Saturday, January 28, 2006

Biggest College Hoops Surprises

As with every college basketball season, there are teams that have greatly exceeded expectations and those who have failed to live up to them. In this post, I'll give you the teams I think are the most pleasant surprises to their fans so far this season.

Florida (18-2, 4-2 in SEC East). When teams lose their top three scorers (David Lee, Anthony Roberson, and Matt Walsh), as a rule they don't get better. Coach Billy Donovan's Gators have broken that rule this season. Balanced scoring, with five players averaging in double figures, and a down year for the SEC helped Florida jump out to a 17-0 start and reach #2 in the national rankings.

They're not that good, but with their top four scorers all sophomores (Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, and Al Horoford), they should only get better next year. Donovan has survived some choppy waters recently at Florida, but it should be smooth sailing for a while down in Gainesville.

Ohio State (14-2, 4-2 in Big Ten pending Saturday night's Iowa game). All of the buzz around the Buckeyes' program before the season was about the 2006-07 freshman class. This group, including the top rated high school player in the nation, Greg Oden, is being compared to Michigan's Fab Five in 1991-92 (hopefully without the attitude). It seems they're got a pretty fair team in Columbus this season after all.

Coach Thad Matta has four seniors and a junior among his top six players, exceptional experience these days in college basketball. It appears they have built on the momentum of their shocking win over undefeated Illinois in the final regular season game last year. Center Terence Dials and guard Je'Kel Foster gives Ohio State the kind of inside-outside balance most coaches dream of. Look for the Buckeyes to stay in the Big Ten race down to the wire.

Tennessee (14-3, 5-1 in SEC East) Coach Bruce Pearl is proving that his success at Wisconsin-Milwaukee was no fluke. There are coaches who can do well at a mid-major but find that they are not up to the task with the big boys, but Pearl clearly does not fall into that catgory. He has implemented the same frantic pace that his Panthers employed last year, and the Volunteers have failed to score at least 73 points only twice this season.

A team that likes to get up and down the court needs good guards to do that well, and Tennessee has two of them. Senior C. J. Watson and sophomore Chris Lofton are each scoring around 16 points per game and they could lead the Volunteers deep into March.

Other surprises, in a good way: Georgetown, Air Force, Colorado, and St. John's.

Coming soon, I'll look at the biggest disappointments in college hoops this season.


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