The new year usually marks not only the start of the grind of conference play in college basketball, but also a chance to reset and look back at everything you missed from the non-Conference slate.
Before the new year has even begun, there are a ton of teams that have either put themselves in a very favorable spot to meet expectations, whether it's to make the tournament, or get there and make a deep run. It's also the opposite, as some teams have already dug themselves in too big a hole to get out of, with way too many damaging losses.
There have also been plenty of teams that have been much better or worse than expected or just stood out in some way. Here are some superlatives for what we've seen so far, this college basketball season.
Best Team: UConn
Dan Hurley’s Huskies have been one of the biggest stories in college basketball so far this season, where, after starting unranked have - in my opinion - the best team in college basketball.
The Huskies resume speaks for itself already collecting quality wins over Alabama, Oregon, Florida, Iowa State, Butler and more. Not a ton of these games have even been particularly close, with the exception of the Huskies Big East opener right before Christmas break.
Yet in playing a close game, we learned a lot about this group.
Georgetown found themselves up 60-53 over UConn with a little less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, and many people who have been off the Huskies bandwagon used this as a confirmation that the Huskies aren’t as really good as they’ve started the season. Instead, however, UConn ended the game on a 31-13 run and ended up winning the game 84-73. During this run to end the game, it was very noticeable how many different options UConn had down the stretch to take over this game. San Diego Transfer Joey Calcaterra finished with 14 points off the bench and changed the energy in Gampel Pavilion after UConn was trailing.
There aren’t many other teams in the country that can just flip the script as quickly as UConn did, to remind their opponents and the rest of the land how good they really are.
Most Surprising Team: Purdue
Many Boilermakers fans wondered if they could ever break through to the Final Four, especially after the way last season ended in heartbreaking fashion with a Sweet 16 loss to Saint Peters. The Boilermakers were led by future Top 3 NBA Draft Pick Jaden Ivey, and had a collection of upperclassmen that played together for a while, including an NCAA Tournament berth in 2021. Purdue climbed all the to the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history a season ago, and it seemd as though the bracket opened up for them, after Saint Peter's knocked off Kentucky in Round 1. Instead, they lost to those same Peacocks, with a clear path to the Final Four.
With Ivey, Trevion Williams and others gone, Purdue was off many people’s radars heading into the season. The Boilermakers were unranked in the preseason Top 25 Poll and picked fifth in the preseason Big Ten Poll. Yet despite it, Purdue has started off the season with a 12-0 record that includes wins over Duke, Gonzaga, West Virginia and Marquette. In the process, they are again ranked No. 1 in the country and hoping to become the first Big Ten Team since Michigan State in 2000 to win a National Championship.
While Purdue couldn’t always find the right lineup combinations last season, there is no confusion with only Zach Edey as your primary big man. The 7’4” Canadian, is averaging 22.6 points and 13.9 rebounds per game and will head into the new year as the clear-cut favorite for National Player of the Year. In addition, Purdue is starting two three-star freshman recruits in the backcourt with Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith.
Matt Painter is a coach that will always rely on his system no matter what his personal is and having these two in an organized team first system has produced winning basketball for the Boilers. With a lot of the preseason Big Ten favorites struggling, the league is currently Purdue’s to lose.
Most Underrated Team: Memphis
After Penny Hardaway has built his teams around future one and done freshmen and five-star recruits over the last few seasons, he has built this year’s squad in a much different way. Instead of going after all of the elite high school players, Penny targeted one of the best transfers available in Kendric Davis from SMU and focused on building a much older and mature team.
With a team of older players this time around, Memphis has started their season with a 10-3 record with only losses at Alabama, at Saint Louis and to Seton Hall on a buzzer beater. While not all of those losses have aged particularly great, each game was very close and at the time of the game both Saint Louis and Seton Hall were both playing very well.
Davis is leading the team in scoring, averaging 19.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, alongside guys like Deandre Williams, Alex Lomax and Damaria Franklin, who have all seen everything in the game of college basketball and there isn’t much that can phase them. With the American Athletic Conference looking much weaker than years past, Memphis is the team that can take advantage and if they take care of business, should comfortably find their way into the NCAA Tournament.
Most Overrated Team: Auburn
Bruce Pearl and his team are fresh off one of the best seasons in program history, where they finished 28-6 overall and climbed to the No. 1 overall spot in the AP Top 25. Things haven’t been going that smoothly so far this season, however Auburn is still ranked at No. 20 in the AP Poll, following their 1-1 West Coast Road Trip against USC and Washington.
Heading into the season, Auburn returned their entire backcourt from last season, which actually was their primary issue at times. In 2022, the Tigers had the best frontcourt in college basketball headlined by two future NBA first round picks in Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. Bruce Pearl did as good of a job as anyone can reasonably expect trying to replace them, by adding highly coveted Morehead transfer Johni Broome and Top 40 freshman Yohan Traore.
While these replacements were as good as anyone can ask for, the circumstances of replacing Smith and Kessler aren’t ideal especially when Auburn is bringing back the same exact backcourt that struggled at times last season. Auburn’s leading scorer Wendell Green has struggled with his shooting efficiency and shot selection throughout his career, which has continued into this season. Green has shot a very inefficient 8/31 (26%) from the field in his last four games. In addition, KD Johnson hasn’t had quite the ups as we saw at times last season and Allen Flannigan still doesn’t look exactly like the player saw prior to his Achilles injury.
Basically, Auburn looks like the same exact team from last year, except without the two future NBA First Round Picks in the frontcourt.
While Bruce Pearl still has plenty of time to figure things out with a ton of options to go to, Auburn’s best win is currently over a Northwestern team that is likely to struggle during Big Ten play. The SEC will give them plenty of chances, but Auburn needs to do a ton more to just secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
Most Disappointing Team: Saint Louis
There was a ton of hype going into the season for Travis Ford’s team and with good reason. The Billikens returned their top four leading scorers from last year’s team that won 23 games and made the NIT. In addition, they also got Javonte Perkins, who was their leading scorer in 2021 (Averaged 17.1 Points Per Game) back from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season. The Billikens received 36 votes in the Preseason AP Top 25, and were projected to finish second in the Preseason Atlantic 10 Media Poll.
Unfortunately, the season has gone in the complete opposite direction than expected so far for Saint Louis, as they have already suffered some damaging losses that could have already cost them an NCAA Tournament bid. It was very disappointing when Saint Louis got run off the court by Maryland in their opening game at Mohegan Sun, but Maryland is really good and anyone can have an off game. The Billikens even had a golden opportunity to add to their NCAA Tournament resume, when they had Auburn on the ropes but couldn’t close it out.
The Billikens last three losses have been super damaging however, as they have fallen to Iona, Boise State, and SIU Edwardsville. It also hasn’t only been Saint Louis who has disappointed in the Atlantic 10 so far, as Dayton is nowhere close to the team anyone expected and won’t move the needle on your NCAA Tournament resume.
Travis Ford has had a history of underachieving with talent, but there is simply no reason for the Billikens to be this bad.
Best Mid Major: New Mexico
While not everyone will count New Mexico as a true “mid-major”, the Lobos deserve major recognition for their 12-0 start to the season and climbing all the way to No. 22 in the AP Poll. Richard Pitino has the Lobos in this position, despite the fact that it is only his second season in Albuquerque and New Mexico hasn’t won more than 20 games in a season since 2014. That was also the last time this New Mexico program was in the NCAA Tournament, which is looking like it can change this season.
Pitino has done a great job using the transfer portal to his advantage, as each of New Mexico’s top three leading scorers came from other schools. After a solid four-year career at Wichita State that included an NCAA Tournament berth, Morris Udeze has been one of the best stories in college basketball so far this season. Udeze is leading not only New Mexico, but the entire Mountain West in scoring, averaging 17.5 points per game, after never averaging more than 10 points per game at Wichita. With Pitino’s former player at Minnesota Jamal Mashburn Jr and former Top 70 recruit Jaelen House also coming to New Mexico, the Lobos haven't had this much pure talent on their team in recent memory. These three players account for three of the top five scorers in the Mountain West, which is not something most other teams around the country can say.
New Mexico currently has victories over Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Iona, and the Mountain West should give them some solid chances at more quality wins.
Most Impressive Team: Arizona
Tommy Lloyd did a great job in his first season in Tucson earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament along with winning the Pac 12 regular season and tournament titles.
However, there were a few major differences between this Arizona team and last year’s squad. Primarily, Arizona lost three players from last year’s team that were all drafted into the NBA. These included two first round draft picks in Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry, alongside second round pick Christian Koloko. It was unknown what Arizona would look like heading into the season, considering the majority of the players on that team were not brought in by Tommy Lloyd and this season features a team filled of mostly players he brought into the program.
Arizona has gotten off to a 12-1 start overall, which includes wins over Creighton, Tennessee, Indiana and San Diego State. The only loss during that stretch came in their Pac 12 Conference opener against Utah, which was shortly after their trip to Maui and every team that also made that trip struggled in their first game back. The frontcourt combination of Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo is the best in the country, averaging a combined 37.9 points and 17.8 rebounds per game.
In today’s modern version of basketball, it is very rare to have a frontcourt score the ball this much, without even being a threat from three-point range.
However, with Tommy Lloyd running things and an improved Kerr Kriisa getting them the ball, there hasn’t been a more impressive to me so far this season than Arizona.
Follow Zac Krull on Twitter @ZacKrull_