5 Shocking Upsets to Watch for Early This CBB Season
With uncertainty surrounding top teams from the prior year, and unknown teams with plenty to prove, early season upsets are often the norm in college basketball.
Last year was no exception. Just two days into the season, Cleveland State went to Nashville and handily beat No. 7 Vanderbilt. Three days later, Long Beach State traveled cross-country and gave No. 9 Pittsburgh a very rude wake-up call. The day after Thanksgiving No. 4 Connecticut was shocked by Central Florida down in the Bahamas.
While Pitt and UConn went on to have ultimately disappointing seasons, their expectations were obviously high going into the year. Thus, each of its losses were seen as a huge surprise.
We will most likely see a few of the same type of cases this year. Teams going in with Top 10 rankings, only to fall short of those expectations. Whether it be temporary (November, December) or over the entire year, not all teams can live up to the early hype.
Which teams might be exposed early, which might knock them off? Here's a look at five potential upsets within the season's first two weeks.
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Marquette over 4 Ohio State (Nov. 9, Carrier Classic in Charleston SC)
Each of these teams enjoyed outstanding seasons a year ago. Marquette came up just a possession shy of an Elite Eight while Ohio State earned a trip to the Final Four.
However, eight months later, these two teams head in to the season with much different expectations.
For Ohio State—which lost Jared Sullinger to the Boston Celtics—the belief is with Aaron Craft still around to run the show, the Buckeyes will be just fine. For Marquette—which lost Big East POY Jae Crowder—a similar belief seems to be met with much more skepticism.
That is just why Marquette could surprise many people with a season-opening win here, over a Top 5 team.
Despite losing Crowder as well as Darius Johnson-Odom, the team’s second-leading scorer from a year ago, Marquette still has plenty of key pieces from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Six of the eight players who saw major minutes last year are back for Coach Buzz Williams.
Junior Cadougan—now a senior—is back to run the point, with Vander Blue returning to join him in the backcourt. The two combined for 15-points, eight assists and two steals a game last year, and should see those numbers increase this season. Swingman Jamal Wilson should also play a significant role on both ends of the floor.
A bit contrary to recent Marquette teams, this year’s team will feature more size. Devonte Gardner is an absolute load—and a fairly nimble one at that—at 6’8” 290. The 6’11” senior Chris Otule looks to return to 2010-11 form, when he helped the Golden Eagles reach the first of back-to-back Sweet 16s.
The increased presence of size for Marquette could cause some problems for a now Sullinger-less Ohio State team. Add in the Buckeyes’ loss of William Buford—arguably its best true scorer a year ago—and we could be in for a tight defensive clash, which may see Marquette come out narrowly on top.
Maryland over 3 Kentucky (Nov. 9, Barclays Classic at Brooklyn NY)
The team that steamrolled to a national title last year, against a team that missed the postseason entirely in 2012—wouldn’t seem like much too think about here.
When the former loses its entire core of players that got it a title, and the latter adds a few key components to an improving team, it makes things a bit more interesting.
Kentucky enters the season ranked third in preseason polls despite losing the two players taken one and two (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, respectively) in the NBA Draft. Throw in the losses of Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, and the Wildcats lost 91 percent of their scoring—and an even higher percentage in defensive intensity—from a year ago.
Granted, Coach Calipari knows how to reload, and he certainly did. Freshmen sensations Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Mays, and Archie Goodwin—along with NC State transfer Ryan Harrow—will give UK every opportunity to contend for another title by the time March rolls around.
With any young team—especially one this young—the process will take some time. Kentucky will not be the best, or third best, team in the nation when it takes the court in Brooklyn on Friday.
Maryland, meanwhile, has a nice blend of experience and newcomers that could very well lead to a trip back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. For its opening game, it also has the size to contend with UK’s impressive freshman frontcourt.
Alex Len is a lottery pick in waiting for Coach Mark Turgeon. The 7’1” sophomore showed flashes of brilliance a year ago, but will need to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes to reach his true collegiate potential. Joining him up front will be freshman Shaquille Cleare, the prized recruit for Turgeon this past year. They should, at very least, prevent UK from dominating inside on both ends.
In the backcourt, Maryland will gladly welcome two players it wasn’t sure it would have heading into the season. Pe’Shon Howard will return from a knee injury to run the point—a position the Terps had no consistency or chemistry with a year ago. Dez Wells, a transfer from Xavier who was just granted eligibility after his initial request to play immediately was denied, will provide the Terps with an infusion of scoring and rebounding ability from the two-guard spot.
If Howard and Wells can win the backcourt contest against the freshmen Mays and Goodwin, then Maryland could just turn a bunch of heads right away.
Long Beach State over 11 North Carolina (Nov. 16)
This summer, North Carolina lost more talent and production to the NBA of anyone except Kentucky. Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes, all first-round picks. Oh yeah, and arguably the most important of the bunch, point guard Kendall Marshall.
Unlike Kentucky, UNC does have some solid pieces returning. Junior Reggie Bullock became a quality scoring option last season, not an easy task given the players surrounding him. Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald each return to help run the Tar Heel backcourt after missing part and all of last year, respectively, with ACL injuries. James Michael McAdoo and PJ Hairston saw decent minutes as freshmen last season, and should be key contributors this year.
The Achilles' heel (sure, pun intended) may be the lack of inside depth. Aside from McAdoo, the two other frontcourt players—Joel James and Brice Johnson—are freshmen. After three years of having Zeller and Henson to rely on inside, the Tar Heels may find a bit of difficulty adjusting to life without those security blankets—on both ends of the floor—around the basket.
If Long Beach State had guys like Casper Ware, Larry Andersen and TJ Robinson returning this year, it may actually be expected to win this game. Unfortunately for 49er fans, each of them is gone. However, the return of dynamic forward James Ennis, and Mike Caffey—who had an excellent freshman season behind Casper Ware at the point—will give CSULB a formidable duo. Add in two former Big East players who transferred in—Tony Freeland from DePaul and Dan Jennings from West Virginia—and you have a team who should still remain atop the Big West.
For UNC, the game at Long Beach is basically a layover on the way to the Maui Invitational, which starts three days later. Back in 2004, the Heels had a similar scenario—and they lost at Santa Clara prior to playing in Maui. That year’s team went on to win a national title. This year’s team most likely won’t.
Long Beach gave UNC quite a fight last year in Chapel Hill. Expect that same fight this time around, just with a passionate home crowd behind them.
Middle Tennessee over 10 Florida (Nov. 18)
It might be easy to forget, but Middle Tennessee was one of the best mid-majors in the country a year ago. Its excellent 27-7 season was upstaged by a disappointing early loss in the Sun Belt Tournament. Thus, the Blue Raiders found themselves on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.
Despite losing Laron Dendy, their go-to man in the middle a year ago, Middle Tennessee has plenty of experience going into this season. Marcos Knight—a preseason All-Sun Belt pick—and Raymond Cintron will man the backcourt after averaging 20 points a game between them last season. Inside, JT Sulton and Shawn Jones should be able to account for the loss of Dendy.
Florida, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from a crushing loss to Louisville which took a trip to the Final Four out of the Gators’ grasp. Bradley Beal—the sensation of Florida’s run through the NCAA Tournament—went on to become the third overall pick in the NBA draft after just one year in Gainesville. Also gone is four-year point guard Erving Walker. It will now fall on senior Kenny Boynton to shoulder the scoring load this season and take some pressure off junior Scottie Wilbekin, who is likely to take over most of the point duties.
While it is hardly a rebuilding season for Florida, the loss of an explosive player like Beal and the experience of Walker will make it more vulnerable the first half of the season. Consider also that Florida has tough early games against Georgetown and Wisconsin prior to this game, which could work against the Gators. Furthermore, it’s a road game.
Add it all up and you have the makings for a potential upset—and potential signature win—for Middle Tennessee.
Edit: As of Nov. 8, Scottie Wilbekin has been suspended from the Florida team indefinitely. Kenny Boynton will take over as the starting point guard, per ESPN.com.
Wagner over 9 Syracuse (Nov. 18)
Is it possible we could see two Top 10 teams fall to lesser-known mid-majors on the same day?
Wagner—which won at No. 13 Pittsburgh last December—certainly won’t be scared heading into the Syracuse. The Seahawks are coming off an outstanding 25-6 season, in which they lost out in a tight three-team race (with Long Island and Robert Morris) for the Northeast Conference title. Most of that 25-win team returns this year to try and take the league title, and maybe shock a few people in this early matchup with a Big East power.
The backcourt experience will certainly be Wagner’s strength heading into this season. Latif Rivers and Jonathan Williams—the team’s two leading scorers last season—return for Wagner. Point guard Kenneth Ortiz, the NEC Defensive POY a year ago, is back as well.
Syracuse, meanwhile, heads into this season in transition mode. The Orange lose three (well, essentially four if you count Dion Waiters) starters from last year’s 34-3 team. The losses of Waiters, the fourth overall pick in the June NBA Draft, and Melo (23rd pick) take away the best offensive and defensive presences, respectively, from Coach Boeheim’s team.
Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, two four-year players that made plenty of key contributions over their careers, are now gone as well. With all that, you have a team that could take a month or two to hit its stride. Incoming freshmen forwards DaJuan Coleman—a McDonald’s All-American—and Jerami Grant should make a pretty quick impact for Syracuse, but can’t entirely offset the personnel losses from last season.
If Wagner and it's talented guards can win the backcourt battle—control the pace, minimize mistakes and knock down some shots—an upset at the Carrier Dome is a real possibility.
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