The first four weeks of the college basketball season have provided all the excitement and unpredictability that we expected from a season that appears to be more wide open than any in recent memory. With that being the case, it should be noted that power rankings for the sport in early December are far from being the most fool-proof task in the world. And yet, here we go.
1. Michigan State Spartans (9-0)
Last Week: Beat Louisville (71-67); Beat Binghamton (76-33)
This Week: vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore (Wednesday); vs. Florida (Saturday)
Thanks to a resume propped up by a Wooden Legacy title and wins over Kansas and Louisville, Michigan State is college basketball's No. 1 team for the first time since a three-week stint in late November/early December, 2013. No player in the country has been more impressive through the first month of the season than Denzel Valentine, who heads into the middle of December averaging 19.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game.
While Tom Izzo's team has been prone to some head-scratching early season losses over the years, it looks like this bunch might be able to hold onto the top spot for a while. Saturday's home game against a still mysterious Florida squad would seem to be the only major hurdle on Sparty's path to heading into Big Ten play with an unblemished record.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels (7-1)
Last Week: Beat Maryland (89-81); Beat Davidson (98-65)
This Week: At Texas (Saturday)
The college hoops world got a reminder of why North Carolina was the preseason pick of so many to win it all this year when the Heels hung 89 on Maryland in the most entertaining game of the season thus far. Marcus Paige was sensational in his return, hitting 4 of 5 shots from beyond the arc and scoring 20 points in the victory over the the then-second ranked Terps.
It's hard to put a value on just how much a healthy Paige means for Roy Williams' team. Not only is he expected to be the team's leader in assists and points (as he was a season ago), but his mere presence on the court provides for big men like Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, and also forces opposing defenses to try and stop fellow guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt without any help.
Don't be surprised if we look back at UNC's early season loss to Northern Iowa the same way we now look at the Tar Heels' season-opening loss to Santa Clara in 2004-05, when they played without star point guard Raymond Felton.
3. Kansas Jayhawks (6-1)
Last Week: Beat Loyola (MD) (94-61); Beat Harvard (75-69)
This Week: vs. Holy Cross (Wednesday); vs. Oregon State (Saturday)
The Jayhawks reminded everyone that they're still a bit of a work in progress on Saturday when they struggled with a Harvard team that isn't anywhere near as formidable as the squads that Tommy Amaker has taken to the tournament in each of the last four seasons. Especially troubling was the way the Kansas frontcourt struggled against the Crimson, as KU was out-rebounded by eight, and Perry Ellis was the only non-guard who was able to score more than 5 points. Cheick Diallo is a tremendous talent, but that fact might not be overly apparent until Kansas gets into the heart of Big 12 play.
4. Maryland Terrapins (7-1)
Last Week: Lost to North Carolina (89-81); Beat St. Francis (Pa) (96-55)
This Week: vs. Connecticut (Tuesday); vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore (Saturday)
There might not be a transfer in college basketball who has been more impressive through the season's first four weeks than Robert Carter. While the rest of the world focuses on Melo Trimble, Carter has somewhat quietly been the only Maryland player to score in double figures in each of its eight games this season. He posted a season-high 20 points in just 19 minutes when the Terps rebounded from their first loss of 2015-16 with a 96-55 victory over St. Francis last Friday.
5. Duke Blue Devils (8-1)
Last Week: Beat Indiana (94-74); Beat Buffalo (82-59)
This Week: No Games
Brandon Ingram has looked like a different player since appearing totally unready for his first spotlight game against Kentucky last month. The soon-to-be lottery pick has connected on 20 of his last 34 field goal attempts, and has notched a combined 44 points and 14 rebounds in Duke's two most recent wins. Now he gets to tackle college finals for the first (and probably only) time, an exercise which will keep the Devils off the court until they host Georgia Southern on Dec. 15.
6. Kentucky Wildcats (7-1)
Last Week: Lost to UCLA (87-77)
This Week: vs. Eastern Kentucky (Wednesday); vs. Arizona State (Saturday)
I am fully aware that Kentucky beat Duke relatively handily on a neutral court already this season, but we have already passed the point in the season where a head-to-head result can be used as incontestable evidence of one team's superiority over another.
UK's loss to UCLA, in which the Wildcats trailed the Bruins by double digits for nearly the entirety of the contest, allowed us to say what we've wanted to say for a couple of weeks now: the Cats simply have not been overly impressive since their win over Duke. Maybe it's because the bar has been set unreachably high by the past couple of UK teams, or maybe it's because there are serious, serious concerns with the frontcourt production of Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress so far. Kentucky will have a good chance to alleviate some of those fears this Saturday when they host an Arizona State team that is coming off a pair of impressive victories over Creighton and Texas A&M.
7. Villanova Wildcats (7-0)
Last Week: Beat Saint Joseph's (86-72)
This Week: vs. Oklahoma (Monday); vs. La Salle (Sunday)
Villanova has kind of been like the Merle Dixon of this season so far: prominent and oft-discussed at the beginning, and then gone but not totally forgotten for a longer period of time than anyone would have originally guessed. The Wildcats' return to the spotlight comes Monday against Oklahoma, when they get their first real chance this season to prove that they will once again be demanding a starring role for the next four months.
8. Oklahoma Sooners (5-0)
Last Week: Beat Central Arkansas (111-68)
This Week: vs. Villanova (Monday); vs. Oral Roberts (Saturday)
Everything that was just said about Villanova could accurately be used to describe Oklahoma's current situation as well. Early season wins over Memphis and Wisconsin haven't provided nearly the cachet as most would have thought a month ago, and with LSU (a Jan. 30 opponent) also off to a disappointing start, Monday night's showdown against Villanova may be Buddy Hield and company's only chance to make a major non-conference splash.
9. Iowa State Cyclones (6-0)
Last Week: Beat North Dakota State (84-64)
This Week: vs. Buffalo (Monday); vs. Iowa (Thursday); vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Sunday)
If there's one area where the Steve Prohm era of Iowa State hoops appears like it could be superior to the Fred Hoiberg-led one, it's on the defensive end. Through six games (against admittedly less than stellar competition), Cyclone opponents have turned it over 13.8 times per game and are shooting just 38.8 percent from the field. Iowa State is also averaging 7.0 steals per game, an impressive effort led by point guard Monte Morris, who has 12 thefts by himself.
10. Purdue Boilermakers (8-0)
Last Week: Beat Pittsburgh (72-59); Beat New Mexico (70-58)
This Week: vs. IUPUI (Monday); vs. Howard (Wednesday); vs. Youngstown State (Saturday)
The good times in West Lafayette appear poised to get even better, as head coach Matt Painter said Sunday that he expects Rapheal Davis to return to the court some time this week. The reigning Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year was averaging 11.6 points per game before suffering a sprained MCL in practice on Nov. 25.
11. Virginia Cavaliers (7-1)
Last Week: Beat Ohio State (64-58); Beat William & Mary (67-52)
This Week: vs. West Virginia (Tuesday)
There might not be a team that college basketball fans have been more split over through the season's first month than Virginia. The good news for both doubters and believers is that the Cavaliers are now heading into a three-game stretch against West Virginia, Villanova and Cal that should leave little doubt as to where they stand in the national landscape heading into conference play.
12. Xavier Musketeers (8-0)
Last Week: Beat Western Kentucky (95-64)
This Week: vs. Wright State (Tuesday); vs. Cincinnati (Saturday)
Scoring 95 points against Western Kentucky wasn't nearly as impressive as Chris Mack's team holding the highest-scoring offense in Conference USA to just 64 points. It's going to take a similar defensive effort for the Musketeers to notch their third straight win over arch-rival Cincinnati on Saturday.
13. Arizona Wildcats (7-1)
Last Week: Beat Gonzaga (68-63)
This Week: vs. Fresno State (Wednesday); vs. Missouri (Sunday)
The Wildcats let it be known that they are still the program of note out West by erasing a 10-point halftime deficit to topple Gonzaga on their home court. Allonzo Trier's 14-point, 6-rebound effort gave notice to the rest of the Pac-12 that the freshman figures to be rounding into form once 'Zona gets into the meat of conference play.
14. Louisville Cardinals (6-1)
Last Week: Lost to Michigan State (71-67); Beat Grand Canyon (111-63)
This Week: vs. Eastern Michigan (Saturday)
You might not believe in the Cardinals even after they pushed No. 1 Michigan State to the brink in East Lansing last week, but Tom Izzo certainly does.
"I was more impressed with Louisville tonight than I was with Michigan State," Izzo said after the game. "That's a top 10, top 15 team right now, and they're only going to get better. I can't tell you how impressed I was with them."
Unfortunately, the Cardinals aren't going to have another opportunity to impress anyone until they head to Lexington to face Kentucky on the day after Christmas.
15. Providence Friars (8-1)
Last Week: Beat Hartford (89-66); Beat Rhode Island (74-72)
This Week: vs. Boston College (Wednesday); vs. Bryant (Saturday)
Kris Dunn demands most of the headlines when it comes to Providence basketball, and deservedly so, he might be the best player in the country. Still, it's the development of a reliable sidekick like Ben Bentil that allows the Friars to be making appearances in power rankings like these.
16. West Virginia Mountaineers (7-0)
Last Week: Beat Kennesaw State (87-54)
This Week: vs. Virginia (Tuesday); vs. Louisiana Monroe (Sunday)
There has been a buzz from "folks in the know" in Morgantown since before the start of the season that this might quietlybe the best team Bob Huggins has had at West Virginia. Yes, even better than the group he took to the Final Four in 2010. Their first real chance to prove that this talk could be legitimate comes Tuesday night against Virginia.
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