NCAA Basketball: Conference battles shake up top 25
The NCAA basketball conference races will not be kind to the top 25 this year.
New faces from the Conference-USA and the Colonial Athletic Association grace our top 25 this week. They add to a competitive group of teams that continue to jockey for national recognition as we march onward through January. Bubbles are starting to form and solidify among many of the power conference’s mid-tiers, but many weeks remain between now and Selection Sunday.
Conference races remain as tight as ever in the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. The SEC is the only major conference where the leader leads by more than one game. The top mid-majors, the American, C-USA and the WCC are all at one-game leads as well. The trend of close games and conference races will likely continue the rest of the way.
One underrated aspect of getting to do this list every week is showing smaller programs that surge in place of middling power conference teams. Not enough credit is given to the nation’s mid-majors because they play in smaller groups with less-heralded company. That is usually a grievous oversight given how many upsets take place in March. Power schools will always dominate the landscape, but their constant infighting opens the door to feature dominant Cinderellas in the lower ranks.
We are now near the halfway point for most conference races and very few things are decided. The top 25 will continue to shift as favorites fall and dark horses hit their strides. I have no doubt the season will remain as it has thus far.
Kansas State Wildcats – KSU had already proven it can play tough with their controversial loss to Kansas but wins at Oklahoma State and home against West Virginia have catapulted this team to the fringe of the top 25. Watch a rough battle at Iowa State to see what the young Wildcats can do.
South Carolina Gamecocks – Sure, the Gamecocks beat Florida but they then got absolutely hammered at Kentucky while other squads surged ahead. USC will host Auburn for their next conference showdown.
Illinois State Redbirds – The MVC finally gets back on the board thanks to Illinois State’s recent wins over Wichita State and a resurgent Drake team. The Redbirds will host Indiana State in Normal, IL to try and win their 10th straight.
Akron Zips – We are showing the MAC some love this week. The Zips are flying through conference play at 6-0 after beating Eastern Michigan. Akron next travels to Kalamazoo to face the Western Michigan Broncos.
Iowa State Cyclones – The Cyclones’ vaunted Hilton Magic failed them against Kansas, but they bounced back with gritty, thrilling 2OT victory at Oklahoma. Iowa State returns home for their next match-up against Kansas State.
25. SMU Mustangs
Previous Ranking: NA
Record: 17-4 (7-1 American)
The American Athletic Conference claims its second top 25 spot thanks to Southern Methodist. SMU took down Houston and Connecticut last week and have won three straight since losing at Cincinnati. The Mustangs will next battle UCF in Orlando.
Semi Ojeleye and Shake Milton have propelled the Ponies thus far. They currently combine for nearly 31 points and 11 rebounds an evening. Ben Moore and Sterling Brown also average more than 10 points a game to form a pretty balanced attack. Most impressively, this squad shoots over 40 percent as a group. Cincinnati might be the AAC power, but SMU will likely stay right on their heels through the rest of winter.
24. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
Previous Ranking: NA
Record: 17-3 (7-0 Conference-USA)
C-USA makes its debut in our rankings thanks to some impressive performances from its top team. MTSU took two straight road games over Florida International and Florida Atlantic to remain king of the conference. They will host 11th place Southern Miss on Thursday.
Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw have both been huge this year, averaging 15.1 and 14.9 points per game, respectively. They were two major pieces returning on the team that upset title favorite Michigan State last year. However, the real story in Murfreesboro has got to be Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams. The former Razorback is putting up 17.9 points and 7.1 boards in just under 30 minutes a night. This might be an even more dangerous team than last year’s upset squad. Watch out for this program.
23. UNC Wilmington Seahawks
Previous Ranking: NA
Record: 19-2 (8-0 CAA)
You absolutely need to check out UNCW if you haven’t already. The reigning CAA champs are dominating their competition again this season. The Seahawks recently took down second-place College of Charleston on the road to hold a solid lead on the CAA.
C.J. Bryce currently leads the team with 17.1 points per contest, along with 5.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Last year’s leading scorer, Chris Flemmings, is right behind him at 15.9 points per game. Denzel Ingram and Devontae Cacok round out the top scorers with 15.4 and 12.8 points, respectively. Cacok is also averaging an impressive double-double with 10.4 rebounds a night. This team looks ready to run through the CAA and into March with how they are playing right now.
22. Maryland Terrapins
Previous Ranking: 24
Record: 17-2 (5-1 Big Ten)
Maryland is in a surprising tie for first in the Big Ten after a road victory over Iowa. The Terrapins have demonstrated they have the chops to win in tough environments and get last-place Rutgers next.
Melo Trimble was dominant against the Hawkeyes with 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but he had plenty of help. Freshman Justin Jackson had 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. His classmate Anthony Cowan also had 15 and six for the Terps. It’s possible Maryland’s youth could falter at some point, but they have definitely exceeded all early expectations in College Park.
21. Purdue Boilermakers
Previous Ranking: 25
Record: 16-4 (5-2 Big Ten)
Purdue bounced back big after losing at Iowa. The Boilermakers crushed both Illinois and Penn State at home to reach a tie for third in the Big Ten with Northwestern. The team’s next test is a big one at Michigan State.
I just can’t talk enough about how dominant Caleb Swanigan is this year. He averaged 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the team’s two recent victories. He also leads the nation in double-doubles with 15. Fellow bruiser Isaac Haas scored 24 points in the Illinois victory and guard Dakota Mathias has put up at least four assists in his last four contests. This team is still well-equipped for a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight run due to their size and talent.
20. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Previous Ranking: 22
Record: 17-2 (7-1 WCC)
Saint Mary’s took down both Pacific and Pepperdine last week to remain in second in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels will host fifth-pace San Francisco to try and sweep the Dons.
Guard Joe Rahon exploded against Pepperdine. The senior scored 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting while also contributing five rebounds and five assists. Calvin Hermanson continued his recent hot streak with 19 against the Waves, while center Jock Landale had a double-double with 15 and 10. The conference still runs through Gonzaga, but SMC clearly looksl ike the second best team.
19. West Virginia Mountaineers
Previous Ranking: 8
Record: 15-4 (4-3 Big 12)
WVU suffered two unexpected losses, hosting Oklahoma and at Kansas State. The team is now tied for third going into a brutal showdown at Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
Jevon Carter has assumed the scoring lead for the Mountaineers (11.9 points an evening). He scored 23 in the shocking home upset against the Sooners while pulling down 11 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Fellow guard Tarik Phillip had 20 points against the Wildcats. Top forward Esa Ahmad has been horrible in their two losses with just 4.5 points and two rebounds. He needs to be much better if this team is to have any real chance in the Big 12.
Top forward Esa Ahmad has been horrible in their two losses with just 4.5 points and two rebounds. He needs to be much better if this team is to have any real chance in the Big 12.
18. Duke Blue Devils
Previous Ranking: 18
Record: 15-5 (3-4 ACC)
Duke stands still at 18 despite losing to North Carolina State on Monday night. Why because of their high ceiling and the way they played in the 2nd half against Miami.
Freshman Jayson Tatum led the team with 14 points in the win over the Hurricanes. Senior Matt Jones had 13 off the bench and leading scorer Luke Kennard chipped in with 13. The team also got Amile Jefferson back from injury and got five points and 12 rebounds out of their double-double machine. Give credit to the Wolfpack for going into Cameron Indoor and stealing a game.
17. Cincinnati Bearcats
Previous Ranking: 17
Record: 17-2 (7-0 American)
Cincy also stays in place despite beating both Temple and Tulane; those teams are in the bottom four of the American Athletic Conference standings so the wins were expected. An intriguing non-conference matchup is next for the Bearcats when they host cross-town rival, Xavier.
Jacob Evans, Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson were all solid in the most recent victory at Tulane. They combined for 43 of the Bearcats’ 78 points. Cincinnati’s guards have helped carry the team despite the occasional struggles from both Kyle Washington or Gary Clark. I can’t wait to see if this team has enough stamina to carry the American and make a deep March run.
16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Previous Ranking: 14
Record: 17-3 (6-1 ACC)
Notre Dame took a tough loss at Florida State but bounced back in dominating fashion over Syracuse. The first-place Irish host top 25 Virginia to start off their week on Tuesday.
V.J. Beachem stole the show against the Orange. The senior forward scored career-high 30 points and grabbed seven boards in the 18-point victory at home. Bonzie Colson was his usual solid self with a 14-point, 14-rebound double-double and Matt Farrell continued his successful junior campaign with 15 points and nine assists. This might be coach Mike Brey’s best coaching job as he has this team playing as well as almost anyone in the ACC.
15. Creighton Bluejays
Previous Ranking: 10
Record: 18-2 (5-2 Big East)
Creighton held off Xavier on the road but got upset at home at the hands of Marquette. The loss to the Golden Eagles was the first full game the Bluejays have played without star point Maurice Watson Jr., who will miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury. The team will try to keep pace in the Big East when they travel to Georgetown Wednesday.
Senior Isaiah Zierden got the start in place of Watson and played admirably in the loss to Marquette. Zierden scored a season-high 15 points and grabbed five rebounds. Marcus Foster also did his best to keep Creighton in the game with a season-high 30. Those two, along with freshman Davion Mintz (17 points, eight assists), will have to lead the rest of the Bluejays through the rest of their tough conference season.
14. Louisville Cardinals
Previous Ranking: 12
Record: 16-4 (15-3 ACC)
Louisville easily beat Clemson before suffering a road loss to Florida State. The Cardinals are in a tie for fifth-place in the ACC and travel to Pitt for Super Tuesday.
Despite the loss to FSU, Louisville got great bench play out of Penn transfer Tony Hicks and senior forward Mangok Mathiang. The two reserves scored 16 and 13 for the Cardinals, respectively. They were even more effective than the team’s starters, who scored just 28 of the team’s 68 points. The team was undone by a dismal 2-of-13 performance from deep. Rick Pitino’s squad has the defense to win a lot of games, but they absolutely must shoot better against better competition to be a long-term threat.
13. Virginia Cavaliers
Previous Ranking: 19
Record: 15-3 (5-2 ACC)
Virginia is on a four-game winning streak after beating Boston College and Georgia Tech last week, but get a stiffer test when the travel to Notre Dame Tuesday.
Junior Marial Shayok had himself a game against the Yellow Jackets with a season-high 19 points and four boards. His scoring output helped star London Perrantes who had just 11. Fellow perimeter player Devon Hall chipped in with 10. The Cavalier guards have been essential in keeping the team afloat as their interior play doesn’t have the constant threat it did before Austin Nichols was dismissed from the team.
12. UCLA Bruins
Previous Ranking: 9
Record: 19-2 (6-2 Pac-12)
UCLA dominated Arizona State before losing to Arizona. The Bruins are 0-2 so far against the Pac-12’s other legitimate contenders, but will still try to remain in the race when they visit USC Wednesday.
The rough home loss to the Wildcats did see a terrific performance from star freshman Lonzo Ball, who scored 24 points, collected six rebounds and had eight assists. That performance will help his quest to become the best point guard in the country. Four other Bruins scored in double-figures for the offensive-minded group, but this team’s defensive lapses could keep them out of the title conversation in March.
11. Butler Bulldogs
Previous Ranking: 15
Record: 17-3 (6-2 Big East)
Butler has assumed the mantle of second-best in the Big East after beating Marquette and coming back against DePaul on the road. The Bulldogs get sixth-place Seton Hall to start this week.
Kethan Savage was important in the overtime win against the Blue Demons. The senior scored 20 points off the bench on 7-of-13 shooting. He got help from Kamar Baldwin’s 18 and Kelan Martin’s 12. This team has already proven it can beat Villanova, so I can’t wait for the rematch in February to potentially decides who wins the Big East regular season title.
10. Florida State Seminoles
Previous Ranking: 13
Record: 18-2 (6-1 ACC)
Florida State rebounded with consecutive wins over top 25 Notre Dame and Louisville, both in Tallahassee, to remain atop the ACC standings in a tie for first. The Seminoles hit the road to challenge Georgia Tech in their next contest.
Freshman Jonathan Isaac is still in the mix for one of the nation’s better freshman after scoring 23 and 16 in the team’s two most recent wins. He also had 10 rebounds in those games and has recorded three straight double-doubles and five on the year. His play has been huge for a team that already had stars in the form of Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. I love this team’s potential with their balance; FSU ranks in the top 25 for both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
9. Wisconsin Badgers
Previous Ranking: 11
Record: 16-3 (5-1 Big Ten)
Wisconsin has won three straight since dropping to Purdue. Their last two victories were over Michigan and at Minnesota, and they have tied Maryland for the Big Ten lead. The Badgers host struggling Penn State next.
The overtime win over the Gophers was a breakout moment for forward Ethan Happ. The sophomore scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and swatted five shots in a thoroughly dominating performance. Nigel Hayes was also terrific with 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting. Wisconsin might be finding its footing again as the conference’s most talented team. That is bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.
8. Arizona Wildcats
Previous Ranking: 16
Record: 18-2 (7-0 Pac-12)
Sean Miller and Arizona continue to impress this season. They’ve suffered several setbacks, but are now in a tie for the Pac-12 lead with Oregon after beating both USC and UCLA on the road. They have a huge boost now that Allonzo Trier is back from a PED-related suspension. The Wildcats host the Washington State Cougars in their next showdown.
Six players scored in double-figures in the huge road win over the Bruins. Kobi Simmons led the way with 20 points and got plenty of help from Lauri Markkanen (18 points) and Trier’s 12 off the bench. This team becomes even more dangerous with their best player back.
7. Baylor Bears
Previous Ranking: 7
Record: 18-1 (6-1 Big 12)
Baylor has won three straight since dropping to West Virginia. Baylor took down Texas at home and TCU on the road to remain alone in second-place in the Big 12. The Bears will next host Texas Tech in Waco.
Manu Lecomte had a great game against the upstart Horned Frogs. The former Miami Hurricane scored 17 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out four assists in the nine-point win. Johnathan Motley was productive as usual with 15 points and eight boards himself. This team will be a solid contender to win the Big 12 crown, but the match-up with Kansas presents some interesting obstacles for Scott Drew’s team.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels
Previous Ranking: 6
Record: 18-3 (6-1 ACC)
North Carolina has fought their way to a tie for the ACC lead after beating Syracuse and Boston College last week. The Tar Heels will host Virginia Tech on Thursday to begin this week’s contests.
Justin Jackson scored 22 points to lead the team over BC and remains the team’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game. Kennedy Meeks has been near unstoppable in the last two victories with 17.5 points and 10.5 boards. This is Roy Williams’ best and most balanced team in several years and could win the ACC with their remaining schedule; the hardest game left is at Virginia.
5. Oregon Ducks
Previous Ranking: 5
Record: 18-2 (7-0 Pac-12)
Oregon remains in a tie for the Pac-12 lead after beating both Cal and Stanford in Eugene last week. The Ducks will hit the road for a trip to Utah and colorado. The trip became a bit harder after star forward Dillon Brooks went down with a foot sprain. It is currently unknown how much time the junior will miss.
Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis stepped up big in Brooks’ absence. The two seniors combined for 31 points and 14 rebounds in the Ducks’ win over Stanford. Their talent and leadership will be vital until Brooks is cleared to return. Jordan Bell also has a great opportunity to produce more after scoring 26 points and grabbing six boards against Cal. Oregon still has plenty of weapons overall, but there is no doubt Brooks’ absence hurts their title chances.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
Previous Ranking: 4
Record: 17-2 (7-0 SEC)
Kentucky remains the cream of the SEC crop after holding off Mississippi State on the road and dominating South Carolina in Lexington. The Wildcats will visit Knoxville and the Tennessee Volunteers before a showdown with Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge this weekend.
Kentucky’s usual suspects showed up in the win over the Gamecocks. Malik Monk scored 27 and Edrice ‘Bam’ Adebayo had 18 in the 16-point win. Point guard De’Aaron Fox scored just eight and exited early with a sprained ankle. Isaiah Briscoe will likely assume much of Fox’s load should the frosh miss time along with senior reserve guard Dominique Hawkins. Kentucky is still a title contender even if Fox misses a few games.
3. Villanova Wildcats
Previous Ranking: 3
Record: 19-1 (7-1 Big East)
Villanova still stands alone in the Big East. They beat Seton Hall and Providence last week, but get a road date at confident Marquette next.
Josh Hart led the Wildcats in their recent victory over the Friars with 25 points and six boards. Fellow senior Kris Jenkins had 19, four and four, and sophomore Miles Bridges chipped in 15. Butler is charging hard for the Big East crown but has to go through ‘Nova in Philadelphia first.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Previous Ranking: 2
Record: 18-1 (7-0 Big 12)
Kansas had themselves a nice week while winning at Iowa State and holding off Texas in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will travel to perhaps their most difficult road game Tuesday when they visit West Virginia in Morgantown.
In Kansas’ defiant victory against the Cyclones and Hilton Magic, Frank Mason III scored 16 points and had six rebounds. He seemed to hit a big shot every time ISU cut the lead to one possession late. He got a huge boost from his post players Landen Lucas and Carlton Brag Jr.g. The two combined for 24 points and 12 rebounds against the overmatched Cyclone frontcout, but faltered against Texas’ young size. The KU guards are more than capable of taking this team far this March.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Previous Ranking: 1
Record: 20-0 (8-0 WCC)
The nation’s lone unbeaten has yet to face a challenge in WCC play. Coming into their game against Portland, Gonzaga had won its conference games by an average of 25 points.
Nigel Willams-Goss led the Bulldogs in their win over Portland at home with 15 points and three assists. Przemek Karnowski was the only other player in double-figures with 12, but five other players scored at least six points. This team has too many weapons to expect a real challenge, at least until the postseason.
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- Allonzo Trier
- Arizona Wildcats
- Baylor Bears
- Butler Bulldogs
- Caleb Swanigan
- Cincinnati Bearcats
- Creighton Bluejays
- Devontae Cacok
- Duke Blue Devils
- Esa Ahmad
- Ethan Happ
- Florida State Seminoles
- Giddy Potts
- Gonzaga Bulldogs
- Isaiah Zierden
- Jayson Tatum
- Jonathan Isaac
- Jordan Bell
- Kansas Jayhawks
- Kansas State Wildcats
- Kelan Martin
- Kennedy Meeks
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Lonzo Ball
- Louisville Cardinals
- Malik Monk
- Marcus Foster
- Marial Shayok
- Maryland Terrapins
- Maurice Watson Jr.
- Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
- North Carolina Tar Heels
- North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish
- Oregon Ducks
- Purdue Boilermakers
- Reggie Upshaw Jr.
- Saint Mary's Gaels
- Shake Milton
- SMU Mustangs
- South Carolina Gamecocks
- Tarik Phillip
- Tony Hicks
- UCLA Bruins
- V.J. Beachem
- Villanova Wildcats
- Virginia Cavaliers
- West Virginia Mountaineers
- Wisconsin Badgers
- Xavier Rathan-Mayes