The March To March: Surprise, Surprise

Philadelphia, PA ( - Not even Nostradamus could've foretold that TCU would begin 13-0.

Or prognosticate that Temple would beat Kansas by 25.

Or forecast that Old Dominion would be in the top 25 for the first time after winning just five games two years ago.

Or even predict that Notre Dame, Maryland, West Virginia, Seton Hall and Washington would all return to the national landscape.

The Big 12 never had six teams ranked in the top 25 until last week. The Horned Frogs weren't one of them, but they've been the conference's most surprising squad. They may not make it into the NCAA Tournament come March, but an appearance in any of the postseason tournaments would make this season successful.

Granted, TCU had a non-conference schedule ranked in the 300s, doesn't really own a signature win and has begun 0-3 in the Big 12. But this is a school that failed to win a conference game a year ago and has posted just two since joining the Big 12 in 2012. The Horned Frogs' solid start had them ranked in the top 25 for the first time since the 1998-99 season. They raced off to their best start in the program's 106-year history and have already surpassed last year's win total.

The Owls have been flying high since the second-semester acquisitions of Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman, evidenced by a 77-52 shellacking of Kansas on Dec. 22. They've greatly improved their 3-point shooting, 35.7 percent (60-of-168), since the duo joined the fray. Temple had shot just 24.5 percent (45-of-184) prior to their arrival. You have to take the good and the bad with streaky- shooting Morgan, however. He was 0-of-13 from beyond the arc in the Owls' 63-56 loss to Tulsa on Saturday.

The biggest difference between this year and last has been the Owls' much- improved defense. Temple allowed opponents to score 78.1 points per game and shoot 47.4 percent from the floor last season, but have surrendered just 61.8 points while combatants are connecting on just 38.2 percent of attempts during this campaign.

Old Dominion already has four top-100 wins, VCU, LSU, Georgia State and Charlotte, which might be enough for an at-large bid come March. This depends on how the Monarchs finish in Conference USA or if they slip up in the conference tournament.

Jeff Jones took over Old Dominion a year after it won five games and his team notched 18 victories. This season, the Monarchs got off to their best start in school history, although they suffered a 72-65 defeat at Western Kentucky on Saturday.

Notre Dame's ACC debut last season was a bust. The Irish (15-17) finished 11th in the conference and endured their first losing season since 1998-99. One of the main reasons for their futility was the suspension of Jerian Grant, who was lost after 12 games due to an academic issue. Notre Dame was 8-4 with him and just 7-13 without their star.

This season, like TCU, Notre Dame also had a weak non-conference strength of schedule (299), but last Monday's road win at North Carolina gave it some credibility. And so much for coach Mike Brey's "Burn" offense; the only thing the Irish are burning are the nets. They are scoring 83.3 points per game, lead the country in field-goal percentage (53.5) and are among the nation's leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (40.7).

Maryland shocked many when it took down Iowa State in the CBE Classic title game on Nov. 25, but what might've been even more stunning was its continued success despite the loss of Dez Wells. The Terrapins went 6-1 during his absence -- the lone defeat to unbeaten Virginia on Dec. 3 -- after he broke his wrist in that victory over the Cyclones. They can thank freshman Melo Trimble for that. Trimble, who was Maryland's first McDonald's All-American since Mike Jones in 2003, is currently leading the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game.

The Terps haven't made the past four NCAA Tournaments, their longest drought since 1989-93, but that should change this year.

Even with star guard Juwan Staten on the roster, nobody expected much from West Virginia this season in a loaded Big 12. But so far the Mountaineers have just two blemishes on their resume, home losses to LSU on Dec. 4 and Iowa State Saturday. They have wins over Connecticut, NC State and Wofford.

Coach Bob Huggins' full-court pressure has paid huge dividends this season. The Mountaineers are currently forcing more turnovers than any team in the country (22.3).

The momentum of Sterling Gibbs' game-winning shot in Seton Hall's Big East Tournament first round upset win over Villanova has carried over into this season. The emergence of heralded recruit Isaiah Whitehead has also been a huge factor. Gibbs leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg) and assists (3.9 apg), while Whitehead is second in both categories (11.9 ppg, 3.4 apg).

The Pirates made it into the top 25 last week after garnering a pair of upset home triumphs over then-No. 15 St. John's and then-No. 6 Villanova, then lost at Xavier before a one-point win at Creighton.

Washington's suffocating defense and shot-blocking ability had the Huskies in the top 25 prior to a poor early showing in Pac-12 play. Their 11-0 start matched the best during Lorenzo Romar's tenure as coach. The Huskies also began 11-0 during the 2005-06 campaign.

Opponents are scoring just 60.9 points per game and shooting 34.9 percent from the field. The shot-swatting presence of seven-foot Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw has made it tough for others to get a good look because of his ability to alter shots at the rim. He leads the country with 4.4 blocks per game.

All of these teams have put themselves in position for possible NCAA Tournament berths come March -- besides TCU -- as long as none of them free fall in conference.

Note: Projected bracket features predicted conference champions.

MIDWEST (Cleveland)

1. Kentucky vs. 16. South Dakota State/Alabama State winner

8. Oklahoma State vs. 9. San Diego State

4. Notre Dame vs. 13. Ohio State/Connecticut winner

5. Seton Hall vs. 12. Wofford

6. Butler vs. 11. Iowa

3. Iowa State vs. 14. Eastern Washington

7. Dayton vs. 10. NC State

2. Arizona vs. 15. American

WEST (Los Angeles)

1. Duke vs. 16. Murray State

8. St. John's vs. 9. Washington

4. West Virginia vs. 13. Georgia/BYU winner

5. VCU vs. 12. SMU

6. Texas vs. 11. Alabama

3. Maryland vs. 14. Stephen F. Austin

7. Northern Iowa vs. 10. Georgetown

2. Gonzaga vs. 15. Northeastern

EAST (Syracuse)

1. Virginia vs. 16. Coastal Carolina/New Mexico State winner

8. George Washington vs. 9. Old Dominion

4. Arkansas vs. 13. Buffalo

5. Oklahoma vs. 12. Temple

6. Baylor vs. 11. Green Bay

3. Utah vs. 14. NC Central

7. Providence vs. 10. Syracuse

2. Wisconsin vs. 15. Iona

SOUTH (Houston)

1. Villanova vs. 16. UC Santa Barbara

8. Cincinnati vs. 9. Stanford

4. Wichita State vs. 13. Georgia/BYU winner

5. North Carolina vs. 12. Harvard

6. LSU vs. 11. Xavier

3. Louisville vs. 14. Georgia State

7. Colorado State vs. 10. Michigan State

2. Kansas vs. 15. Florida Gulf Coast


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