By Stewart Mandel
February 18, 2010

It was something of a Separation Week at the top of the poll. While Syracuse (against Louisville) and Villanova (against Connecticut) suffered inexcusable losses on their home floors, Kansas (at Texas A&M) and Kentucky (at Mississippi State) reasserted themselves as Nos. 1 and 2 by pulling out tough road wins in a pair of games that at times had all the makings of an upset. Also, Purdue jumps up into the top three after a statement win in Columbus.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1 Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 1
The Jayhawks' 59-54 win in College Station on Monday took on an extremely uncharacteristic form. Not only did Bill Self's team produce its lowest scoring output since the second game of its season (a 57-55 win over Memphis on Nov. 17), but it hadn't even scored fewer than 70 points in any game since then save for its one loss (76-68 to Tennessee on Jan. 10). KU went more than 11 minutes of the second half without claiming the lead and made just 1-of-10 three-point attempts.

In other words, this was a game the Jayhawks probably should have lost. (Perhaps they were distracted by A&M's overly intimidating midcourt logo).

But Sherron Collins stepped out of a game-long funk in time to deliver a couple of key late-game buckets, Cole Aldrich locked down the paint (blocking five shots) and Kansas pulled it out in last three minutes. Now, talk has turned to a legitimately intriguing question: Can the Jayhawks pull off their first undefeated conference season since the Drew Gooden-led 2002 team? If so, it would be a remarkable accomplishment. Consider: In '02, the Big 12 ranked just fifth in Conference RPI, and half of its teams were ranked 109th or lower. This year's Big 12 ranks No. 1 nationally, and eight of the 12 teams rank in the top 50.

Next three: 2/20 vs. Colorado, 2/22 vs. Oklahoma, 2/27 at Oklahoma State.
2 Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 3
The remarkable thing about watching Kentucky is that in a tight game like Tuesday's overtime affair in Starkville (made that much tougher when you're at risk of taking a water bottle to the head), the freshman-dominated Wildcats inevitably wind up looking like the veteran team. Mississippi State led 67-60 with 3:00 left. What happened from there? The Wildcats hit shots, while the Bulldogs took ill-advised shots. John Wall converted a huge three-point play in overtime, while his counterpart, sophomore Dee Bost, lost control of the ball -- and the game -- shortly thereafter. Kentucky shot just 67.7 percent from the free-throw line on the night, but hit eight of its last 10 in overtime.

John Calipari was not as impressed, citing multiple "freshman" mistakes down the stretch, most notably what he deemed unnecessary fouls. "I'm coaching all these young kids ... If we play poorly, we let it affect us. Now we can't play. We foul. We do something dumb. ... After the game, one of the things I told them was we've got to start growing up."

News flash: 99 percent of the "veteran" teams out there would not have handled that kind of "environment" (to put it nicely) any better.

Next three: 2/20 at Vanderbilt, 2/25 vs. South Carolina, 2/27 at Tennessee.
3 Purdue Boilermakers
Last Week: 5
The Boilers made a statement on Wednesday in Columbus, where they won for the first time since 1998, and, more importantly, turned what was a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten into a two-team race with Michigan State. (Both teams have three league losses.) It marked Purdue's eighth straight conference win, and it ended Ohio State's own nine-game streak.

The difference, as is usually the case with the Boilers, was big man JaJuan Johnson, who had 24 points and seven rebounds. It's pretty remarkable just after scoring a combined 18 points in the Boilers' three January losses, he's averaged 19.6 points in their eight victories since. It was also the fourth time in seven games that Purdue has held its opponent under 60 points.

This is every bit the Final Four-caliber team many envisioned coming into the season and showed signs of in early-season wins over Tennessee, Wake Forest and West Virginia. Now, the game of the year in the Big Ten becomes their Feb. 28 return-date with Michigan State -- this time featuring a healthy Kalin Lucas.

Next three: 2/20 vs. Illinois, 2/24 at Minnesota, 2/28 vs. Michigan State.
4 Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 2
Just three days after a blowout loss at St. John's, Louisville (then 15-9) went to the Carrier Dome and stunned the Orange. (Some Syracuse fans may blame the result on referee Tim Higgins' controversial intentional foul call on Kris Joseph in the final seconds, but really, the Orange flat-out didn't play well.) Coach Jim Boeheim, however, saw it coming.

"I thought for the last few games, really going back to DePaul [on Jan. 30], even stretches of the Providence game, certainly at Cincinnati, and with Connecticut -- all four games, we didn't really play at a high level," he said. " ... You can't be in all these games and get down to the end and think you're going to win. You've got to play well during the [entire] game."

They'll need to rediscover their mojo in a hurry. On Thursday night, Syracuse visits Georgetown, which has admittedly been all over the map of late but seems to rise to the occasion at home against top-10 foes (crushing Duke and Villanova). They could certainly use a more productive performance from Wesley Johnson, who made just 5-of-20 field goals against the Cardinals.

Next three: 2/18 at Georgetown, 2/23 at Providence, 2/27 vs. Villanova.
5 Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 4
The Wildcats were yet another victim of the Big East's wild week of upsets, falling 84-75 at home to 15-11 Connecticut on Monday. Now it's time to find out whether 'Nova is a legitimate beast of the East or more a byproduct of the bloated league's uneven scheduling.

Right now, there's a pretty distinct division between the league's top five teams (Syracuse, 'Nova, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and West Virginia), all of which are ranked 14th or higher in the RPI ratings, and the next rung, which includes just one top-50 team (Louisville). Through 13 league contests, the Wildcats have managed to play just two of the other "Big Five" teams, Georgetown (with whom they split) and West Virginia (whom they beat on the road). Three of their last five games, however, come at Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and home against the Mountaineers.

As has been the case all season, 'Nova's defense will come into question down the stretch. As of Wednesday, the Wildcats ranked just 67th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. (I know I said I wouldn't go there, but hey, that's a pretty damning stat.) By comparison, Syracuse ranks 12th, West Virginia 27th, Pittsburgh 32nd and Georgetown 36th.

Next three: 2/21 at Pittsburgh, 2/24 vs. South Florida, 2/27 at Syracuse.
6 Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 10
This isn't exactly a unique epiphany, but if Duke could play every game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it could probably win the national championship. Mike Krzyzewski's team has long fed off the energy of their renowned student section, but rarely has the disparity between their play at home and on the road been so pronounced. This past week served as a microcosm: Duke could not have played any better in Saturday's 77-56 drubbing of ACC second-place Maryland, and then predictably dug itself a 12-point halftime deficit before rallying to win on Wednesday at ninth-place Miami.

Take a look at some of these home/road splits prior to Wednesday night's game:

Jon Scheyer. Home: 19.0 points, 46.2 percent three-pointers. Road: 18.4 points, 34.6 percent.

Kyle Singler. Home: 7.4 rebounds, 45.2 percent field goals. Road: 5.1 rebounds, 36.5 percent field goals.

Nolan Smith. Home: 18.2 points, 47.5 percent three-pointers. Road: 16.0 points, 32.1 percent three-pointers.

The good news is, Duke is still beating the teams it should beat. While all four of its losses have come on the road, three were to top-30 RPI teams. If only they could bottle the type of defensive intensity they play with at Cameron.

Next three: 2/21 vs. Virginia Tech, 2/25 vs. Tulsa, 2/28 at Virginia.
7 Kansas State Wildcats
Last Week: 6
The Wildcats have gotten complacent, which is why they dropped a spot this week despite a pair of victories. Those wins came at home against the two worst teams in the Big 12, Colorado and Nebraska, and they were both more difficult than they needed to be.

Against the Buffs (11-13), K-State trailed for most of the first half before kicking its offense into gear in the second. More inexplicably, K-State fell behind by double-digits, gave up 87 points and needed all 40 minutes to put away a 13-13 Nebraska team coming off a 40-point loss at Texas. Huskers star Ryan Anderson drained five three-pointers, including the shot that tied the game at 87-87 in the final minute, and the outcome wasn't decided until Jacob Pullen's steal in the final 20 seconds.

"We played bad defense, it was atrocious," Pullen said. "I think that was the worst defense we played all year."

Practice figures to be a heck of a lot of fun Thursday.

Next three: 2/20 at Oklahoma, 2/23 at Texas Tech, 2/27 vs. Missouri.
8 West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Week: 8
Last Friday, West Virginia took part in what some have called the game of the season -- a triple-overtime Backyard Brawl thriller that ended with Pittsburgh prevailing 98-95 in triple overtime. Da'Sean Butler's 32 points and 11 rebounds couldn't save the Mountaineers, which blew a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation.

West Virginia rebounded with a solid 88-74 win at Providence. The Mountaineers soared to leads of 25-4 and 46-28 before withstanding an inevitable Friars surge that saw the margin cut to as low as six before the Mountaineers pulled away. "We haven't been as good as we need to be in closing games," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, referring primarily to the Pittsburgh loss.

The truth is, they've closed out far more than they've let slip, which is why we're looking at a team that will likely pull a high seed in March. The Mountaineers don't have a whole lot of eye-popping wins (Ohio State sticks out as the biggie), but they've also avoided bad losses (four of five have come against teams ranked in the top 15 of the RPI ratings.) With a relatively manageable remaining road, Huggins' team could play itself into as high as a No. 2 seed.

Next three: 2/20 vs. Seton Hall, 2/22 at Connecticut, 2/27 vs. Cincinnati.
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