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Friday, December 23, 2011
College Basketball's pleasant surprises

By Myron Medcalf

While some squads have missed the mark that was established before the season started, there’s certainly a multitude of teams that have shocked us with surprising starts.

The Top 10 pleasant surprises in College Basketball
    Tom Crean
    Indiana and coach Tom Crean won their first 12 games despite low expectations entering the season.
  1. Indiana: Tom Crean was on the hot seat. Brad Stevens was identified as his potential successor. And then, Crean’s Hoosiers beat No. 1 Kentucky and won their first 12 games, quieting doubters and turning his program into one of the best stories in the country. All of this from a team that won three Big Ten games a season ago.
  2. Minnesota: A young Gophers team lost its best player, Trevor Mbakwe, seven games into its season. Instead of collapsing, however, Tubby Smith’s team commenced a six-game winning streak, which included a win against Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Gophers are shooting 49 percent from the field.
  3. Syracuse: The depth and talent is impressive. But the handling of an off-court controversy -- the Bernie Fine investigation -- is why Syracuse is on this list. Losing a former coach and the ensuing drama that followed his departure would derail a lot of programs. Not the Orange.
  4. Harvard: Tommy Amaker’s squad was heartbroken after losing a playoff game to Princeton in last season’s Ivy League finale. But it’s a new season for Harvard, a squad with just one loss (to UConn) and no apparent equal in the Ivy League. The Crimson might dance for the first time in more than 50 years this season.
  5. Murray State: New coach. Picked to finish third in the Ohio Valley. A month later, folks are throwing out legitimate “Will they lose before the NCAA tournament?” questions about the undefeated, nationally ranked Racers.
  6. Louisville: Its lofty ranking -- No. 4 in both polls -- has been questioned. But Rick Pitino’s squad has endured a series of injuries throughout the season and it’s still not full strength. The Cardinals have won some close games. Some might say those near-misses showcased their flaws. But perhaps it’s the opposite, since they’ve found multiple ways to win in those situations.
  7. Mississippi State: Last season, the Bulldogs were one of college basketball’s drama-filled reality shows. This season, they’re just a show. They followed a loss to Akron with 11 consecutive victories, proving that winning can change any program.
  8. Georgetown: The Hoyas are riding an eight-game winning streak. Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark can help this program make noise in the Big East. The Hoyas beat Memphis in overtime and Alabama on a last-second shot. They have guts, too.
  9. UNLV: The Mountain West favorites weren’t ranked before the season. But they knocked off No. 1 North Carolina and a nationally ranked Illinois team on a neutral floor. Dave Rice is off to a great start.
  10. San Diego State: They lost Kawhi Leonard to the NBA. But this season’s Aztecs are 11-2 with wins against Arizona and Cal. A single-digit loss to Creighton and a November road loss to Baylor are the only blemishes on their record. This isn’t the same team, however, that lost to Baylor.