The 2019-2020 college basketball season was full of surprises with teams that came out of nowhere and exceeded expectations. In this list, I will present my top 12 surprising teams from this past season.
The list will go in order from the least surprising team at #12 to the most surprising team at #1.
12. Merrimack Warriors (2019-20 Record: 20-11)
Entering their first season of Division I College Basketball, few expected Merrimack to be competitive and at the top of the Northeast Conference during their transition from Division II to Division I. They were overlooked and picked to finish last in the conference during the preseason predictions. Instead, the Warriors had other ideas. Led by three college seniors in Juvaris Hayes, Jaleel Lord, and Idris Joyner (Merrimack's three leading scorers), the Warriors became the shock of small-conference Division I College Basketball. One thing you might not know about this past season's Merrimack team is that their three seniors, (Hayes, Lord, and Joyner) all played high school basketball together at St. Anthony High School in New Jersey. In their senior season of high school, St. Anthony posted an undefeated 32-0 season. While at Merrimack, they broke the record of most wins by a first-year Division I team with 20 wins, along with also picking up the Northeast Conference Regular Season Championship. An absolutely huge honor for a first-year program that cannot play in the NCAA Tournament until 2024.
11. Duquesne Dukes (2019-20 Record: 21-9)
The Dukes finished the season with nine losses (the fewest losses in 47 years). Duquesne started the season with a 10-0 record before dropping two straight games against UAB and Marshall. They would later get out to a 4-0 conference record at 15-2 overall, but would later lose the next three games. Duquesne had only one senior on the roster who barely got any minutes, so to expect them to finish with a 21-9 record was hard to imagine. However, they managed to do it with a shocking sweep of Saint Louis by 14 points twice.
10. Boston University Terriers (2019-20 Record: 21-13)
Known for their hockey program on campus which constantly produces players for the NHL, BU Basketball has not been a strong suit on campus. The Terriers' only deep run in the NCAA Tournament was in 1959 when they lost in the Elite Eight to West Virginia which had 14-time NBA All-Star Jerry West. Coming off two straight losing seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19, few could have expected BU to compete with the Patriot League's projected front runner in Colgate. With only two seniors on the roster, BU managed to do the following this past season: Upset South Carolina on the road (first victory over an SEC program in school history); Bounce back from a 3-7 record to start the season to finish 21-13; Come from behind in multiple games to win (including a 16-point comeback with 9 minutes remaining on Senior Day versus Bucknell); Lose to Colgate the first two times, only to pick up a win the third time against Colgate when it mattered the most to win the 2020 Patriot League Title. Solid leadership, drive, and commitment to stick together became the part of the Terriers run. Led by senior Max Mahoney (15.5 PPG & 8.3 REB), BU improved every day and thrived on creating mismatches and by dominating on the boards. Mahoney was too much to handle for opponents with his low post scoring when double-teamed. Junior Walter Whyte (who didn't play in 2018-19 due to injury) proved to be dominant on the glass rebounding as he tallied six double-doubles in the last 10 games of the season. Point guard Javante McCoy got on a roll during the Patriot League Tournament totaling 19 assists in the last three games. Impressive season for BU which was considered a long shot to win their league.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers (2019-20 Record: 21-10)
In his 35 years of coaching, Bob Huggins has never coached a team with back-to-back losing records. He continued that streak at the the end of this season. West Virginia was terrible in the previous season (2018-19) with a record of 15-21 and finished last in the Big 12. In the 2019-20 season, they were much improved. Even though West Virginia struggled down the stretch of the season, the Mountaineers were still able to finish at #24 in the final AP Poll Rankings with a roster mainly comprised freshman and sophomores.
8. Florida State Seminoles (2019-20 Record: 26-5)
With the off season departures of their top two scorers Mfiondu Kabengele and Terrance Mann to the NBA in 2019, along with losing four additional seniors on the roster, I did not expect Florida State to be a top 10 team. However, the Seminoles surpassed expectations by staying ranked in the top 10 from January to March of 2020. Leonard Hamilton did an incredible job as head coach with the Seminoles as Florida State had one of the deepest rosters in college basketball. They ended the season ranked at #4 and won the programs first ever ACC Regular Season Title.
7. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2019-20 Record: 21-10)
I did not expect Tulsa to be in a three-way tie as the American Conference Regular Season Champion with Houston and Cincinnati. The Golden Hurricane got out to a 7-1 conference record with an 80-40 victory over Memphis (which drew Tulsa attention to be put in the bracket projections). Before the season started, I would have been crazy to think that Tulsa would finish three games ahead of Memphis in the conference. Well, it happened...
6. UCLA Bruins (2019-20 Record: 19-12)
Mick Cronin took over as head coach with the mindset to have UCLA back in the tournament. It didn't start that way at all, but it would have most likely ended up that way if the tournament had happened. UCLA finished the year prior with a 17-16 record. They started out the 2019-20 season on a rough note with an 8-9 record, which included a loss against Cal State Fullerton. The Bruins ended up winning the last seven of eight games to finish second in the conference behind Oregon.
5. Wisconsin Badgers (2019-20 Record: 21-10)
Greg Gard was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2020 for an incredible job leading Wisconsin in college basketball's toughest conference of 2020 (the Big Ten). The Badgers suffered a monster loss in the 2019 off season with the departure of 2019 graduate Ethan Happ, who averaged a double-double, 17.3 PPG and 10.1 REB, for the Badgers in 2018-19. Somehow, even with a rocky start to the season at 4-4, the Badgers won their last eight games to win the Big Ten Regular Season Title.
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2019-20 Record: 20-11)
The Scarlet Knights own the record for the longest NCAA Tournament drought of a power conference school dating back to 1991. A record that would be tough to break going into the season with a competitive Big Ten Conference. Unfortunately, Rutgers will have to wait even longer since there was no tournament in 2020 and they were on track to make it in. The Scarlet Knights went 4-4 against the AP Top 25, and they even were ranked themselves at #24! This marked their first AP Top 25 ranking in 41 years. Rutgers finished conference play with an 11-9 record. It was their first winning season in conference play since 1991. Next season Rutgers has a legitimate shot to make the 2021 NCAA Tournament, as the majority of their roster will be back, and they were able to get their highest-ranked recruit in 12 years with Cliff Omoruyi.
3. BYU Cougars (2019-20 Record: 24-8)
I did not expect BYU to be a tournament team with a coach in his first season with the program. Head coach Mark Pope, who spent four seasons at Utah Valley, took BYU to a 24-8 record where they won by 13 points against #2 Gonzaga. The Cougars shot lights out from three-point range as they led college basketball in three point shooting percentage and most made three pointers per game. They went on long winning streaks of six straight wins and nine straight wins throughout the season. BYU had three players who averaged more than 14 points per game. Their leading scorer, senior Yoeli Childs, averaged 22.2 PPG this past season. The Cougars were ranked for the first time since 2011, when they had 2011 National Player of the Year, Jimmer Fredette.
2. San Diego State Aztecs (2019-20 Record: 30-2)
Flashback to December 29, 2018, the Brown Bears had traveled almost 3,000 miles across the country to take on the Aztecs in San Diego. SDSU lost that night by 21 at home as Brown closed out the first half on a 24-2 run. Ever since the loss to Brown, the Aztecs have gone 23-2 on their home court with losses by two and three points. The Aztecs held this past season's undefeated winning streak by starting out with a record of 26-0. They ended the season at 30-2 with both losses by three points. San Diego State went unranked for the first month of the season. No one had them on their radar in the preseason. The Aztecs non-conference wins came against legit competition: Won by 5 versus BYU; Won by 31 versus Creighton (a Top 10 team at the end of the season); Won by 10 versus Iowa; Won by 28 versus Utah. The star of this team was a junior by the name of Malachi Flynn, who happened to be a transfer from Washington State. Flynn averaged 17.6 PPG and led the Mountain West Conference in assists per game.
1. Dayton Flyers (2019-20 Record: 29-2 & 18-0 A-10)
The Flyers never have received a #1 seed into the March Madness Tournament. However, this year it looked like it was their chance. That was until the tournament was cancelled... Obi Toppin took the league by storm with his electrifying dunks, as he was named the 2020 National Player of the Year. The two losses Dayton had were in overtime against #1 Kansas and at the buzzer against Colorado. Dayton ended the season on the longest winning streak in college basketball (winning the last 20 games). They were only one of two teams to go undefeated in conference play. The other being New Mexico State with a 16-0 conference record in the WAC.
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