College hoops season filled with surprises
This season of parity in college basketball has produced quite a few surprises, from the revolving door at the top of the polls to the rapid decline of defending national champion Kentucky.
The latest twist came this week, when Gonzaga moved up to No. 1 for the first time in school history. That was merely a mild surprise. The Zags have been the pre-eminent mid-major for what feels like a quarter century now, so it only seemed like a matter of time before they went to No. 1.
Some of the other unexpected turns have been, well, a little more unexpected. Here's a few:
Miami. The Hurricanes were ranked fifth in the ACC preseason poll and even though they returned nine players from a 20-win team, weren't expected to draw much attention in South Florida - or anywhere else for that matter. Miami had a look-at-us moment on Jan. 23 when it beat Duke by 27 - the third-largest margin of victory over a No. 1 team - and cracked the Top 25 the next week. The Hurricanes continued to build momentum, winning their first 13 conference games to rise in The Associated Press poll. Miami has struggled a bit lately, losing three of its past four - by two to Georgia Tech Wednesday night - but has already clinched a share of the ACC regular-season title and can win its first outright conference title by beating Clemson on Saturday.
Akron. Coach Keith Dambrot has given the Zips an identity in Ohio and the Mid-American Conference, but it hasn't gone much farther. That changed this season as Akron ran off 19 straight wins, shining a spotlight on a town better known for being the home of LeBron James. The Zips had their winning streak - the longest in the nation at the time - end with a loss to Buffalo last Saturday, but bounced back to beat Miami (Ohio) Tuesday night and wrap up their second consecutive Mid-American Conference regular-season title. With a good mix of size, strength and experience, Akron (24-5, 14-1) has the kind of team that could damage a few brackets once the NCAA tournament rolls around, but could be without starting point guard Alex Abreu, who was suspended indefinitely after being arrested on drug charges.
Oregon. The Ducks played in the NIT last season and entered this season with nine newcomers, including seven freshmen, so it was no surprise they were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12. Behind guard E.J. Singler and one of the most balanced teams anywhere, Oregon opened 11-2 in nonconference, then knocked off Pac-12 favorites Arizona and UCLA to rise in the polls. The Ducks (23-7, 12-5) lost 76-53 at Colorado on Thursday night, but can wrap up at least a share of their first league crown since 2002 - along with the No. 1 seed for the Pac-12 tournament - with a win at Utah on Saturday.
Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders appeared to be a lock for the NCAA tournament last season before losses in the regular-season finale and quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament relegated them to the NIT. They may be closer to a sure thing this season. Led by six seniors, Middle Tennessee set a school record with 27 wins, second nationally to No. 1 Gonzaga, and has an RPI of 25 after playing the nation's ninth-toughest schedule. The Blue Raiders went 19-1 in the Sun Belt and have won 16 straight headed into Saturday's conference tournament, their last before heading to Conference USA next season. Barring a meltdown in the conference tournament, Middle Tennessee (27-4) should be headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1989.
Saint Louis. The Billikens ended a 12-year NCAA tournament drought last year, but were rocked by the death of former coach Rick Majerus. The 64-year-old coach took a leave of absence in August and died of a heart attack in December, a month after the school said he would not return. That left the team reeling and in the hands of interim coach Jim Crews. Behind a stifling defense, Saint Louis has done just fine under Crews, going 4-1 against ranked teams, with wins over Virginia Commonwealth and New Mexico, and two over Butler. The 16th-ranked Billikens (23-6) had their 11-game winning streak ended by Xavier on Wednesday night, but can still clinch a piece of the Atlantic 10 crown - their first league title since 1970-71 in the Missouri Valley - by beating LaSalle on Saturday.
Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs were barely .500 last season, finished fifth in the WAC and lost key players, so there was no reason to think an NCAA berth would be coming. Louisiana Tech opened the season with a loss to Texas A&M and opened December with losses to Northwestern State and McNeese State in a span of three games. Once the WAC season started, though, the Bulldogs became unstoppable. Heading into Thursday's regular-season finale against New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech has won 18 straight for the nation's longest winning streak. The Bulldogs (26-3) are undefeated in conference (16-0) and have clinched at least a share of their first conference title since the Sun Belt in 1999. Not bad for their second season under coach Michael White.