After another wild week in college basketball, we have a new set of rankings to digest. And for the first time in five weeks, there is a new No. 1 team.
RANKINGS: New AP Top 25
BYU ruined Gonzaga’s bid for an undefeated season on Saturday night, and Villanova lost at home to Butler. So Kansas, which has won six games in a row and is running through the Big 12 once again, is your new top-ranked squad.Winning 14 of 16 games in any conference is hard, but to do it in this year’s Big 12 is a major accomplishment. The Jayhawks have now won the league 13 years in a row, a streak that likely won’t be broken for a long, long time. And what’s so impressive about this year’s version of Kansas is that the Jayhawks are essentially rolling with a seven-man rotation.
That lack of depth could come back to haunt the Jayhawks in March. But Kansas’ top-seven guys are as good, if not better, than any other combination in the country; Frank Mason is a legitimate Naismith candidate, and the Jayhawks boast plus starters at all five positions. Kansas has flaws, but its outstanding perimeter trio covers most of them up.
Kansas replaced Gonzaga at the top of the rankings, as the Bulldogs suffered their first defeat over the weekend. The Zags proved just how hard it is to go unbeaten – Mark Few’s squad shot 19 percent from 3-point range against BYU, and the Bulldogs fell to fourth in the AP Poll.
That seems a bit harsh at first glance – Villanova lost a home game last week as well, but the Wildcats didn’t budge from their No. 2 ranking. It just goes to show you that Gonzaga doesn’t have the margin for error that some high-majors do; the Bulldogs have impressive nonconference wins against Florida and Arizona, but they simply don’t have the opportunities schools like UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina do in the latter months of the season. On one hand, that’s helped Gonzaga go 29-1. On the other, it’s tough for some voters to know what to make of the Bulldogs.
Elsewhere in the rankings, No. 13 Butler is this week’s highest riser. The Bulldogs dealt Villanova’s senior class its first-ever loss at The Pavilion on Wednesday, and BU followed that up with another impressive victory at Xavier.Butler has some bad losses, but it also has several high-level wins. To rattle them off: Arizona, at Utah, Northwestern, Cincinnati, Villanova (twice), Xavier (twice), at Seton Hall. The Bulldogs were playing well earlier in the year despite leading scorer Kelan Martin struggling from the floor. Martin has turned things around – the junior averaged 23.5 points per game last week coming off the bench, and Kamar Baldwin continues to be one of the best two-way freshmen in the country. It feels like Butler can beat anybody; it also feels like the Bulldogs can lose to anybody. They could be a polarizing team on NCAA tournament brackets. Butler’s win at Villanova may have been the most significant result of the week, but No. 3 UCLA’s performance at Arizona wasn’t far behind. We always knew how lethal the Bruins were offensively, but UCLA is defending at a much higher level than it did earlier in the year; Steve Alford’s crew hasn’t allowed 80 points or more since a Jan. 25 loss to USC. Before that game, UCLA had surrendered 80 or more points nine times.
If this newfound commitment to defense is for real, so are the Bruins. They don’t have to be Virginia or Louisville on that end of the floor – they just need to be respectable and let the offense carry the load. UCLA is locked in at the perfect time, and no team in America has a higher ceiling.
MORNING MADNESS: What you need to know for Monday, Feb. 27
One team that’s nearly as talented as UCLA is North Carolina, which rose to No. 5 in the new poll. Justin Jackson has quietly been one of the best players in the nation this season – the junior is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, up more than 10 percent from his sophomore campaign on over twice as many attempts per game.
The Tar Heels’ bigs are as talented as you’ll find across America, and Joel Berry is an elite point guard. Theo Pinson doesn’t have a defined position, but he makes winning plays, and he’s a perfect complement to Jackson and Berry. North Carolina has to travel to Virginia on Monday night, but just like last season, the Heels look like national title contenders as the tournament nears.