Heat Check – Unbeatens
A little over a quarter of the way into another college basketball season already filled with upsets and unexpected twists and turns. Currently nine teams have managed to stay undefeated. Let’s take a look at those teams.
It’s hard to say much about Kentucky that hasn’t already been said. I’m usually not a believer in the “one and done” model, but this team has a combination of size and athleticism across its roster that I’ve never seen at the college level. There’s also enough experience on this team that it hardly qualifies as your typical “one and done” team. The Wildcats will miss Poythress, but that’s probably not an insurmountable loss. This is the best defensive team in college basketball, but can struggle to score the ball on occasion. If Kentucky can find more consistent outside shooting (just 29% from three), they’ll be incredibly difficult to beat. In a weak SEC, they’re definitely the favorites to stay unbeaten the longest if they can get by Louisville later this month.
Heat Check – 9/10, next test – @ Louisville 12/27
The Blue Devils may have the most impressive resume in the country right now claiming wins over Michigan State, Stanford, and at Wisconsin. If there’s any team that looks like a threat to Kentucky, it’s Duke. It’s hard to find a real weakness with this team. Jahlil Okafor just had the first 20/20 game for an ACC freshman since Joe Smith at Maryland. Justise Winslow looks like Duke’s version of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and the Quinn Cook/Tyus Jones combo are thriving in the backcourt together. Their defense is improved, but they don’t quite give off the ‘how the heck can we beat these guys?’ vibe that Kentucky does. Tough schedule ahead, so they won’t be close to unbeaten when all is said and done, but they’re every bit the title contender that Kentucky is.
Heat Check – 10/10, next test – v. UConn 12/18
Other than a frantic second half comeback from Ohio State, the Cardinals have yet to be truly tested this year. Their model is pretty simple and very effective. They hound your guards with Rick Pitino’s press (4th in the country in steals per game) and beat you up on the glass with Montrezl Harrell and company (first in the country in rebounds per game and rebounding margin). They’ve yet to play a true road game, and struggle mightily at times offensively when forced to play in the half court. However, there’s not a ton of teams that can limit their transition opportunities AND keep them off the boards. Like Kentucky, Louisville would benefit greatly from consistent outside shooting. Without Luke Hancock and Russ Smith, the Cardinals are shooting just 27.5% from beyond the arc – down from 36.8% last year. Greater efficiency is needed from Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear, and especially Chris Jones.
Heat Check – 8/10, next test – v. Kentucky 12/27
As someone who follows the ACC very closely, there’s no team that I fear playing more than Virginia. They’re only allowing 47.4 points per game. They won a game against Rutgers 45-26. If I could hire any coach in the country right now, it might be Tony Bennett. He gets the so much out of his team year in and year out. Despite losing two of his best players last year, the Hoos haven’t missed a beat. Justin Anderson stepped right into Joe Harris’s role, and Anthony Gill has picked up Akil Mitchell’s defense and rebounding. That was the plan in the preseason, but they actually haven’t missed a beat. They play disciplined and physical basketball and make eight point deficits feel like fifteen. Virginia may not have the talent of their ACC counterparts, but they’re just as dangerous.
Heat Check – 9/10, next test – @ Miami 1/3
Well that win over Michigan certainly looks less impressive now, but the Wildcats have still played a fairly challenging schedule so far with wins over VCU and Illinois as well. I was a Villanova skeptic last year. I was excited to pick them to lose in the round of 32 and lose they did. This year’s team returns many of the same players, but it feels different. Thanks to the emergence of Dylan Ennis, they have seven legitimate scoring options and play very good defense despite often playing a smaller lineup. This team is the class of a surprisingly solid Big East conference, and unlike last year, shouldn’t be doubted come March.
Heat Check – 9/10, next test – v. Syracuse 12/20
More Wildcats! Despite not playing any true road games, Arizona has racked up some pretty impressive wins over Gonzaga and San Diego State. In true Arizona fashion those games were very close, but they pulled out wins both times. Nothing has been really surprising about the Wildcats season thus far. Stanley Johnson has been as good as advertised leading the team in scoring. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, and Kaleb Tarczewski have formed an imposing front line while T.J. McConnell has continued to provide a solid and reliable presence running the offense. Sean Miller is still searching for a little more consistency from Gabe York and Elliott Pitts at the other guard spot, but that was also expected in replacing Nick Johnson. Unsurprisingly Arizona looks every bit of a Final Four contender through the first quarter of the season.
Heat Check – 8.5/10, next test – v. Utah 1/17, but @UTEP 12/19 could be interesting
The Huskies are a somewhat surprising team thus far. Going into the season, no one doubted that they boasted one of the best backcourts in the Pac 12 in Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. They’ve been as good as advertised. Their frontcourt was a huge question mark. Enter Robert Upshaw. The Fresno State transfer has been a revelation for the Huskies averaging 10.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, AND 4.9 BPG in just 18 minutes. Shawn Kemp Jr has also been solid in providing a huge lift to a thin frontcourt. They’ve already knocked off a very good San Diego State team, and if Upshaw and Kemp can continue to play well down low, this looks like a clear top four team in the Pac 12.
Heat Check – 7.5/10, next test – v. Oklahoma 12/20
What? TCU? The team that went winless in the Big 12 last year? The team that only had nine TOTAL wins last year? They’re unbeaten? Have they played anyone? Natural questions if you haven’t been paying attention. Ten straight wins against anyone is a big step forward for Trent Johnson and the Horned Frogs after dealing with a lot of key injuries last year. They’ve beaten power conference bottom feeders Mississippi State and Washington State as well as mediocre Ole Miss on the road, but this is a team that lost to some college called Longwood at home last season. Trent Johnson will take mediocre, and while most likely not a tournament team in 2014-15, they may be able to steal five to seven wins in a very competitive Big 12. For the first time in recent memory, this program’s arrow is solidly pointing up.
Heat Check – 6/10, next test – v. West Virginia 1/3
Mid Major Heat
San Diego State is the class of an underrated Mountain West Conference. Well actually, a series of devastating NCAA upsets still haunts this conference so it’s hard to call it underrated without everyone who had their past brackets busted by the New Mexico’s of the world shouting at their computers. Regardless, Larry Eustachy has the Rams looking like a sleeper to contend for the conference title this year. Navy transfer J.J. Avila is one of the best big men in the conference and leads the team in both scoring and rebounding while a trio of transfers – Stanton Kidd (NCCU), John Gillon (UALR) and Gian Clavell (Junior College) – has provided immediate contributions for a suddenly very deep Rams team. Their resume isn’t quite that impressive with their best wins @ Colorado and v. UTEP, but Colorado State certainly looks capable of competing with Wyoming and San Diego State at the top of the Mountain West.
Heat Check – 6/10, next test @ New Mexico State 12/27