Biggest surprises and disappointments of the college basketball season

There is less than a month until Selection Sunday and men's college basketball fans will see familiar teams in the NCAA tournament this year with Duke, North Carolina and Kansas all having solid seasons. There will be a few surprises along the way as well though.

UConn is looking to repeat this year (and is favored to do so). This is the year of instant-impact transfers and mid-major programs sprinkling the top-25 team rankings.

With all the pleasant surprises the season has brought, there are a few disappointments. USC entered the season with high expectations and a ton of talent but hasn't been able to make things work. Kentucky, once again, has a ton of future NBA talent on this year's team but has been up and down all season, losing three straight games at Rupp Arena for the first time in school history.

Yahoo Sports breaks down the biggest surprises and disappointments so far this college season.

Biggest surprises

UConn favored to repeat

UConn bulldozed through the NCAA tournament last year, beating its opponents by an average of 20 points, and convincingly securing the title over San Diego State. The Huskies lost sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins to the NBA, and Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson also elected to leave a year early and enter the draft.

Head coach Dan Hurley and his staff went out in the transfer portal and got former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer and Tristen Newton elected to return for his fifth year (a grace year due to Covid-19). Hurley also got it done on the recruiting side, bringing in five-star guard Stephon Castle (a projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft) and keeping 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan for his sophomore season.

"What UConn has done this year is unbelievable," one Power Five assistant told Yahoo Sports. "They have so many different offensive options, are tough to get through in the lane with Clingan clogging the paint and their guards can shoot the s*** out of the ball. I wouldn't want to see them in the tournament this year."

Prior to losing to No. 15 Creighton on Tuesday night, UConn had won 14 straight games and has been the No. 1 team for five straight weeks.

John Calipari and Kentucky are 17th in the latest AP poll after suffering the three-game home skid in early February. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
John Calipari and Kentucky are 17th in the latest AP poll after suffering the three-game home skid in early February. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images) (Andy Lyons via Getty Images)

Kentucky's freshmen off the bench making the biggest impact

Entering the season, Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class with two top-10 players and four McDonald's All-Americans. Five-star prospects DJ Wagner, Justin Edwards and Aaron Bradshaw were the hot names coming in but it's been the other two freshmen, guard Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham, that have been the biggest surprises for the Wildcats and two of the most impactful freshmen in college hoops. There's also been a shift with NBA scouts. Sheppard and Dillingham are now projected lottery picks and Wagner, Bradshaw and Edwards are showing up in the second round in mock drafts.

Dillingham, a 6-2 guard who played for Overtime Elite last year, came into the season unsure of what his role would be. To his credit, head coach John Calipari hasn't tried to jam Dillingham into some sort of offensive system and lets him play freely. Dillingham excels at getting downhill with his quick first step and has improved his shot creation with how well he's been off the dribble.

Sheppard is a Kentucky legacy kid with both his parents having played basketball for the Wildcats. From the very first game, Sheppard's immediate impact was on the defensive end with how well he shoots the gap and he can guard both positions in the backcourt well (leading the SEC in steals with 2.6 per game). Offensively, his confidence has grown throughout the season and he's not afraid to take long 3s at the end of the shot clock or be more of a facilitator on the wing. Sheppard is averaging 12.1 points and 4.1 assists in 28 minutes off the bench.

Transfers coming up big on new teams

The transfer portal is still the Wild West in college hoops and some high-major programs have found the most value in going and getting experienced players that were dominating at the low-to-mid-major level. Tennessee's Dalton Knecht has been the most impressive transfer with what he's brought offensively to the No. 5 Vols this season. Knecht spent two years at Northern Colorado before entering the portal for his senior year and chose Tennessee over North Carolina and Kansas. He strung together back-to-back games in January when he put up 30-plus points while shooting close to 60% from the field and 3-point range in both games. His consistent offensive output has gotten the attention of NBA teams and he is a projected first-rounder in the upcoming draft.

Hunter Dickinson was one of the most sought-after players in the portal when he elected to leave Michigan. He left Michigan for a chance to compete for a national championship his senior season and chose the Kansas Jayhawks. The point-forward tandem of Kevin McCullar Jr. and Dickinson has been very hard for teams to guard this season and Dickinson obviously brings some much-needed size and rim protection for the Jayhawks in a tough Big 12 conference. Kansas has dealt with some injuries and is trying to find its stride to close out the season, but experience, depth and the combination of size and outside shooting always does well in the NCAA tournament and No. 9 Kansas has all four of those things, thanks to Dickinson joining the team this year.

Hunter Dickinson has had a huge impact since transferring from Michigan to Kansas, averaging 18.2 points and 11 rebounds a game this season. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
Hunter Dickinson has had a huge impact since transferring from Michigan to Kansas, averaging 18.2 points and 11 rebounds a game this season. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) (G Fiume via Getty Images)

Mid-major teams pack the Top 25 rankings

Blue-blood programs like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas have been in the AP Top 25 mix all season long but it's programs like St. Mary's (No. 18), Colorado State (No. 22) and BYU (No. 25) that have cracked the top 25 late in the season and could be teams to watch for upsets come tournament time.

BYU just upset No. 11 Baylor at home Tuesday night, hitting an incredible 14 3s and grabbing 15 offensive boards. Colorado State has been steady all season long in the Mountain West led by senior guard Isaiah Stevens, who's averaging 16.2 points and 7.4 assists per game. St. Mary's is undefeated in WCC conference play, taking the top spot over rival Gonzaga. Also, the Pac-12's Washington State has surprised everyone, going 10-1 in the last 11 games and moving into second place in the conference.

Biggest disappointments

What happened at USC?

Coming into the season, USC had its best recruiting class, led by the No. 1 recruit Isaiah Collier and McDonald's All American Bronny James. Senior guard Boogie Ellis decided to stay one more year and the Trojans returned one of the best defenders in the Pac-12 in 6-6 wing Kobe Johnson. The Trojans started the season as the No. 16 team in the country and, after they lost to Gonzaga on Dec. 2, it was all downhill from there. Collier was out for a month with a hand injury, James missed the first part of the season recovering from a cardiac arrest incident that happened in August and there seems to be no chemistry on the court and a huge disconnect between players and head coach Andy Enfield's direction for the team.

In his return to the team, Collier has been pretty good, averaging 19.5 points in the last four games, but that's not leading to wins. USC was up by 16 on Colorado in its most recent game and lost in double overtime, 92-89.

The Trojans are now 10-16 and 11th in the Pac-12. Pending a miracle run in the Pac-12 tournament, we won't see USC and James in the NCAA tournament. In what has been a forgetful year on the court at USC for James, it's unlikely he'll return for a second season, possibly entering the NBA Draft for a chance to play with his dad, LeBron.

Andy Enfield's Trojans have struggled through an injury-plagued season and will need a miracle to make the NCAA tournament. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Andy Enfield's Trojans have struggled through an injury-plagued season and will need a miracle to make the NCAA tournament. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) (Meg Oliphant via Getty Images)

Kentucky coming up short in big games with a roster full of multiple NBA players

Each year, Kentucky gets five-star recruits and future NBA players that typically play one year for the Wildcats and then enter the NBA Draft. Even with multiple future NBA players on the roster this season (some believe Kentucky has up to seven potential NBA players on the current roster), Coach Cal falls short year after year. Big Blue Nation is growing impatient and can't understand why that's the case this year when on paper the Wildcats seem to have everything from shot blockers (three 7-footers, including Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso and Zvonimir Ivišić), to upperclassmen talent (Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell) and star freshmen.

Kentucky lost three straight games at Rupp Arena for the first time in school history and are currently fifth in the SEC. Almost every draft night, Calipari is in the green room sitting alongside his star prospect and watching the talented player move on from Kentucky and do great things in the NBA. Calipari has used his track record with getting guys to the NBA as a recruiting tool. Fans are thrilled when five-star, one-and-done talented players commit to Kentucky but it's not leading to deep runs in the tournament and it hasn't brought a national title to Kentucky since 2012.

Arkansas has disappeared this season

There's a slim chance we'll see the "Muss Buss" or head coach Eric Musselman jump on the scorers table and take his shirt offthis year during the NCAA tournament. Arkansas has made a run to the Sweet 16 in the last three seasons but Arkansas has somewhat disappeared this year and is currently 12-12 (12th in the SEC with a 4-9 record).

The Razorbacks lost Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr., Ricky Council and Jordan Walsh to the NBA last season and returned Trevon Brazile this year after he suffered a season-ending ACL tear the year before. There have been rumors of off-the-court issues that have impacted how the team is playing. The Razorbacks already have commitments from four-star prospects Isaiah Elohim and Jalen Shelley, but after this tumultuous season, things seem murky for Arkansas as an SEC powerhouse.

The Kenny Payne and Louisville experience is not working

Louisville is one of the worst Power Five basketball teams for the second season in a row and it might be time to part ways with head coach Kenny Payne. A longtime associate head coach at Kentucky, Payne was known for landing top recruits.

Last year, the Cardinals finished 4-28 and last in the ACC. Payne and his coaching staff (Nolan Smith and Danny Manning) hit the recruiting trail and transfer portal and landed Skyy Clark from Illinois and Tre White from USC and others. They also landed top-30 recruit Trentyn Flowers and had high hopes coming into the season with returning Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Michael James.

Flowers left the program before the season started and is playing for the Adelaide 36ers in Australia's National Basketball League. Meanwhile, even with almost a brand-new team, Payne can't get anything to work. Home games at Louisville are poorly attended and the Cardinals are 8-18 this season and, again, last in the ACC.