College basketball’s AP Top 25 has already seen its share of upheaval, and it isn’t even December yet. On top of all the changes, such as which teams are holding which spots, there are still plenty of surprises to be found among the teams currently staking claims to the national rankings.
No. 17 Cincinnati, for example, is a team that was expected to live and die with its brilliant guard play—led by Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick. Hard to believe, then, that the supposedly frontcourt-poor Bearcats are the No. 1 rebounding team in the country.
Here's a closer look at Cincinnati, along with some unexpected strengths and weaknesses for the rest of this week’s Top 25.
The biggest obstacle this year’s New Mexico squad had to overcome was the loss of standout PF Drew Gordon due to graduation. The man who has done the most to fill that hole is redshirt sophomore Alex Kirk, a towering center at 7’0”, 250 pounds.
Kirk has been solid in most respects, scoring a respectable 11 points per game, while leading the Lobos with 8.2 boards a night.
Defensively, however, he has been decidedly lacking, blocking all of four shots in six games. That figure is even less impressive given that it has come against such powerhouse opponents such as Idaho and Portland.
As great as UNLV’s inside game has been, it has also helped conceal a major weakness. With Chace Stanback gone, the Rebels are seriously hurting for a three-point threat.
As a team, UNLV is shooting an atrocious .302 from beyond the arc, having hit just 26 treys through four games. The best hope for improvement comes from sophomore Bryce Dejean-Jones, but even he’s only hitting at a .375 clip.
San Diego State looks like a roster with a lot of offensive weapons, headed by the returning backcourt trio of Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames.
For all their talent, though, the Aztecs have been a monumentally bad shooting team, ranking 300th in the nation with a .387 field-goal percentage.
Shot selection is certainly an issue, with four Aztecs having already attempted 20 three-pointers each.
Another key problem is that there just haven’t been enough easy shots to go around. PG Thames has seen his assists drop from 4.1 to 3.0 per game, meaning fewer easy looks and more missed attempts across the board.
With Brandon Paul as the focus of the offense, it’s not surprising that Illinois is an effective outside shooting team. Still, the Illini would hardly have been a preseason pick as the absolute best three-point shooting team in the nation (76 makes and counting).
Paul is, of course, the frontrunner here, with plenty of help from classmate D.J. Richardson (18 treys, though just .327 accuracy).
The revelation has been senior Tyler Griffey, who has already hit nearly as many three-pointers as he did all of last year while shooting a ludicrous .538 from deep.
Entering the season, the two most proven players on Minnesota’s roster were forwards Rodney Williams Jr. and Trevor Mbakwe.
Williams has played well and Mbakwe competently, but the biggest reason for the Gophers’ ascent into the national rankings has been their guard play.
Andre Hollins, who averaged just 8.7 points per game as a freshman, is second on the roster with 13.8 points a night while also leading the team with 4.1 assists per game.
Backcourt mates Austin Hollins (no relation) and Joe Coleman, meanwhile, are adding 21.5 more points and 8.3 rebounds per contest between them.
A season after winning Freshman All-America honors, Otto Porter looked set to carry a young Georgetown squad. He’s posting solid averages (12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game), but it’s one of his classmates who’s really stealing the show.
6’8” Greg Whittington has gone from unremarkable reserve to frontcourt star for the Hoyas, leading the team with nine rebounds a night and placing second with 13.6 points per contest.
He’s even making his presence felt on the defensive end, complementing the shot-swatting Porter with 1.2 steals per game.
In 2011-12, despite a guard-heavy lineup, Colorado saw Nate Tomlinson lead the team with a mere 3.0 assists per game. The Buffs are off to an even better start this season, but they still haven’t found a legitimate floor general.
Askia Booker is the current team leader, matching the graduated Tomlinson at 3.0 assists a night, but he’s a shooting guard who happens to be handling the ball.
Of course, he’s still the best option at the point for a team on which all four other starters are averaging more turnovers than assists.
There was plenty of blame to go around in N.C. State’s loss to Michigan Tuesday night, but the Wolfpack shooting 66.7 percent from the foul line didn’t help matters any. More worrisome, is that the game was far from an isolated incident.
N.C. State’s 4-2 start has seen them shoot just .617 from the charity stripe as a team, including an appalling .429 from freshman scoring-leader T.J. Warren. For the year, N.C. State’s top three scorers are all shooting under 60 percent on free throws.
After losing Yancy Gates to graduation, Cincinnati was supposed to be worried about its 2012-13 frontcourt.
The Bearcats have indeed wound up with a forward-by-committee approach—five players getting 15-20 minutes a night—but that committee is putting up some serious numbers.
Through six undefeated games, Cincy leads the nation with 49.2 rebounds per contest. SG Sean Kilpatrick is getting 6.7 of those, but most of the rest belong to team leader Justin Jackson (7.2 per contest) and his cohorts in the big-man brigade.
Not to take anything away from magnificent point guard Phil Pressey, but the Missouri backcourt is not the same unstoppable force that carried the Tigers to 30 wins a season ago.
Instead, Mizzou has leaned on a vastly improved frontcourt to record its 5-1 start.
A healthy Laurence Bowers is the second-leading scorer behind Pressey (14.2 points per game), while UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi has powered his way to 11.8 more points and a team-leading 8.8 rebounds a night.
Add in 6’5”, 222-lb. guard Earnest Ross, who can attack the rim with the best, and the Tigers are more dangerous in the paint than out of it this season.
Oklahoma State isn’t without forwards who can play—witness 6’8” Kamari Murphy and 6’11” Philip Jurick—but the Cowboys are a guard-first team.
Nowhere is that more evident than in their rebounding numbers, where the team leader (at an impressive 7.0 boards a night) is point guard Marcus Smart.
The freshman is big for his position at 6’4”, 225 pounds, but his quick adjustment to the college game is still remarkable.
He hasn’t exactly been padding his stats against cupcakes, either, having grabbed nine boards against Tennessee and seven more in an upset of then-No. 6 N.C. State.
As usual, Roy Williams’ fast-paced offense has North Carolina averaging better than 80 points per game. Less predictable, though, is the fact that the Tar Heels’ perimeter defense is on a par with their explosive offense.
North Carolina is averaging 10 steals per game as a team, led by 2.1 a night from longtime stopper Dexter Strickland.
Tuesday night’s debacle at Indiana notwithstanding, UNC is going to win a lot of games on easy baskets off of turnovers this season.
Tom Izzo’s teams are rarely classified as offensive juggernauts, but this year’s edition is sinking to near-Wisconsin levels when it comes to putting points on the board.
The Spartans are averaging just 67.5 points per game, placing them 192nd in the national rankings.
Obviously, that lack of scoring hasn’t stopped Michigan State from starting 5-2.
Still, unless Keith Appling and Gary Harris start getting some more help, it’s hard to imagine the Spartans’ lack of scoring punch failing to result in some key losses in Big Ten play.
Impressive scoring stats are par for the course at Adam Morrison’s alma mater, and this year’s Gonzaga squad (82.2 points per game) is no exception. The 2012-13 edition of the Zags, though, have shown the defensive toughness to back up that offense.
Through an undefeated six-game start, the Bulldogs are allowing opponents to shoot just 34.9 percent from the floor, the 15th-best mark in the country.
A big factor in that success has been pressure on the ball, led by reserve guard David Stockton (son of Gonzaga legend John Stockton) and his 3.0 steals per game.
Clearly, Creighton wouldn’t be ranked this high if it weren’t for Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott, the team leader in scoring and rebounding.
Overshadowed by McDermott’s brilliance, though, is a supporting cast that’s playing some awfully good basketball.
Offensively, Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman are combining for better than 10 assists per game. Meanwhile, Ethan Wragge (best known as the guy who broke Kendall Marshall’s wrist last March) is shooting an ungodly .583 from beyond the arc.
Even the much-maligned defense is showing some punch, with big Gregory Echenique averaging 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a night.
There were never any questions about Jeff Withey’s defense.
The seven-foot Kansas center has surpassed himself in the early going this year, blocking 6.2 shots per game, but the bigger (and more welcome) surprise for Kansas has been what he has done on the offensive end.
After averaging just nine points per game in his first year as a starter, Withey has raised that figure to a team-leading 14.2 so far this season.
On a team with far more defense than offense in its starting five, Withey’s offensive breakthrough will be an essential ingredient in yet another run at the Big 12 title.
With just four games in the month of November, Arizona has seen less game action than virtually any team in the country. More worrisome for Wildcat fans, the quality of their early games hasn’t been any more impressive than the quantity.
None of Arizona’s first four opponents has a winning record, a trend that will only change with a Dec. 1 visit to Texas Tech (another team that has loaded its schedule with patsies).
The first genuine challenge for Arizona will come against No. 7 Florida two weeks from now.
By that point, the Gators will have already faced Wisconsin, Marquette and a road game at Florida State—not to mention half a game against Georgetown in the would-be season opener.
Kentucky’s rotation features 6’10” Nerlens Noel, 6’10” Kyle Wiltjer and 7’0” Willie Cauley-Stein. For all their size, though, the Wildcats have struggled when it comes to controlling the glass.
As a team, Kentucky is pulling in a thoroughly mediocre 35.4 rebounds per game. Noel is doing his job (8.6 boards a night), but Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein combined are adding only 8.6 more to Kentucky’s totals.
For three seasons, Florida’s Top 25 resume has started with its high-scoring guards. Kenny Boynton is pouring in 16.2 points per game as expected, but the Gators are winning games with defense even more than with Boynton’s impressive shooting touch.
6’10” Erik Murphy and 6’9” Patric Young have anchored a zone-heavy approach that has held opponents to 48.4 points per game, second on the national charts only to slowdown specialists Stephen F. Austin.
One of the unsung heroes of Florida’s effort has been Scottie Wilbekin, who returned from an early-season suspension to average 2.7 steals a game over his last three outings.
Syracuse is always a good bet to play superlative defense, but Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone isn’t normally associated with devastating ball pressure. Nevertheless, this year’s Orange are averaging 14.2 steals a night, the best figure in the nation.
Unsurprisingly, the ringleader of that effort has been star sophomore Michael Carter-Williams, who has grabbed 4.0 steals per contest.
He’s getting plenty of help, too, most remarkably from freshman Trevor Cooney, who’s getting nearly as many steals (2.5) as points (3.3) on a nightly basis.
Louisville center Gorgui Dieng broke his wrist last week against Missouri, consigning him to the bench for four to six weeks.
As much as the loss of the shot-blocking specialist looks like a deathblow to the Cards’ Final Four hopes, the situation is not as dire as it looks at first glance.
Of the opponents Louisville will likely face before Dieng’s return, only Memphis and No. 8 Kentucky are likely to be able to take advantage of the small hole introduced in Rick Pitino’s crushing defense.
The Cards would then be left with a record in the neighborhood of 13-3 (hardly a hopeless situation), and they’ll have the added benefit of meaningful game experience for Dieng’s raw backups, Stephan Van Treese and Zach Price.
Ohio State’s hopes for 2012-13 rest heavily on defensive whiz Aaron Craft at point guard. Expectations have been a lot more modest for Craft’s backcourt mates, but what had been a lackluster collection of guards is finally starting to play at a high level.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. is scoring 11.5 points per game, nearly double last year’s average, and pulling in 5.3 rebounds a night as well.
Shannon Scott, meanwhile, has become the legitimate backup Craft desperately needed, running the point to the tune of 3.8 assists per contest and leading the team with 1.8 steals a game.
Ranked as the No. 27 recruit in the nation by ESPNU, Mitch McGary was supposed to revamp the low post for perimeter-focused Michigan.
Instead, the 6’10” freshman has spent most of his time on the bench, with the minutes that might have been his going instead to less-heralded classmate Nik Stauskas.
The 6’6” Stauskas placed 76th in ESPNU’s rankings, but he has become a go-to scorer for the Wolverines with 13 points per game.
McGary has shown some promise as a rebounder (5.7 boards in just 14.3 minutes a night), but his star has decidedly been eclipsed in Ann Arbor.
At a time of year when many teams are still testing new options for their rotations, Mike Krzyzewski has gone in the opposite direction.
Coach K’s six-man core for Duke is so firmly established that Tyler Thornton (the lone significant bench contributor at 21.2 minutes per game) has seen more playing time than all the other reserves combined.
Given that dependence on a few key players, Duke’s championship at the Battle 4 Atlantis becomes even more extraordinary.
The Blue Devils beat Minnesota, high-pressure VCU and then-No. 2 Louisville on three consecutive nights, and they still had enough left in their legs that they didn’t miss a shot in the last two minutes of the win over the Cardinals.
Indiana’s offense is so deep that senior standout Christian Watford, at 11.6 points per game, is the fifth-leading scorer on the roster. For all that, the key to IU’s title hopes is a 6’0” freshman with hardly any scoring punch of his own.
Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell is the point guard charged with making the Hoosier offense go, and his 5.0 assists per game have done a great job of that through a 7-0 start.
Cody Zeller is the undisputed star of this team, but Ferrell, the most obvious potential weak link, is the one who will have to step up under pressure in the biggest games.
If his decision-making and ball-handling are up to the task, Indiana will be cutting down the nets in March.