NCAA Basketball rankings: Kentucky soars into top 5; Providence keeps winning

Kentucky leaped into the top 5 of our NCAA basketball rankings after blowing out Kansas on the road. Providence also continues to rise with an elite resume.

The 2021-22 college basketball season is progressing quickly, with only six weeks remaining until the NCAA Tournament. Auburn and Gonzaga remain tied for the No. 1 spot in our Top 25 this week, but there are still plenty of teams in the race for a potential national title. Perhaps the biggest winner of this week was Kentucky, which utilized an 18-point road win over Kansas to launch into our top 5. The Wildcats are blossoming behind NPOY candidate Oscar Tshiebwe.

Kentucky is not the only team consistently rising up the rankings. Providence continues to climb thanks to its superb winning percentage and resume. The Friars are 18-2 (8-1 Big East) on the year and knocked off two previously ranked opponents during this past week. Boise State also made the jump into our rankings this week. The Broncos are riding a 14-game winning streak and deserve far more national attention moving forward. They have been very impressive over the last two weeks.

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 10 points each): Alabama (9), Xavier (8), Miami-FL (8), Colorado State (6), Murray State (6), Saint Mary’s (6), Arkansas (2) and Davidson (2).

25. Iowa State Cyclones (16-5)

Highest vote: No. 22 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The Cyclones ended their losing skid with back-to-back wins over Oklahoma State and Missouri. More importantly, Iowa State’s offense shows signs of returning to its nonconference form. It shot 39.1 percent from three this week, well up from its season average of 33.0 percent, which ranks 201st nationally. -Brian Rauf

T23. Boise State Broncos (17-4)

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Boise State is scorching hot right now. The Broncos started only 3-4 but have since rattled off 14 consecutive wins. This winning streak includes plenty of quality victories as well. Boise has added road victories over Utah State, San Diego State and Fresno State – as well as a home win over Wyoming – in the last 10 days alone. Head coach Leon Rice is guiding one of the nation’s best defensive units (sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency). With an 8-0 record in conference play, they have emerged as a legit threat for the Mountain West title. -Lukas Harkins

T23. USC Trojans (18-3)

Highest vote: No. 19 | Lowest vote: Unranked

USC may have tumbled all the way out of these rankings had it not come back to beat Cal at home Saturday night. The Trojans have not beaten a KenPom top 90 team in Pac-12 play and have yet to face either Arizona or UCLA. Nonconference victories are continuing to carry this group, but there are cracks in the façade. -BR

22. LSU Tigers (16-5)

Highest vote: No. 21 | Lowest vote: Unranked

On the positive side, Will Wade’s squad continues to be elite defensively. They have the nation’s top defense, per KenPom, and rank in the top seven in the country in most major defensive metrics. On the negative side, LSU has lost four of its last five games because its offense can’t keep up. This team is going to have to start winning ugly. -BR

21. Texas Longhorns (16-5)

Highest vote: No. 18 | Lowest vote: Unranked

The Longhorns return to the poll following a victory over Tennessee that puts them on a three-game win streak. The fact Texas was leading by 17 points with seven minutes left in the game is impressive. But the fact it only ended up winning by one point is not. That Jekyll & Hyde persona is why this team fell out of the poll in the first place. We’ll find out more about this team in Chris Beard’s return to Texas Tech on Tuesday. -BR

20. Marquette Golden Eagles (15-7)

Highest vote: No. 17 | Lowest vote: No. 25

Marquette is playing better than just about anyone over the past few weeks. The Golden Eagles have won seven of their last eight games – all in Big East play – with the lone loss coming by only a single possession on the road against Providence. Head coach Shaka Smart has led his team to victories over Illinois, Providence, Seton Hall (twice), Villanova and Xavier this season. Justin Lewis has emerged as a potential Big East Player of the Year candidate. -LH

19. Tennessee Volunteers (14-6)

Highest vote: No. 18 | Lowest vote: Unranked

Tennessee’s win streak ended in a one-point loss to Texas and the Vols showed incredible fight during that comeback. They also displayed their defensive prowess, allowing the Longhorns to score just three points in the game’s final seven minutes. Unfortunately, it took their offense until then to warm up. That has been the problem for Rick Barnes’ squad this year, which ranks 56th in offensive efficiency. -BR

18. Ohio State Buckeyes (13-5)

Highest vote: No. 15 | Lowest vote: No. 20

Ohio State erased a 20-point second half deficit against Purdue only to lose on a last second shot by Jaden Ivey. Still, the Buckeyes displayed the toughness and explosiveness needed to play with the country’s best teams. The emergence of freshman guard Malaki Branham has been critical. He averaged 16.0 points per game during the month of January after averaging 6.3 in his first 10 games. -BR

17. UConn Huskies (15-4)

Highest vote: No. 14 | Lowest vote: No. 18

UConn is in the midst of a five-game winning streak, but all of those victories came over teams rated in the bottom half of the Big East. In fact, the Huskies have not beaten a KenPom top 80 team in over a month and it is (almost) purely due to their schedule. Each of their next four matchups is against potential NCAA Tournament teams, and now is the time to make a jump into the spotlight. RJ Cole put up 25 points in UConn’s win over DePaul this weekend. -LH

16. Michigan State Spartans (16-4)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 18

Michigan State suffered a tough road loss to Illinois (w/o Curbelo and Cockburn) to begin this past week but bounced back at home against Michigan. The Spartans are 7-2 in Big Ten play and are projected to win each of their next six games. They rank seventh nationally in 3-point percentage due in large part to Tyson Walker and Malik Hall, who are shooting a combined 36-for-69 (52.2 percent) from beyond the arc for the season. MSU has the potential to be very dangerous come March. -LH

15. Providence Friars (18-2)

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 17

Providence just keeps winning games. The Friars have had some bounces go their way throughout the year, but that is the case for every team. They added to the signature victory list this past week by taking down Xavier on the road and Marquette at home. Providence sits atop the Big East standings with an 8-1 intra-conference record. AJ Reeves also just returned to the lineup after missing five games. -LH

14. Illinois Fighting Illini (15-5)

Highest vote: No. 13 | Lowest vote: No. 16

The Illini shook off a disappointing loss to Maryland with wins over Michigan State (without Kofi Cockburn) and Northwestern this week. Andre Curbelo didn’t play in either game due to COVID protocols, but he’s expected to return soon. When fully healthy — which it has rarely been this season — Illinois has looked the part of a high quality team. -BR

13. Wisconsin Badgers (17-3)

Highest vote: No. 12 | Lowest vote: No. 16

Wisconsin returned to its winning ways this week, notching single-digit victories over Nebraska and Minnesota. The Badgers improved their overall record to 17-3 (8-2 B1G), though their lack of dominant victories is prohibiting a rise in predictive metrics. KenPom actually projects Wisconsin to lose three of its next five games; this stretch represents an awesome opportunity to rise up the national ranks on efficiency sites. Brad Davison and Chucky Hepburn are shooting 28-for-54 (51.9 percent) from three over their last five games to provide support for Johnny Davis. -LH

12. Texas Tech Red Raiders (16-5)

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

Texas Tech pushed Kansas to the brink in Allen Fieldhouse in Monday’s double overtime loss and then followed it up with a 76-50 trouncing of a solid Mississippi State team. This group has greatly improved offensively while maintaining an elite defense (No. 3 nationally in AdjD). Mark Adams’ squad is playing like a second weekend team that could potentially go further. -BR

11. Villanova Wildcats (16-5)

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

Villanova lost its Big East opener over a month ago. Since then, though, the Wildcats have won nine of their last ten games while steadily rising up the national ranks. They once again feature an extremely efficient offense predicated on strong 3-point shooting, plus they boast a much-improved defense this time around. Matchups with Marquette and UConn this week will help to determine just how high Villanova’s ceiling actually is this year. -LH

10. Kansas Jayhawks (17-3)

Highest vote: No. 6 | Lowest vote: No. 10

The Jayhawks finally got burnt after playing with fire all January. Their five-game win streak was snapped in an 80-62 home loss to Kentucky that wasn’t even that close, and four of those five victories came by three points or fewer. With a slipping defense and inconsistent production from Remy Martin and David McCormack, things are trending in the wrong direction for Kansas. -BR

9. Houston Cougars (18-2)

Highest vote: No. 5 | Lowest vote: No. 11

The AAC does not feature much top-end talent this season, but that shouldn’t detract too much from Houston’s dominance. The Cougars are currently riding a 10-game winning streak and they are making it look easy even amidst key injuries. Head coach Kelvin Sampson guided his group to a 14-point road win over UCF in their lone game of the season. Kyler Edwards continued his strong play with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists. -LH

8. Duke Blue Devils (17-3)

Highest vote: No. 4 | Lowest vote: No. 11

Do a two-point victory over Clemson and blowing a 16-point lead against Louisville instill more confidence in the Blue Devils? Nope. But getting 22 points from AJ Griffin and having Paolo Banchero step up again in a crucial late-game situation should. It’s also worth noting that Duke played without star Trevor Keels, who is recovering from an ankle injury he suffered against Florida State. -BR

7. Arizona Wildcats (17-2)

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

The Wildcats were dealt a small dose of reality on Tuesday when they were soundly beaten by a good UCLA squad. Some of those offensive struggles crept into Saturday’s victory over Arizona State as the Wildcats trailed for most of the first half. Was Arizona just in a slump, or are there larger issues to be concerned about? This week’s games against UCLA and USC will be enlightening in that regard. -BR

6. Baylor Bears (18-3)

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

Baylor is just 3-3 over its last six games but remains ranked at No. 2 in the nation on KenPom. The Bears are the only team in the nation to rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings at this point. Predictive metrics indicate that they will return to near the top of the national rankings soon, but their actual results to date have led to a drop. James Akinjo has been struggling of late while hitting only two of his last 18 3-point shots. Baylor is 2-0 without him over their last six games and is 1-3 with him. -LH

5. Purdue Boilermakers (18-3)

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

It’s scary how good Purdue can be when it’s on, when Ivey plays like the top-5 pick, and the Zach EdeyTrevion Williams combination is unstoppable. At the same time, it’s scary how quickly its defensive inefficiencies can make them look vulnerable. Sunday’s game against Ohio State perfectly encapsulated those two personas. -BR

4. UCLA Bruins (16-2)

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

UCLA has won six games in a row since falling to Oregon in overtime, a loss that doesn’t look as bad as it did at the time. Considering their only other loss is to Gonzaga, and the way they soundly beat Arizona on Tuesday, the Bruins look the part of the Final Four favorite we projected them to be in the preseason. Mick Cronin’s squad looks like the team to beat in the Pac-12 once again. -BR

3. Kentucky Wildcats (17-4)

Highest vote: No. 3 | Lowest vote: No. 5

Kentucky put together arguably the most impressive performance of any team in the country this week, fully dominating Kansas on the road with an 18-point victory. The Wildcats also defended their home court for a home win over Mississippi State. Big man Oscar Tshiebwe continues to dominate the inside as arguably the frontrunner to win National Player of the Year. Keion Brooks was excellent against the Jayhawks as well. -LH

1. Gonzaga vs. Auburn

Gonzaga and Auburn each finished with 147 points in this week’s Heat Check Top 25, tying for the No. 1 spot. Three of our voters led their poll with the Bulldogs with the Tigers in second while the other three did the opposite. Each team has a strong argument for the No. 1 spot, but those are rooted in how voters value predictive metrics relative to resumes earned to date.

Auburn holds the clear edge in terms of resume. The Tigers rank first and second nationally in SOR and KPI, respectively, both of which reward teams for their wins and losses to date. Auburn owns the best Q1+2 winning percentage in the country among teams with more than one game played in those quadrants. They boast a better record than Gonzaga in games versus quality opposition, so they may have “earned” the No. 1 spot based on what we’ve seen.

Gonzaga, on the flip side, dominates in quality/predictive metrics. The Bulldogs rank No. 1 in KenPom, BPI, and Sagarin. They are dominating the vast majority of their opponents and have built an elite adjusted efficiency margin as a result. Essentially, there is a higher likelihood of Gonzaga remaining among the nation’s top title contenders than there is for Auburn at this time. Predictive metrics have their value, and the argument for Gonzaga as the No. 1 right now centers around their efficiency dominance. -LH



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