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Joe Boozell | | January 23, 2017

Poll reactions: Gonzaga vaults into top three; Arizona surging

  When Lauri Markkanen is on the floor, Arizona is almost impossible to stop.

Another week, another batch of college basketball rankings. And after knocking off UCLA and welcoming Allonzo Trier back to the lineup, it’s a good time to be an Arizona Wildcat.

Few teams have undergone more adversity this season than Arizona, but Sean Miller’s crew is now ranked seventh in the country. The Wildcats have reeled off 11 consecutive victories, including a sweep of their Los Angeles road trip over Southern California and UCLA.

Despite being without three players Miller viewed as key cogs to start the season, Arizona is 18-2 and 7-0 in Pac-12 play. Good coaches see the silver lining in such adversity; going shorthanded forced the Wildcats’ role players into the spotlight, and just about every contributor has improved as the season has rolled on.

Chief among those guys is Lauri Markkanen, though classifying the sweet-shooting big man as a role player is underselling him. Perhaps no player in America possesses Markkanen’s combination of size and skill; the freshman is a legit 7-footer who is scorching foes from all over the court. Markkanen is hitting half of his 3s this season on 4.8 attempts per game.

Arizona’s offense dies when its prized freshman hits the pine, but it’s unstoppable with Markkanen on the floor — the Wildcats score 136.7 points per 100 possessions with him in the game. As a team, Arizona scores 116.8 points per 100 possessions. Markkanen’s raw numbers are good, but dig a little deeper, and you realize this guy should get All-American consideration.

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The rest of Arizona’s success isn’t so nuanced: it just plays hard. For 40 minutes per game, every single night. Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen defend like crazy; Arizona ranks 11th in the country in defensive efficiency, and holding UCLA to 85 points in a fast-paced environment is a win in itself. The Wildcats are in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12, which is a highly unlikely development given where they stood in November.

Staying out west, the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs keep on inching up the poll. The Zags are now ranked third in the nation, and a loss doesn’t seem to be in their path any time soon. The Bulldogs are big, experienced and talented; Nigel Williams-Goss is flashing the kind of all-around goods that had Gonzaga so excited about his transfer from Washington. Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins are raining fire from deep, and Zach Collins is one of the most underrated freshmen in the country.

Gonzaga has to travel to St. Mary’s on Feb. 11, but outside of that, no remaining game on its schedule seems to be too worrisome. The Bulldogs are within striking distance of the No. 1 ranking, and they have a good chance to reach the top of the mountain in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere in the rankings, there were a few big fallers due to a combination of losses and injuries. After dropping decisions against Oklahoma and Kansas State, West Virginia fell 11 spots to 18th in this week’s poll.

The Mountaineers’ press is still a chore to try and solve, but if you do, West Virginia hasn’t been able to manufacture a counterpunch. Oklahoma only turned the ball over 12 times against WVU, while Kansas State coughed up the rock seven fewer times than the Mountaineers did in their weekend tilt. West Virginia’s defense is its offense, in some ways; the Mountaineers aren’t polished in the half court. They still lead the country in defensive turnover rate and steal rate, but they’re going to need to either improve their traditional offense or force a historic amount of blunders in order to return to the top 10.

The other school that plummeted in this week’s rankings was Creighton. The Bluejays lost their first game without Maurice Watson Jr. to Marquette, and CU fell nine spots this week to No. 16.

Creighton is still extremely talented on offense, and it has depth at most positions. But its one Achilles’ heel, even when it was rolling, was the lack of a backup point guard. That makes Watson’s injury especially demoralizing.

There are positives, though. It’s not as if Creighton’s offense was a problem against Marquette. The Jays scored 94 points, 54 of which came in the second half. Watson was a feisty defender, but he wasn’t the glue that was holding that unit together; allowing 102 points to Marquette feels like an anomaly. Creighton showed resolve in hanging on to beat Xavier without Watson in the second half, and the defensive issues should fix themselves.

With that said, the Bluejays’ ceiling is undeniably lower without Watson. But this is still a good team, and though voters dropped them this week, don’t expect Creighton to fall out of the top 25 any time soon despite losing its most important player.

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