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The Biggest Early Surprises in the 2013-14 College Basketball Season

Thad NovakCorrespondent INovember 24, 2013

The Biggest Early Surprises in the 2013-14 College Basketball Season

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    College basketball’s new season is heating up, and some preseason expectations have been blown away as thoroughly as a Big South team visiting Rupp Arena. Indeed, preseason No. 1 Kentucky (which lost after just three games, albeit to a great Michigan State team) doesn’t even make a ripple among the biggest shockers of the young season.

    One team that wishes 2013-14 was following the expected script is the Michigan Wolverines. Two early losses, including Sunday's monumental upset by Charlotte, have put a serious dent in the defending national runners-up as they fight to prove they're Big Ten contenders without Trey Burke.

    Read on for more on the Wolverines' struggles and the rest of the teams and players that have done the most to defy predictions, for either better or worse.

20. Joseph Young, Oregon

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    Chris McGrath/Getty Images

    Sure, Joseph Young had put up some gaudy scoring numbers for undermanned Houston against weak Conference USA competition. Now that he had transferred to Oregon, though, he’d come back down to earth in the balanced Ducks offense…right?

    Apparently not. The 6’2” junior has been even more of a one-man show in Oregon green, scoring 23 of his team’s 89.5 points per game.

    He’s also been absurdly efficient for a shooting guard, hitting 55.3 percent of his shots from the floor and opening on an awe-inspiring 32-for-37 run at the charity stripe.

19. Virginia Commonwealth

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    Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    With a new-and-improved offense (including Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon inside) and its perennially smothering defense, VCU was supposed to be in for its best regular season under Shaka Smart.

    The Rams may yet have a monster year, but they’re certainly not off to an encouraging start.

    Sunday’s loss to Georgetown marked the team’s second defeat at the hands of an unranked foe in the space of four days at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

    The news isn’t all bad for Briante Weber and company—both Florida State and Georgetown are respectable opponents—but by no means is a 4-2 start what the Atlantic 10 favorites had in mind.

18. Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga

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    James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

    Gonzaga had every reason to hope for big things from an untested frontcourt, and Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have come through in spades.

    However, the Zags have also gotten a monster start from a player who seemed more of a known quantity, junior SG Gary Bell Jr.

    Bell was a fine complementary starter last year, shooting .392 from long range as the main feature of his quiet 9.0 points per game. Now, though, he’s turbocharged his scoring (16 points a night) while shooting .611 from the field through four games.

17. Davante Gardner, Marquette

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    No player had more to do with Marquette landing the No. 17 ranking in the preseason than Davante Gardner. After a year as a super sixth man, the bulldozing 6’8”, 290-lb center was set to become a full-fledged star as a senior.

    Instead, Gardner has been running in place, virtually duplicating the numbers he posted when he was playing second fiddle to Vander Blue on offense (12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, compared to last year’s 11.5 and 4.8).

    He’s also forcing his shot—.464 from the field, down from .585—and even his usually reliable free-throw stroke is down to 66.7 percent early on.

16. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    With freshmen Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams joining a promising group of returning shooters, there was never any question that Indiana was going to get plenty of points from somewhere.

    The last place that seemed likely, though, was pass-first point guard Yogi Ferrell, who managed just 7.6 points in 28.1 minutes per game as a freshman.

    Instead, Ferrell has exploded into one of the Big Ten’s most unstoppable scorers, pouring in 19.5 points per game (and shooting .400 from deep) while still dishing out his usual 4.2 assists a night.

    Even against All-America candidate Shabazz Napier and No. 18 UConn, Ferrell put the team on his back with 19 points in a heartbreaking 59-58 defeat.

15. UNLV

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    As severe as UNLV’s losses were after last season—No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett, starting PG Anthony Marshall, et al.—the Rebels still had plenty of firepower left, especially in the post.

    However, they’re proving early that size isn’t everything, courtesy of a 2-2 start at the Thomas & Mack Center.

    It’s one thing to lose to Arizona State and superstar Jahii Carson, but the real killer was getting blown out by UC-Santa Barbara (which is otherwise 0-2 against Division I teams).

    Add in a narrow 73-70 escape from Nebraska-Omaha, and even the world-beating individual stats put up by Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch inside may not be enough for this team to return to the NCAA tournament.

14. Iowa State

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    Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

    There haven’t been many spots available for new teams to climb into the Top 25 so far, but Iowa State carved one out.

    The 4-0 Cyclones are off to the most exciting start of any team that didn’t crack the preseason polls, thanks in large part to the quick return of Melvin Ejim after a knee injury.

    With the hyper-athletic Ejim leading the way, Iowa State hammered then-No. 7 Michigan for one of its traditional Hilton Coliseum upsets.

    Even more impressive, ISU avoided a letdown after the big win, going into Provo and knocking off high-scoring BYU three days later.

13. Duke

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Entering the season, it was clear that Duke was going to be an unusually small team, with 6’8” Jabari Parker being shoehorned into a power forward role for want of a better option.

    That said, the Blue Devils’ lack of size was supposed to become an issue against high-powered ACC competition, not during November home games against East Carolina and Vermont.

    ECU's four-guard lineup outrebounded Duke, 37-34, in a surprisingly close loss at Cameron Indoor that left Coach K’s squad ranked 267th nationally in rebounding.

    The lack of muscle inside—in spite of Parker's great performance—has also been an issue on defense, especially in Sunday's near upset by Vermont: The lowly Catamounts hit 31 of their 41 two-point attempts in a 91-90 thriller.

12. Indiana State

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    Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

    Wichita State may have some competition for the Missouri Valley title after all. The Shockers got all the national buzz after last March’s Final Four trip, but it’s Indiana State that has the league’s biggest win of the new season.

    Led by do-it-all senior Jake Odum at PG, the Sycamores went into South Bend and pounded Notre Dame, 83-70.

    As a team, they’re shooting a mind-blowing 51.5 percent from three-point range through four games, and yet they aren’t even undefeated (thanks to a one-point road loss against another impressive mid-major squad, Belmont).

11. Kansas State

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    To say that Kansas State’s offense is missing the graduated Rodney McGruder would be a titanic understatement.

    Shane Southwell and the Wildcats are ranked worse than 300th nationally in both scoring (62.7 points per game) and field-goal percentage (.407) on the year.

    Unsurprisingly, the total absence of points from Bruce Weber’s vaunted motion attack has made it tough to win.

    A home embarrassment at the hands of Northern Colorado has sparked a 3-3 start that’s giving K-State reason to worry about beating out Texas Tech and TCU for last place in the Big 12.

10. Nick King, Memphis

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Although Nick King was highly regarded as a high schooler (37th in the country in ESPN’s estimation), he was only supposed to be the third-best freshman on his own team.

    Instead, he’s been the most unexpected success story in the recruiting class and the best player on a deep Tigers roster.

    Despite the presence of four high-scoring seniors in the Memphis backcourt, it’s King who leads the team with 16 points per game.

    The 6’7” swingman is also doing serious work on the glass, grabbing 6.3 rebounds a night (second on the roster and 2.0 better than classmate Austin Nichols has done at PF).

9. Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Villanova’s bid for a return to Big East contention is off to a fine start, with the Wildcats’ 4-0 record including wins over such mid-major standouts as Towson and Delaware.

    The same cannot, however, be said of promising PG Ryan Arcidiacono, who has floundered even as his team has soared.

    Arcidiacono’s assist numbers are down to a microscopic 2.5 per game—third on his own roster—and he’s mired in a hideous 3-for-19 slump from beyond the arc.

    He hasn’t been able to compensate elsewhere, either: His scoring is down 2.4 points a night, and he's not an impact defender (1.0 steals per contest).

8. Belmont

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    Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

    The Belmont Bruins pulled off the Cinderella win many had predicted—it just happened eight months late.

    Last year’s squad (led by the veteran backcourt of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson) had been a popular pick to upset Arizona in the Big Dance, but didn’t come through. This year, with that duo lost to graduation, expectations plummeted for the Ohio Valley squad.

    Now, though, Belmont is back on the map thanks to a 6-1 record and the biggest upset of the young season: an 83-80 road shocker at North Carolina, fueled by senior J.J. Mann’s 28-point outburst.

7. Boston College

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    The return of such talented starters as Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson gave Boston College plenty of reason to believe that this was the year Steve Donahue turned things around.

    Instead, a tough early schedule has the Eagles reeling to a 2-4 start, worst in the ACC.

    In B.C.’s defense, only one of its four losses (a 95-92 shootout with Toledo) came on its home floor, although a meeting with UMass at Boston’s TD Garden was hardly a road game.

    Still, after falling to two of their old Big East foes—UConn and Providence—the Eagles have landed at 318th nationally in scoring defense and 345th (of 347 teams) in rebounding.

6. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Expected to be a designated rebounder again after grabbing 5.9 boards per contest last season, Cameron Bairstow has certainly come through on the glass (6.6 rebounds a night so far).

    Meanwhile, he's also more than doubled his previous career high by scoring 19.6 points a game.

    The 6’9”, 250-lb Aussie is getting a lot more low-post touches, resulting in massive increases in shooting percentage (.586, up from .456) and free-throw tries (8.4 per game, almost four better than a year ago).

    On top of all that, he’s even improved his passing, dishing out 3.0 assists a night after never reaching 1.0 in his first three seasons.

5. Isaiah Hicks, North Carolina

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Around the country, the much-lauded freshman class of 2013 is living up to its billing with stellar performances. The most obvious exception is Isaiah Hicks, a top-20 recruit (per ESPN) who’s been all but invisible for North Carolina.

    The 6’8” Hicks seemed to be heading into a prime situation in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels returned only one proven big man (James Michael McAdoo).

    However, he’s languished on the bench with just 8.2 minutes a night in five games while less-heralded classmate Kennedy Meeks has been the one to shine (especially in Sunday’s upset of Louisville).

4. Trevor Cooney, Syracuse

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    Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    One of the biggest worries for Syracuse over the offseason was how the Orange would replace Brandon Triche at shooting guard. As it turns out, Trevor Cooney is a lot readier for the top job than he looked as a freshman.

    The 6’4” Cooney, who played just 11.2 minutes a night last year, has blossomed into the team’s second-leading scorer (12.8 points per game) by shooting a fearsome .455 from beyond the arc.

    Even better for Syracuse, he’s proved a legitimate replacement for Michael Carter-Williams’ presence at the top of Jim Boeheim’s zone, racking up 3.0 steals per contest.

3. Michigan

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Even in Trey Burke’s absence, Michigan’s No. 7 preseason ranking didn’t look particularly unreasonable.

    The return of a Final Four-seasoned frontcourt (Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas) seemed to guarantee the Wolverines contender status, even in a stacked Big Ten.

    Now, thanks in part to injury woes for both McGary and Stauskas, the Maize and Blue have wobbled to a 4-2 start that includes a neutral-court loss to out-of-nowhere Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title game.

    The major problem: John Beilein’s beloved three-point shooting attack has misfired to the tune of 13-for-52 (25 percent) in the two losses.

2. UMass

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    In last year’s loaded Atlantic 10, UMass couldn’t quite claw its way to an NCAA bid, ending its season with an upset loss in the NIT.

    This year, though, the Minutemen are looking like they’ve put it all together during a 6-0 start that includes a title in the Charleston Classic.

    That record includes wins over fellow up-and-comers Boston College and LSU, plus a neutral-court trouncing of No. 19 New Mexico.

    Star point guard Chaz Williams is one of the nation’s best players under 6’0”, but it’s the evolution of junior center Cady Lalanne (17.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game) that has transformed this team.

1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Entering this year, junior Frank Kaminsky had totaled 196 points in two seasons with the Badgers. Now, the 7’0” three-point sniper is averaging 17.3 per game in his debut as a starter.

    Kaminsky turned in the season’s most improbable individual performance when he dropped 43 points on a stunned North Dakota team in Madison, a game in which he shot 16-for-19 from the floor.

    He’s also providing otherwise-undersized Wisconsin with a much-needed defensive presence in the paint (1.7 blocks a night).

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