Breakdown of the remaining unbeatens
There are seven teams left standing in the Division I ranks without a blemish on their record.
We’ve broken them into three categories: Real Deal, Uncertain and Pretenders.
Next: Jan. 2 vs. Miami
Next potential loss: Jan. 12 at Florida State
Primary advantage: Lackluster ACC — There’s not a single ranked team other than Duke in the league.
Primary drawback: Kyrie Irving’s injury — It’s still up in the air whether the freshman point guard will return this season.
The Blue Devils are a notch above everyone else — with Irving on the court. The problem is that Irving hasn’t been on the court for the past four games and could be done for the season with a toe injury suffered late in a win against Butler.
With Irving, the Blue Devils had a shot — albeit not a great one — to run the table. Without their star floor leader, it’ll be almost impossible. It forces Nolan Smith to play with the ball in his hands more — and he’s thrived in a role playing off the ball for the past year-plus.
Duke does have the fact that there’s not another ranked team in the ACC at this point on its side, but even if Irving does return, it’ll take him some time to get back to what he was. Coach K’s team has also yet to play a true road game this season as the Blue Devils are 7-0 at Cameron and 5-0 on neutral-site contests.
When they will fall: Jan. 19 at N.C. State — Sidney Lowe’s team is young and has done nothing to show it can hang with the top-ranked team in the land, but this will be Wolfpack’s Super Bowl — and the young kids will come to play.
Next: Dec. 31 at Indiana
Next potential loss: Jan. 9 vs. Minnesota
Primary advantage: Balance — Even if one guy has an off night, Thad Matta has a group with three other guys capable of getting 20.
Primary drawback: The Big Ten — While it might not be all it was cracked up to be in the preseason, it’s still a league with plenty of capable teams.
Freshman Jared Sullinger has been every bit as good as advertised (we picked him on the first team on our FOXSports.com Preseason All-Americans), but he has plenty of help. The Buckeyes just don’t have many weaknesses.
They have a shooter with Jon Diebler, a scorer in William Buford, a do-it-all guy in David Lighty, a low-post presence in Sullinger and a solid, unflappable freshman point guard in Aaron Craft.
While the Buckeyes have played only two true road games, they’ve both been impressive: wins against Florida and Florida State. Thus far this is a team outscoring its opponents by nearly 30 points per game.
When they will fall: Jan. 9 vs. Minnesota — The schedule for the next three weeks is far from imposing: an Indiana, home against Iowa and Minnesota, at Michigan and home against Penn State and Iowa. I like how Tubby Smith’s group matches up against the Buckeyes.
Next: Jan. 2 vs. Miami (Ohio)
Next potential loss: Jan. 17 at Baylor
Primary advantage: Depth and experience — Bill Self has multiple options at virtually every position, and Josh Selby is the only freshman getting minutes.
Primary drawback: Integrating Selby — This could end up costing the Jayhawks at some point.
The Jayhawks have run like a well-oiled machine on the offensive end early in the season. Roles were clearly defined, Bill Self has veteran guards, plenty of options up front and also a guy in Marcus Morris who might be as versatile as just about anyone in the country.
While the Jayhawks have played a decent nonconference slate, they haven’t run into an elite-level teams. They beat Arizona in Las Vegas, barely got past UCLA and USC at home and beat up on a young, unproven Memphis team in New York.
While the jury is still out on Kansas, this is a team that is capable of winning it all come April — especially if the talented Selby continues to improve. He gives Self a guy who can make a play whenever he wants — the Jayhawks’ one glaring need.
When they will fall: Jan. 17 at Baylor — Kansas has a couple of cupcake home games against Miami (Ohio) and Missouri-Kansas City before playing at Michigan and then getting into Big 12 play with a road game at Iowa State and a home contest vs. Nebraska. The Jayhawks travel to Waco on Jan. 17 and might have trouble with Lace Dunn & the Bears.
Next: Jan. 1 vs. Notre Dame
Next potential loss: Jan. 1 vs. Notre Dame
Primary advantage: The Orange have a favorable start to the Big East slate in the sense they don’t play one of the elite teams until Jan. 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh.
Primary drawback: Not exactly road tested — Jim Boeheim’s team has not played a game outside of New York or New Jersey.
Boeheim said his team was overrated — and I tend to agree. It makes sense since Syracuse lost its best player, Wesley Johnson, its top shooter/leader in Andy Rautins and also starting big man Arinze Onuaku.
Kris Joseph is starting to emerge as Boeheim’s go-to guy, Rick Jackson has been a force on the glass, and the point guard duo of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche has been solid.
The issue for the Orange is perimeter shooting: Only one player on the team is making more than 36 percent of his 3-pointers: Reserve Mookie Jones, who averages about 10 minutes a game.
When they will fall: Jan. 12 at St. John’s – Syracuse should be able to beat Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome on New Year’s Day and should get past a Seton Hall team that has virtually no depth. However, the schedule will eventually catch up with the Orange in a road game at St. John’s on Jan. 12.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Next: Dec. 31 vs. Occidental
Next potential loss: Jan. 12 vs. UNLV
Primary advantage: Frontcourt — The Aztecs have one of the top duos not only in the west but in the country with Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas.
Primary drawback: Being the hunted — This is a program used to being the underdog, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Aztecs handle being the favorite in the Mountain West.
This is a team that nearly beat Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament a year ago, but most fans still don’t know much about the Aztecs.
They have one of the nation’s most underrated players in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, and he has a running mate in Malcolm Thomas. D.J. Gay is a solid, veteran point guard who values the ball, and athletic wing Billy White, as he showed in a win at Gonzaga, is capable of going off. Add in Santa Clara transfer James Rahon, who gives the Aztecs the lights-out perimeter threat they lacked a year ago, and the pieces to this team fit well together.
However, the Mountain West might be more formidable at the top than the Pac-10 or even the ACC this season. BYU, UNLV and New Mexico are all likely NCAA tournament teams – but the Aztecs have started off well with a huge road win at Gonzaga and home victories against Saint Mary’s and Wichita State.
When they will fall: Jan. 15 at New Mexico — The Aztecs could trip up before they visit The Pit with road contests at TCU and Utah and a home game against UNLV on Jan. 12.
Next: Dec. 30 vs. Princeton
Next potential loss: Jan. 5 vs. Marshall
Primary advantage: Chemistry and effort — Marcus Jordan gets most of the attention and that’s fine with his teammates. These guys have clicked together and play hard nearly every possession.
Primary drawback: Talent — These guys aren’t the most talented team. In fact, they are probably somewhere toward the middle of the league in overall talent.
No one — not even Central Florida’s first-year coach, Donnie Jones – would have predicted this. The Knights have knocked off Florida and Miami on neutral courts — and also beaten South Florida.
I’ve said it before that I’m not sure these guys are for real, but they have beaten everyone they were supposed to — and also taken down a trio of teams from the SEC, Big East and ACC.
Jordan has exceeded even Jones’ expectations, Keith Clanton has excelled while given the freedom in Jones’ up-tempo system — and Michigan State transfer Tom Herzog has given the Knights a shot-blocking presence.
When they will fall: Jan. 15 at Southern Miss — Jones has done a terrific coaching job with this group after making the switch from conference rival Marshall. The Knights could lose to Jones’ former team when the two meet in the C-USA opener Jan. 5 in Orlando. But a more likely scenario has Central Florida losing in Hattiesburg.
Next: Dec. 31 vs. Seton Hall
Next potential loss: Dec. 31 vs. Seton Hall
Primary advantage: Swagger — The Bearcats have won 13 in a row, most against inferior competition, but Mick Cronin’s team is feeling confident right about now.
Primary drawback: Competition — Cincinnati, other than blasting Dayton, really hasn’t played anyone of note yet.
Let’s be honest. The schedule was set up to protect Cronin — and thus far, it’s been successful. But no one yet has any feel for whether the Bearcats are for real.
This is a team that lost its backcourt of Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn from a year ago — and now is led by Dion Dixon, Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright.
When they will fall: Jan. 6 vs. Xavier — The Bearcats will be tested against Seton Hall on New Year’s Eve, but they should be able to win at home. Then it’ll be the annual war against crosstown-rival Xavier, which has been decimated by injuries, but I’m still taking the Musketeers because of their formidable nonconference schedule.