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College basketball's three biggest surprises - and how they got here

Every college basketball season, there are a handful of teams that come out of absolute nowhere and exceed expectations.

Yet this season in particular, there are some coaches that have exceeded all logical expectations and have unexpected schools peaking.

Let's look at three of the best stories in the sport this season, and how they got here:

Kansas State Wildcats

Kansas State is one team that fits directly into the mold of "surprise" this season. Jerome Tang took over a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2019, finished ninth in the Big 12 last season and had a 13-41 record overall since the start of the 2019-2020 season.

Mostly though, he took over a roster that needed some tweaking - by convincing some players to stay and adding others.

That is exactly what Tang did, retaining guard Marquis Nowell, who originally committed to play at Kansas State for Bruce Weber and returned this season to play for Tang. Nowell is currently leading the Big 12 in assists per game with 8.5 and also is averaging 2.4 steals per game on the defensive side of the floor which is second in the Big 12 Conference.

Nowell is not the only Kansas State player towards the top of the Big 12 Conference in scoring, as Keyontae Johnson is also averaging 18.4 points per game and is one of the best stories in college basketball. This is Johnson’s first action on the floor since late 2020, when he collapsed on the floor and not even Johnson himself knew what the future held. Johnson served as an assistant coach for Florida last season, but it wasn’t that long ago that Johnson was a first team all SEC Player and we’re remembering why watching him this season. In addition, JUCO Transfer Nae’Qwan Tomlin has been a golden find for Tang, averaging 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in his first 14 games at the Division I level.

The Wildcats are currently 13-1 overall and 2-0 to start Big 12 play, following Tuesday’s victory over Texas. This win marked seven consecutive victories for the Wildcats, which is their longest winning streak since 2016. All five starters were able to score in double digits. Nowell dropped a career high 36 points and Kansas State broke a program record for most points scored in a victory with 116. The victory was the second straight over a Top 25 opponent, including the first over a Top 10 team on the road since knocking off No. 2 Baylor, 56-54, in 2017.

A former assistant for Scott Drew at Baylor, Tang knows exactly what it takes to win in the Big 12 Conference. Kansas State was voted as the clear-cut last place team in the Big 12 Conference’s preseason poll with only 12 points. The fact that Kansas State immediately looks this good against Big 12 competition is a great sign, considering all 10 teams have realistic NCAA Tournament aspirations which is something no other conference in the sport can say.

The fact that Kansas State is already in this position shows just how valuable a culture can be and any turnaround can happen quickly with the proper vision.

Pitt Panthers

While it is one thing to exceed expectations as a first year head coach, it is different when you are a coach that has struggled for a few years but finally breaks through. That is what has occurred this season with the Pittsburgh Panthers. Jeff Capel just began his fifth season as the head coach of the Panthers, and Pittsburgh has still yet to make an NCAA Tournament under his watch. Pitt had only won a combined 21 ACC Conference games in this four year stretch under Capel and anything that seemed like progress was immediately halted. Capel built a very talented roster that seemed poised for a breakout going into his second season with a ton of potential. There are a bunch of familiar names. Unforutnately most eventually transferred, with Trey McGowens (Nebraska), Xavier Johnson (Indiana) and Au’Diese Toney (Arkansas), with Justin Champagnie heading for the draft.

It gutted the roster, leading to an 11-21 record a season ago and no real optimism heading into 2022-2023. The Panthers were voted 14th out of 15th in the Conference, with not one single player appearing on any of the Preseason First Team All-Conference or Freshman teams.

Fast Forward to now, the Panthers are 11-4 overall and have started ACC Conference play with a 4-0 record. Two of these victories came in a five day stretch over North Carolina and Virginia. These are the two biggest wins of the Capel era and for the first time in a way too long, Pitt Basketball feels relevant again. The Panthers would be an NCAA Tournament team if the season ended today, and the Panthers are 9-1 overall in their last 10 games. Pittsburgh will play the final game of their three game homestand on Saturday against a Clemson team that has also kicked off ACC play with a perfect 4-0 record.

So how did it happen?

After losing players to the portal in years past, Capel deserves credit for hitting on some important pieces in a critical offseason. In his first season on the court since 2020, Iowa State transfer Blake Hinson has found a home at Pitt. The 6’7” junior is leading the team in scoring with 17 points per game and has scored at least 16 points in each of his last five ballgames. Pitt also added one of the best distributors in the ACC, with Colgate transfer Nelly Cummings. Cummings was a vital piece for a Colgate program that made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons. Cummings is currently third in the ACC, averaging 5.5 Assists per game. The return of Jamarius Burton - who had 31 points in Pittsburgh’s victory over North Carolina on Friday - has also been key.

The other part that has made Pittsburgh’s start so impressive is who they've done it without. Big man John Hugley IV has only played in eight games so far this season and his status going forward is unknown. Hugley IV has only played in eight games so far this season and returned to school, after leading Pitt in scoring last season with 14.8 points per game.

The Panthers success shows, a program can still have success even when all hope looks lost. It is just a matter of adding the right guys to buy in, which is easier said than done.

Missouri Tigers

Another team that has turned things around this season that not a lot of people saw coming, is Missouri. In only his first season in Columbia, Dennis Gates has the Tigers ranked inside the Top 25 and in a really favorable position to make the NCAA Tournament.

This is an incredible turnaround considering Missouri finished 12-21 overall last season and only won five SEC Conference games.

While their leading scorer Kobe Brown did decide to return, the Tigers lost just about everyone else from last season. Gates had to revamp his roster in a big way, and just like the other coaches we’ve discussed, he used the transfer portal to his advantage.

Gates bought a handful of his former players from Cleveland State to Missouri with him, and it's a credit to the coaching staff for realizing that guys like D’Moi Hodge and Tre Gomillion had the ability to compete at the SEC level. Hodge is actually the team's leading scorer, while Gomillion has brought a much-needed toughness to this Tigers program.

If you don't believe me, ask Kentucky's Jacob Toppin.

In addition, Gates was also able to add useful players from other mid-major schools like Noah Carter from Northern Iowa, DeAndre Gholston from UW-Milwaukee, and Sean East, who previously played at UMass and Bradley, before spending last season in the junior college ranks. All of these players might not have been the most highly recruited players in the portal, but Gates and his staff realized just how great of a fit they would be inside the Missouri program and it’s paying off.

Missouri’s fanbase is very passionate about the basketball program but have fallen on some tough times prior to this season. The Tigers have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2010 and haven’t made the Big Dance in back-to-back years since 2012 and 2013. It's clear based on the atmosphere in CoMo for the Kansas and Kentucky home games, just how excited this fan-base is about this team, and a loss on Wednesday to Arkansas shouldn't damper that enthusiasm at all.

One common thing that all three of these teams have done in route to success, is hitting on transfers from the portal. No matter what our feelings on the new rules of the transfer portal and NIL are, one thing that everyone should realize is there is no longer an excuse for your program to be down in the dumps for a consistently long period of time.

These coaches were not in an ideal situation at all entering the season, but now have their teams in real position for an NCAA Tournament berth and possibly more.

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