No Al­pha emerges in men’s hoops, opens door for more up­sets

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By AARON BEARD AP Bas­ket­ball Writer

DURHAM, N.C. » Af­ter a hand­ful of col­lege bas­ket­ball games, sev­eral teams have as­cended to the moun­tain­top only to be knocked off the throne.

So far, a dif­fer­ent team has sat atop The As­so­ci­ated Press men’s col­lege bas­ket­ball poll in each of the first three weeks for only the sec­ond time in his­tory.

There doesn’t seem to be an Al­pha that will set the tone this year.

Blue­bloods like cur­rent No. 1 Duke, No. 5 North Carolina and No. 9 Ken­tucky have still-de­vel­op­ing young tal­ent, yet there doesn’t ap­pear to be a team like the Blue Devils last sea­son or the 2015 Ken­tucky team that car­ried an un­beaten record to the Fi­nal Four. Those teams were stacked with enough top-tier NBA tal­ent to fre­quently play like over­whelm­ing ti­tle fa­vorites.

“I don’t think there’s a dom­i­nant team this year,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You saw that in New York (at the Cham­pi­ons Clas­sic). But there’s a lot of good teams and that’s go­ing to make it in­ter­est­ing all sea­son.”

There cer­tainly has been a few shock­ers so far.

Evansville up­ended thenNo. 1 Ken­tucky at Rupp Arena. Florida (No. 6 in pre­sea­son) and St. Mary’s (No. 20) have fallen out of the Top 25 af­ter losses to un­ranked teams. And that could sig­nal an open door for an un­ex­pected team — like a George Ma­son in 2006 or Loy­ola-Chicago two years ago — to make a sur­prise ap­pear­ance in At­lanta come April.

“There is ab­so­lutely no team that you can look at right now and say: ‘I don’t care what the matchup is, this team’s play­ing deep into the tour­na­ment and then they’ll get to the Fi­nal Four,’” said ACC Net­work an­a­lyst Jor­dan Cor­nette, who played at Notre Dame from 2001-05.

The turnover atop the AP poll stands out, in par­tic­u­lar.

It started with Michi­gan State claim­ing the pre­sea­son No. 1 rank­ing for the first time, only to lose on open­ing night to then-No. 2 Ken­tucky in the Cham­pi­ons Clas­sic in New York. That pushed the Wild­cats to No. 1 for what ap­peared to be a long stay with seven straight games at Rupp and no power-con­fer­ence op­po­nent un­til Dec. 14 — only to lose as a 25-point fa­vorite to a Pur­ple Aces team picked to fin­ish eighth in the Mis­souri Val­ley Con­fer­ence.

Now it’s Duke’s turn, mark­ing the first time each of the first three AP polls had a dif­fer­ent No. 1 since Syra­cuse, North Carolina and Ken­tucky did it to start the 1987-88 sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Sportradar.

Yet this ver­sion of the top-ranked Blue Devils il­lus­trates how dif­fer­ent things are this year.

Duke mo­nop­o­lized last year’s spot­light amid the in­com­pa­ra­ble ath­leti­cism of na­tional player of the year Zion Wil­liamson, while fel­low tal­ented fresh­men RJ Bar­rett and Cam Red­dish gave the Blue Devils three top-10 NBA draft picks for a team that reached the NCAA Elite Eight. This year’s group lacks the nodoubt star ca­pa­ble of scor­ing in any sit­u­a­tion, though it has a much deeper ro­ta­tion with its lat­est touted re­cruit­ing class en­abling Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils to play with a full­court de­fen­sive edge that has over­whelmed early op­po­nents.

“Last year was a team in its own,” ju­nior Alex O’Con­nell said. “I think this year we’re def­i­nitely a more bal­anced team and we have more guys that are ca­pa­ble of com­ing in off the bench or be­ing a starter and hav­ing a hot night.”

That doesn’t sound — or look like — a team that will strike over­whelm­ing fear in op­po­nents.

Duke wasn’t the only team to lose high NBA picks, Ken­tucky and UNC each lost three first-rounders, two in the lot­tery. And reign­ing na­tional cham­pion Vir­ginia lost No. 4 over­all pick De’An­dre Hunter, first-rounder Ty Jerome and Fi­nal Four most out­stand­ing player Kyle Guy.

While those teams have added tal­ented play­ers like Cole Anthony at the point for the Tar Heels, it takes time for new ros­ters to de­velop chem­istry, mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble against teams with far more ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing to­gether.

Teams like Amer­ica East Con­fer­ence fa­vorite Ver­mont, a vet­eran team led by a reign­ing con­fer­ence player of the year in se­nior Anthony Lamb.

Days af­ter hit­ting the shot to beat St. John’s, Lamb had 30 points with seven 3-point­ers against Vir­ginia’s tra­di­tion­ally tough de­fense, and Ver­mont gave the sev­enth-ranked Cava­liers fits on their home­court be­fore fall­ing 61-55.

Other ranked teams haven’t been as for­tu­nate. Florida opened as a top-10 team but Mike White’s Ga­tors fell out af­ter los­ing at home to un­ranked Florida State and then at un­ranked Con­necti­cut.

As for St. Mary’s, the Gaels fell out of the poll af­ter los­ing at home to a Winthrop team picked to fin­ish third in the Big South Con­fer­ence.

It’s an ex­am­ple of why Cor­nette com­pared the process of top teams find­ing them­selves to “a string of bad first dates” with ev­ery­one “watch­ing that awk­ward­ness play it­self out right in front of you in real time.”

“If you’ve got a group that has played to­gether for three sea­sons, two sea­sons, I’m in­trigued by that team’s chance be­cause they’re in rhythm, they’re in sync,” Cor­nette said. “No mat­ter how tal­ented these other guys are, it’s a bunch of tal­ent try­ing to fig­ure out how to share one ball.”

JAMES CRISP - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ken­tucky’s Keion Brooks Jr. (12) and Evansville’s Sam Cun­liffe (20) vie for a re­bound dur­ing the first half of an NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball game in Lex­ing­ton, Ky., Tues­day, Nov. 12, 2019.

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