Rivals.com College Basketball Editor
We're past the halfway point of the basketball season, and it's time to recognize some teams that have been much better than expected.
Here's a look at six teams that at least have a chance to go to the NCAA tournament after opening the season with most observers thinking they'd be lucky to finish .500.
California Last season: 17-16. This season: 16-4.
Buzz: The biggest difference is the coach. Former Stanford head man Mike Montgomery replaced Ben Braun, and what had been an underachieving team actually is overachieving a bit this season. If not for a shocking home loss to Oregon State, the Golden Bears would be tied for the league lead with Washington. Cal is a legit contender for the Pac-10 title as it heads into the week, but the Golden Bears play at UCLA and USC this week. We'll get a better idea of whether Cal is a top-five seed or in the No. 7 or 8 range this week. Cal hasn't been to the NCAA tourney since 2006 and hasn't won an NCAA game since 2003. The backcourt of Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle is one of the most potent in the nation, and the Golden Bears are shooting a phenomenal 46.9 percent from 3-point range. Depth is a factor – Cal really only goes seven deep – but good shooting, solid defense and a great bench coach means the Golden Bears could do more damage as the season progresses.
Illinois Last season: 16-19. This season: 17-3.
Buzz: The Illini's resurgence actually began late last season, when they shockingly advanced to the final of the Big Ten tourney before falling. Coach Bruce Weber was under some heat as the season started. Since Illinois lost in the national title game in 2005, it had won one NCAA tourney game, as a No. 4 seed in 2006. The Illini were a No. 12 seed in '07 and didn't make the field last season. Weber and his staff have assembled top-notch recruiting classes for 2009 and 2010, but what about this season? Well, the Illini have exceeded all expectations and have a great shot at finishing in the top three in the Big Ten. At the least, they should finish in the top five and an NCAA bid awaits barring a collapse. It's hard to see this team collapsing because of sophomore guard Demetri McCamey, who has been one of the Big Ten's best players. He is one of four Illini players averaging in double figures. Illinois is solid from 3-point range, and as with all Weber teams, the Illini are playing excellent defense.
Missouri Last season: 16-16. This season: 17-3.
Buzz: The Tigers were just sort of there in coach Mike Anderson's first two seasons, and he was feeling a little bit of heat heading into this season. That heat is gone as the Tigers are headed for their first 20-win season since 2002-03. Senior forwards DeMarre Carroll – who is Anderson's nephew – and Leo Lyons are leading the way. Carroll, who started his career at Vanderbilt, is the Tigers' leading scorer and rebounder. Lyons – who is no stranger to off-court problems – is second in both categories. The Tigers go 10 deep and the players appear to have finally bought into Anderson's up-tempo attack. Mizzou forces almost 20 turnovers per game. The Tigers also average almost 20 assists per game, which is evidence of an unselfish group – and one that looks for a good shot. Mizzou plays three of its next four on the road, and Anderson likely is worried about his team's poor free-throw shooting and relative lack of size. Still, Missouri should remain in the hunt for the Big 12 title and appears headed for its first NCAA berth since 2003.
Penn State Last season: 15-16. This season: 16-5
Buzz: Penn State is one of the worst basketball programs in the Big Ten; heck, it's one of the worst in the "Big Six" conferences. The Nittany Lions have made just eight NCAA appearances, none since 2001 and only three since 1965. This season, though, there's at least a chance the Nittany Lions get an invitation. They own wins over Michigan and Purdue and play solid defense. The backcourt of sophomore Talor Battle and senior Stanley Pringle is undersized – Battle is 5 feet 11, Pringle 6-1 – but both are extremely quick and excellent 3-point shooters. Battle also is tough: He averages 5.6 rebounds, second on the team. On the flipside, a lack of depth hurts − 6-5 senior forward Jamelle Cornley is the only guy in the frontcourt who can score, and five of the Nittany Lions' next seven games are on the road. While the Nittany Lions may not be headed to the NCAAs, an NIT bid looks good and coach Ed DeChellis looks to have saved his job.
TCU Last season: 14-16. This season: 13-7.
Buzz: Former Kansas assistant Neil Dougherty never was able to get the Horned Frogs over the hump in his six seasons – just one season above. 500 – so enter Jim Christian, who was hired away from Kent State. Christian had led Kent State to six consecutive 20-win seasons but took over a school bereft of basketball tradition. TCU has been to seven NCAA tournaments, but the last appearance was in 1998 and the last tourney win was in 1987. TCU isn't going to win the Mountain West this season and isn't headed to the NCAAs, either. But the Horned Frogs have beaten UNLV and have a chance at 20 wins for the first time since 2004-05. TCU is young – there's just one senior on the roster – and given Christian's skill on the sideline, the deep Mountain West looks as if it will get even deeper.
VMI Last season: 14-15. This season: 16-3
Buzz: The Keydets weren't that good last season, and they lost their best player, Reggie Williams, the two-time national scoring leader. But here they are 16-3, including an eight-point win at Kentucky, and they lead the nation in offense at 95.1 points per game. VMI averages 13.5 3-pointers per game and is hitting 37.1 percent of its long-range attempts. Four players average at least 15.9 points per game – twins Chavis and Travis Holmes lead the way – and the Keydets also average 14.3 steals per game. The Keydets have won 50 games total the past five seasons, but coach Duggar Baucom has them thinking "NCAA bid" for the first time since 1977 and just the fourth time in school history. VMI is small, poor on the boards and doesn't play good defense. But the Keydets' offensive style and 3-point proficiency makes them dangerous in the Big South – and in the tournament, if they get there.
Tuesday, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. In some respects, though, his brother-in-law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, had a better week.
Oregon State pulled two big upsets since Obama was inaugurated, winning at California by four and at Stanford by 15. The wins came after Robinson attended the inauguration and gave the Beavers three Pac-10 victories a season after they had none.
"Initially, we were surprising ourselves out there," Robinson said. "Now we have a locker room full of guys who expect to come into a game and win it every single time."
Oregon State plays its next four at home. While this is not an NCAA tourney team, it is a squad that has NIT hopes.
We mentioned the Tennessee football coaching staff and its projected salary for next season last week. Well, the figures are in, and the Vols' assistants will make $3.35 million, which is believed to be the highest total in the nation.
Big rivalry games won't end the season for eight Pac-10 teams next season. Instead of Arizona-Arizona State, Cal-Stanford, UCLA-USC and Washington-Washington State, we'll get Arizona at USC and Cal at Washington on Dec. 5. Boo.
For those who like to plan ahead, the 2009 national title game will be Jan. 7, 2010, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. And remember that because ABC has a TV deal with the Rose Bowl, it also will broadcast the title game next season.
Good news for East Carolina in that starting quarterback Patrick Pinkney was granted a sixth season of eligibility. His return means ECU should be the preseason favorite to win the East Division title in Conference USA; the Pirates are the defending league champion.
Washington has "the greatest coaching staff in America." Well, that's what new Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian says, anyway. He and his new staff were introduced at halftime of Washington's basketball victory over UCLA on Saturday. While the "greatest coaching staff" comment is nothing but hyperbole, one thing Sarkisian said that should warm the hearts of Huskies fans is that his team will be physical and knock opponents around. That hasn't been the case at Washington for a while.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at email@example.com.