Rob Dauster: Be honest with me for a second, I promise I won’t tell anyone. Before the season started, how many players on Baylor could you name? I’m guessing you probably knew Scott Drew because everyone knows Scott Drew – he’s the running joke that pulled a hammy. If you’re a fan of a Big 12 team, you probably knew Johnathan Motley’s name, too. Motley is a talented dude that has never found the consistency to live up to his potential. Beyond that, however, unless you played high school ball with someone on that roster, you Baylor was probably an afterthought for you back in October.
Hell, they were an afterthought for me entering the year.
And man, what a difference a month makes, right? The Bears have put together what is, to date, the most impressive résumé in college hoops. They beat Oregon by 17. They beat Xavier by 15. They have wins over VCU and Michigan State. They beat Louisville despite trailing by 22 points in the first half. Point guard Manu Lecomte is one of the nation’s most improved players. Jo Lual-Acuil, one of the nation’s leading shot-blockers, has teamed with Motley to give Scott Drew one of the longest and most athletic front lines in college basketball. Baylor myriad of wings – Ish Wainwright, Al Freeman, Jake Lindsay, King McClure – have all played their roles well. The Bears are justly ranked in the top five and look like they will actually give Kansas a run for the league title. If you say you saw this coming a month ago, you’re a liar and we all know it.
Travis Hines: The season Luke Kennard is having for Duke. We all knew he was good. The kid was a five-star recruit who played over 25 minutes a game as a freshman for Mike Krzyzewski. That doesn’t happen on accident. The thinking went, though, that potential National Player of the Year Grayson Allen might have to take a backseat to freshmen phenoms Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, let alone Kennard. But with those three youngsters sidelined due to injury, Kennard has emerged as perhaps the Blue Devils’ best player of the year candidate. He’s shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from 3-point range while averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists for a team, despite being shorthanded or feeling its way through lineup changes this season, looks to be, maybe, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country. Kennard being good is certainly no surprise. His being one of – if not the – frontrunners for National Player of the Year is shocking given the situation we expected him to be inhabiting.
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Terrence Payne: Notre Dame has reached the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons, yet when the ACC preseason poll was released in October, the Fighting Irish were pegged to finish seventh in the conference. A month later, Mike Brey’s team finds itself in the top-25 nationally, sitting on a 9-1 record with the only blemish coming to No. 1 Villanova. Despite going undefeated through the first nine games – its best wins were over Colorado and Northwestern – Notre Dame didn’t prove it was the real deal until its first loss of the season, falling to No. 1 Villanova 74-66 on a neutral floor. The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the Irish had an 11-point lead at one point over the reigning national champions.
A big part of this is the play of experienced upperclassmen. Junior Bonzie Colson, the undersized forward, is having a breakout year averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, two seniors, are averaging 16.6 and 15.5 points per game, respectively. But the biggest surprise has been the emergence of Matt Farrell. When Jerian Grant graduated in 2015, Brey was left with the assurance that he had another future NBA Draft pick, Demetrius Jackson, to fill the void. When Jackson left, it was up to Matt Farrell, a junior guard who was in-and-out of the rotation last season.
Not only is Farrell averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 assists per game (an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:1), his best games have been against Villanova and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson and during the Legends Classic, where he earned MVP honors. It’ll be a tall feat to unseat Duke atop the standings this season, but Notre Dame looks the part of a top-five team in the loaded ACC.
Scott Phillips: To me, the story – not just the biggest surprise – of the 2016-17 college basketball season is UCLA. We knew they had as good of a shot to be good as they did to crash and burn again. Some people had them ranked in the preseason, many others didn’t. But nobody except Lavar Ball could have predicted this. The father of UCLA’s star freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, predicted a national championship for a team that finished 15-17 last season, and then the Bruins back up that sentiment by going into Rupp and winning. This UCLA team is changing the way we watch college basketball by playing a blistering, three-point oriented attack that is overwhelming opponents. They could, statistically, turn out to be the best three-point shooting team ever. UCLA passes my patented “Friends and Family Test” with wild outlet passes and flying colors. If someone I know shows even the slightest bit of interest in an orange bouncing ball, I force them to watch this team play. They never regret it.