Who are the biggest overachievers, underachievers in top leagues?

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 28, 2020

At this point, college basketball's chaos, for better or worse, has led to a series of surprises in each league. Sure, more than six weeks still remain until Selection Sunday. And we all know a lot can change between now and then.

But some of the results thus far? Few predicted the following surprises in each league.

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ACC | American | A-10 | Big 12 | Big Ten

Big East | Mountain West | Pac-12 | SEC


Overachieving: Syracuse. Picked to finish eighth in the league's preseason poll in a rebuilding year, Jim Boeheim's squad (which gets the slight edge here over an also-surprising Virginia Tech team) has started with a 6-3 record in conference play after winning five consecutive games. Yes, the ACC ain't the typical ACC this season. But the Orange climbed into the 60s of the NCAA's NET rankings and could crack the NCAA tournament bubble at this pace. Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim have combined to average more than 37 points per game, while collectively connecting on nearly 40% of their 3-point attempts.

Underachieving: North Carolina. This is an easy answer. North Carolina fans continue to tout the arrival of four McDonald's All American players in 2020-21 because -- even after a promising road win at NC State on Monday -- this season could be a wash. After securing a top-10 ranking in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, UNC entered Monday's game at NC State with a 9-10 record overall and a 2-6 record in league play. Roy Williams could miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. To suggest Cole Anthony's injury alone created this funk for UNC is wrong. The Tar Heels were 6-3 with the projected lottery pick and had made just 28.2% of their 3-pointers when he was on the floor.


Overachieving: Tulsa. Frank Haith's program started the week tied atop the American standings with Houston, both with 6-1 records in league play. Tulsa followed last week's 40-point win over Memphis with a 79-75 road win over UConn on Sunday. This year, Haith's squad added seven newcomers, which is probably why it was picked to finish 10th in the American. But junior guard Brandon Rachal (14.8 points per game) leads the best defensive team in the league (23.4% clip from beyond the arc for opponents). From 10th in the league to the NCAA tournament? It's possible.

Underachieving: Memphis. After last week's 40-point loss to a Tulsa team that had previously lost to Arkansas State, Colorado State and UT Arlington -- all sub-100 teams in the NET rankings -- by 24 points combined, the wheels fell off Penny Hardaway's bandwagon. The Tigers, who have lost four of their past six, could miss the NCAA tournament after entering the season as the co-favorite in the American with Houston. Yeah, James Wiseman's departure after playing in three games before his subsequent suspension hurt the program. But they're one of the league's worst offensive teams, committing turnovers on nearly one-quarter of their possessions and making just 64% of their free throws. This is bad. And it might get worse.

Atlantic 10

Overachieving: Dayton. Obi Toppin, a potential front-runner for the Wooden Award, and the Flyers -- a great name for a 1950s doo-wop group -- were picked to finish third in the league in the preseason poll. In Joe Lunardi's most recent bracketology, Dayton is listed as a No. 2 seed. The Flyers could become the first Atlantic 10 team to finish with an unblemished record in conference play since George Washington in the 2005-06 season. Remember, Dayton received just one vote in the AP preseason Top 25.

Underachieving: Davidson. Picked to finish second in the league's preseason poll, Davidson is off to a 4-3 start in conference play and a 10-9 record overall. The Wildcats already have suffered double-digit losses to Charlotte, Wake Forest and Temple. They needed overtime to beat St. Joseph's. Losing Luke Frampton, who took a personal leave of absence in November, hurt Bob McKillop's program. Frampton averaged 10.8 points per game last season. But the Wildcats are also ranked ninth in defensive efficiency in the American, per KenPom.com. That has to change.

Big 12

Overachieving: West Virginia. Uh-oh. The nasty, suffocating, West Virginia defense has returned. Bob Huggins' crew has now forced turnovers on nearly 25% of its Big 12 opponents' possessions. But this is more than the league's top defensive team. The Mountaineers are also its top offensive rebounding team and they lead the league with a 52.7% clip inside the arc. With Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe on the court, West Virginia's opponents have registered a 41.3% clip inside the arc. Picked to finish fifth in the league's preseason poll, West Virginia, at 4-2, could compete for the Big 12 championship and a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament.

Underachieving: Texas. The Longhorns were projected to finish fourth in the preseason poll after Matt Coleman III, Jericho Sims and a healthy Andrew Jones all returned for Shaka Smart's squad. But they're just 3-6 since Dec. 14. The challenge? The team's offensive woes continue. Per Synergy Sports data, Texas is ranked 206th overall in half-court offense, connecting on just 42.4% of its shots in those situations. In Saturday's 69-67 home loss to LSU, their third consecutive loss, the Longhorns committed turnovers once every five possessions. That's why they're 2-4 in the Big 12 with the NCAA tournament looking like a pipe dream.

Big Ten

Overachieving: Illinois. With Kofi Cockburn on the floor, Illinois is one of the best teams in the country. In those situations, Illinois has connected on 53.4% of its attempts inside the arc and held opponents to just 87 points per 100 possessions. Per the Chicago Tribune, a preseason Big Ten media poll projected Brad Underwood's squad to finish seventh. Instead, the program entered the week tied with Michigan State for first place (both 7-2) and chasing a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament. Saturday's thrilling road win over Michigan was its sixth in a row and third Big Ten road win.

Underachieving: Ohio State. In the same media poll, Chris Holtmann's team was picked to finish third. Ohio State, ranked 18th in the AP preseason poll, justified that buzz with an 11-1 start anchored by wins over Kentucky, Villanova and Penn State. Since then? The Buckeyes are 2-6. They've lost by 10 or more in five of their six Big Ten losses, including twice against Minnesota. They're shooting 37% from the 3-point line, the top mark in the league, and surrendering a 37% clip from the 3-point line, 13th in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes haven't fallen off the NCAA tournament radar, but they have to find a way to stop the free fall.

Big East

Overachieving: Butler. The Big East preseason poll pegged Butler to finish eighth in the 10-team conference. Prior to a three-game skid that ended with an overtime win against Marquette on Saturday, Butler had been pursuing a top seed in the NCAA tournament. In a strong league, Seton Hall and Villanova are on top. But Kamar Baldwin (16.2 PPG) & Co. already own wins over a series of top-30ish teams. The Bulldogs might not capture the crown, but that wouldn't be a disappointment. They were picked to finish at the bottom of the league. Now they're a player in this competitive conference.

Underachieving: Xavier. The Musketeers were picked to finish third in the preseason poll. But the lack of efficiency on offense has already doomed a team that doesn't have a player (minimum 20 attempts) who has made more than 35% of his shots from beyond the arc. They've already tumbled to a 2-5 mark in the Big East. Wake Forest is the worst loss on their résumé, but the Musketeers are just not competing the way many had anticipated they would prior to the start of the season. Xavier is struggling in multiple areas. The Musketeers have made less than 68% of their free throws this season. Standout Naji Marshall has committed turnovers on 22% of his possessions in league play too.

Mountain West

Overachieving: UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels had the look of a program that would finish at the bottom of the Mountain West standings after they were picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll. In his first year on the job, however, coach T.J. Otzelberger has compiled a 7-3 record (6-3 in the Mountain West) since Dec. 18. Bryce Hamilton has scored 90 points over the past three games and has made 38% of his shots from beyond the arc in league play. Once the Mountain West tournament arrives, UNLV could be a serious contender.

Underachieving: New Mexico. Paul Weir's program has been plagued by off-court drama. Carlton Bragg Jr., a transfer from Kansas, was kicked off the team this month after a DWI, which followed a report of a sexual misconduct accusation that had led to a suspension. JaQuan Lyle missed the team's loss at Nevada on Saturday with a knee injury. JJ Caldwell is also suspended for an undisclosed violation. Vance Jackson is nursing a knee injury. The Lobos, who are 5-4 in Mountain West play, can't do anything about the injuries. But they've unraveled with off-court trouble and having lost four of their past seven games.


Overachieving: Stanford. The Cardinal entered the season projected to finish 10th in the Pac-12 standings. But Stanford, which boasts the league's best defense, is 4-2 after six games. Saturday's road loss to Cal wasn't a good sign for the program, but it has certainly overachieved thus far. The Cardinal were picked to end the year at the bottom of an average conference. Instead, they're an early contender for the Pac-12 championship and are pursuing a comfortable seed on Selection Sunday. Tyrell Terry, who ranks atop the conference with a 50% clip from beyond the arc in conference play, will lead the way.

Underachieving: Washington. When Mike Hopkins signed Isaiah Stewart (18.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG) and Jaden McDaniels (12.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG), it appeared he would have the talent to win a Pac-12 championship and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies were picked to finish third behind Oregon and Colorado in the preseason poll. At 2-6 in the Pac-12, however, Washington could miss the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are just 2-7 since a Dec. 23 victory over Hawai'i. The problem? Based on offensive efficiency, only Cal is worse in the Pac-12. Still, they're playing with a top-three defense, so at least they're balanced. The talent is there. The execution is not.


Overachieving: Alabama. Nate Oats and Alabama are on a four-game winning streak. They lost to Florida in double overtime earlier this month but showed heart in a tough game. He has relied on Kira Lewis Jr., a sophomore averaging 16.8 points per game and connecting on 82.4% of his free throw attempts. The league's preseason poll predicted a top-six finish for the Crimson Tide, but they're ranked second in defensive efficiency in the SEC and could be a threat to any team, especially at home. Their opponents have made just 30.4% of their attempts from beyond the arc. They have the same conference record (4-2) as Auburn and Florida.

Underachieving: Georgia. Anthony Edwards could be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft after averaging 18.6 points per game at the collegiate level thus far. But his exploits have not translated to big wins for Tom Crean's crew, which is 1-5 in the SEC, perhaps the weakest SEC in the past four or five years. The silver lining might be that its current résumé includes two losses to Kentucky and another to Auburn. Will an easier stretch in February change the fortunes of Georgia's program? Maybe. But the Bulldogs have made just 27.5% of their 3-pointers in league play. On Saturday, they lost to Ole Miss by 10. At home. That doesn't seem to project success going forward. Sure, they were picked to finish ninth, but at this rate, they could finish at the bottom of the league.