- Basketball recruiting insider.
- Joined ESPN in 2014.
- Graduate of University of Delaware.
As soon as Jared Butler’s shot didn’t fall for the Bears and the buzzer sounded on Kansas’ 64-61 win at Baylor on Saturday, the Jayhawks were going to rise to No. 1 in the Power Rankings. At the time, it felt a little more controversial, since Gonzaga and San Diego State had lost a combined one game all season — and that came back in late November.
And then San Diego State lost its first game, at home to UNLV, and Gonzaga got beat convincingly at BYU.
So Kansas does move to the top of the rankings, but it seems like the obvious choice at this point. It could be argued that the Jayhawks have had the best combination of NET-based numbers and metric-based rankings for several weeks now.
Let’s start with the NET, the NCAA Evaluation Tool. Kansas has the No. 1 strength of schedule and the No. 1 nonconference strength of schedule. The Jayhawks lead the nation with 11 Quadrant 1 wins and 18 Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 wins. They have the lowest average NET win and NET loss in the country.
And now for the metrics. Kansas is No. 1 at KenPom, Sagarin and the KPI, and No. 2 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) and strength of record. The Jayhawks’ adjusted efficiency margin at KenPom is more than four points higher than No. 2 — less than the gap between No. 2 and No. 6.
In a season during which we’ve constantly argued that there’s no great team, Kansas’ adjusted efficiency margin compares favorably with top teams in previous campaigns — and the Jayhawks are on pace to have the lowest adjusted defensive efficiency in the KenPom era (since 2001-02).
After the weekend’s results, a tier break has clearly emerged between the top two teams in the rankings — Kansas and Baylor — and the rest of the country. It wouldn’t shock me to see a couple of more rematches, specifically on March 14 in Kansas City and April 6 in Atlanta.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (24-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Oklahoma State (Monday), at Kansas State (Saturday)
Does Udoka Azubuike have a chance to get first-team All-American honors or perhaps even make a late run into the Wooden Award conversation? The 7-footer had his best game of the season at Baylor, finishing with 23 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks. He was completely dominant. There’s one key stat that shows how important Azubuike is to the Jayhawks: During his four seasons in Lawrence, Kansas is 70-12 with him — and 41-14 without him. Azubuike takes them from good to great. He also has become more of a factor as a senior due to his improved stamina and foul avoidance; Azubuike has played more than 30 minutes seven times in Big 12 play, after doing it four times in three years heading into this season.
2. Baylor Bears (24-2)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Kansas State (Tuesday), at TCU (Saturday)
The one reason most opposing coaches have so much faith in Baylor moving forward is that the Bears have four perimeter guys who can all go for 20-plus on a given night. And it’s unlikely that all four — or even three of the four — are going to go missing in the same game at the same time. Well, that sort of happened on Saturday. Jared Butler finished with 19, but he shot 7-for-18 from the field. MaCio Teague was 3-for-8, Davion Mitchell went 2-for-11 and Devonte Bandoo was scoreless on one shot. Baylor relies so heavily on its guards to create offense, and the Bears really struggled to get in any sort of rhythm against Kansas. Obviously, the Jayhawks’ defense had something to do with it, but Baylor’s guards need to bounce back.
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs (27-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. San Diego (Thursday), vs. Saint Mary’s (Saturday)
The Zags suffered their first loss since the day after Thanksgiving, getting thoroughly outplayed by BYU on Saturday night. Much of the 13-point margin came from the 3-point line: BYU hit 11 shots from behind the arc, and Gonzaga went just 5-for-25 from 3. It’s no secret the Cougars are one of the truly elite offensive teams in the country, and Gonzaga simply couldn’t keep up with its jump shots not falling. Much like with San Diego State, the loss also brings Gonzaga’s 1-seed candidacy into question. The Bulldogs’ only two losses are to Michigan and BYU, countered by a pair of nice nonconference wins over Arizona and Oregon. Unfortunately for Mark Few’s team, those wins over Washington and North Carolina don’t look nearly as impressive now as they did back in November and December.
4. San Diego State Aztecs (26-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Colorado State (Tuesday), at Nevada (Saturday)
For most of the past couple of months, San Diego State had the ultimate trump card in ranking debates: The Aztecs were undefeated. And now that card is unplayable. So how does San Diego State’s résumé stack up moving forward? The Aztecs are now the only team in the 1-seed conversation with a Quadrant 3 loss. On the plus side, they still have four Quadrant 1 wins and are 9-0 against Quadrants 1 and 2. That won’t compare favorably to Baylor and Kansas, but it didn’t compare favorably before this week, either. If Brian Dutcher’s team wins out and wins the Mountain West Conference tournament, I think the Aztecs still will have a chance to get a 1-seed in the East Region — but a second loss would end those hopes.
5. Dayton Flyers (25-2)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at George Mason (Tuesday), vs. Davidson (Friday)
Obi Toppin had perhaps his first truly subpar game in Atlantic 10 play in the Flyers’ road win at VCU last week, finishing with 12 points on 11 shots. He has had games with fewer points this season, but those came in nonconference play (versus Grambling State and North Texas) — with one game being a 28-point blowout, and in the other, he dished out six assists. Either way, Toppin bounced back in a major way against Duquesne, going for 28 points and seven rebounds. Flyers point guard Jalen Crutcher has arguably been more consistent over the past six weeks. Crutcher has scored at least 17 points in 10 of his past 11 games, while also distributing 50 assists over that 11-game stretch.
6. Maryland Terrapins (22-5)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Minnesota (Wednesday), vs. Michigan State (Saturday)
Maryland was poised to move into the top four of the rankings heading into Sunday afternoon’s matchup at Ohio State, but the Terrapins fell in Columbus, and now they likely remain on the 2-line with two weeks left in the regular season. Mark Turgeon’s team is simply going to have trouble winning games when its two stars — Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith — don’t have great offensive performances. Against the Buckeyes, Smith had eight points on eight shots, while Cowan had 10 points and seven assists — but fouled out and only made one shot from the field. The Terps are still atop the Big Ten standings, but the lead is down to two games.
7. Duke Blue Devils (23-4)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Wake Forest (Tuesday), at Virginia (Saturday)
We’ve written before how Duke’s perimeter inconsistencies can be a potential fatal flaw come March, and that was true again last week. In the blowout loss at NC State, the Blue Devils shot just 4-for-17 from behind the arc before bouncing back with an 11-for-26 effort against Virginia Tech. But in Duke’s four losses this season, they’ve shot just 29.9% from 3-point range. Part of that stems from inconsistencies in minutes for the team’s best shooters. Matthew Hurt had 16 points in 24 minutes against Tech — but three points in nine minutes against NC State. Joey Baker has become an afterthought in the rotation, with Mike Krzyzewski shortening the bench as the postseason approaches.
8. Seton Hall Pirates (20-7)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Marquette (Saturday)
The Pirates bounced back from their two-game losing streak with a close home win over Butler and an easy triumph at St. John’s, and Sandro Mamukelashvili had perhaps his best two-game stretch since returning from injury. He had 15 points, six rebounds and the game-winning bucket against Butler, then posted 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists versus the Red Storm. There were questions earlier in the season about Seton Hall’s offense besides Myles Powell and Mamukelashvili, but Kevin Willard has steadily received more and more balance the past couple of games. The Pirates had five guys in double figures on Sunday and four against Butler. The Pirates are now up to 10 Quadrant 1 wins — one of just three teams in the country with double digits in that category.
9. Florida State Seminoles (23-4)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Louisville (Monday), at Clemson (Saturday)
Florida State is certainly still in the ACC title hunt, tied in the loss column with Louisville and Duke entering the final two weeks of the regular season. The Seminoles will get a chance to make a big late-season statement on Monday, when Louisville comes to town. In talking to coaches around the ACC, it’s clear how much the emergence of freshman Patrick Williams changes things in terms of game plans. With Williams playing around 25 minutes per game, Leonard Hamilton is using Raiquan Gray at the power forward spot less frequently. Given that the Seminoles switch everything defensively, having an athletic, versatile 6-foot-8 player at the 4 is yet another wrinkle that opponents have trouble dealing with.
10. Villanova Wildcats (21-6)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. St. John’s (Wednesday), vs. Providence (Saturday)
Villanova made 35 3-pointers in two games leading up to Saturday, then the Wildcats went relatively cold from the perimeter against Xavier — and went out and had their best defensive effort since mid-November. They’ve now held three consecutive opponents below one point per possession, after that end of the floor being the main culprit in their three-game losing streak at the start of February. Part of it might have been simple variance. Temple, DePaul and Xavier shot a combined 9-for-40 from 3-point range. We’ll see if things continue this week against St. John’s and a resurgent Providence team. Jay Wright’s team is still very much in the Big East title hunt, sitting one game back of Seton Hall.
11. Louisville Cardinals (23-5)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Syracuse (Wednesday), vs. North Carolina (Saturday)
Louisville bounced back from its road losses to Georgia Tech and Clemson with two easy home wins over Syracuse and North Carolina in which the Cardinals scored 1.17 points per possession. Now they will look to avenge their home loss to Florida State back on Jan. 4. In that first game, Louisville’s Jordan Nwora went for 32 points, 10 rebounds and five 3-pointers — but the rest of the team combined for 33 points on 13-for-47 shooting. One thing to note is the rotation tweaks Chris Mack made after the two-game skid. Malik Williams moved into the starting lineup for Steven Enoch and responded with 31 points and 22 rebounds in two games. David Johnson was rewarded for his stellar playmaking ability with his first two starts of the season, and Ryan McMahon started against Syracuse’s zone and made four 3-pointers.
12. Creighton Bluejays (22-6)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at St. John’s (Sunday)
There are few teams playing as well right now as the Bluejays. They steamrollered Butler on Sunday afternoon by 22 — and that margin is being kind to the Bulldogs. Creighton led by 30-plus for much of the second half. That win came on the heels of a road win at Marquette on Tuesday night. The Bluejays have a legitimate chance of winning at least a share of the Big East regular-season title. They sit one game back of Seton Hall right now but have a road game at St. John’s and a home date with Georgetown before the Pirates come to Omaha for the regular-season finale. Remember, Creighton won the first meeting between the two teams in New Jersey.
13. Kentucky Wildcats (22-5)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: at Texas A&M (Tuesday), vs. Auburn (Saturday)
Can we get Immanuel Quickley some SEC player of the year love? Nick Richards’ junior-season breakout has been terrific and worthy of the headlines, but Quickley seems to have flown slightly under the radar — until last week, at least. He went for 21 points and five assists in the road win at LSU, then had a career-high 26 points and hit a number of big shots to hold off Florida on Saturday. In Quickley’s past 16 games, dating back to the late-December showdown against Louisville, he is averaging 18.5 points and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 45.1% from 3-point range. Different players have stepped up as Kentucky’s closer this season, but right now the answer is Quickley.
14. Auburn Tigers (23-4)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Ole Miss (Tuesday), at Kentucky (Saturday)
Auburn came back to beat Tennessee to avoid a three-game losing streak, which would have sent the Tigers out of the rankings — but they still clearly miss Isaac Okoro. He injured his hamstring toward the end of Auburn’s win over Alabama on Feb. 12, and he has missed the past three games. For a team that relies so heavily on the 3-point shot, taking away one of their few players with size who actually prefers to attack and finish at the rim is an issue. Auburn ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in 3-point percentage, and it was even worse during the two-game losing streak to Missouri and Georgia. The Tigers went just 5-for-43 from behind the arc in those two contests before bouncing back with seven 3s against Tennessee.
15. Penn State Nittany Lions (20-7)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Rutgers (Wednesday), at Iowa (Saturday)
The Nittany Lions see the biggest drop from last week after back-to-back losses to Illinois and Indiana, dropping them into a four-way tie for second place in the Big Ten. But their seven Quadrant 1 wins and 12-7 record against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents keeps them in the rankings — for now. The nonconference strength of schedule in the 300s can oftentimes be a huge issue in the eyes of the selection committee, which could impact the Nittany Lions’ seeding come Selection Sunday. The other factor is that the past two losses came without Myreon Jones, who has missed the previous five games with an illness. He did go through warm-ups on Sunday, so a return could be near. Pat Chambers’ offense badly misses Jones.
16. BYU Cougars (23-7)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Pepperdine (Saturday)
BYU makes its first appearance in the rankings after handling Gonzaga with relative ease Saturday night. The Cougars made 11 3-pointers, their seventh time in the past nine games making double-digit shots from behind the arc. They allowed far too many offensive rebounds, but not many teams can crash the glass like Gonzaga. Mark Pope has one of the best offensive teams in the country, with five guys who have made at least 33 3-pointers and a go-to inside player in Yoeli Childs. Childs has missed 13 games this season, nine through suspension and four through injury — and BYU is 15-2 in the 17 games in which he has suited up. The Cougars carry an eight-game winning streak heading into the regular-season finale at Pepperdine.
Dropped out: West Virginia (16)
In the waiting room
Oregon Ducks: Payton Pritchard put on a show Saturday night at Arizona, finishing with 38 points and six 3-pointers in an overtime victory. But it was Will Richardson who created the winning play, drawing two defenders and dumping it off to Shakur Juiston for the go-ahead layup. To win in Tucson with Richardson and Chris Duarte combining for six points on 15 shots is highly impressive.
Michigan Wolverines: The Wolverines’ bandwagon is starting to fill up entering the final couple of weeks of the season, with wins in seven of their past eight games. Isaiah Livers has played in four of the past five games, and if he is healthy, Michigan will be able to compete offensively with most opponents. Since returning from his 9½-game absence, Livers has averaged 15.5 points, and Michigan has had its best offensive stretch since November.
Michigan State Spartans: The metrics still love the Spartans! Michigan State is still a top-15 NET team and sits inside the top 15 in each of the BPI, KenPom and Sagarin ratings. That said, the 5-8 record against Quadrant 1 teams and the 10-9 record against Quadrant 1 and 2 teams is concerning. There’s a tough upcoming four-game stretch too: vs. Iowa, at Maryland, at Penn State, vs. Ohio State.
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