Biggest Surprises in College Basketball
The NCAA Tournament is less than a month away and these three teams are the surprise of college basketball and could do quite well during March Madness.
Recently, I wrote about teams that I felt had failed to live up to expectations so far this season. That list was highlighted by the Kentucky Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini, and North Carolina Tar Heels, all of which seem to have turned things around since that article was published.
Let’s hope the opposite doesn’t happen for the teams I’m about to praise as the biggest surprises we’ve seen in college basketball this year. The way they’re going, they should do quite well during the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas State Holding Steady in Big 12
The biggest surprise of the season has to be the Kansas State Wildcats. The Wildcats, who are 20-7 overall, 8-6 in the Big 12 Conference, were picked to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll, yet they find themselves fourth in the conference. They have had big wins, most notably defeating rival Kansas Jayhawks on January 17.
Much of the skepticism surrounding this team came from the fact that they had a new first-time head coach in Jerome Tang. What wasn’t taken into consideration is that Tang spent 19 years at Baylor under Scott Drew, so he learned a thing or two about how to lead a program.
The Wildcats also welcomed in Florida Gators transfer Keyontae Johnson who returned to the floor for the first time since collapsing on the court in December 2020. What was supposed to be a transition year for K-State, has been anything but. The Wildcats have huge road wins over the Texas Longhorns and the Baylor Bears as well as home wins over then-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers and now Kansas.
Those wins have moved K-State’s title odds from +25000 in the preseason to just +5000 at Unibet. Johnson ranks third in the Big 12 with 17.4 points per game and Markquis Nowell ranks first with 7.5 assists per game, nearly two more than the next closest player. I kept waiting for regression to hit this team, but by the looks of it, I’m going to be stuck waiting a long time.
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Florida Atlantic Making History
With a 14-2 record in Conference USA, the Florida Atlantic Owls lead the conference standings and finds themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. The Owls are sporting a 24-3 overall record with their only nonconference loss coming on the road to Ole Miss in their second game of the season.
Coming into the year, FAU was picked to finish fifth in the conference and Alijah Martin was the team’s only preseason All-Conference honoree. While Martin leads the team in scoring, Johnell Davis and Vladislav Goldin are both averaging double-digits. The Owls are a game up on the North Texas Mean Green in the C-USA standings and if they can continue their winning ways, there’s a very good chance they’ll be taking home the program’s first C-USA championship and find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
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New Mexico Turns Around Season
After finishing the 2021-22 season with a 13-19 record near the bottom of the Mountain West standings at 5-12, the New Mexico Lobos have flipped the script this season. In Richard Pitino’s second year at the helm, the Lobos have far surpassed last year’s win total, going 17-2 through the first 19 games and currently sporting a 20-7 overall record.
No one really knew what to expect heading into the season because Pitino dipped into the transfer portal quite a bit. He brought Morris Udeze from the Wichita State Shockers and Josiah Allick from the University of Missouri Kansas City Roos to give New Mexico the frontcourt pieces it was missing.
The Lobos are currently the best offensive team in the Mountain West, averaging 81.1 points per game. Their defense, although still not great, has improved after finishing last in the conference last season. Their backcourt duo of Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House rank first and second in the Mountain West in scoring. At +20000 at BetRivers, the Lobos aren’t a team I’d bet on to win the NCAA title this year. Now that House has come back from an injury they might be a good team to put down a small wager on.
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