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March Madness threats: Five most surprising starts in men's college basketball

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The men's college basketball season is about to enter the pivotal month of February as March Madness nears.

Three months in, we're seeing teams that have overachieved and underachieved based on preseason expectations. While some teams were heavily hyped and are tanking (ahem, Michigan), it's been the unexpected starts that have made 2021-22 a season of great parity.

Whether it was a team that lost a ton of talent from the previous season, appeared to be transitioning or rebuilding, or was simply snubbed in the preseason Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll Top 25, these five teams' unexpected starts have positioned them to be dangerous in the NCAA tournament.


The No. 2-ranked Tigers (19-1) were ranked No. 22 in the preseason Coaches Poll, but virtually no one – including coach Bruce Pearl – saw this team getting out of the gates the way it has. Five-star freshman Jabari Smith (15.2 ppg) has been the difference-maker and missing link on this squad. And Pearl took full advantage of the transfer rule to fill immediate holes perfectly with Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green Jr. and Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson.

Auburn came close to stealing the No. 1 spot over Gonzaga this week following a momentous victory over Kentucky. The SEC is this team's to lose and the pathway to a Final Four looks solid heading into February.


Perhaps even more surprising than Auburn's start is No. 3 Arizona, a team completely overlooked in the preseason top 25. The Wildcats (16-2) lost a close Pac-12 battle to UCLA this week, but this is a team that's loaded with underclassmen. Much of the credit goes to first-year coach Tommy Lloyd, a former Gonzaga assistant who took over for Sean Miller.

Many college hoops analysts expected this to be a transition year at best for a program marred by scandal in the past decade under Miller. Plus, leading scorer James Akinjo transferred to Baylor. Instead, we're seeing a young and energized group, led by sophomore Bennedict Mathurin (17.4 ppg), play with a winning chemistry under Lloyd. Arizona ranks third nationally in scoring with 87.1 points per game.

Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin celebrates after the Wildcats' 80-62 victory over the Michigan Wolverines on Nov. 21, 2021 in Las Vegas.
Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin celebrates after the Wildcats' 80-62 victory over the Michigan Wolverines on Nov. 21, 2021 in Las Vegas.


The No. 11-ranked Badgers (15-3) had a seven-game winning streak in Big Ten play snapped last week at Michigan State. But for a team that was left outside the preseason top 25 and was expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the league, Wisconsin is showing out. That's even more impressive considering Wisconsin has one of the top-five toughest schedules in the country, per KenPom. It starts and ends for this team with do-everything guard Johnny Davis (22.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who is coming into his own this season in coach Greg Gard's offense.

Texas Tech

The departure of coach Chris Beard to neighbor Texas was a blow for a program that went to the national championship game in 2019 and Sweet 16 the year prior. But new coach Mark Adams is proving that the Red Raiders (15-5) can remain a winning program, vaulting ahead of Beard's higher-hyped Longhorns at No. 14. Tech lost a double-overtime nail-biter to Kansas on the road Monday but it showed this team's underrated offensive firepower. Meanwhile, the defense is still top-notch, ranking fourth in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency.


The No. 17-ranked Friars (17-2) are out front in a crowded Big East Conference race. Coach Ed Cooley always gets the most out of his squads, and this year's group is no different. What's to like about this team? How it wins in close game situations. Jared Bynum's 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining lifted Providence to a three-point road win over No. 23 Xavier on Wednesday. Providence faces another red-hot Big East team this weekend in Marquette, winners of seven in a row. Providence will look to avenge a 32-point massacre to the Golden Eagles on Jan. 4.

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College men's basketball: Five surprising March Madness threats