Biggest Surprises of the Men's College Basketball Season After the 1st Month
Offseason projections are good for accountability. But the beginning of any college basketball season is never what we expect.
Sometimes, that's a good thing! We didn't anticipate Iowa State's hot start, Texas Southern's jarring upset or a breakout star at Cal Baptist. But we also predicted more early success from the ACC and a few highly ranked teams in the preseason.
Look, it's very early in the 2021-22 campaign. The one-month sample size is not necessarily indicative of what's to come.
As we approach the New Year, though, these storylines have emerged as some of the most unforeseen developments in the sport.
Preseason AP Top 15 Teams Sliding
Michigan, which reached the Elite Eight last season, lost a few valuable pieces but signed the nation's No. 3 recruiting class to build around Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks.
After finishing 20-8, Memphis had four rotation players transfer. Still, the Tigers remained a well-respected team after signing 5-star prospects Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren and adding a trio of experienced transfers from high-major programs.
Oregon brought back three players with significant minutes from its Sweet 16 team. The return of N'Faly Dante from a torn ACL and arrivals of top transfers Jacob Young and De'Vion Harmon bolstered the roster too.
On paper, they deserved the preseason love. Michigan checked in sixth nationally ahead of Memphis (12th) and Oregon (13th).
Already, though, all three have exited the Top 25.
Michigan lost to Seton Hall before Arizona and North Carolina smacked the Wolverines by at least 18 points. Memphis has dropped three straight, falling to Iowa State, Georgia and Ole Miss. BYU and Houston both earned blowout wins of 29-plus points against Oregon, which also lost to St. Mary's and Arizona State.
It's not time to panic. But these programs aren't playing especially close to the level we anticipated.
Iowa State's Rapid Ascent
As far as Iowa State fans are concerned, the 2020-21 season probably doesn't exist. They saw the Cyclones trudge to a 2-22 record that included a ghastly 0-18 mark in Big 12 play.
Iowa State dismissed head coach Steve Prohm and replaced him with T.J. Otzelberger, but nobody envisioned a quick turnaround. ESPN, CBS Sports, Athlon, Sports Illustrated and Three-Man Weave, just to name a few, all projected the Cyclones to finish no better than ninth in the 10-team conference.
Besides, top scorers Rasir Bolton (Gonzaga) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (Kansas) both transferred. Rebounding co-leader Solomon Young graduated, and key guard Tyler Harris returned to Memphis.
So, naturally, Iowa State is 8-0! The record includes neutral-site wins over Xavier and Memphis and a road victory at Creighton.
How? Otzelberger stacked the roster with transfers. Six members of the nine-man rotation played elsewhere last season, and Tyrese Hunter is a freshman. George Conditt IV and Tre Jackson are the lone returnees who are contributing nightly.
The conference slate will continually test this new-look Iowa State team, but what's happened so far is awfully impressive.
Taran Armstrong's Nightly Triple-Double Watch
Let's be real: I never expected to write about Taran Armstrong this season.
Unless you're a Cal Baptist fan, follow the NBA Global Academy or watch international youth basketball, you'd probably never heard of him. Makes sense! Armstrong was an unranked recruit whose greatest praise was being a "fairly prominent freshman" for a WAC team, as Jim Alexander of the Press-Enterprise described him.
But if Armstrong wasn't a name on your radar, it'd be wise to remember this breakout star.
Through nine games, he's averaged 12.3 points, 8.8 assists and 7.7 rebounds. Armstrong has notched a triple-double, also ending one or two rebounds short three times. Few players will destroy box scores like Armstrong.
If you like creativity, vision and jaw-dropping passes, be sure to watch him this season. Cal Baptist's only loss is to No. 7 Texas, and the Lancers travel to face No. 11 Arizona on Dec. 18.
Texas Southern's Big Upset at Florida
There are levels to this upset, friends.
Entering the contest, Florida held a 6-1 record and No. 20 ranking. Texas Southern, meanwhile, arrived at 0-7 as the program traveled through its now-traditional, money-infusing early road schedule.
Although the Tigers had given all of Saint Mary's, Washington, Air Force and North Carolina State competitive games, they headed to Gainesville as a 23.5-point underdog. So far this season, per Team Rankings, TSU is the only 20-point underdog to win.
But the SWAC program didn't merely win. No, the Tigers straight-up stomped Florida on its home court.
Led by PJ Henry's 16, six players registered eight-plus points in Texas Southern's 69-54 triumph. During the second half, Florida spent exactly one minute and 21 seconds within 10 points of the Tigers.
They beat the spread by 38.5 points! Incredible.
The WCC's Scorching Month
Although the West Coast Conference is traditionally a two-bid league at best, a three-bid outlier pops up occasionally. And in 2021-22, early indications are we could be headed in that direction.
Gonzaga is Gonzaga. Last season's national runner-up is safely on a path to reaching its 23rd straight NCAA tournament, picking up early victories over Texas and UCLA with losses only to Duke and Alabama. Gonzaga should have another 25-win season.
Beyond the Zags, though, three programs—San Francisco, BYU and Saint Mary's—held top-50 rankings in the initial NET release. The trifecta has posted a combined 25-3 mark to begin the season.
If the WCC can maintain this performance, a couple of extra high-major programs will be sweating out Selection Sunday this year.
The ACC's, Uh, Not Scorching Month
Which high-major programs might one of the WCC teams replace, exactly? Glad you asked. Let's chat about the ACC.
For perspective, seven ACC schools made the NCAA tournament in 2021. So, it wasn't a surprise when four programs—Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia—opened the 2021-22 campaign in the Top 25, and four more received votes.
The latest AP poll featured Duke at No. 3. And that's it. North Carolina is the only other ACC program even receiving votes.
Florida State is 5-3, and Virginia Tech is 6-3. Virginia is 6-4 with losses to Navy and James Madison. Syracuse (Colgate), Louisville (Furman) and Georgia Tech (Miami-Ohio) have all had a letdown at home that certainly won't help their respective resumes in March. Notre Dame's hopeful bounce-back season has started 3-4.
Again, panicking is unnecessary. Still, the ACC has plenty to prove throughout the next three months.
Baylor Hasn't Skipped a Beat
During the last two seasons, Baylor registered a 54-6 overall record with a national championship last season and an AP Top Five finish in the pandemic-shortened year. Both of those rosters showcased Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital, but they all graduated or left for the NBA.
So, the Bears had some retooling to handle this offseason. And you would hardly even know it.
Arizona transfer James Akinjo has immediately become the key passer, while 2020 4-star LJ Cryer and 2021 5-star Kendall Brown have emerged as Baylor's top scorers. Matthew Mayer remains a great perimeter threat, and Adam Flagler figures to find the range soon. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba are solid complementary pieces, as is 4-star freshman Jeremy Sochan.
Baylor is 8-0 with top-10 rankings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
The transition from a roster that provided back-to-back years of championship contention doesn't always go this smoothly. Wisconsin is a great example of that challenge.
But so far, the Bears are thriving.
Trevion Williams off the Bench
Rarely does a returning first-team all-conference player find himself adjusting to a bench role. Trevion Williams is adapting to that exact reality.
That second portion of Painter's statement is most important—and undeniably evident. Purdue has the ability to open games with 7'4" center Zach Edey and floor-spacing forward Caleb Furst, a 4-star freshman, before rotating in Williams.
Besides, his production hasn't taken much of a hit anyway.
Williams has contributed 12.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and career-high marks of 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Last year, he averaged 15.1 points and 9.1 boards.
Sure, he'd probably prefer to hold a starting spot. But as Purdue has surged to an 8-0 record and No. 1 ranking, Williams' buying into his role has solidified the Boilermakers as an elite contender.