DAILY DISH: Wyoming, Boise State among the biggest surprises in college basketball

By: Kels Dayton

March is always crazy. It’s always, well…madness.

But this year, it’s going to be downright certifiable.

A push towards parity has been taking over college hoops over the past seven years, since George Mason took a sledgehammer to the Cinderella ceiling and broke into the Final Four in 2006. But this season has been as wide-open as a Wyoming highway. Butler knocked off Indiana. Canisius beat Temple. Temple beat Syracuse. New Mexico lost at home to South Dakota State, and then strolled into Cincinnati and beat the No. 8 Bearcats. In short, it’s been crazy, and March Madness is going to be as mad as ever.

Take a look at the five most surprising teams in college basketball this season:

Wyoming (12-0)

The Cowboys have made noise in the Mountain West by running through their first 12 games without a loss, taking down RoundballDaily preseason Top 25 team Colorado along the way. They’re playing like it’s 1987 all over again, when the aptly-named Fennis Dembo led them to the Sweet 16 and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next year. Well, not quite. But Wyoming has been surprisingly good behind bruising senior forward Leonard Washington  (14.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg), and senior guard Luke Martinez (14.5 ppg , 3 rpg). Washington has high-major level talent, but he had been a headcase earlier in his career. Now, he’s focused on basketball, and putting up big numbers.

Sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr. (11.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is the main attraction. The son of former dunk champion Larry Nance has made a name for himself for his own high-flying ability, including this ridiculous anthropomorphism of the Air Jordan logo .

Wyoming hasn’t beaten anyone yet (except Colorado), and they’ll have to traverse an incredibly tough Mountain West schedule, which features six teams that have legitimate NCAA hopes at this point in the season. New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State, Boise State, and Colorado State have all been terrific this season, and Nevada is always dangerous.

 NEXT KEY GAME: Jan 9 vs. Boise State. We should learn a lot more about Wyoming in the next few weeks. The Cowboys should crack the Top 25 poll by the time they take on the Broncos.

Boise State (9-2)

Derrick Marks has put up big numbers against top competition this season. (AP Photo)

Derrick Marks has put up big numbers against top competition this season. (AP Photo)

It’s not all about football anymore in Boise. At 9-2, the long-dormant basketball Broncos are off to one of their best starts in school history. Boise State wins over Creighton and LSU, and lost on the road at Michigan State by just four points. Boise State should be 12-2 when it travels to Laramie for a big conference opener against Wyoming on Jan 9. The Broncos aren’t  used to being in this position; they’ve have never earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament and are rarely even in the conversation.

But that has changed this season, thanks to the play of a pair of sophomores. Guard Derrick Marks (19.5, 3.5 apg, 3.5 rpg) has gone off, becoming a major contributor and putting his name in the conversation for Mountain West Player of the Year. Marks torched Creighton for 35 points in the Broncos’ upset win, and put up 34 in an 89-70 evisceration of LSU . Fellow sophomore Anthony Drmic (15.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) has also been outstanding

It’s interesting that Boise State basketball has risen to the level of its competition in the fiesty Mountain West. No one expected the Broncos to challenge national powers UNLV, San Diego State, et al., but Boise nearly picked off San Diego State as the seventh-seed in the conference tournament last season. They’ve got great facilities and a gym that has hosted NCAA Tournament games for years. Throw in a truckload of football money, a solid head coach in Leon Rice, and the fact that Marks and Drmic are only sophomores, and the future looks bright for the Broncos.

KEY STRETCH: There aren’t many breaks on the Mountain West schedule, and we will know much more about the Broncos a month from now, when they’ll travel to Nevada, Colorado State, and San Diego State and host UNLV.



 Santa Clara (11-3) 

Sweet-shooting guard Kevin Foster has led SCU to an 11-3 record. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

Sweet-shooting guard Kevin Foster has led SCU to an 11-3 record. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

The Broncos own a very impressive win at Saint Louis and have an explosive threat in guard Kevin Foster , who hung 30 on the Billikens. Foster (18.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) has a picture-perfect shooting stroke and has become a tremendous offensive player for the Broncos. He’s the perfect scoring compliment to Evan Roquemore, who is a pass-first point guard who can add scoring punch when neccessary. Roquemore is averaging 6.5 assists per game and 13.8 points. Throw in 6-8 forward Marc Trasolini (16.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Santa Clara has become a legitimate threat to challenge Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. Santa Clara led Duke in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, where the Blue Devils have won something like 4,000 straight non-conference home games.

Back-to-back overtime losses to Utah State and Cal-Santa Barbara might eventually prove too much to overcome for Santa Clara’s at-large hopes, but this team is good enough to roll through the West Coast Conference schedule and knock off BYU and Saint Mary’s. The WCC is a good enough league to land two or three NCAA bids, so SCU can position itself to grab one if it finishes in the top two in conference play.

KEY GAME: Jan 5 vs. Gonzaga. If the Broncos can pull the upset at home, they’ve got an opportunity to really make some noise in the WCC. The next nine games are winnable, until SCU travels to BYU on Feb 2. The schedule is tough down the stretch, so this game could prove huge for Santa Clara.



Charlotte (11-2)

Okay, so the 49ers haven’t really beaten anybody, but it’s been a long while since Charlotte has had a start like this one. The Niners rolled off nine straight wins to start the season, and their only two losses are to Miami (FL) and Florida State. Still, the most impressive of their wins may be a triumph at 6-5 Davidson, so there’s a lot left to prove. Only two players average in double figures in scoring, but Chris Baswell (13.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has been impressive down low.

The 49ers probably should have beaten Florida State at home (they lost 79-76), but they’ll still have an opportunity to enter the game at Richmond on Jan. 19 with a 15-2 record. Win that one, and they’ll be in good shape to traverse the next seven games, where they’ll take on Xavier, Butler, VCU, Temple and Saint Louis. An 11-2 start gives the Niners a shot to hang around in the bubble conversation until they reach the meat of the Atlantic 10 schedule.


 Canisius (9-3)

The Golden Griffins have reached the NCAA Tournament exactly once since 1957, and that was in 1996. But, Canisius is off to a gravity-defying 9-3 start, and owns wins over Boston University, St. Bonaventure, and  Temple. The Temple win, which came on the road, is huge for the Golden Griffins, especially because the Owls turned around and beat No. 4 Syracuse in the Garden a few days later. Canisius is paced by junior guard Billy Baron, the son of head coach Jim Baron. The duo came to Canisius from Rhode Island, where Jim was relieved of his coaching duties last year. Billy is averaging 17.6 points and 5.3 assists per game. Senior guard Harold Washington is also putting up 14.3 points per game.

Canisius isn’t getting an at-large bid unless it runs the table the rest of the way, so it doesn’t really matter that it is off to a 9-3 start unless it makes some noise in the conference tourney. But for this school, which habitually dwells in the MAAC basement, starting out 9-3 is a big deal.




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