No. 1: Syracuse (20-0, 7-0 ACC)
Last Week: Pulled away at Wake Forest, 67-57; vanquished Duke, 91-89 (OT).
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova.
Losses: Jim Boeheim has surely lost his poker face over a Denny's joke or two so far this season.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages1: 1.21 points per possession (PPP), 1.08 PPP allowed.
I doubt there will be an easier call this season than installing Syracuse as the No. 1 team in my mostly arbitrary rankings on the heels of that epic, epochal win over Duke on Saturday. The Orange played one of the best games I've seen a team play this year, and had established their baseline of excellence, getting next in line if Arizona lost — and then Arizona lost. I actually think Syracuse winning that game narrowly reflects really, really well on Duke, too — I'll get to that — but there's no arguing that the Orange got an immensely impressive win on a massive stage that will sway many people, myself included, to believe deeply in them for the rest of the year.
There's little else to say in praise of 'Cuse that the Orange didn't already say with their play during those magical hours.
No. 2: Florida (19-2, 8-0 SEC)
Last Week: Pulled away at Mississippi State, 64-53; smithereened Texas A&M, 69-36.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, vs. Memphis (neutral site), at Arkansas.
Losses: at Wisconsin, at UConn.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.10 PPP, 0.79 PPP allowed.
And so we're on to harder things, like restraining myself from making Florida the 1B to Syracuse's 1A out of pure homerism. The Gators have actually been more dominant than the Orange of late, especially at home. That insane defensive efficiency mark is significantly better than the best defensive numbers in the country this season (Arizona leads the nation at 0.86 PPP allowed), thanks to shacklings of a very good Tennessee team and a Texas A&M team that would struggle to find the proximity of good with a Garmin in their respective visits to Gainesville.
Billy Donovan called off the dogs at the ends of both games, too, inserting walk-ons that allowed both foes to score a bit and make absurd defensive performances look marginally saner. And though the Gators' recent offensive efficiency is obviously very good, if not great, it's also not inflated like Syracuse's is by its shootout win Saturday. In fact, given that Florida's had two of its six worst effective field goal percentages of the year in its last four games, it might be artificially low.
I think Florida playing Syracuse at a neutral site right now might be essentially a coin flip proposition, and it's important to remember that we haven't seen Florida with Chris Walker yet. But the SEC has served up just two potential NCAA Tournament teams to the Gators so far, and those gaudy numbers came in games against overmatched teams. Meanwhile, Syracuse just beat a possible national champion that was throwing haymakers. Arguing that Syracuse and Florida are 1A and 1B is impossible without admitting Syracuse would have the upper hand on 1A — and that makes Syracuse No. 1, and Florida No. 2.
No. 3: Arizona (21-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
Last Week: Squeaked by at Stanford, 60-57; pipped by California, 60-58.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), at Michigan, at UCLA, at San Diego State, vs. Arizona State.
Losses: at California.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 0.99 PPP, 0.90 PPP allowed.
ESPN's Andy Katz sparked a Twitter tropical storm (translation: he pissed off a couple Florida fans) when he suggested that the Gators deserved to move past Arizona in the rankings but not snag a No. 1 seed, while 'Zona's top seed remained safe. He was right on the latter count: Arizona's résumé is extraordinary, far and away the nation's best, and the Wildcats can trot out the same "But we've never lost at full strength!" excuse for Justin Cobbs beating them at the buzzer with Brandon Ashley out that Florida fans can deploy in discussing the Gators' losses at Wisconsin (sans Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith) and Connecticut (sans Wilbekin, who might have been able to slow Shabazz Napier, for the final few minutes).
But Katz was also right in his first assertion. Arizona's bogged down offensively as it gets into the heart of Pac-12 play, and though I'll admit to not catching any of the game against Cal live, the games against Utah and Stanford that I did see showed me Arizona staying the fantastic defensive team it has been all year, and struggling to find consistency on offense. Losing Ashley to a foot injury for the rest of the season hurts the 'Cats a lot on both ends of the floor, as our Scott Coleman and College Basketball Talk's Rob Dauster noted at length on Sunday. Arizona's still going to be formidable as long as Nick Johnson remains fearless and Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon help police the paint, but the Wildcats were using what amounted to a seven-man rotation with Ashley. Sean Miller was always going to have to pilot his team smartly through the Pac-12, arguably the nation's most brutally balanced league, but now he's probably going to have to resign himself to absorbing a couple of losses and figuring out how to learn from them.
No. 4: Wichita State (20-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley)
Last Week: Powdered Loyola Chicago, 57-45; turntabled Evansville, 81-65.
Best Wins: at Saint Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. BYU (neutral site).
Losses: Just one of those since March 10, 2013.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.12 PPP, 0.89 PPP allowed.
Wichita State just keeps playing great basketball — up until Saturday, its offensive and defensive efficiency numbers were eerily similar to Florida's on the year — well off the national radar. The latest feat: Turning on the high beams after falling down 29-14 against Evansville, blinding the Aces with a 25-4 to finish the first half, then never letting them get closer than four points in the second half and trotting away to a 16-point win. The Shockers' lone single-digit win in 2014 came against Missouri State on January 11, and they've won each of the seven games since that one by at least 12 points.
The last high hurdles to Wichita State's unbeaten regular season come this week, with trips to Valley stalwarts Indiana State and Northern Iowa. If the Shockers survive those two games, KenPom's system gives them about a 70 percent chance of finishing their final six without taking that L.
No. 5: Duke (16-5, 6-3 ACC)
Last Week: Bombed Pittsburgh, 80-65; died hard at Syracuse, 91-89 (OT).
Best Wins: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Virginia, vs. Michigan, vs. UCLA (neutral site), vs. Florida State.
Losses: vs. Arizona, Kansas (neutral sites), at Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Syracuse.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.25 PPP, 1.02 PPP allowed.
Yeah, Duke lost its fifth game of the season on Saturday against the Orange, but that's unquestionably the best loss of the season by any team, right? It also capped off a five-game run of offense (mostly three-point shooting) that was so good it lifted Duke past Creighton for the top spot in offensive efficiency in the country.
No, Duke hasn't won a game against a truly great team away from Cameron, but no one had even really come close to lighting up Syracuse's zone like that this season, and Duke did plenty of its damage with Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson on the bench with foul trouble (or, y'know, five fouls) and with Marshall Plumlee riding the pine because it was not his night. The patience and shooting from a team that was essentially five wing players for much of the night was exquisite, especially because the Orange extended the zone out so far by game's end that perimeter shots should have been nearly impossible to get. Duke got enough of them to hang until the final shot, and had a call or two swung the Blue Devils' way late (irony!), they would be looked at as the ACC's big dog right now.
So, yes, Duke is No. 5.
No. 6: Cincinnati (21-2, 10-0 American)
Last Week: Outlasted Louisville on road, 69-66; survived South Florida, 50-45.
Best Wins: at Louisville, at Memphis, vs. Pittsburgh (neutral site).
Losses: at New Mexico, vs. Xavier (neutral site).
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.08 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed.
How easy it was to dismiss Cincinnati in late December after the Bearcats had followed a 7-0 start (against a pathetic schedule in seven home games) with a 1-2 stretch that included decisive losses to New Mexico and Xavier and an attempted murder of the sport of basketball against Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden. But Cincy hasn't lost since falling to the Musketeers, and just added the second of a possible four excellent road wins available to it in AAC play by taking Louisville's best punch and shrugging it off.
Mick Cronin's crew plays great defense, which compensates for an offense that is perilously dependent on Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson — good thing no one saw that brutal win over USF, in which Bearcats not named Kilpatrick or Jackson had 17 points combined — and will have a chance for a third excellent road win this week at SMU.
No. 7: Creighton (18-3, 8-1 Big East)
Last Week: Cruised by Georgetown, 76-63; survived St. John's, 63-60.
Best Wins: vs. Arizona State (neutral site), vs. Xavier, at Villanova
Losses: vs. San Diego State, George Washington (neutral site), at Providence
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.17 PPP, 1.05 PPP allowed.
Creighton and Duke are twins like Florida and Wichita State are, except with phenomenal offenses and suspect defenses. Creighton is somehow a more complete team, too. The Bluejays have a better frontcourt, a better workhorse (Doug McDermott may not have Jabari Parker's ceiling, but he's the nation's best player), and shooters that are actually better than Duke's. Coach K's team has been hotter of late, and the ACC's stiffer than the Big East (which explains the two-spot difference here), but both teams are going to be trendy picks to catch fire and snip nets in March.
No. 8: Villanova (19-2, 7-1 Big East)
Last Week: Stopped Georgetown, 65-60; trounced Temple, 90-74.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, Iowa (neutral site), vs. Providence
Losses: at Syracuse, vs. Creighton.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.17 PPP, 1.16 PPP allowed.
Villanova is one of the forgotten excellent teams of this season, hurt by the departure of many of its former Big East brothers and hampered by the memories that Creighton's assault on the net and Syracuse's dominant victory seared into many minds. I couldn't justify having Villanova ahead of Creighton because of this video, and that sky-high PPP allowed is essentially due to that loss still being in the Wildcats' two-week window. But VU still has wins over Kansas and Iowa on consecutive days at a neutral site to its credit, and neither of its two losses this year was to a bad team. There are worse fates than quiet excellence.
No. 9: Kansas (16-5, 7-1 Big 12)
Last Week: Soared past Iowa State, 92-81; crashed at Texas, 81-69.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), vs./at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Colorado, at Florida, vs. San Diego State, at Texas
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.20 PPP, 1.09 PPP allowed.
No. 9 feels a little low for Kansas, especially given how good the Jayhawks had looked in running their Big 12 record to 7-0, but the egg they laid at Texas on Saturday stinks even worse with time. Kansas never led after the score was 2-0, and every player Bill Self used but Wayne Selden turned in a clunker. Andrew Wiggins had the worst game of his collegiate career, going 2-for-12 for seven points and getting bullied by a rugged Texas frontcourt. Worse, Kansas did just fine when firing away from deep, yet resolved to keep attacking by going at the rim against a team that digs in in the paint, the sort of faulty gameplan that Bill Self doesn't usually permit.
Kansas isn't any less great because of a lapse like that, but recency bias is part of the fun of doing power rankings, right? A dismal day against Texas, even if Texas is stepping up its level of play, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
No. 10: San Diego State (19-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
Last Week: Beat Colorado State, 65-56.
Best Wins: vs. Creighton (neutral site), at Kansas
Losses: vs. Arizona.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.06 PPP, 0.87 PPP allowed.
Other than Kawhi Leonard, there's been nothing spectacular about the Steve Fisher era at San Diego State. And given Leonard's unshowy brilliance, it's arguable that there has, in fact, been nothing spectacular about the Aztecs since Fisher arrived in 1999. He just won his 300th game at the school on Saturday, something that is liable to stun casual observers, but speaks to how solid his teams are, year after year.
This season's outfit is little different, with one loss to what was the nation's best team, two superb wins away from home, and nothing else out of the ordinary. Xavier Thames being very, very good at basketball goes virtually unnoticed nationally because the Aztecs have no profile. It almost feels like Fisher prefers it that way.
No. 11: Michigan State (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten)
Last Week: Outlasted Iowa in overtime, 71-69; lost to Georgetown at MSG, 64-60.
Best Wins: vs. Kentucky, Oklahoma (neutral sites), at Texas, at Iowa.
Losses: vs. North Carolina, vs. Michigan, vs. Georgetown (neutral site).
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.06 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed.
No. 12: Iowa (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten)
Last Week: Fell vs. Michigan State in overtime, 71-69; finished Illinois, 81-74.
Best Wins: vs. Xavier (neutral site), at Ohio State.
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Iowa State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, vs. Michigan State
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.09 PPP, 1.00 PPP allowed.
No. 13: Michigan (16-5, 8-1 Big Ten)
Last Week: Beat Purdue, 75-66; sputtered at Indiana in 63-52 loss.
Best Wins: vs. Florida State (neutral site), at Wisconsin, vs. Iowa, at Michigan State
Losses: at Iowa State, vs. Charlotte (neutral site), at Duke, vs. Arizona, at Indiana
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.13 PPP, 1.08 PPP allowed.
Making sense of the Big Ten is asking for a headache. In the last two weeks, Michigan State beat Iowa, but lost to Michigan and Georgetown; Michigan beat Michigan State and Iowa, but lost to Indiana; Iowa pasted Northwestern; Northwestern beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin; Nebraska beat Ohio State, Minnesota, and Indiana, but lost to Penn State; Ohio State lost at home to Penn State, but beat Wisconsin in Madison; Wisconsin lost three of four; and Minnesota managed to follow a win over Wisconsin with losses to Nebraska and Northwestern. At least Purdue and Illinois had the common courtesy to both go 0-4.
Michigan State is still probably the class of the Big Ten, and might have had a different fortnight with the sidelined Branden Dawson available, but it has been outscored (by two points) over its last four games. Iowa took the Spartans to overtime, so it only seems fair to keep them around, but the Hawkeyes have a lot of good losses and few great wins. Michigan beat both teams after beating Wisconsin at Wisconsin ... but got beaten by Indiana on Sunday while no one was watching.
You figure this shit out. I can't.
No. 14: Virginia (17-5, 8-1 ACC)
Last Week: Topped Notre Dame, 68-53; out-molasses'd Pittsburgh, 48-45.
Best Wins: vs. SMU (neutral site), vs./at Florida State, vs. North Carolina, at Pittsburgh.
Losses: vs. VCU, vs. Wisconsin, at Green Bay, at Tennessee, at Duke.
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.10 PPP, 0.88 PPP allowed.
Quiet as kept, Tony Bennett has gotten Virginia's defense to a level of stinginess heretofore not seen in his career of coaching glacial teams with great defenses, and is finally positioned to take the Cavaliers to one of the top lines of a bracket in March. The Cavs have taken care of business in conference, falling only on the road at Duke — where they became the first team since December to stay within single digits of the Blue Devils in Cameron — and tallying nice wins over Pittsburgh and North Carolina.
Virginia's probably going to go about as far as Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris combine to take it, but if Justin Anderson can emerge as a reliable third scorer, the best-case scenario might be a Final Four appearance.
No. 15: Saint Louis (20-2, 7-0 Atlantic 10)
Last Week: Pummeled Richmond, 77-57; survived George Mason, 87-81, in overtime.
Best Wins: vs. Richmond, at Dayton.
Losses: vs. Wisconsin (un sitio neutral), vs. Wichita State
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.17 PPP, 1.02 PPP allowed.
The Billikens' only losses happened in Mexico and at the hands of a team that has not lost this year, so there's no questioning their ability to beat teams below their level. But having to go to overtime with George Mason, currently winless in the Atlantic 10, does not reflect particularly well on this team Good thing that was the smothering defense's worst outing of the year, by far; it's theoretically out of Saint Louis's system before a five-game stretch bookended by meetings with VCU, and the Billikens have been red-hot on offense of late to compensate.
No. 16: Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 SEC)
Last Week: Scuffled to loss at LSU, 87-82; rebounded on road at Missouri, 84-79.
Best Wins: vs. Louisville, vs. Tennessee, at Missouri
Losses: vs. Michigan State (neutral site), vs. Baylor (in Dallas), at North Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.13 PPP, 0.98 PPP allowed.
On one hand, Kentucky makes a lot of sense to me. This is a young team without a go-to guy, and it has a tendency to look rudderless at times, especially in bigger games and on the road. On a lot of nights, Kentucky will just out-talent the other side. On the nights when things get harder, the Wildcats wind themselves tighter, and end up in bad positions that they can't totally get themselves out of.
This Kentucky team also reminds me of last year's Florida team, similarly bedeviled by close games and road showdowns. These 'Cats have about six players who could be in the NBA next year, and feel like they're always a half-step from figuring it all out. Last season's overachieving Gators had one second-round pick and felt like they were fully optimized, except for the final five minutes of this or that game, but they struggle in such similar ways.
On the other hand, I find it really hard to figure out which Kentucky team — the assertive one that plays hard on both ends, makes shots, and keeps its foot down, or the bewildered one that allows teams with less talent to outplay and punk it — is on the floor at any given minute of a UK game. The bewildered bunch put the 'Cats in their grave at LSU, only for the assertive bunch to nearly dig themselves out of it. The assertive crew then dominated Missouri for about 25 minutes, disappeared for 10, and reappeared when necessary to rescue Big Blue in Columbia.
I imagine John Calipari really enjoys coaching one of those two teams, and frequently wishes he could banish the other one to Sri Lanka. Or something.
Outside Looking In:
Kansas became the first team to beat four consecutive ranked teams since 1997 when it finished a gauntlet with a win over Baylor in January, and Texas matched that feat by beating Kansas. ... Pittsburgh has four losses — all to teams in the top 13 of the Savory Sixteen. ... Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Baylor are the Big 12's version of Michigan State, Iowa, and Michigan; none is better than 2-2 in its last four games. ... Louisville needs to actually win one of these games against a good team at some point. ... Oklahoma is 3-1 in its past four, but two of those games came against Big 12 bottom-dwellers TCU and Texas Tech. ... Ohio State and Wisconsin are not as bad as their last two weeks would suggest.
I calculated the Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages based on points per possession in games since January 20 from KenPom's possessions totals for all teams listed. For most teams, that was four games; Syracuse, San Diego State, and Saint Louis all played just three games in the last 14 days. Obviously, the smallish sample size means Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages (please help me find a better name) aren't the most predictive measure in the world, but it's meant to be sort of a thermometer, telling us how hot (in, say, Florida's case) or lukewarm (in Arizona or Michigan State's case) a team has been of late.