Mostly, there has been a clear group of six teams at the top, and then everyone else. With Michigan and Michigan State slipping, though, and Kentucky and North Carolina hitting their stride, there now seems to be two groups of four at the top.
And it’s that second group of four that has sparked the most debate following the weekend. After Saturday’s games, we went with Michigan State at No. 5, followed by Michigan, Kentucky and then North Carolina. Let’s parse through the four teams and see if that needs changing moving forward.
Michigan State doesn’t have the marquee wins of its fellow contenders, especially in the non-conference, but the Spartans do own a handful of solid Big Ten wins — including ones over Purdue and Maryland, and a pair over Iowa. Their NET dropped to 8 following Saturday, but they’re still in the top four at KenPom, BPI and Sagarin. Michigan State also has the most Quadrant 1 wins of anyone in the country, tied with Kansas at eight wins. The Spartans are 12-4 against Quadrants 1 and 2. The loss on Saturday at home to Indiana drags them down a bit, though.
Michigan has three very good wins, blowing out North Carolina, Purdue and Villanova back in the first few weeks of the season. The Wolverines only have two losses, and both came on the road against top-25 NET teams. Their non-conference SOS is by far the worst of the quartet, though, and they rank No. 8 and No. 9 in Sagarin and BPI, respectively. That said, Michigan is an impressive 11-2 against Quadrants 1 and 2 — and have the highest Strength of Record (SOR) and KPI of the four — but they have the joint-fewest Quadrant 1 wins (five) of the four teams.
Kentucky is on fire right now: they’ve won eight in a row, including its comeback victory at Florida on Saturday night. The Wildcats have a host of impressive wins, including ones over North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas, as well as a road victory at Auburn, and very solid Strength of Schedule (SOS) numbers. They do have a Quadrant 2 loss to Seton Hall on a neutral court, and they’re ranked Nos. 7-9 in KenPom, Sagarin and BPI. Kentucky has six Quadrant 1 wins and a 9-3 record against Quadrants 1 and 2.
North Carolina rounds out the group, and the Tar Heels are in the same boat as Kentucky in terms of playing perhaps their best basketball of the season right now. They’ve won five in a row and nine of their last 10. Their NET is the lowest of the four teams, but they’re in the top five in Sagarin and ahead of Kentucky and Michigan in the BPI. Carolina has the best schedule numbers of the four teams, and all four of their losses are against Quadrant 1 teams. However, they’re just 5-4 against Quadrant 1 opponents. Their win over Gonzaga is the best of the group, but they’ve also lost to two of the other three teams in discussion here.
After taking a closer look, we still feel pretty good about the order coming out of Saturday night.
1. Tennessee Volunteers (20-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Missouri (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2), vs. Florida (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
Tennessee now heads home for three straight games before a potential showdown at Kentucky on Feb. 16. For the Volunteers to get there without a loss, they’ll have to navigate Missouri, Florida and South Carolina in Knoxville. Lamonte Turner Watch: the junior guard has now hit three 3-pointers in three straight games and is shooting 44.4 percent from behind the arc in conference play.
2. Duke Blue Devils (19-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Boston College (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN), at Virginia (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Coming Saturday: Duke vs. Virginia, Round Two. This time around, the Blue Devils will have Tre Jones, who had one of the best individual defensive performances of the season over the weekend against St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds. Jones shut Ponds out in the first half, and limited him to 11 points on 11 shots, along with five turnovers.
3. Virginia Cavaliers (19-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Tony Bennett’s team now gets a full week to rest before hosting Duke and then traveling to North Carolina two days later. Those games will shape the ACC race. In the first meeting against Duke, the Cavaliers had their second-worst defensive effort of the season and shot just 3-for-17 from 3-point range — their worst shooting performance of the season.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. San Francisco (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET), vs. Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET)
This is arguably Gonzaga’s most difficult week of the West Coast Conference campaign, as the Bulldogs host both San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. The Dons gave the Bulldogs a run in the first meeting between the two teams, but have now lost two in a row. The Gaels aren’t their usual selves, but they have wins over San Francisco and New Mexico State this season.
5. Michigan State Spartans (18-4)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at Illinois (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2), vs. Minnesota (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
Michigan State has now lost two in a row after a 13-game winning streak, and the primary reasons for the struggles aren’t too difficult to find. The Spartans allowed both Purdue and Indiana to score one point per possession after allowing just one opponent to hit it in the previous 11 games, and both teams also had success on the offensive glass. Nick Ward also had a combined 20 points on 9-for-22 shooting.
6. Michigan Wolverines (20-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Rutgers (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET on BTN), vs. Wisconsin (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET on FOX)
Michigan’s sputtering offense finally caught up to the Wolverines last week, as the defense allowed more than one point per possession for just the third time this season — and John Beilein’s offense couldn’t pick up the slack. The Wolverines have now been held below one point per possession in three of their past five games, after seeing that happen just three times in the first 17 games.
7. Kentucky Wildcats (18-3)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. South Carolina (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network), at Mississippi State (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on CBS)
Kentucky is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, and the preseason predictions of the Wildcats winning the title don’t seem so far off. PJ Washington has been the catalyst for the recent streak, averaging 20.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his last four games. He’s continued to expand his game on the offensive end, and also hit six 3-pointers during that stretch.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels (17-4)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. NC State (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN), vs. Miami (Saturday, 12 p.m ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN)
North Carolina prides itself on playing two-big man lineups and dominating the glass, but this version of the Tar Heels shoots significantly better than recent teams in Chapel Hill. They’ve shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range in six of their eight ACC games and are shooting 38.6 percent from behind the arc in ACC play — a number that would rank in the top 20 nationally over an entire season.
9. Nevada Wolf Pack (21-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Colorado State (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET on CBSSN), vs. New Mexico (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on CBSSN)
Caleb Martin is starting to find his outside shot again for the Wolf Pack. After going 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the loss to New Mexico, and then having a three-game stretch where he shot 9-for-37 from behind the arc, Martin has picked up the pace in his last three games. During that span, Martin has made 15-for-30 from 3-point range en route to averaging 24.7 points.
10. Houston Cougars (21-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at UCF (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET on CBSSN), vs. Cincinnati (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Houston has just one blemish so far, but the Cougars now begin their toughest week of the season. They have to travel to UCF on Thursday, followed by a home tilt against Cincinnati. UCF was the preseason favorite in the AAC, and while they haven’t quite lived up to that, they’ve only lost one game this season. Cincinnati has won seven in a row and is playing some of the best offense we’ve seen under Mick Cronin.
11. Kansas Jayhawks (17-5)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Kansas State (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN), vs. Oklahoma State (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET)
We got a pretty good idea of what Kansas will look like moving forward, especially if Marcus Garrett is out for an extended period of time. The Jayhawks took 30 3-pointers on Saturday against Texas Tech, their most attempts all season. Combine that with Dedric Lawson getting consistent touches down low, and Bill Self might have this year’s version of the Jayhawks looking a lot more like last season’s team.
12. Virginia Tech Hokies (18-3)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Louisville (Monday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN), at Clemson (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET)
After a dreadful three-game stretch in which the Hokies allowed North Carolina and Virginia to score 184 points on 132 possessions over the course of two games, Buzz Williams’ team has toughened defensively. Even when considering NC State had a historically bad off-game, Tech has now held three straight opponents below one point per possession. It will be interesting to see how they fare without Justin Robinson, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury.
13. Marquette Golden Eagles (19-3)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. St. John’s (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET on FS1), vs. Villanova (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
This will be the week for Marquette to make its move in the Big East standings. The Golden Eagles get both Villanova and St. John’s at home. The showdown with Villanova will be for first place in the conference, while St. John’s has had Markus Howard’s number every time the two teams have faced off. He’s averaged fewer than 10 points per game in four games vs. the Red Storm.
14. Purdue Boilermakers (15-6)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. Nebraska (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET on BTN)
Purdue needed another comeback to win on Sunday, but the Boilermakers have now rattled off seven straight wins following a 9-6 start to the season. Freshman Trevion Williams has added a nice dimension down low for Purdue, hitting double-figures in four of his last six games after not playing much of a role for the first half of the season. Williams had 16 points and four boards on Sunday.
15. Louisville Cardinals (16-6)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Virginia Tech (Monday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN), at Florida State (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
Louisville’s brutal four-game stretch started with a 10-point home loss to North Carolina, and now continues with two road games this week at Virginia Tech and Florida State. The Cardinals will have to get Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch going. Nwora struggled against the Tar Heels, while Enoch had 16 scoreless minutes off the bench.
16. Iowa State Cyclones (16-5)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: at Oklahoma (Monday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2), vs. TCU (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
Is Cameron Lard starting to come alive for the Cyclones? After missing the start of the season with suspension and then suffering an ankle injury in early January, Lard has been more of a factor in the last week. He had 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench on Saturday, after totaling 14 points in 25 minutes against West Virginia and Ole Miss. He provides a nice option on the interior at full strength.
Dropped out: None
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