You know what's great about every single season of college basketball? There are always storylines and surprises that fill up the first two months of the season, and in the process, challenge everyone's perception of the sport as we expected it to be. Without unpredictability, there's a lot of room for boredom. During this holiday season, let us be grateful for results-based volatility. The plot twists are so much of why we keep up with sports to begin with.
And as we turn to Christmas, with most of the non-conference schedule wrapped up, let's look at what's happened through six weeks of the season. Yeah, can you believe it? Opening night was exactly, already, six weeks ago. So let's assess what hasn't gone to plan -- for good and bad.
Here are the 20 most surprising things about the 2017-18 season.
1. Arizona State is undefeated -- and looks legit. The Sun Devils are 11-0, the second best start in program history. Bobby Hurley's team is ranked third in the AP poll, which matches a program record. ASU's offense is ranked fourth in points per possession and is shooting 59 percent from 2-point range -- with a three-guard attack. If the season ended right now, ASU would be the No. 1 overall seed thanks to its wins vs. Xavier and at Kansas. No program has two better wins than that. Nobody saw this coming. On Dec. 30, Pac-12 plays opens in the best way possible: Arizona vs. Arizona State. Yes, please.
2. Oklahoma freshman Trae Young is the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year. When I saw Trae Young drop 43 on Oregon at the PK80 on Nov. 30 in Portland, I knew then he had a great shot at winning Freshman of the Year. Since then? Uh, yeah ... in three weeks' time, Young has become a phenomenon. He leads the nation in scoring (28.5) and assists (10.2) and if he's able to maintain those facts, he'll become the first D-I player in history to officially do it. His 43 points against the Ducks hasn't been bested by any other player this season, and his 22 assists against Northwestern State on Dec. 19 matched the single-game NCAA record. He is must-see TV. And since you're here, be sure to read an in-depth profile on how he wound up at Oklahoma.
3. There are only four unbeaten teams left. In addition to Arizona State, we have No. 1 Villanova (11-0), No. 6 Miami (9-0) and No. 15 TCU (11-0). We may well come to find that Villanova is the best team in the Big East, Arizona State is the best team in the Pac-12, Miami's the best team in the ACC and -- could it actually be? -- TCU is the best team in the Big 12. Mayyyybe. Either way, it's a fewer-than-usual group of unbeatens still standing. On Dec. 22 of last season, there were five undefeateds remaining. The year before, we had nine.
4. Lack of buzz with Kentucky. There has never been a season like this one for UK under John Calipari. Normally the Wildcats are a weekly talking point. At this stage, UK's merely been a pretty good team without any standout moments. It's unusual. Why has this happened? Because Kentucky's only game against a ranked team came at the Champions Classic vs. Kansas. That's UK's only loss. But the Wildcats have a nice opportunity on Saturday, in the CBS Sports Classic, when they go up against UCLA. The Bruins are now free of the Ball family, which is good, but they don't have the talent UK has. (Though I love UCLA freshman point guard Jaylen Hands.) It won't be much longer without Kentucky in the headlines, but it has been weird to see this team live outside the margins for the first six weeks. Not having a consensus top-10 draft pick on the roster, which is uncommon in the Cal-at-UK era, also explains it.
5. The Big 12 was expected to be good, but this could be historic. We could, amazingly, hit 2018 and have all 10 teams in the Big 12 with reasonably optimistic chances at making the NCAA Tournament. Last season the Big 12 finished as the best conference, as measured by data-tracking services such as KenPom.com, KPI and Jeff Sagarin's ratings. In fact, the Big 12 in 2016-17 performed better in the regular season than any conference has done in the KenPom era, dating back to 2002-03. Ten teams total 16 losses, and only Texas has three. Texas Tech has the best scoring margin (22.6) of anyone in college basketball. Oklahoma's 94.2 points per game is at the top of all teams in D-I, tied with Duke. West Virginia's 10.5 turnover margin is best in the sport. League does not get the credit it's due.
6. The Big Ten is worse than expected. Northwestern's 9-4 and didn't handle prosperity that well out of the gate. Minnesota, which was also ranked in the preseason polls, has dropped three games and nearly lost to Alabama when it memorably played 5-on-3 vs. the Crimson Tide back in November. Michigan State (12-1) and Purdue (12-2) are the only teams with two or fewer losses. Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin (Badgers actually gonna miss the NCAAs??) and Illinois all already have five or more losses. It looks like the ceiling for NCAA Tournament teams from this 14-team league is six.
7. But hey, Purdue can make the Final Four even after losing Caleb Swanigan. I was in Indianapolis for Purdue's win over Butler at the Crossroads Classic. The victory established Purdue as a top-five team in the metrics, and when you dive deeper, you see why. Matt Painter is truly underrated as an A-level coach. To have Purdue in this spot after losing Swanigan, the most valuable player in college basketball last season, it's astounding. Mosts teams that aren't bluebloods could not pull this off.
8. Auburn is 10-1 and Bruce Pearl has beaten the odds -- for now. After losing an assistant coach (Chuck Person), plus two starters (Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy) due to the FBI's investigation into college basketball recruiting, Auburn is nonetheless off to its best start in nearly two decades. Yeah, this is a shocker.
9. The FBI's investigation has drifted a bit. I certainly expected the games to drive a lot of the conversation, but think back to the middle of October. The tenor of college hoops then was that the FBI's unprecedented case into the crooked ways of recruiting would be something that thrummed weekly throughout the season. That just hasn't been the case yet. It's still there, hanging like a black curtain behind all of what's happening on the stage, but the big question for coaches is: Who's going to be next, and did the FBI dramatically play up how much evidence it really had?
10. Arizona hasn't officially suspended a player. Subscribers to our CBS college hoops pod are familiar with a discussion Gary Parrish and I had back in November. We suspected that Arizona would do what Auburn, USC and Oklahoma State did: suspend a player, or players, who were under suspicion for ineligibility. Auburn continues to sit Purifoy and Wiley. Oklahoma State's Jeffrey Carroll had to miss games for the Cowboys. USC's De'Anthony Melton still has not played for the Trojans. Yet Arizona has not a thing. Rawle Alkins missed the first nine games of the season due to what has only been attributed as something injury-induced, but otherwise? Nothing from Sean Miller. This was eyebrow-raising to many, and if the NCAA or FBI comes to find players were on the court despite having broken laws or bylaws, then it could retroactively put Arizona's 2017-18 season in jeopardy.
11. Preseason player of the year pick Miles Bridges has merely just been really good. Bridges hasn't been putting it on like Trae Young or putting his team on his back like Duke's Marvin Bagley III. He hasn't been an overwhelming freak of nature like Arizona's Deandre Ayton and he hasn't been a takeover guy the way Xavier's Trevon Bluiett's shown. But Bridges is averaging 16.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks. He's in the conversation -- but what we've come to know is that the near-consensus preseason assumption that he'd be the National Player of the Year wound up being typical groupthink.
12. Wichita State's defense -- or lack thereof. The Shockers have made the past six NCAA Tournaments. In that time, their average KenPom ranking for defensive efficiency: 14th. For a six-year span, that's impressive and a testament to Gregg Marshall's coaching. More of the same was expected this season. Instead, Wichita State currently ranks 35th and has allowed three teams to crack the 80-point barrier. Opponents reached 80 points on the Shockers four times in the the previous two years combined. With Markis McDuffie returning the floor after missing the first six weeks with a foot issue, perhaps WSU can return to elite defensive form.
13. Florida's Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. So is Florida a Final Four team or is it barely gonna squeak into the NCAA Tournament? The group I saw in Portland looked athletic, capable of making a barrage of 3-pointers, tough as hell and mentally strong. But this is a 7-4 team with two home losses (one to Loyola of Chicago) and has a defense that's now a broken shell of what is was last season, when the Gators were elite on that end of the floor. Mike White needs big man John Egbunu back in the lineup ASAP, and KeVaughn Allen needs to start playing like the top-50 college hoops talent that he is.
14. Grayson Allen hasn't been a thing ... yet. I think we're all happy to see this. Duke's 12-1 thanks in good part to Allen averaging 17.1 points, 4.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and just 2.2 fouls. He hasn't had an on-court incident or anything close to it. The only thing that barely cracked the radar was Allen winding up with a black eye after accidentally getting kicked in the head by Javin DeLaurier, who was making a block attempt on a Boston College transition possession. But whatever. Allen's been able to play his role as a senior about as well -- from a controversy-free standpoint -- as could have been hoped for. As college basketball's spotlight grows bigger heading into conference play, here's to hoping all stays calm.
15. Minnesota's Jordan Murphy is the sleeper All-America pick at this point. You look around the country and you see names like Young, Ayton, Bridges, Bagley, Brunson, Bluiett, Colson. Yet Murphy, a bulky 6-foot-6 junior, leads nation in rebounding (12.8) and double-doubles (12) in addition to averaging 20.0 points. He's been terrific, and it's not like he hasn't faced some good competition. At this point, he's the breakout player in all of college hoops.
16. Wofford won at UNC; Tar Heels are vexing. Wofford won in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night, giving the Terriers their first win as a program in school history vs. a ranked team. To do it against UNC, the reigning national champions, is an incredible forever memory for everyone who associates themselves with Wofford basketball. North Carolina's a bit bizarre, though. The Wofford loss was the biggest upset of the season so far, and you'll recall that UNC's 63-45 loss to Michigan State was the worst shooting performance in program history. This post is all about surprises, and both of those UNC outcomes were as surprising as almost anything on this list.
17. Virginia is again choking opponents to death. I always get a lot of (loving!) feedback for my annual 1-351 rankings. What base gave me more grief than any other? Virginia just barely edged out Syracuse backers. My apologies to UVa fans, as I am here to offer a mea culpa. The Wahoos are 10-1, ranked third in KenPom and allowing just 52.7 points per game, tops in the sport. Tony Bennett doesn't have a star, but he doesn't need one. I'm not convinced Virginia's top-10 team, but is again one that has built a home in the polls and is unlikely to vacate.
18. Preseason ranked teams whose campaigns haven't quite gone to plan:
- Florida (7-4): from No. 8 to unranked.
- USC (6-4): From No. 10 to unranked
- Notre Dame (10-3): From No. 14 to unranked
- Minnesota (10-3): From No. 15 to unranked
- Northwestern (9-4): From No. 19 to unranked
- UCLA (8-3): From No. 21 to unranked
- Saint Mary's (10-2): From No. 22 to unranked
19. Surprisingly good teams, unranked in preseason, with two losses or fewer:
- Clemson (10-1): Has wins over Ohio State and Florida. No. 25 at KenPom. Brad Brownell is trying to make the NCAAs for the second time in eight seasons with the Tigers.
- Oklahoma (9-1): Ranked 17th and owns wins over Oregon, USC and Wichita State. The Sooners have an amazing offense and the most watchable player in the sport.
- Syracuse (10-1): Jim Boeheim's most inexperienced team ever has nonetheless held its own to this point. The schedule hasn't been difficult, but few would have faulted Cuse if it was 8-3 rather than 10-1.
- St. John's (10-2): Chris Mullin's team doesn't have a signature win yet, but it's the best start for SJU since 2014-15. Borderline top-10 defense.
- Oklahoma State (9-2): Mike Boynton's first season as a head coach came with the FBI melodrama, yet the Pokes are responsible for Florida State's only loss
- Missouri (10-2): The Tigers lost Michael Porter Jr. and decided not to let it ruin their season. In fact, there's percolating speculation that Porter could indeed return come January or February
- Tennessee (8-2): The Vols were expected to be near the bottom of the SEC. Instead, Rick Barnes' team is ranked 20th this week and has a huge win over Purdue.
20. Villanova is the best team again -- but not because of its point guard. We'll wrap with a thought on modern college hoops royalty. VU has a case as college basketball's strongest program of the past five seasons. That in itself is a shocking revelation, but how about the Wildcats this season? Jay Wright's team being really good is not a surprise. Mikal Bridges busting from his cocoon to average 17.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks -- while shooting 47 percent from 3-point range -- is shocking. Bridges has been viewed for three years as a player who will be better in the pros than in college. Now that gap has shrunk considerably. Villanova is balanced, and Jalen Brunson leads that show, but Bridges' breakout season is the major story with that team. And, incredibly, it we could wind up seeing the Bridges in Philadelphia finishing with the better season and being taken higher in the draft than the one in East Lansing.