We are nearly a month through the 2023-24 men’s college basketball season. We still have a microscopic sample size of games we’ve evaluated, but which teams have surprised us most—in a good way—through the early portion of the season? Let’s talk about it!
This was a (captain) obvious answer, but no team in the Mountain West has looked better than Colorado State, who was picked to finish No. 5 in the conference’s preseason poll.
The Rams followed up their earth-shattering 21-point victory over then-No. 8-ranked Creighton with a five-point win over Colorado Wednesday evening, who entered top-35 in KenPom’s rankings. It’s not crazy to say this early iteration of Colorado State is the best defense of the Niko Medved era.
Isaiah Stevens, who scored 17 second-half points against the Buffaloes, is the best point guard in the Mountain West and will contend for a player of the year award. But the Rams have gotten amicable production from Joel Scott, Nique Clifford, Josiah Strong, Jalen Lake and Joe Palmer on both ends of the floor.
As I wrote last week, they’re showing us what they’re capable of. This squad, should they keep playing at this level, will give plenty of their MW counterparts fits with their high-octane offense and disciplined defense. I don’t think anyone expected them to get off to this type of start to begin the season.
I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but there was a huge cloud of uncertainty with this upcoming Utah State team. It wasn’t a crazy take, considering they were returning zero production, they possessed arguably the widest range of outcomes. Though Danny Sprinkle’s squad, headed by Montana State transfers Great Osobar and Darius Brown II, Coastal Carolina transfer Josh Uduje and Maryland transfer Ian Martinez, look like they’ve been playing together for multiple years—especially on the defensive end, where Sprinkle’s developed a good track record. They have a near-top-50 defense and are rebounding at an elite level, which is a very promising sign this early in the season, as they continue to establish their identity on that end of the floor.
Nevada was projected to be a top-4 team in the conference, but it’s fair to suggest the degree to which it’s outmanning their competition has raised eyebrows. The schedule hasn’t been difficult; all but one of their five games have been a Quad 4 contest. The lone non-Quad-4 game was a seven-point victory on the road against Washington (Quad 2), a bottom-tier Pac-12 program, but one that has challenged the likes of San Diego State and Xavier in neutral sites this season. It demolished Pacific by 49 points and bested Portland State by 28 points, marking the second time in the Steve Alford era it’s eclipsed 100 points. The Wolf Pack’s simple rating system—which measures average point differential based on strength in schedule—ranks just outside the top-20 in the nation. They haven’t just beaten inferior competition—it’s dominated them, for the most part, with experience, size and newfound depth.
Similar to Nevada, New Mexico has bombarded inferior competition—which is what it should do. But UNM’s start has been impressive since all but two of their seven games have come without star point guard Jaelen House. He missed five games with a bad hip, but the Lobos flexed their depth with freshmen Tru Washington and JT Toppin, plus seniors Jemarl Baker and, most importantly, Donovan Dent, who averaged 19.8 points, 7.0 assists and 1.6 steals on 59.7 percent true shooting in House’s absence. In their four wins without House, New Mexico outscored opponents by nearly 18 points per 100 possessions, still possessing a top-100 offense with a top-50 defense. If they can sustain that production with a healthy House, they are poised to have a stronger season than last, when they sputtered in MW play.