Harkins 25: Tennessee rolling, Michigan undefeated early

Another two weeks of NCAA basketball are now in the books. And while we learned several things along the way, there is still a whole lot of this season left to go, especially with how many teams have been paused due to COVID-19. Despite the fact that it is already almost the New Year, there are still some teams in the infancy phase of their seasons, with many having only played two games so far.

That makes judging teams for Top 25 rankings extremely difficult. Not only is there a lack of a sufficient sample size for statistical analysis, but it is also challenging to compare resumes when preseason assumptions are still so integrated into our minds.

Yet, if we have learned one thing through the first month of the year, it is that Gonzaga firmly belongs as the best team in the nation. The Bulldogs look absolutely superb and perhaps only Baylor is on the same level right now, although the former’s resume is vastly superior to the latter’s. After those two teams, though, writers and fans across the nation can fill out rankings in several different ways and come up with ways to rationalize.

Now, without any further ado, allow me to partake in that exercise of attempting to rank the best teams in the country and fail at rationalizing my picks. After a one-week hiatus due to the holiday season, the Harkins 25 is back!

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25. Duke (3-2)/Michigan State (6-2)

Neither Duke nor Michigan State has played especially well to begin this season, but it also feels wrong to drop them both out of the rankings entirely. I am a believer that both Coach K and Izzo will turn their respective teams around over the next couple of months and it would be silly to doubt them. Not only are they two of the best coaches nationwide but they also have plenty of talent to work with. This goes without mentioning that their resumes aren’t exactly terrible, either.

Duke sits at 3-2 but its losses have come at the hands of Michigan State and Illinois. By the time this season ends, neither of those should be regarded as “bad losses.” Their biggest issue is a lack of quality wins thus far, though KenPom ranks them at 12th nationally. MSU, on the other hand, does have that aforementioned win over Duke and also has two quality losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin. On the flip side, though, they have already fallen from 11th to 31st on KenPom.

These are two teams that I am eager to see grow over the course of the year.

24. Virginia Tech Hokies (7-1)

Virginia Tech jumpstarted its campaign early with a neutral-site victory over Villanova in just its second game of the season. And while a 20-point home loss to Penn State did follow a couple weeks later, the Hokies have still impressed enough in the early going to land a spot in my rankings. In fact, their win over Clemson on Dec. 15 is exactly what puts them at the No. 24 spot ahead of their conference foe in the Tigers, who were also under consideration.

Head coach Mike Young is one of the better offensive minds in the nation and his Hokies have shot the ball well to begin this season. They are attempting a bunch of threes and connecting on 36.2% of them, most notably. The team’s top scorer thus far has been Keve Aluma (14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds) while the likes of Nahiem Alleyne (11.6 points, 40.5% from three) and Jalen Cone (38.5% from three) have been the top perimeter threats. Cone missed the team’s first three games of the year but has 36 points on 11-for-26 from deep over the last two contests.

23. Northwestern Wildcats (6-1)

Widely projected to finish in the Big Ten’s cellar with Nebraska this season, Northwestern has quickly proven everyone wrong over the season’s first month. While there is plenty of time for the ‘Cats to potentially come back to earth, it is hard to argue with their resume to date. Head coach Chris Collins’ team is currently riding a four-game winning streak that includes Big Ten victories over Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State. They are just a one-point loss to Pittsburgh away from being ranked much higher.

A crucial test on the road against Iowa awaits later this week, but Northwestern has earned a spot in my rankings this week. They are shooting a blistering 40.9% from three as a team (14th-best nationally) and are rarely turning the ball over. Miller Kopp is the team leader in scoring at 15.1 points per game, but he is just one of four Wildcats averaging in double-figures. Boo Buie, most notably, is at 14.4 points and 5.3 assists per game as the team’s catalyst.

22. Saint Louis Billikens (7-1)

Saint Louis dropped a road game to Minnesota over the past couple of weeks but that is the team’s only blemish to this point. The Billikens’ combination of strong eye test performances, wins over LSU and NC State, and overall record of 7-1 are keeping them in my rankings. Perimeter and free-throw shooting were big weaknesses of this team last year but they are connecting on 41.0% of their 3-pointers and 73.2% of charity stripe attempts so far this season.

Javonte Perkins (17.8 points) and Jordan Goodwin (16.9 points, 11.1 rebounds) have been the main leaders of the team so far. Gibson Jimerson‘s excellent perimeter shooting (17-for-40, 42.5%) has also added greatly to the rotation after he missed most of last season. This is an SLU team that was rock-solid last season and has leveled up. Head coach Travis Ford‘s team is the favorite in the A10 and should be an at-large squad.

21. Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-1)

Minnesota started the season 6-0 but without a Top 100 win. As a result, it was easy to be cautiously optimistic about the Gophers possibly being more than just the analytics darlings that they were a season ago. And while a 27-point road loss to Illinois stunted their undefeated start, that experience propelled them to back-to-back Top 25 victories over Saint Louis and Iowa over the past week. These two performances launched them into my rankings at No. 21.

Arguably the biggest key to success thus far has been Minnesota’s ability to protect the ball. Despite playing at the 27th-fastest offensive tempo in the country, the Gophers are only committing turnovers on 14.9% of possessions (12th-best nationally). They are also getting to the free-throw line seemingly at will. Veteran point guard Marcus Carr is Minnesota’s driving force with averages of 24.6 points and 6.2 assists per game. He is playing like an All-American.

20. Florida State Seminoles (5-1)

Florida State earned a ton of early-season respect with a string of victories over Indiana, Florida, and Georgia Tech. A loss to UCF certainly dropped them a few spots in my Top 25 but I am still a firm believer in head coach Leonard Hamilton’s team. Hamilton is a proven star on the sidelines and there is plenty of talent for him to work with. Even in a “down year,” FSU will be one of the top contenders in the ACC.

M.J. Walker has been the statistical leader of the unit thus far, averaging 16.0 points per game while leading the team in minutes. Freshman star Scottie Barnes has lived up to his preseason hype with all-around performances to the tune of 10.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Florida State’s defense should only improve as the season continues. FSU has ranked Top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past two campaigns.

19. San Diego State Aztecs (6-1)

San Diego State suffered its first loss of the season a couple of weeks ago at the hands of BYU. Almost every team in the nation, though, already has at least one head-scratching result and dropping to the Cougars is far from a killer. The Aztecs still hold one of the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and their 6-1 record contains victories over UCLA, Arizona State, and Saint Mary’s. They are the favorite in the MWC and seemingly have only taken a short step back compared to last season.

The upperclassman trio of Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, and Nathan Mensah is leading the way with each averaging in double-figures as scorers so far. Mensah is currently ranked seventh in the entire nation in block rate (14.1%) — suffice it to say that the Aztecs are glad to have him back in the rotation after missing much of last year. He is the anchor of their very strong defense.

18. Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-2)

Texas Tech holds the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rating through the opening month of the season (some preseason statistics baked in). That is the main reason to be optimistic about the Red Raiders maintaining their presence in the Top 25 throughout this season. Their offense has been inconsistent but features some solid scoring options with Mac McClung and Terrence Shannon combining for nearly 30 points a contest.

They are simply dominating on D, though, ranking well in just about every major category. Teams are shooting just 41.9% inside the arc and 27.5% from three against TTU. Head coach Chris Beard’s team is also forcing turnovers on 28.7% of possessions (sixth-highest rate nationally). You would be hard-pressed to find many teams capable of consistently scoring against the Red Raiders. 

Texas Tech only has one Top 100 win so far this season and two losses. Even with those defeats coming at the hands of Top 5 opponents in Kansas and Houston, their overall resume isn’t enough to boost them higher in my rankings.

17. Oregon Ducks (6-1)

Oregon lost its season-opener to now nationally ranked Missouri without LJ Figueroa. Since then, the Ducks have lived up to their preseason hype with a six-game winning streak that includes victories over Seton Hall and San Francisco. They also started conference play with a win over Washington. The aforementioned Figueroa has been solid since joining the team, averaging 8.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in seven games.

Ahead of him in the scoring hierarchy is the trio of Eugene Omoruyi, Chris Duarte, and Eric Williams. They are combining for 46.2 points per game while all being threats both inside the arc and beyond it. Considering all three started their careers elsewhere (same with Figueroa), head coach Dana Altman is showing his chops as a transfer recruiter and roster constructor. This team is playing well despite limited practice time with each other – they should only get better.

16. Arkansas Razorbacks (8-0)

Speaking of newcomer-heavy teams, Arkansas is among those with the most roster turnover in the nation. The Razorbacks, despite ranking 317th in minutes continuity nationally, have started this season excellently with a 8-0 record. And while they have not faced a single Top 100 opponent, they have consistently performed at a high level, something that cannot be said about everyone. I understand I am much higher on Arkansas than most, but that was the case two months ago as well. I slated the Razorbacks as a preseason Top 25 team.

Freshman star Moses Moody has quickly emerged as the team’s top offensive threat, averaging 16.9 points per game in the early going. He is shooting 58.3% inside the arc and 41.7% from beyond it. Future NBA Draft pick? You bet.

Outside of Moody, the Razorbacks are also getting strong offensive contributions from JD Notae (14.3 points), Desi Sills (13.0 points), Justin Smith (12.5 points), and Jalen Tate (9.9 points). Furthermore, Cal transfer Connor Vanover is using his 7-3 frame to make an impact on both ends of the floor as a stretch big with rim-protecting ability. He is swatting 2.5 shots per game while also shooting 11-for-27 (40.7%) from three. 

15. Illinois Fighting Illini (7-3)

Illinois is the lone three-loss team in my entire Top 25 right now. But even though their 7-3 record might not look great among their peers, the Illini have still performed at a high level through the opening month. That is evidenced by their quick rise on KenPom from 17th to 7th in adjusted efficiency rating. Illinois’ record is not quite indicative of just how good this team is.

Illinois has played the 12th-toughest schedule in the nation and their losses (Missouri, Baylor, Rutgers) have all come to Top 15 opponents. They also can already boast their fair share of solid wins as well as they have taken Duke, Minnesota, Penn State, and Indiana as four of their early victims. The Illini are led by Ayo Dosunmu (24.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists) and Kofi Cockburn (17.2 points, 9.9 rebounds) once again but are clearly a better team than last year thanks to 3-point shooting improvements.

Illinois shot 30.3% from distance last season. They are connecting on 42.6% of those perimeter attempts through 10 games this year. Dosunmu and Trent Frazier have both taken big strikes in this area while Adam Miller is another legit threat and Da’Monte Williams (16-for-23, 69.6%) has been the definition of lights-out.

14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-1)

Rutgers suffered a road loss to Ohio State in its last performance but still holds a 6-1 record with three KenPom Top 50 wins. Putting it simply, the Scarlet Knights are succeeding in their quest to prove that last season was not a fluke. They hold the 15th-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the country and now have an offensive superstar to feed the rock in crunch time. 

After a breakout season a year ago, Ron Harper has taken a huge leap in Year 3 with the program. The 6-6 wing is averaging 23.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game so far this season while shooting a blistering 25-for-50 (50%) from 3-point range. He has emerged as Rutgers’ “alpha” this season and is allowing supporting cast members Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, and Myles Johnson to thrive alongside him. 

Harper is the star but Johnson is also among the most indispensable players in the country. The 6-11 big is vital to Rutgers’ success and that was proven true after he fouled out against OSU.

13. Missouri Tigers (6-0)

Missouri might rank at just 39th on KenPom but is 6-0 with wins over nationally ranked opponents in Oregon and Illinois. Those victories are their headlining performances so far but nobody should be ignoring hard-fought wins over Wichita State, Liberty, and Bradley, either. Head coach Cuonzo Martin’s team has been an early darling and will look to continue their high level of execution in their SEC opener against Tennessee this week.

Defense has guided the way for this team so far, especially from 3-point range. Whether or not this is sustainable is a different question, but opponents are currently shooting only 24.1% from three against the Tigers. As long as they are able to continue locking down the perimeter, Missouri will contend near the top of the SEC and continue rising up the national ranks. 

Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, and Dru Smith form the upperclassman trio leading Mizzou as double-digit scorers per game so far this season.

12. Michigan Wolverines (7-0)

I was high on Michigan heading into this season and head coach Juwan Howard’s team has looked the part so far. Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner are predictably among the team’s offensive leaders but star freshman Hunter Dickinson has also been a huge difference-maker. The 7-1 Dickinson is averaging 15.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on 69.4% shooting so far this season. He is a huge reason why Michigan ranks 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Fellow newcomers Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith have also been impactful, although they arrived via the transfer market. On the whole, Coach Howard’s team is operating at a high level offensively and he has seemingly already settled on his eight-man rotation. They are 7-0 in the early going with three KenPom Top 100 wins. The schedule difficulty is about to go up a weight class or two in Big Ten play but Michigan looks ready.

11. Creighton Bluejays (7-2)

Creighton has largely lived up to expectations so far this season. Even with star guard Marcus Zegarowski struggling a bit out of the gates, the Bluejays hold a solid 7-2 record and own the nation’s seventh-best adjusted offensive efficiency. Their two losses (Kansas and Marquette) are both fairly forgivable and they hold early victories over UConn and Xavier. They might be a tier behind Villanova in the Big East now, but are clearly the second-best team in the league.

Denzel Mahoney has been among Creighton’s most impactful performers so far. He is averaging an efficient 15.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. In total, five Bluejays are averaging in double-figures as scorers right now – this team can simply fill it up on anyone. It might also be worth mentioning that Duke transfer Alex O’Connell recently became eligible and can be another shooting threat off the bench.

10. Iowa Hawkeyes (7-2)

Iowa’s defense still concerns me greatly from a national title contention standpoint. I’m honestly not sold on their ability to create enough stops to win that many games in a row to cut down the final nets. Regardless, though, that doesn’t have much of a bearing on my Top 25 and there’s no doubt about the fact that their offense keeps them among the best in the nation. Luka Garza remains a college basketball superstar and Joe Wieskamp is a more-than-capable sidekick.

Iowa simply has all of the offensive weapons to compete for the Big Ten title. They have one of the best duos in the nation, rarely turn the ball over, dominate on the offensive glass, and can light it up from three. The Hawkeyes are 7-2 so far with wins over North Carolina, Iowa State, and Purdue. Their two defeats have both come in their last three games, surrendering 99 and 102 points to Gonzaga and Minnesota, respectively (the latter was in OT, admittedly).

9. West Virginia Mountaineers (7-2)

West Virginia being the highest-ranked two-loss team in my rankings was an easy decision. Their defeats to date both came against opponents ranked in my Top 3 (Gonzaga and Kansas) and they have looked rock-solid in every other game. WVU has played nine games thus far and each of them has been against a team ranked in the KenPom Top 110. This team is tested and is quite balanced with its ability to win with efficient offense and rock-solid defense.

While sophomore Oscar Tshiebwe has struggled thus far, his teammates have stepped up in big ways. Derek Culver has been among the most important while posting a double-double of 13.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Additionally, WVU’s backcourt is significantly improved, with second-year Miles McBride taking the next step to lead the team with 15.4 points and 4.0 assists per game.

Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman are both also scoring double-figures per game.

8. Wisconsin Badgers (8-1)

Wisconsin has been excellent in the early going this season. While they are yet to secure an “elite” victory like many of the teams ahead of them in these rankings, the Badgers hold four KenPom Top 80 wins. Their lone loss came at the hands of in-state rival Marquette, though that has not aged incredibly well (MU is 2-4 since). Nonetheless, Wisconsin ranks among the nation’s best in several categories, including offensive turnover rate (12.3%, 3rd), 3-point shooting (41.8%, 8th), and interior defense (39.0% 2P allowed, 8th).

Head coach Greg Gard boasts one of the most experienced teams in all of college basketball. In fact, his starting lineup is older than a couple in the NBA right now. With that said, though, he is also getting excellent contributions from true freshman Jonathan Davis. He is coming off the bench to provide 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. A significant difference-maker for a team with Final Four aspirations.

7. Texas Longhorns (7-1)

Texas is 7-1 with four KenPom Top 70 wins and its lone loss came to a Top 5 opponent in Villanova. After previously being not willing to completely buy into the “Texas is back” idea, I have now come around to believe that this is one of the best teams nationally. Head coach Shaka Smart is deploying an elite defensive unit ranked fifth in adjusted efficiency by limiting quality shot-selection. 

Texas ranks in the Top 35 nationally in 2-point defense, 3-point defense, 3-point attempt rate allowed, and assist rate surrendered. It is hard to be much better than that. The Longhorns even held Villanova to just 68 points, albeit in a losing effort.

The upperclassmen backcourt of Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey leads the way offensively at 26 points and 8.1 assists per game. Greg Brown is also starting to come around with all-around contributions thanks to his insane athleticism, but greatly needs to improve his 3-point shooting and playmaking (1 assist to 19 turnovers). Kai Jones continues to be absurdly efficient as well. 

6. Villanova Wildcats (8-1)

Villanova entered this season as one of the top contenders to win the national title and I am still not selling any of that stock. The Wildcats have looked excellent so far this year and an overtime loss to 7-1 Virginia Tech is their only blemish. Head coach Jay Wright’s team has otherwise flourished with victories over Arizona State, Texas, Butler, and Marquette. It’s hard to be too mad with their performances, and they rank third on KenPom as a result.

Offensively, you would be hard-pressed to find many teams more efficient. Villanova can light it up from three, boasts one of the best interior-finishing forwards in the country, and also leads the nation with just an 11.6% offensive turnover rate. Villanova is almost flawless offensively so it is vital that opponents take advantage of the few mistakes that they do make. There is room for development defensively, though, as Villanova ranks just 250th nationally in effective field goal percentage surrendered.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (16.2 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Collin Gillespie (15.3 points, 4.2 assists) have been the guiding forces for Nova so far this season. Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels have joined them in double-figures per game thus far. The Wildcats are currently on pause due to COVID-19.

5. Houston Cougars (7-0)

I ranked Houston as my No. 3 team two weeks ago and they are still undefeated. Quite simply, the Cougars fell two spots by no fault of their own — it is just a testament to how well Kansas and Tennessee have played. I am still a huge believer in Houston as a top-tier team capable of competing for the national title. The Cougars are 7-0 with four KenPom Top 100 wins and also rank Top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They are balanced, talented, well-coached, and should dominate the AAC.

Houston has been particularly excellent defensively. The Cougars are holding opponents to just a 40.4% effective field goal percentage (5th-best nationally) and are coming away with steals (6th-best rate) and blocks (9th-best rate) extremely well. South Carolina is the only opponent that has scored over 60 on Houston this season and they were held to 67.

Quentin Grimes has been Houston’s main offensive leader this season by posting 18.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game.

4. Tennessee Volunteers (6-0)

Tennessee started its season late compared to most in the nation but it has quickly asserted itself as elite. I was admittedly very high on the Volunteers heading into this campaign but they have even exceeded my extremely high defensive expectations. The Volunteers have been absolutely absurd on that end of the floor this year, and they have been efficient offensively as well.

Quite simply, I’m not sure you are going to find a better statistical two-way chart in the entire country (see right).

Leading the way offensively has been impact transfer Victor Bailey (13.2 points). He is far from alone as a legitimate offensive weapon in Tennessee, though. Seven different Volunteers are averaging at least 7.5 points per game this season.

Head coach Rick Barnes simply has so many capable scorers and all of them are dedicated to being superb defenders as well. This team is fun and deserves a lot more national attention — attention it should soon get when Tennessee faces Missouri on Wednesday night.

3. Kansas Jayhawks (8-1)

After dropping its opener to Gonzaga by 12, Kansas has now won eight consecutive games to return to the Top 3. The Jayhawks haven’t exactly turned down their competition level recently, either, as they have taken down Kentucky (perhaps not saying much), Creighton, Texas Tech, and West Virginia during this winning streak. It is certainly early, but head coach Bill Self seems set on landing a No. 1 seed at the NCAA Tournament yet again.

Ochai Agbaji (14.8 points) and Jalen Wilson (14.6 points) have been KU’s leading scorers through their first nine games. Christian Braun and Marcus Garrett have then been the next two biggest offensive contributors. These four combined are shooting 70-for-166 (42.2%) from three to begin the year and help space the floor around big man David McCormack.

2. Baylor Bears (6-0)

Nothing has really changed for Baylor since the last installment of my Top 25. They have recorded a pair of Bottom-250 victories over Kansas State and Arkansas Pine Bluff in order to remain undefeated and firmly slotted at No. 2 in my rankings. The Bears are now up to 6-0 on the year and are still holding onto their double-digit victory over Illinois as their top performance to date. Head coach Scott Drew has a great roster on his hands and is meeting absurdly high preseason expectations thus far.

Two more tune-up games against Central Arkansas and Alcorn State are next on the schedule for Baylor before they truly dive into conference play. Given their opening B12 schedule, though, Baylor could remain undefeated heading into a matchup with West Virginia on Jan. 12. I’m sure that statement will somehow prove to be a jinx, though.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-0)

Gonzaga is the best team in the country right now. I don’t think there’s anything else I really need to say here. Those who believe me already knew it two weeks ago and those that don’t believe it are still trying to talk themselves into the idea that Gonzaga “underachieves every year.”

Simply put, this is Mark Few’s best roster to date and it is performing as such. Gonzaga is not just playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules but is blowing out very good opponents. Wins over Kansas (by 12), Auburn (by 23), West Virginia (by 5), Iowa (by 11), and Virginia (by 23) prove that. Stop hating and appreciate just how darn fun this team is to watch.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.



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