NCAA Basketball rankings: Gonzaga returns to top spot; Kentucky impresses

Gonzaga and Auburn lead the way while Kentucky makes a jump in the latest NCAA basketball rankings.

Baylor stumbled not once but twice at home this week and dropped from its No. 1 spot as a result. Its defeats opened the door for a few teams to potentially propel to our top spot. Gonzaga and Auburn are perhaps the most notable examples, as they are our top two teams this week. The Bulldogs, though, earned the nod thanks to back-to-back dominant performances over KenPom top-100 opponents this past week.

Perhaps the biggest winner of the week, though, was Kentucky. The Wildcats have clearly found their rhythm and are blossoming into one of the nation’s top teams. They did not play a very rigorous nonconference schedule by any stretch but are now proving just how good they can be. Oscar Tshiebwe and TyTy Washington form as good of a frontcourt/backcourt combo as there is nationwide. Davidson transfer Kellan Grady is also now up to shooting 46.2 percent from three.

As a reminder, Heat Check CBB will be releasing a weekly Top 25 of our own throughout this season that 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 Heat Check CBB Top 25, with blurbs provided by Harkins (Rauf is taking the week off).

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Others receiving votes (For reference, our No. 25 team received 14 points each): Texas (8), Davidson (7), North Carolina (7), Iowa (5), BYU (1), Oregon (1), and Texas A&M (1).

25. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (13-2)

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Loyola Chicago has not had an easy go of things recently. The Ramblers needed three combined overtimes to beat Bradley and Valparaiso at home, plus narrowly squeaked out a road victory over Indiana State. Missouri Valley play has not been smooth sailing for head coach Drew Valentine’s team, yet they find themselves 4-0. Is this an Icarus situation, or just a tough stretch of games?

24. Providence Friars (14-2)

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Providence did not play during this past week. The Friars still boast an excellent overall record and their two losses have been away from home to Virginia and Marquette. They hold four KenPom top-30 wins on their resume; victories over Wisconsin and Texas Tech, most notably, are aging very well.

23. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-6)

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Alabama is on a three-game losing streak and is barely holding onto a Top 25 spot in our poll. This is the first week of the season that any of our voters have unranked the Crimson Tide, and three out of five did exactly that. Five of Alabama’s six losses this season have come by fewer than seven points, though. They are close, but a grueling schedule awaits and they need to get back on track quickly.

22. Tennessee Volunteers (11-5)

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Tennessee has alternated wins and losses over its last six games, a streak now dating back to before Christmas. The Volunteers have slowly slid in our rankings, but it’s hard to be too upset about any of their recent losses: at Alabama, at LSU, at Kentucky. Not many teams in the country are stealing even one win out of those games. Keep in mind that they were without Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson in the first defeat of those three.

21. Colorado State Rams (13-1)

Highest vote: No. 14 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Colorado State returned to its winning ways this week with back-to-back victories over Utah State and San Jose State. The former is not one to overlook, either. The Rams’ lone loss to date (at San Diego State) was an embarrassing one, but also one that can be forgiven; every team in the country lays eggs from time to time. Colorado State still boasts an elite offense and is one of the favorites to win a very competitive MWC with multiple at-large contenders.

20. Xavier Musketeers (13-3)

Highest vote: No. 17 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Xavier split its homestand against Villanova and Creighton this week with relatively predictable results. The Musketeers feature arguably the most talent-rich roster in the entire Big East and feature so many players that can go off on any given night. Zach Freemantle is the newest to join that list; the All-Big East big man struggled to begin this season after returning from injury but posted 13 and 11 against Creighton. If Xavier gets the best version of Freemantle moving forward, they will be all the more dangerous.

19. Iowa State Cyclones (14-3)

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Iowa State has started 2-3 in Big 12 play but has generally proven that its undefeated start up until the New Year wasn’t a fluke. Yes, the Cyclones played poorly in their road loss to Oklahoma but otherwise were defeated by Baylor and Kansas by a combined six points. The two wins during this stretch came over Texas Tech and Texas. The Big 12 is a gauntlet, and they faced five straight KenPom top-35 teams to begin conference play. It’s not time to give up on the Cyclones.

18. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-4)

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

EJ Liddell is one of the best players in college basketball, but guard play remains a major concern for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have talent in the backcourt but they are generally lacking consistency. Losing Meechie Johnson for the last two games has also hurt, as he was a nice bench piece shooting 40 percent from three. Malaki Branham has stepped up here and there of late, and perhaps he is the “breakout star” that Ohio State will need as the season progresses. The Buckeyes play a non-league game against IUPUI – one of the worst teams in the country – this week before returning to their Big Ten schedule.

17. USC Trojans (14-2)

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

Only Louisville dropped more points in KenPom’s efficiency margin statistic over the past week than USC (among high-major programs). The Trojans suffered a pair of losses to Stanford and Oregon – by 16 combined points – sandwiched around a win over Oregon State. USC will look to get back on track this week but that will not be easy with back-to-back road games (Colorado, Utah) on the schedule. The Trojans rank 353rd nationally in free-throw percentage this season at just 61.3 percent.

16. Michigan State Spartans (14-3)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 23

Michigan State lost at home to Northwestern this week. While the Wildcats are highly regarded by quality metrics relative to their actual record, that is a tough loss for the Spartans. They also had their chances to win that game before eventually falling by two. The defeat snapped Michigan State’s nine-game win streak and ignites some pessimism heading into a brutal stretch. The Spartans play four of their next five games away from home, including their next two coming on the road against Wisconsin and Illinois.

15. Texas Tech Red Raiders (13-4)

Highest vote: No. 11 | Lowest vote: No. 21

Texas Tech suffered a road loss to Kansas State this week, but remains firmly ranked due to the goodwill it earned over the prior week. Victories over Kansas (home) and Baylor (away) go a long way in terms of national rankings and building a strong resume. The Red Raiders are 13-4 (3-2 B12) overall with four of their next five games set to be played at home. They rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency as well. Terrence Shannon returned to action this week after missing seven games; if he returns to his prior form, this team will be excellent.

14. Wisconsin Badgers (14-2)

Highest vote: No. 11 | Lowest vote: No. 20

Ohio State beat Wisconsin by nearly 20 in Columbus earlier this season. During this past week, though, the Badgers were able to get revenge in Madison. The final score looks closer than the game really was during stretches. Wisconsin leads the nation in Quadrant 1 victories and is starting to get a bit more help around its star player. Brad Davison netted 25 points against Ohio State, and Tyler Wahl has now reached 20-plus points in back-to-back games.

13. Illinois Fighting Illini (13-3)

Highest vote: No. 10 | Lowest vote: No. 19

Illinois has been playing really good basketball for the last month and a half. The Illini have won 11 of their last 12 games and are soaring up the national rankings. There is a strong argument for Kofi Cockburn to be the National Player of the Year, particularly due to his work on the boards: Illinois’ No. 1 ranking in offensive rebounding rate jumps out. The Illini have only played one ranked team (vs. Arizona) during their current hot streak, and lost that game. They host Purdue and Michigan State this week, two big opportunities to bolster the resume.

12. LSU Tigers (15-2)

Highest vote: No. 8 | Lowest vote: No. 14

One home loss to Arkansas – a struggling but still talented team – does not wipe away the goodwill that LSU had previously built up this season. The Tigers still took down Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida in the three games leading up to that loss. They lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and hold an excellent overall record. Road bouts with Alabama and Tennessee loom this week, though. The Tigers need to put together a couple of good performances or a three-game losing streak might suddenly appear.

11. Houston Cougars (15-2)

Highest vote: No. 7 | Lowest vote: No. 14

The injury bug may have bitten Houston, but it doesn’t seem to have had a major effect. Of course, losing key players is never a good thing. Yet, the Cougars have won seven straight games and are looking like the dominant favorite in the AAC. They still rank in the KenPom top 5 and have a lot of great pieces to build around. UConn transfer Josh Carlton has been superb, notching KenPom Game MVP honors in three of their last five games.

10. UCLA Bruins (11-2)

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 12

UCLA defended its home court in an overtime victory over Villanova in just the second game of the season. Since then, the Bruins’ only other matchup with a ranked opponent resulted in a 20-point loss to Gonzaga. They are yet to play another opponent that ranks in the KenPom top 45. Their lack of a collection of strong wins is why there was such a reaction to their home loss to Oregon this week. Are the Bruins as good as their preseason expectations? We still don’t know. Their two matchups with Arizona both come within the next 30 days.

9. Villanova Wildcats (13-4)

Highest vote: No. 5 | Lowest vote: No. 12

Villanova is rolling and has found its rhythm. The Wildcats are winners of six straight since losing their Big East opener and put together two more very impressive performances this week. They went on the road and took down a good Xavier team before returning home and demolishing Butler. Villanova shot 12-for-18 from three in the latter victory. The ‘Cats are again fairly reliant on the 3-point shot but feature a ton of great shooters. More importantly, though, they are elite defensively. Jay Wright has his most balanced unit since winning the national title in 2018.

8. Kentucky Wildcats (14-3)

Highest vote: No. 6 | Lowest vote: No. 12

Kentucky handled its business with ease this week. The Wildcats defeated Vanderbilt on the road by 12 and then returned home to put on a show against nationally ranked Tennessee. Oscar Tshiebwe is the player receiving the most NPOY buzz in Lexington, but TyTy Washington is emerging as the star for when March rolls around. He has been electric as a scorer and playmaker in the backcourt. Kentucky is well-rounded with its ability to score inside and out, defend, and dominate the glass. Three of their next four games come on the road, including traveling to face Auburn and Kansas. Good luck.

7. Kansas Jayhawks (14-2)

Highest vote: No. 1 | Lowest vote: No. 9

Kansas bounced back from its road loss to Texas Tech by defending its home court against Iowa State and West Virginia this week. The Jayhawks remain a fixture in the Big 12 regular-season title race and have been superb offensively this year. Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun form a dynamic duo and make KU dangerous. Doubting Kansas in the regular season is like betting against Tiger Woods with a lead on Sunday. Sometimes it works, but most of the time, the man in the red polo is hoisting the trophy.

6. Duke Blue Devils (14-2)

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

Duke notched a strong road win over Wake Forest to begin this past week and then dispatched NC State in Cameron Indoor. The Blue Devils’ wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky from nonconference continue to age well, and they are the favorite to win the ACC – and by a wide margin. Trevor Keels has cooled down a bit but a fellow freshman is emerging. AJ Griffin is an absolute stud and only getting better.

5. Purdue Boilermakers (14-2)

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 7

Purdue handled its business with ease this week. The Boilermakers made quick work of Nebraska at home, taking them down by 27 points. Purdue is 14-2 overall but is heading into a more difficult stretch of schedule. Head coach Matt Painter’s team plays three of its next four on the road – all three away games are against KenPom top-30 opponents.

4. Arizona Wildcats (14-1)

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 9

Arizona continues to roll and assert itself as the best team in the Pac-12. The Wildcats made quick work of Colorado (by 21) and Utah (by 18) in back-to-back home games this week. A three-game road trip to SoCal comes over the next week and a half; this is a big stretch to prove if the Wildcats are a true contender to be the best team in America. Tommy Lloyd is arguably the frontrunner for National Coach of the Year.

3. Baylor Bears (15-2)

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

Baylor dropped its first two games of the entire season in back-to-back games this past week, and both were at home. Is this a sign that the Bears aren’t quite as good as many thought? Or perhaps just the curse of holding the No. 1 spot striking once again? Either way, the Bears suffered a dip in the rankings ahead of playing five of their next seven games on the road. Scott Drew and Co. will have a tough time getting back on track, but they are still excellent.

2. Auburn Tigers (16-1)

Highest vote: No. 1 | Lowest vote: No. 6

Auburn’s only loss this season came in double overtime against UConn on Nov. 24 at a neutral site. It’s hard to be too upset about that defeat, especially given how well it has played since. The Tigers are winners of 13 straight, including taking down Alabama and Ole Miss on the road this week. Auburn is now 5-0 in true road games this season. The Tigers are a legit contender for the No. 1 spot in these rankings.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (14-2)

Highest vote: No. 1 | Lowest vote: No. 3

Was it only a matter of time for Gonzaga to return to the No. 1 spot in the rankings? Perhaps, and before the “WCC is terrible” crowd jumps on this, the Bulldogs have only played three conference games so far and two of them were against KenPom top-100 opponents. Not only did they win those games, but they are making the WCC look like Swiss cheese. They are scoring 114 points per game in conference play and winning by 29 points per game.



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