These teams are far from Final Four locks, but they struggled (to varying degrees) to open the season and have come a long way since. Some lost games they shouldn't have; others beat lesser opponents in uninspiring fashion.
Here are five schools who are hitting their stride as we approach the new year.
The real Villanova lies somewhere in between the team that lost to Furman earlier this year and the 2017-18 national championship squad. The Wildcats will likely earn a decent NCAA tournament seed come March; they might even win the Big East. But the ceiling isn't as high as it's been the past few years.
And that's OK. Jay Wright's bunch has ripped off six straight wins since a 2-2 start, and the offense is slowly but surely coming around. Michigan held Villanova to 46 points earlier this season; less than a month later, the Wildcats have the No. 13 offense in the country.
The collective 3-point shooting is creeping up to a respectable mark. Villanova is making 34.2 percent of its 3s after hovering around 30 percent at the beginning of the year, and they still take a bunch of them. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are both averaging more than 15 points per game and are growing more comfortable with their increased offensive responsibilities.
Transfer Joe Cremo is another player to keep an eye on. He was a reason why folks were optimistic about Villanova coming into the year, but he struggled early on. Cremo has scored in double figures in his last two games and is shooting 46 percent from 3. He launched 10 3s in 23 minutes against St. Joseph's. That's a sign of a guy who's uber-confident.
The Wildcats play Kansas on Saturday. They may not win, but if they can hang with the Jayhawks, you still have to like their chances in the Big East.
The Bearcats had a dismal opening night performance against Ohio State, scoring 56 points against a team full of fresh faces. But since then, Cincinnati has won nine straight and manhandled Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout on Saturday.
Like Villanova, Cincinnati still doesn't have as high of a ceiling as it had last year. But it could certainly win the AAC, and this is starting to look like a Mick Cronin defense. The Bearcats are up to No. 18 in defensive efficiency after holding Xavier to 47 points; they're forcing turnovers on 23.7 percent of opponents' possessions, a pristine clip.
Nysier Brooks is a defensive monster. He has an 8.9 block rate, which means he swats 8.9 percent of opposing shots when he's in the game. Jarron Cumberland doesn't have as much help as he's had previously, but he's balling, averaging 15.3 points while shooting 44 percent from 3. Sometimes, it just takes a while to grow into the alpha dog role. Cumberland is looking more and more comfortable.
Watch out for these guys in conference play.
A disclaimer: Syracuse doesn't have it all figured out. But the Orange have made undeniable progress in the last month after losing to UConn and Oregon in ugly fashion.
Syracuse is 5-0 since then and has two quality wins over Ohio State and Georgetown, though it still looked clunky against the Hoyas. That said, the defense is becoming what was advertised coming into the year. The Orange are up to ninth on that end and are baiting more and more teams into desperate 3-point heaves with shot clock expiring. Syracuse has an army of long wings who can change directions quickly and disrupt open shots and passing lanes.
There is still work to be done on offense. Oshae Brissett is shooting 38 percent. But Tyus Battle is playing like a star, and Syracuse has a proven formula for success: a top 10 defense and a stud point guard. If Brissett can improve his efficiency, the Orange might live up to their preseason hype.
Oklahoma is a little different than the other teams on this list, but it qualifies. We didn't expect much from the Sooners coming into the year and they didn't play a noteworthy opponent in the first few games. They beat Florida, which was impressive, but then got blown out by Wisconsin.
The loss to the Badgers was validation for those who thought Oklahoma would miss the NCAA tournament. But OU has surged since, beating three quality foes in Dayton, Notre Dame and Wichita State. The Sooners are doing this with defense, which is a surprise in itself. When you think of Oklahoma basketball, you think of offensive supernovas like Trae Young, Buddy Hield and Blake Griffin.
But opponents are shooting just 38.2 percent from 2-point range against Oklahoma, the No. 2 mark in the nation. It was easy to see why folks were down on OU in the preseason: Young was the essentially the whole team last year, and he left. But perhaps that supporting cast was better than we realized. Christian James and Brady Manek are versatile, talented wings who can do a bit of everything. And Jamuni McNeace is one of the freakiest athletes in the game who is learning the nuances of big man defense and rim protection.
Once again, the Big 12 looks formidable. But Oklahoma isn't a team anyone wants to face right now.
Indiana didn't stumble out of the gate, but it was inconsistent to start the year. The Hoosiers lost to Arkansas on the road and got blown out at Cameron Indoor with some nice flashes in between.
But they've notched three straight top-50 KenPom wins over Northwestern, Penn State and Louisville since then. The Big Ten is looking strong this year, and the Hoosiers probably won't challenge for the conference crown. But they look like a team that can earn a single-digit NCAA tournament seed.
Archie Miller has a well-rounded squad, with top-40 offensive and defensive units. Romeo Langford has been as good as expected; he's shooting a blistering 59.6 percent on 2-point attempts, an absurd number for a guard. Langford has struggled from distance, but there are few more lethal attackers in college basketball. He's part of the reason why Indiana has been so good in close games: when the game slows down, Langford is a guy who can create a quality shot or get to the foul line against a set defense. That's a rare talent.
Juwan Morgan is an all-around stud, and Miller's teams always play good defense. Indiana may be a notch below Michigan and Michigan State, and Wisconsin has been awesome. But the Hoosiers can play with any of those teams and could approach 25 wins this season.