NCAA Basketball rankings: Gonzaga takes top spot; Illinois ascending

Gonzaga usurped the No. 1 spot in our NCAA basketball rankings thanks to impressive performances while Illinois keeps winning.

The first week of February is in the rear-view mirror as the 2021-22 NCAA basketball season continues to fly by. This past week was among the craziest of the season, with several confounding results shifting our Top 25 rankings. Perhaps most notably, our six voters finally decided on a No. 1 team after voting for an even tie between Auburn and Gonzaga for the past few weeks. The answer? Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs were the No. 1 team on KenPom for the last several weeks, so that part of their argument did not change on the surface. However, the sheer dominance with which they beat San Diego (by 30) and BYU (by 32) in true road games was eye-opening. Gonzaga already boasted the nation’s best-adjusted efficiency margin (by 2.97) prior to the week but lengthened its lead to 5.58 due to its superb performances. Only 11 teams improved their efficiency margin more than Gonzaga in the entire country over the past week.

Our other big winner of the week was Illinois. The Fighting Illini defended their home court in a big way with a 13-point victory over Wisconsin to open the week. Kofi Cockburn was dominant with a 37-point, 12-rebound double-double. The Illini followed that victory by taking down Indiana on the road – by 17 points – behind Trent Frazier’s 23-point performance.

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 12 points each): Wake Forest (6), Boise State (5), and Oregon (5).

25. Davidson Wildcats (19-3)

Highest vote: No. 20 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Davidson returned to its winning ways this week with back-to-back road victories over Saint Bonaventure and George Washington. The Wildcats have lost only once since mid-November while blossoming into a strong at-large contender. Davidson features many offensive threats, but Luka Brajkovic is arguably the one with the hottest hand right now. -Lukas Harkins

24. Arkansas Razorbacks (18-5)

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The Razorbacks have won eight games in a row after that disappointing 1-5 stretch to move back into these rankings. Arkansas is playing much better defense during this run and it has allowed them to pick up wins over LSU, West Virginia and Mississippi State. JD Notae is still carrying the offense and deserves All-SEC honors. The schedule does ramp up for Eric Musselman’s squad, though, as only one game remains against a team ranked outside the KenPom top 50. -Brian Rauf

23. Murray State Racers (22-2)

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: No. 25

Murray State is no longer just a mid-major with a great record. As a result of dominating performances throughout OVC play, the Racers have soared up quality metrics and find themselves ranked at No. 22 on KenPom. Tevin Brown and KJ Williams form one of the best duos in the country for an ever-improving defensive group. The Racers are undefeated in OVC play, and one of their two losses was on the road to our No. 2 team in the country. Murray State is the real deal. -LH

22. Wyoming Cowboys (19-3)

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: No. 25

The Cowboys legitimized their lofty 19-3 record with wins over Colorado State, Boise State and Fresno State this week. Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike have become one of the nation’s best duos and have Wyoming firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture as of now. They don’t have a bad loss (Arizona, Stanford, Boise State) and an offense that ranks in the top 20 nationally. -BR

21. Saint Mary’s Gaels (19-4)

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Saint Mary’s is one of the more interesting teams in the country. While they do not own any “elite” wins, they also do not have any bad losses; all four of their defeats were to teams projected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, the Gaels have built tremendous quality metrics over the course of the season; victories by 21 and 11 during this past week furthered that. Saint Mary’s ranks 17th on KenPom. -LH

20. Texas Longhorns (17-6)

Highest vote: No. 17 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Texas simply looked overmatched and overpowered by Texas Tech this week. However, the Longhorns reversed those roles in Saturday’s dominant victory over Iowa State. Poor offense may limit this team’s ceiling, but its defense is still elite (No. 9 nationally, per KenPom) and will keep them in every game they play. -BR

19. Michigan State Spartans (17-5)

Highest vote: No. 16 | Lowest vote: No. 22

It was not a banner week for Sparty, who needed some late heroics from Malik Hall to get past Maryland before losing by 21 points at Rutgers. Paul Mulcahy was able to break down Michigan State’s guards with ease, further validating concerns about the Spartans’ backcourt. Tom Izzo’s squad is now just 3-3 in its last six games. -BR

18. Marquette Golden Eagles (16-7)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 20

Marquette’s resume is not absolved from losing four straight (and five of six) in December, but their play as of late is undeniable. The Golden Eagles completed their season sweep of Villanova this past week while winning their eighth game in nine tries. Head coach Shaka Smart has a roster that fits his vision in Year 1 and it is clear that everyone has bought in. Sophomore forward Justin Lewis is making a case for Big East Player of the Year. -LH

17. Wisconsin Badgers (18-4)

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: No. 18

Wisconsin put forth a pair of shaky performances during this week. The Badgers first dropped a road game to Illinois by 13 and followed that up with a narrow win over Penn State at home. Wisconsin is still a case of what to believe: resume or predictive metrics? Star player Johnny Davis shot 37-for-92 (40.2 percent) from mid-range over his first 12 games this season. That number has dipped to 14-for-61 (23.0 percent) over his last eight games. -LH

16. Ohio State Buckeyes (14-5)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 20

The Buckeyes only had one game this week, taking care of Maryland in business-like fashion. EJ Liddell continues to be one of the nation’s very best players and is the key to Ohio State’s sixth-ranked offense, per KenPom. Defense is still an issue – and their lack of size does give them some limitations – but Chris Holtmann’s squad continues to be one of the most consistent in the country. -BR

15. Tennessee Volunteers (16-6)

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

Two games against mid-tier SEC opponents, two dominant victories for the Volunteers. Those wins against Texas A&M and South Carolina also represent Tennessee’s highest scoring two-game stretch of the season against power conference competition (90 points vs. Texas A&M, 81 vs. South Carolina). If Josiah-Jordan James and Zakai Zeigler can maintain their production on that end, the Vols’ ceiling is raised significantly. -BR

14. Providence Friars (20-2)

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

To adjust the lyrics from Finding Nemo, “just keep winning, just keep winning, just keep winning, winning, winning.” That has been the story of this season for Providence. The Friars might not always dominate their opposition, and they have often needed to clutch up down the stretch of games, but the fact remains that they are 20-2 (10-1 Big East). Providence’s resume is elite and it continues to find ways to win. The Friars also added a rare blowout victory on the road at Georgetown this week to help bolster their lowly predictive metrics. -LH

13. Villanova Wildcats (17-6)

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 14

We know who Villanova is at this point — a lack of athleticism and size cost them in a 10-point loss to Marquette, yet their shooting and basketball IQ carried the Wildcats to an 11-point victory over UConn despite Justin Moore‘s absence. The Golden Eagles are the only team that has beaten Villanova since Dec. 17, marking the first time Jay Wright’s squad has been swept in a season series since Butler did it in 2016-17. That’s a huge testament to how good this program has been for so long. -BR

12. Illinois Fighting Illini (17-5)

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 14

Kofi Cockburn is arguably the most dominant player in college basketball. With that in mind, though, there might not be a more under-appreciated player than Trent Frazier. The senior is an elite defender and strong playmaker who spaces the floor from deep. Frazier is averaging 37.9 minutes per game over the Illini’s last nine contests. Illinois has won four straight and is the favorite to win the Big Ten regular-season title at this point. The Illini are up to a No. 3 seed in our bracketology as well. -LH

11. UCLA Bruins (16-4)

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 15

We are willing to forgive losing a hard-fought game to Arizona on the road, especially considering UCLA beat the Wildcats just a week and a half previously. We are not willing to forgive losing to a 7-13 Arizona State team that ranks No. 133 in KenPom. The Bruins laid a complete egg in Tempe for what will likely be their worst loss of the season. Mick Cronin’s squad is now 0-2 in February after closing the regular season with a 4-5 mark over its final nine regular-season games a year ago. -BR

10. Baylor Bears (19-4)

Highest vote: No. 9 | Lowest vote: No. 11

The reigning national champs are another top team that’s limping, posting a 4-4 record over their last eight games. Baylor’s offense has struggled of late and Saturday’s 24-point loss to Kansas was as bad as the Bears have looked all season. It is worth noting that Baylor has been dealing with some key injuries over the past month and have had guys come in and out of the lineup, but the play on the court has suffered. -BR

9. Houston Cougars (20-2)

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

Houston is the analytics darling of college basketball this season. The Cougars are ranked in the top four of every predictive metric on the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s team sheets (BPI, KenPom, and Sagarin) while sitting outside of the top-12 in resume metrics. Houston has not played a difficult schedule, though it has taken care of business against its slate with a 20-2 (9-0 AAC) record. A big week approaches against a pair of bubble teams in SMU and Memphis. -LH

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders (18-5)

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

Texas Tech continues to look like one of the nation’s most improved teams and is establishing a home in our top 10. Convincing wins over Texas and West Virginia help Mark Adams‘ group this week as their offense continues to improve. The Red Raiders actually have the Big 12’s fourth-best offense in conference play along with the best defense. That is a recipe for success. -BR

7. Kansas Jayhawks (19-3)

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 10

Kansas was destroyed at home by Kentucky last weekend but responded over the past seven days in a big way. The Jayhawks first went on the road to take down Iowa State before returning home and dominating Baylor. Ochai Agbaji might be the current favorite to win the National Player of the Year award. The Big 12 is a nonstop gauntlet but Kansas’ big week led to a jump in our rankings. They are all alone in first place of the league at 8-1. -LH

6. Duke Blue Devils (19-3)

Highest vote: No. 5 | Lowest vote: No. 8

Duke’s 20-point win over North Carolina might say more about the Tar Heels than it does the Blue Devils, but that game served as a reminder of how special Coach K’s squad can be when it gets rolling. Now that AJ Griffin has established himself as a legitimate scoring option who can stretch opposing defenses (seventh nationally in 3-point shooting at 50 percent), Duke’s offense has opened up even more. This team should cruise through the rest of its ACC schedule. -BR

5. Arizona Wildcats (19-2)

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

Arizona completed a strong homestand this week with three straight wins over Arizona State, UCLA and USC. All three victories were by nine or more points as well. As a result of their strong play, as well as some other teams losing, the Wildcats have blossomed into the No. 2 team in the country on KenPom. There are plenty of strong candidates but Tommy Lloyd has to be near the top of the list for National Coach of the Year. Dalen Terry is the ultimate glue guy while Kerr Kriisa (29 total points in Arizona’s last two wins) has rediscovered some of his swag. -LH

4. Purdue Boilermakers (20-3)

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 6

Purdue is on a five-game winning streak that was recently extended thanks to a road win over Minnesota and a home victory vs. Michigan. The Boilermakers will look to complete the season sweep of current Big Ten frontrunner Illinois when the latter comes to visit this week. Purdue owns the nation’s best adjusted offensive efficiency rating but ranks outside of the top-100 defensively. Can they get enough stops to make a run at the national title? -LH

3. Kentucky Wildcats (19-4)

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

Kentucky handled Vanderbilt and Alabama as expected, affirming its place in our eyes as the nation’s best team outside of Auburn and Gonzaga. Oscar Tshiebwe continues to post All-American numbers, but the Wildcats found ways to win without elite performances from Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington. Finding those other reliable scoring options could pay huge dividends for John Calipari’s squad in March. -BR

2. Auburn Tigers (22-1)

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

Auburn showed how dominant it can be in its 100-81 win over Alabama on Tuesday. However, a two-point victory over Georgia on Saturday is why the Tigers are no longer in a tie with Gonzaga for the top spot. Auburn is now just 312th in Haslametrics’ “Away From Home” metric, showing the first real weakness that has popped up with this squad. In fact, they’ve had a number of close calls on the road over the last month. -BR

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-2)

Unanimously voted our No. 1 team

Gonzaga was able to leapfrog Auburn for our No. 1 spot this week following absolutely dominant road performances this past week. The Bulldogs took down San Diego and BYU – both on the road – by 30 and 33 points, respectively. The latter performance was particularly incredible given that the Cougars are a likely NCAA Tournament team. Gonzaga is not only the nation’s No. 1 team by adjusted efficiency margin standards, but it has opened up a dramatic lead. Chet Holmgren has settled into college basketball and is one of the sport’s most versatile and dominant stars; his emergence is what has turned Gonzaga into a much better team over the last month. That is a scary thought. -LH