Harkins 25: Ohio State, Oklahoma ascending the ranks

Yet another week of NCAA basketball is complete and we have moved into February. Only a couple of months remain in the entire season, including the NCAA Tournament, as the campaign has moved at seemingly lightning-quick pace. While many teams have had to deal with COVID-19 pauses, this season has actually gone smoother than I would have expected. The year is still a grueling challenge for coaches and college players alike, though, and that shouldn’t go overlooked just because of the entertainment provided.

With regards to the on-court results, Gonzaga and Baylor continue to live up to their preseason hype as the clear-cut best two teams in the sport. Additionally, the preseason third-best squad remains right in that same spot as well. Villanova has returned from its nearly month-long pause with three straight victories to reclaim its preseason status as a national title contender. Head coaches Mark Few and Scott Drew are both looking for their first titles while Jay Wright is hoping to reject them and secure his third.

In addition to the powers at the top, several mid-majors have performed admirably so far this season. And before I dive into my Top 25 for this week, I once again owe Drake an apology for leaving them on the outside-looking-in. The Bulldogs have won three straight games since returning from pause, including an overtime nail-biter against Illinois State, and are an undefeated 16-0 (7-0 MVC). Their biggest opportunity to crack the rankings is approaching, though, as a two-game homestand against Loyola-Chicago looms on Feb. 13-14.

Now, let’s dive into this week’s edition of the Harkins 25 for NCAA basketball!

25. North Carolina Tar Heels (11-5)

North Carolina is one of the very few blue bloods in America that has been playing well recently. While the Tar Heels might not hold a single win over a likely NCAA Tournament team, they have won six of their last seven games. They cracked my Top 25 a week ago and a road win over Pittsburgh keeps them in, albeit in the last spot. With an 11-5 (6-3) record, UNC sits in fourth place of the ACC behind three other ranked teams.

The Tar Heels’ frontcourt duo of Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot led the way against Pittsburgh during this past week. They combined for 37 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks on 16-for-21 shooting. The lone other UNC player to reach double-digits was breakout freshman Kerwin Walton (10 points). I discussed Walton in this article last week as the much-needed floor-spacer emerging to play a vital role for Coach Williams.

24. USC Trojans (13-3)

USC is 13-3 and has won eight of its last nine games while rising to No. 21 on KenPom. With that said, though, the Trojans have a major lack of quality wins on their resume and they also haven’t been dominating their opposition like other ranked teams. Despite playing in a high-major conference, USC has only played three games against KenPom Top 40 opponents. The Trojans are 1-2 in those games, making it difficult to judge their strength.

The schedule does get harder moving forward, though. USC will face Stanford (away) and UCLA (home) during this coming week during a stretch of playing eight Top 100 opponents in 10 games. Will Evan Mobley and Co. be able to prove their high ranking in efficiency metrics? Mobley leads the team with 16.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game while Tahj Eaddy is the other Trojan in double-figures.

23. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (14-3)

There are very few teams in the country playing better than Loyola-Chicago right now. The Ramblers started this season both late due to COVID-19 and slow compared to preseason projections with a couple of early losses to Wisconsin and Richmond. Head coach Porter Moser’s team has found its rhythm of late, though, winning 11 of 12 and each of their last seven games. While they only have one Top 100 win during this stretch, their ability to absolutely dominate defensively warrants a high ranking. 

via T-Rank.

Loyola ranks sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency for the season and has been rolling over teams recently despite playing at one of the slowest paces in the country, leaping all the way up to No. 16 on KenPom. In addition to their strong defense, senior big man Cameron Krutwig is at the forefront of the Ramblers ranking fourth in 2P% and ninth in eFG% offensively. Nobody has been able to stay within single digits of Loyola during its current seven-game winning streak. 

Drake might be the undefeated team in the MVC right now, but Loyola-Chicago appears to be the better squad right now. The two teams will meet at Drake for back-to-back games in a couple of weeks. 

22. Purdue Boilermakers (12-6)

Purdue struggled to find its footing early in this season, making the third consecutive campaign in which the Boilers have left many scratching their heads after the opening month. Once again, though, head coach Matt Painter has his squad picking up its level of play in the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Despite being in the toughest conference in America, the Boilermakers have won five of their last six games with their lone loss coming to Top 5 Michigan.

Via KenPom and T-Rank.

They have taken down Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State all on the road during this stretch while holding serve at home over Penn State and Minnesota. Purdue has improved its record to 12-6 (7-4 B10) on the year and sits quite close to second in the Big Ten. Superstar big man Trevion Williams has guided the way with averages of 15.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. In addition, freshman Jaden Ivey is a star in the making. He is averaging 10.6 points over Purdue’s last five games.

21. Florida Gators (10-4)

Wins over Tennessee (home) and West Virginia (away) amidst a four-game winning streak have brought the Florida Gators back into my Top 25 for the first time in a couple of weeks. The Gators are consistently putting up points on strong defenses while living up to their potential on the offensive end of the floor. Head coach Mike White has his team playing at the 54th-fastest offensive tempo in the country and his guards have been masterful in the pick-and-roll. 

From an individual standpoint, it is impossible to ignore how well transfers Colin Castleton (Michigan) and Tyree Appleby (Cleveland State) have been playing. The big man Castleton is averaging 17 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 62.7% shooting over the Gators’ last five contests while emerging as a legitimate star in the absence of Keyontae Johnson. 

Appleby, on the other hand, has been hugely impactful since stepping into the starting lineup over the past seven games. During this current four-game winning streak, the 6-1 guard is averaging 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game on 45.5% from three. He’s really dictating things offensively and adding much-needed playmaking to the lineup.

20. Wisconsin Badgers (13-5)

Wisconsin has largely lived up to expectations this season while playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. With that said, though, there have been a few head-scratching performances, including the team’s double-digit loss to Penn State this past weekend. For only the fourth time all season, the Badgers were pushed into a 70-plus possession game and they struggled to create stops. The Nittany Lions are a very strong offensive team, but it was a poor defensive outing by the Badgers to surrender over 80 points for just the first time all year. 

Looking ahead, the schedule is not going to get any easier. A rematch with Penn State looms next in Madison before the Badgers will play five of its remaining eight games after that against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 7 nationally. If Wisconsin wants to stay in the running for the Big Ten — and stay nationally ranked — it will need to pull off a couple of wins over truly top-tier opposition. Wisconsin is only 1-2 against KenPom Top 25 opponents with that lone victory coming when Loyola was only playing its third D-I game of the year.

This is still a strong team that clearly has a good enough resume to warrant a high seed at the NCAA Tournament. A rebound performance against Penn State this week would help to dissuade some of the growing concerns from losing two of their last three, though.

19. Missouri Tigers (11-3)

Missouri struggled a bit during this past week, falling on the road to Auburn before needing overtime to take down a struggling TCU team at home. The Tigers’ identity has somewhat been that of a team that just finds ways to win games, though. Despite ranking at only No. 38 on KenPom, head coach Cuonzo Martin’s team is 11-3 and has wins over Oregon, Illinois, Arkansas and Tennessee to brag about. Nothing about their statistical profile really stands out as being that much better than the teams around them, but their experience is evident.

Missouri ranks sixth nationally in both experience and minutes continuity from last season. This is a team that understands its identity and knows how to play as a unit. The Tigers will play three of its next four games at home, including a matchup with Alabama, in hopes of climbing up the rankings more in the near future. Experience wins in March, and Mizzou has plenty of it.

18. Virginia Cavaliers (11-3)

Virginia suffered a double-digit road loss to Virginia Tech during this past week, but that doesn’t wipe away the fact that the team had won its previous seven games. It does, however, once again shine light on the fact that the Cavaliers just do not have many high-quality wins this season. Their best win to date is … a road win over Clemson? At home over Syracuse? 

Virginia has a very solid 6-3 record against KenPom Top 100 opponents, but that broad brushstroke paints them in a very positive light. Looking at it from the opposite side, they are 0-2 against the KenPom Top 45 with a neutral-site loss to San Francisco still on the resume. On the bright side, though, the domination during their winning streak still puts the Cavaliers at No. 9 on KenPom and favored to win all but one of their remaining games.

17. Virginia Tech Hokies (13-3)

Sticking in the same state, Virginia Tech received another boost in the rankings following a strong week. Not only did the Hokies win the in-state battle with a 14-point victory, but they also picked up a road victory over Notre Dame. Head coach Mike Young’s team sits at 13-3 (7-2 ACC) overall and is in second place of the ACC all by itself right now. I wrote about how the Hokies were settling into their system a few weeks ago and they have only improved defensively since. 

In terms of offensive production, Keve Aluma continues to play at an All-ACC level. The transfer big man was absolutely superb against Virginia, carving up their elite defense to the tune of 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists on 10-for-15 shooting. He is the go-to star for the Hokies and is surrounded by plenty of 3-point shooting threats. This includes Hunter Cattoor, who comes off the bench as one of the most accurate snipers in the country.

16. Texas Tech Red Raiders (12-5)

Texas Tech is in the midst of a brutal stretch of schedule and it isn’t about to get much easier. 

On the whole, I am still not sure how I feel about the Red Raiders this season. They are clearly talented, excellent defensively, and well-coached. They safely belong in the Top 25 but I’m not sure how high to put them at this point. With three Top 25 matchups in their next four games, we should learn more about their potential for another March run. Texas Tech does a lot of things well, though its 3-5 record against Top 100 opponents has me a tad uneasy.

15. Oklahoma Sooners (11-4)

Texas Tech’s next opponent (on the night of this posting) will be one of the hottest teams in the country: Oklahoma. The Sooners have not only won five consecutive games, but their last three victories have all come over highly regarded teams in Kansas, Texas, and Alabama, in that order. Head coach Lon Kruger’s team is simply scorching hot and will look to keep that going with four of their next five games coming against KenPom Top 20 opponents.

If we’ve learned anything from their past three games, though, it is that they will be ready to fight. Oklahoma has climbed over 20 spots on KenPom since the start of their winning streak while reaching the Top 30 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Their discipline is on display as they almost never turn the ball over offensively and refuse to send their opponents to the foul line.

Oklahoma is led offensively by senior Austin Reaves, who is averaging 15.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He did not play in the Sooners’ win over Alabama, though, and sophomore De’Vion Harmon was the leader to step up. Harmon is second on the team at 13.1 points per game, and he scored 18 against the Crimson Tide.

14. Florida State Seminoles (10-3)

Perhaps I bought into Florida State a touch too early with my No. 10 ranking last week. While the Seminoles did pick up a double-digit victory over Miami recently, they followed that up with a road loss to Georgia Tech. This dropped them to 10-3 (6-2 ACC) on the season but it doesn’t take away from having won their previous five games. Head coach Leonard Hamilton has made FSU a consistently strong program year-in-year-out and this season is no different.

A three-game road trip approaches with matchups against Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Even in a COVID-19 altered season, winning on the road is challenging. The Seminoles are 1-2 in true road games this year — can they turn that around over the next few games?

13. West Virginia Mountaineers (11-5)

West Virginia split its home games during this past week with a victory over Texas Tech and a loss to Florida. All things considered, my opinion of the Mountaineers hasn’t changed much over the last few weeks. This is a strong team capable of winning a lot of games and perhaps reaching the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I am a bit hesitant in believing that they can go further than that at this moment. They haven’t won more than two games in a row since mid-December.

Coach Huggins’ team will face Iowa State on the road in its next game. That is their last game against a non-KenPom-Top-25 opponent for a fairly long time, though. Just like Texas Tech, WVU is about enter the gauntlet part of Big 12 play:

12. Tennessee Volunteers (12-3)

Tennessee seemed to be weakening over the past couple of weeks with losses to ranked opponents Florida and Missouri followed by only a three-point win over Mississippi State. Over this past weekend, though, the Volunteers took out their frustration on Kansas in the form of a 19-point victory. Perhaps that result says more about the Jayhawks than the Vols, but it was still a big turnaround performance for the latter. Head coach Rick Barnes’ unit is back to No. 14 on KenPom while holding the second-best defense in the nation.

The most important thing to note about Tennessee is that freshman Jaden Springer is healthy again. He missed both of the Vols’ losses to UF and Mizzou and is a vital piece of the puzzle. The Volunteers are undefeated (13-0) in games where he is able to play over five minutes and 0-3 in all other contests. Springer has only started three of 13 games this season, but is a huge part of the team’s success.

11. Creighton Bluejays (13-4)

Creighton did not win any style points this week, but it did win back-to-back road games over Seton Hall and DePaul. This has seemingly been a trend for the Bluejays this season. They look overrated for long stretches of play only to turn on the jets and walk out of arenas victorious. There are times when they simply roll over teams like many projected them to in the preseason, but they also have games that are head-scratching for 30-35 minutes.

Nonetheless, Creighton is 13-4 (9-3) and clearly the second-best team in the Big East. They have recovered from dropping games to Butler and Providence with three consecutive wins and a healthy Marcus Zegarowski has certainly aided. He has scored in double-figures in every single game that he has played this season. The Bluejays have one of the most potent offenses in the nation and are better defensively than they were a season ago.

10. Illinois Fighting Illini (11-5)

Illinois returns to my Top 10 having won two in a row and six of their last eight games. While its offense has been elite throughout the year, the defense is also starting to catch up a bit. The Illini held two excellent offensive units (Penn State and Iowa) to 140 total points over their last two games, raising their AdjD ranking from No. 31 to No. 18 in the process. When Illinois is on its game, it has an argument to be a Top 5 team in the country.

Were these last two games a sign of potential consistency? I certainly hope so. This team is a blast to watch when they have it going and has Final Four potential if it can string 40 minutes of their best ball together consistently. The Illini shoot the lights out from three, dominate the paint on both ends, and have the starpower needed to close games down the stretch.

It’s also hard to understate the value of supporting cast members in freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, as well as the shooting revival of senior Trent Frazier. Jacob Grandison joining the starting lineup also appears to be working so far.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes (14-4)

Ohio State is on the rise as a result of six wins over their last seven games. That is something far easier said than done in the Big Ten this season, especially when you consider the Buckeyes picked up road wins over Illinois and Wisconsin along the way. Head coach Chris Holtmann’s team is hitting its stride at the right time while leaping out to a 14-4 (8-4 B10) overall record. Their success has been driven by holding the nation’s fifth-best adjusted offensive efficiency mark.

The Buckeyes rarely turn the ball over, connect at a quality clip on a high volume of 3-point shots, are excellent on the glass, and both take and make a ton of free throws. While not particularly elite in one specific category, this team simply does everything well offensively. Perhaps the thing they do best relative to most teams in the nation is hit mid-range jumpers. The Buckeyes are shooting 47.5% on “farther twos”, the fourth-best rate in the nation (T-Rank).

They are led on that end by E.J. Liddell (15.3 pts), Duane Washington (14.5 pts), and Justice Sueing (10.9 pts). OSU does not play at a fast tempo but is methodical in scoring consistently.

8. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-4)

Iowa has now suffered back-to-back losses, but such is the world of the Big Ten this season. Indiana and Illinois both deployed excellent defensive strategies to knock off the Hawkeyes, but I struggle to believe that this is anything more than just a minor rough patch for an otherwise excellent team. Yes, the warning signs are all over the place that Iowa’s defense is not good enough to make a deep run in March and that is still the case. They rank 97th in AdjD, the exact same ranking they held at the end of last season.

When it comes to regular-season performance, though, their offense is so elite that they will remain one of the top teams in the Big Ten. Iowa stands at 12-4 (6-3 B1G) right now with three of its next four games coming at home. They will need to defend Carver Hawkeye diligently coming up as this is a crucial stretch for them to remain near the top of the conference standings. Despite these two losses, Iowa ranks at No. 5 on KenPom.

I have never fully bought into Iowa this season due to its defense, but the season is not defined by these last two games. 

7. Texas Longhorns (11-3)

COVID-19 has greatly impacted home-court advantage this season. Still, Texas going only 1-2 over its current homestand is a bit disappointing for a Top 10 team in the nation, even if the losses did come against fellow ranked teams in Texas Tech and Oklahoma. The lone win sandwiched between them came against one of the worst high-major teams in the country in Kansas State. Considering the losses came by a total of three points, though, I don’t think they are anything to get too worked up about.

Texas’ final home game during this stand will come against Baylor. Winning that one would make up for the prior two defeats, but a loss would indicate three straight Ls against fellow top teams in the Big 12. While the losses might not mean that much from a national perspective as the Longhorns still warrant a high national ranking, it would set them back significantly in the race for the conference title. Nobody has been able to knock off Baylor yet … but maybe Texas is the team to do it.

6. Alabama Crimson Tide (14-4)

Oklahoma put Alabama’s 10-game winning streak to end over this past weekend. The result doesn’t change my opinion about the Tide much, however. It is going to take more than one game to sway what their prior efforts were able to display. The streak was going to come to an end eventually, and dropping a game to arguably the hottest team in the country isn’t something to be too upset about. This is especially true considering Alabama is still playing without one of its most important players in Jordan Bruner. 

Considering the loss came in a nonconference game, Alabama is still the clear-cut favorite in the SEC right now with an undefeated 9-0 record. The Tide are also favored to win each of their remaining games by KenPom and are given a 9.1% shot at finishing their conference schedule without a loss. Head coach Nate Oats’ team plays at a frenetic pace offensively, buries a bunch of 3-pointers, and is forcing opponents into bad shots on the other end. 

5. Houston Cougars (15-1)

Houston is flat-out rolling right now and there is a legitimate argument to be made that they belong ranked higher than this No. 5 spot. While they do not necessarily hold the collection of top-tier wins like other teams, the Cougars boast an elite record (15-1) and have been destroying teams during their current eight-game winning streak. 

Since the turn to 2021, Houston is 8-0 with an average margin of victory of 18.5 points. It is pretty clear that they are the best team in the AAC and it is not even close. Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes have both been excellent as the leaders of this guard-heavy offense while Justin Gorham has dominated in the small-ball big role. Gorham, 6-7, is averaged 9.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per game over this winning streak. 

4. Michigan Wolverines (13-1)

Michigan did not play over the past week as a result of a COVID-19 related pause. The Wolverines are 13-1 (8-1 B1G) and ranked at No. 3 on KenPom. They won their last game by 17 on the road over Purdue. Their statistical profile showcases an elite offensive unit capable of dominating both inside and out, while their defense ranks No. 1 at stopping 2PA.

3. Villanova Wildcats (11-1)

Villanova returned from its pause last week and looks just like the team we expected them to be in the preseason. They have already taken down Seton Hall (twice) and Providence over the past week and a half to move to 11-1 (6-0) on the season. The Wildcats have an unsurprisingly firm grip on the No. 1 spot in the Big East standings and remain one of the national title favorites. While some people might have forgotten about Villanova’s high preseason expectations due to their nearly month-long pause, the claws are out now that they have returned to action.

Head coach Jay Wright’s group holds the lowest offensive turnover rate in the nation (12.3%) and is scoring the ball remarkably efficient as well. While their defense seemingly has a ways to go (264th in eFG%), they stifle second-chance and free throw opportunities well. The Wildcats should only improve in the coming weeks as they get back to playing real games, and they have the makings of a title contender.

2. Baylor Bears (16-0)

I’ve run out of things to say about Baylor at this point. The Bears just keep winning, and are doing so convincingly. During this past week, they dismantled a poor Kansas State team by 48 points and followed that up with a double-digit victory over Sharife Cooper and Friends (Auburn). Baylor ranks third nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency yet is somehow still No. 2 in efficiency margin …

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (17-0)

… and that is due to just how darn good Gonzaga has been. The Bears and Bulldogs are clearly a tier above the rest this season, with the latter holding a sliver of an advantage in my rankings. Gonzaga boasts the nation’s best offense behind several potential All-Americans. 

This includes dark horse National Player of the Year contender Corey Kispert. The senior forward is averaging 20.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while finishing 67.3% of his 104 2-point attempts, hitting 48.6% of his 109 3-pointers, and burying 90% of his 50 free throws. If Gonzaga keeps dominating and Iowa continues to scuffle, we might see a shift in power for the NPOY award. For now, though, Iowa’s Garza is the favorite. 

Gonzaga also currently holds its second-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating of the Mark Few Era at 90.1 (12th nationally).

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist