By: Mac O’Brien
- Texas Tech
- West Virginia
#1: Gonzaga Bulldogs (12-0)
The ‘Zags hold onto the top spot once again in this week’s edition of our NCAAB Power Rankings. Unfortunately for all of us, we’ve reached the point of the season when conference games dominate, so that means very little noteworthy action coming out of Spokane, especially since the Bulldogs have already knocked off San Francisco, which beat UVA, and BYU (although they still have to face both teams on the road later this season). In a year during which Saint Mary’s is a bit down compared to their usual quality—the Gaels lost to Santa Clara at home this past weekend—Gonzaga has a real chance of running the table the rest of the way (assuming their previously postponed game against Baylor is not rescheduled). If they do, expect them to carry the #1 overall seed into the NCAA Tournament.
#2: Baylor Bears (11-0)
Baylor continues to position itself as the clear next team up for the #1 ranking should Gonzaga falter in conference play. The Bears remain the most well-rounded and complete team based on KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings. On aggregate, Baylor is the highest ranked team based on the two metrics. While Gonzaga ranks 1st in offense, they’re down at 20th in defense. The Bears, on the other hand, are ranked 4th in offense and 3rd in defense. If Baylor were to have a bad night shooting, their defense would almost assuredly still give them a chance to win the game, and vice versa. Guard play is the name of the game for the Bears, and Naismith POY candidate and junior guard Jared Butler leads the way for Baylor’s backcourt. Butler is averaging 16.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 5.4 APG, and 2.4 STL, making him a stat sheet stuffer in the truest sense of the term. He is incredibly well-rounded on offense, as he’s shooting 54.7% from inside the arc on 75 attempts, 43.1% from deep on 58 attempts, and 76.7% from the line on 30 FT attempts. Senior forward Mark Vital has had a bit of a down year (shooting % from the floor, assists, rebounds, and steals are all down from last year when he was a Naismith DPOY candidate), but he’s still a lockdown defender who consistently challenges opposing teams’ biggest offensive wing threat. Over the course of the next week, we’ll have a much better sense of whether Baylor can run the table this season, as they face a pair of ranked teams in Texas Tech on the road this weekend and Kansas at home on Monday.
#3: Texas Longhorns (10-1)
Texas now has road wins at Kansas and West Virginia. We’re not even halfway through January, but I think we’ve found Baylor’s biggest challenger in the Big 12. Much like the Bears, Texas is a very well-rounded squad that excels on offense and defense. KenPom has them ranked 12th and 4th in terms of offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency, respectively. Also much like the Bears, Texas has a balanced scoring attack consisting of four players averaging double figures, with a fifth averaging 9.0 PPG. Head Coach Shaka Smart’s team relies and a three-headed monster of backcourt upperclassmen in junior guards Courtney Ramey (13.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Andrew Jones (13.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG), as well as senior guard Matt Coleman III (13.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.4 APG). Freshman big man Greg Brown has been a huge addition for the team, as the 6’9″ forward is averaging 12.0 PPG and 7.9 RPG in just 21.5 MPG. Sixth man and sophomore forward Kai Jones adds 9.0 PPG on 62.7% shooting off the bench, providing a nice injection of offense for the team. If Texas can get past Texas Tech at home this week, then they’ll be the clear-cut favorite to be the #2 team (and potentially #1 if they can knock off Baylor on February 2) in the Big 12.
#4: Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2)
As part of the “Big Three” (Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois) within the Big 10, the Hawkeyes continue chugging along in conference play. Iowa’s lone Big 10 loss came on the road in the Barn at Minnesota—a place where nobody can seem to come out alive. Ohio State and Michigan State, both good teams in their own rights, got torched in their visits to Minneapolis, with both losing by 17+ points. That’s a long way of saying there’s no shame in dropping a game in overtime at Minnesota. The Hawkeyes improved to 5-1 in conference play when they avenged their loss to the Gophers this past weekend, knocking off Minnesota by a final of 86-71. Offense is how Iowa overwhelms the vast majority of their opponents; the Hawkeyes have scored 80+ points in 11 of their 13 games thus far, including both of their losses. It’s the defense that holds Head Coach Fran McCaffery’s team back on some nights, as they allowed 99 points to Gonzaga in regulation and 102 points to Minnesota in overtime in their two losses. Iowa’s 91.9 PPG are 4th in the country, and their 21.3 APG as a team lead the nation. Luka Garza is close to averaging a point a minute, which is incredible at this juncture of the season. The 6’11” senior big man is averaging 27.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 1.8 BLK in 30.1 MPG. He’s shooting 48.9% from deep on 45 attempts, while shooting an outrageous (given the volume of shots taken) 66.5% on 167 two-point attempts. Go ahead and give him the Naismith NPOY trophy.
#5: Villanova Wildcats (8-1)
No change to the Villanova portion of these Power Rankings this week. The Wildcats have been on hiatus since December 23 due to COVID issues, and it was recently announced that their upcoming game against UConn on the road this Friday has been postponed due to COVID concerns, as well. The question at this point is how long Villanova can remain #3 in the AP and Coaches’ polls if they never play any games. Let’s hope they get back in action at home against Seton Hall on the 19th.
#6: Kansas Jayhawks (10-2)
Kansas edged out Oklahoma this past weekend at home by a score of 63-59, and while any win (not over Kansas State or Iowa State) in the Big 12 is a good one, the Jayhawks aren’t exactly inspiring too much confidence of late since their 25-point shellacking suffered at the hands of Texas. Marcus Garrett is still Marcus Garrett on defense (Naismith DPOY last season), but his offensive production is down from last year in terms of PPG, FG%, and APG. Fortunately for Kansas, Garrett’s teammates have picked up the slack, primarily in the form of junior wing Ochai Agbaji (14.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG), freshman forward Jalen Wilson (14.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG), junior big man David McCormack (11.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG), and sophomore wing Christian Braun (10.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG). Agbaji, in particular, has been a revelation, as his scoring output is up nearly 50% compared to last year. Where Kansas excels on defense is in not fouling shooters and in not allowing easy buckets off the pass. The Jayhawks rank 20th in the country in free throw attempts allowed as a proportion of field goal attempts allowed, and they’re 21st in the country in assists per made basket, as only 42% of opponents makes come off an assist. Like I said, Marcus Garrett is still Marcus Garrett.
#7: Michigan Wolverines (10-0)
Michigan gets their first real test of the year tonight against Wisconsin at home. They follow tonight’s game up with a trip to the Barn at Minnesota. Everyone knows the Gophers are just a different beast when playing on their home floor, so you can throw Michigan’s 25-point home victory over Minnesota last week out the window when trying to predict this upcoming weekend’s game. If Michigan gets past the Badgers and the Gophers for a second time, then we’ll know they’re legit. I still don’t think there’s any chance they’ll make it through the Big 10 gauntlet unscathed even if they do win these next two games; I’m not even sure Gonzaga or Baylor could do that. The Wolverines are a year ahead of schedule under Head Coach Juwan Howard this season. Most prognosticators believe Michigan will be a top team next year given their projected incoming class of freshman lined up, but 7’1″ freshman center Hunter Dickinson has Michigan flirting with that designation this year. Dickinson is averaging 18.0 PPG and 8.1 RPG on 73.0% shooting, and he has a very good chance of becoming the Big 10 Freshman of the Year if he stays healthy.
#8: Wisconsin Badgers (10-2)
Wisconsin is on the other side of the ledger in tonight’s Big 10 showdown against Michigan. The Badgers needed double overtime to knock off Indiana at home late last week, but the Hoosiers are a pesky squad, so there’s no shame in that result. Wisconsin is very good on defense once again, just as they’ve been each of the past few seasons, but where they’re deadly is in their three point shooting. The Badgers are shooting 41.4% from deep as a team, good for 4th in the country in that stat. While they don’t take an overwhelming number of threes—they’re toward the middle of the country in terms of 3PT FGA / total FGA—they do a great job of taking open threes. Leading the way behind the arc are three players shooting over 40%: senior guard D’Mitrik Trice (42.1% on 57 attempts), senior guard Brad Davison (42.9% on 49 attempts), and senior forward Micah Potter (43.3% on 30 attempts). Senior guard Trevor Anderson, who only averages 3.8 PPG in 14.9 MPG, is an absurd 8-9 from deep, good for 88.9%. He’s shooting higher from the field (72.7%) than he is from the free throw line (62.5%). Please shoot more threes, Trevor. Anyone shooting 90% from three is doing it wrong.
#9: Creighton Bluejays (10-2)
Creighton is starting to suffer from a weak, but not awful, Big East, as they’ve won 6 straight but dropped a spot in both the AP and Coaches polls this week. They even won both of their games in style this past week, knocking off Seton Hall and St. John’s at home by 36 and 18 points, respectively. Granted, they haven’t squared off against Villanova yet. Their first date against the Wildcats comes February 13.
The Bluejays are an offensive juggernaut, as they’re 28th in the country at 83.3 PPG as a team. They rank in the top-25 in 3PT% (38.8%) and 2PT% (58.3%), giving them an effective FG% of 58.3%, which is good for 10th in the nation. Not to sound like a broken record, but the key will be defensive for the Bluejays. If they step up on defense, they could very well be one of the final 8 teams standing come late March.
#10: Tennessee Volunteers (9-1)
The Vols continue to impress on defense. They’ve held opponents to 60 points or less in seven of their 10 games this year, and they’re ranked #2 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. They’re also #1 in the country in blocked shot rate on defense, and they give opposing offenses fits when driving the lane. Opponents are shooting only 43.5% from inside the arc against the Vols. At the risk of piling on, Tennessee is also a top-15 team in terms of forcing turnovers while on defense. Greater than 1/4 of opponents’ possessions end in a turnover. Streaky shooting and inconsistent offense is what could hold Tennessee back from achieving their full potential. In their loss at Alabama earlier this month, Tennessee shot just 31.8% from the floor, including 19.0% from deep on 21 attempts. And they still lost by only 8 points on the road. Even a decent shooting night almost guarantees the Vols a win on most nights.
#11: Houston Cougars (10-1)
Houston is starting their long, slow ascent back up the rankings, as they’ve now won three straight since falling to Tulsa on the road. The Cougars likely threw away their chance at a #1 seed with that loss, in my opinion. But, they can still play their way up to the #2 line in the dance by getting to 20 wins in this shortened season. Head Coach Kelvin Sampson’s team makes their money on defense, where they do a great job of contesting shots and forcing turnovers. They rank in the top-20 in 3PT FG% against, 2PT FG% against, blocked shot rate on defense, and steal rate on defense. However, their aggressive play means a ton of free throws for opposing offenses. The Cougars are in the bottom-30 in the country in terms of free throws allowed as a proportion of field goal attempts against. They haven’t been burned because of this stat too much, though, as opponents are only shooting 65.8% from the line against them. But, that’s a troubling trend for March, when the Cougars will most assuredly face stiffer competition and better shooting than what the AAC has been throwing at them for the past half-month.
#12: Texas Tech Red Raiders (10-3)
Texas Tech gets back into our Power Rankings this week, largely because of poor performances from Minnesota, Rutgers, and Missouri last week. The Red Raiders grab the #12 spot behind Houston—a team TTU lost to back in November—but they have a chance to make a serious move up the ladder this week, as they face Texas on the road tomorrow night and Baylor at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders are no longer the top defense in the country, according to KenPom, as they’ve slipped to #5 in adjusted defensive efficiency over the past few weeks. Giving up 71 points to Kansas State at home in an 11-point victory will do that. Those 71 points are the third most in a game that abysmal Kansas State team has managed thus far this year. Texas Tech needs to do more than their 33.1% 3PT FG%. Junior guard Kyler Edwards leads the team in attempts from deep (65 attempts, 36.9% 3PT FG%), but he could use more help from fellow junior guard Mac McClung, who is shooting just 31.1% from three on 61 attempts. Right now would be a pretty good time for Texas Tech to get it going from outside, given their daunting schedule this week. But, that challenge is an incredible opportunity. No team could see its stock rise in a week more than Texas Tech’s could if they knock off the Longhorns and Bears.
#13: Clemson Tigers (9-1)
Clemson moves up two spots in our Power Rankings this week. They knocked off N.C. State in overtime last week, but they’re now on pause as a program due to COVID concerns. While reports indicate most members of the team have tested negative, the COVID issues were still enough to postpone the Tigers matchup at UNC this past weekend. Last year was the first time Clemson had ever beaten UNC in the Dean Smith Center, as they were previously 0-59 when playing at the famous UNC venue. Let’s hope they get through COVID protocols quickly and get this year’s game rescheduled so they can try to start a streak of their own and get win #2 in the Dean Dome.
#14: Louisville Cardinals (8-1)
Louisville trails their fellow conference-mate by one spot in this week’s edition of our Power Rankings. As an ACC fan, it’s just nice to be able to put a couple of teams back into these rankings and not get laughed at. Louisville is a one-loss team, and that loss (while, admittedly, a bludgeoning at the hands of Wisconsin on the road) came when the team was returning from a COVID hiatus and senior point guard Carlik Jones was out (likely due to COVID protocols). The Cards have yet to play a game at full strength this year, as they’re still missing senior grad-transfer Charles Minlend on the wing with a knee injury and senior forward Malik Williams with a foot injury. Minlend is participating in non-contact drills in practice and is expected back by the end of the month. Williams, on the other hand, could return by mid-February. Once he does, he’ll help reestablish a strong inside presence for the Cards. And, when he does so, watch out ACC and everyone else.
#15: Illinois Illini (9-4)
Illinois drops back two spots in our Power Rankings, as they fell at home to Maryland this past weekend by a final score of 66-63. The Illini have been a tough team to figure out. They’re certainly not living up to their potential, as their best win is against Duke on the road, and that win may not be that strong by the end of the year unless the Blue Devils get on a roll. Meanwhile, their loss to Maryland is hard to explain, especially at home. The Terps have been road warriors this season with conference wins over Wisconsin and now the Illini away from home, but this isn’t as strong of a Maryland team as we’re accustomed to under Head Coach Mark Turgeon. The problem in the Maryland game was that Illinois’ offense vanished in the second half, as they managed just 11 points in the last 10 minutes of the game. The Illini get the benefit of the doubt with four losses since they’re in the Big 10, but any more defeats at the hands of Big 10 bottom feeders will jeopardize their chances at a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
#16: West Virginia Mountaineers (9-4)
West Virginia backs their way into our Power Rankings this week. They went 0-1 since last week’s rankings were published, as they lost by 2 points at home to Texas. This isn’t the “Press Virginia” we came to know and love under Huggy Bear during the mid-2010s. This team is actually more reliant on its offense than its defense, and it plays at a slower pace than WVU teams of years past. To date, WVU has really only suffered one bad loss—a 4 point defeat at Oklahoma to kick off 2021. The Mountaineers have beaten almost all of the teams they should, but they’ve also lost to top teams like Gonzaga, Kansas, and Texas. #16 feels right for WVU, especially given the carnage to the back half of our Power Rankings over the past week. They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Minnesota, Rutgers, and Mizzou also losing.