Another week, another No. 1 conundrum. The top of the rankings has been an undesirable destination for teams this season, with four No. 1 teams losing in the first six weeks of the season. The latest was Louisville, which sat atop the Power Rankings for two weeks before falling to Texas Tech in the Jimmy V Classic last Tuesday.
Ohio State was the obvious choice to take its turn on the No. 1 merry-go-round, but the Buckeyes lost by 13 at Minnesota on Sunday night.
So that leaves two candidates to move up to the top of the rankings: Kansas and Gonzaga.
The Jayhawks were right behind Michigan State entering the season, but Bill Self’s team lost by two to Duke on opening night and have had to slowly climb its way back up the pecking order. They won the Maui Invitational before Thanksgiving, and own wins over Dayton, BYU, Colorado and a couple solid mid-majors in East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro.
Gonzaga beat up on bad teams for the first three weeks of the season, but then went to the Battle 4 Atlantis and beat Oregon in overtime before getting blown out by Michigan. The Zags have really boosted their resume over the last two weeks, getting a pair of true road wins at Washington and Arizona.
Here’s how I settle the debate. Gonzaga has the better wins and certainly has the better wins away from home, but the Bulldogs also lost to a worse team and were blown out in that game. And if the two teams played tomorrow on a neutral court, I think I’d lean toward Kansas. Those two things give the Jayhawks the very slight edge in this week’s Power Rankings.
There’s another key week for both teams coming up. Kansas is visiting Villanova and Gonzaga is hosting North Carolina. If the Jayhawks can’t win on the road, then we’re headed for the sixth No. 1 of the season and that decision will be much easier.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (9-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Villanova (Saturday)
With games against Milwaukee and UMKC out of the way, Kansas now faces 21 consecutive power-conference opponents the rest of the way. The Jayhawks head to Villanova and Stanford the next two weekends before Big 12 play, and the only break from conference play is a home game against Tennessee in late January. In fact, every opponent Kansas faces the rest of the season is ranked inside the top 90 in both the BPI and KenPom. And here’s another wrinkle. The Jayhawks haven’t played a true road game yet this season; that’s about to change. Five of Kansas’ next seven games are on the road.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (11-1)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. North Carolina (Wednesday), vs. Eastern Washington (Saturday)
In the past two and a half weeks, Gonzaga has wins away from home over Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Aside from earning honorary Pac-12 champion consideration, those victories also give the Bulldogs arguably the best away-from-home résumé in the country. And star big man Killian Tillie might not even be 100% yet. So yes, Mark Few once again has the Zags back in the national discussion — and in the mix for yet another top seed in the NCAA tournament. There’s no rest for Gonzaga, though. Up next is a visit from North Carolina. The key in that game will come on the glass; UNC is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and Gonzaga protects the defensive glass at an elite level.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (9-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Southeast Missouri State (Tuesday), vs. Kentucky in Las Vegas (Saturday)
Ohio State was set to be the no-brainer No. 1 team in the country with a road win at Minnesota on Sunday night … but Marcus Carr and the Golden Gophers had other ideas. Carr had 35 points as Richard Pitino’s team handed the Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Ohio State was without second-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter Duane Washington Jr., who is out with a rib injury. But either way, it’s a bad loss — as Minnesota entered Sunday with a 4-5 record and coming off a 20-point loss to Iowa. The Buckeyes could regain some momentum this week, as they will face Southeast Missouri State and then head to Las Vegas to face Kentucky. Will Washington be healthy for the game against the Wildcats?
4. Louisville Cardinals (10-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Miami (Ohio) (Wednesday)
Even during Louisville’s 9-0 start, there were concerns about the Cardinals’ guard play, especially at the point of attack. It really came to the forefront against Texas Tech, with Darius Perry and Lamarr Kimble combining for six points and seven turnovers. Tech pressured the ball in the half court and made the Cardinals uncomfortable trying to run their offense. There is some hope that a healthy David Johnson could help the situation. The 6-foot-5 freshman missed the first four games of the season after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery but played a season-high 17 minutes against Eastern Kentucky and could see an increased role moving forward.
5. Duke Blue Devils (9-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Wofford (Thursday)
After playing 10 games in the first 31 days of the season, the Blue Devils play only two games between Dec. 7 and Dec. 31. The last time we saw Mike Krzyzewski’s team in action, he was expanding the rotation and finding some bench help after a stretch of contests in which he had to rely almost exclusively on his starters. Joey Baker had 16 points against Winthrop and 11 against Michigan State, while Jordan Goldwire had 10 points against Virginia Tech and eight steals in his past three games. Jack White also slotted into the starting lineup the past two games, with Krzyzewski opting to go with a bigger frontcourt.
6. Baylor Bears (8-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. UT Martin (Wednesday)
Baylor has had two of its three worst offensive performances of the season in the past 10 days against Arizona and Butler, scoring fewer than 0.90 points per possession, but the Bears gutted out two impressive home wins. But what’s been going on for Baylor at that end of the floor? Perimeter shooting is one of the issues. The Bears went a combined 12-for-51 from behind the arc in those two games after shooting 39.6% in the first seven games of the season. Jared Butler needs to find his rhythm again, too. Butler averaged 10.5 points and 1.0 assist on 6-for-24 shooting in the two games; he’s averaging 17.4 points and 3.0 assists on the season.
7. Maryland Terrapins (10-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Seton Hall (Thursday)
The Terrapins’ tendency to get down early in games finally caught up to them against Penn State last week, as the Nittany Lions handed Maryland its first loss. Mark Turgeon’s team has only two more games until full-time Big Ten play: at Seton Hall and home vs. Bryant. Seton Hall scoring star Myles Powell is unlikely to play against the Terps on Thursday after suffering a concussion against Rutgers over the weekend. If Powell does recover in time, it will be yet another opposing star guard Maryland will look to limit. The Terps have done a pretty good job so far this season, most notably against Marquette’s Markus Howard, who had six points on 12 shots last month.
8. Kentucky Wildcats (8-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Utah in Las Vegas (Wednesday), vs. Ohio State in Las Vegas (Saturday)
Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech was Kentucky’s second-best win of the season, but the Wildcats’ schedule is about to get considerably tougher over the next couple of weeks. After a neutral-site game against Utah, Kentucky faces Ohio State in Las Vegas and then returns home to play Louisville. With Nate Sestina out injured and EJ Montgomery struggling with consistency, freshman Keion Brooks has been a bright spot. He’s averaged 12.5 points in Kentucky’s past two games, while also contributing on the glass and defensively. He’s versatile and can fill a variety of frontcourt roles. Brooks might be passing Kahlil Whitney in the rotation.
9. Auburn Tigers (9-0)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. NC State (Thursday), vs. Lehigh (Saturday)
The Tigers are one of just five undefeated teams in the country, but they have struggled in back-to-back wins against Furman and Saint Louis. Against the Paladins, they shot 4-for-25 from behind the arc and turned it over 19 times. And against the Billikens, they got down early and only made 12 2-point shots all game. Some of it can be traced back to Samir Doughty, who was playing out of his mind in November and has now totaled 21 points on 6-for-18 shooting with six turnovers the past two games. Danjel Purifoy, who can create mismatches with his size and shooting ability, has totaled eight points on 11 shots the past two games.
10. Oregon Ducks (8-2)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Montana (Wednesday), vs. Texas Southern (Saturday)
Oregon’s collection of wins got much better on Saturday, when the Ducks beat Michigan on the road and Memphis took down Tennessee in Knoxville. Dana Altman’s club now owns victories against the Wolverines, Tigers, Seton Hall and Houston. Payton Pritchard’s performance against Michigan was one of the better late-game efforts we’ve seen this season; he consistently took Zavier Simpson off the dribble and finished at the rim. Pritchard was unstoppable. And now Oregon gets the services of freshman N’Faly Dante, who was ineligible for the first six weeks. Dante will add elite rebounding and shot-blocking ability.
11. Virginia Cavaliers (8-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Stony Brook (Wednesday), vs. South Carolina (Sunday)
The Cavaliers don’t leave Charlottesville until Jan. 7, when they head to Boston College. Until then, we’ll see whether the offense that hasn’t cracked 65 points yet this season has become more efficient at that end of the floor. And before you say that Virginia’s offense is always ugly, the Cavaliers were No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency last season and scored 70 or more points 20 times. The biggest difference between last season and this season (No. 134 in adjusted offensive efficiency), outside of not having a trio of since-departed pros to bail them out? It’s been 3-point shooting. Virginia is shooting 24.9% from behind the arc compared to 39.5% a year ago.
12. Memphis Tigers (9-1)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Jackson State (Saturday)
If someone wrote a script on how Memphis would lose to Tennessee, Saturday’s game was essentially it. The Tigers were down two starters in James Wiseman and Lester Quinones; it was an ugly game that totaled 98 points; and some of the Tigers’ freshmen really struggled to score early. Yet Memphis went into Thompson-Boling Arena and ended the Volunteers’ 31-game home winning streak (the longest active streak of any Division I team). Sophomore guards Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax came off the bench to spark the first-half comeback. That’s a big win for Memphis’ résumé, but it’s also a huge step forward for this young Tigers team.
13. Dayton Flyers (8-1)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. North Texas (Tuesday), vs. Colorado in Chicago (Saturday)
Obi Toppin rightfully gets most of the attention for Dayton’s hot start, but Anthony Grant is starting to get terrific bench production from former Michigan transfer Ibi Watson. Watson couldn’t carve out a consistent role during his two seasons in Ann Arbor, and he started slowly on the offensive end at Dayton, but over the past four games, Watson has really stepped up. During that stretch, Watson is averaging 14.8 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 13-for-23 (56.5%) from 3-point range. He had 20 points and four 3-pointers off the bench against Drake on Saturday.
14. Michigan Wolverines (8-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Presbyterian (Saturday)
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Michigan since it returned from the Battle 4 Atlantis with a top-five ranking. The Wolverines have lost three of their past four, with the lone win coming over Iowa — in a game in which Michigan allowed 91 points. The culprit in the losses to Louisville and Illinois was clear: 3-point shooting. The Wolverines shot a combined 6-for-37 from the perimeter in those two games, after shooting 42.3% in their eight wins. Against Oregon on Saturday, it looked like more of the same in the first half, but Michigan got hot after halftime only to fall victim to Payton Pritchard’s dominant performance down the stretch.
15. San Diego State Aztecs (10-0)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. San Diego Christian (Wednesday), vs. Utah in Los Angeles (Saturday)
The Aztecs were off last week but move into the rankings after losses by Butler and Xavier. If you’re looking for the team to go unbeaten the longest this season, San Diego State might be your best bet. The Aztecs are likely to be favored in each of their next four games before a trip to Utah State on Jan. 4. If they win that one on the road, there might not be another obvious spot for a defeat. With that said, San Diego State has already had a closer-than-expected game in league play, beating San Jose State — a team with two Division I wins — by just two points.
16. Arizona Wildcats (10-2)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. St. John’s in San Francisco (Saturday)
A furious comeback came up just short against Gonzaga on Saturday night, meaning the Wildcats missed another chance at a marquee nonconference win. They are going to head into Pac-12 play with their best win coming over Illinois at home, followed by a neutral-court victory over Wake Forest. Not exactly headliners for the résumé. Star freshman Nico Mannion has really struggled shooting the ball against both Baylor and Gonzaga, going a combined 6-for-34 in the two games. That said, Arizona having a chance in the final minute against Baylor, and leading Gonzaga for half the game without getting much scoring from Mannion could bode well down the road.
Dropped out: Butler (15), Xavier (16)
In the waiting room
Butler: A one-point loss at Baylor dropped the Bulldogs out of the rankings, but they don’t go too far. Kamar Baldwin had been playing at an All-American level but went just 9-for-24 from the field against the Bears and then scored two points on eight shots against Southern.
Penn State: Pat Chambers’ team is a blown lead against Ole Miss away from being a consensus top-20 team in the country. The Nittany Lions’ lone loss besides the November defeat to the Rebels came against Ohio State. They own wins over Maryland, Georgetown, Syracuse, Alabama, Yale and Wake Forest.
Villanova: The Wildcats don’t have a marquee win to their name yet, with their best win thus far coming over Mississippi State. But their only losses are away from home to Ohio State and Baylor, and they will have a huge chance at a statement victory this weekend when Kansas comes to town.
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