College basketball power rankings: UConn and Purdue lead our tiers of contenders – The Athletic

Brendan Marks and Kyle TuckerFeb 15, 2024

We say this with about as little confidence as possible, and it almost feels like we ought to whisper it, but here goes: Maybe a pecking order is finally beginning to take shape within this off-the-rails college basketball season?

At the very least, two teams have risen above the rest. Then there’s a sizable selection of squads that look great on a given night and god-awful the next. Some are just solidly built, so their floor is high but their ceiling is low. Others (ahem, Kentucky) feature tantalizing talent but an infuriating lack of focus. We see sleepers and Cinderellas just waiting for their moment.

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Tiers, in other words. It’s that time for the Power Rankings, so we’ll scrap our usual format – slotting 16 teams in order, with the last spot reserved for a plucky mid-major – and opine a little more broadly about the top teams this week, lumping them together in groups that fit these neat little boxes we’ve created.

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Tier 1: The Favorites

Connecticut (23-2)
Purdue (22-2)

We agree Connecticut and Purdue belong here in a league of their own, but we differ on which one of them is the better team. They both own a top-three offense with a top-20 defense. The Huskies are 8-1 in Quad 1 games, the Boilermakers 8-2. So who ya got? Behold, a debate:

Kyle Tucker: Give me UConn. I’m riding with the coach and team that have been there and done that, winning it all last season, and have looked all year like they’re capable of repeating. Look, Purdue has done a great job of convincing me it won’t crash and burn early, against a double-digit seed, again this year. The guard play around 7-foot-4 star Zach Edey has been so good that I’m a believer in the Boilermakers — to a point. I’m still not picking a perennial postseason underachiever to suddenly jump up and cut down the nets.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for the Huskies’ unflappability in their attempted title defense. With a huge target on their backs and despite injuries sidelining Stephon Castle, Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban at various points, UConn just keeps winning. Dan Hurley’s undaunted team has won 13 in a row overall and six straight Big East road games — in a year when home-court advantage is more valuable than ever.

They do it with great balance, not depending on any one part of their team (they shoot it, share it, rebound and defend at a top-20 level) or any one player to carry them. Cam Spencer (six), Karaban (six), Tristen Newton (five), Donovan (two) and Castle (two) all have multiple 20-point games this season. The Huskies are a hydra, and they’re going to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007 — only more impressive because they didn’t bring everybody back.

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Brendan Marks: There’s no wrong answer here. Whatever order you prefer, UConn and Purdue are the class of college hoops this season. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if UConn wins it again, because the Huskies are that good. That said, going back-to-back is hard. Like, really hard. All it takes is one off night for the best squads to stumble. Plus, while Connecticut (thankfully) seems to be over most of its injury issues, that history makes me nervous. Big men and foot issues don’t mix well, and while I love the Huskies’ depth, I don’t know that they’re winning six straight tournament games without a full-strength Clingan.

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Instead, give me the song and dance we’ve seen before: a motivated No. 1 seed, fresh off a historic NCAA Tournament disappointment, gunning for its redemption behind a coach still seeking his postseason validation. Did I mention that team also has the reigning National Player of the Year, a 7-foot-4 beast of a baller? Uh, yeah, I’m gonna go with those guys. I was at UMBC-Virginia, and the Cavaliers’ locker room postgame is a scene I’ll never forget. Even amidst all the obvious disappointment, you could already kind of sense the seeds of redemption being sowed — and Purdue has not been shy about leaning into similar vibes. (Case in point: Purdue coach Matt Painter and Virginia coach Tony Bennett have been in contact ever since the Boilermakers’ loss to Fairleigh Dickinson.) There’s no understating the power of motivation like that.

Purdue is deeper, more experienced, and (I would argue) flat-out better than it was last year, when it won the Big Ten regular-season and conference championships. Edey is going to become the first back-to-back Wooden Award winner since Ralph Sampson. He leads all high-major players in points and rebounds, and leads all of Division I in PER and win shares per 40 minutes. On Purdue’s current eight-game winning streak, Edey is averaging an absurd 26.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game; he’s dropped 30 or more in four of those eight wins. And as you mentioned, his supporting cast is much better this go-around. The Boilermakers have three dudes hitting above 40 percent from 3 — including sophomores Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, both of whom have broken out this season — and that’s without mentioning Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones, our X-factor for Purdue in this space last week. Put all those ingredients together under one of the sport’s best tacticians, blend with a healthy dose of lingering motivation, and voila: the recipe for your 2024-24 national champions.

North Carolina has lost three of its last five, but we’re still buying them as a contender. (Rich Barnes / USA Today)

Tier 2: The Contenders

Houston (21-3)
Kansas (19-6)
North Carolina (19-6)
Tennessee (18-6)

“bUt aLl tHeSe tEaMs jUsT lOsT!” Correct. They did — but they’re also all still capable of cutting down the nets come April.

That conversation starts with Houston, which is currently tied atop the Big 12 — the deepest conference in college basketball — despite this being the Cougars’ first year in the league. Kelvin Sampson’s defenses are always elite, and this year is no different. Houston has the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, per KenPom, and its statistical rankings more than show why.

A loss at Kansas two weeks ago — who wins at Allen Fieldhouse, really? — is Houston’s only defeat in its last eight games, and even that was buttressed by four top-50 wins. UH’s offense is inconsistent — sometimes intentionally so, to take advantage of the nation’s fifth-best offensive-rebounding team — but between Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer, it still typically has enough firepower to beat the nation’s top teams.

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Tennessee bounced back from Saturday’s blowout loss at Texas A&M by crushing Arkansas 92-63 on Wednesday and getting back to the two-way effectiveness that has made the Volunteers a Final Four favorite. Rick Barnes’ last three teams all finished in the top 5 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, and at No. 6 entering Wednesday night, this year’s group is right on that same pace. The difference? Behind Dalton Knecht — the best transfer in America, we will not be hearing other answers — a rejuvenated post-injury Zakai Zeigler, and the quick-developing Jonas Aidoo, Tennessee can actually offense this season; the Vols are 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and are averaging a whopping 88.1 points in their seven SEC wins. (How Kentucky’s paper-thin defense held Knecht to just 16 points, we’ll never know.) How the Vols handle a brutal four-game closing stretch — home vs. Auburn, at Alabama, at South Carolina, home vs. Kentucky — will tell us a lot about their postseason hopes.

As for Kansas and North Carolina … not the best week. Kansas, playing its second game without budding All-American Kevin McCullar Jr., got smoked at Texas Tech; not only was it Bill Self’s first ejection with the Jayhawks, but it was the program’s worst loss to an unranked team in almost 75 years. KU’s depth has been an issue all season, and without McCullar (and with Hunter Dickinson struggling in the paint), those concerns have escalated again.

North Carolina also got in on the trend of top-10 teams losing on the road to unranked foes, when it fell at Syracuse on Tuesday night. That’s now three losses in the Tar Heels’ last five games, for anyone keeping score at home, and the defense that propelled Hubert Davis’ team earlier in conference play has backtracked. (Per BartTorvik, UNC is just 96th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency over its last six games. Yikes!) R.J. Davis is still one of the best and most productive guards in America, Armando Bacot is a constant in the post, and Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram rounds out an elite top three … but the Tar Heels need to re-tighten their defense — and stop suffering unexplainable scoring lapses late in games — to get back to where they were a month ago. Like with Kansas, it’s doable, but that contender status is more tenuous than once thought. — Marks

Tyler Kolek and Marquette have found their groove of late. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP)

Tier 3: Fun But Flawed

Arizona (19-5)
Kentucky (17-7)
Marquette (19-5)

The teams in this tier are not all the same. We buy Arizona and Marquette way more at the moment than we do Kentucky. But John Calipari’s team is absolutely, undeniably fascinating because of the enormous gulf between its strength (turbo-charged offense) and its weakness (utterly helpless defense), and that makes the Wildcats perhaps the biggest boom-or-bust team in the country. Does anyone want to meet UK — with its No. 3 scoring offense, No. 3 3-point percentage and Rob Freaking Dillingham — in a single-elimination tournament game? On the flip side, do the Cats want to meet anyone with a pulse offensively in any game right now? They’ve scored 84-plus points and still lose five times this season. There was progress last time out against Ole Miss, but a gauntlet against the SEC’s three best teams will soon test that.

Our reservations about Arizona and Marquette are more of the “yeah, but” variety.

You might ask: What’s not to love about the Golden Eagles these days? And they are on fire, having won eight straight Big East games after a 2-3 start in league play. They have a top-25 offense and defense, arguably the best point guard in America (Tyler Kolek) and one of the nation’s most exciting forwards (Oso Ighodaro). Kolek has gone wild the last four games, averaging 25.8 points, 8.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds. There’s a pile of great wins: at Illinois, Kansas on a neutral court, Texas, Creighton, five Big East road Ws. So where’s the potentially fatal flaw? Only one of Marquette’s top seven players is taller than 6-foot-7, and that’s 6-9 Ighodaro, who is awesome, but size and rebounding are real concerns. Five of the top seven guys are 6-4 or shorter, and it shows on the glass. Shaka Smart’s team ranks 258th in offensive rebound percentage, 197th in defensive rebound percentage and 264th in rebound margin. The Golden Eagles have been outrebounded (by a total of 43 boards) in four of their five losses, and their three worst defensive rebounding performances were all losses. Run into a glass-cleaning team with a ton of size in the tournament, and it could mean major trouble.

Arizona has won five straight, including consecutive road wins at Utah and Colorado, to take control of the Pac-12. Tommy Lloyd’s team has a top-five offense and a top-15 defense and some nice nonconference wins: at Duke, Michigan State (neutral), Wisconsin and Alabama. But take a peek at the Wildcats’ 3-point percentage defense. It ranks 249th. Eight opponents have made 10-plus 3s against Arizona, and three of its losses came when the other side made 42 percent or better from deep: Purdue hit 10 of 24, Oregon State 12 of 20, Stanford 16 of 25. The Utes nearly followed that formula to victory, hitting 11 of 29 in a triple-overtime loss to the Wildcats. There’s been some recent improvement, but back in January, Lloyd bemoaned the fact that “our guards have been getting their a—- kicked in these games defensively.” For Caleb Love, Kylan Boswell, Pelle Larsson and company, the mission for March is simple: guard the perimeter or perish. – Tucker

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Tier 4: Solid, not spectacular

Alabama (17-7)
Auburn (20-5)
Duke (19-5)
Illinois (18-6)
Iowa State (19-5)

Objectively, these are all good teams, albeit not elite ones. They’ve all spent time in the top 15 of the AP poll, have their share of quality wins, and generally beat up on the bad teams they’re supposed to. But none are without their warts, either — the kind that makes you wonder if a deep postseason run is possible … or if a first-weekend exit is imminent.

Take Duke, for instance. Preseason top-3 team — preseason No. 1, depending on which publication you read — with an atypical number of returners, would-have-been-drafted dudes like Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor who opted to run it back, rather than following the tried-and-true one-and-done model. That has … kinda worked. Filipowski looked much more like himself on Monday, when the Blue Devils kept Wake Forest at bay, but for as gaudy as his counting stats are, there have been times this season they felt like empty calories. And while senior guard Jeremy Roach is doing his best 2015 Quinn Cook impression this season, Proctor hasn’t broken out like expected. Additionally, the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class has only yielded one consistent producer: sharpshooting guard Jared McCain. We just struggle with the role definition here, and whether or not to trust a defense that has oscillated between “soft” and “well-intentioned” most of this season.

Auburn and Alabama have been metrics darlings all season — Bama has the nation’s top adjusted offense, while Auburn ranks top-20 both offensively and defensively — but are either of them great? The Iron Bowl rivals are a combined 5-10 in Quad 1 this season, and outside of one another, neither has a single top-25 win. Bruce Pearl’s depth — at least outside still-underrated big man Johni Broome, who is currently third in KenPom’s player of the year rankings — is something to behold, and fresh legs go a long way in March … but can you trust anyone else on an every-game basis? As for the Crimson Tide, Nate Oats has himself a mid-major all-star squad. Lead guard Mark Sears (Ohio) is sensational, and you can usually count on Aaron Estrada (Hofstra) and Grant Nelson (South Dakota State), but the Tide have struggled defensively all season, and there’s little time left to fix it.

Meanwhile at Illinois, the Terrence Shannon Jr. situation isn’t resolved, but it has at least stabilized (for what we expect will be the rest of this season). Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask was a more than capable leading man during Shannon’s absence, and while he’s taken a slight step back out of the spotlight, he’s still an elite Robin (whose booty-ball style is incredibly aesthetically pleasing.) Coleman Hawkins — who has made nine of his 20 3-point attempts the last three games — and Quincy Guerrier round out a relatively consistent top-four. Like Alabama, the offense here is usually fine. But the Illini are just 86th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency since Shannon rejoined the team, and Brad Underwood has only had one top-25 defense in his seven seasons in Champaign.

If there’s a team who should maybe feel slighted in this tier, it’s Iowa State. Very quietly, the Cyclones have been one of the best teams in America since conference play began, marrying T.J. Otzelberger’s typically gnarly defense — currently third nationally — with the best offense of his tenure. ISU turns teams over like mad, and then has enough shot-makers on the other end to win close, gritty games. You know: the kinds they’ll hope to win in March. Currently tied atop the Big 12 standings, the Cyclones could be as high as a No. 2 seed right now, which would’ve been unthinkable back around Thanksgiving. Oztelberger’s team is a half-second away from being on a seven-game winning streak in America’s toughest conference. — Marks

Baylor Scheierman and Creighton could pose some trouble in the bracket. (Steven Branscombe / USA Today)

Tier 5: Sleepers

Baylor (18-6)
Creighton (18-7)
San Diego State (19-6)
South Carolina (21-4)

Nobody is talking about these teams as ones who could potentially make a run… but maybe they should be? Baylor isn’t anywhere near as tough as its 2021 title team, but behind the nation’s best 3-point offense — the Bears make 41.2 percent from 3 as a team, with four players above 40 percent — Scott Drew still has himself a squad. Does Baylor turn it over way too much? Uh, yeah. (At least 20 giveaways in two of its last four games.) Does Baylor play great defense? Uh, no. (Just 68th in adjusted efficiency, with basically one competent big man… who, while talented, is still a reclassified freshman.) But if you want points and 3s, Baylor’s got you covered. Plus, we’re not gonna bet against Drew — still one of the nation’s best coaches — making another run.

Speaking of great coaches, last season’s national runner-up finish showcased that Brian Dutcher belongs in that conversation, too — and while this season’s Aztecs aren’t quite as smothering as last year’s group, they’ve still got defense in their DNA. Your proof? After trailing Colorado State by 14 at half on Tuesday, SDSU only allowed 11 total second-half points (!!) en route to a much-needed 16-point win. Super-senior center Jaedon LeDee has made his star turn, putting up borderline All-America numbers, and Final Four hero/Owl-slayer Lamont Butler is back for any necessary clutch moments. The Aztecs will probably never be world-beaters offensively, but so long as they get to the free-throw line, their defense is stout enough for a second consecutive postseason surge.

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Creighton’s appeal, on the other hand, rests on its offense — which, of late, has looked much more like the elite unit we expected, given the firepower at Greg McDermott’s disposal. Yes, the Bluejays lost to Colorado State by 21 and UNLV by 15 in the nonconference, but their last two defeats have been by a combined five points in shootouts. Ryan Kalkbrenner gets forgotten a little at the national level, solely because there are so many quality bigs out there, but the 7-foot-1 center has been on a tear lately, averaging 20.4 points over Creighton’s last seven games. Surround a dude like that with shooters like Baylor Scheierman and Steven Ashworth, plus another dynamic guard in Trey Alexander, and it’s no wonder McDermott has a top-20 offense nationally. Is there enough outside of those four to win a title? Probably not … but no fan base is going to want to see the Bluejays in their bracket, either.

As for South Carolina, Wednesday night’s 101-61 shellacking at Auburn was … not a great look. (Winning on the road is difficult this season, but still. 101-61!) But one lopsided loss doesn’t erase the seven-game winning streak that preceded it, nor the work that Lamont Paris — who belongs in the conversation for national coach of the year — has done with a team many left for dead back in the preseason. Even with Meechie Johnson slumping lately, the Gamecocks are still thoroughly in the mix in the SEC. A metrics darling? No. A star-studded roster? Also no. But the 22nd-oldest team in Division I can (normally) grind it out with the best of them, and that’s a trait that tends to bode well in postseason play. — Marks

Aidan Mahaney and Saint Mary’s have been on a serious heater. (Young Kwak / AP)

Tier 6: Cinderellas

Dayton (20-4)
Grand Canyon (22-2)
Indiana State (22-4)
Saint Mary’s (20-6)

Any one of these four would be an amazing story if they’re still dancing on the second weekend. We’d love to see the Flyers finally get the run they deserved in 2020. Or Randy Bennett shake off a miserable start to this season and turn it into just the second Sweet 16 in program history as the Gaels climb out of Gonzaga’s shadow. Or the Sycamores, led by a fascinating coach (Josh Schertz) and star (Robbie Avila), capping their best season since Larry Bird. Or the Antelopes, less than a decade into full Division I membership, making a third NCAA Tournament in four years under Bryce Drew — and winning a game or two this time.

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Dayton won 13 straight after a loss to Houston and its only two defeats since Thanksgiving have been nail-biters on the road against good teams. The Flyers are 19-4, have six top-100 wins and an All-American in DaRon Holmes II. Saint Mary’s has turned its 3-5 start into a distant memory by winning 17 of 18, including the nation’s longest active win streak (12). Among their five top-100 wins: likely tournament teams New Mexico, Colorado State and Gonzaga, the latter two on the road.

Indiana State suffered a bad home loss to Illinois State on Tuesday but still ranks No. 2 nationally in percentage of shots taken from 3-point range and No. 1 in effective field-goal percentage — and Avila is their goggle-wearing, 6-foot-10, 240-pound point forward who can dribble, pass and shoot. I mean, come on. They made this guy in the March Madness Darlings Factory. As for Grand Canyon, which happens to be based in the same city as this year’s Final Four, when has Bryce Drew ever done anything memorable in March, anyway? — Tucker

(Top photo of Kansas’ Dajuan Harris Jr. and UConn’s Hassan Diarra: Porter Binks / Getty Images)

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