Interim Power Rankings czar reestablishes KU as top dog (cont.)
Last Week: 15
Ohio State Buckeyes (19-6)It's time to stop punishing the Buckeyes for distant setbacks from the Evan Turner injury era and start ranking them for what they've become since his return: An elite team. OSU rolled to its eighth win in nine games on Wednesday at Indiana, 69-52, the lone defeat coming Jan. 23 at West Virginia (71-65). The average margin of victory during its current five-game winning streak: 14.0 points.
It should be noted, however, that the Buckeyes have been enjoying a particularly light stretch in their conference schedule, with their last win over a current projected tourney team coming back on Jan. 16 against Wisconsin. That changes in a hurry Sunday when Turner and Co. visit Illinois for the first of three games in six days against the three teams with which they're currently tied for first in the Big Ten standings.
Next three: 2/14 at Illinois, 2/17 vs. Purdue, 2/20 at Michigan State
Last Week: 13
Duke Blue Devils (20-4)It's no secret the Blue Devils live and die by the three -- but could they live any more dangerously than they did on Wednesday in Chapel Hill? Duke hit just 13-of-51 shot attempts -- 25.5 percent -- from inside the arc but nailed 9-of-18 from outside the arc. The struggling Tar Heels, playing with all the intensity expected from an emotional rivalry game on their home floor, stayed toe-to-toe with Duke for 34 minutes before an incredibly clutch Jon Scheyer (24 points, 5-for-9 from three) helped the Blue Devils pull away for a 64-54 win.
However, Duke doesn't deserve any flack for failing to put away its overmatched rival (now 2-7 in the ACC) sooner. This wasn't any old game for UNC. Duke performed surprisingly well on the glass, gaining 19 offensive rebounds to the Tar Heels' 12, and prevailed despite losing forward Lance Thomas to a knee injury midway through the second half. Most notably, the Devils delivered a heck of a defensive performance, holding Roy Williams' team to its lowest scoring output in seven years.
Next three: 2/13 vs. Maryland, 2/17 at Miami, 2/21 vs. Virginia Tech
Last Week: 8
Wisconsin Badgers (18-6)It may soon turn out that Illinois was a sleeping giant all this time, a Big Ten title team that simply needed two months to wake up. As it stands now, however, Tuesday's 63-56 loss to the Illini in Madison was nothing short of stunning. Consider: Wisconsin had won 18 straight home games; have lost just 11 home games in nine seasons under Bo Ryan; and -- this is the really good one -- had gone 51-0 at home against unranked Big Ten opponents. Illinois wasn't just unranked; it entered the game with a No. 72 RPI rating.
The Badgers go the way of their senior star, Trevon Hughes. He went 0-for-8 from the field in the second half, Wisconsin shot 25.8 percent as a team and Illinois wiped out an 11-point first-half deficit. At this point, I'm inclined to assume the result was more a testament to the renewed Illini (coming off an equally big win over Kalin Lucas-less Michigan State) than an indictment against the Badgers, which had throttled Michigan on the road three days earlier and still boasts five wins over RPI top 50 teams, including ACC leaders Duke and Maryland.
Next three: 2/13 vs. Indiana, 2/18 at Minnesota, 2/21 vs. Northwestern
Last Week: 16
New Mexico Lobos (22-3)Say hello to your new Mountain West leader. The Lobos pulled off a huge 76-66 road win on Wednesday night against UNLV (which itself had knocked off BYU in its previous game) to move pass the Cougars into first place in the extremely competitive conference. Steve Alford's team has now won eight straight games and is putting together one heck of a resume: A 7-2 record against RPI top 50 foes (including Texas A&M, Cal and Dayton) and 11-2 against the top 100.
Junior forward Darington Hobson notched his second straight big game on the boards, posting 16 points and 13 rebounds to follow a 29-point, 12-rebound effort against San Diego State.
"We're playing really great basketball," said Alford, whose decision to beat the mob out of Iowa three years ago is looking smarter every day. "We've been a great road team all year."
Next three: 2/13 at Utah, 2/17 vs. Wyoming, 2/20 vs. Air Force
Last Week: --
Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-4)Two down, one to go. Having secured important victories over the past week against Portland and Memphis, The Zags host St. Mary's on Thursday night in a game that could determine whether Mark Few's squad winds up claiming its 10th straight WCC regular-season championship. The Gaels currently sit a half-game ahead of the Bulldogs at 8-1 in the conference, with that one defeat coming against Gonzaga on Jan. 14. A second win would effectively put Mark Few's squad two games ahead thanks to the tiebreaker.
St. Mary's (20-3) has improved its program dramatically under coach Randy Bennett, winning at least 25 games three times in the past five years, but Bennett's teams have yet to win in Spokane. The implications will go beyond the conference race, too. It's looking like one of those years where Few's team may garner a lower tourney seed (in the 4 to 6 range) than its poll ranking might suggest. The Zags are just 2-3 against RPI top 50 teams, with their annual Memphis game devalued this year due to the Tigers' ranking outside of the top 70, so Thursday's game will either change that mark to 3-3 (respectable) or 2-4 (not helpful).
Next three: 2/11 vs. St. Mary's, 2/13 vs. San Diego, 2/18 at Loyola Marymount
Last Week: 6
Michigan State Spartans (19-6)I wouldn't advise throwing in the towel on the Spartans just yet -- but they're certainly in a funk. After starting 9-0 in the Big Ten, Tom Izzo's club has dropped three straight contests -- two of them by double-digits.
It's no coincidence that the slide began when reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas sprained his ankle against Wisconsin. After a one-game absence, Lucas returned Tuesday night against Purdue and scored 12 points in 29 minutes. He was hardly at full strength, but that was still far from the full explanation as to how MSU could fall behind by 18 points at its own sold-out, amped-up arena. Forwards Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe and Draymond Green shot a combined 4-for-23 from the field.
Izzo isn't exactly in panic mode, noting that: "Purdue went through their three-game slump. Ohio State went through theirs. Wisconsin just got beat at home." Izzo himself predicted at the start of the year that, "five losses would win the league. We're getting closer to that number now, unfortunately."
Next three: 2/13 at Penn State, 2/16 at Indiana, 2/20 vs. Ohio State
Last Week: 11
Brigham Young Cougars (21-3)The Cougars haven't played since last Saturday's humbling 88-74 defeat in Vegas but are entering a stretch of their schedule where they should be able to string together several wins. The key date looming down the road is Feb. 27, when they host New Mexico. Each has two conference losses, but the Lobos won their home date with BYU on Jan. 27.
Barring a complete collapse, the Cougars don't have to worry about making the Dance, but they don't have nearly the same case as New Mexico for a high tourney seed. Their best nonconference wins all came against teams currently ranked outside of the RPI top 50 -- UTEP, Arizona, Nevada and Arizona State. But winning the regular-season title in one of the nation's most respected leagues this season would go a long ways.
Next three: 2/13 vs. Air Force, 2/17 at Colorado State, 2/20 at Wyoming
Last Week: 14
Vanderbilt Commodores (17-5)It was a week of extremes for the Commodores, who stunk up the joint in a 72-58 loss at Georgia last Saturday, then turned around and humiliated Tennessee 90-71 three days later. The latter was obviously a huge win for Vandy, which swept its in-state rival for the first time in five seasons (the year before Bruce Pearl took over the Vols) and did so by hitting a staggering 37-of-43 free throws.
Vandy fans will undoubtedly remember Wednesday as the night ballyhooed sophomore Jeffery Taylor finally morphed into the kind of dominant player many envisioned, taking over the game from the get-go to score a career-high 26 points (he hadn't cracked 10 in his previous four games), including 12-of-12 free throws. It was quite a contrast to the Georgia game, when Taylor scored eight points and the Commodores shot just 33 percent from the field and 63 percent from the stripe.
Next three: 2/13 vs. LSU, 2/18 at Ole Miss, 2/20 vs. Kentucky
The rest: 17. Butler. 18. Wake Forest. 19. Tennessee. 20. Northern Iowa. 21. Texas A&M. 22. Illinois. 23. Richmond. 24. Texas. 25. Cornell. 26. Siena. 27. Temple. 28. UNLV. 29. Maryland. 30. Pittsburgh. 31. Baylor. 32. Dayton.
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