College basketball: 25 intriguing teams ahead of conference play

Conference play is here, so now might be a good time to review the top 25 in college basketball. No, not that one.

This is the poll of intrigue. Twenty-five teams whose non-conference seasons have made their immediate futures particularly interesting. The “What Happens Now?” rankings, in reverse order, ranked not necessarily by power, but curiosity. Each with their own STR (stat to remember).

No. 25 SYRACUSE.

They expect snow in Syracuse this time of year, but not five non-conference losses. That’s the most in the Jim Boeheim era, and the 93-60 shellacking by St. John’s was the worst in the 36-year history of the Carrier Dome. Correctable malfunctions, or big trouble?

STR: Boeheim’s famed zone held four NCAA tournament opponents to 36.4 percent in the Orange’s surprise march to the Final Four last March. Try 45.7 in Syracuse’s five losses this season.

No. 24 TCU.

The Horned Frogs were picked to finish 10th in the Big 12. As in last. But Jamie Dixon’s first TCU team is 11-1. Need more proof? Horned Frogs, you’re on. The first Big 12 game is at home Dec. 30 against Kansas.

STR: A lot of handprints on this early surge. TCU has outscored its opponents 440-195 in bench points.

No. 23 MEMPHIS.

The Lawson brothers have been outstanding for the resurgent Tigers.

Justin Ford | USA TODAY Sports Images

The Lawson brothers have been outstanding for the resurgent Tigers.

It’s all about history. No coach has ever led six different schools to the NCAA tournament. If Tubby Smith becomes the first with the 9-3 Tigers, he can thank the Lawson family of Memphis. Brothers Dedric and K.J. are combining for 36 points and 20 rebounds a game.

STR: This is what you call balance. Six different Memphis players have scored at least 20 points in a game.

No. 22 LONG BEACH STATE.

The overwhelming pick to win the Big West started out 1-9, thanks to a non-conference itinerary that included 23,000 miles and 10 states. Santa Claus didn’t travel that far. The idea, coach Dan Monson said, was to get the guys ready for league play. We’ll see if it worked.

STR: Four of the 49ers losses came against UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville — 40 percent of last week’s Associated Press top 10.

No. 21 CENTRAL MICHIGAN.

The Mid-American Conference folks picked the Chippewas to finish last in their division, but that was before anyone had a good look at Marcus Keene. The 5-foot-9 transfer from Youngstown State is leading the nation in scoring with a 31.9 average, and Central Michigan is 9-3. Nobody in Division I has averaged 30 points for a full season in 30 years.

STR: Keene is hitting 50.8 percent of his shots. The rest of the team 39.7.

No. 20 VIRGINIA TECH.

Never mind the 10th-place forecast in the ACC. The 10-1 record suggests Buzz Williams has something else in mind. If it’s a statement the Hokies want to make, try New Year’s Eve, when Duke comes to town.

RELATED: Storylines to monitor as conference play begins

STR: Williams has used the same starting lineup all 11 games. Last season, he used 12 different starting fives.

No. 19 CREIGHTON.

Creighton big man Justin Patton has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor.

Joe Camporeale | USA TODAY Sports Images

Creighton big man Justin Patton has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor.

The 12-0 record matches their best start in 74 years, and the 89.8 scoring average and 53.8 percent shooting makes the Bluejays one of the nation’s most potent offenses. Will they still look so powerful when things get going in the Big East? Answers will come soon, with Seton Hall and Villanova due in Omaha.

STR: Justin Patton is shooting 76 percent from the field. He has missed 20 shots all season and blocked 19.

No. 18 NORTH CAROLINA.

The 11-2 Tar Heels certainly looked powerful enough in the early schedule to make a long run. If they can score 100 against Kentucky, what about the ACC?

RELATED: UNC freshman Tony Bradley off to hot start

STR: For the team game notes, all the players were asked to name their favorite former Tar Heel. Four picked Ty Lawson. None picked Michael Jordan. In case you’ve forgotten, guys, he was the one wearing No. 23.

No. 17 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.

The Trojans’ 13-0 record is their best start since 1971. That certainly sounds way better than a team picked to finished seventh in the Pac-12, but league play will quickly show if USC is for real, or a mirage.

RELATED: Six unbeaten teams remain

STR: The Trojans are a hard team to keep down. They have rallied from at least a nine-point deficit to win in six games.

No. 16 RUTGERS.

Some thought NASA would find life on Mars before anyone found life in Rutgers basketball. But Steve Pikiell’s reclamation project his first season has been amazing, with the school’s 11-1 start its best in 41 years.

STR: Now comes the hard part. Rutgers went 3-33 in league games its first two seasons in the Big Ten.

No. 15 BUTLER.

The team picked to finish sixth in the Big East rolled through the non-conference 11-1, including 3-0 against ranked opponents. Coach Chris Holtmann said he has “genuine” concern about the Bulldogs’ lack of physical play lately, which is not what you want to be lacking in the nightly test of manhood that is the Big East: “I think we know what’s coming.”

STR: They should, anyway. Since joining the Big East, Butler is 2-18 against Providence, Villanova and Xavier.

No. 14 WEST VIRGINIA

The Mountaineers’ defense is averaging 26.3 turnovers a game, with a turnover margin of 15.8. Numbers that would make the NCAA record book rattle. Now let’s see if the Big 12 can get the ball up the court.

RELATED: ‘Press Virginia’ limiting points, fouls

STR: This says it all. West Virginia’s pressured, pestered and plagued opponents have committed 315 turnovers and made only 239 field goals.

No. 13 KANSAS.

This state always has two questions: How’s the wheat crop, and is the Jayhawks’ remarkable Big 12 dynasty — 12 regular-season titles in a row now — in any jeopardy? Kansas lost in overtime to Indiana, beat Duke by two, then won its next 10 games by an average of 23.1 points.

STR: One way to cause the Jayhawks problems? Foul them. They do great shooting when defended — 51.7 percent, or sixth in the nation. Not so much when left alone at the line. The free-throw percentage of 59.2 is 344th.

No. 12 TEXAS A&M.

Many new faces from last year's Sweet 16 team hasn't slowed down the Aggies.

Troy Taormina | USA TODAY Sports Images

Many new faces from last year’s Sweet 16 team hasn’t slowed down the Aggies.

The Aggies are 8-3, but to understand why they’re so interesting, consider their three losses against the Pac-12. They led USC in the final minute, cut a lead from 22 to two in the final 22 seconds against Arizona, and went through nine lead changes with UCLA, holding the Bruins 22 points under their average. Combined record of those three: 37-2.

STR: Billy Kennedy has done some true reloading in College Station. The Aggies had to replace four starters and three All-SEC players from last season.

No. 11 GONZAGA.

The 12-0 record is the best start in school history, the 36.1 field goal shooting defense is fourth best in the nation, and the Zags have trailed once in the second half all season (against Florida). Does all that mean it is time, at long last, for a Gonzaga Final Four?

STR: Not a lot drama in the Zags’ games so far. There have been only 10 lead changes and 11 ties all season. They have trailed only 33:29 out of 480 minutes, but take away the Florida game, and it is 5:53 in the other 11 wins.

No. 10 NORTHWESTERN.

Is. This. The. Year? The 11-2 Wildcats’ only blemishes are at the buzzer against Butler and by four points to Notre Dame, and they can realistically dream of the NCAA tournament bid the school has never, ever seen.

RELATED: Best buzzer beaters in 2016

STR: Their chances will all come down to the Big Ten, and the conference schedule is no chum. Five of their first seven league games are on the road. They don’t get Wisconsin, Michigan State or Ohio State at home this year. They’ll have to do it the hard way.

No. 9 LOUISVILLE.

Now that the Kentucky losing streak has been stopped at four, the Cardinals can turn their defense loose on the rest of a scheduling mountain; four consecutive ranked opponents in a regular season — Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, Notre Dame — for the first time in their history.

STR: The Louisville defense has been so good, it has been easy not to notice the Cardinals don’t have one player averaging 12 points a game, and their 43.4 shooting is 214th in the nation.

No. 8 MICHIGAN STATE.

Injuries. Youth. Ineffective play. A brutal schedule. That’s why the record is 8-5. But Tom Izzo will find the answers, because he always does, right?

“I don’t feel very good about where we are,” he said to the Spartan masses, “but I wouldn’t get too nervous out there because this team is getting better and they’re starting to compete.”

STR: This will explain the tinkering Izzo has had to do. Ten different Michigan State players have started a game, and no one has started all 13.

No. 7 ARIZONA.

It has become a mystery so enduring, Arizona fans might soon turn to tarot cards. Is star Allonzo Trier ever coming back from eligibility issues? And if so, when?

STR: The Wildcats are 11-2 with three freshmen as their leading scorers. Not even Kentucky can say that.

No. 6 BAYLOR.

Baylor made it through non-conference play looking as impressive as any team in the nation.

Ray Carlin | USA TODAY Sports Images

Baylor made it through non-conference play looking as impressive as any team in the nation.

Not one vote was given to the Bears in the pre-season polls. Now people are wondering how far the Baylor geezers — no starter is younger than 21 — can go. Let’s see what happens when the Bears finally play a true road game Dec. 30 at Oklahoma.

STR: This will show Scott Drew’s progress at Baylor in his 13-plus seasons. In his early years of building the program, the Bears went 0-27 against ranked opponents. They’re 4-0 this season.

No. 5 OREGON.

Preseason All-American Dillon Brooks was not back in the starting lineup until mid-December after offseason foot surgery, and leading scorer Chris Boucher has missed two recent games with a leg injury.  The Ducks are 11-2 anyway, so what is a full-strength Oregon going to look like?

STR: The Ducks have won 33 in a row at home. Why is that timely? Look who will be in Eugene this week: unbeatens UCLA and USC.

No. 4 VILLANOVA.

Eighteen victories in a row now going back to last March — the 12 this season by an average margin of 19.7 — and you wonder where and when and how (and if) it stops for the top-ranked Wildcats. They won’t be easing into Big East play like it’s a cold-water pool. Not with trips to Creighton and Butler in their first three games.

RELATED: Best games in 2016

STR: Defense is what makes Villanova tick, and it usually takes awhile for each new group to get comfortable on that end. Fair warning: Five of the Wildcats’ last seven opponents have not been able to shoot 40 percent against them.

No. 3. KENTUCKY

They’re young and talented — note Malik Monk’s 47 points against North Carolina — and only time can tell how high the ceiling is for the Wildcats. Yep, business as usual in Lexington.

STR: Here’s way to get in trouble. Kentucky missed 27 free throws in the losses to UCLA and Louisville and the near-miss with North Carolina.

No. 2 UCLA.

The offensive numbers are still staggering; six players averaging in double figures, 55 percent shooting, 95.8 points and 23.6 assists a game, only two wins by single digits. Consider freshman Lonzo Ball’s first term: He has taken only eight more shots than he has handed out assists. Oh, and the Bruins won in Rupp Arena. Really, is UCLA THIS good for the long haul? We’ll find out more Wednesday in Eugene.

STR: This was the first time the Bruins went unbeaten in non-conference play since the 1994-95 season. And who was the national champion that season? Right, UCLA.

No. 1 DUKE.

Luke Kennard could have to carry the load for a short-handed Duke squad.

Mark Dolejs | USA TODAY Sports Images

Luke Kennard could have to carry the load for a short-handed Duke squad.

It was supposed to be so simple: Mike Krzyzewski would take his eight McDonald’s All-Americans and conquer the world. But it’s not so simple, even with a 12-1 record. Just when he was finally getting his glittering freshmen corps healthy, Grayson Allen stuck out his leg again, became the nation’s Rogue One, and now nobody knows when he’ll be back. Coach K has had to try four different starting lineups, with more undoubtedly to come. Good thing he’s been around the block.

STR: Allen was a serious national player of the year candidate and the freshmen got loads of ink, but sophomore Luke Kennard has turned into the rock of Duke. It’s not just his 20.4 scoring average, but the fact he’s been off the floor only 43 minutes in the past 12 games.

All those complications make the Blue Devils No. 1. They were supposed to be in the other polls, too.