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Early Season Surprises

December 18, 2001 Columns No Comments

So, Who’s Next?

by Jason Drucker

Although college hoops experts constantly update their rankings to keep up with all the action, NCAA teams seem to do their best to make those experts’ jobs that much harder. Each year a few long-forgotten teams emerge from the woodwork in an attempt to revive their dormant programs. Most seasons, perennial “Big Dance” spoilers like Gonzaga wait until the spotlight hits them to really make some noise.

This season, it appears that a few teams have decided to erupt early on, and possibly earn easier schedules in the most exciting tournament of the year. Ball State, currently ranked 20 and 23 in two of college basketball’s most respected rankings, wasted no time before it sent so-called experts running for their bottles of White-Out.

In its first two games, the Cardinals disposed of Top Five members Kansas and UCLA, only to lose to No. 1 Duke in the Maui Invitational Championship. Since then, Ball State has gone 4-1, most recently defeating IUPUI in a blowout. The next true test for this group will come against No. 6 Oklahoma St. on the road. With 3 upperclassmen all averaging at least 18 points per game, the trio of Patrick Jackson, Chris Williams, and Theron Smith may be too much for the Cowboys to handle.

Another team that has caught the attention of many this season is Marquette. At 9-0, the Golden Eagles had back-to-back victories over No. 20 Indiana and a tough Gonzaga team. Outside of those two games, this team has not been challenged; so one or two losses could seriously depress its hopes of a top seeding in March. The next test comes at Wake Forest on December 29.

Whether or not this team holds up until then, a pair of games in February could decide its ultimate fate. On Groundhog Day (February 2) the team will battle Cincinnati at home, then travel to Bearcat territory less than three weeks later for a rematch. The Eagles’ ranking may be inflated at the moment, but I suppose only time can tell if they are the real thing or just a pipe dream.

Our final inspection will be of Lute Olson’s Wildcats. Though Arizona has been a powerhouse for years, no one expected this team to be a contender this season. At 5-2, all but one of their opponents was ranked in the Top 25 at tip-off. Of 10 players who have stepped on the court this season for Arizona, 7 are freshmen. Junior guard Jason Gardner has been leading the way, averaging just over 23 points per game. Junior forward Rick Anderson averages approximately 15 points and 7 rebounds per contest, while his teammate Luke Walton, also a junior forward, averages 13 points and 9 boards a game.

Aside from these three, Arizona might lack the experience to compete during March Madness. The Wildcats only have 4 games left against ranked opponents, which means they will have to maintain a certain intensity to ensure they are prepared for the postseason. Pundits such as ESPN’s Dick Vitale have commented that Lute Olson may be Coach of the Year, citing his team’s win against Illinois only days after their loss to Kansas.

However, in that loss, Arizona surrendered 105 points, which is 23 more than they have given up to any other opponent so far this season. This could not have pleased the coaching staff. The good news is that the team only shot 35 percent from the field that game, compared to Kansas’s 56 percent. Considering Arizona only lost by 8 points, the Wildcats should feel like they can play with any team in the nation (except Duke, possibly).

There are a handful of teams that may be nothing more than benefactors of easy schedules, such as Virginia, Georgetown, Wake Forest, and Alabama – all currently ranked. Though these teams certainly have their respective superstars and even show potential of providing headaches in March, for the most part they are surprising. Unfortunately, there is no real method to predict who is going to be a bracket-buster in the postseason, but you can be sure that the toughest opponents are usually those who receive the least amount of attention, if for no other reason than opposing coaches won’t know what to expect.


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