Going into the season, everyone thinks they know exactly how every team in the country will end up. Some teams seem destined for great years, only to fall much short of their goals and capabilities. On the other hand, some programs seem set up for failure, only to shock the college basketball landscape and have a successful season. Each conference has a mix of both. One team in every conference stood out to me as a team that has far outweighed its preseason expectations:
America East- UMass Lowell
The UMass Lowell Riverhawks were projected third preseason in the America East, so it isn’t a total surprise that they’ve been good this season. However, not many projected the Pat Duquette led team to only have four losses in late January. Their current 17-4 record stacks them up among the best win percentages in college basketball. The Riverhawks success is in part to their huge transfer addition of Abdoul Karim Coulibaly from St. Bonaventure, who is averaging 12.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and ranks among the NCAA’s best with a 62.4 field goal percentage. Everette Hammond has also been a very important backcourt piece in his second year with UMass Lowell. The Riverhawks currently lead the America East and have wins of 15 points or more over Vermont and Bryant, the two preseason favorites.
Despite suffering some losses recently that will probably keep them out of the tournament, UCF has had a strong last season in the American. Picked sixth preseason, they currently have the third highest Kenpom rating among the conference. A large reason why they’ve been so successful is star freshman Taylor Hendricks. Despite being ranked high nationally, Hendricks didn’t get the same hype as some freshmen going to Power Six conferences. He’s leading the Knights with his 14.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. They’ve also got some valuable backcourt help from UMass transfer C.J. Kelly and Pitt transfer Ithiel Horton, both averaging over two 3-pointers made per game. Although Hendricks will likely leave for the NBA, the Knights have lots of momentum heading into the premier conference in college basketball, the Big 12, next year.
Stetson made a statement when they beat Florida State on the road on opening night. Predicted towards the bottom of the conference, Donnie Jones has the Hatters sitting in 3rd with a 6-2 record. The main reason Stetson has been so improved this year is their offense, which ranks within the top 40 nationally. While their defense has some struggles, their offense will always put them in the game. Lots of the Hatters’ damage comes from behind the arc, as they have the ninth highest 3-point percentage in the country. Wheza Panzo and Luke Brown have established themselves among the most accurate long range marksmen in the country. Grand Canyon transfer Jalen Blackmon also averages over two made 3’s per game, and is the team’s leading scorer.
Atlantic 10- Duquesne
Duquesne was picked last in the A-10 preseason poll, and thus far are showing they did not deserve to be in that position. After a horrendous 2021-22 season, winning one conference game, Keith Dambrot brought in some impactful transfers. Dae Dae Grant has become the face of the team, as the Miami (OH) transfer has put up averages of 15.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Jimmy Clark was a great junior college pickup, and Bowling Green transfer Joe Reece and FIU transfer Tevin Brewer have had good seasons. In the month of November, the Dukes already equaled their win total from the previous year. After looking like a dead program last year, Duquesne is back on the rise. With the A-10 having a major down year, Duquesne is in the mix to win the conference after being picked last preseason.
Pitt had a season to forget last season, ending ranked 195th in Kenpom. This season also started out rough, with a few blowout losses early on. Combined with the fact that last year’s star player, John Hugley IV is out for the season, you wouldn’t think that much has changed from last year. But that’s not the case, as Pitt has jumped out to a 6-3 ACC start that includes wins over North Carolina and Virginia. A main reason for the success comes down to Blake Hinson and Jamarius Burton. Hinson didn’t play basketball since before the pandemic, so nobody knew what they were getting. He’s blossomed into a star, averaging 15.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Jamarius Burton has improved on a solid campaign from last year and also blossomed into a star, averaging 16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. This may be a good enough team to save Jeff Capel’s job, and the future is starting to look bright in Pittsburgh.
Big 12- Kansas State
Absolutely nobody saw Kansas State becoming a Top 5 team in the country at any point this year. But here we are in late January, and the Wildcats find themselves towards the top of the national leaderboard. Jerome Tang has completely changed the culture of this program, and is the favorite for coach of the year. Kansas State has two legitimate all-american candidates on the team, in Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell. Johnson hadn’t played since his collapse on the court at Florida, and people were unsure if he’d ever be close to the same player. The truth is, he’s even better and averaging 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Marquis Nowell has also become one of the premier point guards in the country, with averages of 16.7 points and 8.2 assists per game. Tang has done an incredible job so far, and if he stays with the Wildcats this could be a powerhouse waiting to happen.
Big East- Marquette
Marquette was picked 9th in the Big East preseason poll, only ahead of yearly bottom feeders DePaul and Georgetown. However, the Golden Eagles have not looked anything like the ninth best team in the conference. In fact, they’ve looked more like the ninth best team in the country, currently being ranked 8th in Kenpom. Kam Jones has blossomed into a star scorer, Tyler Kolek has improved his already-elite passing, and Olivier Maxence-Prosper and Oso Ighodaro have been valuable Big East players. Many of the credit can go to Shaka Smart for this team’s success, as it is arguably his first year with truly his players since his glorious VCU days. Smart is re-establishing himself as one of the best coaches in the country with the job he’s done this season. Also, NAIA player of the year Zach Wrightsil has hardly played due to injury, who many expected to be the best player on this team preseason.
Big Sky- Eastern Washington
Eastern Washington is ON FIRE right now, with their 10 game win streak being the third longest in the country. That win streak has them undefeated in Big Sky play, two games ahead of second place. They’ve gotten strong contributions from Steele Venters at 15.3 points per game, and Angelo Allegri with 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Also, versatile wing Cedric Coward is proving to be a transfer steal, coming from Division III. Coward is one of the most efficient players in the conference on both sides of the ball. David Riley has this Eagles team playing similar to the level of the great Shantay Legans-led Eastern Washington squads.
Big South- Radford
Radford was slotted tied for sixth in the Big South preseason poll, but they’re far outweighing that. The Highlanders are 6-2 in conference play, and winners of five straight. They have largely been good due to their additions this offseason, as their top three scorers are all new additions to the team. Murray State transfer DaQuan Smith is leading Radford in scoring at 13.3 points per game. Freshman Kenyon Giles was a recruiting steal, only standing at 5’11” but averaging 11.0 points per game. The biggest headline of their offseason was getting former 5-star Bryan Antoine. Although he hasn’t completely dominated the conference like many thought, Antoine is averaging a respectable 10.1 and most importantly staying healthy. Those three players can all come back next year, so keep your eye on Darris Nichols and the Highlanders.
Big Ten- Rutgers
Steve Pikiell has built Rutgers into a respectable program, but there wasn’t a ton of hype coming into the program after losing faces of the program Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker. However, led by their third ranked defense, the Scarlet Knights are arguably better than recent years. Cam Spencer has arguably been the best player on Rutgers, averaging 13.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Cliff Omoruyi has established himself more inside, averaging a double-double per game. Big Ten DPOY Caleb McConnell is also back and to nobody’s surprise, still elite on defense. Although there are some questions about their offensive struggles, it hasn’t bothered Rutgers too much overall, currently sitting alone in second place in the Big Ten. Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights team rolling, and with his recent success on the recruiting trail there’s no reason to think this program will slow down.
Big West- UC Riverside
There haven’t been any huge surprise teams in the Big West, but UC Riverside has definitely looked a bit better than projected. Mike Magpayo has this Highlanders team at 7-2 in the Big West, and are the only team to knock off UC Santa Barbara in conference play. UC Riverside has been led by star point guard Zyon Pullin, who averages 18.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. They’ve also been getting strong contributions from 5th year senior Flynn Cameron, who averages 11.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists. They’ve also been getting solid contributions from Australian freshman Lachlan Olbrich, who averages 10.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. The Highlanders have a good team this year, and will be in the mix to win the conference tournament.
It’s hard to make any lists about 2022-23 surprise teams and not include Charleston. While the Cougars were projected to be towards the top of the conference, all eyes were on Towson. As it turns out, the Cougars are the best team in the conference and currently ranked 18th in the AP Top 25. Pat Kelsey has shown the ability to get players from anywhere. Three of Charleston’s top five scorers are Division II transfers, Dalton Bolon, Ante Brzovic and Pat Robinson. Also, Jaylon Scott, a glue guy who has started every game, comes from the NAIA level. Charleston is currently 21-1, and have the longest win streak in the country. They haven’t lost since November 11th. Kelsey has this team playing extremely well, and has also landed a few nationally ranked 2023 prospects. This program isn’t fading away anytime soon with Kelsey leading it.
Conference USA- Florida Atlantic
Along with Charleston, Florida Atlantic has been one of the biggest mid-major storylines in the country, currently sitting at 21st in the AP Poll. Dusty May has this program playing at heights the Owls have never came close to before. One of the reasons FAU is so good is their depth. Nine players on their team get at least 15 minutes per game. Johnell Davis, Alijah Martin and Vlad Goldin are the Owls currently averaging double figures scoring. A big strength is 3-point shooting, as the Owls rank 28th nationally in 3-point percentage and have seven player making over one three per game. Similar to Charleston, they haven’t lost since November 11th. Florida Atlantic is a very legit team, and has a chance to go far in March.
Milwaukee started a new era this season, bringing in Bart Lundy as the head coach. He has the Panthers at 8-2 in the Horizon League, despite being picked ninth preseason. Eight conference wins already matches Pat Baldwin’s highest win total in his five seasons at Milwaukee. Lundy brought in an almost completely new roster this past season, through transfers and freshmen. The Panthers best player, BJ Freeman, came from junior college. He is averaging 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. The second leading scorer on this Milwaukee team, Kentrell Pullian, came from the Division II level. Another good pickup was Oregon State transfer Ahmad Rand, who leads the conference in blocks and is a main reason the Panthers rank top 10 nationally in that statistic. Under Lundy, the future in Milwaukee is bright.
The Ivy League has been one of the better mid major leagues in the country this year, and a part of the success goes to Cornell. The Big Red had 10 straight losing seasons after making a Sweet 16 run in 2010. Although, it seems like that momentum is starting to come back, as Cornell is currently 14-5. Their success all comes down to their offense, ranked 20th nationally. Cornell ranks fourth in 2-point percentage, and 35th in 3-point percentage. The Big Red’s leading scorer is Greg Dolan, who averages 13.1 points to go along with 3.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and over 50% from 3-point range. Brian Earl is building Cornell into a successful program again, and finds itself towards the top of the conference after a decade of losing.
Despite being picked 6th in the preseason MAAC poll, the Siena Saints are in sole possession of first place in the conference standings. Siena first started to gain some traction at the ESPN Events Invitational, where they knocked off Florida State by 17 and also beat Seton Hall to claim third place in the tournament. The Gaels are led by sophomore Javian McCollum, who is averaging 15.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. The Saints have had a winning record every year under Carmen Maciariello, and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Siena has a huge game upcoming, as Iona plays at Siena on Friday January 27th. That game could determine who is truly the best team in the MAAC.