Lehigh, Maryland among teams eyeing early-season upsets
Marquee matchups provide a lot of the nonconference season's sizzle, but what really gets college basketball's early-season juices going are upsets. Not just your run-of-the-mill, mid-major over BCS football league also-ran, but headline-grabbing, "X stuns Y" internet headline-making outcomes.
You never really know when one of those games will pop up, but here's a little help in preparing. Whether due to opponent quality, style of play, place in schedule or a number of other factors, these 10 games seem to have significant potential for big-time surprises if things break right for the underdog.
Could we have a sizable conquest on the opening night of the season? The Bears have talent, but they will be transitioning a lot of new faces into their rotation and immediately have to face an experienced Mountain Hawks team with one of the most lethal perimeter scorers in the country in C.J. McCollum. Baylor's athleticism will be difficult for Lehigh to handle over 40 minutes, but the Mountain Hawks are extremely careful with the ball and do a solid job on the defensive glass, which should negate some of Baylor's typical approaches. With their top four minutes guys returning from the team that dumped Duke in the NCAAs, Lehigh certainly won't be cowed by the stage, either. There's also a little karmic makeup here. Had Lehigh held onto a large lead against Xavier in the Round of 32, the Sweet 16 opponent would have been ... Baylor. Now they get that game and are looking to (re)make a name.
This would be painted as an upset if it happened, but may look less like one as the season unfolds. There's a decent chance the early departure of Terrell Stoglin will end up being addition by subtraction, as his inordinately heavy shot load made it almost impossible for anyone else to develop into a leading contributor. Whether that was because no one else was good enough to score with his relative efficiency will be seen, but Mark Turgeon's teams usually thrive with a much more balanced offensive approach. Between more experience for their returnees, some better health and their own strong first-year class, the Terps should provide a scrappy test for the revamped Wildcats in the season opener, where a couple of transfer guards will be tasked with helping lead a new cast of heralded freshmen.
The Blue Raiders bring everyone, save big man LaRon Dendy, from a 27-win team that fell one game short of Madison Square Garden in the NIT. New-look Florida, missing Brad Beal and Erving Walker, will still be trying to find itself when it comes upon this Sunday afternoon encounter in Tampa, one of those quasi-home games that the Gators sometimes struggle in as they gallivant around their home state. A MTSU core that won at UCLA and Tennessee last season and gave Vandy all it could handle shouldn't find much intimidating about this quasi-neutral site encounter. If the Blue Raiders are anywhere near as efficient shooting the ball and getting to the line as last season, the Gators will have their hands very full.
Chances are one of the de facto Big Three in the Battle 4 Atlantis is going down in the opening round. While Duke (Minnesota) and Missouri (Stanford) don't have walkovers, this looks to be the most dangerous of the quarterfinal pairings. The Cardinals thrive on turning teams over and hitting the offensive glass as a way to compensate for their general lack of shooting quality. The Panthers, who return an incredibly experienced roster, rarely turn the ball over and do a great job on the defensive glass. They're also a high-frequency, high-efficiency team from the arc. If they can keep from turning the ball over, enough 3-balls may go in to make this very interesting. Throw in the late starting time, the weird setting and general early-season weirdness in some of these Thanksgiving Week tournaments, and it wouldn't be a huge shock to see the slow-ball Panthers pull off a low-scoring surprise.
A shot in the dark here, as the Braves are coming off a 7-25 campaign in Geno Ford's first season in Peoria, but Bradley acquitted itself quite well at Crisler Arena last season, only losing by 11 after being very much in the game for the first 30 minutes. The Braves also return most of what was a rather young roster that hung in early in the season against some pretty solid teams. This odd roadie also comes right after the Wolverines host NC State in a huge matchup in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. This has possible letdown -- and maybe a road ambush -- written all over it. It won't, however, be another Battle of the Beileins, as Patrick has moved on from Bradley's DoBO job to be the head coach at West Virginia Wesleyan.
The 49ers lost a lot more than just Casper Ware off last season's team, but there's still enough talent here to shake a revamped UNC squad who will be breaking in an inexperienced point guard and doesn't have the frontcourt potency to punish an undersized team like The Beach. Plus, who can forget 2004-05, when a Raymond Felton-less UNC team got ambushed at Santa Clara on its way out to Hawaii? Will history repeat itself at The Pyramid ahead of this season's Maui Invitational?
This is a very dangerous game for the Rebels for a number of reasons beyond the Panthers' quality. The Rebels will be coming home after an extended road trip forced by the National Finals Rodeo, which will be at the Thomas & Mack Center for 10 days. UNLV has a road game at underrated UTEP two days earlier. It will be only the second game where Pitt transfer center Khem Birch is eligible, so roles and new rotation allocations may not be set. The Panthers also are very difficult to push into an uptempo game, and six of UNLV's nine losses last season came in games with 65 possessions or fewer. UNLV's fans want to see a show, but this is not the game or opponent where that looks likely to happen. UNI is expert at keeping teams away from second chances and the foul line, and if they can control tempo and limit UNLV's transition baskets, look out.
The game against Ohio on Dec. 5 is the sexier matchup, but Memphis doesn't usually fall to teams that try to out-tempo them, especially at FedEx Forum. That leaves us with the Greyhounds, who don't live up to their nickname on the floor. Loyola's a slower, much more physical team who likes to grind on the offensive glass and gets to the free throw line a lot to make up for suspect shooting. Wedged two days after what should be a run-and-gun game with Oral Roberts and before the in-state grudge match with Tennessee, this holiday special could end up being a lump of coal for the Tigers. The Greyhounds played at Kentucky last season, so they shouldn't be awed by the environment or the opponent.
The Wildcats get another crack at the Blue Devils, this time outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Last season, Davidson played reasonably well there, actually leading at the half before a typical Blue Devil burst put them away after intermission. With essentially everyone back (and many of them as seniors), this core that beat Kansas last season should be a handful for a Duke team coming off a couple softish post-exam games and right before its ACC opener against Wake Forest. Duke very rarely loses in the state of North Carolina, but Davidson has solid big man Jake Cohen and a number of shooters to space the floor. There are worse spots to gamble if you're looking for an upset.
Sandwiched in between a glamour game to UCLA and their SEC debut against Alabama comes a tester against the experienced Bison, who bring back everyone but guard Bryan Cohen from a 25-win team that won at Arizona in the NIT. With 6-11 pro prospect Mike Muscala inside, the smallish Tigers will have their hands full defensively, and Bucknell last season was the best in Division I in keeping teams off the offensive glass, so if Missouri's transfer-laden new-look roster isn't as offensively efficient as last season, this may be a game where they end up with a higher-than-average number of empty trips.