As college basketball goes forward this season, some teams have been pleasant surprises. 

The year of 2020 has been one of the craziest on record and the craziest in my lifetime.

Since March we have seen the following: the postponement of March Madness, the NBA Finals moved to the fall, no huge galleries at The Masters…… all this due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When 2020 slips away into the dark of night as the ball drops…. do not be surprised that you do not see many people in New York City for New Years’ in Times Square.

There have been some surprises in the sports world though.

In college football, we are close to seeing a possible college football playoff…. something that was thought to be unheard of in mid-July in this country. Even with some schools staying virtual and athletes meeting their professors on Zoom or Google Meets, the ability for college sports to continue on has been a remarkable and surprising feat so far. It hasn’t been perfect…. but it has been surprising.

In college basketball, we have seen some programs make some surprising jumps from last year. We have also seen some programs make some surprising drops. Whether this is Covid related remains to be seen …… but one thing is for sure. Games are way different with very few fans in the stands than they would be on a normal basis. For some basketball players, it must seem like the days of AAU where only college recruiters filled the stands. For others, it must seem like the ultimate pickup game….. except it counts.

Needless to say…. the fact that college basketball teams are playing is a surprise in itself. Let’s take a look though at some of the teams who are making a name for themselves during a time that has came and surprised us all.

Here are five of the most surprising college hoops teams on the scene today:

1. Iowa Hawkeyes

“Uh-huh, you know what it is
Black and yellow
Black and yellow
Black and yellow
Black and yellow”

The lyrics may have been made memorable by Wiz Khalifa during the miraculous run of VCU and Shaka Smart a few years ago but in the cornfields of Iowa…. it may just become the new state song.

Luka Garza, CJ Fredrick, and Jordan Bohannon have formed quite the trio for the Hawkeyes. The cornfields of the Midwest are seeing these birds average 100 points a game over the last four games. The Hawkeyes found themselves ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the year last year at #25. Now just a few games into this crazy 2020-21 season, the Hawkeyes are making a strong push to represent the Big Ten as the number one team in the country. With the trio of Garza, Fredrick, and Bohannon staying healthy, number one looks like a possible reality sometime in the near future and Iowa could be everyone in the Big Ten the bird!

2. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Let’s face it. The Big Ten has a lot of clout right now to possibly call itself the best conference in the nation. How might you ask? With two teams ranked in the top four, seven teams ranked in the Top 25 and two teams receiving votes for a total of nine…..the Big Ten is looking to be the Death Star of college basketball. One of those teams in this basketball group of stormtroopers comes out of New Jersey. Steve Pikiell, who once was the basketball magician at Stony Brook (leading them to the Big Dance), has brought the glitter and glam to New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights are ranked in the Top 25 this year for the first time since 1978 and with a guard with the name of Ron Harper JR. helping lead the way why not. The Scarlet Revolution is real in New Jersey and at this rate… the street in front of the arena will be called Pikiell Place in no time.

3. Houston Cougars

The Cougars are seeing a hoops revival in 2020 in the Lone Star State that hasn’t been heard of since the days of Phi Slamma Jamma. Clyde Drexler and Akeem the Dream had their high flying hopes dashed by a Cinderella team out of Raleigh, North Carolina in the 1980s. Now nearly forty years later, Kelvin Sampson is looking to bring a new swagger to southeast Texas. Houston has been led by two home state products, Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser. These two Cougars have been very impressive in the young season… especially in a neutral site showdown in Fort Worth against their ranked in-state opponent Texas Tech. Look for Cougars and Sampson to be making even more noise in March if Covid doesn’t become college basketball’s biggest opponent this year.

4. Duke Blue Devils 

Why are the Blue Devils in this list of surprising basketball teams? Well for one, the news isn’t positive that’s for sure. In fact, Duke is in a world of Hurt. Hurt…. as in Matthew Hurt. This man child is a 6’9 forward from Minnesota who has been the only consistent force for the Blue Devils this year. So far…Duke, which is (2-2) and ranked #21 in the latest poll, is (0-2) against Big Ten competition with losses to Illinois and Michigan State. Coach K, which came out recently as saying that college basketball should reassess playing in this year of Covid, has been given the perception that just maybe he is looking for an escape clause for his Blue Devil team and how they have performed in the early going of this year. And looking at the stats, this team reminds you some of the 1995 team led by another inside force, named Cherokee Parks, that didn’t fare very well in a Coach K-less year. While the times have changed in the evolution of the game in the past 25 years, one thing hasn’t changed. The fervor for which some people want to see the Blue Devils lose and actually seem human. The only thing that is positive for Duke fans everywhere with being ranked at #21? Their much-hated nemesis down the road, the Tar Heels of UNC, are ranked right behind them at #22. While this is a unique year to say the least, one of the drawing points for players to come to Duke is to play in front of the Cameron Crazies. For now Cameron sits silently which is enough to make Coach K go crazy himself ….. his basketball team not withstanding. You can understand why he feels college basketball needs to reassess. As long as Covid hangs around, he will miss his main player that isn’t even on the playing floor but surrounding it……. The Crazies.

5. Tennessee Volunteers

Last but not least, the team that may be the biggest surprise of all… the Tennessee Volunteers.

The Vols didn’t even break into the final Top 25 at all last year. Now Rick Barnes has the Volunteers currently ranked as the #10 ranked team in the nation. Everything about this program is a complete surprise really.

Tennessee was needing a head basketball coach after Cuonzo Martin failed to do the job needing done by Vol fans after experiencing strong success under former coach Bruce Pearl. Donnie Tyndall was brought in but soon let go after he was brought up in an investigation at his previous job. Then… Texas let Rick Barnes go because he wasn’t “as successful as they wanted”. Texas brought in Shaka Smart from VCU (who hasn’t come close to having the same success while in Austin that he had in Richmond). Tennessee said, “Hey we will take him!” Rick Barnes then switched from one UT to another UT, put on another shade of Orange and the Volunteers? They haven’t been unsatisfied yet. With all the drama that has been going on with the football program, Tennessee’s resurgence on the hardwood has been a much welcome surprise to Volunteer fans. So much that since Barnes’s arrival in Knoxville, they have defeated Calipari’s Cats more times than not beating Kentucky eight times while losing just seven. For Volunteer fans, those kinds of surprises keep you around for a while. One of those leading the way for the Vols this year is John Fulkerson… a 6’9 forward from the city of Kingsport located in the East Tennessee mountains. Fulkerson is leading the way by averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds a game. Not to mention, the Volunteers are allowing opponents no more than 43 points a game on average this year. Now if that isn’t surprising in the college basketball world, I don’t know what is.

Maybe John Fulkerson has been sharing his formula for success with his other Vol teammates. After a game last year against Tennessee Tech in which Fulkerson scored 15 points (not to mention four dunks) and led the Vols to a 43 point win, he credited his success to eating at Pal’s a lot over break. Pal’s being a small hometown restaurant in the surrounding East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia area known for their sweet tea and their famous “Frenchie fries”.

John, if that’s the formula that brings surprising success to anyone…… pass the Pal’s, please.

So…. you tell me. Who do you think has brought the most surprises to college basketball this year?

By Shannon Boy

Male. 45 yrs old Raised in mountains of Southwest Virginia. Currently living in the hills of East Tennessee.. JV boys basketball head coach / Varsity assistant at Gate City HS in Gate City, Virginia. Social Studies teacher at Scott Co. Alternative Education Center. Love the beach, hiking, biking, running, lifting, camping, fishing, road trips, thunderstorms, Chinese food and all kinds of music and movies. Virginia Class 2 State Champions for 2018!