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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

The five most surprising teams so far this college basketball season

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Sam Dekker has helped lead Wisconsin to an 11-0 start (USATSI)

1. Wisconsin (11-0)

With its starting backcourt returning, Sam Dekker poised for a breakout season and Josh Gasser back after missing last year with a torn ACL, Wisconsin had much higher preseason expectations than most of the teams on this list. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to find anyone who expected the Badgers to be this good. In amassing the nation's best record and rising into the top five in the polls, Wisconsin has toppled Florida and Marquette at home, Saint Louis, West Virginia and St. John's at neutral sites and Virginia and Green Bay on the road. The Badgers have every chance to remain unbeaten for a while too with all their non-conference tests behind them and their first road challenge in Big Ten play not until Jan. 14 at Indiana. Dekker is performing as expected, Gasser is providing toughness and leadership and Frank Kaminsky is one of the nation's most improved players, but what's most impressive about Wisconsin is that it's winning different ways. The Badgers hung 100 points on North Dakota and lit up St. John's for 86 but they've also proven they can win their traditional grind-it-out affairs, limiting Virginia to 38 points.

2. Villanova (9-0)

If Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown received the most buzz entering the inaugural season in the new Big East, none of those three are the favorite one month later. Villanova seized that title with a 9-0 start that includes a Battle 4 Atlantis Championship fueled by victories over USC, Kansas and Iowa. James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard have propelled a perimeter-oriented offense, but the biggest reason Villanova has exceeded expectations is that small ball hasn't been detrimental defensively or on the glass. Despite often playing four guards and nobody taller than 6-foot-7, the Wildcats have been effective rebounding the ball and dominant defensively, surrendering a Big East-best .89 points per possession and forcing 16.7 turnovers per game. Excellent ball pressure and team defense have helped make up for Villanova's lack of size, but it seems likely that the Wildcats will need their lone true big man, Daniel Ochefu, to contribute more at some point this season. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is playing just 17 minutes per game and has averaged 3.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

3. UMass (8-0)

Having reached the NIT both of Chaz Williams' first two seasons in Amherst, UMass was expected to contend for an NCAA bid this season with its star point guard in his final year in the program. One month later, it would be a huge disappointment if Williams' senior season didn't culminate in an NCAA bid considering how terrific a start the Minutemen have enjoyed. Among the teams UMass has beaten during its 8-0 start are Mountain West favorite New Mexico, WCC contender BYU and rapidly improving LSU, all of which could be in the NCAA tournament in March. Victories over Boston College, Nebraska and Clemson also should boost the Minutemen's power ranking. Tough games against Florida State and Boston College remain before the start of Atlantic 10 play, but UMass won't be outclassed as long as Williams' supporting cast continues to play at a high level. Cady Lalanne has become a double-double machine in the paint now that he's finally healthy and able to take advantage of his quickness and athleticism. Forwards Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney are versatile enough to run the floor, finish at the rim or knock down shots from the perimeter. And Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon is a standout defender and a slasher who gets to the rim but needs to make more of his free throws.

4. San Diego State (7-1)

This was supposed to be a transition year for the Aztecs with standouts Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley moving on last spring, no double-digit scorers returning and a top 10 recruiting class not set to arrive until next summer. Instead San Diego State has cracked the AP Top 25 thanks to a 7-1 start that includes victories over Creighton, Marquette and Washington and a lone loss against top-ranked Arizona. Why are the Aztecs better than expected? Their defense and rebounding have been formidable as expected and they're getting just enough scoring to take advantage. Now recovered from the back injuries that plagued him as a junior, point guard Xavier Thames has gone from complementary scorer to go-to threat, averaging 17.4 points per game and shooting an absurd 51.4 percent from 3-point range. Winston Shepard relieves Thames of ball-handling duties at times and has shown the ability to get to the rim and create for himself or his teammates. J.J. O'Brien is a threat from the high post, Matt Shrigley provides a shooter off the bench and Tulane transfer Josh Davis gives the Aztecs a much-needed back-to-the-basket presence.

5. Texas (8-1)

Yes, the best team Texas has beaten is probably either struggling Temple or rebuilding Vanderbilt. Yes, Texas' lone loss came against a BYU team that scores a lot of points but is certainly not a surefire NCAA tournament team. Nonetheless, did anyone believe Rick Barnes would have the Longhorns at 8-1 after enduring perhaps the worst offseason of any program in the nation? Despite having its four leading scorers from last year either transfer or turn pro early, Texas appears poised to improve on a disappointing 2012-13 season when the Longhorns lost 11 league games and missed March Madness for the first time in Barnes' 15-year tenure. Credit the development of Texas' young frontcourt for the Longhorns' unexpected improvement. Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert combine to average an efficient 34.7 points per game and they do an excellent job cleaning up the glass and protecting the rim as well. Texas is fifth in the nation at 7.8 blocks per game and 10th in the nation in rebounding percentage. If point guard Javan Felix could improve his assist-to-turnover ratio and young wings Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland could shoot a bit more efficiently, an NCAA bid is not out of the question for the Longhorns.

Others who have surprised so far this season: Iowa State, Missouri, Saint Mary's, Dayton, George Washington, Pacific

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