After another exciting week of basketball, we have a new set of rankings to digest. The biggest winner in the latest AP Poll is the most polarizing team in the country: the Duke Blue Devils.
FULL RANKINGS: AP Top 25
Duke triumphed twice this week at Cameron Indoor, and its win over North Carolina on Thursday was particularly significant. The Blue Devils jumped six spots to No. 12 in this week’s rankings, and ever so slowly, it looks like they’re climbing out of their early-season funk.
This still isn’t the juggernaut many expected going into the season, but Duke is finding its way. The Blue Devils don’t have a true point guard, but Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson have amped up their playmaking as of late -- Allen has 14 assists in his last three games. He’s a scorer at heart, but when he looks to get others involved, Duke’s offense jumps to another level. The same applies to Kennard and Jackson.
The Blue Devils still have their warts. Their ball-screen defense, while improving, leaves much to be desired; Duke prevailed against North Carolina, but the Tar Heels got numerous uncontested looks after simple pick-and-roll actions. Harry Giles has flashed recently, but the Blue Devils would be better off if they weren’t so reliant on Amile Jefferson on the interior. He's asked to carry a load that may be unsustainable.
Regardless, Duke is trending in the right direction at the right time of the year. This team isn’t playing at a championship-caliber level, but if a few more things click, it will be. You couldn’t say that a month ago.
RELATED: Morning MadnessElsewhere in the rankings, SMU rose six spots to No. 19 after a big-time home win against AAC rival Cincinnati on Sunday. The Mustangs are 22-4, and their defense is rounding into form as the season rolls along; SMU has limited foes to 53 points or less in each of its past four games. The Bearcats took control early on against the Mustangs yesterday, but SMU clamped down in the second half; it completely stifled one of the hottest teams in the country, holding Cincinnati to 23 points in the final 20 minutes.
Tim Jankovich’s squad is 17-1 in its last 18 outings. The Mustangs have a good chance to go undefeated until the AAC tournament -- they face Houston on the road on Feb. 18, but beyond the Cougars, the rest of the slate doesn’t look too daunting. Defense travels, and scoring on SMU is the worst kind of chore. The Mustangs could make some noise in March.
MORE: All-Week team
As Kansas looks to win its 13th regular season conference crown in a row, all eyes are on the Big 12 race. But don’t sleep on the Pac-12, which now has the No. 5, 6 and 7 teams in the AP Poll. UCLA leapfrogged Oregon after its thrilling home win on Thursday, and Arizona calmly swept Stanford and California en route to a No. 5 ranking.
If ever there was a high-risk, high-reward team, it would be the Bruins. Their performance against the Ducks exemplified as much; UCLA didn’t defend for most of the first half, and Oregon dominated. Then, the tide swung; Lonzo Ball outdueled Dillon Brooks, the Bruins continued to make shots, and they completed a remarkable second half comeback.
UCLA ranks first in the country in offense and 126th in defense. The Bruins control their own destiny; if they bring their offensive A-game throughout the NCAA tournament, they’ll win it all.
But maintaining that consistency level is such a tough ask. It’s great to have the best offense in the nation; it would be even greater if, on a cold shooting night, there were other reliable paths to victory.
In the second half on Thursday, UCLA showed that it’s capable of defending during important stretches. Whether or not that burst has any impact on future performance is another story – but if the Bruins defend at an above-average level, they’re the best team in the nation. Now, it’s about effort and execution.