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Mike Lopresti | | January 30, 2020

The college basketball rankings every Feb. 1 are a weirdly accurate predictor of NCAA champions

Why Seton Hall could be the pick to win the national championship

Sorry, Kentucky. Apologies to Michigan State and Maryland, too.
None of those teams will be in the top 12 in the Associated Press rankings on Saturday, Feb. 1. And that should matter. How? Well, history says it does. History says they can forget about One Shining Moment. History has been known to lie, but in this case, not often.
The AP poll was born in 1949. In the 71 years since, care to guess how often the eventual national champion was ranked in the top 12 on the morning of Feb. 1? That’d be 62 times, or 87 percent. Recently, the trend is even more striking. The winner has come from the top-12 in 29 of the past 31 years — the only exceptions unranked Connecticut in 2014 and No. 24 Syracuse in 2003.
Those on the outside — No. 13 Kentucky, No. 14 Michigan State and No. 15 Maryland, for example — would consider all that enough poppycock to fill an ocean tanker, and they could well be right. A poll on Feb. 1 might not be any more reliable of a tournament predictor than a rodent on Feb. 2 — Groundhog Day — is about the weather. But since both seem to be customs, here are the Dozen of Destiny, and something to really, really like about each of them, as the momentous day nears.
No. 1 Baylor
The first 7-0 conference start since 1958, the first unbeaten January since 1948, extraordinary stuff for the Bears. But even more impressive are five wins over a ranked quintet of Villanova, Arizona, Texas Tech, Kansas and Butler, while trailing only 31 of 200 minutes, and never by more than six points. The 67-55 whipping of Kansas — holding the Jayhawks to their lowest home score in two decades and handing Bill Self only his 14th loss in 270 Allen Fieldhouse games — might be the showcase victory of the season, by anybody.

No. 2 Gonzaga
Ah, the sheer statistical tonnage of the Zags. First in the nation in scoring, second in assist-turnover ratio, third in rebound margin and field goal shooting. The only team in the country with six players averaging in double figures. The 34 regular-season conference wins in a row, the 35 conference road wins in a row — on and on it goes. The highest-scoring team is not supposed to win the national championship. It’s happened just once in 56 years, but that was Villanova only two years ago, so there.
No. 3 Kansas
The Jayhawks are eighth in the nation in shooting at one end of the court, and 11th in the nation in field goal percentage defense at the other. That’s covering all the court. They also have three different players dominating the Big 12 statistics — Devon Dotson leading in scoring, Marcus Garrett in assist-turnover ratio, and Udoka Azubuike in shooting, rebounding and blocked shots.
No. 4 San Diego State 

San Diego State is No. 4 in the nationThe Aztecs are 22-0 and look like they could finish the regular-season undefeated.

BYU, Utah State and New Mexico each have only one home loss all season. Guess who gave it to them? Yep, The Last Unbeaten, now the Aztecs’ official name. New Mexico’s place is called The Pit, and that’s supposed to inhibit visitors, but San Diego State started with a 17-0 lead Wednesday and the final 85-57 score was the worst pounding for New Mexico at home in 18 years. It also made 15th victim of that 22-0 Aztecs’ record to not score more than 57 points. One other tidbit from recent history: Six other teams have started a season 22-0 in the past 10 years, and all of them went on to win at least one NCAA Tournament game. Two — 2015 Kentucky and 2017 Gonzaga — ended up in the Final Four.

AZTEC TRACKER: Tracking San Diego State's perfect season

No. 5 Florida State
Nobody walks the balance beam of close games better than the Seminoles. Noooobody. Since January of 2012, they’ve had 46 games decided by three or fewer points, or in overtime. They’ve won 38 of them. They’ve won nine consecutive overtime games (two this year), and 10 in a row in the ACC, where you’d think the glitter of the competition would make such a thing impossible. Or as coach Leonard Hamilton said over the phone this week,  “There’s no doubt that we’re in the toughest basketball conference ever assembled in the history of college basketball, year in and year out.”
So add this to the list of things the public-at-large should know more about, concerning invariably undersung Florida State. How the No. 5 ranking is the Seminoles’ highest since 1973, how Hamilton is the sixth winningest coach in ACC history, lost in the glare from the Krzyzewskis and Dean Smiths and Williams.
Hamilton was once a Kentucky assistant, so he knows how the pecking order works among the elite names in college basketball. “When you’re an uninvited guest,” he said of Florida State crashing the party of heavyweights, “the only way you can change that is keep getting better and better and better, and before too long, I’m sure people will recognize that we’ve got a pretty good team.”
The record in close calls ought to prove it, even if they did drop a tough five-pointer this week at Virginia, ending a 10-game winning streak and putting their record at 17-3. Hamilton credits it to his veteran, savvy staff that keeps things on an even keel, and a way of thinking among the players that has now been formed at Florida State in crunch time.
“We have a system that we believe in and we spend a lot of time on situations, like I’m sure a lot of guys in the coaching world do,” he said. “As coaches we have a great relationship with our players and we try to maintain a certain level of calmness with our kids, and always maintain a certain level of poise. I think the combination of going over situations on a routine basis during the week and in the offseason and believing in each other and maintaining an emotional poise in ourselves allows our guys to make good decisions when the game’s on the line.
“It’s mindset that our guys have that they always believe . . . that regardless of what the score is, if we have enough time, we’re going to go out and win.”
No. 6 Louisville
Experience matters in March, and Louisville now starts a lineup of two juniors, two redshirt seniors and a graduate student. The elders have put together a seven-game ACC winning streak, the school’s longest since joining the league. If senior star Jordan Nwora is back in scoring form — he had 40 points in the previous four games combined, then went for 37 against BC — it makes the Cardinals that much more imposing. They already have a defense that has created 50 opponent scoring droughts this season of three-plus minutes.
No. 7 Dayton
Dayton is No. 1 in the nation in shooting, is third in assists, and six different players have led the team in scoring in a game. All those are signs of sharing and teamwork, and yet they still have one of the leading contenders for national player of the year in Obi Toppin. Dayton hasn’t been in this rarified air in the rankings since 1967. P.S. The Flyers went to the national championship game that season.

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No. 8 Villanova

Villanova is No. 8 in the countryThe Wildcats look strong as of late, but they still have two matchups with Big East contender Seton Hall, on Feb. 8 and Mar. 4 before the regular-season ends.

The annual Jay Wright construction project is right on schedule. The Wildcats have won 13 of 14, with Saddiq Bey an emerging star, Collin Gillespie reminding you more of Ryan Arcidiacono all the time, and newcomers Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore finding their way. They each have been Big East freshman of the week four times.

No. 9 Duke 
It has taken some tinkering, what with injuries and new faces. Mike Krzyzewski has used nine different starting lineups, and there have been some tense moments in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Losses to Louisville and Stephen F. Austin, Coach K grumbling at the Crazies. But for an example of what Duke can be on the good days, just look at the Blue Devils’ scores. ACC contests are supposed to routinely be exercises in drama. They have won four conference games by 30 or more points. They also beat Michigan State by 12 and California by 25. Never mind the drop from No. 1, they’ll be on everyone’s minds in March.

No. 10 Seton Hall
The 10-game winning streak is the Pirates’ longest in 27 years, and they’re only the 12th team in 41 years of Big East play to start 8-0 in the conference. Myles Powell is producing like the national player-of-the-year candidate he is with 22 points a game and Romaro Gill, arguably the Big East’s most improved player, has turned into a fierce rim protector with 69 blocks. The roster will soon be full strength with the healing of their third leading scorer Sandro Mamukelashvili. All arrows point up at Seton Hall.

BRACKETOLOGY: Andy Katz's latest March Madness bracket predictions 
No. 11 Oregon
Payton Pritchard has won 98 games as a Duck and is the first Pac-12 player ever to reach 1,500 points, 600 assists and 500 rebounds in his career. And he doesn’t even own either of the two most sensational individual performances for Oregon this season. According to Ducks’ sports information, Chris Duarte became the first Division 1 player in 21 years to produce a line of 30 points, 11 rebounds and eight steals, as he did against USC. And way back in the early season, Anthony Mathis had one of the nation’s best shooting nights, torching Boise State for 30 points in 10-for-12 shooting, including 9-for-11 from the 3-point line. Add all that to overtime wins over Michigan USC, Washington and Arizona, and Oregon has the feel of a team with big plans.

No. 12 West Virginia
West Virginia has ramped up the physical defense to go 16-4 against 20 opponents with a combined winning percentage of .694 as of Wednesday. No other team in the nation has faced such a thing. With the loss at Texas Tech, the Mountaineers might drop below the No. 12 spot in next Monday’s AP poll, but they’ll still be there on Saturday, Feb. 1.
And that’s all that matters, right?

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