Purdue, Virginia looking to join Villanova among the ranks of college basketball’s elite

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We’ve heard it time and again this year: That there are no elite teams in college basketball, not this season, anyway.

That’s what happens when the preseason top three teams all turn out to be flawed while the trendy teams that emerged during non-conference play have regressed to the mean.

Duke has enough question marks defensively that they can be beaten by just about anyone on a given night. Michigan State has found themselves stuck in a slump over the course of the last two or three weeks, one that has them losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to by numbers they shouldn’t lose by. Arizona doesn’t have the personnel to avoid playing a lineup that includes Dusan Ristic at the five. Kansas lacks depth and relies entirely on the three ball. Kentucky is one of the youngest teams that we have ever seen in college basketball. North Carolina is rebuilding. Wichita State is a mess. Arizona State came back to earth. Louisville has to start over from scratch.

So I get it.

Hell, I’ve said it. Over and over again, and I’m starting to think that idea is, frankly, wrong.

Villanova is currently the best team in college basketball. They’re No. 1 in the AP Poll. They’re No. 1 on KenPom. They’re No. 1 in my top 25 Power Rankings. They’ve taken a loss this year, yes, but that loss came on the road to a Butler program that should end up in the NCAA tournament where the Bulldogs shot 15-for-22 from three and 60 percent from the floor. NCAA tournament teams are not going to lose all that often on the nights where they shoot 15-for-22 from three.

Since that loss to Butler, this is what Villanova has done: They’ve put 100 points up on Marquette, they beat No. 11 Xavier by 24 points, they won at St. John’s and they beat Georgetown 32 points heading into today’s showdown at UConn. The game was never really interesting. UConn was down by 19 points at the half and trailed by 30 before they eventually fell, 81-61, in Hartford.

Villanova has the best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and have been very good on that end of the floor save for a three-game stretch that spanned Christmas. Jalen Brunson could end up winning National Player of the Year if Trae Young continues to play like Cliff Paul, and Miles Bridges could end up beating Brunson out for Big East Player of the Year if things play out a certain way. They’re old, they have better depth than most will realize and three of their five starters won a national title two seasons ago, while another starter and their sixth-man spent that season as a redshirt.

They’re also matchup-proof, given the kind of versatility that Jay Wright has on this roster.

There’s a very real chance that these Wildcats aren’t just the No. 1 team in the polls but a cut above the rest of the field.

The same can be said for Purdue.

The Boilermakers have now won 15 straight games after mollywhopping yet another Big Ten opponent on the road on Saturday, this time beating Iowa 87-64 in a game they led by 31 points at halftime. Purdue is now 8-0 in Big Ten play and they have won their last three games by an average of 28.3 points. They are the only team in the country to be ranked in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and among their recent victims is No. 23 Michigan, who fell to Purdue at home.

But that win at Michigan is their first win over a tournament team since beating Butler on a neutral floor on Dec. 16th and only their second win over a tournament team since that 25-point win over Arizona two weeks into the season.

The numbers say Purdue is great, markedly better than the team that had Caleb Swanigan on it last season, but it’s not quite as easy to look at them and think they’re the best team in the country because it has been so long since they’ve beaten one of the best teams in the country. With how weak the middle of the Big Ten is this season, we probably won’t get that chance until a Feb. 10th trip to East Lansing.

Virginia deserves a mention here as well, but as our study last week showed, it is easier to win a national title with a great offense and a good defense than vice versa, and that is where Virginia lies; they’re playing some of the best defense we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era this season, but only one team in the last 16 years has won a national title with an offense that ranked lower nationally than Virginia’s does.

As of today, it’s hard for me to justify putting Virginia into that same tier.

And I think it is still fair to wonder if Purdue belongs there as well; we’ve seen Big Ten teams end up with inflated KenPom numbers as they overwhelm their league. (Hi Wisconsin!)

But they are right there.

Virginia is close, too.

And, as of today, I think Villanova has arrived: College basketball has an elite team after all.