College basketball Power Rankings, Jan. 5: Villanova still No. 1 despite loss

Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson’s development keeps Villanova atop our rankings … for now. (Getty Images)

Welcome to the first, and certainly not the last, edition of The Dagger’s weekly college basketball power rankings. With conference play now in full swing, we’ll be assessing the top of the sport’s food chain every Thursday until the NCAA tournament. I’ll ramble for a bit, then order the nation’s top teams 1 through 20, with explanations for each.

Our first opening ramble will serve to set the parameters for these rankings, and attempt to explain the thinking behind them. Power rankings aren’t based on merit — that’s the first thing to understand. Well, they are, but not win/loss merit. And not even win/loss adjusted for strength of competition merit.

They’re based on today and tomorrow. If you tell me today that I have to pick a team to go out on a basketball floor somewhere across America and win a game, which team would I choose? Based on all the evidence available, which team — players, coaches, schemes, everything — would I feel most confident in?

The point of the exercise isn’t just to champion a few squads and throw dirt on others. It’s to express an opinion by answering the questions above, and provide evidence and an argument — or just a fun tidbit — to support that opinion. But is there any one quantifiable metric that can explain power rankings? No. And are they subjective?

They’re subjective as hell, and that’s why they’re fun.

So we’ll do ‘em every Thursday. Twenty teams, in order. Five more to keep an eye (or two) on. And some charitable love for a few mid-majors. You can and should tweet at me (@HenryBushnell) to tell me that I’m wrong. Just make sure to tell me why.

1. Villanova | 14-1 | KenPom: 3 | AP: 1

But they just lost last night! Yes, they did. And yes, they’re still the best team in the country. Winning at Hinkle isn’t easy. Winning 20 games in a row isn’t either. And the latter is a much more pertinent indicator than the former. In fact, even in defeat, the freshman-to-sophomore leap of Jalen Brunson has been the most recent of many encouraging signs. Brunson looked masterful as the pick-and-roll ball handler against both Creighton and Butler. He, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins just need a bit more scoring from their supporting cast.

2. Kentucky | 12-2 | KenPom: 1 | AP: 6

You know that man or woman to whom you’re really attracted, but who possesses one personality trait that you just can’t get over? That’s Kentucky, and the fatal flaw is — or could be — De’Aaron Fox’s jumpshot. Teams are going to game-plan around conceding it, and Fox has to start hitting from 21-plus feet at a clip greater than 13.8 percent, and from midrange at a clip greater than 28.3 percent (per Hoop-Math). That’s not to say Kentucky isn’t capable of winning a national championship if Fox doesn’t improve. But that one additional asset would make the Wildcats elite.

3. Duke | 13-2 | KenPom: 4 | AP: 8

Real Duke analysis to come next week. For now, let’s talk about Grayson Allen, who returned to the Blue Devils’ starting lineup Wednesday after serving a one-game suspension. Or rather, let’s talk about why we shouldn’t be talking so much about Allen. Never has a player sparked so much irrational outrage. Of course he was wrong. He kicked somebody. He should have been suspended. He was. And you can dislike him. You can question the length of the suspension. That’s fine! But to vilify an athlete to the extent that Allen has been vilified, while other college athletes who have punched or allegedly raped women return to the field or court with far less of an uproar, is absolutely absurd.

4. Baylor | 14-0 | KenPom: 6 | AP: 2

Baylor is one win away from the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking, and rightfully so. It’s one of only two unbeatens left in men’s college basketball, and has been a wonderful surprise through two months. The leading reason? Jo Lual-Acuil, a 7-foot South Sudanese center who transferred to Baylor from community college, sat out last year due to a heart issue, and now is a rim-protecting menace at the back of the Bears’ defense. Offense was never the issue for Scott Drew’s team. Defense held it back last year, but Lual-Acuil’s presence — he blocks 15 percent of opponents’ two-point shots when he’s on the floor — has led to stark improvement on that end of the floor, all the way into the top 10 in adjusted efficiency. That’s why Baylor could soon top the AP poll.

5. UCLA | 14-1 | KenPom: 12 | AP: 4

It’s really, really difficult to separate UCLA’s entertainment value from its effectiveness when putting together rankings like these. Watching the Bruins for 10 minutes is an exhilarating experience. But then you look at their résumé, and other than the Kentucky win …

That ellipsis was meant to give you the time to go check out UCLA’s schedule, and to realize that — *whispers* — there’s really not much else to underline. Michigan and Ohio State are both very mediocre. Texas A&M is a step below that. The results really aren’t that impressive. Lonzo Ball’s dunks are. So are TJ Leaf’s skill set and the offensive transformations of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. But after a loss to Oregon and ‘meh’ performances against Western Michigan and Oregon State, it’s time the Bruins showed us a bit more.

6. Kansas | 13-1 | KenPom: 7 | AP: 3

The Jayhawks haven’t lost since opening night. They have a senior point guard who should be on the fringes of the Player of the Year conversation, and a potential top five pick in the 2017 NBA draft who’s a fiend of an athlete. So why aren’t they higher in these rankings? Defense. It’s been slightly troubling over the past seven days, and it’s no coincidence that the struggles kicked in soon after the Jayhawks’ best shot blocker, freshman center Udoka Azubuike, was lost for the season with a wrist injury. Kansas State shot 60 percent from inside the arc in Tuesday’s near-upset. Bill Self has some work to do.

7. Louisville | 12-3 | KenPom: 11 | AP: 9

Louisville is in last place in the ACC, and therefore is recklessly overrated here. Or it definitively proved it’s a national title contender with wins over Kentucky, Indiana and Purdue. Or, maybe, drawing conclusions from select portions of data is foolish, and when we consider the entire picture, the Cardinals are almost assuredly a very good team, but one that can sometimes succumb to other very good teams (and will almost always succumb to Tony Bennett and Virginia).

8. North Carolina | 13-3 | KenPom: 8 | AP: 14

The Tar Heels haven’t been good lately. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. They lost to what should have been an overmatched Georgia Tech team, and were fortunate to not fall at Clemson too. But are they good? Remember, that’s the question we’re trying to answer here. And with Joel Berry back at his best for most of his 41 minutes in the overtime triumph over the Tigers, Carolina should re-find the form that prompted some favorable comparison’s to last year’s Final Four team back in late November.

9. West Virginia | 12-2 | KenPom: 2 | AP: 7

West Virginia has been magnificent. Save for two games, the Mountaineers have perhaps been the best team in the country. The challenge now for Bob Huggins: Repeat the success in January, February and March. Since Press Virginia became a fixture in Morgantown in 2014, the Mountaineers are 34-4 in non-conference play, but just 27-15 in the Big 12 (including the conference tournament). Part of that is due to the level of competition; but could a portion of it be due to familiarity as well? Coaches and teams who prepare for Huggins’ defense at least twice a year are undoubtedly better equipped to deal with the pressure than those who are confronting the chaos for the first time. We’ll see if Huggins and his squad can stay a step ahead.

10. Gonzaga | 14-0 | KenPom: 9 | AP: 5

Mark Few might have his best team ever in Spokane. He might even have one that’s capable of going undefeated. KenPom gives the Zags an 11 percent shot at 30-0. But most questions regarding Gonzaga’s postseason capabilities are going to be maddeningly difficult to answer as the Bulldogs tear through the West Coast Conference over the next two months. They have three nice neutral site non-conference wins, but not one that stands out and screams ‘Final Four contender.’

11. Virginia | 11-3 | KenPom: 5 | AP: 11

The Cavaliers present a fascinating contrast between the numbers and the eye test. They’ve been in KenPom’s top five nearly all season, and their statistical profile looks right in line with two of Tony Bennett’s last three great Virginia teams. But a conversation with a Cavs fan that doesn’t involve grumblings about the lackluster offense is hard to come by. Wednesday’s overtime loss at Pitt was a fluke, but there are legitimate concerns. Here’s one: Virginia gets just 12.8 percent of its points at the free throw line, the lowest percentage in Division I.

12. Creighton | 14-1 | KenPom: 22 | AP: 10

Justin Patton is my second-favorite big man in college basketball, and it’s only a matter of time before the bouncy 7-foot freshman starts climbing NBA draft boards. He’s given Creighton some inside-outside balance to complement Maurice Watson and Marcus Foster on the perimeter. But the Bluejays’ defensive flaws will hold them back.

13. Wisconsin | 13-2 | KenPom: 10 | AP: 13

My favorite big man, you ask? How convenient; it’s Ethan Happ. I’ll confess: I’m obsessed. Name a thing that a player can do on a basketball court, and chances are Happ does it really well. (Just don’t say shooting from 15 feet and beyond.) He’s a point forward in a center’s body whose footwork around the rim is as dexterous as there is in college hoops. The Badgers appear to be the Big Ten favorite, but that’s more a testament to the shortcomings of others than anything else.

14. Oregon | 14-2 | KenPom: 20 | AP: 15

Out of their early-season, partially injury-induced funk, the Ducks are flying. (Related, but not really: Did you know that there are actually three species of ducks in South America that can’t fly?) Anyway, Oregon hasn’t lost since Nov. 21, and, as Jeff Eisenberg wrote, reasserted itself as a Pac-12 contender with wins over previously unbeaten UCLA and USC last week.

15. Butler | 13-2 | KenPom: 16 | AP: 18

Find me a better foursome of quality wins than Villanova, Arizona, Indiana and Cincinnati. I’ll wait …

Butler isn’t a national power, but nothing about any of those four wins is flukey or, frankly, all that surprising. The Bulldogs are for real.

16. Florida State | 14-1 | KenPom: 21 | AP: 12

Dwayne Bacon is a boss. Florida State is one confounding neutral court loss to Temple away from being talked about in the same breath as Baylor.

17. Arizona | 13-2 | KenPom: 14 | AP: 17

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the job that Sean Miller has done this year at Arizona. He lost one former five-star recruit to a preseason ACL tear, another to Australia, and has been without yet another all season due to eligibility concerns. His starting point guard also missed six games in December. But, as always, Miller has Arizona in position to win 25 games and at least compete for a Pac-12 title. Ho, hum.

18. Purdue | 12-3 | KenPom: 15 | AP: 20

Note to all Power Rankings hopefuls: Don’t lose to Minnesota at home. And yes, I know, the Gophers are actually competent this year. But don’t do it. The space-consuming, multi-talented force that is Caleb Swanigan is the only thing keeping the Boilermakers in our top 20 for now.

19. Notre Dame | 13-2 | KenPom: 27 | AP: 23

I wrote an article-turned-love letter to the Fighting Irish last night. It features the most improved player in college basketball, a stud point guard who last year had more DNPs (seven) than points (three) in ACC play.

20. Florida | 11-3 | KenPom: 13 | AP: 24

The Gators are going to be an interesting case over the next two months. Right now, most of their perceived strength is based on the revered ‘good loss’ — 77-72 to Gonzaga, 84-74 to Duke, 83-78 to Florida State. And in a weak SEC, 13 or 14 wins are on the table. We’ll probably (and probably unfairly) judge Florida based on its home and home with Kentucky, but we won’t really know what we have in front of us until the Gators sink or soar in March.

Keep an eye (or two) on: Clemson, St. Mary’s, Texas Tech, Indiana, Xavier

Best of the mids (Atlantic-10 excluded): Wichita State, UNC-Wilmington, Chattanooga, UT-Arlington, Middle Tennessee State