The Christmas Five

Several teams have been generating a buzz because they’re better than they were predicted to be. Georgetown, Indiana, Murray State, Creighton. These teams are off to great starts. But there are more out there, more teams whose play has been a 7-week long Christmas present to their fans. Here are five:

Wagner Seahawks (8-3)

Preseason Expectations:

Basketball Prospectus: 6th in the NEC

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 4th in the NEC

Ken Pomeroy: 207th Nationally

Dan Hurley’s Seahawks hit the national radar on Friday when they went on the road and upset Pittsburgh. But even before that they’d been playing solid basketball. They’d taken care of business against teams they were supposed to beat. They had UConn in an 8-point game at the 2nd half under-8 tv timeout before they faded. They lost a close game at Long Island (Preseason #1 in the NEC by the Blue Ribbon Yearbook) and dropped a 70-69 game against an excellent Lehigh team when Lehigh hit a three in the waning seconds. Then they went to Pitt. And won.

Now they’re at #80 in the Pomeroys and according to that site they will be favored in every remaining game of the season. They’re getting it done on the defensive end, where only four of eleven opponents have scored more than a point per possession. They’re a terror to play because they force lots of turnovers (15th nationally). Sophomore Kenneth Ortiz has the highest steal% in the conference.

The Seahawks are led by – once again – by senior Tyler Murray. Murray (13.1 ppg) has the higest offensive rating in the conference. Last year he took over 25% of Wagner’s shots while he was on the floor, but this year is under 19%. Still, he’s made 55% of his 3s, and is 46% of his 2s. Latif Rivers and Jonathon Williams are also averaging over 13 a game, but do so mainly through volume. If they can become more efficient then Wagner will really be dangerous.

Wyoming Cowboys (11-2)

Preseason Expectations:

Basketball Prospectus: 8th (of 8) in the MWC

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 6th in the MWC

Ken Pomeroy: 275th Nationally

Wyoming hasn’t beaten anyone of note, but they weren’t supposed to beat anyone. They began the season 275th in the Pomeroys and have moved all the way to 89th. The teams two best players transferred after coach Heath Schroyer was fired. Three other players left as well, and one graduated. Former Florida Gator assistant Larry Shyatt (who was Wyoming’s head coach for one season before he moved on to Clemson) stepped in and has a roster of six seniors, three juniors (all new to the program) and four freshmen. Now they’ve reeled off 11 wins in 13 starts, with one of those losses coming at Denver.

No one on the roster averages more than 12.5 a game, and like Wagner this is a team that’s getting it done defensively. Their offense is a pedestrian 174th, but their defense is 38th. And they do it by pressuring every shot. Only five schools in the nation have a lower defensive eFG%. And they’re 35th forcing turnovers. They play in the loaded Mountain West Conference so they won’t likely be in the NCAA Tournament, but any postseason event should be considered a bonus for this fanbase.

La Salle Explorers (8-4)

Preseason Expectations:

Basketball Prospectus: 13th (of 14) in the A10

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 13th in the A10

Ken Pomeroy: 217th Nationally

La Salle lost their best player in the off-season, but as coach Giannini hinted, it was addition by subtraction. Aaric Murray transferred to West Virginia (where he’s since been arrested for possession of narcotics). Now the team chemistry is much better. Not many people noticed La Salle early in the season because they began 2-3. But one was an overtime loss at Villanova, and another was a 4-point loss at Pitt. After a loss to Robert Morris the Explorers have won 6 of 7 and moved to 69th in the Pomeroys.

Offensively, they don’t turn it over (21st nationally) and are 18th in the country from beyond the arc. Three regulars (Earl Pettis, Ramon Galloway and Sam Mills) have offensive ratings of 111 or greater. On defense, they’re 17th in eFG%.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (11-2)

Preseason Expectations:

Basketball Prospectus: 3rd in the Sun Belt

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 2nd in the Sun Belt

Ken Pomeroy: 178th Nationally

The Blue Raiders, along with a host of other teams, were supposed to compete for the Sun Belt Championship, but that’s not saying much. Pomeroy had them 178th. That changed quickly after they swept a west coast trip against Loyola Marymount and UCLA. They dropped a 2OT game against Belmont and lost later to UAB, but then beat Belmont in the rematch and then beat Ole Miss. Suddenly they’re 58th in the Pomeroys and the overwhelming favorite to win the East division of the conference.

They do it by making shots. On trips when they don’t turn the ball over (236th) they’re 6th nationally in 2pt% and 11th in 3pt%. They also get to the line more than 342 Division I programs. LaRon Dendry leads the way with 14.5 a game (along with 6.4 boards), though JT Sulton has been the best player. He’s averaging 11.9 by making 58% of his 2s. Both players are excellent at getting to the line, though Sulton shoots about 10% higher.

They should be favored in at least the next 9 games before they get a shot at Vanderbilt. If they win that game, this could be a special season.

Ohio Bobcats (11-1)

Preseason Expectations:

Basketball Prospectus: 5th in the MAC

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 4th in Eastern division of the MAC

Ken Pomeroy: 110th Nationally

The bad news for Ohio is that they have no seniors and are the youngest team in the MAC. The good news for Ohio is that they have no seniors and are the youngest team in the MAC. And John Groce’s team is an enigma. Aside from forcing turnovers (9th) and bad threes (16th), they don’t do anything particularly well. They’re okay on 2s (115th), okay on 3s (108th). They’re not very good at defending the 2 (234th), and they have the rare combo of not going to the line (298th), while allowing the other team plenty of FTs (293rd). D.J. Cooper uses the 6th most possession in the conference, yet has an offensive rating that’s only alright (105.8). The player with the highest rating – Nick Kellogg – is a low volume 3-point specialist. Only one player – Reggie Keely – is in the top-500 in defensive rebounding, and he’s 499th.

The one thing the Bobcats do well is winning games. Their only loss is a 5-point loss at Louisville. They beat Lamar in OT, beat Marshall by two, beat Oakland by two, and won handily at Northern Iowa. Now they’re the favorite to win the Eastern division of the MAC, which has the conference’s four best teams. This will be a great team to follow.