With the college basketball season now almost a month old, we have enough of a sample size of games to start to determine which teams are better or worse than projected. Here's a look at the teams who have most exceeded expectations so far:
1. Virginia Tech (7-0)
Quality wins: Oklahoma State 81-71, Iowa 95-79, at UNC Greensboro 96-87
Why they've exceeded expectations: When top recruit Montrezl Harrell and highly touted forward Dorian Finney-Smith transferred after Seth Greenberg's firing last spring, Virginia Tech appeared headed for a second straight down season. Instead the Hokies have won seven straight after upsetting 15th-ranked Oklahoma State on Saturday. The biggest reason for Virginia Tech's unexpected rise is that guard Erick Green is playing at an All-American level. He has scored 20 or more points in all seven of the Hokies' games.
Are they legit or a mirage? It's safe to say the Hokies are at least a middle-of-the-pack ACC team, but it's too soon to tout them as an NCAA tournament team. They've yet to win away from home against anyone besides UNC Greensboro. Nonetheless, there's a lot to like about Virginia Tech's torrid start, especially the efficiency in which it is scoring so far. The Hokies lead the ACC in 3-point shooting and in points per possession and they get to the foul line more than any team in the league. Plus, while Green's production will inevitably taper off a bit, he's a real threat in the race for ACC player of the year.
2. Wichita State (8-0)
Quality wins: at VCU 53-51, DePaul 75-62, Iowa 75-63, at Air Force 72-69
Why they've exceeded expectations: Wichita State lost its five leading scorers from last season's NCAA tournament team to graduation, so little was expected of the Shockers this year. Sure, the arrival of junior college standout Cleanthony Early and Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead offered hope of an upper half finish in the Valley, but even optimists wouldn't have guessed Wichita State would be unbeaten in the first week of December. The impact of Early and the development of Carl Hall have been the biggest factors. That forward duo has combined to average 28.1 points and 14 rebounds so far this season.
Are they legit or a mirage? Creighton is still the best team in the Valley, but it's time to buy the Shockers as a potential NCAA tournament contender and one of the Bluejays two biggest threats along with Illinois State. Very few teams will win at VCU this season, and winning at Air Force is more difficult than most people realize. The formula for success for Wichita State thus far has been smothering defense, control of the glass and an ability to get to the free throw line. More consistency from Armstead would help and poor outside shooting is a concern, but that blueprint will win a lot of games in the Valley this year.
3. Illinois (8-0)
Quality wins: USC 94-64, Butler 78-61, Georgia Tech 75-62
Why they've exceeded expectations: On the heels of poor season, a coaching change and the early exit of center Meyers Leonard, Illinois was pegged as a team that would be lucky to finish higher than seventh or eighth in the loaded Big Ten. The Illini have looked better than expected thus far, however, winning the prestigious Maui Invitational and avoiding upsets in their other games. The strength of this Illinois team is clearly in the backcourt. Talented senior Brandon Paul has gained the consistency he lacked last season, scoring 13 or more points in every game and shooting a career high 48 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from behind the arc. Fellow guards D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand have all stepped up at times too.
Are they legit or a mirage? Paul's development into an all-conference level guard gives Illinois a go-to threat, but I'm hesitant to call the Illini one of the 25 best teams in the nation or even a surefire NCAA tournament team at this point. Winning Maui was a big step for this program, but Illinois didn't exactly take down any juggernauts, beating USC, Chaminade and Butler. The Illini also needed a Richardson 3-pointer to defeat Hawaii at the buzzer and a late 3-pointer from Tyler Griffey to stave off Gardner-Webb at home. There's no doubt Illinois is improved from last season, but are they capable of outclassing Minnesota, Michigan State or Wisconsin for a top-six finish in the Big Ten? We'll have a better idea after seeing how they fare against Gonzaga and Missouri later this month.
Quality wins: at Creighton 83-70 (Also lost at Michigan State 74-70)
Why they've exceeded expectations: With UNLV and San Diego State boasting Top 25-caliber rosters, perennial contender New Mexico bringing back a slew of guards and Colorado State and Wyoming returning their cores, Boise State received little preseason attention. That's changing now, however, thanks to a 6-1 start that includes a stunning win at Creighton last week and a narrow four-point loss at Michigan State. The Broncos, projected no higher than seventh in most preseason Mountain West polls, are defying expectations despite having just one senior in their rotation. The high-scoring backcourt duo of sophomores Derrick Marks (18.7 points per game) and Anthony Drmic (15.9 points per game) has sparked the Broncos' quick start.
Are they legit or a mirage? I'm buying Boise State as a vastly improved team that will give every visiting Mountain West team fits this winter. I'm not quite ready to anoint the Broncos as an NCAA tournament team or a top four Mountain West squad just yet. Boise State's win at No. 11 Creighton was the highest-ranked team the Broncos have ever defeated, but it's the lone quality win the Broncos have so far. Plus, not every opponent will be as porous as the Bluejays, who allowed Marks to erupt for 35 points on 13 of 19 from the floor and the Broncos to score a ridiculous 1.3 points per possession. Boise State has seven very winnable games coming up before Mountain West play, with the toughest probably being a home game against LSU. Win all seven of those, and it will be time to take the Broncos seriously as a contender in league play.
5. SMU (8-1)
Quality wins: at TCU (64-61), Utah (65-58)
Why they've exceeded expectations: Even for a coach with Larry Brown's pedigree, the rebuilding job at SMU looked daunting. The Mustangs were coming off a 19-loss season under Matt Doherty last year and Brown didn't have time to bolster the roster with many new recruits. That's what makes it so surprising and impressive Brown has led SMU to eight wins in its first nine games by developing former role players into standouts. Sophomores Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel are two of the more improved players in Conference USA so far, while Kansas State transfer Nick Russell has also made an instant impact. Granted the schedule hasn't exactly been daunting and the biggest name victims were TCU and Utah, but SMU is undeniably progressing. Last year's Mustangs lost to the likes of Jackson State, Rice and East Carolina.
Are they legit or a mirage? Nobody is labeling undermanned SMU as a threat to Memphis in Conference USA, but it's pretty obvious the Mustangs won't be going 4-12 again in league play or finishing last as some projected. They've shot well from behind the arc, gotten to the free throw line an incredible 26.2 times per game and relied heavily on their backcourt trio of Jones, Manuel and Russell. SMU is probably going to struggle against the top teams in Conference USA — Memphis in particular — but the league is weak enough that the Mustangs can certainly be competitive. As Brown told reporters in New York this week, "They better get us this year, because we're gonna be pretty good pretty quickly."
Others who have exceeded expectations:
• Charlotte (7-0): Wednesday's game at Davidson should provide some indication whether the 49ers' unbeaten start is a product of a tissue-soft schedule or a sign they've improved.
• Colorado (6-1): A loss at Wyoming on Saturday was a step backward, but quality wins over Baylor and Murray State during the Charleston Classic suggest the Buffs are a Pac-12 contender.
• Illinois Chicago (6-1): Neutral-court wins over small-conference powers Mercer and Iona? A quality win at Northwestern on Saturday? Not bad for a Flames squad not expected to do much in the Horizon League this year.
• Minnesota (8-1): Everyone knew Minnesota would be improved, but an 8-1 start against a tough schedule has been impressive. A loss to Duke is the only blemish on a resume that includes wins over Stanford, Memphis and Florida State.
• New Mexico (8-0): All the Lobos have done so far is win close games. They've beaten George Mason by a point on a buzzer beater, Davidson by five, UConn by six and Indiana State in overtime.
• Oregon (7-1): A road win at UNLV was a sign the Ducks will be an NCAA tournament threat this year. Their balanced offense includes six players averaging nine or more points per game.
• Xavier (6-1): No Mark Lyons? No Tu Holloway? No Dez Wells? No problem, so far. The Musketeers are 6-1 with decent wins over Purdue, Butler and Drexel. That's not an NCAA tournament resume yet, but it's a good start for a program expected to suffer through a rebuilding year.
• Wyoming (8-0): How much does an unbeaten start mean when seven of the eight games were at home and Saturday's win against Colorado was the only relevant victory? We'll get a better idea Tuesday when the Cowboys visit Illinois State.
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