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From 1s to Zips: Here a surprise, there a surprise

The Zags’ rise to No. 1 isn’t the only zig-zag this crazy men’s college basketball season

Durand Scott and Miami were picked to finish fifth in the ACC. Now, the Hurricanes are ranked sixth in the AP Top 25, and they clinched their first outright ACC regular-season title Saturday. Enlarge photo

Alan Diaz/Associated Press file photo

Durand Scott and Miami were picked to finish fifth in the ACC. Now, the Hurricanes are ranked sixth in the AP Top 25, and they clinched their first outright ACC regular-season title Saturday.

This season of parity in college basketball has produced quite a few surprises, from the revolving door at the top of the polls to the rapid decline of defending national champion Kentucky.

The latest twist came this week, when Gonzaga moved up to No. 1 for the first time in school history. That merely was a mild surprise. The Zags have been the preeminent mid-major for what feels like a quarter century now, so it only seemed like a matter of time before they ascended to No. 1.

Some of the other unexpected turns have been, well, a little more unexpected. Here are a few:

Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes were ranked fifth in the ACC preseason poll, and even though they returned nine players from a 20-win team, they weren’t expected to draw much attention in South Florida – or anywhere else for that matter.

Miami had a look-at-us moment Jan. 23 when it beat Duke by 27 – the third-largest margin of victory over a No. 1 team – and cracked the AP Top 25 the next week. The Hurricanes continued to build momentum, winning their first 13 ACC games to rise in the AP poll.

Miami has struggled a bit lately, losing three of its last four – by two to Georgia Tech on Wednesday – but the Hurricanes beat Clemson 62-49 on Saturday to win their first outright ACC regular-season title.

Akron Zips

Coach Keith Dambrot has given the Zips an identity in Ohio and the Mid-American Conference, but it hasn’t gone much farther. That changed this season, however, as Akron ran off 19 consecutive wins, shining a spotlight on a town better known for being the home of LeBron James.

The Zips had their winning streak – the longest in the nation at the time – end with a loss to Buffalo last Saturday, then bounced back to beat Miami (Ohio) Tuesday night and wrap up their second consecutive Mid-American Conference regular-season title.

With a good mix of size, strength and experience, Akron (24-6, 14-2) has the kind of team that could damage a few brackets once the NCAA Tournament rolls around, but the Zips could be without starting point guard Alex Abreu, who pleaded not guilty to trafficking and possession of marijuana Friday, hours before his teammates lost to rival Kent State in their regular-season finale on senior night without the junior floor general and inspirational leader. Abreu has been suspended indefinitely, pending the outcome of the police investigation.

Oregon Ducks

The Ducks played in the NIT last season and entered this season with nine newcomers, including seven freshmen, so it was no surprise they were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12.

Behind guard E.J. Singler and one of the most balanced teams anywhere, Oregon opened 11-2 in nonconference, then knocked off Pac-12 favorites Arizona and UCLA to rise in the polls.

The Ducks (23-8, 12-6) lost 76-53 at Colorado on Thursday and 72-62 to Utah on Saturday, missing their shot of at least a share of their first league crown since 2002 – along with the No. 1 seed for the Pac-12 tournament.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

The Blue Raiders appeared to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament last season before losses in the regular-season finale and quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament relegated them to the NIT. They may be closer to a sure thing this season.

Led by six seniors, Middle Tennessee set a school record with 28 wins, second nationally to No. 1 Gonzaga, and has an RPI of 25 after playing the nation’s ninth-toughest schedule.

The Blue Raiders went 19-1 in the Sun Belt and now have won 17 in a row after Saturday’s conference tournament-opening win, their last in the Sun Belt before heading to Conference USA next season. Barring a meltdown in the conference tournament, Middle Tennessee (28-4) should be headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989.

Saint Louis Billikens

The Billikens ended a 12-year NCAA Tournament drought last year but were rocked by the death of former coach Rick Majerus. The 64-year-old coach took a leave of absence in August, then died of a heart attack in December, a month after the school said he would not return. That left the team reeling and in the hands of interim coach Jim Crews.

Behind a stifling defense, Saint Louis has done just fine under Crews, going 4-1 against ranked teams, with wins over Virginia Commonwealth, New Mexico and two over Butler.

The 16th-ranked Billikens (24-6) had their 11-game win streak ended by Xavier on Wednesday but clinched a piece of the Atlantic 10 crown – their first league title since 1970-71 in the Missouri Valley – by beating LaSalle 78-54 on Saturday.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

The Bulldogs barely were.500 last season, finished fifth in the WAC and lost key players, so there was no reason to think an NCAA berth possible.

Louisiana Tech opened the season with a loss to Texas A&M and opened December with losses to Northwestern State and McNeese State in a span of three games. Once the WAC season started, though, the Bulldogs became unstoppable.

Louisiana Tech won 18 in a row for the nation’s longest winning streak before its loss Thursday to New Mexico State.

The Bulldogs (26-5, 16-2 WAC) lost at Denver on Saturday to lose their shot at the outright WAC regular-season title. They did clinch at least a share of the conference title.

Marcos Knight and Middle Tennessee set a school record this season with 27 wins, second nationally to No. 1 Gonzaga, and have an RPI of 25 after playing the nation’s ninth-toughest schedule. The Blue Raiders should be headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989. Enlarge photo

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press file photo

Marcos Knight and Middle Tennessee set a school record this season with 27 wins, second nationally to No. 1 Gonzaga, and have an RPI of 25 after playing the nation’s ninth-toughest schedule. The Blue Raiders should be headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989.