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Mike Lopresti | | January 4, 2018

The best teams that started the year unranked

Texas Tech, ranked No. 18, beat Kansas and is shaping up to be a Big 12 contender.

Here it is, college basketball’s top 20.

Oh, were you looking for Michigan State and Duke? Sorry, they don’t qualify. This is the top 20 with one extra requirement. The team could not have been listed in the preseason Associated Press or coaches’ poll. This is for all those who made their moves once the games started, not in the October media sessions. The unranked and unheralded.

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But not anymore.

1. Arizona State (12-1)

Tra Holder – the Sun Devil who scored 40 points against Xavier, 31 against Arizona and 29 against Kansas – wears No. 0. He says it’s because his philosophy is no excuses, but it’s also the number of votes Arizona State got in the preseason polls.

That changed faster than you could say "102-86 over Xavier." They also broke 90 their first six games, and won at Kansas (which turns out is not as difficult as usual). Now they’re 12-1 and ranked No. 4.

2. Oklahoma (12-1)

How does a team go from unranked to No. 7 in the AP poll in three weeks? Two words. Trae Young. He has put together 25 points and 10 assists in seven of his first 13 games in college. That’s more than anyone in the country has had in a career in the past 20 years. Since assists became an officially kept NCAA stat, no one has ever led the nation in both scoring and assist averages. He’s doing both at the moment. Apparently he has taught his team the joy of giving. Oklahoma was 331st in the nation in assists last season. As of Wednesday, it was seventh.

Oklahoma has now was won 11 in a row, while leading the nation in scoring at 95.8. Maybe that helps ease the pain from the Georgia football game.

WATCH: Marquette's Markus Howard scores 52 points in OT win vs. Providence

3. Texas Tech (13-1)

The Boston College team that stunned Duke? Texas Tech whipped it by 11. The Wofford team that shocked North Carolina? A 23-point loser to the Red Raiders. Northwestern out of the Big Ten? Try 85-49. Ranked Baylor? That one was 77-53. And just this week, Texas Tech rolled into Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, where it was 0-17 all-time, and pounded the Jayhawks, including 44-29 in rebounding.

It’s a veteran effort, with either five seniors or four plus a redshirt junior in the starting lineup. “I don’t want to take anything away from Arizona State or Kentucky,” Kansas’ Bill Self said after looking down the business end of Texas Tech, “but that could be the best team we’ve played this season.”

4. Virginia (13-1)

Behold the power of Virginia’s defense. Virginia Tech went into their Wednesday meeting with the nation’s best shooting percentage. The Hokies managed barely 36 percent and lost 78-52, their worst loss to Virginia since 1955.

The season started with the Cavaliers out of the AP rankings for the first time in 65 polls. That problem has been rectified with business as usual in Tony Bennett’s regime. They have held their opponents to 52.7 points a game, with six unable to reach 50. There is so much D, they should call the place Virgindia. But this is also one of the best shooting Cavaliers teams in recent memory. Not an easy combo to beat.

5. TCU (13-1)

The Horned Frogs have won 20 of their last 23 games going back to last season, which is how they climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll, the highest spot in school history. Five players average in double figures and TCU shoots 51.4 percent as a team, so the Frogs are hard to stop. Getting leads has not been a problem for them. Holding leads has been.

They were up 13 against Oklahoma and lost 90-89, up 12 on Baylor and had to pull out an 81-78 win in overtime. “Welcome to the Big 12,” coach Jamie Dixon said after the Baylor game. “The numbers from the preseason non-conference indicate there are going to be 16 more.” TCU had been 0-11 against Baylor since joining the Big 12, by an average of 18 points. Things have changed in Fort Worth.

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6. Florida State (12-2)

It might have been snowing in Tallahassee this week, but one thing was still normal – the Seminoles won again at home. The 81-80 victory over North Carolina ran their home court victory streak to 28 games. Florida State has gone 45-for-97 from the 3-point line its past four games.

The Seminoles are not far from perfect, the only blemishes a 71-70 loss to Oklahoma State and the 100-93 shootout with Duke in Cameron indoor Stadium. They’re playing so well, coach Leonard Hamilton could smile Wednesday night, which is saying something for a man who had kidney stones removed in the morning.

7. Auburn (13-1)

The Tigers are redoing all manners of recent history. Best start in 18 years. The win at Tennessee was the first road win over a ranked opponent in 11 seasons, and the first win at Knoxville since 1998.

Old Auburn Tiger Charles Barkley would be proud of his school’s muscle. Auburn crunched Tennessee with 18 offensive rebounds, and has outrebounded 13 of 14 opponents.

8. Creighton (12-3)

Two of the first three upset wins this season of unranked teams over ranked belonged to Creighton, against Northwestern and UCLA. The Bluejays haven’t slowed down much since.

Among the shiny numbers are the 90.2-point scoring average, 51.5 percent shooting, and gaping 457-230 advantage in points off the bench. Marcus Foster and his 19-point average, everyone saw coming. The guy they didn’t is 6-9 Martin Krampelj, who averaged 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds last season. He’s at 12.8 and 8.0 this year.

9. Clemson (13-1)

This the first time the Tigers have been in the rankings in eight years, and they don’t seem to mind. They just went to Boston College and won. Duke couldn’t do that.

The bench has provided only eight points in two ACC games, but a team can get away with that sort of things if all five starters are averaging in double figures. That would include Elijah Thomas, the first basketball athlete from the state of Texas to ever sign to play at Clemson.

10. Butler (12-4)

Anyone who puts 101 points on Villanova and hits 10 consecutive 3-pointers against the Wildcats must be considered for this list. And there’s this: Since the start of last season, Villanova is 45-2 against the rest of the world, and 0-3 against Butler.

Three days later, the Bulldogs had to go to Xavier, the first back-to-back games against top-five opponents in school history. All things considered, the 86-79 loss – which included getting outscored 24-6 from the free throw line – was honorable. The 15-point loss to Purdue, when Butler produced only 67 points, must have gotten everyone’s attention. The Bulldogs have averaged 92.6 in the four games since.

11. Arkansas (11-3)

The Razorbacks have broken 90 nine times. The last bunch from Fayetteville to do that was 1994, and they ended up shaking former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s hand in the White House.

12. Mississippi State (13-1)

The Ben Howland program seems to be clicking in, 10 years after his last trip to the Final Four with UCLA. The Bulldogs’ 78-75 comeback win over No. 22 Arkansas Tuesday night snapped an 18-game losing streak against ranked opponents.

13. Tennessee (9-4)

The Volunteers beat Clemson and Purdue but have turned losing leads into a science – they were in front for 37 minutes against North Carolina and 38 against Arkansas, and dropped both games. But it takes a very good team to beat them. The four who did – Villanova, North Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn – are a combined 49-8.

14. SMU (12-3)

Six players average in double figures, and very few teams can say that. The Mustangs are pretty good at the other end, too. Only one opponent has scored more than 67 points.

15. Nevada (14-3)

The three losses came by a total 12 points and included scares of TCU and Texas Tech. Beware the Martin twins. Caleb and Cody are combining for 32.5 points and 12 rebounds a game.

16. Houston (12-2)

Never mind the glowing record. The most impressive numbers with the Cougars involved what happened when Kelvin Sampson put out a tweet asking for clothing donations from other coaches to help Houston victims of Hurricane Harvey. The final count: 20,000 pairs of shoes, 200,000 t-shirts.

17. Boise State (13-2)

Lexus Williams – drama king. His halfcourt buzzer-beater ended Oregon’s 46-game home winning streak. His 3-pointer with three seconds left forced overtime and saved the day against Grand Canyon. Part of the reason the Broncos have matched their best start in 30 years.

18. Rhode Island (10-3)

Senior guards are always good to have. Jarvis Garrett, E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell have won 75 games in their four years. Among them was Seton Hall this season.

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19. Missouri (11-3)

Bonus points for overcoming adversity and not making all the new season ticket holders sorry they spent good money on Missouri basketball. Admit it, this team vanished from your radar screen when Michael Porter Jr. went down. That was two minutes into the season. But the Tigers have kept winning games, anyway.

20. Ball State (10-4)

Once 1-4, the Cardinals have rolled to nine wins in a row, and discovered a new trajectory to their season when they beat Notre Dame at South Bend. This is a team that banded together after losing teammate Zach Hollywood to suicide in the summer. Some of the Cardinals have tattoos in his memory.

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