Men's Power Rankings: UConn, Tennessee win big; Kansas, Duke fall

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, January 22, 2024

Kansas is tracking to be one of the bigger conundrums for the NCAA tournament selection committee. More immediately, it's tracking to be one of the tougher teams to slot in the Power Rankings.

The Jayhawks have been near the top of the rankings and seedings all season, while the predictive metrics -- KenPom, BPI,, -- have been comparatively lower for weeks, instead ranking them in the teens. From a résumé standpoint, the Jayhawks have the best collection of high-end wins in the country: against UConn, Tennessee and Kentucky, three teams ranked inside the top five of this week's Power Rankings. Those are somewhat mitigated by bad losses at UCF and West Virginia.

So, is Bill Self's squad closer to the 1-seed it was projected as before Saturday's loss to the Mountaineers? Or will the metrics and bad losses remove the Jayhawks from consideration? There's still plenty of time left for them to solidify their credentials, but there are some real negatives worth monitoring.

Who else falls into this bucket? Kentucky has been playing better than Kansas in recent weeks, so it's not as big of a talking point, but the Wildcats have a great win over North Carolina ... and not much else. There's a home loss to UNC Wilmington, and the Wildcats' rankings in most metrics are actually lower than those of Kansas.

We've discussed Houston and Auburn before, but both are metrics darlings despite not having much heft to their profiles thus far.

The Cougars are No. 1 in predictive metrics with a historically good defense, though their best wins this season are over Dayton and Texas Tech. Road trips to BYU and Kansas in the next couple of weeks will be telling.

Meanwhile, the Tigers are top five in both KenPom and BPI, though they don't have a single Quadrant 1 win, and their best win is over Texas A&M at home. February games against Kentucky and Tennessee could make or break their 1-seed hopes.

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

Team of the Week: UConn Huskies

It was a relatively light week for candidates for this award, with the two biggest wins of the week coming from teams (West Virginia and Pitt) that were coming off double-digit losses. Teams that defeated two NCAA tournament teams were few and far between, though, so the Huskies get the nod after dismantling Creighton in Storrs and then hanging on to beat Villanova on the road.

The 62-48 win over Creighton was a defensive clinic. UConn limited Creighton to 0.78 points per possession, the Bluejays' worst offensive performance in Big East play in two years. It was the reigning national champion's best defensive effort since the 2023-24 season opener against Northern Arizona -- Creighton scored 18 points in the final seven minutes just to get to 48 points.

On Saturday, the Huskies showed a ton of resilience and an ability to win close games we haven't seen much of this season given all their blowouts. They scored the first 11 points of the game, but Villanova came back to take the lead twice. The first time, UConn responded with an 11-0 run. The second time, a 13-0 run. And late in the game, every time Nova tied things up, the Huskies had an answer from Tristen Newton (25 points) or Alex Karaban.

Player of the Week: Dalton Knecht, Tennessee Volunteers

Knecht announced his arrival to high-major basketball before the season officially started, with the Northern Colorado transfer scoring 28 points and looking like the best player on the floor in a preseason exhibition game against Michigan State. Aside from an ankle injury that impacted him for a few weeks, Knecht has barely slowed down since. But he's playing the best basketball of his season right now.

The 6-foot-6 wing opened the week with 39 points and eight rebounds in a 19-point win over Florida and then went for 25 points and four boards in a 91-71 win over Alabama. Knecht made all 17 of his free throw attempts across the two games and shot 16-for-31 and 5-for-12 from 3-point range. Over his past four games, he's averaging 32.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 53.1% from the field and 48.3% from 3.

Wins of the Week: West Virginia Mountaineers 91, Kansas Jayhawks 85 &Pittsburgh Panthers 80, Duke Blue Devils 76

The post-Bob Huggins era in Morgantown has been difficult for interim coach Josh Eilert, who entered the weekend with a 6-11 overall record and just one Big 12 win. But after showing some promise in the victory over Texas last weekend, the Mountaineers landed their biggest win of the season by beating Kansas on Saturday. They came up with big play after big play in the final minutes, taking the lead on a Patrick Suemnick layup and then grabbing three offensive rebounds and hitting nine free throws in the final 40 seconds. The win snapped a six-game losing streak for West Virginia in the head-to-head series.

Meanwhile, Pitt had the most impressive road win of the week. The Panthers jumped out to an 11-point lead and never trailed by more than a basket, with a Jaland Lowe 3-pointer with 43 seconds left putting them up four and essentially clinching the game. It was Pitt's first win at Duke since 1979. Sure, the Blue Devils were without two starters, but the Panthers entered the game 1-5 in the ACC, their only win the past month coming over Louisville. And, here's a great stat from ESPN Stats & Information: Jeff Capel is only the second former Duke player in the past 70 seasons to win at Cameron Indoor Stadium as an opposing head coach, with the other one being Lefty Driesell.

Coach of the Week: Bucky McMillan, Samford Bulldogs

Since taking over the program in 2020, McMillan has slowly improved the Bulldogs, which includes winning a share of the SoCon regular-season title last season. This season, he has his squad ready to take the next step, and Tuesday's win at Western Carolinaproved it. The Catamounts hadn't lost at home all season and hadn't lost a game at all since Dec. 5, until Samford went into Cullowhee, North Carolina, and emerged with a 75-71 win.

The Bulldogs then took care of business against Mercer, 87-80, to maintain their unbeaten SoCon record. They currently own the nation's longest winning streak at 17 games, and are 17-2 overall (6-0 in league play). McMillan's style -- termed "Bucky Ball" -- is predicated on fast-paced basketball, a deep bench and a lot of made 3s. All of which has put Samford in position to make noise in March -- and McMillan in position to potentially make noise on the coaching carousel around the same time.

Three teams with questions

Miami Hurricanes: After reaching the Final Four last season and entering November with top-15 expectations, the Hurricanes are in a bit of a tailspin. They've lost four of their past five games to drop below .500 in the ACC, with home losses to Louisville and Florida State in that stretch. They badly need to start stacking wins.

Oklahoma State Cowboys: In a vacuum, losing at home to Kansas and at Kansas State isn't the end of the world. But the Cowboys are now 0-5 in the Big 12, and opportunities for wins outside of this weekend's home game against West Virginia are slim. They could be headed for a last-place finish in the league.

Missouri Tigers: Dennis Gates and the Tigers are struggling in Year 2, after surpassing all expectations in Year 1. They lost by 12 at home to Florida on Saturday, their fifth SEC loss in a row. They've won just one game since Dec. 4 -- at home against Central Arkansas -- with losses in eight of their past nine games overall. It won't get easier this week at Texas A&M and South Carolina.

Power Rankings

1. UConn Huskies (17-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Xavier (Sunday)

The return of Donovan Clingan came at the perfect time for UConn, which needed him against Creighton's Ryan Kalkbrenner and Villanova's Eric Dixon. His size and shot-blocking ability bring a completely different dimension to the Huskies' defense, while his ability to roll to the rim and finish forced Nova to make early adjustments. Clingan totaled 12 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks in 40 minutes off the bench in his first two games back. As his minutes increase, the No. 1 team in the country will only get better.

2. Purdue Boilermakers (17-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Michigan (Tuesday), at Rutgers (Sunday)

Zach Edey has been putting up otherworldly numbers the past couple of weeks, and it's not being talked about nearly enough. Since the loss at Nebraska on Jan. 9, he has averaged 31.0 points and 17.3 rebounds, shot 62% from the floor and blocked 2.7 shots per game. He had 33 and 14 in the win at Indiana and followed it up with 30 and 18 against Iowa. That this is not the biggest story in college basketball is as good an indicator as any that Edey is a shoo-in to win the Wooden Award for a second straight season.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels (15-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Wake Forest (Monday), at Florida State (Saturday)

Since Hubert Davis took over for Roy Williams, Carolina hasn't exactly been known for its bench usage. In his first two seasons at the helm, the Tar Heels ranked No. 348 and No. 360 in bench minutes, respectively, according to KenPom. This season, they're slightly higher -- and they're starting to get solid production from Louisville transfer Jae'Lyn Withers, who went for 15 and 10 against his former program, then scored nine against Boston College on Saturday.

4. Tennessee Volunteers (14-4)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Vanderbilt (Saturday)

UT's improved offense has received plenty of plaudits this season, but remember, this is still a truly elite defensive team, as it has been for four years in a row under Rick Barnes. Saturday was a good reminder of this. Alabama is ranked No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and the Tide were held to a season low in points per possession (0.92), a season high in turnover percentage (28.5%) and a 4-for-19 shooting performance from 3.

5. Kentucky Wildcats (14-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: at South Carolina (Tuesday), at Arkansas (Saturday)

How can we talk about anything besides Zvonimir Ivisic? Cleared less than six hours before tipoff against Georgia on Saturday, the 7-2 Croatian freshman had one of the more remarkable debuts we've seen. He finished with 13 points, 5 boards and 3 blocks, but it was the opening five-minute stretch where he scored 11 points (including three 3s), grabbed 3 boards, racked up 2 assists and blocked 2 shots that really opened eyes around college basketball. Big Z is a legitimate ceiling-raiser for Kentucky.

6. Houston Cougars (16-2)

Previous ranking:

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

After suffering its first two losses of the season, Houston got back on track with two blowout wins and two elite defensive performances, holding Texas Tech and UCF to a combined 96 points. The 57-42 win over UCF was a masterclass at that end of the floor. The Knights shot 15.9% from the floor and 13% from inside the arc. Their seven made field goals and three made 2-pointers were the fewest in a Division I game this season. That 15.9% shooting percentage was also the worst in Big 12 history.

7. Auburn Tigers (16-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Alabama (Wednesday), at Mississippi State (Saturday)

This is a statement week for Auburn. The Tigers have barely been pushed since they lost to Appalachian State on Dec. 3, then won 11 in a row by double digits. (All 16 of their wins this season have been by at least 11 points.) They passed their two previous conference road tests in convincing fashion, but the Tide and Bulldogs this week are a step up in weight class.

8. Arizona Wildcats (14-4)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Oregon State (Thursday), at Oregon (Saturday)

Arizona nearly suffered a stunning upset at the hands of UCLA, but the Wildcats erased a 19-point first-half deficit and a 17-point second-half deficit for the comeback win. A loss on Saturday would have raised serious concerns, as it would have put them at 5-5 since opening the season 8-0. Even with the win, however, there are some issues, particularly their defense inside the arc. After not allowing any of their first eight opponents to shoot better than 48.4% from 2, eight of their past 10 opponents have shot at least 51% on 2s.

9. Kansas Jayhawks (15-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Cincinnati (Monday), at Iowa State (Saturday)

KU suffered a huge upset at the hands of West Virginia on Saturday, but this time we can't blame it on the lack of a fifth or sixth guy to make plays -- both Johnny Furphy (13 points) and Nicolas Timberlake (12 points) made shots. This time, there was a bit of variance (WVU shot 12-for-21 from 3) and a severe lack of defensive rebounding late in the game. The Mountaineers rebounded 34.6% of their misses, their best offensive rebounding percentage in almost two months and the highest percentage Kansas has allowed since November.

10. Marquette Golden Eagles (13-5)

Previous ranking:

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

In Marquette's first two games without Sean Jones, and with Chase Ross already out, Shaka Smart badly needed Tyler Kolek to regain his form. And Kolek did, bouncing back from his dismal two-game stretch in losses to Seton Hall and Butler with performances reminiscent of his fantastic play last season: 21 points, 5 rebounds and 11 assists against Villanova, followed by 15 points, 6 rebounds and 11 assists in a one-point road win at St. John's.

11. Illinois Fighting Illini (14-4)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: at Northwestern (Wednesday), vs. Indiana (Saturday)

With Terrence Shannon Jr. back in the fold after a federal judge granted his request for a temporary restraining order -- allowing him to rejoin the team after he was suspended indefinitely following his December arrest on a felony rape charge -- Illinois is back in the Rankings. Shannon didn't start against Rutgers on Sunday but played 27 minutes off the bench and finished with 16 points and four assists. The continued stellar play of Justin Harmon is also worth mentioning: he had 18 points and eight boards off the bench Sunday, the fifth time in seven games he has hit double figures in scoring.

12. Wisconsin Badgers (14-4)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Minnesota (Tuesday), vs. Michigan State (Friday)

While the Badgers' offense is their best since before Greg Gard took over, their defense is their worst in the KenPom era. That hasn't been much of a factor in recent weeks, but they allowed 1.22 points per possession in back-to-back games against Penn State and Indiana this past week, with both teams shooting 40% or better from 3-point range. The offense is so good that it won't matter most nights, but it's something worth monitoring.

13. Oklahoma Sooners (15-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Texas (Tuesday), vs. Texas Tech (Saturday)

It was an important week for Oklahoma to take care of business, and the Sooners responded to their two-game losing streak by beating West Virginia at home and then going on the road to beat Cincinnati. Pay attention to the recent play of Jalon Moore. He had nine points and 10 boards against Cincinnati after going for 16 points and five rebounds against West Virginia. He's averaging 11.0 points and 7.4 rebounds in his past seven games after putting up 8.4 points and 4.8 boards in his first 10.

14. Dayton Flyers (15-2)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: at La Salle (Tuesday), at Richmond (Saturday)

DaRon Holmes II continues to perform at an All-American level for Anthony Grant. He went for 29 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks in a win over Saint Louis, then finished with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in Saturday's blowout over Rhode Island. He's now averaging 23.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, shooting 58% from the field and 44.4% from 3-point range, in five Atlantic 10 games.

15. Duke Blue Devils (13-4)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Louisville (Tuesday), vs. Clemson (Saturday)

Duke needs to get fully healthy again. The Blue Devils should have been able to beat Pitt at home on Saturday regardless, but they also struggled to take down Georgia Tech without Mark Mitchell and then couldn't beat the Panthers without Mitchell and Jeremy Roach. Jon Scheyer doesn't have much reliable depth even at full strength, as evidenced by four starters playing at least 35 minutes against Pitt. After Tuesday's game, the schedule stiffens up with the game against the Tigers and then trips to Virginia Tech and North Carolina.

16. Baylor Bears (14-4)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. TCU (Saturday)

Baylor hasn't been great on the road this season, losing by 24 to Michigan State in Detroit, struggling to beat Oklahoma State in early January and then losing to Kansas State and Texas last week. Those last two losses were by a combined six points, though, so there's no need to ring any alarm bells. The defeat to Kansas State did feature Baylor's worst offensive performance of the season, and the loss to Texas was the Bears' worst defensive performance of the campaign. One stat of note: Baylor is No. 1 in the country in 3-point percentage for the season at 42.1% -- but in Big 12 play the Bears are 11th, at 30.6%.

Dropped out: Memphis Tigers (No. 12), Utah State Aggies (No. 14)

In the waiting room

Creighton Bluejays: Greg McDermott's team couldn't get anything going against UConn last week, producing its worst offensive performance in a Big East game since 2021-22. The Bluejays shot just 6-for-26 from 3 and turned it over 14 times. But they bounced back with a triple-overtime victory at Seton Hall. Ryan Kalkbrenner dominated with 28 points, 9 boards and 7 blocks.

Iowa State Cyclones: ISU rebounded from its loss at BYU with an impressive road win at TCU, a home court that claimed Houston and Oklahoma as victims just a week ago. The Cyclones beat the Horned Frogs without Tamin Lipsey, who was out with a shoulder injury. T.J. Otzelberger will hope he'll be available for huge home games against Kansas State and Kansas this week, but Curtis Jones stepped up in his first start of the season, finishing with 17 points, 4 assists and 7 steals.

Utah State Aggies: A defensive collapse against New Mexico on Tuesday saw Utah State allow 99 points. For the second straight game, the Aggies also allowed the opposition to score at least 1.25 points per possession. When they struggle to guard, it's mostly inside the arc. The Lobos shot 69.4% from 2, while previous opponent UNLV shot 53.8% in its one-point loss. For the season, the Aggies rank No. 286 nationally in 2-point defense. It's even worse in Mountain West play: Utah State ranks 10th, allowing teams to shoot 56% inside the arc.

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