- Fran Fraschilla, College Basketball
As the season began, it was easy to pinpoint a few teams that were clearly deserving of respect. Teams like Ohio State, North Carolina and Kentucky all flaunted top-tier rosters that served as neon marquees, announcing their status as prime-time contenders. But that's not the case with all schools, and now, with most teams at least eight games into the season, some previously unheralded squads are grabbing the spotlight by claiming some noteworthy wins.
Here's a look at some of the top wave-makers of the early season and whether they can continue their winning ways into the spring.
I have said many times since Buzz Williams became the head coach at Marquette that some teams may play as hard as the Golden Eagles, but no team plays harder. This team rarely looks past the next possession of a game and treats each and every one like it's the most important of the season. It has been the key to their success, in my opinion, and the reason they are off to another strong start.
Darius Johnson-Odom is still one of the best and most underrated guards in college basketball, and Jae Crowder -- whose clutch 3-pointer won Tuesday night's tilt against Washington -- is a quality inside-outside forward who has many of the same characteristics that NBA first-round selections Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler possess. And Williams' early-season schedule has allowed him to grow his depth, as 10 players are receiving 11 minutes of playing time or more. Junior Cadougan has been a more consistent playmaker as a junior, although he missed Marquette's win at in-state rival Wisconsin because of a violation of team rules.
In Williams' first couple of seasons, Marquette's spot in the top half of the 16-team Big East seemed to surprise many. That's no longer the case. If there is buzz about Buzz's team, it's that the Golden Eagles are very good again and don't seem to be going anywhere.
A September trip to Spain, a healthy Josh Owens and the maturation of coach Johnny Dawkins' 2010 recruiting class have been huge reasons the Cardinal are off to an 8-1 start. And, after watching them take Syracuse to the wire in the NIT Tip-off Final, I see no reason they can't maintain the early buzz and the level of play we've seen so far.
The foreign tour not only provided for team bonding and 10 extra days of practice, but Dawkins specifically wanted his team challenged by the Spanish ACB league's best teams. Although the Cardinal lost every game, the experience his young players received has jump-started their season back in the States.
Dawkins' recent recruiting success is enabling him to play 11 players eight minutes or more. Owens, a 6-foot-8 senior, leads a bevy of solid frontline players who can rebound with anyone; Stanford sits in kenpom.com's top 30 in offensive and defensive rebound rates. Sophomore Aaron Bright and freshman Chasson Randle give Stanford two quality young guards who should continue to improve as the season goes on.
What looked like a precipitous fall for the Hoyas after the graduation of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright has turned out to be one of the better coaching jobs of the early college basketball season by John Thompson III. Like Stanford, Georgetown is a young team that used a foreign tour to China to build team chemistry, and this has more than expedited the rebuilding process.
Upperclassmen Jason Clark, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson have replaced the scoring and leadership of Freeman and Wright. In fact, the trio's scoring production has jumped to more than 44 points per game, an improvement of over 20 points. In addition, Thompson has integrated four solid freshmen into his rotation, led by 6-8 forwards Otto Porter and Greg Whittington.
You could argue that the trip to China left the Hoyas literally battle-tested, because even the coach admits that the infamous brawl that took place brought his young team closer together. Given that Georgetown already has wins over Alabama on the road and against Memphis in Maui, the No. 10 ranking in the Big East preseason coaches' poll was premature. This team should claw its way back to the top of the league.
How can you not love what Harvard has done? This week, the Crimson are ranked in the Top 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll for the first time in school history after the team won the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas, dispatching Florida State in the semifinals.
The 8-0 start is no surprise, as Tommy Amaker's team returns every key player from last season's Ivy League title team. Keith Wright and Kyle Casey have the physicality to play in any league in the country and, not surprisingly, guards Oliver McNally and Brandyn Curry are a pair of cerebral players.
The buzz should continue for the Crimson because they should be favored in every game they play the rest of the season except for the next one. They play No. 9 UConn Thursday in Storrs. Ironically, the Huskies lost to UCF in the Bahamas, ruining what likely would have been the precursor game. Nevertheless, it is a great measuring stick to see where Harvard stands nationally.
It would have been easy to dismiss the Aztecs as one-hit wonders after the greatest season in the history of the program and the graduation of its first NBA lottery pick, but coach Steve Fisher has built sustained basketball success at San Diego State. That residue of success has rubbed off on the returning players.
The Aztecs are 8-2 against a quality schedule, with their only losses coming to undefeated Baylor and Creighton. They have already notched wins over Cal, USC, Arizona and mid-major upstarts UCSB and Long Beach. While Kawhi Leonard and three other starters have left, senior guard Chase Tapley has stepped into a leadership role, averaging 17 points a game. He is one of the best shooters on the West Coast.
Given the Aztecs' level of play early and the fact that the Mountain West Conference is down this season, I expect them to stay exactly where they have been since Fisher arrived over a decade ago -- at the top of the league.
There is buzz about Creighton, even if the Bluejays are operating in Omaha, Neb., and away from the national media spotlight. And, the buzz is about more than just sensational 6-8 sophomore Doug McDermott and the Blue Jays' 7-0 start.
McDermott, who won state titles in high school with North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, is off to an All-American-type season himself. He is averaging 23.7 points and nine rebounds on scorching 63 percent shooting. But he's not the only weapon coach Greg McDermott has. This team is shooting a sizzling 46 percent from behind the arc and has five regulars shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line. It keeps the heat off the younger McDermott and Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique inside.
There is a mini-renaissance in the Missouri Valley this season. Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Indiana State are out of the gate quickly. The Bluejays' road through the conference will not be without bumps, but don't expect the buzz to abate. These guys have a Butler look about them.
The Illini have some buzz, in part, because expectations were low for coach Bruce Weber's team after last season's dramatic implosion in the second half of the season. Instead, Illinois is off to an 8-0 start.
It's too early to get excited yet, however, because except for a solid win at home over Gonzaga, the Illini have not be tested by a potential Big Ten-level team. However, one of the reasons for optimism has been the rapid improvement of 7-1 sophomore Meyers Leonard. Last season, he was a nonfactor in eight minutes per game. This season, he's more than tripled his minutes and his production has skyrocketed. Junior guard D.J. Richardson, in the midst of a quietly efficient career, is the perimeter scorer who balances out Leonard's game.
Ultimately, the schedule gets tougher and Illinois' warts, including inconsistent perimeter shooting, will show. Until then, this is a nice start for a team whose chemistry seems to be better than it was a year ago.
After stubbing their toe in a home loss to Akron in their second game of the season, the Bulldogs are back on track and have reeled off wins over Texas A&M, Arizona and West Virginia. While those teams have their own issues at the moment, coach Rick Stansbury's team has shown some early-season resilience in an 8-1 start.
First, Mississippi State's best player is not Renardo Sidney. In fact, he's not their second- or third-best player so far, and that's OK. Senior guard Dee Bost leads the way on the perimeter and UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie has been a solid second banana inside. In addition, freshman forward Rodney Hood has been as good as advertised, scoring in double figures in seven of nine games.
This nucleus can contend for one of the top four spots in the SEC, and it wouldn't be the first time that Stansbury's club has done that. The buzz is starting up for this Bulldogs team. From the outside looking in, chemistry will be a key. One thing is for sure: When Mississippi State's team is on the same page, it will scare everyone in the conference.
Fran Fraschilla examines Marquette, Georgetown, Mississippi State, Stanford and other teams who are earning respect by earning key early wins.