College Basketball Nation: power rankings 010413

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

January, 4, 2013
Come on feel the Big Ten Power Rankings. Girls, rock your Big Ten Power Rankings. We get ranked, ranked, ranked … ranked, ranked, ranked.

Happy Friday Big Ten Conference Power Rankings to ya.

1. Michigan. Last night, Northwestern hosted Michigan. Michigan completely destroyed Northwestern. Most college basketball fans probably stopped watching this game after the first five minutes. All college basketball fans immediately forgot about it because Arizona and Colorado played after that and all Hades broke loose. But man, was Michigan impressive. I know the Wildcats are bad, and nowhere near full strength anyway, and blah blah blah -- I know what I saw, man. And what I saw was a really, really good offensive basketball team.

2. Indiana. On Monday, Indiana had to grit out a tough Big Ten opener at Iowa, against a solid Hawkeyes team that refused to go away down the stretch. At first glance, it was not the most inspiring IU performance; the Hoosiers scored just 69 points on the day, and just .92 points per possession, obviously well below their season average of 1.22. (It didn't help that typically brilliant shooter Jordan Hulls went 0-for-10.) But it was actually all good news for Indiana, when you think about it. Last season, if the Hoosiers scored .92 points per trip in a road game, you could probably go ahead and assume that game was a loss. That's because IU didn't guard anywhere near as well as it does this year. The Hoosiers have raised their adjusted defensive efficiency KenPom rank from the mid-60s at the end of last season to No. 9 as of this writing. That massive jump is how IU will be able to get away with scoring .92 PPP on the road from time to time.

3. Minnesota. Coach Tubby Smith brought senior forward Trevor Mbakwe back from his rocky offseason slowly but surely, not awarding the longtime star a starting position until last week. Whether that was about optics or just making sure Mbakwe got the message, it seems to have worked: Mbakwe is grabbing 18 percent of his team's available misses on the offensive end, the seventh-highest rate in the country, and he is the Gophers' lone reliable rebounder on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Minnesota's opening win over Michigan State was not only a well-played early Big Ten game in general but a really nice showcase for this Minnesota team, which is deeper, more versatile and more athletic than any in Smith's tenure and for some time before.

4. Ohio State. Really interesting game for Ohio State on Saturday. Should it win at Illinois? Yes. Is it a given? Hardly. And that's a tricky place for this team to be in because I am of two minds on the Buckeyes right now. The first is that, duh, of course Ohio State is good: It scores 1.16 points per trip and allows just .848, the ninth- and 11th-best marks in the country, respectively. That's really good! And, look, you lose to Kansas at home and Duke on the road -- so what? Those are forgivable crimes. They're not even crimes, really. But the other mind is tempting because it is guttural, and it says that all it takes is a quick glance at Ohio State's record to date to know the Buckeyes haven't beaten anyone good, and when you watch them play, they don't look all that impressive, either. A loss at Illinois this weekend would add fuel to that probably incorrect notion, even if it shouldn't? See? Weird analytical spot. Interesting game.

5. Michigan State. Derrick Nix is probably my favorite player in the country to watch. He is big; he is slow; he plays basketball with absolutely zero fluidity; he is effective; and he is predictable -- he always goes back to his natural left hand.

I went to the Synergy tape and watched each of the 67 post possessions Nix has performed in this season. What did I find? That Nix almost never uses his right hand to score. And by almost never, I mean that he only really used it once all season -- in a four-foot hook shot in Michigan State's loss at Minnesota earlier this week. In fairness, Nix went to his right hand once against Miami, but he sort of adjusted on the way up and had it blocked anyway.

This is nothing new, of course -- I would imagine every opponent Nix plays the rest of the season will have defenders watching plenty of footage -- but I had to know for myself. And now I do. Meanwhile, the rest of the plays were just awesome. Seriously, some of those up-and-unders? The way the big fella bowls to his left hand whether a defender (or two) is there or not? It's sort of funny -- I laughed a few times when a defender would tie Nix up and they'd both just sort of stop and be like, "I guess that's a foul?" -- but also really endearing, especially knowing how hard that dude has worked to resurrect his basketball career. And hey, if it ain't broke, right?

6. Illinois. For the last couple of weeks, I put Illinois in the top three, doing so for two reasons: One, Illinois had played really well to start the season, and its position was commensurate with the general consensus on its performance to date. Two, I wanted to show the Illini some "love" before the levy broke. I realize neither of those is the most rigorous way to rank a team, and I made sure to enclose the standard disclaimers about Illinois' attack being so 3-point-oriented and how that could be unsustainable if the shooting improvement was the product of small sample size -- and it appears that might be the case. Or maybe winning at Purdue really is just that tough. But the Illini have now shot worse than 30 percent from beyond the arc in five of their past seven games, and a 10-for-26 performance wasn't enough to pull them out of a loss at Mackey. It's all ominous stuff, which is why I'm glad I wasn't that guy raining on the parade too early.

7. Iowa. Last season, in the frenzy of Iowa's late wins over Wisconsin and Indiana (and the excellent Matt Gatens farewells they offered), my buddy Tom was constant in his demand for updates on Iowa's NCAA tournament bubble status. I would laugh and he'd ask why and then I'd try to calmly explain (something about an RPI in the 100s, if I remember correctly) and that was that. This season, though. Tom's enthusiasm is perfectly warranted. Iowa's best scorer went 1-for-14 against Indiana (playing against Victor Oladipo will do that), yet the Hawks still nearly took down IU in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which was encouragingly populated again. Iowa is on a tournament trajectory in the years to come; the question is whether this team is good enough to do it ahead of schedule. Right now, I say yes.

8. Wisconsin. Much as with Ohio State, Wisconsin's tempo-free numbers say the team is about as good as usual, which is much better than this position in the power rankings. Much like Illinois' previous spot at No. 3, I have been hedging this rank repeatedly for the past few weeks, saying how strongly I think Wisconsin will eventually climb the ladder back to its typically high perch. But it is going to take more than this insane Jared Berggren dunk against Penn State to convince me. (But seriously, I see you, Jared. That second dunk is just pure evil.)

9. Purdue. Is Purdue going to put up some stinkers this year? Yes. The Boilermakers have already, and they will again. But they're defending like a top-40 team already, which is impressive when you consider how young this team is, and scary when you consider that Mackey is a tough place to play, and even tougher when your offense leaves you and you have to grind out a 65-possession game against the Boilers. They're eminently beatable, but still: No thanks.

10. Northwestern. As if missing Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb for the rest of the season weren't already bad enough, the Wildcats lost Reggie Hearn for their past two games, the latter of which was an absolute home dump-trucking at the hands of the overwhelming Michigan Wolverines. Hearn's eventual return will help, and I really like freshman center Alex Olah; he moves well without the ball and is already a better interior scorer over both shoulders than I think anyone realized. But it looks as if Northwestern is going to free its fans from the constant brinksmanship and disappointment of recent seasons by being downright bad. Maybe that will come as a relief?

11. Penn State. If you clicked that Jared Berggren link above, you might be convinced that all Penn State did Thursday was get dunked on. That would be incorrect. In fact, Penn State put in a pretty decent road effort at Wisconsin. It wasn't quite that close -- when you play 59 possessions, nine points is a lot -- but still, holding Wisconsin to a little more than a point per trip at the Kohl Center is something to be proud of. No irony needed.

12. Nebraska. Although bleak and lacking the same sense of possibility at the heart of some of his more popular work, "Nebraska" -- a spare, pioneering lo-fi album recorded by Bruce Springsteen in his home with a four-track cassette recorder -- is widely regarded as The Boss' greatest. "Nebraska," "Atlantic City," "Highway Patrolman" -- these scrawled tone-poems ring out with the voices of lost souls, confused criminals and the rest of us, just doing our best to go along. The sound -- oh, wait. You were talking about Nebraska basketball? Oh, sorry. Nebraska lost 70-44 at Ohio State on Wednesday.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

January, 4, 2013
The assumption for most of the past two months was that Arizona would win the Pac-12 title with ease. The Wildcats looked extremely strong -- and the rest of the league didn't. But as conference play opens this week, the thinking has changed. Arizona barely escaped Colorado in Tucson on Thursday evening while UCLA followed up its victory over then-No. 7 Missouri by thumping Cal. Maybe, just maybe, this will be an interesting race after all.
    1. Arizona: No team in the country has been better in pressure-packed situations than the Wildcats, whose victories against Florida, San Diego State and Colorado all have come in the waning seconds. Point guard Mark Lyons has been particularly impressive during crunch time. He had 24 points against Colorado on Thursday.
    2. UCLA: Kyle Anderson had 19 points and 12 boards in Thursday’s 79-65 victory against Cal, which marked the sixth straight win for the Bruins. UCLA’ s next two games (at home against Stanford and on the road against Utah) both look like victories. The Wear twins are playing as well as they have in their careers.
    3. Colorado: Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle might have a legitimate beef about the officials’ decision to call off a 3-pointer by Sabatino Chen that would’ve given Colorado a victory against Arizona at the buzzer Thursday. Either way, CU has only itself to blame. The Buffaloes led by 16 points with 12:40 to go, but couldn't hold on.
    4. Oregon: The Ducks get a lot of praise for an offense that ranks 36th in the country with 77.4 points per game. But Dana Altman’s squad has been very good defensively, too. Four of Oregon’s past five opponents have scored 50 or less. Damyean Dotson averages a team-high 11.1 points.
    5. California: Thursday’s 14-point setback to UCLA marked the Golden Bears’ fifth loss in seven games. Allen Crabbe had 21 points in a losing effort and is now averaging 23.7 points in his past three contests. Cal will try to turn things around in Saturday’s road game at USC.
    6. Oregon State: In what has become a trend, the Beavers dropped a nonconference game they simply had no business losing. Saturday’s 67-66 overtime loss to Towson left a permanent stain on Oregon State’s 2012-13 resume. Towson went just 1-31 a year ago.
    7. Washington: The Huskies' best two wins during an 8-5 nonconference campaign were against Seton Hall and St. Louis, so it’s obvious Lorenzo Romar’s squad has a lot of work to do to avoid missing out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. The Huskies open Pac-12 play on the road Saturday against rival Washington State.
    8. Washington State: The Cougars have won seven of their past eight, with the only loss coming in a two-point setback against Gonzaga at the buzzer. Forward Brock Motum has been steady as expected, averaging 19.7 points and 7 rebounds. But the X factor for the Washington State is guard DaVonte Lacy. He can take the team to another level.
    9. Arizona State: Sun Devils fans can react to Wednesday’s 55-54 overtime win against Utah in one of two ways. They can be happy their team opened Pac-12 play with a victory -- or they can be concerned that ASU needed overtime at home to beat a team perceived as one of the conference’s worst. An angry Colorado visits Tempe on Sunday.
    10. USC: The Trojans have won their past two games by two points. Thursday’s 71-69 victory against Stanford, which followed a win over Dayton, came after point guard Jio Fontan made a pair of foul shots with 6.9 ticks remaining. With six victories, the Trojans already have equaled last season’s win total.
    11. Stanford: The Cardinal are in a world of hurt. They lost their Pac-12 opener at USC on Thursday and must now face one of the country’s hottest teams Saturday in Westwood. With no quality nonconference victories, no one should be surprised if Stanford ended up in the NIT once again.
    12. Utah: The Utes have lost three of their past five games by an average of three points. Things won’t get any easier during the next week, when Utah takes on Pac-12 favorites Arizona and UCLA. Loyola Marymount transfer Jarred DuBois leads Utah in scoring with 13.3 points per game.


Conference Power Rankings: MWC

January, 4, 2013
The results this week haven’t changed my mind: The Mountain West is one of the deepest leagues in the country.

1. New Mexico. I know the Lobos got drilled at Saint Louis. But that was on the back end of a long trip after a road win at Cincinnati. UNM will have to trip up more than once and the rest of the league will have to step up and knock the Lobos off their perch.

2. San Diego State. I’m going with the Aztecs in the second spot this week, even though SDSU didn’t have any huge breakthrough wins. I’m going back to how SDSU was one block away from beating Arizona in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

3. UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels have too much talent to be lower than third. Sure, they lost at North Carolina, but part of that was getting used to having Mike Moser back in the lineup. I’d like to see the Rebels feature Anthony Bennett a bit more -- early and often. This team will be fine and opens at New Mexico next week.

4. Colorado State. The Rams were impressive in holding off a gritty UTEP team in a 1990s WAC throwback game at Moby Arena. Colton Iverson has to be one of the toughest players to defend in the post in the MWC. The Rams have found their groove in playing for Larry Eustachy.

5. Wyoming. I know, the answer is going to be are you a bit off the grid to put the Cowboys at No. 5 with a 13-0 record? Maybe. But Wyoming has one win over a team that may make the tournament at this juncture in Colorado (not convinced Illinois State will). And now Wyoming doesn’t have its lead guard in Luke Martinez. I’m still high on the possibilities for the Pokes, but I’m not buying that they’ll finish in the top four -- yet.

6. Boise State. Leon Rice can finally settle down knowing he’s not going anywhere next season. The Broncos are staying put in the Mountain West and are a legitimate contender to be in the mix for an upper-half finish. I’m buying in on Boise the next two months.

7. Nevada. The Wolf Pack lost by 13 at Oregon and we’ll know if this team can handle its new league when it opens up at Air Force. But Nevada simply has more talent than the Falcons and Fresno State and should at least be in the seventh spot.

8. Air Force. The Falcons were pests to Florida last week, enough so that Air Force should be taken seriously as a real threat to cause problems over the next two months. No one should be surprised if the Academy wins its share of home games.

9. Fresno State. The Bulldogs can establish themselves as a thorn in the new league by opening up with a former longtime rival in San Diego State. Fresno State has longed to be on the same footing with the Aztecs again. Now the Bulldogs have their chance.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

January, 4, 2013
Here we go again. My latest attempt to rank the incomparable enigma known as the Southeastern Conference. Deep breaths. We’ll get through this. I hope.
  1. Florida. The lopsided win over Air Force in Sunrise, Fla., over the weekend was as refreshing as the losses to Arizona and Kansas State earlier in the season were sobering. This is a good team with a lot of weapons. But until the Gators face Missouri Jan. 19, they won’t necessarily have an opportunity to prove that they’re the best team in the struggling SEC. If there’s one concern about the Gators, it’s the inconsistency in its backcourt. Kenny Boynton (12.5 points per game) is the team’s leading scorer but he’s also its most erratic performer (17-for-61 in past six games) and Mike Rosario has scored 12 points total (3-for-15) in Florida’s past two outings.
  2. Kentucky. I get it. Whom have the Wildcats beaten? What have they done to earn this? Well, they were a few free throws and a possession or two away from upsetting Louisville on the road last Saturday. These are power rankings. Who’s the best? I truly believe this Kentucky team, especially with Ryan Harrow elevating his game in recent weeks, could beat any team in this league. The Wildcats are just beginning to understand how good they can and will be in the next two months. Now they have to prove it in the SEC.
  3. Missouri. This is a Tigers team that has a lot of weapons but down the stretch of its overtime loss to UCLA last week, it displayed some of its challenges. The Tigers had 17 turnovers and blew a nine-point lead in the final minutes against a young UCLA team. This is still a team seeking more rhythm after adding many new faces this season. It’s also a team that needs more crunch-time options than Phil Pressey. Pressey is a very talented player but Missouri has too many contributors to rely on one man in those scenarios.
  4. Tennessee. The Vols have won four in a row. And their 51-47 victory over Xavier Saturday was the first time they’d failed to register at least 66 points since their back-to-back road losses to Georgetown and Virginia (36 and 38 points, respectively). Tennessee’s offense (13th in efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), however, is still a concern. That’s why Jarnell Stokes (11.4 ppg, 7.4 rebounds per gme) has to be more consistent for coach Cuonzo Martin, especially with all signs pointing to Jeronne Maymon not returning because of a knee injury.
  5. Ole Miss. Murphy Holloway (15.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and Marshall Henderson (17.9 ppg) lead a Rebels program that’s averaging 82.1 ppg. But Ole Miss has achieved that mark against one of the league’s worst nonconference slates. So don’t be surprised if the team suffers a significant drop in its offensive production in the coming months. Then again, the SEC doesn’t have a lot of star power right now. So maybe that success will continue, and the Rebels will maintain their up-tempo attack (23rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings).
  6. Arkansas. The Razorbacks have won four in row. And that’s all that matters in this conference. Sure, two of those opponents have losing records (3-13 Alcorn State, 5-7 Alabama A&M). But the Razorbacks, who’ve won five of their past six, have as much momentum as any team in the middle of the SEC pack. And if they can just find a way to play respectable defense (173rd in Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings), they could actually spring a few surprise upsets in the SEC because they have two of the league’s most talented players in B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell.
  7. LSU. Coach Johnny Jones’ team hasn’t suffered any bad losses this season. Road losses to Boise State and Marquette won’t crush their at-large résumé. Their nonconference strength of schedule (252nd per’s RPI ratings) will. The bottom line is that the Tigers (8-2) haven’t proved a thing yet. Matchups against Florida, Kentucky and Missouri in January? Well, that’s a good start.
  8. South Carolina. Coach Frank Martin’s team has won four games in a row. But it’s hard to get excited about the Gamecocks. They’ve played the worst nonconference schedule in the league (324th per’s RPI ratings). I hate to play the same old song. But until Martin’s squad gets deep into SEC play, we really won’t know what it’s made of. Giving up 69.1 ppg (13th in the SEC) during its lackluster nonconference schedule and averaging 18.0 turnovers per game, however, are not good signs for the near future.
  9. Texas A&M. I don’t care that they have 10 wins. The aroma of that Dec. 22 loss to Southern remains. Maybe they deserve a higher slot. But the Aggies have succeeded mostly against mediocre teams. They’ll play at Kentucky (Jan. 12) and versus Florida (Jan. 19) in the coming weeks, so we’ll know more about the Aggies soon. Right now, however, it looks like another SEC program with an inflated record that says more about the teams it has faced to date than its own potential.
  10. Auburn. Let me get this straight: The same Auburn team that couldn’t crack 50 points against Boston College, lost to a Rhode Island squad that’s 4-8, and fell at home to Winthrop nearly pulled off an upset against Illinois on Saturday and then knocked off Florida State on Wednesday? OK, that makes sense. I can’t say that coach Tony Barbee has started a revival. But the past week has been promising for the program.
  11. Alabama. It’s bad in Tuscaloosa right now. Anthony Grant’s squad has lost five of the past six. In their last outing, the Crimson Tide registered only 50 points in a three-point loss to Tulane. It’s not just the injuries (Carl Engstrom and Andrew Steele) that are hurting Alabama. Its offense has really struggled in recent weeks (65.6 ppg, ninth in the SEC). And its two best players, Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey, have been inconsistent during this rough stretch.
  12. Georgia. Mark Fox’s program lost seven of its first nine games. But the Bulldogs have won their past three games. Georgia won’t throw a party simply because it defeated Mercer, USC and Florida A&M. But it needs the momentum with a Jan. 13 matchup against Florida in Gainesville looming. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.5 ppg) is still carrying the bulk of the scoring load. But the Bulldogs have been a better defensive unit and that has been crucial to its recent success.
  13. Vanderbilt. These young Commodores appeared to be improving during a recent three-game winning streak, but they followed that up with two losses in three games. Butler and Middle Tennessee, their two opponents in those losses, are legit. My bigger concern is coach Kevin Stallings’ struggling offense. This is a Vandy squad that scored 33 points in a loss to Marist. It has failed to top 52 points five times this season. The SEC has a lot of issues. But it also has some of the top offensive units in the country. I’m just not sure how Vandy will keep up in conference play. They won’t have to wait long to see. They’ll face Kentucky Jan. 10.
  14. Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have similar concerns. Rick Ray’s squad is ranked 289th in Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings. That’s not good. But this isn’t very surprising. MSU is playing with a short rotation in Ray’s first year with the program. He doesn’t appear to have the players he needs to compete in the SEC. But he’s also playing in a league with few proven commodities. The Bulldogs’ 17.5 turnovers per game, however, are one of their biggest concerns.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

January, 4, 2013
As conference play begins this week, it has become pretty obvious that Kansas is best team in the Big 12. Again.

But who comes next?

Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State all have solid squads with somewhat similar resumes. Ranking those four schools -- and the rest of the league -- isn’t easy, but here’s how I see things as we near the season’s midway point.

1. Kansas. While most other schools open Big 12 play this week, the Jayhawks will host a Temple squad on Sunday that defeated previously unbeaten Syracuse last month. Point guards Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe combine to average 8.1 assists.

2. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys appeared to have Gonzaga beaten on New Year’s Eve in Stillwater before the Zags battled back for a 69-68 victory. Still, the Cowboys -- who got 23 points from Marcus Smart -- should be encouraged by their gutsy performance.

3. Baylor. The Bears have looked much better their past two outings, drubbing BYU at home before falling by seven points against a very strong Gonzaga squad in Spokane, Wash. They can’t afford to lose home games against lesser foes. That includes Texas, which visits Waco on Saturday still without point guard Myck Kabongo.

4. Iowa State. The Cyclones are off until their Big 12 opener at Kansas on Jan. 9. Will Clyburn and Tyrus McGee are averaging a combined 27.5 points. Melvin Ejim leads the team with 9.2 rebounds. It’s not absurd to say that Iowa State could finish as high as second in this league.

5. Kansas State. The Wildcats are playing hard for their new coach, Bruce Weber. But it’s not always pretty. K-State has looked mediocre since it defeated Florida Dec. 22 in Kansas City. Weber’s squad is good defensively while ranking 21st in the country in rebounds per game. But K-State has trouble scoring.

6. Texas. Freshman point guard Javan Felix hasn’t been all that bad in replacement of suspended sophomore Kabongo. Felix averages 6.5 assists. The Longhorns (8-5) have some serious work to do in conference play if they hope to keep their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA appearances alive.

7. Oklahoma. The Sooners are good enough to sneak up and beat anyone in this conference. But to contend for a postseason berth, Oklahoma needs to win some games on the road. It all starts Saturday with a tilt against West Virginia in Morgantown.

8. West Virginia. The Big 12’s most disappointing team can’t afford to lose Saturday’s home game against Oklahoma. Transfers Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray combine to average only 21.8 points.

9. Texas Tech. The Red Raiders will hit the road for the first time this season for Saturday’s game against TCU in Fort Worth. Texas Tech (7-4) is getting 15.2 points per game from Jaye Crockett.

10. TCU. Saturday’s home game against Texas Tech may be the best chance TCU will have at a conference win all season. Sophomore guard Kyan Anderson has been the Horned Frogs’ steadiest player, with 13 points per game.

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

January, 4, 2013
Conference play always serves as the great revealer, separating the real teams from the pretenders and outing soft nonconference seasons for the record-padding fluff that they are.

We’ve already seen a little separation in just the first week of the Big East. This week there could be even more.

1. Louisville. The Cardinals are 2-0 against Rick Pitino’s former employers, beating both Kentucky and Providence in the same week. The cathartic victory against the Wildcats wasn’t easy, but highlighted just how overwhelming Louisville’s defense can be. The Cards are third in the nation in steals and 22nd in scoring defense.

2. Cincinnati. The Bearcats upped the tempo and the intensity on Pittsburgh in the second half Monday, outscoring the Panthers by 17 in the final 20. That’s the sort of offense UC can and has generated all season. Cincinnati should be able to dictate the tempo against St. John’s on Saturday, but can it against Notre Dame next Monday?

3. Syracuse. Jim Boeheim moved ahead of Bob Knight on the all-time wins list Tuesday and the Orange took their first victory in their last run in the Big East, beating Rutgers. Syracuse now has back-to-back road games, its first dates out of the state of New York since Nov. 30.

4. Georgetown. The Hoyas haven’t played since an easy win against American on Dec. 22. Will the long layoff affect a Georgetown team that has struggled to score when it travels to Marquette?

5. Notre Dame. The Irish play their first game since Dec. 21 when they host Seton Hall on Saturday. A trickier date is on Monday at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats’ speed and aggressiveness could push Notre Dame off its game.

6. Pittsburgh. So the big question now: Was the Panthers' gaudy nonconference record just smoke and mirrors? Pitt was swallowed up by Cincinnati’s defensive pressure in the second half, dropping its first game since Nov. 21. The Panthers have road games at Rutgers and Georgetown in the coming week, which will help answer the big question.

7. Marquette. Without their coach and with misdirected officials, the Golden Eagles won anyway. This, though, is a huge week for Marquette, with Georgetown coming to town to test the Golden Eagles’ 17-game home win streak, and a trip to Pitt to follow.

8. Connecticut. Kevin Ollie got a contract extension; the Huskies and Marquette went the wrong way for a possession, the Huskies were denied two points they should have received and lost in overtime. Otherwise it was a quiet week for UConn. The Huskies’ backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright continues to star, but the Huskies really could use another offensive threat.

9. Villanova. It wasn’t a work of art, but the Wildcats will take the win against St. John’s regardless. Villanova has now won six in a row. The Wildcats, though, remain a show-me team and need to prove they are legit. A game at South Florida is, therefore, crucial and a trip to Syracuse, well, let’s just say that would be monumental.

10. Seton Hall. The Pirates are playing well, but also playing with fire, eking out a win at DePaul to start conference play, a game after skating by Stony Brook. That won’t fly in the coming week, not against Notre Dame and Louisville.

11. South Florida. The only news that really matters -- Anthony Collins is OK. After a scary collision in a game against George Mason, Collins was taken off the court on a stretcher. He was released from the hospital and played against rival Central Florida. As for basketball, the Bulls and their stingy defense ride a four-game win streak into conference play, opening up against Syracuse this weekend with Villanova to follow.

12. DePaul. That thud you heard was the inevitable clap of reality that always seems to hit the Blue Demons. Just when things were looking good, DePaul loses to Loyola (Ill.) and Seton Hall in back-to-back games. Nothing will be easy again this season, especially with road games at Providence and Connecticut in the next week.

13. Providence. Louisville was simply too much for Providence to handle. There’s no crime in that. The Cards are too much for most teams to handle. The good news -- Bryce Cotton, the Big East's second-leading scorer, did play for the Friars. PC has talent to make moves this year but has to show it can do it. A game against DePaul on Saturday is a good opportunity.

14. Rutgers. Mike Rice returned to the sideline just in time for Boeheim to try for win No. 903. That’s not a fair fight. Upcoming games against Pittsburgh and St. John’s? Maybe a little more fair. The Scarlet Knights have to get better defensively, though, if they are going to do anything in the Big East.

15. St. John’s. The wheels aren’t spinning off for the Red Storm, but the bolts are loose. Back-to-back demoralizing losses to UNC-Asheville and in overtime to Villanova could be a tough pill to swallow for a young team, especially with Cincinnati on the horizon.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:

See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.

Conference Power Rankings: ACC

January, 4, 2013
Nos. 1 and 2 have been pretty easy in these power rankings the past few weeks, but what about 3, 4, 5, 6 ...? Glad ACC play opens this weekend to (maybe?) make things a little bit easier to sort out. Here are this week’s ratings, based on myriad factors, including how teams have performed lately and the foes they've faced:

1. Duke. Despite a push from Santa Clara, and an “off” (10-point, 6-turnover) night from Mason Plumlee against Davidson, the Blue Devils remain undefeated (13-0) with the nation’s best résumé entering Saturday’s league opener against Wake Forest.

2. NC State. Depth remains one of the Wolfpack’s biggest assets, as five players scored in double figures during their seventh straight win, against UNCG. State plays at Boston College and vs. Georgia Tech before its Jan. 12 showdown against Duke.

3. Maryland. Is anyone else really curious about this Terps team? Although Maryland has reeled off 12 straight since losing by three points against Kentucky, the Terps haven’t done it against big-name competition. They’ll face Erick Green and Virginia Tech on Saturday, followed by Michael Snaer and the Seminoles next week.

4. North Carolina. We finally saw all that potential everyone was talking about when the Tar Heels beat UNLV last Saturday. Now they need to show some defensive, intensive consistency. Their patience -- and offense -- will be tested at Virginia on Sunday, especially if they have to play a second straight game without starting wing Reggie Bullock (concussion).

5. Virginia. I got at least a few Cavs fans in a dither with my revised ACC predictions Thursday, when I picked their team to finish seventh (with the caveat that defense, and their league schedule, could lead to a much higher finish). Sunday’s game against UNC could tell us a lot about a team that has won at Wisconsin this season but also lost to Old Dominion. Point guard Jontel Evans (foot) remains questionable.

6. Miami. How will the Hurricanes fare without starting big man Reggie Johnson, who will miss much of the ACC season because of a broken thumb? That’s the biggest question for UM, which is now 2-2 (including a win over La Salle on Wednesday night) since Johnson was sidelined.

7. Georgia Tech. Make that six wins in a row for the Yellow Jackets, who got a double-double from freshman forward Robert Carter against Chattanooga. At 10-2, Tech is only one victory short of last year’s win total.

8. Florida State. The Seminoles lost a 12-point first-half lead, then the game, at Auburn, despite a double-double from Snaer. Not the way you want to finish the nonconference season -- especially when beginning ACC play with two games on the road (Clemson, then Maryland).

9. Clemson. Trivia question of these power rankings: The Tigers lead the ACC in which stat? Answer: blocks per game, at 5.2 (with K.J. McDaniels leading his team with 2.0 per game). They open ACC play this weekend against FSU.

10. Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ loss at BYU marked the first time this season Green hasn’t scored at least 20 points (he was 4-for-17 with 12 points). Losing four of six was not the way Tech wanted to enter ACC play, not after a 7-0 start. Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that the Hokies were in the top tier of these rankings?

11. Boston College. Four of the foes in the Eagles’ current five-game winning streak had .500 or worse records, but it’s got to be nice for the BC youngsters to enter conference play on a winning note. Freshman guard Olivier Hanlan has averaged 13.8 ppg during that run, but this team’s confidence will surely be tested when the Wolfpack comes to town this weekend.

12. Wake Forest. Although Xavier erased an 11-point lead Wednesday, the Deacons rallied with a winning surge to post their best win of the season, in the Skip Prosser Classic. It marked Wake’s third straight victory, although the players won’t be able to enjoy it for long -- not with a trip to Duke on the horizon.