Dayton: A loss at Illinois State has taken some of the luster off of the Flyers’ start this season, but don’t overlook what this group has done this year. They won at Georgia Tech, they beat Gonzaga and Cal in Maui, and they took Baylor to the buzzer.
George Washington: The Atlantic 10 looks like it will be one of the most competitive conferences in the country this season and one of the biggest reasons for that is the play of George Washington. The Colonials are now 8-1 with wins over Miami, Maryland and Creighton. They’ll be a factor in the A-10. Mo Creek is getting the attention, but don’t overlook the play of Kethan Savage.
Iowa State: The Cyclones has lost a lot the past two seasons, but this group is proving that they are going to be a factor in the Big 12 race.
Missouri: I’ll be the first to admit that Missouri’s resume isn’t all that impressive. They have two wins of note, over West Virginia and UCLA, and both came at home. But watching this group play, they look pretty good. Their perimeter trio of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross is tough.
North Carolina: This is the pick that people may argue with me about, but I think I’m right here. I always think I’m right, so hear me out. The Tar Heels entered the season as a borderline top ten team. They’re currently sitting someone around the mid-teens right now, so looking at it strictly via the polls would lead one to believe that the Tar Heels have been a disappointment.
But here’s the thing. Those preseason predictions were made under the assumption that P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald would be in uniform by now. They’re not, and without those two, the Tar Heels are not the same team. I’m not the only person that thought this group would have trouble making the tournament if Hairston misses a significant amount of time. And guess what? They may have losses to UAB and to Belmont, but they also have two wins better than anyone in the country: they beat Louisville on a neutral court and knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing. No one — and I mean no one — would have predicted that three weeks ago.
Pacific: The Tigers were picked to finish in the bottom half of the WCC in the preseason, and they still may end up there by the time the season ends. But they’ve notched some nice wins early this season — most notably at Utah State — and are currently sitting at 7-1 on the season.
San Diego State: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Aztecs as they work through the loss of Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. Instead, they look like they’re neck and neck with New Mexico for the best team in the Mountain West. Xavier Thames has been terrific.
Texas: The Longhorns hemorrhaged talent this offseason. Rick Barnes was permanently planted on the hot seat. Most thought this team would be competing with TCU and Texas Tech for the eighth spot in the Big 12 this year. Yet, here we are in mid-December with Texas sitting at 8-1 with wins over Mercer, Vanderbilt and at Temple. Well done, Rick.
Villanova: In a year where everyone in the Big East seems to be losing — both marquee non-conference games and key players — the Wildcats keep on winning. Knocking off Kansas in the Bahamas put them on the map, but don’t overlook the win over Iowa in the title game. This is a Jay Wright team: lots of talented, tough-minded perimeter pieces.
Wisconsin: As my buddy Jon Rothstein likes to say, “Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan.” So yeah, the fact that Wisconsin is good this year isn’t a surprise. But the Badgers, for my money, are the best team in the Big Ten right now. Better than Ohio State. Better than Michigan State. Better than Michigan. Show me someone outside of Madison that thought this team cracking the top five nationally was a possibility.