NCAA Basketball Rankings: Baylor returns to the top 5; Arkansas impresses again

Scott Drew, Baylor

Baylor added an impressive win over Kansas to return the top 5 in our NCAA basketball rankings. Arkansas is not far behind.

The NCAA basketball regular season is coming to a close with conference tournaments getting underway this week. It is officially crunch time leading into the NCAA Tournament in just a couple of weeks. Teams across the country are jockeying for position across the bubble conversation while others are hoping to land on the top seed lines. Our top 25 dives into the teams that our voters believe are the best in the nation right now.

Baylor and Arkansas were our biggest winners of the week (not the biggest risers, though). The Bears returned to our top five after a short absence following a road win over Oklahoma State and a home win over Kansas. Adam Flagler buried seven 3s to beat the Cowboys while LJ Cryer was out; Flo Thamba also stepped up without JTT in the win over the Jayhawks. Arkansas continued its tremendous run with a home win over Kentucky behind JD Notae’s 30 points and eight assists. The Razorbacks have won 13 of 14.

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, out No. 25 team received seven points): North Texas (5), Texas (4), Iowa (2), and Wyoming (1).

25. Boise State Broncos

Highest vote: No. 22 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The Broncos have only lost twice since the end of November and both came against projected NCAA Tournament teams that received votes in this poll (Wyoming, Colorado State). Their defense is elite and their size makes them one of the nation’s best rebounding teams. If Boise State can win one game this week, the Broncos will clinch at least a share of their first Mountain West title since 2015. -Brian Rauf

24. Alabama Crimson Tide

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Alabama is still one of the streakiest teams in the nation, as shown in Saturday’s victory over South Carolina. The Tide led by 23 at halftime before the Gamecocks cut the deficit to six, at which point Alabama quickly pushed the lead back up to 25. Inconsistent results may be a thing of the past, though. Nate Oats’ squad has won five of their last six with two winnable games (Texas A&M, LSU) on deck. -BR

23. Colorado State Rams

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: No. 24

Colorado State bounced back nicely from a road loss to UNLV by taking down Wyoming and Utah State during this past week. The Rams are sitting right near the top of the MWC standings while leaping out to a 23-4 (13-4 MWC) record. Their nonconference victories over Creighton and Saint Mary’s are aging well. David Roddy is a potential All-American for one of the better offenses in the country. -Lukas Harkins

22. Murray State Racers

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

Murray State didn’t just sweep Belmont this year; the Racers destroyed the Bruins. They won by 22 on the road earlier in the year before defending their home court by 33 during this past week. While the Racers only narrowly beat SEMO on the road over the weekend, that victory did complete their quest for an undefeated OVC record. Murray State, behind KJ Williams and Tevin Brown, enter the postseason at 28-2 (18-0 OVC). -LH

21. Ohio State Buckeyes

Highest vote: No. 17 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Ohio State split its road trip during this past week, holding on for an upset victory over Illinois before falling at Maryland. The Buckeyes have been a bit inconsistent this year, but it appears as though they have found a running mate for EJ Liddell. Freshman guard Malaki Branham has reached double-figures in his last five games, including notching 27 at home against Indiana and 31 in the road win over Illinois. Liddell and Branham form a tough duo. -LH

20. USC Trojans

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: No. 22

The Trojans have now won six games in a row with victories over UCLA and Oregon during that stretch. USC hasn’t been dominant — five of those six victories have come by six points or fewer — but Andy Enfield’s squad continues to get the job done. The emergence of Drew Peterson has been key. The 6-9 wing is averaging 18.8 points per game during this streak. -BR

19. Houston Cougars

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: No. 21

Houston has won four straight games following its mini two-game slide earlier this month, capped by a dominant performance at home against SMU on Sunday. That started a stretch in which the Cougars will play four games in seven days. One more victory, though, and Houston will clinch a share of the American regular season title for the third time in four years. Two wins — or an SMU loss — will clinch it outright. -BR

18. Saint Mary’s Gaels

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: No. 21

Saint Mary’s has been beloved by efficiency metrics throughout the year, but especially so over the past few weeks. The Gaels made good on those projections recently as well, defending their home court impressively along the way. SMC beat San Francisco, BYU and Gonzaga all at home over the last two weeks, and deserves to soar up the national rankings. Head coach Randy Bennett’s team controlled the game against Gonzaga, something essentially nobody else has been able to say. Tommy Kuhse is a consistent, well-rounded performer with loads of experience. -LH

17. UConn Huskies

Highest vote: No. 14 | Lowest vote: No. 21

Up until the past couple of weeks, UConn had only secured victories over two sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams (Marquette twice and Auburn). That fact was holding back the Huskies’ national ranking. As of late, though, they have turned on the jets. Head coach Dan Hurley’s team has taken down Seton Hall, Xavier and Villanova – all at home – in recent weeks, as well as beating St. John’s and Georgetown on the road. UConn is riding a five-game winning streak while playing arguably its best basketball of the year. -LH

16. Illinois Fighting Illini

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 19

The Illini simply continue to play solid ball. They nearly overcame a 16-point deficit in the final six minutes against Ohio State before falling short, though they followed that up with a dominant performance over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Kofi Cockburn might be their All-American, but Trent Frazier has continually emerged as this team’s go-to guy down the stretch of games. – BR

15. Wisconsin Badgers

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

Wisconsin is 14-1 in games decided by six points or fewer or in overtime, a mark that gives it the highest winning percentage of any team in college basketball history that played in 10 such games and lost once (2011 San Diego State, 2012 LIU Brooklyn and 2015 UC Davis all went 10-0). The Badgers went 2-0 in such games this past week largely thanks to Johnny Davis, who continues to look like the National Player of the Year frontrunner. – BR

14. UCLA Bruins

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 18

The Bruins simply haven’t been healthy for much of February, which has played a role in some of their stumbles — including Thursday’s loss to Oregon. Their regular season finale against USC at home will be their last test before the conference tournament, but UCLA is focused on getting healthy before the start of the postseason. -BR

13. Providence Friars

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 15

Efficiency metrics might never love Providence, but the win column certainly does. The Friars have won three straight since losing at home to Villanova, and continue to prove their ability to win close games. Providence has won three overtime games – with five total extra periods – over the last three weeks while expanding their record to 24-3 (14-2 Big East). The Friars are the Big East regular-season champion, and now have their sights set on an NCAA Tournament run. -LH

12. Villanova Wildcats

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

Villanova only played once this week and lost on the road to UConn. While far from a bad loss, the Wildcats were right there to secure the victory. A jump-ball turnover and a charge call in the final 30 seconds changed the tide of the game in favor of the Huskies. Nonetheless, Villanova has won five of its last six games and remains the predictive metric king of the conference. Will Villanova be able to live up to those predictive expectations and make a run to (at least) the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament? We will soon find out. The Wildcats have one of the best guards in the country in Collin Gillespie. -LH

11. Tennessee Volunteers

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 13

Tennessee’s collection of high-end wins is as good as any team in the country. While all of the victories admittedly came in Rocky Top, the Volunteers have now beaten each of Arizona, LSU, Kentucky, and Auburn this season. They hold one of the nation’s best defenses behind the elite freshman backcourt duo of Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler. The latter freshman has reached double-figures as a scorer in nine of Tennessee’s last ten games as well as one of the nation’s best sixth men. -LH

10. Arkansas Razorbacks

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

There is not a hotter high-major team in the country than Arkansas right now. The Razorbacks have won 13 of their last 14 games with the lone loss coming by only one point at Alabama. Eric Musselman’s team most recently added a home win over Kentucky exactly one weekend after doing the same to Tennessee. Jaylin Williams has been blossoming as one of the best bigs in the country, but JD Notae is the bigger name. Notae should be an All-American; he has been unreal and is a star to watch for March. -LH

9. Purdue Boilermakers

Highest vote: No. 7 | Lowest vote: No. 12

Purdue continues to be perhaps the most confusing team in the sport. It has tremendous talent and a pair of unstoppable players in Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey, yet extremely poor defense (105th nationally, per KenPom) leaves them vulnerable. That said, this team’s offense has been letting them down of late. The Boilermakers are averaging just 67.8 points over their last five games, which is well below their season average of 81.6. -BR

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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

Texas Tech was one of the many ranked teams to drop a game this week; the Red Raiders fell on the road to TCU by three. They have proven over the past few weeks, though, that they belong as one of the best teams in the country. Head coach Mark Adams is a National Coach of the Year candidate while guiding an elite defense. Bryson Williams has been one of the best transfers in the whole country. -LH

7. Kansas Jayhawks

Highest vote: No. 6 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Remy Martin played 11 minutes in Kansas’ loss to Baylor on Saturday, marking the first time he has suited up for the Jayhawks this month. He posted a positive plus/minus rating, too. Kansas needs Martin to serve as a perimeter playmaker and shooter it lacks without him. If he can get back to full strength, the Jayhawks could be dangerous. -BR

6. Auburn Tigers

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Auburn has lost each of its last three road games and was down double digits to the bottom three teams in the SEC (Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss) in the three road games before that. The Tigers are a good team that is superb at home but they don’t take that magic with them on the road. That may come back to bite them once postseason play gets underway. -BR

5. Baylor Bears

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 6

Baylor has been without Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and LJ Cryer for the past few games but continues to play at a high level. Replacing JTT (and Cryer for the time being) is no easy task and there has been a bit of a learning curve. The Bears proved in their home win over Kansas this past weekend, though, that they are still in the national title mix. Jeremy Sochan was awesome off the bench in that game while Flo Thamba filled in for JTT extremely well. Baylor was able to beat Kansas with James Akinjo and Adam Flagler combining to shoot 7-for-23 from the field. -LH

4. Kentucky Wildcats

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 5

The Wildcats looked like they had everything figured out two weeks ago. Since then, they’re 2-2, including a loss to a new SEC title contender in Arkansas. Injuries to Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington have played a role in that, but both appear healthy and ready to go moving forward. Kentucky needs to win out and have Auburn lose at least once in order to win a share of the SEC title for the second time in three years. -BR

3. Arizona Wildcats

Highest vote: No. 2 | Lowest vote: No. 5

Arizona’s nine-game win streak was snapped on Saturday by a Colorado team that slowed down the Wildcats and forced a lot of turnovers. This feels like a minor slip up for an Arizona team that has been rolling, but those issues — turnovers and poor three-point shooting, in particular — have plagued it at times. It’s something to monitor moving forward. – BR

2. Duke Blue Devils

Highest vote: No. 1 | Lowest vote: No. 5

Duke was the only team ranked in the top seven in the AP poll that did not lose over the weekend. Instead, Duke led by as many as 30 points in a blowout win over Syracuse. The Blue Devils have as high of a ceiling as anyone, especially when projected lottery picks Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin score at least 20 points apiece like they did against the Orange. All eyes will be on Durham on Saturday when Duke hosts UNC in what will be Coach K’s final home game. -BR

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Highest vote: No. 1 | Lowest vote: No. 2

Gonzaga built up enough goodwill this season, particularly in efficiency metrics, to remain as the No. 1 team in the country despite suffering a loss. That might not have been the case unless essentially everyone behind them also lost, but those teams did lose. Additionally, Saint Mary’s is a really good team, and losing on the road isn’t something to be too upset about. Gonzaga is 24-3 on the season and likely to enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs might be able to use this defeat as a bit of a kickstarter for the postseason. -LH