College basketball Power Rankings, Feb. 24: North Carolina surges, but are the Tar Heels No. 1?

It only seems right that on the eve of the final February edition of The Dagger’s weekly power rankings, college basketball descended into chaos.

And it only seems right that in a season more or less dominated by a dozen teams at the top of the sport, that chaos made the following question as difficult to answer as ever:

Who is the best team in college basketball?

It’s not a question that requires an answer right now. But the tougher that answer is to come by, the more compelling the discussion. And the reason the answer seems so elusive is that the four teams in contention for that temporary crown have been on four very distinct trajectories.

There is untarnished Gonzaga, who has rolled through the West Coast Conference with an average margin of victory of 28 points. The Bulldogs trounced poor San Diego 96-38 Thursday night, staking their claim to the top spot.

There is Villanova, suddenly sputtering after a first on-campus home loss in over four years. The depleted Wildcats, at least momentarily, are down to a six-man rotation, one that was worn down by Butler’s physicality and resoluteness. But their body of work, which includes a party in Houston less than 11 months ago, speaks for itself.

There is Kansas, decimated by injury and previously by suspension, but relentlessly churning out win after win. The Jayhawks, on the opposite end of the spectrum to Gonzaga, won their four Big 12 games prior to Wednesday’s regular season title clincher by a combined 10 points. However, a 13-2 record in college basketball’s toughest conference allays the need for style points, and supersedes any talk of margin of victory.

And then there is North Carolina, who has inserted itself into the conversation with back-to-back double-digit wins over ranked teams. The Tar Heels looked like nothing other than the best team in college hoops in Saturday’s demolition of Virginia, and provided further support for that hypothesis Wednesday against Louisville.

These are your four. They are the four clear favorites for No. 1 seeds. They are the nation’s four best teams. So enough of the small talk. Who the heck is No. 1?

It’s a matter of criteria, or, in our case, of preference. I happen to prefer Kansas. But refute that with North Carolina, Villanova or Gonzaga, and I won’t argue vehemently. Heck, come at me with Duke, and I’ll listen — John Gillon’s buzzer-beater ruptured the ear drums of 30,000-plus at the Carrier Dome Wednesday night, but not mine.

Thanks to Gillon, and to Dillon Brooks, and to many others, these rankings had to wait a day. Now they feel refreshed, rejuvenated after a quiet Thursday night, and raring to go. Without further ado, the top 20 teams in college basketball, as they stand right now.

1. Kansas | 25-3 | KenPom: 8 | Last week: 2

The streak — 13 straight Big 12 titles, in case you were unaware — is staggering in so many ways. Jeff Eisenberg and the Yahoo Sports team put together some magnificent stats and graphics to convey the magnificence (and significance) of the accomplishment. Here are a couple of my favorites:

2. North Carolina | 24-5 | KenPom: 5 | Last week: 6

North Carolina’s surge, which most recently left Virginia and Louisville in the dust, has been propelled by defense and offensive rebounding. And while the strength of the former is a new development, the latter has been a staple of the program the last four years. It has therefore garnered plenty of discussion. But the “why” and “how” of the dominance on the offensive boards is rarely explored.

Are Justin Jackson (center) and the Tar Heels the best team in college basketball at the moment? (Getty)
Are Justin Jackson (center) and the Tar Heels the best team in college basketball at the moment? (Getty)

Roy Williams prefers to play two big men at a time, which obviously helps, as does the fact that those traditional power forwards and centers are strong and athletic. But it’s the way the bigs operate within the offense, and the way they hunt down offensive boards before the ball even leaves a shooter’s hand, that makes them so effective on the glass.

Whereas most teams will try to space the floor after a post entry, the Tar Heels’ weak side bigs will often already begin fighting for rebounding position. Watch how Isaiah Hicks does that on an early possession against Louisville on Wednesday, and then how all three of Carolina’s forwards crash to the rim:

(All videos via WatchESPN)

Because the offense isn’t brimming with ball screens, and because North Carolina’s four big men — Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye — aren’t tasked with handling the ball much on the perimeter, they can devote much of their offensive energy to seeking out and carving out rebounding territory. Watch how Meeks in particular does that over and over again:

The Tar Heels also simply send a lot of guys to the glass. On more than half of Carolina’s offensive rebounds against Louisville, the Tar Heels had at least two, and sometimes three players in the paint when a shot hit the rim. Oftentimes those players were in favorable positions. It’s not just about being 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds like Meeks. Carolina’s bigs have mastered the tactical side of offensive rebounding too.

3. Villanova | 26-3 | KenPom: 2 | Last week: 1

It’s become cliché to say a team “lives and dies by the 3,” but it’s only trite because of the negative connotations the statement often has. It’s usually seen as a pitfall, a sign of a streaky or erratic team, because it’s often used after a team does indeed die rather than live. It’s been used this year to analyze Villanova, who has now shot 6-for-26, 6-for-34 and 6-for-24 from beyond the arc in its three losses, the latest to Butler Wednesday night. But the remark severely lacks nuance. Or perhaps it just lacks recognition of the possibility of living.

It is true that Villanova shoots a lot of 3s. The Wildcats take 44.2 percent of their field goal attempts from deep, the 22nd highest rate in Division I, and third highest among power conference teams. But here are some other truths: Last year’s ‘Nova team took a similarly high percentage (42.7) of its shots from long range, and garnered the same “live by the 3, die by the 3” label after a regular season loss to Oklahoma. Last year’s ‘Nova team also won the national championship, and shot above 46 percent from behind the 3-point line in five of its six NCAA tournament games. And finally, one more: Last year’s title-winning team shot 36.2 percent from 3 on the season; this year’s team shoots 37.3 percent.

That’s not to say the current Wildcats don’t have problems that last year’s team didn’t have; they do, with depth chief among the problems. But, as we always warn, don’t overreact to one loss.

4. Gonzaga | 29-0 | KenPom: 1 | Last week: 3

Gonzaga moves down in the rankings this week for one reason and one reason only: Because North Carolina moved up. The Bulldogs are a very good team. They are not the nation’s best.

5. Duke | 22-6 | KenPom: 14 | Last week: 5

It was only a few weeks ago that Jayson Tatum was pinpointed as the epitome of Duke’s problems, a wonderfully talented individual who didn’t mesh with the Blue Devils’ other talented individuals. Now he’s become the epitome of Duke’s potential. His decision-making has vastly improved. Tatum is great in isolations, but he seems more aware that while those isos are a good option, they aren’t always the best offensive option. Of Tatum’s 19 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against Syracuse, albeit in a loss, two of the assists stand out:

Would Tatum have made either of those passes a month ago? The answer is probably “no.”

6. UCLA | 25-3 | KenPom: 17 | Last week: 11

Bill Walton is a national treasure, and was handed a back-to-back by ESPN this week — Oregon at Cal on Wednesday night, UCLA at Arizona State on Thursday. So let’s play a game. Below are 10 things that Walton may or may not have done or said on one of the two broadcasts. You have to decide which ones are true, which ones are false. Answers at the bottom of the rankings.

  1. Said to broadcast partner Dave Pasch as the game tipped off, “Your name’s Dave, right?”

  2. Tried to interview the Cal mascot on air.

  3. Said, “I love getting high.”

  4. Discussed Wayne Rooney transfer rumors.

  5. Said, “The synergies. The harmonic convergence, it’s all right there. We had the harvest moon this morning. The California dawn. The golden rays of light streaming through. And now we’re here in the Valley of the Sun, oh my gosh.”

  6. Turned a question about the one-and-done rule into a tangent on how the United States doesn’t take good enough care of its veterans.

  7. Said these eight words, consecutively, going into a commercial break: “Jabari Bird. Soar like an eagle. Space cowboys.”

  8. Painted his face.

  9. Said to Pasch again, “It is Dave, right?”

  10. Said, “I was with the Mars rover today. I stood next to the grand canyon of Mars. This is the Grand Canyon state, you know that, right? So they got this big wall-size display, the size of our Grand Canyon, and it’s like a little postage stamp compared to the grand canyon on Mars. I gotta get there.”

Hint: No. 10 is true, and Pasch responded by offering to get Walton a one-way ticket.

7. Louisville | 22-6 | KenPom: 6 | Last week: 4

There were really only two sets of numbers from Louisville’s loss to North Carolina that Cardinals fans needed to know: 5 for 20 from the 3-point line, 4 for 13 from the foul line. Louisville is neither a great 3-point shooting team nor a great free throw shooting team, but if it merely hits its season averages — and never mind the fact that the Tar Heels attempted more than twice as many free throws — it scores 11 more points at the Dean Dome on Wednesday. And what was Carolina’s margin of victory, you might ask? Eleven points.

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8. Oregon | 25-4 | KenPom: 15 | Last week: 8

Just when it looked like Oregon’s Pac-12 title hopes were fading, the Ducks fought back from a double-digit deficit, and Dillon Brooks’ buzzer-beater kept them within a game of Arizona. They now become avid UCLA fans; if the Bruins can knock off the Wildcats in Tucson Saturday night, only road games at Stanford and Oregon State stand between Oregon and a Pac-12 regular season championship.

9. West Virginia | 22-6 | KenPom: 3 | Last week: 7

With starting forward Esa Ahmad nursing an injury, and with his Mountaineers off to a slow start Monday against Texas, Bob Huggins turned to his bench and sent Lamont West to the scorer’s table. West, a redshirt freshman who had played just seven minutes two days earlier in a double-overtime win over Texas Tech, has had his moments in his first year on the court in Morgantown; he has not been a significant contributor.

But when West entered the game Monday, he opened up all kinds of intriguing possibilities for Huggins heading into March. Huggins played West, a 6-foot-8 live wire, at both the three and the four. At the three, Huggins drew up set plays for West in the post against smaller wings; at the four, he used West on the perimeter to expose Texas’s two-big lineups:

West hit six of his eight 3-point attempts and scored a career-high 23 points. He also gives West Virginia a new type of lineup flexibility that Huggins might just tuck in his back pocket and pull out a few weeks down the road.

10. Arizona | 26-3 | KenPom: 21 | Last week: 14

It’s apparently Lauri Markkanen week ahead of UCLA-Arizona on Saturday. First, Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated dropped an eloquent and engaging profile of the Finnish star on Wednesday. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports then had an in-depth, thoroughly reported piece on Markkanen, his upbringing and his recruitment that came out Thursday. The same day, Sam Vecenie took a detailed look at Markkanen’s game and his NBA prospects over at Vice Sports. All three are recommended reading.

11. Baylor | 23-5 | KenPom: 10 | Last week: 9

Baylor has lost four of seven, but just as we didn’t overreact and place the Bears in the top five when they were winning a lot of close games against mediocre teams, let’s not go out of control in the other direction. Baylor is a very good team, but not a great team. That’s more or less what we’ve said all along, so we’ll continue to say so.

12. Kentucky | 23-5 | KenPom: 7 | Last week: 10

Here’s a stat that means next to nothing, but is nonetheless interesting: Kentucky is the only team in Division I college basketball — one out of 351 — that has played every single one of its games this season at a 40-minute pace of 70 possessions or more. Two other teams have gotten into the 70s in every game, but both played games that were in the 60s in regulation before climbing into the 70s in overtime. Kentucky is the only team that has reached 70 in regulation without fail.

13. Florida | 23-5 | KenPom: 4 | Last week: 15

Heading into the rematch and likely SEC regular season title decider (Saturday, 2 ET, CBS), it feels wrong to have Florida one spot behind the Kentucky team it so comprehensively beat three weeks ago. It’s especially tough when the Gators have won nine in a row. I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong, and fully prepared to move Florida into the top 10 next week if they do come out of Lexington with a victory.

14. Purdue | 23-5 | KenPom: 11 | Last week: 16

Has Caleb Swanigan gradually become the National Player of the Year favorite? His traditional stats — 18.6 points, 12.9 rebounds per game, 23 double-doubles — are eye-opening. His per-possession numbers — 113.9 offensive rating on 28.3 percent usage, 58.6 effective field goal percentage, 34.1 defensive rebound percentage — are similarly outstanding. He’s added a consistent 3-point stroke (46.8 percent) to his game and greatly increased his mobility to become one of the most influential defensive players in the country. His 88.2 defensive rating ranks 11th among all Division I players; his 2.4 defensive win shares rank fifth. With Purdue rolling in the Big Ten, the program’s #Biggie4NPOY campaign is starting to pick up steam.

15. Virginia | 18-9 | KenPom: 9 | Last week: 12

Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett is not on Twitter, which is probably a good thing for a few reasons:

  1. Twitter, in general, mostly sucks. Seriously, if you’ve held out this long, don’t take the plunge.

  2. Virginia has lost four in a row, and its offense has been nothing short of grotesque.

  3. Most importantly, real Bennett’s absense enables the account @IfTonyTweeted, which is often good for enjoyable GIFs, high-quality sarcasm and semi-crazed fandom. But after Monday’s ugly loss to Miami, Phony Bennett brought some necessary rationality to a fan base in dire need of just that:

Spot on, Phony. Not time to panic — yet.

16. Notre Dame | 21-7 | KenPom: 26 | Last week: 19

Two weeks ago, Notre Dame was reeling — or at least its fans were. The Irish had lost four in a row and five of six to fall to 6-5 in the ACC. Then Mike Brey tweaked his starting lineup, and the Irish have strung together four consecutive wins to pull right back into a tie for second place in the conference.

Brey had started 6-foot-10 Lithuanian center Martinas Geben for much of the season. He benched Geben for 6-foot-7 forward Austin Torres against North Carolina, the fourth of the four losses. Since, Brey has fully committed to small-ball. He essentially cut his rotation down to six players, sliding Bonzie Colson to the five, V.J. Beachem to the four, and inserting Rex Pflueger or Temple Gibbs as an additional guard. Here’s a look at Geben’s playing time in ACC play vs. that of Gibbs:

(Henry Bushnell)
(Henry Bushnell)

Brey made a comparable move last year, inserting Matt Farrell, previously a scarcely used reserved, into the starting lineup prior to the NCAA tournament as a second true ball handler. Playing Gibbs and Farrell alongside each other gives the Irish a similar look this year.

17. Florida State | 22-6 | KenPom: 18 | Last week: 13

After a weekend loss at Pittsburgh, the Seminoles are now 5-6 away from home this season, and 2-5 on the road in ACC play. They’ve fallen at Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Georgia Tech, and at a neutral site to Temple. The words “Florida State” and “Final Four” have shared sentences in this space before, but the Seminoles look far more ripe for a first-round upset than ripe for a run to Phoenix.

18. SMU | 24-4 | KenPom: 16 | Last week: 17
19. Cincinnati | 25-3 | KenPom: 23 | Last week: 18

Full disclosure: Not a single minute of either SMU or Cincinnati was watched by the purveyor of these Power Rankings this past week. SMU did get a nice win at Houston, the third best team in the AAC, but the conference is pretty barren. Both the Mustangs and Bearcats will be wild cards heading into the NCAA tournament.

20. Butler | 22-6 | KenPom: 22 | Last week: NR

It’s been an odd season for Kelan Martin, who at one point found himself in Ken Pomeroy’s player of the year top 10, and who was named one of 10 finalists for the Julius Erving award, but has now found himself on the bench at the beginnings of games for Butler. Martin, though, in his new sixth man role, played a pivotal role in Butler’s upset of Villanova, scoring 22 points in 28 minutes despite not starting for the fifth-straight game. The junior has had three sufficiently efficient games in a row now, so it’ll be interesting to see if Bulldogs’ head coach Chris Holtmann continues to bring him off the bench.

Five more to keep an eye (or two) on: Oklahoma State, Miami, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Iowa State

Best of the mids: VCU, Dayton, St. Mary’s, Illinois State, Middle Tennessee State

Oh, and those 10 Bill Walton quiz questions? 1. True. 2. True. 3. True. 4. True. 5. True. 6. True. 7. True. 8. True. 9. True. 10. True.

Previous rankings: Jan. 5 | Jan. 12 | Jan. 19 | Jan. 26 | Feb. 2 | Feb. 9 | Feb. 16