It's often said, most notably by Mike McDermott in "Rounders," to always leave yourself outs. While the weekly Power Rankings might not be considered high-stakes gambling, hedging predictions is always a sound strategy. In other words, don't make Kentucky No. 1 and then write: "The Wildcats don't have any true tests on their schedule until late December ... get used to Calipari's Cats at No. 1."
Because when that same Kentucky team loses to Evansville at home about 36 hours after the rankings come out, suddenly the Power Rankings look ... not great.
We forge on, however, and Kentucky's loss leaves a bigger question: Who's No. 1 right now? Duke will get that honor in the polls because the Blue Devils were No. 2 and that's just how polls operate. But we had Michigan State in the No. 2 spot last week, and all the Spartans have done since then is go to New Jersey and knock off Seton Hall despite a performance for the ages from Myles Powell.
Coming out of the Champions Classic, I thought Michigan State looked like a better team than Duke, and thus ranked the two teams that way. The early weeks of the Power Rankings are more qualitative than résumé-based, so the fact that the Spartans have a loss and Duke doesn't isn't the end of the world. And if we don't want to go quantitative, Michigan State is still No. 1 in the BPI and at KenPom.
Fortunately, this debate might be settled on the court. If Michigan State gets through the Maui Invitational unscathed -- given Kansas is on the other side of the bracket, that's not a sure thing -- and Duke handles the 2K Classic and a couple of home games, these two teams will face off on Dec. 4 in East Lansing.
1. Michigan State Spartans (2-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Charleston Southern (Monday)
If Malik Hall can produce like he did against Seton Hall, Tom Izzo will have a new dimension on the offensive end. Hall is capable of stepping out and making shots from the perimeter -- he was 3-for-3 from 3 against the Pirates -- which opens up the Spartans' offense and gives more space to Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston. Thomas Kithier doesn't have that ability on a consistent basis, and it hasn't quite clicked for Marcus Bingham yet. But if Hall suddenly becomes a factor in the frontcourt, Michigan State can score from all five spots when he's on the floor.
2. Duke Blue Devils (4-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. California in New York, vs. Georgetown/Texas in New York (Friday)
There were questions in the preseason about whether Tre Jones could become a true go-to-guy for the Blue Devils this season. Those questions aren't quite as prevalent two weeks into the season. He took over the game late for Duke against Kansas in the opener, then went out and scored 31 points and dished out six assists against Georgia State last Friday. The Duke freshmen are taking more time than last year's group did in terms of adapting to the college game, so Jones has had to pick up the slack -- and it's working so far. Oh, and he's still the same menace he was last year on the defensive end.
3. Louisville Cardinals (4-0)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. USC Upstate (Wednesday), vs. Akron (Sunday)
Chris Mack needed to find answers at the point guard spot entering the season, especially once freshman David Johnson went down with an injury. So far, it's been smooth sailing. Darius Perry was terrific against Youngstown State, dishing out 12 assists to just one turnover -- and then Saint Joseph's graduate transfer Lamarr Kimble stepped up against Indiana State when Perry was struggling. Kimble had 13 points, four rebounds and three assists against the Sycamores. On Sunday against NC Central, it was a little bit of both: Perry and Kimble combined for 19 points and 12 assists in another easy win.
4. Oregon Ducks (4-0)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Houston (Friday)
There are only a handful of teams in the country that can mix and match his lineups the way Dana Altman does with his roster. He's so spoiled for choice that five-star freshman C.J. Walkerplayed only five minutes in the Ducks' win over Memphis. Altman has leaned on experience early on, with graduate transfers Shakur Juiston and Anthony Mathis doing the heavy lifting alongside senior guard Payton Pritchard. Will Richardson was a bright spot against Memphis; after junior college transfer Chris Duarte went out with an injury, Richardson came in and played 31 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out six assists. Friday's game against Houston is quietly one of the best games of the week.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels (3-0)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Elon (Wednesday)
There might not be a team more banged up than the Tar Heels right now. Expected starter Brandon Robinson is sidelined with a sprained ankle he suffered early in the preseason, andSterling Manley has been out with knee soreness. Freshman guards Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis have been out with injuries from high school. Roy Williams has had to rely heavily on Cole Anthony thus far, and the freshman has obliged. But at some point, the Tar Heels are going to need more consistency from the supporting cast -- and health from the rest of the roster.
6. Kansas Jayhawks (2-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. East Tennessee State (Tuesday)
Bill Self is still clearly tweaking his lineups to find the best combination. After playing just 14 combined minutes against Duke and UNC Greensboro, Silvio De Sousa logged 23 minutes and started against Monmouth. David McCormack started against Duke and UNC Greensboro but came off the bench against Monmouth -- and had 17 points and 11 rebounds. Don't sleep on this week's game against East Tennessee State. Steve Forbes' team has won 100 games the past four years and is favored to win the Southern Conference title this season.
7. Gonzaga Bulldogs (4-0)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. UT Arlington (Tuesday), vs. Bakersfield (Saturday)
Entering the preseason, it looked like Gonzaga could be one of the deepest teams in the country, with 10-plus guys able to contribute. With Killian Tillie injured, Oumar Ballo declared an academic redshirt and freshmen Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov not contributing much early, Mark Few has been relying on a seven-man rotation through the first couple of weeks. The star of the group so far has been Filip Petrusev, who showed flashes of his ability last season but is doing it consistently through four games. He tallied two double-doubles and is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Stetson (Monday), vs Fort Wayne (Friday)
Home wins over Cincinnati and Villanova -- the latter a 25-point throttling -- will hold up well throughout the season and give the Buckeyes momentum heading into a December stretch that includes games against North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the start of Big Ten play. Chris Holtmann has gotten stellar point guard play from the newcomer duo of Florida State transfer C.J. Walker and freshman D.J. Carton. Walker is averaging 8.3 points and has 10 assists to just two turnovers in his past two games, and Carton is coming off the bench but putting up 11 points and 3.7 assists.
9. Kentucky Wildcats (2-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Utah Valley (Monday), vs. Mount St. Mary's (Friday), vs. Lamar (Sunday)
We might not get a stranger one-week flip all season than what Kentucky did this month, beating No. 1 Michigan State on Nov. 5 and then turning around and losing at home to Evansville on Nov. 12. There were plenty of issues for the Wildcats against Evansville, from the 4-for-17 3-point shooting to the six assists and 13 turnovers. For a team with three capable point guards, the latter is unacceptable. But the former was thought to be a concern all summer, and althoughTyrese Maxey masked it in the season opener, Kentucky is just 12-for-49 from behind the arc through three games.
10. Maryland Terrapins (3-0)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Fairfield (Tuesday), vs. George Mason (Friday)
Mark Turgeon's Terrapins have had a quiet opening couple of weeks, although the 18-point win over Rhode Island two weekends ago looks better after the Rams beat Alabama this past weekend. If Maryland can get by Fairfield and George Mason this week, the Terps will be unbeaten heading into one of the more underrated early season tournaments: the Orlando Invitational. Maryland could get Harvard in the semifinals, and then either Marquette, Davidson or USC in the final. There might not be another Final Four contender in the field, but it wouldn't be a surprise if more than half of the field made the NCAA tournament.
11. Texas Tech Red Raiders (3-0)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Tennessee State (Thursday), vs. Long Island (Sunday)
There's not much to say about Texas Tech beating Eastern Illinois, Bethune Cookman and Houston Baptist to start the season, but how about Chris Beard's recruiting class in 2020? The Red Raiders signed five-star guard Nimari Burnett -- beating out Alabama, Oregon and Michigan -- top-35 wing Micah Peavy and under-the-radar California wing Chibuzo Agbo. They also have UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe sitting out this season. With only graduate transfers Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield expected to depart after this season, Beard won't have to rebuild the same way in the spring. And we've seen what he can do with experienced rosters.
12. Virginia Cavaliers (3-0)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Vermont (Tuesday), vs. UMass in Connecticut (Saturday), vs. Arizona State/St. John's in Connecticut (Sunday)
Tony Bennett's Cavaliers are clearly struggling on the defensive end, after allowing more than 34 points for the first time this season on Saturday. Columbia exploded for 42 points against Virginia in a loss. On a serious note, we need to talk about Jay Huff. The 7-foot-1 junior was pegged by many as a potential breakout player this year, yet he hasn't started a game yet for the Cavaliers. However, he's been one of the most efficient and productive players in the country -- averaging 11.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 24.7 minutes. Combine that with Virginia's slow pace, and Huff is currently in KenPom's Player of the Year top 10 despite being the Cavaliers' sixth man.
13. Arizona Wildcats (4-0)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. South Dakota State (Thursday), vs. Long Beach State (Sunday)
The early buzz coming out of Tucson surrounding freshman Zeke Nnaji was positive, but top-10 guards Nico Mannion and Josh Green were getting most of the attention. Nnaji has responded by having one of the most productive opening few weeks we've ever seen from an Arizona freshman. In his first three games, Nnaji averaged 21.7 points and 6.7 rebounds -- while shooting an eye-popping 81.3% from the field. He added to that to 19 points and four rebounds against New Mexico State on Sunday, a sneaky-good win given the Aggies won 30 games last season.
14. Tennessee Volunteers (3-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Alabama State (Wednesday)
I wasn't as high on Tennessee as some in the preseason, as there were major questions about the Volunteers' frontcourt and how they were going to replace Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Jordan Bone was another key personnel loss, but freshman Josiah-Jordan James was a capable replacement on the perimeter. Well, Rick Barnes certainly found his new frontcourt in Yves Pons and John Fulkerson. The junior duo went toe-to-toe with Washington's top-10 tandem of Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels and helped lead the Volunteers to an impressive 13-point win over the Huskies in Canada. Pons and Fulkerson combined for 29 points and nine rebounds. With Tennessee's backcourt as good as expected, the Volunteers are absolutely a threat in the SEC once again.
15. VCU Rams (4-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Florida Gulf Coast (Saturday)
The Rams' defense was never going to be an issue this season, but VCU's ability -- or lack thereof -- to score consistently was the only thing keeping it out of our preseason top 25. But after putting up 83 points against LSU last week, Mike Rhoades' team has the makings of a legitimate second-weekend threat in the NCAA tournament. VCU ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency last season and won 12 straight games to end the regular season, but their offensive output against good opponents left something to be desired. Having five guys in double figures against a good LSU team brings some optimism on that end moving forward.
Dropped out: Villanova (No. 10), Washington (No. 14), Memphis (No. 16)
16. Seton Hall Pirates(3-1)
Previous ranking:In the waiting room
This week: vs. Florida A&M (Saturday)
Myles Powell's performance against Michigan State is the biggest talking point of the week, as the star senior suited up five days after spraining his ankle to drop 37 points and nearly carry the Pirates to a marquee win. Powell then scored 26 points at Saint Louis as Seton Hall bounced back from the loss. He will need more consistency from his supporting cast, however. The Pirates have one of the tougher nonconference schedules in the country, with a showdown against Oregon leading off the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, a road trip to Ames to face Iowa State and a home tilt against Maryland coming in December.
Dropped out: Villanova (No. 10), Washington (No. 14), Florida (No. 15), Memphis (No. 16)
In the waiting room
Auburn: Bruce Pearl had to replace most of his starting perimeter group, but the Tigers haven't missed a beat. Samir Doughty had 33 points in Friday's win, whileJ'Von McCormickset a school record with 16 assists.
Utah State: We're still waiting for Neemias Queta to suit up for the Aggies, but we're also waiting for them to get a solid win on the ledger before moving them into the rankings. Friday's game in Jamaica against LSU could qualify.
Xavier: The Musketeers were a team we had earmarked for a hot start given their early season schedule, and they've held serve so far after close wins over Missouri and Missouri State. Travis Steele has one of the most experienced teams in the country, with three seniors and two juniors among his top six.
Patterson gets a one-handed jam off the quick turnover
Addison Patterson gets the steal and dunk just seconds after his teammate Payton Pritchard drains a 3-pointer.