It's December already. It's December already?
Yes, it's December already. The offseason months creep along, depressingly devoid of hoops. Then, out of nowhere, time begins to fly. There's a cliché that applies here, and when you've got the Carrier Classic, the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, the Maui Invitational and Feast Week followed by the Big Ten/ACC and Big East/SEC Challenges well, you'd better believe we're having fun.
It feels like the right time, then, to take a deep breath and reflect on the first few weeks of what has already been a fascinating and exciting college hoops season. Who surprised? Who disappointed?
Of course, it's important to remember that we're just a few weeks into the season, and the great thing about college basketball -- as opposed to, oh, say, college football -- is that what happens in the first month doesn't define the trajectory of the next four. It's still very early. Let's not go crowning anyone's you-know-whats, or writing anyone's you-know-whats off, based on three weeks of November play. Cool? Cool.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let's hand out superlatives to some of the players, teams and conferences that made news in the month of November. Off we go:
Most surprising team: Saint Louis Billikens.
It's not as if we expected Saint Louis to be bad. Plenty of previewers (including yours truly) figured the Billikens as the most likely sleeper pick in the Atlantic 10, a team with renewed talent that could sneak up on the likes of Temple and Xavier at the top of the league standings by the end of the season. But it's safe to say we didn't expect this: Through seven games, Rick Majerus' team is 6-1, a tally that includes a 13-point win over Washington, a 12-point win over Villanova and a 20-point win over Oklahoma.
The Billikens suffered a bit of a letdown in a loss at Loyola Marymount on Tuesday, but we can forgive a trap game at the end of a West Coast swing against a solid mid-major that beat UCLA handily in its first result of the season. Thanks to the return of Kwamain Mitchell and a hot start by Brian Conklin (not to mention some well-rounded ensemble play from the supporting cast), Majerus had the best -- or at least most unexpectedly successful -- opening month of any coach in 2011-12.
Also surprising: Indiana, Virginia, Stanford, Oregon State, Murray State, Georgetown, Santa Clara, Middle Tennessee State, San Diego State, Denver, Cleveland State
Most disappointing team: UCLA Bruins. It's only been a few weeks, but it seems like eons ago when UCLA was ranked in the top 25. That was before the Bruins took the court, however, and once they did the wheels immediately came off. UCLA opened with two abysmal home losses -- the first to Loyola Marymount 69-58, the second to Middle Tennessee 86-66. (Yes, you read it correctly. Three weeks later, UCLA's 20-point home loss to MTSU still requires a double take.)
Then there are the off-court issues involving UCLA's most important player, forward Reeves Nelson. Nelson was suspended by coach Ben Howland after the Marymount loss. He tweeted "WOW" from his couch (presumably, anyway) during the MTSU beatdown. He reconciled with Howland and was reinstated in time for the Maui Invitational, but Nelson wasn't in time: He missed the team plane and had to catch a later flight to the island, a crime for which Howland suspended Nelson all of one half.
Things didn't get any better for UCLA with Nelson in the fold: The Bruins left Maui with just one win (over Division II host Chaminade) and two 16-point losses to Kansas and Michigan. About the only bright spot was UCLA's second half versus the Jayhawks, in which the Bruins made an impressive comeback to keep the game from getting out of hand. Alas, it was a temporary illusion. The problems with this team -- lack of cohesion, un-Howland-like defense, an out-of-shape Joshua Smith, inefficient guard play, you name it -- could linger much longer.
Also disappointing: Cincinnati, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Connecticut, New Mexico, Drexel, Austin Peay
Most surprising conference: Mid-American. The MAC is known much more for a midweek football schedule and creative arena-christening music videos than for any historical basketball prowess. But the MAC had a November worthy of the Stroh Center Rap. Consider the big wins: Ohio won at Marshall, a solid C-USA outfit, and nearly took down Louisville in the Yum! Akron won at Mississippi State and dominated Detroit. Kent State won at West Virginia. Buffalo beat the Dayton Flyers -- your 2011-12 Old Spice Classic champions -- 84-55 on the road Wednesday night. And speaking of the "Stroh Center Rap," Bowling Green topped Temple. That's as many high-quality wins as the MAC has had in years, and they all came in one month. Even weirder? They all came from the same MAC division, the East. Combine this with Ohio State's early dominance, Cleveland State's win at Vandy and Xavier's impressive play, and it was quite a month for hoops in the great state of Ohio.
Most disappointing conference: Colonial Athletic Association. 2011 was a big-time year for the CAA, which sent three teams to the NCAA tournament and one team (perhaps you remember the VCU Rams?) from the First Four to the Final Four. The league's elite teams experienced tons of turnover, but still, the encore act has been a letdown. Drexel, the league's preseason favorite, is 2-3 with losses to Virginia, Saint Joseph's and Norfolk State. Old Dominion is 4-3; so is VCU. George Mason -- last season's most consistently excellent CAA squad and a putative favorite if Drexel falters -- is under new management after Paul Hewitt replaced the departed Jim Larranaga. Already, the Patriots have two bad losses in overtime to Florida International and Florida Atlantic. Nor do James Madison, Northeastern, Hofstra and the rest of the league's middle appear ready to step into the vacant space at the top of the league. It's a rebuilding season for many of the consistently best teams in the CAA. In that way, it appears to be a rebuilding season for the conference at large.
Breakout player: Doug McDermott, Creighton. The Bluejays are 6-0 and ranked in the top 25 for the first time in years -- and just got their biggest win of the season, an 85-83 comeback gut-check Wednesday night at San Diego State -- thanks in large part to McDermott's quiet breakout campaign. The sophomore son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott is averaging 23.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting a downright silly 65 percent from the field and 61 percent from 3. McDermott was reportedly impressive this summer for Team USA at the Under-19 FIBA World Championships, and he hasn't missed a beat since he stepped back in the States. Expect to hear more about the McDermotts and their Bluejays comrades, and expect to hear it often.
Most impressive freshman: Anthony Davis, Kentucky. Davis' numbers are eye-popping in a slightly askew way. The scoring and rebounding look solid, if not great (12.7 points, 8.2 rebounds per game), but the real excitement -- and one of the things that has scouts gushing over the potential No. 1 overall pick -- is his block rate. Davis is averaging 4.3 blocks per game, which seems silly only up to the point until you sit down and watch him play. That's when you realize he's an athletic 6-foot-11 with a massive wingspan and a team of athletic, ball-hawking defenders around him. Of course he's going to block shots. Even better? Because Kentucky has so many offensive weapons, Davis doesn't need to score. The looks he gets are quality interior opportunities, and as a result Davis is shooting 71 percent from the field this season. He appears to be the perfect centerpiece for John Calipari's hypertalented, uptempo team. No wonder the scouts are in love.
Most likely to be Blake Griffin when he grows up: Thomas Robinson, Kansas. Robinson has more to his game than we expected; his refined touch on mid-range spot-up jumpers has been one of the more impressive aspects of his development into a star this season. But Robinson is at his best when he's attacking the rim, and he does it more frequently -- and more ferociously -- than any player since Griffin himself. Robinson, like his spiritual forebear, is must-see TV.
Most impressive win: Ohio State 85, Duke 63. Tuesday night's Buckeye-fest was a beatdown from start to finish, which is the sort of thing you expect a Buckeyes team hunting a national title to do to pretty much anyone. But Duke has been among the more impressive teams in the nation to begin the season. The Blue Devils certainly have one of the toughest schedules and have emerged from it with the nation's best early collection of wins. But Duke was thoroughly outmatched Tuesday, and OSU's dominance sent a loud message across the college hoops landscape: Thad Matta's team is every bit the serious national title contender we all expected. Relative to expectations, somehow they might even be better.
Honorable mention: Harvard 46, Florida State 41; Missouri 92, Cal 53; Kentucky 75, Kansas 65; UNLV 90, UNC 80
Best game: Duke 68, Kansas 61 in the Maui Invitational final. This game had it all. It was well-played. It was constantly close. It had a fantastic crowd in a small, insanely loud Lahaina Civic Center. It ended in suspect fashion -- Seth Curry should have been called for a travel -- but the non-call allowed guard Tyler Thornton to throw in a shot-of-his-life candidate to give Duke the win in the waning moments. More than anything, it had that feeling, gave off that unique college hoops gut premonition that it was going to be worth missing a few drinks with friends at the traditional Thanksgiving Eve local pub reunion. Boy, did it ever deliver.
Honorable mention: Memphis 99, Tennessee 97 (double OT); Georgetown 91, Memphis 88 (just one OT this time); UCF 68, UConn 63.
Most incredible early-season tournament run: Norfolk State. Here's an idea: The mighty Spartans of Norfolk State -- a team that finished ranked No. 300 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's final 2010-11 adjusted efficiency rankings -- should try to play every game in the Virgin Islands. Norfolk was a different team at the Paradise Jam: It upset Drexel in the first round, beat TCU in the second and nearly clipped Marquette -- which had already beaten the Spartans to a pulp 99-68 in the season opener -- before losing 59-57 in the tournament final. Then, after returning from paradise, Norfolk lost to something called Elizabeth City State University (it's a D-II school in North Carolina, says Google) 69-57 on Wednesday.
The lesson here? Simple: Norfolk is good at basketball in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, immediate relocation is the only suitable recommendation. Failing that, the Spartans should be proud all the same. It was a stellar little run, and fun while it lasted.
Fun while it lasted. That sounds like November, too. What great glories will the next month hold? Whatever they are, you can bet on two things:
1. We'll be asking "It's already New Year's Day?"
2. The college hoops landscape will look radically different in 30 days' time. It always does.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).