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  • After the Blue Devils' slow starts finally caught up to them and the Jayhawks suffered back-to-back losses, the rankings saw a shake-up this week. Can the top teams rebound? Plus, how long can Arizona State sustain this level?
By Molly Geary
December 13, 2017

Well, wasn’t that a week! Three AP top-five teams (Duke, Kansas, Florida) fell to unranked opponents, with the Jayhawks dropping an additional game at home to surging Arizona State. For a time of year that’s usually not high on chaos in college basketball, there’s been a fair share of head-turning (and head-scratching) results not even halfway through December. We’re down to six remaining undefeated teams, one of which is our new No. 1 in the third installation of these power rankings.

* = game played at a neutral location

1. Villanova (10–0)

Last Week (2): beat LaSalle
Next Week: at Temple

The Wildcats ascend to the top spot after Duke’s unexpected loss in Chestnut Hill. While a lot has deservedly been made about Mikal Bridges’s breakout or the play of Jalen Brunson so far this season, another key development for Villanova has been the return of Phil Booth. Booth, who averaged 7.0 points across 22 minutes for ‘Nova’s 2015–16 title-winning team, played just three games last year before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Now healthy again, the junior guard is providing valuable minutes as a starter and shooting at a much higher and more efficient rate than he did two years ago. He’s now scored in double figures for five straight games, including a 48% mark from three.

2. Michigan State (9–1)

Last Week (3): beat Southern Utah
Next Week: vs. Oakland*, vs. Southern Baptist

Now healthy and with a lot more depth in the frontcourt, the Spartans have improved in a lot of ways this season, as evidenced in their suffocating wins over UNC and Notre Dame. But one area that hasn’t improved has been turnovers. Michigan State’s current 20.5% turnover rate is exactly in line with what it was a season ago, when the team had one of the worst marks in the country. The Spartans’ elite defense can sometimes mask this, such as when they committed 24 turnovers (on one-third of their possessions) against UNC and still won comfortably. But the problem reared its head again in a recent win over Rutgers that required a big defensive stand down the stretch to hold off the Scarlet Knights. There’s no one main guilty party (MSU’s five starters average a TO rate ranging from 16.4% to 22.4%, per KenPom), and when you add the fact that it’s a lingering issue, it could be a problem with no quick fix.

3. Arizona State (9–0)

Last Week (12): beat St. John’s, beat No. 2 Kansas
Next Week: vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Longwood

Does anyone have a better pair of wins at this point than the Sun Devils? They’ve now beat Xavier by 16 on a neutral court and Kansas on the road by 10. That’s two double-digit wins over teams ranked in the top 10 on Kenpom, and four total top-50 wins, none of which came at home. In beating the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday, ASU did something that only happened once over the last three seasons. Its offense responded to the challenge of the Jayhawks’ defense by pouring in 95 points, including 1.23 per possession (PPP), just two days after scoring 82 on a St. John’s defense that’s no slouch. So by this point we know Arizona State can score for real. Its defense continues to hold it back analytically, and that’s an issue that could be exposed on a bad shooting night or in a tough matchup, but when it went up against an elite offense (Xavier) it nearly ran it off the court. 

4. Duke (11–1)

Last Week (1): lost to Boston College 
Next Week: OFF

The Blue Devils’ defensive weaknesses were going to eventually catch up to them, but Boston College, which had just two ACC wins total in the last two years, wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to be the one to take advantage. But that’s exactly what the Eagles did on Saturday, racking up 1.20 PPP while hitting 15 of 26 three-pointers en route to their first win over a ranked team since 2014. BC deserves a lot of credit for its game plan, which exploited Duke’s biggest issues on D. For one thing, the Blue Devils have been a far better defensive team in transition than in the half court, according to Synergy Sports data. Their main areas of weakness have been on pick-and-rolls, cuts and handoffs by opponents, all of which the Eagles made sure to attack out of the gate. Here was their second possession of the game, which resulted in a Duke defensive breakdown and a wide-open three, the first of BC’s season-high 15. 

This is something the young Blue Devils need to get better at, and they have just one game (Evansville) against an easier opponent before their ACC slate resumes against Florida State. 

5. Wichita State (8–1)

Last Week (5): beat Oklahoma State
Next Week: vs. Oklahoma, vs. Arkansas State

After a slow start, the Shockers got a nice road win over Oklahoma State behind a career-high 30 points from Landry Shamet. In the win, Shamet did something he hasn’t done a ton of this season: he got to the free-throw line. The sophomore came into Saturday’s game having taken 17 shots on the season from the stripe, including just one in the previous four games. But against the Cowboys alone, Shamet attempted 16 free throws, making 14. Back during their comeback win over South Dakota State last week, the Shockers missed nine freebies, including six in the final six minutes. This time, they were able to get the ball in the hands of Shamet, an excellent free-throw shooter who sealed the victory.

6. Kentucky (8–1)

Last Week (6): beat Monmouth
Next Week: vs. Virginia Tech

Outside of their lingering turnover problem, which SI.com’s Dan Greene addressed more thoroughly in his Monday Rebound column, the Wildcats exhibited some positive signs offensively in their win over Monmouth at MSG, posting their highest assist rate since the season opener. While Kevin Knox had the worst outing of his young career, PJ Washington stepped up with a 20-point effort and Hamidou Diallo had his third straight strong game. Kentucky hasn’t had a decent test since its loss to Kansas a month ago, but that’s about to change as it gets set to face Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville to close out its nonconference schedule (excluding the SEC/Big 12 Challenge). The young Wildcats’ first true road test, however, won’t come until January.

7. North Carolina (9–1)

Last Week (7): beat Western Carolina
Next Week: at Tennessee

The Tar Heels erupted to make 16 of 22 three-point attempts in a win over Western Carolina, the sixth time in their last eight games that they connected on at least 40% of their perimeter shots (however, one of the two they did not was their disastrous 1-for-18 showing against Michigan State). As a team, they’re shooting 39.9% from three (43rd in the country), but that doesn’t necessarily tell the full story. Theo Pinson is the only one in the Tar Heel’s rotation with a sub-35% three-point percentage (2 of 21), and he’s drastically cut down on his attempts after a rough start, taking just two total threes in the last four games. If you took his numbers out, the team’s percentage moves to 43.7%. Keep in mind that this is without Cam Johnson, the Pitt transfer who shot 41.5% from three last year but has yet to play after undergoing surgery (his return timetable points to him being back soon).

8. Texas A&M (8–1)

Last Week (8): beat Prairie View A&M
Next Week: vs. Savannah State, vs. Northern Kentucky

One thing that’s been behind the Aggies’ current third-ranked efficient defense has been their ability to limit opposing shooting. In particular, their three-point defense is ranked second in the country, with opponents hitting just 23.3% through A&M’s nine games. The highest mark any team has achieved yet was Arizona hitting 31.8% (7 for 22), which is also the only game the Aggies have lost. Is this sustainable, or have they been catching some teams on bad nights? The answer may lie in the middle. Texas A&M has yet to go up against a very good (i.e. top 50) perimeter-shooting team, and while Arizona’s overall 38.1% mark is solid, there’s five SEC teams the Aggies will face currently shooting at a better clip. But while that No. 2 defensive mark may be somewhat skewed from facing multiple bad three-point shooting teams, Texas A&M’s length (its most common lineup features three players 6’9” or taller) should frustrate opposing shooters all season long.

9. Xavier (9–1)

Last Week (10): beat Kent State, beat Colorado
Next Week: vs. East Tennessee State, vs. Marshall

We all knew Trevon Bluiett was a very good player, but have you seen the start he’s been off to this season? The senior has been on fire, hitting 62.5% of his twos and 47.1% of his threes while earning a true shooting percentage of 71.6%. Bluiett will inevitably cool off at least somewhat, but a jump in his performance during his final season is everything the Musketeers could’ve asked for. He’s been the rock behind their second-ranked offense, which put up back-to-back explosive games in the last week.

10. Miami (8–0)

Last Week (9): OFF
Next Week: at George Washington

The undefeated Hurricanes had the last week off before as they get ready for a stretch of four straight road games, which starts Saturday at GW.

11. Seton Hall (8–1)

Last Week (13): beat VCU
Next Week: vs. Saint Peter’s, at Rutgers

After a 90-point effort against VCU and a win over Saint Peter’s, the Pirates have now scored more than 1 PPP in all 10 of their games this season (six of which have been against top-100 opponents). Their offense currently ranks 16th in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, a marked improvement from last season’s No. 84 finish. A driving force has been improved shooting, whether you look at two-point shooting, three-point shooting or effective field-goal percentage, and the individual growth of Desi Rodriguez has certainly been a big factor as well. The question going forward is whether Seton Hall can sustain this improvement into Big East play. Last year, the Pirates ranked eighth in effective FG% and ninth in three-point percentage during conference action.

12. West Virginia (9–1)

Last Week (14): beat Pittsburgh
Next Week: OFF

The Mountaineers had an unexpectedly close call on the road against Pitt, a rebuilding team that could finish last in the ACC. It marked the third time this season that WVU was outrebounded; the others were its opening loss to Texas A&M and another too-close-for-comfort win over Missouri. It didn’t help against the Panthers that two of the Mountaineers’ best rebounders, Wesley Harris and Sagaba Konate, were dealing with foul trouble. After the week Kansas had, there may be a glimmer of hope for teams like West Virginia who hope to end the Jayhawks’ stranglehold on the Big 12 regular-season title, but the Mountaineers can’t afford to have many nights during conference play like the one they had in Pittsburgh.

13. Purdue (10–2)

Last Week (15): beat Valparaiso, beat IUPUI
Next Week: vs. Butler

The Boilermakers' 30-point home rout of Valparaiso closed a five-game window where they went 5–0 against KenPom top-100 teams—not a bad way to recover from a pair of unexpected November losses. And after his career-high 27 point performance against IUPUI on Sunday, is it time to officially give the ‘breakout’ tag to Carsen Edwards? The sophomore is leading the team in scoring at 17 ppg, up from his 10.3 average as a freshman, and has become a focal point of the offense. But the biggest jump he’s made this year may be his play inside the arc. Edwards has been more aggressive and has upped both his field-goal percentage at the rim (from 52.0% to 67.5%) and on two-point jumpers (from 29.7% to 53.8%). As a result, he’s been drawing more fouls and has greatly improved his free-throw rate as well, having already taken 55 from the stripe after attempting 75 all of last season.

14. Virginia (8–1)

Last Week (16): OFF
Next Week: vs. Davidson, vs. Savannah State

Another team that had the last week off, the Cavaliers’ upcoming game against Davidson features a fun clash between UVA’s elite defense and Wildcats forward Peyton Aldridge, who averages 21.7 points and 4.1 assists per game.

15. Gonzaga (8–2)

Last Week (17): beat Washington
Next Week: vs. North Dakota, vs. IUPUI

The Bulldogs made sure Washington didn’t pull an encore after its big win over Kansas by squashing the Huskies by 27 on the road. Freshman Zach Norvell continued his recent strong play, posting his third straight 20-point game despite a rough night from beyond the arc. Norvell had to replace fellow freshman Corey Kispert (who injured his ankle) in the starting lineup at a critical time—just as the Zags were about to face Big East heavyweights Creighton and Villanova. The Bulldogs went 1–1 in those games, but Norvell’s emergence and the aggressiveness he showed could be vital for them going forward. Going up against two of the Big East’s best, the freshman totaled 43 points on 7-of-7 shooting inside the arc and 8-of-18 shooting outside it.

16. TCU (10–0)

Last Week (19): beat Nevada
Next Week: vs. Texas Southern

The Horned Frogs have now passed their two biggest nonconference tests, following up their win over SMU with a neutral-court victory over Nevada. Notably, TCU hit a combined 22 of 42 threes in those two games, bolstering its No. 7-ranked three-point team mark of 43.1%. That’s a big improvement from last season’s 35.7%, but there’s reason to buy into it not being a fluke. Take Kenrich Williams, who’s hit 15 of 31 threes so far (48.4%) after connecting on 36.3% a season ago. Williams’s improvement predates this season; in his final nine games of 2016–17, which included the Big 12 tournament and the NIT, he hit 14 of 31 (45.1%). Desmond Bane, who has sunk a whopping 24 of 43 (55.8%) so far this season, hit 11 of 23 (47.8%) down the stretch last year after going just 19 of 56 (33.9%) through the first 28 games. It’s not the biggest sample sizes, and odds are that number comes down, but TCU looks like it has the tools to be a dangerous perimeter team.

17. Florida State (9–0)

Last Week (20): beat Loyola (MD), beat Tulane
Next Week: vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Charleston Southern

The Seminoles are one of just six remaining undefeated teams in the country, which is impressive even if their schedule outside of their road game at Florida hasn’t been overly challenging. Statistically right now, this team isn’t that different in many areas (such as overall offense and defense and shooting percentages) from the one that earned a No. 3 seed last year, despite all that FSU lost. That will almost certainly change as the schedule considerably ramps up soon, but there’s fundamentals in place that could keep this team competitive in the ACC. A game Saturday against Oklahoma State in Sunrise, Fla., is their last Power 5 test before a highly challenging start to conference play.

18. Arizona (7–3)

Last Week (23): beat Alabama
Next Week: at New Mexico, vs. North Dakota State

The Wildcats continued their recent upward trajectory with a home win over Alabama over the weekend in their only game of the last week. Big man Deandre Ayton had perhaps the most impressive outing of his young career, posting season-highs of 29 points and 18 rebounds on 12 of 18 shooting. The freshman has been a monster on the defensive boards, posting the ninth-best rate in the country at 30.8% and averaging 11.9 rebounds per game. Crucially, the Wildcats also finally got Rawle Alkins back from injury against the Tide. As he shakes off the rust he stands to play a key role for Arizona going forward.

19. Florida (6–3)

Last Week (11): lost to Loyola Chicago, beat No. 25 Cincinnati
Next Week: vs. Clemson

This was a roller coaster last seven days for the Gators. It started with disaster when they dropped their third straight with a home loss to Loyola Chicago, but UF was able to rebound with a gutsy neutral-court win over Cincinnati over the weekend to salvage its place in these rankings. Florida’s problems against the Ramblers were similar to the ones it had in its loss to Florida State in that it got bullied inside and suffered from a poor shooting night. That made its matchup with the Bearcats, a team that rebounds and defends the interior well and is bigger than the Gators, seem daunting, but this time it was the Gators’ defense that stepped up to help secure a win they desperately needed. UF relied on a familiar trio offensively— Chris Chiozza, Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov—to beat Cincy, and it’s clear this team needs consistency from them to succeed. 

20. Kansas (7–2)

Last Week (4): lost to Washington, lost to No. 16 Arizona State
Next Week: at Nebraska

What happened to the Jayhawks? Back-to-back losses—one in Kansas City to Washington and one at home to Arizona State—simply don’t happen often with Bill Self’s program. In fact, it was Kansas’s first time losing two straight since December 2013. KU’s extremely low free-throw rate, which was highlighted in last week’s power rankings as a potential issue, proved costly when the Jayhawks attempted a total of just 17 free throws between the two losses. That they were only able to muster 65 points against the Huskies (with only three from Devonte’ Graham) is concerning, and right now it feels like Kansas doesn’t have enough playmakers to sometimes generate offense when it needs it. The Jayhawks are still playing without Billy Preston, but with or without him there’s plenty to work on in Lawrence.

21. Cincinnati (8–2)

Last Week (18): lost to No. 22 Florida, beat Mississippi State
Next Week: at UCLA, vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff

Despite two solid defensive outings, the Bearcats went 1–1 over the last week after they couldn’t take advantage of what seemed like a favorable matchup with a struggling Florida team. Cincinnati’s defense looks back on track after its poor showing against Xavier, but it needs to find more consistent offense, especially from senior big man Gary Clark. The Bearcats have their second road game of the season on Saturday when they make the trek to UCLA, a good litmus test after their crosstown trip to the Cintas Center got away from them.

22. Notre Dame (8–2)

Last Week (21): at Delaware
This Week: vs. Indiana*, vs. Dartmouth

After their surprising loss to Ball State, the Irish took care of business in a 24-point road win over Delaware, and now they get Indiana in the Crossroads Classic this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the ND defense handles the Hoosiers, who showed against Duke that they can hang with an offensive-minded team if it doesn’t get enough stops on defense. It’s a game Notre Dame should win, but it can help put the sour taste of its Michigan State and Ball State defeats behind it if it has a strong two-way showing in its final game against a top-100 opponent before ACC play begins.

23. Tennessee (7–1)

Last Week (24): beat Lipscomb
Next Week: vs. No. 7 North Carolina

This Sunday might be the most hyped game at Thompson-Boling Arena in some time as the Vols welcome UNC to Knoxville. Tennessee’s No. 20 AP poll ranking is the program’s highest since 2010, and it has a chance to really make a statement on national television against the defending champs—but that’s easier said than done. The Vols will need to limit the Tar Heels’ second-chance opportunities, an area they haven’t been great in this season while allowing opponents to rebound nearly a third of their misses. Tennessee will also need to contend with Luke Maye, a task that will likely fall to Grant Williams and/or Kyle Alexander. 

24. Texas Tech (7–1)

Last Week (25): OFF
Next Week: vs. Kennesaw State, vs. Rice, vs. Florida Atlantic

The Red Raiders have had a week-long break since their overtime win over Nevada, but have a trio of games over their next seven days—none against an opponent who should be much of a threat. 

25. Oklahoma (7–1)

Last Week (NR): beat No. 25 USC
Next Week: at No. 3 Wichita State

Welcome to the power rankings, Oklahoma. The Sooners earned their spot with a win in Los Angeles over USC, which means we can finally talk about Trae Young here. If you’re not familiar with the Sooners freshman guard, he’s currently leading the country in scoring with 28.8 ppg and is third in assists with 8.8. Additionally, his assist rate of 46.8% is fourth, per KenPom, and he’s drawing 8.0 fouls per 40 minutes, the 20th-best mark in the country. The star freshman is a big reason why Oklahoma is back to national relevancy already despite being fresh off an 11–20 season. But he and the Sooners face their biggest challenge yet on Saturday when they travel to Wichita to take on the third-ranked Shockers. That defense will be the best Young and Co. have faced this season, so seeing how they respond should tell us a lot about exactly where they stand.

DROPPED OUT: Minnesota

NEXT FIVE OUT: Baylor, Creighton, Louisville, Arkansas, Alabama

Mid-Major Meter

(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)

1. Gonzaga: No surprise here after the Zags’ 27-point road win over Washington.

2. Northern Iowa: The Panthers continued their strong nonconference showing by beating the Sun Belt’s UT Arlington last week.

3. Nevada: The Wolf Pack went 0 for 2 against the Big 12’s Texas Tech and TCU, but it didn’t get a shot at either on its home court.

4. Saint Mary’s: The Gaels have been adept at taking care of the ball, owning the nation’s second-lowest turnover rate.

5. Boise State: The 9–1 Broncos have a date with Grand Canyon before a big opportunity on the road at SMU to close their nonconference slate.

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