PHOENIX (AP) — The college basketball season is revving up with some great games and individual performances as it winds toward March Madness.
As is usually the case, the season so far has been filled with some big surprises, including a Final Four coach retiring midseason, a merry bench mob and loads of upsets.
Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest surprises so far in the 2015-16 season:
BO RYAN’S RETIREMENT
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said in June that this would be his last season, then left the door open in August. Instead, he surprised the basketball world by abruptly retiring on Dec. 15 after the Badgers beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Ryan said he came back this season in part to allow top assistant Greg Gard to spend time with his ailing father. Gard’s father died this fall, so Ryan decided to give him a chance to prove he can run the program. The 68-year-old Ryan led the Badgers to a school-record 364 wins, seven Big Ten titles and last year’s national championship game, where they lost to Duke.
The Hawks have some impressive wins this season, including UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, Notre Dame and Rutgers. But for everything Monmouth is doing on the court, its Bench Mob is stealing the show. The Hawks’ bench players have turned celebrations into performance art, re-enacting scenes from Star Wars, imitating Santa and his reindeer, even proposing to each other — he said yes — after Monmouth scores a basket or makes a great play. Their masterpiece so far has been their depiction of the Sistine Chapel (http://goo.gl/phcdJR) after a made basket against Georgetown.
Wichita State entered this season loaded with expectations after knocking Kansas out of the NCAA Tournament last season. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet decided to return for their senior seasons and were hoping to lead the Shockers back to the Final Four after doing it three years ago. Wichita State was ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason poll, but quickly dropped out after losing four of its first six games. VanVleet missed four games with a hamstring injury, but the Shockers lost to Tulsa and Seton Hall with him in the lineup. But don’t count the Shockers out yet — they’ve won seven straight heading into Wednesday’s game against Northern Iowa.
A postseason ban due to NCAA sanctions and coach Larry Brown’s nine-game suspension has done nothing to slow SMU down. Being down to seven scholarship players hasn’t, either. SMU won its first nine games under associate coach Tim Jankovich while Brown served his suspension and kept on winning once the 75-year-old coach returned. The eighth-ranked Mustangs are the only undefeated team (17-0 through Sunday) in Division I and are in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll for the first time in more than 30 years. The Mustangs score in bunches, shoot well and are as balanced as any team in the country, with four players averaging at least 11 points. They’ll be fun to watch, even if they can’t play in the postseason.
No college basketball season is complete without upsets and there have been plenty so far this season. Georgetown has been on the wrong end of a few, losing to Radford to open the season and Monmouth and UNC-Asheville in consecutive games. George Washington pulled one by beating Virginia, ranked No. 6 at the time. Wisconsin, which just knocked off No. 4 Michigan State, lost to Western Illinois and Milwaukee. Alabama State also opened the season with a victory at Virginia Tech, its first win over a team from a power conference since 2001.
UPSETS, IOWA STYLE
The state of Iowa seems to have an inordinate number of upsets this season. Northern Iowa pulled of two, knocking off top-ranked North Carolina and No. 5 Iowa State. Iowa took its turn just before the New Year, handing then-No. 1 Michigan State its first loss of the season. The latest came Monday night, when Iowa State, which started the season 1-3, took down newly-top-ranked Oklahoma in Ames. Just a thought: When the NCAA Tournament rolls around, an Iowa school might be a good bet when it comes time to pick an upset.