Hard as it may be to believe, one quarter of college basketball’s regular season is already complete. Below is a look at the teams who have most exceeded expectations so far this season:
1. Arizona State (9-0)
Who would have thought a month ago that unheralded Arizona State would be one of college basketball’s last seven unbeaten teams? The Sun Devils have upset Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, hung 102 points on a formidable Xavier team and also tallied victories against Kansas State, San Diego State and St. John’s. They might ranked No. 1 with that resume if the name on the front of their jerseys said Duke or North Carolina. As it is, they rose to No. 5 in the AP poll earlier Monday. The key to Arizona State’s ascendance has been a backcourt that is among the nation’s best. The small, fast Sun Devils compensate for a lack of size and muscle by spreading opposing teams out, attacking off the dribble or in transition and putting shooters all over the floor. Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II have developed into two of the Pac-12’s best playmakers. Remy Martin and Romello White have blossomed quickly as freshmen.
2. Tennessee (7-1)
Of the handful of SEC teams that have outperformed expectations so far this season, Tennessee may be the biggest surprise. A Vols team projected to finish 13th in the SEC’s preseason poll is off to a 7-1 start that includes an impressive showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis. In one weekend in the Bahamas, Tennessee upset then-18th-ranked Purdue, put a scare into unbeaten Villanova and defeated improved NC State. The Vols have since added to their resume with a road victory at Georgia Tech. The collection of players Rick Barnes has at Tennessee is a couple inches shorter and a few pounds lighter than the McDonald’s All-Americans he often coached at Texas, but the blue-collar Vols play patient offense and physical defense and don’t beat themselves. Undersized post Grant Williams has emerged as a focal point on offense and Barnes has found some capable shooters and playmakers with which to surround him.
3. Florida State (9-0)
When Florida State said goodbye to leading scorers Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes last spring, it appeared the Seminoles were destined to endure a rebuilding season this year. Florida State instead is off to a 9-0 start that includes a rout of Florida in Gainesville and victories away from home over Rutgers and Colorado State. It’s fair to question whether Florida State can sustain this run of success once its schedule stiffens, but the Seminoles have already shown more promise than expected. This was a team projected eighth in the preseason ACC poll, in between Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Long, fast-paced and aggressive, Florida State actually resembles last year’s team in many ways even if the personnel is different. Terance Mann has evolved from role player to all-conference scorer, Phil Cofer and Braian Angola have also blossomed and freshman wing M.J. Walker has shown flashes of stardom.
4. Texas A&M (8-1)
Texas A&M has improved more than expected thanks to the return of nearly every key player from last year’s injury-riddled 15-loss season. An Aggies team that was unranked in one preseason poll and No. 25 in the other is now a fixture in the top 10 in both of them. Since bagging a 23-point victory over since-unbeaten West Virginia on opening night, Texas A&M has also defeated USC, Penn State and Oklahoma State by double figures. The Aggies’ lone blemish is a three-point loss to Arizona in Phoenix, an understandable loss if ever there was one. Texas A&M’s strength is an aggressive defense with the length and quickness to bother opposing outside shooters and the size to alter shots at the rim. The Aggies are still too turnover-prone like last season, but they compensate with efficient scoring from skilled big man Tyler Davis, sweet-shooting forward D.J. Hogg and versatile guard Admon Gilder.
5. Northern Iowa (8-2)
The best college basketball team in the Hawkeye State may not be either underachieving Iowa or rebuilding Iowa State. Northern Iowa has laid claim to that title with an unexpectedly strong start to the season. At the Battle 4 Atlantis, Northern Iowa upset American Athletic Conference power SMU and much-improved NC State before falling short against Villanova in the title game. The Panthers validated that performance soon afterward by edging Mountain West contender UNLV and quality mid-major Texas Arlington. Why is Northern Iowa poised to contend for an at-large NCAA bid and perhaps assume the role of the Valley’s flagship program in the absence of Creighton and Wichita State? It starts with a formidable defense that doesn’t foul, doesn’t concede uncontested shots and gives up little in transition. The Panthers are far from explosive on offense, but the return of Wyatt Lohaus should provide some additional depth and scoring punch.
Other pleasant surprises: Virginia (8-1), Oklahoma (7-1), Texas Tech (7-1), Boise State (9-1), UNLV (8-2)
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