With the NCAA tournament just around the corner and college basketball serving up drama both on and off the court, herewith our penultimate Power Rankings.

By Molly Geary
February 28, 2018

College basketball made more headlines off the court than on it in the last week, but we’ll focus on the latter for our penultimate Power Rankings. It’s already conference tournament time for some leagues, like the Big Ten and WCC, while most teams are gearing up for the final week of the regular season. As always, the week didn’t go without drama on the court, including two Tobacco Road teams being upset heading into their eagerly anticipated second showdown. Here’s the new top 25:

1. Michigan State (28–3)

Last Week (1): beat Wisconsin
Next Week: Big Ten tournament

The Spartans earned the No. 1 seed for this week’s Big Ten tournament, but they may need some revenge to win what would be their second tourney crown in three years. While on a 12-game win streak, MSU could have to go through at least one—if not both—of the teams that handed it its only Big Ten losses: Michigan and Ohio State. The Wolverines potentially loom in a semifinal matchup, while the Buckeyes are on the other side of the bracket and could line up with the Spartans in the final. In both previous contests, Michigan State’s normally sound defense faltered. Avenging one or both of those losses on the way to a tournament title would have them rolling into the Big Dance with a full head of steam.

2. Virginia (26–2)

Last Week (2): beat Georgia Tech, beat Pittsburgh
Next Week: at Louisville, vs. Notre Dame

The Cavaliers won the ACC title outright with a predictable romp of Pitt, which let us see what happens with the nation’s top defense goes up against the nation’s 288th-best offense. The result, you might surmise, is not pretty! UVA held the Panthers to just seven(!) points in the first half, including 1-for-22 shooting (4.5%) from the floor. Even with Pitt’s many woes, that’s impressive.

3. Kansas (24–6)

Last Week (5): beat Texas Tech, beat Texas
Next Week: at Oklahoma State

Despite what once seemed like a wide-open field, there will be no changing of the guard atop the Big 12 this season. In the end, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the Jayhawks pulled off a record 14th straight Big 12 title, and even did it outright with a game to spare. Ever since a dismal loss to Baylor on Feb. 10, Kansas’s offense has been playing at a high level, including scoring 1.21 points per possession and going 11-for-25 from three against Texas Tech’s third-ranked defense. Right now, the offense is making up for a more questionable defense—only one of the Jayhawks’ last eight opponents has failed to score over 1.0 PPP—but is that sustainable in March?

4. Villanova (25–4)

Last Week (3): beat DePaul, lost to Creighton
Next Week: at Seton Hall, vs. Georgetown

The Wildcats no longer control their own destiny in the Big East after falling at Creighton in overtime, and interestingly it was the first time all season that they were out-shot both inside and outside the arc. The Bluejays also became just the third team this season (joining Butler and Marquette) to post an effective field-goal percentage above 56% against ‘Nova. The Wildcats’ defense has taken a step back from what it’s been in recent years (though still ranks a respectable 32nd on kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings), but it usually does enough to let the offense overcome any porousness. That wasn’t the case in Omaha.

5. Xavier (25–4)

Last Week (6): beat Georgetown
Next Week: vs. Providence, at DePaul

They may have dropped both of their games against Villanova this season—with neither being particularly close, which is why they remain below the Wildcats here this week—but the Musketeers are now in position to win their first regular-season title since joining the Big East. That’s because outside of an early January trip to Providence, they’ve completely taken care of business against the rest of the conference, something ‘Nova cannot say. Now Xavier gets a rematch with the Friars at home before potentially being able to wrap things up against DePaul.

6. Duke (24–6)

Last Week (4): beat Louisville, beat Syracuse, lost to Virginia Tech
Next Week: vs. North Carolina

Despite their loss in Blacksburg on Monday, which brings an inevitable dip here, it’s hard to not be high on the Blue Devils right now. That’s because their defense, which spent the vast majority of this season being (deservedly) much maligned, is all the way up to No. 14 on kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings. We’re way past the point of wondering if Duke could “pull a 2015” and enter the tournament with a defensive ranking outside of the typical championship profile yet make a run to the title. That 2015 defense entered the tourney ranked 37th. This year’s Blue Devils (second in offense, 14th in defense) are now threatening to join Michigan State (seventh in offense, 10th in defense) as the only teams ranked in the top 10 in both. The significance of that is that since kenpom.com started in 2002, 25 teams have entered the NCAA tournament top 10 in both. Twelve of those 25 (48%) have made the Final Four.

7. Gonzaga (27–4)

Last Week (7): beat San Diego, beat BYU
Next Week: WCC tournament

The Zags locked up another WCC regular-season title and will now go for the double, where they’re likely to face Saint Mary’s in the tourney final for a rubber match between the schools. While Gonzaga finished with the same 17–1 conference record it had last year, when it would go on to be the national runner-up, the advanced stats show some disparity. The offense was nearly on pace with its counterpart in league play, posting 120.2 points per 100 possessions to last season’s 121.6, but defensively it gave up 93.1 points per 100 possessions—still tops in the conference, but notably more than the 84.5 it gave up a year ago. Keep in mind the 2016–17 team led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and replicating that after losing what the Zags did would have been almost impossible. That doesn’t mean what they’ve done this year isn’t significant.

8. Purdue (26–5)

Last Week (8): beat Illinois, beat Minnesota
Next Week: Big Ten tournament

The Boilermakers rank fourth on kenpom.com and, along with Michigan State and Duke, are one of just three teams in the country in the top 20 on both offense and defense, but in terms of optics, Purdue could really benefit from a strong Big Ten tournament showing. This is a team that has the goods to go deep into March no matter what happens at MSG this week, but a weak Big Ten left it few opportunities for marquee wins, and while it went 2–0 against Michigan, it lost to both Ohio State and Michigan State. The Boilermakers could potentially face both of the latter again in New York, and like the Spartans they could enter the Big Dance riding high if they get revenge on the way to the crown.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

9. Wichita State

Last Week (12): beat Tulane, beat SMU
Next Week: at UCF, vs. Cincinnati

The Shockers are back in the top 10 here because they’ve won six in a row and have risen as others have faltered, but they’re kind of like the anti-Duke right now. While the Blue Devils seemed to have fixed their defensive woes as the season has gone, Wichita State has been slipping from an already shaky perch and now ranks 94th in adjusted defensive efficiency. It hasn’t finished a season ranked that low on defense under Gregg Marshall since 2008–09, a year it went 17–17. Unlike that season though, this year’s Shockers have an elite offense—in fact, it’s currently their highest-ranked offense (No. 5) in the kenpom.com era. Unbalanced teams seem to be the trend this year, but that level of disparity seems awfully unlikely to sustain a long March run without any (also unlikely) abrupt and significant changes on defense.

10. Cincinnati

Last Week (14): beat UConn, beat Tulsa
Next Week: at Tulane, at Wichita State

Another unbalanced AAC team, the Bearcats at least are top 50 on offense to go along with their second-ranked defense. While the postseason is approaching, they’ve likely got their regular-season finale circled on their calendar, when they’ll look to force a split with Wichita State and secure the American title. No matter how the seeding shakes out, the conference tournament feels very likely to draw from two of Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston.

11. Ohio State (24–7)

Last Week (15): beat Indiana
Next Week: Big Ten tournament

How much are the Buckeyes praying Northwestern beats Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament? Or maybe they’re confident the old adage of “it’s hard to beat a team three times” in one season will fall in their favor should they face those pesky Nittany Lions again. In any event, they can be encouraged that Keita Bates-Diop had his best game in two weeks in their regular-season finale against Indiana, scoring 24 points with 14 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals in a double-overtime win. That’s vintage Bates-Diop after three lackluster games from the junior.

12. North Carolina (22–8)

Last Week (10): beat Syracuse, lost to Miami
Next Week: at Duke

The college basketball world experienced a bit of déjà vu Tuesday night in Chapel Hill on Senior Night, with Joel Berry II playing the role of Marcus Paige and Miami’s Ja'Quan Newton acting as Kris Jenkins (I think Paige summed things up succinctly for Tar Heels fans here). That’s a tough loss to take, especially at this time of the year, but UNC will need to forget it quickly before it makes the short trip to Durham this weekend. The Heels ran all over Duke’s defense in the teams’ first meeting back on Feb. 8, but the Blue Devils seem to be in a far better place right now (see above). It will be interesting to see how the strategy for both teams may change, and if North Carolina can pull off what would be an impressive regular-season sweep.

13. West Virginia (22–8)

Last Week (17): beat Iowa State, beat Texas Tech
Next Week: at Texas

The Mountaineers pulled themselves out of the January wall they hit by winning six of eight heading into their regular-season finale. Notably, they’re shooting better of late: in their five January losses, they averaged an effective field-goal percentage of 45.6% and three-point percentage of 32.0%. In their eight games since, they’ve hit 40.4% of their threes and had an effective field-goal percentage average of 55.1%. It’s a positive sign at this point in the season for a team that is overall outside the top 150 nationally in both categories.

14. Tennessee (22–7)

Last Week (18): beat Florida, beat Ole Miss, beat Mississippi State
Next Week: vs. Georgia

Despite hiccups against Alabama and Georgia earlier this month, the Vols have won 10 of 12 heading into their regular-season finale and can earn a share of the SEC title—or possible an outright one depending on Auburn’s result—on Saturday. Tennessee’s defense has quietly crept up to fourth in the nation in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings, though its offense ranks just inside the top 50 at No. 49. The losses to the Tide and Bulldogs may have sparked something in the Volunteers, who have now held three straight opponents below 0.87 PPP. In a win over Ole Miss over the weekend, Tennessee’s 13th-ranked perimeter defense made the Rebels’ usually poor three-point offense look especially bad in a 1-for-23 effort from deep.

15. Auburn (24–6)

Last Week (11): beat Alabama, lost to Florida, lost to Arkansas
Next Week: vs. South Carolina

While Tennessee is on the rise, the Tigers are not, having lost three of four and now needing a win against South Carolina on Saturday just to assure themselves a share of the SEC crown in a race they’ve led for weeks. Is the loss of Anfernee McLemore looming large? Arkansas freshman Daniel Gafford feasted on Auburn’s interior Tuesday night, going 10-for-15 from the field (seven of which were dunks) for 21 points, adding 10 rebounds and a whopping seven blocks. The 1.15 PPP surrendered by the Tigers also matched their high water mark in SEC play, and they’ve now given up more than 1.0 PPP in three of four games after only doing it in three of their previous eight.

16. Michigan (24–7)

Last Week (20): beat Penn State, beat Maryland
Next Week: Big Ten tournament

The Wolverines ended their regular season by handing Maryland its worst home loss in 20 years, which included a 30-point lead…at halftime. Add it to a road win over Penn State, which came after a Senior Day victory over Ohio State, and Michigan has to be brimming with confidence heading into the Big Ten tourney. The Wolverines are shooting the ball well right now, posting an effective field-goal percentage of at least 50% in eight of their last 10 games, and defensively have held four straight opponents below 1.0 PPP. Freshman Jordan Poole has gone 9-for-12 from three over the last three games and continues to be a boost off the bench.

17. Arizona (22–7)

Last Week (13): beat Oregon State, lost to Oregon
Next Week: vs. Stanford, vs. California

Everyone knows what’s happened with Arizona off the court in the last week. The short story is that Allonzo Trier is suspended and Sean Miller’s status is up in the air, throwing the Wildcats’ season into chaos. Without Miller on the sidelines, they fell in overtime at Oregon over the weekend. Deandre Ayton did his best superhero impression with 28 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks, but inexplicably had zero attempts from the field in the final 10 minutes of regulation and just one shot—a three-point attempt—in overtime. For Arizona to have any chance at a run at this point going forward, it’s going to have to go through Ayton. He needs the ball in crunch time.

18. Nevada (25–5)

Last Week (19): beat San Jose State, beat Colorado State
Next Week: at UNLV, at San Diego State

The Wolf Pack won their second straight regular-season Mountain West title over the weekend by beating Colorado State. Their rotation may be especially thin now that Lindsey Drew is out (against the Rams, only seven players saw the floor, with one of them, Elijah Foster, totaling four minutes), but that offense is hard to stop. The obvious concern, however, is foul trouble. As we approach single-elimination tournaments, it will be imperative that the likes of Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens are able to stay on the floor.

19. Texas Tech (22–8)

Last Week (9): lost to Oklahoma State, lost to Kansas, lost to West Virginia
Next Week: vs. TCU

The Red Raiders tumble after an 0–3 week that was capped by their fourth straight loss, but don’t by any means count them out going forward because of it. While Keenan Evans played in three of those games, he’s clearly been bothered by the toe injury he sustained against Baylor in the first of the four losses. He scored just two points against Oklahoma State and six against Kansas before sitting out against West Virginia (along with Justin Gray and Zach Smith), and the priority for Texas Tech right now should be making sure he’s healthy for the Big 12 and (especially) NCAA tournament. Without Evans, who leads the team in win shares and is their clear top offensive weapon, the Red Raiders are obviously not the same team.

20. Kentucky (20–9)

Last Week (24): beat Missouri
Next Week: vs. Mississippi, at Florida

Are you back on the Kentucky train? The Wildcats have now won three straight, including an impressive 21-point home win over Missouri to avenge a loss in Columbia that had kicked off their four-game February skid. When UK was struggling, it was getting little offensively from the likes of P.J. Washington and Quade Green, but both have now come off the bench to contribute double figures in all three wins. Add it to the play of Jarred Vanderbilt, who’s adding offense to his rebounding prowess (including an 11-point, 15-rebound, three-block effort against Mizzou), and you can see why things are looking better in Lexington.

21. Rhode Island (23–5)

Last Week (16): beat Dayton, lost to Saint Joseph’s
Next Week: at Davidson

What the heck happened to the Rams Tuesday night? They were hosting a Saint Joseph’s team that entered 8–8 in the Atlantic 10—a league that Rhode Island has dominated—and got blown out by 30. The loss was so bad it dropped the school a whopping 21(!) spots on kenpom.com to No. 48, its lowest rank since late December. The Rams scored just 0.68 PPP against a mediocre Hawks defense, shot a pitiful 3-for-29 from three, turned it over 14 times and made just nine of 18 free throws for good measure. That kind of performance clearly isn’t indicative of who Rhode Island has been all season, but it’s the kind of unexpected and deflating loss that can either snowball into an ill-timed skid or serve as a wake-up call. 

22. Virginia Tech (21–9)

Last Week (NR): lost to Louisville, beat Duke
Next Week: at Miami

Marquee ACC wins for the Hokies this season: vs. North Carolina, at Virginia, vs. Clemson, vs. Duke. And for good measure, throw in at home against NC State, meaning Virginia Tech has a win over all five of the teams ahead of it in the conference standings. That’s pretty darn impressive, and while its overall resumé might not be the best body of work out there, a team with that track record of big-time wins is the kind of lower-seeded Power 5 team that can make noise in the NCAA tournament.

23. TCU (21–9)

Last Week (NR): beat Iowa State, beat Baylor, beat Kansas State
Next Week: at Texas Tech

Once 1–4 in Big 12 play, the Horned Frogs have climbed over .500 for the first time after winning their fourth straight Tuesday night. TCU still boasts the most efficient offense and best three-point shooting in Big 12 play, and the defense has improved a bit as the schedule has let up, but overall the Horned Frogs have a Wichita State-style split, ranking sixth on kenpom.com in offense and 114th on defense. Over its last three games, TCU has relied more on its inside shooting than its outside proficiency, overcoming a 32.2% mark from three by connecting on 63.7% of its two-point attempts.

24. Middle Tennessee (23–5)

Last Week (25): beat UAB
Next Week: vs. Western Kentucky, vs. Marshall

While the Blue Raiders are a familiar March Cinderella and currently in the AP top 25, they’re not quite a lock to get back to the Big Dance. Obviously very few mid-major teams are due to the unpredictable nature of conference tournaments, but Western Kentucky looms as a legitimate threat in the C-USA. The Hilltoppers are just a game back in the standings with two to go, but Middle Tennessee already owns a road win in their first meeting. They’ll square off again in Murfreesboro on Thursday, pitting the top offense in conference play (Western Kentucky) with the top defense (Middle Tennessee). And then, of course, we may as well see Part III soon enough. Giddy (Potts) up.

25. Nebraska (22–9)

Last Week (NR): beat Penn State
Next Week: Big Ten tournament

The Cornhuskers might not be beating world-beaters, but you know what? They are winning, reeling off eight of nine and 10 of 12 to close the regular season to nab the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Who saw that coming? Certainly not SI.com’s projection system, which saw them finishing 12th out of 14 teams. The problem for Nebraska is that its best win all season was at home against Michigan—a fine victory, but not ideal to be the only key bullet point on your resumé. The Huskers will very likely need to beat the Wolverines again to advance to the semifinal, where they’d in all likelihood take on No. 1 seed Michigan State. Opportunity knocks.

DROPPED OUT: Clemson, Houston, Baylor

NEXT FIVE OUT: Clemson, Saint Mary’s, Houston, Butler, Miami


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: The Zags are WCC regular-season champs for the sixth straight year.

2. Nevada: The Wolf Pack end the regular season with two games on the road, but they’ve already sewn up the Mountain West.

3. Middle Tennessee: A win over Western Kentucky on Thursday would give the Blue Raiders the C-USA regular-season title.

4. Saint Mary’s: The Gaels lost their opportunity to win the WCC regular-season crown, but they can still get revenge in the conference tournament.

5. Loyola-Chicago: The Ramblers open Arch Madness as the No. 1 seed and could potentially face Southern Illinois or Illinois State should they reach the final.

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