Surprise, Surprise!

One of the best surprises I’ve ever had is sitting right under my finger tips.

It was a couple years ago and my parents slid an innocuous box toward me on Christmas morning. “We wanted you to open this one last,” they said with a decent enough poker face.

As a single guy with two very young siblings who rightfully get most of the big, exciting gifts, I hadn’t asked for – or expected – much. I was several years removed from holidays where I bolted to the tree to see if “Santa” had left me that Atari 2600 or the denizens of Castle Greyskull I coveted. So when I unwrapped a new lap top computer, I didn’t really know what to say.

I think “wow” was the first word. “Awesome” probably was in there, too. Flash forward to this evening and that pleasant surprise has enabled me to do a lot of things I love for a couple years now, like contributing to this site.

There are a handful of teams who will start the New Year with a pleasant surprise of their own – a great record that may enable them to do something they love, namely play basketball past the end of February.

Here are ten teams, one from each region with two bonuses, who have made their fans say things like “wow” and “awesome” so far.

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Northeast – Anchors Away: “I’m kind of a big deal” – Ron Burgundy, Anchorman.

In his short tenure at Rhode Island College, Head Coach Bob Walsh has also been kind of a big deal. His Anchormen opened the season with three wins against 2005-06 tournament teams beating Division I Iona in the preseason (MAAC Champs) and then Endicott (CCC Champs) and Tufts on opening weekend. RIC is 8-1 going into the New Year with their lone loss to Keene State (another good candidate for the region’s pleasant surprise).

Walsh played under 700-game winner Tom Murphy at Hamilton and then joined the staff of Tim Welsh at Iona. Welsh’s father, Jerry, coached Potsdam State to two national championships in the 1980s. Bob Walsh then coached under Tim Welsh at Providence before taking over RIC last season.

Rutgers-Newark Barnes

Atlantic – Un-B-ten: That’s what Rutgers-Newark is nine games into the season, thanks in part to super sophomore Chadd Barnes (pictured). Barnes has followed up his 2006 NJAC Co-Rookie of the Year award by averaging 17.8 ppg thus far. Barnes is also an aspiring rapper known as Chad “B” according to the Scarlet Raiders’ website. He’s also our second favorite Chad on the internet.

There is a very long road ahead of Rutgers-Newark playing in the fast-paced, physical meat grinder that is the NJAC. But the Raiders may have their best basketball in front of them. All-conference forward Jermont Horton returned to the lineup yesterday after sitting out the fall under the NCAA’s 10 semester rule. Horton has scored over 1200 points in his career and will be a big boost to the Raiders’ playoff hopes.

East – SLU to clinch bid: St. Lawrence is 9-0 and on the verge of clinching an NCAA playoff spot.

Okay, maybe that’s a little hasty.

But then again, SLU is 8-0 in region. Let’s assume they can sweep the bottom three teams in the Liberty League, none of whom they’ve played yet. That’s 14 wins. Then consider that the trip to St. Lawrence is brutal, particularly in the winter. Isn’t that home court advantage good enough for a few more wins? Last year’s Pool C threshold was about 20-6 (Utica’s record). Suddenly putting the Saints in Pool C isn’t so far-fetched.

Mid-Atlantic – Special Delivery: When the DeSales offense is working, it’s a thing of beauty. Crisp passes along the perimeter, players driving into the lane to collapse the defense, then more passes to wide open three point shooters. It’s the kind of offense where a great ball distributor can thrive.

And that’s what Eddie Ohlson is. The junior guard is only 5-foot-8 and has attempted just 34 shots in 10 starts. But the point guard has great court vision and, in that offense, that equals a lot of assists. He’s got 65 so far, which seems like a high number. We’ll know how that compares to other leaders once the Division III stats are posted after January 3.

As for the Bulldogs, they have to overcome the ghosts of near misses past. In 2003 DeSales lost to Scranton in the Freedom tournament final and missed the NCAA playoffs. In 2004 DSU had 22 wins but lost to Wilkes in the Freedom semis and missed the big show again. In 2005 the Bulldogs had a furious second half rally fall just short against King’s in the Freedom Tournament final. Will 2007 finally be the Bulldogs’ year?

Great Lakes – Storm Watch: Most of the surprises in this region haven’t been pleasant ones. Preseason Top 10 picks Baldwin-Wallace and Calvin have had slow starts, particularly the Knights who are just 5-5.

So let’s go a little off the beaten path to the town of Painesville, Ohio (population 17,789), home of Lake Erie College (8-1, 4-0 AMCC). The Storm got pounded by Findlay (99-67) but Findlay is ranked in the Top 10 of Division II. On the positive side Lake Erie beat Rochester by 11 at the Yellow Jackets’ place.

The Storm won the AMCC last year and then got squashed by Wittenberg (76-40) in the tournament. Maybe that Rochester result shows the Storm is ready to be more than rain drops on the windshield of someone’s tournament run come February.

Back with more later this week…Happy New Year everyone!