College basketball is at its best when its historically elite programs are at their best. Since 1965, only four Final Fours have occurred without at least one of blue bloods Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA. We knew the first five teams from that list would be mainstays at the top of the rankings this year, but there were still some doubts about UCLA. After the Bruins knocked off #1 Kentucky for the second straight season (this time on the road), every blue blood is in the the Top Ten–something that hasn’t happened since 1994. Virginia wilted against West Virginia’s press, and Xavier became yet another victim to surprisingly strong Baylor. UCLA and Baylor replace them this week. Let’s get into it.
10. North Carolina (Last Week: 3)
I would be the first person to tell you how raucous Assembly Hall gets on game day. But even I am shocked at how overwhelmed UNC looked for most of its loss to Indiana, especially as the Hoosiers raced out to a 26-9 lead. Justin Jackson was the only reason the Tar Heels were able to stay somewhat competitive, but the lack of help ultimately doomed UNC. After the game ol’ Roy stirred the pot by observing (correctly) how much better IU’s crowd was than a typical Dean Dome crowd: “We were not ready for the intensity, the enthusiasm, anything that you want to talk about in the first half. But it was a wonderful crowd. Gosh. I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game. And that was just … congratulations to them, their fans, their students. It was a big-time crowd.” He’s not wrong: it’s depressing how relatively quiet UNC’s home games are for a blue blood. That’s what happens when you give all the prime seats to boosters instead of students.
9. Creighton (Last Week: 9)
The Bluejays took care of business with wins over Buffalo and Akron, but stay put due to big wins by other teams. Defense has continued to be a concern, not necessarily to the point where it’s affecting the outcome of games, but it has to be a troubling trend as conference play (and stronger competition) approaches. What isn’t an issue is Creighton’s shooting–the Jays are the only team in America to hit at least 50 percent of its shots in every game this year. Creighton will play its first true road game against in-state rival Nebraska tomorrow.
8. Kentucky (Last Week: 1)
Lost in all the early season hullabaloo about how good Kentucky is is the fact that the Wildcats still have not beaten a top 25 team. Of course, Michigan State was ranked at the time it played Kentucky, but the Spartans have continued to struggle. The Wildcats’ only other Power 5 win is over Arizona State (89th in KenPom). So Saturday’s clash was a huge opportunity for Kentucky to prove that it was the best team in America. And boy, did it flop. UCLA eviscerated the Wildcat defense with 53/44/81 shooting splits to snap Kentucky’s 42 game winning streak and in the process raise some questions about Kentucky’s ceiling (though to be fair, these questions seem to arise every year during the non-conference slate). The Wildcats have a chance to get back on track against a good Valpo team on Wednesday.
7. UCLA (Last Week: Not Ranked)
UCLA was never going to be a national contender with Bryce Alford as its best player. Fortunately, he’s only the third or fourth-best player on this year’s roster. Freshmen TJ Leaf (17.2 points, 9.4 rebounds) and Lonzo Ball (14.6 points, 9.3 assists, 5 rebounds) both nearly average a double-double, and six Bruins overall average double figures in scoring. On Saturday, it was those freshmen who dominated Kentucky. Leaf finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Ball stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, seven assists, and six rebounds as UCLA got whatever it wanted offensively. The only game for the Bruins this week comes against Michigan.
6. Indiana (Last Week: 10)
Indiana has played in three games this year either against or as the #3 team in the country. All three times, the third-ranked team lost. Most recently, #3 North Carolina came into Assembly Hall and got thoroughly outplayed. IU didn’t necessarily shoot very well, but made up for it in other ways: shutting down Joel Berry, neutralizing UNC’s front court advantage (and actually tieing the battle of the boards), and a balanced scoring attack that saw every starter reach double figures. It’s easy to see how important OG Anunoby is to this team; the Hoosiers followed his lead and attacked the basket time and time again rather than settling for jumpers, and shut down one of the best offenses in America. Anunoby sprained his ankle at the end of the night, but in the long run it might not be a bad thing. Just as Anunoby started to develop and excel after getting more minutes in the wake of James Blackmon Jr.’s injury last year, the same already looks to be true for Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis. Davis has had back to back 14 point games since Anunoby’s injury (remember, this is a guy who wasn’t even on campus until August), and Morgan posted his first career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds against SIUE. The Hoosiers will always have some measure of maddening inconsistency, but things are definitely looking up.
5. Baylor (Last Week: Not Ranked)
So far this season, Baylor has beaten #4 Oregon, #24 Michigan State, #10 Louisville, and #7 Xavier. Even more impressive is the fact that only one of those games was closer than 15 points. The Bears aren’t flashy, but use their physicality and superior athleticism to impose their will. Johnathan Motley and Jo-Lual Acuil Jr. form an imposing interior duo, and Miami transfer Manu Lecomte has been a steadying force on the perimeter. Baylor has been pretty reliant on its defense as its offense can be susceptible to extreme droughts (see the first half of the Louisville game), which could present issues as the season progresses. But for now, the Bears look like a more talented version of Cincinnati. Baylor has the entire week off before an extremely weak finish to non-conference play, but hey, they’ve earned it.
4. Gonzaga (Last Week: 8)
I invited you to join me on the Luke Kennard bandwagon earlier this year. Luckily for you, there’s even more room for you on the Gonzaga basketball bandwagon. As I said last week, every year people harp on how Gonzaga is overrated or “ain’t played nobody PAWWWWWWWL!”, effectively admitting that they don’t follow college basketball. Most recently, Przemek Karnowski dominated in the post and the Zags’ defense shut down Arizona in a wire-to-wire win. Gonzaga has a chance for another win against a Pac-12 team when it takes on Washington and freshman phenom Markelle Fultz.
3. Duke (Last Week: 5)
Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden are back (oh, and Luke Kennard had a 35 point game last week). As luck would have it, Grayson Allen (toe) and Frank Jackson (foot) are now struggling with injuries of their own. Both players missed Duke’s 39-point win over Maine, but are likely to suit up against Florida tonight. The Blue Devils truly force opponents to pick their poison, boasting the best offense in America with a myriad of weapons. After Florida, Duke reignites a 1990s rivalry when it travels to UNLV.
2. Kansas (Last Week: 4)
Kansas cruised to wins over Long Beach State and Stanford last week, but the real story is what Bill Self could accomplish tonight against UMKC. Should Kansas win, Self will earn his 600th career victory. If it seems like Self has reached this milestone quickly, it’s because he has. Only eight coaches have gotten to 600 wins in fewer games, and the list is unsurprisingly comprised of legendary names like Wooden, Smith, Rupp, Iba, Allen (whose fieldhouse Kansas plays in every home game) and others. It’s truly remarkable how dominant Self has been at Kansas, both at home and against the rest of the Big 12. He has the chance to add another chapter to a hall of fame career tonight.
1. Villanova (Last Week: 2)
While chaos was happening everywhere else in the college basketball world, Villanova quietly went about its business–blowing out Big 5 foes Penn and Saint Joe’s. The Wildcats play a third straight Big 5 opponent in LaSalle before facing Notre Dame on Saturday. Villanova’s defense (9th in KenPom) will be put to the test by the hot-shooting Irish (42.9 percent from behind the arc).