It's never too early to start looking off the beaten path for the college basketball teams that could make some serious waves in the NCAA tournament.
Of the teams that made the Sweet 16 in last year's tournament, six were unranked as of December 24, 2012.
Who are the primary candidates to join that club this year?
Teams like Michigan, Creighton and VCU are certainly near the top of the list, with the hope that they will at least partially deliver on high preseason expectations.
There are also a fair number of surprising starts which could blossom into a decent run in the tournament. We weren't expecting much from Florida State, Butler and George Washington before the season began, but no one in their right mind would want to face those teams right now.
LSU Tigers: Close losses to Massachusetts and Memphis are nothing to be ashamed of, but an overtime win over Butler is their only win over a team in the RPI Top 90.
Pittsburgh Panthers: The 11-1 record is impressive, but the jury is still out on this team. The loss was horrendous, and 10 of those wins came against teams with no business taking part in the NCAA tournament.
Providence Friars: They're lacking in quality wins, but caliber of opponent does nothing to detract from a nation-leading 81.6 free-throw percentage.
Texas Longhorns: The quality win over North Carolina was a huge plus, but the narrow wins over Mercer, Texas-Arlington and Temple leave us wanting more.
Toledo Rockets: Kudos for being one of the final remaining undefeated teams, but even the most optimistic mid-major supporter wouldn't expect this team to win multiple games in the tournament.
Oklahoma has been an early pleasant surprise, jumping out to an 11-1 record with the one loss coming against Michigan State.
The Sooners would request, though, that you simply be impressed by their record and pay no attention to whom they have played or how many points they have allowed those opponents to score.
In seven of their 12 games, their opponent has scored more than 80 points. They are allowing 75.8 points per game on average, which is the most in the Big 12 by a considerable margin.
More concerning than that, they only have one win against a team in the RPI Top 100—a 14-point victory over Mercer (No. 65).
Not only are they giving up a lot of points, but they're giving them up to teams that aren't very good.
Neither Texas-Arlington (No. 189) nor Arkansas-Little Rock (No. 192) has scored more points against a Division I opponent this season than it scored against Oklahoma in the past month. Tulsa has been held to fewer than 70 points in more than half of its games, but the Golden Hurricane put up 91 points at Oklahoma.
The Sooners get the honorary 10th spot on the list, but don't expect them to be here three weeks from now after opening the Big 12 season against Texas, Kansas and Iowa State.
Save for the departure of Christian Webster—who wasn't a terribly prolific shooter anyway—this is pretty much the exact same team that pulled off the upset over New Mexico in last year's tournament.
However, the Crimson are in ninth place on this list because of a definite concern about how they are playing against their schedule. The win over Green Bay in the Great Alaska Shootout was nice—especially considering Green Bay has defeated Virginia and nearly defeated Wisconsin—but there really isn't much else there.
From an RPI standpoint, their second-best win of the season came against Bryant University—a team that is 0-6 against the RPI Top 200.
In their last three games, the Crimson have beaten Northeastern and Vermont by single digits and needed overtime to beat Boston.
The schedule is in stark contrast to last season, when they played Cal, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Memphis, Saint Mary's and Saint Joseph's. They will play Connecticut on January 8, but—aside from an earlier loss to Colorado—that might be their only game this season against a tournament-caliber opponent.
Because of that, it's tough to imagine Harvard being ready to win multiple games in the tournament. One upset victory is definitely in the cards, though.
George Washington is the first of three Atlantic 10 teams we'll encounter on this list.
Already this season, the Colonials have neutral-court wins over Creighton and Maryland and a more-impressive-than-anyone-realizes road win over Manhattan.
What's most noteworthy about this team is its impeccable defense. The Colonials don't play a high-tempo game, but their block and steal percentages are among the best in the country. Their opponents are shooting 43.6 percent on two-point attempts as compared to the national average of 48.7 percent.
In a 60-53 win over Creighton, they held Doug McDermott to seven points. McDermott played 37 minutes in the game without anything resembling foul trouble. He has scored at least 20 points in every other game this season. Be impressed by this!
The Colonials have held more than half of their opponents to 63 or fewer points.
For what it's worth, they also rank 21st in the country in three-point percentage on offense.
If they can limit their turnovers (12.6 per game) and start shooting better from the free-throw line (68.6 percent), this team could legitimately make a run to the Elite Eight.
Brad Stevens left to coach the Boston Celtics. Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke graduated. Roosevelt Jones had season-ending surgery in August.
Surely Butler would barely be a shell of the team that went 27-9 last season, right?
Not so fast.
The new-look Bulldogs had nearly a dozen opportunities to beat Oklahoma State on a neutral court only to come up two points short. Two days later, they lost in overtime after LSU hit a last-second three-pointer to extend the game beyond regulation.
Those are their only two losses of the season.
Two bounces in their favor and the Bulldogs are 11-0 and possibly fighting for a spot in the Top 10. Instead, they're 9-2 and didn't receive a single vote in the latest poll.
Opening up their Big East schedule with a home game against Villanova and a road trip to Xavier should give us a good sense of how far they could go in the NCAA tournament.
If you thought George Washington's defense was impressive, you're going to love Saint Louis. And if you love offense, do not watch those two teams play each other on February 22.
The Billikens have not allowed any of their 13 opponents to score more than 70 points in a game yet this season. According to Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency metric, Saint Louis has the fourth-best defense in the country—one spot behind Virginia and seven spots ahead of Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, this team is struggling to find its stroke on offense for a second consecutive season.
Last season, the Billikens shot 44.6 percent from the field and 34.0 percent from long range. This year, those numbers are even worse at 43.8 and 31.7, respectively.
As any pitcher or goalie will tell you, defense is great, but it's worthless without offense. Holding Wisconsin and Wichita State to 66.5 points per game isn't nearly as impressive when you're only scoring 61 points of your own.
From November 15 through December 15, the Billikens had a stretch of nine games in which they never scored more than 76 points. By comparison, Iowa State has scored at least 77 points in every game this season.
That's like comparing a tortoise and a hare, but the fact remains that you have to score to win games.
The talent is there. It's just a bit dormant right now. Jordair Jett shot 51.1 percent from the floor last season but is sitting at just 45.5 percent this season. Mike McCall Jr. shot 40 percent from three-point range last year but is hitting just 30 percent of his triples this year.
Rob Loe is the only key member of the team who isn't shooting considerably worse than last season.
Once those other players start waking up a bit on the offensive end of the court, we'll look back on this week and laugh at the fact that not a single one of the 65 AP voters thought Saint Louis was one of the 25 best teams in the country. (B/R's experts have Saint Louis at No. 23.)
Lost amid the storylines of more popular ACC teams, Florida State might actually be really good.
Already this season, the Seminoles have neutral-site wins over Massachusetts and VCU, a road win over UCF and a 44-point win over Charlotte—which won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off a month ago.
Perhaps even more impressive than those wins is the fact that they lost by just one point on the road against Florida right when Florida was starting to get hot.
We scoffed when Michigan needed overtime to beat Florida State earlier this season. Now it's looking like that could be the marquee nonconference win that the Wolverines desperately need.
January will be a fun litmus test for the Seminoles. They play two games against Virginia, a road game against Duke and a pair of road games against also-surprisingly-successful-thus-far North Carolina State and Clemson. It shouldn't be long before we determine if they're ready and able to finish in the top five in the conference.
From there, we'll figure out how promising their tournament prospects are.
This is Doug McDermott's fourth and final season in college.
Do you really think he's going down without a fight?
In actuality, that might be the biggest thing standing in Creighton's path.
McDermott's 24.8 points per game average is the highest of his collegiate career, but his shooting percentages are in the toilet by his standards. After shooting 56.0 percent from the floor in his first three seasons, he's making just 49.2 percent of his shots this year. His three-point shooting has dropped from 46.4 percent to 40.6 percent.
If he was taking the same number of shots as last year at his percentages from this year, he would only be averaging 20.6 points per game.
Those decreased percentages certainly haven't stopped him from shooting, though.
With 16.6 field-goal attempts per game—not including those on which he was fouled and missed the shot—McDermott is taking 36.6 percent of Creighton's shots when he is on the floor. That's the seventh-highest rate in the country.
Yes, he's unequivocally the best player on the team—and perhaps in the country—but the Bluejays do have other options.
Grant Gibbs has just about completely stopped looking to create his own shot as the point guard. Devin Brooks scored at least 15 points in three of Creighton's first five games of the season before dropping off the face of the Earth.
Aside from Ethan Wragge jacking up nearly eight three-pointers per game—and making 48.2 percent of them—it seems the entire team is perfectly content sitting back and watching McDermott try to beat teams by himself.
If the elder McDermott, Coach Greg, can get more players involved in the offense, his son just might get a chance to experience the Final Four before graduating.
Remember these guys?
VCU dropped almost completely off the radar after losing two games in Puerto Rico before Thanksgiving. A recent loss to Northern Iowa didn't do much to help the journey back to national relevance.
However, the Rams are still doing their thing. Through 13 games, they're averaging 13.1 steals per game.
In a 30-point win over Virginia Tech last weekend, they had 22 steals and shot 48 percent from three-point range. When they're putting up those numbers, they're going to win 99 times out of 100.
Of course, those numbers heavily depend upon the strength of the opposing backcourt. Considering two of Virginia Tech's primary ball-handlers are freshmen, it's hardly a surprise that VCU's swarming defense created so much...well...havoc.
Much like each of the past few seasons, VCU could make a deep run into the tournament if blessed with a draw that doesn't include impeccable guard play.
Will the real Bruins please stand up?
In eight games against teams outside the RPI Top 100, UCLA has averaged 92.8 points per game, becoming one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
In the other four games against the RPI Top 100, however, the Bruins have scored just 73.8 points per game.
And yet, I have a ton of faith in this team.
The Bruins lost Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II from last year's team, but everyone else has stepped up in their absence. Jordan Adams is averaging close to 20 points per game. Kyle Anderson is on the verge of a triple-double on nearly a nightly basis. Norman Powell's defense and shot selection have improved dramatically.
It's the freshmen, however, who will likely dictate how far this team goes. When Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford are playing well, UCLA is almost unstoppable.
Things certainly haven't gone according to plan for Glenn Robinson III and Co.
If you had to bet on one unranked team to make the Final Four, though, wouldn't it be the one that opened the season ranked in the Top 10?
The Wolverines have certainly shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season, but they have been unable to maintain it for entire games—let alone consecutive games or weeks.
If and when they get healthy and put it all together, there won't be many teams that are tougher to beat.
Unfortunately, they are relying almost entirely on freshmen and sophomores, so who's to say if they'll even be able to figure it out before it's too late?
Everyone has been talking about the health of Mitch McGary's back since long before the season even began. However, it seems no one stopped to question whether Derrick Walton Jr.'s shoulders would be strong enough to carry the load. In Michigan's last five wins, Walton has averaged 9.8 points and 4.0 assists per game. In Michigan's last three losses, he averaged 2.7 points and 0.7 assists.
A little more consistency from their starting point guard could be just the medicine the Wolverines need to become the team most thought they would be.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.