December 2, 2009
The season is nearly a month old and there have been some unexpected starts by some teams and conferences. Included in these are two teams who may have been underrated as the season began, a mid major conference with an eyebrow raising out-of-conference record so far and perhaps the most storied program in college basketball with a start they would like to forget. Despite the usual close-to-home early scheduling, the Syracuse Orange (7-0) have really stood out as one of the bigger surprises across the landscape of college basketball. Losing Johnny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf the Orange were thought to be taking a slight step backwards in ’09-’10, but thanks to the leadership of Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku and the revelation that is Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson, the ‘Cuse has opened a lot of eyes early. On the heels of double-digit wins over then-ranked California, defending champion North Carolina and class of the Ivy League Cornell, the Orange find themselves as a top-10 team. Another team that has come out nowhere to crack the top 25 according to the Associated Press is the Portland Pilots (5-1). A member of the West Coast Conference dominated by Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in recent years, the Pilots entered the 76 Classic and knocked off UCLA by 27 and 16th-ranked Minnesota before falling to #8 West Virginia in the title game. Add to that a win over Oregon and a veteran class that returns all five starters, including guard Nik Raivio whose brother Derek starred at Gonzaga, and Portland has people thinking aloud if the WCC can get 3 teams into the tournament come March.
The final surprise has kind of flown under the radar. The Missouri Valley Conference has become the blueprint for mid-major conferences to follow to be competitive with the power conferences and make noise in March. The top eight teams of the 10-team conference have a combined 34-9 record in the non-conference portion of the season. The conference holds wins over BCS-Conference teams Auburn, Iowa, Illinois and Boston College, as well as wins over Conference USA contender Tulsa and Sun Belt strong hold Western Kentucky. The Valley is showing already that come conference play it may be one of the deepest conferences top to bottom in the country.
One honorable mention in the surprise category has to go out to Washington State sophomore Klay Thompson who has thrived in the up tempo style of new coach Ken Bone. After averaging just over 12 points a game as a freshman, Thompson has exploded to average over 28 a game so far this season. While the Pac-10 may be down as a whole, the conference has some stellar guards, with Thompson, Isaiah Thomas of Washington and Nic Wise of Arizona.
As far as disappointments thus far in college basketball, there can only be one, the UCLA Bruins (2-4). It is not just the fact that Ben Howland’s crew is 2-4, it’s how they got there. It began with an early-morning double overtime loss at the hands of Cal-State Fullerton, a team the Bruins had never lost to. Following the loss to the Titans, UCLA was handed a 27-point drubbing by Portland, a respectable loss to top-10 Butler and a surprising defeat at the hands of Long Beach State, a game the Bruins were never really in. You can be sure, the current state of affairs in Los Angeles is not something the Wizard of Westwood ever encountered.
As the Calendar turns to December, the Big 12 dominates the top of the polls, John Wall is still the best freshman in America and the Big East may be better than last year. But keep an eye on these five storylines as we enter 2010, can Syracuse continue to improve? Will Portland make the WCC a three team race? Is the Missouri Valley really eight or nine teams deep? Will Klay Thompson continue his scoring spree into conference play?