This past week we saw the comeback of a title contender in Kentucky, the clear favorite and savior in the Pac-12 in Arizona State, the reinforcement that Marquette’s Markus Howard is a player of the year candidate and the difficulty of running the table for any team — especially those not in a power league when the marquee non-conference games are always on the road.
Onto the Power 36 where movement in the second and third tiers is the norm:
1. Michigan (1): The Wolverines are holding steady at my No. 1 spot in the Power 36 after continuing to swat away challenges. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis scored 19 points in a win over Air Force as he continues to mount a campaign to be one of the top freshmen in the country. The Wolverines have held four of their past five opponents to under 65 points.
2. Tennessee (2): The Volunteers are hopefully growing on the college basketball fan base. This team is highly likable and a good watch every time out. And it’s time to give a third key player the love he deserves after Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. Lead guard Jordan Bone had five assists and only one turnover to go with 18 points against Wake Forest and chipped in 24 points, 11 assists and just two turnovers against Samford.
Holly jolly highlights 🎄 pic.twitter.com/ZWDGToocgk— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 22, 2018
3. Virginia (3): The Cavs are one of three teams right now that could easily claim the top spot. So this list is really almost like a 1A, 1B, 1C. The Cavaliers haven’t missed a beat since the regular season of a year ago. Virginia continues to throttle teams defensively, save the one 71-point outing from Maryland. Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome are providing the offensive pop.
4. Duke (4): The Blue Devils had to learn how to deal with adversity again — after losing to Gonzaga in Maui. This time it was against a tough-minded, and relentless Texas Tech. Duke hit its second gear, survived Zion Williamson fouling out and rode a sensational game from guard Tre Jones (five assists, six steals and only one turnover) to a big win.
5. Nevada (5): The Wolf Pack have been playing a bit on the edge of late, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This team is going to play in spurts. South Dakota State is no joke and Akron will have moments in the MAC. If Nevada gets past Utah on the road — and it should — then the talk of running the table should begin in a weakened Mountain West.
6. Michigan State (7): The Spartans are defending at a higher clip, distributing the basketball efficiently and getting deeper bench play. One more non-conference game is ahead before the Spartans resume Big Ten play against Northwestern next week.
7. Kansas (6): The Jayhawks looked like they were in control of what would be a monster road win at Arizona State. But the Sun Devils didn’t relent and plucked off the previously undefeated and AP No. 1. Kansas isn’t the same team without Udoka Azubuike. That’s a fact, not an excuse. But Dedric Lawson is doing everything he can to get this team across the finish line. He scored 30 in the road loss.
8. Gonzaga (11): The Zags needed to get home, rest and find their mojo again. They did just that pounding Texas-Arlington and Denver. Two more guaranteed games are on tap for the Zags before the WCC begins. The hope would be that Killian Tillie is back and ready to roar for the road game at San Francisco on Jan. 12.
9. Kentucky (33): Now, finally, we’re seeing the Kentucky projected earlier in the season. Keldon Johnson has settled into being the scoring stud the Wildcats needed. He scored 21 points in the win over North Carolina in Chicago. P.J. Washington has delivered as well, and this team is getting the needed pestering defensive play out of point guard Ashton Hagans (eight steals against the Tar Heels).
10. Texas Tech (8): The Red Raiders had Duke on the ropes until the final stanza of the game. This Texas Tech team has the chops, the defensive presence and a stud in Jarrett Culver to compete once again for a high seed and top-two finish in the Big 12.
11. Houston (13): The Cougars continue to show resiliency. Just think about the schedule — knocking off Oregon, at Oklahoma State, LSU, Saint Louis and Utah State. The Cougars are undefeated and rolling.
12. Arizona State (25): The Sun Devils are the class of the Pac-12. The win over previous AP No. 1 Kansas helps Arizona State skyrocket up the Power 36. The Sun Devils’ schedule has challenged them all over the country — road, neutral and at home.
13. NC State (26): I saw NC State in October. I liked the way they could defend and disrupt. I should have ranked them earlier. This team is legit, knocking off Auburn earlier in the week behind Markell Johnson’s 27 points.
14. Indiana (14): The Hoosiers are defending the way Archie Miller desires, holding teams under 65 points the past two games. And they haven’t been complacent one bit. The Big Ten will be unforgiving. Indiana will play three of the first five on the road against Michigan, Maryland and Purdue.
15. Marquette (15): Marquette beat undefeated Buffalo in a thrilling, crazed atmosphere in Milwaukee. The Eagles had a challenging home slate for the new Fiserv Forum. And they have answered every challenge. Playing at St. John’s on New Year’s Day should be quite the matchup between Markus Howard (45 against the Bulls) and Shamorie Ponds.
16. Ohio State (18): The Buckeyes are once again one of the best stories of the season, much better than projected. Ohio State pulled away from UCLA in Chicago and continues to play with poise and purpose. The Big Ten opener against Michigan State should be telling.
17. North Carolina (10): The Tar Heels are hard to team to figure out. They can look rather pedestrian and lax defensively. Then they can be sensational like they were against Gonzaga. The Tar Heels couldn’t play catch up with Kentucky in Chicago. The schedule doesn’t let up with games against Davidson and Harvard before opening up ACC play on the road at Pitt and NC State.
18. Wisconsin (16): The Badgers beat up on lesser competition this past week, which was much needed after the overtime loss at Marquette. Wisconsin should be tested quite a bit with a road game at Western Kentucky, a type of game that few teams would ever embark on from the Big Ten.
19. Florida State (17): The Seminoles aren’t getting the national spotlight, but this squad has every reason to believe it can be a factor in the ACC again and make a run in March. The win over Saint Louis was yet an impressive performance.
20. Seton Hall (29): Kevin Willard has done a tremendous job with this schedule. The Pirates are willing to play anyone, anywhere and the team is well prepared for the myriad of challenges. The Pirates road win at Maryland sets up the Pirates as one of the best teams out of the Big East to get a bid.
21. Oklahoma (22): The Sooners have played quality competition throughout the non-conference. Oklahoma’s wins over Creighton and at Northwestern provide plenty of evidence that this team is ready for prime time. Drawing Kansas and Texas Tech on the road in two of the first three Big 12 games isn’t ideal, but the Sooners will be fine long term.
22. Buffalo (12): The Bulls ran into Markus Howard and a wild scene at Marquette for their first loss of the season. This came after playing at Syracuse and pulling away from the Orange. Buffalo is a second-weekend potential team in the NCAA tournament. But getting through the MAC is never a walk.
23. Auburn (9): The Tigers took a significant drop in the Power 36, but not because they lost to a bad team. NC State is legit and the game was in Raleigh. But Auburn simply isn’t playing as well right now, squeaking out games against UAB in overtime and Murray State. Tennessee is the best team in the SEC right now, and then it’s Kentucky. Auburn is in a third group.
24. TCU (19): The Horned Frogs are in the midst of the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu and defending at a nasty clip. TCU opens its Big 12 schedule with three of its first five games on the road.
25. Iowa (20): The Hawkeyes have won four in a row after the 0-2 Big Ten start. Iowa should have plenty of momentum heading into the reset of the Big Ten at Purdue next week. The Hawkeyes dropped a bit in the Power 36 in large part because of the weaker competition at home. But don’t mistake that for how strong this team is starting to look.
26. Minnesota (23): The Gophers only dropped because of other results ahead of them, but this is a team that has the potential to be in the top 25 on a regular basis. The Big Ten opening slate at Wisconsin and at home against Maryland will tell the tale of the progression of the Gophers.
27. St. John’s (21): The Red Storm could be the most talented and best team in the Big East, but it’s hard to tell with a weak slate of games. When will the Red Storm and the rest of the Big East know? Probably Saturday when undefeated St. John’s opens the Big East at rival Seton Hall.
28. Virginia Tech (24): The Hokies have taken care of business, save a one-point loss at Penn State, which is more than acceptable. Virginia Tech should get off to a banner start in the ACC with two home games and a road trip to Georgia Tech before a showdown at Virginia.
29. Louisville (28): The Cardinals have won six of seven with the only loss being at Indiana. Kentucky is up next Saturday for Chris Mack’s first rivalry game in the Commonwealth. This should be something special yet again.
30. Iowa State (31): Lindell Wigginton is back and the Cyclones are going to be in the thick of the Big 12 race. Wigginton scored 15 points in 18 minutes in the win over Eastern Illinois.
31. Mississippi State (32): The Bulldogs have won eight in a row, notably beating Clemson, Cincinnati and this past week Wofford. BYU is next before the SEC begins and the schedule is favorable in the first few games.
32. Cincinnati (NR): UCLA is struggling, but that doesn’t matter. The Bearcats were dominant in the win over the Bruins because of Cincinnati finding its groove offensively. Jarron Cumberland scored 25 in the win over UCLA.
33. Villanova (35): The Wildcats were looking like they were going to be bounced out of the Power 36 but then pulled away from UConn in the second half at Madison Square Garden. Marquette is the favorite in the Big East now, but Nova isn’t going to fade.
34. Butler (36): The Bulldogs bounced back following the buzzer-beating loss to Indiana with a dominant second-half performance against UC Irvine. Butler has one more non-conference game at Florida that should shed some light on where the Bulldogs stand.
35. Missouri (NR): The Tigers have finally found their way without Jontay Porter. The Tigers have confidence, moxie and toughness that will serve them well in the SEC. Mizzou knocked off Xavier and Illinois convincingly.
36. LSU (NR): The Tigers have had quite a week. LSU dominated previously undefeated Furman after beating Saint Mary’s on a neutral court. The Tigers will be a major factor in the SEC.
The Weekly Honors
Team of the Week
Arizona State: The Sun Devils ended the week in college basketball with the game of the week by knocking off No. 1 Kansas. The Sun Devils have created a tremendous atmosphere under Bobby Hurley. Now, the chore will be to continue this roll in the Pac-12. They should be able to. They are clearly the best in the league and actually may be the only team in the field if the bracket were put out this week.
Player of the week
Markus Howard, Jr., Marquette: Big game Markus shows up every night. Howard scored 40, yes 40, in the second half to finish with 45 in an epic 103-85 victory over previously undefeated Buffalo. Howard was 12-of-25 from the field, 9-of-13 on 3s, 12-of-12 on free throws, dished out four assists and plucked five boards. Howard is a must-see talent and right now is the favorite for Big East player of the year (yes, over Shamorie Ponds of St. John’s). Howard has scored 45 in two of the three biggest home games for the Eagles (Kansas State and Buffalo). He only scored 27 in the rivalry home overtime win against Wisconsin. Markus shows up — and steals the show.
Tremont Waters, LSU: Waters is one of the most underrated guards in the country. He put up 20 points and dished out seven assists in the win over Furman.
Jordan Geist, Missouri: Geist rose to the occasion against Illinois in the Braggin’Rights game with 20 points and seven assists despite major calf pain.
Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Powell scored 27 points in a road win at Maryland, one of the most significant wins for the Big East on the road this season.
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota: It’s time Murphy is considered an all-American player. He is a double-double machine. He scored a combined 50 points and 34 rebounds in two games. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Markell Johnson, NC State: He scored 27, making 9 of 15 shots, 5 of 8 3s in a 78-71 victory over Auburn. The Wolfpack will be an upper division team in the ACC. Book it.
Most important win
Kentucky over North Carolina: Kentucky now has the look of a team that could compete for the title. The Wildcats were beaten in overtime at Seton Hall, but didn’t play poorly. They have steadily progressed since the Duke loss and are primed to challenge Tennessee for the top spot in the SEC. The loss to Seton Hall is not looking bad at all as the Pirates improve daily. Kentucky’s win over the Tar Heels is the neutral-court, high-level win the Wildcats needed this month.
Kentucky 80, North Carolina 72.— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) December 23, 2018
The highlights ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/thmNduNDTH
The Pac-12: Arizona State is the one team in the Pac-12 that deserves to be in the field. The rest of the league continues to struggle and stumble toward conference play. The results this past week were yet another example of the league failing to provide quality wins. UCLA, USC, Oregon, Utah, Stanford, Washington State, Washington, Arizona, Oregon State, Cal and Colorado have all consistently whiffed in the past few weeks when opportunities for quality wins arose.
Keep an eye on
Missouri: Cuonzo Martin has a gritty crew that doesn’t back down. The Braggin’Rights win over Illinois was the way this team can/should play going forward. The Tigers were in attack mode from the outset and found a variety of ways to score. The Tigers will end up being a tough out in the SEC. And if Mizzou gets to the NCAA tournament he should be on the list for coach of the year.
Oklahoma: The overtime win at Northwestern is another example that the Sooners are a legit upper-division team in the Big 12. Oklahoma showed tremendous poise down the stretch, especially after the Wildcats had a chance to win it in regulation.