Harkins 25: Alabama, Virginia ascending quickly

Balanced attacks are leading Alabama and Virginia up the latest Harkins 25 NCAA basketball rankings.

Welcome back to the NCAA basketball power rankings! It has been a hectic couple weeks of hoops since the last edition and that has caused several shifts in my rankings. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that Gonzaga and Baylor are still the clear-cut best two teams in the country. They both remain undefeated and a step ahead of everyone else. Another thing that has not changed is Villanova’s record, as my No. 3 team has been stuck on a COVID-19 pause — the Wildcats have not played since Dec. 23 and will be returning to action soon.

On a sour but related note, though, I was forced to drop Drake from my Top 25 this week. While the Bulldogs remain undefeated at 13-0, they haven’t taken the court in two weeks (not since Jan. 4) and other teams have picked up the necessary quality wins to move ahead of them. If head coach Darian DeVries’ unit returns to the court and continues rolling, they will be back in the rankings sooner rather than later.

Speaking of teams sitting just on the outside-looking-in this week, I need to give credit to LSU. While the Tigers have had their fair share of struggles generating defensive stops this season, their offense has been flat-out electric. Will Wade has his team sitting at 10-2 (5-1 SEC) right now and they are riding a four-game winning streak. Without a single win over the KenPom Top 40, though, they just missed the cut. A huge opportunity looms against Alabama this week.

Moving out west, a pair of MWC teams have been making noise recently. Boise State (12-1, 8-0 MWC) has put forth excellent offensive efforts this season and is rolling on a 12-game winning streak since dropping their season-opener to Houston. They have only one Top 200 win, however. Utah State is similarly hot, having won 10 straight following a 1-3 start. The Aggies picked up back-to-back quality wins over San Diego State during this past week and holds the nation’s fifth-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating.

Those are the four teams on the outside-looking-in within my power rankings that I wanted to highlight this week before diving into the meat of the piece. Now, let’s check out the rankings with a conglomerate of Pac-12 squads sharing the No. 25 spot.

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25. One-third of the entire Pac-12

Four Pac-12 teams all deserve recognition for their play to this point in the season, but I am having trouble separating them from each other. USC, Oregon, Colorado, and UCLA have each performed admirably and I wouldn’t have a problem with any of them cracking the AP poll this week. All are ranked in the KenPom Top 26 and have equal to or fewer than three losses through the first month and a half of the season.

Colorado has probably been the best of this group so far even with three early losses. The Buffaloes rank 13th on KenPom behind the stellar play of senior guard McKinley Wright and the nation’s best free-throw percentage. They are 2-1 against the other three Pac-12 teams mentioned here. Their lone Pac-12 loss came on the road to UCLA, which has won 11 of 12 since dropping its season opener. While not much of a defensive force, the Bruins hold the 8th-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country. Sophomores Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell have been excellent.

USC has been a bit of a pleasant surprise largely due to its effort defensively. The Trojans have won six consecutive games, albeit none over projected NCAA Tournament teams, and are led by one of the best freshmen in the nation in Evan Mobley. Oregon rounds out this group as the team I have the highest hopes for in the preseason. The Ducks are a respectable 9-2 with losses to Missouri and Colorado but not any “great wins” to bolster the resume. I still think this is a very good team but we’ll know more after a three-game road trip to face UCLA (2x) and USC in the next couple of weeks.

All in all, I’m not quite sure what to think of these four teams yet. They are the best of the Pac-12 thus far and all can make a case to be nationally ranked. With little separation in between, this quartet shares my No. 25 spot.

24. Illinois Fighting Illini (9-5)

Illinois still ranks 11th on KenPom in overall adjusted efficiency margin, but actual results matter. As much as I love the Fighting Illini this season, they have simply been too inconsistent when it comes to walking out of arenas with Ws. Illinois is already a five-loss team and has taken a tumble in these power rankings having lost back-to-back home games. When on their ‘A’ game, there are few teams as electric as Illinois. We saw this in their dominant second half against Northwestern, but I’m waiting for them to consistently put 40 minutes of strong ball together.

While I have dropped Illinois down to No. 24, don’t be surprised if they start to rise back towards the top as the season progresses. KenPom projects the Illini to only drop four more games the rest of the season and that is a legitimate possibility if they gain consistency. The Big Ten schedule is an absolute gauntlet this season so their upcoming home date with Penn State (still a Top 50 opponent) is one of the few “get back on track” contests that Illinois will have for the rest of the season. 

The biggest keys for Illinois this season were always going to be whether or not they could improve from 3-point range and on the defensive end. They have checked only one of those boxes so far. The Illini are shooting 40.5% from three (8th nationally) but their defense is still settling in around 30th in adjusted efficiency. This is a very good team that passes the eye test with flying colors more often than not, but a 9-5 (5-3 B1G) record leaves room for improvement.

23. Oklahoma State Cowboys (9-3)

Oklahoma State holds a 9-3 (3-3 B12) record but two of those losses came to nationally ranked opponents and it has two of the best wins in all of NCAA basketball. The youthful roster took down Texas Tech on the road a few weeks back and proved that wasn’t a fluke as the Cowboys defended their home floor against Kansas over this past week. Another huge matchup looms as Baylor will come to town next weekend and the Cowboys have a shot to soar up the rankings if they can take home that one.

Just as everyone expected, Cade Cunningham is must-watch TV. The freshman sensation is leading Oklahoma State with 18 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game on efficiency splits of .460/.388/.817. The 6-8 guard is as versatile as they come with the ability to succeed at just about any position and against any matchup. He is truly special and a treat to watch if you haven’t had the chance yet. Isaac Likekele joins him in double-figures as another do-it-all performer.

Even though Cunningham will likely turn pro after this season, Coach Boynton is developing strong building blocks for the future. Freshmen Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe are both putting forth strong minutes in addition to fellow productive sophomores. Sticking to this season, though, Oklahoma State has lots of talent and has somewhat flown under the radar even with Cunningham guiding the way.

22. UConn Huskies (7-1)

I wrote in the preseason about UConn timing its return to the Big East with perhaps its best roster in recent memory. Through the Huskies’ first eight games of the season, that certainly looks to be the case as they have jumped out to a 7-1 (4-1 BE) record and soared to No. 21 on KenPom. While they haven’t faced much elite competition yet (only two Top 50 opponents), they are passing the eye test and have been doing so lately without star player James Bouknight.

Head coach Dan Hurley’s team is deep and is quickly emerging as potentially elite defensively. They are playing at one of the slowest paces in the country, rank 30th in effective field-goal percentage surrendered, and have not allowed a team to score more than 61 points over their last four games. Leading the way offensively in Bouknight’s absence has been Tyler Polley, who has scored in double figures three straight times, shooting 13-for-24 from deep.

The unsung heroes of this squad have been Tyrese Martin and Isaiah Whaley. Martin, a Rhode Island transfer, ranks 74th nationally in offensive rebounding rate and is consistently forcing his way to the free-throw line as well. He also has seven steals over his last two games. Whaley was one of the nation’s top “hidden gems” last year and has built off of that with a strong start to his senior campaign. He has combined for 12 steals/blocks over the last three games while scoring 32 points on 15-for-27 shooting.

It might not have the “elite wins” yet, but UConn is looking great and should only improve when its best player, Bouknight, returns from injury.

21. Missouri Tigers (8-2)

Missouri has dropped two of its last four games, including one to Mississippi State. For a team that isn’t loved by efficiency metrics either, the Tigers were due for a drop in the rankings. Nonetheless, they still belong thanks to their 8-2 overall record that includes solid wins over Oregon, Illinois and Arkansas. Head coach Cuonzo Martin’s team still looks to be among the best nationally on the defensive end but has taken a nosedive in terms of offensive production as of late. 

Most notably, the Tigers cannot buy a bucket from 3-point range. They are shooting a putride 27.3% from beyond the arc while still ranking around the middle of the country in attempt rate. Unless they turn things around in this department, it will be hard for them to score enough points to win consistently even with their strong defense. They have shot over 30% from three in just one of their last nine games.

Missouri is coming off a solid 16-point road win over Texas A&M and hopefully that was a sign of things to come. They will also be favored in their next game (vs. South Carolina) but then will embark on a two-game road trip against Tennessee and Auburn. We will learn soon whether the Tigers are a true Top 25 team or one that rose after a 6-0 start only to fall out a month later.

20. Saint Louis Billikens (7-1)

Saint Louis has not played a game since Dec. 23. As a result, there is still not much to add in this blurb. The Billikens are 7-1 and two of their results have aged better than most expected. Their home win over LSU now looks great and their road loss to Minnesota is hard to be too upset about. Head coach Travis Ford’s team deserves to be ranked and I am excited to see the Billikens return to the court soon. Their schedule is yet to indicate a road matchup with UMass on Jan. 20 as a postponement so the Minutemen could be SLU’s first game back. 

19. Clemson Tigers (9-2)

Clemson was obliterated by Virginia over this past week in its first game back after a 10-day hiatus. As a result of surrendering 85 points in just a 58-possession game to the Cavaliers, the Tigers’ No. 1 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency proved to not last long. The defeat dropped head coach Brad Brownell’s team a whopping 17 spots on KenPom in total. It was an embarrassing loss, and one that will surely cause many pollsters to drop Clemson from their rankings. 

Not me, though — one bad game doesn’t sour their efforts over the previous 10.

Clemson is still a strong 9-2 (3-2 ACC) on the season with both losses coming to teams ranked in my Top 15 in Virginia Tech and Virginia. They also hold strong wins over the likes of Purdue, Maryland, Alabama and Florida State. Quite simply, the Tigers’ resume is still very impressive even after this past weekend’s dismantling. The hope is that the loss was just a blip on the radar for what should be a very strong team.

It will not be easy to get back on track, though, as Clemson’s next two games are both on the road. If they can win one of two at Georgia Tech and Florida State, it would be a solid upcoming week before returning home for a matchup with Boston College. 

18. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-3)

Ohio State has quietly been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation this season en route to holding an 11-3 (5-3 B1G) record thus far. All three of the Buckeyes’ defeats have come on the road and they boast a solid collection of wins including those over Illinois, UCLA and Rutgers twice. They rarely turn the ball over, rebound offensively, draw a ton of fouls, and make a large chunk of their many free-throw attempts. Despite playing at just the 297th-fastest pace in the country, the Buckeyes have scored at least 79 points in three straight games (all wins).

The junior duo of Duane Washington and Justice Sueing has been rock-solid so far this season but breakout sophomore E.J. Liddell is perhaps the biggest individual reason for success. The 6-7 matchup nightmare has really come into his own. He is averaging 14.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a two-way menace. Liddell dropped 26 on 10-for-16 in the Buckeyes’ recent road victory over nationally-ranked Illinois.

Point guard CJ Walker and elite glue-guy Kyle Young join the other three in the typical starting lineup. From the reserves, sharpshooter Justin Ahrens has been scorching the nets to the tune of 28-for-53 (52.8%) from three. Freshman forward Zed Key has also been impressive with seven points, 3.9 rebounds, and one block in 14.1 minutes off the bench per game.

17. Texas Tech Red Raiders (11-4)

I am always skeptical of where to rank Texas Tech due to its usually poor nonconference strength of schedule. The case was the same this season, as the Red Raiders only played one Top 100 nonconference opponent (Houston) and lost by double digits. Since Big 12 play started, their 4-3 conference record is unerwhelming but all of their losses have come to teams ranked in my Top 25. They also picked up road wins over Oklahoma and Texas to buoy back into my power rankings. 

With two winnable games approaching against TCU and Iowa State, Texas Tech could easily slide closer to their KenPom slot of No. 14 in my power rankings a week from now. For the time being, though, they have double the amount of losses as quality wins, and that isn’t going to warrant a high ranking. Regardless, I think Chris Beard is a top-tier coach nationally and he has his team playing at an elite level defensively.

A pair of transfers have been huge for Texas Tech this season. Mac McClung, previously of Georgetown, is the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game while VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva is posting 8.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per contest.

16. West Virginia Mountaineers (9-4)

West Virginia has won just two of its last five games and one of those victories came at home over Northeastern (KenPom No. 149). While it started the season strong at 7-1, WVU just hasn’t looked nearly as good over the last couple of weeks and have subsequently dropped in my rankings. The Mountaineers rank just 275th nationally in effective field-goal percentage and elite offensive rebounding can only make up for so many misses.

On the whole, I’m starting to feel similarly to last season about West Virginia. It is a very good team that should stick in the Top 25 throughout the season but never quite reach the level of being a national title contender. The Big 12 is loaded, so there will be plenty of opportunities for the Mountaineers to prove itself and return to the Top 10. For the time being, though, they are sub-.500 in conference play.

15. Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-4)

Minnesota’s four losses this season have all come on the road and against the following opponents: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. It’s hard to be too negative about any of those defeats as they all came against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 11. The Golden Gophers have also compiled plenty of quality wins, with their signature ones coming at home over Saint Louis, Iowa and Michigan. “The Barn” has proven to be one of the toughest places to play in this season for visiting teams.

Not only is the Big Ten the best conference in the country, Minnesota has easily faced the league’s toughest gauntlet through eight games. The Gophers’ only in-conference opponent ranked outside of the KenPom Top 20 was Michigan State, which they dismantled by 25 points. They have faced nine consecutive teams ranked in the KenPom Top 50. Put simply, this team is as battle-tested as anyone in America. They only play one game this week: at home vs. Maryland.

Transfers have primarily led the way for Minnesota this season with Marcus Carr at the forefront. While Carr was a Gopher last year, the 6-2 junior who is a former Pitt Panther is averaging 20.6 points and 5.5 assists per game as one of the Big Ten’s top players. Fellow transfers Liam Robbins (Drake), Both Gach (Utah) and Brandon Johnson (Western Michigan) are also playing very well. Gabe Kalscheur is the only non-former transfer in Minnesota’s top five scorers.

14. Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2)

Am I too high on Virginia Tech right now? Perhaps, but I will have a full writeup on my thoughts on the Hokies on Tuesday. For this blurb, allow me to explain briefly how VT’s resume speaks for itself when it comes to warranting a spot in the Top 15. 

Leading things off, they boast an 11-2 record that is better than the vast majority of teams in the nation. And while they haven’t faced the toughest schedule by strength of schedule standards, they have a solid collection of high-quality wins. Victories over the likes of Villanova, Clemson and Duke are excellent and they only have one black eye on their resume (home loss to Penn State). Since that 20-point drubbing by the Nittany Lions, they have won seven of eight and moved up 15 spots on KenPom.

In traditional Mike Young fashion, his team is letting the ball fly from deep and connecting on plenty of those trifectas. Leading the way in this department has been sophomore guard Jalen Cone, who is 30-for-77 (39.0%) from deep in his 10 games played. Fellow sophomores Hunter Cattoor (48.8%) and Nahiem Alleyne (36.4%) have also each hit 20+ 3-pointers already. 

13. Wisconsin Badgers (11-3)

Wisconsin is rock-solid. Perhaps not elite as some thought in the preseason, Wisconsin should find itself in the Top 20 for the entire year, barring injury. The Badgers are experienced, play at their pace, rarely turn the ball over, shoot the lights out from three, and are sound defensively. This is your typical Wisconsin team that will finish Top 4 in the Big Ten and have a chance at a solid run in March.

Over the course of the past two weeks, they struggled against Indiana at home before winning in double OT, were blown out miserably by Michigan on the road, and then recovered to hand Rutgers its fourth straight loss. The Wolverines loss was bad, but as I said about Clemson, one game doesn’t define a season. Wisconsin is still very solid, deserving of a high ranking, and also has a favorable (or as favorable as it gets in the Big Ten) schedule approaching.

They get back-to-back home games next against Northwestern and Ohio State before facing Penn State twice and Maryland in the following contests. The Badgers will be favored in likely all five upcoming matchups.

12. Creighton Bluejays (10-3)

Creighton lost its last game, an overtime road matchup with a down Butler team, but was looking like one of the best five teams in the country prior to the loss. The Bluejays were also missing Marcus Zegarowski for the second consecutive game. Even with the loss in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Creighton has won six of its last seven games and are definitely deserving of a Top 15 standing. Once Zegarowski returns, the Bluejays could resume their previous path of climbing up the rankings.

In what should come as a surprise to nobody, Creighton ranks in the Top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency so far this season. Head coach Greg McDermott is simply one of the best offensive minds in the country. What has separated this season from some in the past for the Bluejays, though, has been a stark rise in defensive ability. Even though the program lost Ty-Shon Alexander this offseason, they have jumped from 78th in AdjD last season to 35th.

The Bluejays rank 36th in defensive effective field-goal percentage, 52nd in block rate, and 51st in FTA/FGA surrendered. They might not cover the 3-point arc especially well but have done an excellent job underneath. That has been a huge game-changer. 

11. Virginia Cavaliers (9-2)

Virginia entered this season widely projected to be the No. 4 team in America. After suffering a loss to San Francisco in its second game, though, the Cavaliers fell quickly out of the national spotlight. That was furthered by a 23-point loss at the hands of Gonzaga a month later. Now that head coach Tony Bennett hasn’t had to face any more WCC opponents, though, his team has picked things up as of late. Virginia is winners of five straight and made a statement this past weekend.

The Cavaliers traveled to nationally ranked Clemson as underdogs but came away with a massive 35-point victory to propel themselves back into the elite tier. Just as much as one loss shouldn’t kill a team’s ranking, one win shouldn’t cause too big of a leap. Virginia’s win over Clemson was an outlier performance but it was also its sixth straight win, with each coming by at least nine points. The Cavaliers are simply playing good basketball and doing so consistently.

Virginia now ranks seventh on KenPom and its offensive numbers are quietly off-the-charts good. The Cavaliers are a strong 3-point shooting team, avoid turnovers, dictate a slow pace, and create quality looks. If Virginia’s offense is truly better than its defense, this could be a huge development for the fans in Charlottesville.

10. Kansas Jayhawks (10-3)

Kansas has been the most consistently great program in all of NCAA basketball for the last several years. Of course, this season is no different. With a 10-3 (4-2 B12) record that includes wins over Kentucky, Creighton, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma, this has the makings of yet another campaign in which the Jayhawks land a Top 4 seed at the NCAA Tournament. Though they lost their last game on the road to Oklahoma State, this is still an excellent team.

Head coach Bill Self is one of the best in the business and I have no doubt that the Jayhawks will remain a Top 15 team throughout this season. A huge opportunity awaits Monday night for KU to make a substantial rise up the rankings. The Jayhawks are major underdogs on the road against Baylor — pull off the upset (strange to say for Kansas) and they will move right back into the Top 5 conversation. Kansas is playing a challenging schedule this season but traveling to Waco is its toughest game all year.

9. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-3)

Framing this piece as “power rankings” gives me the ability to weigh recent performance a bit more than I would in a traditional Top 25. As a result, let’s all give a round of applause to Alabama for joining the Top 10 this week. Currently riding a seven-game winning streak that includes road wins over Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky, you would be hard-pressed to find any team playing better in America. In fact, Alabama ranks No. 1 in WAB by a sizable margin since Dec. 22, which coincides with the start of this lengthy winning streak.

As I wrote about last week, Alabama is hitting its stride as one of the fastest teams in the country. The Tide are simply imposing their tempo on every team they face and it is paying off to the tune of an SEC-best 6-0 record in conference play thus far. Alabama can shoot all five positions and is excellent on the defensive end as well. While Jordan Bruner might be out for the next couple of weeks, the Tide have plenty of depth and also just got Jahvon Quinerly back in the lineup.

Head coach Nate Oats has his team playing better than just about anyone right now.

8. Houston Cougars (11-1)

Houston suffered its first loss of the season three weeks ago on the road against Tulsa. And while people immediately started questioning whether this team was overrated, the Cougars have responded. They have won four straight contests by an average of 12.3 points. Their record now sits at 11-1 (6-1 AAC) as they have once again asserted themselves as the team to beat in the American.

Owning the fourth-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating sums up just how good this team is on that end of the floor. Not only do they rank 19th in defensive turnover rate, but they also hold the fourth-best effective field-goal percentage surrendered nationally. Even if teams are able to avoid coughing up possessions against the Cougars, they are going to have a very difficult time creating a quality look. 

Houston will be favored in each of its remaining regular-season games. They are the best team in the AAC and it’s not even close.

7. Michigan Wolverines (11-1)

Michigan not only lost its first game of the season during this past week but was blown out on the road by Minnesota. The 18-point loss came just after the Wolverines dismantled Wisconsin at home in a way that perhaps nobody has in the past decade. The drastic differences showed how good Michigan can look at its best and how poor it can look at its worst. The prior 10 games, though, indicated consistency as Michigan’s calling card this year. 

The Wolverines only have one true “world-beating” quality performance and only one sub-par effort this season – both just happened to come in the same week. 

What I am eager to see is how Michigan responds to the Minnesota loss. The Wolverines will face Maryland at home and Purdue on the road this coming week with the chance to assert themselves as one of the clear frontrunners in the conference. As of now, I think that Michigan and Iowa are a slight tier ahead of the rest, though there are several potential contenders (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois) that could potentially creep up on everyone. 

Getting Eli Brooks back from injury would also help as he missed UM’s loss to Minnesota. He is an integral piece of their national-title-contending puzzle.

6. Tennessee Volunteers (10-1)

Tennessee’s home loss to Alabama is still disappointing but has aged well as the team’s only defeat to date. The Volunteers may have started the season later than most but have quickly asserted themselves as worthy of the preseason hype. I had them ranked in my Top 10 entering the year and they have lived up to that with a 10-1 (4-1 SEC) record and a No. 6 standing on KenPom. Head coach Rick Barnes’ team holds the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency ranking in the country. 

This has been spearheaded by a strong returning core including Yves Pons and an outstanding defensive freshman duo. The two five-stars Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson have both jumped into things quickly to play big minutes as highly impactful two-way weapons. They are two of Tennessee’s seven players averaging at least 7.5 points per game. Oregon transfer Victor Bailey leads the team in scoring at 12.3 per game.

I honestly don’t know if there is anything I need to present more than KenPom’s scouting report for Tennessee to prove just how good they have been this season — it pretty much tells the whole story. National title contenders? You bet.

5. Texas Longhorns (11-2)

Texas suffered just its second loss of the season during this past week but its resume speaks for itself to date. The Longhorns already hold seven KenPom Top 100 wins, including those over Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Kansas and West Virginia. This team has proven just how good it can be and its only two defeats have come at the hands of fellow nationally ranked squads in Villanova and Texas Tech by a total of six points.

Head coach Shaka Smart has a national title contender on his hands and they have looked the part of a connected group on both ends of the floor through 13 games. The Longhorns will only play one game this week — on the road at TCU — before entering a very difficult stretch. They will have to face Oklahoma, Kentucky, Baylor and Oklahoma State all in a row after their meeting with the Horned Frogs next weekend.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-2)

Those that have followed the power rankings this year know that I have been hesitant to rate Iowa too high. I simply have not trusted its defense enough to warrant too much praise. Regardless, its dominant offense continues to distract from any defensive-related concerns. The Hawkeyes are so talented, balanced and disciplined on offense that it seems to hardly matter whether or not they get stops.

Head coach Fran McCaffery’s team has jumped out to a 12-2 (6-1 B1G) record and is currently riding a five-game winning streak with three victories coming on the road. Not only are they on a roll in the winning column right now, but they have won four of these five games by double figures. The Hawkeyes are simply dominant and looking the part of the favorite to win the Big Ten. Despite having the nation’s 69th-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating, Gonzaga is the only offensive team rated in the same stratosphere.

Luka Garza is a collegiate superstar and his supporting cast is made up of other stars as well. Junior forward Joe Wieskamp, for instance, would be the best player on the majority of teams in the country. Add in that Jordan Bohannon has returned from his injury last season to rank third on the team in points and first in assists and this team has what it takes to roll over opponents.

3. Villanova Wildcats (8-1)

Villanova has not played since Dec. 23 due to a COVID-19 pause. To date, though, the Wildcats are 8-1 with one elite win over Texas (on the road) and a few solid victories over Boston College, Arizona State, Marquette and Butler. They have also only played two of their opening nine games at home as they were well-traveled during their opening month of the season. Head coach Jay Wright’s only loss this season came in overtime to nationally ranked Virginia Tech.

Villanova will remain in my elite tier until proven otherwise. I am eager to see what the Wildcats look like once they return from their hiatus. Their first game back on the schedule will be at home on Jan. 19 against Seton Hall.

2. Baylor Bears (12-0)

Baylor entered this season as my No. 2 team and has not moved. The Bears are an undefeated 12-0 (5-0 B12) to this point and have put forth excellent efforts since my last power rankings on Jan. 4. They defeated Oklahoma at home (by 15) and then went on the road to take care of business against TCU (by 18) and Texas Tech (by eight). This team is flat-out elite and is handling things in a business-like manner. Scott Drew’s best roster ever deserves credit for both putting it together and playing to their potential.

As expected, key returning upperclassmen Jared Butler (15.6 points, 5.2 assists), MaCio Teague (15.3 points) and Davion Mitchell (12.1 points, 5.9 assists) have been at the forefront of Baylor’s success. Those three guards are absolutely superb and everyone in the country knew that last season as well. But Baylor also added Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler to the mix this season and he has been tremendous after sitting out a year ago. Flagler has come off the bench to average 10.6 points per game on 44.7% shooting from three.

Baylor has a strong argument for having the best backcourt in NCAA basketball.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (14-0)

Gonzaga has been the best team in the sport this season, plain and simple. Baylor has been great and a clear step ahead of every other team in the nation, but Gonzaga is even a step ahead of Baylor. The Bulldogs are extremely fun to watch with their fast pace, oozing talent and improved defense. This is head coach Mark Few’s best roster (which is saying something) and they appear destined to be the clear favorite to win the NCAA Tournament in two months.

The Bulldogs have played the 94th-toughest schedule this season, a slate that has included matchups with Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia and BYU. Not only are they undefeated, but only one team (WVU) has been able to stay within single digits to this point. Their dominance is at a level that very few expected, even those that believed Gonzaga to be head-and-shoulders better than anyone else in the preseason.

Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, and Drew Timme are all performing at All-American levels and that somehow leaves Joel Ayayi out of the conversation. Gonzaga is loaded and a treat to watch.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist