Wednesday didn’t have a lot of major college basketball action, but we still saw a historic performance from a Player of the Year candidate while the No. 1 team nearly lost in overtime. The SEC’s other unbeaten team was also in action while the Big Ten saw a road win with some implications for later this week.
Here are three things to know.
Grant Williams’ huge game saves No. 1 Tennessee from upset of Vanderbilt
The story of Wednesday night in college basketball is undoubtedly Tennessee junior forward Grant Williams. The junior forward and reigning SEC Player of the Year had his signature performance of the season with 43 points and a jaw-dropping 23-for-23 from the free-throw line to lead the Volunteers to an overtime win over in-state rival Vanderbilt.
Getting the basketball world buzzing, Williams dominated the game down the stretch as he willed Tennessee back into a game in which Vanderbilt was hitting a lot of timely shots.
The No. 1 team in the country will stay that way for at least another game thanks to one of the best individual performances we’ll see in college hoops this season. Williams might have just firmly put his name on the national map for the rest of the season as his star power continues to grow.
No. 25 LSU stays unbeaten in SEC with win over Georgia
Sophomore guard Tremont Waters put together a season-high 26 points, four assists, four steals and no turnovers to lead a balanced LSU offensive attack that saw four players in double-figures.
Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn received a lot of the early-season attention from the SEC, but the Tigers have quietly put together an eight-game winning streak while remaining undefeated in the SEC.
A talented young team with a very good point guard and talented weapons around him, LSU has a manageable schedule for the rest of January before things start to get more difficult during February. We’ll see if the Tigers can keep the winning streak going before facing a big pack of the league’s better teams in a row.
Purdue puts together quality road win at Ohio State
In the country’s deepest conference, Purdue earned a very good road win in Columbus on Wednesday night. Winners of four consecutive games and seven of their last eight, the Boilermakers are playing some of their best basketball of the season recently in the Big Ten. Carsen Edwards went for 27 points and the Boilermakers fouled out Kaleb Wesson on a night in which they led most of the time.
At 6-2 in league play, Purdue is a half game behind third-place Maryland — a team the Boilermakers already beat earlier this season. With conference losses only to leaders Michigan State and Michigan, Purdue is also taking care of the other teams in the league while creating some potential separation for a lead pack.
A game against Michigan State looms later this week and that should really give us a clear picture of where things stand in the conference pecking order. Home games on national television like Purdue has with this game against the Spartans are a huge chance to make a move.
Grant Williams puts up monster game in No. 1 Tennessee’s overtime win over Vanderbilt
Tennessee needed everything they could get from junior forward Grant Williams on Wednesday night as the No. 1 Volunteers outlasted in-state rival Vanderbilt with an 88-83 overtime SEC road win.
Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, played as if the National Player of the Year was more suitable to his needs this season as his dominant 43-point performance had the basketball world buzzing. Finishing 23-for-23 from the free-throw line, Williams essentially gutted Tennessee through a night in which a natural second scorer didn’t easily step up while Vanderbilt repeatedly made big shots with the shot clock winding down.
Not only did Williams lead Tennessee to victory on Wednesday night, it was the surgical way in which he went about torching Vanderbilt’s defense. Once Commodore junior big man Yanni Wetzell fouled out with a little over five minutes left, Williams went to work with a number of quick and decisive scoring moves. Spins into jumpers and runners balanced with post touches through contact that were all seamlessly converted.
And once Williams got to the line, he finished nearly every attempt completely clean — announcers marveling when he even drew iron. It’s only the second time in the history of college basketball that a player was at least 23-for-23 from the foul line.
Grant Williams' 23-23 free throw performance is the best the NCAA has seen in 60 years (Arlen Clark 24-24 in 1959). Only the second player in college basketball history to accomplish that feat. The projected first rounder finished with 43 points in an overtime win vs Vanderbilt.
Although many have placed Duke freshman Zion Williamson as the leader for Player of the Year at this point in the season, Williams is putting up huge numbers for the current No. 1 team in America. On a night when normal running mate Admiral Schofield struggled to only six points, Tennessee was still able to win because Williams got them there.
This is the type of signature performance that people are going to associate with Williams for a long time as his huge junior season continues.
Best Bets: Breaking college basketball’s title contenders into tiers
Over the course of the next two days, we will be diving into the best teams in the country and breaking them down into tiers.
Tomorrow, we will dive into the Final Four sleepers and the teams that are good enough to win six games in March and flawed enough to fail to get out of the first round of the tournament.
Today, we will take a look at the six elite teams in college hoops as well as three more teams that are on the verge of being elite.
Let’s get into it:
THE ELITE OF THE ELITE
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They’re the best team in the country.
Do I really need to break this down?
OK, I will.
Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball and has proven, over and over again, to be the most unstoppable force in college hoops. R.J. Barrett may very well be the second-best player in college basketball. At the very least he is absolutely the best player in the country that is the second-best player on his own team. Playing without their starting point guard, these two combined to put 57 points on Virginia on 21-for-35 shooting, which is not something that happens.
And I still haven’t mentioned the other two lottery picks on their roster, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.
As I said, they’re the best team in the country.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can be beaten by teams that control pace, pack in their defense and force Duke to try and make shots over the top. That’s exactly what Syracuse did to win in Cameron, and it’s what Virginia tried to do last Saturday. The Blue Devils shooting just 31.2 percent from three as a team, and their two best shooters — Reddish and Jack White — are both dealing with confidence issues.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Tre Jones returning will help because it will reduce the reliance that Duke has on scoring in the halfcourt. Reddish and White finding their three-point stroke will help as well, but it might not even matter. Duke has the talent to win six games in March with or without their shooters shooting.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: There aren’t three teams in college basketball with a group of guys that are more bought into the collective than Tennessee. Everyone on this roster understands, embraces and excels in the role they are being asked to play, and there’s not better example of this than Jordan Bowden. The junior guard started as a freshman, started as a sophomore and started the first five games of this season before Rick Barnes made a change, sending Bowden to the bench and moving Yves Pons into the starting lineups. Bowden didn’t complain. He accepted his role as a microwave scorer off the bench, and he’s thriving: In five games in SEC play, he’s averaging a team-high 17.6 points while shooting 45 percent from three.
Now to be clear, there is plenty on talent on this roster. Grant Williams going to be a first-team all-american and will play in the NBA while Admiral Schofield could end up being a first round pick this year, but that’s not why they’re so dangerous. It’s because they’re old, they have all that talent and all of their pieces do their job without complaining. It’s hard to beat that.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: I don’t know if they have a game-changing talent, and winning six straight games in March against some of the best teams in the country often requires that. As much as I love Schofield, what makes him so valuable is his switchability defensively and the way he can shoot the ball from deep. He’s not necessarily a guy you can give the rock to and trust that he’ll create a shot. Williams has been better this year at getting his — and he is a greatly improved passer — but he was not the guy that took over in Tennessee’s two biggest games this season. (Part of that is because he fouled out of both, which is another concern — he’s fouled out of four games already this year.)
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Honestly, not too much. I’m sure Rick Barnes would like to see Jordan Bone shooting it better than 26.7 percent from three. I’m also sure he’d like to see Williams chill out with some of the excessive fouling. But beyond that, Tennessee is an efficient machine that is second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and more or less matchup proof defensively.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: This year, Virginia is essentially matchup-proof.
This was a concern for them entering the season. We didn’t know if they were going to get Braxton Key eligible or whether or not there was any backcourt depth on the roster. Key got his waiver, but the emergence of Kihei Clark as a legitimate ACC-caliber starter has been just as important.
Suddenly, Virginia has more lineup versatility than I can ever remember a Tony Bennett team having. If they want to go big, they can play De’Andre Hunter at the three, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in the backcourt and Mamadi Diakite alongside Jack Salt up front. If they simply need athleticism and length on the floor, Diakite can slide over to the five alongside Hunter and Key. If they want to move Jerome off the ball or are forced to play small, Clark can handle point guard duties. And I haven’t even mentioned next year’s breakout star, Jay Huff.
And perhaps most importantly, they proved in the loss at Duke that they can hang with anyone on any court even if they are taken out of what they want to do offensively. I’m all-in on Virginia.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Without relying too much on narratives, the single biggest hurdle this team is going to face is the mental side of things. I don’t know how they’re going to handle the onslaught of attention that comes their way once the NCAA tournament starts. The “Virginia is for chokers” crowd will be incessant, and the way they react to someone, at some point, putting a run on them in March will be fascinating. I think this team is mentally strong enough to handle that — and frankly, if we’re rooting for the best story, seeing Virginia turn this around and win a title a year after suffering the biggest indignity in college basketball history would be amazing — but that’s heavy.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’d love to see Bennett use his most athletic lineup more often — Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Key, Diakite — but as of today, Virginia not only has the second-best adjusted efficiency margin in KenPom’s database, they are the only team in the country that is ranked in the top five of both KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. They’re effing good.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The Zags have the nation’s most high-powered offense and are arguably the most talented team in the country this side of Duke. There are five players on the roster that are a threat to put up 20 points on any given night, and that doesn’t include Geno Crandall — who scored 28 on Gonzaga last season as a member of North Dakota — or future WCC Player of the Year Corey Kispert.
There is no player in college basketball that can get hot the way that Zach Norvell gets hot. He is the best big-shot-maker in the sport. Rui Hachimura is the team’s leading scorer and a dynamic combo-forward that has made game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington this year. Brandon Clarke is the best defensive big man in the country, but he’s also the second-leading scorer on the roster. Josh Perkins is a dynamic ball-screen point guard in an offense that constantly runs ball-screens.
And Killian Tillie still has not found his rhythm yet.
They’re really, really dangerous.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They don’t guard as well as they need to. The Zags have certainly made strides on that end of the floor, but the fact of the matter is that they are always going to have three starters on the floor that after average to below-average individual defenders — Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura.
As of today, this is probably not a concern that is going to derail their season. They are currently 47th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and in 2009, North Carolina won the title with the nation’s best offense and the 39th-best defense. But it is something that they constantly need to improve.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure if there is something that needs changing, but the Zags do need to figure out exactly how they are going to use Killian Tillie. The biggest issue this team has is that through the first 15 games of the season, they developed roles and minutes and a rotation based on a roster that didn’t have Tillie available. Now that he’s back, Mark Few has to find a way to work him into the lineup without upsetting that balance. It’s been fine so far, but that has not exactly come against the best competition in the world.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: That defense is just so stingy and they are coached by John Beilein.
What else do you need to know?
The thing that’s so impressive about Michigan on the defensive end of the floor is that there is a legitimate argument to be made that three of their players are the best defensive player in the country at their position. Zavier Simpson is an absolute nightmare as an on-ball defender at the point, Charles Matthews can make people disappear on the wing and Jon Teske, believe it or not, has developed into a monster that can switch screens, protect the rim and battle in the post.
This program made the national title game nine months ago on the strength of their defense, and this team is better on that end of the floor. That can carry a team a long way.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can go long stretches without looking competent offensively, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a team coached by Beilein. The truth is this — we all knew how good this team was going to be on the defensive end this year. The questions we had centered around a team that struggled to score last year and was losing their three best options offensively.
This all came to light in the last two games. There are basically two players on the roster than can consistently create for themselves (Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole), and if one of them is having an off night, there is a real lack of offensive firepower. There really is no difference between this Michigan team and the Virginia teams of the past.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Charles Matthews needs to be a scoring threat. He’s the difference-maker on this team. He’s the guy that can help take some of the offensive burden off of Poole and Brazdeikis. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Michigan has been at their best this season on the nights when he’s shot it well.
MICHIGAN STATE (+700)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Cassius Winston has developed into one of, if not the best point guard in college basketball.
There’s plenty more to like about this Michigan State team than just what their point guard has been able to do — the emergence of Matt McQuaid, the way Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman have been able to share the floor, Kenny Goins going from walk-on to starter, Aaron Henry playing like a senior, not a freshman — but Winston is the engine. He’s the guy that has taken over in Michigan State’s biggest wins. He’s the engine that allows their transition game to function. He is one of the most efficient players in the country.
There are a lot of reasons Michigan State is good. Cassius Winston playing the way he’s been playing is why they are good enough to win six games in March.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: The Spartans are decidedly unathletic. I don’t think there is a player in their top six that you could call a plus athlete, at least not when comparing them to some of the other players around the country. The Spartans also have a relatively small perimeter core.
These issues will pop up in certain matchups. What happens when Michigan State’s bigs have to face off with the likes of Gonzaga or Duke? How will their wings handle being defended by Yves Pons and Admiral Schofield? One common theme with the best teams in the country this year is elite point guard defenders. We know Cassius Winston struggles against Zavier Simpson. How will he handle Ashton Hagans or Kihei Clark?
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure there is anything about this group that necessarily needs changing — beyond, you know, Josh Langford’s ankle getting healthy. But I do think that it would serve them well to continue bringing some of their freshmen along. Henry has cracked the rotation, as has Kyle Ahrens, and both seem to be trusted to play critical minutes. They could end up being the guys that allow Sparty to matchup with bigger, more athletic teams in March.
ONE TWEAK AWAY FROM BEING THE ELITE OF THE ELITE
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The talent on this roster is all coming together now.
We can differ about the reason why it’s happening. Some will argue that the emergence of Ashton Hagans has the starting point guard has given Kentucky an emotional leader that brings a level of toughness and confidence that has become contagious. I’m sure that plays a big role in it, as does Tyler Herro starting to play like the go-to guy we (I) thought he would be coming into the season. P.J. Washington is playing the best basketball of his Kentucky career. Nick Richards is starting to figure some things out. Immanuel Quickly has been effective as a bench option, and Keldon Johnson has continued to be as awesome has he was from day one.
The truth, however, is simpler than all of that: John Calipari has a proven track record of being capable of bringing young teams along and making them better and better as the season progresses, and honestly, that’s probably all this is. His guys are figuring it out, as they always do, and they now look like one of the nation’s best.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Just how good is Ashton Hagans offensively? Coming into this season, that was the concern. He was a mess on that end of the floor. He was making the wrong read, he was turning the ball over and he was not a threat to score. He’s gotten much better, but he’s still not a threat from the perimeter, and while I would not call him a liability offensively any more, he is still limited.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: If Kentucky is going to reach their ceiling they need Nick Richards to be good enough to knock Reid Travis out of the starting lineups. I like Travis, he is a monster on the block and a guy that can really rebound the ball, but he is not a vertical spacer or a rim-protector, and that’s what this Kentucky team needs inside. Travis has had one good game in SEC play (at Auburn) and Richards still can’t crack the starting lineup. That should tell you what you need to know about where Richards is right now.
NORTH CAROLINA (+1400)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They have as much talent and offensive firepower as anyone. Think about it like this: In Monday night’s win over No. 10 Virginia Tech, North Carolina got a combined 50 points out of Nassir Little and Coby White, their two star freshmen, and I can make a pretty sound argument that those two players are their third and fourth options offensively behind Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.
When this team gets rolling, there are not many out there that can go bucket for bucket with them.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Roy Williams still hasn’t found the best way to deploy Nassir Little.
I wrote about this in-depth here, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but the issue is three-fold:
Little is playing a position where he has to beat out Maye (a preseason all-american) and Johnson (a borderline all-american this season) for minutes at a forward spot. That’s because …
… Williams’ system calls for two bigs on the court at all times, which means that one of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman will be playing the five for the Tar Heels. That is hard on little due to the simple fact that …
… he is not a skilled enough on the perimeter to be a wing in this system but he’s not big enough to play the four. He’s not Justin Jackson, or Theo Pinson, or Isaiah Hicks. He’s a combo-forward, a small-ball four, a defensively versatile big wing that simultaneously fits the NBA game perfectly and is stuck in a situation where his skillset doesn’t really fit all that well with what UNC wants to do.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Unlocking Little is the key to reaching their ceiling, and I think that Williams will eventually figure it out. I’ve long said that the Tar Heels will be at their best when they realize their best five is White, Kenny Williams, Little, Johnson and Maye and figure out how to play with them on the floor. I still believe that to be true.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Bill Self is an absolute magician as a basketball coach. He figured out how to win with the team that had Josh Jackson playing the four. He figured out how to win with the team that played four guards around Udoka Azubuike and had Svi Mykhailiuk playing the four. I have no doubt that he’ll find a way to win when he has four switchable wings, a McDonald’s All-American point guard and a first-team all-american five in Dedric Lawson.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: This team is just not as talented as we thought they were entering the season. I mean this with all sincerity: How many players on this Kansas roster will play in the NBA? Dedric Lawson will get a shot because of his size and skill, but go see if you can find him listed on a first round mock anywhere on the internet. Lagerald Vick had to return to school after getting run out of the program because he professional options were so limited. Marcus Garrett can’t shoot, which is a problem for NBA teams. Quentin Grimes has the most hype, yet he’s been benched for Ochai Agbaji, who might be the best NBA prospect on the roster.
Kansas was going to redshirt him this season.
That should tell you what you need to know.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Since I don’t think that it is possible for the Jayhawks to magically become a 40 percent three-point shooting team, I think the answer here is pretty simple: They either need to get Grimes playing like the top ten prospect that he was coming out of high school, or they need to fully get on boards with the idea that Agbaji needs to start over him. Agbaji is a better athlete, a better defender, plays with more energy and has actually been an efficient and productive player offensively.
Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson is the nation’s best
I can’t believe some of the things that came out of my mouth last week.
Like, for example, how I said, over and over again, that Tre Jones was the most important player on the Duke roster. Yes, Jones does things that no one else on this Duke team can do. Yes, he is an elite on-ball defender that allows R.J. Barrett to slide into a role that is more suited for him offensively. Yes, he provides leadership and takes pressure off of their halfcourt offense with the transition opportunities that he creates.
All of that is true.
But the idea that I said, and actually believed, that anyone other than Zion Williamson — and, to a lesser extent, R.J. Barrett — is the most important player on this Duke team is just laughably absurd.
This is how I know I need better friends.
Because anyone that truly cared about me as a human being would never, ever, let me say what I said last week with such conviction.
If you need me, I’ll be taking an L.
2. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee
I’ve made this point over and over this season, but it bears repeating after the performance that Dedric Lawson had on Monday night: We fawn over the Kansas star because of his size, his efficiency, his passing ability and the way he can space the floor with his shot. Here are their numbers, side by side:
Should I mention that Tennessee is currently the No. 1 team in the AP Poll as well?
3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette
Howard the best shooter in the country. He the second-leading scorer in the high-major ranks and the nation’s fifth-leading scorer overall. There no high-major player in college hoops that has been more efficient with a higher usage rate. All of those things are true and wildly impressive for a player that is six months younger than Trae Young, but we also need to consider this: Howard’s assist rate is on par with the likes of Ty Jerome, Jarrett Culver and Justin Robinson. He’s been unbelievable this year.
4. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas
It has been a weird two games for Lawson. On Saturday, in the loss at West Virginia, Lawson was unable to get a touch in a dangerous spot in the last 2:30 of the game as the Jayhawks stumbled through four ugly possessions while blowing a six-point lead. On Monday, Lawson finished with 29 points and 15 boards on 13-for-17 shooting, coming up with a huge block and an ever bigger three in the final minute to help seal the win. He carried Kansas for long stretches early in the game as the rest of Bill Self’s roster found a rhythm. He was nothing short of sensational.
I’m sure Kansas fans are hoping that, over the course of the final three months of the season, we see more of that Lawson and less o the player that couldn’t get a big bucket when they needed it in Morgan town.
5. JA MORANT, Murray State
I know it was only SIU-Edwardsville, but Ja Morant went for 40 points and 11 assists on Saturday. He was 21-for-21 from the foul line and, in his last two games, is now shooting 7-for-14 from three. He’s not a great shooter yet, but he’s getting there. Top five picks.
6. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech
After a sterling start to the season, Texas Tech is starting to get figured out. This is what happens when your offense is, essentially, the Jarrett Culver Show. He hasn’t been good enough to carry the Red Raiders in their last two games, a home loss to Iowa State and a loss at Baylor. He was 7-for-21 from the floor against the Cyclones and had seven turnovers in the loss at Baylor.
7. R.J. BARRETT, Duke
We were all up in arms about Barrett’s performance in the loss to Syracuse, finishing with just 23 points on 8-for-30 shooting, he turned around and put up 30 points on an efficient 11-for-19 shooting against Virginia, one of the nation’s very best defensive units.
8. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
No one in college basketball deserves more and is getting less All-American hype than Michigan State’s star point guard Cassius Winston. What he is able to do in transition is a difference-maker for a team that likes to run far more than anyone realizes. He’s been better defensive as well, and in the absence of Josh Langford, he’s picked up the scoring slack when needed. He had 29 points and six assists at Nebraska. He had 23 points and five assists against Purdue. He had 25 points and five assists at Ohio State.
Sparty won all of those games, and after soundly knocking off Maryland on Monday night, they have now won 11 in a row and sit all alone in first place in the Big Ten. Michigan State is dangerous, and Winston is the reason why.
9. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
Happ had one of the most dominating performances of the season on Saturday, as he posted 26 points, 10 boards, seven assists and two steals as the Badgers handed Michigan — one of the top five defensive teams in the sport — their first loss of the season. Wisconsin has struggled of late, and Happ’s inconsistency from the free throw line is going to cost the Badgers a big game at some point, but what he did on Saturday was special.
10. SOMEONE, Virginia or Gonzaga
These two teams play drastically different styles — Gonzaga is one of the fastest teams in the country while Virginia is the slowest team — but the one thing that they have in common is that there is no clear-cut “best” player on either roster. De’Andre Hunter is the best pro prospect for Virginia, but Ty Jerome might actually be their best player this year while Kyle Guy is the team’s leading scorer. We can say the same thing with the Zags, who are infinitely better thanks to the defense that gets played by Brandon Clarke but who run their offense through their Japanese star Rui Hachimura.
IN THE MIX: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)
AP Poll: Tennessee moves to No. 1 in Top 25, Duke drops to No. 2
Top-ranked Duke went down early in the week. No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Virginia, the last of Division I’s unbeaten teams, both fell over the weekend. In all, six top-10 teams lost.
Tennessee kept rolling amid chaos across the AP Top 25.
The Vols are the new No. 1 in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll on Monday, climbing three spots to earn their first top ranking since the 2007-08 season.
Tennessee received 48 of 64 first-place votes from a media panel in the poll released Monday, well ahead of No. 2 Duke with 11. No. 3 Virginia received three first-place votes and No. 6 Michigan State two. Gonzaga and Michigan rounded out the top five.
“The guys playing right now built this thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Expectations followed the Vols into the 2018-19 season. With its top six scorers back from a team that shared the SEC title, Tennessee had its highest preseason ranking at No. 6 and was eyeing a deep NCAA Tournament run in Barnes’ fourth season.
The Vols have lived up to the forecast so far, bouncing back from an overtime loss to then-No. 2 Kansas to win 12 straight games. Tennessee knocked Gonzaga from atop the AP Top 25 with Barnes’ first win over a No. 1 team in early December and won its two games last week, rolling over Arkansas and holding off Alabama .
The only other time Tennessee (16-1, 5-0) was No. 1, it lost the next night to Vanderbilt — the Vols’ opponent on Wednesday.
“Tennessee basketball hasn’t been ranked No. 1 in a long time,” Vols guard Jordan Bone said. “That’s a good feeling, but we can’t be so locked in on that. We have to continue to stay hungry. We can’t be so focused on that. It’s so fleeting. It can change really quick.”
The changes in the AP Top 25 came quickly after a wild week.
Duke started by losing to Syracuse in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils played without a sick Cam Reddish and lost point guard Tre Jones to a shoulder injury in the first half.
Reddish returned against Virginia on Saturday and Duke responded with a superb game, knocking Virginia from the unbeaten ranks with a 72-70 victory despite playing without Jones.
Michigan lost to Wisconsin by 10, also on Saturday, leaving the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as the last Division I team to go undefeated.
No. 7 Kansas, No. 8 Texas Tech and No. 9 Virginia Tech also lost. The Jayhawks fell two spots after losing to West Virginia. The Red Raiders dropped six spots to No. 14 after losses to Iowa State and Baylor. The Hokies were down one to No. 10 following a loss to Virginia.
In all, 13 ranked teams lost last week.
HERE IS THE FULL POLL
1. Tennessee (48 first-place votes)
2. Duke (11)
3. Virginia (3)
6. Michigan State
10. Virginia Tech
11. North Carolina
14. Texas Tech
20. Ole Miss
21. N.C. State
22. Mississippi State
24. Iowa State
Kentucky saw a steady slide down the AP Top 25 after opening the season with a blowout loss to Duke. The preseason No. 2, the Wildcats were down to No. 19 just a month ago, but started climbing again.
Kentucky is up to No. 8 after beating No. 14 Auburn and Georgia this week, with games against No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kansas coming up.
RISING AND FALLING
No. 13 Maryland moved up six spots after beating Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Kentucky, No. 17 Houston and No. 18 Villanova each moved up four spots.
Florida State after stretching its losing streak to three games with losses to Pittsburgh and Boston College, falling out of the poll from No. 11.
Louisville moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 23 following wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Iowa State’s wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State put the Cyclones back in at No. 24 after they dropped out from No. 20 last week.
LSU beat then-No. 19 Mississippi and South Carolina last week to return to the poll at No. 25.
Oklahoma joined Florida State in dropping out of the poll following losses to Kansas State and Texas. The Sooners were No. 20 last week.
Indiana, No. 25 last week, did not receive a single vote after lopsided losses to Nebraska and Purdue.
Monday Overreactions: The Big 12 is drunk, Duke-Virginia is the new Duke-Maryland
The turnaround that Kansas State has made over the course of the last 12 days is absolutely incredible.
It wasn’t even two weeks ago that the Wildcats found themselves trailing Big 12 bottom feeder West Virginia 42-21 early in the second half in their own building. Kansas not only managed to win that game, they won their next three as well — at Iowa State, at Oklahoma (by 13 points) and TCU on Saturday.
It’s not a coincidence that their three biggest wins of the season happened to come when their best player returned from a foot injury that was initially expected to keep him out of action for eight weeks. This week he was at his all-american best. He went for 20 points in the win over Oklahoma and followed that up with 13 points and six assists as the Wildcats dispatched TCU.
These numbers aren’t overly impressive, but it is Wade’s presence on the floor more than anything that helps KSU win games. He’s their best shooter, which helps open up space on the floor for the myriad drivers on this roster, and he also happens to be the best passer on the team. Everything flows better offensively when he plays, and the proof is in the results.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Baylor Bears
Baylor is as much to blame for the insanity at the top of the Big 12 conference as anyone.
Just 10 days after they knocked off Iowa State in the Ferrell Center, Scott Drew’s club picked off No. 8 Texas Tech, handing the Red Raiders their second loss in league play and dropping them out of sole possession of first place in the conference standings.
The Bears, believe it or not, are now a win over West Virginia on Monday night away from being in a tie for first place in the Big 12, which is not something that I think anyone would have predicted in October. Makai Mason is making memories for Baylor instead of knocking them out of the NCAA tournament. Jared Butler has been on fire in recent weeks and has given Drew another perimeter weapon. They’ve been able to survive the loss of sophomore forward Tristan Clark admirably.
Baylor has a shot of getting back to the NCAA tournament now.
Who predicted that?
1. THERE IS A CLEAR-CUT TOP SIX, AND DUKE AND VIRGINIA MAY TOP THE LIST
At this point in the season, it has become pretty clear that their is a tier of six elite teams in college basketball: Duke, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Virginia, Michigan and Michigan State. The order in which you rank them will vary based on how much you value performance vs. accomplishment vs. raw talent, but there really is an argument for ranking those six in just about any order. Tennessee probably needs to be top two and the Michigan schools probably shouldn’t be in the top two, but beyond that, I wouldn’t really disagree with any order you decided to put them in.
But I do think that it has to be those six teams at the top.
They are the six best teams in college basketball this season.
And honestly, I think there’s a very real chance that the two best teams in the country this year are Duke and Virginia. We already know that we are going to see them square off in Charlottesville on Saturday, Feb. 9th. Would anyone complain if they played for the ACC title? Or if they met at some point in the Final Four?
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying that rivalry as it has grown in recent years, and it’s helped replace what we lost when Maryland left the ACC. In the glory years of the ACC, Duke and Maryland once played four times in a season — back in 2002. I’ll take it.
2. MICHIGAN STATE IS BETTER THAN MICHIGAN AND WILL LOSE THE BIG TEN TITLE?
The Spartans took over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten on Saturday when Wisconsin picked off Michigan in the Kohl Center, and if the Spartans can get past Maryland on Monday night, they will move 1.5 games clear of the Wolverines and two games clear of the Terps, who are currently sitting in second place in the league.
And as crazy as this sounds after the start that Michigan had to the season, I think that at this point the Spartans are the best team in the Big Ten. They’ve now won 11 straight games, and their only two losses on the season have come to a full strength Kansas on a neutral court and at Louisville in overtime in a game where Cassius Winston — Michigan State’s engine and arguably the best point guard in college hoops — fouled out with four minutes left. As good as Michigan has been defensively, what we saw on Saturday was that this is a team that can struggle on the offensive end of the floor.
But heres the twist in my theory: Michigan is actually the favorite to win the Big Ten regular season title, and that’s because the Wolverines seem to have Michigan State’s number of late. the last three times they’ve played, Michigan has won, and in those three games, Winston — who has a career 2.64:1 assist-to-turnover ration — has 11 assists and 11 turnovers while averaging just 8.3 points and shooting 33.3 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three.
No one can take Winston out of a game like Zavier Simpson can, and we’ll get to see him take two swings at it in the last four games of the regular season. Buckle up!
3. KENTUCKY IS BACK!
The Wildcats landed one of their best win of the season on Saturday, as they went into Auburn Arena, opened up a 45-29 second half lead and then won after Bryce Brown scored 25 second half points to launch a comeback where the Tigers eventually took the lead in the closing minutes.
Building that kind of a lead on a team as dangerous as Auburn is really impressive, but what struck me was the poise that Kentucky had in big moments down the stretch. This is a young basketball team, one that doesn’t really have an alpha and that hasn’t played the most consistent basketball this season.
And yet, after blowing a 16-point lead on the road in the second half in front of a rowdy, raucous crowd, they responded immediately by getting fouled, hitting two free throws and getting the stop they needed to win the game.
4. THE BIG 12 IS DRUNK
Things got really weird in the Big 12 on Saturday.
First, No. 7 Kansas managed to find a way to blow a lead at West Virginia, choking away a win when the Jayhawks couldn’t execute Bill Self’s after-timeout sets to get a good look at the rim. Then, No. 8 Texas Tech lost to Baylor, their second loss of the week after falling at home to Iowa State on Wednesday night. Then Texas beat Oklahoma, Kansas State won their fourth straight and Iowa State picked up where they left off by handling Oklahoma State, and what we have is the weirdest league title race in the country.
Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State are all sitting at 4-2 in the league. Baylor is just a half-game back at 3-2 in the conference. Texas is a game out of first place and sitting in six place. TCU is a game back in the loss column and sitting in seventh. Oklahoma, who was ranked entering this week, is eighth with a 2-4 record. The last place team (West Virginia) is the one that beat Kansas.
I still think Kansas will get it done, but I’m not going to pretend to have any idea about this conference.
5. SAM HAUSER SAVES MARQUETTE
If you’ve read this space this season, you know where I stand on this Marquette team — I think Markus Howard is the most dangerous scorer in the country, I think that the Golden Eagles can beat literally in the sport as a result and I think Marquette can get to the Final Four.
And the reason for that is because of what Hauser did this week.
With Howard dealing with a back injury — which limited him to three minutes at Georgetown and slowed him against Providence — Hauser picked up the slack, going for 31 points in the win in D.C. and following that up by leading the team with 25 points against the Friars.