Ranking the 12 unbeaten teams and projecting when each will lose

Ranking the 12 unbeaten teams and projecting when each will lose

Two years ago, Wichita State completed the regular season undefeated. Last season, it was Kentucky who did it. There's probably too much parity this season for anyone to match that feat, but a dozen teams still have a chance.

Below those 12 remaining undefeated teams are ranked from strongest to weakest with projections on when they'll lose first.

1. MICHIGAN STATE (9-0): The nation's newly crowned No. 1 team has earned that ranking by amassing the best collection of quality wins. The Spartans have defeated Kansas, Boise State, Louisville and Providence en route to a 9-0 start. While the brilliance of national player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine has received the most attention, the most impressive element of this Spartans team is their unselfishness and passing ability. A remarkable 78.7 percent of Michigan State's baskets come via assists, the second highest percentage in the country behind only Evansville. That's a huge reason the Spartans are in the top 10 in the nation in points per possession so far this season. Projected first loss: at Wisconsin, Jan. 17.

2. OKLAHOMA (6-0): For a team that doesn't have a true rim protector except when reserve Akolda Manyang is on the floor, Oklahoma has been remarkably effective defensively so far this season. The Sooners are limiting opponents to 39.0 percent shooting inside the arc and 22.8 percent shooting from behind it, both among the top 10 in the nation. Never were those defensive attributes more evident than Monday night in Hawaii when Oklahoma notched its first marquee win of the season. The Sooners pounded previously undefeated Villanova 78-55 by limiting the cold-shooting Wildcats to 4 of 32 from 3-point range. Projected first loss: at Kansas, Jan. 4.

3. PURDUE (9-0): It's easy to see why Purdue has been the most difficult team in the nation to score against on two-point shots. The Boilermakers have the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten in Rapheal Davis, a pair of 7 foot rim protectors in A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas and a 6-foot-10 power forward in Caleb Swanigan who gobbles up defensive rebounds. That defensive prowess coupled with a surprisingly efficient offense has helped Purdue start 9-0 this season. The Boilermakers haven't beaten a Top 25 opponent yet, but a 13-point road win at Pittsburgh and a 15-point neutral-court win over Florida suggests this team is for real. Projected first loss: Vanderbilt, Dec. 22.

4. XAVIER (8-0): Is Villanova still a prohibitive favorite in the Big East? The way the league's supposed second-tier has played so far this season, the Wildcats could have a tougher-than-anticipated time maintaining their grip on first place. The best of the challengers could be this Xavier team that has already won at Michigan and swept through Alabama, USC and Dayton to capture the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. The Musketeers aren't a great outside shooting team, but they make up for it by playing stingy defense, dominating the glass at both ends and getting to the foul line consistently. They're also extremely balanced on offense with six players averaging double figures so far this season. Projected first loss: at Villanova, Dec. 31.

5. IOWA STATE (7-0): Iowa State fans probably expect to be higher on this list, but the Cyclones haven't played the same caliber of schedule the teams above them have. Their most impressive victories so far this season have come against a shorthanded Illinois team that's below .500, a Virginia Tech team that's still in the infancy of its rebuilding process and a Colorado team expected to finish in the lower half of a deep Pac-12. Iowa State's bigger non-conference tests come later this month against in-state foes Iowa and Northern Iowa and American Athletic Conference contender Cincinnati. The Cyclones have been better defensively so far this season, but their inability to get to the foul line on offense is alarming. Projected first loss: at Cincinnati, Dec. 22.

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (AP Photo/John Locher)
West Virginia forward Devin Williams (AP Photo/John Locher)

6. WEST VIRGINIA (7-0):

The big question entering the season was whether West Virginia's swarming pressure defense could be effective with the new rules limiting contact in place. So far, the answer is a resounding yes. The Mountaineers are 7-0 entering tonight's showdown with Virginia because they've forced turnovers at a staggering pace. Opponents are turning the ball over 31.3 percent of the time against West Virginia, by far the most in the nation. The concern for the Mountaineers tonight is that they're a poor 3-point shooting team. That means if they can't force turnovers and convert them into easy fast-break baskets, they could struggle to score against a pack-line defense. Projected first loss: Virginia, Dec. 8.

7. SMU (6-0): Will SMU have the character to play to its potential this season even though the Mustangs will not participate in the NCAA tournament this March? It's too soon to say for sure, but the early signs have been encouraging. SMU has avoided any losses so far against a semi-soft schedule highlighted by road games at Stanford and TCU and a home game against Yale. The competition level increases tonight as the Mustangs host a Michigan team with an elite backcourt. Guard Nic Moore has been efficient as ever so far this season for SMU, but where the Mustangs may have the biggest advantage over the Wolverines is on the offensive glass. Projected first loss: Cincinnati, Jan. 7.

8. SOUTH CAROLINA (8-0): This is certainly Frank Martin's best South Carolina team, but the Gamecocks' weak schedule makes it tough to tell how much progress they've made. The only top 100 KenPom teams they've beaten are a decent Tulsa team and a Hofstra team that is favored to win the CAA. One thing that is clear is that South Carolina has an improved frontcourt that's capable of blocking shots and protecting the rim at one end and getting after it on the offensive glass on the other. If the Gamecocks can get more efficiency from guard Sindarius Thornwell and increased production from talented freshman P.J. Dozier, perhaps they can sustain this hot start once the schedule stiffens. Projected first loss: at Clemson, Dec. 18.

9. SAINT MARY'S (8-0): The Gaels graduated all five starters from last season's NIT team, yet so far they appear to be a stronger team than a year ago. They'll take a 6-0 record into a marquee game Saturday night at Cal. A road win at a Cal team with three potential first-round picks may be too much to task, but Saint Mary's will definitely test a Bears defense that has been extremely flimsy so far this season. The highly efficient Gaels are shooting 47.2 percent from behind the arc and 61.5 percent from inside it. Sophomore Emmett Naar has enjoyed a breakout season, averaging 16.5 points per game and shooting 64 percent from behind the arc. He and Boston College transfer Joe Rahon are also averaging a combined 13.9 assists per game. Projected first loss: at Cal, Dec. 12.

10. ARKANSAS LITTLE ROCK (7-0): Two of Arkansas Little Rock's seven victories are actually highly impressive. The Trojans own road wins at preseason Mountain West favorite San Diego State and American Athletic Conference contender Tulsa. Where Little Rock has excelled is forcing turnovers on defense and preventing opponents from getting easy baskets. Junior guard Marcus Johnson has carried the offense for the Trojans, but challenging games at DePaul and at Texas Tech will further test Arkansas-Little Rock before Sun Belt play begins. Projected first loss: at DePaul, Dec. 12.

11. HOUSTON (5-0): Houston's non-conference schedule is ranked 351st on KenPom. That's last in the nation and it explains how the Cougars remain undefeated despite a defense that is below average nationally. They've defeated Prairie View A&M, Florida A&M, Louisiana Monroe, Texas Rio Grande Valley and Murray State, none of which have distinguished themselves so far this season. The trio of Rob Gray, Devonta Pollard and Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson are each averaging 16 or more points per game, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against some real competition tonight at Rhode Island and Sunday against LSU. Projected first loss: at Rhode Island, Dec. 8.

12. UNC WILMINGTON (5-0): Like Houston, UNC Wilmington's unbeaten record is a product of its schedule. Two of its wins came against Milligan and Coker, which could be an upstart law firm for all I know. The other three were victories over Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan and East Tennessee State — not exactly a murderer's row. UNC Wilmington has defended well and forced a ton of turnovers, but the Seahawks probably aren't ready for what's ahead on their schedule. They visit Georgetown on Saturday, and it's probably a pretty safe bet that will be their first loss. Projected first loss: at Georgetown, Dec. 12.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!