|NCAA Basketball Power Rankings|
Illinois Fighting Illini (15-0)
When you're coaching a team that's No. 1, undefeated and has beaten Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Cincinnati by an average of 19 points, you take to nitpicking. Leading up to the Illini's New Year's Eve duel with Cincinnati, Bruce Weber said his boys were ill-conditioned from the holidays, looking like "potbelly league" players, who, if they didn't step it up defensively, "weren't going to be No. 1 for very long." Illinois went out and held Cincy to 28 percent shooting. Weber was also overheard worrying about his team's percentage on 30-plus foot shots, and that the intramural flag football team bearing Nick Smith's name had a winning percentage of only .900.
Next two: 1/8 at Purdue, 1/12 vs. Penn State.
North Carolina Tar Heels (12-1)
At midseason, the top five "Guys Who Lead Their Team in Scoring, But Don't Get the Publicity to Match": Jawad Williams, UNC, 17.1 ppg, fifth on his own team in name recognition; Luther Head, Illinois, 16.2 ppg, third in name rec; Maurice Ager, Michigan State, 14.1 ppg, fourth in name rec; Taj Gray, Oklahoma, 14.7 ppg, third in name rec; Sasha Cuic, Oregon State, 14.3 ppg, third in name rec ... although name rec is a stretch term with the Beavers.
Next two: 1/8 vs. Maryland, 1/12 vs. Georgia Tech.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (10-2)
The Zags' impending ascent of the AP poll, after handing Oklahoma State its first loss on a "neutral" court in Oklahoma City, was spoiled by their loss at Mizzou just two days later. But these are Power Rankings. And wins over Georgia Tech on a neutral court, the Cowboys in a road setting and Washington at home -- three potential major-conference champs -- put the Zags in the top three here. Give Mizzou credit as well, but not too much. The Tigers beat a tired team on the back end of a road trip.
Next two: 1/6 at Santa Clara, 1/8 at St. Mary's.
Kansas Jayhawks (10-0)
The two most important shots of the season -- that I've managed to see on TV: 1) Brendan Plavich's half-court buzzer-beater on Dec. 23, which lifted Charlotte over Indiana and stuck a dagger in Mike Davis; and 2) Keith Langford's spinning, fadeaway jumper to down Georgia Tech on New Year's Day, giving the Wayne Simien-less Jayhawks a much-needed confidence boost. Langford's chest was so puffed out, he said this afterward: "All the experts and analysts who were saying we couldn't do it without Wayne, now they can eat it and shove it." It would have been easier to swallow (or shove; I'm a little confused) if Langford hadn't gone and disappeared again for 35 minutes during a close call against Texas A&M on Wednesday.
Next two: 1/9 at Kentucky, 1/12 at Iowa State.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons (12-1)
Justin Gray had a stomach virus, a nasty fever and was dizzy heading into Wake's ACC opener at Virginia on Jan. 2; he tossed cookies before the game and at halftime. He also scored 17 points and fired at a 60 percent clip from the field -- only the third time he's shot that well all season. Gray has a reputation for being a tough customer ... and with results like that, Skip Prosser might as well plan to keep feeding his gunner the same bad Mexican food for the next three months.
Next two: 1/8 at Clemson, 1/11 vs. Maryland.
Oklahoma St. Cowboys (10-1)
A thought while watching Texas A&M nearly knock off Kansas on Wednesday (it will eventually tie into the Cowboys, I promise). Aggies guard Acie Law IV sports a jersey that reads "Law IV" on the back; as Roman-numeraled names go, it's no Blessed Innocent V, but it's cool nonetheless. Oklahoma State's John Lucas III, on the other hand, is a no-digit guy when it comes to his duds. And he scores five more points per game than Law, so no one's gonna argue with his rationale.
Next two: 1/8 at Texas Tech, 1/11 vs. Missouri.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (9-2)
The Yellow Jackets' downgrade is due less to their last-second loss at Kansas and more to the fact that B.J. Elder is now out for 1-3 weeks with a strained left hamstring. Tech's losses are both of the "quality" variety -- the first to Gonzaga, the second to KU -- but the Jackets have yet to really look like the Final Four lock I believed them to be at the beginning of the season. Part of the blame has to be placed on Luke Schenscher, the big Aussie, for managing to disappear in the aforementioned pair of Ls: He had just five points on 2-of-5 shooting vs. the Zags, and was an abysmal 1-of-7 from the field against the Jayhawks. The world wide market has taken notice; at the time I wrote this, no one, not even his posse, had put a bid on his signed photo on eBay.
Next two: 1/6 vs. Miami (Fla.), 1/8 vs. Virginia.
Washington Huskies (13-1)
Good karma came the way of the Huskies' host on New Year's Eve. Local boy Mike Jensen had Husky players over to his house after the UW's win over Cal on Dec. 31, a "good, low-key time," according to freshman Joel Smith. Two days later, against Stanford, Jensen, a 7.6-point-per-game forward, exploded for 17 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks in a 76-73 win. He reportedly had a "good, low-key time."
Next two: 1/6 at USC, 1/8 at UCLA.
Kentucky Wildcats (10-1)
Not that this is going out on a limb, but I think UK will be the team to end Kansas' unbeaten run, when the Jayhawks travel to Rupp Arena on Saturday. I like the fact that the Wildcats, starting two freshmen in their first SEC game, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 17:9 in a four-point, come-from-behind win over South Carolina on Wednesday -- and six of those TOs came from the normally dependable Patrick Sparks, which I'll write off as a fluke. KU, meanwhile, had a ratio of 10:8 in its equally slim win over Texas A&M, 15:15 in its victory over Georgia Tech.
Next two: 1/9 vs. Kansas, 1/12 vs. Vanderbilt.
Boston College Eagles (12-0)
Proof! Putting unranked BC, when it was No. 1 in the RPI, into the Dec. 23 Power Rankings wasn't a stretch. While the Big East's other undefeated team, West Virginia, was slaughtered on the road at Villanova on Wednesday, the Eagles went to Hartford and won a hard-fought battle with defending national champ UConn. Furthermore, BC beat the Huskies with Craig Smith playing just 17 minutes -- and only six in the first half -- because of foul trouble. My revised Big East power structure, for the time being, has to go like this: 1) BC, 2) Syracuse, 3) UConn, 4) Notre Dame, with Pitt and Villanova nipping at their heels.
Next two: 1/8 vs. Providence, 1/16 vs. West Virginia.
Syracuse Orange (14-1)
Speaking of good karma, the Orange plan to collect donations for the American Red Cross' tsunami relief fund at Saturday's game against Seton Hall. In Syracuse's first game after announcing the fundraiser, a 79-65 win at St. John's on Wednesday, the Orange shot a nifty 50 percent from 3-point land (including five treys by Gerry McNamara). In their five previous games, they were only hitting at a 29.5 percent rate from beyond the arc.
Next two: 1/8 vs. Seton Hall, 1/10 at Notre Dame.
Arizona Wildcats (11-2)
Lute Olson's one-game suspension of Salim Stoudamire, for Arizona's game against Marquette on Dec. 18, rates as the nation's No. 1 most effective benching. Stoudamire returned to the floor on Dec. 21 against Manhattan and in the Wildcats' past four games, all wins, he has connected on an astounding 15 of 19 3-pointers. That's an insane 79 percent. And unlike Schenscher's, Stoudamire's goods get bought up on eBay.
Next two: 1/6 at Cal, 1/8 at Stanford.
Iowa Hawkeyes (12-2)
Talk about taking the wind out of your sails. The Hawkeyes headed into Big Ten play looking like they could actually give Illinois a run for its money ... and then they went and lost at home to Michigan, 65-63, on Wednesday. Guard Pierre Pierce, Iowa's leading scorer, is a strange statistical case. His crucial free-throw misses with 1.6 seconds left -- he had a chance to tie the game after being fouled on a 3-point attempt -- were the sign of a larger problem: Coming into the game, he was shooting 48.1 percent from the field and just 46.6 percent from the line. Iowa is still a dangerous team, but I suspect this won't be the last time the Hawkeyes are haunted in a close game by Pierce's woes from the stripe.
Next two: 1/8 at Ohio State, 1/15 vs. Minnesota.
Duke Blue Devils (10-0)
The Duke starting forward slot alongside Shelden Williams is akin to the drummer opening in Spinal Tap: fill it at your own risk. Shavlik Randolph went down with mononucleosis before Christmas; then Reggie Love broke his right foot in his first start, against Clemson on Jan. 2. The job now belongs to Lee Melchionni, who managed to come out of Wednesday's win over Princeton unscathed. Meanwhile, the thinned-out Blue Devils, who looked so promising in mid-December, warrant another slide down the rankings.
Next two: 1/8 vs. Temple, 1/13 at N.C. State.
Texas Longhorns (10-2)
Thursday's Texas-Memphis game was the overwhelming fans' choice in ESPN's "Send Dickie V Packing" contest, ahead of DePaul-Cincinnati and Gonzaga-Santa Clara. That means Vitale will be on hand in Austin, and that the fans voting for his destination were either 1) for UT, 2) masochistic Memphis backers or 3) Cincy or Santa Clara residents concerned about the noise.
Next two: 1/6 vs. Memphis, 1/9 vs. Baylor.
Arkansas Razorbacks (13-1)
The Razorbacks are slotted in the "give somebody a chance" spot -- No. 16 -- which struck gold on Boston College last time around. Stan Heath's squad has a mid-30s RPI, its lone loss is to Illinois (by a very respectable 12 points) and with 13 wins, has already surpassed last season's victory total. Yet Arkansas remains unranked in the polls. "The conference is going to have to watch out for this team," guard Jonathon Modica told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "I feel this team has been in the closet for a while and people aren't really respecting us." A word of warning to the Hogs, if the media spotlight shines their way after beating Florida and Alabama in the coming week: Other cliches, such as "under the radar screen," will serve you better with the press than "been in the closet for a while."
Next two: 1/8 at Florida, 1/11 vs. Alabama.