During Selection Week in March, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee will select the best 36 at-large teams to join the 32 automatic qualifiers to play in the Division I men’s basketball championship. Each week, Andy will rank his best 36 teams based on results to date. These rankings are his own and are in no way affiliated with the committee.
The top six remained the same. The gate crasher is Oklahoma, about to invade the group now at No. 7. The Sooners are playing some of the best basketball in the country with arguably the top talent. There was some movement in the middle and once again a ton in the back end. Syracuse, Alabama, Ohio State and Northwestern took a turn bouncing out but all have the ability to get back in and rise up. They all have the look of being in the NCAA tournament. Remember, there will be automatic qualifiers out of this group, opening up at least nine at-large spots (ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, American and A-10) from conferences projected to have multiple bids.
1. Michigan State (Last week: 1): The Spartans continue to retain the top spot after obliterating the competition. Michigan State put up over 100 against Houston Baptist and Long Beach State. Expect the Spartans to continue to pile up the points and the wins with six of the next seven games at home.
x back-to-back— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) December 22, 2017
“Well, a lot of things to be thankful for, a lot of things to go to Christmas break, with the balance that we had almost six guys in double figures.”
-Coach Izzo#GoGreenhttps://t.co/elAU0Ztnvc pic.twitter.com/7d7epQEHQ1
2. Villanova (2): One game last week, one comfortable win over Hofstra in Long Island. The Big East shows no favorites, putting Nova on the road to start conference play with games this week at DePaul and Butler. If you’re waiting for the first Xavier matchup, that one comes on Jan. 10 in Philadelphia.
3. Arizona State (3): The Sun Devils continue to put up crazy offensive numbers. They scored 104 on Pacific. That’s the second time they’ve crossed the century mark and the ninth time out of 12 games that they’ve scored more than 90. This is starting to feel like Loyola-Marymount numbers from the Bo Kimble era. But now it gets real, as in a monster showdown to open the Pac-12 Saturday at Arizona.
4. Duke (4): The Blue Devils had a much-needed 11-day gap between the loss at Boston College and hosting Evansville. Well, the Purple Aces had no idea what they were getting in for when they got run out of Durham, 104-40. ACC play resumes with a home game against Florida State Saturday.
5. Xavier (5): The Musketeers had not played a true road game since beating Wisconsin in Madison on Nov. 16. So, getting the win at Northern Iowa last week was another step to show just how much this Xavier team will be in the mix for a high seed. The experience continues to pay off when adversity hits. Now comes the Big East with games at Marquette and against DePaul.
6. Arizona (6): Forget about the scoring, the most impressive thing about the Wildcats of late is their defense. UConn had just 58 points. North Dakota State 53. Ah, but let’s see how well the Wildcats can defend the 3-pointer when they host Arizona State Saturday. Shut down the Sun Devils and everything changes. Arizona has the size advantage with Deandre Ayton, but needs to be on its game, contesting shots and ensuring they rotate well enough to win what should be the toughest game to date.
7. Oklahoma (11): Trae Young is taking over this team, the program and likely the season with his scoring, assists and deep range. And that’s a great thing. Who doesn’t love seeing someone play with such tremendous joy and be so good at the same time. Oklahoma torched Northwestern State and Northwestern to make it easy to put the Sooners in the top 10. Now comes undefeated TCU in Fort Worth for the next challenge.
8. Purdue (10): The Boilermakers, like Arizona above, are starting to put together a memorable season, one quite different than what could have been after losing games in the Bahamas. Guard Carsen Edwards is feeling it lately. He scored 26 against East Tennessee State, 18 against Butler and 27 against IUPUI in his last three games. Lipscomb should challenge Purdue next on Saturday.
9. TCU (13): The Horned Frogs are one of three remaining unbeaten teams left. I’m not sure anyone had that as a preseason prediction before Christmas. The Horned Frogs continue to take care of the games they should win without a hiccup. But now comes their toughest defensive test of the season — Oklahoma’s Trae Young on Saturday.
10. Kansas (15): The Jayhawks are creeping back up to where they belong with a road win at Stanford. Udoka Azubuike got the better of Stanford’s Reid Travis, going for 24 and 7 while Travis had 12 and four and four fouls. He will need to be huge in their next game — at Texas — where Mo Bamba looms large.
11. Texas A&M (12): The Aggies move up in large part because Miami lost to New Mexico State in Hawaii. But the Aggies could go down after suspending DJ Hogg for three games for a violation of team rules. Give Billy Kennedy credit for still having this team at 11-1 heading into the SEC opener at Alabama with oodles of obstacles. Hogg is the third player to be disciplined this season, with Robert Williams and JJ Caldwell sitting out games last month. Caldwell was out for the Buffalo game, his second suspension, as was TJ Starks.
12. West Virginia (16): Bob Huggins won his 830th game as a head coach and made the cut for eligible candidates for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. So, it was a good week for the Mountaineers as they continue to win — 11 in a row now heading into the Big 12 openers at Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
13. Cincinnati (14): The Bearcats continue to find a second gear, regardless of the competition. Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are the reliable scorers for the Bearcats. Cincinnati is back on track after its two-game blip (against great competition). The American begins with two of three at home, starting with Memphis on New Year’s Eve.
14. North Carolina (7): The Tar Heels looked impressive in dispatching Ohio State in New Orleans over the weekend, but they can’t be unscathed from dropping after falling to Wofford at home. UNC may continue to have these moments where things aren’t clicking against a team that is ready to take advantage and, if so, they will get burned. The most important thing is that Joel Berry II is producing at a high clip with 21, 23 and 19 in the last three games. The ACC begins with a home game against Wake Forest Saturday.
15. Wichita State (17): The Shockers continue their yo-yo movement in the Power 36 by virtue of teams losing and the Shockers for the most part remaining consistent. The loss in Wichita to Oklahoma will age well, with the Sooners becoming a Big 12 title contender and Trae Young blossoming into the best player in the country. The best news for the Shockers is that Markis McDuffie may be back for Friday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast. He told the Wichita Eagle that he’s “so motivated right now. I just can’t wait.’’ McDuffie has missed the first 11 games with a stress fracture in his left foot. Landry Shamet hasn’t been 100 percent healthy and yet the Shockers have still performed at an elite level. Add McDuffie and the Shockers will be all set.
16. Michigan (19): Defense. John Beilein has this team locked in, regardless of the competition. The Wolverines held Alabama A&M to 47 points, Detroit Mercy to 58. Moritz Wagner sat out two games with an ankle injury but Charles Matthews is rolling, scoring 31 in the win. The Wolverines have one more buy game against Jacksonville before it gets real with games at Iowa, Illinois, Purdue at home and then at Michigan State.
17. Miami (8): The Hurricanes were the latest to go down from the unbeaten ranks, losing to New Mexico State in the semifinals of the Diamond Head Classic. The Hurricanes shot 2 of 18 against the Aggies (who have played extremely well with wins over Illinois in Chicago and sweeps of rivals New Mexico and UTEP). Miami finished the trip with a win against Middle Tennessee Monday night. Miami starts the ACC with three of four on the road beginning at Pitt on Saturday.
18. Virginia (20): The pack line defense is throttling up teams at the lower level as Savannah State and Hampton couldn’t crack 48. The Cavs will start out the ACC with Boston College Saturday. Virginia’s offense, outside of a few blips at Wisconsin and West Virginia, has been clicking at a high clip.
19. Tennessee (21): The Vols rebounded extremely well after losing a home game to North Carolina that was within reach. The Vols had a convincing win at Wake Forest. Tennessee had all five starters in double figures, made 10 3s and was extremely efficient in getting to the free-throw line and converting. It was as solid a win as you can have on the road. Tennessee will start the SEC at Arkansas, in what should be a high-level, late-possession game.
20. Texas (NR): The Longhorns have had consistently good play from Andrew Jones (pre injury), Dylan Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach. But no one on the Longhorns can be as much a difference maker when he’s on as Mo Bamba. He was on in the win over Alabama in Birmingham with 17 points, 11 boards and five blocks in the 15-point victory. Bamba can be the difference if he can handle the physicality of Udoka Azubuike in the Big 12 opener against Kansas Friday.
21. Gonzaga (18): The Zags don’t hesitate playing on the road, that’s how they built the program. And that’s why losing at San Diego State won’t hurt more than a few spots. The Aztecs have shown they have the ability to compete at a high level, at least near the top of the Mountain West. One potential huge bright spot for the Zags was the sudden outburst of scoring from Killian Tillie against IUPUI. He scored 27 points and was 10 of 10 from the free-throw line. The WCC begins against Pacific Thursday and Santa Clara Saturday.
22. Rhode Island (24): The Rams have established themselves as a tough out at home, exactly what they need to do to win the A-10. The Rams have won six in a row at home and are getting the diversity of scoring necessary. Each game it seems there is a different player they can lean on — Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson, Jeff Dowtin and my favorite Fatts Russell. E.C. Matthews is back but his minutes are being managed with 10 against Charleston and 16 against Iona. Florida Gulf Coast is on tap before the A-10 begins Saturday against George Mason.
23. St. Bonaventure (36): The Bonnies made their debut in the Power 36 last week and didn’t disappoint with arguably their most important win in years. The Bonnies won in overtime at Syracuse with Jaylen Adams scoring 23 points in the win. Adams could end up being the MVP of the A-10. St. Bonaventure has wins over Maryland and now Syracuse on the road. That’s at-large resume worthy. Up next for the Bonnies is an improving UMass to start the A-10. There’s no reason to believe the Bonnies will fade anytime soon. This team is in it to win the league.
Mission Accomplished pic.twitter.com/1Zklw04HNR— Bonnies MBB (@BonniesMBB) December 23, 2017
24. Arkansas (25): Bud Walton is back. I’m not sure it ever left as a destination for great basketball environments (one of the few bucket list sites that I haven’t been to yet in nearly three decades). But Arkansas announced the SEC opener against Tennessee is sold out. This is great news not just for the SEC, but for the sport. Arkansas has to be back. The sport needs places where basketball is king to rise. The Hogs are rolling, winning four in a row, including the home wins over Colorado State and Minnesota with over 90 points in each. Cal State Bakersfield comes calling before the Tennessee game so the offensive barrage should continue.
25. Clemson (30): The Tigers defense has been on lock down of late. The best performance was against South Carolina, limiting the Gamecocks to 48 points. Marcquise Reed has been producing on the offensive end, scoring 25 points with four 3s in the win over the rival Gamecocks. So, now, let’s see if the Tigers have the staying power needed to finally breakthrough in the ACC. The schedule is favorable for a good start in the ACC with two games against NC State, a road game at Boston College and a home game against Louisville on tap.
26. Kentucky (9): This may draw some flak. But losing to an unranked team has to force a team to drop. Yes, it was still UCLA, but the Wildcats didn’t play their A game and other teams have been bouncing in and out of the Power 36 and up and down the poll as well. Kentucky coach John Calipari told NCAA.com last week that he was still figuring out how to play with this group. It is a young, inexperienced lot. And they are still looking for a consistent leader. But it’s a group that is getting better together and will shine in the SEC. Calipari understands they would lose games in the SEC, in large part because the league is deeper and stronger. That will ultimately help the Wildcats prepare for the NCAA tournament.
27. Creighton (31): The Bluejays have won five in a row since dropping the road game at Gonzaga. Now comes the test to see where this team really stands with a Big East opener Thursday at Seton Hall and and a home game against Providence. Marcus Foster is a proven winner and gives the Bluejays an anchor to bail them out when a possession goes awry.
28. Texas Tech (32): The Red Raiders defense has been a staple all season, making it increasingly difficult for lower-level teams to score. Now comes the test of trying to deal with the length and athleticism of Baylor in the Big 12 opener Friday before going to Big 12 favorite Kansas. The Red Raiders are NCAA worthy, but will need to win the right games in the Big 12 to ensure the bid is won.
29. Florida State (26): The Seminoles have one loss — on a late possession against Oklahoma State on a neutral court. That’s it. But the schedule — once again by the ACC — is brutal. Seriously. The Seminoles had a six-game stretch last season that was nasty, too, against all ranked teams. Florida State opens at Duke, hosts North Carolina, and plays at Miami in the first three games. If Florida State is going to be in contention for the league title they will have to survive this stretch with at least one win.
Perfect time to wish our fans a Happy Holidays!! pic.twitter.com/ao6BDkHm6J— FSU Men's Hoops (@FSUHoops) December 21, 2017
30. Seton Hall (27): The Pirates can be given a pass for losing at Rutgers. Rivalry game. Road game. Huge game for the Scarlet Knights. But then they returned to beating the teams they should in Wagner and Manhattan. Now comes the Big East with home games against Creighton and St. John’s. Seton Hall needs to establish Newark as a no-go zone for opponents. They have the talent, the options and the defense to get it done.
31. Houston (29): Here’s how you know the Cougars are legit this season: The road loss at LSU was a blip and they didn’t lose games after that because of it. Instead, they won, taking out Prairie View A&M easily and then more importantly dispatching Providence at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., a neutral-site game much closer to the Friars. Houston needs to establish itself as a real American contender right away at South Florida and against Temple before the showdown at Wichita State on Jan. 4.
32. SMU (34): The Mustangs haven’t lost in Dallas. Good. SMU needs to continue the dominance to ensure that it can stay in the AAC race throughout the season. Getting Ben Emelogu II to be a go-to scorer (five 3s against Cal Poly) will only increase the chances. The 23-point win over Boise State was as much a statement as the Mustangs have made this season. Expect SMU to get off to a great start in the conference with home games against UCF and USF this weekend.
33. Iowa State (35): The Cyclones are no longer in rebuilding mode. This team can compete for an NCAA spot. They have won nine games in a row, including beating in-state rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa. The Big 12 starts with home games against Kansas State and Texas, a chance to shoot up to the top of the standings. The balance in scoring is also by class with a senior (Donovan Jackson) and freshman (Lindell Wigginton) as the 1-2 scorers.
34. Baylor (NR): The Bears are back in the Power 36 and ready to climb. Senior Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had himself a game. Wow. The 7-footer scored 31 points and grabbed 20 boards and had five blocks in a win over Savannah State. OK, so he had a height and length advantage. But if Lual-Acuil can be a shot blocker, shot alterer, and inside presence then the Bears can be back in the mix for a top four finish in the Big 12. The conference begins at Texas Tech and then hosting TCU.
35. USC (NR): The Trojans are back in the Power 36 after a few weeks away. USC failed to win games at SMU and against Texas A&M and missed out on a chance for a quality win against Oklahoma at Staples Center earlier in the month. And while the competition wasn't as stiff, the Trojans clearly have improved in winning the Diamond Head Classic Monday night in Honolulu. Bennie Boatright was sensational, as in all-American type good for a game, with 33 points, including six 3s in the title game win over New Mexico State. The Aggies are no joke, after beating Miami in Honolulu and earlier in the month knocking off Illinois in Chicago. The Trojans open Pac-12 play with the Washington schools before going to the Bay Area. If they are going to be a real contender in the Pac-12, they need to go 4-0 or 3-1 in these first four.
36. Auburn (NR): Down in numbers but not in effort or production, the Tigers are 11-1 heading into the final non-conference game against Cornell before starting the SEC at Tennessee. This has been one of Bruce Pearl’s most challenging seasons and so far he has handled it very well. A bid is in his grasp if the Tigers can clean up at home and steal some road wins. That’s doable, something that was hardly predicted in the preseason.