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Brian Mull | | December 2, 2016

7 teams pleasantly surprising us so far

  Baylor's Johnathan Motley averages about 16 points per game and has served as an anchor in the front court.

The order atop the AP poll has shuffled somewhat in the opening weeks, but the teams found there are expected to remain on their lofty perch all season.

Still, the first three weeks have delivered a handful of pleasant surprises. Here are seven surprising teams trying to sustain a hot start in December - and beyond: 

Arkansas State (7-1)

After an opening loss to North Dakota State, the Red Wolves have ripped off seven consecutive victories under first-year coach Grant McCasland. They won at Georgetown and defeated a strong Chattanooga squad on a neutral court.

Arkansas State has taken a straightforward path to success. The Red Wolves - picked 10th in the 12-team Sun Belt - are playing better defense and making more shots compared to the last two seasons when they were 22-38 overall and 13-27 in the Sun Belt.

Arkansas State is shooting 54.8 percent on 2-pointers vs. Division I foes (45.1 pct. last season) and 40.5 pct. on 3-pointers (31.5 pct.).

Devin Carter (14.8 ppg) remains the offensive centerpiece. But he’s receiving more help this season from three teammates who also average double figures in scoring. 

Baylor (7-0)

It’s Dec. 2, and the Bears have defeated Louisville, Oregon, VCU, Michigan State and Florida Gulf Coast. All five are likely to land in the NCAA tournament while the Cardinals and Ducks are serious Final Four candidates. That’s hardly the resume of the fifth-place team in the Big 12, which is where the league’s coaches projected Scott Drew’s team.

Johnathan Motley’s emergence has offset the loss of Taurean Prince, who was the 12th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Motley anchors the frontcourt, averaging 16 points and eight rebounds. Baylor is top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency and has been particularly proficient at the free throw line, outscoring opponents 116-58.

Baylor is 10th in the Pomeroy Ratings and can claim another top-20 victim Saturday when it faces Xavier.  

Butler (7-0)

We all should know by now: underestimate the Bulldogs at your own risk.

The Big East coaches tabbed Butler sixth in the preseason, but they appear bound for higher ground after recording four KenPom top-70 victories in the first 19 days of the regular season. The Bulldogs gutted out a narrow victory over Northwestern in Hinkle Fieldhouse, tripped Arizona in Las Vegas and methodically mowed over Utah in Salt Lake City.

They are one of nine teams ranked top 20 in adjusted efficiency on offense and defense.

Butler’s senior point guard Tyler Lewis is surrounded by scorers inside and keeps the offense running smoothly. Lewis, who started his career at N.C. State, has made 77 percent of 2-pointers, 46 percent of 3-pointers and assisted on 38 percent of the Bulldogs’ field goals.

Elon (6-1)

In its third season as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Phoenix appears primed to challenge for the top half of the 10-team conference. Elon was 31-34 overall and 13-23 in conference the last two seasons. But its only loss so far came in overtime against 5-2 Charlotte.

Elon coach Matt Matheny is receiving more production from veterans at two key positions. Point guard Luke Eddy has shed the bulky knee brace he wore last season as he returned from an ACL injury. The heady senior is averaging 12.1 points and shooting 61.9 percent on 3-pointers after hitting 24 of 94 (25.5 pct.) last season. He’s one of four Elon players scoring in double figures.

Brian Dawkins, a 6-8 center, entered the season with 197 points in 52 games over two seasons. He’s scored 91 in seven games, hitting 67 percent of 2-pointers and 64 percent of 3-pointers against DI competition.  

South Carolina (7-0)

The Gamecocks were the tough-luck team of 2015-16, falling on the wrong side of an NCAA tournament berth after spending most of January and early February ranked in the AP Top 25.

Frank Martin lost his entire starting frontcourt, so it was reasonable to expect a slight step back this season. Instead, the Gamecocks might be better, based on early wins over Michigan and Syracuse.

South Carolina is a defensive juggernaut, holding five of its last six foes to 50 points or less. Teams are shooting 38 percent on 2-pointers and 25 percent on 3-pointers. And, for the ninth time in 10 seasons as a head coach, Martin’s team is top 20 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.

Sindarius Thornwell is playing at an exceptional level in his senior season. He’s taken on a larger role in the offense and his efficiency has also increased, from a 105.9 offensive rating last season to 124.3 through seven games.   

TCU (7-0)

In the preseason poll, Big 12 coaches made TCU a near unanimous selection to finish last in the conference yet again. Who could blame them? The Horned Frogs were 8-64 in the Big 12 in four seasons under coach Trent Johnson.

Enter a proud alum, determined to flip the program’s fortunes. Jamie Dixon averaged 25 wins annually in 13 seasons at Pittsburgh and has improved the Horned Frogs in every aspect of basketball in the opening weeks. TCU has harassed opponents into turnovers on 26.5 percent of possessions (5th in the nation). Earlier this week, it rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Washington for the second time this season.

“The chemistry’s just great between us all,” guard Alex Robinson told the Fort Worth Star Telegram after the comeback victory over Washington. “This is one of the closest basketball teams I’ve been on.”

Dixon loves his team’s depth and the improvement shown by the young players. The scoring load bearer has varied from game-to-game. Freshman point guard Jaylen Fisher (11.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) is a key piece to build around.

Va. Tech (6-1)

The Hokies have made steady improvement under coach Buzz Williams, who inherited a program that was in dire condition prior to the 2014-15 season. Va. Tech won only 10 conference games in the three seasons before Williams arrived. A comeback victory at Michigan on Wednesday coupled with earlier top-100 victories over Nebraska and New Mexico makes the Hokies third NCAA tournament appearance since 1986 a realistic dream.

“Everybody on this team is unselfish,” senior forward Zach LeDay told Yahoo Sports. “We’re all coming together for a common goal, and that’s winning. Everyone has stories. We all come from different backgrounds. But we all come together to make one tough, hard-nosed team.”

Va. Tech was 20-15 overall and 10-8 in the ACC last season. The Hokies are shooting a higher percentage on 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws, committing fewer turnovers and cleaning the defensive backboard better than it did last season.

KenPom gives the Hokies between an 87 percent and 99 percent chance to win its next five games, which are all at home. If the Hokies are 11-1 on New Year’s Eve when Duke comes to Blacksburg for the ACC opener, expect the Cassell Coliseum to be rockin’ like Times Square.   

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