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Top of the Arc - January 6, 2009

Jan. 6, noon: I’m going to declare the non-conference season over (or just about finished), so it’s time to evaluate which teams progressed and which regressed the most during the season’s first two months. Most of the biggest surprises so far can be found in the Big Ten and the Pac-10, but here's my list of the nation's 10 biggest surprises:

1) Boston College
Before the season, the Eagles were viewed as a one-man team than would finish near the bottom of the ACC. But it’s not wise to underestimate Coach Al Skinner, who usually gets more out of his players than most people think is there. This team is more than the Tyrese Rice Show. In a conference with a few surprises --- Florida State and Maryland among them --- Boston College is undoubtedly the biggest.

2) Michigan
The Wolverines have surpassed their win total (10) of a year ago. It was clear Coach John Beilein would win here in time because he is one of the nation’s finest coaches. But Michigan has beaten UCLA and Duke, a turn of events that would have been very difficult to envision before the season began. The Big Ten overall has been very strong, so it remains to be seen whether Michigan can sustain its success in conference play.

3) California
Hiring Mike Montgomery – although it is odd seeing him at a Bay Area school other than Stanford – was an excellent move by the Golden Bears. And he has already made a quicker impact than most thought. Cal was predicted to finish eighth in the Pac-10, but it has a 13-2 record, an RPI of 15 and wins over Arizona and Arizona State. Right now, Cal is a solid tournament team.

4) Illinois
Illinois won 16 games last season and criticism directed at Coach Bruce Weber was mounting. In recent years, Weber had been unable to build off that 2005 national runner-up season and has seen top regional talent bolt to other campuses (see Gordon, Eric). But Weber has Illinois at 13-2 with wins over Missouri and Purdue. An NCAA tournament berth is possible.

5) Arkansas
Coach John Pelphrey’s team entered the season with a young squad that was expected to sorely miss the talented Patrick Beverly, who was booted off the team. Aside from an unfortunate loss to Missouri State, the Razorbacks have been perfect. And the victory over Oklahoma will pay dividends in two months.

6) Minnesota
After winning 20 games last season, the Golden Gophers were expected to be on the cusp of an NCAA tournament berth this season, but few would have expected Tubby Smith’s team to be 13-1 with wins over Louisville and Ohio State. Those wins help give Minnesota a respectable RPI of 38 despite an otherwise lightweight non-conference schedule.

7) Evansville
I’m not putting Illinois State here for two reasons. Illinois State won 25 games last season and nearly made the tournament. Illinois State (14-0) has a strength of schedule rating of 222, which would be worse had it not recently played Evansville. The Purple Aces won three Missouri Valley Conference games last season. They have already won more overall games (10) than they won all of last season.

8) Minnesota
After winning 20 games last season, the Golden Gophers were expected to be on the cusp of an NCAA tournament berth this season, but few would have expected Tubby Smith’s team to be 13-1 with wins over Louisville and Ohio State. Those wins help give Minnesota a respectable RPI of 38 despite an otherwise lightweight non-conference schedule.

9) Stanford
Another Bay Area school making an unexpected rise. Hiring Johnny Dawkins was a sound move. The Cardinal is 11-1, with the only loss being against Arizona State (although it was a 30-point defeat).

10) Maryland
The Sporting News predicted Maryland would finish last in the ACC. Gary Williams was placed on the so-called Hot Seat in several publications. Williams has a team with no true front court on track for an NCAA tournament berth as long as the Terrapins win eight or nine conference games. Easier said than done, but a strong start.

By Eric Prisbell  |  January 6, 2009; 12:16 PM ET
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COMMENTS

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Eric,

You've got MN down twice - 6th and 8th

And why is Maryland a surprise? What makes you think this team can get 8 or 9 wins in the conference win the lose to Georgetown my 40?

This is UMD not UMES, a 40 point lost to anyone is unacceptable.

Posted by: jansjay | January 6, 2009 4:10 PM

Two martini lunch perhaps?

Posted by: Masonman | January 6, 2009 4:23 PM

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