Here’s the latest AP Top 25, which features the same top four as last week but chaos below that:
|2||Michigan State (19)||1,565||26-3||2|
We’ll start with Duke, which rose to No. 5 thanks to impressive wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils are 3-0 without Marvin Bagley III, who’s sidelined with a knee sprain. Bagley is one of the best players in the country, so what gives?
This was always about defense, and Duke has looked outstanding on that end in the last three games. At the time of Bagley’s injury, the Blue Devils were ranked 79th in defensive efficiency. That number has sunk all the way to 43rd, a massive improvement in such a short stretch.
It’s fair to wonder whether Duke’s defense has been better because Bagley is out, or if something just clicked with the rest of the team. The most likely scenario: there’s some truth in both.Javin DeLaurier isn’t on Bagley’s planet as an offensive player, but he’s arguably the best defender on the team – DeLaurier is playing way more with Bagley sidelined. There’s also the idea that Bagley is a center masquerading as a power forward for the betterment of the team – so while Wendell Carter is a similarly awesome player, the Bagley-Carter pairing is unnatural. They put up monster numbers playing together, sure. But they live in the same offensive territory and are both offense-first guys. In fact, every player in Duke’s usual starting lineup is offensive-minded – and for good reason! They’re all really talented on that end! But some lineup diversity is healthy, and that’s what DeLaurier brings.
Bagley wasn’t the worst defender in the starting five, though, so it’s more complex than that. Duke has clearly fared better in zone than man-to-man, and Mike Krzyzewski is no longer fighting that like he was earlier in ACC play. The Blue Devils have mostly utilized a 2-3 during this stretch, and it’s working. Duke held Clemson, likely a 4-seed or higher in the NCAA tournament, to 23 second half points on Sunday.
If the defensive surge is real, Duke is the favorite to win the national championship. But we need to see it for more than three games; we also need to see what that unit looks like once Bagley returns. That said, the arrow is pointing up in Durham.
MORE: Andy Katz's Power 36
Another blueblood that’s experienced turbulence, Kansas, shot up in the rankings. The Jayhawks check in at No. 8 after wins over Iowa State and West Virginia.
Kansas is in the hunt for a 1-seed and has a great chance to extend its incredible Big 12 title streak. The Jayhawks probably don’t look like a 1-seed when you watch them – they don’t have a top-10 unit on either side of the floor – but considering the current college basketball landscape, there’s something to be said for winning in relatively (when you consider past KU teams, anyway) ugly fashion. Devonte’ Graham isn’t Frank Mason, but he’s still an outstanding point guard. The Jayhawks lack depth, but the starting five is strong -- Svi Mykhailiuk was overhyped as a young prospect but has become underrated. Kansas shoots nearly 40 percent from 3 and is quietly improving on defense.
The Feb. 24 matchup against Texas Tech is going to be huge. It’s in Lubbock. If Kansas wins, it could find itself on the 1-line once again.
Some other notes: the top four (rightfully) remained the same. Considering all the chaos beneath No. 4 Xavier, no team did enough to jump the Musketeers despite their loss to Villanova. North Carolina is playing its best ball of the year, and the Tar Heels are up to 10th for their efforts. Roy Williams’ five-out offensive attack looks nothing like the past two North Carolina teams, but UNC is scary on offense. We’ll see if the lack of size comes back to bite the Heels in the end.Wichita State’s win over Cincinnati had big implications for both teams – the Shockers vaulted six spots to No. 13; the Bearcats fell six spots to No. 11. The question in the AAC: do you have more faith in Wichita State fixing its defense, or Cincinnati figuring out its offense against quality teams? The Bearcats just don’t seem to have enough shot-creation. Houston, which checks in at No. 23, might be the scariest AAC squad in March.
Michigan jumped five spots to No. 17 -- keep an eye on the Wolverines. John Beilein is arguably the best offensive coach in America, but his team ranks 20th on defense, the best mark of the Beilein era. If Moritz Wagner finds another gear like he did last March, the Wolverines are a stealth Final Four contender.
We’re less than three weeks away from Selection Sunday. Madness has been happening all year, but the stakes are about to ramp up. Brace yourselves.