Men's Power Rankings: Every team's needs going forward

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Thursday, December 28, 2023

After UConn beat Gonzaga in Seattle and Purdue and Arizona battled to the final minutes in Indianapolis, it felt like the top five teams nationally had separated themselves a bit.

Then the Huskies got dropped at Seton Hall by 15 points, and Arizona lost to Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas. How far do both squads drop?

Well, not that far.

Arizona's defeat by one point in double overtime did more to help FAU than it did to hurt the Wildcats. UConn is a more intriguing case, as the loss of Donovan Clingan for up to a month due to a foot injury completely changes the dynamic of that team. But the Huskies' résumé and metrics still stack up favorably to anyone behind them in the rankings.

The next couple of tiers of teams have been mostly inconsistent through the first two months of the season, but Tennessee has quietly ripped off five wins in a row (including one over Illinois that is growing in stature); Kentucky's loss to UNCW is really its only negative; the Illini continue to impress; and FAU has seemingly fully rebounded from its home loss to Bryant. These teams are knocking on the door of the top five.

You've probably noticed we've adjusted the Power Rankings schedule over the holidays, with both Christmas Day and New Year's Day falling on Mondays. But we couldn't go two weeks without the rankings, so updating them the day that games really get back underway after the Christmas break felt like a good compromise. The regular Power Rankings format and schedule will resume on Jan. 8 -- beginning a 70-day sprint to Selection Sunday.

So, on to this week's rankings, along with one thing each team needs in the second half of the 2023-24 season.

1. Purdue Boilermakers (11-1)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Eastern Kentucky (Friday), at Maryland (Tuesday), vs. Illinois (Friday)

It feels unfair to point this out given how well Purdue's guards played against Arizona -- and how well Braden Smith has played all season -- but the Boilermakers essentially just have to continue playing with poise late in games. Flashes of last season crept back in after the turnover-prone finish in the loss to Northwestern, but Purdue has given it away nine or fewer times in three of the four games since that defeat. The exception was the Arizona win, although Purdue shook off some struggles midway through the second half to finish strong.

2. Kansas Jayhawks (11-1)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Wichita State in Kansas City (Saturday), vs. TCU (Saturday)

In an ideal world, KU would get consistent shooting and production from one of its several rotation guards, but the Jayhawks just need someone to make open shots. None of Elmarko Jackson, Nicolas Timberlake or Jamari McDowell has strung together a stretch of great games, but they've all done it at one time or another. The latest was Timberlake, who came out of nowhere to play a season-high 29 minutes and score 13 points against Yale last weekend.

3. Houston Cougars (12-0)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Penn (Saturday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)

Houston already lost Terrance Arceneaux for the season with an Achilles injury, so the Cougars need to stay healthy moving forward. Starting forward J'Wan Roberts has been dealing with knee problems for most of the season and then played just eight minutes in the Cougars' last game against Texas State. Kelvin Sampson would also love Damian Dunn to return to his Temple form; after scoring 15-plus points in two of his first three games, he hasn't scored more than 10 in a game.

4. Arizona Wildcats (9-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: at California (Friday), at Stanford (Sunday), vs. Colorado (Thursday), vs. Utah (Saturday)

Tommy Lloyd upgraded his perimeter defense in the offseason, adding more toughness and versatility. And it played out that way through the first eight games of the season. But the Wildcats have had trouble containing opposing guards over the past couple weeks. Purdue's Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer torched them, and Florida Atlantic's Johnell Davis dropped 35 last weekend. They contained Alabama's guards from a scoring perspective, but the Tide also missed 32 3-pointers.

5. UConn Huskies (11-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. DePaul (Tuesday), at Butler (Friday)

UConn will want a healthy Donovan Clingan back as soon as possible. The Huskies' first game without him came against St. John's over the weekend, and Samson Johnson did an admirable job filling his shoes, finishing with 16 points and four boards. Dan Hurley will have to go small at times with Alex Karaban at the five, but he'll also have to throw 6-foot-10 freshman Youssouf Singare on the floor for a few minutes here and there.

6. Tennessee Volunteers (9-3)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Norfolk State (Tuesday), vs. Ole Miss (Saturday)

After theVolunteers went 1-2 and struggled mightily on offense at the Maui Invitational, Rick Barnes put Zakai Zeigler, who spent the offseason recovering from ACL surgery, into the starting lineup. The offense has taken off once again. The Volunteers looked improved at that end of the floor early on, but the troubles in Hawaii made the steps forward look like a mirage. Zeigler, however, has jump-started the attack, with his speed and ability to get into the teeth of the defense. Tennessee has scored at least 1.03 points per possession in each of the past six games, all Zeigler starts. That's likely the way forward.

7. Kentucky Wildcats (9-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Illinois State (Friday), at Florida (Saturday)

If the freshman wall doesn't exist in Lexington, Kentucky's guards, and offense, should be among the best in college basketball. John Calipari gave the keys to D.J. Wagner, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, and they have co-existed as playmakers and complemented each other well on the offensive end. Dillingham and Sheppard have been two of the four or five best freshmen in the country, and Wagner is averaging 11.7 points and 3.6 assists. There are few teams more dynamic than the Wildcats.

8. Illinois Fighting Illini (9-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (Friday), vs. Northwestern (Tuesday), at Purdue (Friday)

Illinois has its best offense since it was 1-seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament, and Terrence Shannon Jr.playing like a first-team All-American is at the heart of it. But it's been the supporting cast showing some consistency lately that has taken the Illini to a different level. Oregon transfer Quincy Guerrier averaged 7.3 points in his first eight games; he was at 21.7 points over the past three. Coleman Hawkins hadn't scored in double digits all season until putting up at least 12 points in each of his previous three outings.

9. Florida Atlantic Owls (10-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: at Florida Gulf Coast (Saturday), vs. East Carolina (Tuesday), at Charlotte (Saturday)

Even though the Owls beat Arizona with Vladislav Goldin playing just 23 of 50 minutes last weekend, they'll need him on the floor to reach the heights of last season. Goldin has committed at least four fouls in five separate games, including both of FAU's losses, and he was dominant against Illinois (23 points) before fouling out after just 19 minutes. The Owls ranked 12th nationally last season in 2-point shooting percentage; they're down closer to 80th this campaign.

10. Marquette Golden Eagles (10-3)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Creighton (Saturday), at Seton Hall (Saturday)

Shaka Smart could use a healthy Stevie Mitchell, but the Golden Eagles also need to be more consistent from 3-point range. Their offense isn't quite as crisp and effective as it was last season, when it ranked in the top 10 nationally, and their perimeter shooting during defeats has been a major culprit. In the losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Providence, the Golden Eagles shot 16-for-66 (24.2%) from behind the arc.

11. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-3)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Charleston Southern (Friday), at Pittsburgh (Tuesday), at Clemson (Saturday)

More defense like North Carolina played against Oklahoma -- with the Tar Heels forcing 18 turnovers and holding the Sooners to 0.92 points per possession -- could make UNC the favorite in the ACC. And Hubert Davis would love for Armando Bacot to regain his dominant form on the interior. Bacot averaged 22.7 points and 13.3 rebounds in the first three games. Since then, he is posting 12.3 points and 10.1 rebounds. Great numbers for 99.9% of the country, but we've seen Bacot be utterly unguardable inside.

12. Oklahoma Sooners (10-1)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Central Arkansas (Thursday), vs. Monmouth (Sunday), vs. Iowa State (Saturday)

Oklahoma lost its first game of the season last week against North Carolina, and the Sooners' turnover issues were at the forefront once again. As previously mentioned, they turned it over 18 times; it was the fourth straight game they had given it away on at least 21% of possessions. For the season, theSooners rank No. 248 at KenPom in turnover percentage, and they have been poor taking care of the ball against high-major competition.

13. Memphis Tigers (10-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Austin Peay (Saturday), at Tulsa (Thursday), vs. SMU (Sunday)

If Nae'Qwan Tomlin can play the way he did for Kansas State in the NCAA tournament last season, Memphis will have a rotation as balanced, experienced and productive as any in college basketball. Tomlin scored in double figures in all four games in the Big Dance last season, averaging 12.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. He'll add rim protection, defense and offensive rebounding. (As an aside, David Jones is averaging 25.0 points in his past six games. All-American.)

14. Colorado State Rams (11-1)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Adams State (Friday), vs. New Mexico (Tuesday), at Utah State (Saturday)

Niko Medved will just want his team to get healthy as soon as possible, as the Rams are still without Josiah Strong (wrist) and Jalen Lake (finger). Strong started all eight games before his injury, averaging 8.5 points, while Lake was playing 24 minutes a game off the bench and averaging 7.7 points. The Rams have a difficult start to Mountain West play, with road trips to Utah State, Boise State and Nevada in the first six games of the league season, in addition to opening with a game against visiting New Mexico.

15. Duke Blue Devils (8-3)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Queens (Saturday), vs. Syracuse (Tuesday), at Notre Dame (Saturday)

Since Tyrese Proctor went out injured, Jared McCain has been terrific. In the campaign's first eight games, McCain averaged 7.6 points and made 13 total 3-pointers. In the three contests with Proctor sidelined, McCain averaged 18.3 points with nine 3-pointers. The former five-star recruit is playing with confidence and giving Jon Scheyer a consistent perimeter threat. How McCain performs once Proctor returns will be key.

16. Baylor Bears (10-2)

Previous ranking:

Next 10 days: vs. Cornell (Tuesday), at Oklahoma State (Saturday)

Baylor just needs to get some confidence back after consecutive losses to Michigan State and Duke, although last week's 59-point win over Mississippi Valley State was a good start. The Bears start two freshmen and two mid-major transfers; having to get up for top-50 opponents every three or four days is an adjustment. That also has been a factor defensively. Baylor ranked last in the Big 12 last season in adjusted defensive efficiency, and the Bears are struggling against high-major competition once again, allowing at least 1.07 points per possession against Auburn, Duke, Florida and Michigan State.

Dropped out: Creighton Bluejays (No. 11)

In the waiting room

Clemson Tigers: Assuming Clemson takes care of business against Radford on Friday, the Tigers have a chance to establish themselves as the clearest competition to Duke in the ACC, with games at Miami and versusNorth Carolina to start January. Wins there and the Tigers will be a legitimate championship threat.

Providence Friars: Kim English suddenly has the Friars in the national discussion after beating Marquette by 15 then holding off Butler in overtime four days later. Providence now owns wins over the Golden Eagles and Wisconsin. And Devin Carter is playing the best basketball of his career.

BYU Cougars: BYU has risen all the way into the top five in KenPom and to No. 7 in the BPI. It is the Cougars' edge from the perimeter that has been the true difference-maker. They lead the nation in 3s made at 12.8 per game, while opponents make just 5.0 per game (sixth nationally) at a 24.9% clip (second nationally).

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