As traditional powers struggle surprising teams like the Iowa Hawkeyes, Miami Hurricanes, Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans and Xavier Musketeers have emerged as powers this season in college basketball.
Last week, we looked at five of the most disappointing teams in the country this season, What do you say we move to a positive note this week? There have been plenty of teams on the other side of that coin, surprising the college basketball community with just how good they have been this season. For the sake of continuity, we limited ourselves to the five most surprising teams in the country. With apologies to the likes of West Virginia, which could win the Big 12, and Texas, which is just one game out of first place in the mighty Big 12, let’s take a look at the teams that have opened the most eyes in the regular season, and loom as dangerous teams with Selection Sunday just one month away. They are presented in alphabetical order.
Iowa Hawkeyes (19-4, 10-1 Big Ten)
At the start of the season, most people believed the Big Ten would have a team trending toward the top line in the NCAA tournament. They just thought it would be Maryland, Michigan State or maybe Purdue. Iowa, coming off a 22-12 season, was nowhere near that discussion, but the Hawkeyes have proved themselves the class of the conference. Behind a breakout season from senior forward Jarrod Uthoff (18.4 points per game, 45.2% from 3-point range) and a career-year for junior guard Peter Jok (15.5 ppg, more than double his 7.0 of a year ago), the Hawkeyes have surged to first place in the Big Ten, with season sweeps of the Spartans and Boilermakers. The veteran-laden team—just one player who plays more than 40% of the team’s minutes, sophomore forward Dom Uhl, is an underclassman—is ranked No. 1 by kenpom.com and is the one of only two teams in the country (along with Virignia) that the site ranks in the top 15 in both adjusted offense and defense.
Miami Hurricanes (19-4, 8-3 ACC)
Witha 21-12 overall record and a 10-8 mark in the ACC, the Hurricanes were one of the first teams out when last year’s NCAA tournament field was revealed. They recovered from that disappointment to reach the NIT championship game before losing by two in overtime to Stanford. With all of last year’s key contributors, most notably guards Sheldon McClellan, Ja’Quan Newton and Angel Rodriguez back this season, Miami is once again one of the best teams in the ACC. The Hurricanes first showed what they might be with consecutive wins over Utah and Butler—both of whom were ranked at the time—to win the Puerto Rico Tipoff in November, then entered the New Year at 13-1, with only a one-point loss to Northeastern marring their record. An easy win over Duke in late January convinced folks that they will be a factor in the ACC race all year. They enter play this weekend just one game behind North Carolina in the standings, and will visit Chapel Hill on Feb. 20 with designs on winning their second regular-season title in the past four seasons.
Oregon Ducks (20-4, 9-2 Pac-12)
The last two seasons were nearly identical for Oregon. Behind the scoring of guard Joseph Young, who averaged 18.9 points per game, the Ducks went 24-10, finished in third place in the Pac-12 and lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament's round of 32 in 2014. With Young averaging 20.7 points per game, Oregon went 26-10, finished in third place in the Pac-12 and lost to Wisconsin again in the round of 32 in 2015. With Young now playing for the Indiana Pacers in the NBA, it appeared the Ducks would take a step back this season. Instead, sophomore forward Dillon Brooks has taken on the role of go-to scorer, improving from 11.5 points per game last year to 16.9 this year, and now Oregon is something it wasn't in either of the last two seasons: the best team in the Pac-12.
Joined by three other double-digit scorers in guard Tyler Dorsey and forwards Chris Boucher and Elgin Cook, Brooks has led the Ducks to the top of the conference, punctuated by a win at Arizona in late January. As has typically been the case under head coach Dana Altman, Oregon is doing it with offense, ranking 10th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. Thanks to a Pac-12 that lacks any true powerhouse team, the Ducks could realistically win out, or, at the very least, come very close to doing so, thereby securing their highest NCAA tournament seed since they were a No. 2 in 2003.
USC Trojans (18-5, 7-3 Pac-12)
Forget about being in the preseason top 25. USC wasn’t even in the “others receiving votes” section in either of the two major polls last fall. Here at SI.com, we had the Trojans at No. 10—in the Pac-12. All they have done is win seven of their first 10 conference games, good for second place in the Pac-12 behind Oregon, and climb to No. 23 in both versions of the most recent Top 25 polls. USC boasts six players averaging between 11.0 and 12.6 points per game, led by sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin. The Trojans rank second in the conference in adjusted defense and third in adjusted offense, and after two consecutive 20-loss seasons, third-year head coach Andy Enfield has USC headed for 20 wins and its first NCAA tournament appearance in five years.
Xavier Musketeers (21-3, 9-3 Big East)
After losing center Matt Stainbrook and guard Dee Davis to graduation from its Sweet 16 team a year ago, Xavier entered the 2015-16 season with diminished expectations. Instead of receding to the middle of the Big East pack, however, the Musketeers have are in second place in the conference, a full two games ahead of a trio of teams (Creighton, Georgetown and Seton Hall) that are tied for third. Xavier, ranked No. 5 in this week's AP poll, doesn't do any one thing at an exceptional level, but it is balanced on both ends, with the No. 26 offense and No. 31 defense in efficiency, according to kenpom.com. The Musketeers are arguably the best rebounding team in the conference, and that has helped them clean up an effective field goal percentage that ranks 105th nationally. Given the strength of the Big East, Xavier likely won’t make it through the rest of the regular season unscathed, but it is a legitimate threat for a Final Four run in March.