As the calendar turns toward conference play and the 2018–19 season enters its “19” portion, a number of prominent college basketball teams are probably not quite where they had hoped to be—namely, outside the AP Top 25. Sure, everyone will tell you they don’t really care about rankings, but even granted that, for the 11 (!) teams that entered the season ranked that now find themselves no longer so, that designation is a reminder that their seasons have gotten off to suboptimal starts.
Lucky for them, the last poll of a calendar year has no actual bearing on anything and leaves plenty of time remaining to reorient their season’s trajectory. With that in mind—and with this being an inherently quiet holiday week in college hoops—let’s take a look at the prospects of those teams doing so, in order of likelihood. In other words: let’s rank some once-ranked, now-unranked teams based on the subjective probability that they become (subjectively) ranked again—and staying there.
1. Villanova (9–4, preseason No. 9)
The Wildcats’ early struggles—losses to Furman and Penn, a thrashing by Michigan—have been well-documented, as some the causes: an unusually amount of roster turnover and the unexpected trevails of five-star freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who completely fell out of Villanova’s rotation and caused a stir when he aired his frustration on Instagram. Yet in some ways those are what makes them a solid bet to turn things around. With Collin Gillespie unavailable due to concussion protocol, Quinerly played his best game of the season against UConn on Saturday, scoring 10 points and dishing four assists (against just one turnover) in 25 minutes. If he becomes even a solid contributor and the Wildcats’ sophomores come along, Villanova could still very well win a Big East that does not appear to have a dominant team.
2. TCU (11–1, preseason No. 20)
The Horned Frogs may break back into the top 25 soon after winning this week’s Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, having now won eight in a row since the November loss to Lipscomb that dropped them from the rankings. Jamie Dixon’s team is more balanced than the one that earned a No. 6 seed last March, ranking 28th nationally in offensive efficiency and 23rd defensively while looking like a top-half team in a hard Big 12. But keeping their winning ways going in the near future won’t be easy: Over the next month, TCU will have to travel to Kansas, Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Texas Tech.
3. Purdue (7–5, preseason No. 24)
Yes, this might be a bit bullish for a team that’s barely above .500 and whose best non-conference wins came against Davidson and Ball State. But Carsen Edwards can be a game-changing force that will give Purdue a chance on just about any given night, and the Boilermakers’ offense is good enough that even in the Big Ten they will sometimes just score their way to a win. Plus, none of their losses have been bad (they have played the country’s ninth-toughest schedule so far) and they could have definitely won the Florida State game, and maybe the Virginia Tech one too. But they’ve really got to clamp down defensively.
4. Syracuse (8–4, preseason No. 16)
The Orange have been hard to peg so far, as two of their losses came without point guard Frank Howard... but Howard has had a rough stretch in recent weeks, including in home losses to Old Dominion and Buffalo... but Cuse is also the only team to beat Ohio State so far, and did so in Columbus. Jim Boeheim’s team can’t shoot a lick... but it’s still a Boeheim team, and its zone is still liable to give even highly talented ACC foes fits. This has the looks of a squad whose results could be all over the place over the next couple months, but the right upset would go a long way.
5. Oregon (8–4, preseason No. 14)
The loss to Baylor was bad; the loss to Texas Southern was terrible. But the Pac-12 looks as down as it’s ever been and the Ducks are as talented as any team in the league, meaning they could string together enough wins to earn votes as teams ahead of them on ballots slip via attrition. The problem is how much of that talent will be available, as star freshman Bol Bol remains sidelined by a foot injury, the seriousness of which remains unconfirmed. Bol has hardly gotten to play with Louis King, another five-star prospect who missed the first seven games himself. The ceiling is high and the opportunity is there for the taking. Their range of outcomes may be particularly wide, but in this crowd, it’s the upside that puts them above most.
6. Clemson (9–3, preseason No. 22)
The Tigers have completely fallen off voters’ ballots after losses to Creighton, Nebraska and Mississippi State, despite wins over... well, nobody of note. Though many faces remain the same, this Clemson team does not defend like the one that reached the Sweet 16 nine months ago, which is what holds it back from remaining just behind the ACC’s top tier—five of the 10 most-efficient scoring attacks in the country right now are in the league. Making matters worse, the Tigers’ most difficult conference road trips are front-loaded into its remaining schedule, with visits to Duke, Florida State, NC State and Syracuse coming before January is through.
7. LSU (9–3, preseason No. 23)
The SEC isn’t going to be an easy ladder to climb with Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State on the highest rungs, and the Tigers have not beaten a team that is likely to make the NCAA tourney field without an automatic bid. What they do have is talent, including four top-60 freshmen, and an underrated playmaker in sophomore point guard Tremont Waters. What they will need is that talent to speed along its development and Waters to cut down on his turnovers—his turnover rate is up from 18.6% as a freshman to 29.1% now.
8. Kansas State (9–2, preseason No. 12)
These Wildcats just dropped from the rankings a week ago, a week after dropping consecutive games to Marquette and Tulsa, the latter by a brutal 47–46 score. But more important than either of those losses is the loss of senior forward Dean Wade, an All-Big 12 first-teamer who is out indefinitely with a foot injury—the same type of malady that limited him to eight minutes of action during K-State’s Elite Eight run last March. That’s going to make Big 12 play even more daunting than it would have been normally. The Wildcats are facing an uphill battle going forward and may need guard Barry Brown to shoulder even more of the load than usual.
9. Washington (8–4, preseason No. 25)
The Huskies’ most impressive showing to date might actually be a loss: their two-point defeat at then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 5. But like Oregon, Washington benefits from playing in a league where just about anyone who manages to jell into a good team could do some real damage. That this is the team with the country’s most continuity of minutes from last season could help them simply stay the course and benefit accordingly. But someone besides Jaylen Nowell is going to have to start hitting some outside shots consistently.
10. West Virginia (7–4, preseason No. 13)
It would nice to be wrong about the Mountaineers, as their teams in recent years have been an entertaining stalwart of the college basketball landscape. But Bob Huggins’s squad has not been its normal Press Virginia self so far, clearly missing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles in the backcourt and allowing opponents to score more efficiently than they have in five years. What’s worse, senior forward and leading scorer Esa Ahmad was benched for the final 33 minutes of a too-close two-point win over Jacksonville State, while shot-swatting big man Sagaba Konate is out for the near future with a knee injury. After four straight NCAA tournaments and three Sweet 16s in that span, West Virginia looks like it is in for a reset.
11. UCLA (7–5, preseason No. 21)
The Bruins’ non-conference results correlated almost perfectly with the quality of their opponent. Against teams ranked in KenPom’s top 100, they went 1–5, and against everyone else they went 6–0. It looks even worse upon closer inspection, as four of their five losses were by 14 points or more (the exception was Belmont) and five of their wins have actually come against teams not even in the top 200. There’s already talk of Steve Alford being on the hot seat. Even with the Pac-12 in its dire state, the Bruins have provided little reason to expect a sudden hot streak. It could be a long winter in Westwood. But hey, at least it’s Westwood.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to send me book recommendations, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
The headlines this weekend went to No. 1 Kansas suffering its first loss of the season, by four points at Arizona State, shrinking the country’s undefeated contingent to five: Michigan, Virginia, Nevada, Houston and St. John’s. But two of the most intriguing undefeated runs ended a day earlier, when Buffalo lost at Marquette and Furman fell at LSU.
Neither would have been anyone’s pick to truly run the table all the way through March, but because both teams play in non-major leagues, their games this weekend likely amounted to their greatest remaining challenges before then. Kenpom.com gives Buffalo a 2.6% chance of making it through the MAC regular season without a loss, higher than all remaining undefeated teams besides Nevada, whose odds of running through the Mountain West are pegged at 9.6%. (The Wolf Pack’s odds of an undefeated regular season, however, are a slightly lower 7.9% due to an upcoming non-conference trip to Utah.) Furman is given a much lower chance of doing the same in the SoCon—just 0.05%—thanks to the fact that kenpom.com’s efficiency model sees the Palladins as only the league’s third best team, behind Wofford and UNC Greensboro.
But with their defeats, we will miss out on the fun of tracking a mid-major that began the year unranked chasing unexpected perfection into the season’s second half. Still, a tip of the cap to the Bulls and Palladins, and to the five who remain unblemished.
1. Arizona State: The Sun Devils provided by the brightest moment of the Pac-12’s dismal season when they downed No. 1 Kansas at home, thanks in large part to a late 9–0 run capped by a go-ahead three from junior reserve Rob Edwards, who scored a season-best 15 points.
2. Duke: Not only did the Blue Devils beat Texas Tech, but they did so after trailing in the second half and withstanding several Red Raiders surges, all while Zion Williamson battled foul trouble before ultimately fouling out. That’s a great win for a growing team.
3. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ first win against a team ranked in top 90 in kenpom.com efficiency rankings—Saturday’s 80–72 victory over North Carolina—came at a crucial time, as they continue to sort themselves out after Quade Green’s transfer. Keldon Johnson’s 45 points over their last two games have been huge.
4. North Carolina State: After walloping cupcakes and then losing to Wisconsin, the Wolfpack have started to pick up some quality wins by beating Penn State in Atlantic City and, more impressively, taking down Auburn at home.
5. Marquette: The Golden Eagles’ 103 points against Buffalo were their highest total of the year, and they scored them at their highest efficiency yet — 1.32 points per possession, a 15.8% increase over their previous best of 1.14, against Bethune Cookman.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Michael Miller, North Texas guard
The Mean Green’s 6’ 3” former Shawnee Community College transfer was a picture of efficiency against Arkansas Pine Bluff, scoring 35 points on 11-of-13 shooting (plus a 7 for 8 effort from the line) while adding four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.
Junior: Markus Howard, Marquette guard
College basketball’s most explosive scorer went off against Buffalo, scoring 40 of his 45 points in the second half, finishing 9 for 13 from three and making all 12 of his free throws. It was Howard’s second 45-point game of December, after doing the same to Kansas State on Dec. 1.
Sophomore: Nate Pierre-Louis, Temple guard
The New Jersey native’s 22 points against Drexel came on 9-of-11 shooting and was augmented by nine rebounds and four assists against just one turnover.
Freshman: Mac McClung, Georgetown guard
The Hoyas’ popular dunk connoisseur had his best game yet in an overtime win over Little Rock, scoring 38 points while making four of nine three-pointers and 14 of 16 free throws.
Bests of the Best
With the country’s collegiate hoopers on a break for the holidays, we figured we would give them a break from answering our weird questions too. Instead, enjoy the bests of the Bests of the Best so far this season.
Furman forward Matt Rafferty on the best gift he’s ever received: “I’ll make my girlfriend happy and say a vest. Put that in there that I said that. It was for Christmas. I still wear it. It’s a green vest, a pretty nice one that I wear with some dress clothes. She did a good job on that one.”
Oklahoma forward Christian James on the best home-cooked meal: “I would have to say spaghetti and meatballs, mac and cheese, probably some green beans, corn, and cornbread, with some lemonade. My mom makes it. I don’t get a lot of home-cooked meals out here, so when I go home I try to get my mom to cook as much as possible.”
Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ on the best animal to have as a pet: “A dog. I’m a firm believer that dogs are man’s best friend. They’re very loyal and always there for you. Growing up we had a little dog, but I recently just got a dog that splits time with my girlfriend and I. She’s a mini toy poodle and a mini Australian shepherd, so she’s like eight pounds. She’s a couple months away from turning two. Her name is Zoey. She has her own Instagram. You should check her out.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: Kentucky at Louisville, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2
One of this week’s annual treats is particularly well-timed this year, as the Wildcats ride the high of their best win of the season into the KFC Yum! Center to face a Cardinals team that is up and running faster than many expected in new coach Chris Mack’s first season. Mack and John Calipari have never faced one another while head coaches, going back to Mack’s tenure at Xavier, so this meeting will really be the start of a new era. One interesting clash of strengths will come on the glass when Kentucky has the ball, as the Wildcats rank third nationally in offensive rebounding rate and Louisville ranks ninth nationally in defensive rebounding rate. The Cards will have their hands full trying to counter the diverse skills of forwards Reid Travis and PJ Washington, and may not be able to get to the line as well as they usually do against a Kentucky team that does not commit very many fouls. This has the makings of a tight and intense one.