Men’s college basketball rankings: Purdue returns to No. 1 – The Athletic

By CJ Moore44m ago

Every poll should have Purdue, Connecticut and Houston as the top three in some order. The Associated Press is likely to have Houston No. 1 this week, because Houston was No. 2 last week and Connecticut lost; voters always seem to feel the need to drop a team for a loss.

I tried to take a fresh look at all three, who all have three losses. There are multiple ways to look at this. If you favor computer rankings, then Houston would be the pick, followed by Purdue, then UConn. If you try to determine it by who has the best losses, it would go Houston, UConn, Purdue. My preferred method is looking at who you beat, which is the closest thing to the eye test. We pay the most attention to high-profile games. Purdue remains the leader here, with six wins over my current Top 25 and five of those coming against the top 11. Four of those wins — all against top 10 teams — came on a neutral floor. UConn and Houston are close to even in this contest, with UConn slightly ahead because it has three wins over my Top 25 and two top-10 wins. Houston also has three wins over my Top 25 but just one win over a top 10 team.

CJ Moore’s Top 25 for Monday, Feb. 26

Rank Team Last week
1 Purdue 2
2 Connecticut 1
3 Houston 3
4 Tennessee 5
5 Marquette 6
6 Iowa State 7
7 Kansas 11
8 Arizona 4
9 North Carolina 10
10 Alabama 8
11 Illinois 9
12 Creighton 19
13 Auburn 14
14 Duke 13
15 Baylor 14
16 Saint Mary’s 15
17 Kentucky 17
18 Utah State NR
19 Washington State 22
20 Florida 23
21 South Carolina 24
22 San Diego State 16
23 Wisconsin 25
24 Texas Tech 21
25 TCU NR

Your weekly friendly reminder: The setup of this season’s Top 25 is that I’ll give nuggets on an unspecified number of teams each week. So if a team appears in the table but not the text below, that’s why.

Purdue

Michigan mixed man-to-man and zone defenses against Purdue, but neither could stop Zach Edey. Edey went for 35 points and 15 rebounds. Fourteen times someone has gone for 30 points and 15 rebounds this season, and Edey has four of those performances. No one else has more than one.

Purdue did an excellent job at getting the ball to Edey from places where it was tough to help, mainly the middle of the floor. Five of Edey’s baskets came on feeds from the middle, and his teammates have no fear throwing some difficult passes in there knowing it’s Edey against one other guy.

Here’s one against the zone from Braden Smith:

And another against man from Mason Gillis:

Notice a second defender is shadowing when Smith has it on the wing, but once the ball goes to the top, the second defender naturally takes a step toward his own man. There’s no hesitation from Gillis. It’s like when you played 500 as a kid. You know the biggest guy is probably coming down with the ball. Feeding Edey from this spot has been an emphasis this season. Last season he scored 114 points when flashing middle on post-ups, per Synergy; this season he already has 141 points when flashing middle.

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UConn

Creighton gave UConn’s defense issues off the ball, getting paint touches and then finding the open man or using off-ball screening to create openings for its shooters. Creighton operated with a calmness that is rare against UConn, waiting for someone to break open:

As great teams tend to do, UConn responded to that loss and was much better off the ball against Villanova. The Huskies stayed disciplined off ball, and their on-the-ball defense was terrific, relying on their ability to keep the ball in front and use their length to make Villanova take tough contested shots:

Creighton took 18 unguarded catch-and-shoot 3s against UConn, per Synergy’s tracking. Villanova got just three.

Houston

This is not Kelvin Sampson’s most talented team at Houston, but it’s been his best both offensively and defensively on a per-possession basis. One reason for the Cougars’ offensive success is the playmaking and decision-making of Jamal Shead. Kelvin Sampson has total faith in Shead to make the right play and that he’ll always put the team first. This was on display during the middle of the Baylor game on Saturday when Shead made a rare mistake, turning the ball over on a bad pass, then helping off a strong-side corner shooter in transition and giving up a 3. Shead immediately touched his chest to signal “My bad,” and the camera panned to Sampson, who nodded his head and calmly called a play.

No reason to lose it over a rare mistake. Shead had 10 assists and just two turnovers. Houston has the fourth-lowest turnover rate in the country, and it’s because the ball is in Shead’s hands so much. Among higher-usage players — those who use at least 14 possessions per game — his assist-to-turnover ratio ranks third-best nationally, per Synergy.

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Tennessee

Zakai Zeigler had 14 assists and zero turnovers in Tennessee’s 86-51 win over Texas A&M on Saturday. It was the most assists any player has had this season without a turnover, per Sports Reference. Tennessee’s offense has gotten better as the year has progressed because Zeigler is healthier and Dalton Knecht continues to build chemistry with this veteran team. Knecht is a volume shooter but not a selfish player, and here’s an example of both Knecht and Zeigler understanding his gravity:

Knecht is open on the corner drift, but he knows Tyrese Radford, zoned up on the weak side, has to choose between him and Josiah-Jordan James. Go back and watch Knecht right before Zeigler passes; Knecht points to James because he knows Radford is leaning his way. Zeigler saw it too. Zeigler plays fast, but plays like this show the game is slow for him. He processes information quickly.

Kansas

Bill Self has not trusted his bench this season — Kansas ranks 339th in bench minutes. But with Kevin McCullar Jr. out and the heavy minutes load the starters have had all year, Self tried a new rotation strategy on Saturday against Texas. It worked so well he’s likely to stick with it. Self said he wanted to make sure he had a shooter on the floor at all times — either Johnny Furphy or Nick Timberlake — so he staggered the minutes with that in mind, pairing Furphy and KJ Adams together and then Timberlake, Dajuan Harris Jr. and Hunter Dickinson together. He also had Jamari McDowell and Elmarko Jackson always sub in together. Kansas played one of its most complete games this season, winning 86-67.

The analytics suggest this is a strategy that could work. Among the Jayhawks starters, Furphy and Adams — plus-16.2 points per 100 possessions for the season, per CBB Analytics — is KU’s best two-man combination. Jackson and McDowell have only played 64 minutes together — small sample size alert! — but the early returns are promising. They’re plus-25.2 points per 100 possessions, and they had the highest plus-minus against Texas. This could also work when McCullar returns. The three-man combo of Harris, Dickinson and McCullar is plus-18 per 100 possessions.

Arizona

Caleb Love has almost identical usage numbers from a year ago, but his efficiency has gone way up. Love has a 119.2 offensive rating, compared to 98.7 last season, and his in-conference numbers are even more impressive. Last season during ACC play, he had a 94.6 offensive rating; this year he’s at 121.0 in Pac-12 play, the sixth-best in the conference. Love is averaging 19.6 points and 3.3 assists and is a lock to win Pac-12 Player of the Year and will be in the running to be an All-American. We don’t usually view players who have averaged a lot of points in previous years as candidates for most improved player awards, but the transformation Love has made from a low-efficiency player to a high-efficiency one should garner him consideration.

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North Carolina

North Carolina leads the ACC during league play in defensive efficiency. UNC is comfortably ahead of second place, and three of its final four games are against bottom-half offenses in the league. This would be the first time the Tar Heels have had the league’s best defense since 2008. The Heels went on a four-year run from 2005 to 2008 with the league’s best defense. Those teams had pretty good NCAA Tournament success too, going 14-3 in the tourney with a title and Final Four appearance bookending that defensive run.

Creighton

Creighton went from its best game of the season, an 85-66 win over top-ranked UConn, to one of its worst performances, losing 80-66 at St. John’s. One notable difference was the play of guard Steven Ashworth, who after a slow start to the season has been on a heater lately. Ashworth went into Sunday scoring in double figures in 11 straight games, and he made multiple 3s in nine of those games, including five triples in the win over UConn. Ashworth went 1-of-6 against St. John’s, finishing with nine points. Creighton has gone from a big three to a big four, and Ashworth could be a big key to the Jays’ postseason fate.

Auburn

Bruce Pearl went back to starting freshman Aden Holloway at point guard on Saturday after Holloway came off the bench the last seven games. Holloway had been in a slump shooting the ball his previous 10 games, making only 7-of-43 3s before breaking out of it to go 5-of-8 from distance in a 97-76 win at Georgia. Auburn’s offense has thrived when Holloway makes 3s. In the seven games when Holloway has made at least three 3s, Auburn is averaging 90.9 points per game and 1.24 points per possession and is 6-1.

Kentucky

John Calipari decided to get significant minutes for his best shooting lineup on Saturday, rolling out Rob Dillingham, Antonio Reeves, Reed Sheppard, Justin Edwards and Zvonimir Ivisic for 25 possessions. That group outscored Alabama 42-26, including a 28-9 run in the second half that spanned six minutes, seven seconds. While on the floor together, that group made 7-of-10 3s and scored a ridiculous 1.68 points per possession.

GO DEEPER

Going nuclear: Kentucky tantalizes with offensive outburst versus Alabama

Ivisic had played four minutes in the previous three games because of his limitations defensively. When he’s on the floor with this shooting lineup, his ability to play out of dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops on the perimeter is extremely difficult to guard because he has great feel, knowing when to roll or space. This is what it looks like when a defense is scared to give up 3s:

Ivisic also flashed the ability to attack off the bounce, and if he can pull centers out, he can pick on the slower ones or guys he can overpower:

The gravity of those shooters allows him all of the space to operate knowing help is not on the way. Kentucky is now the best 3-point shooting team in college basketball at 41 percent. And that lineup is even more potent. Those five have combined to make 46.1 percent of their 3s this season.

Utah State

Utah State is the rare team to be efficient inside the arc without shooting lots of 3s. The Aggies make 57.2 percent of their 2s against Division I opponents, which ranks 13th nationally. Their 3-point rate (32.6) ranks 292nd. Among the teams in the top 20 of 2-point field-goal percentage, 14 attempt at least 40 percent of their shots from deep.

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South Carolina

South Carolina has the slowest tempo in the SEC since 2015 with an adjusted tempo of 63.6 possessions during SEC play. The SEC has embraced pace, but it’s wild to see what the league looked like just nine years ago. That season eight teams played slower than South Carolina is currently playing.

The magic number for the Gamecocks is 63. They’re 9-0 when limiting a game to 63 possessions or fewer. Not one SEC game has touched 70 possessions for South Carolina. In comparison, Alabama has gone over 70 possessions in 12 of 14 league games.

San Diego State

Jaedon LeDee has turned into one of the most complete big-man scorers in college basketball. The transformation he’s made as a fifth-year senior who started college in 2018 and is playing for his third school is inspiring. LeDee was effective as a duck-in low-post guy last season; this year he can score from the perimeter too. The most impressive improvement he’s made is his jump shot. Before this season, he was 21-of-73 (28.7) on jumpers for his career, per Synergy. This season he’s 49-of-106 with a 52.8 effective field-goal percentage.

Dropped out: Dayton, Colorado State

Keeping an eye on: Wake Forest, Seton Hall, Northwestern, Nebraska, Nevada, Indiana State, South Florida, Clemson, Gonzaga

(Top photo of Mason Gillis: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)

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C.J. Moore, a staff writer for The Athletic, has been on the college basketball beat since 2011. He has worked at Bleacher Report as the site’s national college basketball writer and also covered the sport for CBSSports.com and Basketball Prospectus. He is the coauthor of “Beyond the Streak,” a behind-the-scenes look at Kansas basketball’s record-setting Big 12 title run. Follow CJ on Twitter @cjmoorehoops

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