7 Teams That Have Surprised Us This College Basketball Season

By now it’s pretty widely agreed upon that this season has been crazy in college basketball. Upsets all over, blue chip programs struggling to put it together, and teams that were overlooked, turning heads. You often see teams start hot and fade away once conference play begins, but let’s look at seven teams who appear to be legitimate here in mid January.

Auburn

Take a second to realize just what Bruce Pearl has done this year at Auburn. His program was linked to the FBI report that was released in the Fall. He lost one of his assistant coaches just before the start of the season. And, his two best players are out for the entire season. Recipe for success? For sure not. However, the Tigers have a 16-1 record, and a perfect 4-0 record in SEC play this season. While they played a relatively soft non-conference schedule, Auburn has two strong SEC wins at Tennessee and against Arkansas. This team is playing with confidence and their head coach is coaching with a swagger. Auburn may be the most surprising team so far this season.

Ohio State

Speaking of non-ideal scenarios, take a look at what Chris Holtmann inherited at Ohio State. In June, he took over a team that won just six Big Ten games, and were losing their top four leading scorers. His only option would be to weather the storm and begin making serious changes after what was expected to be a rough first season, right? Wrong. Although they got off to a shaky start, failing to secure any signature non-conference wins, what Holtmann has done at Ohio State so far is fantastic. Behind the All-American play of Keita Bates-Diop, the Buckeyes already have six conference wins, and are tied with Purdue at the top of the standings. And while they may not have been able to secure any resume boosting non-conference wins, they announced themselves as contenders with an absolute drubbing of Michigan State a few weeks ago.

Clemson

The Clemson Tigers were supposed to make the NCAA tournament last season, at least that’s what their expectation was. Jaron Blossomgame was finally a senior and be was going to lead them to the Big Dance before he left. Unfortunately that story never panned out, but Clemson appears to be on their way this season. What losing Blossomgame did was turn them into one of the more balanced scoring teams in the country. They have five players who average 11 points a game or more. They hold wins over Ohio State, Florida, Louisville and Miami. Three of those four wins were at home, a place they defended pretty well this season.

Oklahoma

If you watch a lot of college basketball, you know the Oklahoma Sooners are a lot more than Trae Young. Sure, Young is a sensational player and well on his way to being named Player of the Year, but this team is blossoming after going through many growing pains last year. After being extremely young last season, Oklahoma is seeing a lot of players make big jumps in their game, year over year. Young might be a straw that stirs the drink, but his strong supporting cast is the reason the Sooners are a top 5 team in the country.

Arizona State

Arizona State has had a humbling start to Pac 12 play, but they are still light years ahead of where anyone thought they would be. They have a top 10 offense in the country, though that has slowed down some as well. Despite their conference struggles, the Sun Devils still have wins against Xavier and at Kansas to hang their hat on. They have a favorable stretch coming up that should (hopefully) be what this team needs to get back on track. Regardless, this team is 14-3 and a real threat to win the Pac 12. That is something not many people expected coming into the season.

Texas Tech

If you are unaware, the Big 12 Conference is really, really good. One reason why is the ridiculous play of Trae Young. Another reason is the emergence of Texas Tech and the tenacious defense Chris Beard has instilled in this team. While they don’t generate the turnovers that West Virginia does, the Red Raiders defense is Top 10 in the country in terms of points per game. A mix of strong senior leadership and tough defense can take a team far. This Texas Tech team is good enough to reach a Final Four, just ask Kansas, Baylor, Nevada and West Virginia.

Purdue

The Purdue Boilermakers are tied for first place in the Big Ten. They haven’t lost since the day after Thanksgiving. In that time they’ve beaten Arizona (albeit without Rawle Alkins), Louisville, Michigan and Butler. The Boilermakers made a statement in a 34 point slaughter of a Minnesota team that has some problems. With Purdue, you have another rare exception of a team losing an All-American (Caleb Swanigan) and seemingly being better without him. Despite the departure of Swanigan, Matt Painter still had the pieces to have a successful season. Right now he is getting the most out of all those pieces, with three upperclassmen averaging over 13 points a game, and a sophomore, Carson Edwards, leading them with 16 a game. The Big Ten was supposed to be a bad league dominated by Michigan State. Three weeks into conference play however, it is Purdue that looks dominant.

We’re still a long way from March. That is fortunate and unfortunate news for some teams. And as I mentioned before, there are plenty of teams who have played better than expected. Right now though, these seven teams and coaches deserve a lot of credit for the the job they’ve done in the first half of the season.

Oklahoma’s Scorching Offense Ready for Texas Tech’s Stifling Defense

The Big 12 Conference has arguably been the most exciting conference in college basketball this year. It’s almost guaranteed to have a ranked team play another ranked team every night the conference is in action. That will hold true tonight as #9 Oklahoma hosts #8 Texas Tech.

This will be the second straight game Oklahoma has taken on a Top 10 team. The Sooners traveled to West Virginia over the weekend and lost to Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers, nothing to hang your head on. Trae Young and company will now need to bounce back against the Big 12’s best defense. Not an easy task.

Numbers Don’t Lie

While West Virginia fans may have something to say about that last line, Texas Tech is in fact leading the conference in scoring defense. The Red Raiders allow just 59.2 points per game in 15 games so far this year. They are very legit; their only loss is to a talented and experienced Seton Hall team. They’re 3-0 in the Big 12 and have won all those games by double digits, including a 12 point win at Kansas where they led wire-to-wire.

Chris Beard has done a phenomenal job with this team. As seasoned as they are, they’ve gotten a huge boost from freshman Zhaire Smith, who is second on the team in scoring and fourth in the Big 12 in field goal percentage. The Red Raiders have also had strong play at the most crucial position, point guard, with Keenan Evans returning to lead the team in scoring and assists.

The moral of the Texas Tech story however, is defense. They are not a team that will run up and down with you. Despite Evans’ 17 points a game and Smith’s 11, they know they will not outscore their opponents. Instead they will contest every shot, limit transition chances and wear you down for 40 minutes. Ask the teams they’ve played, it’s not fun.

Different Story For The Sooners

On the other side, the Oklahoma Sooners are a tad different. Instead of suffocating their opponents defensively, the Sooners have been piling on the points, leading the conference with 94.4 points per game. Everyone knows about Trae Young and his insane 29 points per game, but the Sooners have more than just the freshman phenom.

They have a total of four players averaging 10 points a game, including Christian James and Brady Manek, both of whom have showed an ability to score in bunches in games this season. While the OU offense starts and ends with Young, Texas Tech will need to contain the entire Sooner offense.

Against West Virginia, Young had his worst game as a collegiate athlete. On paper he finished with 29 points, but that came on 8-22 shooting, his lowest shooting percentage since his first game of the year. He also had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio for the first time all season, finishing with 5 assists to 8 turnovers. If you watched the game you could see Young did not look as comfortable as he has most of the year. He has a chance to get back on track at home.

Despite the tremendous defense of Texas Tech, I like Young and Oklahoma to bounce back tonight with a home win and move to 3-1 in the Big 12. I know the numbers favor Tech, with them leading the conference in both defensive field goal percentage and three-point defensive percentage, but I don’t believe Young can have two poor games in a row. They will no doubt run Young off the three point line any chance they get, but that’s where I expect Young to take what they give him and become a distributor when necessary. I don’t think he will have a negative turnover-assist ratio again and I think that will be the difference.

It’s the conference’s number one offense versus the conference’s number one defense. Something has to give. Don’t miss this game tonight, 7PM on ESPN

Big 12 Basketball: 2017-18 Conference Preseason Preview

The Big 12 Conference is one of the toughest conference in college basketball year in and year out. The past 13 years have seen the same team come out on top after the regular season; Kansas has had a strong hold on the conference for over a decade. This year however, the Big 12 has it all. Lottery bound freshman, deep rosters, and some of the best coaches in the sport. Let’s look at how the Big 12 shapes up this year.

Projected Finishes (Voted by Big 12 Coaches)

  1. Kansas – No surprise here. Kansas has sat atop the conference with at least a share of the regular season championship for 13 seasons. Expect Devonte’ Graham to be the next Perry Ellis/Frank Mason and Udoka Azuibuke to make a strong (literally) impact after missing most of last year with a wrist injury.
  2. West Virginia – The Mountaineers will spend the first half of the season without Esa Ahmad, but he will be back in the rotation during the thick of Big 12 play. With returning Defensive Player of the Year, Jevon Carter, West Virginia will still be a tough out in the conference.
  3. TCU – Jamie Dixon had his team firing on all cylinders at the end of last season. TCU upset the top seeded Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament and played their way to a NIT Championship. The Horned Frogs return a large majority of last year’s team, including Vladimir Brodziansky, who averaged 14 points a game last season. TCU could be eyeing a tournament bid this year.
  4. Texas – This could be one of the better teams in Austin in recent years. With future pro Mo Bamba manning the paint and Andrew Jones returning for another year, Shaka Smart has weapons. The X-factor for this team will be Matt Coleman running the point; Coleman could be the best PG the Longhorns have had since since DJ Augustin.
  5. Baylor – The Bears struggled at the end of last season, in part due to injury. They lose Jonathan Motley to the NBA, but still return solid producers in Manu Lecomte and Jo Lui-Acuil. The issue for the Bears may be their depth this season. This could keep them in the middle of the pack.
  6. Oklahoma – Lon Kruger brings back a team that was very green last year. He replaces Jordan Woodard with Trae Young, who could be the best freshman in the confernce this year. No disrespect to Bamba, who affects the game on both ends, but Young has the ability to put 40 up on a given night. The Sooners should improve on their 5-13 conference record last year and be fun to watch.
  7. Texas Tech – Texas Tech returns a good nucleus of last year’s team that played better than their 6-12 record indicated. The challenge for the Red Raiders this season will be how they fair on the road. Zach Smith, Keenan Evans and company will need to find ways to win away from home if they want to take a step forward.
  8. Kansas State – Bruce Weber is going to have to earn the contract extension he received this year with the Kansas State team. Weber has a nice trio of juniors in Dean Wade, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes. Overall, the Wildcats do not have the fire power to compete with the top of the conference.
  9. Iowa State – Iowa State put all their chips in last year’s basket, and it paid off when they won the Big 12 Tournament. Now the Cyclones will have a bit of a rebuild this year. Donovan Jackson will have a strong senior year, and Lindell Wigginton will get Ames excited for the future.
  10. Oklahoma State – It will be a new look back-court for the Cowboys with no Jawun Evans or Phil Forte. A lot of attention will focus around Jeffrey Carroll, who averaged 17 and 6 last season.

Preseason Awards (Voted by Big 12 Coaches)

Player of the Year – Devonte’ Graham (Kansas)

I said above expect Graham to have a senior year similar to Frank Mason or Perry Ellis. Graham has been one of KU’s biggest keys the last two seasons. When he goes, Kansas tends to roll. You can look back to his match ups versus Buddy Hield two years ago, their incredible comeback against West Virginia last year, or their Elite Eight loss to Oregon. Graham’s production directly correlates to the Jayhawk’s success in those games.

Freshman of the Year – Mo Bamba (Texas)

Mo Bamba will be a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He’s 7’0 and has arms that just go on forever. I expect him to edge Luil-Acuil for most blocked shots in the Big 12 this season. Bamba also has the ability to step out and hit from mid range. I mentioned Trae Young possibly being the best freshman, but Bamba’s ability to impact the game on both ends gives him the nod.

Newcomer of the Year – Malik Newman (Kansas) 

Newman sat out the 16-17 season after transferring from Mississippi State. Having spent a year practicing against Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, and alongside Graham, Newman should be able to jump into the line up and look comfortable right away. He is a former McDonald’s All-American and ESPN Top 10 recruit. Newman will look to regain his high draft status after a somewhat poor freshman year at Mississippi State.

After a year of practice with KU, Malik Newman should fit in well in the Jayhawk back court

All Big 12 Teams

First Team (Voted On)

Devonte’ Graham – Kansas

Jevon Carter – West Virginia

Jeffrey Carroll – Oklahoma State

Zach Smith – Texas Tech

Vladimir Brodziansky – TCU

Second Team (Prediction)

Trae Young – Oklahoma

Svi Mykhailiuk – Kansas

Manu Lecomte – Baylor

Mo Bamba – Texas

Esa Ahmad – West Virginia

So that’s it. A complete breakdown of the Big 12 before any action takes place. Preseason is always fun to look at. You have expectations and predictions, but you never truly know what will happen until conference play starts and you see teams play one another. It’ll be interesting to look back and see who was left off, who was over-hyped and who played as anticipated. 3 more weeks.