Butler, Northern Iowa and Baylor were three of the most surprising teams in college basketball this season.
It may seem impossible to believe, but certain college basketball teams exceed the expectations of both sportswriters and coaches. Of the 10 teams listed below, only one was ranked in the preseason top 25 of either the AP or USA Today coach's polls. We didn't do much better in our preseason ranking of all 351 Division I teams. Here are our picks for the most surprising teams from the 2014-15 season in college hoops, presented in alphabetical order:
Record: 27-9 (13-5 SEC)
NCAA tournament: No. 5 seed in West, lost in Round of 32
Mike Anderson came to Fayetteville in 2011, but an NCAA tournament bid eluded him in his first four years with the Razorbacks. Before this season, SI’s Seth Davis profiled the coach and predicted that Bobby Portis, a rising junior center, would put Arkansas over the top and into the Big Dance. And even that was an understatement. SI projected Arkansas as the No. 28 team in the country in the preseason, but we didn’t expect that Portis would emerge as the SEC player of the year. The Razorbacks, who won more games than any Arkansas team since the 1995 squad followed up its national championship in '94 by winning 32 en route to a title game loss to UCLA, easily earned a bid and then advanced to the Round of 32 before losing to North Carolina in one of the most exciting games of the entire tournament.
Record: 24-10 (11-7 Big 12)
NCAA tournament: No. 3 seed in West; lost in Round of 64
After going 26-12 a year ago, the Bears lost two key bigs in the off-season. Starting center Isaiah Austin, who would have been an NBA lottery pick if he hadn’t been medically forced to retire, left school early and power forward Cory Jefferson graduated. Before the season, Austin visited with SI Now and predicted that the Bears would be back, and we should have known to trust him—after all, he was a student manager with the team this season.
Baylor turned to its frontcourt to bounce back. Junior Rico Gathers became one of college basketball’s best rebounders seemingly overnight, and the balanced Bears—who boasted the No. 18 offense and No. 38 defense, in terms of adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com—returned to the NCAA tournament. Of course, Baylor’s season will be remembered most for its Round of 64 loss to 14th-seeded Georgia State, which featured R.J. Hunter’s 30-foot, game-winning three-pointer and his father, coach Ron Hunter, falling off his stool in celebration. But don’t let another team’s shining moment wipe away all of what Baylor accomplished this season.
Record: 23-11 (12-6 Big East)
NCAA tournament: No. 6 seed in Midwest; lost in Round of 32
Before the season began, it seemed unlikely that interim coach Chris Holtmann could make much out of this Butler bunch. The Bulldogs had gone 14-17 in 2013-14, their first in the Big East, and then lost head coach Brandon Miller to an undisclosed medical leave last October. Thus, our projection that Butler was the 102nd-best team in the country might have even been optimistic. Yet by January, the Bulldogs were 10-4 and had taken down the likes of North Carolina, Georgetown and St. John’s. And on Jan. 2, the school took off the interim tag and made Holtmann its full-time coach. Butler reached the NCAA's, where it beat Texas in the Round of 64 before falling to Notre Dame—another team on this list—in the Round of 32. A couple seasons ago, this program seemed lost after the departure of coach Brad Stevens to the NBA. But Holtmann now has the Bulldogs in position to recapture their sustained success.
Record: 28-7 (14-4 Big Ten)
NCAA tournament: No. 4 seed in Midwest; lost in Round of 32
Mark Turgeon's name could be found on nearly ever preseason list of coaches on the "hot seat." He had yet to guide Maryland to the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons at the school, and he had endured a tumultuous off-season in which five players transferred. At the time it seemed like Turgeon had lost some control of his team, but perhaps, looking back now, he was just allowing players who wouldn’t buy into his program to check out.
Led by senior guard Dez Wells and freshman sensation Melo Trimble, the Terrapins tore through their first season in the Big Ten, finishing in second place, behind eventual national runner-up Wisconsin. The Terps then beat Valpo in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, but Trimble suffered a concussion in their Round of 32 matchup with West Virginia, which they would lose by 10. This off-season, you’ll again see a list of coaches on the hot seat, but not one of them will include Turgeon. Instead, thanks to adding top-10 recruit Diamond Stone and senior transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, the Terps will be in nearly ever outlet’s preseason top five.
Michigan State Spartans
Record: 27-12 (12-6 Big Ten)
NCAA tournament: No. 7 seed in East; lost in Final Four
At one point, it seemed as though the Spartans might not even make the NCAA tournament. From the start of the season until Feb 7, Michigan State never strung together more than three wins in a row, and there were embarrassing losses—including at home to Texas Southern—along the way. The Spartans weren’t as talented as the 2014 team that reached the Elite Eight and had two top-20 NBA draft picks in guard Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne, but they finally played like the top-25 team they were expected to be starting in March. In the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State took Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten title game before losing. And in the NCAA tournament, the Spartans made the most unlikely run to the Final Four of Tom Izzo’s career, beating No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Louisville to win the East Regional. They weren’t talented enough to topple eventual champion Duke in Indianapolis, but they still outperformed everyone’s preseason projections.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Record: 32-6 (14-4 ACC)
NCAA tournament: No. 3 seed in Midwest; lost in Elite Eight
The Fighting Irish’s first foray into the ACC, in 2013-14, was a disaster. They went 6-12, and finished the season 15-17 overall. Without star guard Jerian Grant, who sat for the spring due to academic discipline, Notre Dame’s offense stalled. With Grant back in the fold as a senior, there was some cautious optimism about the Irish’s chances to get back to the NCAA tournament. We predicted them as the No. 34 team in the preseason, but they proved to be far better than that. Grant became a first-team All-America and Notre Dame, which spent most of the year ranked in the top 10, won the ACC tournament championship. The Irish then advanced all the way to the Elite Eight where they gave Kentucky its biggest scare of the tournament to that point. For coach Mike Brey, who had never before taken Notre Dame to the tournament's second weekend, it was a program-affirming season.
Northern Iowa Panthers
Record: 31-4 (16-2 MVC)
NCAA tournament: No. 5 seed in East; lost in Round of 32
The Panthers are probably the most surprising team on this list. Although few saw Butler or West Virginia coming, they are both traditionally strong basketball programs. Northern Iowa’s claim to fame before this year had been Ali Farokhmanesh leading the Panthers to a 2010 NCAA tournament upset over No. 1 seed Kansas. Since then, Northern Iowa hadn’t returned to the Big Dance, and it went just 16-15 a year ago. But senior forward Seth Tuttle, who committed to Northern Iowa after hearing the call of that game against the Jayhawks on the radio, dragged his team back into national relevance with an All-America season. The Panthers finished 12th in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency metrics, ahead of several blueblood programs—including Kansas—and made it to the Round of 32 in the NCAAs before losing to Louisville.
Record: 22-14 (10-8 ACC)
NCAA tournament: No. 8 seed in East, lost in Sweet 16
In some ways, the Wolfpack’s appearance on this list shouldn’t be surprising at all. If N.C. State is known for anything, it’s for sneaking into the NCAA tournament and making a deeper run than anyone could have anticipated. Its the same thing the Wolfpack did in 2014, when they rode ACC player of the Year T.J. Warren to an unexpected First Four bid and a win in the Big Dance. For much of the year it seemed the Wolfpack would have a hard time reaching the NIT, much less the NCAAs. They were 14-11 in mid-February, yet they rallied to secure a tourney invite. Once there, they came from 16 points down to beat LSU in the Round of 64 and then knocked off No. 1 seed Villanova to reach the Sweet 16.
Record: 24-11 (12-6 Big 12)
NCAA tournament: No. 3 seed in East, lost in Sweet 16
The Sooners weren’t a complete surprise. In the Big 12’s preseason media poll, they received one first-place vote and finished third overall. The real misdirection was the attention paid to Texas. The Longhorns returned their starting five and welcomed in top-five recruit Myles Turner but never found the formula for consistent success, eventually losing in the Round of 64 to cap a 20-14 season.
The Sooners, meanwhile, never lost more than two games in a row during the season. Led by junior guard and eventual second-team All-America Buddy Hield, Oklahoma finished tied for second in the Big 12 during the regular season. While they lost to red-hot Michigan State in the Sweet 16, the Sooners joined the next team on our list as the only ones from the Big 12 to get that far, an unexpectedly poor showing for a league that put seven of its 10 teams into the Big Dance. With Hield back for his senior season, don’t expect anyone to overlook Oklahoma again.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Record: 25-10 (11-7 Big 12)
NCAA tournament: No. 5 seed in Midwest; lost in Sweet 16
In that aforementioned Big 12 preseason poll, the Mountaineers were picked to finish sixth—tied with Baylor. No one doubted that junior guard Juwan Staten would be a success, but the team around him was in question. But West Virginia’s success came from a surprising source very late in the off-season. Just a week before their first game, the Mountaineers installed a press defense. It was one of the most radical coaching changes of Bob Huggins’s 33-year career, and it gave the Mountaineers’ defense a boost from 145th in efficiency in 2013-14 to 45th in 2014-15. For West Virginia, it was a successful season right up until its 39-point Sweet 16 beatdown at the hands of Kentucky.