Each season, there are memorable performances that take place in the opening few weeks that catch the attention of everyone across the NCAA basketball landscape. From upset wins, to overtime thrillers, and unexpected hot starts to the season, the opening month of the NCAA basketball season is always full of unexpected surprises.
The 2015-16 season is no exception. There have been plenty of upsets, memorable individual performances, and some teams who have simply dominated their competition before making a huge leap into the top 25 rankings.
These teams are not always power conference teams, and our list of Five Pleasant Surprises for the 2015-16 Season is made up of predominately mid-major programs. Four of the five teams on our list are smaller programs who have made big splashes to open the season.
Here’s to hoping these five teams can keep up their hot starts to 2015-16.
1. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (5 – 0; #15 in AP Poll)
Is there any team in the NCAA with a better resume than the Miami Hurricanes after two weeks of the season?
Two weeks into the season, and the Miami Hurricanes have jumped to 15th in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Hurricanes steam-rolled the competition on the way to the title, winning all three games by an average of 20 points (that is not a typo).
The teams they beat? Mississippi State, then-#16 Utah, and then #22 Butler. Add Louisiana-Lafayette (won by 16) and UT-Rio Grande Valley (won by 27), and Miami has dominated their opponents this season.
The key to their success? Balance. Six different Hurricanes currently average double-digit points per game, led by your usual suspects of Sheldon McClellan (17.4 ppg) and Angel Rodriguez (12.8 ppg, 4.6 apg). In the paint, Tonye Jekiri (10.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg) has given the Hurricanes a go-to option on offense, and has stepped his game up on the defensive end. The 7′ center has added another dimension to the offense for the Hurricanes.
Now, with their fast start, there is the potential for a letdown, of sorts. They started off with such a high, and leaped into the rankings because of it. However, they have a great chance of entering ACC play undefeated, as their toughest remaining non-conference games are at Nebraska (Dec. 1) and at home against Florida (Dec. 8). If they can get past those two tests, the Hurricanes could enter the New Year without a loss on their record.
The rest of the ACC, and the country for that matter, should be on high alert for Miami. These Hurricanes will be top contenders in the conference this season.
2. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (6 – 0)
Is there any ‘mid-major’ team who has had a better start to the season than the South Dakota State Jackrabbits?
Like the Miami Hurricanes, it’s highly unlikely.
The Jackrabbits have started the season with a 6 – 0 record, and they have taken down some strong teams in the process. They have scored road wins over Illinois State and TCU, and they have taken home the Cancun Challenge – Mayan Division title with wins over Houston Baptist and Cleveland State. It’s an impressive resume, and it’s only November 25th.
South Dakota State has taken on several tests so far this season, and have passed them all.
Deondre Parks, George Marshall, and Jake Bittle have the Jackrabbits soaring to heights they haven’t seen since Nate Wolters donned a South Dakota State jersey. If they keep up this level of play, they will clear-cut favourites in the Summit League come conference play, and will have a great shot at making it back to the NCAA Tournament.
3. Sacramento State Hornets (4 – 0)
After star guard Mikh McKinney graduated following the 2014-15 season, many wrote off the Sacramento State Hornets this season without them having played a game. It was a mystery as to how they would respond to the predictions and the loss of their star.
Four games into the season, and the Hornets haven’t missed a beat, starting a perfect 4 – 0 on the year.
They started off the season with a big road win over the Arizona State Sun Devils, then followed that up with another big road victory over the Seattle Redhawks to finish the two-game road trip with an unexpected perfect record. The Hornets then returned home, notched two more wins, and are rolling along without a blemish to their name this season.
In McKinney’s absence, the duo of Marcus Graves (17.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.0 apg) and Cody Demps (15.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.8 apg) have taken the reins on offense, and the Hornets haven’t missed a beat this season. Their familiarity with the team and the systems have the Hornets buzzing with confidence early on in 2015-16, and the sky is the limit at this point.
Sacramento State has two big games coming up this weekend, as they take on South Dakota and Pacific on back-to-back nights. Both games are ones that the Hornets could win, and they could very well enter next week with a sparkling 6 – 0 record.
4. Little Rock Trojans (3 – 0)
The Little Rock Trojans underwent a complete overhaul leading up to the 2015-16 season, one that included a name change, a new logo, and key roster upgrades. All of it resulted in a new identity for the Trojans, and it has paid off on the hardwood so far this season.
With their depth and balance throughout the lineup, the Trojans have been able to start the season 3 – 0, and they also pulled off one of the top upsets of the season so far. They went on the road to take on the San Diego State Aztecs, and came away with a 49 – 43 victory. Beating the Aztecs on their home floor is something that very few teams can do, but the Trojans came in and made a statement.
Josh Hagins and Roger Woods, the top returning scorers from last year’s team, have been key contributors so far. But, others have stepped up to take some pressure off their shoulders, and the Trojans have been a much better team. Newcomer Marcus Johnson, Jr leads the team with 14.7 points per contest, and high-scoring guard Jermaine Ruttley is averaging 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest.
The Trojans have another big opportunity to make a statement this week when they take part in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. As they get more experience playing with one another, the Trojans will be a threat in the Sun Belt this season.
5. Western Illinois Leathernecks (5 – 0)
The biggest surprise of the season came on opening night, and the Western Illinois Leathernecks dealt the first big blow of the 2015-16 campaign. Against the then-#17 Wisconsin Badgers, and on the road inside the Kohl Center, the Leathernecks pulled off arguably the biggest upset of the program’s history when they came away with a 69 – 67 victory.
What made their win more impressive is the fact that the Leathernecks finished last in the Summit League a year ago, while the Badgers were runner-up in the National Championship.
After the win, many wondered whether or not the Leathernecks could build off their win, or if it was a ‘fluke’ and a letdown would ensue. The former would come true, as Western Illinois has since pushed their record to 5 – 0 in 2015-16.
Since knocking off the Badgers, the Leathernecks have compiled wins over Eastern Illinois and Illinois-Chicago, as well as a pair of non-Division I opponents.
The trio of J.C. Fuller (20.3 ppg), Garret Covington (18.3 ppg) and Jabari Sandifer (12.3 ppg) have taken the Leathernecks to new heights this season, and show no signs of slowing down. They will have another big opportunity for an upset when they take on Creighton in their next outing.
Here’s to hoping they can keep this level of play up all season long, and make some noise in conference play come January.