Kentucky is young and not as talented as the last few freshmen-laden squads that John Calipari has assembled. Therefore, I’m not shocked that UK hasn’t been overly impressive to date, but the Big Blue Faithful feel as if the sky is falling with one defeat and their Wildcats have already gone down three times (vs. Duke on a neutral court, at Notre Dame and vs. Baylor at Rupp).
The Bears ended UK’s 54-game winning streak at home. The point-guard position and inexperience are the weaknesses of this club. Look for the ‘Cats to steadily improve and be tough to beat at home, but I don’t see another Final Four run from this bunch. Plus, they will probably be a good go-against team in SEC road assignments.
North Carolina lost most of its nucleus from last season’s Elite Eight team, but there was plenty of optimism around the return of Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and yet another top-notch recruiting class.
UNC has lost by double-digit margins three times and their best wins are over Long Beach St. (RPI: 111) and East Carolina (RPI: 117). The Tar Heels got trounced by an 85-67 count at Texas last night.
Speaking of the Longhorns, they have looked like garbage for most of the year until taking UNC behind the woodshed. Rick Barnes’s team learned late last night that it will be without point guard Myck Kabongo for the rest of the season, so this team must show drastic improvement in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
Texas has already lost to the likes of Chaminade, Southern Cal, Georgetown (by 23!) and UCLA.
Florida State knew it would be a transition year to some extent due to the loss of four starters, but the Seminoles brought back their best player, Michael Snaer, and brought in three seven-footers in their recruiting haul. But Leonard Hamilton’s team has home losses to Mercer and South Alabama and got spanked 72-47 at home by arch-rival Florida. Minnesota also had its way with the ‘Noles in Tallahassee.
Ohio might be the nation’s biggest disappointment in terms of mid-major schools. The Bobcats went to the Sweet 16 last year before bowing out against North Carolina in overtime. Although head coach John Groce was lost to Illinois, they returned all nine players from last season’s rotation, including star guard D.J. Cooper. I was a little surprised to see how Ohio didn’t schedule much competition on its non-conference slate, but it has managed to lose four games nonetheless. After racing out to a 6-0 start, the Bobcats have lost four of their last five games to most likely eliminate them from a shot at an at-large invite to the NCAA Tournament.
The MAC hasn’t been a two-bid league since 1999, but I felt like Akron and Ohio might be able to change that this year. Forget that notion! Akron has been another disappointment, although we should note that at least it scheduled better than the Bobcats. The Zips are 5-4 straight up with a pair of overtime losses to Coastal Carolina and Oklahoma St. They also lost at Creighton and at Detroit but do have decent victories over Middle Tennessee and Penn St.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Butler enjoying success as long as head coach Brad Stevens remains at the helm. But Shelvin Mack, Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard are long gone and that was evident last year when the Bulldogs were one of the country’s worst offensive teams and missed out on the Big Dance.
The offense is no longer struggling, though, thanks to the arrival of Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and true freshman Kellen Dunham. These are two of the nation’s best pure shooters. Clarke beat Marquette at the buzzer in the Maui Classic and he leads the team in scoring, averaging 17.5 points per game.
With its win over top-ranked and previously-unbeaten Indiana last weekend, Butler now owns victories over IU, UNC, Marquette and Northwestern. We should note that none of those wins were at home and the Bulldogs’ two losses came to quality teams, Illinois and Xavier.
Illinois won The Maui Classic and owns a 12-0 record with a huge road win at Gonzaga also on its resume. With the way this squad folded like a tent under Bruce Weber last year, there was no reason to think this sort of start was coming. Give credit to Groce and watch out for the Illini.
Since losing back-to-back nail-biters to UMass and Penn St. (before Tim Frazier’s injury), Providence has won six in a row to improve to 8-2 on the season. The Friars play former Big East rival Boston College in Chestnut Hill on Saturday.
Virginia has won eight in a row and has been outstanding for our purposes, compiling a 6-1-1 spread record. The Cavs own a home win over Tennessee and also captured a win at Wisconsin as 10-point underdogs.
Where does UVA’s success register on the Surprise Scale? Consider this: Athlon’s preseason magazine picked the Wahoos to finish seventh in the ACC. (And, as well all know, this isn’t Mom and Dad’s ACC hoops being played these days.)
Look at Steve Alford’s New Mexico team. The Lobos have raced out to an 12-0 start with victories over four RPI Top 100 teams like Davidson, George Mason, Illinois-Chicago and UConn.
Larry Shyatt is doing a stellar job in his second tour of duty at Wyoming. Shyatt, who first left the Cowboys to coach in the ACC at Clemson, played a major role in Florida’s back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 as an assistant to Billy Donovan.
Now back in the head-coaching role, he has Wyoming off to an 11-0 start with wins at Illinois St., at UC Santa Barbara and vs. Colorado. The Cowboys have covered the number at a 7-1 ATS clip.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--I didn’t include VCU as a surprise team because nobody should be startled by what Shaka Smart is getting accomplished. The Rams are for real – again – and I think they are a legit Final Four contender. Also, I love how Smart has stayed loyal to VCU and not jumped for other job opportunities – yet. The next school to hire Smart will be very lucky indeed.
--Appalachian St. is off to a miserable start, losing eight of its first 10 games. However, for our purposes, the Mountaineers are the best team in America. They are a perfect 7-0 ATS with each cover coming as underdogs.
--Marshall is 0-7-1 ATS and Northern Colorado is 0-6 versus the number.
--Big-time kudos to Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey for his inspiring speech following his team’s loss to Louisville. Kelsey spoke passionately about the tragedy in Connecticut and you can check it out here.