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#pounditSaturday, September 30, 2023

10 most surprising college basketball teams

Chris Holtmann

Now that conference play is fully in swing, college basketball’s season is starting to make a little more sense. Every game is like another piece added to the puzzle that makes the landscape of the sport make a little more sense. With most teams having played half their games now, including a few tough ones in their league, it’s easier to see which teams hot or slow starts aren’t just an aberration.

We have enough evidence to know which teams out there have been a real pleasant surprise and which are starting to fall flat. Here are the ten teams across the nation with the most surprising starts to the season, good or bad.

10. Wisconsin

Expectations were not exceptionally high for the Badgers this season with stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes graduating. Still, Wisconsin returned star center Ethan Happ, a host of other contributors, and found itself receiving votes in the preseason AP Poll. After playing the 172nd ranked nonconference schedule (per KenPom) and six Big Ten games, the Badgers are sitting at 9-10.

Happ has not been the problem, as he is posting 16.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. The junior center has posted a 10.6 box plus/minus (BPM), which measures points added above an average player to an average team over 100 possessions. No other Badger’s BPM is over 4.0 this season. When Happ is off the floor or being double-teamed, players like Khalil Iverson and Brevin Pritzl, who were expected to contribute, have fallen flat. Happ has the 8th highest usage rate in the country, a scary stat for a player who has attempted just 4 threes in his career and shoots under 55 percent from the foul line.

9. Boston College

The Eagles went 0-18 in conference play just two seasons ago in Jim Christian’s second year on The Heights. Last season, BC started 2-0 in the ACC and lost its final 14 conference games. Now Christian’s team is firing on all cylinders despite not having any seniors in the rotation. They’re 3-3 in the ACC with wins over Duke and Florida State. Sophomore Ky Bowman is an All-ACC caliber player, chipping in 16.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game. The rest of the ACC slate is predictably difficult and the Eagles will need to really impress to make up for a dismally easy non-conference schedule. Even if this is not the year for BC, the school nabbed a commitment from its highest recruit in over a decade this week, swingman Jarius Hamilton. For the first time in a while, things are looking up for Boston College basketball.

8. USC

The Trojans began the season ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll, based on the talent level of the players returning and debuting for Andy Enfield this season. Things have not gone according to plan thus far, with two home losses to teams outside the top 100 (Washington and Princeton). Former Duke point guard Derryck Thornton has been a mess. The second-year player is turning the ball over on 32.6 percent of his possessions, well above the national average of 19 percent. Enfield has been unable to start or trust Thornton, thanks to the 6.5 turnovers per 40 minutes he’s posted. Meanwhile, junior Bennie Boatwright is shooting a pedestrian 36 percent from outside the arc on nearly six attempts per game.

The good news is there is plenty of time for USC to turn things around. Jordan McLaughlin has been scoring from all over the court and Nick Rakocevic leads the nation in offensive rebounding rate. Other than games at Arizona and Arizona State, USC’s talent can prevail in any conference game this season. That will need to start soon before the losses continue and the Trojans find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble.

7. Clemson

Brad Brownell hasn’t led Clemson to the Big Dance since his first season with the Tigers back in 2011. This year though, his team has a real chance to make some noise in the ACC. Clemson recently rattled off 10 straight wins, the last six of which came against top-75 competition. With a top-15 defense and rotation full of upperclassmen, the Tigers are built to win in conference play. On Tuesday, Clemson missed their first chance for a monster win in the ACC, losing at North Carolina. That’s nothing new for the Tigers, who have lost 59 straight games at North Carolina. Next week, Clemson gets another shot at the conference big dogs, playing at Virginia. If Clemson can collect a few big wins and stay above .500 in the ACC, they’ll be dancing this March.

6. Northwestern

Following the school’s first ever berth into the NCAA Tournament, many Wildcat fans expected more of the same this season. The team continued check off bucket list items, with its first ever appearance in the preseason AP Poll. Through half a season, Northwestern has failed to live up to those expectations, with a poor conference record and losses to mediocre Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and Indiana teams.

For a team with four starters returning from an NCAA Tournament run, the Wildcats have struggled. Defense has been a problem for Northwestern, especially playing solid defense without fouling. Northwestern ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in fouls committed and free throw rate allowed. Sophomore center Barret Benson is averaging 2.3 fouls per game in just under 10 minutes of play, good for 9.1 fouls per 40 minutes! That likely says more about the perimeter defense of the entire team than it does about just Benson’s defensive prowess.

5. Texas A&M

The AP Poll released on Christmas Day had the Aggies ranked fifth in the nation due to an 11-1 start to the season. With a frontcourt of two future NBA draft picks in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, many pegged A&M as the team most likely to challenge Kentucky in the SEC. Instead, conference play has been an outright nightmare. The Aggies were blown out by Alabama and Florida, then lost back-to-back one-point games to LSU and Kentucky. Texas A&M fell to 0-5 in the league with a loss to Tennessee, before squeaking out a win over Ole Miss on Tuesday. The Aggies’ size advantage has them inside the top 25 nationally in rebounds and blocked shots, though SEC teams have been able to spread out Texas A&M and force them to play uncomfortably. With two giants in the paint, the Aggies can’t force turnovers or stop penetration.

4. Arizona State

Bobby Hurley’s team was voted to finish 6th in the Pac-12 this season, likely setting them up to compete for an NCAA Tournament berth. Instead, Arizona State has been fantastic until recently slipping in conference play. The Sun Devils collected some huge wins in the early season by smoking Xavier, topping Kansas State, and knocking off Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Despite tripping up early in conference play, the Sun Devils have played like one of the best two teams in the Pac-12. Hurley’s team is led by a cadre of aggressive guards that get to the paint, draw fouls, and kick out for open threes. Tra Holder is one of America’s best point guards in college basketball, driving Arizona State to heights the program has rarely seen. Arizona State reached the top 3 in the polls first the first time since 1981.

3. Texas Tech

The Red Raiders were picked by the Big 12 coaches to finish 7th in the conference before the season began. Instead, Texas Tech has been magnificent. The Raiders have risen to 8th in the AP Poll, 5th in KenPom, and appear to be the biggest threat to Kansas’ stranglehold on the Big XII title. Tech’s success has been predicated on hard-nosed defense, ranking 2nd nationally in defensive efficiency. The Raiders place in the top 15 in the country forcing turnovers, nabbing steals, and defending inside and outside the arc. With a deep bench and senior leadership, Chris Beard’s club is a force to be reckoned with. Having already won at Kansas, Texas Tech holds the upper hand in the race for the conference title, contrary to what everyone would have thought just a few months ago.

2. Auburn

Despite the FBI sniffing around the program this fall, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team might be the hottest in America. Prior to their loss to Alabama, the Tigers hadn’t lost since November 17. Pearl has the Tigers playing a lightning fast pace and it has worked in SEC play. With four players averaging double figures, Auburn has the most efficient offense in the SEC. Even with wins over Arkansas and at Tennessee, Auburn won’t be taken as a serious contender in March until they prove their worth against Kentucky, the giant of their conference. The Tigers will play Big Blue only once this year, on Valentine’s Day in the safe haven of their own gym. If Auburn can continue to reel off wins leading up to that game and then go toe-to-toe with Kentucky, Pearl will have his team poised for a run past the first weekend of the Big Dance.

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes were pegged to finish 11th in the 14 team Big Ten Conference in Chris Holtman’s first year at the helm. They were not expected to start conference play undefeated and only have four losses this late in the season, with all of those losses coming to top-50 teams. Ohio State’s true coming out party came in the form of a dominant win over then-top-ranked Michigan State. The Bucks led that game by as many 25 and absolutely outworked the Spartans all over the floor. Senior Keita Bates-Diop scored 9.7 points per game last year before suffering a season ending injury. This season, he has been a revelation. Bates-Diop leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.3 points per game and grabs 8.8 rebounds as well. Even when Big Ten play gets tougher down the stretch, Bates-Diop is good enough to keep the Buckeyes alive in any game.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court,, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.


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