As hard as it is to believe, we just surpassed the midpoint of the college basketball season. With non-conference play behind us and conference matchups in full swing, it’s time to review what we’ve seen so far and project what lies ahead before the NCAA Tournament.
Here are the seven most pleasant surprises in college basketball this season.
Creighton Bluejays (18-1, 5-1 Big East)
The Bluejays were a fringe Top 25 team to start the season, so it isn’t totally surprising that they now rank in the top 10. However, even the most optimistic Creighton fan would have found it hard to believe in October that by mid-January they’d be sitting at 18-1 with victories over Wisconsin, Butler and Xavier (on the road). It was enough for Greg McDermott to earn FOX Sports’ midseason Coach of the Year honors, with Justin Patton receiving our Breakout Player Award.
As exciting as the first half has been, it will be fascinating to see how the second half plays out. Creighton lost point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to a season-ending ACL injury, and while McDermott and his staff are confident they can move on without Watson, it’s hard to imagine Creighton will be able to continue its torrid pace.
Getty ImagesEric Francis
TCU Horned Frogs (14-4, 3-3 Big 12)
It's important to remember that not every school’s definition of “surprising” is the same as others'. For some, surprising is a fringe Top 25 team becoming a Final Four contender; for others, it’s a Top 15 club becoming a national title threat. Then there are those teams that we expected to be putrid but become decent. Just because they can’t win a title doesn’t make their season any less special.
With that in mind, meet Jamie Dixon’s TCU Horned Frogs. They won’t win the national championship this year, and they might not even make the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t make what they’ve accomplished to date any less incredible. A club that was picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 in the preseason is smack dab in the middle of the standings, and TCU already has surpassed its conference win total from last year -- when it won just two Big 12 games.
The Horned Frogs also have an impressive slate of victories, including over Iowa State, Texas and Washington (twice).
Butler Bulldogs (16-3, 5-2 Big East)
While Creighton’s run into the Top 10 of the polls is impressive, the Bluejays aren’t even the most pleasant surprise in their own conference. Butler went from a team that was well outside the Top 25 to begin the season to a club that is firmly in the Top 15, with arguably the best resume in college basketball.
The Bulldogs are the only team to beat No. 1 Villanova. They also beat No. 14 Arizona, which is currently riding a 10-game win streak is atop the Pac-12 standings. They beat Xavier, which was a Top 15 club at the time. And there also are victories over Indiana, Cincinnati and Utah. Not bad for a team that received just 21 total votes in the season's first AP Poll.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (16-3, 5-1 ACC)
Even after Wednesday night’s loss to Florida State, the Irish had a case to be No. 1 on this list. Keep in mind that Notre Dame has made back-to-back Elite Eights and lost three players in the past two NBA Drafts (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson) and still finds itself tied atop the ACC standings.
What might be most impressive is that in the instant-gratification, everyone-wants-playing-time-or-they’re transferring world we live in, the Irish have become one of the great developmental programs in the sport. Point guard Matt Farrell went from averaging two points and one assist per game last year to 14 and 5 in 2017, while Bonzie Colson has seen his scoring average leap from five to 15 in two years.
Put a different way, Notre Dame has zero McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster. Duke – which is just 2-3 in ACC play – has nine.
UCLA Bruins (18-1, 5-1 Pac-12)
Admittedly, I was higher on the Bruins than most coming into the season, but even the biggest UCLA homer – I’m looking at you, Bill Walton – couldn’t have seen this season coming.
Sure, the additions of T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball have helped, but this club won only 15 games last season. The Bruins topped that number by the first week of January in 2017 and are currently the co-favorites in Vegas to win the title, along with Duke.
If you haven’t watched the Bruins, understand that they are as good as advertised.
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Florida State Seminoles (17-2, 5-1 ACC)
Because Florida State plays in the shadows of not only traditional ACC powers like Duke and North Carolina but also of its own football team, it’s easy to overlook what Leonard Hamilton’s club has done this season. These Seminoles are good enough to win a title.
That’s a long way from where they started in the preseason -- unranked nationally and picked to finish eighth in the ACC. They’ve already beaten three of the teams that were ranked ahead of them in the preseason, have won three in a row against ranked opponents and are sitting atop the ACC standings.
Baylor Bears (17-1, 5-1 Big 12)
Want a crazy stat to tell you just how far the Bears have come? There were Big 12 teams that received at least one vote in the preseason AP Poll. Baylor was not one of them. Flash-forward 11 weeks into the season and the Bears received their first No. 1 ranking in school history. Not bad, huh?
And that ranking was well-deserved after the Bears ran through a brutal non-conference gauntlet that included wins over Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier.
None of that guarantees a Big 12 title or deep tournament run. But it does guarantee that the Bears are the best story in college basketball at the midpoint of the season.