College Basketball: An Early-Season Crash Course

Arizona State has surged up the rankings with a 12-0 start. With conference play beginning in earnest this week, what are some of the other noteworthy things that have happened thus far?

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Not just because it's the holiday season, but because the college basketball season is reaching conference play. What that means for us fans is a more consistent stream of top-flight games and top-25 matchups.

That being said, this has been an amazing season thus far -- filled with great games, surprise teams, and tremendous highlights. Just like your favorite shows on TV, many of the same teams and characters are back in the spotlight, but there is no shortage of new players and fun storylines.

If you are looking for a crash course now or just want to relive some of the highlights of the season thus far, here are the things you need to know about the 2017-18 college basketball season.

Surprise Teams

It is always interesting to take a look back at the preseason AP poll a couple months into the season. It is hard to analytically project how the new pieces are going to fit on a team when you do not have the statistics for incoming freshmen or cannot project the jump a player is going to make from one year to the next, so the preseason polls are some of the best barometers we have.

Looking back at the preseason AP poll, 4 of the top-15 teams are no longer ranked, with Florida and USC also dropping from the top 10. The Gators and Trojans get some style points for scheduling tough games in their non-conference schedules, but neither team was really able to capitalize, with Florida going 2-3 and USC going 4-3 against the RPI top 100 and each dropping a game to a sub-100 team.

Arizona must also be mentioned in a similar way as these teams, dropping from number-two to out of the rankings in one week -- something that had not happened to anyone since 1986. They have since bounced back and rejoined the Top 25, but did themselves little favor in the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to a North Carolina State team with dim NCAA Tournament hopes.

On the flip side, there are four current top-10 teams that were either ranked 25th or worse at the beginning of the season. Those four are (current No. 3) Arizona State, (5) Texas A&M, (9) Virginia, and (10) TCU.

While the latter three were at least on the outskirts of the Top 25, Arizona State has come from virtually nowhere, jumping all the way to number-three behind a 12-0 start, claiming three top-25 RPI wins along the way. A big part of the turnaround after a 15-18 campaign last season must be credited to coach Bobby Hurley and the team's offense. The Sun Devils rank second in our offensive efficiency stat this season, while averaging 123 points per 100 possessions.

Similarly, Tennessee has made a jump into the rankings behind a 9-2 start, playing Villanova and North Carolina to the wire after being picked to finish 13th in the SEC by the writers.

Number-One Teams

The season started with the Duke Blue Devils as the top-ranked team in the country, and while they struggled slightly through some of the tougher tests on their schedule, they remained undefeated for a month. Duke carries a 12-1 record -- including six top-100 RPI wins and the eighth-hardest non-conference strength of schedule in the country -- into ACC conference play, where the road is only going to get more difficult. Their lone loss on the season came in an early conference road game at Boston College, 89-84.

That loss opened the door for the current top team in the nation, Villanova. The Wildcats have been strong all season, currently holding the top spot in our nERD rankings. Villanova is usually highly ranked when it comes to overall efficiency because of their strong defensive prowess, but their advanced offensive numbers actually rank higher than their defense. Per 100 possessions, Villanova is outscoring opponents 123.5 to 92.6, helping them be the only team ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.

Top Conferences in the Country

RPI is a metric used in college basketball that ranks teams based wins and losses and their strength of schedule. While it is a helpful way to rank teams, it can also be used to rank conferences.

Currently, the Big 12 conference leads the way with a 101-16 record, with TCU pacing the league at 12-0. The team with the worst record, Texas, is 9-3 and scored wins against Butler and Alabama while taking Duke and Gonzaga to overtime. Six of the top-25 teams in the nation are from the Big 12.

Coming in next is the Big East, which has two teams, Villanova and Xavier, in the top 10, with Seton Hall and Creighton also hanging around the bottom of the top 25. Their 99-23 combined record in non-conference play proves they have the firepower to get as many as seven teams in the Big Dance (like last season).

Following them is the SEC, which is stronger than in past years, with the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, and American behind them.

Early Player of the Year Race

It may be early to be talking about the player of the year, but the race is certainly loaded with big names.

The likely leader in this regard is Oklahoma's Trae Young. The Sooners did not have to look far to recruit this freshman guard from right in their backyard. Young is averaging an astounding 28.7 points and 10.4 assists per game, with 48.5% shooting overall, 41.1% from beyond the arc and 86.0% from the line. If the season ended today, it would be hard to cast your vote for anyone else.

Other names to keep an eye out for are Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson, Villanova's Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, Duke's Marvin Bagley, as well as Jock Landale from Saint Mary's, and DeAndre Ayton from Arizona.

Bagley and Ayton are both averaging 20 points and 10-plus rebounds a game, while Colson and Landale are very close, averaging 21 points and 9-plus rebounds each. Bridges and Brunson are near 18 points a game, while each shooting impressively high percentages from the field and three.

It would be tough to get through this portion without mentioning the injury to the favorite headed into the season. Missouri's freshman Michael Porter Jr. suffered a back injury in the first couple games of the season, which will cost him his entire freshman year. He is still likely to be a top pick in next year's NBA Draft if he decides to leave early.

Mid-Major Teams to Watch

Every year we go scouring the brackets for teams that could score early upsets, but we do not know much about these teams. This year you can get out in front of that by identifying these teams early and watching them before March. Our rankings make it easier to know which teams to watch for and who you can rely on come March.

Nevada is our top mid-major team, ranking 13th overall in nERD. This offensive-minded team is back again, looking to make another charge into March. The Wolfpack are 12-3, with two of those losses coming to ranked Big 12 teams, TCU and Texas Tech, by single digits. Nevada is primed to take the Mountain West crown once again, unless our 25th-ranked UNLV Rebels have anything to say about it. The Rebels are our third-ranked mid-major team and the only one that ranks in the top 70 in both offense and defense by our metrics. Their 11-2 record includes a thrashing of Utah and a three-point loss in overtime to Arizona.

Gonzaga ceases to feel like a mid major anymore because of their 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but they still are, so they rank second on this list. The Zags lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago, but are strong once again due to an offense that ranks in the top 15 in the country. Fellow WAC team Saint Mary's comes in at number-four on the list due in large part to their 3rd-ranked offense and 348th-ranked pace.

Closely bunched between 43rd and 59th in our rankings are Rhode Island, Western Kentucky, Boise State, St. Bonaventure, South Dakota State, Middle Tennessee, and San Diego State -- all of whom have big wins or game-changing players.

Rhode Island beat Seton Hall, Western Kentucky beat Purdue and SMU, while playing Villanova closer than anyone else has so far this season, St. Bonaventure beat Maryland and won at Syracuse, and San Diego State knocked off Gonzaga.

Meanwhile, South Dakota State is lead by junior Mike Daum, who has five games over 30 points this year and helped the Jackrabbits nearly upset Gonzaga in the first round last season. Middle Tennessee returns Giddy Potts from a team that has scored upsets in the last two NCAA tournaments while adding Memphis and Alabama transfer Nick King this year.