My co-host on Ballin’ Live, Brett Grant, takes a look at the top five surprise teams in college basketball!

College basketball’s top five Surprise teams – As we hit the midway point in the conference schedules in College Basketball, it’s time to give special recognition to the teams that have exceeded expectations at this point in the season. February is a make-or-break month, especially considering the second half of the conference schedule presents major challenges for every team including key road games, rematches and positioning for the conference tournaments and a potential NCAA Tournament berth. I see one common denominator in the choices for my Top 5 Surprise teams… senior leadership, primarily in the backcourt.  In the days of “One & Done,” it’s the teams that have continuity that find success.  By the way, Surprise teams aren’t named Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga and Wisconsin — those teams are expected to be great and they haven’t disappointed yet.

So here you go….

5) Northern Iowa Panthers (21-2, 10-1, Missouri Valley Conference) Head Coach Ben Jacobsen thought he had the potential in his 2014-15 group to compete with perennial MVC power Wichita State, but it wasn’t until his Panthers throttled the Shockers last week that he KNEW his kids could do it.  At 21-2, the Panthers are heading to the NCAA Tourney, along with WSU, which means once again the Valley will be a multiple bid league, the first time since Creighton left in the Missouri Valley two seasons ago.

A year ago, the Panthers could score in bunches but couldn’t stop anyone, giving up plenty of points and subsequent victories.  This year, Jacobsen has his team playing stellar defense, rated #6 in the country in scoring defense (at 54.5 ppg) and holding teams to 37.7% FG shooting, rated 16th best in the country.   Have you heard the term that defense wins championships?  Northern Iowa is taking that advice to heart this season. Northern Iowa is led by SENIOR, 6-8 wing, Seth Tuttle at 16 ppg and 6.8 rebounds plus 3 assists per game.

4) Wyoming Cowboys (18-4, 7-2, Mountain West Conference) Larry Shyatt secured his first head coaching job in Laramie, then left for a shot to lead Clemson. After his short stay at Clemson fizzled, Shyatt was on Billy Donovan’s bench at Florida for two National Championship seasons.

In 2011, Shyatt returned to Laramie, and now his team overflows with leadership as the Cowboys are piling up W’s in the very competitive Mountain West Conference.  The second half of the conference slate includes four key road trips to San Diego State, Nevada, UNLV and New Mexico, but the Cowboys appear to be well armed for the road wars coming.

Led by SENIOR Larry Nance, Jr. (you may remember his father flying through the air in Phoenix back in the day) at 16.2 ppg and shooting 55% from the floor, Nance is the unequivocal leader of the ‘Boys.  Along with junior Josh Adams in the backcourt, they provide a strong 1-2 punch for Wyoming.  The Cowboys aren’t a stat machine, but they do what is most important — they win.   Wyoming has Sweet 16 potential and a team to watch come March.

3) West Virginia Mountaineers (18-4, 6-3 Big XII Conference) We all know Bob Huggins is a terrific coach, but the job with this squad is one of his best in quite a while.  Few in the media had the Mountaineers at the top of the Big XII back in the preseason, but today they are only trailing perennial leader Kansas in the standings.

Led by a SENIOR Guard in Juwan Staten (14.8 ppg) and the strong presence of sophomore Devin Williams (and his 8 rpg), this team is tough, talented and dangerous. No team in America rakes up more steals per game than West Virginia.  West Virginia is also doing this in the toughest conference in the country.  The Big XII could send 7 teams to the NCAA Tourney and the Mountaineers are as mentally strong as any team in America, just like their coach.   They have Elite 8 potential.

2) Utah Utes (17-4, 7-2 Pac 12 Conference) Arizona was the hands down choice to win the Pac 12, but the fight for second place was up in the air, so enter the Utes.  Larry Krystkowiak has done a very nice job in rebuilding the Utah program back to its previous glory not seen since the late Rick Majerus left as head coach.  Previous Ute greats Andre Miller & Michael Doleac led the Utes to the National Championship game in 1998 (falling to Kentucky), then the Utes hit mediocrity.

Now, in his fourth year at the helm, Coach K 2.0 has his Utes poised to make a big splash come NCAA Tourney time.  Led by SENIOR GUARD Delon Wright (14.4 ppg, 5.6 apg) and Junior Guard Brandon Taylor (10.8 ppg, 3.4 apg), the Utes backcourt is excellent.

Utah also is a very strong defensive team, holding their opponents to 37.8% from the floor, (#18 in the country) while they are shooting an impressive 49.7% from the floor (#7 in the country). The Pac 12 is strong this year and Utah will be another team, depending on their draw, that will be a very difficult out in the Tourney.

1) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-3, 8-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) Last year, its first in the ACC, proved to be a big adjustment year for the Irish, as they won just six conference games, most without Jerian Grant.  Now, with Grant (ANOTHER SENIOR GUARD), the Irish are rolling in their second season in the ACC.  Sitting just a game behind Virginia, Mike Brey’s squad is one of the most entertaining teams to watch this season.

College Hoops is full of shot takers, but there aren’t many shot makers – the Irish don’t fall into that category because they can flat out shoot. Averaging over 81 ppg, Notre Dame can score in bunches.  As mentioned, Grant (17.3 ppg, 6.3 apg) is the key.  Lost to the team last season, Grant is making up for lost time.  The offense rolls through him with possessions ending in his shot or assist many times.  ND doesn’t lack size or moxie either, as Junior big man  Zach Auguste and Senior Swingman Pat Connaughton do a great job of rebounding.  Both also score in double digits.

This Irish team might be the best squad that ND has had since the days of Laphonso Ellis and without a doubt they are one of college basketball’s most enjoyable teams to watch this season. The Irish have Final 4 potential. Yes, Final 4 potential! It will be fun to watch these five fine teams throughout the months of February and March.  We are entering the most crucial time in the college basketball season, so strap yourselves in, as it promises to be a wild ride!

(Next week, we’ll look at this seasons biggest disappointments.) 

Watch for more from Brett, right here on The Basketball Channel, as he gives his unique look at what’s happening in College Basketball!