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Mike Lopresti | | January 25, 2016

College basketball: 15 of the biggest surprise teams this season

  Creighton is tied for second in the Big East at 14-6 overall and 5-2 in the league.

Remember all those pre-season polls the conferences used to predict the final standings? Another sign of this electrified year in college basketball: It’s been a bumper of wrong guesses.

Fifteen surprises, from 15 leagues . . .

LOUISVILLE/PITTSBURGH: The underrated duet in the ACC. Louisville was picked seventh and Pittsburgh 10th. Now the Cardinals are second at 16-3 overall and 5-1 in the league, and the Panthers tied for third, at 16-3 overall and 5-2.

Louisville returned only 17 percent of its scoring from last season – the lowest in 43 years – but is first in the nation in point margin (21.6) and field goal percentage defense (36.4) and second in scoring defense (58.5). Its three defeats were by a combined 10 points. Pittsburgh has lost to one unranked opponent all season and is among the nation’s leaders with their 77.2 percent free throw shooting and 18.5 assists per game. Plus a point guard in James Robinson who has 95 assists and only 19 turnovers.

CREIGHTON: Picked to finish ninth in the Big East, now tied for second at 14-6 overall and 5-2 in the league.

The Bluejays matched last season’s win total on Jan. 23. They had lost 11 in a row to ranked opponents before beating Butler. Thirteen of their wins have come by double digits and they are 3-0 on the road in the Big East. Center Geoffrey Groselle’s 72.6 shooting percentage is the best in the nation.

IOWA: Lost in the pre-season Big Ten buzz over Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin, now 16-3 and 7-0 in the league for the first time in 46 years.

The Hawkeyes are 7-3 against top 50 teams in the RPI, and six of their seven Big Ten victories have come by double digits. Those glowing numbers will get a challenge Thursday at Maryland. Their three losses were by a combined 12 points. They have already beaten Purdue twice, both times scoring 50 points in the second half against a Boilermaker team that is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage defense.

"I’ve always felt like, who really cares what everybody is saying before the season?" coach Fran McCaffery said. "You’re going to be good or you’re going to be bad. You’re going to be one or the other. If you play well, you’ll get credit, if you don’t, you’ll get criticized."
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Picked to finish next to last in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference, now 16-3 and leading the West at 5-1.

The Huskies went 39-84 the past four seasons under Mark Montgomery, but have come alive with defense and balance. They are allowing only 37.8 shooting a game, 10th lowest in the nation, and 11 different players have scored in double figures. Four of their next five games are on the road.

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TEXAS A&M: Picked to finish third in the SEC, now leading the league at 17-2 and 7-0, for its best start since 1920.

OK, third was not that low, but it’s a huge surprise when anybody but Kentucky is in charge in the SEC. The Aggies have won 10 in a row to take a two-game SEC lead and are handing out 19 assists a game, fifth best in the country.

UNC ASHEVILLE: Picked to finish seventh in the Big South, now leading the league at 14-7 and 7-2.

The Bulldogs’ leading scorer transferred, but they have soared with five players averaging in double figures. They made their intentions known from the start, playing Tennessee to four points in the season opener.

WRIGHT STATE: Picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League, now sharing the lead at 13-8 and 7-1.

The Raiders were coming off an 11-20 disaster, with an injury wave so relentless, their top four players never appeared in the same game. Then they started this season 3-7, but they have regrouped to win 10 of their last 11. Joe Thomasson is the seventh best free shooter in the land at 90.1 percent.

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NAVY: Picked to finish 10th in the Patriot League, now one-half game off the lead at 15-5 and 6-1.

The Midshipmen allow under 62 points a game and their eight true road wins are the most in 27 years. They are 8-0 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Their senior starters’ future plans are pretty well set; center Willy Kelly is headed for the Marines, forward Tilman Dunbar for surface warfare and guard Kendall Knorr for naval aviation. Dunbar and reserve Zach Fong come from the same Virginia town as an old Navy man whose name might ring a basketball bell – David Robinson.

HOUSTON BAPTIST: Picked to finish ninth in the Southland, now leading the league at 12-7 and 7-0.

The Huskies were 9-27 their first two seasons in the conference, but that was yesterday. Ron Cottrell is in his 25th year as coach, and ushered Houston Baptist back to Division I after a sabbatical in the NAIA. Helping the defense is freshman Isaiah Robinson, son of former NBA all-league defender Clifford Robinson.

OMAHA: Picked to finish seventh in the Summit League, now leading the conference at 14-7 and 6-1.

The Mavericks have the most accomplished thief in the country. Tra-Deon Hollins is averaging 4.29 steals a game. Second best is 2.94. Omaha is eighth in the nation in scoring average at 85.1, and the Mavericks’ games are nothing if not lively. They have won 108-104 and lost 106-101, and survived deficits of 21 points against South Dakota, 19 against Grand Canyon and 16 against Western Illinois.

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: Picked ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference, now second place at 18-3 and 7-1.

The Salukis withstood five players transferring and still turned the program around from a 12-21 season. They have won eight consecutive road games. Last year, they were 2-12 on the road. They are 7-2 in games decided by five points or fewer. Last year, they were 0-7. Anthony Beane is averaging 19.3 points. His father Anthony Sr. is a Southern Illinois assistant. ``We’re all hunky-dory right now and singing Kumbaya,’’ said coach Barry Hinson. ``But we have a lot of games left.’’

SAINT MARY’S (Ca.): Picked to finish fourth in the West Coast, now leading the league at 17-2 and 8-1.

This is Gonzaga-land, but not at the moment. The Gaels lost all five starters from last year, but it’s hard to remember that as they lead the nation with 53.7 shooting, and a slick 354-183 assist-to-turnover ratio. Eight different players have led the team in scoring a game. A lot of the answers were found Down Under. As in Australia. Six players come from there, including the top two scorers. Saint Mary’s had lost eight in a row to Gonzaga until coming from 15 points behind last week to win 70-67. 

"If we remain under the radar, that’s fine with me. If people notice us, it’s fine with us," coach Randy Bennett said. "We have to really be intentional about improving.’’

LITTLE ROCK: Picked to finish fifth in the Sun Belt, now leading the league at 17-2 and 7-1.

It’s the best start in school history, and includes nine wins on the road. Chris Beard’s first season as coach is all about defense. The Trojans are first in the nation in points allowed at 58.1 and third in field goal percentage defense at 36.9. They played UT-Arlington for the league lead last week and were hoping for fast start. Right. Their lead was 18-0. It ended 68-62.

MARSHALL: Picked ninth in Conference-USA, now tied for second at 10-10 and 6-1.

A low prediction seemed perfectly appropriate when the Thundering Herd started 0-6. But it’s been no more Mr. Nice Guy in the conference schedule, with only one win under 10 points. This is the second year in charge for alum Dan D’Antoni, who got his first college head coaching job at the age of 66. Brother Mike coached four NBA teams.

WASHINGTON: Picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, now tied for the lead at 13-6 and 5-2.

The Huskies went 5-13 in the conference last season. They matched that win total this year on Jan. 20. The revival has been something old and something new. Andrew Andrews, the graduate with his sociology degree, leads the team in scoring at 21.7, but he is joined in the lineup by four freshmen. Washington’s freshman classes is averaging 52.6 points a game. The Huskies have nobody over 6-9, but that hasn’t stopped them from leading the nation in block shots with 7.3 a game. They must certainly lead the Pac-12 in drama. Three of their first seven league games went overtime, and they also beat Arizona State 89-85 and USC 87-85, when they came from 22 points down.

They have made coleslaw of pre-season expectations. But then, lots of teams have.

MORE: Huskies look to avoid a fade like last season

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