Men's Power Rankings: Houston joins Purdue, UConn for the No. 1 debate

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, February 26, 2024

For the first time in months, we have a full-fledged three-way battle for No. 1. What had been a UConn vs. Purdue debate now includes Houston. UConn's 19-point loss at Creighton last week has temporarily removed the Huskies' shield of invincibility at the top, meaning it now comes down to résumés to decide which team among the three candidates is No. 1.

The Huskies' metrics aren't quite as strong as the other two programs', but they own double-digit wins over North Carolina, Marquette and Creighton and had looked utterly dominant with a healthy Donovan Clingan before the road loss to the Bluejays. They're 9-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents (tied for the most Q1 wins in the country), 14-3 against Q1 and Q2 (the second most in that category) and don't have any losses outside Q1.

Purdue stayed at No. 2 last week after losing at Ohio State but has a couple wins over Rutgers and Michigan to add to its case for No. 1. The Boilermakers are No. 1 in both résumé-based metrics (ESPN's strength of record and KPI) and No. 2 in the NET, BPI and KenPom. They're tied with UConn for the most Q1 wins and have the most Q1 and Q2 wins in the country (17-3). Matt Painter's team owns victories over Arizona, Tennessee, Marquette, Alabama and Illinois.

That brings us to Houston, which has been ranked No. 1 at KenPom since the start of December and hasn't relinquished that spot. The Cougars are also No. 1 in the NET and BPI. Interestingly enough, they lost three Q1 wins between Saturday and Sunday due to losses on Saturday by Utah, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. As a result, they have seven Q1 wins -- two fewer than Purdue and UConn -- and 13 combined Q1 and Q2 wins. Before last week, they didn't quite have the quality wins to get to the top, but victories over Iowa State and at Baylor provided the boost to put them in the conversation.

In a very tight race, then, Purdue's combination of wins and metrics gives the Boilermakers the edge.

On to this week's awards and rankings ...

Team of the Week: Houston Cougars

Beating two top-15 teams, including one on the road, is enough to earn this honor -- even when you're in contention for the No. 1 ranking in college basketball. Houston opened its week by avenging its first loss of the season, beating Iowa State 73-65. The Cougars jumped out to an early lead, completely stifling the Cyclones for the first 15 minutes of the game. ISU would get within four in the second half, but Jamal Shead (26 points, 6 assists) made plays when it mattered and sealed the victory.

Houston then went on the road and knocked off Baylor, again owning the opening 20 minutes and taking a 16-point lead into the break. The Bears came all the way back and had a chance to win it in the final seconds when Yves Missi missed a free throw with 4.4 seconds left. Shead's buzzer 3 came a fraction too late, though, and the game went to overtime. The Cougars eventually pulled out the 82-76 win, with Emanuel Sharp and J'Wan Roberts helping overcome Shead's second-half shooting woes. Houston now has a one-game lead in the Big 12 in the Cougars' first season in the league.

Player of the Week: Hunter Sallis, Wake Forest Demon Deacons

There were plenty of high-level performances this week: Arkansas' Khalif Battle went for 42 points on just 15 shots in a win over Missouri;Marquette's Kam Jones scored 34 points in back-to-back wins;Kentucky's Justin Edwards had 28 points on perfect 10-for-10 shooting to beat Alabama; Daniss Jenkins averaged 21.0 points and 5.5 assists in a huge 2-0 week for St. John's; Illinois' duo of Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon Jr. had massive showings; and Tarleton State's Devon Barnes put up 27.5 points as the Texans upset Grand Canyon and closed the gap in the WAC. But when it came to fantastic individual performances in season-changing weeks, none was better than Sallis'.

The former five-star recruit, who struggled during his two seasons at Gonzaga, has been one of the best transfers in the country this season -- and has saved some of his best basketball for February. He opened the week with 17 points and five assists in a blowout win over Pittsburgh, then followed it up with 29 points and six rebounds on 11-for-13 shooting in Saturday's win over Duke. His was the type of week that could vault the Demon Deacons from the bubble into the NCAA tournament field. He's now averaging 18.7 points on the season, and 21.0 points on 60.6% shooting from 3 in his past seven games.

Wins of the Week: Creighton Bluejays 85, UConn Huskies 66;Washington State Cougars 77, Arizona Wildcats 74

Neither Washington State nor Creighton could complete a 2-0 week, with Saturday losses taking them out of the mix for Team of the Week. So, two highly impressive top-five victories have to settle for sharing Win of the Week.

Creighton completely turned things around from its first meeting against UConn earlier in the season -- when the Bluejays lost by 14 in a game that wasn't nearly that close. On the second go-round Tuesday, the Bluejays jumped out to a 14-point halftime lead, double that of UConn's biggest halftime deficit to that point of the season. The Bluejays matched the 48 points from the two teams' first meeting -- with nearly 19 minutes left in the game. Steven Ashworth was terrific early, Baylor Scheierman made big plays late. And it all rounded out to become Creighton's first win over a No. 1 team in program history.

Meanwhile, Washington State briefly took first place in the Pac-12 standings for the first time since 1986 with a road win at Arizona, completing the season sweep of the Wildcats and winning in Tucson for the second year in a row. The back-and-forth game Thursday night had Arizona on top in the final minute, but then Washington State picked up a loose ball in the paint, found Jaylen Wells in the corner -- and he buried a 3 while getting fouled by Keshad Johnson for a go-ahead four-point play. Kyle Smith will have Wazzu dancing for the first time since 2008.

Coach of the Week: Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago Ramblers

First, let's show some love to some of the coaches who've already clinched at least a share of their conference's regular-season titles: Amir Abdur-Rahim (South Florida), A.W. Hamilton (Eastern Kentucky), John Becker (Vermont), Alan Huss (High Point), Matt Langel (Colgate), Bucky McMillan (Samford), Greg Kampe (Oakland) and Randy Bennett (Saint Mary's).

Loyola Chicago entered the season picked eighth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, coming off a disappointing 10-21 campaign in Valentine's second year at the helm. Things didn't start off promising this season either, with a home loss to UIC in mid-November and a 6-5 record in mid-December. But since their Dec. 16 loss at South Florida -- a loss that has, it must be said, aged well -- the Ramblers are 14-2 and tied for first in the A-10 with Richmond, with four games to go.

This week, they crushed George Mason by 21 points -- days after the Patriots beat Dayton to blow the A-10 standings wide open. The race might come down to Friday's showdown between the Flyers and Ramblers, although Richmond could get back in the race, with games remaining against VCU and at Mason.

Three teams with questions

Virginia Cavaliers: UVa's offense has been utterly abysmal in its past three games, with fewer than 50 points scored in each. Only two teams in ACC history have longer streaks of scoring fewer than 50 points, per ESPN Stats & Information. The Cavaliers have totaled 134 points and eight 3-pointers in three games. They're now ranked No. 14 in the league in offensive efficiency.

Ole Miss Rebels: After opening the season with 13 straight wins and an 18-3 record at the end of January, the Rebels have fallen apart. A 13-point home loss to South Carolina on Saturday was their fifth loss in six games and sent them to the wrong side of the bubble. Their metrics have been poor all season, and now they're just 4-8 against Quadrants 1 and 2. Wednesday against Alabama looms as a must-win.

Texas A&M Aggies: It's officially danger time for Buzz Williams and the Aggies. They've lost four in a row to drop to 15-12 overall and 6-8 in the SEC, including getting shellacked by Tennessee on Saturday night. That losing streak also includes losses to Vanderbilt and Arkansas. A&M has a strange résumé with six Quadrant 1 wins and four Quadrant 3 losses. Wednesday's home game against South Carolina has to jump-start a winning run.

Power Rankings

1. Purdue Boilermakers (25-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Michigan State (Saturday)

Purdue's case to be the overall 1-seed come Selection Sunday might hinge on the next three games: vs. the Spartans on Saturday, at Illinoisnext weekand vs.Wisconsin to close out the season. That's three more Quadrant 1 opportunities before the Big Ten tournament. Meanwhile, Zach Edey had another incredible week of basketball, going for 25 points and seven boards in the blowout win over Rutgers and following it up with 35 points and 15 rebounds against Michigan. There's zero drama in the Wooden Award race.

2. Houston Cougars (24-3)

Previous ranking:

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

With Jamal Shead struggling to make shots in the second half, Houston needed his supporting cast to step up against Baylor on Saturday. The Cougars' top two scorers ended up being Emanuel Sharp and J'Wan Roberts, two players who have consistently come up big in spots this season. Sharp is playing some of his best basketball this year, averaging 17.6 points in his past three games, including 20 against Iowa State and 18 against Baylor. Roberts had 17 points, 8 boards, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 6 steals; in Houston's last road game, at Cincinnati, he had 20 points and eight rebounds.

3. UConn Huskies (25-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Seton Hall (Sunday)

While Tristen Newton's 27 points against Creighton and triple-double against Villanova -- the fourth of his career and second of the season -- added to his growing legacy in Storrs, Cam Spencer's performances in those two games underlined why he might be the Huskies' most important player. Spencer has scored six or fewer points just four times all season, with three of them coming in UConn's losses. The Huskies needed a bounce-back performance Saturday, and Spencer had 25 points, tying his season high. In their losses, he averaged 5.7 points while shooting 25.9% from the field and 14.3% from 3. In their wins, it's 16.3 points, 51.9% on field goals and 47.4% on 3s.

4. Tennessee Volunteers (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Auburn (Wednesday), at Alabama (Saturday)

While Arizona is still the fourth 1-seed in most projected brackets, the Wildcats' loss to Washington State at least opens the door for another team to grab the last spot. And Tennessee's upcoming two games could dictate how strong a shot the Vols have to do that. Their metrics are very strong, they don't have any Quadrant 3 or 4 losses (unlike Arizona and North Carolina), but they're .500 against Quadrant 1 teams compared to Arizona's 7-4 and Carolina's 7-4. That's why this week is so crucial.

5. Arizona Wildcats (21-6)

Previous ranking:

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

Arizona's offensive performance against Washington State on Thursday was its third worst of the season and its second worst in Pac-12 play. The only conference game in which the Wildcats were less efficient offensively? Their three-point loss at ... Washington State on Jan. 13. In both games, Caleb Love shouldered nearly all of the perimeter offense. Pelle Larsson was in single digits in both games, Kylan Boswell totaled six points in the two games. Overall, players not named Caleb Love shot 3-for-17 from 3-point range.

6. Iowa State Cyclones (21-6)

Previous ranking:

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

Curtis Jones' status as one of the best sixth men in the country continues to grow in impressive fashion. He has now scored in double figures in 10 straight games, averaging 13.7 points and shooting 35.5% from 3-point range. Another bench guard stepped up in a much-needed situation Saturday against West Virginia, too: Former Wofford transfer Jackson Paveletzke scored nine points in his first game playing double-figure minutes in more than a month.

7. Marquette Golden Eagles (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Providence (Wednesday), at Creighton (Saturday)

Had Hunter Sallis not been lights out Saturday, Kam Jones might have been a shoo-in for Player of the Week. He was terrific against DePaul on Wednesday, finishing with 34 points on 8-for-10 3-point shooting, and continued his hot shooting against Xavier on Sunday, making six more 3s en route to another 34-point outing. After three subpar performances following his 31 points at Georgetown on Feb. 3, Jones appears to be back to his best.

8. North Carolina Tar Heels (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Miami (Monday), vs. NC State (Saturday)

Winning at Virginia for the first time since 2012 -- along with Duke's loss to Wake Forest earlier in the day -- gave the Tar Heels a one-game lead atop the ACC standings. They haven't won an outright ACC regular-season title since 2017 and haven't won a share of the title since 2019. Carolina's next three games are at home against inferior teams -- Miami, NC State and Notre Dame -- which means it could clinch at least a share before the regular-season finale at Duke.

9. Kansas Jayhawks (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. BYU (Tuesday), at Baylor (Saturday)

Saturday was a much-needed offensive explosion for the Jayhawks. More impressively, it came without Kevin McCullar Jr.For the first time since Feb. 3, Kansas scored more than one point per possession, even though it made just three 3-pointers. Dajuan Harris Jr.hit double figures six times in his first 22 games of the season but has now hit that threshold in four of the past five games, averaging 12.2 points, 5.8 assists and just 1.4 turnovers in that stretch.

10. Auburn Tigers (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Tennessee (Wednesday), vs. Mississippi State (Saturday)

Jaylin Williams' knee injury will keep him out at least another couple weeks, so we got our first look at potential adjustments in his absence. Coach Bruce Pearl actually made two changes to the starting lineup against Georgia, inserting sixth man Chad Baker-Mazara and backup forward Chaney Johnson, with Tre Donaldson moving to the bench. Both new starters responded: Baker-Mazara led the way with 25 points, while Johnson finished with a season-high 16 points.

11. Alabama Crimson Tide (19-8)

Previous ranking:

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

Alabama's defense has been a trouble spot all season, but the Crimson Tide play so fast and are so efficient offensively it hasn't mattered in most games over the second half. But games like Saturday, when they allowed 117 points to Kentucky, bring back memories of other bad defensive games: 99 points allowed to Auburn; 91 to Tennessee; 92 to LSU; 93 to Florida; 92 to Ohio State; 92 to Purdue; 91 to Oregon. According to, Alabama ranks No. 162 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency against Quadrant 1 opponents.

12. Creighton Bluejays (20-8)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Seton Hall (Wednesday), vs. Marquette (Saturday)

One positive and one negative for Creighton, much like its week (win over UConn, loss at St. John's). The plus: Entering Sunday, Steven Ashworth was on a tear, averaging 15.6 points, 5.3 assists, 39.5% from 3 in 10 games after averaging 8.2 points and shooting 33.7% from 3 in the first 17 of the season. He struggled against the Johnnies, though. The minus: Creighton's defense has been inconsistent in recent weeks. Through the first six games of conference play, it had the league's second-best defense, narrowly behind Marquette. In the 11 games since, the Bluejays are seventh in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency at

13. Duke Blue Devils (21-6)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Louisville (Wednesday), vs. Virginia (Saturday)

The Blue Devils will be watching Kyle Filipowski's status this week, following his injury in Wake Forest's court storming on Saturday. Jon Scheyer's backup down low is Ryan Young, who has been capable of solid stretches off the bench, but he obviously doesn't have the mobility and inside-outside ability of Filipowski. Five-star freshman Sean Stewart is a high-level rebounder, but he has played four or fewer minutes in three of Duke's past four games. Could Scheyer go small and use Mark Mitchell as a slashing 5?

14. Kentucky Wildcats (19-8)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: at Mississippi State (Tuesday), vs. Arkansas (Saturday)

It's hard to imagine a team with more impressive back-to-back weekends than Kentucky, with its wins at Auburn and over Alabama. Of course, there was a one-point buzzer loss at LSU Tigers in between, but there has been a clear uptick in performance from the Wildcats. Between Jan. 13 and Feb. 10, when they went 4-5, they were ranked No. 36 in efficiency margin at, and No. 202 on the defensive end of the floor. In the four games since, they're No. 6 and No. 9, respectively.

15. Illinois Fighting Illini (20-7)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Minnesota (Wednesday), at Wisconsin (Saturday)

Illinois would've likely been a couple spots higher had it not blown a seven-point lead in the final 35 seconds -- after a 14-point second-half lead -- at Penn State on Wednesday. While Terrence Shannon Jr., scored 35 against the Nittany Lions, the star of the week for the Illini was Coleman Hawkins, who went for a career-high 30 points against Iowa on Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hawkins was the first Big Ten player with 30 points, 5 assists and 5 steals in a game since Mateen Cleaves did it against Northwestern in 1998.

16. Baylor Bears (19-8)

Previous ranking:

This week: at TCU (Monday), vs. Kansas (Saturday)

While Baylor owns some very good wins this season -- against Auburn on a neutral court and Iowa State at home at the top of the pile -- its defense makes it difficult to consistently beat high-level opponents. In Quadrant 1 games this season, the Bears rank No. 148 in adjusted defensive efficiency at, and they're 10th in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency in league play at KenPom. They've held just one of their past 10 opponents to fewer than one point per possession.

Dropped out: San Diego State Aztecs (No. 16)

In the waiting room

Saint Mary's Gaels: Tuesday was a test for the Gaels, who trailed San Francisco in the final 10 minutes. Luckily they came out with the win, then cruised to another over San Diego to run their unbeaten streak to 15 games -- currently the nation's longest. They haven't won an outright WCC regular-season title since 2012, but with a two-game lead entering the final week of the season, Randy Bennett's team should have it locked up before the finale against Gonzaga.

South Carolina Gamecocks: The Gamecocks bounced back from their two-game losing streak with an easier-than-expected win at Ole Miss. Their defense was back on track, holding the Rebels to 0.91 points per possession -- their first time holding an opponent below one point per possession since Jan. 30. B.J. Mack is now averaging 16.8 points in his past four games.

San Diego State Aztecs: The Aztecs lost their grip on first place in the Mountain West with a road loss at Utah State but responded with a 32-point win at Fresno State on Saturday. They held Fresno to 0.69 points per possession, their best defensive performance of the season and their best since December 20, 2022, against UC San Diego.

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