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Jack Freifelder | | January 9, 2017

Baylor climbs to No. 1; Butler, Florida State, UNC rise in AP poll

  Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) has been right in the mix of things all year for the Bears.

As the season passes the midway point, a new No. 1 has been crowned in the world of college basketball. The new top dog: the Baylor Bears. And it's been business as usual for head coach Scott Drew, as his crew has stayed clean through the season's first 15 games.

Double-double machine Johnathan Motley (four in a row) and one of the nation's leading shot blockers Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. (3.5 rejections per game) team up to control the paint for the Bears, while the guard tandem of Manu Lecomte and Al Freeman have paced things from the outside. Mix in a glue guy in the form of senior Ishmail Wainwright and you have the recipe for one solid basketball team.

After an extremely hectic start to the year — one that included Top 25 matchups and victories against Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier — things have settled down for the Bears with the start of Big 12 play. That must sound like an oxymoron to some with the reputation that the Big 12 boasts in the world of college basketball, but the going gets tough starting this week with a pair of road trips to Morgantown, West Virginia, to play the Mountaineers (1/10) and to Manhattan, Kansas, to tangle with the Kansas State Wildcats.

The two things the Bears have going for them: (1) its veteran leadership and (2) the benefit of timely scheduling.

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Only one freshman has made an apperance for Baylor this year and that's because head coach Scott Drew has upperclassmen in spades. The top seven players in Baylor's rotation are all at least in their junior year, which should bode well for their squad throughout the rest of the slog through the Big 12. Now, that's not to say that talent can't trump experience on a given night, but most coaches would prefer to have a cohesive unit over one with a few blips of transcendent talent. Lastly, on the scheduling front, Baylor's Big 12 schedule (as it stands now) shakes out quite favorably because the Bears are afforded some distance between their matchups with Kansas and West Virginia — the other two Big 12 teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. Sure, the Big 12 is no slouch and the Bears could slip up against any opponent (a pair of wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State by a total of six points this week shouldn't excite anyone), but for now Baylor will take things one game at a time.

But the AP poll is not just about the team up top. As for the biggest riser this week: well, that'd be the Butler Bulldogs. A tough loss on the road at St. John's right before the turn of the calendar year proved to be the kick in the pants that Butler needed — and the kick-start everyone else in the Big East was worried about. What has ensued for head coach Chris Holtmann and his bunch is a three-game winning streak to run their Big East record to 3-1. Xavier is currently the only unblemished team in conference (3-0), but Creighton, Butler and Villanova are all right in the hunt in second place (3-1). The latest victims to fall prey to Butler's potent, yet methodical offensive attack — Georgetown and Villanova.

  Butler University guard Kamar Baldwin (3) was right in the middle of his team's win over Villanova.

Butler may have run into the defending national champions on an off night, but no one is taking anything away from the Bulldogs' signature win of the 2016-17 season. 'Nova was pushed to the brink by Butler's hard-nosed defense, which took the Wildcats out of their comfort zone and forced them into an extremely poor night shooting the basketball — well below 40 percent from the field. In all fairness, Butler may have been focusing a bit too much on Villanova as the Bulldogs played a bit lackadaisically in their matchup with Georgetown on Saturday, but they would go on to rectify things in overtime. Let that be a lesson to all college basketball fans: The most opportune time to pull off an upset is right after your opponent notches a primetime win.

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Two other teams continuing to climb their way to the top of the rankings come from the land of the ACC conference. Plenty of top-tier talent to choose from there, but the conversation today focuses on the Tar Heels of North Carolina and the potential surprise team of the year in Florida State. 

The Tar Heels rebounded from an uncharacteristically sloppy loss to Georgia Tech with a tight win over Clemson and a blowout victory against intrastate rival NC State. Many might have been looking forward to backcourt battle between UNC’s Joel Berry II and NC State's Dennis Smith Jr., but that matchup never materialized as UNC jumped on the Wolfpack and never gave up. Nonetheless, the week was a success in more ways than one.

  The return of North Carolina Tar Heels forward Theo Pinson (1) will be a boon to UNC's defensive fortunes.
Sure, Berry II averaged 25 points in a pair of wins, but perhaps the most important development for the Tar Heels was the return of junior swingman Theo Pinson. Pinson is widely believed to be one of the Tar Heels' best on-ball defenders, and his impact was pretty much immediate despite not scoring in his season debut (five rebounds, five assists and four steals in 13 minutes of action against NC State). Only time will tell how much the Tar Heels defense can improve, but a battle with Florida State on Saturday will be a good measuring stick for both squads.

Last but certainly not least, the Seminoles of Florida State. Head coach Leonard Hamilton has his ball club off to the school's best start since the 1988-89 season, and all the way up to No. 9 in the country. With no NCAA tournament apperances since 2012, fans in Tallahassee, Florida, are likely frothing at the mouth over the likelihood of getting back to the Big Dance. And with good reason as FSU boasts a starting five that can hang with most teams in the country.

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  Florida State Seminoles guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) is part of three-guard lineup for coach Leonard Hamilton.
A trio of guards in Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Terance Mann and Dwayne Bacon help set the pace for FSU, working alongside freshman big man Jonathan Isaac. Bacon has taken on the role of late-game scorer (just ask the Virginia Cavaliers), but both Mann and Rathan-Mayes have had their leading moments as well. Mann set the pace with 22 points and nine rebounds in Saturday's win against Virginia Tech. A matchup with Duke on Tuesday will be the third straight game facing a team ranked in the AP Top 25. That comes as part of a six-game stretch against ranked opponents, with UNC, Notre Dame and Louisville to follow before the end of the month. Florida State may already have one of the most impressive résumés in all of college basketball, with three wins against ranked teams, but rest assured, there will be several more opportunities for the Seminoles to knock off another high-profile opponent in the near future.

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