Winners and Losers of AP College Basketball Top 25 Poll in Week 5
The freshmen got to have their fun in November, but after Duke and Kentucky both failed to put a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press Top 25, the first poll in December has the veteran and reigning national champion Villanova Wildcats in the top spot.
With help from a Josh Hart triple-double, the Wildcats obliterated a pair of Philadelphia Big 5 opponents this week, dismissing Penn and Saint Joseph's by a combined margin of 56 points to improve to 8-0. Only one of their games this season—a road win over Purdue—was decided by a single-digit margin, making it difficult to argue against the Wildcats as the best team in the country.
But several voters still tried.
Baylor continued its surge in the AP Top 25, climbing from No. 9 to No. 4 after yet another marquee nonconference win. The Bears received one first-place vote a week ago, but they're up to six of them now.
UCLA also got a lot of love this week for its road win over Kentucky. The Bruins got only two first-place votes, but they did soar from No. 11 all the way to No. 2 in the process of becoming the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 this year.
It wasn't all good news in the rankings, though. Former Top 10 teams Virginia and Xavier each had horrendous offensive displays in losing efforts, dropping into the teens in this week's poll. At least those teams are still ranked, though. Rhode Island went 0-2 on its road trip this week and probably won't sniff the Top 25 again this season.
Read on for the rest of this week's biggest winners and losers.
Winner: UCLA Bruins
The Bruins got out to a rough start against Kentucky, scoring just 14 points against eight turnovers in the first 10 minutes. Once freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf started cooking, though, even the former No. 1 team in the country couldn't slow this offense down.
Six different Bruins scored at least 13 points in the marquee road win, and a seventh (Ike Anigbogu) played a crucial role as a defensive reserve in the frontcourt. Neither side made many stops in Rupp Arena, but Anigbogu was responsible for several of them—which might have been the most important long-term development in this game.
We knew these guys could score in bunches, but no one thought UCLA would be as unstoppable against Kentucky's elite defense as it was against the likes of Portland and Long Beach State.
It was an eye-opening event, to say the least.
The Bruins were terrible last season, and no quantity of wins over cupcakes was going to make people forget about that 15-17 record to marvel at what this team is doing. Ball was a ball to watch in November, but his onslaught of near triple-doubles against West Coast also-rans wasn't enough to convince anyone other than his father that UCLA was going to be a legitimate factor in March.
But Kentucky had not lost a single game at Rupp Arena in five of the previous seven seasons under John Calipari and had not given up 90 points in a game since November 2009. By dropping 97 in a win over the Wildcats, UCLA officially has everyone's attention. The Bruins jumped from No. 11 up to No. 2 in this week's AP Top 25.
Loser: Rhode Island Rams
Nine days into the 2016-17 season, things were finally looking great for Rhode Island. The Rams were 4-0 with a quality win over Cincinnati. Star guard E.C. Matthews was healthy and averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc.
They were on the fast track to winning the Atlantic 10 title they were supposed to win at the start of last year.
But that train came off the tracks in a hurry with three losses in the span of four games.
Granted, not one of the losses was terrible in terms of quality of opponent or margin of defeat. Losing by 10 on a neutral court to Duke is almost an achievement. And one-possession road losses to Valparaiso and Providence would be substantially more forgivable if they hadn't occurred in back-to-back games.
Unfortunately, Matthews has vanished, averaging just 7.5 points over his last four games while shooting 1-of-13 from three-point range. Even worse than Matthews, Kuran Iverson has scored at least 11 points in each of Rhode Island's five wins but has a combined total of nine points in the three losses.
Hassan Martin and Jared Terrell have played well in defeat, but their supporting cast has left more than a little to be desired.
Though the Rams dropped out of this week's AP poll from their previous perch at No. 21, this is no time for licking wounds. Nonconference opportunities are few and far between for this team, and it just blew several of them. If Rhode Island doesn't rebound for wins against Old Dominion and Houston this week, the Rams will be on the outside of more than the AP Top 25 once again this year. Rhode Island needs to turn things around in a hurry to get back on the path to the 2017 NCAA tournament.
Winner: Baylor Bears
How many times do we need to put Baylor on this list before everyone gets the memo that Scott Drew can coach and that this team could win a national championship?
Though the Bears weren't quite able to ascend to No. 1 this week, no one has been more impressive in the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season. Granted, they still haven't played a true road game, but neutral-court wins over VCU, Michigan State and Louisville and blowout home wins over Xavier and Oregon are as good as resumes get at this point in the year.
The big key to their success has been big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.
The transfer from Neosho County C.C. was supposed to be a critical addition to last year's roster, but a heart condition delayed his arrival by a year. Better late than never, though, as Lual-Acuil leads the nation in block percentage and has been Baylor's most dominant rebounding presence. In Saturday's win over Xavier, he had 12 points and six blocks while the Musketeers shot just 9-of-30 (30 percent) from inside the arc.
Miami transfer Manu Lecomte has also been an invaluable piece of the Baylor puzzle. Some were concerned what this team would look like at point guard after losing Lester Medford, but the Bears are one of the most pass-happy teams in the country with Lecomte (5.1) and Ishmail Wainright (4.3) each averaging at least four assists per game. In addition to his five dimes, Lecomte drained six triples against Xavier for a game-high 24 points.
The Bears have a lot of work ahead to dethrone Kansas in the Big 12, but they darn near bypassed the Jayhawks in this week's rankings. Baylor will enter the cupcake portion of its season—games remaining before the start of conference play are against Southern, Jackson State, Texas Southern and John Brown—ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25.
Loser: Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia was destroying opponents with its defense for the first few weeks. Through six games, the Cavaliers had not allowed a team to score more than 52 points against them and held half of their foes to 38 points or fewer.
Business as usual for Tony Bennett's club.
But in the loss to West Virginia and the near-loss to Ohio State, the defense was less than phenomenal, and the offense was downright subpar.
According to KenPom, the Buckeyes and Mountaineers combined to score 127 points in 124 possessions against Virginia, which averages out to 1.024 points per possession. Against most teams, that's nothing special. However, the Cavaliers had allowed just 248 points on their first 356 defensive possessions, or 0.697 points per possession. That's an alarming increase of nearly 50 percent, but these were also the two best opponents they have faced this season. A few more points allowed than usual was to be expected.
What we didn't foresee—and what concerns us for the future—was Virginia's inability to score points of its own.
Eventually, London Perrantes did start draining shots in the come-from-behind win over Ohio State, but that was just about the only thing that went right on offense for this team this week. Virginia had more turnovers than assists in both of its games and did not shoot well at all for a team that was playing both games at home.
This roster is loaded with quality defenders and role players, but the Cavaliers may continue to struggle until someone emerges as a second option behind Perrantes.
For losing one game and nearly losing the other, the AP voters dropped Virginia from No. 6 to No. 14.
Winner: Cincinnati Bearcats
It wasn't pretty, but Cincinnati wouldn't have it any other way.
In a classic rock fight, the Bearcats emerged from Hilton Coliseum with a 55-54 overtime road win over Iowa State late Thursday night. The Cyclones haven't been their usual selves from the perimeter thus far this season, but they were particularly brutal in this game, shooting 5-of-21 from three-point range. Nazareth Mitrou-Long was held scoreless in 37 minutes of action, and Iowa State incredulously recorded just five assists as an entire team.
In eight games this season, Cincinnati has held its opponent to 56 or fewer points six times, including an 85-56 blowout of Bowling Green Sunday night.
Former North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington has been phenomenal, averaging 17.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He already has five double-doubles, including 13 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Iowa State.
Since Sean Kilpatrick graduated at the end of the 2013-14 season, Cincinnati has been desperately lacking a go-to scorer. The team had hoped Gary Clark would become that guy, but he never did. Troy Caupain tried to fill that role last season, but his jumper wasn't reliable enough. But if Washington can continue dominating in the paint, this could be the best team that head coach Mick Cronin has ever had.
At any rate, the Bearcats are the class of the lackluster American Athletic Conference and will carry a No. 22 ranking into Saturday's showdown with Butler.
Loser: 1997 Final Four Teams
This March will mark the 20th anniversary of Arizona's first and only national championship, but early returns are that 2017 isn't going to go nearly as well as 1997 did.
The Wildcats lost to what has long been a Cinderella story for a second consecutive week. Butler upset them in the Las Vegas Invitational the day after Thanksgiving, and Arizona fell at the hands of Gonzaga this past Saturday.
While the 69-62 final suggests it was a close game, the Zags had this one under control from the outset to bump Arizona from No. 16 to No. 20. Arizona had no answer for Przemek Karnowski. The big man from Poland finished the night with 18 points, but it felt like he could have scored 20 more. Once he was able to establish position near the paint, it was game over.
Why Gonzaga even bothered trying anything else is a small mystery. It didn't help matters that Arizona shot 1-of-8 from three-point range in the game, but when Lauri Markkanen isn't draining shots, the Wildcats don't have many other options right now.
The team Arizona beat in the 1997 national championship was Kentucky, and those Wildcats dropped from No. 1 to No. 6 in this week's poll after the aforementioned home loss to UCLA. Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox both scored in the 20s, and Bam Adebayo (18 points, 13 rebounds) had his most effective game of the season. But the Wildcats struggled on defense and couldn't keep pace with the Bruins. They'll be a contender all season long, but it was quite a change of pace from the 115-69 beating they gave Arizona State five days prior to this game.
Arizona also beat North Carolina in the Final Four two decades ago, and the Tar Heels suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of Indiana. It was a tough road game, and UNC did itself no favors in falling behind by an early 28-11 margin. With no one other than Justin Jackson doing much on offense, it was too big of a hole to dig out of, resulting in the Tar Heels slipping to No. 7 in this week's poll.
Even the fourth member of that 1997 Final Four took one on the chin this week, as Minnesota suffered its first loss of the season against Florida State. The Golden Gophers do have wins over Texas-Arlington, Arkansas and Vanderbilt and appear to be more of a factor this year than anyone was expecting, but they blew their early chance to start making some headway in the "Others Receiving Votes" category.
Winner: West Virginia Mountaineers
Save for one awful nine-minute stretch against Temple, West Virginia has been one of the best teams in the country for a third consecutive season.
Despite losing key components like Devin Williams, Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton, the Mountaineers just keep doing their same old thing. They're leading the nation in turnover percentage by a wide margin—thanks in part to 40 forced turnovers against Manhattan this past week—and also rank in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage for the seventh time in the past nine years.
They don't have the most accurate shooters in the world, but all those steals and offensive rebounds have equated to an average of 16.4 more field-goal attempts per game than their opposition. As has been the case in recent years, that means they can consistently outscore teams despite not shooting any better than them.
But in Saturday's marquee road win over Virginia, West Virginia was simply the better team.
WVU had only eight offensive rebounds and 10 steals, but it clamped down on the defensive end and kept the Cavaliers from getting any easy looks at the hoop. The Mountaineers took London Perrantes out of the game early and swarmed him in the second half to ensure he didn't add yet another late comeback to his career totals.
Contrary to what we've seen in recent seasons, though, the biggest key to the win was free-throw shooting. The Mountaineers entered the game shooting 63 percent from the charity stripe on the season and had just barely made two out of every three freebies over the past two seasons. But in John Paul Jones Arena, they shot 16-of-19 overall and went 13-of-14 in the final nine minutes of the 66-57 win.
That has been the biggest missing ingredient for this team. West Virginia plays with physicality, but it has been unable to make opponents pay for committing fouls. If the Mountaineers can continue converting on their one-pointers at a higher rate, they should keep climbing in the polls. They jumped from No. 25 to No. 15 in this week's AP Top 25.
Loser: Xavier Musketeers
There were some encouraging signs in Xavier's 76-61 loss to Baylor.
The Musketeers dominated the glass against a bigger opponent, which was crucial to their success last year. Both RaShid Gaston and Tyrique Jones had five offensive rebounds. The more that their primary reserves can contribute like that, the better they'll be.
Xavier also got a great shooting performance out of Trevon Bluiett, who was barely making threes at a 30 percent clip through the first seven games. He's usually much more of a factor inside the arc, but hitting 6-of-10 from beyond the arc was a big development.
Yet, the Musketeers lost by a 15-point margin and left us wondering whether we should have put more stock in their early struggles with Lehigh and Missouri.
The issue was J.P. Macura couldn't buy a shot against the Bears. Xavier's second-leading scorer went just 2-of-16 from the field and also missed a pair of free throws after opening the season by making 29 of his first 30 attempts.
The bigger, longer-term problem is that there is no Plan B for Xavier when one of its Big Three has an off night. Florida A&M transfer Malcolm Bernard played 25 minutes without scoring a point and has averaged only 6.8 points per 40 minutes this season. Starting big man Sean O'Mara attempted only two shots and has been a complete non-factor about as often as he has made an impact.
Unless Myles Davis unexpectedly returns to the lineup, it's Macura, Bluiett and Edmond Sumner or bust. It would be great if Gaston could make more of an impact on offense. Until that happens, though, Xavier may have to settle for being the fourth-best team in the Big East.
For the loss to Baylor, the Musketeers plummeted from No. 7 to No. 13 in this week's AP poll.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.