The NCAA basketball teams in the AP Top 25 poll may all be immensely talented, but they’re definitely not all heading in the same direction. Some programs have crashed from single digits to the bottom of the rankings, while others have shot up from the unranked masses.
One of the latter success stories is Illinois, currently tied for the nation’s best record at 9-0. The No. 13 Fighting Illini have climbed the ladder steadily, but they're in imminent danger of falling back to earth thanks to this week’s meeting with No. 10 Gonzaga.
Herein, a look at every team in this week’s AP Top 25, with an eye to whether its prospects are looking up or whether it’s time to get off the bandwagon while you still can.
After a tough road loss to a terrific Michigan team, N.C. State is just barely clinging to a spot in the national rankings.
That’s hardly the performance expected from the preseason ACC favorites, but few Wolfpack players are meeting their own expectations, either.
PG Lorenzo Brown has seen his scoring and assist numbers drop despite having even more weapons than he did a year ago. Even preseason ACC Player of the Year C.J. Leslie is scoring a mere 11.7 points a night.
Even if the Wolfpack do escape from unranked UConn (far from a certainty with the game still in progress as of this writing), this is a team with some serious problems to address.
UPDATE: N.C. State did indeed hold off UConn in a close game, keeping a rough start from getting any worse.
Massive graduation losses made it easy to overlook Wichita State in the preseason despite the fact that the Shockers (and not much-hyped Creighton) won the Missouri Valley regular-season title last year.
WSU has reloaded in a hurry behind juco transfer Cleanthony Early and Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead.
Armstead provided the signature highlight of the Shockers’ season, draining a buzzer-beating jumper to stun Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond.
Wichita State’s other seven opponents aren’t an impressive bunch, but give this team credit for beating all comers and starting December undefeated.
The Cowboys probably wish they could just go back to San Juan.
At the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, they earned a massive upset over N.C. State (plus strong wins over Akron and Tennessee) to vault into the Top 25, but coming back to the continental U.S. has sapped their momentum.
Oklahoma State went into Blacksburg and got decked by unheralded Virginia Tech as the Cowboy combo of Le’Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart couldn’t match Hokie star Erick Green and his 28 points.
More trouble could well be on the horizon as dangerous South Florida comes to Stillwater on Wednesday.
Although Notre Dame was ranked as high as No. 20 nationally, the Fighting Irish were unceremoniously dumped out of the Top 25 by an overtime loss to St. Joseph’s.
Four unremarkable wins since had done little to improve its poll position, but Notre Dame’s fortunes changed in a hurry thanks to the SEC/Big East Challenge.
One convincing win over high-profile (and formerly high-ranked) Kentucky, even in South Bend, and Notre Dame is back in the good graces of the Top 25 voters.
The Irish won’t face another serious test until Big East play starts in January, and they’ll have plenty of momentum (and a better spot in the rankings) by that time.
Few ranked teams have played a softer schedule than Dave Rice’s Rebels, but at least they’ve taken advantage of their opportunities (mostly).
UNLV’s only loss came by four points against a solid Oregon squad, though getting beaten at home early in the year is still far from a good sign.
A 5-1 record notwithstanding, the only other substantial opponent the Rebels have faced turned into a solid win over probable bubble team Iowa State (also in Vegas).
The jury’s still out on how good UNLV really is, though this week’s visit to the 6-1 Golden Bears in Berkeley will clarify matters in a hurry.
As much obvious talent as North Carolina has shown in a 6-2 start, Roy Williams’ team hasn’t exactly distinguished itself when challenged.
The Tar Heels got tripped up by Butler in one of the weakest Maui Invitational fields in years, then got absolutely eviscerated in a trip to No. 1 Indiana.
Every other opponent has lost by more than 15 points against UNC, but the damage has largely been done.
Even assuming they close the calendar year with a win over UNLV, the Tar Heels won’t have much chance to rejoin the ranks of the leading national contenders until the ACC season is well under way.
The Spartans have shown a disturbing tendency to play to the level of their competition on the young season, winning by just four points over Boise State and three against Louisiana-Lafayette (both in East Lansing).
Of course, that effect can work both ways, as Tom Izzo’s team rose to the challenge in a huge neutral-site win over then-No. 7 Kansas.
At the moment, last week’s decisive loss at Miami has stalled MSU's momentum after a five-game winning streak, and the team won’t have much chance to redeem that lapse until conference play opens on New Year’s Eve.
Until then, the Spartans will likely be hovering around their current No. 19 ranking without a lot of room for advancement.
New Mexico received a grand total of nine votes in the preseason AP poll, then proceeded to force its way into the rankings with an 8-0 start.
In addition to then-No. 21 UConn, the Lobos have faced a who’s-who of mid-major contenders, earning several solid victories for themselves and for the Mountain West’s RPI.
Having already topped Davidson, George Mason and Indiana State, Steve Alford's team will get a shot at Valparaiso this week. The Lobos look to be in good shape to keep right on rolling, at least until a post-Christmas visit to fellow unbeaten Cincinnati.
The Aztecs started the season by taking a long walk off a short aircraft carrier against Syracuse, so they had nowhere to go but up. Fortunately for Steve Fisher’s team, that’s exactly what it has done, winning six straight.
Most of those victories have been against fairly unimpressive competition, but going into Anaheim and pounding UCLA is no mean feat. Despite its strength-of-schedule issues, the outlook is positive for San Diego State.
Stock: Inching up
Even a blowout win over a good St. Joseph’s team couldn’t salvage a lost week for Creighton. The Blue Jays got rocked on their home floor, 83-70, by a Boise State squad that came in with absolutely no pretensions to national relevance.
That awful loss erases much of the progress Doug McDermott and company had made with wins over North Texas and Wisconsin.
Creighton’s nonconference schedule was shaky enough without giving away a game it had every reason to expect to win.
November was a month from the Twilight Zone for Georgetown, which opened by having its first game cancelled and closed by scoring 37 points in a win.
In between, the Hoyas came within inches of toppling the nation’s No. 1 team, but ultimately they fell to Indiana in overtime.
The disappearance of the Florida game (called due to condensation on the court) cost the Hoyas a shot at a huge statement win. Though they did secure another such upset against UCLA, the Bruins’ own troubles have dimmed the shine on that victory.
Minnesota opened its season with four minimal-effort wins and a blowout loss to Duke. The Gophers could easily have folded after getting shellacked in the opener of the Battle 4 Atlantis, but instead they went from victim to bully in 24 hours.
A convincing triumph over then-No. 19 Memphis sparked Minnesota’s current five-game winning streak.
The Gophers have also knocked off Stanford, Florida State and a dangerous South Dakota State squad in that span, and they’re looking prepared to handle the Big Ten gauntlet that starts on New Year’s Eve.
There’s no beating a 9-0 start, and Illinois has made the most of its early momentum. An unexpected championship at the Maui Invitational has made the Illini one of the surprise success stories of the year.
The dark side to Illinois’ rise, though, is that only one of their first nine opponents (Maui finalist Butler) has been an NCAA tournament-quality team.
That’s going to change in a hurry on Saturday, when the Illini face a daunting (and very likely losing) road trip to No. 10 Gonzaga.
For all that Missouri’s lone loss was a distinctly ugly one (an 84-61 thrashing by Louisville), it’s hard to find much fault with the start to the Tigers’ season.
When your only defeat came at the hands of a top-five opponent, it’s not really much of an indictment.
Wins over Stanford and Virginia Commonwealth suggest that the Tigers can handle legitimate competition, though they won't face much of that over the next couple of weeks.
There’s a case to be made that the departure of troubled guard Michael Dixon is a danger sign for the Tigers, but they’ve been winning without him through eight games and show little reason that they won’t keep right on winning.
After four largely meaningless home wins to open the season, Cincinnati’s rise up the rankings began in earnest at the Las Vegas Invitational.
Victories there—over solid Iowa State and Oregon teams—served notice that the Bearcats’ undefeated record was more than smoke and mirrors.
Cashmere Wright’s buzzer-beater to take down Alabama made a 7-0 start even sweeter.
Even better news for Bearcat fans is that several more valuable wins (including No. 18 New Mexico and archrival Xavier) are well within reach in the next few weeks.
Stock: Lifting off
For a team that’s made it all the way to the Top 10, Gonzaga really hasn’t played anybody yet.
The best of their eight wins came against Davidson, and while the Wildcats are a very good mid-major, they’re not expected to beat the No. 10 team in the country.
The Zags, though, are finally getting to the interesting phase of their schedule, a packed December that includes five power-conference teams highlighted by a visit from No. 13 Illinois.
A strong showing in that stretch will have Elias Harris and company fighting for their best March seed since the heady days of Adam Morrison.
Stock: Primed to explode
Although the Jayhawks took a hit with their hard-fought loss to Michigan State, it’s been a fine start to the season for a team that had to replace two starters as talented as Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
Neutral-site wins over St. Louis and Oregon State have kept a soft schedule from looking too weak, and the team’s 6-1 record is tied for the Big 12’s best.
With three straight home games coming up against unranked foes, KU will have few opportunities to impress. Still, a win over Colorado (KU's next opponent) would be a little meatier than taking down San Jose State.
Expect the Jayhawks to tread water until their epic confrontation with Ohio State just before Christmas, a game that will have enormous March repercussions.
Stock: Holding steady
Arizona may be 5-0 (pending the final score of their ongoing contest with Southern Miss), but it’s as weak an unbeaten record as it gets.
The Wildcats tied for the fewest games played in November, and none of their five opponents even resembles a contender.
The Wildcats’ only two nonconference foes of any substance (No. 6 Florida and Oral Roberts) both visit Tucson, so there’s no margin for error by Arizona. Even one loss before Pac-12 play starts will send this team dropping like a stone in the rankings.
UPDATE: Arizona finished off Southern Miss to add a sixth win against yet another team that won't be in the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State’s heartbreaking loss at Duke probably cost the Big Ten a shot at sweeping the top three spots in the rankings. Even with that defeat still raw, though, the Buckeyes are in decent position after a month of action.
The cancellation of the season opener against Marquette has made OSU’s schedule softer than it should be, with a weak Washington team providing the best win on the Buckeyes’ resume.
They’ll pile up victories on a December-long homestand, but the only one that will matter to the poll voters—if it happens—is a win in the pre-Christmas showdown with No. 9 Kansas.
Stock: Leveled off
Like Georgetown, Florida lost an opportunity with the cancellation of the season-opening Hoyas-Gators clash. They haven’t lost anything else in six games so far.
Wins over then-No. 22 Wisconsin and Marquette (by a ludicrous 33 points) put some bite in the Gators’ 6-0 record.
If Patric Young keeps up his stellar defense, his team has a shot to climb even higher with winnable road games against Florida State and No. 8 Arizona in the near future.
Louisville’s victory over then-No. 13 Missouri is one of the best signature wins of the season for any team not named Duke. Unfortunately, the Cardinals followed that up by facing…Duke, who handed them their only loss of the year.
Falling to beat the Blue Devils killed Louisville’s momentum, and the Cardinals aren’t likely to get it back before a Dec. 29 tilt with rival Kentucky.
Amazingly, there isn’t another ranked foe on the Cardinals’ schedule until Jan. 19 against Syracuse, so it’ll take an upset somewhere for this team to go anywhere but down in the rankings.
Syracuse is one of the few teams whose first win is also its biggest, having taken down then-No. 20 San Diego State to open the year.
The Orange haven’t been living entirely off that one strong win—a victory over Arkansas deserves some respect—but they’re not far from it, either.
As long as Syracuse keeps beating teams it should beat, it’ll be fine, because the schedule features a string of such opponents well into January. The Orange won’t overtake any of the top three anytime soon, but they shouldn’t drop off either.
The preseason NIT didn’t have its toughest field ever, but Michigan still earned a couple of valuable wins against Pittsburgh and Kansas State in sweeping to the tournament title.
That effort turned out to be a fine warmup for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Wolverines added to their undefeated mark by knocking off then-No. 18 N.C. State in one of the Big Ten’s best wins all year.
Michigan is unlikely to be tested before it starts facing ranked conference opponents in mid-January, but an 8-0 record including three straight power-conference wins isn’t a bad place to be.
Few teams in recent memory have started a season with anywhere near the kind of splash Duke has made.
Nobody doubted that the Blue Devils were going to be contenders, but beating three top-five opponents is an extraordinary accomplishment for a season, let alone for the month of November.
With Mason Plumlee at the forefront of the Wooden Award conversation and no likely losses in sight, Duke is in an enviable position.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Coach K’s squad could still be undefeated for its first meeting with archrival North Carolina in mid-February.
The top team in the polls can’t go any higher, which is the only reason Indiana’s ranking didn’t get a boost from its annihilation of then-No.14 North Carolina.
The Hoosiers may not have looked as impressive in beating Georgetown a week earlier, but an overtime win over a strong team is still a win.
At 8-0, the Hoosiers have shown no signs that they’re going to relinquish the No. 1 ranking any time soon.
If they don’t lead the polls wire-to-wire, it’ll be thanks to one of the many other ranked teams they have to face in the Big Ten (none of whom show up on the schedule until January).
Stock: Riding high