Every college basketball team enters the season with expectations, but regardless of what’s expected in the early fall, we don’t know how good — or bad — a team is until games are played and we’re into early winter.
With nonconference action over and league play set to begin (or having already begun) across Division I, we have a much better idea of the haves and have-nots this season. We also can see just how wrong some of the preseason projections were.
For each of the top 7 conferences in the country, we’ve identified the biggest surprise — the one team that has played much better than expected — and the biggest disappointment — the team who could really use a do-over.
American Athletic Conference
Biggest Surprise: Tulane
Tulane’s choice to hire a career NBA coach in an effort to revive a long-dormant college program wasn’t met with much praise, and after going 6-25 in his first season it was clear Mike Dunleavy had his hands full. It’s still an uphill battle for him and his team, but at 9-3 Tulane has already increased last year’s win total by 50 percent.
Junior guard Melvin Frazier and senior guard Cameron Reynolds, both holdovers from previous coach Ed Conroy, are both averaging better than 16 points per game. They’ve helped Tulane shoot 39.1 percent from 3-point range.
The Green Wave haven’t posted any notable wins to this point, and their losses to Florida State, Georgia State and North Carolina were by an average of 18 points. But they have shown enough to this point to expect they’ll finish higher than 10th in the AAC, their predicted finish by conference coaches.
Biggest Disappointment: Connecticut
Connecticut has won four national titles since 1999, most recently in 2014, Kevin Ollie’s second season as coach. The Huskies have only made one NCAA tournament since then and finished with a losing record last season, yet the current roster has enough talent to be competitive in the American if a few things go its way.
Namely, being able to shoot the ball and share it, two things UConn (7-5) is abysmal at doing right now. The Huskies shoot 40.1 percent overall — 31 percent from 3-point range — and average 9.3 assists per game. Their 39 percent assist rate is second-worst in the country.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Biggest Surprise: Clemson
The ACC is by far the toughest conference in the country, so going as easy as possible in nonleague play isn’t that bad of an idea in order for a team to build confidence. Clemson (11-1) didn’t do that, going 4-1 against top-100 RPI teams, including wins at Ohio State and against Florida in a neutral-site game.
The Tigers’ only loss to this point was by seven to Temple in the finals of the Charleston Classic on Nov. 19.
No longer relying too much on one player — cough, Jaron Blossomgame, cough — Clemson is using a balanced approach with five players scoring in double figures. Finishing in the top 10 in the ACC should send the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament since 2011.
Biggest Disappointment: Georgia Tech
A year ago Georgia Tech was the epitome of a team with nowhere to go but up, first-year coach Josh Pastner inheriting a horrendous roster yet somehow managing to win 21 games, including 8 in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets returned their top 3 scorers but instead of continuing to climb have been on a steady decline.
Georgia Tech (5-6) has home losses to Grambling and Wright State, the latter despite getting sophomore guard Josh Okogie back from an NCAA suspension and a thumb injury. The Yellow Jackets’ only victory against a team with a team sporting a winning record was a 52-51 victory against Northwestern in the ACC/Big East Challenge on Nov. 28.
Biggest Surprise: Texas Tech
Every team in the Big 12 is sporting a .750 win percentage or better and 60 percent of the teams have been ranked in The Associated Press Top 25. Of that group, Texas Tech (11-1) was lowest-ranked in the league’s preseason poll, picked to finish seventh.
That might still be where the Red Raiders end up, considering how deep the Big 12 is, but to this point they’ve looked much better than most had thought.
A 10-point loss to Seton Hall in New York City is Tech’s only blemish, while it has wins against four top-100 RPI teams — two of them at neutral sites. The Red Raiders have yet to play a true road game, but a defense that allows 58.7 points per game and 36.1-percent shooting should help when venturing into the Big 12’s many dangerous venues.
Biggest Disappointment: Texas
A 9-3 record usually isn’t something to be disappointed with, but Texas hasn’t exactly looked solid through 12 games. The Longhorns have been incredibly inconsistent, taking Duke and Gonzaga to overtime in the PK80 tournament and winning at VCU and Alabama but losing at home to Michigan and nearly getting knocked off by Tennessee State.
Not having sophomore guard Andrew Jones the last few weeks because of a wrist injury has had a major impact, but so has shooting just 62.4 percent at the foul line. Texas missed a combined 17 free throws in its losses, which were by a combined 19 points.
Biggest Surprise: St. John’s
While Georgetown sitting at 10-1 at this point is a little shocking, the Hoyas’ No. 350 strength of schedule (out of 351 schools) best explains that record. The 10-2 record amassed by St. John’s against a much tougher slate wasn’t as expected.
The Red Storm have lost to Missouri in Orlando and to unbeaten Arizona State in Los Angeles, and half their games to this point away from home. And they’ve only had sophomore guard Marcus LoVett available for seven games because of a knee injury.
Aggressive defense is what coach Chris Mullin has preached, with St. John’s forcing 9.2 steals and 21 turnovers per game.
Biggest Disappointment: Providence
Picked to finish fourth in the Big East, Providence (9-4) has a lot of work to do to show it’s capable of finishing in the top half of the league. The Friars have three wins against top-100 RPI teams, but also a loss at Massachusetts as part of an 0-3 mark in non-home games in December.
That doesn’t bode well when their first two conference games are at St. John’s and Creighton.
Guard Kyron Cartwright hasn’t taken that next step as a senior — his scoring, assists and shooting numbers are all down from last season when Providence finished third in the Big East.
Biggest Surprise: Ohio State
When Ohio State forced out longtime coach Thad Matta in June, it put the program in a major bind, needing to find a quality coach in the middle of the offseason. But the Buckeyes hit paydirt in luring Butler’s Chris Holtmann, who won 25 games and made the Sweet 16 with the Bulldogs last season.
Holtmann inherited a roster that featured a good amount of talent but had yet to show it, thus resulting in Big Ten media members rating Ohio State 12th out of 14 schools. There’s a lot of season left, but at this point the Buckeyes have been a very pleasant surprise.
Senior wing Keita Bates-Diop has undergone a career resurrection, averaging 18.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. He averaged 17.5 points and 10 rebounds in a 2-0 start to league play that included a win against Michigan.
Biggest Disappointment: Wisconsin
Wisconsin has made 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, tied with Gonzaga for the fourth-longest active streak in Division I. It’s going to require a huge turnaround for the Badgers (6-7) to get to 20 in a row, let alone finish in the top 4 of the Big East for the 17th year in a row.
The Badgers already have 3 losses at home, including to rival Marquette and to Ohio State in their conference opener. Junior forward Ethan Happ remains adept at everything but free-throw shooting, but he’s gotten help from almost no one.
Biggest Surprise: Arizona State
No team has been a bigger surprise this season than Arizona State, not just in the Pac-12 but in all of college basketball. And it’s not even close.
The Sun Devils (12-0) are one of three remaining unbeaten teams in the country (along with Villanova and TCU), off to their best start in school history, and have already achieved the highest AP Top 25 ranking in school history (currently No. 3). Along the way they’ve beaten Xavier and Kansas, the latter victory coming in Lawrence.
Third-year Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley has let his guards loose, and he’s got some good ones. Seniors Shannon Evans, Tra Holder and Kodi Justice, along with freshman Remy Martin, are scoring nearly 63 points per game.
Biggest Disappointment: Stanford
Injuries and eligibility issues have played a significant role in Stanford’s 6-7 start, forcing senior forward Reid Travis to have to do it all himself. His 21.4 points per game have been great but the Cardinal need other options, most of which haven’t been fully available to this point.
Stanford just got freshman forward Kezie Okpala back from eligibility issues but senior guard Dorian Pickens and freshman forward Kodye Pugh have missed a combined 16 games because of injury. Junior guard Marcus Sheffield (foot) has yet to play.
Biggest Surprise: Tennessee
Nine different schools had players named to the SEC’s preseason all-conference team, and Tennessee wasn’t one of them. Why would they be when the Volunteers were projected to finish next-to-last in the league?
If that prediction could be redone, it’s likely Tennessee (9-2) would be picked much higher after how it’s performed in nonconference play. The Vols have wins against Purdue and a trio of ACC teams, while their losses are to defending national champion North Carolina and top-ranked Villanova, both of which were competitive games.
Rick Barnes is doing this without any big-name players but that might be what it takes to compete with the SEC’s many star-studded rosters.
Biggest Disappointment: Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt (5-7) is the only SEC team with a losing record, partly due to a fairly tough schedule that has included losses to Arizona State, Kansas State, Seton Hall, USC and Virginia. But even in their wins the Commodores haven’t looked very good.
Shooting 41.1 percent overall and 31.9 percent from 3-point range, Vandy is in the bottom 60 nationally in both categories. Not what you’d expect from a team with its top 3 scorers all seniors in their fourth season starting in the program.