College basketball power rankings: Houston leaps to No. 1 – The Athletic

Brendan Marks and Brian BennettFeb 29, 2024

Thanks, Leap Year, for ruining our boilerplate “Welcome to March!” lede. (Also: How is the leap year still a thing in 2024? We digress.)

But calendar trickery aside, it is basically March — and by god, that’s our music playing. By this time next week, conference tournaments will already be underway, with several auto-bids nearly clinched. Isn’t that beautiful? Our bracket senses are already tingling. And since we should have some new readers this close to Selection Sunday — we, uh, hope we have some new readers — we’re trying to keep our penultimate Power Rankings a little neater. No cradle-to-current narrative for each team; just one number you need to know. Simple enough, right?

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One more thing before you get going: We’ve expanded our Power Rankings team! Introducing our latest five-star recruit, men’s college basketball editor Brian Bennett, who graciously agreed to fill in this week for an under-the-weather Kyle Tucker. OK, enough prelude. Onto the numbers, says the journalists.

1. Houston (25-3)

Last week: No. 3

One number to know: plus-31.99

That’s Houston’s adjusted efficiency margin as of Wednesday on KenPom, where it has ranked No. 1 since Dec. 1. Here’s how that compares to the five previous national champions’ adjusted EMs on Feb. 28:

Year Title team Adjusted EM on 2/28
2023 UConn plus-24.72
2022 Kansas plus-25.75
2021 Baylor plus-30.92
2019 Virginia plus-35.41
2018 Villanova plus-30.70

The point, other than “holy wow, that ’19 Virginia team,” is this: The Cougars are playing at a national title level and then some, in their first year inside the toughest league in the country. It sounds absurd to say, given that Houston rose to No. 1 in the polls this week and now leads these Power Rankings, but perhaps we’re not talking enough about Kelvin Sampson’s team as a true NCAA Tournament favorite. Two of their three losses this season were basically one-possession games at TCU and at Iowa State (and nobody’s winning in Hilton Coliseum this year). The other was a no-doubter at Kansas (and nobody wins in Phog Allen except BYU, apparently). We’ve become numb to how remarkable this all is, but Houston can definitely win it all. — Brian Bennett

2. Purdue (25-3)

Last week: 2

One number to know: 37.9

For as much as we’ve talked about Purdue’s supporting cast this season — TL;DR: it is much better, especially when Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones is on — if the Boilermakers are going to make their first Final Four since 1980, it’s going to be because of one man: Zach Edey. Which is what that 37.9 represents — the difference in Purdue’s net rating when Edey is on vs. off the floor, per CBB Analytics. (Shocker: That 37.9 differential is the largest for any single high-major player in the country.) Broken down further, Purdue scores 28.8 more points and allows 9.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with the Big Maple on the court. The dude is going to win back-to-back Wooden Awards, so none of this should be that surprising, but given the framing around Purdue from some national media — borderline ignoring the 7-foot-4 stud and only discussing his supporting cast — we wanted to reiterate just how sensational he’s been this year.

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Put it this way: When Edey’s on the floor, Purdue has the best offensive rating in the country. When he’s not? The Boilermakers equate to having the sixth-worst offensive rating of all high-major teams, per CBB Analytics … right between West Virginia and Vanderbilt. ‘Nuff said. — Brendan Marks

3. Connecticut (25-3)

Last week: 1

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One number to know: 2

No, that isn’t the number of lottery picks this team is liable to lose this summer. (Although that’s probably true, too.) Check out this chart of the worst loss by each of the last 20 NCAA Tournament champions:

SEASON NATIONAL CHAMPION WORST MARGIN OPPONENT
2022-23 Connecticut 12 at Providence
2021-22 Kansas 18 vs. Kentucky
2020-21 Baylor 13 at Kansas
2018-19 Virginia 10 (twice) vs. Duke/ Florida State (neutral)
2017-18 Villanova 8 at Butler
2016-17 North Carolina 15 at Miami
2015-16 Villanova 23 vs. Oklahoma (neutral)
2014-15 Duke 16 vs. Miami
2013-14 Connecticut 33 at Louisville
2012-13 Louisville 9 at Villanova
2011-12 Kentucky 7 vs. Vanderbilt (neutral)
2010-11 Connecticut 17 at St. John’s
2009-10 Duke 14 at NC State
2008-09 North Carolina 7 vs. Boston College
2007-08 Kansas 9 at Kansas State
2006-07 Florida 13 at Vanderbilt
2005-06 Florida 6 at South Carolina
2004-05 North Carolina 13 at Wake Forest
2003-04 Connecticut 16 vs. Georgia Tech (neutral)
2002-03 Syracuse 14 at Connecticut

Now that two should make more sense. It’s the number of national champions in the last 20 years with a loss as bad as the one UConn took last week at Creighton. That 19-point defeat may very well be an anomaly — how many other teams are gonna bang 14 3-pointers against the Huskies? — but it is interesting in the larger context of championship history. The Huskies at least bounced back as well as possible on Saturday vs. Villanova, clobbering the Wildcats by 24 at home. (As for the Wildcats, Kyle Neptune looks like he’s gonna go 0-for-2 on tournament appearances to start his Villanova coaching career. Ouchie.) We don’t mean to sow doubt around one of this season’s favorites — we couldn’t if we tried — but it was a peculiar loss, and one we’ll at least be thinking about entering March. You’re welcome for the reverse jinx, UConn fans! We now fully expect Dan Hurley’s team to run the table the rest of the season … which wouldn’t surprise us one bit. — Marks

Dalton Knecht: still awesome. (Eakin Howard / Getty Images)

4. Tennessee (22-6)

Last week: 5

One number to know: 4

Here is the list of players this season who have had four games of 35 points or more: Dalton Knecht. That’s it, that’s the list. The Volunteers’ flame-thrower matched his season high with 39 points in Wednesday’s 92-84 win over Auburn, surpassing Edey, Denver’s Tommy Bruner and New Orleans’ Jordan Johnson for the totally-not-arbitrary title of most 35-point performances. The power-conference players who have had more than four games of 35 points in a season since 2010-11, per Sports Reference: Marquette’s Markus Howard (twice), Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Oklahoma’s Trae Young. Knecht also has surpassed 30 points six times. Not a whole lot new here, except a reminder that Knecht is A) incredible; B) almost certain to win SEC player of the year; and C) one of the can’t-miss players in the NCAA Tournament, where he’s liable to lead Tennessee to new heights.

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Tennessee’s scoring sensation is the All-American no one saw coming

By the way, that number — 4 — could end up being the Vols’ place on the seed list on Selection Sunday. With Wednesday’s Q1 win and three more Q1 opportunities left in the regular season, plus at least a couple more in the SEC tournament, Tennessee has an excellent chance to overtake Arizona for the final No. 1 seed. Especially if Knecht keeps burning every net in sight.
Bennett

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5. Marquette (22-6)

Last week: 6

One number to know: 43

Here comes some high-level basketball analysis: Marquette is really hard to beat when it’s making 3s. They really should invite me to help on Power Rankings more often with this kind of galaxy brain.

When Marquette went through its mini skid, losing three out of five between Dec. 19 and Jan. 10, it shot just 27.3 percent from 3. And in its six losses this season, Shaka Smart’s team has bricked its way to 24.3 percent behind the arc.

In the last 10 games, however, the Golden Eagles are connecting on 43 percent of their 3s and have made double-digit triples six times, including a scorching 14-of-26 performance in Wednesday’s 91-69 win over Providence. The lone bad showing in that time was a 5-of-23 day against UConn; that was also Marquette’s only loss in the past 10 games. The return of Chase Ross, who missed most of January with a shoulder injury, has been a big boost. Since he came back on Jan. 30, he’s gone 21-of-37 (56.8 percent) from deep. This team is built to spread the floor and move the ball, not pound it inside. The difference between a long run in the tournament and a second consecutive early exit could simply be those 3-point numbers. Analysis! — Bennett 

6. Iowa State (22-6)

Last week: 7

One number to know: 27.7

For anyone brave enough to watch Iowa State’s Wednesday night win over Oklahoma — or who had their eyelids taped open in front of that rock fight, like some sort of punishment — this number should not come as a crazy surprise. But that 27.7 represents the number of 2-point attempts opponents average against the Cyclones — which, shocker, is the fewest any team in the country allows. We love the heat maps at CBB Analytics, and these two depicting where opponents shoot against Iowa State are just gold:

TJ Otzelberger’s team gives up some stuff at the rim, but otherwise, that is exactly as frosty a defense as you’d like. Of course, that number isn’t so low strictly because the Cyclones force bad shots; they’re also just tough to get 2s off against, given the way they turn you over. ISU is second nationally in defensive turnover percentage, per KenPom, forcing turnovers on just over a quarter of their opponents’ possessions on average. The Cyclones’ eight steals vs. Oklahoma on Wednesday actually decreased their season-long average of 10.6 takeaways per game. No, the offense is not always brilliant. But in terms of gritty, mucky NCAA Tournament games, against teams you’ve sometimes only had one day to prepare for? You can do a lot worse than being elite at steals and not allowing 2s. — Marks

RJ Davis has been incendiary. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)

7. North Carolina (22-6)

Last week: 9

One number to know: 21.7

Diehard UNC fans probably already know this one, but that’s the number of points senior guard R.J. Davis is averaging this season. Why that’s notable? Because it’s the most by any UNC guard since Charlie Scott (!!) in 1968-69. Just think about all the incredible backcourt players to come through Chapel Hill since then: Michael Jordan, Hubert Davis, Shammond Williams, Ty Lawson, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, and countless others. Yet it’s Davis who is truly in uncharted waters in Tar Heels history. He’s on pace to win ACC Player of the Year — the program’s first since Justin Jackson in 2016-17 — not to mention being a first-team All-American … both of which get his jersey honored in UNC’s rafters. And if not for a certain 7-foot-4 center at Purdue, we’d be talking much more about Davis as a potential National Player of the Year, something no UNC player has won since Tyler Hansbrough. But still: Davis’ 42-point masterpiece vs. Miami on Monday was the highlight of an already historic season.

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Oh, and did we mention? Davis can technically come back for another season if he wants, since he’s in the last class with the extra COVID-19 year of eligibility. *eyes emoji* UNC donors, time to back up the Brinks truck. — Marks

8. Arizona (22-6)

Last week: 4

One number to know: 18

Maybe an unconventional one here, but that’s Kylan Boswell’s age. Even if Arizona wins the national title, he’ll have completed two full seasons of college basketball before he turns 19. (His birthday, conveniently, is also April 18.) We bring that up as a reminder that: 1) reclassified point guards are a mixed bag, and 2) Boswell is the ultimate example of that. Just compare his stats this season — excluding Wednesday night’s 85-67 win over Arizona State, when he had 17 points and two assists on 7-of-9 shooting — in Arizona’s wins vs. its losses:

  • Wins: 11.2 points, 4 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 43 percent from 3, 88 percent on free throws
  • Losses: 4.8 points, 2.5 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 14.8 percent from 3, 50 percent on free throws

That’s stark! Like, really stark! At the risk of over-simplifying things here, when Boswell is good — a legitimate point guard who can set things up and be a secondary scorer — the Wildcats are pretty freaking tough. And when he’s bad … well, you get a team that lost to Oregon State and Stanford. For all the other intriguing pieces at Tommy Lloyd’s disposal — we cannot get over the fact that both Caleb Love and R.J. Davis are favored to win their respective conference player of the year awards — Boswell is kind of the barometer for his team’s success. A lot of pressure on an 18-year-old? Yes, absolutely. Pressure Boswell can handle? Also yes, absolutely… we think. — Marks

9. Duke (22-6)

Last week: 8

One number to know: 54.3

Who is Duke’s best player this season? Ask around the college basketball space — other coaches, NBA scouts, reporters — and there really isn’t consensus here. (Would there be if you asked the guys in Duke’s locker room? We’d wager no.) Kyle Filipowski, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder — and America’s current college hoops villain, courtesy of Saturday’s court-storming debacle — is a common answer. So is Jeremy Roach, the senior guard who entered Wednesday’s win over Louisville making 46.8 percent of his 3s; that’s 16th-best nationally, and that was before he drained three of his four 3-point tries vs. the Cardinals.

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But, uh … are we sure the answer isn’t, as it so often is for Duke, a freshman? Because the way Jared McCain has been playing lately, we’d hear arguments. That brings us back to the above number, 54.3 — the percent of 3-pointers McCain has hit over Duke’s last five games. That includes his dynamic 35-point game at Florida State, when he dropped eight 3s, but the wild thing is that even that kind of performance isn’t hard to believe. Check out his stat line over Duke’s last five games: 17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and two assists, while hitting that aforementioned (and absurd) rate on seven 3-point attempts per game. It’s almost All-America-like, if he’d been this good all season. Since these are (likely) the last few games he’ll ever play in a Blue Devils uniform, Duke fans should enjoy McCain while they still can — especially if he’s the dynamo that leads this team deep into March. — Marks

10. Saint Mary’s (23-6)

Last week: 13

One number to know: 57.2

That’s the Gaels’ effective field-goal percentage since Christmas Day, which ranks 12th nationally, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. During its first 13 games against D1 competition, in which Saint Mary’s stood just 7-6 against, that number was 47.6 percent — which ranked 258th. That’s as good a reason as any why Randy Bennett’s team has won 15 straight heading into Saturday’s massive home game against Gonzaga.

Though it doesn’t completely line up with the timeline, CBB Analytics shows what the Gaels’ shooting looked like in nonconference games …

… versus in WCC play …

The defense has been a constant all season, befitting a coach whose mantra is “gritty, not pretty.” But Saint Mary’s struggled to find an offensive rhythm early on from the perimeter, which makes sense. Bennett had to replace multi-year starting guard Logan Johnson. Veteran Alex Ducas was recovering from a back injury he suffered in the 2024 NCAA Tournament loss to UConn. Meanwhile, Augustas Marciulionis and last year’s freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney were adapting to much larger roles. The latter two couldn’t throw the ball into the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge at times. Mahaney went 5-of-31 in games against Colorado State and UNLV in December, while Marciulionis shot just 22 percent from the floor in the first month. Once everybody settled in, the shooting finally normalized, and so did the ball security — the Gaels’ turnover rate went from 218th nationally before Christmas to 14th since. And that’s why Saint Mary’s has been the hottest team in the country for two-plus months. — Bennett

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11. Creighton (21-8)

Last week: 11

One number to know: 12

No. 12 is where Baylor Scheierman ranks in Evan Miyakawa’s national player performance ratings. Scheierman also places No. 2 in the Big East MVP race, behind Tyler Kolek, on EvanMiya.com. That puts him squarely in All-America territory, which isn’t really how he’s been talked about this season. Scheierman was a highly touted transfer from South Dakota State last season who had a good first go-round with the Bluejays but maybe wasn’t the superstar who was promised. He’s looking more like that now.

For the season, Scheierman is averaging 18.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and four assists while shooting 37 percent from 3 — all improvements from last season. He had 20 points in Wednesday’s blowout win over Seton Hall, 27 in a win over Butler earlier this month and a triple-double against Georgetown on Feb. 13. On a team with a true Big Four — Ryan Kalkbrenner, Trey Alexander and Steven Ashworth join Scheierman to form a very veteran, very talented quartet — no one player has to carry the load on a nightly basis. But it’s nice to have a star to orbit around. Sometimes it’s that second year when up transfers truly break out, and we’re seeing it with Scheierman. — Bennett

12. Kansas (21-7)

Last week: 10

One number to know: 67.5

That would be the Jayhawks’ college-basketball-leading assist rate. Huzzah! But … is that actually a good thing?

None of Bill Self’s recent teams — including his 2022 national title winners — have been anywhere near that elite moving the ball. If the season ended today, this would be the highest assist rate yet for a Self-coached Kansas team. “But how can an assist rate that high not be a good thing?” Because it speaks to a lack of guys who can beat you off the dribble, getting a necessary basket when the Jayhawks most need it. (And that issue has only been exacerbated by Kevin McCullar Jr.’s knee injury. If it does turn out to be season-ending, as Self has hinted at, what a gigantic bummer that is for both Kansas and McCullar, who was putting up an All-America season.) You have to go back to 2006 to find the next-closest Self team in terms of assist rate. How did things turn out for that group, which assisted on 65 percent of its made baskets? Not well; KU got bounced in its first NCAA Tournament game, upset by No. 13 seed Bradley. We’re not saying that’s what’s coming for these Jayhawks, but a team already lacking depth and dribble-drive guys is now down arguably its best individual bucket-getter. Bet against Self at your own risk … but you’re kind of doing the same if you bet on a deep Kansas run. — Marks

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13. Kentucky (20-8)

Last week: 15

One number to know: 23

After an 89-95 loss to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 — Kentucky’s third consecutive home loss — the sky was falling in Lexington. That particular atmospheric condition seems to happen more often in Big Blue Nation than other locales, but it was justified this time. The Wildcats’ defensive shortcomings were on display for everybody to see, and they ranked 136th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Since Feb. 11, though? Per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool, Kentucky ranks 23rd in adjusted D, improving by eight points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size of just five games, but the statistical improvement is backed up by watching the Cats compete more competently on the defensive end.

And with an offense this nuclear, a defense that can come anywhere near the top 25 — or even top 50 — in defensive efficiency would make this team extremely dangerous in March. — Bennett

14. Illinois (21-7)

Last week: 14

One number to know: 269

The Illini beat (much-improved!) Minnesota 105-97 on Wednesday in a highly entertaining contest. How fun was it? Consider:

It’s the second part of that tweet that gives us pause. And No. 269 is Illinois’ ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency since Feb. 1, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. Small sample size, yes, but the past month for the Illini has included giving up 90 points in 72 possessions at Penn State; 88 points in 66 possessions to Michigan State; and 85 points in 71 possessions to Iowa. That they had a chance to win all three of those games in the waning minutes (they went 1-2) is a testament to their high-octane offense that ranks third nationally per KenPom. Terrence Shannon Jr., Marcus Domask and Coleman Hawkins can go for 20 just about any night, and Brad Underwood has finally been using his bench lately to the delight of Illinois fans.

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But the team ranks 94th in defensive efficiency on KenPom for the season and appears to be getting worse on that end. The Illini don’t create many extra possessions, with a defensive turnover rate that ranks 359th out of 361 teams. You can win that way — Purdue and Creighton don’t turn people over hardly at all either. But the Boilermakers and Bluejays each have elite rim protectors in Edey and Kalkbrenner; Illinois is 225th in block rate.

While the offensive attack is fabulous, that’s a hard way to live in March. Hmm. Explosive offense with a shaky defense? We’re kind of secretly rooting for a track meet second-round game between the Illini and Kentucky, both of whom have fan bases clamoring for their coaches to get to the second weekend. — Bennett

15. Utah State (23-5)

Last week: Not ranked

One number to know: 28

The Aggies are no strangers to Power Rankings, and considering they’re currently tied atop the Mountain West standings — with Boise State, which they hold the tiebreaker over — they once again merit inclusion here. And in honor of the league’s defense-first (and second, and third) aptitude, we’re picking a defensive number here: 28 … or, the percentage opponents shoot from 3 against Utah State. It’s the third-best mark in the country, per KenPom, and helps explain how an otherwise ordinary Aggies defense has clawed to the top of the MWC. Utah State only allows 5.9 3-pointers a game — fewer than Auburn, Oklahoma and Houston — and has given up more than seven 3s only eight times in 28 games. (Hang the banner, Saint Louis, for being the only team all season to drop double-digit 3s against Danny Sprinkle’s team.) Unsurprisingly, per Synergy, the Aggies rate as “excellent” defensively from 3, and are in the 99th percentile nationally courtesy of allowing just 0.83 points per shot. On the contrary, the Aggies allow better-than-average shooting rates everywhere inside the arc, per CBB Analytics — not everyone can be Houston! — but Sprinkle’s team sells out to stop the 3 … and mostly does. — Marks

Amir Abdur-Rahim has worked wonders in Tampa. (Scott Audette / AP)

16. South Florida (21-5)

Last week: NR

One number to know: Zero

It might be a stretch to consider the AAC-leading Bulls a mid-major, for whom we usually reserve the No. 16 spot. But they have acted like one for most of their anonymous history, which includes just three NCAA Tournament appearances. First-year coach and apparent miracle worker Amir Abdur-Rahim has guided USF — which was picked to finish ninth in the American — to wins in 19 of its last 20 games and the school’s first top-25 ranking this week. Mind-boggling stuff.

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There’s just one problem: The Bulls ranked just 85th in NET, 93rd in KenPom and 100th in BPI on Wednesday, and that goose egg represents how many Quad 1 games they’ve won and played this season — while losing Q4 home games in November to Central Michigan and Maine. Simply put, this is not an at-large NCAA Tournament resume, which means we could witness the oddity of a ranked team being left out of the field if USF fails to win its league tournament. It has happened before: In 2014, SMU was ranked 25th but went to the NIT after losing in the AAC quarterfinals. Utah State was 25-3 and was No. 22 in 2004 but didn’t get an invite after falling early in the Big West tourney.

If the Bulls end up left out on Selection Sunday, that shouldn’t take away from the incredible turnaround they’ve engineered this season, and Abdur-Rahim should still be on every high-major athletic director’s shortlist. But it sure would be strange. — Bennett

Also thinking about: Buried amidst our great national quest for clarity regarding court-storming was the fact that Wake Forest (18-10) finally earned the resume-defining win it needed this season, beating Duke. Too bad the Steve Forbes’ team followed that up with an absolute stinker at Notre Dame, a loss that basically cancels out all the good from beating the Blue Devils. We still think the bubbliest team in America deserves to be in, but that margin is razor-thin. … Auburn hung tough at Tennessee on Wednesday, an always spicy affair when Bruce Pearl returns to Knoxville. The Tigers remain in the top 10 in most metrics but woke up Thursday morning with just a 1-7 record in Quad 1, with the lone win coming at home. … A text sent in our weekly Power Rankings group chat: “I think I like the idea of Baylor (20-8) more than I like Baylor.” Which, yeah. Kinda gets right to it. The Bears have one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses, even without Langston Love — but they also just do a lot of dumb, game-losing stuff that surely drives Scott Drew mad. Could beat anyone, could get beat by anyone: the 2024-24 Baylor experience. … We didn’t mention this in the above Kansas section, but how about that BYU (20-8) comeback on Tuesday night? The Cougars rallied from 12 down at the Phog, which nobody does, to score arguably their best win all season. Mark Pope has handled the transition to the Big 12 better than anyone could’ve expected. With all due respect to Houston and Iowa State, are we sure BYU can’t make some noise in March?

(Top photo of Augustas Marciulionis: John Hefti / AP)

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