Before the college basketball season started I made a list, as I do every year, of off-the-radar teams that were intriguing and had the potential to offer some nice value down the road this season. There were 12 teams on the list. At this point in the season there are four from that list that have really stood out for me. Here's a look at who they are, and why I have liked what I have seen:
George Washington: The A-10 is always a great league. In most eyes it didn't seem like the Colonials were poised to be a contender. Here they sit, though, at 5-0. Conference play hasn't started, and four of the five wins were easy ones that would have been surprising only if they had lost. The fifth, though, really makes this team stand out. They beat No. 6 Virginia by five points. It was at home, and that surely helped, but it was still a very nice win.
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This is a team that was in the tournament last year, and they are very well-coached by Mike Lonergan - a guy who also took Vermont to the tournament and won a national title in Division III. They have another potential test next time out against Tennessee, but they could have a look at 11-1 or even 12-0 heading into conference play.
Cincinnati: We're a bit late to the party on this one because the Bearcats broke into the Top 25 this week after a strong start. They haven't beaten anyone of note in their five wins so far, but it is the way that they have been winning that has been so impressive. They are just crushing teams.
They beat Robert Morris by 62. Arkansas-Pine Bluff fell just a point short of getting doubled up, losing 99-50. They won by 33 at Bowling Green.
This is a team that is remarkably efficient on offense and strong defensively. It remains to be seen, of course, if they can keep it up against stronger competition, but what a start it has been. The team was in the tournament last year, and four of the five starters from that team are back. Coach Mick Cronin, who missed time last year with health issues, is back and in form, too. We'll get a very good indication of where this team is really at on Dec. 12 when they play a traditionally incredible game against Xavier. So far, so good, though.
Valparaiso: It's early in the season, so it doesn't mean as much as it would later on by any means, but the Crusaders are currently ranked second in the entire country in RPI. They have played three tough road games so far and have won two of them. First, they won at Rhode Island - a team thought to be an A-10 contender. Then they went to the state of Oregon for two games. First, they lost to a ranked Oregon team but only fell by six and played decent ball. Then they bounced back with a solid win at Oregon State.
What stood out for me about this team was that they are a tournament team that is returning not only every starter from last year but also every bench player who played any meaningful minutes. This is a team that has two years of being largely the same - experience that is incredibly valuable in this sport. Bryce Drew is a very good coach, and with this kind of experience in his hands he is going to be dangerous. He has a manageable schedule - the worst of the nonconference schedule is already behind them - and they have a chance to do some real damage.
Chattanooga: I'm a big believer in the power of coaching trees. Guys that run programs well often develop assistants who go on to run programs well. Billy Donovan is a disaster in the NBA, but in college he had impressive success. He also built a decent coaching tree - guys like Shaka Smart, Richard Pitino and Anthony Grant worked for him. That's what put Chattanooga on my radar.
They hired Matt McCall. He is the ultimate Donovan disciple - he started out as a student manager, worked his way up, and spent the last four years as an assistant. McCall is young but talented, and he has a decent team to work with here - they have three quarters of their offensive production from last year back.
They were smoked by a very good Iowa State team away from home last time out, but there is no shame in that. Before that, though, they had two impressive wins - at Georgia in their opener and at home against Illinois. Neither team is spectacular, but the Mocs haven't been in the tournament since 2009 and certainly weren't this good last year. They have a game against Dayton left in nonconference play, but for the most part the schedule gets much easier than it has been. This will be a fun team to keep an eye on. Early returns suggest that McCall knows what he is doing.
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