Another year in the books, and thankfully conference play is finally here. After all the preseason tournaments, marquee matchups, and guarantee games played in the last two months, these teams have seemingly come out of nowhere to become the early season surprises so far.
William & Mary
After dropping their first two games to UConn and Harvard (by a buzzer-beater in triple overtime), the Tribe have quietly reeled off nine wins in a row, most notably a stunning ten point victory over Wake Forest at Joel Coliseum where they led virtually the entire game. The win snapped a 23-game home non-conference winning streak for the Demon Deacons.
Not bad for a team that was picked to finish 10th in the 12 team Colonial Athletic Association in the preseason, and coming off a 10-20 campaign a year ago. Led by their senior guard David Schneider, who at this early point in the season is making a strong case for CAA player of the year, the Tribe are off to their best start in over three decades.
Should the outside shots keep falling (they currently are third in the nation in three pointers), William & Mary could find themselves in the post-season – something that has only happened once (NIT in 1983) in the program’s history.
Losing no less than seven players from last year’s 22 win team, including star guards Robert Vaden and Paul Delaney as well as Lawrence Kinnard, the Blazers were tabbed by the media to finish 3rd from the bottom in Conference USA. As of today, they sit at 11-2, with quality wins against Cincinnati and Butler.
Helping the Blazers overcome their huge losses from a year ago are two transfers: Elijah Millsap, who leads the conference in rebounding and is the school’s top scorer, and Jamaar Sanders, who really is starting to come into his own, scoring 18 on 7 of 10 shooting against a very good Butler team.
Losing all-conference guard and three point specialist Jimmy Baron to graduation meant expectations weren’t too high for the Rams at the start of the season. They were picked to finish 8th in the Atlantic 10, despite returning three starters, including Keith Cothran who was one of the most improved players in the conference last season.
Yet Cothran has instead led his team to a 10-1 start, with wins over Boston College and Providence. They have a tough stretch of games coming up after the New Year, starting with 10-1 Oklahoma State, on the road against Akron, and a home matchup against Temple.
In 104 years of Wildcat basketball, Northwestern has never once won 20 games in a season. The school has not finished higher than 7th place in the Big Ten since 1969. Prior to Coach Bill Carmody’s arrival in 2000, they mustered double digit wins only three times in the previous 16 years. In fact, last season’s 17 win campaign was the second most wins in program history, leading to a berth in the NIT – their first postseason game in a decade.
You get the idea. Northwestern has long been where good coaches go to bury their careers. But don’t’ look now, the Wildcats ended its pre-conference slate at 10-1 and have already beaten Notre Dame, NC State (on the road) and Stanford. Keep in mind this is without Kevin Coble, who has led the team in scoring and rebounding in each of his first three seasons, was named second-team all Big Ten a year ago, and who is lost for the season after foot surgery. Should Northwestern somehow make it through conference play with enough wins to earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, Carmody should and will easily win every coach of the year honor that isn’t nailed down.
If you are looking for another early contender for national coach of the year, look no further than Albuquerque. After losing their top three scorers from last year, New Mexico entered the season expected to finish no better than the middle of the pack in the Mountain West. Instead, Coach Steve Alford had his supposedly rebuilding Lobos undefeated and ranked 17th in the nation, upsetting Cal, Texas A&M (at a supposedly neutral site in Houston) and knocking off upstart Texas Tech along the way.
Now in his third year since leaving Iowa, the former Hoosier great is coming off a season in which his Lobos won a share of the regular season title and earned himself MWC Coach of the Year honors. He has now won 59 games and counting with New Mexico – pretty good for a coach who inherited a team that won just four conference games the season before his arrival.
Led by surprising transfer Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez (the only senior on the roster) the Lobos should find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons, and will go a long way towards winning the MWC outright should they prevail in a must-watch game against UNLV at The Pit on January 9th.
Missouri State, Texas Tech, St. Mary’s, Army, Florida State