Conference seasons are in full swing, but it’s not a reach to declare the ACC and Big Ten have two title contenders each already in Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Michigan State.
The Big 12 (Kansas), SEC (Tennessee), WCC (Gonzaga) and maybe the Mountain West (Nevada) all have one for sure. There will be others, and this list is hardly final. But we’re starting to see an elite separation to some degree.
And just when we want to go all in on teams on the edge, they fall flat, creating more potential drama for the selection committee in March when it tries to find the final eight teams in the field.
The next bracket will come later this week and the Power 36 should give a bit of an indication of selection but not necessarily seeding. The power rankings are always a snapshot of the now while the seeding is a projection of the tournament.
Onto the debate:
1. Michigan (1): Rolling. The Wolverines are undefeated at 17-0 and unfazed.
2. Tennessee (2): The Vols are chomping their way through the SEC so far and may be the only team other than Duke with two starting all-Americans.
3. Virginia (3): The Cavaliers are making their competition look like junior varsity squads.
4. Duke (4): The Blue Devils found a way to win in less than three seconds on the road in a hostile environment. That’s what title contenders do.
5. Michigan State (5): The Spartans are dispatching the Big Ten competition almost too easily. Tom Izzo isn’t happy yet, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
6. Gonzaga (6): The Zags are at full strength and looking mighty strong. Killian Tillie and Brandon Clarke might be the top tandem in the country up front.
7. Texas Tech (7): The Red Raiders appear to be the team that can challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title. That’s it.
8. Kansas (11): The Jayhawks leap back into the top 10 after showing how strong they are without Udoka Azubuike (see road win at Baylor).
9. Nevada (12): The Wolf Pack creeps back into the top 10 after disposing of a gritty Fresno State on the road. The loss at New Mexico may have been the wake-up Nevada needed.
10. Virginia Tech (15): The Hokies deserve to be recognized for continuing to slog along after that one loss at Penn State in November. The Hokies have won nine in a row but have to go to Virginia next.
11. Houston (8): The Cougars suffered their first loss of the season last week — at Temple. Houston had a legit shot to win the game in the final seconds. So they can’t fall too far.
12. Ole Miss (28): Why not? The Rebels are 3-0 in the SEC and just beat Auburn and Mississippi State, the latter on the road in a rival game.
13. Kentucky (13): The Wildcats are undefeated at home. Now let’s see how they handle the road again in the SEC with games at Georgia and at Auburn.
14. Maryland (24): The Terps are the hottest team in the Big Ten, not from the stat of Michigan. The frontline of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith is turning into something special.
RELATED: 5 Big Ten games to watch this month
15. Villanova (31): Welcome back to the top 15, defending champs. The Wildcats are once again the team to beat in the Big East.
16. Marquette (29): Markus Howard. Markus Howard. Markus Howard. He’s that good for the Golden Eagles. This team proved plenty with that overtime win at Creighton.
17. Buffalo (25): Time to move the Bulls back up. Buffalo is crushing the competition in the MAC so far.
18. LSU (26): The Tigers have won five in a row and Naz Reid is living up to expectations. He’s a beast inside. LSU has a showdown at Ole Miss this week.
19. North Carolina (16): The Tar Heels are hard to figure. They looked great against NC State and then laid an egg at home against Louisville.
20. NC State (9): The Wolfpack has to slide back after losing at home to the Tar Heels. This is still a team that will contend for a top-three finish in the ACC.
21. Louisville (NR): The Cardinals were downright disappointing at Pitt, but deserve to be ranked after a convincing road win at North Carolina (yes, they are ranked behind the Tar Heels, because of that loss at Pitt in the same week).
22. Auburn (20): The Tigers split the week, but the loss to Ole Miss is hardly looking like a bad loss. Ole Miss is a true contender in the SEC.
23. Oklahoma (19): The Sooners have had the two toughest road games (Kansas and Texas Tech) and lost both. But they just beat TCU at home to stay in the Big 12 race.
24. Iowa (35): The Hawkeyes have won three in a row, finally won a road game at Northwestern and handled Ohio State.
25. UCF (36): The Knights have won seven in a row and are back to looking like my pick to win the American and a sleeper to go deep in March.
26. Temple (NR): The Owls have won six of seven, with the only loss coming at UCF. Fran Dunphy is doing Dunphy things, which means the Owls are poised to make an NCAA tournament run.
27. Florida State (30): The Seminoles were one defensive stop away from knocking off Duke. That puts them up here in the Power 36, but still not nearly as high as AP has had them.
28. Minnesota (23): The Gophers had a disappointing home loss to Maryland. But we’re all seeing how good the Terps are right now. Minnesota bounced back strongly against Rutgers.
29. Purdue (27): The Boilermakers looked the part of an NCAA tournament team after beating Wisconsin in overtime in Madison. The one loss last week — at Michigan State — is acceptable since the Spartans are steamrolling everyone in their path.
30. Arizona (NR): The Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start in the Pac-12 and Sean Miller has this team defending and confident that they can make a run toward the top of the conference.
31. Washington (NR): The Huskies swept the swing through the mountain region by beating Colorado and Utah on the road. That traditionally has been a tough slog for any road team in the Pac-12 since they’ve been in the league.
32. Cincinnati (NR): The Bearcats had a solid week after that stunning loss at East Carolina. Cincinnati won at Tulsa and held off UConn in overtime.
33. St. John’s (10): The Red Storm lost twice last week — at Big East power Villanova and then to DePaul at home — but without Shamorie Ponds. So, the Red Storm get a pass without Ponds.
33. Seton Hall (32): The Pirates have lost two of three but they have had to strong a season to push them completely out just yet.
35. Indiana (18): The Hoosiers could easily be bounced out of the Power 36 after losing two in a row. But they were on the road at Michigan and at Maryland, with the latter down to one possession. Indiana has a chance to leap back up with a home win over Nebraska and a road game at Purdue later this week.
36. Kansas State (NR): Dean Wade is back and the Wildcats may be too. Kansas State won at Iowa State, the second hardest place to win in the Big 12, to even its record at 2-2 in the Big 12.
Dropping out: Ohio State (22), Iowa State (14), TCU (17), Mississippi State (21), Wisconsin (33), Missouri (34).
Team of the Week
The Rebels are the surprise team in the country, not just the SEC. Seriously, nobody and I mean no one, had Ole Miss being 13-2 and 3-0 in the SEC 15 games into the season. The Rebels are a good watch, get up and down and score at will and aren’t too shabby defensively. The Rebels get LSU and Arkansas at home this week and could be 5-0 in the SEC to be in step with Tennessee atop the SEC. Kermit Davis has to be a national contender (with the Vols’ Rick Barnes) for coach of the year.
Player of the week
Markus Howard, Jr., G, Marquette
Any discussion for national player of the year now has to include Markus Howard. He’s in the top five. End of debate. Howard has had an epic season and we just hit mid-January. He scored 53 points, making 10 of 14 3s, an overtime win at Creighton. He followed that up with a rather mortal 26 in a win over Seton Hall. He’s had just one dud in major game — eight points in the loss at St. John’s. That’s the only single digit scoring game he has had this season. He’s appointment viewing this season.
R.J. Barrett, Fr., F, Duke: All Barrett did was score 32 in 40 minutes against Florida State. He picked up the slack with Zion Williamson out for the second half. He didn’t hit the game-winning shot — Cam Reddish did. But Barrett was something special again.
Steven Enoch, Jr., C, Louisville: The UConn transfer had a superb outing in a stunning Louisville thumping at North Carolina. Enoch scored 17 points and grabbed 11 boards. The Cardinals were upset at Pitt earlier in the week, but Enoch still did score 14.
Bruno Fernando, So., C, Maryland: Fernando was a dominant presence, maybe the most of any big in the Big Ten, with 25 points and 13 boards in a home win over Indiana. He had a double-double (10 and 11) in an impressive road win at Minnesota.
Jarrett Culver, So., G, Texas Tech: Culver has lived up to his preseason hype, scoring 23 and grabbing 13 boards in a home win over Oklahoma before chipping in with 14 in a road win at Texas.
Carsen Edwards, Jr., G, Purdue: Edwards carried the Boilermakers to a monster road win at Wisconsin with 36 points. Edwards did take a rushed shot at the end of regulation. But he was poised in overtime to give Purdue a much-needed road win.
Alabama and Arkansas: Alabama’s momentum since beating Kentucky has ground to a halt, losing at LSU and then at home to Texas A&M. The Tide now has to go to Missouri and Tennessee and could be on a four-game slide before hosting red hot Ole Miss. Arkansas is supposed to be unbeatable at Bud Walton but the Hogs have lost three home games to Western Kentucky and the past two in the SEC to Florida and LSU. Up next is games at Tennessee and Ole Miss. Yikes.
Texas and West Virginia: The Longhorns have lost two in a row and the next slate of games looks daunting with games at Kansas, hosting Oklahoma and going to TCU. West Virginia is a shocking 0-4. Sagaba Konate has missed seven straight games and hasn’t played since Dec. 8.
Keep an eye on:
Davidson: The Wildcats knocked off VCU, which had emerged as a possible favorite in the A-10. Davidson was my favorite in the preseason. So, I’m back to going with the Wildcats. They are 3-0 and 12-4 overall.
DePaul: Don’t look now but the Blue Demons beat Seton Hall last weekend and St. John’s Saturday. That’s two in a row after losing three straight. DePaul is 2-2 in the Big East with a home game coming up against Butler. DePaul could be the spoiler going forward in the Big East.
Hofstra: The Pride has ripped off 12 in a row and are 5-0 atop the CAA. Hofstra has a showdown with Charleston Saturday that should be a strong indicator of the direction of the league title race. Hand the Cougars a loss and they would be three games behind, making catching the Pride most difficult.