Gonzaga went down Sunday afternoon in Phoenix in the final minute of a frenzied game that had the look and feel of a Final Four.
The Zags, which will lose its No. 1 ranking for now, have played two potential Final Four opponents in Duke and Tennessee — splitting the two games. And Gonzaga isn’t healthy right now, down a starter in Killian Tillie and a backup guard in Geno Crandall. So, let’s just say that the Zags will be well prepped for March. Oh, and the Zags still have to go to North Carolina on Saturday.
For those who will squawk that they won’t be challenged in the WCC, well, you haven’t been paying attention to BYU’s latest surge, San Francisco’s resurgence and the fact that the Zags are a guaranteed big-game opponent every time they go on the road. I know it’s not the Big Ten, ACC or Big 12, but don’t say it’s a walk. Winning on the road, when the opponents circle your game every season as THE game, can be exhausting. Gonzaga will be ready, tested and one of the favorites to get to Minneapolis.
Here’s the deal; I’m looking at the best teams in the country right now. And after the Zags’ loss Sunday, the top team is……..
1. Michigan (3): Michigan is playing like the best team in the country at both ends of the court. The results don’t lie.
2. Tennessee (7): Beating No. 1 in the final seconds and moving up to No. 2 is not a reach. The Vols could have taken out Kansas before losing in OT in New York.
3. Gonzaga (1): Sorry, the Zags aren’t going to drop too far after losing a late-possession, final-minute, neutral-site game to a fellow Final Four favorite.
4. Virginia (2): I know this may come as a shock to Cavs fans but the wins above were more impressive this past week and the Zags can’t be dinged too much for that one loss. I still look at the Cavs as a No. 1 seed at this juncture.
5. Duke (5): The Blue Devils pulled away from lesser competition this past week. I can’t wait to see how this team deals with Texas Tech in New York later this month.
6. Nevada (6): The Wolf Pack are holding steady after a comeback win over Arizona State and essentially a road win against Grand Canyon in Phoenix.
7. Kansas (4): Yes, the Jayhawks dropped by barely beating Stanford and New Mexico State, the former not an NCAA-bound team and the latter out of the WAC. Kansas did beat Tennessee over Thanksgiving weekend, but the depleted Jayhawks (Udoka Azubuike out with an ankle injury) aren’t the same team right now.
8. Auburn (8): The Tigers are holding steady as the top challenger to Tennessee in the SEC.
9. Michigan State (9): The Spartans picked up another win away from home by dispatching Florida. The Spartans will be tested plenty by the time March arrives.
10. Texas Tech (13): I was wrong on the Red Raiders. I was wrong on the Red Raiders. I was wrong on the Red Raiders. They are very, very, very good.
11. Buffalo (11): Road wins. Pounding St. Bonaventure in the Reilly Center, regardless of how good the Bonnies are in a given season, is a solid, solid win.
12. Villanova (14): The. Wildcats are dominating the Big Five portion of the schedule with one left to go. Villanova is also still the team to beat in the Big East.
13. Marquette (19): The Golden Eagles rose to the challenge in their biggest game of the season to date — knocking off rival Wisconsin at home in overtime.
14. Wisconsin (12): The Badgers drop just two spots after losing what would have been another big-time road win. The Badgers are back and will be a top-three contender all season long in the Big Ten.
15. Houston (17): The Cougars' climb is yet another testament to just how good Kelvin Sampson has made this program. This is truly a remarkable turnaround and a major plus for the American. Oh, Houston beat Oklahoma State on the road — another true road win for UH.
16. Florida State (15): The Seminoles took care of UConn in New Jersey and remain one of my sleepers to cause problems in the ACC.
17. Indiana (18): The Hoosiers continue to finish games well (outside of Duke), knocking off rival Louisville.
18. Syracuse (23): The Orange are back whole and Tyus Battle is making money plays, beating old rival Georgetown at home.
19. Ohio State (24): The Buckeyes bolted out of the Big Ten gate with a 2-0 start, pounding Minnesota at home and beating Illinois in Chicago to start conference play.
20. TCU (NR): The Horned Frogs are healthy and have a terrific backcourt with Alex Robinson dishing and Jaylen Fisher burying 3s. This team was hard to judge early, but after crushing Southern Cal it’s easy to see why it is a Big 12 contender.
21. Iowa (32): Maybe I’m biased after watching the Hawkeyes in person against Iowa State. But I saw what they’re capable of at full strength, how they can defend and play with grit. They made me a fan of the potential of this team.
22. St. John’s (33): OK, the Red Storm deserve credit for continuing to win, even if it’s against a weak schedule.
23. Oklahoma (NR): The Sooners had an impressive week in dispatching Notre Dame and Wichita State. The Sooners have the look of an upper-half Big-12 squad.
24. Minnesota (NR): I’m back on the Gophers after they pulled away from Nebraska in impressive fashion. This squad needs to get healthy to be fully judged.
25. Virginia Tech (30): The Hokies have now won three in a row. They’ve got another major test upcoming against Washington.
26. North Carolina (29): The Tar Heels got back to looking more like the Tar Heels in beating Wilmington. How they handle Gonzaga on Saturday at home will go a long way toward seeing the potential of this crew.
27. Nebraska (21): The Huskers lost a lead at Minnesota and collapsed, but then rebounded at home to beat rival Creighton. Nebraska still needs to find that consistent streak on the road.
28. Louisville (26): The Cardinals had a shot to knock off Indiana but fell short. This team has vastly improved since the NIT in New York.
29. Seton Hall (NR): The Pirates were close to beating Louisville at home the previous week, but the epic overtime win over Kentucky should create serious momentum for the Pirates in the Big East.
30. Furman (34): The Paladins keep winning at home and on the road. I know the competition isn’t as grand right now, but this team has a chance to put together a lofty record.
31. Iowa State (16): I realized I had ranked the Cyclones too high. But I was still impressed with them in person. Once this team gets healthy (possibly for Saturday against Drake if Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young are back) then they will be a top-four team in the Big 12.
32. Arizona State (25): The Sun Devils had a shot to knock off Nevada on a neutral court but couldn’t do it. I’m still bullish on the Sun Devils being, perhaps, the Pac-12 team to beat.
33. Mississippi State (NR): It’s time to bring back the Bulldogs after they beat Clemson in Newark. The Bulldogs should resume their rightful place near the top of the SEC.
34. Maryland (27): I’m still high on the young Terps. They beat Loyola Chicago in Baltimore after only losing at Purdue by a deuce.
35. Arkansas (28): The Hogs are still an inexperienced group in key positions. Losing to one-time Conference USA favorite Western Kentucky at home was a reminder that they still have work to do.
36. Cincinnati (NR): Welcome back, Bearcats! Cincinnati has won nine in a row since dropping the opener to Ohio State. The next two games — at Mississippi State and home against UCLA — should be a good indicator as to whether or not the Bearcats climb or stay a bit stagnant.
Team of the week
The Vols knocked off Gonzaga 76-73, dethroning the latest No. 1 team in the country. Tennessee has its core group back, and when Grant Williams can’t be the closer, Admiral Schofield proved he’s more than capable by dropping 30 on the Zags. Tennessee is THE favorite in the SEC now. Playing Memphis on Saturday in a heated rivalry game will be another step for this squad in proving it can push for a top-line seed.
Player of the week
Yoeli Childs, Jr., F, BYU: Childs has scored 31 points in three-straight games. CRAZY. He scored 31 in a loss at Weber State the previous Saturday and then this past week put up 31 each in wins over rivals Utah State and Utah. Childs had five steals and seven boards as well as making all eight free throws in the win over the Aggies. He had 11 boards to go along with the 31 in the win over the Utes. BYU had been struggling, losing three in a row before the wins over Utah State and Utah. The wins don’t just benefit BYU. Potential No. 1 seed Gonzaga needs the Cougars to be relevant and formidable when they meet BYU in the WCC.
The backup five
Amir Coffey, Jr., G, Minnesota: Coffey scored 32 and made 14 of 17 free throws in a critical comeback win over Nebraska. He chipped in a dozen in a home win over Arkansas State.
Tyler Cook, Jr., F, Iowa: Cook put up 26 and 11 in a rivalry win over Iowa State.
Myles Powell, Jr., G, Seton Hall: Powell was sensational in the second half to help the Pirates beat Kentucky at Madison Square Garden Saturday in overtime. He scored 28 points (only three at the half) and made six 3s.
Christian James, Sr., G, Oklahoma: The Sooners don’t have Trae Young, but they’ve got a reliable scorer of late in James. He scored 25 and had 10 boards against Notre Dame and then followed that up with 14 and 13 in the win over Wichita State.
Nick Mayo, Sr., F, Eastern Kentucky: Mayo hit his second game-winning last possession shot of the season, knocking off Northern Kentucky after his shot at the buzzer beat High Point the previous week. Mayo is averaging 24.4 points and 9.2 boards a game.
Most important win
UCLA over Notre Dame: Kris Wilkes hit the game-winner despite massive cramps late Saturday night. The Bruins desperately needed this win after struggling against comparable competition in Las Vegas. UCLA needs to get some momentum to be a real threat to win the Pac-12.
Kansas State: The Wildcats looked like the real challenger to Kansas, but had an awful week losing at Marquette and at Tulsa.
Kentucky: Kentucky will find its way back in the Power 36, possibly as early as next week. But the Wildcats weren’t able to close out Seton Hall and needed a crazy mid-court 3-pointer by Keldon Johnson to send the game into overtime. Kentucky doesn’t have that high-profile win on the schedule yet.
Keep an eye on
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane whiffed on its earlier chances for quality wins against Nevada in Las Vegas and even games against Southern Illinois in Vegas and at Utah. So, beating Oklahoma State and Kansas State at home gives the Golden Hurricane hope that it can truly be an AAC contender.