Is it time to add another team to the No. 1 discussion?
With Alabama losing to Tennessee on Wednesday, debate over the top spot in the rankings is once again needed. The Crimson Tide and Houston are the two obvious candidates, with Purdue fading a bit after dropping a game for a third straight week. But should we begin to consider Kansas as a potential overall 1-seed?
Sure, the Jayhawks have more overall losses than Alabama, Houston and Purdue, and they’re lower in the NET and most predictive metrics, but their record-based résumé is unparalleled. They have the No. 1 overall strength of schedule, the most Quadrant 1 wins in the country — by four — and the most Quadrant 1 and 2 wins in the country, by three. The average NET of their wins is comfortably the lowest, and they’re tied for the lowest average NET in losses. All five of their losses were to teams ranked in last week’s AP poll.
Kansas has four games left: at TCU and Texas and hosting West Virginia and Texas Tech. If the Jayhawks win all four, I don’t see how they go into Champ Week without a chance to earn the overall 1-seed on Selection Sunday.
As for this week, Alabama stays on top. There’s a strong argument for Houston, but the Crimson Tide’s early-season win over the Cougars gives them the edge.
Onto this week’s awards and rankings …
Kevin Obanor puts Texas Tech back in control with 2 jams
Kevin Obanor gets a dunk show going late in the second half with two slams for Texas Tech.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Texas Tech was in the conversation for the biggest non-North Carolina, not-Kentucky disappointment in the country. The Red Raiders went to the Sweet 16 in Mark Adams’ first season, started 10-2 this season — and then proceeded to lose their first eight Big 12 games. Since then, they’ve won five of seven, including this past week against Texas and on the road at West Virginia. The offense has woken up, scoring 1.13 points per possession in those wins, going 13-for-28 from 3 and dominating on the offensive glass. The return of Utah Valley transfer Fardaws Aimaq from injury has been a huge boost. He missed 21 games, but has now played three games in a row — with Tech winning all three. Can the Red Raiders get into the at-large hunt? They obviously need to continue stacking wins (4-10 in the Big 12 is just nowhere near good enough), but defeating Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia in the past three weeks has their goal within reach.
Jalen Pickett’s 41-point night lifts Penn State past Illinois
Jalen Pickett’s 41 points helped the Penn State Nittany Lions to a 93-81 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini.
After several weeks of difficult Player of the Week decisions, Pickett made it very easy this week. Penn State needed a 2-0 week to stay in the bubble conversation, and with Pickett leading the way, it beat the Illinois Fighting Illini and Minnesota Golden Gophers. The 2021 Siena Saints transfer opened the week with 41 points and eight assists against the Fighting Illini, shooting 15-for-20 from the field, 5-for-9 from 3-point range and making all six of his free throws. Against Minnesota on Saturday, he went off again, finishing with 32 points (11-for-20 from the field, 4-for-8 from 3), 9 rebounds and 8 assists. He hadn’t made more than three 3s in a game all season, but did it twice this past week. He should be a surefire first-team All-Big Ten player, and he has been one of the two or three best guards in the country all season.
No. 10 Tennessee topples top-ranked Tide
The Volunteers’ stout defense snags 11 steals to hand No. 1 Alabama its first conference loss and lowest-scoring game of the season, 68-59.
Beat the No. 1 and you’re a shoo-in. The Vols entered the week coming off buzzer-beating losses to the Vanderbilt Commodores and Missouri Tigers and were without Julian Phillips and Josiah-Jordan James; Alabama had just ascended to the top spot in the rankings and hadn’t lost an SEC game all season. In a battle between one of the elite offenses in the country and arguably the best defense, this was a night for Tennessee’s D. Rick Barnes’ team forced Alabama into its worst offensive performance all season, limiting the Crimson Tide to 0.85 points per possession and 35.4% shooting from the field, and the Tide committed 19 turnovers. Zakai Zeigler was a menace at both ends, finishing with 15 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers, while Jonas Aidoo had a breakout 12-point, 11-rebound performance.
Alex Caldwell scores 7 straight points for UNC Asheville
Alex Caldwell helps power UNC Asheville’s offense late in the first half with seven straight points.
When Morrell took over in Asheville in 2018, he was looking mostly at an empty cupboard. The team had won 21 games the season prior, but was decimated by graduation and transfers, and went 4-27 in Year 1 under Morrell. Four years later, the Bulldogs are the Big South regular-season champion. They clinched the title last week, winning at second-place Radford on Thursday and then taking care of business at home against fourth-place Gardner-Webb on Saturday. Asheville was picked third in the preseason after a couple years of steady improvement under Morrell, but a season-opening win at UCF set the tone and the Bulldogs have rarely stumbled since. They enter this week with a 13-1 record since the calendar turned to 2023.
Three teams with questions
North Carolina Tar Heels: We’re at the point where the Tar Heels might only have room for one more loss the rest of the season. They lost to NC State on Sunday, their fifth defeat in six games, to drop to 8-8 in the ACC. They’re now 0-9 in Quadrant 1 games and are on the outside of the NCAA tournament picture looking in. According to ESPN Stats & Information, UNC’s 11 losses are tied for the most by a preseason No. 1 team since the preseason poll began in 1961-62.
Clemson Tigers: Three weeks ago, Clemson was sitting atop the ACC standings with a 10-1 league record. Now, it’s fading from the NCAA tournament discussion. The Tigers have lost four of their past five games, including Saturday night’s defeat at Louisville, which entered the weekend with a 3-23 record.
West Virginia Mountaineers: Bob Huggins’ team appeared to right the ship after its five-game losing streak to open Big 12 play, winning five of seven to solidify its tournament hopes. But the Mountaineers have now lost three in a row, after falling at home to Texas Tech, and they’re just one game out of last place in the league.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (23-4)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at South Carolina (Wednesday), vs. Arkansas (Saturday)
Alabama puts up 108 in 49-point win over Georgia
Georgia Bulldogs vs. Alabama Crimson Tide: Full Highlights
Alabama certainly knows how to respond to losses. After falling to Oklahoma in late January, it bounced back with a 101-44 win over Vanderbilt three days later. And after dropping Wednesday’s game against Tennessee, it absolutely battered Georgia on Saturday, 108-59. While some of its losses this season can be attributed to 3-point or defensive struggles, the defeat to Tennessee came because of the Volunteers’ elite defense. The Crimson Tide made just eight 2-pointers, shooting 33.3% inside the arc. That’s their worst 2-point effort in two years. They also turned it over 19 times. Three of their four losses this season have now come when they turn it over on at least one-quarter of their possessions.
2. Houston Cougars (25-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Tulane (Wednesday), at East Carolina (Saturday)
J’Wan Roberts has enjoyed the best season of his college career, providing Kelvin Sampson with a legitimate scoring presence around the rim — and a different dimension for the Cougars, who have generally just had big men grab offensive rebounds and protect the rim at the other end. But Roberts, one of the most effective offensive rebounders in the country on a per-minute basis his first two seasons, has taken his game to a new level. He has scored in double figures 17 times this season, including four double-doubles. And he had his best performance of the season Sunday against Memphis, finishing with a career-high 20 points to go with 12 rebounds.
3. Kansas Jayhawks (22-5)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at TCU (Monday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)
Start the back-to-back national championship talk. Kansas’ second half against Baylor on Saturday was an exceptional 20-minute display — the Jayhawks outscored the Bears 55-26 en route to an 87-71 win. Dajuan Harris Jr. was the catalyst, finishing with 14 points and nine assists. Jalen Wilson did usual Jalen Wilson things, scoring 21 points and grabbing 13 boards. And Kansas’ defense, after letting Baylor’s backcourt do whatever it wanted in the first half, dialed in. A positive trend for the Jayhawks: Wilson’s supporting cast. I’ve written a few times this season how Wilson getting consistent help generally results in wins for Kansas. Against Baylor, three other players scored at least 14 points. It was the same against Oklahoma State. Four guys hit double figures in the win over Oklahoma. Kansas is rounding into form at the right time.
4. Purdue Boilermakers (24-4)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Indiana (Saturday)
Purdue snapped its two-game losing streak with a dominant second-half performance against Ohio State, and also broke out of its shooting slump. In losses to Northwestern and Maryland, the Boilermakers shot just 7-for-35 from 3, scoring 0.90 points per possession. The next step will be to get freshman Fletcher Loyer back on track. In the first 18 games of the season, Loyer was averaging 13.4 points and shooting 37.4% from 3. In the past 10, he’s down to 8.7 and 21.1%, respectively. When he can take pressure off Zach Edey in the interior, Purdue’s offense starts humming.
5. Arizona Wildcats (24-4)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Arizona State (Saturday)
Oumar Ballo uses a pump fake for 2 plus foul
Oumar Ballo bullies his way to the cup for a tough and-1 finish.
Tommy Lloyd will be hoping Saturday’s performance boosts Oumar Ballo moving forward. Ballo was a dominant force for the first three months of the season, averaging 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds over the first 20 games, shooting 64.5% from the field and hitting double figures in each. Over the next seven games, though, he averaged just 9.9 points, scoring double figures in just three. He was still efficient from the floor, but it wasn’t translating to points consistently. On Saturday against Colorado, Ballo reverted to his early-season form, finishing with 18 points, 16 rebounds — 6 on the offensive end — and 3 assists.
6. Texas Longhorns (21-6)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Iowa State (Tuesday), at Baylor (Saturday)
With Marcus Carr taking over as the primary scorer and Sir’Jabari Rice becoming a go-to guy late in games, Tyrese Hunter’s offensive role has taken a back seat over the second half of the season. He averaged 15.1 points through the first seven games of 2022-23, shooting 51.9% from the field and 36.4% from 3 — notching double figures in each. Since then, he has scored in double figures in six of 20, averaging 7.8 points on 31.5% from the field and 28.4% from 3. Yet, in some of Texas’ biggest Big 12 wins — vs. Baylor, at Kansas State, at West Virginia — he has been a key factor. Rodney Terry will need him in March.
7. Baylor Bears (20-7)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at Kansas State (Tuesday), vs. Texas (Saturday)
Men’s Tournament Challenge
Complete your bracket by selecting the winner for each game of the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament. Play Tournament Challenge
For 20 minutes in Lawrence on Saturday, Baylor winning its second national championship in three years seemed like a real possibility. The Bears had one of the best halves of the season, with Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Keyonte George essentially taking turns going off on the Kansas defense. They were an offensive juggernaut. And then the second half came, and their biggest weakness — defense — was exposed. The Jayhawks scored 55 points after halftime, ultimately winning by 16. The Bears are dead last in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency in conference games, with teams shooting nearly 57% from inside the arc against them. Their backcourt gives them a chance against anyone come March, but they’ve had several long stretches of defensive apathy this season and that can’t pop up when it matters.
8. UCLA Bruins (23-4)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: at Utah (Thursday), at Colorado (Sunday)
UCLA was the team I was most intrigued by entering the NCAA mock bracket reveal on Saturday afternoon. It’s in the top five of KenPom, BPI and Sagarin while also sitting at No. 4 in the NET. Its strength of record is No. 6. It’s pretty clear why the Bruins were ranked No. 4 in the AP poll this past week. On the flip side, their 23 wins are mostly empty from a résumé-building perspective. They have a win over Maryland … and that’s it. (Kentucky probably moved into that same category over the weekend.) It’s why the Bruins were just No. 9 in last week’s Power Rankings. Ultimately, the committee slotted them at No. 8. UCLA has a lot of work to do to get in the 1-seed conversation.
9. Virginia Cavaliers (21-4)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Boston College (Wednesday), at North Carolina (Saturday)
It was a “take the win and run” kind of week for the Cavaliers. They beat Louisville and Notre Dame, the two worst teams in the ACC, by a combined five points — and Dane Goodwin had an open shot at the buzzer Saturday that would have knocked off Virginia. But the wins are what matter in the ACC standings, and the Cavs are now in sole possession of first place. After a long stretch in which Virginia began to shoot the ball with some consistency, its perimeter shooting has faded recently. In each of its past four games, UVa is making fewer than five 3s, hitting just 29.9% of its attempts. The offense hasn’t been that bad, relatively speaking, but relying so heavily on 2s and defense inherently lends itself to close games.
10. Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-5)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. San Diego (Thursday), vs. Saint Mary’s (Saturday)
Julian Strawther flushes one-handed alley-oop for Gonzaga
Julian Strawther flushes one-handed alley-oop for Gonzaga
Gonzaga has turned the screw offensively since its loss at Saint Mary’s a couple of weeks ago, putting up an average of 98 points over the last four games, scoring a ridiculous 1.32 points per possession. For comparison, the best raw offensive efficiency rating in the country this season is around 1.18 points per possession (shared by Toledo, Houston and Gonzaga). The Zags are now No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom. If they can stay at the top through the end of the season, it would be the fourth time in the past five seasons they’ve been No. 1 in that metric. Gonzaga has been remarkably efficient inside the arc, shooting at least 61% from 2 in all four games — with Julian Strawther averaging 28 points in his past three.
11. Tennessee Volunteers (20-7)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Texas A&M (Tuesday), vs. South Carolina (Saturday)
Tennessee went from beating top-ranked Alabama on Wednesday to losing by 12 at Kentucky on Saturday — the second time this season it lost to the Wildcats this season. The Vols are just 2-4 in their last six games since beating Texas in late January, and looking as good as anyone in the country. The offense has struggled during most of those games, failing to hit 0.90 points per possession in three of six, but it’s surprisingly been the defense letting down Tennessee in losses. The Volunteers are still ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, but they’ve allowed at least one point per possession in five of seven games after allowing just two opponents to hit that mark in the first 20.
12. Marquette Golden Eagles (21-6)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Creighton (Tuesday), vs. DePaul (Saturday)
Olivier-Maxence Prosper gives Marquette the lead in final seconds
Olivier-Maxence Prosper gives Marquette the lead in final seconds.
Olivier-Maxence Prosper’s tip-in with 1.6 seconds left against Xavier on Wednesday night officially put Marquette in pole position for the Big East regular-season title — it now possesses a one-game lead on Xavier, Providence and Creighton. There are likely two games left that will determine who ultimately ends on top of the standings: Marquette at Creighton on Tuesday, and Xavier’s trip to Providence on March 1. The first time the Golden Eagles faced Creighton, the Bluejays were without Ryan Kalkbrenner, but his replacement, Fredrick King, had 16 points and 10 boards despite Marquette winning by 11. Marquette’s defense was terrific, forcing 18 turnovers and limiting Creighton to four 3s.
13. Kansas State Wildcats (20-7)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Baylor (Tuesday), at Oklahoma State (Saturday)
The Wildcats had lost five of seven entering Saturday. Jerome Tang had publicly questioned their effort after Tuesday’s loss to Oklahoma. Clearly the team, especially senior leaders Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, got the message. Nowell had 20 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, while Johnson went for 15 points and six rebounds. Tang also handed another senior transfer, Desi Sills, his first start of the season. Kansas State’s offense still wasn’t overly efficient, but when the Cats buy in defensively and have Nowell and Johnson clicking at the other end, that’s usually enough to get wins at home.
14. UConn Huskies (20-7)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Providence (Wednesday), at St. John’s (Saturday)
UConn felt like the biggest surprise omission from the NCAA’s bracket reveal Saturday afternoon. The Huskies are in the top 10 in the NET and the top 10 of every predictive metric — while also possessing five Quadrant 1 wins, including against Alabama by 15, Iowa State by 18 and Marquette by 15. Their home loss to the Red Storm during a difficult 1-5 stretch in January is the lone negative on the résumé, although none of the profiles in the 4-seed range are without imperfections. UConn has four games left, and should be the favorite in all. Running the table until the Big East tournament would likely secure a top-four seed, leaving the mock reveal a distant memory.
15. Indiana Hoosiers (19-8)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Michigan State (Tuesday), at Purdue (Saturday)
Jackson-Davis’ acrobatic bucket ties it for Indiana
Trayce Jackson-Davis knocks down an impressive basket to tie the score at 56-56.
Until now, there hasn’t really been a debate: Zach Edey has been the heavy favorite for Wooden Award and consensus National Player of the Year honors. He’s still the frontrunner, but after Indiana’s win over Illinois on Saturday, Trayce Jackson-Davis has an argument to win Big Ten Player of the Year over Edey, according to the IndyStar’s Zach Osterman. By extension, that would put him in a race with Edey for NPOY, too. While I still think Edey is the pick, the fact Jackson-Davis has even made it a conversation is impressive. In conference play, he leads the Big Ten in scoring, rebounding (by one total rebound over Edey) and blocks. He’s averaging 24.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 3.2 blocks over his last 10 games. Circle Saturday on your calendar.
16. Iowa State Cyclones (17-9)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: at Texas (Tuesday), vs. Oklahoma (Saturday)
Since starting 13-2, Iowa State lost seven of its last 11 games. Clearly, the committee valued their résumé, slotting the Cyclones as a 3-seed prior to their loss at Kansas State. But they need to turn things around if they want to stay among the top four lines. Their offense just isn’t showing up consistently. They’ve hit one point per possession in just one loss all season, going 2-8 when they fail to hit or surpass the mark. Getting Gabe Kalscheur out of his shooting slump will be important. In his last five games, the senior guard is averaging just 8.0 points on 28.3% from the field and 29.6% from 3. In the previous 13 games, he was at 16.5 points on 38.6% from 3.
Dropped out: Creighton Bluejays (No. 15)
In the waiting room
Miami Hurricanes: They’re firing on all cylinders right now offensively, scoring at least 78 points in their last six games — and more than 90 in three of those. It’s not just Isaiah Wong. Nijel Pack is averaging 23.0 points in his last three, and Jordan Miller had 24 and 11 against North Carolina.
Creighton Bluejays: Creighton saw its eight-game winning streak snapped in double overtime at Providence on Tuesday, but bounced back with a road win at St. John’s on Saturday. It wasn’t Baylor Scheierman’s finest week — 9.5 points, 3-for-19 from 3 — but Greg McDermott got some good bench production from Shereef Mitchell and Mason Miller.
Xavier Musketeers: After losing two games by a combined three points on the road, Xavier returned home Saturday and handled DePaul by 14 to stay in the Big East title race. It was the Musketeers’ best defensive performance since a Dec. 13 win over Southern, holding the Blue Demons to 0.91 points per possession and forcing 15 turnovers.