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Mike Lopresti | | January 2, 2017

Start of conference play brings plenty of surprises

OK, it might be a tad early for this question, less than a week into conference play, but let’s ask it anyway.

Just what’s going on out there?

Strange forces were at work in some of the first league games, which is one reason nine of the top 15 teams in The Associated Press poll fell within about 120 hours. Might be an aberration, might be a sign of a stormy winter to come, but it’s certainly been impossible not to notice.

Nebraska, for instance.

  Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Glynn Watson Jr. (5) scored 26 points in the Huskers win at Indiana.
One minute, the Cornhuskers were 5-6 and last in the Big Ten in scoring, having lost to Gardner-Webb. The next, they had turned into the Golden State Warriors, scoring 54 points in the second half to win at Indiana, and closing on a 14-0 run to blow past Maryland.

The Hoosiers had won 26 home games in a row, the Terrapins had gone 17-1 in Big Ten home games their first two years in the league. Nebraska answered with one big, “So?’’

“These guys are a tough-minded team,” coach Tim Miles said. “They practice hard and they play hard and stay with it.”

And now a program that’s produced one winning conference record this century has won its first two league road game for the first time in 37 years -- both in notorious Big Ten death traps.

Or consider St.John’s.

The Red Storm was the Big Least of the Big East last season, going 1-17 in conference games. They’re 2-0 now, including a 76-73 upset of No. 13 Butler. That was the highest ranked opponent St. John’s had beaten on its campus since 1983, back when present coach Chris Mullin was a sophomore guard.

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  St. John's Red Storm guard Shamorie Ponds (2) was key in the Johnnies upset win over Butler.
St. John’s started out 2-5, losing to Delaware State. Same old Johnnies, right? Wrong. The top three scorers are all newcomers – two freshmen and a transfer – and they were just clearing their throats. Freshman Shamorie Ponds had 21 points and junior college transfer Bashir Ahmed 20 as St. John’s crushed Syracuse for the Orange’s worst loss in Carrier Dome history. Ponds then put up 26 against Butler.

The 24 losses in Mullin’s first season seem a long time ago. “We all knew the situation we were coming into, and to expect anything else would be somewhat unrealistic,” he said after the Butler win. “Going through it is tough . . . Part of the process is dealing with those emotions, the ups and downs, and being able to focus. Games like this give them the confidence and the trust in each other that what they’re doing is right.”

Or as Ahmed said, “A lot of people are sleeping on us, and we woke them up.”

Then there’s Minnesota, just off an 8-23 season, when the Gophers went 2-16 in the Big Ten. Easy conference marks, but not anymore. They took Michigan State into overtime before losing by a point, and Sunday went to overtime again, this time finishing the job against No. 15 Purdue 91-82.

  Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Nate Mason (2) led his team to a tough road victory on Sunday at Purdue.
Minnesota had not seen a victory in West Lafayette in 12 years, and Purdue was 31-2 its last 33 home games. Old history. The Boilermakers got a 28 point-22 rebound night from Caleb Swanigan – his fourth 20-20 game of the season – but the Gophers beat them anyway to go 13-2. They passed last season’s victory total on Dec. 9. The Richard Pitino era is looking much better these days.

And just look at the ACC. What a mess the first week was.

Yes, that was unranked Virginia Tech putting six players in double figures and drilling No. 5 Duke by 14 points. The Blue Devils came in having won nine consecutive games against the Hokies, and were 45-8 against them all-time. Justin Bibbs came in shooting 36.8 percent for the season for Virginia Tech, going 1-for-13 the previous two games. He scored 18 points and made six of nine shots. Make that 45-9.

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Yes, that was Georgia Tech holding No. 9 North Carolina 26 points under its scoring average and mashing the Tar Heels by 12. The Yellow Jackets hadn’t won an ACC opener in 11 years, nor beaten North Carolina in seven meetings. The Tar Heels, normally a model of efficiency, shot 33 percent and had 20 turnovers. “It’s an ugly stat sheet,” Roy Williams mentioned.

  Florida State guard Dwayne Bacon (4) scored 26 of his 29 points after halftime in a win over Virginia.
Yes, that was Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon scoring 26 of his 29 points after halftime, including the winning 3-pointer with four seconds left, to beat No. 12 Virginia 60-58. Until that shot, the Cavaliers had gone 35-1 their previous 36 ACC home games. Virginia was second in the nation in field goal defense, but Bacon went 11-for-18. The 14-1 Seminoles, off to their second best start ever, will continue to require non-stop heroics. If Virginia Tech is included in the polls this week as expected, Florida State will play six consecutive ACC ranked opponents.

Yes, that was Boston College beating Syracuse, to break a 20-game losing streak in the ACC. The Orange went to the Final Four last season. The Eagles went 7-25, and 0-18 in the league.

RELATEDACC parity rises after four ranked teams lose

Bottom line, the past on paper doesn't matter much right now in several conferences. The big boys are vulnerable. The smaller fry have gotten better. One week of league play has suggested a landscape of closing gaps.

“The first thing I said to our team when walked into the locker room was, 'Welcome to the ACC,'” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

And welcome to 2017. If the past week is any indication, it'll never be easy to guess what happens next.

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