After Nevada’s dominant second half to come back and beat Arizona State on Friday, the narrative can officially turn toward unbeaten talk.
Is it premature? After all, for 20 minutes on Friday, the Wolf Pack looked as if they might get run out of Staples Center by Arizona State. Had that happened, the discussion would have centered on whether we will get a true gauge of how good Nevada is before the NCAA tournament because of its soft schedule the rest of the way.
But now, that weak schedule is the reason we can at least mention whether the Wolf Pack have a chance to go unbeaten.
Arizona State was probably Nevada’s toughest opponent all season, especially in the nonconference portion of the campaign. The Mountain West Conference, aside from Nevada, has been relatively unimpressive so far this season. That said, trips to Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State won’t be easy, and no matter how down New Mexico is right now, games at The Pit are no cakewalk.
After Friday, though, the unbeaten question became a little bit more legitimate.
Wednesday: Fast start for rebuilt Texas Tech
Chris Beard is doing it again.
Last season, Texas Tech was picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll — and went on to finish second in the league en route to an Elite Eight appearance. The Red Raiders then lost four starters, including All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans and first-round pick Zhaire Smith, and were once again tabbed at the No. 7 spot in the preseason Big 12 poll.
One month into the season, though, and Tech sits at 8-0 as a consensus top-15 team nationally.
Jarrett Culver has developed into an All-American candidate as a sophomore, and graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens have been key additions. More important, the Red Raiders are guarding as well as anyone in the country. They rank No. 1 nationally in effective field goal percentage defense and have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 0.90 points per possession in a game.
The big test comes on Dec. 20: vs. Duke at Madison Square Garden.
Monday: Michigan, Nevada in ‘top tier’ conversation
We mentioned last week there were tiers already beginning to form at the top of the rankings in college basketball — but there are some questions on how many teams are in those tiers.
Michigan inched its way up the rankings over the first month of the season, but the Wolverines might be closer to that top tier than we think. They’ve been an absolutely overwhelming unit so far this season, shutting opponents down on the defensive end and then getting balanced contributions offensively. They’ve also got a budding star in freshman Ignas Brazdeikis.
Virginia could be considered elite, and, on offense, the Cavaliers are certainly more explosive and versatile than they’ve been in recent years.
The last team in the conversation for the top tier so far is Nevada. The Wolf Pack have handled every opponent so far with relative ease, and they have the most efficient offense in the country. There’s star power, there’s size, there’s depth — all the hallmarks of a high-level power conference squad. They also might have the best chance of anyone in the country to go unbeaten during the regular season.
The Jayhawks dominated Wofford after taking only a three-point lead into halftime, but the bigger concern is the health of big man Udoka Azubuike, who suffered an injury in the first half. Bill Self said at halftime that Azubuike had a high-ankle sprain and would be out indefinitely, later telling reporters he was hopeful Azubuike could be back before Christmas. When on the floor, Azubuike adds a dimension down low that not many teams in the country possess.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-0)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Washington 81-79 on Wednesday, vs. Tennessee in Phoenix (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Gonzaga survived on Wednesday, as Rui Hachimura hit a turnaround jumper from the foul line with 0.6 seconds left to beat Washington. Hachimura finished with 26 points and seven rebounds, another terrific performance for the All-American big man. Tennessee and North Carolina are up next for the Zags.
Although Duke’s athletes show up more on highlight reels and on the offensive end, it also has helped that the Blue Devils are off to a better start defensively than we have seen from them in the past. They rank No. 1 nationally in steal percentage and in the top 10 in block percentage.
Michigan finally hit some adversity Tuesday, hanging on for a two-point win at Northwestern. The Wolverines struggled to shoot from the perimeter and got only three points from their bench, while Northwestern shot better than any team had against Michigan all season. They still found a way to win, though, and now head home for six straight games in Ann Arbor.
In perhaps the most difficult game of Nevada’s schedule, the Wolf Pack rallied to beat Arizona State on Friday. With Nevada’s win, it probably will get into Mountain West play without a loss.
Before its win over Morgan State, Tony Bennett’s team had won its previous three games by seven points or fewer, and the Cavaliers gave up more than one point per possession in two of those three. In the other, they scored just 0.91 points per possession. In other words, Virginia hasn’t hit its stride yet — but it is still clearly among the best teams in the country.
The Tigers have played only two games since the Maui Invitational, a 50-point win over Saint Peter’s and a 26-point win over Asheville. This is the best shooting team Bruce Pearl has had at Auburn, and the Tigers have buried double-digit 3-pointers in five of their eight games thus far. Four different players have made at least 11 3s.
8. Tennessee Volunteers (6-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Gonzaga in Phoenix (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
After losing on a neutral court to Kansas in November, the Volunteers get another shot at an elite team on a neutral court this weekend. Can they slow down Gonzaga? The individual matchup between Grant Williams and Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura will be one of the best battles of the season.
After VMI and Winthrop made a combined 32 3-pointers against Kentucky, the Wildcats have made adjustments in terms of their perimeter defense. Tennessee State, Monmouth and UNC Greensboro shot a combined 15-for-52 over Kentucky’s past three games.
Before we can get to the potential showdown between an unbeaten Texas Tech team and Duke, the Red Raiders still have two more home games in which they should roll: vs. Northwestern State and Abilene Christian.
Wisconsin already has six wins over teams ranked inside Ken Pomeroy’s top 100. The Badgers will face another one Saturday, when they head to in-state rival Marquette to face the Golden Eagles. Greg Gard’s guards will have to find a way to slow down Markus Howard, who scored 45 over the weekend.
Before the Hokies get to ACC play, they have three more games at home they should win by at least 25 or 30 points — sandwiched around a neutral-site game against Washington in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Tech has been one of the best offensive teams in the country and is making nearly 45 percent of its 3-pointers, ranking No. 3 in the country.
This team has all the hallmarks of a successful Leonard Hamilton group. Length, size, depth — and they really get after it defensively. However, it’s not shot-blocking where this version excels. Florida State is forcing turnovers on nearly 24 percent of possessions, good enough to rank in the top 20 nationally.
No one can say the Tar Heels haven’t tested themselves in the nonconference part of the schedule. By the time ACC play rolls around, they will have faced Gonzaga, Michigan, Kentucky, Texas, UCLA, Stanford, Davidson and Harvard — as well as true road games to start the season at Wofford and Elon.
Cassius Winston has taken the next step this season, becoming the Spartans’ go-to-guy on the offensive end — while maintaining his high assist totals and minimizing his turnover numbers. He already has scored at least 19 points in five of eight games, after hitting that mark only three times all last season, and has 18 assists and one turnover in his past two games.
16. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Lost 72-66 to Nevada in Los Angeles on Friday
The Sun Devils lost their first nonconference game since 2016 on Friday, blowing a 12-point halftime lead against Nevada. Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham just didn’t get enough help in the second half, and Arizona State really struggled with foul trouble. Road games at Georgia and Vanderbilt are up next.
Dropped out: Kansas State Wildcats (No. 16)