January is here, so you know what that means for college basketball: complete and utter chaos.
The last two sets of rankings were relatively tame; a few new schools joined the fray here and there, but overall, there were no drastic shifts. Turns out, it was the calm before the storm. A predictable storm, but a storm nonetheless.
Where to start? Baylor, which has the most impressive resume in the country to date, is up to No. 2 after walloping Oklahoma by 26 on the road. UCLA drops two spots after a heartbreaking loss to Oregon, which is now ranked 15th. Don’t be surprised if that number dwindles as Pac-12 play rolls on, by the way. Florida State, which notched one of the best wins we’ve seen thus far with its road triumph over Virginia, checks in at No. 12. Virginia Tech, which dominated Duke from the opening tip on Saturday, joins the AP Poll for the first time this season at No. 21. North Carolina lost to Georgia Tech, Butler fell to St. John’s, and we haven’t even talked about No. 1 Villanova going on the road and knocking off Creighton in a raucous environment.
It was kind of a big week.
Perhaps we overestimated the ACC’s star power and underestimated its immense depth going into the season. Florida State was ranked eighth in the preseason conference poll; the Seminoles are now the No. 12 team in the country, and their record reflects their talent level for the first time in years.
This team is athletic, deep, long and can shoot. Perhaps most impressive of all, the Seminoles can excel playing a variety of styles. Florida State just defeated Virginia, which ranks dead-last in the country in adjusted tempo, by playing the Cavaliers’ game; make no mistake, the Seminoles would prefer to run. Leonard Hamilton’s squad ranks 51st in the nation in pace, and FSU attempted two fewer shots than Virginia did on Saturday. The Seminoles won a game at John Paul Jones Arena in which they missed 12 free throws, were outrebounded by five, and got five points from their second-best player, Jonathan Isaac.How, you ask? Because Dwayne Bacon is really, really good; Tony Bennett’s defense can stifle just about any offensive scheme imaginable, but there’s no magic solution for a star that gets isolation buckets in his sleep.
Bacon scored 29 points on 18 field goal attempts against the Hoos; there were few clean looks, either. The sophomore canned six 3-pointers, and when the Seminoles’ halfcourt sets sputtered, Bacon (efficiently) rained fire from distance with the shot clock winding down. Few college basketball players can do that. Florida State has three extremely talented scorers in Bacon, Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and Hamilton’s crew will give ACC foes problems all season long.
Florida State wasn’t the only ACC non-blueblood to rise this week. Virginia Tech is now ranked 21st, and the Hokies are 12-1 on the season after beating Duke by 14 in Blacksburg.
Buzz Williams teams always defend, but the Hokies have been surprisingly lethal offensively in 2016-17. Virginia Tech is making 40.3 percent of its 3’s this season; that’s up from a 34.8 percent clip last year. It also leads the country in free-throw rate.
The Hokies are going smaller than any top-25 team, and it’s working. Williams plays seven guys 20 minutes per game or more, all of whom are 6-7 or shorter. They’ll surrender some offensive rebounds, but over the course of a game, the math tilts in Virginia Tech’s favor. Trading 3’s and free-throws for contested 2’s is a winning recipe, and Williams has the Hokies off to their best start in years.
Moving out west, while UCLA is still the top-ranked team in the Pac-12, it looks like Oregon is back. Dillon Brooks looks healthy *Bruin fans collectively nod* and the Ducks’ free-wheeling, side-to-side drive-and-kick outfit is back to where it was in 2015-16.
A not-so-bold prediction: Oregon will be back in the top 10 by the time February hits. The Ducks have themselves a player in freshman point guard Payton Pritchard, and their January schedule looks friendly. What made Oregon so hard to guard last season was not only Brooks, but its unique ability to pose threats at all five positions. Earlier this season, Tyler Dorsey wasn’t himself, Brooks was hurt, and Dylan Ennis was still finding his role with a new team.
Those days feel like ancient history. After being college basketball-deprived from April through October, it’s easy to overreact to November results. But January, February and March are when we find out who these teams really are. With each impressive conference win, Oregon is hammering home that lesson.