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Mike Lopresti | | January 31, 2021

9 of this season's most surprising conference contenders

De'Vion Harmon on Oklahoma's top-10 win over Alabama

For the latest example of why the paper that preseason conference predictions are printed on makes fine birdcage liner, consider the Virginia Tech Hokies.

They blew past Virginia 65-51 over the weekend by putting a 19-0 knockout punch on the Cavaliers in the second half. Plenty of times, famously stingy Virginia hasn’t given up 19 points in an entire half. The Hokies are 13-3 overall and 7-2 and a half-game off the lead in the ACC, which is their best league start ever, and they’ve beaten four ranked teams — including owning Villanova’s only loss — which ties a school record. They just stuffed Notre Dame and Virginia by allowing only 51 points in each game and 36.1 percent shooting, which is sterling defense, but as coach Mike Young said, “it’s not a surprise.”

Oh, by the way, did we mention Virginia Tech was picked to finish 11th in the ACC this season?

“I like when people don’t think we’re going to win,” said Keve Aluma, fresh off scoring 29 points against Virginia.  Aluma was with Young two years ago at Wofford, but transferred to Virginia Tech when Young took the job. Justyn Mutts is a graduate transfer from Delaware. The Hokies were the second shortest team in the high major conferences last season, and it showed in the rebounding totals, but Aluma is 6-9, Mutts 6-7, and together they have added 14 rebounds a game. Virginia Tech has rolled on, despite the indefinite suspension of second leading scorer Tyrece Radford after an arrest.

Or consider Alabama. Yeah, the Crimson Tide lost a tough one to Oklahoma Saturday, but is still a spotless 9-0 in the SEC with a three-game lead,  and might lap the field. This ain’t football. Alabama was supposed to finish fifth. The three teams voted at the top — Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU — the Tide has already beaten by eight, 20 and 30 on their own courts, and then Kentucky again in Tuscaloosa by 11.

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Speaking of Oklahoma, the Sooners took down four top-10 teams in January, and nobody had done that in the same calendar month in college basketball in 47 years. Oklahoma beat Alabama 66-61 without two starters, including leading scorer Austin Reaves, because of COVID protocols. The 11-4 Sooners were picked sixth in the Big 12.

They have also faced so many COVID and injury curves in the road, not one player has started every game. Brady Manek, who had 12 points and six rebounds in three outings since returning from his virus bout, had 12 points and six rebounds against Alabama. “We don’t know who’s going to be playing, who’s going to be out, who’s going to be hurt, it’s just basketball,” he said. “It’s been a strange year.”

Consider Michigan. Assuming we ever see the Wolverines again, since they’re on extended COVID break until Feb. 11. The Big Ten takes no official preseason poll, but in several unofficial rankings, the Wolverines came in sixth, seventh, eighth. The unanimous big dogs ahead were Iowa and Illinois and Wisconsin and Michigan State.  But here Michigan is, 13-1 overall, and 1.5 games in front, led in scoring by a freshman, Hunter Dickinson. The Big Ten is supposed to be brutally close, but the Wolverines’ eight league wins have come by an average of 16.8 points.

ALL-AMERICA WATCH: What makes Michigan's Hunter Dickinson a breakout All-America candidate

By the way, two years ago, Juwan Howard was an assistant coach with the Miami Heat who had never spent a day leading a college program. Mike Young was at Wofford. Nate Oats was at  Buffalo. Now Howard’s at Michigan, Young’s at Virginia Tech and Oats is at Alabama — ringleaders of this preseason conference rebellion in their second seasons .

Consider Drake. Still purring along at 15-0, one of the last three remaining unbeatens, keeping distinguished company with Gonzaga and Baylor. The Bulldogs were supposed to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference, but are 6-0 against all the teams picked ahead of them.

Consider Toledo. The Rockets’ 10-1 MAC record is their best start in 42 years. Saturday’s 84-66 romp at Bowling Green was their biggest win on their neighbor’s court in 48 seasons. Twice, they’ve had six players score in double figures in a game, and six other times, five players did it. The other night at Miami, JT Shumate, a Division II player last season and the only starter at the time not averaging in double figures, hit all 11 shots he took and scored 33 points. The 15-4 record includes losses by one point in overtime, two and three, and a whacking at Michigan. All that despite losing an expected inside force in 6-10 AJ Edu to a knee injury in December.

Doesn’t sound much like a team that was supposed to finish sixth in the MAC, does it?

“I don’t put any credence into those, because nobody knows who has what,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Everything’s off last year.”

Also, Toledo leads the MAC in free throw shooting, with leading scorer Marreon Jackson seventh in the nation with a 93.8 percentage, after hitting 41 in a row to start the season. Then again, in Kowalczyk’s first 10 seasons, Toledo finished first or second in the league eight times. Clearly, the man knows his stuff from 15 feet.

“I would bet a lot of money, if you look at my entire career, we’re top 10 in the country in free throw shooting, not year in and year out, but just over time,” he said. “And it’s simple as this: First, we recruit good shooters. Secondly, we do believe in changing some guys’ shots. If they’re not over 70 percent, I own them. If I tell them to throw it up there granny style, they have to do it with conviction.”

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Conventional wisdom has been upset everywhere. Cleveland State leads the Horizon League with a 12-2 record and played Ohio State to six points. The Vikings were picked seventh. Northeastern is atop the Colonial at 7-1 and has already swept league favorite Hofstra. Another seventh place selection. Missouri owns victories over ranked Oregon, Illinois and at Tennessee for the first time since 1972. The Tigers just moved to 11-3 by surviving a 102-98 overtimer with TCU by getting two 30-point scorers in the same game for the first time in 20 years. Missouri was voted 10th in the SEC.

Then again, that prediction door swings both ways, and lately, it’s hitting some renowned names in the face. Michigan State is 13th in the Big Ten. That number nearly causes a computer malfunction. Kansas, whose Big 12 season titles are as expected in the winter as Groundhog Day, is already 3.5 games off Baylor’s lead, and only a game out of seventh place. The Jayhawks have lost four of five, which hadn’t happened since Roy Williams’ first year as coach 32 years ago.  Kentucky is in seventh. Arizona State, nearly picked to win the Pac-12, is in ninth. Northern Iowa, the Missouri Valley favorite, is in eighth.

That’s all part of the captivatingly unstable landscape of 2020-21. The evidence is there every weekend, including the past one. Supposedly troubled Duke walloped Clemson by 26 points, using its eighth different starting lineup in 12 games. BYU outlasted Pacific 95-87 in a two-overtime game that included 40 lead changes. Texas Tech scored 12 points in the last minute to sweep past LSU 76-71. Utah rallied from 19 points behind in the second half to beat Colorado 77-74, mostly because a reserve named Alfonso Plummer produce 21 points in the last 7:49. In that stretch, he outscored the Buffs by himself 21-9.

So surprises stopped being surprises long ago, though some of their creators warn not to make too much of them.

“It’s significant now, but let’s hit the brakes,” Young said after Virginia Tech’s win over Virginia. “It’s late January, they’re not putting a crown on anyone’s head in January.”

Kowalczyk seconded that motion about Toledo. “We’re one of several best teams (in the MAC), we’re not the best team right now. Our record is, but we’re just one of . .. . And there’s a lot of ofs.”

Know what else there are a lot of this year? Pre-season predictions that went poof.

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