Survive and advance. It's the motto of every college basketball team come March, and if Syracuse's ability to pull off surprising and thrilling finishes is any indication, Jim Boeheim's squad may have already adopted that philosophy.
The Orange remain No. 1 in the latest Associated Press rankings, earning their March stripes with nail-biting victories over Pittsburgh and North Carolina State to move to a school-record 25-0. This is their third straight week atop the standings.
While it's been months since we've seen anything but a mere flip-flop with the nation's top two teams, Arizona's loss to rival Arizona State opened the door for Florida to slide in at No. 2. Rounding out the Top Five are Wichita State—which is still undefeated—Arizona and Duke.
Here is a look at how the rest of the rankings played out:
|Week 16 Associated Press Top 25|
|Rank||Team (First-Place Votes)||Record||Votes||Previous|
|6||San Diego State||22-2||1232||5|
Although the changes were relatively stark—especially after a week without movement for the first six squads—it seems almost necessary to start with Syracuse's unbelievable two-game stretch. For roughly 39 minutes, 59 seconds on Wednesday, it looked as if Pittsburgh would finally do what it was unable to earlier this season and take down the Orange.
Jamie Dixon and Co. held a consistent lead throughout, playing Syracuse's grind-it-out style and executing it better. The Orange held only three leads—the opening bucket, a 55-54 advantage with 10 seconds remaining and the most important one of all.
After Talib Zanna knocked down two clutch free throws to put Pitt ahead with four seconds remaining, Syracuse's desperation inbound pass went to Tyler Ennis. The freshman point guard pounded the ball up the Petersen Events Center floor as fast as he could, eventually launching a wild jumper from 35 feet out.
The wild finish again flashed Ennis' beyond-his-years composure—something that wasn't quite as evident a couple of days later against N.C. State. Ennis missed a layup and turned the ball over on potential game-tying or game-winning possessions in the last minute but was bailed out as the Orange defense came through. Consecutive Wolfpack turnovers on traps gave the ball back to Syracuse, the final one leading to a C.J. Fair game-winning layup with seven seconds remaining.
It was the sixth time this season that the Orange have won a game in conference by two or fewer possessions.
“No, never," Ennis told reporters when asked if the team ever doubts itself. "The whole end of the second half, Trevor (Cooney) was saying we have been here before and we have. We have been in a lot of situations. We just have to find ways to win and we were able to do that today.”
Wichita State, the nation's other unbeaten, had its share of hand-wringing last week but was able to get things done before the last second. The Shockers trailed an upset-minded Southern Illinois squad deep into the second half before Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early ratcheted up their play late to pull off a 78-67 triumph.
With a comfortable win over Evansville on Sunday, Wichita State is the first team to start 27-0 since Illinois in 2004-05. As noted by ESPN's Andy Katz, the Missouri Valley Conference outfit has a pretty good chance to stay undefeated through the regular season:
The crunch-time performances weren't as sterling for Arizona, which has dropped consecutive road games against teams unranked as of tipoff. The Wildcats' second rankings drop in three weeks came after their 69-66 double-overtime loss to rival Arizona State, which was arguably more notable for its crazy final seconds than the actual score.
Ahead 67-66 with less than 10 seconds remaining, Jordan Bachynski blocked a T.J. McConnell jumper and sent the ball sprawling into the backcourt, where Jahii Carson picked it up and emphatically slammed it home with 0.7 on the clock. A temporary controversy struck when Carson hung onto the rim for multiple seconds, leading to numerous Arizona State fans charging the floor.
Unfortunately for all involved, there was still enough time on the clock for Arizona to catch and shoot. Officials cleared the court and Nick Johnson got a solid look, but it fell just short. Even though it would have been easy to complain after the game—both the court-storming and Carson's post-dunk antics could have been technicals—Arizona coach Sean Miller took the high road.
"It was one heck of a game," Miller told reporters after the game. "Someone has to win, someone has to lose. Unfortunately, we're the loser."
Arizona, dropping to No. 4, was one of three Top 10 teams to go down in last week's slate of games. With trips to Utah and Colorado coming this week, something will have to give for the Wildcats. Either their road woes will cease, or they'll be in danger of losing a No. 1 seed that has looked preordained for much of the season.
Villanova again proved unable to adequately defend Creighton and was blown out by more than 20 points for the second time this season by the Bluejays. National Player of the Year favorite Doug McDermott scored 39 points, passing Larry Bird for No. 13 on the all-time Division I scoring list. Creighton represents two of the Wildcats' three losses this season, a concern for Jay Wright if the teams meet in the Big East tournament.
"They've got the best player in the country, and he makes everybody better around him," Wright told reporters after the game. "They're just a tough matchup for us. Our style of play and their style of play kind of leads to these kinds of games. We've got to find the answer if we face them again."
Villanova moved back to No. 9. Also going backward is Michigan State, which continued its erratic offensive play in a 60-51 upset loss to Nebraska in East Lansing. Tom Izzo has been playing with a patchwork roster due to injury for much of the Big Ten season, and it's starting to show. The Spartans have alternated losses and wins over their last seven games.
Dropping down to No. 13, it's an interesting time for them to be heading into the teeth of their Big Ten schedule. After a trip to Purdue on Thursday, Michigan State closes with three of its four games coming against ranked opponents.
Among teams still inside the Top 25, the Spartans' four-spot drop is tied for the third biggest of the week. No. 17 Iowa State continued its high-variance style with a 102-77 loss to West Virginia and dropped six spots. Michigan descends five spots to No. 20 following Sunday's loss to Wisconsin and has lost three of its last five contests.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Creighton vaulted seven spots to No. 11 and the No. 15 Badgers' defeat of the Wolverines earned them five spots. A number of teams moved up three spots, including No. 5 Duke.
Only two teams (formerly No. 23 SMU and No. 25 Pittsburgh) moved into the strata of the unranked in Week 16. They are replaced by No. 23 UCLA and No. 25 Gonzaga, which return after relatively short absences.
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