NCAA basketball rankings: Villanova back on track; Illinois ascending

Villanova’s four-game winning streak has led to a jump in our NCAA basketball rankings. Illinois continues to climb.

Villanova nearly fell out of the national rankings a few weeks ago after suffering back-to-back blowout road losses to Baylor and Creighton. However, the Wildcats are a lesson in terms of never giving up on teams too early. They have since rattled off four consecutive wins over Big East opposition – three by double digits – and have soared into the top 5 on KenPom. Betting against Jay Wright is a dangerous proposition, and perhaps Villanova has rediscovered its mojo.

Perhaps the same could be said about Illinois. The Fighting Illini started this season with a disappointing 2-2 record, although star player Kofi Cockburn only played in one of those games. The big man has found his rhythm as a National Player of the Year frontrunner over the past month, though, and Illinois is rolling. They have won nine of their last 10 with the lone loss coming to Arizona. Alfonso Plummer is providing much-needed spacing to punish defenses for falling into Cockburn’s gravitational pull in the paint.

Villanova and Illinois were among our biggest winners of the week. Wisconsin also deserves a major shoutout for notching three consecutive Big Ten victories, including a road upset of Purdue. The Badgers – thanks in large part to Johnny Davis – have been one of the nation’s most pleasant surprises.

As a reminder, Heat Check CBB will be releasing a weekly Top 25 of our own throughout this season that is a composite of our entire staff — which includes Lukas Harkins, Brian Rauf, Eli Boettger, Andy Dieckhoff, Riley Davis, Connor Hope and Jamie Shaw.

Now, what does college basketball’s new pecking order look like? Here’s this week’s Heat Check CBB Top 25, with blurbs provided by Harkins and Rauf.

Ten mid-majors eyeing at-large March Madness bids
—Ranking most likely first-time NCAA Tournament teams
—DPI: Game Predictions | Team Grades | Player Rankings

Others receiving votes (For reference, our No. 25 team received 11 points each): Texas (8), Oklahoma (5), Miami-FL (4), and Providence (3).

25. Loyola Chicago Ramblers

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Several teams are fresh off strong weeks and Loyola Chicago is among them. The Ramblers secured another big resume-building win over San Francisco after a 27-day hiatus and followed that up with a home win over Bradley. The latter did not come easily, as the victory required a 16-point second-half comeback and overtime, but a win is a win. Chris Knight and Ryan Schwieger have been really good off the bench. -Lukas Harkins

24. Colorado State Rams

Highest vote: No. 18 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Colorado State suffered its first loss of the season Saturday in blowout fashion, losing to San Diego State by a whopping 30 points. It was a disappointing offensive performance for the Rams, who were held to their lowest point total and shooting percentage of the season. Context does matter, though, as CSU was playing its second game after a 24-day COVID pause. The Rams should be fine, but a tough Mountain West schedule means they need to get back on track quickly. -Brian Rauf

23. Alabama Crimson Tide

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: No. 25

Alabama is just 3-3 since picking up back-to-back wins over Gonzaga and Houston in early December with those losses coming to Memphis, Davidson and Missouri. Saturday’s loss to the Tigers was especially alarming because of how poor the Crimson Tide played on the defensive end. That is where Nate Oats’ squad needs to improve the most right now. -BR

22. Xavier Musketeers

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Xavier returned to action this week with a 15-point road win over Butler. The Musketeers moved to 12-2 (1-1 BE) on the year with their only two losses coming to fellow ranked teams. They are as loaded with talent as just about anyone in the country; Xavier features so many players who can go off on any given night. Adam Kunkel, who was previously averaging 8.2 points per game, dropped 25 and hit clutch basket after clutch basket in the win over Butler. -LH

21. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Highest vote: No. 18 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The shorthanded Red Raiders pushed Iowa State to the brink on Wednesday despite having only half of their roster available and then knocked off Kansas at home on Saturday without their full complement of players. Texas Tech’s defense continues to be elite and it found enough offense to pick up its biggest win of the season. -BR

20. Iowa State Cyclones

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: No. 25

Speaking of the Cyclones, Iowa State has cooled a bit. A poor offensive showing in the second half against Texas Tech nearly cost them a win, and unusually porous defense in the second half against Oklahoma ultimately did. The Cyclones have a big week ahead with a road game at Kansas and home game against Texas on deck. -BR

19. Tennessee Volunteers

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Tennessee continues to be a tricky team to figure out. The Volunteers suffered another loss this week, but it was again to a highly ranked opponent in LSU. Their only defeats to date have come against teams also ranked in our poll, and all of them have been away from home. They also own a very strong home win over Arizona. Tennessee remains highly regarded by efficiency metrics, particularly defensively, but needs to start piling up more wins. A road matchup with Kentucky looms next weekend. -LH

18. Wisconsin Badgers

Highest vote: No. 14 | Lowest vote: No. 21

How far can Johnny Davis carry the Badgers? The National Player of the Year frontrunner led Wisconsin to victories over Purdue, Iowa and Maryland this week to a 4-1 record in Big Ten play. The supporting cast stepped up against the Terrapins when Davis (relatively) struggled, which is great news for Greg Gard’s squad moving forward. -BR

17. Illinois Fighting Illini

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 22

Illinois is arguably the most undervalued team in the country. The Fighting Illini boast a strong overall record (11-3) with six wins over the KenPom top 100. Additionally, their two losses came without Kofi Cockburn (at Marquette) or in just his first game of the season (vs. Cincinnati). Cockburn has been a monster since and the Illini’s only loss since then came against Arizona. Alfonso Plummer has made a huge difference as well. -LH

16. Ohio State Buckeyes

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: No. 19

Ohio State split its games this week with a disappointing road loss to Indiana followed by a home victory over Northwestern. The Buckeyes’ previously excellent offense showed major signs of struggle against the Hoosiers (51 points scored) but responded by nearly reaching the century mark against the Wildcats. EJ Liddell – even with struggles against IU – remains in the National Player of the Year conversation. A road bout with Wisconsin approaches as Ohio State looks to complete the season sweep of the Badgers. –LH

15. Seton Hall Pirates

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: No. 18

Seton Hall’s back-to-back losses a couple of weeks back came while shorthanded and it still almost came away victorious against Providence and Villanova. The Pirates were able to get Ike Obiagu back this week, and he played a pivotal role in their victories over Butler (away) and UConn (in overtime). Kadary Richmond dropped 27 points off the bench in Hall’s win over UConn; perhaps that will be the breakout game for him to take the Pirates over the top. -LH

14. Villanova Wildcats

Highest vote: No. 11 | Lowest vote: No. 17

Villanova was blown out in back-to-back road losses to Baylor and Creighton in mid-December. Those defeats appear to have been wake-up calls, though, as the Wildcats have since rattled off four consecutive victories. Head coach Jay Wright’s group now sits at 11-4 (4-1 BE) with three wins over currently ranked opponents. They have also climbed back to No. 5 on KenPom as three of their four wins have come by double figures. Collin Gillespie has rediscovered his form of late and it is paying off. A huge road matchup with Xavier comes this week, and another win might lead to the Wildcats toward the top 10. -LH

13. Kentucky Wildcats

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 17

Kentucky had an impressive week despite going 1-1. The Wildcats were a possession away from beating a very good LSU team on the road despite losing Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington to injury during the game. Wheeler missed Saturday’s game against Georgia, but Washington responded with school record 17 assists. Kentucky is finding themselves offensively and should be dangerous moving forward. -BR

12. Houston Cougars

Highest vote: No. 10 | Lowest vote: No. 16

The Cougars haven’t fallen off after losing Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark for the season, posting a 6-0 record since that news was announced. Kelvin Sampson has shifted to a more frontcourt-oriented attack given those losses in the backcourt and the approach has worked. The AAC race still runs through Houston. -BR

11. Michigan State Spartans

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 12

Michigan State is 13-2 (4-0 B1G) and is riding a nine-game winning streak that includes six wins over the KenPom top 100. The Spartans’ only two losses of the season have come at neutral sites against fellow elite competition in Kansas and Baylor. While Tom Izzo’s team might not have entered this season with high expectations, they have answered the call. MSU is likely to start Big Ten play 6-0 if it takes care of business at home this week. Their schedule will get much harder after that, though, with four of the next five coming on the road. -LH

10. LSU Tigers

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 13

LSU currently boasts the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rating. Not only is this a remarkable feat in the grand scheme of college basketball this season, but it is also a radical shift from prior years under head coach Will Wade. In fact, the Tigers ranked outside of the top 120 in that category in three of his first four years at the helm, peaking at No. 59 in the other season. LSU is 14-1 (2-1 SEC) behind its elite defense and recently took down Kentucky and Tennessee during this past week. The Tigers are a force to be reckoned with. -LH

9. USC Trojans

Highest vote: No. 7 | Lowest vote: No. 13

USC returned to action for the first time in nearly three weeks on Thursday and handled Cal the way it expected, showing little rust in doing so. Isaiah Mobley is playing like a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year contender and their defense has been very, very good. The Trojans will be heavy favorites in each of their next eight games, so their undefeated start may extend into February. –BR

8. UCLA Bruins

Highest vote: No. 5 | Lowest vote: No. 10

The Bruins also dealt with a lengthy COVID pause and had two games this week — Long Beach State and Cal — after being off since Dec. 11. UCLA handled both with ease despite having the drop in efficiency that comes with the layoff. Thursday’s game against Oregon is shaping up to be their toughest test this month. -BR

7. Kansas Jayhawks

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Kansas allowed its most points this season on Saturday in a loss to Texas Tech. Bill Self did not employ his typical lineup, though, as Remy Martin and David McCormack combined to play just 26 minutes. Is this something that will continue, or did Self have other motivations on Saturday? We’ll find out this week, and the answer could dictate how good Kansas will be moving forward. – BR

6. Purdue Boilermakers

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Purdue suffered just its second home loss (and first of this season) since the 2019-20 season last week when Wisconsin was able to come to West Lafayette and pull off the upset. Still, it took an outlier performance from the National Player of the Year frontrunner in order to make that happen. The Boilermakers responded with a road victory over Penn State and sit at 13-2 (2-2 B1G) overall. They hold the nation’s top adjusted offensive efficiency rating. -LH

5. Duke Blue Devils

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 6

Duke’s loss to Miami was shocking because of how the Hurricanes’ backcourt really dictated the game against the Blue Devils. Coach K also shortened his rotation, playing only six players significant minutes. Duke has had good perimeter defense for much of the season, but a lack of depth could be something to monitor moving forward. -BR

4. Auburn Tigers

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 5

The Tigers are a double overtime loss to UConn away from being undefeated and are playing as well as anyone right now. Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith are the best frontcourt duo in the country and spearhead Auburn’s top 10 defense. This team’s ceiling will be dictated by its backcourt play, and Wendell Green and KD Johnson have been spectacular. Once Allen Flanigan gets back to full speed, Auburn will be extremely dangerous. – BR

3. Arizona Wildcats

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Arizona handled its business with a 16-point home victory over Washington this week. The Wildcats continued their dominant ability to set the tempo with yet another game of at least 70 possessions. The Wildcats have been able to eclipse 70 possessions in every game this season and rank third nationally in adjusted tempo; they are running the fastest offense in the country at an average of 14.3 seconds. Arizona ranks in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage. Head coach Tommy Lloyd is leading a special group. -LH

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 4

The Zags are functioning like a well-oiled machine and have won their last three games against inferior competition by an average of 36.7 points per game. Star freshman Chet Holmgren is coming into his own offensively, as are Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman off the bench. Mark Few’s squad will take a step back up in competition on Thursday when they play host to BYU. -BR

1. Baylor Bears

Unanimously voted No. 1 in this week

Baylor’s quest for the Big 12 title is off to a strong start. The undefeated Bears (15-0) have recorded three straight impressive victories to begin conference play: at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma, at TCU. All three of those opponents might hear their names called on Selection Sunday. Baylor leads the nation in multiple analytics rankings including NET, KPI, SOR, KenPom, Sagarin and WAB. They are also the only team in the country with four Q1 wins without a loss. -LH



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