Early 2016-17 Grades for Every Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2016

Early 2016-17 Grades for Every Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The biggest tests are still to come, but through three weeks of the 2016-17 college basketball season there has been enough information to assess just how well teams are doing and what it means for their overall prospects. Consider it when teachers send home a progress report about halfway through the first semester to give you (and your parents) an idea of how you're doing.

    Using the most recent Associated Press Top 25 as a guide, we've made some super-early evaluations on the country's best teams. This is based on how they've looked against the toughest (and easiest) competition, whether this seems indicative of how they'll perform the rest of the season and what areas they should aim for improvement in.

No. 25 West Virginia

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Record: 5-1

    Best win: vs. Illinois

    Loss: vs. Temple

    Grade: B-

    Works every time…except when it doesn't. That's the best way to describe the hectic, chaotic, non-stop defensive pressure West Virginia puts on its opponents in hopes of forcing turnovers and speeding up the game through transition. It's an incredibly effective approach, but when it doesn't work the Mountaineers often fall flat on their face because of a lack of a Plan B.

    Though they forced 19 turnovers against Temple in the NIT Season Tip-Off final, they only recorded eight steals, thus minimizing the fast-break points. West Virginia shot 43.3 percent in that game, compared to 48.9 in six wins by an average of 37.4 points (and in which it averaged 14.8 steals and forced 28.6 turnovers).

    All of that pressure often leads opponents to rush their shots for fear of losing the ball, yet Temple shot 48.6 percent and made 10-of-19 three-point field goals. And as one of only two opponents West Virginia has faced that wasn't rated 181st or higher in the Ken Pom rankings, finding a way to win without creating mayhem will be important to handle the remaining schedule.

    Next test: Dec. 3 at Virginia

No. 24 Florida

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Record: 7-1

    Best wins: vs. Seton Hall, vs. Miami (Florida)

    Loss: vs. Gonzaga

    Grade: A-

    Considering the uniqueness of its schedule to this point, Florida has far exceeded expectations and may be uniquely prepared for the rigors of road games in the SEC in a month.

    Because of renovations to their arena, each of the Gators' games so far have been played in various other venues in the state. Thursday's win over North Florida was the only one where they were a true road team, and they won by 31, though they've also played twice in Jacksonville, three times in Orlando and once each in Lakeland and Tampa.

    When Florida plays its first home game on Dec. 21—after first going to New York City, Tallahassee and Sunrise, Florida—it will get to introduce to the home fans a team that isn't shooting well and was out-rebounded in all three games at the AdvoCare Invitational but which has shown promise if the growth seen by junior forward Devin Robinson continues.

    Next test: Dec. 6 vs. Duke

No. 23 Oregon

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Record: 6-2

    Best wins: vs. Tennessee, vs. Connecticut

    Losses: at Baylor, vs. Georgetown

    Grade: C-

    Oregon earned its highest preseason ranking (fifth) in school history and was picked to win the Pac-12 for the first time, achievements received despite no one knowing when junior wing Dillon Brooks was going to return from offseason surgery. Brooks came back in time for the Ducks' trip to Maui, but he's yet to start as he gets back into playing shape.

    And the Ducks would like that to happen as soon as possible, because they're sorely missing his all-around skill set that made him one of the few players in Division I last season to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and three assists.

    Oregon still blocks more shots than any other team, but it's not forcing turnovers like a year ago and its own care of the ball is deficient. The Ducks' 17.6 percent turnover rate is about 25 percent higher than when they reached the Elite Eight.

    Next test: Dec. 28 vs. UCLA

No. 22 Syracuse

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    No. 22 Syracuse

    Record: 4-2

    Best win: vs. Monmouth

    Loss: vs. South Carolina, at Wisconsin

    Grade: C

    Syracuse has dropped its last two and surely will be unranked when the next poll comes out, regardless of how it does Saturday against North Florida. The Orange may have become overconfident via four lopsided home wins, but more likely they're still figuring out how to break in a new backcourt albeit one with plenty of experience.

    John Gillon (Colorado State) and Andrew White III (Nebraska) are graduate transfers who are two of the top three scorers, while sophomore Franklin Howard is leading Syracuse in assists at 5.7 per game. But Gillon and White haven't fully bought into the defensive responsibilities that come with playing zone, which was on display as South Carolina and Wisconsin had little trouble scoring against the zone.

    The Orange are traditionally a defense-creates-offense team that struggles when having to play in a half-court set, but they'll have to learn to generate scoring outside of transition or three-pointers.

    Next test: Dec. 5 vs. Connecticut

No. 21 Rhode Island

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    Joe Giblin/Associated Press

    Record: 5-2

    Best win: vs. Cincinnati

    Losses: vs. Duke, at Valparaiso

    Grade: B-

    Rhode Island began this season in the Top 25 for the first time in 17 years and a weekend in which it knocked off Cincinnati and hung with Duke on consecutive days warranted remaining in the poll. The Rams should fall out of the rankings following Tuesday's loss at dangerous mid-major Valparaiso, but there's a reason schools like Valpo struggle to get notable teams to visit them.

    The performances in those games indicate Rhode Island is in good shape to get into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, though it has some things to work on to ensure that. Namely, getting better on the boards and finding some dependable bench scoring.

    Rhode Island's starting five is accounting for 80.8 percent of the scoring in 69 percent of the minutes and Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson's 5.3 points per game the tops among reserves.

    Next test: Dec. 3 at Providence

No. 20 South Carolina

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Michigan, vs. Syracuse

    Grade: A

    South Carolina won its first 15 games in 2015-16, but only two of those victories were against eventual NCAA tournament teams. The Gamecocks beat that many likely tourney-bound opponents in a four-day span last week, showing off a defensive intensity that should make them a serious player in the SEC if their offense also remains effective.

    The Gamecocks have held their last six foes to under 38 percent shooting, holding Michigan to 19.2 percent and giving up only eight two-point field goals against Syracuse.

    On the offensive end, senior guard Sindarius Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points per game and shooting 47.7 percent, his 48.3 percent three-point rate a major jump from 33.3 percent in 2015-16.

    Next test: Dec. 12 vs. Seton Hall

No. 19 Iowa State

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    Justin Hayworth/Associated Press

    Record: 5-2

    Best win: Miami (Florida)

    Losses: vs. Gonzaga, vs. Cincinnati

    Grade: B-

    A year after letting the players he inherited do their thing, second-year coach Steve Prohm has made major inroads to make Iowa State a strong defensive team rather than one that has to win shootouts. That's resulted in holding opponents to 35.6 percent shooting while forcing 16.6 turnovers per game, but is the tradeoff of a less-efficient offense worth it?

    The Cyclones lost a rock fight to Cincinnati on Thursday, the 55-54 overtime defeat ending a 37-game home non-conference win streak. They shot 36.7 percent and had their lowest scoring output since January 2013. It was their fifth game this season shooting under 45 percent, the same number they had all of the 2015-16 season.

    While senior guard Monte Morris has been great, his push to become more of a scorer has meant others have to find their own shot. ISU is assisting on 47.4 percent of his made field goals, compared to 53.2 percent a year ago.

    Next test: Dec. 8 at Iowa

No. 18 Butler

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Arizona, at Utah

    Grade: A

    Four of its seven wins have been by 10 or fewer points, including by two over Northwestern and four against Arizona last weekend in Las Vegas. A veteran group where five of the top six scorers are upperclassmen, the Bulldogs aren't wilting under pressure.

    There's nothing flashy about Butler, just fundamental basketball that has provided consistent results to this point. It has shot better than 50 percent four times while holding three opponents under 40 percent, winning the rebounding battle four of seven times and committing fewer turnovers each game.

    And much of this has been without meaningful contributions from senior guard Kethan Savage, one of two impact transfers. Savage missed Butler's four games because of injury and has played just 24 minutes, but when he's at full speed he and senior guard Avery Woodson will give Butler one of the deepest backcourts in the country.

    Next test: Dec. 17 vs. Indiana

No. 17 Wisconsin

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Record: 5-2

    Best wins: vs. Georgetown, vs. Syracuse

    Losses: at Creighton, vs. North Carolina

    Grade: C

    If Wednesday's clinic in carving up the Syracuse zone is an indication Wisconsin is ready to turn a corner, the Badgers' early grade figures to be going up real soon. But we're going to wait a while to change it until we see if the effort in that 77-60 win was just a one-time thing.

    The Badgers return almost their entire team from a year ago, which led to high expectations for 2016-17 but early on they looked like a team that just assumed it would be in the mix in March. An early loss at Creighton saw them attempt 39 three-pointers, their most in at least six years, making only 11, and against North Carolina in the Maui Invitational final they shot just 38.2 percent from the field.

    Shot selection as a whole has been poor for Wisconsin, and that starts with junior forward Nigel Hayes. His career arc has seen the 6'8”, 240-pounder move further from the paint and spend more time on the perimeter, yet he's making just 29 percent of threes this season.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. Oklahoma

No. 16 Arizona

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    Chris Coduto/Getty Images

    Record: 6-1

    Best win: vs. Michigan State

    Loss: vs. Butler

    Grade: B

    Arizona's rotation is getting shorter by the week, the latest loss that of junior point guard Parker Jackson Cartwright to a sprained ankle suffered in Wednesday's win over Texas Southern. That's after having guard Terrance Ferguson opt to play overseas during the summer, then losing forward Ray Smith to a third (and career-ending) ACL tear while sophomore guard Allonzo Trier has remained out for unspecified reasons.

    The fact the Wildcats have only one loss at this point is a bit surprising since it's only really used eight players, and now will be down to seven. That limited group has each made a major contribution, though the biggest efforts are coming from three freshmen.

    Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen and guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons have combined for 42.2 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting. Markkanen is scoring 18.3 points per game on 10.6 shots, shooting 54.1 percent overall and 46.9 percent from three-point range as well as 89.2 percent from the line. He's also the top rebounder, at 7.6 per game.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. Gonzaga

No. 15 Purdue

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Record: 5-2

    Best win: vs. Auburn

    Losses: vs. Villanova, at Louisville

    Grade: C

    Purdue has failed its two biggest tests this season, but for different reasons. In losing to Villanova the Boilermakers were unable to contain the defending champions' guards, while on Wednesday their best offensive asset was rendered ineffective by Louisville.

    Most times the sizable frontcourt duo of 7'2” junior Isaac Haas and 6'9” Caleb Swanigan are going to dominate, as they did in combining for 42 points on 16-of-23 shooting against Villanova. But when they don't click—like going 5-of-16 for 23 points against Louisville—there isn't anyone else stepping up.

    Haas and Swanigan are averaging 33.4 points with 16.8 rebounds and shooting 62 percent, but the rest of Purdue is at 42.6 percent. The backcourt remains a question mark as it was through most of last season.

    Next test: Dec. 17 vs. Notre Dame

No. 14 Louisville

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Record: 6-1

    Best wins: vs. Wichita State, vs. Purdue

    Loss: vs. Baylor

    Grade: B

    Louisville games aren't pretty, but outside of blowing a big lead to Baylor in the Battle 4 Atlantis final the Cardinals have managed to make ugly great again with their defense-driven game plan.

    The Cardinals are seventh in defensive rating and are limiting opponents to 34.8 percent shooting, making opponents work overtime in the half-court set. Wichita State shot 31.6 percent and Purdue only 35.8, Louisville's frontcourt able to neutralize Purdue's big men in a way no one else has managed to do so.

    Offensive efficiency is still a work in progress for Louisville, which has failed to shoot 40 percent three times and is at just 41.9 percent for the season. Take away Jaylen Johnson's 63.3 percent and it's even worse, as Louisville's top four guards are all under 40 percent for the season.

    Next test: Dec. 21 at Kentucky

No. 13 Indiana

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Record: 5-1

    Best wins: vs. Kansas, vs. North Carolina

    Loss: at IPFW

    Grade: B

    Indiana has two of the biggest wins and arguably the most shocking loss among ranked teams, that overtime loss at Fort Wayne coming despite an overwhelmingly pro-Hoosiers crowd. It wasn't the venue that mattered as much as how they played when their opponent makes it tougher to get uncontested shots.

    They shot 40.3 percent in that game but made 48.1 percent in Wednesday's win over North Carolina and hit 15 three-pointers against Kansas.

    What's helped Indiana most this season has been not being so reliant on one or two scorers, as was the case in 2015-16 especially after James Blackmon was hurt in December. He's leading with 19.2 points per game but when he missed the Mississippi Valley State game, it had little effect on the attack. That bodes well for what lies ahead after sophomore OG Anunoby sprained an ankle against UNC and could be out a while.

    Next test: Dec. 17 vs. Butler

No. 12 Saint Mary's

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Record: 6-0

    Best wins: at Dayton, at Stanford

    Grade: A-

    With a level of offensive efficiency that seems too hard to maintain, Saint Mary's has wrapped up a fourth consecutive perfect November. Only half of its games have been at home, but regardless of where the Gaels play, as long as they can keep the pace slow they're in good shape.

    It's mostly the same cast that helped Saint Mary's win 29 games a year ago, reaching the NIT quarterfinals after being shut out of the NCAA tournament because of poor schedule strength. The notable exception is the emergence of Jock Landale, a 6'11” junior who has more than doubled his minutes and increased his production even more with 19.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 76.1 percent shooting.

    Landale is among the slew of players Saint Mary's has pulled out of Australia, along with starting point guard Emmett Naar and key reserves Kyle Clark and Dane Pineau. Six of the top seven scorers are shooting at least 50 percent and with the Gales' toughest non-league games already behind them, it's entirely possible they will be unbeaten heading into West Coast Conference play.

    Next test: Jan. 14 at Gonzaga

No. 11 UCLA

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Record: 8-0

    Best wins: vs. Nebraska, vs. Texas A&M

    Grade: A+

    Few teams look better than from a year ago than UCLA, and it's no secret why that is. The addition of a stellar freshman class, particularly point guard Lonzo Ball, has turned the Bruins' offense into a team-wide cheat code no opponent has come close to nullifying.

    The 6'6” Ball, coming off a freshman school-record 13 assists in Wednesday's 98-56 win over UC-Riverside, has been unstoppable. He leads the nation at 9.6 assists per game to go along with 14.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 57.7 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from three-point range.

    His play has made everyone around him better, as the Bruins have six players scoring in double-figures led by Isaac Hamilton's 18.0 points per game and freshman forward T.J. Leaf's 17.3. Bryce Alford, no longer tasked with running the offense, has upped his three-point rate from 36.7 to 41.7 percent.

    UCLA likes to play at a fast pace but when Nebraska and Texas A&M tried to slow it down, it was still able to remain efficient.

    Next test: Dec. 3 at Kentucky

No. 10 Creighton

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Wisconsin, vs. North Carolina State

    Grade: A-

    Creighton is the best three-point shooting team in Division I, making 46.5 percent of its shots including a tremendous 44-of-80 run during the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. The Blue Jays also shot 50 percent from three in knocking off Wisconsin, and despite cooling off in their last two games they still won easily against Loyola (Maryland) and Buffalo.

    There are only two players among the top eight who are shooting under 46 percent, and one of those is senior point guard Maurice Watson. But he's more than made up for that by dishing out 8.4 assists per game.

    Marcus Foster, the Kansas State transfer who sat out last season, has provided a major offensive boost. The 6'3” junior guard averages 18.3 points per game and is shooting 50.5 percent overall and 46.7 percent from three-point range despite being Creighton's most frequent shooter. His sophomore shooting numbers at K-State were far lower, so the time off and change of scenery has worked well for him.

    Next test: Dec. 7 at Nebraska

No. 9 Baylor

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Oregon, vs. Michigan State, vs. Louisville

    Grade: A+

    Baylor was unranked to begin 2016-17, some uncertainty surrounding a program that had won at least 22 games for five straight seasons but had bowed out in the first round of the last two NCAA tournaments and was replacing its leading scorer and two best rebounders. And now the Bears have their highest ranking since January 2014, even grabbing a first-place vote in the most recent poll.

    "The Bears have the best collection of victories of any team in the country," wrote Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, who put Baylor first on his ballot. "That they were nowhere to be found in the AP preseason poll should not limit their upward mobility if the results warrant a steep ascent. Significant changes to the ballot, especially in the first month, are the only way to offset preseason bias."

    Baylor is succeeding the same way they did last year and in previous seasons under coach Scott Drew: winning the rebounding battle and being the more physical team. But they can also win when things don't go their way, coming back from a 22-point hole to beat Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis final despite being out-boarded.

    The Bears' returning players have all stepped up to fill the void of departed stars, but even more important has been the play so far of Miami (Florida) transfer Manu Lecomte. His 5.1 assists per game and 2.4-to-1 assist to turnover ratio have enabled Baylor to have more offensive flow and not just rely on offensive rebounds to serve as the main scoring opportunity.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. Xavier

No. 8 Gonzaga

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Florida, vs. Iowa State

    Grade: A

    Pop quiz: which of Gonzaga's seemingly unending supply of scorers do you try to take out of the equation in order to make the Bulldogs beatable? It's a trick question because there are no right answers.

    Mark Few may have his deepest team yet this season, an eight-man rotation in which seven different guys have scored in double figures at least three times. Five average at least 11, with three guards shooting 40 percent or better from three and a trio of frontcourt guys shooting 55 percent or better from the field.

    A healthy Przemek Karnowski has teamed with Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams III and freshman Zach Collins to give Gonzaga a better bunch down low than last season with Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, while Pac-12 transfers Jordan Mathews and Nigel Williams-Goss have beefed up the backcourt.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. Arizona

No. 7 Xavier

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Clemson, vs. Northern Iowa (twice)

    Grade: B

    Xavier has yet to lose this season, but there have been a handful of games where that was very possible and not against particularly great opponents. The Musketeers opened with a three-point win over Lehigh and needed overtime to beat a Missouri team that has since lost to North Carolina Central.

    Before the season started, Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller pegged Xavier as a "free-fall team" that would be out of the Top 25 after the first month. Though that didn't come to fruition, the reasons he cited for it being possible have still been evident. Most notably the Musketeers haven't gotten the contributions it would have hoped out of Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston, a 6'9” forward averaging 6.6 points and 5.9 rebounds but only playing 16.7 minutes per game.

    Instead, 6'10” junior Sean O'Mara has been the driving force inside while Xavier has leaned heavily on its backcourt for most of the production. That's been enough to get it by so far since it hasn't dealt with a formidable front line like its apt to see several times in December and then throughout Big East play.

    Next test: Dec. 3 at Baylor

No. 6 Virginia

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Iowa, vs. Ohio State

    Grade: A-

    Virginia had to fight back from a 16-point deficit to hold off Ohio State at home on Wednesday, which isn't as easy as it sounds when you play at the slowest pace (60.1 possessions per 40 minutes) in the country. But with an offense that is No. 12 in efficiency and a defense that squeezes the life out of opponents, the Cavaliers' comeback almost seemed expected.

    That 63-61 victory was the first time Virginia has really had to stress this season. Its first six wins were by an average of 31.5 points with four foes held to 41 or fewer points. The Cavaliers force teams to take bad shots and make mistakes, evidenced by their 15.8 turnovers per game and 33.1 percent shooting rate.

    Everyone is involved with making this happen on defense, which is why every person in the rotation has a defensive rating of 80 or lower. It's the same on the offensive end where senior guard London Perrantes is the leading scorer, but he only contributes 10.6 points per game while eight others score between 4.7 and 9.3 though none have had to average more than 25 minutes so far.

    Next test: Dec. 3

No. 5 Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Record: 7-1

    Best wins: vs. Rhode Island, vs. Michigan State

    Loss: vs. Kansas

    Grade: Incomplete

    Duke is like the kid in high school who got mononucleosis a week before the first day and ended up getting assignments sent home for the first month while he recovered. He did good work but it's not fair to properly evaluate the results until he's back in class and at full strength.

    While the ultra-thin lineup the Blue Devils have gone with so far—while waiting for injuries to freshmen Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum to heal—has performed quite admirably, that's not the team we expect to see in January and beyond. If it is, there could be some trouble ahead because at some point fatigue and/or foul trouble are going to be a problem.

    Those things haven't been yet, but it's still early. Duke's five starters are all playing at least 29.6 minutes per game with only one reserve (sophomore Chase Jeter) logging double-digits on average and appearing in every game.

    The four-guard lineup of senior Matt Jones, junior Grayson Allen, sophomore Luke Kennard and freshman Frank Jackson along with senior forward Amile Jefferson have played three likely NCAA tournament teams and gone 2-1, with the victories by 10 and nine points. The rest of the games have been walkovers, yet that quintet has still had to stay on the court for the vast majority of the time.

    This is eerily similar to what Duke experienced last season after Jefferson got hurt in December, and what resulted was the program's first 11-loss team in nine years. This group is better prepared to handle that challenge because of past experience but would be much better off getting some of those talented freshmen on the court at some point.

    Next test: Dec. 6 vs. Florida

No. 4 Kansas

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Record: 6-1

    Best wins: vs. Duke, vs. Georgia

    Loss: vs. Indiana

    Grade: A-

    Kansas is a team that's made a cottage industry out of being dominant in its league and handling numerous regular-season tests without showing many flaws. But when the postseason comes along, there's always someone better that comes along and knocks the Jayhawks off, as we saw in March when Villanova took them down on its way to the national title.

    It's far too early to project whether that same fate will befall Kansas again in 2016-17, but at least we can start to asses how this team is going handle the challenges prior to that. In short, pretty well.

    The Jayhawks opened the season with a loss, but it's hardly one that can be looked at negatively. They fell 103-99 in overtime to Indiana in Hawaii, and since then have won six in a row, with the first game immediately after that loss (a 77-75 victory over Duke in the Champions Classic) the most impressive.

    Kansas is getting strong contributions from its established veterans (guards Devonte' Graham and Frank Mason, the latter upping his game tremendously) and seeing role players like Carlton Bragg and Lagerald Vick become more involved. They have combined to make it so that highly touted freshman Josh Jackson doesn't have to be an instant superstar, and though he's done well statistically with 14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, he hasn't been as unstoppable as some expected.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. Stanford

No. 3 North Carolina

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Best wins: vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Wisconsin

    Loss: at Indiana

    Grade: A-

    North Carolina is coming off its first loss of the season, a nine-point setback Wednesday at Indiana in which it shot 39.3 percent and was out-rebounded for the first time. That performance is a major outlier from the previous seven games which the Tar Heels won by an average of 27.3 points.

    Most notable in that loss was UNC's big men—seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks—taking only 13 shots. They came in combining for 20.3 attempts per game, forcing opponents to sag inside and thus leaving open the perimeter for Joel Berry and others to connect from outside. But Berry was 3-of-13 from the field and made only 1-of-6 three-pointers after hitting at a 47.1 percent clip coming in.

    One bad game doesn't take away from how impressive UNC has looked overall this season, though it could if other opponents are able to use Indiana's approach as a blueprint and force the Heels out of their comfort zone. But that's also assuming coach Roy Williams isn't able to use this last performance as an impetus to ensure he has a backup plan.

    Most nights, having four players who average at least 13 points per game is going to make it nearly impossible to shut down all weapons. The key to preventing that from happening again could be junior wing Justin Jackson, the team's leading scorer who had 21 against Indiana and is the person who bridges the gap between the backcourt and the post guys.

    Next test: Dec. 17 vs. Kentucky

No. 2 Villanova

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    Mic Smith/Associated Press

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: at Purdue, vs. UCF

    Grade: A

    As defending national champions, Villanova is being graded on a different curve than the rest of the Top 25. The Wildcats have set the standard, and how well they do matching (or exceeding) that threshold in 2016-17 determines how they do.

    This may seem unfair, seeing as no defending champ has made it further than the Sweet 16 the following season. But the early numbers indicate Villanova is more than capable of getting at least that far and, more importantly, hasn't shown any complacency having already claimed a title.

    The majority of last year's team is back and again in positions of importance, with only 6'6” sophomore forward Eric Paschall added to the mix after he sat out last year following a transfer from Fordham. He's Villanova's No. 6 scorer at 7.7 points per game, and though not a starter he's proven to be the most effective frontcourt player at least from a defensive standpoint.

    The rest of the lineup are veterans thanks to last year's run, with senior Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins again taking command with a combined 31 points per game. A key to Villanova's performance so far has been balance in terms of sharing the ball, not just with four players scoring in double figures but also having three (Hart and sophomore guards Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson) each contributing at least three assists per game.

    Next test: Dec. 10 vs. Notre Dame

No. 1 Kentucky

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Record: 7-0

    Best wins: vs. Michigan State, vs. Arizona State

    Grade: A

    John Calipari is like that college professor who wrote his own textbook for his seminar, and since he knows the material so well he can quote from the pages without looking. That's basically how this season is going so far for Kentucky and its latest youth-filled lineup, which is following a similar path of previous freshman-dominated Wildcats teams.

    Though this one might be the most cohesive. The starting backcourt of freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk along with sophomore Isaiah Briscoe have already meshed into a veteran group, one that's doing the bulk of the scoring (47.7 points per game) and facilitating for themselves and others.

    That's freed up the frontcourt to thrive whenever it gets an opportunity, whether it be on a set play, in transition or with freshmen Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel combining for 43 offensive rebounds in seven games.

    Kentucky has benefitted from having a relatively easy schedule to this point, especially compared to other top-ranked teams. Its only ranked opponent, Michigan State, wasn't prepared to handle the Wildcats' many weapons and as a result, that 21-point margin at the Champions Classic was their narrowest victory so far.

    Next test: Dec. 3 vs. UCLA