Power Rankings: Who's Getting Stronger After a Month of Conference Play?
The Big 12/SEC Challenge is done, leaving just one non-conference game left on the schedule: St. John's at Duke this Saturday. It's a sign that the college basketball season is rapidly approaching that critical point when teams start running out of time to turn around poor stretches or pick up season-altering wins—but we're not quite there yet. With six weeks left in the regular season (five for conferences that end a week early), things are still in flux for many of this year's best teams. Some are rounding into form while others are suffering hiccups they hope don't become habit.
Our latest Power Rankings are below, but first, some notable performances—for better or for worse—from last edition's top 25...
Five on the Rise
The five most impressive team performances of the last week:
Kentucky: Has the Kentucky everyone expected back in October finally arrived? The Wildcats are certainly looking the part after locking up Kansas at home for their sixth-straight win on Saturday and third-straight win over a top-25 team. Ashton Hagans continues to grow in his role as not just a defensive stopper but also a distributor, dishing out 22 assists across the three victories and continuing to lead the SEC in steal rate during conference play. Kentucky was able to take advantage of the Jayhawks' lack of size inside, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds, blocking eight shots and holding Kansas to a dismal 14 of 40 inside the arc.
Purdue: With apologies to Kentucky, the best singular win of the last week clearly belongs to the Boilermakers, who became the first team to beat Michigan State, the No. 3 team on kenpom, since November. Purdue led wire-to-wire in the win, though things did get uncomfortably close after the Spartans chased the deficit from 22 all the way down to five in the closing minutes. Most encouraging in the statement win was that A) Purdue got plenty of contributions from sources other than leading scorer Carsen Edwards, who had an off night, and B) it held the mighty Michigan State offense to its lowest points per possession (PPP) of the season (0.97), including a brutal 0.62 in the first half.
Louisville: The Cardinals continue to overachieve in Chris Mack's first season and now sit at 6–1 in the ACC after handling NC State and Pittsburgh last week. After a trip to Wake Forest on Wednesday, a make-or-break stretch arrives for Louisville that will likely determine whether it can seriously make a run at a surprise top-three or -four finish in the ACC. It will face North Carolina at home, hit the road to visit Virginia Tech and Florida State, then get a visit from Duke—all in a row. And after all that, it will still have two games left with Virginia. Even if the Cards don't emerge well from that stretch, they should still be able to aim for a top-half finish in the conference.
Villanova: Like the other Wildcats, Jay Wright's squad seems to have put its rough start behind it and is starting to shape up as one much closer to its preseason expectations. 'Nova is 7–0 in Big East play, although it won't face its only real competitor for the conference crown, Marquette, for the first time until Feb. 9. The offense has really been clicking lately, with an effective field goal percentage of 62% or higher in each of its last four games, including a 43.4% mark from three in that span. And the defense stepped up in a win over Seton Hall on Sunday, holding the Pirates to 0.78 PPP and just 52 points on the day.
North Carolina: When the Tar Heels got blown out at home by Louisville a couple weeks ago, it was an early flash point in 2019 for them. Would they let the embarrassment snowball, or bounce back stronger? Wins over Notre Dame and Miami didn't move the needle too much, but a home rout of Virginia Tech on Monday did. UNC put up 103 points on the Hokies' defense, with Nassir Little dropping a season-high 23 and fellow freshman Coby White adding 27. Keep an eye on whether that performance becomes a turning point for Little.
Not Their Best Work
Three teams from last week's top 25 that had a bad or middling week:
Maryland: Last Monday's loss in East Lansing was understandable, if not expected. But a loss to Illinois in New York City? The Illini aren't quite as bad as the bottom-dweller in some of the other major conferences, but this was a nightmare result for the Terps, no matter how you slice it. The freshmen that helped carry them to a recent seven-game win streak reverted back to playing as young as they are under the lights of Madison Square Garden, and a whopping 21 turnovers combined with suboptimal perimeter shooting did the team in. The good news for Maryland is that this was its first bad loss of the year; the bad news is that its stretch of playing five of six games away from home is only half over.
Auburn: We may be getting into a bit of uneasy territory in Auburn. The Tigers have been ranked in the AP Top 25 all year, and their overall 13–6 record is perfectly fine on the surface, but dive into it and you find a less-than-impressive résumé. After falling to South Carolina and Mississippi State in the last week, you have to go all the way back to Nov. 9 to find Auburn's best win of the season, a home rout of Washington. The Tigers don't have a single win over a team that currently has a good case for an at-large tournament bid, and they've fallen behind in the SEC race at 2–4. Auburn has plenty of time still to notch quality wins and try to earn the high-ish seed many expected, but that will only happen if it gets its defense (which has given up more than 1.09 points per possession in five of its last six games) in order.
Buffalo: That the Bulls dropped a MAC game isn't entirely surprising; after all, it's extremely hard to run the table within any conference. That it came at Northern Illinois, a team that has otherwise lost three of four, is a little less comfortiing. The Huskies are no pushovers, but with Buffalo in contention for a potential high seed in the NCAA tournament (think a No. 5 or 6), it's a game it didn't want to drop. Its margin for error the rest of the way has now shrunk, and it has a tough road game at Bowling Green coming up this week. The Bulls are in a position for an at-large bid even if they fall in the MAC tourney, but if they want to be the higher seed in their round of 64 matchup, they can't afford many more losses.
Mid-Major Thumbs Up
A mid-major team outside the top 25 that nonetheless deserves praise for its week:
Wofford: Since an 11-point road loss to Mississippi State back before Christmas, the Terriers have won eight in a row and climbed into the top 40 on kenpom.com. That streak was nearly broken last Thursday night in overtime against Samford, but Storm Murphy's calm step-back beat the buzzer for a thrilling finish in Spartanburg. Wofford is led by a trio of double-digit scorers, the most well-known of which is Fletcher Magee. Magee's shooting numbers are down from his junior season, but Murphy and junior Nathan Hoover have helped keep the Terriers as one of the nation's best from deep.
Top 25 Power Rankings
Last Week (1): beat Vanderbilt, beat West Virginia
Up Next: at South Carolina, at Texas A&M
Last Week (2): beat Pittsburgh, beat Georgia Tech
Up Next: at Notre Dame, vs. St. John's
Last Week (3): beat Wake Forest, beat Notre Dame
Up Next: at NC State, vs. Miami
Last Week (4): beat Minnesota, beat Indiana
Up Next: vs. Ohio State, at Iowa
Last Week (5): beat Santa Clara
Up Next: at BYU, vs. San Diego
Last Week (8): beat Mississippi State, beat Kansas
Up Next: at Vanderbilt, at Florida
Last Week (7): beat Colorado State
Up Next: at UNLV, vs. Boise State
Michigan State (18–3)
Last Week (6): beat Maryland, beat Iowa, lost to Purdue
Up Next: vs. Indiana
North Carolina (15–4)
Last Week (12): beat Virginia Tech
Up Next: at Georgia Tech, at Louisville
Last Week (11): beat DePaul, beat Xavier
Up Next: at Butler
Last Week (9): beat Iowa State, lost to Kentucky
Up Next: at Texas, vs. Texas Tech
Last Week (18): beat Butler, beat Seton Hall
Up Next: at DePaul, vs. Georgetown
Virginia Tech (16–3)
Last Week (10): lost to North Carolina, beat Syracuse
Up Next: at Miami, at NC State
Last Week (20): beat East Carolina, beat Tulsa
Up Next: vs. Temple
Last Week (24): beat Ohio State, beat Michigan State
Up Next: at Penn State, vs. Minnesota
Last Week (23): beat NC State, beat Pittsburgh
Up Next: at Wake Forest, vs. North Carolina
Last Week (14): lost to Northern Illinois, beat Kent State
Up Next: vs. Ball State, at Bowling Green
Last Week (21): beat Georgia, beat Missouri
Up Next: at Texas A&M, at Arkansas
Texas Tech (16–4)
Last Week (15): lost to Kansas State, beat Arkansas
Up Next: vs. TCU, at Kansas
Iowa State (15–5)
Last Week (19): lost to Kansas, beat Ole Miss
Up Next: vs. West Virginia, vs. Texas
Mississippi State (15–4)
Last Week (17): lost to Kentucky, beat Auburn
Up Next: at Alabama, at Ole Miss
Last Week (NR): beat Illinois, beat Northwestern
Up Next: at Nebraska, vs. Maryland
Last Week (NR): beat Tulsa, beat Temple
Up Next: vs. SMU
Last Week (13): lost to Michigan State, lost to Illinois
Up Next: vs. Northwestern, at Wisconsin
Last Week (16): lost to South Carolina, lost to Mississippi State
Up Next: vs. Missouri, vs. Alabama
Dropped Out: NC State, Iowa.
Next Man Up: Oklahoma, TCU, Washington.