If we are to learn anything from the most recent week of NCAA Division I basketball, it might be that the concept of “power” in this particular season is elusive.
Purdue, the No. 3 team in last week’s rankings, flexed its muscles and wrecked a very talented Illinois team by 16 points on Tuesday. Two days later, the Boilermakers were blown out at Michigan.
Duke, last week’s No. 6 team, devastated rival North Carolina on its home court last Saturday. Two days later, the Blue Devils fouled up the defense of a baseline inbounds play and surrendered a game-winning 3-pointer to Virginia guard Reece Beekman.
REECE BEEKMAN GAME-WINNING THREE WITH 0.7 LEFT ?
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 8, 2022
Auburn, you probably know by now, had its 19-game winning streak ended at Arkansas.
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Gonzaga fans may be laughing at these paragraphs. No one has come within 14 points of the Bulldogs since Dec. 4. That was 69 days ago, or more than three times as long as it takes to complete the NCAA Tournament. Chet Holmgren’s emergence from talent to force ought to be a frightening warning to all hoping (or planning) to win the 2022 NCAA Championship.
Someone’s going to have to beat these Zags, and it won’t be easy.
1. Gonzaga (20-2, 9-0 WCC)
The Zags play their first of two games against Saint Mary’s late Saturday evening, although this one is at home. The only apparent jeopardy left on the regular-season schedule is the two-game road trip to the Bay Area – at San Francisco, at Saint Mary’s – that arrives at the end of this month.
2. Auburn (22-2, 10-1 SEC)
The Tigers’ loss at Arkansas was their first defeat since they fell to Connecticut in the opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Like the Huskies, the Razorbacks required overtime to take out Auburn. That means the 2022 Tigers maintain two distinctions no other Division I team can match: They are undefeated in the U.S., and they are undefeated in regulation.
3. Kentucky (20-4, 9-2 SEC)
Some analysts – and coaches – are saying the Wildcats have everything they need to win a national championship. That may be true, but they still lack the sort of dynamic, full-sized wing play freshman Shaedon Sharpe might have provided if he’d been ready to play as a freshman (it’s not easy to get up to speed, but there’s no way for us to know) or chosen to do so (he will not, coach John Calipari announced this week).
4. Kansas (19-4, 8-2 Big 12)
Center David McCormack has averaged 13 points, 9.7 rebounds and 27 minutes over his past three games. If you don’t think that seems like much, you haven’t been following KU basketball. That sort of consistency in the post would change their ceiling for this season.
5. Baylor (20-4, 8-3 Big 12)
When a team struggles as Baylor did during an injury-riddled period from Jan. 11-Feb. 5 – compiling a .500 record in that stretch – the temptation is to dismiss that team as a contender and embrace others that are playing better. That was the mistake many of us made with last year’s Bears when the struggled after a COVID pause. How’d that turn out?
6. Arizona (21-2, 11-1 Pac-12)
They’ve now won five in a row since getting blasted at UCLA. It’s still hard to know just how good these Wildcats are, given they’ve only played five high-end opponents – Bruins twice, USC, Illinois and Tennessee – and went 3-2 in those games. But on paper, and at their best, the Wildcats are something to see.
7. Purdue (21-4, 10-4 Big Ten)
The concern about Purdue’s defense seemed overwrought when the Boilermakers held Illinois All-American Kofi Cockburn to 12 shots and 18 points, but then came Michigan and its 82-58 smackdown of the Boilers.
8. Duke (20-4, 10-3 ACC)
Which seems more like the real Duke: the six victories in the past seven games that came by an average of 14 points, or the one loss by a point that came at home on a buzzer-beater?
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9. UCLA (17-4, 9-3 Pac-12)
Everybody was talking about Johnny Juzang after last year’s NCAA Tournament. Most forgot about him after a middling start to this season. He’s now put up 20 or more points in six of his past eight games, and he’s hitting 38 percent on threes over that stretch. Look out.
10. Illinois (17-6, 10-3 Big Ten)
I’d been saying for weeks the reintroduction of point guard Andre Curbelo following a long absence (because of a concussion) and a short absence (because of an illness) to the Illini’s rotation probably would lead to some bumps in the Big Ten season. Unlike some others in the national media, I believe this team can’t reach its ceiling unless he’s fully operational.
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11. Providence (20-2, 10-1 Big East)
I’m not sure you’ll ever find a greater disparity between a team’s achievement metrics (Friars are No. 5 in both Strength of Record and KPI) and performance metrics (Friars are No. 44 in KenPom, No. 33 in Sagarin, No. 36 in BPI) than with this Providence team. But 20-2 is 20-2.
12. Wisconsin (19-4, 10-3 Big Ten)
They’ve lost twice in the last 13 games, in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball. Why do people keep telling me they don’t look like a great team?
13. Texas Tech (18-6, 7-4 Big 12)
Is it a bigger mystery that the Raiders forgot how to score in the second half of their loss at Oklahoma – just 25 points in the final 20 minutes – or that they somehow allowed the Sooners to go for 45? If you don’t know the answer, your punishment is to run lines for 15 minutes.
14. LSU (17-7, 5-6 SEC)
Are all the issues apparent in the Tigers’ stretch of six losses in seven games gone now that they’ve added a seventh game to Texas A&M’s losing streak? Obviously not. But at least they can breathe now.
15. Houston (20-3, 9-1 American)
Coach Kelvin Sampson is doing amazing things with the Cougars given their injury issues, but it’s not a great sign that they dropped, at SMU, their first significant test in AAC play. Do the two games coming up against Memphis still count in that category?
16. Villanova. (18-6, 11-3 Big East)
Tuesday’s game at Providence is a great chance for the Wildcats to reassert their dominance of the conference.