It is still way too early to make any definitive statements about any given team, but there are some interesting trends emerging in Hoopworld. There are many undefeated teams remaining, but some of those were expected and some have not been challenged to date. I have identified ten teams that have started quickly this season. Most of the teams on this list have not only blazed out of the gate, but have notched an important win along the way, or have come from completely off the radar.
After addressing this overachieving group, I have identified ten squads that have been duds in the early going based on their preseason expectations. All twenty of these teams will have interesting story lines to follow over the course of the season. The roller coaster of the college hoops season is just beginning.
Iona (6-0) - The mighty Gaels punched a hole right through MAAC contender Rider Wednesday night, 80-59. Iona sent a loud and clear message that they are the class of the league in the early going. They also have wins at Iowa State and at Fordham. This bunch bears close watching throughout the season. Games at Kentucky, at Seton Hall, and at Fresno State loom.
Georgia (6-1) - It is year three of Coach Dennis Felton's tenure, and the Dawgs look like they have taken a major step forward this season. With a tough win at Western Kentucky (the Hilltoppers' only loss to this point) and a trouncing of Georgia Tech in tow, Georgia could be a surprise team in the SEC. The conference sure could use another solid team to step up. It could be the Dawgs or...
Vanderbilt (5-0) - The Commodores went on the road and defeated Georgetown and then nipped Oregon by one in Nashville. With Kentucky and Alabama struggling a bit, Florida is the only team that looks to be a major player early on. There is room for up-and-comers like Vandy or Georgia to make some serious noise in the SEC this year.
Kansas State (6-1) - The Wildcats' only loss was a one-point heartbreaker at Washington State. They have scored wins over the likes of Colorado State and New Mexico, but their schedule is pretty soft until they get into Big 12 play.
Colorado State (6-1) - The Rams scored a nice win over a good Denver team and beat in-state rival Colorado. They suffered their first loss last night at the hands of fellow surprise team Kansas State. The Mountain West is totally up for grabs this season with Utah down a bit and preseason darling San Diego State struggling in the early going. Colorado State and Air Force have established themselves as early favorites.
Michigan (6-0) - Is this finally the year that the Wolverines put it together? They have not lost yet and have a big matchup with UCLA on December 17. The Big 10 is going to be a dogfight this year. Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa look like solid tourney teams. One has to believe that Wisconsin will find a way. That leaves Ohio State and Michigan to scrap for a sixth bid, unless the Big 10 can get seven. That has only happened once in the history of the NCAA tourney.
Rutgers (6-1) - The Scarlet Knights beat Temple and won at Saint Mary's-CA. They could be one of the teams that get trampled in the Big East stampede, but they have done enough early on to warrant some attention.
Missouri State (5-0) - The preseason chatter in the MVC was all about Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, but the Bears are going to be in the hunt, too. They scored a nice road win at Oral Roberts last night and have a big date at Arkansas on December 15. Junoir guard Blake Ahearn is scoring over 20 ppg and is shooting a blistering 50% from three point range (20 of 40 in five games!).
North Carolina (5-1) - I do not know if the defending national champs should ever be considered a surprise after a good start, but this gutted team has showed serious moxie early on. Winning in Rupp Arena against Kentucky is never easy, but Carolina did it, and it is quite possible that they will head into ACC play with just one loss.
Loyola-Chicago (4-1) - The Ramblers only loss so far is to Northern Iowa (ask Iowa about that). They have not been to the NCAA tourney since their Sweet Sixteen run in 1985. The Horizon League looks pretty open this year, so they may able to go toe-to-toe with Butler and UW-Milwaukee.
Kansas (2-4) - The bad part is that one of those two wins was against D-II Chaminade, so for RPI and tournament selection purposes, KU is 1-4. They have a very long row to hoe if they are going to contend in the Big 12. They still have non-conference dates with California (on Saturday) and Kentucky (January 7), along with four winnable games. They Jayhawks certainly do not want to have a losing record heading into Big 12 conference play.
West Virginia (5-3) - Some folks, including this writer, had the Mountaineers pegged as a top 15-calibre team. They may still get there, but they have played three challenging games and lost all three. They could really use a win on December 22 against Oklahoma.
Iowa State (4-2) - Two early losses to red-hot Iona and Fresno State have put a damper on the Cyclones' bandwagon, but the combined record of those two teams is a whopping 10-1. The Cyclones have a huge stretch of games coming up against Iowa, Ohio State, and then the Rainbow Classic.
Arizona (2-3) - The Wildcats have played a brutal schedule, but anytime a preseason Top 10-type starts 2-3, there is going to be concern. The losses of Frye and Stoudamire will be felt for awhile, but this team has enough to contend for another Pac-10 title. They return everyone else from last year's Elite Eight team.
Charlotte (5-3) - Losses to Northwestern, Mississippi State and Wyoming are cause for concern. The 49ers scored just 38 points at home against a struggling Mississippi State squad. Charlotte has won four in a row against weaker competition, but so far, they have not looked a team that can challenge A-10 favorite George Washington.
Miami-FL (5-3) - The Canes were a hot pick to make serious noise this season, but they have lost every game against challenging competition. They will have to step it up if they want to return to the NCAA tourney. They have big opportunities with home games against Florida and Louisville left in the non-conference schedule.
Stanford (2-3) - Perhaps no team with such a lofty preseason perch has fallen harder than the Cardinal. UC-Irvine and Montana thrashed Trent Johnson's crew by double-digits, and UC-Davis clipped their wings by six. Dangerous Virginia Tech and a very capable Denver squad await later this month.
Southern Illinois (3-3) - The Salukis lost to D-II Alaska-Anchorage. That simply cannot happen if a team harbors any hopes of gaining an at-large bid. This Saluki team also fell to 1-5 Monmouth. That is an awful lot to overcome, but it is a long season and SIU has a history of finding ways into the bracket.
Texas Tech (5-4) - Bob Knight's crew is 5-4 with blowout losses to San Francisco and Louisiana Tech. This team had only three players score in their last game. Three. That's one, two, three. Jarrius Jackson had 19, and Martin Zeno and Dior Lowhorn scored 16 each for a total of 53. Lousiana Tech scored 68. The Red Raiders were also bludgeoned 81-46 by Syracuse early on. Yikes.
Kentucky (5-2) - The Cats did beat West Virginia, but that win does not look as impressive as it did at the time. The Randolph Morris saga persists. The Cats' glacial big men have been non-factors in most games. They lost to hated rival North Carolina in Rupp last week. It has been a rocky start for a team with high expectations.
These are just twenty of the storylines that deserve following this season. That is part of the greatness of college hoops. The season is long enough that a rough start is not going to kill a team's hopes of going to the postseason, but it is also short enough to feel a sense of urgency if a sluggish start does occur.
In three months, we could all be reminiscing about Stanford or Texas Tech's struggles way back in December as they prepare for the NCAA tourney. We could be laughing about Rutgers' or Michigan's fast start as they once again sink to the bottom of their leagues. We could follow Iona to a 26-2 record, or forget about them by mid-January in the wake of a four game losing streak. The "Madness" is not limited to March; it is a season-long disease if we follow the stories.