This has been a fabulous start to the 2017-18 season. In just over a month, I have been curtsied to call 20 games, and I have traveled over 13,000 miles, from Chicago to Maui to Portland to Bloomington to places in between. And I have been glued to a screen watching games nonstop when I wasn't in a gym. I have seen a few things, my friends, and this is the best of what's out there:
Best team: Villanova Wildcats
This is not a season of historically great teams, but there are several really good teams. Villanova is at the top of that list. Jalen Brunson is as good as any point guard in the country. Mikal Bridges is one of the most improved players in the nation, and one of the most complete players. Omari Spellman is a talented big man who can step away. Donte DiVincenzo could start for anyone but is mature enough to come off the bench to make Villanova better. As Jay Wright develops his freshmen to give Villanova a more reliable, eight-man rotation, the Wildcats will get even better. But Villanova is the best team I have seen this season.
Best offensive team: Duke Blue Devils
The young Blue Devils have the most talent of any team in the nation. While painfully young and inexperienced, Duke can score from every position, and there is no spot on the floor from which the Blue Devils cannot score. With Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval, Mike Krzyzewski has five guys who can get 20 points or more in any given game. To beat Duke, you have to outscore them by scoring on Duke's inexperienced defense, because you will have difficulty holding the Blue Devils down. Runners-up: Virginia Tech (the Hokies run great actions and are terrific cutters), Arizona State (Tra Holder & Co. can spread the floor, and are fearless on offense), Creighton (a well-coached and disciplined offensive team, a pleasure to watch), Villanova (the Wildcats have a culture of passing, and they consistently find the right shot and the right matchup to attack).
Best defensive team: Virginia Cavaliers
If defense is judged by disrupting rhythm, Virginia disrupts rhythm better than any other team. Tony Bennett's "pack line" defense is physical and well-positioned and forces difficult, challenged shots without fouling. Playing against Virginia is no fun, and a total buzzkill. With a choice of root canal or Virginia, dentist offices would be filled. Runners-up: Cincinnati (one of the hardest-working teams in the country -- again), Michigan State (the rim protection and rebounding help finish possessions).
Best rebounding team: Duke Blue Devils
Bagley and Carter are both big-time rebounders, and Duke has size among its guards, who will stick their noses in there and crash the glass. Both Bagley and Carter get their rebounds above the rim; Carter gets all rebounds with two hands. Runners-up: Michigan State (if you have ever seen Tom Izzo's war drill, you would know why the Spartans are always a good rebounding team), North Carolina (when Roy Williams' young big guys mature, this can be the best rebounding team).
Best shooting team: Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies hit more than 10 3-point field goals per game and spread the floor very effectively. Virginia Tech complements its shooters with terrific cutting and attacking of the paint and rim. It is one thing to make perimeter shots (the Hokies shoot better than 46 percent from deep), but Virginia Tech uses the whole floor, shooting 55 percent from the field to lead the nation. Runners-up: Marquette, Arizona State, Kansas, Oklahoma.
Best passing team: Davidson Wildcats
Watch the Wildcats play. This is an excellent passing team and terrific cutting team. Davidson is sound, always in triple-threat position on the catch and delivering passes on target. The numbers back up what your eyes tell you about Davidson's passing. Davidson is among the best assist teams, averaging just under 20 per game. Yet the Wildcats turn the ball over fewer than 10 times per game. To have a player with a 2-1 assist-turnover ratio is good. To have a team with it? Impressive. Runners-up: Villanova (the Wildcats are a "good, better, best" passing team, passing up a good shot for a better one, a better one for the best one), Kansas (the Jayhawks turn it over some, but this is a terrific passing team).
Best Gus Macker 3-on-3 team: Alabama Crimson Tide
We probably will never see anything that bizarre or strangely beautiful again. With the entire bench ejected, a player injured, and other various and sundry player losses, Alabama actually made a comeback against Minnesota while playing 3-on-5, and had a legit chance to win. Amazing. What fun.
Best Pressure Defensive Team: (tie) West Virginia Mountaineers and Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
By now, everybody should be aware that West Virginia will bring pressure for 94 feet. But how can one be prepared for it? The Mountaineers are relentless, and wear down teams mentally and physically. If you haven't seen Stephen F. Austin play, the Lumberjacks are similar. The win over LSU was not a fluke. Stephen F. Austin forces more than 23 turnovers per game, and that doesn't count the quick and bad shots opponents settle for.
Most together team: Villanova Wildcats
Jay Wright has built a great culture at Villanova, and there is not a more "together" team. The Wildcats talk (on and off the floor), support one another, and hold everyone accountable (and that is just the players).
Most balanced team: Michigan State Spartans
Depth is great, if you use it. Most teams don't. Michigan State does. The Spartans have no real drop-off when Tom Izzo goes to his bench. This team is deep and has very good talent. By the end of the season, if healthy, Michigan State could very well wind up as the best team.
Most underrated "lesser-known" team: Nevada Wolf Pack
Mid-major? I don't know the right term anymore. All I know is Eric Musselman has a really good team that will be competitive with anyone this season. The Wolf Pack have lost only on the road to Texas Tech in overtime and to undefeated TCU by four. Nevada has a star in Jordan Caroline, who is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds and has not shot the ball well yet, and NC State transfer Caleb Martin, who is also averaging 18 points. Caleb Martin and Kendall Stephens can shoot it, and Nevada plays with something to prove. Runners-up: Saint Mary's, Stephen F. Austin, Oakland, Vermont.
Best freshman scorer: Trae Young, Oklahoma Sooners
This kid is ridiculous. Young has an extraordinary handle, gets anywhere on the floor he wants, can shoot it with range and flair, and does a great job of finishing over length, getting to the foul line and setting up others. He had a reputation as a gunner in high school and for not being a willing passer, but I have seen no such evidence of that at Oklahoma. Young leads the nation in scoring at better than 28 points, and is the only Power 5 player in the top 15 in the nation in scoring. Runners-up: Collin Sexton, Alabama; Marvin Bagley III, Duke; Deandre Ayton, Arizona.
Best freshman rebounder: Deandre Ayton, Arizona Wildcats
Ayton is a man among men. He is super athletic, long and very strong. But there are many super athletes who do not rebound at the highest level. Ayton positions himself well, and he goes after the ball out of his area. As a freshman, Ayton is averaging 12 rebounds, the overwhelming majority on the defensive end. Runners-up: Marvin Bagley III, Duke; Mohamed Bamba, Texas; Wendell Carter Jr., Duke; Eric Williams Jr., Duquesne.
Best freshman passer: Trae Young, Oklahoma Sooners
This kid is leading the nation in scoring, and third in the nation in assists, dropping 10.2 per game after that ridiculous 22-assist night against Northwestern State on Monday. Absurd. He has vision and the ability to deliver the ball. He is a joy to watch. Runners-up: Tremont Waters, LSU (a jet who can really score, pass and defend), Trevon Duval, Duke (he has a ton of weapons around him, and distributes the ball to the right one at the right time).
Best freshman defender: Garrison Brooks, North Carolina Tar Heels
This might seem a little crazy because Brooks is nowhere to be found among the leaders in steals or blocked shots, but he is one of the smartest freshman defenders I have seen this season. He is almost always in the right spot, he understands defensive concepts, he is alert in help situations and one of the most solid defensive players out there.
Best freshman: Marvin Bagley III, Duke Blue Devils
Even with the start that Bagley had, this is a close call. Oklahoma's Trae Young and Arizona's Deandre Ayton have been fantastic, but nobody has been better or more impactful at both ends of the floor than Bagley. His feel for the game is excellent, but what is more impressive is that he never takes a play off. Never. Runners-up: Young, Ayton.
Best offensive player: Trae Young, Oklahoma Sooners
Young is a young Stephen Curry, but far ahead of where Curry was at a similar age. Of course, that doesn't mean that Young will stay on this trajectory, because very few ever have or even can. But this is only about right now, and this kid is ridiculously good now. Runners-up: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier; Marvin Bagley III, Duke; Allonzo Trier, Arizona.
Best defensive player: Mikal Bridges, Villanova Wildcats
Length? Check. Athleticism? Check. Lateral movement? Check. Well coached? Check. Ability to guard multiple positions? Check. Want to? Check. Bridges is just scratching the surface of how good he can be. Runners-up: Dakota Mathias, Purdue; Rashard Kelly, Wichita State; Silas Melson, Gonzaga.
Best rebounder: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Murphy is relentless, and it is impossible to keep relentless off the glass. But he is far more than relentless. Murphy has size, great hands and he has a hunger for the ball. Murphy leads the nation in rebounding at over 13 per game, and leads the nation in offensive rebounding at 5.33 per game. Murphy is the nation's best rebounder, and it is not a close call.
Best passer: Cassius Winston, Michigan State Spartans
Winston is not among the very top assist men in the nation, largely because of the pace at which Michigan State plays and the fact that Winston is not a ball-dominant point guard. But Winston is an extraordinary passer, even better than Denzel Valentine was for Izzo.
Best shooter: Markus Howard, Marquette Golden Eagles
You know you have a good shooting team when, in considering the nation's best shooter, you are not sure whether the nation's best shooter is the best shooter on his own team. It is a close call between Howard and teammate Andrew Rowsey. Howard is small but very quick, and he gets his shot off quickly. He has deep range and is automatic when left open. Runners-up: Rowsey; Fletcher Magee, Wofford; DJ Hogg, Texas A&M.
Best backcourt: Villanova Wildcats
With Jalen Brunson, the vastly underrated Phil Booth able to play the point and Donte DiVincenzo coming in to provide whatever is needed, it is hard to find a better backcourt on both ends of the floor. So far, there isn't one.
Most improved player: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota Golden Gophers
This is a very close call because North Carolina's Luke Maye has been fantastic and has made as big of a jump as any player in recent North Carolina history, but Murphy has been the most improved player I have seen. Murphy was very good last season, but he has been great this season. Runners-up: Maye; Juwan Morgan, Indiana.
Best leader: Jalen Brunson, Villanova Wildcats
There are several great leaders out there, but none better than Brunson. He is totally in control of what is going on when Villanova takes the floor, and he does it in a way his teammates respond to positively. Runner-up: Chris Chiozza, Florida.
Hardest worker: Joel Berry II, North Carolina Tar Heels
Nobody has cornered the market on hard work, and there is no legitimate way to separate the game's hardest workers from one another. But I'm going to do it anyway. The hardest workers aren't just about the work assigned in practice, but they are about the extra work it takes to be excellent. When going to see a team practice or for a game-day shootaround, I usually try to arrive early. Whenever I go to a North Carolina practice or shootaround, Berry is already there working out. For away games, he shoots before the team leaves. Nobody sees it. He just does it. It is a big factor in his being a champion. Impressive.
Best coaching job: Bobby Hurley, Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils were a punching bag in a few games last season, playing shorthanded and playing a difficult schedule. But Hurley was building toward success later. Well, now is later. Arizona State is not taking punches now; it is delivering them. The Sun Devils still need to improve on the defensive end, but this is the most improved team in the nation. It is also the most fun to watch.
Best atmosphere: Assembly Hall (Indiana)
There are bigger games ahead, and there will be deafening crowds to contend with as the stakes get higher. But I would have a hard time believing any atmosphere will be better than Assembly Hall when Duke came to town in late November. Two walls of red, with a game in the middle of it. My ears are still ringing.