We’ve long insisted that these power rankings are not defined by the numbers by each team’s name but by the words that happen around them; they are the lines on the floor, mere structure for what comes within.
We would encourage you to keep that in mind more than ever today, and not just because this season keeps producing upsets of top teams and rethought rankings refreshes. Why? Ha, um. Well. You’ll see.
Let’s power rankings.
Houston beat Tulsa 80-42 Wednesday night. Marcus Sasser had a very Marcus Sasser sort of evening: 25 points, 10-of-17 from the field, 5-of-10 from 3, three rebounds, two assists, one steal. It’s hardly worth dwelling on this game. Instead, let’s take a look at something Sasser did in Houston’s previous blowout win Sunday.
Babe, wake up. New Euro step just dropped?
Marcus Sasser FLOATED on this euro step 😮 @UHCougarMBK pic.twitter.com/hBaw23yi7I
— ESPN (@espn) February 6, 2023
No, seriously: Have you ever seen anyone do that before? Far as we can tell — and we are not the No. 1 ranked snitch ref, so take this with a big grain of salt — that was a perfectly legal play. Sasser doesn’t take an extra step. In the delicate 1-2 waltz that is the Euro step, he doesn’t add an extra shoe silhouette on the floor. He just seems to float on the move he does make, extend his time in the air, and then catch himself with his opposite leg just in time to regain balance and finish at the rim. Physically, it’s a remarkable piece of skill.
It is also a reminder that Sasser missed most of last season with a foot injury. He had to have surgery, and make a full recovery; foot injuries are no joke. He’s never really looked like he lost a step athletically this season; the pop has been there all along. But there is pop, and then there is doing something that we’ve can’t really remember seeing anyone else do. Mind blown.
Much as Purdue fans will be annoyed at the suddenly-less-rare sensation of losing to Indiana, last Saturday’s rivalry loss in Bloomington was one from which basically everyone involved emerged with reputations intact. Indiana obviously won the game, but if anything center Zach Edey only enhanced his player of the year credentials: He finished with 33 points (on 15-of-19 shooting, which is hilarious) and 18 rebounds while spending a huge share of his time being guarded by Trayce Jackson-Davis, one of the best, most athletic post defenders in college basketball. TJD could do nothing about Edey except try to challenge him on the opposite end, which he effectively did, to the point that Edey had to miss a big chunk of Purdue’s lackluster first half thanks to foul trouble. He played just 32 minutes total. Yes, he had 33 and 18 in 32 minutes on the floor. RIDICULOUS.
It sounds silly, but “get Zach Edey off the floor” is a fantastic strategy for making Purdue into a more normal opponent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very often; Edey is averaging 2.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Nor is Indiana’s offensive success against Purdue — it scored 1.22 points per trip — indicative of how the Boilermakers usually play. Much of it was down to IU’s hyper-hot first half, when the Hoosiers rode an Assembly Hall crowd to 62 percent shooting from the field, 4-of-7 from 3, and a 50-35 halftime lead. They held on for dear life from there.
The one area Indiana did shut down was Purdue’s perimeter. Braden Smith finally looked like a freshman — four points, 1-of-8 from the field — and broadly speaking Indiana rotated really well between some help on Edey and recovering to the ball on the perimeter. If you’re athletic enough to fly around and switch most of what Purdue wants to do out top, you can isolate Edey and make him beat you one-on-one. Indiana mostly managed that. For as good as he is, no matter how many 4-foot hook shots he makes look laughably easy, the Boilermakers are never as potent if they aren’t supplementing him with 3s. Often, Edey and the wing teammates hovering around him are so good all at once you don’t even have the option to pick your poison; they overwhelm you as a group. But if you can untether them somewhat, if you can actually pick which way you’d prefer Purdue’s offense to beat you, there’s a small chance they won’t.
Our “well, they only barely beat Mississippi State at home and then got dumptrucked by Oklahoma in Norman, wonder if something’s off there” concerns about Alabama continue to look very silly in the fullness of time. The Tide handled LSU at the Maravich Assembly Center with pretty straightforward ease Saturday afternoon, and then totally dominated Florida Wednesday night.
Florida arrived having played very well last week in a win over Tennessee, with Colin Castleton emerging as an SEC player of the year favorite. Castleton was fantastic again (probably even better?) in a narrow loss at Kentucky over the weekend. We had elevated Florida in our estimations coming in — clearly, in retrospect, too much so — as a bubble team, yes, but also as a viable defensive force. The Gators entered with a top-10 per-possession defense nationally, one that excels most of all at challenging first shots. (Florida’s opponents shot just 43.1 percent from 2 and 30.8 from 3 prior to their trip to Tuscaloosa.) If you can stay with Alabama on the defensive end, if you can keep them in front and challenge shots that get thrown up off the dribble after those initial Alabama actions run their course, you have a chance to change their whole dynamic. Very few teams do it, but maybe Florida could get in a stance and keep them honest and …
The Gators trailed 52-23 at half. Whoops! Yeah. Alabama’s going to be just fine.
Has Arizona officially emerged from its slide? Was Arizona in a slide? It definitely felt like it was, at least for a while there: After storming through the nonconference portion of the season, that previously lights-out offense started to flicker at the start of league play. Playing just OK in a grinder of a win at Arizona State is one thing; scoring 61 points in 65 trips against Washington State at home, then getting blown out at Oregon, is another. And in recent weeks the offense has continued to be messy. In a three-game week from Jan. 19 to Jan. 26, Arizona scored 202 points in 213 possessions. This was the best offensive team in the country for like six weeks; what happened?!
Fun fact: Arizona won those three games, which came against USC, UCLA and at Washington State (which is better than its 10-15 record suggests, anyway, and had already beaten Arizona easily in Pullman, remember). The Wildcats haven’t lost since Jan. 14. As we wrote last week, even if it was helped by some bad UCLA shooting in Tucson, this once-soft defense has clearly improved along the way, to the point that Arizona could get away with not scoring a gajillion points against a team as good as the Bruins (and, to a lesser extent, USC). Is this a slide? Where you don’t necessarily play your best basketball but you keep beating really good teams anyway?
Either way, last week Arizona appeared to snap out of it altogether. The Wildcats scored 91 points in 70 possessions at home against Oregon — Azuolas Tubelis scored 40 on 21 field goal attempts! — which is much more like the kind of offensive performance we’ve associated with this program for the past 18 months. On Saturday, Arizona stomped Oregon State, which is a very bad team, but still: A 32-point win is a 32-point win. After spending a few weeks hovering in the 15-20 range in adjusted efficiency, Arizona is now back in the top 10 for the first time since the loss to Wazzu. Arizona is still 21-3. Was that the slide, the midseason slump? If so, look out.
Back-to-back woeful scoring performances in two massive games against Arizona and USC two weeks ago caused us in last week’s power rankings to take a closer look at the way UCLA goes about getting its points, and where on the floor its shots come from. We found a somewhat disconcerting reliance on the kind of midrange shots that have fallen out of analytical favor in recent years. Indeed, very few teams in college basketball shoot more midrange shots than the Bruins. Just six teams generate a higher share of their points from inside the arc; just 20 teams attempt fewer 3s as a share of overall field goal attempts.
But this shouldn’t be particularly surprising: It was basically the case for the Bruins a season ago, when they were one of the 10 or so best teams in the country, and it was exactly those kinds of shots that got them to the Final Four in the bubble tournament year — Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell and most of all Johnny Juzang just making every contested jumper they saw for three straight weeks.
Thing is, this might be the best team of the bunch. The reason is defense. Whereas the Final Four team turned it on for a few weeks after a season of mostly average basketball, and the 2021-22 group seemed content to get by defensively without ever looking truly elite on that end of the floor, this UCLA team ranks behind only Tennessee and Rutgers in adjusted defensive efficiency. Neither of UCLA’s get-right wins against Washington and Washington State last week were the product of dominant offensive performances. UCLA trundled its way to 70 points in 67 trips against UW, and 76 in 65 against Wazzu. But it controlled both games defensively (particularly the latter).
This is where it feels like Mick Cronin has probably settled on a UCLA formula that fits him and the program all at once. He’s been preaching defensive toughness and intensity since he arrived in Westwood in 2019, while also blending in talented scoring stars (Juzang feels like the most notable example) that good UCLA teams should have, but that don’t exactly feel like guys who would have thrived in Cronin’s old Cincinnati setups. But with Campbell and Jacquez now the stars, and guys like Jaylen Clark — arguably the best defender in the country? — ready to take on big minutes and be relatively efficient on the offensive end, Cronin has arguably his first UCLA team that might be able to guard its way to a Final Four.
It would be nice to take and make a few more 3s, obviously. Those numbers are pretty extreme. But even so this is not a bad offensive team — just one whose identity doesn’t revolve around bucket-getting in the same way it might have a year ago.
We’ll be honest: SEC Network replayed Vanderbilt guard Tywin Lawrence’s game-winning corner 3 about 45 times in the immediate aftermath of the shot, and each and every time we still weren’t sure he got it off his hand in time. For whatever reason, all of those replays were live speed; there was no slow-mo, let alone the angle the officials might have seen at the replay booth. And the shot-to-red-light interval looks extremely tight, so tight that it might not even exist.
Anyway, even if Tennessee had a case about the buzzer-beater (and we assume the refs actually saw definitive footage), it also only had itself to blame. Julian Phillips had a chance to give the Volunteers a two-possession lead in the closing moments, on an easy fast-break dunk, which he instead incredibly passed up and dribbled back out to the wing. It was one of the more inexplicable pieces of late-game decision-making we’ve seen all year. Tennessee, on another night when the offense was just OK and the opponents made enough 3s to hang in, was punished for it.
VANDERBILT UPSETS NO. 6 TENNESSEE AT THE BUZZER 🚨😱 pic.twitter.com/CpTkjup76y
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 9, 2023
What is this?! Highly irregular, is it not? Allow us to explain.
We know we’ve grouped two or three Big 12 teams together at various points in the past few weeks, and we know that sometimes annoys some of you, particularly if you feel any one team has been given short rhetorical shrift. We wrote a bit too much about Duke’s personnel in Miami’s Bubble Watch blurb this week, apparently; Miami’s fervent basketball fandom was sure to highlight its displeasure. (They were almost as mad as Pitt fans because we said Pitt — a just-OK bubble team that certainly wouldn’t get anywhere near these power rankings — was just OK! Ah, well.) We get it. Everybody wants their own team to get their shine in a national column. Everybody wants credit in their own dedicated space.
So, um, sorry, but: Allow us to introduce a new weekly subsection of the 2023 Men’s College Basketball Power Rankings: The 2023 Big 12 Power Rankings Subsection Within Power Rankings! (All rights reserved.)
Hey, dawg, we heard you like power rankings. Etc., and so forth. Ha. Ahhhh. Xzibit memes. Man. A golden age.
Don’t blame us for this awkwardly inserted subsection existing. This buckwild Big 12 made us do it! On Saturday, Kansas got overrun at Iowa State. The Jayhawks scored 21 points in the first half and ended with just 53 points in 67 trips. The game was never particularly close. Then, two nights later, Kansas turned around and beat Texas 88-80 — the same Texas team coming off a 69-66 road win in the Octagon of Doom Saturday, the same Texas team that saw off a very hot Baylor in Austin a week prior. Baylor, by the way, has lost exactly one game (the immediately aforementioned) since Jan. 7, and the Bears’ defense is starting to look more robust by the game. Iowa State took a couple of losses before completely shutting Kansas down. Kansas State lost three out of four after starting 16-2 with wins at Texas, at Baylor and over Kansas at home. The Wildcats just beat TCU by 21.
Hell, West Virginia beat Iowa State Wednesday night, in a fantastic, hypercompetitive game in Morgantown. Bob Huggins was coaching his you know what off for 40 minutes. He was telling Eric Stevenson how much he loved him when there was still time on the clock. He still has that dog in him after all!
You can do this type of X beat Y but Y beat Z but A and B beat C dance for the entire league, particularly among the six teams we’ve formally listed above. These teams are beating each other to an unrecognizable pulp on an almost nightly basis. All of them rank between ninth and 23rd in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency, and of those TCU has only recently slipped out of the top 20, in large part thanks to star guard Mike Miles Jr.’s injury. All have been a fairly steady presence in the power rankings for most of the year. Picking between them is very difficult on a weekly basis. We might as well just throw them all in an odd little nesting doll of a list in the middle of the larger list and then just rotate and update them according to their own arcane internal logic as necessary.
The walking miracle that is Baylor’s Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua
And here’s the funny thing — that’s probably not going to end up being the whole list. We’re not there yet, but West Virginia, though just 4-7 in league play, is now 15th in adjusted efficiency and starting to look as formidable on the floor as its underlying numbers have mostly always suggested. Oklahoma State, coming off a win over TCU (its third in a row and fifth in six games) is also becoming gradually more viable. That would be eight of the Big 12’s 10 teams eyeing a spot in the vaunted 2023 Big 12 Power Rankings Subsection Within Power Rankings! This would be unprecedented subsection volume, and not just because this is the first time we’ve done this.
All in on this idea. Catchy title, too. We assume everyone involved will love it just as much as we do.
The Cavaliers wandered into a bit of a perfect storm Saturday, a 12 p.m. tip in Blacksburg to face not just a strongly disliked in-state rival and its associated fans but also a desperate team in need of quality wins to get into NCAA Tournament at-large range. After seven straight losses from Dec. 21 to Jan. 21, the Hokies have finally started to put together some decent results (and went promisingly toe to toe with Miami in a defeat last week, too), but find themselves starting to run out of season to get their team sheet in a bubble-worthy place.
Point being, Virginia was always going to catch Tech’s best punch. The Hoos took it pretty well, honestly, especially considering most teams in the ACC this season feel due for a stinker performance once every three games. Virginia, instead, is remarkably steady, and this applies even in defeat. The Cavaliers shot 19-of-43 from inside the arc against Tech; a few more makes in there (Jayden Gardner scored 20 points but missed 10 field goals, and Armaan Franklin was 2-of-9 on the night) and the final score might have gone the other way.
It did three nights later, when Virginia hosted NC State. The Wolfpack arrived having won eight of their last nine, and starting to earn some plaudits from outside just the ACC heads, and the Cavaliers went ahead and shut that whole thing down. Again, offensively, the performance was just all right, but defensively the Hoos brought it, and more broadly they evince a kind of calm resourcefulness in almost every situation. They rarely blow teams out. But they always match up well, guard well, and make the right plays far more often than not. Also, not for nothing, Kihei Clark — a fifth-year senior every broadcaster makes the “he played with Ralph Sampson har har har” jokes about — is having the best season of his career, up to and including his contributions in the national title run. Clark is fully in control of his game these days. He is a better perimeter shooter (and he’s getting to the free-throw line more often than he ever has), but he’s also just impossible to speed up. His size doesn’t feel like the detriment it once did. He’s not Virginia’s best player, but he is the one who keeps the entire enterprise smoothly ticking over.
If you’re reading this column, there’s a vastly better-than-average chance you’re the kind of person who stays up pretty late on Saturday nights (at least Eastern time, especially if you have small children who will always wake you up at 5:45 am no matter what you get up to the night before) after like 12 hours of incredible basketball to watch Saint Mary’s play Gonzaga. Compared to the general population, it’s a pretty good guess you’re this kind of person. But just in case you’re not, or in case you dozed off, or you went to the movies, or whatever … here’s an ICYMI for Aidan Mahaney’s performance against Gonzaga. Settle in and enjoy.
Oh, baby. Now try to put yourself in the shoes of someone watching Mahaney do all of that live, with the outcome of the game still hanging on every possession. We had multiple text threads and Twitter DMs going. The word “bag” was in liberal use. Mahaney was a non-entity for whole swaths of its massive home date against Gonzaga. He vanished in the first half. And then he took the entire game in his hands, 16 points and three assists in the final 6:26 of regulation plus overtime, unveiling an array of finishes and dishes that had us making involuntary noises in a house full of sleeping people. Gonzaga switched defenders; Gonzaga looked lost.
A couple friends we were talking with wondering if he — a three-star recruit before he arrived in Moraga — could one day play in the league. Why not, right? If you can float it that high off the glass from either side of the rim with either hand, if you can create space off ball screens and play most of the time in the middle of the lane, if you can make wrong-foot fadeaways like this to keep winning streaks alive at the buzzer … seriously, why not?
Eamonn does a quick web search, and …
All right, fine, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of draft interest in Mahaney just yet. Let’s have that discussion later. For now, let’s simply revel in a team as peskily good defensively as Saint Mary’s (there’s a reason Logan Johnson plays so much despite the hole he occasionally ends up being offensively — he is a nightmare perimeter defender, the heart of the team on that end) that is also able to unleash, and trust, a freshman guard with Mahaney’s skills.
It’s a combination that has put Saint Mary’s among the elite in college hoops this season, in the WCC conference title driver’s seat for the first time since 2012, with a league crown the least of what the Gaels might accomplish between now and April.
After Marquette’s stumble at UConn this week, Xavier is now alone in first in the Big East. If we went back in time and read that sentence aloud to you in November, you would have
a) been very impressed and at least slightly surprised, and also;
b) probably assumed Xavier was grinding the rest of the league into dust.
That was often the Sean Miller calling card at Arizona, the hard-nosed Pennsylvania son-of-a-coach transplanted to the Pac-12. Miller’s best Arizona teams featured elite defenses, but whether or not the Wildcats were merely good on that end of the floor, they always played at a deliberate speed. Save his first season, no Arizona team ranked higher than 115th in adjusted tempo, and his average rank across 12 seasons was 173rd. Arizona, even with all of the talent Miller brought to Tucson, hardly pushed the pace. His first Xavier tenure was hardly different.
Then Miller left coaching for a year, took a deep breath, got out of that stubborn “this is how we do stuff here, these are our principles” groove coaches can get in, and settled on what he’d want to try at his next gig. If you pick your head up and watch enough pro basketball, and if you take a look around at some of the more interesting programs in college hoops, it would be hard not to want to give some of the pacier and spacier stuff a go. And so he flipped the script at Xavier: His first Musketeers team, filled almost entirely with inherited personnel, ranks 23rd in adjusted efficiency, at 71.3 possessions per game, while ranking fifth in per-trip offense in all of Division I. They are just OK defensively; but they fly on on the offensive end. As such, they don’t really feel like a Miller team. But he has changed, and he’s brought those changes back to Cincinnati.
Shout out Creighton! The Bluejays were last on the power rankings list proper all the way back in November. Remember November? That’s when Creighton looked like one of the best, most well-rounded teams in the country en route to the Maui Invitational title game, back when they beat a Texas Tech everyone assumed was pretty good and an Arkansas team we all figured was very good and then nearly beat an Arizona team that revealed itself to be excellent from a very early date. Creighton also put in a creditable performance at Texas Dec. 1, losing 72-67 in UT’s suddenly raucous home environment. Greg McDermott’s group looked like one of the nation’s best 10 or 15 teams, at least.
Except that those two defeats were the start of a six-game losing streak. After the Texas loss, Creighton fell to Nebraska at home, which is a bad defeat no matter how you slice it. Then star center Ryan Kalkbrenner fell ill, and Creighton lost three more games: to BYU and Arizona State in Las Vegas and to Marquette in Milwaukee. (This was before anyone knew how good Marquette was.)
Since Kalkbrenner (who currently leads the nation in both true shooting and effective field-goal percentage, at 74.4 percent) returned Dec. 22, though, Creighton has been consistently excellent. The Bluejays are the fourth-best team in the country in that span, per Bart Torvik’s date-filtered rankings, behind only Alabama, Tennessee and Saint Mary’s. They’ve lost two games: by nine at UConn, by a bucket at Xavier. They piled up a bunch of losses in December, losses that could have derailed their season. They’re playing better than ever now.
Much the same could be said for Indiana. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that IU’s season looked fully dusted. After winning at Xavier and beating North Carolina at home, IU lost 63-48 at Rutgers, got hammered by Arizona and Kansas in their two marquee nonconference away games, and then suffered three straight Big Ten losses at Iowa, at Penn State, and at home to Northwestern. Indiana fans felt like they’d seen this movie before: promising team, punched in the mouth, wilting at the first sign of trouble.
Since then? A 7-1 record, double-digit wins over Illinois (away), Michigan State and Wisconsin, and most of all the work of the past week: A 79-74 win over No. 1-ranked Purdue Saturday and then Tuesday night’s impressive win over Rutgers, both of which required their own unique flavors of toughness, both of which Indiana delivered. Trayce Jackson-Davis is foremost in this regard. He is averaging 19.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.0 blocks, all career highs by a distance. You can actually see him playing with an “I’m not going out like that” edge every time he touches the ball, pulverizes another lob dunk, swats another feckless interior attempt. It sometimes looks like he has solved the functional parts of being good, and is experimenting with what else he can do at this level — more playmaking (without turnovers), operating in different areas of the floor.
Of all of the great players in the sport this year, he has suddenly become the closest to actually challenging Zach Edey for player of the year honors, the only one whose lines occasionally make your eyes pop out of your skull in anything approaching the same way. Edey is going to win that award, obviously. But Jackson-Davis is having a senior season for the ages in Bloomington — at times fully carrying, always leading, Indiana toward its most promising March in a very long time.
Also thinking about: Marquette, which definitely still more than hangs with the teams above but looked pretty tired for the first time Saturday (in a 60-52 home win over Butler) and then really totally gassed in the loss to UConn and about whom we don’t have much more to add this week; Connecticut, which looked like the Connecticut of nonconference play for the first time in a long time against the Golden Eagles, just talent operating in space and shots flying in from everywhere; Gonzaga, which played really well against a really good team and nearly won Saturday night, it should be said; watching Huggs orchestrate this West Virginia remontada with sweat pouring off every inch of the windbreaker; how good Iowa would be if it had both Jack Nunge and Joe Toussaint right now; Rutgers, which Indiana fans have come to truly loathe, and there could be no truer a testament to the program Steve Pikiell has built; Maryland; Arkansas, which has quietly won five of six and dominated Kentucky in Rupp Arena Tuesday night; North Carolina and Kentucky both being genuinely at-risk bubble teams; Providence; continuing to enjoy King McClure’s work on broadcast calls, just really enjoy his vibe; Miami; San Diego State; the one person who voted for Kentucky in Monday’s AP poll; Texas A&M; LeBron’s record being swiftly followed by the Lakers trading for DeAngelo Russell; being scared this guy was actually going to destroy every single one of his rackets; this Kentucky fan having to do the Aaron Rodgers darkness retreat just to flush the 2022-23 season; “Poker Face;” Florida Atlantic.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photo of Houston’s Emanuel Sharp: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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