I think if you read down the list of teams in my early computer rankings, you would wonder about some of the highly placed squads. And then you would get to Cal State Northridge and your mind would go nuts.
The Matadors are 6-1 to begin the season, and travel to the new Pauley Pavilion to take on UCLA on Wednesday night. Based on reputation, and league, and a host of other factors, the Bruins will should be the ones holding the red flag and taunting Cal State Northridge all game.
But this is a struggling UCLA team, facing a young Matadors program that has nothing to lose from this game. Look at what Cal Poly managed to do when given just a 4.6 percent chance at the start of the game. Northridge is starting with a 7 percent chance.
The head-scratching question is exactly how the Matadors have run out to this great start. The competition is one thing. Their only loss came against a difficult BYU team. The teams that they have beaten though won't make anyone raise their eyebrows.
So what if this start has come at the expense of Pepperdine, Eastern Washington, San Diego, Siena, Tulsa and Northern Kentucky? So what if none of those teams is in the KenPom Top 150?
A 6-1 records is still a lot better than most teams have done to this point in the season. There has to be something to it.
That something starts with sophomore Stephan Hicks, who is averaging 18.4 points per game, right where he left off his Big West freshman of the year season. Hicks has been Mr. Everything for the Matadors so far. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding (8.4 rpg), and shooting percentage (55.3 percent). He is second in steals with 11 and he hasn't bee a slouch at the free throw line, going 40-for-47 so far.
That all translates to a ridiculous 122.0 early season ORtg, and a pace that has him looking at a 7.56 HW30 score. That is Big West player of the year material.
The motor of the offense, Josh Greene isn't that far behind in terms of overall worth to the team, thanks to his 5.0 assists per game, and 13.9 points. He is on pace for a season just behind what Hicks has done.
Stephen Maxwell adds another scoring and rebounding threat, and again a positive value this season. Freshmen Brandon Perry off the bench and Tre Hale-Edmerson in the starting lineup have looked good, with Perry turning in an impressive value mark for a reserve frosh (0.65 HW30).
Altogether, that looks really good ... for a team that has beaten Pepperdine and Northern Kentucky. UCLA, no matter its issues, isn't Pepperdine or Northern Kentucky. The Bruins have a few things that Northridge doesn't.
Here are three reasons why you can't fully get behind the idea of an upset of the Bruins happening again:
1. Height: Northridge just doesn't have it. The starting guards -- Greene and Allan Guei -- are both six-feet tall or shorter. That is going to limit their ability to rebound (it already has) and defend the taller starters for UCLA. Inside, most of the key players for the Matadors will be giving up at least two inches to the Bruins. Most will be surrendering more. UCLA is one of the tallest teams in the country, and that will really hurt Northridge in preventing second shots by the Bruins. It is an area where they already struggle. It will only get worse here.
Those second shot opportunities have also been a huge boost to the Matadors. At a 39.8 offensive rebounding percentage, they are among the best in the country at cleaning up their own messes. That won't be so easy when they are dominated in the size column.
UCLA could make this height advantage even worse for the Matadors by switching into a zone defense rather than their standard man. This shift might cost them some of their advantage on the glass, but it will cause major issues for a team that is shooting just 31.1 percent from 3-point range, and is prone to getting its shots blocked.
2. Defense: Saying that UCLA has some defense might be a stretch. This isn't the typical Ben Howland-style defense at all. Despite a still strong efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, the Bruins aren't exactly better than average when you break that defense down into the Four Factors. UCLA is just average at preventing scoring, although they are better inside the arc. That will mean strength vs. strength when the Matadors have the ball, and as we already said, it will be tough for them to adjust and kick out, because no one can shoot from three.
The Bruins don't really force a lot of turnovers, and they are just better than average at preventing second chance opportunities by their opponents. As we mentioned, this isn't the typical grinder, tough team that we are used to out of Howland.
But that defense is light years ahead of what Northridge will bring to the floor. The only thing that the Matadors have done well is forcing turnovers, an area where UCLA hasn't been having issues (wow, there was a place that didn't need improvement). We could see some dominant offensive possessions by UCLA.
3. Shabazz Muhammad: OK, we aren't buying into all of the hype yet. By all accounts, Muhammad is not quite in the shape he showed off last year as a senior in high school. Sitting on the bench to start the season could do that to a player. That said, Muhammad is the kind of leader that could solidify this UCLA team. He is the foundation that the Bruins could build around this year, a position that he could still take since no one else on the floor in powder blue wants to be the man right now.
The team was waiting for him to arrive to be its full potential. He has to take advantage of the fact that they want him to be the star. He should call for the ball. He should break the Matadors down on the dribble. He should use his bulk to get into the lane and make them foul him. He can't be content to just take seven-foot jumpers.
He knows better than that, and so does his coach. If I were Howland, my first step would be running the ball through the fabulous frosh on every possession, or at least most possessions.
Let him create and turn this team's offense into something that can actually work out there, not just a fairly bland, slow style of play that has these former high school runners and gunners lost.
All three things: the height, the defense and the Muhammad should have UCLA getting the edge Wednesday.
But that is probably what the Bruins thought when Cal Poly came into town.