College basketball Power Rankings: Conference play heats up, and how good is Kentucky?

ByJeff Borzello via ESPN logo
Monday, January 3, 2022
ESPN

With the holidays in the rearview mirror and league play getting ready to kick into high gear, the SEC is developing into arguably the most intriguing major conference in the country.

There might not currently be a clear-cut favorite or national championship contender among the group. But there have been seven different SEC teams in the Power Rankings at one point or another during the first half of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season, and there are four in the top 16 this week.

The SEC flavor of the week has been a constant carousel, too. Kentuckyentered the season as the favorite, but lost its opener, and Arkansastook the mantle. The Razorbacks started 9-0 but have since lost three of four. Floridahad plenty of buzz after beating Florida Stateand Ohio Statein the opening weeks, but then lost three of four. Alabamawas the talk of the sport after beating Gonzagaand Houston-- before dropping two of three. Then it was unbeaten LSU's turn, until the Tigers suffered their first loss of the season last week. Tennesseehas had its chances as well.

But as we turn the calendar into 2022, two teams are emerging as the ones to watch: Auburnand Kentucky.

Auburn has just one loss on the season, a double-overtime defeat to UConn back in late November in the Bahamas. The Tigers' best win was over LSU, but they also notched victories over Loyola Chicago and UCF. Bruce Pearl has plenty of talent on the roster, and the return of a healthy Allen Flanigan raises his team's ceiling even higher.

Kentucky meanwhile is on a tear. The Wildcats fell out of most rankings after a road loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 11, but have looked like one of the most dominant teams in the country since. As @HoopsInsight mentioned, Kentucky has the nation's best adjusted efficiency margin in the three weeks since the loss. Oscar Tshiebwe is a force inside, the transfer and freshman guards are starting to find their groove and Keion Brooks brings a little bit of everything.

Are the Tigers and Wildcats the SEC's best bets to make a deep run in March? For now, yes, but given the way the first two months of the season have gone, that answer might change by next week.

Team of the Week: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

It was a difficult week for this award. Providence was a prime candidate, but the Friars earned the honor two weeks ago and their marquee win was over a shorthanded Seton Hall team (although I did move Ed Cooley's team into the top 16, so that's a nice consolation prize). And honorable mention goes to a pair of 3-0 ACC teams in Louisville and Miami, as well as a couple of mid-major teams coming off thoroughly impressive weeks in VMI and William & Mary.

But this week, it's Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have been a consistent factor near the top of the Conference USA standings since joining the league in 2013, winning at least 20 games in seven of eight seasons and at least 12 league games in six of eight seasons. But they haven't gotten over the hump and into the NCAA tournament yet. Could this be the year? They already beat Santa Clara on the road and lost to LSU and NC State by single digits -- but just finished up their best week of this season so far.

Tech opened with a 23-point win over Marshall, the team picked two spots behind it in the preseason C-USA poll. It overcame the first single-digit scoring performance of the season from star big man Kenneth Lofton, getting impressive efforts from guards Cobe Williams and Keaston Willis. But the big win of the week was a one-point win over Western Kentucky. The Bulldogs trailed by as many as 17 points in the second half, and by six in the final minute. But Lofton bounced back with 22 points (including the winning free throws with five seconds left) and 11 boards, while Williams hit a couple of big shots late. According to the school, Tech led for a total of just 26 seconds.

Player of the Week: Walker Kessler, Auburn Tigers

Auburn's win over LSU was one of the impressive performances of the past couple weeks, and Kessler was at the heart of it. The former five-star recruit who transferred from North Carolina last spring was one of the more sought-after prospects on the market; he looked great in late February for the Tar Heels but was mostly inconsistent as a freshman. And through the first month of the season for Auburn, it was the same. Some standout performances, some games in which he struggled.

While Kessler started to find his footing in the middle of December, he finally had his true breakout performance on Wednesday against LSU. He finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocks, completely controlling the interior at both ends of the floor. He made a 3-pointer, he dished out an assist, he crashed the offensive glass, he impacted nearly every LSU attempt in the paint. It was just the second points-rebounds-blocks triple-double this season and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the first points-rebound-blocks triple-double in a ranked vs. ranked matchup since Shelden Williams was at Duke (2002-06).

Over Kessler's past four games, he's averaging 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.8 blocks and shooting 71.4% from the field. He leads the nation in block percentage.

Win of the Week: Baylor Bears 77, Iowa State Cyclones 72

It might not have been circled on everyone's calendar entering the season, but Saturday's battle between the Bears and Cyclones was unique in terms of its combined record entering the contest. As David Worlock of the NCAA pointed out in a tweet, Saturday's game was just the fourth Division I men's basketball game since 1980 in which both teams were 12-0 or better -- and the first since Villanova played at Creighton in 2016. So whichever team won on Saturday was always likely to get the nod in this category. And Baylor it is.

The Bears looked like they might run away with it early, going up 10 in the first half on a couple of occasions and mostly keeping the Cyclones at an arm's length. Iowa State cut the gap to five points midway through the second half, but Baylor rallied to lead by as many as 14 points. Iowa State ratcheted up the pressure, forcing a slew of turnovers to keep the game in question until Baylor sealed the win in the final minute from the free throw line.

It was yet another statement from the nation's top-ranked team. The Bears look like a legitimate national title contender, and while some people might have questions about Iowa State so far this season, not many teams will go into Hilton Coliseum and lead wire to wire.

Coach of the Week: Ron Hunter, Tulane Green Wave

To get a feel for how much Tulane has struggled over the past several years, the Green Wave's 2-0 start in AAC play is the first time the program has opened league play with back-to-back wins since Ed Conroy was in charge in 2014-15. While wins over Memphis and Cincinnati might not jump off the page, it's an impressive turnaround for Hunter and Tulane. Entering conference play, Tulane was 3-6 with losses to the likes of Valparaiso, Southern and Charleston -- twice. But the Green Wave, coming off a 22-day break, held on to beat Memphis last Wednesday and then followed it up with a very solid road win at Cincinnati. Given that Memphis lost to Tulane between wins against Alabama and Wichita State, the Green Wave's win looks even better in retrospect.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for Hunter at Tulane. The Green Wave haven't finished above .500 in conference play since 2007, and went 0-18 in AAC play the season before they hired Hunter. But the former Georgia State coach has slowly upgraded the program's talent via the transfer portal, landing players who had garnered some buzz coming out of high school but ended up playing sparingly in their first season in college. He did it with Jaylen Forbes, who started his career at Alabama, and now has former LSU guard Jalen Cook, one of the most productive transfers in the country.

Three teams with questions

Michigan Wolverines: Memphis has received most of the attention as one of the nation's most disappointing teams, but the Wolverines aren't too far behind (if at all.) They lost by 14 at UCF last Thursday, dropping to 7-5 overall with Big Ten play set to heat up. And here's the worrying part: Over the next two weeks, Michigan will travel to Rutgers and also face Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois.

Wichita State Shockers: After last season's NCAA tournament appearance, there were preseason expectations of the Shockers. An early-season overtime loss to Arizona did nothing to dissuade that notion. But in the past six games, Wichita State has fallen at home to Kansas State, North Texas and, most recently, Memphis in an 18-point defeat. A trip to Houston is up next.

NC State Wolfpack: After another close defeat on Saturday, NC State has now lost five in a row and is off to an 0-3 start in the ACC. In a vacuum, none of the losses were all that bad, besides the 14-point home defeat to Wright State, but the issues are starting to pile up and the schedule doesn't get any easier this month.

Power Rankings

1. Baylor Bears(13-0)

Previous ranking:
1

This week: vs. Oklahoma (Tuesday), at TCU (Saturday)

I already discussed Baylor's win over Iowa State, but the recent play of Jeremy Sochan is worth looking at a bit more. The freshman forward had plenty of hype entering the season but was inconsistent for a few weeks in late November and early December. Sochan is starting to put it together, though, and was a huge difference-maker against the Cyclones on Saturday. And in games against Iowa State and Northwestern State, Sochan totaled 28 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks, while making four 3s. He's a versatile frontcourt player who gives effort at both ends of the floor and can create matchup problems if Scott Drew wants to go with smaller lineups.

2. Duke Blue Devils(12-1)

Previous ranking: 2

This week:vs. Georgia Tech (Tuesday), vs. Miami (Saturday)

Duke postponed both of its games -- at Clemson and vs. Notre Dame -- last week due to COVID-19 issues within the Blue Devils' program. It's unclear if they'll be able to return to the court on Tuesday against Georgia Tech, but the ACC's adjusted COVID-19 protocols would allow the Duke players who tested positive to get back to team activities in as few as five days.

3. Purdue Boilermakers (11-1)

Previous ranking:
3

This week: vs. Wisconsin (Monday), at Penn State (Saturday)

Purdue's worst defensive effort of this season came on Wednesday against Nicholls State, in a game the Boilermakers won by 14. But they did allow 90 points and better than 1.23 points per possession. And while it was never really going to be an overly competitive game, it was still the second in a row that Purdue allowed its opponent to shoot better than 44% from 3-point range. We'll see if that becomes a weak spot in Big Ten play. On the plus side, the decision to move Zach Edey back to the bench looks like a wakeup call for the 7-foot-4 Canadian. In his three games since Matt Painter dropped him from the starting lineup in favor of Trevion Williams, Edey is averaging 16.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists, while shooting a ridiculous 82.6% from the field..

4. Kansas Jayhawks (11-1)

Previous ranking:
5

This week: at Oklahoma State (Tuesday), at Texas Tech (Saturday)

A Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Coleman-Lands renaissance is not something I expected to see in Kansas' nine-point win over George Mason on Saturday. With David McCormack playing just 10 minutes (for the second time in three games), Lightfoot stepped up off the bench and finished with 14 points and four boards, making all seven of his shots from the field. And without Remy Martin, who missed the game due to injury, and Ochai Agbaji struggling to make shots, Kansas needed some perimeter pop -- so Coleman-Lands had by far his best game in a Jayhawks jersey, scoring 20 points, dishing out three assists and burying five 3s. Lightfoot and Coleman-Lands aren't going to be counted on like this every night, but it's nice for Bill Self to have two veteran guys who have literally seen everything at the college level.

5. Gonzaga Bulldogs(11-2)

Previous ranking:
6

This week: vs. San Francisco (Thursday), vs. Pepperdine (Saturday)

Gonzaga rolled past North Alabama on Tuesday, getting really good bench production from the five-star duo of Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. Hickman had 13 points and three 3s, while Sallis went for eight points and five rebounds. Those two guards will be hugely important for Mark Few, especially in the postseason against opposing backcourts with size and physical ability. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs then had COVID-19 issues within their program and had to postpone their Saturday game against Loyola Marymount. A showdown against one-loss San Francisco is on the schedule for Thursday. If it goes ahead, it should be one of the best games of the WCC regular season.

6. UCLA Bruins (8-1)

Previous ranking:
6

This week: vs. Arizona State (Wednesday), at California (Saturday)

UCLA still hasn't played since its win at Marquette on Dec. 11, having postponed its scheduled games this past week against Arizona and Arizona State, and remained on pause through the holiday break. Good news for Bruins fans, though: They'll be back in action this week. Stanford had to postpone the game originally scheduled for Thursday due to COVID-19 issues, but UCLA and the Pac-12 pivoted and was able to reschedule the Bruins against Arizona State. So the Sun Devils will visit Westwood on Wednesday for UCLA's first game in almost a month.

7. Arizona Wildcats (11-1)

Previous ranking:
4

This week: vs. Washington (Monday), at Arizona State (Saturday)

We haven't seen Arizona in action since the Wildcats suffered their first loss of the season, on Dec. 22 at Tennessee. Both UCLA and USC went on pause, forcing postponements for both of Arizona's games over the holidays. But the Wildcats were able to reschedule their game against Washington for Monday, so they will have a chance to regain their momentum before a rivalry game against Arizona State this weekend.

8. Auburn Tigers (12-1)

Previous ranking: 14

This week:at South Carolina (Tuesday), vs. Florida (Saturday)

I'm very much in on this Auburn team. The Tigers have an elite defense and a number of different ways to hurt teams offensively. They're No. 6 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and they forced LSU into an 0-for-11 start last Wednesday, complete with three turnovers and four blocked shots in the first eight minutes. Jabari Smith continues to have a handful of plays every game that give him a great shot at being selected ahead of Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero in the NBA draft in June. And with one-time SEC Player of the Year candidate Flanigan back healthy, Bruce Pearl can now count on at least four or five capable scorers on a nightly basis. Three of the Tigers' next four are on the road, where Auburn hasn't looked as dominant this season. But if the Tigers continue to play like this away from home, look out.

9. Michigan State Spartans (12-2)

Previous ranking:
8

This week: vs. Nebraska (Wednesday), at Michigan (Saturday)

Joey Hauser hasn't quite made the anticipated impact in East Lansing since transferring in from Marquette a couple of years ago, and has been in and out of the starting lineup during most of his two seasons with the Spartans. But this past week, he put together a pair of solid performances that should offer some optimism. Against High Point on Wednesday, Hauser put up 17 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, and followed that up with 10 points and nine rebounds against Northwestern. On the week, he shot 5-for-9 from 3. After making 45% of his 3s in Big East play in 2018-19, Hauser has shot under 34% from behind the arc at Michigan State, so that's an especially positive sign.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2)

Previous ranking:
10

This week:at Indiana (Thursday), vs. Northwestern (Sunday)

After 23 days off due to COVID-19-related issues, Sunday's overtime win at Nebraska wasn't a vintage Ohio State effort. It certainly wasn't a vintage effort for Wooden Award candidate E.J. Liddell, who went 2-for-14 from the field and struggled offensively. But Chris Holtmann got a breakout performance from freshman Malaki Branham, who came out of nowhere to score 35 points and bury six 3s -- after making just five 3s all season before Sunday night. Backcourt mate Jamari Wheeler also hit several big shots late in regulation and in overtime, finishing with 16 points and four 3s. Branham and Wheeler had combined for a total of one double-figure scoring game until Sunday night. Battling to get the road win despite the break and Liddell's struggles bodes well moving forward for the Buckeyes.

11. USC Trojans (12-0)

Previous ranking: 11

This week: at California (Thursday), at Stanford (Saturday)

Like its crosstown rivals in Westwood, USC remains on pause. The most recent games postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Trojans' program were against Arizona State and Arizona. Up next is expected to be the Northern California swing against Stanford and California on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

12. Iowa State Cyclones (12-1)

Previous ranking:
9

This week: vs. Texas Tech (Wednesday), at Oklahoma (Saturday)

The Cyclones suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, falling by five to top-ranked Baylor. But I still think Iowa State will fight for a top-three or top-four finish in the Big 12. It took a half for Iowa State to get its turnover-forcing defense to hit its stride, creating 19 Baylor turnovers and disrupting the Bears. Had the Cyclones been able to hit shots from the perimeter -- they made just one of 14 attempts from 3 -- they might have had a real chance at pulling off an upset over the defending champions. One other thing to note: If former Kansas transfer Tristan Enaruna can become a consistent factor inside, the Cyclones will become a much more efficient half-court offense. Enaruna is averaging 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in his past two games.

13. Kentucky Wildcats (11-2)

Previous ranking: In the waiting room

This week: at LSU (Tuesday), vs. Georgia (Saturday)

It's all starting to come together for the Wildcats. Very few teams are playing as well as them right now, with four straight wins by a combined 135 points. Kentucky's shooting better from the perimeter than most, too, continuing to dominate the offensive glass and noticeably upping the tempo and aggressiveness at both ends of the floor. The improvement in the backcourt from Sahvir Wheeler and Kellan Grady has been key. Wheeler is an elite creator off the dribble and dictates the tempo both offensively and defensively. In the past four games, he's totaled 32 assists and 11 turnovers, mixing in a 26-point game against North Carolina. Grady has found the shooting stroke that made him such a terrific player at Davidson. Over the same four games, Grady is averaging 18.0 points on 64.5% shooting from 3-point range, making 20 3s during that stretch.

14. Alabama Crimson Tide (10-3)

Previous ranking:
16

This week: at Florida (Wednesday), at Missouri (Saturday)

It has been a rough four-game stretch for the Crimson Tide since beating Gonzaga and Houston back-to-back in early December. Those four games include losses to Memphis and Davidson, and narrow home wins over Jacksonville State and Tennessee. Alabama's offense has improved from last season, and is far more efficient at the rim, but the Crimson Tide are struggling from 3. For a team that attempts more than 46% of its shots from behind the arc, shooting 28.5% over the past four games is a potential issue. One promising sign could be the emergence of Furman transfer Noah Gurley. Gurley was an all-conference player in the SoCon last season but hadn't scored in double figures all season. Against Tennessee, though, he went for 20 points and 10 rebounds, including making a pair of 3s.

15. Tennessee Volunteers (9-3)

Previous ranking:
12

This week:vs. Ole Miss (Wednesday), at LSU (Saturday)

Tennessee nearly pulled out an impressive road win in Tuscaloosa before the Crimson Tide got the victory in the final minutes of their game last week. And Rick Barnes' team did it without its two best players, Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, too. The Volunteers' defense will keep them in most games this season: they've only allowed one team to score more than one point per possession yet this season. But their ceiling will be significantly raised if they can start consistently making shots from the perimeter. In the past two games, against Arizona and Alabama, they made a combined 14-for-53 from 3. The fact that they handed the Wildcats their first loss and nearly took down Alabama shows how good they can be if the likes of Justin Powell, Chandler and Victor Bailey can make shots consistently.

16. Providence Friars (13-1)

Previous ranking:
Unranked

This week: at Marquette (Tuesday), vs. St. John's (Saturday)

One of the biggest surprises during the first half of this season, Ed Cooley's Friars are building up a really strong résumé entering the heart of Big East play. After beating Seton Hall last Wednesday, Providence now owns wins over the Pirates, UConn, Texas Tech, Wisconsin and Northwestern and is now 6-0 against Quadrant 1 opponents. No other team in the country has more than four. Are the Friars a legitimate Big East title contender? Villanova is as vulnerable as it has looked in several years, and Providence has already built a 3-0 conference record, including two road wins. Cooley-coached teams are not exactly known for their prolific outside shooting -- he has coached two teams in 15 years that shot above 35.3% from 3. And while these Friars are at 33.6% on the season, they're making 40.4% in conference play.

Dropped out: Seton Hall Pirates (No. 13), LSU Tigers (No. 15)

In the waiting room

Houston Cougars: We got our first look at Houston in a post-Marcus Sasser world on Sunday, with the Cougars hanging on for a 66-61 win at Temple. Jamal Shead (14 points) has been consistently effective since Tramon Mark went down, and it looks like he could be the go-to guy until Kyler Edwards returns healthy. Freshman Ramon Walker was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time and responded with three 3s and 13 points. I still think Houston is the AAC favorite.

Colorado State Rams: The Rams haven't played since a neutral-court win over Mississippi State on Dec. 11, but they have games on the docket this week against Air Force and Boise State. Friday's trip to Boise -- assuming it goes ahead, Boise's games on Saturday and Tuesday were postponed due to COVID-19 issues -- will be one of the Rams' toughest tests on the Mountain West schedule.

Villanova Wildcats: The Wildcats are once again knocking on the door of the Power Rankings after a pre-Christmas win over Xavier and a road victory at Seton Hall on New Year's Day. Bryan Antoine played in his second game of the season on Saturday, scoring seven points in 16 minutes. He could be an X factor for Jay Wright.

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