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Last week, I wrote about teams that I felt had failed to live up to expectations so far this season. That list was highlighted by Kentucky, Illinois and North Carolina, all of which seem to have turned things around since that article was published. Let's hope the opposite doesn't happen for the teams I'm about to praise as the biggest surprises we've seen in college basketball this year.
The biggest surprise of the season has to be Kansas State. The Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll, yet they find themselves at the top of the conference after knocking off Kansas earlier this week. Much of the skepticism surrounding this team came from the fact that they had a new first-time head coach in Jerome Tang. What wasn't taken into enough consideration is that Tang spent 19 years at Baylor under Scott Drew, so he learned a thing or two about how to lead a program.
The Wildcats also welcomed in Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson who returned to the floor for the first time since collapsing on the court in December 2020. What was supposed to be a transition year for K-State, has been anything but. The Wildcats have huge road wins over Texas and Baylor as well as home wins over then-ranked West Virginia and now Kansas. Those wins have moved K-State's title odds from +25000 in the preseason to just +5000, currently at DraftKings. Johnson ranks third in the Big 12 with 18.7 points per game and Markquis Nowell ranks first with 8.4 assists per game, nearly two more than the next closest player. I kept waiting for regression to hit this team, but by the looks of it, I'm going to be stuck waiting a long time.
With a perfect 7-0 record, Florida Atlantic leads the Conference USA standings and finds themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. The Owls are sporting a 17-1 overall record with their only loss coming on the road to Ole Miss in their second game of the season.
Coming into the year, FAU was picked to finish fifth in the conference and Alijah Martin was the team's only preseason All-Conference honoree. While Martin leads the team in scoring, Johnell Davis and Vladislav Goldin are both averaging double-digits. The Owls are 1.5 games up on North Texas in the C-USA standings and if they can continue their winning ways, there's a very good chance they'll be taking home the program's first C-USA championship and find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
After finishing the 2021-22 season with a 13-19 record near the bottom of the Mountain West standings at 5-12, New Mexico has flipped the script this season. In Richard Pitino's second year at the helm, the Lobos have far surpassed last year's win total, going 17-2 through the first 19 games.
No one really knew what to expect heading into the season because Pitino dipped into the transfer portal quite a bit. He brought Morris Udeze from Wichita State and Josiah Allick from UMKC to give New Mexico the frontcourt pieces it was missing. The Lobos are currently the best offensive team in the Mountain West, averaging 81.9 points per game and their defense, although still not great, has improved after finishing last in the conference last season. Their backcourt duo of Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House rank first and second in the Mountain West in scoring, respectively. At +2000, the Lobos aren't a team I'd bet on to win the NCAA title this year, but that number is far better than the +100000 they were at in the preseason.