12/17/2009 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Secret Santas Deliver Unexpected Hoops Success

At the beginning of each season, various media members from markets large and small try to guess how the upcoming hoops season will shake out. It's called a preseason poll, and I'm not immune, I do it, too. We all use our impressions of last year's finishes mixed with completely speculative info on new players and coaches to try and pick out the "Most Likely to Succeed" teams.

We're probably about as accurate as your High School yearbook staff.

Several teams that were picked to be middle- or bottom-of-the-pack squads have overachieved. We're calling them our Secret Santas, because they're giving surprisingly pleasant gifts from a low initial investment of fan interest. I'm going to skip Kansas State, because they're the MSM poster boys right now - go read Dana O'Neil for the scoop on them.

masonjr.jpgSt. John's (8-1): We knew this day would come, we just didn't know when. St. John's is rising again in an uncertain Big East. The loss to Duke is certainly forgivable, and the wins over Siena, Temple, and Georgia look pretty good on the ol' resume. The real test comes after new year, when the conference slog begins.

Alabama Birmingham (9-1): The dominating win over Cincy last night goes hand-in-hand with wins over Georgia and a Green Bay team that recently beat Wisconsin. Mike Davis might actually be very glad he left Indiana right about now.

Wisconsin-Green Bay (9-3): The win over Wisconsin-Madison woke up the nation, and the 2-0 start in the Horizon puts them on the map as a potential rival for Butler this season.

Harvard (7-2): Tommy Amaker is delivering on his promise thus far. The Crimson has never won an Ivy title, and there will be no at-large bid for them, so games vs. Cornell will probably tell the tale of their season. But for now, they've beat Boston College, Boston University, Holy Cross and William & Mary, and scared the dickens out of UConn. Jeremy Lin is a soft-focus feature producer's wet dream, so get ready for that if Harvard makes their first dance since 1946 this season.

patknight.jpgTexas Tech (9-0): Honestly, I thought Pat Knight taking over for his father had echoes of a previous Big 12 nepotism case: Sean Sutton's disastrous tenure at Oklahoma State. But the younger Knight has put together a canny schedule that gives his team challenges (Oregon State and Washington) mixed in with confidence-builders over decent mids. We'll know more in a couple of weeks, as the Red Raiders travel to Wichita State and New Mexico before starting the tough Big 12 schedule.

Northwestern (8-1): The Wildcats were supposed to be utterly destroyed by the loss of the drastically unlucky Kevin Coble this season. Instead, they've won away from home in neutral-court battles with Iowa State and Notre Dame, and went on the road to drop the only loss on another Secret Santa, as seen below. They may crash to earth in the Big Ten, but long-suffering alums (Hi there, Luke Winn!) deserve to feel like good things can happen for them.

North Carolina State (7-1): N.C. State has been in a solid funk for most of the Sidney Lowe era. This year was supposed to be even worse, as the Wolfpack breaks in a number of freshmen. Not so, it would seem. Good wins against Auburn on a neutral court and at Marquette more than make up for the one odd loss to Northwestern.

NewMexicoThePit.jpgNew Mexico (11-0): Really great start for the Lobos. Cal and Texas A&M have fallen to this team, and propelled them into the top 25. December 29th is a big date, as another Secret Santa, Texas Tech, is coming into The Pit. Since both teams took us all by surprise, that one isn't scheduled to be on national TV. What a pity.

Western Carolina (10-1): There are probably a few people who are still drunk following the big win over Louisville. Only Texas has bested the Catamounts, and that was way back in November. A 2-0 start in the SoCon is almost an afterthought, but WCU needs to win the league to be sure of anything.

Coastal Carolina (9-2): The Chanticleers have played a pretty strong schedule against other mids like Indiana State and Cal-Northridge, and have only lost to the Matadors and Duke thus far. Their 2-0 record in the Big South has come in tough road contests against VMI and Liberty.

Pacific (9-2): They've lost to Cal and San Jose State, but have an RPI of 54 and excellent wins over Nevada, San Diego, and San Diego State. St. Mary's and Oklahoma State are lurking in the next few days, however.

William & Mary (6-2): Following an 0-2 start against UConn and Harvard, the Tribe has been on a tear, beating Richmond, Wake Forest, and VCU. I'm planning on making the CAA tourney this year, and I'd love nothing more than a W&M dance bid.

Fairfield_3.gifFairfield (8-2): Even I said the MAAC was Siena's by divine right in the early season, but the Stags have other ideas. They've started strong, losing only to Hofstra and Maryland, and their 2-0 conference mark includes beatings of Holy Cross and Sacred Heart.

Missouri State (9-0): A very strong start for the Bears, who have wins over Auburn, Citadel, and Tulsa. They travel to Arkansas just before MVC play starts.

I'll understand if you want to yell at me for not including your team. It's a hazard of the job. But this handful is a pretty exclusive club. We'll see if any of them are still relevant come early March.