by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

With several hundred college teams from which to choose, there inevitably have to be some surprise packages in the mix each season that offer some unexpected pointspread value.

Although each stage of the season can see its own teams emerge, the first month of the campaign inevitably find s more of these teams bursting upon the scene, as it often takes several weeks before the oddsmakers and wagering public begin to take note.

Following are a handful of college teams that we suspect are still flying under the radar as we head into mid-December. Keep an eye on all of these guys...

Indiana...It won’t take long before everyone knows that the Hoosiers are playing some serious basketball once again. Indeed, a win this weekend against Kentucky would signal that IU is back and ready to cause some serious damage. And it’s about time, some Hoosier backers say, for HC Tom Crean to make his mark after three years of rebuilding the program and various growing pains. Some in the region had indicated that Crean was on the hot seat this season to get back to the Big Dance.

Crean, however, looks to have the Hoosiers poised for a return to national contender status thanks to the biggest recruiting coup of his tenure at Bloomington, where he forged only a 28-66 record the past three years. But the addition of 6-11 frosh C Cody Zeller looks to be the signal of a new era at IU. Zeller, the most-touted big man recruit at Bloomington since Bob Knight landed rugged Kent Benson in 1973, has hit the ground running, displaying an assortment of clever moves and a soft shooting touch around the bucket. Zeller, scoring 15.5 ppg and hitting 68% from the floor, is providing Crean with his first legitimate post presence at IU. Zeller is also leading the Hoosiers in rebounding, passing the ball effectively, and playing acceptable defense as he makes an early case as the country’s most-impactful frosh this year. Moreover, the Hoosiers seem to have bought into Crean’s philosophy of sharing the ball and defensive tenacity, qualities that helped IU overcome a slow start in a recent 75-59 win over Butler. Improved depth has given Crean more lineup options, to the point he can pull a player like Christian Watford, as the coach did vs. Butler when Watford began to regress to the hog-the-ball style opf previous years. Though IU is not especially quick, it does have several slashing wings besides Watford, especially emerging soph Victor Oladipo, a highlight reel waiting to happen who has not only improved his shot and shot selection (hitting 53.7% from the floor) but also embracing his duties as a defensive stopper. Meanwhile, heady jr. G Jordan Hulls is hitting 60% from the floor and has connected upon 54% of his triples. It’s not quite the like the old days quite yet in Bloomington, but it’s nice to have Indiana back as a contender once again.

La Salle...While the usual suspects (Temple and Villanova) generate most of the attention in Philadelphia, another Big Five rep is making some serious nosie at Tom Gola Arena. Just ask Atlantic 10 sources who have been raving about John Giannini’s much improved La Salle Explorers, whose early 6-3 mark could be a tad deceiving. Consider that two of the losses were gut-wrenchers vs. Big East Pitt (by a mere four points) and Big Five rival Villanova (in a bitter overtime defeat), with both games on the road.

Not many were expecting much from the Explorers, especially after sometimes-dominant 6-10 C Aaric Murray, with NBA potential, decided to transfer to West Virginia in the offseason. This looks to be a case of addition by subtraction, however, as Murray’s presence often proved to be something of a distraction. His departure has not strengthened the frontline (indeed, la Salle is having some problems on the boards in the early going), but chemistry appears significantly improved. Giannini’s attack is led by a four-pronged guard combination of Earl Pettis (14.3 ppg), South Carolina transfer Ramon Galloway (13.8 ppg), Tyreek Dunn (13.7 ppg), and Sam Mills (12.9 ppg). As for Mills, he’s quickly gaining a reputation as one of the top defenders in the region, if not the nation, especially after putting the clamps on Pitt’s All-American G Ashton Gibbs, limited to just 3 of 15 field goals in the November meetings. Indeed, defense has been a trademark of La Salle’s early prowess, holding foes under 40% from the floor. We’ll see if the Explorers have enough frontline depth to make a serious run in the A-10; much of that will depend upon how rapidly 6-9 Philly-area frosh product Jerrell Wright (from Dobbins Tech) progresses his game.

Nevada...It would have been easy to dismiss the Wolf Pack back in November after a handful of extremely disappointing efforts, beginning with the opener against visiting Missouri State when Nevada hit only 13 of 50 (26%) from the floor in a humbling 22-point defeat. But the good efforts are starting to outweigh the bad ones for the Wolf Pack, led by an emerging backcourt pair of big 6-5 Malik Story (former Indiana transfer scoring 14.3 ppg) and explosive 6-1 soph Deonte Burton (15.1). The latter has really picked up the pace with back-to-back monster efforts vs. Pac-12 Washington (31 points) and Arizona State (28 points) as the “Pack” beat “Pac” opponents in consecutive games for the first time in school history.

Although depth remains a bit of a question mark for HC David Carter, he has at least managed to talk some sense into ultra-athletic 6-7 RS junior F Olek Czyz, a Polish native and transfer from Duke who started a handful of games for Coach K. WAC sources say that Czyz, also a local Reno product, was listening in the summer to those who said he needed to work on his perimeter game and outside shooting to have his best shot in the NBA, and spent too much of the first several games camped out by the three-point arc. But his quickness and explosive jumping ability make him a better threat on the blocks, where Carter has insisted he remain more often. Along with slithery 6-8 Dario Hunt, the Pack has extreme athleticism on the frontline. The potential is there to still blow a bit hot and cold (Story, in particular, is noted for his bipolar performance pattern), but the Dr. Jekyll side for the Wolf Pack now seems to be outweighing the Mr. Hyde. Nevada has thus emerged as the likely team to beat in the WAC.

Oregon State...The Beavers have achieved occasional headlines in recent years, unexpectedly winning the CBI in 2009, but mostly because of the connection between HC Craig Robinson and the White House (President Obama is his brother-in-law). That’s helped provide a bit more national visibility for OSU and prompted eastern trips the past couple of season so Michelle could watch her brother’s team and so her husband, a noted hoops junkie, could get his college basketball fix. Last year it was a trip to D.C. and a game at George Washington, within walking distance of the White House; this year, a tournament at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and a game in the Baltimore suburbs at Towson, where the Obamas made sure to attend.

But Robinson, schooled at Princeton under the legendary Pete Carril, looks to be authoring a different sort of headline this year at Corvallis, where the Beavers have been one of the few Pac-12 entries to impress in the early going. Heading into this weekend, the Beavers’ only loss was a 2-point thriller in the Meadowlands Tournament vs. well-regarded Vanderbilt, just after OSU had knocked off Texas. Robinson has been running a modified Princeton-style offense for the past three years and continues to tweak the original model, and now has some real weapons on hand to add to the mix. In particular, electric 6-4 G Jared Cunningham, is proving a handful for defenses because of his spectacular quickness and resultant matchup headaches. Scoring at 19.9 ppg in the early going, Cunningham looks a good bet to earn Pac-12 MVP honors this winter despite some occasional turnover glitches. Cunningham has been hitting on nearly 50% of his shots all season, a percentage that should improve once he relocates his long-distance stroke (he’s connecting on pony 28.6% of his triples). Another important cog has been 6-7 PF deluxe Devon Collier, a beast on the blocks scoring better than 16 ppg, numbers that could improve with better free-throw shooting (he’s hitting only 56% of his charity tosses).

Wyoming...The Cowboys are the sort of team that can continue to go unnoticed for several months. Some not-so-subtle changes have been happening in Laramie under new HC Larry Shyatt, back for his second tour of duty at Wyo. Mountain West sources immediately noticed a change in work ethic, especially on defense, from the Cowboys, who were notorious for taking off possessions under former coach Heath Shroyer, under whom Wyo lacked discipline and chemistry. Not so under Shyatt, who is demanding full effort on the stop end. The early results are stunning, with Wyo holding foes to a mere 35.4% from the field (and 22% beyond the arc) as well as barely 50 points per game (50.8) into mid-December. No foe had scored more than 58 points against Shyatt’s defense through the first nine games, either, with the Cowboys winning eight of those games.

A capable Bradley side was the latest to feel the Wyo wrath in a 66-49 loss last weekend, with the Braves failing to connect on any of their fourteen three-point tries in the face of harassment on the perimeter from Cowboy defenders. Shyatt has also tamed formerly out-of-control PG JayDee Luster, who was hardly committing any turnovers in the first month of the season. Guards Francisco Cruz and Luke Martinez are providing ample (if not spectacular) scoring production from the backcourt, while the frontline has been upgraded by the addition of rugged 6-7 PF Leonard Washington, a transfer from Southern Cal who is providing a real physical presence on the blocks along with holdover 6-10 C Adam Waddell. is sis the sort of team appear to be outweighing the off nights now for the Wolf Pack, which looks to be emerging as the team to beat in the WAC. The schedule is manageable, and the Mountain West does not look quite a s top heavy this season with BYU having departed and San Diego State not quite as formidable as its Sweet 16 team last season. Wyo could be the surprise package of all surprise packages in the west this season.

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