Eight Surprises In College Basketball
by Trevor Whenham - 12/20/2007
It has kind of snuck up on me, but the college basketball season is already one third over. It has been an outstanding season thus far. There have been great teams full of great players playing great games. Much of what we expected coming into the season has come to fruition - North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, and UCLA have been very good, for example. Some things, though, haven't worked out quite as expected. Here are eight things that have surprised me so far in the first two months of college action:
1. Duke. I wasn't naive enough to think that Duke was going to struggle. They never really have in the Coach K era, so why would they start now? I, however, didn't think that they would be the real power that they are. The team is very young, but they aren't playing like it. Kyle Singler has been exceptional as a freshman, and the team has adapted well to a more upbeat, high-tempo game that Coach K picked up during his Olympic team work this summer. They are undefeated, rewarding bettors well against the spread, and cruising toward a very good tournament seeding. Duke went out in the first round last year, but it seems to be on track to reach its standard spot in the Elite Eight in March.
2. Kentucky. I'm not surprised that Kentucky is struggling. I'm surprised that the media and the public seem to be surprised that they are struggling. Tubby Smith didn't exactly leave the shelves full when he left, and the transition to Billy Gillispie involves more than a different name on the coach's office door. The Wildcats will come around eventually, and Gillispie will do well, but this is a team that needs more than a little bit of re-tooling. I'm personally no more surprised that Kentucky is pretty bad than I am that Michigan is lousy. Both teams will be powers in their conference again with time.
3. The Pac-10. On paper the Pac-10 was going to have a good year. I don't think anyone could have seen just how good. Washington and Oregon State are only average, but the other eight teams are all very solid. USC has three losses, and no other team has more than two. Beyond that, all eight teams have been profitable against the spread. The conference schedule is going to separate the contenders from the crowd, but at this point the list of Pac-10 teams that could be dancing in March is long, and I wouldn't be too keen to play against any of them.
4. Freshmen. If there was a story going into this season, it was the incredible frosh class. Hype alost always leads to disappointment, but this year is the exception. Youngsters across the country have been sensational. Michael Beasley is an absolute freak, O.J. Mayo was worth the five years we have been waiting to see him, Derrick Rose is a major addition to Memphis, Kevin Love is mature beyond his years, Eric Gordon and Kosta Koufos are pleasing Big Ten fans every time out - the list goes on and on.
5. Texas. Given that Kevin Durant is tearing up the NBA, it would make sense to assume that Texas would be worse off without him this year. Apparently the Longhorns had no interest in that opinion. If anything, they are a better team now than they were with Durant last year. The revelation has been D.J. Augustin. We knew he was good, but I had no idea just how good. Without Durant he has had to step up and be a leader on the team and he has done that well. He is certainly deep in the conversation for player of the year.
6. Louisville. I don't know what it is about Louisville this year, but their teams seem destined to disappoint me. I liked their football team to make the BCS and they didn't even make a bowl game. Their basketball team was an early Final Four pick for me, but the way they are playing right now I'm not sure I even like their chances in the NIT. They have the talent, and they have one of the best coaches in the country, but nothing is clicking at this point. Back-to-back losses to Dayton and Purdue are not what the team should be doing, and it makes me very nervous for conference play.
7. UW-Milwaukee. The Horizon League is a group on the rise, and the Panthers, winners of three of the last four league titles, was a team that many had their eye on to rebound strongly from a challenging year last year. Instead, they have been a train wreck. Avery Smith, a preseason all-conference team member, was kicked off the team at the start of the season for violating team rules. This week, leading scorer Torre Johnson was booted after being arrested for assaulting a woman, and sophomore Roman Gentry left the team for personal reasons. Once thought to be a conference power, the Panthers are just 3-7, and they have only covered the spread once.
8. Danny Green. Coming into the season the North Carolina roster was put under a lot of scrutiny, and it held up well. One player who was easy to overlook has emerged as perhaps the best sixth man in the country after 10 games. Green is scoring 8.6 points per game more than last year, his shooting has entered a whole new stratosphere of accuracy, and he is giving the team 20 solid minutes per game. Depth wasn't a particular concern for the Tar Heels, but Green, the third leading scorer on the team, eases any worries there may have been.