No Alpha emerges in men’s hoops, opens door for more upsets
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — 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 then-No. 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 no-doubt 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.
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.”
AP Basketball Writer Dave Skretta in Lawrence, Kansas, contributed to this report.
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