Harkins 25: Michigan back in action, Ohio State rolling

The NCAA basketball power rankings this week show the return of Michigan after a long pause and Missouri’s fall after back-to-back losses.

Another week of NCAA basketball is in the past and here comes this week’s edition of the NCAA Basketball Power Rankings. As should come to nobody’s surprise, Gonzaga and Baylor remain the top two teams in the rankings this week while a trio of Big Ten teams follows just behind. But while the top has mostly stayed the same as a result of their continued winning ways, there were several shifts up and down the rankings. Three teams that were not in the rankings a week ago make appearances this time around, including a certain mid-major cracking the list for the first time.

Drake, however, is not that team. The Bulldogs have sat just on the outside of my Top 25 for the last several weeks and that remains the case. Their home win over Loyola Chicago was certainly impressive and warranted attention, but it was not enough to overcome the 27-point beatdown they suffered at the hands of the Ramblers just a day earlier. Do not fret too much, though, Drake fans — at-large hopes are still alive for the Bulldogs.

VCU also is not a Top 25 team yet, though I did give them some consideration. The Rams have ever-so-quietly won five consecutive games, including four over the KenPom Top 100. Head coach Mike Rhoades is guiding an elite defensive team that is forcing turnovers on 25.1 percent of opponent’s possessions (fifth-best rate nationally). This past week included wins over Dayton and St. Bonaventure. While VCU does not crack my Top 25, they are building an at-large resume.

So who is the mid-major team that slides in at No. 25? Well, it’s the team with the second-longest winning streak and the most wins of any team in the entire country.

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25. Belmont Bruins (22-1)

Belmont hasn’t lost since Dec. 5 — I’m serious. The Bruins are winners of 19 straight games and continue to somehow fly under the radar nationally. As I wrote about last week, head coach Casey Alexander is following in the footsteps of Rick Byrd by deploying an elite offense dominating inside the arc and spraying from 3-point range. Belmont holds the 24th-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the nation and is fresh off 18- and 15-point victories over Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State during this past week, respectively.

I understand that Belmont is ranked at just 73rd on KenPom and isn’t given a great deal of respect from other metrics, either. But the Bruins just keep winning and that deserves to be recognized. This has been one of the nation’s best mid-majors for the past several years and this has the makings of potentially their best season in D1 (record-wise). Grayson Murphy and Nick Musczysnki form a dynamic duo with plenty of elite shooters around them.

24. Wisconsin Badgers (15-7)

Wisconsin was able to secure a road win over Nebraska but followed that up by losing to Michigan. While dropping a game to the No. 3 team in the country isn’t anything to be too worried about, the Badgers blew a double-digit lead at halftime and there were other concerning factors. Big men Nate Reuvers (6-11) and Micah Potter (6-10), both seniors, combined for zero rebounds in 40 minutes while allowing Michigan’s freshman center Hunter Dickinson to secure 15 boards.

Furthermore, the Badgers shot only 1-for-12 from three in the second half after hitting five of seven during the first 20 minutes. Wisconsin’s 3-point percentage is arguably the statistic that correlates most with their success this season, but Brad Davison‘s play has also been a major barometer. The senior guard is averaging only 3.6 points per game on 16 percent shooting in losses compared to 10.7 points on 38.7 percent shooting in wins. He scored three points vs. UM.

On the whole, Wisconsin is 1-5 against KenPom Top 25 opponents. Their lone win came over Loyola Chicago in just their third D1 game of the year. The Badgers will play four of their final five games against KP Top 25 teams. Will they rise to the challenge or fall from the rankings altogether?

23. San Diego State Aztecs (15-4)

San Diego State has steadily put together another very strong season. Malachi Flynn might not be running the show anymore, but the Aztecs are 15-4 on the year and can boast some very solid wins over the likes of UCLA, Arizona State, St. Mary’s, and Colorado State. A likely at-large team at this point, SDSU has been playing some of its best basketball as of late. Head coach Brian Dutcher’s team is currently in the midst of a six-game winning streak following getting swept by Utah State.

The Aztecs rank 23rd on KenPom and their defensive numbers help to anchor that high rating. They are forcing turnovers on 22.9 percent of shots (19th), dominating the defensive glass (18th), and limit interior scoring better than most (34th in 2-point defense). Junior big man Nathan Mensah has been huge in this area; his 10.6 percent block rate ranks 21st in the nation alone. Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel are the team’s stars, but Mensah’s impact is hard to ignore.

22. Missouri Tigers (13-5)

Missouri’s quality metrics have never matched its resume this season. That has been the case since the opening week and was made more obvious when the Tigers landed a No. 4 seed at the Bracket Preview despite ranking outside of the Top 30 in KenPom, BPI, and Sagarin. That seed was expected, though, given their strong resume of high-quality wins. Victories over Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama (among others) are well worth bragging about.

With regard to the Tigers ranking in this Top 25, though, they fall all the way to No. 22 following a disappointing week. Missouri dropped back-to-back games to Mississippi and Arkansas to fall to 13-5 on the year. The loss to the Rebels was a major head-scratcher as they lost by 21 points and it was never particularly close. Every good team lays an egg once in a while, we just have to hope this wasn’t a sign of what is to come.

Missouri did respond with a better effort at home against the Razorbacks but was unable to win in an extra period. The Tigers will be favored in each of their next four games as they look to get back on track.

21. Arkansas Razorbacks (16-5)

Those who have followed my power rankings all season know how high I have been on Arkansas. And while I had to drop the Razorbacks from my rankings after losing four of five in early January, they are back! Head coach Eric Musselman has guided his team to wins in six of seven games, including road victories over Kentucky and Missouri during this past week alone. The Razorbacks are back into the KenPom Top 25 and are one of the most balanced units nationally.

Arkansas might not be “elite” in any one statistic this year, but you would be hard-pressed to find a critical weakness that opponents could consistently exploit. The Razorbacks rank in the Top 200 in every single major statistic, many of those falling in the Top 100. They do pretty much everything well and have the makings of a team that potentially make a run in March as a result.

The biggest criticism of Arkansas earlier in the year was their inability to beat high-quality opponents — their recent overtime win over Missouri should help to change that. The Razorbacks are led on the year by freshman wing Moses Moody, who is putting up 16.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, but Justin Smith is vital to success as well. Smith, an IU transfer, posts 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Arkansas is 16-5 overall but is 14-1 when he is completely healthy.

20. Tennessee Volunteers (14-5)

Tennessee secured a home win over Georgia to begin this past week but then dropped a road game to LSU by double digits. The Volunteers still rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but their offense has dropped off to the point where it is hard to see them returning to national title contention. They are just the 66th-best offensive team by adjusted efficiency measures and have scored just 58.2 points per game in their five losses.

Their inability to find consistent scoring has been a major downfall this season. Each of their final four scheduled regular season games will come against teams that will not reach the NCAA Tournament. This would be a great time for the Volunteers to show improvement offensively heading into the Big Dance. Perhaps most notably, John Fulkerson has really struggled this season:

19. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (18-4)

Loyola Chicago absolutely eviscerated Drake in the first matchup of this year’s MVC powerhouses this season, destroying the Bulldogs by 27 on their own floor. The victory propelled the Ramblers into the KenPom Top 10 for the first time and was an eye-opening performance for some that were too late on the uptake with this team. And while Loyola followed the dominant victory up with an overtime loss to the same opponent just one day later, there’s no denying that this is a very good team worthy of being ranked (Drake was just on the outside of my Top 25 as well).

The Ramblers can now boast the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rating as they have been absolutely dominant on that end. When it comes to analyzing defensive “Four Factors” statistics, few teams are better than Loyola: 22nd in eFG% defense, 57th in turnovers forced rate, 11th in defensive rebounding rate, and 23rd in keeping opponents off the foul line. Combine that with the fact that Loyola’s offense ranks sixth in eFG% and it’s easy to see why they could be this year’s Cinderella.

I wrote about Loyola Chicago’s stellar season a couple of weeks ago.

18. Virginia Tech Hokies (14-4)

Virginia Tech did not play during this past week. The Hokies remain 14-4 and firmly entrenched in the middle of my Top 25. Head coach Mike Young has been very successful in Year 2 at the helm of the program. For more on their strong start this season, I wrote about the Hokies last month.

17. USC Trojans (17-3)

USC just continues to roll. The Trojans have now son six consecutive games and 12 of their last 13 to propel themselves safely into my Top 25. While the Pac-12 is certainly in a down year and that has limited USC’s chances at quality wins, I might be underrating them at No. 17. KenPom’s efficiency marks grade the Trojans as the 12th-best team nationally and that is in large part to their dominance inside. I discussed the impact of the Mobleys during my Top 25 from last week but neither of them should be flying under the radar.

Freshman star Evan Mobley has been at the core of basically everything for the Trojans this season. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and anchors one of the best interior defenses in the entire country (5th in 2P% defense, 11th in block rate). I know there are several very good freshmen this season, but Mobley is playing as well as anyone. He should receive First-Team All-American consideration. He’s been that good.

16. Creighton Bluejays (16-5)

I have been waiting all season for Creighton to look like the preseason Top 10 team that it once was. We saw that version of the Bluejays for perhaps the first time all year during this past week. Head coach Greg McDermott‘s team first handled Georgetown by 15 on the road while holding their first opponent all year to under 50 points. The Bluejays followed that up by exploding for 86 points in a double-digit beatdown of conference leader Villanova. Creighton is now 16-5 (12-4 BE).

Marcus Zegarowski is the engine that drives Creighton this season. He has suffered a bit of a down season compared to preseason expectations but is still the go-to-guy to lead the squad. When he plays as well as he did against Villanova (25 points and five assists), the Bluejays can beat anyone. This past week was arguably the best of Creighton’s season; I am eager to see it continue as they will face DePaul and Xavier during this coming week.

15. Texas Longhorns (13-5)

“A matchup with K-State on Feb. 9 should help straighten them out, however.” That’s how I ended my blurb on Texas in last week’s edition of my power rankings. Well, the Longhorns were able to return to winning ways against K-State in that contest but they were only victorious by three points. It was not exactly a reassuring performance despite their win probability never dipping below 85 percent. The Longhorns led by double digits most of the second half before K-State made a late run.

Texas did follow that performance with a 15-point home victory over Iowa State in which they looked much more like their prior selves. I am hesitant to believe that the Longhorns will return to the Top 10 this season but they firmly belong in the rankings. Shaka Smart’s group is 13-5 on the year and remains excellent at limiting ball movement and covering the 3-point arc defensively.

Texas will play three games in five days this week: at Oklahoma, at Iowa State, vs. West Virginia.

14. Florida State Seminoles (11-3)

Florida State returned to action during this past week following a two-week hiatus. And while the Seminoles needed a game-tying bucket from Scottie Barnes to force overtime at home against Wake Forest, they were able to win in the extra period. Raiquan Gray led the team with 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and three steals.

Teams across the nation have struggled in their first games back from break this season. FSU showed similar signs of rust but was still able to pull out the win. Home meetings with future NCAA Tournament teams loom this week as the Seminoles will face Virginia and Virginia Tech. This is a huge week for FSU’s future seeding.

13. Texas Tech Red Raiders (14-6)

Texas Tech’s stay in my Top 10 did not last long — one week, to be exact. The Red Raiders dropped their lone game of this past week by 11 points at home to West Virginia. All in all, that is far from a bad loss and therefore Texas Tech deserves to stay firmly regarded as one of the best teams in the nation. It is important to note, though, that the Red Raiders are just 4-6 against the KenPom Top 90 this season.

Texas Tech, like Texas, will play three games in five days this week. The Red Raiders will first face TCU on back-to-back days before challenging Kansas on Saturday. This is a pivotal week for movement both in rankings and bracketology projections for Chris Beard’s group. A 3-0 week is a strong possibility and one that would cement their place among the nation’s best.

12. West Virginia Mountaineers (14-6)

West Virginia built up a three-game winning streak behind victories over Kansas and Texas Tech over the last two weeks. And while that was snapped over this past weekend by Oklahoma, the Mountaineers lost that game in double overtime. WVU, overall, is 5-2 over its last seven games including a season sweep of Texas Tech. This team is playing very well, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, where they control the glass more often than not.

I’ve said before that I was not quite a believer in the Mountaineers as a Top 10 team but that they would remain a ranked team all year. That appears to be the case. This is one of the best teams in the second-best conference in America. WVU has flown under the radar a bit since it has simply met expectations pretty much all year, but they are rock-solid and poised to land a Top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament next month.

11. Iowa Hawkeyes (15-6)

Iowa holds the fourth-best adjusted efficiency margin in the nation, but there is a reason why they only received a No. 4 seed in the Bracket Preview this past weekend. Wins and losses are what matter most and the Hawkeyes have propelled themselves in quality metrics with blowout wins and close losses. That has perhaps been best epitomized by their last four games: four-point loss to Ohio State; two-point loss at Indiana; 13-point win over Rutgers; 30-point win at Michigan State.

Iowa is only 2-6 in games decided by 12 points or fewer. If they aren’t blowing their opponent out, they have really struggled to win games. Their top-ranked offensive attack in the country will make them very dangerous in March but the Hawkeyes rank sub-100 in defensive efficiency. That is still a major concern that is yet to be fixed.

10. Oklahoma Sooners (13-5)

Oklahoma only played once during this past week and it came away victorious in double overtime over West Virginia. This marked yet another quality win for the Sooners, and it was their second big win of the day. Not only did Lon Kruger‘s team topple another ranked opponent, but they earned a No. 3 seed in the Bracket Preview. Considering most bracketologists had OU sitting on the No. 5 seed line entering the weekend, that is a very positive sign for how the committee views this team.

Oklahoma has won seven of its last eight games and is rolling. Amidst this recent stretch are wins over Kansas, Texas, Alabama, and West Virginia. The lone defeat came on the road to Texas Tech by five points. It is hard to find too many problems with how this team has performed lately. The Sooners are definitely hitting their stride while emerging as one of the top Big 12 teams.

9. Villanova Wildcats (13-3)

I spent basically all of last week’s blurb on Villanova discussing my concerns regarding their defense. The Wildcats were already exhibiting their worst adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD) since 2012 and their worst effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) allowed in the entire Jay Wright Era. And that was before giving up 86 points to Creighton while losing their third game of the season. While Villanova did secure a dominant win over Marquette earlier in the week, the loss to the Bluejays is hard to overlook.

Villanova is still one of the best teams in the country due to its elite offensive production and their 13-3 record agrees. But they are a similar situation as Iowa right now with their defensive struggles. The Wildcats’ AdjD is better than the Hawkeyes’, but they rank 307th nationally in eFG% allowed and teams are shooting a blistering 37.8 percent from three against them.

Put simply, Villanova does not have the requisite defense needed to win the national title unless something changes.

8. Houston Cougars (17-2)

Houston played one game during this past week and notched its 11th win over a sub-100 KenPom opponent. The Cougars are 17-2 overall but have played only one KP Top 50 team all season. While they were victorious in that matchup with Texas Tech, that game was played all the way back on Nov. 29. Not that they have had the opportunities to do so, but they haven’t done much lately. Since power rankings give more emphasis to recent results, Houston lands at No. 8.

The Cougars were given a No. 2 seed in the Bracket Preview this weekend and that feels deserved. This is a team with great quality metrics and an elite record. They also rank tops in the country in both eFG% allowed and offensive rebounding rate. With that said, though, they haven’t been dominant (two AAC losses) enough to warrant a No. 1 seed and they don’t have the quality wins to make up for that.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide (17-5)

Alabama didn’t face the toughest competition during this past week but it did get back on the right track with a pair of victories. The Crimson Tide first took down South Carolina by three on the road and then returned home to eviscerate Georgia by 33 points. Head coach Nate Oats’ group has still lost only twice since Christmas and holds the nation’s second-best defensive efficiency rating.

They play at a fast pace, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many better at limiting their points allowed per possession. Do not be fooled by statistics that are not pace-adjusted. This team locks in on defense. Offensively, the Crimson Tide are a bit 3-point dependent but that could make them very dangerous in March. If they get hot … watch out. ‘Bama is a threat to win both CFP and NCAAT titles this year if the 3s are dropping consistently next month.

6. Virginia Cavaliers (15-3)

Virginia has very, very, very quietly crept back into the national spotlight. The Cavaliers have lost just one game since losing to Gonzaga (by 23) the day after Christmas. Not only have they won 11 of 12 but nine of those have come over KenPom Top 80 opponents. This team does not have the elite wins that some other programs might have near the top of the polls, but they are consistently handling their business on both ends of the floor.

During this past week, Virginia took care of business against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. They won those games by eight and 12, respectively, while holding both opponents to fewer than 50 points. The Cavaliers feel locked in, but also haven’t beaten a KenPom Top 40 team yet. Matchups with FSU (KP 20) and Duke (KP 34) loom this week.

5. Illinois Fighting Illini (14-5)

Illinois just keeps winning games. Even though they needed overtime to take down Nebraska in their lone game of the week, the most important thing is the W on the resume. The Illini have seemingly found much-needed consistency in the results department while winning five straight and nine of 11. They are 14-5 (10-3 B1G) overall and will be favored in at least its next three games. Illinois has been an efficiency darling all season, ranking Top 10 in KenPom even when they were 9-5. They are now living up to that hype.

Ayo Dosunmu is making a legitimate case to be the National Player of the Year this season. There are several other strong candidates, including Baylor’s Jared Butler and Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert, but is there anyone in the country better in crunch-time? Dosunmu just seems to always make the big plays while carrying the Illini. Even if not the NPOY (due to Butler, Kispert, or Garza), he might be the guy who I want with the ball when it matters most in March.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes (17-4)

Ohio State is rolling. The Buckeyes have won six straight games and that includes two during this past week. They first handled Maryland by eight on the road and then returned home to destroy Indiana by 19. Put simply, there aren’t many teams playing better right now. Head coach Chris Holtmann has this team rolling, especially offensively — not much else to say right now.

3. Michigan Wolverines (14-1)

Michigan returned to action this week after a 22-day pause and looked rusty ... for 20 minutes. The Wolverines trailed Wisconsin by 12 points at halftime in Madison this past weekend while not quite looking right on either end of the floor. Then Mike Smith took an elbow to the face on a drive, Michigan’s bench picked up a technical, and the entire game shifted. The Wolverines outscored the Badgers by 20 points in the second half behind dominant defense and elite offensive rebounding.

It wasn’t Hunter Dickinson’s best scoring game but he recored 15 total rebounds. Four of his five offensive rebounds came in the second half and all of them led to buckets. He dominated the inside against Wisconsin’s two bigs (who combined for zero rebounds). Michigan moved to 14-1 (9-1 B1G) with the win and remains firmly in the No. 3 spot.

2. Baylor Bears (17-0)

Baylor did not play during this past week. The Bears’ last game was a 14-point road victory over Texas on Feb. 2. Until proven otherwise, they are my No. 2 team in the country.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (20-0)

Gonzaga played back-to-back KenPom Top 100 opponents this week. They first faced off against BYU, a future at-large team with wins over St. John’s, Utah State, Utah, and San Diego State. The Bulldogs beat them by 11 on the road, completing the season sweep of the Cougars. Gonzaga’s next game came against San Francisco, which beat Virginia earlier in the year. The Bulldogs beat the Dons by 39 on the road. Gonzaga is the best team in the country, plain and simple.