College Basketball Power Rankings: Can Gonzaga end revolving door at No. 1?

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Sunday, December 22, 2019

Gonzaga, it's your turn.

After Kansas lost to Villanova on Saturday, becoming the fifth AP No. 1 team (and the fourth No. 1 team in ESPN's Power Rankings) to lose this season, we needed yet another new team to take over the top spot. While last week featured a debate between Kansas and Gonzaga for No. 1, this week was easier. It's Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs have wins away from home over Oregon, Arizona and Washington, as well as a home win over a Cole Anthony-less North Carolina team. Their lone loss came in the Bahamas against Michigan. Ohio State has the best chance to leapfrog them for No. 1, and the Buckeyes are far more likely than Gonzaga to significantly improve their résumé in the coming weeks, but we're going with Mark Few's team heading into the holidays.

Let's assume that Gonzaga stops the constant rotation at the top of the rankings, since most assume that's the most likely outcome given the Bulldogs' upcoming schedule. We've made this assumption a couple of times already this season, but there are just fewer potential banana peels out there for the Zags.

But what's really going on with No. 1 teams -- or a better question, why is there such parity at the top of the rankings?

One, the incoming talent dispersion was more widespread than in the past. Duke and Kentucky still got their fair share, but Memphis, Arizona, Villanova and Washington landed multiple top-tier players, Georgia and North Carolina landed the best guards in the country, and a couple of others went overseas.

There was also a serious lack of returning stars. Of the 17 players to be named to either the AP or USBWA All-American teams, only two came back to college: Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Marquette's Markus Howard. Combine these two factors, and you essentially have relatively inexperienced teams without overwhelming talent.

There's also some variance mixed in, when talking about the specific games No. 1 teams are losing. According to ESPN Stats & Information, AP No. 1 teams shot a combined 18.8% from 3-point range and a combined 64.8% from the free throw line in their five losses.

Can Gonzaga stop the madness for a few weeks?

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (13-1)

Previous ranking: 2

This week:no games

Mark Few seems to have a different member of his rotation step up every game, which enables the Zags to overcome slumps by one or two key players. One of those players, Texas A&M graduate transfer Admon Gilder, had been in a slump since mid-November, going 5-for-25 from 3-point range over a seven-game stretch. In Gilder's last three games, though, he has shot 8-for-13 from behind the arc, averaging 15.3 points. When he's playing with confidence, Gilder provides a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs: perimeter shooting, size in the backcourt and a secondary ball handler. He will have to be a factor later in the season.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1)

Previous ranking: 3

This week: vs. West Virginia in Cleveland (Sunday)

I think there's a good chance Ohio State is the best team in the country, or at least has performed that way through the first two months of the season. The Buckeyes just have all the necessary parts to win a national championship, from bigs to guards to shooting to defense. And Chris Holtmann is also starting to get improved play from freshman point guard D.J. Carton, who was arguably Ohio State's best player in its win over Kentucky on Saturday. Carton has averaged 14.7 points and 3.0 assists over his last three games, shooting 5-for-11 from 3-point range, and went for 15 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal against the Wildcats.

3. Louisville Cardinals (11-1)

Previous ranking: 4

This week: at Kentucky (Saturday)

One can make the case that Jordan Nwora has been the best player in college basketball up to this point in the season. Nwora has taken on an increased role in the offense, while also improving his efficiency and shooting better from both inside and behind the arc. And it's not a coincidence that the Cardinals' only loss this season came in arguably Nwora's worst offensive outing of the season. Against Texas Tech, Nwora shot 4-for-16 from the field and finished with 14 points and four turnovers. Which brings me to another question: Does Louisville have a consistent second option? The Cardinals have a number of complementary weapons, but can anyone besides Nwora consistently get his own shot?

4. Duke Blue Devils (10-1)

Previous ranking: 5

This week: vs. Brown (Saturday)

We've spotlighted Joey Baker in this space before, but he has now become a consistent member of Duke's rotation and is providing much-needed outside shooting for the Blue Devils. He has played at least 17 minutes in four straight games and has scored double figures in three of the four. Against Wofford last week, Baker scored 22 points and made five 3-pointers -- which makes him Duke's most prolific 3-point shooter on the season, with 16 made shots from behind the arc. Considering Baker played single-digit minutes in three of the first seven games of the season and didn't make a 3 until Duke's third game, that's an impressive stretch for the sophomore wing.

5. Baylor Bears (11-1)

Previous ranking: 6

This week: no games

Scott Drew's team has only one game in the 20-day period between Dec. 10 and Dec. 30, and the Bears handled that one with relative ease, beating Tennessee-Martin by 28. One thing to monitor with Baylor is the availability -- or lack thereof -- of Tristan Clark. Clark was one of the best frontcourt players in the country when he went down last January with a knee injury. He has returned this season, but hasn't been nearly the same player he was before the injury. He's still recovering from the knee surgery and also has been dealing with a foot issue. Clark has played in just one of four games this month, and that was a scoreless 10-minute effort against Arizona.

6. Kansas Jayhawks (9-2)

Previous ranking: 1

This week: at Stanford (Sunday)

I'm aware that dropping Kansas from No. 1 to No. 6 because of a one-point road loss to one of the top 15 teams in the country seems a bit harsh. But I just think the next five or six teams outside of Gonzaga and Ohio State are so close, résumé-wise, that one loss can move a team multiple spots. Look, Kansas is a terrific team, but the Jayhawks are also one of just two teams in the top 10 with multiple losses, and their best wins are over Dayton, BYU and Colorado. The teams ranked ahead of them all have a marquee win or, at worst, multiple top-16 wins. Devon Dotson's struggles in Kansas' two losses are worth noting: He's 10-for-24 with five assists and nine turnovers in those games.

7. Oregon Ducks (10-2)

Previous ranking: 10

This week: vs. Alabama State (Sunday)

Oregon has been awaiting the arrival of freshman big man N'Faly Dante since the start of the season, and he has shown flashes of what the Ducks have been anticipating. In the first game of his career, against Montana, he had 11 points and two rebounds in just 14 minutes. Dante followed that up with six points, four rebounds and a block in 11 minutes against Texas Southern. He'll face stiffer competition moving forward, but Dana Altman has needed size down low, especially since Shakur Juiston has missed the past four games with a lower leg injury. Dante was one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the 2019 class; once he gets fully acclimated to college basketball, he will be an impact player.

8. Auburn Tigers (11-0)

Previous ranking: 9

This week: vs. Lipscomb (Sunday)

When discussing early Coach of the Year candidates, Bruce Pearl has to be in the mix. This is a team that reached the Final Four a year ago, then proceeded to lose its three best players, one to graduation and two to the NBA draft. And Pearl still has the Tigers as one of four remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball, and very likely to enter 2020 without a loss (only a home tilt against Lipscomb remains in December). We're still not sure how good Auburn really is, given its best win came at home over NC State, and that's likely the only NCAA tournament team the Tigers have defeated so far. That's going to change soon, however, with road trips to Mississippi State, Alabama and Florida among Auburn's first five SEC games.

9. Memphis Tigers (10-1)

Previous ranking: 12

This week: vs. New Orleans (Saturday)

After more than a month of waiting out James Wiseman's suspension, the Tigers now know their best player and the potential No. 1 NBA draft pick will not suit up again for Memphis. It's a huge loss, just because it likely limits the team's ceiling, but don't write off the Tigers just yet. They're 8-0 without Wiseman, including wins over Tennessee, NC State and Ole Miss. Freshman forward Precious Achiuwa has been terrific in Wiseman's absence, while some of Wiseman's minutes have gone to senior big man Isaiah Maurice. Meanwhile, without freshman starter Lester Quinones, who has missed the past five games with a broken right hand, a couple of veterans (relatively speaking) have also provided some bench pop, with sophomores Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax stepping up.

10. San Diego State Aztecs (12-0)

Previous ranking: 15

This week: vs. Cal Poly (Saturday)

There are still some San Diego State doubters, but the Aztecs continue to answer the bell. They're coming off a 28-point win over Utah in Los Angeles -- the same Utah team that just beat Kentucky. The Aztecs also have wins -- all away from home -- over BYU, Creighton and Iowa. All three wins keep looking better and better, too. With the biggest game on San Diego State's schedule -- at Utah State on Jan. 4 -- still two weekends away, the Aztecs have to get through Cal Poly and Fresno State first. While the transfers have received most of the attention this season, sophomore big man Nathan Mensah has become more of a factor the past couple of weeks. Mensah is averaging 11.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over his last three games.

11. Butler Bulldogs (11-1)

Previous ranking: in the waiting room

This week: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (Saturday)

LaVall Jordan's team is a one-point road loss at Baylor from being unbeaten. The Bulldogs handled Purdue in Indianapolis on Saturday, adding to a solid résumé that also includes victories over Minnesota, Missouri, Stanford, Ole Miss and Florida. None is a true statement win, but those are all good victories. This is also a team that metrics absolutely love right now. KenPom has Butler ranked No. 7, with a top-15 offense and defense. The Bulldogs are No. 8 in ESPN's Basketball Power Index and No. 9 in Bart Torvik's rankings, with top-20 rankings in both offense and defense in each of those systems. Are they the Big East favorite heading into conference play?

12. Villanova Wildcats (9-2)

Previous ranking:in the waiting room

This week: no games

Jay Wright and the Wildcats had their last chance for a marquee nonconference win over the weekend -- and they took it with aplomb. They erased a four-point lead in the final 70 seconds to beat top-ranked Kansas, with Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels combining to score Villanova's final 19 points of the game. Wright has changed his lineup construction this season, playing bigger across the board after being known for years as a guard-oriented program, but Villanova has returned to its roots a little bit the past two games. The Wildcats attempted 72 3-pointers in those games against Delaware and Kansas, hitting 10 shots from behind the arc in each.

13. Michigan Wolverines (9-3)

Previous ranking: 14

This week: vs. UMass Lowell (Sunday)

The biggest concern for Michigan moving forward is the status of Isaiah Livers, who left Saturday's game against Presbyterian with a muscle strain after only a few minutes. Livers didn't return and Juwan Howard didn't have too many details regarding its severity after the game. If he's out for an extended period of time, it would be a huge loss for the Wolverines. Livers is in the middle of a breakout junior season, leading the team in scoring and establishing himself as the team's best 3-point shooter. Livers is knocking down 50% of his outside shots. One thing to note: Livers is 10-for-27 in Michigan's three losses, averaging 9.3 points.

14. Maryland Terrapins (10-1)

Previous ranking: 7

This week: vs. Bryant (Sunday)

The Terrapins tumble in this week's rankings after the loss at Seton Hall last week. That's now two straight losses for the Terps, and they didn't look remotely impressive in either game. They had their worst defensive performance of the season against Penn State, and then by far their worst offensive outing against Seton Hall. So what's going on? It's hard to tell, although point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said after the loss to the Pirates that the team just hasn't "got much better. ... Just haven't really been doing anything beneficial to our team." Mark Turgeon is going to have to figure things out pretty quickly, as the Terrapins get Indiana and Ohio State in College Park at the start of January.

15. Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2)

Previous ranking: in the waiting room

This week: vs. Cornell (Sunday)

Maybe we're a little too high on Penn State, but the Nittany Lions have a top-15 win over Maryland, plus wins away from home over Georgetown and Syracuse and a couple other victories over Alabama, Yale and Wake Forest. If not for a blown lead against Ole Miss in late November, this might be considered too low a ranking. Lamar Stevens deservedly gets most of the accolades out of State College, but the emergence of sophomore guard Myreon Jones should receive some praise, too. Jones has been one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten, being thrust into a starting role and delivering. He's averaging 14.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists and shooting 41.2% from 3 -- and just had 21 points against Central Connecticut.

16. Florida State Seminoles(10-2)

Previous ranking: unranked

This week: vs. North Alabama (Saturday)

The Seminoles' three biggest wins -- at Florida, vs. Tennessee and vs. Purdue -- have all lost some luster since they happened, but this is one of the best defensive teams in the country and it's a team that has shown it can beat very good teams on a consistent basis. The Seminoles will be tested early in ACC play, however, with three road games in their next five conference tilts, and one of the two home games coming against Virginia. Leonard Hamilton is starting to get quality production on the interior from sophomore big RaiQuan Gray. Gray has tallied 11 points in back-to-back games, while also being active on the defensive end with two blocks and six steals.

Dropped out: Kentucky (8), Virginia (11), Dayton (13), Arizona (16)

In the waiting room

Michigan State: The Spartans are knocking on the door of the Power Rankings again, running off a four-game winning streak and still looking great in the metrics. It was somewhat expected, but Tom Izzo's team did receive bad news last week when Joshua Langford was announced out for the season.

Wichita State: Gregg Marshall has positioned the Shockers as perhaps the biggest threat to Memphis in the AAC (although Houston will have a say in the race). They've lost just one game this season and have rattled off three wins in a row against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and VCU.

West Virginia: We're going to find out how good the Mountaineers really are in the next two weeks, as Bob Huggins' team faces Ohio State in Cleveland and then Kansas in Lawrence. There's only one negative on the ledger so far: a two-point loss at St. John's.

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