College basketball power rankings: The best games left for all the best teams – The Athletic

Brendan Marks and Kyle TuckerFeb 22, 2024

Welp, those tiers last week worked out great. The minute we suggest some separation, Bizarro Season strikes again. Our top two teams might’ve lost, but they’re still our top two teams. The beauty of this unhinged era of college basketball, though, is we still have so many fun games left — before we even get to the really fun ones in March. At this point, no result would surprise us. OK, maybe DePaul beating somebody good.

Point being, whatever you think you know about conference races and Final Four contenders could still change drastically in the next two and a half weeks. Many of the best teams actually have backloaded schedules, so they’re just getting to the good stuff. This week, then, let’s focus on the best game left for everybody on this list:

1. Connecticut (24-3)

Best game left: at Marquette on March 6

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In a season of utter chaos, we had come to most admire the Huskies’ consistency, just finding a way to win no matter who happened to be injured or how many good teams showed up on the schedule. Then, for his 14th consecutive win on Saturday, Dan Hurley completely unleashed the beast in a 28-point win over Marquette, the worst beating ever in a game between two AP top-five teams. We were ready to declare that UConn is in a league of its own … so, naturally, that notion got blown to smithereens three days later when Creighton clobbered the Huskies in Omaha. It helped that the Bluejays made 14 of 28 3s — and we’d advise future Connecticut opponents to follow that simple blueprint; how hard can it be to make half your 3s? — but it was also a jarring reminder that it is just wildly difficult to win on the road this season. And that UConn hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent on the road in 21 tries over the last decade, which seems impossible. That’s why we’ve circled that trip to Marquette, despite the way Round 1 went in Storrs. The Golden Eagles are 27-2 at home the last two years, and they’ll be highly motivated to avenge a humiliating loss, on All-American Tyler Kolek’s senior day, no less. – Kyle Tucker

2. Purdue (23-3)

Best game left: at Illinois on March 5

The Boilermakers have been so good, so elite nationally, that a Big Ten title has felt almost inevitable. And yet … that trip to Champaign could decide the conference championship. The Fighting Illini were just a game out of first place until their one-point loss at Penn State on Wednesday night. They also lost the first meeting in West Lafayette by just five points — without star Terrence Shannon Jr., who averaged a ridiculous 30.3 points over the last four games. Matt Painter’s team has done a lot of winning, and has in fact strung together win streaks of seven, seven and nine games, but three road losses to unranked teams (Northwestern, Nebraska and OSU) in between those dominant stretches have left the door open, incredibly, for someone else to win the league. Illinois won the Big Ten tournament in 2021 and the regular-season title in 2022, so Brad Underwood certainly knows how to get it done. That will be the game of the year in the league. — Tucker . — Tucker

3. Houston (23-3)

Best game left: vs. Kansas on March 9

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The Cougars just played a mighty tough one Monday night against Iowa State, the first of three games versus AP top-15 teams in the final three weeks of the season. Houston and its top-ranked defense held the Cyclones to six points in the first 12 minutes and never trailed. Jamal Shead (26 points, six assists, three steals) looked every bit like an All-American in that one. Now Kelvin Sampson’s team, in its first year in the best basketball league in the country, is alone atop the Big 12 standings. Among their three losses, the only time they’ve gotten thumped was in their first trip to Allen Fieldhouse in 40 years, when Kansas led by as many as 20 points and rolled to victory on Feb. 3. There’s a long list of really good teams that have suffered a similar fate at The Phog. But here’s the thing: Houston is undefeated at home this season and 62-3 at the Fertitta Center the last four years. The Coogs could also be in position to close out a Big 12 title with a statement against Bill Self’s longtime power in the regular-season finale. — Tucker

Kylan Boswell has gotten back on track for Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

4. Arizona (20-5)

Best game left: vs. Washington State on Thursday

Arizona only has three Pac-12 losses, all on the road vs. unranked opponents … but Washington State, which comes to Tucson tonight a half-game back of the Pac-12 lead, delivered one of the three. You want a spicy rematch? Thursday certainly qualifies; the Cougars are all that’s standing between Tommy Lloyd and his second Pac-12 championship in three seasons. (Sadly also known as, the last Pac-12 regular-season title ever.) Led by redshirt freshman Myles Rice, who overcame cancer and is one of college basketball’s most inspiring stories — as our Brian Bennett recently wrote — Wazzu has sneakily turned itself into a viable NCAA Tournament contender. It’s the only top-50 opponent left for Zona, which has won six straight behind a return to form for sophomore point guard Kylan Boswell; he’s averaging 14 points per game and shooting 38.9 percent from 3 over his last three, with a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Beat Washington State, and a team that “firmly” earned the last No. 1 seed in this week’s selection preview probably locks up the conference — and maybe the West regional. — Brendan Marks

5. Tennessee (20-6)

Best game left: at Alabama on March 2

There are so many to choose from here, since the SEC’s second-place Volunteers still have games left against all four of the other top-five teams in the league. They host Auburn and Kentucky and play at South Carolina, all of which are huge remaining challenges, but the trip to Tuscaloosa might have the biggest impact on the conference championship race. It also pits UT’s top-five defense against Alabama’s No. 1-ranked offense. And unlike Nate Oats’ team, which has a sub-70 defense (per KenPom), the Vols are quite balanced. Led by Dalton Knecht, who has scored 25-plus points seven times in league play and rescued them from a letdown loss at Missouri on Tuesday night, Tennessee has a top-20 offense to go with its suffocating D. That combination added up to a 20-point beatdown by Rick Barnes’ team in the first meeting with the Crimson Tide in Knoxville. But the series is 3-3 since Oats arrived at Bama, and he’s 27-1 at home the last two seasons. If Barnes wants his second SEC regular-season championship, it might take winning in T-town. — Tucker

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6. Marquette (20-6)

Best game left: vs. Connecticut on March 6

Whooping DePaul at home is an ideal palate cleanser after Saturday’s … whatever you want to call that at UConn. (We prefer “beatdown,” because there’s no getting around how dominant the Huskies looked.) The Golden Eagles entered Saturday on an eight-game winning streak, five of which came on the road, yet looked completely powerless in slowing what is clearly the best team in America. Any hopes Shaka Smart’s team (or anyone in the conference) had of winning the Big East basically ended in those 40 minutes — which is why the biggest game left on Marquette’s schedule is its rematch vs. the team that just routed it. Tyler Kolek looked borderline afraid in Storrs — he finished with twice as many turnovers (four) as made baskets (two) — but the senior point guard had been on a heater before that and had a school-record 18 assists Wednesday vs. DePaul; look for him to be much better on his Senior Night, and especially at home, where Marquette has only lost once all season. — Marks

7. Iowa State (20-6)

Best game left: vs. BYU on March 6

There’s absolutely no shame in losing at Houston on the road — see: Kyle’s stat on the Cougars’ near-invincibility at the Fertitta Center — but Monday’s loss was still consequential, as it dropped Iowa State one game back in the Big 12 standings. But all hope is not lost for the Cyclones’ first league title in over 20 years. Why? Because in addition to splitting the season series with Houston, ISU has a significantly easier final five games than the Cougars. Houston has four top-50 opponents in its last five contests — including three road trips, like at Baylor and Oklahoma — before a season-ending showdown vs. Kansas. Iowa State, on the other hand, has only two top-50 opponents (Oklahoma and BYU), and gets both in the confines of Hilton Coliseum. Sophomore guard Tamin Lipsey should compete for all-conference honors, but he had one of his worst games all season vs. Houston’s vaunted defense: four points on 1-of-8 shooting, with six turnovers to four assists. T.J. Otzelberger’s team needs some help now to win the league, but it’s still well-situated — and remains capable of making a deep March run. — Marks

Are Kyle Filipowski and Duke starting to put it all together? (Wilfredo Lee / AP)

8. Duke (21-5)

Best game left: vs. North Carolina on March 9

Wednesday’s 29-point win at Miami, even against a lopsided Hurricanes team, is the kind of result that earns a raised eyebrow. “Oh, Duke did that? Well, then.” The Blue Devils have now won five straight, eight of their last nine, and 16 of their last 18, looking … well, a lot like we expected a preseason top-3 side to look. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach are usually the guys carrying the torch, but as Jared McCain showed against Florida State last weekend, Jon Scheyer has a number of dudes capable of taking over games. With a top-10 offense and a top-25 defense, the Blue Devils are honestly probably — dare we say — flying a little under the radar nationally? They also have a manageable end-of-season slate, where they won’t leave the state of North Carolina — their only two “road” games left are at Wake Forest and NC State — until the conference tournament. It appears we’re tracking towards a season-finale at Cameron Indoor with Duke and UNC vying for their respective coaches’ first regular-season title. (Where, yes, home-court advantage will matter.) No pressure or anything. — Marks

9. North Carolina (20-6)

Best game left: at Duke on March 9

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North Carolina’s once-elite defense has slipped since its early conference dominance; per Bart Torvik, the Tar Heels are just 61st in adjusted defensive efficiency over the last month, even if they’re still top-15 for the entire season. In the process, Hubert Davis’ team has given back the healthy lead it built in the (better-than-the-haters-say) ACC. UNC still leads the league courtesy of its tiebreaker over Duke … which is why these teams’ regular-season finale is the only answer here. That game will almost certainly determine if Davis wins his first ACC regular-season or conference title as head coach. If the Tar Heels can hang on over their last five games, it would be quite the accomplishment. They go to Virginia — where they haven’t won since 2012 — on Saturday, before a three-game homestand and then the second Duke tilt. Cormac Ryan got back on track Saturday against Virginia Tech, dropping four 3s for the second consecutive game; him getting back to his career shooting splits — he made 35.2 percent of his 3s in four seasons at Stanford and Notre Dame, before falling to 31.7 percent this season — is paramount for UNC’s postseason chances. — Marks

10. Kansas (20-6)

Best game left: at Houston on March 9

The Jayhawks are two games back in the Big 12 standings, and considering both their inconsistency — they haven’t won more than two straight since the calendar flipped — and daunting end-of-season schedule, which features three top-20 opponents in the last five games, it doesn’t look like Kansas is going to win its latest conference title. At this point, Bill Self’s focus should be on getting his team healthy and fully operational for the postseason. Kevin McCullar Jr. returning Saturday against Oklahoma from a two-game absence is a step in the right direction, and Hunter Dickinson looked much more like himself vs. the Sooners, too, with 20 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists. The Jayhawks have an awesome resume still — they’re one of two teams to beat UConn all season, albeit in Allen Fieldhouse and against a not-full-strength Huskies squad — but it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in this team with its razor-thin margin for error. That’s if they’re all healthy and fully synced, which … yeah. We’re not doubting Self, but how much can he realistically do with just five guys? — Marks

11. Creighton (20-7)

Best game left: vs. Marquette on March 2

Well, then! Who saw that coming? Creighton didn’t just beat Connecticut on Tuesday; it routed the reigning national champs — who have looked nearly unbeatable all season (and especially when fully healthy) — by 19. But make 14 3’s in a game, and anything’s possible … including the first win over the No. 1 team in school history. Steven Ashworth was otherworldly in the first half, going on a personal 13-0 run, and his play of late is a big reason to buy the Bluejays heading into the Big East tournament.

Connecticut is still almost certainly going to win the Big East, but who says Creighton can’t win the conference tournament? Greg McDermott’s team gets plenty of love for its offensive firepower — even on an “off” night, Baylor Scheierman had 12 points, seven rebounds, and six assists — but the way the Bluejays defended UConn was as impressive as anything Tuesday night. Creighton is second amongst high-major teams in the percentage of its offense that comes from 3s (39.4 percent), and shooting-dependent teams can be fickle in a single-elimination postseason … but any team that can do that to Connecticut has our attention. — Marks

12. Alabama (19-7)

Best game left: at Kentucky on Saturday

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The last one was a thriller, as the Crimson Tide erased a 10-point deficit over the final 8 1/2 minutes of regulation and won an OT thriller, 98-93, at home against a ranked Florida team Wednesday night to stay alone atop the SEC. And now the gauntlet continues. The remaining schedule includes games against UK, Ole Miss and Florida on the road, top-five Tennessee at home. But that game in Lexington this weekend could be the trickiest of all to navigate. While Alabama has the nation’s No. 1 offense and Kentucky’s defense had been fairly abysmal, John Calipari’s Wildcats locked down Ole Miss and Auburn (on the road) consecutively last week. They have their own top-10 offense — which also ranks third in 3-point percentage and sixth in turnover percentage — so if they’re going to continue to guard even semi-decently, they can certainly hang with Nate Oats’ high-powered attack. The Tide has scored 100-plus in a school-record eight games this season, including a demolition of Texas A&M over the weekend, while UK has scored 90-plus 13 times. Sign us up for that shootout. — Tucker

13. Saint Mary’s (22-6)

Best game left: vs. Gonzaga on March 2

With Creighton toppling mighty UConn, guess who now holds the nation’s longest winning streak? That would be Saint Mary’s, which completed its season sweep of San Francisco on Tuesday … and which looks headed for its right outright WCC title since 2011-12. The Gaels have only lost once since Dec. 5, and per BartTorvik, they’re a top-10 team nationally — fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, 30th in the offensive counterpart — since then. Randy Bennett’s team is the 15th-tallest in Division I, and it shows on the glass; Saint Mary’s is top-5 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. (The 36-23 rebounding edge it posted over the Dons? Pretty standard at this point.) By beating Gonzaga on the road back in early February, the Gaels gave themselves breathing room in the conference standings — and it’s entirely possible they’ve got the WCC locked up before Gonzaga comes to town in the regular-season finale. But that doesn’t mean the rematch between the WCC’s two best teams will be any less important; in fact, it might determine if the Zags’ epic NCAA Tournament streak comes to an end. — Marks 

14. Illinois (20-6)

Best game left: vs. Purdue on March 5

Some of these are tough calls, but it’s a no-brainer for the Illini. While the trip to Wisconsin on Feb. 28 is a big one, to be sure, three days later against the Boilermakers at home is The Big One. There could be a Big Ten title – or at least a share of one – on the line. That dream took a hit with the stunning loss to sub-.500 Penn State on Wednesday, but the Purdue result could still bump Illinois a seed line in either direction come Selection Sunday. Underwood’s team had won six of seven to give itself a chance to catch the Boilermakers before fouling a 3-point shooter with three seconds left, up two, against the Nittany Lions. Having Shannon Jr. this time around can’t hurt. He’s second only to Zach Edey among Big Ten scorers. Marcus Domask will surely welcome the help in Round 2 against Purdue. He scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half of a wild comeback attempt — from down 21 to within three — in West Lafayette on Jan. 5. – Tucker

15. Auburn (20-6)

Best game left: at Tennessee on Feb. 28

Paper Tigers? We’re still not sure. That 16-2 start included just one win against a KenPom top-50 team, and Auburn is 4-4 in its last eight games. The one thing Bruce Pearl’s team had going for it was dominating everyone (including first-place rival Alabama) at home, and then Kentucky came to Neville Arena and never trailed in a double-digit victory Saturday. The metrics are still awesome: top-five offense, top-25 defense, No. 7 in KenPom and the NET. But how good are these Tigers, really? Especially without their second-best player, super senior Jaylin Williams, who was having an All-SEC season before a (thankfully not season-ending) knee injury against the Wildcats? It seems unlikely he’ll be back by the time Auburn heads to Pearl’s old stomping grounds in Knoxville. If not, that is a tall order, but the Tigers sure could use an upset victory to bolster their surprisingly light resume, which still features just two Quad 1 wins. — Tucker

Donovan Gregory and Appalachian State take the coveted 16th spot —reserved for a mid-major — this week. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

16. Appalachian State (22-5)

Best game left: Sun Belt title game?

Most of the hay is in the barn for Dustin Kerns’ terrific team, which owns a home win over Auburn and gave once-ranked James Madison two of its three losses this season. The Mountaineers have won 11 of 12 to take sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt — and the remaining schedule includes two games against last-place Old Dominion and one each against sub-.500 Marshall and Arkansas State. Here’s hoping JMU gets to take a third crack at App State in the conference championship game. The first meeting was a two-point game with 16 seconds to go, the second a four-point game with 40 seconds to go. Both the Dukes (at Michigan State) and Mountaineers have wins over ranked power-conference opponents and would be worthy NCAA Tournament teams — Kerns is trying to make it for a second time in four years — but both likely need to win the Sun Belt tournament to punch that ticket. The Mountaineers hang their hat on defense, where they rank top-10 in 2-point defense and block percentage, led by 6-foot-9 sophomore Justin Abson, who is second nationally in blocks and leads the league in defensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive plus/minus. — Tucker

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Also thinking about: Utah State (22-5) took down San Diego State on Tuesday night to stay atop the Mountain West standings, and the Aggies now have wins over three of the four teams directly behind them: two over Boise State, one each against Colorado State and SDSU. The only top-five MWC team they haven’t beaten yet is New Mexico, and that’s the regular-season finale at home. … Colgate started the season 8-8, but has now won 12 straight to become the first team in the country to clinch a regular-season conference championship. Three games to go, and the Patriot League (which to be fair is pretty abysmal this season) is already a wrap. Eight of the nine teams below Colgate have losing records! Still, we’re all in on Matt Langel, who is looking for a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. … We were considering Baylor (19-7) on the back end of our list, but then the Bears lost at BYU — an absolutely respectable outcome — while a number of their peers won eye-openers. Scott Drew’s team will still be among the favorites in the Big 12 tournament, and hosting Houston on Saturday will be a fascinating contrast of styles, but this group is still inconsistent this late in the season.

(Top photo of Jamal Shead: David J. Phillip / AP)

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