Ranking the Top 25 College Basketball Teams at Week 18
What if I were to tell you that, on Saturday, some guy returned after missing two months of basketball, dropped 36 points, and then his team celebrated with a spiteful floor slap and nearly got slapped by karma?
What if I were to tell you that later on that same night, there was a team dressed in camo highlighters that had the ball out of bounds under the opposing team's basket with a second left in a tie game, but, somehow, the ball couldn't find any of those guys dressed in camo highlighters and Team Camo ended up losing in that one second?
And what if I were to tell you that this wasn't all that out of the ordinary, and that this kind of crazy, inexplicable stuff has been happening for months?
Is that something you might be interested in?
Well, welcome aboard. If you're just now joining us, don't worry, I'm sure that there is still plenty of entertainment left this season.
This week's rankings should get you up to speed regarding who should currently be considered as the nation's best. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret: we're all still a bit confused when it comes to sorting through the madness of 2013.
Regardless, here are the top 25 rankings for men's college basketball entering Week 18.
All advanced statistics come from KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: The Pac-12 gets two spots in the rankings—the Oregon Ducks will appear shortly—and the final spot was between Arizona and UCLA.
If it were late January and we had decided to give the nod to the Bruins strictly because they had won at Arizona, Arizona fans would have had a right to cry foul. At that point, the the 'Cats were playing much better, and they deserved a ranking much higher than UCLA.
And maybe if you take the nonconference games into account, Arizona still has a better resume than UCLA right now. However, it's tough to justify the 'Cats being ranked above the Bruins after what we've witnessed within the last month.
The Bruins (12-4 in the Pac-12) swept the season series on Saturday night, have won four straight and, if they can finish off the regular season with wins at Washington and Washington State, they will at least win a share of the league title.
The Wildcats (11-6 in the Pac-12), once thought to be the clear favorite in the Pac-12, would need California, Oregon and UCLA to lose out to get a share of the league title.
The battle of the two teams' respective point guards has been the big difference in the series as well as in regards to how each team has played as of late. Here are the combined offensive stats for each player in the two games against each other:
UCLA's Larry Drew II: 21 points, 18 assists, 6 turnovers, 8-of-20 shooting
Arizona's Mark Lyons: 29 points, 1 assist, 10 turnovers, 11-of-32 shooting
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9 at Washington. UCLA won the first meeting this season at home, 59-57.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: The Ducks have their own Ryan Kelly.
Point guard Dominic Artis returned this week from a foot injury, and Oregon can make a case that the return of Artis could have a Ryan Kelly-like impact on the team. Artis scored six points and played only 12 minutes in his return, a 85-75 win against Oregon State, but don't be fooled by his modest stat line.
"Man, what a difference he made," Oregon coach Dana Altman told The Oregonian.
Take that as evidence that Altman values Artis, and he has plenty of reason. With Artis, the Ducks are 18-2. Without him, the Ducks are 5-4.
Next Real Test: Thursday, Mar. 7 at Colorado. The Buffaloes knocked off the Ducks 48-47 in Eugene on Feb. 7.
23. Saint Mary's
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote a story recently on the outside-the-box thinking of the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets and their math whiz crew, assembled by general manager Daryl Morey, have one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA. It helps, obviously, that they added a great scorer and creator in James Harden, but it's an offensive philosophy of trying to get a three-pointer or layup every possession that has also led to great success.
So what does this have to do with Saint Mary's?
If there's a college equivalent to what the Rockets are doing, it's the Gaels. They shoot 39 percent of their attempts from distance and 41 percent at the rim. That leaves only 20 percent of attempts that are considered two-point jumpers, which is tied for the sixth-fewest in the country, according to Hoop-Math.com.
Like the Rockets, the Gaels create most of these opportunities with a lot of ball screens, and their Harden is point guard Matthew Dellavedova. The Australian star either creates his own shot or hooks his teammates up with good looks from the perimeter or around the basket.
It all adds up to the Gaels ranking eighth nationally in Ken Pomeroy's measure of adjusted offensive efficiency.
Next Real Test: The Gaels have wrapped up their regular season finishing second in the WCC, and they will not play again until the conference tournament semifinal. Their likely opponent in that game will be BYU. Win that and Saint Mary's will likely face Gonzaga for a third time. Gonzaga is the only team to beat Saint Mary's since Christmas.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: We're witnessing one of the most puzzling college basketball seasons in recent memory.
Just when we think we have an idea that "fill-in-the-blank team" is really good, that team either loses a game or a stretch of games that makes us reevaluate and come to the conclusion that the team was just a tease. Then, said team usually figures it out again.
Let me introduce you to the curious case of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
They started 15-1, then went 3-8 over the span of a little more than a month, and then followed that up by manhandling Indiana last Tuesday at the Barn. Now, the Gophers have won two straight and look a lot more like the 15-1 version of itself from the beginning of the year.
What are we supposed to believe?
Well, the Gophers have one of the most imposing front lines in the country with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams—just look at what they did to Cody Zeller.
They have two relatively easy games left in the Big Ten—at Nebraska and Purdue—and should finish a respectable 10-8 in conference play. In a year that many believe just about anyone could go on a run, don't count out a team like Minnesota that has gone through the rigors of a tough Big Ten and could be re-peaking.
Next Real Test: The Big Ten tournament.
Previous Ranking: 14
Why They're Here: It's time that we kind of cool it with the idea that knocking off Syracuse is some kind of season-defining win. (Sorry Temple and Villanova.)
The Orange definitely have talent—they were 18-1 at one point—and it's always difficult to go up against their zone, but they have a serious deficiency and it's one that you could say has held back several Syracuse teams in the past: Jim Boeheim is missing a low-post scorer.
Rakeem Christmas is the closest player that he currently has that fits the mold, but Christmas is averaging only 5.6 points per game and he has scored a total of six points in Syracuse's three straight losses.
There is too much pressure on Syracuse's guards. It's hard to win without a post player who demands at least some amount of attention, especially in the postseason when the game becomes more of a half-court battle.
Even if the Orange turn it around the next couple weeks, be wary of picking this team to go too far in the NCAA tourney.
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9 at Georgetown. It will likely be Otto Porter's last game at the Verizon Center and will mark two weeks since the Porter lovefest began when he dropped 33 on Syracuse.
Previous Ranking: 12
Why They're Here: In 10 seasons at Pitt, Jamie Dixon has made the NCAA tournament every year except last season, and his team was a No. 5 seed or better in the NCAA Tournament in seven of those first eight seasons.
The point is that Dixon is about as quietly consistent as they come, and this team has kind of been under the radar, which isn't all that unusual for Dixon's teams. The Panthers don't really have a star and their best win was a 73-45 win at Georgetown that didn't get a ton of notoriety at the time because Georgetown had already lost its Big East opener at Marquette.
That win now looks great, and the Panthers could be a team that sort of comes out of nowhere this month.
The advanced stats certainly point that direction. Ken Pomeroy has Pittsburgh ranked as the fifth-best team in the country, and Pittsburgh's defense, which ranks ninth in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency, is the best defense Dixon has coached since his first team in 2004 that went 31-5 and made the Sweet 16.
Next Real Test: Big East tournament.
Previous Ranking: 25
Why They're Here: Wisconsin was one of the few teams in the country that had made it through the season without a real bad loss—until Sunday, when Purdue knocked off the Badgers, 69-56, in Madison.
As far as bad losses go, the Boilermakers (14-15, 7-9 Big Ten) are not bottom-of-the-barrel bad, but the fact that this loss occurred in Madison made it a real head-scratcher. It was only Wisconsin's second Big Ten loss at home.
Wisconsin made only 6-of-28 threes (21.4 percent), which was its second-worst shooting game from distance on the season. It may not have been how poorly the Badgers shot, but how often they shot threes.
In the seven games that the Badgers have attempted 27 or more threes, they are 2-5.
Easy fix. Stop at 26.
Next Real Test: Thursday, Mar. 7 at Michigan State.
18. North Carolina
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: Several teams will get the benefit from the NCAA tournament committee of mostly being judged based on how they played when they were healthy.
These rankings don't wield the kind of power of the committee, but we will be looking at the Tar Heels with a similar eye since Feb. 13. That's when the Heels went to Durham and lost 73-68. It was the first game that Roy Williams went with a small starting lineup, inserting wing P.J. Hairston at the 4 spot.
The Heels have now won five straight, the latest being a 79-58 drubbing of Florida State on Sunday in Chapel Hill.
I took a look earlier this week at how the small-ball lineup has revitalized UNC's season. I don't think the committee should only consider UNC's record since the change, but the expectations for the Heels this month should be much greater than what they were about three weeks ago.
Next Real Test: Wednesday, Mar. 6 at Maryland. If the Heels win that game, they'll have a chance to tie Duke for second place in the ACC on Saturday when the Blue Devils come to Chapel Hill.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Why They're Here: Hat tip to Buzz Williams.
A year ago, Williams played Jae Crowder at the 4 spot and built his attack utilizing Crowder's best attributes. Crowder wasn't really a true big man, but he was faster than everyone he matched up against so Williams decided to play really fast.
The Golden Eagles upped their pace by four possessions per game and went from the 129th-fastest tempo to the 16th-fastest in the country. It worked, and Marquette had the Big East's second-most efficient offense in conference play.
This year, Williams has a more traditional go-to big man in the 290-pound Davante Gardner, an efficient scorer from the block.
Williams has responded by slowing his team's pace by 6.5 possessions per game, ranking 228th in adjusted tempo, and feeding the big man.
Once again, it has worked, as Marquette has been the most efficient offensive team in Big East play and Gardner has been a beast. He's made 58.6 percent of his twos, he draws 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes and he shoots a team-best 85.7 percent from the line.
Gardner had his best game of the season last Monday in a win against Syracuse, scoring a season-high 26 points without missing a shot from the field and going 12-of-13 at the line.
Next Real Test: The Big East tournament. Marquette finishes the regular season with what should be winnable road games at Rutgers on Tuesday, Mar. 5, and St. John's on Saturday, Mar. 7.
Previous Ranking: 19
Why They're Here: Holy Havoc.
What VCU did on Saturday in a 84-52 win against Butler was one of those games that makes just about everyone watching open their eyes like this.
Smart's version of "40 minutes of Hell" is nothing that we're just seeing for the first time. The team he took to the Final Four in 2011 introduced us to the young coach and his full-court press, a style they call Havoc.
But this version is kind of like that one, just after six Red Bulls. The Rams are forcing a turnover on 29.3 percent of their opponents' possessions—compared to 22.1 percent in 2011—and Smart has built a roster designed to create chaos.
You're not supposed to be able to do that, however, to a Brad Stevens-coached team. That's why Saturday's performance got our attention. Smart's squad had the Bulldogs more shaken than we've ever seen them, forcing 26 turnovers and giving Stevens his worst loss ever.
How do you beat VCU?
If you can get past half court and get up shots, VCU's defense goes from scary to average. That's just not so easy, especially if you're not used to facing that kind of pressure.
Next Real Test: Richmond visits VCU on Wednesday, Mar. 6. The Spiders are one of the Rams' three A-10 losses this season.
15. Kansas State
- Did anyone on Baylor's staff ever bring up the possibility that this could, oh you know, backfire? "Hey Coach, like what if the pass goes long? That'd be bad, huh?"
- Tough to criticize Austin here, because he was put in a tough spot, but you've got to go up to catch that with two hands, big fella.
- Drew said in his postgame press conference (via BaylorBears.com) that the ball was supposed to go to Austin by the rim, however, it sure looked like Baylor was setting up this famous play that was designed by Drew's father.
Previous Ranking: 16
Why They're Here: The Wildcats are solid and take care of business when they're supposed to take care of business. Give them one second and the ball under their bucket, and they're going to execute.
Speaking of which...
The series of events that took place in the last second of K-State's 64-61 win in Waco on Saturday have to be a first in college basketball, right?
In case you missed it and skipped over the intro to these rankings, the game was tied with a second left and Baylor had the ball out of bounds under K-State's basket. Jacob Neubert, who had not played, came off the bench to try to throw a pass the length of the court to Isaiah Austin. Austin was unable to get a hand on the pass—he tried to tip it in—and the ball sailed out of bounds.
So, as the rule goes, K-State got the ball back at the original spot and still had one second left on the clock.
Rodney McGruder three. Ballgame.
A couple of thoughts:
Here's to hoping that's what Baylor was trying to do and it just so happened Neubert threw a helium ball.
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9 at Oklahoma State.
14. Oklahoma State
Previous Ranking: 13
Why They're Here: The Cowboys have won 10 out of 11 games and their only loss during that time was in double overtime to Kansas.
Marcus Smart gets a lot of the credit, and deservedly so, but the player who has been just as meaningful for the Cowboys during this stretch is Markel Brown.
Brown has averaged 17.6 points per game and is shooting 47.3 percent from distance over the last 11 games.
The Cowboys rely a little too much on jump shooting for my taste, but when Brown is on, they're capable of beating just about anyone.
Next Real Test: Wednesday, Mar. 6, at Iowa State. The Cyclones will be a desperate team as they've lost two straight, including a heart-breaking OT loss to Kansas, and they're fighting to get in the tournament.
13. Ohio State
Previous Ranking: 10
Why They're Here: A week ago, Aaron Craft went off for a career-high 21 points and it's games like this that give the impression that maybe, just maybe, Craft is going to become the legit second scoring threat to Deshaun Thomas who could lead the Buckeyes on another run in March.
Then Craft followed that performance up with three points on Thursday in a win at Northwestern. In the two games before Michigan State, he scored a combined 10 points.
Sooooooo...maybe not so much on that whole scoring thing.
With the way the Buckeyes defend and with a scorer like Thomas, Ohio State is one of those teams that could get anyone on any given night. But, OSU fans, don't waste your time dumping pennies in a wishing well hoping that Craft will magically turn into a consistent scorer this month.
Your best hope is that every team is flawed, and your team's flaw is just less severe than the rest.
Next Real Test: Tuesday, Mar. 5, at Indiana.
12. New Mexico
Previous Ranking: 22
Why They're Here: Remember NBA Jam on Sega?
In the game, for those of an older generation who haven't played, one player could catch fire after he made several shots in a row so long as the other team didn't score. When the ball was in that player's hands, the ball would literally be on fire and it was almost impossible to miss with that player.
Someone out there, do Kendall Williams a favor and throw some NBA Jam effects on a YouTube video of the shots he made against Colorado State.
Williams, in case you missed it, lit up the Rams for 46 points on Feb. 23. He made 10-of-13 threes. At one point, he dribbled almost full speed to the wing and pulled up and drained it in someone's face. These were NBA Jam on-fire shots.
I watched a good chunk of that game, and the impression that I got was the better team lost because one guy caught fire. CSU was the flavor of the moment in the Mountain West at the time and that designation has undoubtedly shifted to New Mexico since that time.
Williams, who leads New Mexico in scoring at 13.9 points per game, has come back to this planet and followed up the CSU game with seven points against San Diego State and eight points against Wyoming. Both outputs came in victories.
Even without Williams putting up video game numbers, this is still a really good team with an impressive 25-4 record in a good league.
Next Real Test: The Mountain West tournament.
11. Michigan State
Previous Ranking: 5
Why They're Here: Three weeks ago, I was convinced that Michigan State was the second-best team in the country. The Spartans' record didn't exactly reflect that yet, but they just looked like a team with a higher ceiling than any recent Michigan State team and the rest of the country outside of Indiana.
Give Tom Izzo a team with a high ceiling, and he's as close to a lock at getting to the Final Four as you can get in coaching.
After three straight losses, though, I'm wavering a bit.
It's not exactly the losses, because none of them (Indiana at home, at Ohio State and at Michigan) should be too alarming. What has me doubting the Spartans is point guard Keith Appling.
Here are Appling's numbers during the last five games: 12-of-48 shooting, 2-of-22 from three, nine points per game, 13 assists and 14 turnovers.
But remember, we're living in a world where KU's Elijah Johnson could shoot and dribble like his fingers were broken for months and then morph into a star beaming with confidence, so don't count out Appling or the Spartans.
Next Real Test: Wisconsin visits Sparty on Thursday, Mar. 7.
10. Saint Louis
Previous Ranking: 20
Why They're Here: You saw what VCU did to Butler. You may also remember that Butler has wins against Indiana and Gonzaga.
The Billikens actually beat VCU's press—only eight turnovers—and won 76-62 on Feb. 19, and they have also swept Butler this season, winning 75-58 at home and 65-61 at Butler.
They've won 11 straight, have a lineup full of juniors and seniors, play the best defense in the A-10 (yes, better than VCU) and they also have a 14-point win against New Mexico on their resume.
If this wacky year in college basketball makes you want to believe that a mid-major team or two is going to make the Final Four, go ahead and hop on the Saint Louis bandwagon.
Next Real Test: Wednesday, Mar. 6, at Xavier.
Previous Ranking: 3
Why They're Here: In other years, losing a game to a team that had not won a conference game in late February would pretty much sound off an alarm.
But this is 2013, a year that Georgetown can be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed with a loss to South Florida, who now has TWO Big East wins, and Kansas can lose to TCU, who has yet to win a second conference game, and also be considered for a top seed.
Michigan is currently on the outside looking in on that conversation, but only because its loss to Penn State is so recent.
The Wolverines got a bit of their mojo back by beating Michigan State on Sunday, and they did it without making a three—they missed all 12 attempts.
The good news is they still have Trey Burke, they're 24-5 and John Beilein has a few examples to give his team regarding how to respond to an embarrassing loss.
Next Real Test: Sunday, Mar. 10, vs. Indiana in Ann Arbor.
Previous Ranking: 4
Why They're Here: The Gators are the best knockout team in the country.
Once they get going and get a decent lead, they will send you to the mat and you'll be bloodied and disoriented by the time the buzzer sounds.
Keep it close, and it's Florida that seems disoriented in the final minutes.
The Gators have had four games decided by single digits this year, and they've lost all four.
In those games, senior guard Kenny Boynton is 0-for-6 from the field, 0-of-5 from three and 0-for-1 at the free-throw line in the final two minutes.
I think "fill-in-the-blank could use a close win" is usually a silly argument. Should a team try to keep a game close just so the players get experience in a close game? That's ridiculous.
The Gators should keep trying to kick the crud out of every team they play, but it wouldn't be the worst thing if they get a game before the NCAA tournament starts that's close and they pull it out.
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9, at Kentucky.
Previous Ranking: 6
Why They're Here: For a team that's supposed to be full of old men, you would think the Hurricanes would have figured out that whoever was guarding Ryan Kelly on Saturday should have stayed glued to him.
The good news for Miami is that Kelly went off for 36 points, probably the best game he'll play in his life, and Miami still had a shot to tie and send the game to overtime.
The final possession is insignificant since the Hurricanes came up empty, but props to Jim Larranaga for not taking a timeout and trusting his team to get a good look.
Shane Larkin's first three wasn't the best shot in the world, but it was makeable. And then, credit to Durand Scott, who got the rebound off Larkin's miss and dribbled back to the three-point line. Usually the player in this situation turns and heaves in one motion, and those shots never go in. But Scott was aware enough that he had time for a pass and got it to Rion Brown in the corner, who got off a pretty good look.
That possession and the gumption to come back on Duke after trailing by 10 with less than two minutes left in Durham said a lot about the Canes.
Next Real Test: The ACC tournament.
Previous Ranking: 9
Why They're Here: Since losing three straight in late January, Louisville has won eight of nine, and the one loss came in a five overtimes against Notre Dame.
Russ Smith took a lot of the blame for the Notre Dame loss—he went 4-of-13 overall and 0-of-6 from three—but he might just be on the way to finding his shot and some sort of less "Russdiculousness" when it comes to shot selection.
Take away the Notre Dame game, and Smith is 12-of-28 (42.9 percent) from three since the three-game losing streak.
If Rick Pitino can corral Smith, the Cardinals will be one of the toughest teams to play in the country because of their defensive pressure, most notably Smith's.
Next Real Test: Cincinnati visits on Monday, Mar. 4.
Previous Ranking: 11
Why They're Here: The Hoyas are like the opposite of Florida.
During their 11-game winning streak, they have wins by two (Louisville), six (at Rutgers), eight (Marquette), seven (at Cincinnati) and one (in double overtime at Connecticut).
Otto Porter usually saves his best for last, as was the case on Wednesday when he scored 21 of his 22 points against UConn after halftime.
The Hoyas aren't the best team in the country, but they might just be the best finishers.
Next Real Test: Wednesday, Mar. 5, at Villanova.
Previous Ranking: 7
Why They're Here: If KU wins out or wins one game and K-State loses another, KU will win a ninth-straight Big 12 title.
You're not supposed to be able to dominate a major conference for that long, and you're not supposed to lose to TCU in the process.
But that loss came in early February, and things are different now in Lawrence. Saturday's 91-65 beatdown of West Virginia looked a lot like Kansas in December when no team in the country was playing as well as it.
When Elijah Johnson plays like he did against West Virginia—he had 12 points and 10 assists—the Jayhawks are special. He doesn't need to score 39 like he did at Iowa State, but if he can be steady and be there to take big shots at the end of close games, Bill Self could get his team to Atlanta.
Remember, it was Johnson who made a lot of the big shots in last year's run.
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9, at Baylor.
Previous Ranking: 9
Why They're Here: Ryan Kelly is back and all is well in Durham, right?
The Blue Devils are definitely way better off with Kelly in the lineup. They are 16-0 with him and the argument could be made that they're the best team in the country when he's playing.
Still, I'm not going there yet.
As I said here, Kelly cannot fix everything for Duke and this is not a perfect team defensively.
But there are only a small number of teams that could outscore the Blue Devils now that they have Kelly back to bury threes and space the floor for Mason Plumlee. Duke once again has a chance at the title, which was not going to be the case if Kelly never returned.
Next Real Test: Saturday, Mar. 9, at North Carolina.
Previous Ranking: 2
Why They're Here: I made the argument this past week that Gonzaga is a legitimate No. 1.
I wasn't just making the argument because it's going to happen, and I really believe the Zags deserve a shot at being No. 1. But these rankings reflect how I would rank the teams, and Indiana is still the best in my eyes.
It's close though, and it's closer than anyone who wants to yell and scream about Gonzaga would believe.
I believe the Zags' front line of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris is the best in the country, better than Cody Zeller and Christian Watford.
Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls vs. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell is about even, depending on the day.
The difference is Victor Oladipo. Gonzaga has no one who compares to Oladipo. No one in the country has as complete of a team as Indiana because of that, but the Zags are about as close as it gets.
Next Real Test: A likely WCC tournament championship game against Saint Mary's.
Previous Ranking: 1
Why They're Here: Indiana can be beat. The latest example was Minnesota's 77-73 win against it last Tuesday.
But if the Hoosiers go on to win the national title, they will not be any different than most champions.
The last 10 champs lost a game in either early March or late February. It happens, and losing late in the year is not a red flag.
The Hoosiers need better than 2-of-9 shooting from Cody Zeller, which is what he did against Minnesota, but there aren't many teams built to hold Zeller to 2-of-9 shooting. He bounced back on Sunday against Iowa with 22 points.
The Hoosiers are going to be OK, and so is Zeller. And their A-game is still better than any other team's A-game. They bring it more often than anyone else in the country. That's why they're No. 1 here.
Next Real Test: Ohio State comes to Assembly Hall on Tuesday, Mar. 5.