NCAA Basketball rankings: Arkansas climbing quick; UConn ascending

Eric Musselman, Arkansas

Arkansas has found its rhythm and is soaring up our NCAA basketball rankings. UConn is on a three-game winning streak.

The 2021-22 college basketball is flying. The Bracket Preview is already in the rear-view mirror and the NCAA Tournament is only a few short weeks away. The crux of the season is upon us as teams near the top of the rankings jockey for seeding positioning and those around the bubble are looking to throw wrenches into things with some key victories. There simply are not that many things better in sports than the final three regular-season weeks of college basketball followed by the sport’s biggest spectacle.

The primary winners for our national Top 25 this week were Arkansas and UConn. The Razorbacks have won 10 of their last 11 games and are getting superb play out of Jaylin Williams to propel them into the top 15. UConn, on the other hand, recently added a pair of home wins over future NCAA Tournament teams to prove just how dangerous it can be. Both of these teams are trending in the right direction heading into the most critical part of the year.

As a reminder, the Heat Check CBB Top 25 is a composite of our entire staff — which includes Lukas Harkins, Brian Rauf, Eli Boettger, Andy Dieckhoff, Riley Davis and Connor Hope.

Now, what does college basketball’s new pecking order look like? Here’s this week’s edition, with blurbs provided by Harkins and Rauf.

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Others receiving votes (For reference, our No. 25 team received nine points): Wake Forest (8), Boise State (7), Davidson (7), Iowa (2), Rutgers (1), and South Dakota State (1).

25. North Texas Mean Green (20-4)

Highest vote: No. 22 | Lowest vote: Unranked

North Texas has flown under the radar for far too long. The Mean Green started this season just 1-3 against Division-I competition but has turned on the jets since. They have won 18 of their last 19 games with the lone loss coming to UAB, who they exacted revenge on this past weekend. Tylor Perry buried a dagger trifecta to win that game while solidifying his case as easily the nation’s best sixth man. UNT is balanced offensively with some clutch performers to go with one of the best defenses in the country. -Lukas Harkins

24. Wyoming Cowboys (22-4)

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The Cowboys stay in our rankings despite a road loss to New Mexico on Tuesday, which snapped a six-game win streak. However, Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike have proven to be one of the best duos in the country and have solidified Wyoming as an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. Wednesday’s showdown with Colorado State in Fort Collins will be one of the games of the week. -Brian Rauf

23. Saint Mary’s Gaels (22-6)

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Gonzaga is the class of the WCC, but Saint Mary’s has quietly put together an excellent season. The Gaels are 22-6 overall and hold wins over Notre Dame, Oregon, Utah State, Missouri State, San Francisco (twice), and BYU. Head coach Randy Bennett is guiding an excellent defensive squad that ranks tops in the country in limiting assist rate. A home game with Gonzaga still looms for the Gaels to potentially make a statement. Tommy Kuhse was awesome this past week with 47 combined points in wins over BYU and USF. -LH

22. Murray State Racers (26-2)

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: No. 23

Murray State is 26-2 and has not lost in the 2022 calendar year. Regardless of competition level, that record and hot streak deserve credit and the Racers belong in the Top 25. Additionally, the Racers have rolled through OVC play with the dominant performances that have led to highly rated positions on predictive statistics websites as well. KJ Williams was the hero in Murray’s tight road win over UT Martin this past weekend; he forms one of the nation’s best duos with Tevin Brown. Their biggest test remaining will be a home game against bubble hopeful Belmont this week. -LH

21. Ohio State Buckeyes (16-7)

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Ohio State’s home loss to Iowa on Saturday dropped it to 3-3 in its last six games and just 7-5 since Jan. 2. However, this is the Buckeyes’ first loss at home in that span. Their defense ranks just 91st nationally in efficiency and offense has lacked any kind of explosion outside of EJ Liddell and Malaki Branham. Monday’s game with Indiana will be a good barometer of how Ohio State is playing heading into March. -BR

20. Texas Longhorns (19-8)

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Texas earned a No. 4 seed at the Bracket Preview this past weekend and has been quite solid for the past few weeks. The Longhorns have won six of their last nine games and hold an 8-6 conference record this season. Considering the ridiculous difficulty of the Big 12, finishing above-.500 in league play would be very impressive. Texas is an excellent defensive team and is perhaps finding a consistent scorer in Andrew Jones; he has notched double-digits as a scorer in five straight games. -LH

19. UConn Huskies (19-7)

Highest vote: No. 17 | Lowest vote: No. 21

The biggest thing holding back UConn prior to this past week was lacking a high number of wins over NCAA Tournament-quality teams. Well, the Huskies took steps to remedy that by winning on the road against St. John’s (now on the bubble) and defending their home court against Seton Hall and Xavier. The Huskies have won three straight – and nine of 12 – while soaring into our national rankings. This is a balanced group capable of winning with its offense or defense. Adama Sanogo posted 35 total points in the wins over the Pirates and Musketeers. -LH

18. USC Trojans (22-4)

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: No. 23

The Trojans just keep winning, though Sunday’s victory over Washington State was certainly closer than they would’ve liked. They stay outside our top 15 despite a lofty 23-4 record because of the lack of elite wins and consistent quality performances. That can change in the coming weeks, though, as Andy Enfield’s squad closes the regular season with Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA. -BR

17. Houston Cougars (22-4)

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 21

Houston held serve this week while looking less-than-impressive in wins over UCF and Wichita State (in double overtime). The Cougars are still No. 4 in the NET rankings but don’t have a Quad 1 win — they’re the only team in the top 40 without one — and were not in the selection committee’s top 16 seeds in the weekend’s Bracket Preview. This is a good team, but one that is showing its clear ceiling due to injuries. -BR

T15. Wisconsin Badgers (21-5)

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 19

The Michigan-Wisconsin fight aside, the Badgers continue to impress. Johnny Davis reclaimed his spot as the National Player of the Year frontrunner with outstanding performances against both Indiana (30 points, 12 rebounds) and the Wolverines (25 points, six rebounds). However, tricky road games against Minnesota and Rutgers lay ahead this week as we await fallout and punishment to be handed down from Sunday’s brawl. -BR

T15. Providence Friars (22-3)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 17

Providence needed a 19-point comeback to beat Butler this past week after already falling at home to Villanova. Yet, closing out close games like the one against Butler is exactly what Providence has done all season. The Friars boast one of the best records in tight games in the country for good reason; they consistently make timely buckets and get timely stops. Providence remains firmly in the mix for the Big East regular-season title. Two of its final three games will be at home, though against tough competition. -LH

14. Illinois Fighting Illini (19-7)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 14

It might be a bit extreme to say a team is really coming together when that team is 2-2 in its last four games, but that’s what’s happening with Illinois right now. Andre Curbelo is back and healthy, allowing the Illini to establish a rhythm and flash its potential. That helped them build a 16-point lead over Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday. Of course, some of this team’s deficiencies showed themselves as the Spartans cut the lead to two with less than a minute remaining. Three of the Illini’s last four games are against Quad-1 competition, so establishing that consistency will be key. -BR

13. Arkansas Razorbacks (21-6)

Highest vote: No. 11 | Lowest vote: No. 15

Arkansas is as hot as any team in the country right now. The Razorbacks started this season just 10-5 (0-3 SEC) but have turned on the jets over the past month. Head coach Eric Musselman’s group has won 10 of its last 11 games with the lone loss coming by one point on the road against highly respected Alabama. The Razorbacks most recently held Tennessee to only 48 points in an impressive home win. Arkansas is playing incredible basketball and Jaylin Williams has been at the core. The 6-10 sophomore has been awesome during this extended stretch of strong performances. -LH

12. Tennessee Volunteers (19-7)

Highest vote: No. 10 | Lowest vote: No. 16

Tennessee’s five-game win streak was snapped Saturday at Arkansas, but that game might tell us more about the Razorbacks than it does about the Vols. A dominant victory over Kentucky on Tuesday solidified this group as a top-15 team. A showdown with Auburn on Saturday in Knoxville awaits as an opportunity for Tennessee to establish itself as a legit Final Four contender going into March. -BR

11. UCLA Bruins (19-5)

Highest vote: No. 10 | Lowest vote: No. 17

The Bruins stabilized themselves a bit this week with blowout victories over both Washington State and Washington, which was needed following a 1-3 start to February. Jaylen Clark had his best games since returning to the lineup with 18 points against the Cougars and 25 points against the Huskies. The main goal for this group will be to get healthy before the start of the postseason. -BR

10. Baylor Bears (22-5)

Highest vote: No. 6 | Lowest vote: No. 11

Baylor has not had an easy go of things with regards to injuries this season. LJ Cryer (seven missed games), Jeremy Sochan (four), Adam Flagler (three), and James Akinjo (two) have all missed time during the year while Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was recently ruled out for the remainder of the season. The defending champs have been bitten badly by the injury bug but have continued to play good basketball. The Bears have won seven of their last 10 games and hold an impressive 22-5 (10-4 B12) record. They aren’t out of the Big 12 regular-season title conversation yet; a huge home game with Kansas looms this weekend. -LH

9. Villanova Wildcats (21-6)

Highest vote: No. 7 | Lowest vote: No. 11

Villanova entered this campaign as a preseason top 10 team in the country and the Wildcats have remained right in that mix all year long. The Wildcats might not post many “wow” games but they are a very consistent group that has only lost to Marquette (twice) since before Christmas. Collin Gillespie is posting yet another excellent season while shooting 42.7 percent from three and 92.7 percent at the free-throw line. He showed his clutch gene this past week with the dagger 3-pointer in a critical road win over Providence for the Big East regular-season title race. Villanova plays at its pace and is deadly from beyond the arc. With Jay Wright walking the sidelines, the Wildcats are always dangerous. -LH

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders (21-6)

Highest vote: No. 5 | Lowest vote: No. 10

Texas Tech reestablished itself as a legit Final Four contender with convincing wins over Baylor and Texas this week. Along with having the nation’s No. 2 defense, per T-Rank, the Red Raiders also have the No. 6 offense in conference play. The Red Raiders earned a No. 3 seed in Saturday’s Bracket Preview, and that looks like the floor for this group right now. -BR

7. Purdue Boilermakers (24-4)

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 9

The Boilermakers cruised against both Northwestern and Rutgers last week and now have the full week off before facing Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday. Purdue appears to be fairly secure as a No. 2 seed in the Bracket Preview, but two remaining Quad 1 opportunities against the Spartans and Wisconsin (Mar. 1) could help them push for a No. 1 seed.– BR

6. Kansas Jayhawks (22-4)

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Kansas sits atop the Big 12 rankings with only a couple of regular-season weeks remaining. How many times have you heard that over the last two decades? Well, it’s basically every season, and the Jayhawks are again in a great position to succeed in the postseason. They took down Oklahoma State and West Virginia during this past week behind the continued strong play of Ochai Agbaji. The NPOY hopeful posted 43 points combined across those two games. With Agbaji on the floor and Self on the sidelines, KU is always in the mix. -LH

5. Duke Blue Devils (23-4)

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 7

The Blue Devils continue to take care of business in the ACC, holding off a furious Wake Forest rally and blowing out Florida State. Duke has been somewhat inconsistent, however, and this week’s road games against Virginia and Syracuse may provide the stiffest test Coach K’s squad will face until the NCAA Tournament. With a one-game lead over Florida State, Duke is trying to claim its first ACC regular season title since 2010. -BR

4. Auburn Tigers (24-3)

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 9

Auburn continues to slide slightly as it is showing some legitimate weakness for the first time. Inconsistent guard play cost the Tigers down the stretch against Florida, and this is now five straight road games in which Bruce Pearl’s squad has really struggled. Auburn ranks in the top 17 in both offensive and defensive efficiency overall but are 87th in offensive efficiency in road games, per T-Rank. -BR

3. Kentucky Wildcats (22-5)

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 4

Kentucky wasn’t really competitive in Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee, but it didn’t have star guard TyTy Washington. The Wildcats didn’t have him or Sahvir Wheeler against Alabama, yet still beat the Crimson Tide in perhaps their best performance of the season. Kentucky has shown it has the depth and top-end talent necessary to make the Final Four and potentially cut down the nets in New Orleans. -BR

2. Arizona Wildcats (24-2)

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 3

Arizona climbed to our No. 2 spot this week following losses by both Kentucky and Auburn. The Wildcats, though, are plenty deserving considering how well they have played all year long. Head coach Tommy Lloyd is right in the mix for National Coach of the Year while guiding Arizona to a 24-2 (14-1 Pac-12) record. The Wildcats are one of only two teams to rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency this season. They are currently in the midst of an eight-game winning streak ahead of a three-game road trip approaching. -LH

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-2)

Unanimously voted our No. 1 team

Gonzaga – to nobody’s surprise – is the only other team to rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency this season. Teams like Duke and Kentucky need time for their freshmen to grow and that’s why they start to find their rhythms more in conference play. It might be hidden to some that don’t want to watch WCC basketball, but the same applies to Gonzaga. Chet Holmgren has arrived and the Bulldogs are as dangerous as anyone as a result. The 7-foot freshman is averaging 16.0 points (.627/.522/.811), 10.9 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game in conference play. Gonzaga has won 16 straight games but has a brutal closing schedule: back-to-back road games against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. -LH