Can you feel it? Is the excitement palpable? Is that rush of energy in the air thick enough to smell? Indeed, we're only a few days away from ... the start of conference play in college basketball. Wait. What did you think I was talking about?
Which means it's probably as good a time as ever to take a step back and look at which teams have surprised in their nonconference schedules thus far (and which teams have disappointed; we'll be posting that list shortly). In no particular order, here are the five teams that sure look much better than anyone could have expected before the 2009-10 season began:
Syracuse: OK, so there is some small bit of order here. Syracuse tops this non-numbered list for symbolic reasons: Perhaps no team has done more with less preseason esteem than the Syracuse Orange. Think about it. The Orange hovered around the fringes of the top 25 for most of the late offseason. Then, an exhibition loss to the LeMoyne Dolphins -- yes, it was just an exhibition game, but still: LeMoyne? -- shook whatever confidence most had in Syracuse recovering from the losses of star point guard Jonny Flynn and irascible sharpshooter Eric Devendorf. This would be a down year for the 'Cuse, a rebuilding year, and Jim Boeheim would mutter ineffectually throughout, merely along for the ride.
Uh, no. Not so much. As of this post, Syracuse has pounded California at Madison Square Garden; the next night, they did the same to North Carolina. The Cuse beat Florida in St. Petersburg by 12. They're the fourth-best team in the country according to Ken Pomeroy's early season calculations (a certain degree of small sample size concern applies here; it is only Dec. 23). Forward Wesley Johnson has come from relative obscurity and made himself a player of the year candidate in short order, and Boeheim might have the most athletic defensive lineup to play his hyperactive 2-3 zone since Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick were wearing orange. Down year? Not so much. Not at all.
Kansas State: K-State coach Frank Martin has had his doubters. For good reason. When former coach Bob Huggins left for West Virginia, Martin was seen as a salve; if Martin got the job, uber-recruits Michael Beasley and Bill Walker would stick around, and K-State would have its one magical moment in the sun. But Martin has built another solid team in 2009-10. It starts with guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, the latter of whom is averaging 20 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field (including about 43 percent from beyond the arc). The Wildcats are yet another of the Big 12's quietly good teams. But if they keep playing this way -- they're now 11-1 -- they won't be quiet for long.
New Mexico: The most notable story of New Mexico's sports year? Awesomely violent soccer player Elizabeth Lambert. New Mexico's hoops team has a chance to change that: The No. 19-ranked Lobos are off to a 12-0 start under coach Steve Alford, who you may remember from his relatively brief, morally ambiguous time in Iowa City. Whatever didn't work in Iowa City appears to be working in the desert; the Lobos have beaten Cal and Texas A&M (Ed. note: thanks to commenter birdieraider for the correction) thanks to the second-lowest turnover rate in the country and offense ranked No. 11 in adjusted efficiency.
Northwestern: Guess who has the second best nonconference record of any team in the Big Ten? (I just bolded the team's name to the left of that question; this shouldn't be a brain-buster.) Yes, it's the Northwestern Wildcats, who sit at 11-1 and whose only loss came to Butler. The Wildcats have semi-quality wins over Notre Dame (72-58) and Iowa State (67-65). Sure, it's not the most impressive 11 wins ever, but this is Northwestern basketball, and given that all of Northwestern's hope seemed lost when star Kevin Coble was lost for the year, it's a very impressive beginning. Next up: Winning nine or 10 games in the Big Ten and getting to that first NCAA tournament. Hmm.
UAB: And last but not least, another deposed Big Ten coach having some program-building success at a smaller school. I speak, of course, about Mike Davis and UAB, who are 11-1 overall with a pair of impressive wins on their resume. The first came in 64-47 blowout over a talented Cincinnati squad last week. The latest came on Tuesday night, when the Blazers beat Butler by 10 at Bartow Arena. With Memphis in rebuilding mode and Tulsa showing cracks in the facade early, UAB could be your new Conference USA favorite. So maybe Mike Davis can coach after all.