Before you read any further or click on that first slide, remember one thing.
We do our rankings differently.
When C.J. Moore, Kerry Miller and I sit down to vote each week, we look less at overall resumes and instead consider how well a team is playing at the moment. If we were allowed to draft teams for some sort of fantasy contest, which would be the most desirable?
Arizona may have a gaudier record than Duke, for instance. But right now I’d take the Blue Devils based on how each team has performed the past few weeks. I realize San Diego State beat Kansas in early January, but that doesn’t mean the Aztecs are the better team now.
See what I mean?
I bring this up (again) because I’m sure some of you will take issue with our selection of Florida as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team—especially considering No. 2 Syracuse is undefeated. But look at what the Orange have done the past two games.
Jim Boeheim’s squad needed a 40-foot buzzer-beater to defeat a Pittsburgh squad that doesn’t boast a single win over an NCAA tournament-caliber team. Four days later they needed a late steal to escape with a one-point home victory against unranked North Carolina State.
Thousands of miles away, Florida was busy spanking Kentucky at Rupp Arena for its 17th straight win.
The Gators are simply playing better right now—and if you really want to look at resumes, Florida is superior in that category, too, with nonconference wins against Kansas, Memphis and Florida State, and narrow losses to Wisconsin and Connecticut when the Gators weren’t at full strength.
Again, we’re not saying Florida will be the best team at the end of the season. But they’re the best team at the moment.
25. Ohio State (20-6, 7-6 in Big Ten): Saturday’s 48-39 victory over Illinois marked the Buckeyes’ fourth win in their last five games. Ohio State held the Illini to just 28.3 percent shooting. Winnable home games against Northwestern (Wednesday) and Minnesota (Saturday) are up next.
24. UCLA (20-5, 9-3 in Pac-12): The people who expressed displeasure over Steve Alford’s hiring last spring haven’t had much to say in recent weeks. The Bruins are 20-5 overall and 9-3 in the Pac-12 following Saturday’s 80-66 win over Utah. Alford is doing a solid job, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
23. Memphis (19-6, 8-4 in AAC): Fueled by senior point guard Joe Jackson (24 points), the Tigers showed a ton of toughness in Saturday’s 86-81 overtime road loss to Connecticut. Memphis fans have every reason to expect a Sweet 16 or better.
22. Iowa State (19-5, 7-5 in Big 12): Like most Big 12 teams, the Cyclones struggle on the road but are very good at home. Last week they were crushed 102-77 at West Virginia on Monday but bounced back with a 70-64 victory over Texas Tech Saturday in Ames.
21. Michigan (18-7, 10-3 in Big Ten): The Wolverines beat Wisconsin on the road last month, but then got drilled by the Badgers 75-62 at home Sunday. Go figure. Michigan shot just 40 percent from the field and was out-rebounded 34-30. Michigan has yet to win back-to-back games this month.
20. Wisconsin (21-5, 8-5 in Big Ten): Seven-foot center Frank Kaminsky helped the Badgers to their fourth straight win by scoring 25 points and snaring 11 rebounds in Sunday’s victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor.
19. North Carolina (17-7, 7-4 in ACC): Even though his team has struggled at times, Roy Williams has done a solid job considering the loss of P.J. Hairston. The Tar Heels have won six straight and tout nonconference wins against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
18. Connecticut (20-5, 8-4 in AAC): Point guard Shabazz Napier is making a strong case for first-team All-American honors. The senior point guard had a career-high 34 points in Saturday’s overtime win against Memphis and is now averaging 18 points on the season.
17. Texas (20-5, 9-3 in Big 12): The Longhorns showed a ton of resolve last week, bouncing back from a lopsided loss at Kansas State to blow out Oklahoma State and red-hot West Virginia at home. Rick Barnes continues to make a case for national coach of the year.
16. Villanova (22-3, 10-2 in Big East): Two of the Wildcats’ three losses are against Creighton, and both of those setbacks were blowouts (96-68, 101-80). Villanova is good enough to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament—as long as it avoids the Bluejays.
15. Saint Louis (23-2, 10-0 in Atlantic 10): Jim Crews, whom some publications tabbed as the national coach of the year in 2013, is doing another superb job this season. Saint Louis appears to be on its way to a second consecutive Atlantic 10 title following Saturday’s victory over VCU.
14. Kentucky (19-6, 9-3 in SEC): The Wildcats simply got beat by a better team in Saturday’s 69-59 loss to Florida. Kentucky actually put up a strong fight and showed enough encouraging signs to warrant hope for the postseason—as long as it continues to improve.
13. Cincinnati (23-3, 12-1 in AAC): The Bearcats could take a huge step toward capturing the American Athletic Conference title when they host Louisville on Saturday. The Cardinals (10-2) trail Cincinnati (11-1) by just one game in the league standings. Cincinnati defeated Louisville on the road last month.
12. Michigan State (21-5, 10-3 in Big Ten): Tom Izzo’s squad still isn’t 100 percent healthy, but that hardly excuses Sunday’s home loss to Nebraska. The Spartans haven’t won back-to-back games in nearly a month, but are still tied with Michigan atop the Big Ten standings.
11. Louisville (21-4, 10-2 in AAC): Don’t rule the Cardinals out of the national championship picture just yet. Rick Pitino’s squad has won eight of its last nine games and will be high on momentum for Saturday’s road tilt with league leader Cincinnati.
Record: 19-6, 8-4 in Big Ten
The Hawkeyes got a week off after their 85-67 bludgeoning of Michigan on Feb. 8. But they hardly looked rusty when they returned to the court Saturday.
Melsahn Basabe, Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White and Mike Gesell all scored in double figures in Iowa’s 82-70 win at Penn State. This team is more than capable of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
This week will be huge for Fran McCaffery’s squad. Iowa travels to Indiana for a tough road game on Tuesday and then hosts red-hot Wisconsin on Saturday.
Record: 21-5, 12-1 in ACC
Bold prediction: The Cavaliers will win the ACC title. They have five games remaining and will be favored in four of them (at home against Notre Dame and Miami; on the road against Virginia Tech and Maryland).
The only NCAA tournament-caliber team left on the schedule is undefeated Syracuse, but the Orange have looked vulnerable as of late, and Virginia gets them at home.
If the Cavaliers indeed end up winning the ACC crown, then Tony Bennett needs to be included in the national coach of the year discussion.
Record: 22-2, 11-1 in Mountain West
The Aztecs lost for the first time in nearly three months when they fell to Wyoming 68-62 Tuesday in Laramie. The defeat was just the second of the season for San Diego State, with the other coming against Arizona back on Nov. 14.
Steve Fisher’s squad might have lost Saturday, too, if not for Winston Shepard’s heroics in a 64-56 win over Air Force. Shepard scored 14 points in the final seven minutes to propel the Aztecs to victory.
San Diego State sits atop the Mountain West standings with an 11-1 league record. New Mexico is in second place at 10-2. The teams will play Saturday in Albuquerque.
Record: 21-4, 11-2 in Big East
Senior Doug McDermott scored 39 points in Sunday’s 101-80 victory over Villanova, and in the process passed Larry Bird for 13th place on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list.
McDermott now has 2,863 career points and has eclipsed the 30-point barrier nine times this season. McDermott leads the nation in scoring with 25.9 points per game.
Creighton has earned an NCAA tournament berth in each of the last two seasons, but the Bluejays lost in the round of 32 each time. This year could definitely be different if McDermott continues at this pace.
Record: 19-6, 10-2 in Big 12
Bill Self’s squad played one of its best stretches of basketball this season during the second half of Saturday’s 95-65 victory over TCU. Kansas led 47-40 at intermission before outscoring the Horned Frogs 48-25 in the second stanza. Forward Perry Ellis had a career-high 32 points on 13-of-15 shooting.
The assumption is that Kansas will finish strong and win its 10th consecutive Big 12 title, but Self isn’t thinking that far ahead. Kansas is 10-2 in league play—just one game ahead of the 9-3 Texas squad that defeated the Jayhawks in Austin two weeks ago. The return game is Saturday in Lawrence.
Record: 23-2, 10-2 in Pac-12
The Wildcats aren’t the same team without forward Brandon Ashley, who broke his right foot in a Feb. 1 loss at Cal and is out for the season.
A few days later Arizona squeaked by an Oregon team that won’t make the NCAA tournament and then blew out Oregon State at home. But Friday, the Wildcats dropped their second game of the season in a 69-66 double-overtime setback at Arizona State.
This is still an excellent team that’s more than deserving of a lofty ranking. There may not be a better defensive squad in the country. But it may be tough for this group to make a Final Four run without all of its pieces.
Record: 20-5, 9-3 in ACC
Just when Duke was beginning to resemble an elite team, the Blue Devils were nearly upset by a struggling Maryland squad Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mike Krzyzewski’s team eventually held on for a 69-67 victory—but not before Maryland’s Charles Mitchell narrowly missed a jumper at the buzzer that would’ve given the Terrapins the win.
The Blue Devils now face a treacherous week. They play at Georgia Tech on Tuesday and at North Carolina on Thursday before returning home Saturday for their rematch with No. 1-ranked and undefeated Syracuse. The Orange defeated Duke in overtime Feb. 1 at the Carrier Dome.
Record: 27-0, 14-0 in Missouri Valley
The Shockers have just four games remaining in the regular season—and three of them are against teams that have either losing or .500 records.
The one exception is Missouri State, which is 17-9. Wichita State hosts the Bears in the regular-season finale March 1.
On Sunday, the Shockers posted an 84-68 road victory over Evansville thanks, in part, to Ron Baker. The sophomore guard scored 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Point guard Fred VanVleet added 18 points, eight assists and five steals.
Record: 25-0, 12-0 in ACC
Credit the Orange for their toughness, as they’ve come from behind in the final seconds to win their last two games. Tyler Ennis’ 40-foot heave propelled Syracuse to a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh on Wednesday. And a steal and layup by C.J. Fair with seven seconds remaining gave the Orange a 56-55 home win against North Carolina State on Saturday.
Still, it’s reasonable to argue that, despite its undefeated record, Syracuse may not be the country’s best team. At least not at the moment. Four of its last five wins have come by six points or fewer. And the Orange are hardly scoring at an impressive clip, averaging just 58 points in their last four wins, three of which came against unranked opponents.
With road showdowns looming against Duke, Maryland, Virginia and Florida State, it’s likely Jim Boeheim’s squad will drop a game or two before the end of the regular season.
Record: 23-2, 12-0 in SEC
Billy Donovan’s Gators may be playing better than any team in the country. Saturday’s 69-59 victory at Kentucky was their 17th straight win, which ties a school record. It also marked Florida’s first win at Rupp Arena since 2007.
The Gators boast what should be the leading candidates for SEC Player of the Year.
Wing Casey Prather averages a team-high 15.7 points while shooting 62.4 percent from the floor, but after Saturday the favorite to take home the award may be point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who burned Kentucky for 23 points while going 11-of-12 from the foul stripe.
Wilbekin is clearly the catalyst for a team that is hoping to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007. Florida has lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons.