It doesn’t seem possible, but North Carolina was overlooked coming into this college basketball season. The Tar Heels lost a heartbreaker to Villanova in last season’s NCAA Final, then All-American Brice Johnson and point guard Marcus Paige ran out of eligibility.
The Tar Heels were not considered among the top five teams in the country, but there are still plenty of good players in Chapel Hill, enough to make another run at a national championship. They have stormed through the competition this season, averaging 92.9 points per game and holding opponents to 65.6.
They destroyed the Maui Invitational field, beating Chaminade, 104-61, Oklahoma State, 107-75, and Wisconsin, 71-56.
Five Tar Heels are averaging double figures, but the play of guard Joel Berry (17.1 ppg, 3.3 apg) has been the most eye-opening. Forward Justin Jackson, averaging 15.4 points, is really talented and just needs to be consistent. Center Kennedy Meeks, a really big body, is averaging 13.7 points and 10.7 rebounds.
Duke, with its Kentucky-like group of one-and-dones, got most of the preseason publicity, but the Blue Devils have had a rash of injuries, and right now, the best team in the state is North Carolina.
Upsets happen. That’s part of what makes college basketball so appealing.
When a team like Indiana decides to play a road game against a lesser opponent and loses, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indiana and Tom Crean should be admired for playing at Fort Wayne last week. The Hoosiers lost, 71-68, in overtime after they played terribly and lost their composure when the game was on the line.
Hopefully, that won’t stop Indiana from playing games like this. Michigan State does it, too (remember, it played at Northeastern last season). Then you have schools like Kentucky, which refuses to play a home-and-home with Indiana. College basketball needs more of this.
Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman was magnanimous in victory, thanking Crean and Indiana and saying the game will be talked about in Fort Wayne for the next 50 years.
Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana. The Hoosiers are revered there and they hadn’t played in the city since 1977.
The arena, an old one that has been renovated, once was the home of the Fort Wayne Pistons, the forerunner of the Detroit Pistons. Two NBA Finals were played there.
It was sold out for the Indiana game, but did not have the traditional feel of a tough road game because most of the fans were behind the Hoosiers. It’s an atmosphere and scene I’d like to see repeated.
Looking at the last week
ELEVATOR GOING UP
Baylor: The Bears were a stunning winner of the Battle 4 Atlantis while beating Virginia Commonwealth, Michigan State, and Louisville. They trailed at halftime in all three games. In fact, the Louisville game looked like a lost cause when the Cardinals had a 20-point lead early in the second half. The Bears are 6-0 and also have a victory over Oregon.
Butler: It was projected as a rebuilding year in Indianapolis, but that thinking might need some revision as the Bulldogs won the Las Vegas Invitational, beating Arizona, 69-65, in the final.
Creighton: The Bluejays have former Boston University point guard Maurice Watson, who is now combining with Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster to form a formidable backcourt. They beat Wisconsin earlier this month, then stormed through the Paradise Jam like a tsunami, winning easily over Washington State, North Carolina State, and Mississippi. They’re averaging 93 points per game.
Rutgers: We have to give first-year coach Steve Pikiell credit before things go bad. His team is 6-0, its best start since 1975-76, when the Scarlet Knights began 31-0 en route to the program’s lone Final Four appearance. What a great a team that was, led by Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney. The downside for Pikiell: His team has not faced anyone with a winning record. The best win was at DePaul.
South Carolina: Frank Martin, the angriest man in college basketball, has to be smiling now. His Gamecocks are 6-0 and the last two were victories over Michigan (in Columbia) and Syracuse (on a neutral court in Brooklyn).
Southern Cal: The Trojans were rocked in the offseason when three starters unexpectedly departed, which led to a lot of pessimism heading into the season. But so far, so good, as the Trojans are 5-0 (although all five games have been played at home).
Temple: OK, Temple fans, Get off Fran Dunphy’s back. He’s an outstanding coach and nationally respected. Plus his team got two excellent victories this week, winning the NIT Season Tip-Off by beating Florida State and West Virginia, both ranked teams. The Owls did lose to UMass and New Hampshire, but it looks like Dunphy has already improved this team after those two losses.
TCU: Jamie Dixon was basically run out of Pittsburgh, where fans apparently grew tired of him. He landed at his alma mater, TCU. In his first year, expectations are low, but it looks like he can still coach because TCU is 7-0, including a championship in the Global Sports Challenge, beating Washington in the final.
ESCALATOR GOING DOWN
Brigham Young: I thought the Lone Peak Trio returning from Mormon missions would mean a big season for the Cougars, then they turned around and lost to Utah Valley, 114-101, at home. Guard somebody!
Illinois: I hate to say coaches are in trouble, but it’s not hard to imagine that John Groce won’t be around long if things keep trending in the present direction. The Illini lost at home to Winthrop, then went to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off and were practically noncompetitive in losing to West Virginia, 88-57, and Florida State, 72-61.
James Madison: Coach Matt Brady was fired after last season. Not sure how firing a good coach helps a program, and now the Dukes are 0-6 to start this season.
St. John’s: The Johnnies aren’t as bad as they’ve been in previous seasons under Chris Mullin, but they’re still not good enough, as they lost all three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Texas: I was thinking Shaka Smart might get things going in his second year in Austin, but his team had a disappointing Thanksgiving in Brooklyn, losing to Northwestern and Colorado in the Legends Classic.
THIS WEEK’S FINAL FOUR: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Saint Mary’s
THIS WEEK’S NATIONAL CHAMPION: North CarolinaJoe Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan