I feel like I have to say this every year, so here it goes: there is great basketball being played in the Mountain/Pacific time zones. At the moment, there are four legitimate title threats out west and there are plenty more high-quality teams (St. Mary’s, USC, Utah, etc.). Gonzaga is as good (if not better) than anyone in the country, UCLA can outscore anyone, Oregon is the hottest team in America, and Arizona just added its best player to an already great team. There’s a reason to watch #Pac12AfterDark besides Bill Walton’s verbal acid trip–these teams are phenomenal.
What’s going on with the rest of the Top Ten? Creighton’s offense hasn’t been hurt as much as expected without Mo Watson, but the defense just surrendered 102 to Marquette–so we might be saying good-bye for the rest of the season. West Virginia was somehow swept by the murderer’s row of Oklahoma and Kansas State, so the Mountaineers are gone too. Arizona and Florida State return to replace them. Let’s get into it.
10. UCLA (Last Week: 5)
For as good as UCLA’s offense is, it’s not always going to be able to cover for the Bruins’ putrid defense–which somehow keeps getting worse. Although UCLA put up 1.16 points per possession and had five players score in double figures against Arizona, both of those marks were below average (UCLA averages 1.25 points/possession and six players in double figures). Defensively, calling UCLA a sieve would be insulting to sieves everywhere. The Bruins allowed Arizona to rack up 50/45/91 shooting splits. The platinum standard for individuals is 50/40/90 over the course of a season; the Wildcats shot better than that as a team in UCLA’s building. With all that said, UCLA is still a huge title threat–the offense is that good.
9. Florida State (Last Week: Not Ranked)
North Carolina destroyed the Seminoles. There’s just no other way to put it. But to take that beatdown and then turn around and beat the best offense (Notre Dame) and defense (Louisville) in the ACC is a sign that it’s time to take FSU seriously. Not seriously in the sense that it could get hot and go on a deep run in March, but seriously as in this is currently a Final Four-caliber team.
Against Louisville–where the end of FSU’s absurd 12-man rotation wasn’t as productive as normal–the Seminoles were able to weather the storm behind stars Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac, and a suffocating defense that held Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel to 6-23 shooting. The Seminoles have a relatively easy week, with trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse on the docket.
8. Arizona (Last Week: Not Ranked)
Alonzo Trier was well worth the wait. The addition of arguably its best player helped Arizona show UCLA why it’s a legitimate title contender. The aforementioned offensive dominance obviously helped, as did owning the glass and limiting UCLA in transition (thanks to strong defense and only seven turnovers). Trier finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, and four assists off the bench in his first game of the season, and Arizona’s now eight man rotation is as talented as anyone’s. Sean Miller has done a heck of a job developing a team that needed a buzzer beater to top Michigan State in the season opener.
7. North Carolina (Last Week: 10)
North Carolina continues to dominate teams on the glass, leading the country in second-chance points. Against Syracuse and BC the Tar Heels snared 34 offensive rebounds and enjoyed a combined +32 advantage on the boards. Being asked to keep Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley, Luke Maye, et al. off the glass is simply too much for opposing defenses. The Heels get Virginia Tech and Miami this week.
6. Baylor (Last Week: 7)
It seems odd that Baylor is 18-1, because the debacle at West Virginia felt like at least three losses. Since that game, the Mountaineers have completely dropped off and Baylor has racked up solid if unspectacular wins over Kansas State, Texas, and TCU. The Bears have completely locked down defensively–West Virginia has been the only team to break 70 against Baylor since November 18. While it does feel like there’s a huge chasm between Baylor and Kansas, the Bears are only a game back, with a winnable game against Texas Tech this week.
5. Oregon (Last Week: 6)
12 of Oregon’s 16 consecutive wins have been by double digits, including last week’s blowouts of Cal and Stanford. The Ducks were my “sleeper” Final Four pick before the start of the season, and finally are playing at that level. There was a scary moment when Dillon Brooks left the win over Cal with a left foot injury, the same foot that held him out earlier this season. Since it appears to just be a sprain, Brooks is day to day and Dana Altman is spared from the loss of his best player. Road games at Utah and Colorado loom this week.
4. Kentucky (Last Week: 4)
Kentucky looked vulnerable for a two minute stretch when it seemed like South Carolina got run outs off 5-6 straight possessions. Other than that, the Gamecocks didn’t pose much of a threat. Considering that the rest of the SEC is absolutely awful, I’d be shocked if Kentucky didn’t go 18-0 in conference. Tennessee and a late-season non-conference matchup with Kansas await this week.
3. Villanova (Last Week: 3)
The prevailing school of thought for defending Villanova is to take away open threes. Unfortunately for its opponents, Villanova is talented enough to win even when opponents execute that game plan. Providence did a great job closing out and running the Wildcats off the three point line, allowing Villanova to take just 17 shots from behind the arc. Therefore, Josh Hart and company just attacked the rim again and again and were able to walk away with a double-digit victory. The scary thing about Villanova’s offense is that the Wildcats have been dominating even without Phil Booth, who was shut down after three games due to nagging effects of a knee injury. While it’s looking less likely every day that Booth will return this season, Villanova is deep enough that it’s thriving without him.
2. Gonzaga (Last Week: 2)
At this point it seems like the Zags can just sim to February 11, when they’ll visit St. Mary’s. No one has been able to stay within 15 points of Gonzaga in over a month, and Mark Few’s team is on cruise control. Only one team in America is in the top nine of both offensive and defensive efficiency, and it calls Spokane home. I would not be surprised if the Zags went undefeated (not that the season would be a failure if they lost at some point) and they probably have the best chance of any team to snag a one seed.
1. Kansas (Last Week: 1)
Check out this season-defining stretch: at West Virginia, at Kentucky, and Baylor. Everyone in the Big 12 besides Kansas and Baylor already has at least three conference losses, so wins over the Bears and WVU would all but seal a conference title for the Jayhawks.