Ranking the 11 unbeaten teams and projecting when each will lose first

Villanova could be poised to take an unbeaten record into Big East play. (Getty Images)
Villanova could be poised to take an unbeaten record into Big East play. (Getty Images)

Three years ago, Wichita State completed the regular season undefeated. Two years ago, it was Kentucky who did it. There’s probably too much parity this season for anyone to match that feat, but 11 teams still have a chance.

Below those 11 remaining undefeated teams are ranked from strongest to weakest with projections on when they’ll lose first.

1. VILLANOVA (9-0): The reigning national champs remain a serious threat to become the first college basketball team to repeat since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The Wildcats own an impressive road win at Purdue and seven other double-digit victories over lesser competition. The strength of this year’s Villanova team is a perimeter-oriented attack led by All-American candidate Josh Hart, title game hero Kris Jenkins and former McDonald’s All-American point guard Jalen Brunson. Nearly half the Wildcats’ field goal attempts are 3-pointers, and they’re shooting a lethal 40.5 percent as a team from behind the arc. The lone weakness of this Villanova team is its lack of size after starting center Daniel Ochefu graduated last spring and presumed heir apparent Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible to play this season. Like last year, the Wildcats are allergic to offensive rebounds, however, this season they also allow teams to shoot a much higher percentage at the rim. Projected first loss: At Butler, Jan. 4

2. BAYLOR (8-0): Having lost three key starters from last year’s 22-win team, Baylor did not receive a single vote in either of the major preseason polls. Only four weeks later, the Bears have ascended all the way to fourth in the AP Top 25 and boast the nation’s best collection of wins. They’ve beaten Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier, each top 50 teams who are projected to contend for conference titles this season. Dominating the offensive glass has been Baylor’s trademark in recent years, but this year’s Bears have overcome slippage in that area by taking better care of the ball, scoring efficiently at the rim and getting to the foul line more frequently. The one-two punch of shifty point guard Manu Lecomte and powerful forward Johnathan Motley fuels Baylor’s slow-paced but efficient offense. The presence of the nation’s second leading shot blocker, Jo Lual-Acuil, has made the Bears’ signature zone much tougher to score against at the rim than in recent years. Projected first loss: At Kansas State, Jan. 14

3. UCLA (9-0): With four starters returning and one of the nation’s premier freshman classes making a massive impact, UCLA has bounced back from last year’s 15-17 season in a big way. The Bruins have zoomed to a 9-0 start highlighted by Saturday’s marquee road win at top-ranked Kentucky. UCLA owes its reemergence to a fast-paced, freewheeling offense piloted by point guard Lonzo Ball. The heralded freshman leads the nation in assists at 9.3 per game and his unselfish, aggressive mindset has the entire UCLA team looking to attack in transition whenever possible and make the extra pass. Ball’s emergence has allowed both Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to play off ball and do what they do best — run off screens and look for opportunities to score. Six UCLA players are averaging at least 11 points per game and the Bruins have recorded assists on over two thirds of the baskets they’ve scored. Projected first loss: At Oregon, Dec. 28

4. GONZAGA (8-0): For a team with five newcomers in its eight-man rotation, Gonzaga has meshed surprisingly quickly so far this season. The Zags already boast four victories over potential NCAA tournament teams — a demolition of injury-plagued San Diego State, narrow wins over Florida and Iowa State and a satisfying victory over a shorthanded Arizona team that has tormented them in recent years. What this Gonzaga team does best is score with balance and efficiency. Przemek Karnowski is a massive 7-footer with soft touch around the rim and a knack for passing out of double teams. Point guards Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss can both create off the dribble or knock down jumpers. Cal transfer Jordan Mathews is a proven spot-up shooter and talented young big men Zach Collins and Killian Tillie will only get better the more they play. All in all, this is an excellent Gonzaga team with a chance to take an unbeaten record into league play. The Zags’ biggest remaining non-league tests come against struggling Washington and rebuilding Tennessee. Projected first loss: At BYU, Feb. 2.

5. SAINT MARY’S (6-0): One year after piling up 29 wins but settling for an NIT bid, Saint Mary’s is eager to leave no doubt for the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Gaels are off to a 6-0 start that includes victories over Dayton, Stanford, UAB and Nevada. All five starters return from last season for Saint Mary’s, however, it’s actually one of last year’s reserves who has made the biggest impact. Six-foot-11 junior Jock Landale is averaging 19.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while sinking 76.1 percent of the shots he attempts. With an array of lethal shooters surrounding Landale and a pair of point guards who excel at creating off the dribble, Saint Mary’s boasts one of the nation’s most patient yet potent offenses. The Gaels score the most points per possession of any team in the country and they’re sixth nationally in assists per made basket. The one knock on Saint Mary’s is that its non-conference schedule is once again too conservative for a team of its caliber. The toughest game the Gaels have left before WCC play is Thursday’s visit from Texas Arlington. Projected first loss: At Gonzaga, Jan. 14.

6. CREIGHTON (8-0): No longer is Xavier the lone threat to Villanova in the loaded Big East. Creighton has established itself as a potential contender as well by exceeding expectations to start the season. The Bluejays have already beaten Wisconsin, NC State, Ole Miss and Washington State, putting them squarely on track for their first NCAA tournament bid since Doug McDermott graduated in 2014. They will probably take an undefeated record into Big East play if they can win at Nebraska and Arizona State this month. The key to Creighton’s jump from NIT team to No. 10 in the latest AP poll has been an unstoppable offense fueled by outstanding perimeter play and deadly outside shooting. The Bluejays are hitting 44.8 percent of their 3-pointers as a team and are the only team in the nation to shoot 50 percent or better in every game they’ve played, a product of excellent ball movement and an emphasis on perimeter shooting in recruiting. Projected first loss: Villanova, Dec. 31.

7. BUTLER (8-0): The Bulldogs have accomplished something this season that neither of their Final Four teams managed to do earlier this decade. They’ve won their first eight games of the season, including solid victories against Northwestern, Utah, Vanderbilt and shorthanded Arizona. Butler’s offense has remained among the 20 most efficient in the nation despite the graduation of sharpshooter Kellen Dunham and versatile forward Roosevelt Jones. Junior forward Kelan Martin has played at an all-Big East level, but the real difference maker has been point guard Tyler Lewis. The senior is shooting 64.1 percent from the field this season after hitting less than 40 percent of his shots the previous three years. He’s also dishing out 5.3 assists per game compared to 2.8 last season. Butler’s defense has also shown improvement this year because the Bulldogs have limited second-chance points and forced a higher percentage of turnovers. Projected first loss: Indiana, Dec. 17

8. NOTRE DAME (8-0): Is Notre Dame’s undefeated start a product of its talent or soft schedule? That’s a worthwhile question considering the Irish have yet to beat a surefire NCAA tournament team. Five of Notre Dame’s victories have come against teams rated 250th or worse in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The other three teams the Irish beat were rebuilding Iowa, middling Northwestern and a solid Colorado team. Tougher tests are coming for Notre Dame in the form of neutral-court games against Purdue and Villanova the next two Saturdays. If the Irish win one or both of those, it will be because of their high-powered offense. Notre Dame boasts four players who average 12.5 or more points and is second only to Saint Mary’s nationally in points per possession. Undersized power forward Bonzie Colson has been Notre Dame’s most important player, averaging 17.1 points and 10.8 rebounds. Projected first loss: Villanova, Dec. 10.

9. SOUTH CAROLINA (8-0): On a list of teams who have mostly won because of their prolific offenses, South Carolina is the exception. The Gamecocks have toppled the likes of Monmouth, Michigan and Syracuse because of a formidable defense that surrenders less than 0.8 points per possession. With ample length and athleticism all over the floor, South Carolina coach Frank Martin favors and active man-to-man defense. The Gamecocks make up for fouling a little too frequently by generating turnovers on nearly a quarter of their opponent’s possessions and by aggressively contesting shots at the rim and behind the arc. The concern for South Carolina is that its already tepid offense will be without leading scorer and rebounder Sindarius Thornwell for the time being. Thornwell was suspended indefinitely on Saturday for undisclosed team rules violations, potentially leaving the Gamecocks vulnerable in upcoming games against Seton Hall, South Florida and Clemson. Projected first loss: Seton Hall, Dec. 12

10. USC (8-0): Even though two of USC’s best players unexpectedly turned pro last spring and a third starter transferred to Marquette, the Trojans haven’t taken the step backward many anticipated. In fact, they’ve beaten Texas A&M on the road and SMU and BYU in Los Angeles on their way to an impressive undefeated start. The key to USC’s success has been the impact made by players whose roles increased without Julian Jacobs, Nikola Jovanovic or Katin Reinhardt. Jordan McLaughlin has scored more efficiently and made excellent decisions with the ball as USC’s primary point guard. Wing Elijah Steward has nearly doubled his scoring and transfer Shaqquan Aaron and freshman De’Anthony Melton have both averaged double figures and exceeded expectations. Stretch forward Bennie Boatwright’s projected six-week absence due to a sprained knee is a concern, but at least it game at a favorable time in the schedule. The Trojans don’t play a top 100 opponent until they begin Pac-12 play. Projected first loss: At Oregon, Dec. 30

11. TCU (8-0): The biggest surprise among the unbeatens is TCU, which last season had already lost four games against a modest schedule by early December. The Horned Frogs haven’t exactly faced a gauntlet of top teams this season either, but they’ve beaten a couple of credible opponents, sweeping a pair of games from Washington and defeating Illinois State and rebuilding UNLV. Where TCU is better under first-year coach Jamie Dixon so far is on offense. Six players are averaging between 9 and 12 points per game and not one is a senior, a statistic that bodes well for the future for the Horned Frogs. Given the strength of the rest of the Big 12 again this season, it’s highly unlikely TCU can win enough games to make the NCAA tournament this season. Nonetheless, the Horned Frogs are further along than expected in year one under Dixon and they have a chance to be competitive in their league sooner than later. Projected first loss: At SMU, Dec. 7

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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!