The North Carolina-Gonzaga game told us one thing: The field of contenders isn’t shrinking, it’s expanding.
There are tiers of teams who should be in the running for a Final Four and a top four seed. But the difference between them is razor thin. Make shots and play in a comfortable environment, and suddenly a pretender can look like a contender again.
But the rotation of teams seeking the top spot in the Power 36 — and more importantly on the top lines in the NCAA tournament selection — is still a rather exclusive club. There is time to crack the clique. But the group of teams hovering near or at the top aren’t going to allow newcomers easily.
Final exams are over. Double-session practices around the holiday break are forthcoming.
Bring on the debate. Here are my updated Power 36 rankings:
1. Michigan (1): There is no reason to knock the Wolverines from the perch. I’m still all in on this team being the most complete team.
2. Tennessee (2): The Vols are closing fast on the Wolverines. Tennessee has complete buy-in and a stud in Admiral Schofield, who doesn’t back down from any challenge.
3. Virginia (4): Can we fast forward to the two Duke games already? Virginia is primed to prove it can be an ACC champ again.
4. Duke (5): The Blue Devils probably had no idea that Texas Tech would be this good when they scheduled the Red Raiders for a New York home-away-from home game. But the timing of this game is perfect to challenge the Blue Devils before the ACC.
5. Nevada (6): The Wolf Pack love to play on the edge, and South Dakota State pushed Nevada enough to give it a needed challenge. Nevada hasn’t wilted yet.
6. Kansas (7): Kansas had to fight off a pesky Villanova in the final minute to remain unbeaten. I know I’m in the minority with this ranking, but the Jayhawks aren’t playing as well as they were earlier with Udoka Azubuike. Win at Arizona State and the Jayhawks will climb higher.
.@Vicklovekicks and @DSmoove1_2many we’re the power duo in yesterday’s matinee matchup against Villanova! The win gave us our first 9-0 start since the 2010-11 season.— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) December 16, 2018
RECAP ➡️ https://t.co/o8RRJQCZgS pic.twitter.com/8Iix4KdOg6
7. Michigan State (9): Tom Izzo wasn’t pleased with the second-half leadership/defense against Green Bay Sunday night. But the game did show how deep the Spartans can be once their freshmen are ready to handle elite competition.
8. Texas Tech (10): The Red Raiders are primed for a monster showdown with Duke. The primer part of the schedule is over. Texas Tech is ready for this challenge.
9. Auburn (8): The Tigers had to go to overtime to knock off UAB. This was a wild, budding rivalry game so the Tigers get a pass for it being closer than it probably should have been based on comparable talent.
10. North Carolina (26): The Tar Heels are the latest team to go through a spike in the rankings. They have looked a bit lost (see at Michigan) but when locked in can run/score with any team in the country. Let’s see if they can duplicate it against Kentucky in Chicago in some form.
11. Gonzaga (3): The Zags are tired. Josh Perkins doesn’t get a significant blow with Geno Crandall hurt. Killian Tillie won’t be back until mid-January likely. This team will be fine and a title contender in March. The grueling portion of their schedule has ended. Not sure how many teams would have survived this slate with only two losses while missing a starter and key reserve.
12. Buffalo (11): The Bulls got the season sweep of Southern Illinois. Now the second phase of testing begins with road games at Syracuse and Marquette. Sweep or split and the Bulls are going to be well on their way toward locking in a bid before the MAC begins.
13. Houston (15): The Cougars have tended to play well from behind. They probably should chill on putting themselves in this position. But comebacks to beat LSU and Saint Louis make the Cougars the team to beat in the American.
14. Indiana (17): The Hoosiers got a buzzer beater to knock off Butler and now have the look of a top three or at the very least top four Big Ten contender. They have shown tremendous resilience each time out.
15. Marquette (13): I was high on the Eagles at the beginning of the season as the team that could finish second to Villanova. I’m starting to believe Marquette may just be the best team in the Big East.
16. Wisconsin (14): Ethan Happ came back with a purpose: to lead the Badgers back to the dance and possibly be the Big Ten player of the year. He’s on track to pull off both.
17. Florida State (16): The Seminoles are resembling the team of a year ago, looking like a squad that’s only going to get better in March and be a tough out.
18. Ohio State (19): The Buckeyes are once again the surprise team in the country. It’s time to start buying whatever Chris Holtmann is selling.
19. TCU (20): The Horned Frogs just needed to get healthy. The backcourt of Alex Robinson and Jaylen Fisher is going to be difficult to defend.
20. Iowa (21): If Tyler Cook continues to dominate his position, the Hawkeyes could make a strong push to finish anywhere from 3-6 in the Big Ten.
21. St. John’s (21): Shamorie Ponds is doing his part. The Red Storm are winning games late. It’s too bad the schedule didn’t turn out to be stronger (there is that Duke game looming in Durham). We’ll know about the Red Storm’s staying power probably a month into the Big East season.
22. Oklahoma (23): Did anyone really believe the Sooners were going to go backwards? No Trae Young just meant Lon Kruger had to redistribute the scoring. The Sooners smacked around USC and are primed for an upper-division Big 12 finish.
23. Minnesota (24): The Gophers are hopeful to be whole here soon. When they get Eric Curry back in the lineup and he’s not rusty, the ceiling is high for the Gophers to be one of the teams vying to finish 3-6 in the Big Ten.
24. Virginia Tech (25): The Hokies have the feel of a team that won’t be too high or too low. They’re going to be in the NCAA tournament with a chance to win a game. Solid.
25. Arizona State (32): The Sun Devils can skyrocket up this list if they can complete the SEC sweep by winning at Vanderbilt after knocking off Georgia and then taking out Kansas at home. Love Bobby Hurley’s attitude in scheduling. This is the best team in the Pac-12 right now.
26. NC State (NR): Welcome to the Power 36! The Wolfpack have one loss — at Wisconsin. The rest of the schedule wasn’t as daunting, but the Wolfpack are winning and when they swarm they will make life difficult for any ACC opponent.
27. Nebraska (27): The Huskers are winning games they didn’t last season — non-conference games away from home. The one blemish was a Texas Tech beatdown in Kansas City. The Big Ten loss at Minnesota is more than acceptable.
28. Louisville (28): Chris Mack has done a marvelous job of getting the Cardinals to be all in. Louisville will be up for the fight in each outing in the ACC. I’m intrigued to see how his first Louisville-Kentucky rivalry game unfolds.
29. Seton Hall (29): The Pirates are going to have sneaky good selection numbers. Kevin Willard challenged his team with a strong slate of games. Knocking off Rutgers may not move the needle, but it’s a win over a Big Ten team that will have shelf life.
30. Furman (30): The Paladins keep winning, which is something Radford wasn’t able to do after pulling off an upset or two. Furman could be an interesting test case for the committee if its able to run the table or finish the Southern with a max of one or two losses.
31. Iowa State (31): The Cyclones still aren’t healthy. But once Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young are back at full strength then this will be one of the tougher teams to punch out in the Big 12. Oh, and they will be back in the tournament.
32. Mississippi State (32): The Bulldogs took care of Cincinnati at home. And with Arizona State playing well, the loss to the Sun Devils in Las Vegas is looking better and better. The Bulldogs are assuming their projected place as a top four-team in the SEC.
33. Kentucky (NR): The Wildcats probably should have been in the Power 36 last week after losing in overtime to Seton Hall. But they didn’t have the resume win. Utah won’t do it for Kentucky since the Utes are in a rebuild. But at least Kentucky looked the part and played as well offensively at times as it has this season. Kentucky can still be a major player before season’s end.
34. Maryland (34): The Terps are going to be in the NCAA tournament. I feel it. I’m convinced of it. They will win high-level games in the Big Ten. They just need time.
35. Villanova (12): The Wildcats lost to Penn at home and then put up a great fight at Kansas. I know they’re better than 35, but losing two games in the same week had to push them further down. This Nova team has flaws, but the Big East still has to go through them, even if Marquette and Seton Hall looked stronger the past two weeks.
36. Butler (NR): The Bulldogs were one possession away from getting their signature win of the season. But alas, it didn’t happen and the Hoosiers went home happy. Kamar Baldwin is too good to let the Bulldogs slide. Butler will be in the mix in the top half of the Big East and burrowing for a bid.
Team of the Week
The Tar Heels looked like a title contender by stapling 103 points on Gonzaga. Now, they did give up 90 in a high-possession affair. But UNC can compete for the top in the ACC if it can score and force teams to chase them all night. The win was a season-changing victory for the Tar Heels.
Player of the Week
Admiral Schofield, Tennessee
Schofield followed up his 30-point performance to knock off No. 1 Gonzaga last Sunday in Phoenix with a 29-point, 11-rebound effort in a spirited, rivalry win for the Volunteers at Memphis this weekend. Schofield’s teammate Grant Williams was the SEC player of the year last season. The trophy may just stay in Knoxville but with a different name this season.
Dedric Lawson, Kansas: The Memphis transfer had 28 and 12 as the go-to guy for the Jayhawks in their home win over Villanova, avenging last year's national semifinal loss to the Wildcats.
Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Few players have moved up from the fourth option to the first as seamlessly as Powell. He scored 28 in the rivalry win over Rutgers.
B.J. Stith, Old Dominion: Bryant Stith’s son is tearing it up for the Monarchs. The former Virginia star, who is an assistant to former Virginia coach and current ODU coach Jeff Jones, had a front row seat for his son’s 18 and 10 performance in the upset win at Syracuse.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits destroyed poor Savannah State, scoring 139 points. Daum had 37 points and 17 boards. That’s quite a night.
Charles Matthews, Michigan: The senior Wolverine is quietly putting together a solid season, scoring 25 and 10 boards in a gritty win over Western Michigan.
Most important win
Penn over Villanova
The Quakers beat Villanova for the first time since 2002, snapping Nova’s 25-game Big Five win streak. This was critical as a reminder that the Big Five can still produce dramatic finishes and has tremendous relevance in the city. Having Nova dominate wasn’t great for the series in the long term. There needed to be a win, by someone, and Penn got it. The Quakers are going to be one of the favorites in the Ivy again and should be hard to guard if they can get to the NCAA tournament.
The Boilermakers (6-5) have played a tough slate, but haven’t been able to get the quality win/wins necessary prior to the Big Ten. The good news is that there will be more opportunities to do so this season in the league than a year ago. But Carsen Edwards needs more help. He will get it, but it may just take more time. The next few weeks will be critical for Purdue to improve when there is more practice time than game prep.
Keep an eye on
Belmont: The Bruins knocked off UCLA on the road to go along with a sweep of rival Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee State and a win over Illinois State. Belmont lost once — at Green Bay — making the Bruins a frustrating opponent if they can get to the NCAA tournament.
Colorado: The Buffaloes have one loss, to an upstart San Diego. And while Colorado hasn’t looked overly impressive on a nightly basis, the Buffs are still finding ways to win. McKinley Wright IV is one of the best point guards in the country. And he can elevate the Buffs to a top three finish in the Pac-12.