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Best Bets: Breaking college basketball’s title contenders into tiers

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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

DUKE (+200)

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.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TENNESSEE (+1000)

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.

(AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

VIRGINIA (+800)

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.

(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

GONZAGA (+700)

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.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN (+1200)

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.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

ONE TWEAK AWAY FROM BEING THE ELITE OF THE ELITE

KENTUCKY (+1400)

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.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

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:

  1. 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 …
  2. … 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 …
  3. … 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.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

KANSAS (+2000)

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

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

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

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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)
4. Gonzaga
5. Michigan
6. Michigan State
7. Nevada
8. Kentucky
9. Kansas
10. Virginia Tech
11. North Carolina
12. Marquette
13. Maryland
14. Texas Tech
14. Buffalo
16. Auburn
17. Houston
18. Villanova
19. Iowa
20. Ole Miss
21. N.C. State
22. Mississippi State
23. Louisville
24. Iowa State
25. LSU

KENTUCKY RISING

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.

MOVING IN

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.

MOVING OUT

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

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Dean Wade

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?

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

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.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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.

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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.

Marquette is more than just Markus Howard.

And that’s what makes them so dangerous.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke is still No. 1

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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I’m going to get crushed for this.

I know I am.

So before you do it, just listen to my reasoning: Duke, regardless of what happened on Monday night, is still the best college basketball team in the country — which, after all, is what rankings are supposed to determine, right? — largely due to the fact that they still have the two best players in the sport in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Those two, playing without the team’s starting point guard, combined to put 57 points on Virginia in a 72-70 win on Saturday. Virginia, I think it’s worth mentioning here, has the second-highest adjusted efficiency margin of any team in KenPom’s database. Kentucky’s 2015 team is the only team that rated higher.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the No. 2 team in the country in my poll — and the team that is likely going to be No. 1 in the AP Poll come Monday morning — won a one possession game at home against an unranked Alabama on Saturday. They won that game because John Petty, who had 30 points on the afternoon, traveled with the Crimson Tide down 69-68 with 3.2 seconds left.

In just about the same scenario, Duke lost to an unranked Syracuse in an overtime game where Zion missed a free throw in the final seconds of regulation that would have won the game. If Zion makes his free throw and Petty doesn’t travel, we’re not even having this conversation.

That’s how close it is, and making concrete decisions about whom is better than whom based off of one missed free throw and a traveling call is probably sub-optimal.

And, lest we forget, that Duke’s loss came without two of their top four players. Would that game have played out differently if it was Cam “I hit the game-winning three at Florida State” Reddish chucking corner threes instead of Jack “I went 0-for-10 from deep” White?

I say all that to say this: I am not seeding NCAA tournament teams here. Our bracket projection gets updated every Thursday morning, and our Dave Ommen is the very best in the business when it comes to projecting the field. He has Duke as a No. 2 seed, and that is probably correct. If you are looking for someone to do rankings strictly based on accomplishment — if all you are looking for someone to tell you what team has amassed the most impressive array of results — that is the place to go.

There literally is nowhere better on the internet for it.

But this space is supposed to be about ranking the best teams in the country.

And Duke, for my money, is the best team in the country because as of today, I would pick them to beat any other team in the country on a neutral court.

Anyway, here are the full rankings:

1. Duke (15-2, Last Week: 1)
2. Tennessee (16-1, 2)
3. Gonzaga (18-2, 5)
4. Virginia (16-1, 4)
5. Michigan State 16-2, 6)
6. Michigan (17-1, 2)
7. Kentucky (14-3, 10)
8. Virginia Tech (15-2, 9)
9. Kansas (15-3, 7)
10. Texas Tech (15-3, 8)
11. Nevada (18-1, 11)
12. Marquette (16-3, 12)
13. North Carolina (14-4, 13)
14. Maryland (16-3, 20)
15. Ole Miss (14-3, 15)
16. N.C. State (15-3, 16)
17. Auburn (13-4, 17)
18. Mississippi State (14-3, 18)
19. Buffalo (17-1, 19)
20. Villanova (14-4, 21)
21. Houston (18-1, 22)
22. LSU (14-3, NR)
23. Louisville (13-5, 25)
24. Iowa State (14-4, NR)
25. Purdue (12-6, NR)

New Additions: 22. LSU, 24. Iowa State, 25. Purdue
Dropped Out: 14. Florida State, 23. Oklahoma, 24. Indiana

Best Bets: Is it time to go all-in on Virginia at Duke?

AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPom and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 4 VIRGINIA at No. 1 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 71, Virginia 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 73, Virginia 70

The biggest game of the weekend got a lot more interesting with Tre Jones suffering a shoulder injury and likely being forced to miss the game. Jones may be the fourth-best freshman on this Duke team, but he’s arguably the most valuable and certainly the most irreplaceable player on the roster.

Without him, I think this is Virginia’s game to win, even in Cameron Indoor Stadium, a building that Virginia won in last season.

And it all stems from the way that Duke wants to play.

The dirty little secret with this Duke team is that they are not all that good in the halfcourt, and they are even worse when they are forced to play in late-clock scenarios. On the season, the Blue Devils have scored 0.923 points-per-possession (PPP)* in halfcourt possessions (97th nationally) and 0.763 PPP in short-clock scenarios (130th nationally), but they are scoring 1.161 PPP in transition with 23.9 percent of their total possessions coming in transition. Only ten teams have played a higher percentage of their offensive possessions on the break, and North Carolina is the only high major among them.

Virginia, on the other hand, is specifically designed to avoid playing in transition as much as possible. They’ll typically fade the offensive glass, sending three players back and ensuring that the game will be played at their pace. In total, 88.9 percent of Virginia’s defensive possessions have been played in the half court, which is the fourth-highest total of 353 Division I basketball teams; Michigan is the only high-major that has faced fewer transition possessions while Texas Tech is the only team in the country that can better Virginia’s 0.713 PPP allowed in halfcourt defense.

And that’s before we get into the issue of three-point shooting.

Virginia is famous for running the Pack-Line Defense, which, as I explained in full detail here, is built around two core concepts: 1) The player guarding the man with the ball is to provide intense ball-pressure well beyond the three-point line while 2) The other four help defenders are to all be within an imaginary, 16-foot arc. What this does is encourage penetration into those help-defenders, known as ‘The Pack’, forcing kick-outs to spot-up shooters who will have to take a jumper with a defender running at them.

Or, more simply, don’t allow penetration into the paint or baseline and contest all jumpshots from the perimeter.

There is not a worse matchup for Duke than this.

For starters, we know all about their issues shooting from the perimeter. They were shooting 33 percent from three before going 9-for-43 from beyond the arc against Syracuse. And then there are the issues that R.J. Barrett has with overdribbling into help. We saw what happened at the end of the Gonzaga game. Barrett has been better, but the Syracuse loss was another perfect example of this. The Orange play zone instead of Pack-Line, but they basically did the same thing defensively Virginia will do: Pack big bodies in the lane to limit Zion Williamson’s effectiveness and give Barrett no space to drive, dare Duke to win with kickout threes to Reddish, Jack White and Alex O’Connell.

And this is where the loss of Jones plays a major factor in this game.

One of the problems is that it will either force Jordan Goldwire to play or, as it did on Monday night, push Barrett into the point guard role. That’s not ideal, because Goldwire isn’t good enough and Barrett is wired to score; he’s better playing off the ball than on the ball. Hopefully, this will mean Duke decides to unleash Reddish at the point, but I’m not convinced that will happen.

The bigger story, however, is on the defensive side of the ball. Jones is such a menace. He creates so many turnovers that lead to easy buckets at the other end — pick-six turnovers, if you will — but it’s more than just that. His ball pressure forces opposing point guards to chew up clock getting the ball over halfcourt. Then they are forced to initiate offense 40-feet away from the rim with their back to the basket to protect the ball from Jones’ pesky hands. By the time they are finally running action, the shot clock is starting to run down. This creates more rushed shots, lower efficiency offense and more misses. Those misses lead to more opportunities for Duke in transition — Williamson grab-and-go’s, Barrett or Reddish leading the break, long rebounds creating 3-on-2s or 2-on-1s, etc. — which takes the scoring burden off of executing in the halfcourt.

This is the worst possible matchup for a healthy Duke team, and the absolute worst possible team to face without Jones.

*All stats via Synergy

PICKS: The lines are going to be fascinating to see when they come out, but if Virginia is getting points, I will hammer them. I’ll probably bet them even if the line comes out as, say, Virginia (-3). I also think that, assuming the total ends up around 140 or so, the under will be a good bet as well.

(AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)

TCU at KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: TCU 66, Kansas State 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: TCU 70, Kansas State 61

It’s not the biggest game of the weekend, but it is the one that I feel the most confident in how it will play out, which is why the line on this game is going to be fascinating to see. TCU has been better than Kansas State this year, which is why both KenPom and Haslametrics are projecting the Horned Frogs to go into the Octagon of Doom and get a win. But TCU also just lost their fourth player to transfer this year — Jaylen Fisher — while Kansas State is playing their best basketball of the season, having won at Iowa State and Oklahoma in the last week. That coincided with the return of Dean Wade, their best offensive player and the only guy on the roster than can be thought of as a dangerous three-point shooter.

Vegas knows all of that.

But then there’s this: Barry Brown Jr. is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. In three games against TCU last season, Kansas State won twice (at home, in the Big 12 tournament) and in those three games, Robinson — the engine of TCU’s offense — finished with 17 assists and 18 turnovers. On the season, he had a 2.6:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

And then there’s this: In 47 games since the start of the 2017-18 season, Robinson has played 47 games and turned the ball over more than five times in just three of them. Two of those games came against Kansas State.

PICKS: I expect this line to open somewhere around Kansas State (-3), which is a line I would love.

No. 12 KENTUCKY at No. 14 AUBURN, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Auburn 74, Kentucky 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Auburn 74, Kentucky 70

A matchup between the two teams vying for second in an SEC that is currently being dominated by Tennessee will make for one of the more entertaining matchups of the weekend, but it’s a game that is pretty difficult to figure out.

Let’s start with the obvious: Kentucky is horrid at running teams off the three-point line. On the season, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 36.3 percent from beyond the arc (270th nationally), and more than 36 percent of the points that they have given up this season have come from three (52nd-highest). Those numbers come after Kentucky held Vanderbilt and Georgia to a combined 11-for-51 from three in the last two games. Auburn shoots 46.1 percent of their field goals from deep, and only 18 teams — and just three high-majors — score a higher percentage of their points from three than Auburn does.

That would usually make me lean towards the Auburn side here, but it is also worth noting just how important Jared Harper is to the Tigers at the point guard spot, and Kentucky just so happens to have Ashton Hagans on their roster. Hagans is as good on the ball as any defender in the country. Hagans shut down North Carolina’s Coby White, held Alabama’s Kira Lewis to 4-for-14 shooting, forced Texas A&M’s T.J. Starks into five turnovers without an assist (he did have 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting) and kept Vanderbilt and Georgia’s guards from getting going. I should also note that Louisville’s Christen Cunningham had one of his best games against Kentucky.

So I don’t know what to make of this.

PICKS: Both KenPom and Haslametrics are projecting the same score on Saturday, and if the line is Auburn (-4) I think I would probably lean towards the Kentucky side — I just think the Wildcats are a better team, I’m not buying Auburn this year — but I will be staying away personally.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

No. 2 MICHIGAN at WISCONSIN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 63, Wisconsin 62
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60

Michigan is going to get a serious test on Saturday, as they head to the Kohl Center as one of just two undefeated teams left in college basketball. Since pounding Villanova in the second week of the season, Michigan has played just two road games, and one of those two was on Dec. 4th. John Beilein’s team has overwhelmed people at home, but they only beat Northwestern by two (the Wildcats had a shot to win it at the buzzer) at their place and beat Illinois by 10.

Wisconsin, however, has not been good of late. They’ve lost four of their last five games, including home dates with Minnesota and Purdue. They’ve really struggled to get things going offensively at times as well, scoring just 14 first half points against Minnesota and 15 first half points against Maryland. The last thing you want to do is start slow against Michigan’s vaunted defense.

PICKS: The computer models really like Wisconsin despite the fact that they are just 11-6 on the year. The Badgers are 17th in KenPom, which is probably too high. The problem, however, is that I have a hard time seeing a situation where this isn’t a close, grind-it-out game played in the 50s. Michigan has a top three defense and hasn’t had a road test like this year this year. Wisconsin has a top 15 defense and hasn’t been able to score against worse teams. Both teams fade the offensive glass. Neither of them turn the ball over. Both play at a pace that ranks in the bottom 30 nationally.

If the total ends up being in the mid-to-high 120s, I think the under is probably my favorite bet. (When Wisconsin played Virginia, the final score was 53-46.) I’ll probably stay away from the line unless it is Michigan (-1), a pick-em or Wisconsin is favored; then I’ll be on Michigan.

No. 19 MARYLAND at OHIO STATE, Fri. 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Ohio State 70, Maryland 67
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 69, Ohio State 67

Ohio State comes into this one on a three-game losing streak while Maryland own sole possession of second place in the Big Ten race with a 6-1 record. The Terps have won six in a row as Anthony Cowan has thrived playing in a role off the ball and Bruno Fernando has been dominant in the paint.

PICKS: Personally, I just think that the Terps are a much better basketball team that Ohio State is. All due respect to Chris Holtmann, but that team has been playing above their level all season long, and frankly, wins at Cincinnati, at Creighton and over UCLA don’t look as good now as they did at the time. My only concern is that the Buckeyes have Kaleb Wesson, and he’ll be able to ensure that Fernando does not wear anyone down in the paint.

The line here is going to be interesting. KenPom is projecting it at Maryland (+3), at which point I would be all over the Terps. But Haslametrics has it at Maryland (-2), which I probably will stay away from.

No. 25 INDIANA at PURDUE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Purdue 75, Indiana 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Purdue 76, Indiana 70

This will be a fun rivalry game between two Big Ten brands that are in something of a rebuilding year. The Hoosiers have now lost three in a row (at Michigan, at Maryland, Nebraska at home) with two of those three coming by double-digits. Purdue, on the other hand, has won five of their last six games with the only loss coming on the road against Michigan State in a game where Carsen Edwards shot like was Carsen Daly.

PICKS: Mackey Arena is a mad house for big games, and I don’t expect anything less on Saturday. The question you need to ask is whether or not you think Indiana can slow down Edwards. I don’t think that the Boilermakers have the defenders to keep Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan from getting their’s, and Indiana has proven that they can be really good at running teams off of the three-point line — threes are where Purdue butters their bread on the offensive end. Lead guards have been able to get it going against Indiana this year, so I think Edwards will as well.

If this line opens at Purdue (-6), I’d probably lean towards Purdue.

No. 8 TEXAS TECH at BAYLOR, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 63, Baylor 59
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 64, Baylor 55

The Red Raiders too, their first loss of the season on Wednesday night at home against Iowa State. The Cyclones have quite a bit of talent on the perimeter and the way they play, they can stretch a defense with some shooting and with playmakers. Baylor ranks 286th nationally in three-point percentage (although they have been shooting it well in league play) and turn the ball over a ton. That plays right into Tech’s hands.

PICKS: Tech is the best defensive team in the country this season, but they struggle to score the ball. This means they are going to be in tight games every single night in a league where, frankly, just about every team is more or less built the same way. Throw in Baylor’s zone defense, which can be tough to crack, and my guess is that the Red Raiders once again find themselves in a defensive battle.

Where this line opens will determine who I bet. If it is Tech (-4), like KenPom predicts, I’d lean Tech. If it’s Baylor (+9), I’d probably be on Baylor. Either way, if the total gets up into the mid-120s, I think the under is the clear best bet here.

No. 7 KANSAS at WEST VIRGINIA, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas 78, West Virginia 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas 83, West Virginia 69

West Virginia is not very good this year.

At all.

Kansas has won three straight and is starting to figure things out without Udoka Azubuike.

PICKS: The x-factor is Sagaba Konate. If he plays, I’d be less inclined to bet Kansas, because that rim protection makes West Virginia’s defense work better than it has. But frankly, I don’t have a ton of respect for the Press Virginia system right now, and while Morgantown has been a bit of a bugaboo for Kansas over the years, this is a different WVU. If the line is Kansas (-6), as KenPom suggests, hammer it.

ALABAMA at No. 3 TENNESSEE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 85, Alabama 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 90, Alabama 71

Tennessee has been able to simply overpower the lesser teams in the SEC this season, and on paper, Alabama is a lesser team. The question you have to ask is just how much of a “lesser” team is Alabama. They have NBA talent on their roster and, as they showed against Kentucky, they have some dudes on the roster that can take over a game.

PICKS: Based on the projections, this looks like it will be a pretty large spread. Tennessee (-15) is a lot of points, and I might be tempted to take the Vols to cover. I’ll probably pass, personally, but the Vols would be the better bet.