Winners and Losers of AP College Basketball Top 25 Poll in Week 6
Villanova got a pair of scares from La Salle and Notre Dame, but the Wildcats survived those battles to remain the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for a second straight week.
Between finals and holidays, December is always the slowest month of the college basketball season. But even by December standards, this was a painfully lackluster week of hoops. There were only three games played between ranked teams and even fewer unforgivably bad losses.
(Aside from a few Saturday gems like Kentucky vs. North Carolina, Indiana vs. Butler and Notre Dame vs. Purdue, this coming week isn't looking any better.)
As a result, movement in the AP Top 25 was minimal. Not a single team in last week's Top 11 suffered a loss. Saint Mary's was the only team to move up or down more than five spots, penalized dearly for its home loss to Texas-Arlington.
Florida State and USC joined the rankings, while Florida and Iowa State dropped out, but the only other real winners from this week's poll were teams that didn't move much despite suffering losses.
Read on for the rest of this week's winners and losers.
Winner: Florida State Seminoles
Florida State had one of the most impressive weeks of any team in the country. The Seminoles stomped Southern Miss and Nicholls State by a combined margin of 104 points before winning Sunday's showdown with Florida by an 83-78 margin.
They did it all without much help at all from two key players. Jonathan Isaac (hip flexor) and Phil Cofer (foot) missed both of the blowouts with injuries and didn't make their typical impact in the win over Florida. Instead, sophomores Dwayne Bacon and Terance Mann combined for 40 points against the Gators.
Florida State has been flirting with the rankings all season long. It was the third team out in each of the first two polls and briefly tied for No. 25 in the third week before a loss to Temple bumped the Seminoles back down to "Others Receiving Votes." Now boasting a 10-1 record, though, they're back in the Top 25 at No. 23 and ought to remain ranked for a couple of weeks with no significant challenges on the horizon until New Year's Eve.
While we're on the topic of the Seminoles, quite a few people on social media have made a case for Florida State to be ranked by saying it's one layup away from being undefeated, but that's not true.
Yes, Isaac missed a layup that would have given FSU the lead over Temple, but there were still four seconds left on the clock for Temple to come down and win the game with a layup of its own. Also, winning that game would have meant facing West Virginia in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off rather than facing Illinois in the consolation game. If you're assuming Florida State would have won that game, maybe it's time to put down the Kool-Aid.
Having said that, please do continue buying stock in this team. FSU is one of the most athletic and versatile teams in the country. Freshmen CJ Walker and Trent Forrest have been outstanding off the bench, helping give the Seminoles one of the deeper rotations in the ACC as well. They may well go .500 in a brutal ACC schedule that includes two games each against Duke, Notre Dame, Miami and Clemson, but this is an NCAA tournament team that could do some damage in March.
Loser: Saint Mary's Gaels
It was an uncharacteristically quiet week for the Top 25. Sure, there were losses by ranked teams: eight of them altogether. However, most of them can be dismissed as forgivable.
Notre Dame and Florida lost on neutral courts to Villanova and Duke, respectively. Iowa State and Florida lost on the road in in-state rivalry games against Iowa and Florida State. Butler lost at Indiana State but made up for it with a win over Cincinnati—a road loss that doesn't look too bad for the Bearcats. Xavier lost by two at Colorado, but the Musketeers looked good in defeat and responded well with a win over Utah.
That's seven of the eight losses, leaving just Saint Mary's, which scored 51 at home in an ugly loss to Texas-Arlington.
In any other week, we'd let this one slide. After all, we had Texas-Arlington projected for a No. 12 seed in the preseason in part due to the fact the Mavericks were No. 5 on our list of teams that returned the most talent from last season. They got out to a slow start, but they have won seven in a row and need to be taken seriously as this year's Sun Belt Conference team to watch out for in the NCAA tournament.
This week, though, it just can't be forgiven. In addition to being the worst performance by any ranked team this week, it was the most dreadful offensive output from the Gaels in the past two years—aside from their hideous 60-44 exit from the NIT last March. It's hard to believe this team was held to 51 points on 64 possessions by the same team that gave up 84 to Minnesota and 85 to Florida Gulf Coast.
AP voters responded by booting the Gaels from No. 12 to No. 20.
Winner: USC Trojans
It was an uneventful week for the Trojans. They didn't play a game until late Sunday night, effortlessly handing Pepperdine its fifth consecutive loss in a 93-67 rout. But since Florida and Iowa State both dropped out of the AP Top 25, there was finally enough room for one of the seven remaining unbeatens. USC makes its 2016-17 debut in the poll at No. 24.
The Trojans have yet to face a ranked opponent, which is the main reason no one has been paying much attention. However, the schedule hasn't been Cream Puff City. They won a true road game against Texas A&M before scoring victories over SMU and BYU.
De'Anthony Melton has been one of the best freshmen in the country no one is talking about. In their aforementioned three key wins, Melton came off the bench and averaged 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and a combined 3.0 steals and blocks. In Sunday's win over Pepperdine, he impacted the game with assists and blocks while only scoring one point.
Melton has been the type of underappreciated, do-it-all freshman Ethan Happ was for Wisconsin last season.
The star of the show, though, is Elijah Stewart. The junior shooting guard is averaging 17.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He drained seven three-pointers en route to 26 points in Sunday's win over Pepperdine. When he's shooting anywhere near that well, this undefeated team gets that much tougher to beat.
Loser: Duke Blue Devils
As previously mentioned, this was not a big week for shakeups in the AP Top 25. Seth Davis isn't the foremost authority on ranking logic—he moved Cincinnati up two spots for losing its only game of the week by a double-digit margin and bumped Valparaiso up one spot after a 24-point loss to Kentucky—but he has the same 10 teams in the same order at the top of his ballot as he did seven days ago.
This is because No. 12 Saint Mary's was the highest-ranked team to lose a game. That's a shame for the Duke Blue Devils, because they made a pair of emphatic statements this week.
Jayson Tatum (22), Amile Jefferson (24) and Luke Kennard (29) each put up a ton of points in an 84-74 win over Florida in New York City. Despite poor performances from Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson and a virtual no-show from Marques Bolden (two minutes), it was the first time all season Duke finally started to live up to the hype. In the aftermath of the win, everyone was raving about Kennard for National Player of the Year and Jefferson as a potential NBA draft pick.
Then they went out to Las Vegas and beat the living daylights out of UNLV in a 94-45 laugher. Granted, UNLV is nothing special. It lost by 24 to Arizona State a week before this game and still doesn't have a win over a KenPom Top 200 team. But Allen scored a career-high 34 points as Duke had a "total package" type of dominant victory—with Harry Giles still watching from the bench.
Yet Duke's week neither erased its earlier loss to Kansas nor caused any other team in the Top 10 to suffer a loss, so it remains No. 5 for another week despite looking like the best team in the nation. The Blue Devils did pick up two more points than last week, but it wasn't enough to eliminate the gap between themselves and idle No. 4 Baylor.
Winner: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
When the No. 23 team in the country loses a game, it can usually kiss that ranking goodbye.
But when the No. 23 team in the country loses on a neutral court to the No. 1 team in a game it led for most of the afternoon, voters are substantially more willing to let that loss slide.
Notre Dame put up one heck of a fight against Villanova, leading by as many as 11 points late in the first half before the Wildcats stormed back for the 74-66 win. V.J. Beachem couldn't buy a bucket for the Fighting Irish, scoring just four points on 11 shots. Meanwhile, Notre Dame had no answer whatsoever for Josh Hart, who finished with a career-high 37 points with 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals for good measure.
But considering Villanova's star outscored Notre Dame's star by a 33-point margin, it's incredible the Fighting Irish were able to keep the final score within single digits. They defended the arc against Villanova better than any team has this season, limiting a team that entered the game 40.6 percent from three and averaging 10.6 makes per game to just 4-of-16 shooting.
Unfortunately, Villanova returned the favor. Notre Dame was shooting 41.3 percent and averaging 11.0 makes per game during its 9-0 start, but it went 6-of-22 from downtown, unable to capitalize on its impressive defense.
Despite the loss, it was a statement game for the Fighting Irish. They had wins over Colorado, Northwestern and Iowa, but this was their first game against a sure-fire NCAA tournament team. They looked great and weren't penalized for the result. In fact, they climbed two spots to No. 21 in this week's Top 25.
Loser: Florida Gators
After the Jimmy V Classic, everyone wanted to discuss how great Duke looked and whether the window has closed on the rest of the nation now that Duke is almost at full strength.
Hidden behind the onslaught of think pieces that declared Luke Kennard the front-runner for the Wooden Award and Amile Jefferson the true MVP for the Blue Devils, Florida quietly hung right with them and got the margin down to an uncomfortable seven points on several occasions. The Gators shot well from three-point range and got a great game out of veteran point guard Kasey Hill. The only real difference in this one was that Jefferson couldn't miss for Duke (11-of-14) and John Egbunu couldn't buy a bucket for Florida (2-of-10).
Five days later, Florida had yet another hard-fought loss away from home against an ACC contender, falling 83-78 to Florida State. Sophomore KeVaughn Allen was great in both losses, but graduate transfer Canyon Barry struggled in both games and hasn't been nearly the shooter Florida thought it was getting.
Florida was the only previously ranked team to suffer two losses this week, so the AP voters had no choice but to penalize the Gators, booting them out of the Top 25 from their temporary spot at No. 21.
Still, it was an impressive week for Mike White's squad, which continued to look like one of the only SEC teams that can challenge Kentucky this year. By ranking logic, the Gators deserved to be unranked. There's no question about that. But KenPom's ranking of them as the 15th-best team in the country feels like a more accurate representation of what they've brought to the floor thus far.
Winner: Cincinnati Bearcats
For some strange reason, AP voters have a longer leash with Cincinnati than any other team. We made note of this phenomenon last December when the Bearcats managed to keep climbing in the polls despite suffering losses and not picking up any marquee wins along the way.
Well, Cincinnati is once again getting the benefit of the doubt, losing its only game of the week by a double-digit margin to Butler and only slipping three spots to No. 25 in this week's poll.
To be fair, there's no shame in losing at Butler—particularly when leading scorer Kyle Washington only managed to play 19 minutes before fouling out.
Moreover, Cincinnati could not have picked a better week to suffer this loss. Florida State was the only team within a stone's throw of the Top 25 to do anything impressive last week, while No. 21 Florida and No. 25 Iowa State had worse weeks than the Bearcats. Even if you wanted to penalize them for the 75-65 loss to the Bulldogs, there weren't any obvious candidates to replace them.
Still, since Iowa State dropped out of the Top 25 and Penn State lost by 19 to George Mason before falling to 6-5 with a loss to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati's two most impressive wins of the season got substantially worse this week. The Bearcats managed to barely move in the AP Top 25, but it was a brutal week for their NCAA tournament resume.
They had better win their January game against Xavier and hope the Cyclones bounce back to remain a quality win, because the AAC isn't doing them any favors this year.
Loser: Xavier Musketeers
If you're selling your stock in Xavier after back-to-back losses to Baylor and Colorado, we'll take all of it.
That's because RaShid Gaston is finally making a real impact.
We knew Trevon Bluiett was great, and we expected huge things from Edmond Sumner and J.P. Macura. Save for a pair of brutal shooting performances by Macura in the two losses, that trio has not disappointed. But the one Musketeer we had pinpointed all offseason long as their make-or-break player was Gaston.
The big man averaged 15.5 points and 9.6 rebounds two years ago with Norfolk State, but he only averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds in November as Xavier struggled with the likes of Lehigh, Missouri, Clemson and Northern Iowa.
But Gaston was recently inserted into the starting lineup and has posted consecutive double-doubles against Colorado and Utah. He had eight offensive rebounds in the win over Utah and currently ranks second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
Despite the losses, now that it has a fourth reliable contributor and its post game figured out, Xavier looks more dangerous than it has since beating Villanova last February.
AP voters don't seem to agree. Though the X-men rebounded with a 77-69 win over Utah, they were penalized for their 68-66 loss to Colorado, falling in the AP poll for a second consecutive week. This time, they dropped from No. 13 to No. 17.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.