We're past the quarter pole of the college basketball season, somehow, and with conference play right around the bend, it feels like a fair time to step back and start assessing, if only loosely, how teams and players have performed to this point. Have they been better than expected? Worse? It's still early, and it's always tricky when dealing with a somewhat limited sample size. But we've seen enough to have the conversation.
Here are five early season surprises:
1. UCLA might well be the best team in the country
I'm pretty confident in saying nobody saw this coming. A lot of people thought UCLA would be good, maybe even top-10 good. But the best team in the country? That would've been a huge stretch a month ago, and it surely isn't now. Currently the Bruins are ranked No. 2 in both the AP poll and our Top 25 (and one), and though No. 1 Villanova has done nothing to lose the top spot, you could make a pretty strong argument that UCLA -- on the strength of its 10-0 record that includes an eye-opening win over then-No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena -- should have that distinction.
No other team in America has that kind of win on its resume.
Steve Alford's team is an absolute joy to watch. The Bruins play fast, share the ball, shoot from deep, have maybe the most exciting player in the country in freshman Lonzo Ball, and perhaps most importantly, they score a ton of points. They've already gone over 100 four times, and they scored 99, 98 and 97 in three others. You don't see that kind of consistent production in college basketball very often. Nor do you often see a team that was worse than a 50-1 longshot to win the national title to start the year shooting up to No. 2 in the rankings and becoming a Final Four favorite before conference play even starts.
That sounds crazy, but it's probably true. Gary Parrish thinks as much. So does Matt Norlander. So do a lot of other smart people, because Baylor, which currently sits at 8-0 and No. 4 in the AP poll, already has wins over Michigan State, Louisville, Oregon and Xavier. That's four top-50, and three top-25 KenPom wins for a team that began the year as the 40th best team in America in our 1-351 rankings.
Nobody is talking about Baylor as a Final Four favorite yet. The Bears may be playing a bit over their heads right now, and as Parrish points out, they would probably be underdogs against no fewer than 10 teams were they to meet on a neutral court tomorrow. Still, Parrish also said to me that he thinks Baylor has an outside shot to end Kansas' run of 12 straight Big 12 titles. I don't think that's going to happen. The Jayhawks are really good, again.
But that fact that we're even talking about it as a possibility is surely a surprise.
3. Washington is supremely bad
We recently listed Duke freshman Jayson Tatum as our top NBA Draft prospect, but a lot of people still believe Huskies frosh Markelle Fultz will ultimately go No. 1. If he doesn't, he'll almost certainly go top 3. When you have a talent like that, you're expected to at least be competitive. Most people thought UW would be at least that, if only in the early going against a pretty weak non-con schedule. A safe bet would've put the Huskies as maybe a bubble team this year, but right now the only way they're getting to the Dance is to pull off a miracle by winning the Pac-12 tourney and stealing the auto bid.
Don't count on that happening.
Fultz is doing his part, averaging nearly 23 points a game at almost a 50-percent clip from both the field and 3-point range. Washington, meanwhile, is 4-5 after four straight losses, including a near-30-point blowout at the hands of the only truly good team they've played, Gonzaga, on national TV, in the first game most of the country got to actually see Fultz play. Too bad, because Fultz is really good. We might have another Ben Simmons situation on our hands with the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft getting lost for most of the season because his team is the definition of irrelevant.
Yes, this is a surprise. Almost everyone pegged fellow Blue Devil Grayson Allen as the leading candidate for this award, and he still may end up as such, as might a host of other names, but few people saw Kennard emerging as this kind of presence for Coach K's squad.
Don't get that twisted. Kennard is a really good player. I was recently talking to Gary Parrish, who I thought summed up Kennard perfectly when he called him, simply, a basketball player. That's what he is. Good at a lot of different things. Instinctive. Fluid. Versatile. A legit knock-down shooter. The kind of guy you win a lot of games with. He'll probably end up going in the first round.
Still, this is a guy who was not only overshadowed in the national conversation coming into the year, he wasn't even drawing headlines on his own team. Duke is loaded with big names like Allen, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles. Heck, Giles hasn't even played this year and he still gets talked about more than Kennard. Yet it's Kennard that Parrish has No. 4 in his most recent Player of the Year rankings.
Pretty simply, he has been the best player on what is pretty clearly the most talented team in the country, and casual fans might not even know his name.
5. UCLA's T.J. Leaf is a stone-cold star
We talked about UCLA being this good, this early, qualifying as a surprise, and the same can be said for the Bruins' less heralded freshman, T.J. Leaf. While Lonzo Ball gets most of the attention -- deservedly, I might add -- Leaf, for anyone who has been paying attention, has emerged as a legit All-American type player. Maybe it's just me. Maybe everyone else was hip to this guy and I was the only one being blinded by Ball's brilliance. I don't think so, but maybe.
Either way, Leaf is all over my radar now. He was the best player on the floor when the Bruins went into Rupp and beat Kentucky. He was terrific again against Michigan in what was, in my opinion, the most high-powered game of the season to this point. Guys were straight balling in that game. Passing, moving, dropping threes everywhere. It looked like an NBA game in the first half, to be perfectly honest. And when it was all said and done, Leaf stood out with 21 points and eight boards.
If Luke Kennard is a basketball player, then so is Leaf. He rebounds. He shoots out to 18 or 19 feet with ease. He has instincts perhaps only bested by Ball, a nose for space and boards and interior positioning that can't be taught. Norlander has him fourth in his freshman rankings. The three guys ahead of him will almost certainly go in the lottery. Leaf might do the same.