Brandon Paul is the catalyst for the Fighting Illini under first-year coach John Groce. (Credit: Illinois Sports Information)
Unbelievably, the mid- November-to-early April fest that is college basketball has one month behind it and several teams have emerged as surprises across the nation. Ken’s High Five capsulizes five squads that were not on the radar in November.
1.) Charlotte (9-0)
The 49ers are a young basketball team, starting three freshmen and two sophomores and are off to the best start in school history. The key has been the team’s focus from game to game and the quickness in developing chemistry with such a young eight-man rotation. The 49ers also have freshmen playing like veterans in guard Denzel Ingram and forwards Darion Clark and Willie Clayton. With Miami on the docket for Friday and Florida State a week from Saturday, we should get an account of how this team may do in such a deep Atlantic 10.
2.) Illinois (11-0)
The Fighting Illini haven’t looked back since winning the Maui Invitational in November. The catalyst has been Brandon Paul, who could be an early candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, regardless of the hype Tyler Zeller receives. Paul, who leads Illinois with 19 ppg., has a steady backcourt mate in D.J. Richardson. Winning at Gonzaga by 11 allowed the Illini to deal the Zags their first loss. A Dec. 22 trip to No. 12 Missouri bears watching for coach John Groce in his first campaign in Champaign-Urbana.
3. Minnesota (11-1)
Tubby Smith picks up his 500th win and the Golden Gophers are off to one of their best starts in recent memory. This team shares the basketball well, led by the play of Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams, Jr. Minnesota has some good early wins over Memphis, Florida State, and USC. They have only one game in the next 19 days before opening Big Ten play by hosting Michigan State on New Year’s Eve.
4.) New Mexico (10-0)
The Mountain West Conference always flies under the radar and so do the Lobos this season with San Diego State and UNLV playing as well as they have and also having received Top 25 votes. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell look leaders on the team, but Alex Kirk is the unsung hero, averaging 11.7 ppg. with 8.2 boards and shooting 53% from the floor. The Lobos had good early wins over Davidson and UConn and visit Cincinnati and Saint Louis between Christmas and New Year’s Day before their MWC opener at UNLV.
5.) SMU (8-1)
Hall of Famer Larry Brown is in the saddle in Dallas and he said that the Mustangs had a chance to be good fairly quick. He has four players playing over 30 mpg. and only seven averaging double figures in minutes. Jalen Jones and Nick Russell look like good complementary players for Brown. A trip to Utah is the toughest outing before the Jan. 6 CUSA opener vs. UTEP. Conistency and getting one more player involved in the rotation could be a key in a run to March for SMU.
- Ken Cross
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