Since the season began back in November, there have been an abundance of surprises and even more disappointments. Throughout December and January, several teams were considered dead, and most people, yours truly included, thought that these squads had no chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Bad losses early in the season to inferior teams, blowouts at home, injuries, and overall mediocrity combined to give the majority of college basketball followers the sense that these teams were severe disappointments and would not live up to their preseason expectations.
On the other hand, though, all that did was show us how much teams can improve over the course of a season and how two or three wins in a row can propel a squad right back into the NCAA Tournament picture. More importantly, it showed us that early season losses don't really mean much if you can bounce back in league play and demonstrate to the Selection Committee that you are worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Many of the following teams had lofty preseason prospects, and nearly all of them struggled throughout the first two months or so of the season. Others did not have the high preseason expectations but started out terribly. However, they have all turned their seasons around and are now in line to contend for an NCAA bid and/or a conference championship.
TEN KEY TURNAROUNDS
LSU: Coming into the season, the Tigers were expected to have a decent season, finishing second in the SEC West, and possibly making a run in the NCAA Tournament. However, after losing to Connecticut on January 7th, LSU was standing at 7-5, with only one quality win to speak of. Once SEC play started, though, the Tigers have dominated. They are now 13-5 overall, 6-0 in the SEC, and are beating teams by more than 13 points per game. Tyrus Thomas might be the best freshman in the country, while Darrell Mitchell and Glen Davis are as good of an inside-outside combo as you will find.
Oklahoma: Expected to contend with Texas for a Big 12 title, the Sooners did not look the part for most of the season. They went 9-2 during the non-conference season, but were overmatched in their only two tough games and struggled against far inferior competition. To kick off Big 12 play, the Sooners dropped their first two games, to Nebraska and Missouri. However, four straight wins have followed, including a victory over Texas this past Saturday. Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout are a very good inside duo, while Terrell Everett is a versatile perimeter player.
Stanford: Projected at the top of the Pac-10, the Cardinal had high expectations for this season. That hype settled down immediately when they opened the season with a blowout loss to UC-Irvine at home. After two wins, they went on the road and got destroyed by Montana, lost to UC-Davis, and were beat by Virginia Tech in Las Vegas. After a weekend sweep of defeats to start Pac-10 play, the Cardinal were 4-6, 0-2 in conference. They are now 10-7, and 6-3 in the league. Sunday's win over Washington cemented the fact that Stanford is going to be a player in the title race and could make a run at an at-large bid with a few more quality wins.
Boston College: The Eagles came into the season hoping to compete with Duke for an ACC title. Two losses in December to Michigan State and Maryland dampened those talks as 5-2 BC was not looking overly impressive. Two ACC losses later, the Eagles were 0-3 in the conference and sitting squarely on the bubble. Since then, BC has won five in a row overall and four in a row in the ACC to move back into the Field of 65. Wednesday's game against Duke should be a nice barometer to see where the Eagles stand.
Kentucky: This season's most well-known story is about to include another chapter: the Wildcats' resurgence to become an SEC contender. After a far-from-impressive 10-3 start, Kentucky lost three straight, including two SEC games at home to Vanderbilt and Alabama. Four wins have followed that slump, though. Kentucky is now 4-2 in the SEC and 14-6 overall. Not numbers that will jump out at you, but a far cry from 10-6, 0-2 in the SEC.
Temple: Thanks to John Chaney's annual death trap that is the Owls' non-conference schedule, Temple was not the most impressive team around in November and December. Even with wins over Alabama, South Carolina and Miami, the Owls started out 6-6, and 0-2 in the conference. However, they have won 5 of their last 6 games, including wins over Xavier and Maryland. Their current record of 11-7 combined with the quality wins they have gets them back into the discussion for at-large bids.
Seton Hall: In what might be the most surprising turnaround, the Pirates have gone from a projected cellar dweller in the Big East to a potential bubble team. With losses this season to Richmond, Northwestern, and others, Seton Hall was 9-6 after a three-game losing streak in January. An OT win at home over South Florida was not a very good foreshadowing of what was to come: back to back road wins over North Carolina State and Syracuse. With those two victories, the Pirates may have positioned themselves for a decent shot at an NCAA bid.
Alabama: Coming into the season as the favorite in the SEC West, the Crimson Tide sure didn't look like an NCAA team in the first two months of the season. They started their season 7-6, including four home losses, an embarrassing 4-point win over Birmingham Southern, and an injury to star Chuck Davis. Since the injury, though, Alabama is 4-1, with wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. If they can continue to play well, the Crimson Tide may get back into the at-large discussion.
Kansas: This was the classic case of a young team improving as the newcomers got more acclimated to the college game. The Jayhawks started out 2-4, but a win over California jump-started a seven-game winning streak that included wins over Kentucky and Colorado. Another two-game losing streak followed, but Kansas has bounced back with four straight Big 12 wins by an average of 24 points per game. At 13-6 overall and 5-2 in the Big 12, the Jayhawks have positioned themselves for an at-large bid and a #2 or #3 spot in the conference tournament.
Southern Illinois: Monmouth, Alaska-Anchorage, and Saint Louis. Those are the three teams that the Salukis lost to in their first five games. After the loss to SLU, though, SIU has run off wins in 11 straight games and 14 of the last 16. Back-to-back road losses to Northern Iowa and Missouri State haven't tarnished the surprising turnaround that the Salukis have ridden to a spot atop the Missouri Valley Conference. If they don't win the conference tournament, you can be sure they will get an at-large bid.
OTHER RETURNS FROM THE DEAD
Louisiana Tech: Losses to Yale and Southern were the lowlights of a 6-6 start, but wins in 7 of the last 8 games has left them atop the WAC.
San Diego State: The MWC favorite started out 6-6 with losses to Illinois-Chicago and San Diego, but they have won 6 straight games and are now the conference leader.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee: A 3-3 start wasn't expected for the Horizon favorite. What was expected? Twelve of the last thirteen games ending in victory for the Panthers.
UAB: The Blazers started off 4-3, but are now 14-4 and 5-1 in the conference. Their streak has included wins over Old Dominion, Oklahoma State, Virginia Commonwealth, and Houston.
Miami: The return of point guard Anthony Harris from injury has propelled the Hurricanes from a 7-6 start to a current record of 13-8 overall and 5-3 in the ACC.
Kent State: En route to a 5-5 start, the Golden Flashes opened the season with a loss to Delaware State. At home. They have won 8 of their last 9, though, and are currently in first place in the loaded MAC East.
Virginia: The Cavaliers had absolutely no expectations going into the season. A 3-4 start cemented those expectations. Home wins over North Carolina and Miami have highlighted a resurgence that has left UVA 4-3 in the ACC, good for fifth in the conference.
Marist: Back-to-back losses to Canisius and Loyola (Md.) left the Red Foxes at 5-6 overall and 0-4 in the MAAC to start the season. They have since won 8 straight games to pull within two games of first place in the conference.
Oral Roberts: One of the big Mid-Con favorites at the start of the season, ORU had disappointed much of the season. However, a horrid 4-7 start has turned into an 11-9 record, keeping them as one of the potential sleepers in the Big Dance.
Albany: The America East favorite started off 2-6 with losses to Sacred Heart, Siena, and Harvard. Eight straight wins and victories in 10 of their last 12 games have improved Albany to 12-8 overall and first place in the conference.
Southern: The current SWAC leaders weren't always good this season. The Jags started off 1-9 and played 11 of their first 13 games on the road.
Delaware State: The undefeated MEAC leaders were 2-10 prior to the start of conference play. The 6th-rated non-conference SOS will do that to you.
Lipscomb: A 6-6 start low-lighted by losses to Jackson State, Campbell, and Kennesaw State has transformed into a 13-7 (9-3 in the A-Sun), league-leading record.
UC-Irvine: Starting off the season with a win over Stanford should have put people on notice. A 4-6 beginning including losses to UC-Davis, Pepperdine, and non-D1 teams Cal State-Stanislaus and Arkansas-Monticello did not keep the enthusiasm of that upset victory. An 8-0 Big West record has recovered some of that lost interest.
Manhattan: One of the two MAAC favorites, the Jaspers started off the season 0-4. Ten straight wins following that positioned them at the top of the conference standings. They are currently 13-6 overall, and 9-2 in the league.