Power Rankings: No. 1 seeds coming into focus

Power Rankings: No. 1 seeds coming into focus
Power Rankings: No. 1 seeds coming into focus

It has been a season marked by upsets, a rotation of No. 1 teams and seemingly no clear-cut favorites moving forward. But over the past few weeks, we’ve started to get some separation at the top, especially when it comes to sorting teams by résumé.

The 1-seeds, as it stands, are fairly clear-cut: Baylor, Gonzaga, San Diego State and Kansas, with the latter three coming in whichever order you choose. Combined, those four teams have lost one game since the calendar turned to 2020, Kansas’ defeat to Baylor. They’re a combined 36-1 in that span. They’re the top four teams in the NET rankings, four of the top five at KenPom, the top four in ESPN’s Strength of Record metrics — and the top four of the AP poll.

Baylor is the best team in the country, in my opinion, both in terms of the eye test and résumé. The Bears have fallen once all season, a three-point loss to Washington in Alaska in a game Baylor led for nearly its entirety. The Bears have a top-five defense and arguably the best perimeter group in the country.

Gonzaga has also lost just once, at the Battle 4 Atlantis the day after Thanksgiving. The Bulldogs have run roughshod over the West Coast Conference, with only two games decided by single digits. One factor moving forward for them is the availability of Killian Tillie.

San Diego State is the last unbeaten remaining in college basketball, and I think the Aztecs will enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. The Aztecs are one of the best defensive teams in the country and have a legitimate All-America candidate in Malachi Flynn. A zero-loss San Diego State team is a surefire 1-seed.

Then there’s Kansas, which has three losses — but is atop most metric-based rankings. There has been constant discussion about how there’s no dominant team in college basketball this season, but this Jayhawks’ adjusted efficiency margin would rank in the top three in all but two seasons in the KenPom era (since 2001-02). They would be considered the No. 1 team in a couple of those seasons, too. Kansas leads the nation in Quadrant 1 wins, too.

There’s still more than a month until conference tournaments start, and Louisville and Dayton are playing as well as anyone in the country right now — and the metrics still love Duke — but the top-four teams in the rankings are in their own tier for now.

1. Baylor Bears (19-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Kansas State (Monday), vs. Oklahoma State (Saturday)

Freddie Gillespie is one of the best stories in college basketball. For those who are unfamiliar, Gillespie started his career at Division III Carleton College — and played just four games during his freshman season. Following his sophomore campaign, he transferred to Baylor and sat out as a walk-on before earning a scholarship for the 2018-19 season. Now, he’s averaging 10.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks and has been terrific over his past seven games. During that stretch, Gillespie is averaging 12.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks — while shooting 64.3% from the field.

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Loyola Marymount (Thursday), at Saint Mary’s (Saturday)

Gonzaga’s past two games — at Santa Clara and at San Francisco — were two of the Bulldogs’ worst offensive outings in several weeks. Not surprisingly, one of them came when Tillie played only nine minutes and the other came with Tillie sidelined. There’s no definitive timetable for Tillie’s return, but the Zags need him healthy for the NCAA tournament. With him out for the San Francisco game, Mark Few went with essentially a six-man rotation and Drew Timme getting most of Tillie’s vacated minutes. In just his second start of the season, Timme answered the call against the Dons, finishing with 19 points, four rebounds and three blocks.

3. San Diego State Aztecs (23-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Air Force (Saturday)

Last week was supposed to be one of the Aztecs’ tougher weeks remaining in the regular season: a road trip to The Pit, where New Mexico hadn’t lost all season, and a home date with Utah State, the second-best team in the Mountain West. The trip to Albuquerque was a cakewalk, with San Diego State rolling by 28. But Utah State did test the Aztecs. The Aggies went on a 19-3 run late in the first half and stayed in the game until a scoring drought in the final 10 minutes. San Diego State didn’t have trouble scoring against Utah State, but the Aztecs allowed 1.08 points per possession — their most all season. Most of that stemmed from the Aggies shooting 42.9% from 3; no other opponent has reached 40% all season.

4. Kansas Jayhawks (18-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Texas (Monday), at TCU (Saturday)

With the season entering its final regular-season month and discussions for the Wooden Award, Coach of the Year, Freshman of the Year, etc., heating up, I thought we should take a look at Devon Dotson‘s candidacy to at least be in the discussion for the Wooden Award. He has certainly struggled in Kansas’ three losses, averaging 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.7 turnovers and shooting 38.9% from the field. But Dotson has also come up big in some of the Jayhawks’ biggest wins, including 21 points Saturday against Texas Tech and 31 points against Dayton back in November. Dotson is No. 3 in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings, top-10 in offensive box plus/minus and the only player in the country at least 5.0 adjusted points above replacement on both offense and defense at BartTorvik.com — one of just nine players in the past 12 seasons to hit that mark. I don’t think Dotson is the front-runner, but I think he deserves a seat at the table.

5. Louisville Cardinals (19-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Wake Forest (Wednesday), vs. Virginia (Saturday)

The question for the first two months of the season for Louisville was how much consistent support could the Cardinals find for Jordan Nwora. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue anymore. Nwora has led Louisville in scoring in just one of its past five games, and that was the night he put up 37 points and seven 3-pointers against Boston College. The Cardinals’ complementary pieces have stepped up at different times, with different players pacing them in scoring during that five-game stretch. Chris Mack might not have a second go-to option on the roster, but he’s certainly found plenty of help for Nwora offensively.

6. Duke Blue Devils (18-3)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Boston College (Tuesday), at North Carolina (Saturday)

Don’t be surprised if teams put on a full-court press a couple of more times against Duke. The Blue Devils had a terrific offensive performance against Syracuse on Saturday night, but they seemed slightly rattled once the Orange put on a full-court press in the latter stages of the game. The first possession against the press, with 8:36 remaining, they turned it over. And they proceeded to turn it over on five of their first eight possessions against the press. Another thing to keep an eye on is Joey Baker‘s dwindling playing time. After making an impact in late November and early December, he has been relegated to spot minutes. The sophomore forward didn’t get off the bench against Syracuse and has played double-digit minutes just three times in the past seven games.

7. Dayton Flyers (20-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Saint Louis (Saturday)

I took a deeper look into Dayton and San Diego State on Thursday, talking to opposing coaches to get their perspective on how good the Flyers and Aztecs are, and how deep they can go in March. One thing I left out, just because it didn’t fit, was one high-major coach saying that Dayton was the most impressive team his team has faced. And this won’t give it away, but he was a power-conference coach whose team has played multiple top-25 teams. “They’re balanced, they’re just a really good team, well-put-together team, almost like a machine,” the coach said. “They’ve been the most impressive team we’ve played.” High praise.

8. Seton Hall Pirates (16-5)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Georgetown (Wednesday), at Villanova (Saturday)

Kevin Willard’s team lost for the first time since Dec. 14 on Saturday, falling by 12 at home to Xavier. But the big news of the week didn’t come from wins and losses — it was the return of Sandro Mamukelashvili and the injury to Quincy McKnight. Mamukelashvili had missed 10 games with a fractured right wrist. The big man played five minutes against DePaul, and then had 10 points in 16 minutes against Xavier. He started every game last season and the first nine games this season for the Pirates. More concerning is McKnight, who landed awkwardly and had to be helped off the court with just over six minutes remaining Saturday. Willard was optimistic about the initial diagnosis, but we have to wait and see.

9. Florida State Seminoles (18-3)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. North Carolina (Monday), vs. Miami (Saturday)

We often talk about a team whose résumé has improved throughout the season, with wins that look better as the season progresses. Florida State is something of the opposite. The Seminoles still have a very solid profile, but it’s one whose best wins have come over Louisville, Florida, Virginia, Purdue and Tennessee. Only the victory against the Cardinals looks as good as it did the day it happened. The other four teams have really struggled and find themselves on the bubble — at best — as of this week. Moving forward, Leonard Hamilton’s team has two more big chances to beef up its résumé in a push for a top-two or top-three seed: at Duke on Feb. 10 and vs. Louisville on Feb. 24.

10. Maryland Terrapins (17-4)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. Rutgers (Tuesday), at Illinois (Friday)

Five games ago, Mark Turgeon made a lineup change. Aaron Wiggins was out, Eric Ayala was in. Ayala has provided a little extra playmaking ability in the starting lineup, while the move seems to have snapped Wiggins out of his minislump in early January. Over the past five games, Wiggins is averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 40% from 3-point range. He has made 14 3s over that stretch after making 12 in the previous 10 games. For what it’s worth, Ayala starting with Wiggins coming off the bench was the routine almost all of last season — and it worked for both players. A return might have been just what the Terps needed.

11. Villanova Wildcats (17-4)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Butler (Wednesday), vs. Seton Hall (Saturday)

The weeks don’t get much tougher than this in the Big East: at Butler on Wednesday and a visit from Seton Hall on Saturday. But perhaps Jay Wright’s team is getting them at the right time. The Wildcats handled Butler by 15 a few weeks ago, and the Bulldogs have been slumping over the past six games. Seton Hall just lost for the first time since mid-December and starting guard and lockdown defender Quincy McKnight could miss time after landing awkwardly Saturday. Villanova’s loss to Creighton is likely a blip; Saddiq Bey and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl both had their worst offensive games in weeks, and the Bluejays shot 50% from both 2 and 3.

12. West Virginia Mountaineers (17-4)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Iowa State (Wednesday), at Oklahoma (Saturday)

West Virginia’s defense has started to show cracks over the past few games, allowing 84 points at Kansas State in mid-January and then letting Texas Tech score 89 last week. It’s not a lack of turnovers; Cartier Diarra coughed it up seven times and Kansas State turned it over on 16 occasions, while Texas Tech turned it over 22 times. Simply, it looks as if the Wildcats and Red Raiders just made shots. West Virginia ranks second nationally in 3-point defense, with opponents making just 26.8% of their outside attempts. Kansas State went 9-for-18 from behind the arc and Texas Tech made 11-for-17 from 3. West Virginia is not a prolific perimeter-shooting team so when the Mountaineers lose the 3-point battle by a wide margin, it’s tough to win.

13. Auburn Tigers (19-2)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Arkansas (Tuesday), vs. LSU (Saturday)

Auburn picked up its biggest win of the season Saturday night, knocking off Kentucky and finally getting a marquee victory. The Tigers didn’t look great offensively, shooting 35.3% from the field — but they got points the same way they have all season: offensive rebounds and free throws. They grabbed 17 offensive boards and turned them into 17 second-chance points, while also making 33 free throws on 44 attempts. The Tigers rank in the top-25 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 3 in the country in free throw rate, so this wasn’t new for them. Bruce Pearl also had success with both big and small lineups, which is useful moving forward. The Tigers closed the gap late in the first half with a smaller, helter-skelter lineup. But they won the second half with Austin Wiley dominating the offensive glass.

14. Oregon Ducks (18-5)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Oregon State (Saturday)

The Ducks continue to befuddle. This is a team with wins away from home over Seton Hall and Michigan, home victories over Arizona and Houston, plus victories against USC and Memphis. They have a top-10 strength of schedule, six Quadrant 1 wins and nine Quadrant 1 + 2 victories. There are zero Quadrant 3 or 4 losses. The Ducks have an elite offense and one of the best players in the country in Payton Pritchard. Yet, there seems to be something missing and they’re prone to giving up big second-half runs in losses. Washington State had 16-2 and 10-0 runs in the final 22 minutes a couple of weeks ago, while Stanford took control with a 20-3 run midway through the second half Saturday night. N’Faly Dante‘s absence has also hurt the Ducks on the defensive glass — an area in which Oregon has struggled all season.

15. Iowa Hawkeyes (16-6)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Purdue (Wednesday), vs. Nebraska (Saturday)

Iowa faced a huge three-game week, and came out with two wins and a spot in the Power Rankings. The Hawkeyes have six Quadrant 1 wins and 10 Quadrant 1 + 2 victories. They have a top-five offense nationally and by far the best in the Big Ten, with the gap in efficiency between the Hawkeyes and No. 2 Ohio State the same as the Buckeyes and No. 10 Minnesota. It starts with Luka Garza, who should be the favorite for the Wooden Award. He was averaging 26.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks during Iowa’s five-game winning streak, still put up 21 in the loss to Maryland, and then bounced back with 25 points and 10 rebounds against Kofi Cockburn and Illinois.

16. Creighton Bluejays (17-5)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Providence (Wednesday), vs. St. John’s (Saturday)

It has been a season defined by streakiness for the Bluejays. After starting 4-2, they rattled off eight straight wins. They then lost three of their next four to drop below .500 in the Big East. Since then, they’ve won four in a row — including Saturday’s road victory at Villanova. Greg McDermott’s group is one of the elite offensive teams in America, and the best in the Big East. And their résumé is starting to resemble their recent effectiveness. The Bluejays are top-15 in the NET, own six Quadrant 1 wins and nine Quadrant 1 + 2 wins. There’s not a loss outside Quadrant 1. Denzel Mahoney has provided a huge scoring boost off the bench since becoming eligible in mid-December. He has hit double-figures in all but two games and scored 21 against Villanova.

Dropped out: Michigan State (13), Kentucky (14), Butler (16)

In the waiting room

Michigan State Spartans: They still have a top-five ranking in the BPI and top-10 rankings in the NET and at KenPom. But the rest of the résumé isn’t as sparkling as it once was. The Spartans are below .500 against Quadrant 1 opponents. In Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, Xavier Tillman really struggled, going 2-for-8 on layups and dropping multiple passes near the basket.

Kentucky Wildcats: Perhaps it’s impressive that Kentucky was still in the game at Auburn despite Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans combining for 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and six turnovers. The Wildcats are two games behind LSU in the SEC standings and face a hot Mississippi State team at home Tuesday, followed by three of four on the road.

LSU Tigers: Will Wade’s team is on a 10-game winning streak and hasn’t lost a regular-season SEC game since Feb. 20 of last season. The Tigers have won 24 of their past 26 conference games. How long can this hot streak continue? The schedule stiffens up over the next few weeks, with five of their next seven on the road and one of the two home games coming against Kentucky.

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