 17-14 record and 5th in the ACC with an 11-9 conference record (marking their first winning record in the ACC since 2004 when they lost in the 2004 National Title Game).
3. Wisconsin Badgers (2019-20 Record: 21-10 Overall & 14-6 Big Ten)
The Badgers entered the season with a key missing piece at forward with the departure of Ethan Happ (17.3 PPG & 10.1 REB: 2018-2019) in the off season due to graduation. During the first five weeks of this past season, Wisconsin seemed nowhere close to being a tournament team. They started the season with a record of 5-5 with losses to Saint Mary's, Richmond, New Mexico, NC State, and Rutgers. In late-January, the Badgers found themselves on the bubble with a 13-9 record and suffered a huge loss when sophomore guard Kobe King decided to transfer to Nebraska. With the loss of King (the Badgers third-leading scorer), it was hard to imagine Wisconsin getting back to the tournament with an upcoming schedule at the time that included: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan, and Indiana. However, Wisconsin was able to win against all these opponents I just mentioned. Things started to click for head coach Greg Gard's squad. Down the stretch, the Badgers came out of nowhere from a bubble team to eventual Big Ten Champion by surviving close games in the toughest conference in college basketball, and winning eight games in a row to end the season. What a turnaround for Wisconsin. Greg Gard was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for 2020. A well-deserved award for a major turnaround.
2. UCLA Bruins (2019-20 Record: 19-12 Overall & 12-6 Pac-12)
In their first season under head coach Mick Cronin, the Bruins were another example of a slow start with a massive turnaround during conference play. The Bruins started with a losing record of 8-9, which included a terrible loss at home against Cal State Fullerton. It wasn't until January 30 that UCLA had their first victory against a quality opponent versus #20 Colorado. Nine days later, UCLA knocked off their second ranked opponent versus #23 Arizona 65-52. UCLA would then win against their next six opponents to put together a seven-game win streak. During their last conference game against city rival USC, UCLA lost a nail biter by two points, but the Bruins still were in tournament contention on the bubble (if it had happened). Head coach Mick Cronin's turnaround this season gave him honors as the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in his first season with UCLA.
1. Providence Friars (2019-20 Record: 19-12 Overall & 12-6 Big East)
It was a tale of two halves of the season for Providence. The Friars were one of the biggest disappointments during the first half of the season going 7-6 in non-conference play. Most of their non-conference losses were to terrible teams (losses to Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Long Beach State, Charleston). They also lost to in-state rival Rhode Island by 14 and Florida by 32 points. The game against Florida was a major wake-up call for Providence, as they finally started to get it together when they won against their next opponent, Texas, by 22 points. The reason why Providence hired Ed Cooley and has stuck with him as head coach for nine seasons is because he is able to resurrect a team from rock bottom and coach them to win games. That was exactly what Cooley did to lead Providence during the second half of the season. While in-state rival Rhode Island collapsed down the late stretch of the season going 3-4, Providence was the complete opposite closing out their season on a six-game win streak and finishing in 4th place in the Big East. Providence went from being not even close to the bracket to (would have) locked a spot in the tournament when they demolished DePaul 93-55 in their season finale. One impact player that showed progression throughout the season was senior point guard Luwane Pipkins. Pipkins, a graduate transfer from UMass, who averaged 21.2 PPG his sophomore season for the Minutemen, struggled early on in the season for Providence trying to adjust to his new team. During the final month of basketball, Pipkins started to heat up. During his final six games as a Friar, Pipkins averaged 19.1 PPG and shot the ball at 54 percent from the floor. Pipkins' highlight of his Providence career was when he scored a season-high 27 points at Villanova, including the last six of ten points, for a Providence victory. Head coach Ed Cooley even said after a win against #19 Marquette that "There's no more desperate team in America than Providence College." It was desperation mode for the rest of the season as Providence went from awful losses to five straight wins versus ranked opponents (defeating Butler, Creighton, Seton Hall, Marquette, and Villanova). Ed Cooley's ability to revive Providence from the bottom is a testament that the college basketball season is a marathon and to never give up.
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