Harkins 25: Illinois soaring, Texas falling in the ranks

Another week of NCAA basketball is complete and thus comes another Harkins 25.

Drake dropping its first game of the season (now 18-1) has forced me to remove the Bulldogs from consideration for the Top 25 right now, but another mid-major has perhaps taken their place as a possible ranked team down the road. Belmont is ever-so-quietly 20-1 to begin the year and has not lost since just its fourth game of the whole season. Casey Alexander and Co. are rolling through the OVC, but I will save my #words on them for an article dropping tomorrow on Heat Check.

Shameless plug for another article aside, there were several other shakeups nationwide to cause changes. Perhaps most notably, Illinois and Ohio State have been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and are now slotted in my Top 5. Additionally, Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas — all of which have spent time in my Top 10 — have struggled of late and dropped several spots into the middle of the rankings.

Rutgers and Oklahoma State are among those that rejoined the rankings as they have performed well. The Scarlet Knights are currently in the midst of an impressive winning streak while the Cowboys continue to show that they are capable of beating elite teams. Loyola Chicago also continues its consistent rise up my rankings with their sheer domination of the Missouri Valley.

Without any further ado, let’s dive into this #ChartSZN-filled edition of the Harkins 25.

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25. Purdue Boilermakers (13-7)

Purdue split its contests during this past week with a road loss to Maryland and a victory over Northwestern. Considering the loss only came by one and the Boilermakers have otherwise performed very well over the last month, they remain at the back end of my rankings this week. Head coach Matt Painter is once again putting together a strong season and is getting excellent contributions from star big man Trevion Williams. The 6-10 junior is ranked seventh in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings.

Freshman guard Jaden Ivey is also in the midst of a breakout stretch. He has averaged 12.4 points in 25.1 minutes per game over Purdue’s last seven contests. Ivey was recently inserted for the Boilers’ last four matchups and he will continue to be a major part of the offense moving forward. Coach Painter has had plenty of success with go-to scoring guards in the past and Ivey might be the next in that line. He has a bright future ahead as a building block of the program.

24. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-6)

Rutgers has risen from the near-dead. After losing six of seven over a dreadful month-long period of suffering, the Scarlet Knights have recovered to win four straight. While they might not have any “elite” wins during this stretch, all of the victories came over teams ranked between 25 and 75 on KenPom. Head coach Steve Pikiell needed to find a way to get his team back on track and he has been able to do exactly that. This winning streak has pushed the Scarlet Knights back into “safe” territory regarding bracketology projections.

Rutgers ranks 18th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency with Myles Johnson’s elite rim-protection as one of the core reasons for this resurgence. He has recorded 14 blocks and seven steals in Rutgers’ last four games while being named the KenPom Game MVP twice. Johnson has raised his season averages to 8.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. He is a top contender for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.

23. Creighton Bluejays (14-5)

Creighton has not passed the eye test in several weeks. The Bluejays are 4-3 over their past seven games with their largest margin of victory being eight. Given that the Big East is in the midst of a down year, this has been a disappointing stretch for the second-best team in the league. Creighton remains one of the most experienced teams in the league and features enough star power to make a deep run in March. For now, though, they are struggling to pass the eye test and recently dropped a home game to Georgetown.

Perhaps the biggest reason for these recent struggles has been a step backward defensively. Their offense has also struggled a bit more than normal as of late, but the D has suffered most:

22. Wisconsin Badgers (14-6)

Wisconsin has slowly but surely fallen several spots in my rankings over the last month and a half. The Badgers have simply looked vulnerable while going 6-5 over their last 11 games, with their biggest weakness being an inability to beat top teams. Head coach Greg Gard’s team is 0-3 against the main top teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois) with those defeats coming by an average of 16.7 points. They have also suffered defeats at the hands of bubble teams Maryland and Penn State during this stretch.

The biggest reason for this downturn is that Wisconsin’s hot shooting from their scorching end to last year has finally cooled off recently:

Wisconsin’s closing stretch includes matchups with Michigan, Iowa (twice) and Illinois over its final seven games. The Badgers will need to find a way to catch up with the best of the best in the league if they want to stay in the conference title race. Wisconsin is 14-6 (8-5 B1G) right now.

21. USC Trojans (15-3)

USC has not played the toughest competition this season. Until this past week, the Trojans had largely been playing the bottom of the Pac-12 with only a 2-2 record against the KenPom Top 50. With back-to-back wins over Stanford (KP 45) and UCLA (KP 38), it might be time to take this team seriously as one of the best in the nation. Head coach Andy Enfield’s squad is ranked at 13th nationally in adjusted efficiency margin and has won 10 of 11 games.

You would be hard-pressed to find many teams defending the paint better than USC this season. In fact, the Trojans are the only team in the entire country ranked in the Top 10 nationally in three critical defensive statistics: effective field goal percentage allowed, 2-point defense, and block rate. Underclassmen brothers Evan Mobley (fr.) and Isaiah Mobley (soph.) have been at the core of this interior success. They also contribute to USC ranking sixth in offensive rebounding rate.

20. Oklahoma State Cowboys (12-5)

Oklahoma State suffered the second half of its season sweep by TCU during this past week, furthering proof that the wrong matchup can cause this team to lose to anyone. The Cowboys responded, though, showcasing why their ceiling is so high with a double-overtime win over Texas. This marked OK State’s fourth win over the KenPom Top 30 of the season and pushed them to 12-5 (5-5 B12) for the year. With Cade Cunningham leading the charge, they can beat anyone.

There are very few teams that I trust to consistently win games this season and Oklahoma State is not one of them. The Cowboys, however, have proven that they can beat top-tier opponents with their wins over Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas. That is a great reputation to have with only a month remaining until the postseason. Oklahoma State is a strong defensive team led by a freshman superstar in Cunningham; they can be dangerous, although inconsistent.

19. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (17-3)

Loyola Chicago continued to roll over this past week with a trio of victories. The Ramblers took down Missouri State (by 20) and Evansville twice (by 13 and 11) to move up in my ranking slightly. While I understand that Loyola only has one KenPom Top 100 victory all year, its resume does not tell the story of its quality as a team. Head coach Porter Moser’s team entered this year as a fringe Top 25 team, in my opinion, and they have answered the call over the past couple of months.

Now ranked No. 14 in adjusted efficiency metrics, there aren’t many teams playing better. They have jumped 36 spots on KenPom since their last loss. Over this current 10-game winning streak, Loyola has beaten its opponents by an average of 19.3 points with only one game ending with a single-digit differential. Back-to-back road games against Drake (18-1) loom next and Feb. 13/14 should be circled on every mid-major fan’s calendar.

18. Virginia Tech Hokies (14-4)

Virginia Tech suffered a tough road loss to Pittsburgh this past week but was able to bounce back at Miami-FL (even though that victory went to overtime). The Hokies did not play especially well during this week but they are simply a rock-solid squad in terms of both quality and resume metrics. Their 14-4 (8-3 ACC) record has flown under the radar this season, especially when considering their collection of wins include those over Villanova, Clemson, Duke and Virginia.

Head coach Mike Young is in the midst of a very successful second season at the helm of the program while guiding the Hokies to plenty of success. Each of Virginia Tech’s next three games will come against a likely future NCAA Tournament team (Louisville, North Carolina, Florida State). This stretch provides an opportunity for the Hokies to prove their worth. Let’s see if they are up for the challenge — they are currently 4-4 vs. projected tournament teams or those on the bubble.

17. Texas Longhorns (11-5)

Texas has now lost four of its last five games since starting the season at 10-1 (4-0 B12). This is mostly just the nature of playing in the daunting Big 12 this season, but warrants a significant drop in my power rankings regardless. The Longhorns’ recent losses have come at the hands of fellow ranked opponents in Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Their lone win since Jan. 9 is over Kansas State, which is widely regarded as the worst power-conference team this season.

While they have played those fellow ranked opponents close — only one game was separated by more than two points or overtime — they have still dropped 10 spots on KenPom as a result. Texas should still be regarded as a nationally ranked team capable of making a deep run in March, but they aren’t quite in the upper echelon as we once thought. The Longhorns are now 4-5 against the KenPom Top 35 and are trending down. A matchup with K-State on Feb. 9 should help straighten them out, however.

16. Tennessee Volunteers (13-4)

Tennessee suffered its first loss with a healthy Jaden Springer this week as it dropped a road game to Mississippi. The freshman wing scored only two points on 1-for-7 shooting in the defeat but responded in a big way in the Volunteers’ victory over Kentucky. Springer dropped in a season-high 23 points while also recording five rebounds and four stocks (steals+blocks). The bounce-back performance also showed why he is so highly coveted as a future NBA Draft pick:

On the whole, I remain a big-time believer in Tennessee’s long-term potential, even with some recent struggles. Head coach Rick Barnes’ team still owns the nation’s best defense by adjusted efficiency measures but the offense still needs some work. In their four losses this season, the Volunteers have scored only 56.5 points on 34.6 percent shooting. They need more consistency on that end to return to dark-horse national title contention. Their ceiling is still higher than most in the country, though.

15. Iowa Hawkeyes (13-6)

Much like Texas, Iowa is another team struggling as a result of a grueling schedule and perhaps being overrated earlier in the year. The Hawkeyes have dropped four of their last five games with their lone win coming over a struggling Michigan State squad. They did lose two of those contests to teams ranked in my Top 5, but suffering a season sweep at the hands of Indiana is a tad head-scratching. While the Hawkeyes still hold the nation’s best adjusted offensive efficiency ranking, they are now dangerously worse defensively than they were a season ago.

Iowa’s lack of consistent defense is why I have always been hesitant to believe in them as a top-tier team. I did start to buy in a few weeks ago, though, as its defense was seemingly improved compared to 2019-20, but that is simply no longer the case. Iowa’s offense keeps the Hawkeyes safely among my Top 25, but a deep run in March will take a dedication to stopping that we haven’t quite seen yet. Six of Iowa’s seven remaining scheduled games will come against KP Top 30 opponents.

14. Florida State Seminoles (10-3)

Florida State did not play during this past week and therefore stays solidly slotted in the middle of these rankings. Head coach Leonard Hamilton’s group holds a 10-3 (6-2 ACC) record right now and will be coming off a road loss to Georgia Tech when they take the court next. The Seminoles hold Top 35 ratings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They are mostly a strong offensive team this year, with quality national ranks in eFG% and offensive rebounding. FSU is a threat for a second-weekend (or better) run once again.

13. Oklahoma Sooners (12-5)

Oklahoma’s impressive five-game winning streak came to end this week with a hard-fought road loss to Texas Tech. The Sooners then followed that up with bounce-back win over Iowa State that was perhaps a bit closer than some expected. Regardless, OU has won six of its last seven games with victories over Kansas, Texas and Alabama mixed in. Its lone loss came to a Top 10 team in Texas Tech. It’s hard to find too much fault in that as the Sooners are playing excellent basketball.

Head coach Lon Kruger’s team is one of only 11 nationally that currently rank in the Top 30 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. That even includes their slow start to the year (6-4 before turning on the jets). Austin Reaves is the senior leader of this group and De’Vion Harmon is a budding sophomore star, but Umoja Gibson (North Texas transfer) hitting his stride has been a game-changer:

12. West Virginia Mountaineers (13-5)

West Virginia posted one of the rare 2-0 weeks from a ranked team this time around, defeating Iowa State and Kansas en route to reaching 13-5 (6-3 B12) on the year. The Mountaineers have now won four of their last five and are building a reputation as one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams. They are dominating on the offensive glass and connecting on a high rate of 3-pointers. They also take care of the ball well and tend to win the free-throw battle.

Sophomore guard Miles McBride dropped in a season-high 31 points to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals in WVU’s win over Kansas. This was his best individual performance of the season. McBride is averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game as a burgeoning star alongside big man Derek Culver (14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds).

Their brutal stretch of schedule continues over the next two weeks with five straight matchups against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor (twice) and Texas.

11. Missouri Tigers (13-3)

Efficiency metrics are finally starting to catch up to Missouri’s resume a bit. With only three losses and wins over Oregon, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama, the Tigers look every bit of a Top 15 team in the country. With that said, though, they just cracked the KenPom Top 30 for the first time all season during this past week after dispatching the Crimson Tide by three — they led by as many as 20 late in the second half before nearly giving it away.

Regardless of what the metrics say, though, there is now a 16-game sample size of this team responding well in crunch time. Considering Missouri ranks sixth in experience and eighth in minutes continuity this season, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that they work so well together in tense moments of games. I’m not ready to completely buy in on Missouri as a dark-horse national title threat, but they have certainly played well this year and will be favored in all but one of their remaining scheduled games.

10. Alabama Crimson Tide (15-5)

Alabama has lost two of its last three since going on a 10-game winning streak. I am not too worried about road losses to Oklahoma and Missouri, both of which are very good teams, but the Crimson Tide will need to get on track soon. They still hold the nation’s No. 2 adjusted defensive efficiency mark and will be favored in every scheduled game for the rest of the season. Considering it only suffered its first conference loss during this past week, Alabama remains the favorite in the SEC.

Alabama is a very perimeter-oriented offensive team as it scores 39.8 percent of its total points from 3-point range (15th-highest point distribution in that area nationally). As a result, the Tide can either dominate opponents as they did during their winning streak or become vulnerable when they aren’t hitting. If they get hot in the NCAA Tournament, they could go very far, and they could also be an early upset. A few likely “get right” games are up next on the schedule.

9. Virginia Cavaliers (13-3)

I am still very hesitant to believe in Virginia as a threat to defend its national title. While the Cavaliers have largely lived up to expectations this season in terms of record (13-3, 9-1 ACC) and placement atop their conference, they have a lack of elite wins. Head coach Tony Bennett’s team has faced only three KenPom Top 50 opponents all year, winning at Clemson (No. 46) and suffering losses to Gonzaga (No. 2) and Virginia Tech (No. 36). They also have that loss to San Francisco on their resume.

Of course, Virginia has otherwise handled its business against every other opponent it has faced, but it has mostly climbed the ranks by defeating inferior opponents to date. The ACC is in the midst of a down year in terms of title contenders and that has made it difficult for Virginia to really prove that it belongs higher than this spot in the rankings. The Cavaliers are not their typical dominant selves defensively this season, but are rather looking to make a run behind hyper-efficient offense.

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders (14-5)

Texas Tech navigated through its last six games with a 4-2 record that included wins over Texas, LSU and Oklahoma while only dropping contests to Baylor and West Virginia. Those are pretty strong results given the competition and that has launched the Red Raiders into my Top 10 for the first time all season. I was slow on the uptake with this squad due to their weak nonconference schedule but picking up quality wins of late has changed my mind a bit.

They still have revenge attempts with WVU and Baylor coming up this week as opportunities to rise higher, but this is a well-rounded unit that could advance far next month. The Red Raiders are turning opponents over at the seventh-highest rate nationally while also dominating the paint defensively. They are swatting 13 percent of shots (26th) while limiting teams to only 44.2% percent on 2-point attempts (23rd). TTU is a bit susceptible to 3-point shooting but stifles ball movement and interior buckets.

Offensively, the Red Raiders make up for pedestrian shooting percentages with ball security, offensive rebounding, and making a living at the foul line.

7. Houston Cougars (16-2)

Houston had an … interesting week. First, the Cougars were halted in their dominant run through the AAC by none other than East Carolina (KenPom No. 135). They then followed that up with a 66-point victory over non-D1 school Our Lady of the Lake, which I’m not sure I should even discuss. Houston is a tough team to judge this season because they will only play one KenPom Top 40 opponent all year. And while they did beat Texas Tech, that was all the way back on Nov. 29.

“What have you done for me lately?” is a legitimate question to ask about this team. While they have been mostly dominating their opposition, hence being ranked at No. 6 on KenPom, they have a pair of head-scratching losses and a quality win that is from over two months ago. Their numbers look great but I am curious how playing only one or two NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents all year will affect them once they reach the Big Dance.

6. Villanova Wildcats (12-2)
2003-2021 using KenPom

Villanova dropped a road game to St. John’s, albeit a scorching hot version, during this past week to fall from the No. 3 pedestal. I am definitely a believer in the Wildcats given Coach Wright’s consistent success in recent years but it might be time to worry about their defense just a little bit. With their abundance of offensive talent, it is worth noting that Villanova will simply outscore most of their opposition. That was the case in their most recent win, in which Jermaine Samuels scored a season-high 32 points against Georgetown.

Defensively, though, this is Villanova’s second-worst unit since 2012. It is also easily their worst eFG% allowed to opponents in the entire Jay Wright era. That is definitely concerning, but there is still time for this experienced group to figure it out. After all, they ranked 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and are seventh in minutes continuity this year. As they get more games in after their month-long pause, they will hopefully return to form defensively.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes (15-4)

Ohio State has been rolling lately and there is no other way to put it. The Buckeyes have won seven of their last eight games with the lone defeat coming after blowing a late lead to Purdue. They are simply playing some of the best basketball of any team in the country and warrant a Top 10 ranking. Similar to Villanova, the Buckeyes have not been great defensively (71st in AdjD) this season but have made up for that with a hyper-efficient offense.

Most notably, they are dominant in the mid-range with efficient jump-shooting. Ohio State ranks fourth nationally in FG% on “further twos” this season at 47.6%. Excluding at-the-rim and threes, the right shows how some of the Buckeyes’ top scorers are performing from the mid-range. Scoring at three levels so efficiency has made Ohio State very difficult to stop.

Ohio State holds a 15-4 (9-4 B1G) record overall and has risen to No. 8 on KenPom. The Buckeyes are as high as No. 5 in my power rankings by virtue of how well they have played lately, as I give a bit of a bonus to recent performances. Their resume is one of a potential No. 1 seed right now if they continue to perform well. KenPom has them favored to win each of their remaining games this season, including those against Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois. Those are high expectations but this is a team playing superbly well right now.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5)

I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions that Illinois only needs to find consistency to emerge as one of the nation’s best teams. With four consecutive victories (and eight of 10), it feels like the Illini have found their groove and have skyrocketed to No. 4 in my ranking as a result. Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu are as good a duo as any in the nation and the team has picked up their play on defense as well. Here is an excerpt from my Top 25 blurb on Illinois a few weeks back:

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.

Harkins 25 from Jan. 18th

Well, the Illini still rank really well in 3-point shooting (39.3%, 13th) and it seems like they have found their defense since then:

3. Michigan Wolverines (13-1)

Michigan did not play during this past week. The Wolverines have not taken the court since Jan. 22 due to a pause. Head coach Juwan Howard’s team is still 13-1 (8-1 B1G) and ranked at No. 3 on KenPom. They are one of three teams to rank in the Top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Only the two teams ahead of them in these power rankings join them in that esteemed category.

2. Baylor Bears (17-0)

Baylor maintained its undefeated start to the season during this past week with a road victory over Texas. They moved to 17-0 (9-0 B12) for the year and point guard Jared Butler is beginning to garner more attention as a potential National Player of the Year contender. The Bears rank No. 3 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency while having moved to the tops nationally in efficiency margin. While their nonconference schedule was not the toughest, their win over Illinois has aged well, as have many of their Big 12 victories.

Baylor has a legitimate case to be the best team in the country and looks poised to make a deep run in March. Their sights are set on cutting down the final nets and they will definitely be one of the favorites to do so. They are experienced, an elite shooting team, and are strong on the defensive end as well. Guard play wins in March and the Bears have plenty of guard play.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-0)

Gonzaga continues to roll through the WCC. The Bulldogs are 18-0 (9-0 WCC) overall and picked up an 18-point road win over Pacific during this past week. Their toughest remaining regular-season game looms next as they will travel to face BYU on Feb. 8. Gonzaga is given a 71.7% chance by KenPom of ending the entire regular-season undefeated — it is certainly looking like they could enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed without a loss.

Head coach Mark Few’s offense is unsurpisingly incredible with several All-American candidates. With Iowa struggling a bit lately, Corey Kispert is a legitimate contender for National Player of the Year. The Zags also moved to No. 7 in adjusted defensive efficinecy over the course of the season.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist