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Mike Lopresti | | January 5, 2023

The impressive teams around men's hoops you may not have expected

Top 10 freshmen in men's college basketball, so far

The year is only days old and already 2023 has reminded us of a couple of college basketball truisms.

One, you don’t have to be ranked to make a lot of noise. And two, sometimes the past doesn’t matter.

You won’t find these guys in the top 25, but look what they’ve been up to just since New Year’s Eve:

The worst nightmare for the state of Indiana

Rutgers men's basketball celebrating win over Purdue

That’d be Rutgers. Three years ago, the Scarlet Knights were everybody’s favorite Big Ten target, going 16-76 in league games after five seasons in the conference. Times have changed.

Purdue suffered a case of Deja Vutgers on Monday when the Scarlet Knights knocked off a No.1-ranked Boilermakers team with a 3-pointer in the last seconds, just like they did last season. That was their fifth win over Purdue in the past six games. They took down No. 10 Indiana in December for their sixth consecutive victory against the Hoosiers. Purdue and Indiana have 46 Big Ten basketball titles between them, but they’re 1-11 the past four seasons against the former doormat from the East.

So you can understand these words Monday night from Purdue coach Matt Painter: “What Rutgers did tonight didn’t shock the coaching staff. We sold it and sold it and sold it like, `Hey man, these guys are coming.’ If we were going to war, we would stop by New Jersey and pick them up. They play for keeps... right now we’ve got to learn to play for keeps.”

The team picked to finish last in its conference

Kansas State men's basketball celebrating win over Texas

Yep, there Kansas State was in the Big 12 preseason poll — alone at the bottom in 10th place. And no wonder, since the Wildcats went 13-41 in conference play the past three seasons. But they left Austin, Texas with a 13-1 record (2-0 in the Big 12) and the scoreboard smoking after beating No. 6 Texas in a track meet 116-103 on Tuesday.

The 219 combined points were 20 more than had ever been scored in a regulation Big 12 game. The 116 were the most points by an unranked team in a win over an AP top 10 opponent in nearly 35 years and the most in a road win since the poll was born in 1948. With the sports world stunned by the on-field collapse of Buffalo Bill Damar Hamlin, it rekindled the memory of Keyontae Johnson's frightening heart-related emergency two years ago when he played for Florida. Johnson recovered and is now a Wildcat. He scored 28 points against Texas.

“I think people who complain about the (lack of) scoring in college basketball, I think they got to see a whole bunch of scoring tonight,” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said. “For those of us who consider ourselves defensive coaches, it was a headache, but it was a lot of fun to be a part of.”

FUN READ: Some of the best names in men's college basketball this season, and the stories behind them

The team picked to finish 14th in the ACC

Pitt men's basketball

It was hard to quibble with Pittsburgh’s low rung early this season when the Panthers started 1-3, losing to West Virginia by 25 points, Michigan by 31 and VCU by four when they allowed 15 points in the final two minutes.

Now a recount is in order. In five days over the past weekend, Pitt beat North Carolina by two points and Virginia by three. That has the Panthers 11-4 overall and 4-0 in the ACC. Jeff Capel was 21-53 in regular season ACC games in his first four years, but there is a new look to Pitt; three of the four Panthers currently averaging double figures in scoring were at Iowa State, Colgate and Marquette last season. Before arriving at Pitt, leading scorer Blake Hinson had not played in a game since March 11, 2020. That was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

The five Panthers who opened against Virginia had 88 combined starts among them for Pittsburgh. Virginia guard Kihei Clark had 120 by himself for the Cavaliers.

The team that was 21-147 all-time in its conference before this season

San Jose State has not had much fun in the Mountain West, so imagine the joy when the Spartans knocked off UNLV in overtime and Colorado State 78-70 to start league play 2-0. They had been 0-23 all-time against Colorado State until last weekend.

San Jose State lost by three points at Boise State on Tuesday, but that shouldn't dim the good karma. The Spartans are now 11-5. To put that in perspective: they had double-digit wins for the entire season only once in the previous 11 years. The 2-0 start was the first time they had ever been above .500 in Mountain West play. The victory at Colorado State was the program’s first true road conference win in nearly six years.

“You have to believe, you have to have this kind of fierce mentality,” coach Tim Miles said, and in under two years, he has remarkably convinced his team about that. In going 8-23 last season, San Jose State played Colorado State and UNLV back-to-back at home in January and lost by 36 and 25 points.

INTO THE VAULT: A decade-by-decade look back on men's college basketball's '3' ending years

The ACC team that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game in seven years

NC State men's basketball celebrating in win over Duke

NC State would love to remedy that, here in the 40th anniversary season of the famous 1983 underdog national champions, but that’s for March. Getting moving in ACC play is the focus now, and a 1-3 start in the league is not what coach Kevin Keatts had in mind. But then came Wednesday night, when the Wolfpack had Duke in trouble as soon as the national anthem was over.

The game was little more than seven minutes old and the NC State lead was 15-0 before the Blue Devils scored. The 84-60 final was the worst loss to an unranked ACC opponent in Duke history.

Having fun yet in that first year, Jon Scheyer?

“I knew this when I took the job, that there’s going to be some moments like this where people can doubt you, they can doubt us as a team,” said the Blue Devils coach. “Sometimes the best way to learn is to experience it.”

The Big East team that lost its top five scorers from last season

Is Providence enduring a rebuilding year? Hardly. When the Friars upset No. 4 UConn 73-61 on Wednesday, it gave them a 5-0 start in Big East play. The last time Providence did that was... never. The transfer portal taketh away but it also giveth.

The team from the school that’s a little busy with another sport

We interrupt the Georgia buildup toward the College Football Playoff championship date with TCU next Monday to mention that the basketball Bulldogs knocked off No. 22 Auburn 76-64 on Wednesday and are now 11-3, only a year after they finished 6-26.

There are new faces, of course, such as leading scorer Terry Roberts, who came in from Bradley. And Mike White, who made the intraleague coaching hop from Florida and whose selection as the new man was announced last March — on Selection Sunday. Now his team has started 1-0 in the SEC. The Bulldogs had one league win last season, too. Plus 17 losses.

This Saturday should be interesting for White as Georgia goes to Florida.

“Our guys have been through a lot,” White said after the Auburn win. “I want them to feel good about it.”

All the above clamor by the unranked in five days. It would seem 2023 has blasted off.

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