Strong Out of the Gate

All of the teams in NCAA Division I basketball have played a handful of games. Just as in every other year, there are top-tier contenders (Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga), solid "deep-run" style teams (Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Nevada), and underwhelming disappointments (defending champ Villanova). Most of the time, these programs are well-known, even to the more casual basketball fan.

Then, there are the teams that you need to dig deep into the standings to find. They may be a program with former status that has fallen on hard times. They may be a conference stalwart that turn an eye with an unexpected result. This year is no exception. Looking for that Cinderella pick that could save your March bracket while ruining others? You may want to give the following names a look.


Big Upset: @ West Virginia

It's never easy to win in Morgantown. It's never easy to beat a Bob Huggins-led squad. The Bulls, however, aren't intimidated by that kind of venue. Remember, this team was the one that killed a lot of brackets (mine on top of the heap) with their first-round upset of DeAndre Ayton and Arizona in the 2018 tournament. The win over WVU helped to get the Bulls ranked. They'll hold on to that distinction after squeaking past previously undefeated San Francisco.

This is a team with same essence of the Middle Tennessee teams that made some noise in the tourney over the past couple of years. Upcoming chances for UB to improve their resume with games at Syracuse and Marquette are coming up in a couple of weeks.


Big Upset: Oregon

This happened just before I sat down to start typing this column. The Ducks flew into Space City with a national ranking (#18). They may not have left that exact number behind as they departed for Eugene, but it may have been a digit combination that's close. Kelvin Sampson is back in the game. The only thing left from his show-cause penalty is his ability to "show" us that he can "cause" a lot of headaches for those that stand in the Cougars way. Remember, last season's squad was kept out of the Elite Eight by a buzzer-beating prayer.

Team star Rob Gray graduated, but that doesn't matter as this program tries to reach heights not seen since the Phi Slama Jama days of the early 1980s. There will be plenty of tests in the American (Temple, Cincinnati, UCF, Connecticut), but Oklahoma State, LSU, and (another surprise) Utah State give the Cougars plenty of punch to go with non-conference wins over the Ducks and BYU.


Big Upset: Villanova

This has to be the biggest upset of the season. It wasn't enough that the Paladins defeated the defending champs on their home floor. They did it in one of those "get right" kind of games. Three days before, 'Nova got destroyed by Michigan in a game that gave last season's runner-up some sweet revenge. The Paladins weren't supposed to push that next game to overtime, let alone swipe a win at the venerable Pavilion.

The result has catapulted the team so far. A win at LSU later this month may sustain that drive into league play ... and they'll need it. Among the SoCon contenders is a UNC-Greensboro squad that gave Kentucky all it could handle through about 30 minutes of gameplay.

South Dakota State

Big Upset: None

This is the only squad on the list without a signature victory. However, I believe that this is the team with the best player of any squad listed here. Mike Daum just became the highest-scoring Jackrabbit in program history. With his presence, SDSU is still the Summit League favorite. Daum is the type of player that can put a team on his back and guide them to the second weekend of the tournament.

He, and his teammates, will have a shot to prove that in the next couple of weeks. A trip to Memphis is coming up early this week. Late next week, the Jackrabbits will head west to face a highly-ranked opponent in Nevada. If one, or both, of those games turns in SDSU's favor, there may be more reason to keep an eye on that program from Brookings.


Big Upset: Texas

A couple of nights ago, the Highlanders notched a win over a ranked team, which legitimately backs up a victory that hasn't gone as noticed. The first time the hoops scene turned an eye to this time was after a three-point win at Notre Dame. The defense in these two games, in particular, is standing out. During this early season of heightened numbers on the scoreboard, this team held the Fighting Irish to 60 points (in South Bend) and the Longhorns to 59 (in Austin). This piques the interest for upcoming tests at Clemson and Maryland before the calendar turns to 2019.


Big Upset: TCU

The Bisons provided a stumbling block in the path of the Horned Frogs' return to the national spotlight. It was the program's first-ever victory against a top-25 team. And this was the completion of the Dallas Two-Step after defeating SMU the game before. Up next, it's an opportunity for the Bisons to avenge their only loss of the season. I never knew this before looking up info for this column, but Lipscomb is located just three miles from arch rival Belmont University.

"The Battle of the Boulevard" may be one of the best-kept secrets in the game (as I said before, deep college hoops knowledge needed for that). And even though the two schools now play in different conferences, they're still doing home-and-home matchups each season. If the Bisons can garner some "get-back" for the four-point home loss to the Bruins, there will be chances to raise their profile with road trips to Louisville and Clemson.

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