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Best and worst of November in college basketball: Top teams, players and biggest surprises

College basketball is fully back. We got upsets to start the month and end the month. We got terrific matchups all over the place and, in a great change of pace, not just in multi-team events.

There’s a long way to go, but the first month has provided us with plenty of insight. As we flip the calendar to December, here’s the best of November.

Team of the Month: No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers

There were a lot of really good teams in November. No one was as good as Purdue, and it wasn’t close. The Boilermakers took down then-No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 7 Tennessee and No. 4 Marquette in a marvelous three-day stretch to win the Maui Invitational and become the first team to go 3-0 in November against teams ranked in the top dozen since Duke in 2012.

Zach Edey continues to be a monumental force. The box score numbers speak for themselves, but it’s the defensive efficiency that’s really eye-catching. The Boilermakers are allowing 84.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court; that figure was 93.6 last season. Edey’s 11.2 block rate is in the top 25 nationally and way, way up from 7.2% last year. Purdue allowed 64.8% shooting at the rim last year. That’s down to 52.1% this year.

But it’s not just “Edey and everyone else” this year, like it felt at times last year. The Boilermakers go 10 players deep, and two key sophomores are showing great growth: Braden Smith’s scoring, shooting, rebounds and assists are all up, and Fletcher Loyer scored 27 in the win over Tennessee. Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones has added more backcourt scoring. Purdue won’t continue to shoot over 42% from 3-point range, but considering its 32% mark last year, the improvement is obvious.

Purdue’s path doesn’t get any easier. The Boilermakers head to Northwestern on Friday — they lost in Evanston, Illinois, as the No. 1 team last year — and face Alabama and Arizona before the new year. For now, though, there’s no doubting their spot atop the sport.

Other teams considered: UConn, Arizona

Mid-major Team of the Month: Colorado State

There were plenty of options for this honor, but Colorado State pulled away over the past eight days. The Rams are one of just nine teams that are 7-0 on the young season and already boast an impressive resume with double-digit neutral-court wins over Boston College and Creighton at the Hall of Fame Classic before returning home and beating in-state rival Colorado.

It starts with fifth-year senior Isaiah Stevens, one of the finest point guards in all the land. He’s scoring 17.9 points per game with outstanding shooting splits: 56.8% from the floor, 50% from 3-point range and 84.6% from the line. Here’s the thing, though: Stevens is also dishing out 8.3 assists per contest. He’s the only player in Division I averaging at least 17 points and 8 assists.

The crew around Stevens is a super fun, eclectic bunch. Joel Scott is a 6-foot-7 graduate student who was Division II’s Player of the Year last season at Black Hills State and throws down nasty dunks. Fellow D-II transfer Patrick Cartier (Hillsdale College) stretches the defense. Nique Clifford transferred in from Colorado and is flourishing.

The Rams get one more Power Five opportunity Saturday against Washington in Las Vegas (airing on CBS Sports Network) and another good test against Saint Mary’s before rugged Mountain West play begins.

Other teams considered: James Madison, Princeton

Surprise Team of the Month: James Madison

How could I not find a spot for the Dukes? After delivering the upset of the season on opening night by taking down Michigan State on the road, James Madison hasn’t slowed down. At 7-0, it’s the program’s best start to a season this millennium. The Dukes also had an absolutely nuts double-overtime win at Kent State that includes them scoring five points in the final 3.8 seconds of regulation.

The Dukes fly up and down the court with the nation’s 10th-fastest adjusted pace according to Kenpom, yet they also take care of the ball with a turnover rate inside the top 30 nationally. Experience plays a factor here: The Dukes rank sixth in KenPom.com‘s D-I experience metric.

The well-traveled T.J. Bickerstaff (two years at Boston College, two years at Drexel) provides post scoring punch. He had 21 points and 14 rebounds at Michigan State. But that’s just one part of it: With a plethora of capable guards and wings, the Dukes are also knocking down over 39% of their 3-pointers. Michael Greene (two years at Robert Morris, two years at Bryant), Noah Freidel (three years at South Dakota State) and Terrence Edwards (fourth year at JMU) make for an explosive, savvy perimeter trio.

It’s not that the Dukes were so far off the radar entering the season — they were No. 101 in Matt Norlander’s Top 100 And 1 — but they’ve been one of the best stories of the young season regardless. The Dukes have risen from 136th to 71st in Kenpom’s rankings, made their first ever AP Top 25 and won their multi-team event (the Cancun Challenge). Mark Byington and his team deserve major props.

Other teams considered: Oklahoma, Clemson

Surprise Teams (in a bad way) of the Month: Maryland, Saint Mary’s

Picked third in the Big Ten preseason poll behind Purdue and Michigan State, Maryland produced a dud of an opening month with bad losses to Davidson and UAB followed by a 57-40 shellacking at the hands of Villanova. It was the Terrapins’ fewest points in a game since 1982.

With a “Big Three” of sorts in Jahmir Young, Julian Reese and Donta Scott back and a top-20 recruiting class incoming, expectations were rightfully high in College Park, Maryland. But the Terrapins are shooting an abysmal 23.8% on 3-pointers, among the bottom 10 nationally. Maryland finally (and perhaps mercifully) made eight of 20 from behind the arc Tuesday against Rider, and Kevin Willard’s team can put an awful November behind them immediately with a win at Indiana on Friday. It’s a tough task, but rebounding from a poor opening month has to start sometime.

Saint Mary’s arguably had even higher expectations after earning the top spot in the WCC preseason coaches poll over Gonzaga. The Gaels already have home losses to Weber State and Utah and neutral-court blowout losses to San Diego State and Xavier. First-team all-conference returnees Aidan Mahaney and Mitchell Saxen have been up and down at best, and the team is still clearly adjusting to playing without — or just plainly missing — longtime lead guard Logan Johnson. The Gaels’ 18.2% turnover rate is on pace to be their worst since 2014-15.

Saint Mary’s has played an admirable schedule — especially for a mid-major — so far, and there are plenty of opportunities to come, starting with Boise State tonight and then Colorado State next weekend. But a 3-4 start is not what Randy Bennett wanted or, likely, expected, especially after the Gaels entered the season ranked 23rd.

Other teams considered: USC, Oregon, Michigan

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USATSI

Player of the Month: Zach Edey, Purdue

We don’t need to get into too many details. Edey has been the best player on the court against the best teams. In Maui, he averaged 25.3 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks and shot 57.8%. That’s dominance in its highest form. Edey’s better defensively and perhaps even better offensively than he was last year, when he won national player of the year. How could he not be the player of the month?

Surprise Player of the Month: Reed Sheppard, Kentucky

Perhaps lost among an absolutely loaded Kentucky recruiting class that included the No. 3, 5, 6 and 21 players in the class, Sheppard — ranked a “mere” 79th in his class by 247Sports — hasn’t just been Kentucky’s best player. According to Kenpom’s Player of the Year algorithm, he’s been the best player in the sport.

No, Sheppard is not going to win player of the year (at least probably not). He’s not going to continue shooting 68.8% from 2 and 63.3% from 3-point range. But the son of 1998 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Jeff Sheppard has been outstanding with big performances against Kansas (13 points on five shots) and Miami (21 points on 13 shots). He is also a premier defender, currently sporting the seventh-best steal rate in D-I. He hasn’t even started a game yet. As John Calipari gets his big men back, it’ll be interesting how his rotations change. Sheppard, though, has earned his spot and then some.

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