It’d be an understatement to say that this has been an easy college basketball season for any program. Most teams have been forced to deal with last-minute postponements and delays to their season.
Even for the teams that haven’t dealt with those issues, they’ve still had to keep up with all of the safety protocols in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t mean some teams haven’t found a way to find success amid everything else that’s going on.
In fact, many teams have found a way to surpass preseason expectations, even with all of the additional challenges. As we head down the stretch, let’s take a look at the biggest overachievers in college basketball in 2021.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The ACC is so deep that it’s easy to overlook one or two teams. But the Hokies were 11th in the ACC preseason poll, only to rise into the top 20 of the national polls.
With wins over the likes of Villanova and Virginia, there’s no doubt that Virginia Tech has a high ceiling when we get to March. The Hokies aren’t the most talented or the flashiest team in the country. But they have enough capable scorers and put forth incredible effort on the defensive end of the court.
They’ve also won plenty of close games, so they’ll be battle-tested when March rolls around.
Before the season, we expected Florida to have a good year and make the NCAA Tournament. However, we had to adjust expectations when leading scorer Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court and was ruled out for the rest of the season. When that happened, most expected the Gators to fall off the map. But Mike White has helped the Gators to reinvent themselves without Johnson and become an NCAA Tournament team.
Without Johnson, Florida still has flaws to overcome. But other players have stepped up and wins over Tennessee and West Virginia are still proof that the Gators have overachieved what we thought they’d be without Johnson and will have a chance to make some noise in March.
Jeff Capel is way ahead of schedule when it comes to rebuilding the Panthers.
Pitt was picked 13th in the ACC preseason poll, but Capel has them in the mix for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which would be a massive accomplishment. The Panthers had to survive part of the season without Justin Champagnie, who has been a beast since his return. Champagnie averages 19 points and 12 rebounds per game, allowing him to carry the Panthers with help from Au’diese Toney and Xavier Johnson.
Pitt still needs to keep collecting wins down the stretch, but the fact that we’re talking about the Panthers being on the bubble means Capel’s team has clearly overachieved.
Nobody was talking about Toledo as a dangerous mid-major before the season, but that’s not the case anymore. After being picked to finish sixth in the MAC in the preseason poll, the Rockets have established themselves as the class of the league, winning 11 of their first 13 conference games.
Toledo has five players who average at least 12 points per game and they can shoot the ball from the perimeter, which means Toledo can score at all five positions and spread the floor.
The Rockets are almost to the point of wrapping up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament even if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, which will make them a team to watch closely in March.
Texas' recent three-game losing streak aside, the Longhorns have surpassed all preseason expectations despite being a top-20 team heading into the season.
Shaka Smart has Texas playing well at both ends, as Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey lead a balanced scoring attack. At the same time, the Longhorns have the athletes to defend and rebound as well as any team in the Big 12.
While Texas has struggled after having some COVID-related issues within the program, it should only be a matter of time until the Longhorns get back on track. At their best, the Longhorns have proven that they’re the second-best team in the Big 12 behind Baylor and are a serious Final Four contender.
Ohio State Buckeyes
We knew Ohio State had a chance to be good this season, but few people were predicting the Buckeyes to be in the mix for the Big Ten title and have a legitimate chance to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, E.J. Liddell has exploded onto the scene, increasing his scoring average from 6.7 points per game last year to 15.4 points per game this season.
Duane Washington Jr. has also stepped up as the team’s floor general while also getting help from Cal transfer Justice Sueing. That trio has given the Buckeyes plenty of star power, not to mention quality depth, making Ohio State one of the standout teams in the stacked Big Ten.
Despite returning a host of starters from last season, the Tigers were picked 10th in the SEC preseason poll. Of course, everybody whiffed on that prediction because there’s a strong argument that Missouri could be the best team in the SEC, especially after the Tigers beat Alabama.
Nobody will claim that the Tigers are the most talented team in the country. But Missouri is loaded with juniors and seniors, giving them the intangibles they’ve needed to surpass modest expectations and become one of the most intriguing teams in the SEC.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide has gone from overlooked to SEC frontrunner. Frankly, Alabama wasn’t that impressive during the non-conference part of their schedule. But the Crimson Tide took it to another level when SEC play began, winning their first 10 conference games.
Barring an epic collapse, Alabama is likely to win the SEC regular-season championship and could potentially be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That would have been viewed as virtually impossible before the season. But thanks to great guard play and a diverse set of shooters, the Crimson Tide is a team that everyone should know about as March draws closer.
We knew the Big Ten would be loaded this season, but we didn’t think the Wolverines would be one of the teams at the top.
Michigan was picked No. 6 in the league’s preseason poll, behind Rutgers of all teams. But Juwan Howard had his team playing at an elite level before their recent COVID-related hiatus.
The Wolverines didn’t do much during the non-conference season, but they won eight of their first nine games in the Big Ten, including blowouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been a revelation, undoubtedly benefiting from Howard’s tutelage. Meanwhile, senior forward Isaiah Livers has been one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic scorers, helping to make Michigan the Big Ten favorite and a serious Final Four contender.
Not only did nobody think Drake would be undefeated into February, but the Bulldogs were also picked seventh in the Missouri Valley preseason poll.
They opened the season with an upset win over Kansas State and haven’t looked back, rising straight to the top of the always competitive Missouri Valley. The Bulldogs have a team of good shooters surrounding leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill, who’s a great slasher.
Even if they lose once or twice between now and the end of the season, the Bulldogs have done enough to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament and are very much for real.
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