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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | December 9, 2016

Villanova jumps to No. 1; UCLA right behind in newest AP Poll

  UCLA is playing as well as it has in years, and the Bruins are ranked second because of it.

The reigning champion Villanova Wildcats are the new No. 1 team in this week’s college basketball rankings, as Jay Wright’s squad capitalized on Kentucky’s unlikely home loss to UCLA on Saturday.

Such is life early in the season, the AP Top 25 looks quite a bit different than it did last week. The red-hot Bruins are the new No. 2 team, while the surprising Baylor Bears are now ranked fourth.

FULL RANKINGS: New AP Poll

Clearly, there’s not much separation between teams two and four in voters’ minds. UCLA and Baylor are divided by just 41 points, with Kansas sandwiched in between them. If early December polls were based exclusively on 2016-17 resume, then the Bears would top the rankings. Baylor has notched more quality wins than anyone in the country; the Bears have triumphed against Louisville, Xavier, Michigan State and Oregon thus far.

Villanova doesn’t have the wins Baylor does, but it also hasn’t had as many opportunities. That said, it’s not as if the Wildcats have been facing cupcakes -- winning at Mackey Arena in November is no easy task. Perhaps once we get our feet wet in conference play, the eye test vs. resume calculus will tilt more in favor of the latter. But for now, a mix of both is healthy.

NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti wrote plenty on UCLA yesterday, but I’ll just add this: college basketball becomes so much more fun and interesting when the Bruins are this good. Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Bryce Alford give the east coast ample reason to stay up each night; this team isn’t just good, but it’s also a joy to watch. Surround the best passer in college basketball with capable, intelligent offensive players, and you’re going to have a juggernaut on your hands.

Elsewhere, it was particularly interesting to see North Carolina ranked at No. 7 and Indiana ranked at No. 9 this week. Obviously, the Hoosiers scored an impressive home win over the Tar Heels on Wednesday, so head-to-head logic would suggest that IU should be ranked above UNC.

But we start to play a tricky game with that way of thinking. What if a common opponent defeated the Hoosiers but the Tar Heels smoked them? Overall bodies of work can tell you more about a team than any singular game.

If anything, Indiana’s argument for being ranked ahead of North Carolina is its opening night win over Kansas, in addition to (not exclusively) its head-to-head triumph. The Hoosiers have better wins, though not by much – the Heels beat Wisconsin decisively on a neutral floor, as well.

On the flip side, North Carolina has one loss. It came against No. 9 Indiana on the road. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, also have one loss. It came on the road against Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne is much better than the average college hoops fan realizes, by the way, but from that perspective, UNC being ranked ahead of IU makes a lot of sense. Again: it’s early. Both sides of the argument are defensible. Thankfully, there is a lot of basketball left to play.

The lesson: while bad losses may be more important than great wins early in the season, that won’t be the case in March. As the season goes on, we hear quality wins cited far more often than out-of-character setbacks. That’s when it matters. For now, it’s fun to debate. IU fans can be upset that they’re ranked behind two teams they beat in an early December AP Poll, but take solace in the fact that your team can clearly play with anyone in the country. If it’s clicking in March, the Hoosiers could reasonably win a national championship.

That’s what really matters.

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