New Mexico may be one of the contenders. The Lobos weren't expected to challenge for the Mountain West title, not with BYU, UNLV and San Diego State loaded up for a conference title run.
The Lobos were supposed to be in a reshuffling mode with the departures of Tony Danridge, Chad Toppert and Daniel Faris, all double-figure scorers from last season's 22-12 NIT squad. Dumping forward Isaiah Rusher -- who was expected to be a major contributor -- before the season was another blow.
The Lobos enter Wednesday's home game against host Cal with a 6-0 record, which includes wins at New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Miami (Ohio) and at Hawaii.
Now, I know you're not too impressed with these names and you don't need to be -- yet.
But take a look at what's ahead, and it's easy to see how the Lobos have one of the more challenging schedules for a team trying to get noticed:
• Cal (Wednesday): The Bears were picked to win the Pac-10.
• New Mexico State (Saturday): Rivalry game against a team that should be in the hunt in the WAC.
• At San Diego (Dec. 9): The Toreros beat Oklahoma in the Great Alaska Shootout and should be a top-four team in the well-respected WCC.
• Texas A&M in Houston (Dec. 12): The Aggies are now ranked at No. 22 after beating Clemson impressively, playing well against West Virginia and beating Minnesota by one in the 76 Classic in Anaheim.
• Northern Arizona (Dec. 16): This might be the only "easy" game in the bunch, with the Lumberjacks at 2-3.
• Creighton (Dec. 19): While the Bluejays were a disappointment at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando (0-3), they nearly clipped Michigan and are still one of the top two teams in the Missouri Valley.
• At Oral Roberts (Dec. 23): Beat Stanford by two points in Palo Alto, the same Cardinal team that must be doing something right to at least push Kentucky to overtime in Cancun, Mexico. This is still a difficult road game no matter who you are.
• Texas Tech (Dec. 29): The Red Raiders are currently 7-0 with a home game pending against Washington Wednesday that could get them plenty of attention.
• Dayton (Jan. 1): The Flyers are the pick to win the A-10, and they did beat Georgia Tech in Puerto Rico.
• At San Diego State (Jan. 5): Tough way to open the Mountain West.
• UNLV (Jan. 9): One of the top three teams in the MWC, the Runnin' Rebels beat Louisville at home last weekend.
• Utah (Jan. 13): The Utes just knocked off Illinois in the Las Vegas Invitational. This concludes a brutal way to open the MWC.
"I think if you look at the history of New Mexico, this has to go down as one of the toughest nonleague schedules,'' coach Steve Alford said. "Our December schedule is brutal.''
If the Lobos play it well, and the opposing teams perform well from this point forward, (squads like Cal, Dayton, Texas A&M and San Diego) then suddenly the Lobos' power rating could take shape quite nicely. "Until our league gets the respect of always having three or four teams in, we've got no other option than to do this,'' Alford said. "We have to schedule this way or win the conference tournament. That's the deal right now, and we understood this when we put it together.''
Alford has received quality production from Darington Hobson (18.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and forward Roman Martinez (14.7, 5.7), but the bigger surprise might be that Phillip McDonald can light it up at times. He went for 27 points at New Mexico State.
"I didn't know we'd have this much balance,'' Alford said. "We lost our three top scorers, three really good seniors.''
Playing Cal, which is still not at full strength until it gets Theo Robertson and Harper Kamp back in the lineup for good, gives the Lobos a barometer to see how good they will be this season. The Bears' guards (Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher) will be the top two guards the Lobos will defend this season. "This is a huge game for us,'' Alford said. "We've built up to this game. We didn't know we'd be 6-0, but we're playing well, and it has made this game much more important.''
Alford said he found out how tough his team could be when it blew all of a 19-point, second-half lead in a matter of nine minutes at New Mexico State, but then responded calmly and cruised to a 10-point victory.
Cal may not see the full Pit effect since the Lobos' famed arena is going through a makeover of its interior and exterior. But it's still one of the tougher environments for a road team.
Once the refurbishments are finished, the arena that desperately needed a makeover will be one of the best in the country, according to Alford. "We'll have 160 flat screens in here, 45 luxury boxes, brand-new scoreboard, locker rooms and training rooms,'' Alford said. "It will be spectacular.''
And it will provide even more of a lift if the Lobos find themselves in the postseason next March. With the upcoming schedule, they have a chance to earn their way into the NCAAs.
• Michael Glazier, who has represented plenty of schools in handling NCAA investigations, has never seen anything like the current Renardo Sidney situation at Mississippi State.
The highly touted forward continues to sit as his case is unresolved by the NCAA Eligibility Center.
Glazier is advising Mississippi State in this case. "This is a fairly new procedure, and I'm not quite sure I've seen one handled like this,'' Glazier said. "Most of the time the NCAA has identified the violations, and you know what you're dealing with. Here, they haven't identified the violations. They are asking for information, and there has been a lot of back and forth about whether they've gotten it or not. The Sidneys have complied with it. If there is more information they need, that hasn't been specified yet. They have taken the position that until they get everything they want, they won't move on his status so it's been very difficult.''
Mississippi State has played six games. The ninth game will be against UCLA in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif. Don Jackson, Sidney's Montgomery, Ala.-based attorney, said most amateurism cases hand out a 30 percent penalty. With that date fast approaching, the question is will Sidney play this season. John Riek, who transferred in but had an amateurism issue, was forced to sit the first nine games. But the problem is, as Glazier said, there doesn't seem to be a violation that has been identified yet. "We're at a standstill,'' Jackson said. "I'm hoping we have a decision but still don't know when.''
At issue, from the start, was how the Sidney family paid for its housing near two Los Angeles high schools when the family moved from Jackson, Miss.
• Glad to see the AP poll got it right by giving Portland its deserved spot in the Top 25 poll after it beat UCLA and Minnesota in Anaheim. Texas A&M should have been higher after going 2-1 in the event but checked in at No. 19. UNLV was somehow behind Louisville in both polls, despite just beating the Cardinals. West Virginia has shown to be more of a top-three or top-four team so far. At this point, the Top 25 poll should be based on what you have accomplished rather than strict projection. For this week, I wouldn't have had an issue if Butler was bounced out of the polls since the Bulldogs lost twice in Anaheim. Ultimately, the 76 Classic may produce seven NCAA tournament teams. And if UCLA can get its act together quickly, find more scorers and learn how to defend the way Ben Howland wants, then all eight could be in the NCAA tournament in March.