/Dribble handoff: College basketball’s biggest surprise teams so far in the 2020-21 season
Dribble handoff: College basketball's biggest surprise teams so far in the 2020-21 season

Dribble handoff: College basketball’s biggest surprise teams so far in the 2020-21 season

The start to college basketball season has been far from normal amid pauses, cancelations and games played in front of empty or nearly empty gyms. But one of the constants has been the sport’s unpredictable nature. While Gonzaga and Baylor still sit at No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll — exactly where they started — there’s been plenty of shuffling below them.

One preseason top-10 team has already plummeted from the polls altogether (looking at you, Kentucky), and half of the top-10 is comprised of teams who were not there in the preseason. While vaunted freshmen like Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and USC’s Evan Mobley have lived up to the hype so far, some of the other top newcomers in the season’s first month, such as Kansas forward Jalen Wilson, were not five-star prospects who entered the season with hype.

And, of course, some of the teams standing out in a good way as the start of conference play approaches are teams that were not expected to do much this season. For this week’s edition of the dribble handoff, our college basketball writers are taking a look at a few of those surprise squads by selecting their favorites of the bunch.

First things first: I’m not necessarily surprised that Florida State is good because I assumed Florida State would be good — partly because of what the Seminoles were returning, partly because of the addition of five-star freshman Scottie Barnes, partly because Leonard Hamilton has established FSU’s program as a reliable winner. But, that said, I did have Florida State just on the outside of the preseason Top 25 And 1. And, I’m happy to acknowledge, through three weeks of this season, that seems like a mistake.Florida State is now 4-0 with wins over Indiana, Florida and, most recently, the Georgia Tech team that beat Kentucky by 17 points. That’s a strong start to this season — the kind that makes it reasonable to suggest the Seminoles should be considered a real threat, and perhaps the actual favorite, to win what would be back-to-back ACC regular-season titles despite missing three of the top four scorers from last season’s team that finished 26-5.  — Gary Parrish

I know the Tigers fell 66-60 at a 5-1 Virginia Tech team Tuesday night, but Clemson is still my pick. Brad Brownell’s team is also 5-1 and owns four wins over teams from power conferences: Mississippi State, Alabama and Purdue on neutral courts, and home vs. Maryland. The Tigers are ranked 24th; they weren’t considered close to top-40 vintage heading into the season. What’s not realized by most at this point is just how good Clemson’s defense is. According to KenPom’s formula, the only more efficient defense in the sport at this point is Texas Tech. Brownell’s been at Clemson since 2010, and the only times Clemson has started 6-1 were 2013 and 2017. The latter instance led to the best season under Brownell, with Clemson earning a 5 seed in the NCAAs. Ride Aamir Simms and maybe just maybe Clemson’s going to finish in the top five of a shifting ACC this season. – Matt Norlander

After losing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman — the team’s top two scorers who were All-Conference studs — I figured Sparty was in for a full-on reboot. Instead, they’ve completely reloaded with almost an entirely familiar supporting cast. Aaron Henry appears to have made the leap as a junior, Rocket Watts is coming on strong in his second season, and best of all, Marquette transfer Joey Hauser is every bit as productive as advertised. The team is now 6-0 with quality wins over Duke and Notre Dame. I dare not doubt Tom Izzo again. — Kyle Boone

In his fourth year, coach Cuonzo Martin finally has a veteran roster with enough depth to weather some of the all-too-frequent injury adversity the program has encountered under his watch. But so far this season, adversity has been nowhere in sight. Little was expected of Missouri, but the Tigers entered the AP poll at No. 16 this week after a 5-0 start that includes wins over Oregon and Illinois. And there is still room for the Tigers to improve. Missouri was among the worst in the country last season with a 29.6% 3-point shooting clip, and the Tigers have been only marginally better this season at 31%. If this team ever starts lighting it up from deep, watch out, because Martin’s teams are always tough defensively, and this has the potential to be a great defensive team. Even if 3-point shooting remains a struggle or an injury to a starter comes along, this Missouri team has proven it has the chops to surpass its preseason projection of finishing 10th in the SEC. — David Cobb