Final exams and the holidays are over.
Now it gets real.
Conference play will start to provide the separation needed between the pretenders and contenders for bids.
The changes in the polls are minimal — for now. But the back side of the Power 36 will have a rotation of teams for the foreseeable future. Oh, and Nebraska is back in the poll after a further re-examination (yes, Huskers fans: I’m listening!!!).
1. Michigan (1): The Wolverines are 13-0 (2-0 Big Ten) and continue to look like one of the best defensive teams in the country, limiting their last two opponents to 50 and 52 points, respectively.
2. Tennessee (2): The Volunteers are playing at a Final Four-type clip. This team is all in, and while depth at guard is a bit of an issue, not much else is at this juncture. The SEC opens for the Vols against Georgia.
3. Virginia (3): Virginia continues to swallow up the opponents, limiting William & Mary to 40 points while scoring 72 itself. Virginia hosts Marshall on Monday and then starts the defense of its ACC crown by playing host to Florida State.
4. Duke (4): The Blue Devils were off for the holidays after the comeback win over Texas Tech. Duke opens the ACC against Clemson before going on the road for two in a row.
5. Nevada (5): The Wolf Pack have now won seven games away from home after beating Utah in Salt Lake City. The Wolf Pack open up against the one team that could be a pest in the Mountain West in Utah State.
6. Michigan State (6):The Spartans have one of the top 1-2-3 options in Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford. The Spartans are sharing the ball exceptionally well (No. 1 in the country in assists) and defending well. Their Big Ten schedule starts with Northwestern and at Ohio State this week.
7. Kansas (7): Udoka Azubuike is back and the Jayhawks blitzed Eastern Michigan by 24. The Jayhawks will start to go for their 15th straight Big 12 title by playing Oklahoma and at Iowa State this week.
8. Gonzaga (8): The Zags needed the rest and have played back up to their potential by torching UT Arlington, Denver and North Alabama over the past two weeks. CSU Bakersfield is the next guarantee game before the WCC opens against Santa Clara (and hopefully a return from Killian Tillie).
9. Kentucky (9): The Wildcats have won three in a row since the loss to Seton Hall in overtime. And in each one of them they have been the dominant team. The SEC begins at Alabama on Saturday.
10. Texas Tech (10): The Red Raiders had the easy game necessary against Rio Grande Valley after the loss to Duke. The Red Raiders open the Big 12 at West Virginia.
11. Houston (11): The Cougars are 13-0 and playing as well as any team in the country. They will get tested, though, as they start AAC play against Tulsa and Memphis at home this week.
12. NC State (13): The Wolfpack is one of the surprise teams in the country, now 12-1. NC State will get a better read on its progress at Miami and against North Carolina to open the ACC.
13. Indiana (14): The Hoosiers have had a long break and should be ready for the Big Ten run by playing host to Illinois this week before going to Michigan for a showdown on Sunday.
14. Marquette (15): The Golden Eagles have been one of the more enjoyable offensive teams to watch. Markus Howard has been scorching hot of late, dishing out 26 in the win over Southern. Now, the new Big East favorites play at St. John’s on Tuesday, fresh off the Red Storm losing at the buzzer to Seton Hall.
15. Ohio State (16): The Buckeyes are once again the shocker entering the New Year, exceeding expectations under Chris Holtmann. The Buckeyes are going to be a real threat in the Big Ten. They get a chance to prove it against Michigan State in Columbus on Saturday.
16. North Carolina (17): The Tar Heels bounced back after the loss to Kentucky by dispatching Davidson by 22. Cameron Johnson has become the go-to scorer of late, leading the Tar Heels in scoring in the past four games. Harvard and at Pitt are on tap this week.
17. Florida State (19): The Seminoles didn’t play last week after beating Saint Louis before the break. Florida State plays Winthrop before the showdown at Virginia to open the ACC on Saturday.
18. Seton Hall (20): I’ve fallen for this Seton Hall team. The Pirates have scheduled for a bid and played exceptionally well the past month, beating Kentucky at MSG, winning at Maryland and opening the Big East with a last-second win over St. John’s, courtesy of a 3-pointer from former walk-on Shavar Reynolds. The Pirates go to Xavier and DePaul this week.
19. Oklahoma (21): The Sooners haven’t played since winning at Northwestern in overtime on Dec. 21. So, what’s next? How about opening the Big 12 at Kansas!
20. Buffalo (22): The Bulls continue to win on the road — save the one game at Marquette — by knocking off Canisius. The Bulls enter the MAC at Eastern Michigan as the overwhelming favorite to win the league. But don’t sleep on Toledo (see below).
21. Auburn (23): The Tigers dispatched North Florida and enter SEC play 11-2. They open the SEC against upstart Ole Miss before hosting Georgia. Let’s see if Auburn can duplicate the SEC co-title run of a year ago by beating the teams it should early and often.
22. TCU (24): The Frogs won the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. TCU continues to have the look of a team that can not just get to the NCAA tournament, but finally win a game for the first time since 1987.
23. Iowa (25): The Hawkeyes have been coasting at home the month of December since losing at Michigan State in the second Big Ten game. Now, let’s see where Iowa stands when it goes back on the road to restart Big Ten play at Purdue.
24. Minnesota (26): Eric Curry is back, and the Gophers should start looking like the team projected to be a Big Ten top-four contender. If the Gophers can stay healthy, then they will be a tough out. But they’ve got a rough start to the league — at Wisconsin on Thursday.
25. Nebraska (NR): The Huskers come back into the Power 36 after James Palmer Jr. continued his tear through the non-conference position of the schedule (30, 29, 23 and 16) in the last four games. Nebraska reopens the Big Ten at Maryland and at Iowa.
26. Virginia Tech (28): The Hokies are 11-1 and should climb to 14-1 if all goes well before their showdown at Virginia on Jan. 15 (Notre Dame, Boston College at home and at Georgia Tech are on deck before the Cavs).
27. Iowa State (30): Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young are back, but the story of the season has been the play of Marial Shayok, the Virginia transfer who shines every time he steps on the court. Iowa State is at Oklahoma State and hosts Kansas to start the Big 12.
28. Mississippi State (31): The Bulldogs have answered the call in each outing since losing to Arizona State in Las Vegas in November. Mississippi State opens the SEC at South Carolina before hosting Ole Miss.
29. Cincinnati (32): The Bearcats are the second-best team in the AAC heading into conference play. Defense has been the staple for the Bearcats, save one 70-point opposing outing against Mississippi State.
30. Wisconsin (18): The Badgers had to go to Western Kentucky due to a deal that was a part of a home-and-home between the two schools' football teams. The deal was struck when Greg Gard was an interim coach. Wisconsin has to watch its defensive numbers during the second half of games. The Badgers have actually played more road/neutral games (seven) than home games (six) through the non-conference. The Big Ten reset starts with Minnesota and then at Penn State.
31. Villanova (33): This might be too low for the Wildcats, but Villanova nearly lost three in a row before clicking a second gear to run past UConn. On tap for the perennial favorites to begin their Big East slate is DePaul, then at Providence.
32. St. John’s (27): The officiating controversy — an inadvertent whistle — giving Seton Hall a second-chance to hit a game-winner doesn’t cover up for blowing a 14-point lead. The Red Storm were on the road, but still should have won. Let’s see how the Red Storm handle Marquette in a headline matchup Tuesday before going to Georgetown.
33. Arizona State (12): The Sun Devils had to take a deep drop after losing to once-struggling Princeton at home — just a week after beating No. 1 Kansas. The Sun Devils need to dispatch Utah and Colorado to open the Pac-12 to assume the position of favorite.
34. Missouri (35): The Tigers followed up the neutral-site win against Illinois in St. Louis by taking care of Morehead State. Missouri has a chance to make a statement by beating Tennessee at home to open the SEC.
35. LSU (36): The Tigers have won five of six since falling at Houston. The Tigers will be a tough out in the SEC. The Tigers open with three of five at home and should be in the top half of the standings deep into January.
36: Florida (NR): The Gators put together one of the most impressive starts to a game in a long, long time, opening up a 21-0 lead on Butler. The Gators avenged a Battle 4 Atlantis loss to Butler in November. Florida lost a close four-point game to Michigan State at home, but has spun off three in a row since then and opens the SEC with two of three at home, including a home game against Tennessee that could be a difference maker.
Team of the week
TCU: The Horned Frogs won the Diamond Head Classic with wins over Charlotte, Bucknell and Indiana State. While those three wins may not move the needle, they were still significant in showing how much TCU has improved since losing to Lipscomb on Nov. 20. TCU is healthy, sharing the ball and heads into the Big 12 as one of the contenders for a top-three finish. Alex Robinson might be one of the least discussed lead guards in the country. He is a bucket-getter and a top distributor.
Player of the week
Tyler Herro, Kentucky: The freshman shooting wing scored 24 points in the Wildcats win over rival Louisville. Herro was one of the top players on Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas in August. But he had been overshadowed by Keldon Johnson for most of the first part of the season. Herro’s breakthrough game comes as Kentucky has found its stride since losing in overtime to Seton Hall.
The backup five
Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The ankle is heeled and Azubuike scored 23 points on 10 of 13 shooting in just 20 minutes. He finished with nine boards, two blocks and a steal. Azubuike had missed the past four games, including Kansas’ loss last week at Arizona State.
Aric Holman, Mississippi State: Holman scored 28 points and grabbed eight boards in a convincing 103-81 win over BYU.
Grant Williams, Tennessee: The reigning SEC player of the year scored 25 and grabbed seven boards in a resounding win over Tennessee Tech.
Caleb Martin, Nevada: Martin dished out 33 points and had seven assists in a road win at Utah to help Nevada move to 13-0 before the Mountain West begins.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State: Winston was on fire on 3s against Northern Illinois, making 6 of 7 3s and finishing with 24 points and dishing out seven assists with zero turnovers.
Keep an eye on
Charleston: The Cougars have won nine in a row and are 12-2 overall. The two losses were at Oklahoma State and to LSU. But the Cougars beat Memphis, Rhode Island and won at VCU.
Toledo: Buffalo isn’t the only team to watch out of the MAC. The Rockets are 12-1 and obliterated Penn, 77-45, the same Quakers team that won at New Mexico and knocked off Villanova.
The Pac-12: The league could get only one bid. That’s not a reach. If I had to guess which team could join Arizona State either as an at-large or as the automatic qualifier, I would lean toward Washington because of the Huskies’ experience. Oregon would be my next choice. But I’m not holding my breath. Losses to Santa Clara, Seattle, Princeton and Liberty were the latest to hand the league a black mark over the weekend.