In the college basketball season, many teams come in with lofty preseason expectations. On the other hand, many teams also come in with a bleak outlook and turn out to be among the best in the conference. This is Part 2 of the teams who have exceeded their preseason expectations (Part 1 link below).
MAC- Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois came into the season predicted last place in the conferece. To this date, the Huskies have accumulated a 4-4 conference record, including a 10 point win vs. first place Kent State. What’s even more impressive is they’ve been winning lately without star Keshawn Williams, who went down early in conference play with an injury. His absence has opened the door for David Coit to be the go-to option. Since Williams has been out, Coit has scored 20 or more points in five of the six games. Head coach Rashon Burno is doing a great job in his second year on the job, and has the Huskies headed in the right direction.
MEAC- Maryland-Eastern Shore
Another coach on the rise is Jason Crafton at Maryland-Eastern Shore. Projected to possibly be the worst team in the country last year, he led the Hawks to a respectable 6-8 conference record. This year, he has them at 5-1, tied for first place. Maryland-Eastern Shore has been getting it done on defense. The Hawks are ninth in the country in steal percentage, and 12th in forcing turnovers. They have six players averaging at least one steal per game, and four others averaging at least 0.5. Another valuable piece of this team is the depth. Eight players play at least 16 minutes per game. This team isn’t based on stars, but Crafton has assembled a solid group who gets after it on defense.
Missouri Valley- Belmont
Belmont stepped up in conferences from the Ohio Valley to the Missouri Valley, and are already making a statement. After being picked sixth in the conference, the Bruins are off to a 9-3 start. One of the reasons they’ve been so successful is their 3-point shooting. Belmont shoots 40.4% from deep, which ranks third in the country. Their best shooter has been Princeton transfer Drew Friberg, who shoots 47.8% on 7.2 3-point attempts per game. Ben Sheppard has also made significant contributions all over the board, averaging 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Casey Alexander is off to a good start in his Missouri Valley coaching career, and it looks like Belmont isn’t going to fall off despite moving up a level.
Mountain West- Nevada
While Nevada is far from the only breakout team in the Mountain West this season, they’ve been the most impressive relative to predictions. The Wolfpack had a rough year last season with a very talented team, so almost everyone was low on this team that got less talented. As it turns out, this team is much better than last year’s. Oregon State transfer Jarod Lucas has been leading the way, averaging 17.0 points per game. Kenan Blackshear has also been a very important player, averaging 14.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. One notable strength about Nevada is their free throw shooting. They get to the line at the 27th highest rate in the country, and while they’re there shoot at a 79.6% clip, fifth in the country. Steve Alford is having a very good year with this team, which was much needed for his career following last year’s disaster.
NEC- Fairleigh Dickinson
Tobin Anderson didn’t get hired at Fairleigh Dickinson until May. While the timing of the firing/hiring was questionable, it’s proving out to be the right move. Although the NEC is a weak conference this year, Fairleigh Dickinson currently sits in first place. Their offense is the reason they’ve been so good in league games, having over a 100 spot gap in offensive efficiency between the Knights and the second best team. Fairleigh Dickinson’s two best players, Demetere Roberts and Grant Singleton followed Anderson from his previous spot at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas. Roberts is averaging 16.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists while Singleton averages 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists. In year one, Anderson has this team in a good position to contend for a March Madness bid.
Ohio Valley- Southern Indiana
The Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles are in year one of Division I, meaning they won’t be eligbile for the tournament (a rule that needs to be changed). Although, they’ve definitely made their mark, compiling a 13-10 record, including 6-4 in conference play. The Screaming Eagles have the best offense in the Ohio Valley. This is largely due to the number of weapons they have. Four players on the team, Jelani Simmons, Trevor Lakes, Isaiah Swope and Jacob Polakovich average between 12.3 and 14.3 points. Polakovich has established himself as an elite rebounder, his 13.1 rebounds per game only ranking behind Oscar Tshiebwe. Stan Gouard and Southern Indiana have proven they belong in D1.
Pac 12- Utah
Utah didn’t come into the season with high expectations, but it’s never a good idea to count out a team coached by Craig Smith. Smith has the Utes sitting at 8-4 in the conference, despite being picked 10th preseason. A big reason why they’ve been so good is their defense, which ranks 23rd nationally. Utah ranks top 13 in opponent 2-point, 3-point and free throw percentage. The star of the team is Branden Carlson, who is building off an All-Pac 12 season from last year. Carlson currently averages 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. At the moment, Utah would be sitting slightly on the outside of the NCAA Tournament field, but the job Craig Smith has done this year has been remarkable regardless.
American came into the season projected seventh in the preseason poll, but currently sit in third place in the Patriot League. The Eagles play a slow style of basketball, ranking 343rd in tempo and 356th in average possession length. However, they rank fifth in effective field goal percentage, finding the best shots. A big reason those percentages are so high is due to forward Matt Rogers, who is shooting 67.7% from inside the arc and 50% from outside. The Eagles also knocked off Washington D.C. foes Georgetown and George Washington earlier this season, asserting their claim as the best team in the nation’s capital. Their 6-4 conference record already has eclipsed the five games they’ve won last year in Patriot League play.
Alabama certainly didn’t go into the season without any buzz around the program, but they certainly weren’t supposed to be as good as they are now. The Crimson Tide had a rough finish to last season, but Nate Oats has this team going strong. Freshman Brandon Miller is averaging 19.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and shooting 44.5% from 3, which cements him as the best freshman in college basketball. Noah Clowney has been more of a surprising freshman, averaging 10.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. Mark Sears has also been one of the best transfers in the country, averaging 14.0 points per game. Alabama is squarely in the mix for a national title, and Nate Oats is proving once again he’s one of the best coaches in the country.
SoCon- UNC Greensboro
While the SoCon hasn’t had any surprise teams come out of nowhere, that shouldn’t take away from the season UNC Greensboro has had. The Spartan’s defense ranks 40th in the country, the best in the conference by a huge amount. Like many mid-majors, lots of UNC Greensboro’s success has come from the transfer portal. Keondre Kennedy and Mikeal Brown-Jones, their second and third leading scorers are both transfers. Keyshaun Langely has led the way for the Spartans, averaging 13.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Mike Jones has done a good job in his second year in Greensboro, following a long tenure with Radford.
Southland- Northwestern State
Northwestern State hired Missouri State assistant Corey Gipson this offseason, a move that has brought the Demons great rewards. Gipson was able to bring Demarcus Sharp, Ja’Monta Black and Isaac Haney with him from Missouri State. Those three players lead Northwestern State in scoring. Gipson also made national headlines by bringing in one-armed sensation Hansel Enmanuel. The Demons have some impressive wins on their resume, including TCU and Southern Miss, both top-100 wins. Northwestern State was picked just sixth in the Southland preseason poll, but at this point they’re looking like the favorite and team to beat.
Grambling was picked sixth in the preseason SWAC poll, but they’re looking like they could win the conference. Most SWAC teams don’t have the opportunity for big-time wins, but the Tigers have two power conference wins this season in Colorado and Vanderbilt. Defense has been a strength for Grambling, ranking in the top 100 of many categories on that side of the ball. They’ve gotten key contributions from Cam Christon, Shawndarius Cowart and Carte’Are Gordon this season. Gordon was a high ranked recruit, but hadn’t played since 2019, so it’s good to see him back on the court playing good basketball. In his Grambling tenure, this is easily Donte Jackson’s best team, and best chance to go dancing.
Summit- Western Illinois
Western Illinois is sitting alone in second place in the Summit League, a position that they weren’t projected to be in. As of recently Rob Jeter has this squad playing very well, winners of five straight. A big part of their success can go to star guard Trenton Massner, who is averaging 18.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists, while shooting efficiently. This isn’t a very deep Leathernecks team, but Jeter has been getting solid minutes out of his starters. Alec Rosner, a Division II transfer, has also made a strong impact, chipping in 14.3 points per game while playing 36.2 minutes per game. This Western Illinois team probably doesn’t have a huge chance at March Madness with Oral Roberts in the conferece, but either way they’ve had a great year, and the future is now looking bright.
Sun Belt- Southern Miss
Jay Ladner has truly done one of the most impressive jobs in the country this year, taking a 7-26 team to 19-4 and in the top 100. Ladner was able to get a few stars from the transfer portal, Austin Crowley and Felipe Haase. Crowley is averaging 17.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Haase is putting up averages of 14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Once projected 13th in the conference, the Golden Eagles are leading the Sun Belt standings. It took a few years, but Ladner has this team competing to win the conference and go dancing, something that hasn’t happened in Hattiesburg since 2012.
WCC- Loyola Marymount
Loyola Marymount was hyped up coming into last season, and disappointed big time. This year, they’re flipping the script. Picked ninth preseason, the Lions are third in the conference, only behind Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. Cam Shelton has been outstanding this year, averaging 19.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He also hit the game-winner at Gonzaga, snapping their 76 game home winning streak. The Lions also have wins over Wake Forest and Nevada. Despite completely falling apart last year, Stan Johnson has this team headed in the right direction. Having already won at Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount being a bid stealer in the WCC tournament isn’t out of the question.
WAC- Sam Houston State
Sam Houston State made a statement opening night, winning at Oklahoma. A week later, they made another statment, winning at Utah. Despite not getting a ton of hype preseason, Jason Hooten has put together a very good season, built on defense. The Bearkats have the 30th ranked defense in the country, and are one of the best teams at forcing turnovers. They’re led by Qua Grant, a former Division II star who struggled last year at Wichita State. He’s found a good fit with the Bearkats, averaging 13.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists. If Sam Houston State makes the NCAA tournament, they’re not a sight high major teams want to see, given they’ve already knocked off a few.