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The art of analyzing college basketball is not a perfect science. No matter the amount of work you put in during the summer—watching last season's games, reading up on a team's local media coverage, researching freshman and some of the seldom used guys on the bench—it is still essentially a crap shoot when trying to project how 347 teams will perform during a given season.
Some guys work their tails off during the summer and come back better players for it. Some guys don't and come back out of shape. Some lower-rated freshman become stars. Some highly touted recruits fizzle out. Sometimes teams click. Other times the chemistry just isn't there.
Now that we are about midway through the season, let's take a look at some of this year's biggest surprises:
Wake Forest and Jeff Teague: A lot of people thought that the Demon Deacons were going to be good this year. But this good? Right now Wake is sitting at No. 2 in the country (or No. 3 depending on if you ask the coaches or the writers) with a 14-0 record after knocking off UNC, and a huge reason for that has been the emergence of Jeff Teague.
Teague played well last season, averaging 13.9 ppg and earning All-ACC Rookie Team honors. Sure, you expect him to get better, but I doubt anyone predicted that Teague would emerge as a potential first team All American and be in the conversation for ACC, and even national, player of the year. I didn't even list him among my top point guards. Neither did Gary Parrish.
Teague is currently averaging 20.6 ppg, 4.1 apg, 4.2 rpg, 2.1 spg, and shooting an absurd 53.6 percent from the field. Teague also has been aided by playing alongside maybe the best front line in America. The bottom line is that this team has a very real chance at not only reaching the Final Four, but winning a national title.
California: In '07-'08, the Bears went 17-16 and 6-12 in Pac-10 play. They lost first-team all-Pac 10 forward Ryan Anderson (21.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and starting center DeVon Hardin to the NBA. Head Coach Ben Braun left for Rice University and was replaced by Mike Montgomery. So what happened this season?
Cal has started out 15-2, 4-0 in the Pac-10, and has become the only serious threat to Arizona State and UCLA to win the conference. The Bears get it done from beyond the arc. They shoot, as a team, a ridiculous 48.3 percent from three, although it is mostly from three guys—Jerome Randle (49 percent), Patrick Christopher (41 percent), and Theo Robertson (59 percent).
This team is a ton of fun to watch, mainly because of Randle. He is a 5' 9" lighting quick point guard that probably could have gotten his own nomination as one of the nation's biggest surprises. His scoring (19.1 from 11.8), assists (4.9 from 3.7), and shooting (52 percent from 42 percent) are all up from last season. He isn't afraid to fire from anywhere on the court either, often pulling up from 26 feet.
Jodie Meeks: Meeks had a promising freshman season in '06-'07, but struggled with injuries and getting playing time behind Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley in '07-'08. This season, Meeks has emerged as one of the best scorers in the nation and the front runner for SEC player of the year.
Before Tuesday's game at Tennessee, Meeks had already gone for 46, 39, 37, and 32 points in a game, but against the Vols he had probably the greatest single performance I have ever seen. He went for 54 points in Tennessee on 15-21 shooting and 10-15 from three, and just about ran Tennessee off the court himself. So what is the difference this year?
Meeks has really developed a deadly jump shot. He is shooting 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from three. But more impressive is that on the season, Meeks has scored 441 points on just 280 shots—equivalent to 1.58 points per shot, a phenomenal number for a jump shooter. Can you say efficiency?
The Big Ten: The Big Ten has been considered the worst of the BCS conferences for a few years now. The biggest reason? A number of the traditional powers have not had the success they are used to. Most people expected more of the same this year as Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, and Wisconsin were all thought to be down this season.
The conference has caught a lot of people by surprise this year. While they are not quite on the level of the ACC of the Big East, the Big Ten is probably the third best league and has a chance to get six or seven teams into the dance. The biggest surprise in the league has to be Minnesota.
The Gophers were a respectable 8-10 in league play last year (their first under Tubby Smith), but if I told you that two weeks into conference season Minnesota would be 15-1 and a top 20 team, would you have believed me? Equally impressive has been the improvement of Michigan and Illinois.
You knew Michigan wouldn't be down for long with the addition of John Beilein, but this team (which boasts wins over UCLA and Duke) was 10-22 last year and won just one game in the league. You also knew a Bruce Webber led team wouldn't stay down. The emergence of Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, and Demetri McCamey to go alongside the veteran back court of Chester Frazier and Trent Meachem has made the Illini one of the most balanced teams in the country.
Ohio State has struggled of late with out David Lighty but still boasts a 12-3 record and a win at Notre Dame. Even perennial cellar dweller Penn State is having success on the court this year with a 13-4 record and a win over Purdue.
Clemson: For the fourth straight season, Clemson has started out the year with a long undefeated streak. This year, they are sitting at 16-0, 2-0 in the ACC, but it may be the most improbable of their season opening runs.
The Tigers lost a lot when Cliff Hammonds and James Mays graduated. It was more than just talent—those two provided a lot of senior leadership. Not much was expected from this group in '09, but they have emerged as a serious threat in the ACC.
While KC Rivers (14.7 ppg and 6.5 rpg) and Trevor Booker (15.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, and 2.8 bpg) are both having fantastic seasons, the x-factor has been the emergence of Demontez Stitt as a playmaker. Stitt is averaging 8.3 ppg and 3.6 apg, but more importantly he provides Clemson with a guy that not only can defend but that can get into the paint and score or find a teammate.
Clemson has played a bit of a light schedule [although wins at Illinois, South Carolina, and Miami (FL) are pretty impressive], but they get a real test when Wake Forest comes to town on Saturday.
Syracuse and Georgetown: Syracuse and Georgetown. Jim Boeheim and John Thompson. Those are names that are synonymous with success in the Big East. But with how loaded the Big East is this season, both of these teams were predicted to be middle-of-the-pack in the conference this year.
Nothing could have been further from the truth as both are currently ranked in the top 15. After knocking off the Orange on Wednesday, the Hoyas are currently sitting at 12-3, 3-2 in the Big East. Their record is much more impressive when you consider that they've won at UConn and beat Syracuse, while their two losses have come at Notre Dame (55 straight wins at home) and against Pitt (the Panthers are OK this year). The best news for Georgetown is that their bench, which has been struggling this season, has played much better the last two games.
While Georgetown has come out of their toughest stretch in good shape, Syracuse is just entering a brutal ten game stretch. Including their loss to Georgetown, the Orange play eight of their next ten against ranked teams (and one of the unranked teams was last week's No. 22 West Virginia).
They are 16-2, 4-1 in the Big East (playing an easy schedule - before G'Town their conference opponents combined record was 1-14), but they have had some impressive non-conference wins. They won at Memphis, beat Florida and Kansas in Kansas City, and were a 70-foot prayer from Cleveland State away from heading into DC last night undefeated.
The difference this season has been the return of Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins from knee injuries, giving Flynn some back court help while providing perimeter shooting to stretch the defense. Rick Jackson's development as a solid post contributor has also been key to the Orange success.
Wesley Matthews: The last three seasons, whenever you would discuss Marquette's guards, most people would say "Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and the other kid, you know, what's his name..?" "What's his name" is Wesley Matthews, and he has always been just as good as the other two.
The issue with Matthews is that he's always been a great teammate, willing to defer to the other two when needed. This season, with Marquette lacking balance on the interior, Buzz Williams knew that he needed Matthews to be a scorer. Matthews never averaged more than 12.6 ppg in a season (that came as a sophomore), but this year he is the team's leading scorer at 18.9 ppg and arguably their most important player.
Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, Lazar Hayward—while all talented, they tend to settle for jumpers. Matthews is much more of a penetrator, as he is taking 8.5 free throw's per game. His emergence is a big reason why Marquette is currently 15-2 and 4-0 in the Big East.
Texas A&M: Texas A&M was never really known as a basketball school before Billy Gillispie got there, but with the help of Acie Law, he managed to change the expectations of Aggie fans. With Gillispie gone, Mark Turgeon (formerly of Wichita State) has done a pretty good job of keeping the program moving in the right direction.
They reached the tournament last year only to be robbed against knocked out by UCLA, but lost Joseph Jones, DeAndre Jordan, and most importantly Dominique Kirk off of that team. As you might expect, the most pundits had the Aggies finishing somewhere behind Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor, and Kansas in the Big XII.
To be honest, I was going to leave the 15-2 Aggies off of this list after they lost on the road to Oklahoma State in their first Big XII game. While they have some pretty good wins (Arizona, @ Alabama, LSU), they still have played a relatively light schedule and did not really have anything too impressive on their resume...until they beat Baylor last night.
Now, a road loss/home win during conference play, no matter who it is against, is not a terrible loss/great win, so making a final consensus on this Aggie team based on those two games doesn't make much sense. Its what I saw from them last night.
They are a tough defensive team with two excellent guards (Donald Sloan, Josh Carter) and two really good big men (Brian Davis, Chinemelu Elonu). If they can get some of their role players to step up and be a threat, the Aggies have a real chance of returning to the NCAA's.
Butler: Butler has dominated the Horizon League for the last few years, but lost so much to graduation, including their starting back court of AJ Graves and Mike Green. The only player of significance they returned was big man Matt Howard.
Butler was not expected to do all that much this year, but they might actually be better than last year's team that spent time in the top 10. The biggest reason for that has been the play of two freshmen—Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack.
Hayward, a combo forward averaging 12.3 ppg and 6.5 rpg, is one of the best shooters in the land, hitting at 46 percent and making more than two three's a game. When paired with Howard, they give the Bulldogs a very talented front line that compliments each other well.
Mack is a play-making guard, averaging 12.3 ppg and 3.5 apg. Butler's only loss is by three at Ohio State, but they have some pretty impressive wins—Drake, Evansville, Bradley (all atop the MVC), Xavier, Northwestern, UAB, and a buzzer beating win against Cleveland State, who was picked to finish atop the league.