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December 13, 2012
Early Surprises
Teams that Make You Go Hmm...

by Joey Berlin

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Some teams can safely be considered a surprise one month into the season. With other teams you can end up looking foolish later if you throw the S-word out there too quickly.

Even though nobody thought Tubby Smith's Minnesota team would be bad, to take one example, the Gophers are a squad you can call an early surprise. With two wins over preseason ranked teams, and a 10-0 record against teams not named Duke, Minnesota went from "also receiving votes" to a No. 13 ranking.

Virginia Tech is a surprise, too, even after Saturday's loss at West Virginia. When you're picked near the bottom of the ACC and have done what the Hokies have done thus far, you've earned the label.

But what about teams with low preseason expectations who've built an unexpectedly strong start against mostly weak competition and done so without the same resume-building opportunities as Minnesota? Maybe they have one solid win, or a couple of comparatively mediocre ones, in the midst of a soft early schedule. In my mind, it's too soon to anoint them a surprise team already, but they've already done enough to make you think they have a shot to outperform expectations. They've generated at least a small amount of intrigue, and until their conference brethren starts hammering them by 30 in January, they're worth keeping an eye on.

Let's take a look at a few of these teams. The only hard criterion I used is that each team has one loss or less. But it helped if they were picked to finish in the bottom half of their league. And, as it turns out, it also helps if they're coached by a guy named Larry.

SMU
Having Larry Brown at the helm has netted SMU more attention than a team with its resume would otherwise be getting at this point in the season. But it's largely because of Brown's presence that the Mustangs' start must be taken seriously.

Projected at or near the bottom of C-USA, the 8-1 Mustangs have already claimed victories over two of the worst major-conference teams in the nation, scoring a road win over TCU and a home victory over Utah. Hey, separating yourself from the worst of the worst is a start. They're already showing signs of being a well-coached team, too.

Last season under Matt Doherty, SMU owned the nation's highest percentage of field goals that were threes -- while ranking in Division I's lower half in percentage of three-point makes. This year? Brown's team has been extremely selective when it comes to taking threes (331st in percentage of shots from deep) while making 43 percent of the ones they do take (No. 3 nationally). The Mustangs are also getting to the line, with a top 10 ranking in both FTA/FGA and percentage of points from the line.

Eight months after Brown ran off last year's starting point guard (and three other players), the backcourt has driven SMU's early success, with Jalen Jones, Ryan Manuel and Kansas State transfer Nick Russell all registering as offensive forces so far. True, depth will be an issue for Brown's team; even with their weak early schedule, the Mustangs are near the bottom of the nation in bench minutes. But this team should at least give Brown what he needs to build a foundation for next year's wave of promising transfers.

Wyoming
This season might look a little familiar to fans in Laramie. Last year, Wyoming started 11-1, including a win over Colorado. The Cowboys' final results -- sixth place in the Mountain West and a CBI appearance -- impressed the basketball world so much that the Cowboys were picked to repeat as sixth-place finishers this year.

After a 10-0 start and a win over a (supposedly) better Colorado team, it might be time to really believe in what coach Larry Shyatt is building in Laramie. If Colorado hadn't cast doubt on its own level of relevance by getting absolutely pummeled on Saturday at Kansas, Wyoming might belong in the "already a surprise" group. I suppose you can argue that, with one of Minnesota's early high-profile conquests (Florida State) also struggling recently, if the Gophers are a surprise, then so is Wyoming. As it is, I feel like the Cowboys belong in the "intriguing" file for now. But that may change, particularly if Shyatt's team can maintain some of its early offensive progress.

The Cowboys are playing just as slowly as last season, but they're in the top 80 in offensive efficiency so far while maintaining Shyatt's trademark defensive stinginess. Forward Leonard Washington is once again showing a multitude of skills, and Larry Nance Jr. has taken a major step forward offensively after establishing himself on the defensive end as a freshman. Guard Luke Martinez has hit 40 percent on threes. If point guard Derrious Gilmore can cut down on his turnovers (for what it's worth, he had zero in Saturday's win over Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State), Wyoming might have a real say in the Mountain West race.

Charlotte
So is Davidson still the mid-major darling they were a month ago, even after a 5-4 start against a tough early slate? If so, then Charlotte's victory over the Wildcats last week at Davidson ought to give the 49ers some new consideration. Picked to finish 12th in a 16-team Atlantic 10, your 2012 Great Alaska Shootout champions are now 9-0 after Saturday's win over Central Michigan.

Senior center Chris Braswell is turning in another tremendous season (116.5 offensive rating) while taking nearly a third of Charlotte's shots when he's on the floor. Willie Clayton, a 6-7 freshman, has been a dynamite offensive rebounder thus far, ranking fifth in the nation, and is hitting 68 percent from the floor. The 49ers have been stout defensively, holding opponents to an effective FG percentage that ranks No. 22 nationally.

Unlike other teams in this group, Charlotte's been able to go deep into its bench in the early going. With Braswell missing the first game of the season, guard DeMario Mayfield missing the first two for violating team rules, and both coming off the bench so far this year, coach Alan Major gave 38 percent of the available minutes to his bench players and lived to tell an undefeated tale.

The 49ers' game tomorrow night at Miami is one that could determine if Charlotte is really a team to watch out for once it's time to change calendars.

Illinois-Chicago
No one thought UIC would be a factor in the Horizon this year. The consensus was that the Flames would finish eighth. And in a league that has Valparaiso, Detroit and Cleveland State, maybe the smart bet is still on UIC being a nonfactor.

But the Flames' resume thus far makes them a perfect team to make you go "hmm." An 8-1 start with a couple of solid, unsexy wins for a mid-major (Northwestern and Colorado State). New Mexico is responsible for UIC's only loss, beating them in the Virgin Islands 66-59.

Howard Moore's defense has allowed just a 40 percent eFG. Though the Flames' shooting inside the arc has been ugly, they've taken care of the ball and they're hitting 77 percent of their free throws. Leading scorer Gary Talton isn't putting up good percentages from the field, but the point guard is setting up teammates and hitting 89 percent at the line. Junior Hayden Humes has shot lights-out, with a 133 offensive rating and a 50 percent mark on threes.

Other teams that are maybe, kinda, sorta worth a "hmm"
LSU (6-0), La Salle (6-1)

Joey Berlin is an author of College Basketball Prospectus.

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