College hoops finally calmed down a bit in the last week, that is, unless you play in the Big 12, which continues to be a cage match night in and night out. We’re starting to get a clearer picture of which teams are for real, meanwhile some top contenders, such as Michigan State, have hit a stumbling block. We’re down to just three one-loss teams, one of which almost everyone saw coming (Villanova), one of which most didn’t see coming (Virginia) and one of which no one saw coming (Auburn). Here’s the new top 25:
1. Villanova (16–1)
Last Week (1): beat Xavier, beat St. John’s
Next Week: at Georgetown, at UConn, vs. Providence
While last week the Wildcats were more of a default No. 1 after upsets rocked the top five, they more than proved they deserve the top ranking with their 24-point home rout of Xavier. After a few lackluster defensive showings, Villanova held the Musketeers to 0.92 points per possession and a 3-of-17 mark from three while forcing 15 turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense continues to hum and narrowly grabbed the top adjusted efficiency mark in the country away from Duke. The Wildcats have six different players playing at least 60% of the team’s minutes and posting an offensive rating of at least 116.9, and even role player Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has been very efficient when on the floor.
2. Purdue (18–2)
Last Week (2): beat Minnesota, beat Wisconsin
Next Week: at Iowa
The Boilermakers are playing like the class of the Big Ten right now, and after back-to-back dominations of Minnesota and Wisconsin they’ve risen to the No. 1 overall rank on kenpom. They’re the only team with an offense and defense both ranked in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency and will probably be favored in all of their remaining games, the exception being their trip to East Lansing. In its last three games, Purdue has connected on 51.2% (40 of 78) of its threes, including a 14 of 22 performance against the Badgers that saw four different players knock down at least three treys. That’ll do.
3. Virginia (16–1)
Last Week (5): beat North Carolina State
Next Week: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Clemson
With another great defensive showing, the Cavaliers made sure they weren’t NC State’s third straight upset victim with an easy win at home. UVA was able to do what Duke and Clemson weren’t by excelling in two areas it’s strong in: perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. In their two upset wins, NC State shot a combined 15 of 35 (42.9%) from three and committed just 14 total turnovers. Against Virginia, they shot 2 of 16 (12.5%) from three and turned it over 15 times. That’s the difference the Hoos can make, and why at 5–0 they should currently be considered the favorite to win the ACC.
4. Duke (16–2)
Last Week (6): beat Wake Forest, beat Miami
Next Week: vs. Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest
Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. typically dominate the conversation when it comes to discussing the Blue Devils’ potent offense, but let’s talk about Gary Trent Jr. Trent, you may or may not know, is leading Duke in three-point shooting at 41.4%, and that number has been 47.9% in five ACC games. In the last week, the freshman combined to go 12 of 16 from three, including hitting 6 of 9 as part of a breakout 30-point performance to help secure a big road win at Miami. Trent has found a home beyond the three-point line, where over half his shot attempts come, and of his 46 makes on the season, all but one have been assisted (per Hoop-Math).
5. Wichita State (15–2)
Last Week (10): beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa
Next Week: vs. SMU, at Houston
After an easy start to AAC play, the Shockers’ schedule is about to get a bit juicy. Their next week includes two top-45 kenpom teams in SMU and Houston, the latter of whom they already easily handled at home but now must face on the road. These games are exactly why Wichita State joined the American; while some AAC teams like South Florida and East Carolina don’t inspire much fear, there’s more opportunities now for stronger wins than it had the chance to get in the Missouri Valley, where it often could only make statements through the margin of its routs. In the AAC, the Shockers’ big showdowns will be with Cincinnati, who they don’t face until Feb. 18 and March 4, but before then they have other opportunities at wins that will directly help (or hurt) their standing on Selection Sunday.
6. Texas Tech (15–2)
Last Week (11): beat West Virginia
Next Week: at Texas, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State
The Red Raiders responded to their first Big 12 loss with a statement one-point win over then-No. 2 West Virginia over the weekend. With victories already over two of the league’s top challengers and a chance to avenge its loss to Oklahoma at home next month, Texas Tech can control its own destiny, but there’s still a long way to go. It owns the No. 2 adjusted efficient defense in the nation and has been strong at defending teams both inside and outside the perimeter. That’s been key, because one of the reasons the Red Raiders have been able to start 4–1 in the Big 12 is because all five opponents were held to either a two-point percentage under 50% or a three-point mark under 31%.
7. Kansas (15–3)
Last Week (15): beat Kansas State, beat West Virginia
Next Week: vs. Baylor, at Oklahoma
The Jayhawks are sending a pretty clear message right now: we’re still here. After their Big 12 streak looked vulnerable following their Jan. 2 loss to Texas Tech, they’ve won four straight, including a crucial comeback road win at West Virginia Monday night. Kansas had, uhh, some trouble driving to the rim on WVU’s Sagaba Konate in the first half, but rather than become three-point dependent as it’s done on many previous occasions this season, the Jayhawks found a way to score in the paint, making 9 of 12 there in the second half after going 6 of 20 in the first. Another positive sign of late for KU is that it’s started to improve on its obscenely low free-throw rate, posting a 33.2% mark in Big 12 play compared to 22.8% overall.
8. Michigan State (16–3)
Last Week (4): beat Rutgers, lost to Michigan
Next Week: vs. Indiana, at Illinois
After a formidable 15–1 start to the season, the Spartans have hit a road block. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan sandwiched being taken to overtime at home by Rutgers, and MSU now finds itself looking up at three teams in the suddenly new-look Big Ten race. In its home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Michigan State exhibited both a familiar and unfamiliar trait. The familiar one was turnovers, which continue to be an issue holding back this team. The Spartans turned it over 18 times, giving it away on one out of every four possessions. The unfamiliar trait was the fact that they attempted just 12 threes, making three. MSU came into Saturday averaging 21.7 attempts per game, and its three makes against Michigan were its fewest since the season opener. When a team turns it over that much and gets just nine points from the perimeter against good competition, it’s rarely going to be a happy ending.
9. West Virginia (15–3)
Last Week (3): lost to Texas Tech, lost to Kansas
Next Week: vs. Texas, at TCU
What had been the nation’s longest win streak came to an end in Lubbock on Saturday…and then the Mountaineers followed it up by blowing a 12-point lead with nine minutes left in a home loss to Kansas. WVU had beaten the Jayhawks four straight years in Morgantown before the defeat, and back-to-back losses to two of its top competition in the Big 12 race puts it in a mid-January hole. The Mountaineers’ ability to force turnovers is well documented, but they’ve been having a bit of their own turnover issue of late. On the season, West Virginia’s turnover percentage is 16.7%, but in six Big 12 games it’s ballooned to 20.3%, worse than all but two other league teams. Additionally, both Texas Tech and Kansas yielded 13 giveaways in their wins (on fewer than 20% of their possessions), a respectable number for most defenses—but not near the 26.7% average WVU thrives with.
10. Oklahoma (14–3)
Last Week (7): beat TCU, lost to Kansas State
Next Week: at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas
Twelve. That’s how many turnovers star freshman Trae Young had in a road loss to Kansas State on Tuesday night—or as many as the Wildcats had as a team. Incredible as Young has been this season, his proclivity for miscues is going to catch up with him on occasion, like it did in Manhattan. Young is averaging 7.6 turnovers per game in six Big 12 games, but that can often be overlooked when you have the nation’s leading assist rate and can do things like this after your own missed free throw:
The fact is, Oklahoma plays incredibly fast—it plays at the third quickest tempo in the country and its possessions last an average of just 13.7 seconds, per kenpom—and Young is 19 years old and has earned plenty of freedom as the engineer of that offense. Oklahoma could obviously benefit from him making some smarter decisions, but his aggressiveness and free nature on the court have done a lot to get the Sooners to where they are right now.
11. Arizona (14–4)
Last Week (13): beat Oregon State, beat Oregon
Next Week: at California, at Stanford
After the Wildcats’ seven-point weekend win over Oregon, Sean Miller said his team’s “ability to make free throws was the difference in the game,” and he wasn’t kidding. Arizona went to the line 37 times, making 34, which is fitting for the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooting team. The ‘Cats needed every bit of those free points to make up for 17 turnovers, and it was no surprise that Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton took the most attempts, with 11 apiece. But Rawle Alkins also went 5 of 6 from the line, the fifth time in the nine games since his return that he’s attempted at least five at the charity stripe. Per Hoop-Math, Alkins is actually taking a smaller percentage of shots at the rim than he did as a freshman, but he’s making them count by getting fouled more, upping his free-throw rate from 32.7% to 55.3%.
12. Xavier (16–3)
Last Week (8): lost to Villanova, beat Creighton
Next Week: vs. St. John’s, at Seton Hall
The Musketeers didn’t come close to the result they were hoping for last week in Philly, and in five years in the Big East they’ve yet to put up a real challenge on the road at Villanova. But unlike last year, when it kicked off a three-game losing streak, this time Xavier responded with an authoritative win over a good Creighton team at home over the weekend. The difference for Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates in particular was night and day; Gates was actually dropped from the starting lineup after scoring a total of three points in the Musketeers’ back-to-back losses, and he came back with his most efficient outing of the season in a 16-point, eight-rebound, two-steal effort against the Bluejays.
13. Cincinnati (16–2)
Last Week (12): beat South Florida, beat UCF
Next Week: vs. East Carolina
What happens when two top-five efficient defenses meet, which also belong to two of the country’s slowest-paced teams? You get a result like the 49–38 win that Cincinnati had over UCF on Tuesday night, which featured a total of 20 free throws and 35 field goals. The Bearcats held the Knights to a 10 of 33 (30.3%) mark inside the arc, which is even lower than their 38.7% average two-point defense, which ranks second in the country. Cincy’s offense isn’t going to overpower teams, but it knows how to grind out games and take advantage of opponents’ errors, like averaging 17.6 points off turnovers in AAC play.
14. Arizona State (14–3)
Last Week (9): lost to Oregon, beat Oregon State
Next Week: at Stanford, at Cal
The Sun Devils are officially trending downward. After a magical 12–0 nonconference run that nearly got them to the top of the polls, they’ve started Pac-12 play 2–3, with their two wins coming by a combined five points against mediocre competition. After losing to Oregon last week, they needed a second-half comeback to scrape by Oregon State, a team sitting outside the kenpom top-100. There’s been multiple reasons behind the drop off: ASU’s already unreliable defense has been even worse in conference play, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, the team’s shooting has declined (after going 50.8% of the field and 39.3% from three in nonconference, it has shot 41.4% from the field and 34.7% from three in Pac-12 play) and outside of the Sun Devils’ loss to Arizona, leading scorer Tra Holder has struggled to maintain the high level of efficiency he posted for much of nonconference action. The question that could define the rest of Arizona State’s season is whether its recent shooting issues are simply a slump or in fact a regression to the mean.
15. Gonzaga (16–3)
Last Week (18): beat Portland, beat San Francisco
This Week: vs. Saint Mary’s, at Santa Clara
Part I of what seems destined to be another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s trilogy that ends in the WCC tournament final is finally next, giving both teams the opportunity to pick up a significant win. The Zags will be going up against the Gaels’ third-ranked efficient offense, and plenty of eyes will be on Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale. In two of three games last year, the Bulldogs were able to hold Landale to 10 points (he went for 24 in the other), but in all three they were able to get the big man into foul trouble, limiting him to 26, 25 and 19 minutes. That defensive job largely went to the departed Przemek Karnowski, so Gonzaga’s new-look frontcourt will look to have a similar level of success against the Gaels’ best player.
16. Auburn (16–1)
Last Week (19): beat Mississippi State
Next Week: at Alabama, vs. Georgia
Now alone in first at 4–0, could Auburn actually win the SEC? It’s early, but the Tigers haven’t been lucking into their wins. They’ve won all four games by no less than eight points and have had the most efficient offense in conference play so far. They also have a favorable schedule—they’ve already won their lone matchup with Tennessee, and they face other top challengers Kentucky and Florida once apiece and get a visit from the Wildcats, who have been vulnerable on the road. We’ve got a ways to go, but the Tigers are making noise for the first time in a long time and just might be able to cash in.
17. North Carolina (15–4)
Last Week (21): beat Notre Dame, beat Clemson
Next Week: vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech
The good for UNC in the last week: in a year that potentially seemed ripe for upstart Clemson to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels denied it behind their best performance yet from transfer Cameron Johnson, who made 6 of 9 threes. The bad: a game before that, North Carolina was an inch away from losing to a Notre Dame squad missing its two best players. The Heels got the win, which is most important, but somehow allowed the Bonzie Colson-less Irish to grab 20 offensive rebounds. UNC has been strong itself on the offensive boards this year, but it can’t allow itself to lose that battle 10-to-2 in the second half as it did against the Irish.
18. Kentucky (14–4)
Last Week (14): beat Vanderbilt, lost to South Carolina
Next Week: vs. Florida, vs. Mississippi State
The Wildcats blew a 14-point second-half lead to South Carolina to drop to 4–2 in the SEC Tuesday night, and their youth was evident. The Gamecocks, whose effective field goal percentage ranks 309th in the country, didn’t spring the upset through a rare hot shooting night, but rather by simply outworking Kentucky’s freshmen late. The ‘Cats had no answer for Chris Silva, who finished with 27, and they made multiple bad decisions late and went 5 of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 12 minutes. The good news is that former five-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut, chipping in six points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes.
19. Seton Hall (15–3)
Last Week (20): beat Georgetown
Next Week: at Creighton, vs. Xavier
The Pirates have a big week coming up that should have key ramifications on the Big East race, and they could use a couple solid performances from guard Myles Powell, who’s made a nice jump so far in his sophomore season. Powell has upped his scoring from 10.7 ppg to 14.2 in large part due to finding his three-point stroke. He shot a respectable 33.2% from deep as a freshman, but that number was low considering his team-high 205 attempts. He’s leading Seton Hall again in perimeter attempts this year, only now he’s connecting on 41.3% of them, which has helped lift his true shooting percentage nearly 10 percentage points to 63.4%.
20. Tennessee (12–4)
Last Week (25): beat Texas A&M
Next Week: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt
The Vols have rebounded nicely after losing their first two SEC games, most recently handling Texas A&M by double digits despite a subpar offensive night by Grant Williams. Tennessee has played better when it hasn’t been forced to play faster than it wants; each of its three conference wins featured fewer than 70 possessions, while all four of its overall losses have seen more than 70. Probably not coincidentally, the Vols have also been more prone to turnovers when playing faster. Since Dec. 1, they’ve turned it over on 15.9% of their possessions in their five games with 69 or fewer possessions, and 19.5% of the time in their five games with 70 or more possessions.
21. Ohio State (15–4)
Last Week (NR): beat Maryland, beat Rutgers
Next Week: at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota (at MSG), vs. Nebraska
The two-team Big Ten party has been crashed by both the Buckeyes and Michigan (see below), who have each beat Michigan State recently and moved ahead of the Spartans in the standings. Ohio State is the biggest surprise in the league with a 6–0 start in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in Chris Holtmann’s first season. Keita Bates-Diop has been a revelation in his redshirt junior year after returning from injury, improving in nearly every facet of his game while serving as OSU’s go-to guy, taking 31.1% of its shots when he’s on the floor. His defensive rebounding rate is up to 25.4% after a 17.6% mark in his last full season, and he’s taking (and making) more threes than ever. After hitting 36 of 111 (32.4%) perimeter attempts as a sophomore, Bates-Diop is attempting 2.1 more per game this season and connecting on 41%.
22. Michigan (16–4)
Last Week: beat Michigan State, beat Maryland
Next Week: at Nebraska, vs. Rutgers
Free throws giveth, free throws taketh away. Isaac Haas’s tiebreaking free throw in the final seconds last week handed the Wolverines a recent heartbreaking loss—their only defeat in their last 10 games—but they were on the right end of the charity stripe on Monday when Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sunk two in the final 1.2 seconds to give them a one-point win over Maryland. Abdur-Rahkman has made 91.9% of his free throws this season and was the right man to have on the line, but Michigan overall has been one of the country’s weakest free-throw shooting teams at 65.8%. One of the ways it makes up for it is by limiting opponents’ second-chances: its defensive rebounding rate is tops in Big Ten play so far, and in its upset win over Michigan State it held the country’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just eight (on 28.6% of its misses, below the Spartans’ 37.8% season mark).
23. Clemson (15–3)
Last Week (16): lost to NC State, beat Miami, lost to North Carolina
Next Week: vs. Notre Dame, at Virginia
This won’t be the year the Tigers get their first-ever win in Chapel Hill, but they did pick up a home win over Miami to salvage an otherwise disappointing week. Clemson’s calling-card this year has been its defense, but in losses to NC State and UNC it gave up 1.15 and 1.21 points per possession, respectively, easily its highest totals given up all season. If there’s one area the Tigers have been weaker in overall on defense it’s been on the perimeter, and both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels took advantage, shooting 47.6% and 48.4%, respectively. It was especially killer in the loss to North Carolina, as Clemson had managed to hold the nation’s sixth-best offensive rebounding team to just five.
24. TCU (13–4)
Last Week (17): lost to Texas, lost to Oklahoma
Next Week: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, vs. West Virginia
Life in the Big 12, man. It’s rough. After a perfect mark in nonconference play, the Horned Frogs have started league action 1–4, including an overtime loss, a double-overtime loss and both a one-point loss and four-point loss in regulation (and oh yeah, it’s one win came in OT as well). It’s going to take a lot for TCU to climb back into the Big 12 race now, and it doesn’t get any easier with three games over the next six days. The Frogs have both shown the ability to score with anyone and the failure to stop anyone—through those five conference games, it leads the league in offensive efficiency and yet is last in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. That’s how you wind up playing three overtime games in five contests, but the law of averages says some of these close results will start going TCU’s way….right?
25. Saint Mary’s (17–2)
Last Week (NR): beat Santa Clara, beat Pepperdine
Next Week: at Gonzaga, at Pacific
The Gaels finally sneak in here after landing on the ‘next five out’ for the last few weeks, but whether it’s a short stay will be entirely decided by their performance in Spokane on Thursday night. Saint Mary’s résumé is weak and its head-scratching nonconference loss to Washington State still stands out, but this team knows how to score the basketball. Randy Bennett’s group has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom in each of the last two seasons, and this year it’s currently up to No. 3 behind underrated senior Jock Landale. Its defense, however, has dropped off considerably without Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. If the Gaels are going to beat the Zags on the road, they’re going to need to slow the Bulldogs down to their pace and either win the battle in the paint, where both teams rank top-10 in two-point percentage, or shoot the lights out from deep.
DROPPED OUT: Florida, Miami, Notre Dame
NEXT FIVE OUT: Nevada, Rhode Island, Louisville, Florida, Miami
(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)
1. Gonzaga: The Zags have a rare conference chance to improve their résumé and secure the upper leg in the WCC race this week.
2. Saint Mary’s: Are the Gaels a true threat to ending the Zags’ five-year run of regular season WCC titles? We’ll know Thursday night.
3. Nevada: The Wolfpack have started Mountain West play 5–0 and get their closest current challenger, Boise State, at home this weekend. Their offense is up to No. 9 nationally in adjusted efficiency.
4. New Mexico State: The Aggies have played four straight road games and won them all, three by double digits.
5. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have a big date with Western Kentucky in Bowling Green on Saturday that could see both teams come in undefeated in C-USA play.