These players, coaches, conferences and teams have changed our perceptions, expectations and projections in the middle of the season. Some for better, some for worse. The bottom line is that we have a completely different take on these players right now than we did in November.
Some of these characters even changed our minds overnight. They’ve certainly transformed our opinions.
Austin Rivers -- Before The Shot, Rivers had taken a turn toward his potential. Entering Wednesday night’s buzzer-beating victory over North Carolina (more on the Tar Heels soon), he’d averaged 16.5 ppg, shot 47.4 percent from the field and hit 39.3 percent of his 3s in his past six games. His early struggles suggested that he might not live up to the preseason buzz. The first-year combo guard is beginning to put it together at the right time. But the Blue Devils need Rivers to lead for the rest of the season.
North Carolina -- The Tar Heels were the preseason favorites to win the national title. They entered the season No. 1 on every chart that mattered. With Harrison Barnes & Co. returning for another year, the expectations for the program were grand. Their collapse over the last three minutes of their Wednesday home loss to Duke only showcased the ongoing concern about a Tar Heels squad that has four losses before mid-February. They don’t pounce on opponents or execute like past championship-caliber Tar Heels squads. The pre-NCAA tournament stakes don’t get higher than a rivalry game against the Blue Devils. And this talented group couldn’t finish. The doubts should persist.
Jeff Withey -- He’s soft. He can’t fill the void inside. He has a limited skill set. Preseason doubts about Bill Self’s program were fueled by concerns about Jeff Withey. Could he assist Thomas Robinson inside? Was he going to be tough enough to handle the rugged Big 12? He's answered. Withey has been crucial for Kansas. The 7-footer looked like Shaq Withey (25 points) in his team’s road win over Baylor Wednesday. He has four double-doubles this season and he’s reached double figures in seven of the last eight games. And he’s a defensive star (3.0 bpg). Beyond the numbers, however, he’s battled the most physical players in the league without hesitation and squashed concerns about his toughness.
Frank Haith -- When Haith took the Missouri job, he was questioned due to a so-so stint at Miami. He never turned Miami into a factor in the ACC during his time with the Hurricanes. This season, however, he’s been one of the best coaches in America. He’s winning with seven guys and no size. And he’s coaching a team that’s executed in clutch situations against top teams: home against Kansas, on the road against Baylor. Missouri just doesn’t panic. They play with a rare calm. They’re competing for a coach who’s proved to be trustworthy in difficult scenarios. Haith is coaching his tail off right now. And that has reversed the negative perceptions he had to fight when he arrived.
Indiana -- The Hoosiers were the early delight in college basketball. A team that had struggled to find solid ground after a major scandal disrupted the program four years ago finally moved forward. Their wins over Kentucky and Ohio State seemed to revive the entire program and its fan base. I’m not going to call those wins flukes, although Indiana continues to struggle in Big Ten play. Those who’ve monitored Indiana’s recent challenges can appreciate how far the Hoosiers have come. The problem with beating two of the best teams in America, however, is that it raises expectations in the middle of the season. And that’s what happened to the Hoosiers. Unbeknownst to them, the victories over the Buckeyes and Wildcats raised the bar, one they haven’t reached since those monumental upsets. The Hoosiers might finish strong. If they don’t, they’ll continue to face questions about their downturn and challenges on the road.
Perry Jones III -- Think fast. There are 10 seconds to play. Baylor has the ball in a tied NCAA tournament game. Who takes the final shot? Entering the season, most would have answered Perry Jones. The lottery-bound forward with “EA Sports create-a-player” versatility is the best player on a very talented team. He scored 28 points at BYU, three weeks after the conclusion of a six-game suspension. Since then, however, questions about his toughness have multiplied. His 1-for-8 (5 points) performance against the Jayhawks Wednesday didn’t help his cause. You can’t doubt his talent. But too many times, we’ve watched Jones become a supporting actor in tight games. He’s supposed to be like Denzel every night. Always in a leading role.
John Calipari -- The Kentucky coach’s recent success has been attributed to his recruiting, not his coaching. But recruiting alone can’t explain the development of this young group. Anthony Davis’ offense. Marquis Teague’s improvement. And even though the Wildcats’ next-level offense has received most of the credit this season, they’re playing great defense (fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). Yes, Calipari has an outstanding assembly of talent. But they’ve been molded into America’s top team by Calipari and his staff.
The Mountain West -- Most didn’t know what to expect from the Mountain West before the season started, especially with BYU joining the WCC. The Runnin’ Rebels had a new coach. Steve Fisher had lost multiple starters, including NBA first-round draft pick Kawhi Leonard. But the Mountain West has proved to be deeper and better than preseason projections suggested. Dave Rice’s squad is one of the best teams in the country. Fisher is a national coach of the year candidate. New Mexico is a top-tier team, too. And both Wyoming and Colorado State might fight their way into the field of 68. The Mountain West is legit.
Fab Melo -- Syracuse is deep. So when Fab Melo missed three games due to an academic issue, many figured the Cuse would keep rolling. Based on the way Syracuse played without him and the way it’s competed since he’s returned, it’s clear that Melo is a significant component for Jim Boeheim’s team. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Syracuse recorded 19 second-chance points combined in the three games that Melo missed, but the Orange had scored 10 or more second-chance points in 18 of 21 games entering Wednesday’s victory over Georgetown. Melo has recorded eight blocks in his team’s past two games. Yep, Melo matters.
UConn -- It seemed unfair for the Huskies to sign Andre Drummond last fall. Like the Miami Heat trade. Jeremy Lamb was a preseason All-America first-teamer after helping the Huskies win last season’s national title. They’d lost Kemba Walker but added some pieces (see Ryan Boatright) that led many to believe they’d be in contention again this season. The reality, however, has been a disaster. It’s not just one problem, it’s a multitude of them. And now Jim Calhoun is on medical leave, although he says he hopes to return. It seems like every week the situation gets even worse for UConn.