On the first weekend of December, the perfect records continued to dwindle. There went Indiana, St. John’s, Southern Miss, TCU. Wait a second, that last one was football, but you get the idea.
Twelve unbeaten teams remain. The Dandy Dozen. Houston’s perfection has the Cougars ranked No. 1. Same for Texas at No. 2. The Mountain West can claim 25 percent of the unbeaten club; New Mexico, UNLV and Utah State. So can the SEC with Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri.
On this date last season there were also 12 unbeatens. Only Purdue is on both lists. So let’s line up the 12 and find a reason to applaud each.
In two of their past three games, the Cougars have scored 49 and 53 points, shot 32 and 36.8 percent, and made only five 3-pointers in 28 tries. All those bricks, and they still beat Kent State and Saint Mary’s. Ah, the joys of great defense. Allowing only 48 points a game with 30.8 percent shooting — both comfortably the lowest in Division I — is what has Houston ranked No. 1 for the first time in nearly 40 years. It’s also how the Cougars could be unbeaten and have only 12 lead changes so far in eight games.
But with Alabama and Virginia coming soon, won’t they have to, you know, actually score some points? "I don’t dwell on it," coach Kelvin Sampson said of the No. 1 ranking. "We’ll have it till we lose, and we’ll lose. We’re not running around here pushing our chest out, thinking we’re something we’re not."
Tony Bennett is only four victories from passing Terry Holland as the winningest coach in program history, and the Cavaliers are marching toward the landmark in a slightly different way. Rather than the usual parade of games in the 50s or 60s, Virginia is averaging 74.6 points, the highest in Bennett’s era, and broke 70 in six consecutive games for the first time in eight years. That’s a key number, since Bennett is 150-11 when the Cavaliers reach 70. Just three seasons ago, they were 348th in the nation in scoring. The year they won the national championship, they were 209th. This relative offensive splash is being done with great balance, since all five starters average double figures, but nobody is above 11.1.
This week is a truly unique challenge for Virginia, having to prepare to play yin and yang. On Tuesday the Cavaliers host James Madison, the team that averages 93 points, the highest in the nation. On Saturday they welcome Houston, the team that allows 48, the fewest.
Last time the Huskies were 9-0 was 2013 and look how that turned out. They ended up national champions. UConn has rocketed from unranked to No. 5, winning by an average of 24.2 points a game, and the schedule has hardly been a dessert tray. The Huskies have plowed over Oregon, Alabama, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, winning all of them by double digits. Adama Sanogo was pre-season Big East player of the year and is producing like it, averaging nearly 19 points and shooting better than 61 percent. In the games he has been healthy or not in foul trouble, guard Jordan Hawkins has averaged 18 points, giving Connecticut a highly potent inside-outside combo.
The latest victim was impressed. “I don’t know if 8 (last week’s ranking) is high enough for this team," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton Jr. "I watched them play every one of their games and I saw a team capable of winning the national championship."
Wednesday is their first true road game, at Florida.
The Tigers have become a shot-blocking dynasty. They led the nation last season, with Walker Kessler. He’s gone to the NBA, but Auburn is back on top of that category again and blocking even more, at 8.2 a game. Johni Broome, last season’s Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year at Morehead State, has moved in to help with the swatting.
The Tigers have won 44 non-conference home games in a row, but that won’t help Saturday when they face Memphis in Atlanta.
In the unofficial pre-season media poll, the Terps were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten. That vote might need to get reassessed. They blew through their first seven opponents, beating all of them by at least 15 points, making new man Kevin Willard the first coach in Big Ten history to start his conference career that way. But more impressive might have been victory No. 8, when Maryland had to outgrit No. 16 Illinois 71-66, with Charlotte transfer Jahmir Young’s breakout game — 24 points and a last-minute 3-point dagger — and the home crowd a fiery factor.
"My main goal was to get everyone in this area to understand what this program was going to be all about," said Willard, who moved down the road from Seton Hall. "I think these guys have proved to everybody what this program is."
But life on the road in the Big Ten is harsh, and Willard gets his first taste of that Tuesday at Wisconsin.
Mississippi State (8-0)
You know how Marquette blew away Baylor 96-70, the Bears’ worst shellacking in 15 years? The same Golden Eagles were beaten 58-55 by Mississippi State. And here’s the thing, those 55 points are the most the Bulldogs have allowed this season. They took on the Utah bunch who drilled Arizona with 81 points and shut them down 52-49. Mississippi State and Houston are the nation’s only teams giving up under 50 points a game for the season.
OK, maybe the Bulldogs are currently 257th in the nation in shooting, but that hasn’t gotten them beaten yet. Next up is a taste of the Big Ten, with a trip to Minnesota Saturday. First-year coach Chris Jans is just trying to keep things basic and efficient on the offense, letting pace and defense control the night.
"We’re continuing to work on making the simple plays, station to station," he said. "Don’t hunt the dimes, don’t hunt the ESPN highlight dishes, just find the people that are open."
NEW POWER RANKINGS: Purdue, Texas, Houston lead the Power 36 college basketball rankings
Look what experience can do. The Tigers start three graduate students and two seniors and are noted thieves. Their 14.1 steals a game lead the nation and that’s helped them build a mammoth 247-102 gap in points off turnovers. And when they aren’t engaged in larceny they’re sharing the ball, leading the nation with 21.6 assists a game. The perfect record is about to get a severe test. Kansas comes to town Saturday. Dennis Gates goes with Maryland’s Willard and Mississippi State’s Jans as first-year coaches who have yet to lose on their new jobs.
New Mexico (7-0)
Richard Pitino’s first Lobos team went 13-19 last season. Things are looking up. Included in the 7-0 start is snapping Saint Mary’s 23-game home-court winning streak 69-65. Behold the circle of life in college basketball: Rick Pitino once coached Jamal Mashburn at Kentucky. Now Pitino’s son Richard is coaching Mashburn’s son Jamal Jr, who has scored in double figures in 28 consecutive games. There are only 14 shopping days until the Pitino Bowl on Dec. 18. Iona will be in town to play New Mexico, with father coaching against son.
Utah State (7-0)
Hard to imagine it will be five years next March that No. 16 seed UMBC shocked Virginia and the college basketball universe by beating the Cavaliers in the first round. The man who coached Cinderella now leads one of the last unbeatens. Ryan Odom turns his team loose to fire away, and it’s worked so far. The Aggies are second in the nation in 3-point percentage and fourth in 3-pointers per game.
They also come at opponents in waves, with a mammoth edge in bench scoring, 276-126. The Utah State reserves are shooting 54.8 percent.
If the Aggies can beat Loyola Marymount and Westminster College, they’ll have their best start in 103 years. Maybe then they'd get a little notice among voters, They are the only team without one loss, or one vote in the Associated Press rankings this week.
Nobody has worked the transfer portal better than Texas coach Chris Beard. Included in the Longhorns’ perfect start are wins over top-10 members Gonzaga and Creighton, high-octane games in which they committed only 13 turnovers and forced 28. The No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press poll is their highest in 13 years.
This is being done with Tyrese Hunter, freshman of the year last season at Iowa State. Also, Marcus Carr, who twice led the Big Ten in minutes played at Minnesota . . . and Sir’Jabari Rice, once all-WAC at New Mexico State . . . and Dylan Disu, who led the SEC in rebounding at Vanderbilt . . . and Timmy Allen, who was All-Pac-12 at Utah. Lots of roads lead to Austin.
How to slow down the Boilermakers and their 7-4 monster, Zach Edey? Foul ‘em? Apparently, that’s been one idea since Purdue has made 137 free throws this season and its opponent have attempted 87. Sunday’s 89-70 win over Minnesota was a telling look at what the Boilermakers have been up to. Edey had 31 points while collecting more rebounds (22) and shooting more free throws (10) than the entire Gophers team. No one in college basketball had done the latter in 25 years.
Purdue started 8-0 last season, too, moving to No. 1 for the first time in program history, then tripped over Rutgers on the road. Their first Big Ten trip this year is to Nebraska Saturday, which looks a lot more challenging after what the Cornhuskers just did to Creighton.
Trying to run offense against the Rebels can be a frustrating ordeal. They lead the nation in forcing 21.9 turnovers a game, with no opponent getting out of the gym with fewer than 17. And they’re still working on one of the longer NCAA record streaks in college basketball, having made at least one 3-pointer in all 1,169 games since the shot clock was introduced in 1987. Turnovers and treys, what’s not to like? “They are having fun right now,” coach Kevin Kruger said.
That goes 12 times for this list.