• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Men’s Power Rankings: Houston’s ceiling, Arizona’s reset, Auburn’s rise

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Jan 8, 2024 #Sports

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The official start to conference play for every league across the country always brings some clarity. This past week was no different, and the list of unbeatens dwindled to just one after James Madison and Ole Miss suffered defeats Saturday.

That leaves Houston as the only undefeated team left in Division I men’s college basketball in 2023-24, but how good, really, are the Cougars?

They have the best defense in the country by some margin, ranking No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, turnover percentage, 2-point defense, block percentage and steal percentage — and a lowly No. 4 in 3-point defense. Only one opponent (Texas A&M) cracked the 1.0 point-per-possession barrier. Those metrics are going to be enough to carry Kelvin Sampson’s crew to a win most nights, but there’s also a top-15 unit at the other end of the floor with elite offensive rebounders and high-level guards.

The big question with the Cougars is their résumé: Who have they beaten? Their best wins are over Dayton, Utah and the aforementioned A&M. And the latter two are struggling. The Cougars have only one true road win, at Xavier, and they’re going up a level by moving from the AAC to the Big 12.

From my perspective, they’re as good as it gets in the sport. Sampson has been to the Sweet 16 or further in each of the past four NCAA tournaments, and Jamal Shead and L.J. Cryer form an elite backcourt. They’ll be favored in all but one or two games the rest of the season. Road trips in the Big 12 are a significant challenge, however, and that starts this week with games at Iowa State and TCU.

On to this week’s awards and rankings …


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Seton Hall pulls off upset win after Marquette’s costly turnover

Marquette turns the ball over on its final possession as Seton Hall upsets the Golden Eagles on the road.

One month into 2023-24, things weren’t looking overly promising for Seton Hall. The Pirates were 5-4 and had just lost at home to in-state rival Rutgers. Shaheen Holloway was 22-20 since taking over as head coach two springs ago. Since then, it has been statement win after statement win. Seton Hall beat UConn by 15 at home just before Christmas, then bounced back from a loss at Xavier with two huge wins this past week: at Providence and home vs. Marquette.

Providence lost star forward Bryce Hopkins midway through that game, but the Friars’ home court is known as one of the most difficult places to play in college basketball, and Seton Hall came out with a victory. The Pirates overcame one of their worst offensive performances of the season by limiting Providence to just 0.83 points per possession. And then the Hall held serve against Marquette, stifling Tyler Kolek (five points) and getting huge performances from guards Al-Amir Dawes and Kadary Richmond. The Pirates are squarely in the NCAA tournament hunt now.

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Great Osobor gets the basket plus the foul

Great Osobor gets the basket plus the foul

When Osobor followed Danny Sprinkle over from Montana State last year, he was an underrated pickup. The 6-foot-8 England native had averaged 10.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in just 18.9 minutes off the bench for the Bobcats. In theory, with more playing time, those numbers could skyrocket.

Well, it’s playing out that way. Osobor was dominant in a pair of Mountain West wins for the Aggies this past week, going for 32 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a 28-point victory over Air Force and then finishing with 20 points and 14 boards in a statement victory over Colorado State. Osobor helped control the paint in the latter, grabbing seven offensive rebounds. He’s up to 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, averaging 31.5 minutes for Sprinkle.

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1:48

Cincinnati Bearcats vs. BYU Cougars: Full Highlights

Cincinnati Bearcats vs. BYU Cougars: Full Highlights

While BYU was getting more notoriety as a mystery team entering conference play, Cincinnati sort of fell in the same bucket. The Bearcats were 11-2 to end nonconference play, with losses to in-state rivals Xavier and Dayton. They hadn’t beaten a top-100 KenPom team yet this season. Meanwhile, BYU was 12-1 with wins over San Diego State and NC State and a loss to Utah.

But it’s Cincinnati coming out of the weekend with a little more buzz in the Big 12, after the Bearcats went into Provo and knocked off BYU by 11. The Cougars led for most of the first half and were up by 10 early in the second half. After that, it was all Cincinnati. The Bearcats were dialed in defensively, holding BYU to its worst offensive performance of the season by a wide margin. Mark Pope’s team made just four of its final 22 3-point attempts, and Cincinnati dominated around the rim, outscoring BYU in the paint 30-12. Viktor Lakhin (17 points) led the way, but Jizzle James (12 points) provided a real spark off the bench.

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Meechie Johnson ices game for South Carolina with late steal

Meechie Johnson rips away the ball from Mississippi State’s Dashawn Davis to ice the game for South Carolina.

Year 1 in Columbia was a difficult one for Paris, who led Chattanooga to the NCAA tournament in 2022 and then moved to the SEC and promptly finished 11-21 overall, 4-14 in the league. There was little reason for optimism entering Year 2, with GG Jackson leaving for the NBA and the Gamecocks picked 14th in the preseason SEC poll.

However, South Carolina has come out of nonconference play with a 12-1 record, including wins away from home over Grand Canyon and Virginia Tech, and the lone loss coming at Clemson. There isn’t a lot of heft behind that record, but it’s already more wins than last season, which represents a huge step forward. Paris is doing more than that, though. SC won its first league game of the season Saturday, taking down Mississippi State by six. The Bulldogs jumped out to an early lead and controlled most of the first half, but the Gamecocks, behind 24 points from Meechie Johnson, made a run in the second half and kept Mississippi State at an arm’s length for most of the final 10 minutes.

Is South Carolina for real? It’s still too early to tell, but the Gamecocks are clearly better than last season, and Paris has done an unbelievable job turning things around from a year ago.

Three teams with questions

Virginia Cavaliers: The Cavaliers’ road struggles are becoming a huge issue. They’ve played three true road games: a 23-point loss at Memphis, a 22-point loss at Notre Dame and Saturday’s 16-point loss at NC State.

Florida Atlantic Owls: Dusty May’s team took another bad loss over the weekend, falling in the final seconds at Charlotte, which entered the game 6-7. That’s now three losses to sub-100 KenPom teams for FAU, including the Quadrant 4 losses to Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast.

UCLA Bruins: I don’t know how many times we can include UCLA in this category, but the Bruins hit a new low this past week, losing at home to California for the first time in 12 years. They’re now 6-9 on the season and have lost nine of the past 12.


Power Rankings

1. Purdue Boilermakers (14-1)
Previous ranking:
1
This week: at Nebraska (Tuesday), vs. Penn State (Saturday)

Zach Edey had his lowest-scoring outing of the season against Illinois, notching 10 points (his fewest since March 2022) on just five shots. But it was his post partner, Trey Kaufman-Renn, who had the career night. Kaufman-Renn went for a season-high 23 points, shooting 8-for-12 from the field and grabbing four rebounds. It could be a sign of things to come next season.

2. Houston Cougars (14-0)
Previous ranking:
3
This week: at Iowa State (Tuesday), at TCU (Saturday)

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1:44

West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Houston Cougars: Full Highlights

West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Houston Cougars: Full Highlights

Houston’s Big 12 tenure began much in the same way most of its AAC games ended over the past few years. The Cougars battered West Virginia by 34, and perhaps the most promising sign was Damian Dunn coming off the bench to score 14 points, his second straight game scoring in double figures. He had been in a slump for most of the past six weeks, and coach Kelvin Sampson needs his scoring.

3. Kansas Jayhawks (13-1)
Previous ranking:
2
This week: at UCF (Wednesday), vs. Oklahoma (Saturday)

Kansas was fortunate to come out of Saturday’s game against TCU with a win, but Hunter Dickinson‘s 30 points — including the winning layup in the final seconds — were enough. This time it wasn’t the Kansas offense that struggled; the Jayhawks allowed TCU to score 1.14 points per possession. That’s the most anyone has scored on them since Jan. 21, 2023, when these same Horned Frogs scored 1.17 points per possession and beat Kansas by 23 at Phog Allen.

4. UConn Huskies (13-2)
Previous ranking:
4
This week: at Xavier (Wednesday), vs. Georgetown (Sunday)

Stephon Castle‘s emergence should be a huge boost for Dan Hurley moving forward. The five-star freshman was fantastic in the first two games of the season, then missed the next six because of a knee injury and took a few weeks to round into form. But he had 14 points and seven assists against DePaul, then followed it up with 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists against Butler.

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2:50

Zeigler details how UT snapped Rebels’ undefeated spell

Zakai Zeigler breaks down the No. 5 Vols’ game plan to defeat No. 22 Ole Miss and addresses the criticism on his ability to execute on the court at his size.

5. Tennessee Volunteers (11-3)
Previous ranking:
5
This week: at Mississippi State (Wednesday), at Georgia (Saturday)

Rick Barnes inserted Zakai Zeigler into the starting lineup after the Volunteers produced three subpar offensive performances at the Maui Invitational. In the eight games since, Zeigler is averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 assists while Tennessee has scored better than 1.20 points per possession in five of those. He had 17 points and 10 assists vs. Ole Miss.

6. Kentucky Wildcats (11-2)
Previous ranking:
6
This week: vs. Missouri (Tuesday), at Texas A&M (Saturday)

While Kentucky’s freshmen have been getting most of the attention in recent weeks, don’t forget about leading scorer Antonio Reeves, who had 30 points against Louisville and 27 points against Illinois State. He also sparked the Wildcats’ second-half comeback against Florida, scoring 10 points after the break and hitting big shots to tie the game on multiple occasions.

7. North Carolina Tar Heels (11-3)
Previous ranking:
9
This week: at NC State (Wednesday), vs. Syracuse (Saturday)

There was a six-game stretch from late November to mid-December when the Tar Heels’ defense was woeful. They allowed more than one point per possession in five of those six games and went 3-3 in that span. In four games since, Carolina hasn’t allowed more than 0.92 points per possession, holding both Pittsburgh and Clemson to below 60 points and a combined 6-for-47 from 3-point range.

8. Arizona Wildcats (11-3)
Previous ranking:
10
This week: at Washington State (Saturday)

That was some bounceback week for the Wildcats. After losing three games in 15 days, including giving up 100 points in a defeat at Stanford, Arizona just blew out perhaps the second- and third-best teams in the Pac-12. The Wildcats averaged 94.5 points in the two wins, beating Colorado and Utah by an average of 33.0 points. And we got to see the best pass of the season.

9. Illinois Fighting Illini (11-3)
Previous ranking:
8
This week: vs. Michigan State (Thursday), vs. Maryland (Sunday)

Despite falling a spot in the rankings, Illinois had a positive first week of 2024, blowing out Northwestern by 30 and then staging a huge comeback against Purdue before falling by five. The biggest cause for optimism for a team without Terrence Shannon Jr. has been the play of Marcus Domask, who had 32 points and six assists against the Wildcats, then went for 26 points and five dimes against the Boilermakers.

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Le’tre Darthard buries 3-point shot against Iowa State Cyclones

Le’tre Darthard buries 3-point shot against Iowa State Cyclones

10. Oklahoma Sooners (13-1)
Previous ranking:
11
This week: at TCU (Wednesday), at Kansas (Saturday)

When I talked to opposing coaches for a piece last week about Oklahoma, BYU and Ole Miss, Le’Tre Darthard‘s name barely came up in conversation. Yet he was a key difference-maker in the Sooners’ win over Iowa State to start Big 12 play. The Utah Valley transfer came off the bench to hit three 3s and score 11 points, including a 3 with 3:15 left to push Oklahoma’s lead to four.

11. Marquette Golden Eagles (11-4)
Previous ranking:
7
This week: vs. Butler (Wednesday)

It doesn’t take too much of a deep dive to figure out what went wrong for Marquette in its loss Saturday to Seton Hall. Tyler Kolek finished with five points on 1-for-6 shooting, his fewest points in a game since December 2022. Kolek has had other subpar games (six points against the Kansas Jayhawks, for one), but Marquette’s defense couldn’t make up for his struggles this time. The Golden Eagles were unable to contain Al-Amir Dawes and Kadary Richmond, who combined for 44 points.

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Mark Mitchell elevates for dunk vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Mark Mitchell elevates for dunk vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

12. Duke Blue Devils (11-3)
Previous ranking:
13
This week: at Pittsburgh (Tuesday), vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday)

Earlier this season, Mark Mitchell‘s shooting woes were a focal point on opponents’ scouting reports. They simply opted to back off Mitchell, which made life difficult for the other Duke players on the floor. It seems the sophomore forward has figured it out, though. He had his two best games last week, going for 21 points and six rebounds against Syracuse and 23 and 14 against Notre Dame. He also hit both of his 3-point attempts against the Irish after entering the game 1-for-22.

13. Memphis Tigers (13-2)
Previous ranking:
12
This week: vs. UTSA (Wednesday), at Wichita State (Sunday)

Memphis was seconds from a potential 0-2 week, but Jahvon Quinerly bailed the Tigers out against both Tulsa and SMU with a clutch week, hitting 3s in the final seconds from almost the exact same spot to win both games. Memphis is going to need more, especially after Caleb Mills‘ injury, but Quinerly singlehandedly gave the Tigers another week in the rankings.

14. Baylor Bears (12-2)
Previous ranking:
15
This week: vs. BYU (Tuesday), vs. Cincinnati (Saturday)

Baylor is the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the country, making 45% of its shots from behind the arc. It has made double-digit 3s in seven games, going 33-for-61 from deep in its two games before facing Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Bears shot just 2-for-15 from 3 against the Cowboys — and still managed to come out with the road win in Stillwater.

15. Auburn Tigers (12-2)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: vs. Texas A&M (Tuesday), vs. LSU (Saturday)

Bruce Pearl’s team has been a metrics darling all season, but it picked up arguably its best win of the campaign on Saturday, drubbing Arkansas on the road by 32 points. They’re clearly a top-three team in the SEC. They’re deep, experienced and led by Johni Broome, who is playing like one of the best big men in college basketball. He’s averaging 18 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3 blocks over his past four games.

16. Wisconsin Badgers (11-3)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: at Ohio State (Wednesday), vs. Northwestern (Saturday)

Wisconsin has now won four in a row and 10 of its past 11 games since opening the season 1-2. The Badgers have their best offense since Bo Ryan was on the sideline in Madison. They’ve scored at least 80 points in three straight games and have hit at least 1.11 points per possession in all 11 of their wins. Connor Essegian made four 3s off the bench Saturday, his first double-digit scoring game all season after averaging 11.7 points last season.

Dropped out: Colorado State Rams (No. 14), Clemson Tigers (No. 16)

In the waiting room

Colorado State Rams: After starting the week with a thoroughly impressive win over Mountain West contender New Mexico, Colorado State’s winning streak came to a halt at Utah State on Saturday. When CSU struggles, it’s the defense that has generally been the culprit. The Rams have allowed at least one point per possession in six of their past nine games.

San Diego State Aztecs: The defense has looked far more Brian Dutcher-like during its six-game winning streak. In the past four games — against Stanford, Gonzaga, Fresno State and UNLV — the Aztecs have given up just 5.0 3s per game at a 23.8% clip. That’s more in line with the team that ranked fourth nationally last season, allowing opponents to shoot just 28.3% behind the arc.

Utah State Aggies: Continuing with the Mountain West theme of the waiting room, Utah State landed a statement win Saturday night, backing up its gaudy record with a win over Colorado State. Head coach Danny Sprinkle has done an incredible job in his first year in Logan, finding the right mix of transfers and freshmen to turn the Aggies into an immediate threat.



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