Out of the darkness
These teams finding more success than they did a season ago
And now, the latest What A Difference A Year Makes Poll.
The qualifications are simple. Flounder in darkness last season, find some daylight in this one. The operative word is progress.
Last year: The initial sign of trouble was when the Longhorns lost to Chaminade. By the end, Texas was 16-18 for its first losing season this century, and Rick Barnes was neck and neck with Mack Brown for the most endangered coaching species in Austin.
This year: The win at North Carolina this week made Texas 10-1, not that many people have noticed. Unlike Toledo, the Longhorns did not get one vote in either current major poll. Want to see Texas-sized balance? All 10 scholarship players have scored in double figures at least once, and the Longhorns have put four in double figures in nine consecutive games.
“We’ve always in the past had a group of guys who would go in hard arenas to play and expect to win,” Barnes said after the successful incursion into Chapel Hill. “And we haven’t had that the last couple of years.”
Last year: And Milwaukee thought the Brewers had a lousy season. Included in the Panthers’ 8-24 disaster was a 3-13 Horizon League record.
This year: Here’s something you don’t see every day: a team pass its previous year’s victory total by Dec. 7. That’s when Milwaukee got win No. 9. The Panthers are 9-3 and have rallied from halftime deficits to win four times. Six of their victories have come away from Milwaukee, which is a good omen for a team with only 12 home games this season.
3. GEORGE WASHINGTON
Last year: A 3-8 finish led to a 13-17 record.
This year: The 9-1 Colonials upset Creighton by holding All-American Doug McDermott to seven points. They beat Maryland on a last-second shot by Maurice Creek, a graduate student who has found second wind with a transfer. He averaged 1.9 points at Indiana last season. He’s at 15.7 for George Washington.
4. WAKE FOREST
Last year: How to turn your coach into a talk show dartboard? Lose 12 of the last 16 games on the way to a 13-18 season.
This year: Jeff Bzdelik is as hard to beat as his name is to spell, with a 9-2 team that lately has refused to lose. The Demon Deacons have come from 10 points behind against St. Bonaventure and 12 back against Richmond to win their past two games.
“All I know is we’ve got a group of guys that are growing up,” Bzdelik said. Helping push that development are the sure hands of graduate transfer guard Coron Williams, who has committed two turnovers in 273 minutes.
5. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Last year: Life in the SEC in the winter might not be as treacherous as it is during the football season, but struggling teams still lose. The Bulldogs went 4-14, and 10-22 overall.
This year: The latest win against Florida Gulf Coast made Mississippi State 8-2 and showed the value of crime. The Bulldogs had 15 steals, running their season average of thefts to 9.9 a game.
Last year: Another season, another hard go in the Pac-12, with a 15-18 record and 5-13 conference finish.
This year: The 10-1 start has the Utes thinking big. The win against BYU ended a frustrating seven-game losing streak against their neighbors. Soon, they’ll see how the new momentum works in the Pac-12.
7. SOUTH FLORIDA
Last year: The Bulls said goodbye to the Big East with a 3-15 league record and 12-19 overall mark.
This year: They have increased their scoring average by more than 12 points, and become masters of the close call. The past four victories in their 8-2 start have been by a combined nine points. And the American Conference looks a tad more manageable than the old Big East, at least on the days they’re not playing Louisville.
Last year: The Redhawks’ return to Division I basketball continued to be a maddening work in progress. They went 8-22, with seven of their last 14 defeats by three points or less.
This year: The name Cameron Dollar ring a bell? He came off the bench to help lead UCLA in the 1995 national championship game. Now he’s coached Seattle to an 8-3 record, its best Division I start in 42 years.
Last year: Larry Brown came to town and promised a renaissance, even at the age of 72. The Mustangs showed life, but still went 15-17.
This year: Brown is 73, and SMU is only getting better. The Mustangs take a 9-2 record into Friday night’s game at Wyoming. Defense is their mainstay, holding opponents to 35.7 field-goal percentage.
10. NORTHERN ILLINOIS
Last year: Scoring was hard, and winning was harder. The Huskies went 5-25 with unsightly box scores such as 42-25 and 71-34. They were 343rd in the nation in scoring and 344th in shooting. Oh, if only Jordan Lynch could play basketball.
This year: Northern Illinois is averaging nearly 12 more points a game, and while the 4-5 record is not scintillating, it is light years from last season.
Also receiving votes: Clemson from 13-18 to 8-3 (and No. 288 nationally in free-throw shooting to No. 5 at last measure). Missouri State from 11-22 to 8-2 (with four wins by three points or less or in overtime). Rice from 5-26 to 5-5.