The best part of doing the top 25 for NBCSports.com is that, now the season has started, I can ignore anything that anyone else has to say and rank these teams as I see fit.
That said, the rankings mostly remain the same as they were before. No. 20 Georgetown and No. 25 Wisconsin both dropped out because if you lose to Radford or Western Illinois at home in your opener, you forfeit your spot in the top 25.
I also dropped Gonzaga a few spots. That’s not a result of what happened in Okinawa on Friday night — you can’t really judge a team based on one half that was played on an ice rink — I’ve just felt this team was overrated all preseason.
Baylor and Purdue both received a bit of a bump, which Cincinnati and Louisville are the two teams that snuck into our top 25 at the back-end.
1. Kentucky (31-0, LW: No. 1): The Wildcats did it. They finished the regular season a perfect 31-0. I’m not sure anyone is disagreeing with this ranking.
2. Virginia (28-2, LW: No. 2): Virginia lost at Louisville on Saturday. On a last-second jumper. From Mangok Mathiang. Not exactly a sign that this team is crumbling. The bigger concern? They’re still waiting for Justin Anderson to return to health. After nearly completing his recovery from a fractured finger, Anderson underwent an appendectomy last week. Will he be healthy for the NCAA tournament?
3. Wisconsin (28-3, LW: No. 3): The Badgers finished their regular season without a hiccup, pounding No. 23 Ohio State in Columbus on Sunday. Like Virginia, the Badgers are still waiting on a starter — Trae Jackson — to get healthy. Unlike Virginia, his replacement — Bronson Koenig — has been terrific in a starting role.
4. Duke (28-3, LW: No. 4): The Blue Devils are tough to peg for me. They’ve got such glaring problems that they are impossible to ignore. But … they’ve won at Virginia, at Wisconsin, at Louisville, at North Carolina and at St. John’s. They have the nation’s most dominant low-post scorer in Jahlil Okafor. They have a point guard (Tyus Jones) that is channelling his inner-Bobby Hurley. And they have a pair of wings (Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow) that can take over a game in the drop of a hat.
5. Villanova (29-2, LW: No. 5): The outright Big East champs for the second straight season, a span where Virginia has only lost seven total games. My concern with them: Who have they beaten this season? Their best win is … VCU? Rolling through the Big East, winning that league by four games, is truly impressive, but it will be interesting to see what happens when the Wildcats square off against one of the other elite teams.
6. Arizona (28-3, LW: No. 6): The Wildcats are cruising now. After beating Utah in Utah last Saturday, they pounded both Cal and Stanford at home to close out the regular season. This is the right time for Sean Miller’s team to peak.
7. Gonzaga (30-2, LW: No. 7): Will this be the year that the Zags end up making it past the Sweet 16? They haven’t been playing like it of late. The most recent was Saturday’s game against San Francisco, when they trailed by seven at halftime.
8. Kansas (24-7, LW: No. 8): The Jayhawks are hemorrhaging players right now. Perry Ellis sprained his knee against West Virginia. Brannen Greene was suspended for the Oklahoma game. Cliff Alexander is still sitting out, reportedly due to the NCAA looking into a loan that his mother took out. And they still won the outright Big 12 title. Not bad.
9. Maryland (26-5, LW: No. 9): Maryland won at Nebraska by three on Sunday night, yet another nail-biter for a team that has already chewed their fingers down to the cuticles. Maryland is 11-0 in games decided by six points or less, the kind of stat that makes a team ranked 31st in KenPom and 60th in offensive efficiency a top ten team. Are the Terps lucky, or do they “know how to win”?
10. Notre Dame (26-5, LW: No. 12): The Irish hop back up into the top ten, which is impressive when you consider the issues this team has defensively. They have been playing 6-foot-6 Bonzie Colson at center for the last month!
1. Kentucky (29-0, LW: No. 1): Ho-hum, just another pair of blowout wins for the Wildcats. March Madness can’t get here soon enough. Here’s what I’m hoping happens: Kentucky has to beat Wisconsin, Virginia and Arizona or Duke to win the national title. I want to see them challenged. Seeing this team coast to No. 9 without beating anyone higher than a No. 3 seed would not only be boring, but it would result in their season having an asterisk next to it. I can see the headlines now: “Kentucky might be the greatest team ever, but we’ll never know because they were never tested.” That would get annoying really, really quick.
2. Virginia (27-1, LW: No. 4): No Justin Anderson, no problem. London Perrantes breaks his nose, Virginia beats Wake Forest by 36 on the road. They just keep on winning. We can only hope Anderson gets healthy. This team deserves to be at 100 percent in March.
3. Wisconsin (26-3, LW: No. 2): The Badgers picked up their first loss since January on Tuesday, as they went into College Park and lost to a Maryland team that is going to find themselves in the top ten of every poll in the country on Monday morning. What a devastating blow! I won’t mention the part about how the Terps matchup very well with Wisconsin, or how the Badgers missed a number of very good looks at threes in the first half, a major reason they found themselves down 11 at the break. The only real damage from that loss? It hurts their chances of getting a No. 1 seed, and may set them up for a date with Kentucky in the Elite 8.
4. Duke (26-3, LW: No. 5): As good as Duke’s wins are this season, I still have my doubts about their ability to win a national title. Their defensive issues are a major, major problem — it almost cost them against Virginia Tech — but that’s not it. Duke has four different guys that can take over a game when Justise Winslow plays the way he did this past week. But they lack depth and balance beyond that, which says nothing about how badly they need a stretch four or another big, athletic wing. The advantage that Duke gets when playing Winslow at the four is negated by the fact that they have to play either Matt Jones (too small) or Grayson Allen (not ready) at the three, and Amile Jefferson isn’t a good enough shooter to make it difficult for opposing defenses to smother Jahlil Okafor with big-to-big doubles.
5. Villanova (27-2, LW: No. 6): The Wildcats just keep winning. They clinched the outright Big East title this week with a 28 point win over Providence on Tuesday, following that up with an impressive win at Xavier over the weekend.
6. Arizona (26-3, LW: No. 7): The Wildcats have clinched a share of the Pac-12 title, and as long as they beat either Cal or Stanford at home next week, they will be the outright league champs. Sean Miller’s club seems to have shaken off their road struggles, and while they still have some issues with their perimeter shooting, Arizona can really, really defend. Also, it’s good to see Kaleb Tarczewski starting to play like a former top ten recruit.
7. Gonzaga (29-2, LW: No. 3): I can understand why Gonzaga lost on Saturday night. They were distracted by Senior Night in a game that didn’t mean much to them and that gave life to BYU’s season. It happens. But it doesn’t explain why the Zags have not looked like themselves over the course of the last three weeks.
8. Kansas (23-6, LW: No. 8): I still think that Kansas is one of the top eight teams in the country, but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with Cliff Alexander. He wasn’t playing all that effectively to begin with, but without him, the Jayhawks have a massive hole in their front line. At least Alexander provided them with some athleticism and physicality up front. The Jayhawks all but have a No. 2 seed locked up because of how strong their schedule is, but I think there’s a real gap between them and the rest of the top seven.
9. Maryland (24-5, LW: No. 17): After knocking off Wisconsin on Tuesday, the Terps are getting a bump into the top ten. I’ll be honest: after seeing them in person, I’m not convinced this is actually one of the top ten teams in the country. I’m also not convinced this is a team that can make the Final Four. But I don’t known if any of the teams below them can do that either.
10. Baylor (22-7, LW: No. 15): Has there been a hotter team in the country over the course of the last two weeks than Baylor? The run that they used to beat Iowa State in Ames on Wednesday — hitting six threes in six possessions — was impressive. It’s fluky, yes, but it shows you how dangerous this group is.
1. Kentucky (27-0, LW: No. 1): On Saturday, the Wildcats put together their most dominant win of the SEC season, scoring 110 points in a rout of Auburn in Rupp Arena. Kentucky looked as good as they have all season long on the offensive end, and given how stingy their defense has been, when they shoot and score that way, they’re unbeatable. The blowout win had to feel good for John Calipari, as Auburn fired his friend and current staffer Tony Barbee immediately after last season to hire the man that was his arch rival when Cal was coaching at Memphis.
2. Wisconsin (25-2, LW: No. 2): Trae Jackson broke his foot 11 games ago. Since he’s been out of the lineup, including the game against Rutgers, Bronson Koenig has averaged 12.6 points and 2.8 assists while turning the ball over 10 times in 390 minutes. He’s also shot 26-for-54 (48.1 percent) from three. The Badgers have barely been tested since the loss in New Jersey.
3. Gonzaga (28-1, LW: No. 3): The Zags clinched the outright WCC title — and, in all likelihood, another undefeated regular season in league play — with a come-from-behind win at St. Mary’s on Saturday night. The big question now becomes whether or not this team can win out and earn the No. 1 seed out west.
4. Virginia (25-1, LW: No. 4): Justin Anderson is already out with a broken finger. Now London Perrantes could end up missing time thanks to this collision with Malcolm Brogdon, which left his nose looking … well, awful:
5. Duke (24-3, LW: No. 5): All I have to say about Duke this week can be read here and here.
6. Villanova (25-2, LW: No. 6): The Wildcats just keep churning out wins. They’ve all-but clinched the Big East regular season title — they’re up three games with four to play — and they rarely get mentioned in the same breath as the rest of the top five or six teams.
7. Arizona (24-3, LW: No. 7): Arizona game up a 7-0 run in the first six minutes of the first half and a 17-0 run in the first seven minutes of the second half against UCLA and still managed to A) beat the Bruins by 10, and B) give up just 47 points on the night. That’s impressive.
8. Kansas (22-5, LW: No. 8): The Jayhawks took a loss at West Virginia over the weekend in a game with a thrilling finish. I’m less concerned about that than I am about Cliff Alexander’s continuing struggles and Bill Self’s issues with him.
9. Notre Dame (24-4, LW: No. 10): I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out of this Notre Dame season, thinking that, eventually, their defense issues will catch up with them. But Jerian Grant and company just keep on winning. I’ve it a number of times already: Grant is not getting enough attention as an all-american candidate. He should be consensus first team.
10. Utah (21-5, LW: No. 9): Utah’s loss at Oregon on Sunday afternoon hurts them. Not because it’s a horrible loss — the Ducks look like the third best team in the Pac-12 right now — but because it’s a major blow to their Pac-12 title hopes. They’re now a game behind Arizona, and while they host the Wildcats this week, unless Arizona loses to someone else, the best Utah can do is share the league title.
Putting these rankings together on a weekly basis has become increasingly harder as the season has progressed, and it’s not because the decisions at the top are tough to make.
At this point, the top eight teams in the country have more or less separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Within that group of eight, there seems to be three tiers: Kentucky, then, in some order, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Virginia, Duke and Arizona, followed up by Villanova and Kansas.
Utah looks like they could be a Final Four contender, but they were blown out by Arizona and, more concerningly, UCLA. Notre Dame and Iowa State can score with the best of them but can’t get stops while Louisville is really good defensively and can’t score. Oklahoma, Baylor and North Carolina are talented but inconsistent. Wichita State and Northern Iowa are really, really good mid-major programs whose rank is getting inflated as they continue to win while power conference teams beat up on each other. Maryland? Butler? Arkansas and Ohio State and Providence and SMU?
To put it another way, these rankings would make more sense in my mind if I could do the top eight and then have a ten-way tie for 18th place.
This isn’t a bad thing, however, because it looks like the tournament will have some fireworks the first weekend. But the dominance of the best teams could mean that we’re looking at a situation where the Elite 8 is quite chalky, and that’s when this sport is at its best.
Cinderellas are fun, but I want to see the nation’s best squaring off with everything on the line.
Anyway, onto the top 25:
1. Kentucky (25-0, LW: No. 1): The Wildcats survived their toughest road stretch of the season, winning hard-fought games at Florida and LSU. They still have to host Arkansas and play at Georgia, but the Wildcats look like they should be able to get to March undefeated.
2. Wisconsin (23-2, LW: No. 4): We keep hearing about how Kentucky is playing historically good defense, but no one is talking about the fact that the Badgers are currently on pace to finish the season with the best adjusted offensive efficiency of the KenPom era. Wisconsin is as slow and as patient as anyone in the country, but elite shooting and an extreme aversion to turnovers has made them ruthlessly efficient.
3. Gonzaga (26-1, LW: No. 3): I understand why people doubt Gonzaga, but I think it’s worth pointing out here that if this over-the-back actually gets called, the Zags are undefeated in mid-February with a win at Arizona on their resume.
4. Virginia (23-1, LW: No. 2): I watched Virginia’s four-point win over N.C. State. I watched Virginia’s one-point win over Wake Forest. I think it’s obvious: I underestimated how much missing Justin Anderson would actually hurt the Cavaliers. He’s their best defender, their best shooter, their best athlete and the toughest dude on the roster. He’s the epitome of everything that Virginia wants to do. That’s not easy to replace.
5. Duke (22-3, LW: No. 5): Duke’s defensive issues are clearly still a red flag, but getting Justise Winslow back to where he was at the start of the season has made a difference.
6. Villanova (23-2, LW: No. 6): I have my doubts about Villanova, but they went into Hinkle Fieldhouse and knocked off a good Butler team in the biggest game in recent memory in the historic arena. That 23-2 record is not a fluke.
7. Arizona (22-3, LW: No. 7): The Wildcats won the two games on their Washington roadtrip by a combined 51 points. Not bad.
8. Kansas (21-4, LW: No. 8): The consensus is that the Big 12 is the nation’s toughest conference this season, and the Jayhawks are on the verge of steamrolling through the league again. They are up two games with just six left to play.
9. Utah (20-4, LW: No. 10): Utah is really, really impressive when they’re playing overmatched Pac-12 teams, especially when those games are played at home. I’m waiting to go all-in on the Utes until we see what happens when Arizona comes to town.
10. Notre Dame (22-4, LW: No. 11): The Irish have the highest-ceiling of the group I’m going to start referring to as “The Leftovers”, thanks to their ability to shoot and the fact that they have Jerian Grant on the roster. When they’re shooting well, they can beat anyone. But they need to shoot well because defensively, the Irish are not good.
Virginia will be without Justin Anderson, their leading scorer and best three-point shooter who is having an all-american caliber season, for the next 4-to-6 weeks. That means that, at a minimum, he’ll be out for the remainder of the regular season, with the chance that he could return for the ACC tournament; Selection Sunday is in precisely five weeks.
What does that mean for Virginia?
I’m not sure that it means all that much. Anderson is the perfect wing for Tony Bennett’s system. He’s turned himself into a knock-down three-point shooter and he’s as good of a defensive player as you’ll find. But as good as Anderson is, he’s just a cog in the Virginia machine. They’ll be fine without him, particularly when you consider that they only play one game against the rest of the top five in the ACC and that they hold a two-game lead over the rest of the ACC pack.
With Anderson, I think Virginia is the clear-cut second-best team in the country. Without him, they’re “just” one of four or five teams that deserve consideration for that spot.
Anyway, on to the top 25 …
1. Kentucky (23-0, LW: No. 1): The Wildcats knocked off Georgia midweek and survived Florida in Gainesville in what was their toughest test of the season on Saturday. The Wildcats took a punch from Florida, coming from eight down in the first half in one of the most underrated home court environments in the country.
2. Virginia (21-1, LW: No. 2): See above.
3. Gonzaga (24-1, LW: No. 3): Gonzaga won at Santa Clara and at San Francisco last week, although neither win was overly impressive which has only led to more chatter that the Zags are overrated. I wouldn’t have an issue with anyone ranking Wisconsin or Duke above them, but it’s foolish to think that Gonzaga isn’t a Final Four caliber team.
4. Wisconsin (19-2, LW: No. 4): The Badgers may not be tested until their final four games of the regular season, when they play at Maryland, at Minnesota, at Ohio State and get Michigan State in the Kohl Center.
5. Duke (20-3, LW: No. 6): The Blue Devils made a statement for all those that thought their win at Virginia was a fluke as they obliterated Notre Dame in Durham on Saturday. The most impressive part? Duke finally started playing some defense, holding the Irish below 1.0 points-per-possession for the first time this season.
6. Villanova (21-2, LW: No. 8): If there was any doubt who the best team in the Big East is, the Wildcats erased it with a systematic beatdown of Georgetown on Saturday.
7. Arizona (20-3, LW: No. 5): It looked like the Wildcats had finally gotten things rolling, and then they went and lost at Arizona State. That’s certainly not a good thing, but I’m not all that concerned; anything can happen in a rivalry game on the road.
8. Kansas (19-4, LW: No. 7): Kansas took a step back on Saturday with a loss at Oklahoma State, but road losses are going to come in the Big 12. An impressive win at home over Iowa State says just as much.
9. Louisville (19-4, LW: No. 9): There’s not shame in losing at Virginia. The bigger concern for the Cardinals? They’ve gone two full games without someone other than their top four scoring, and more than 100 minutes of game time without someone other than the top four making a field goal.
10. Utah (18-4, LW: No. 12): Utah climbs back into the top ten after an impressive win over Colorado. The Utes really need to beat Arizona at home later this year for me to truly buy them as a title contender.