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Power Rankings: Baylor a clear No. 1, for now

A season marked by top-10 upsets seemingly every week and a rotating cast of No. 1 teams has seen the craziness slow down over the past few weeks, with a clear top tier of teams separating itself at the top of the polls. But we’re also about to enter a week that could force a massive reshuffle in the College Basketball Power Rankings come Sunday, with five games pitting two teams in the top 16 or in the waiting room against one another (and Creighton at Seton Hall on Saturday just missing the cut).

Florida State at Duke (Monday): The winner of this one will stay within striking distance of Louisville at the top of the ACC standings, while the loser will fall two games back of the Cardinals in the loss column. Moreover, Florida State could really use another marquee win to pair with its road victory over Louisville at the beginning of January and Duke has to win to stay in the mix for a top-five ranking.

Kansas at West Virginia (Wednesday): Kansas leads the nation in a number of résumé categories, from strength of schedule to Quadrant 1 wins to the average opponent NET in its wins. But the Jayhawks have to keep winning to remain one game behind Baylor at the top of the Big 12, and another top-15 win would provide some 1-seed insurance moving forward.

Marquette at Villanova (Wednesday): Marquette is hitting its stride at the right time, while Villanova now has lost three straight games. The Golden Eagles won the first meeting between the two teams, with Markus Howard and Koby McEwen combining for 51 points and 25 free throws. Villanova likely will fall out of the top 20 with another loss.

Colorado at Oregon (Thursday): Tad Boyle’s team could really get a stranglehold on the Pac-12 regular-season race with a road win in Eugene. The Buffaloes won the first meeting on Jan. 2, and Oregon is now on a two-game losing streak to fall one game back in the standings. The winner likely will find itself in next week’s rankings; the loser, not so much.

West Virginia at Baylor (Saturday): I’m not entirely sure Baylor loses its No. 1 ranking even with a loss to West Virginia, but it obviously will be up for debate. That said, West Virginia really needs to win one of its two showdown games this week. The Mountaineers’ best wins are over Ohio State and Texas Tech. Their peripheral numbers are great, but they need a signature win.

1. Baylor Bears (21-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Texas (Monday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)

The Bears came out of the NCAA’s top-16 reveal on Saturday afternoon atop the rankings — and rightfully so. They’ve lost only one game all season, back in early November, and they beat the No. 2 team, Kansas, on the road by 12. It’s not an infallible résumé, though. They’re ranked No. 1 in just one of the six metrics on the NCAA’s team sheets (ESPN’s strength of record), and Kansas has more Quadrant 1 wins and Quadrant 1 + 2 wins. So it’s conceivable that Baylor could drop from No. 1 in the NCAA’s eyes with a couple of more losses: The Bears still have to play Kansas once more and West Virginia twice, in addition to the Big 12 tournament. But for now, Baylor is the clear No. 1 in the NCAA’s eyes — and I think the Bears are the best team in the country.

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (25-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Pepperdine (Saturday)

A healthy Killian Tillie is going to be the key to Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament run. While Filip Petrusev has been arguably the Bulldogs’ best player this season and Drew Timme has filled in admirably during Tillie’s absences, the 6-foot-10 senior just adds so much at both ends of the floor for the Zags. He missed Gonzaga’s two previous games before returning against Saint Mary’s and casually went for 19 points on 10 shots in 25 minutes. Tillie can score inside and out, he has a tremendous basketball IQ and he’s a versatile defender. In his past three full games, he’s averaging 21.0 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 8-for-13 from 3-point range. That’s impossible to replicate.

3. San Diego State Aztecs (24-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. New Mexico (Tuesday), at Boise State (Sunday)

San Diego State obviously will be a little disheartened by the NCAA’s top-16 reveal. Gonzaga was slotted one spot ahead of the Aztecs, with coach Brian Dutcher’s team grabbing the final 1-seed. What that means for San Diego State is twofold. One, it has very little margin for error heading into the final month of the season. Two, the Aztecs might get shipped all the way to New York for the East regionals if Gonzaga grabs the 1-seed in the West. That’s a tough realization — but also not unexpected. Gonzaga has been ahead of San Diego State in the Power Rankings all season, thanks to its superior standing in every predictive ranking and slightly better collection of marquee wins.

4. Kansas Jayhawks (20-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at West Virginia (Wednesday), vs. Oklahoma (Saturday)

Kansas has played as well as any team in the country since the loss to Baylor in early January, but the Jayhawks will have to win in Morgantown against West Virginia on Wednesday to have realistic hopes at an outright Big 12 title. They find themselves one game behind the Bears with road games at West Virginia, Baylor and Texas Tech still on the docket. Coach Bill Self does have the best inside-outside tandem in the country playing at their peak right now, though. Devon Dotson had 18 points, six rebounds and 11 assists at TCU, while Udoka Azubuike had 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Both players are legitimate All-America candidates.

5. Louisville Cardinals (21-3)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Georgia Tech (Wednesday), at Clemson (Saturday)

It’s hard to overstate the difference David Johnson has made for the Cardinals since truly emerging over the past month. The freshman point guard isn’t putting up insane numbers, but he has added a playmaking aspect Louisville was missing while he was dealing with his shoulder injury. Johnson has size and strength and makes an impact at both ends of the floor. Against Virginia, Johnson played just 17 minutes and had seven points, three rebounds and five assists — and completely took over the offense down the stretch. He consistently got into the paint and either made a play for himself or a teammate or got to the free throw line. By the way, Jordan Nwora seems to have fully snapped out of his mini-slump at the beginning of ACC play: Over his past four games, he is averaging 23.5 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 16-for-34 from 3-point range.

6. Duke Blue Devils (20-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Florida State (Monday), vs. Notre Dame (Saturday)

Tre Jones‘ play down the stretch of the Blue Devils’ win over North Carolina was eye-opening, and it’s clear he’s the guy who is going to have the ball in his hands down the stretch of games. Vernon Carey might be one of the most efficient big men in the country, but foul trouble is becoming a real issue; he has picked up at least three fouls in each of his past seven games — although Saturday was his first time fouling out since Nov. 8 against Colorado State. But Jones just finds ways to make winning plays late in games. He’s not the quickest point guard in the country and his outside shot is still inconsistent, but he knows how to get to the rim and isn’t afraid to make plays in traffic. Expect to see his usage rise even a bit higher late in the season.

7. Dayton Flyers (21-2)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Rhode Island (Tuesday), at UMass (Saturday)

Perhaps the Flyers’ toughest game up to this point in the Atlantic 10 season comes on Tuesday against a Rhode Island team that has won 10 games in a row and already beat VCU on the road by nine. The key for Dayton is going to be scoring inside; Rhode Island has one of the best 3-point defenses in the country but is vulnerable around the rim. That works to Dayton’s favor. At the other end, it will come down to whether the Flyers can stop Fatts Russell. The Rhode Island point guard has emerged as one of the nation’s best at his position and has added a consistent 3-point shot this season (shooting 43.8% from behind the arc in Atlantic 10 play). He’s capable of erupting for 25 to 30 points and putting the Rams’ offense on his back.

8. Seton Hall Pirates (18-5)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Creighton (Wednesday), at Providence (Saturday)

The 12-point home loss to Xavier earlier this month looks like a blip in the Pirates’ march toward a Big East regular-season title. They’ve won at Georgetown and at Villanova since that defeat and now have a three-game lead atop the conference standings with seven games remaining. Their résumé is quietly one of the best in the country, with the second-most Quadrant 1 wins (eight) and the second-most Quadrant 1 + 2 wins (13). Perhaps more important, Sandro Mamukelashvili is returning to his pre-injury self. He had eight points and 12 rebounds against the Hoyas, and he followed that up with 17 points and eight boards against Villanova. When Mamukelashvili is producing inside and out, this team is not only the best team in the Big East, it’s Final Four good.

9. Maryland Terrapins (19-4)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Nebraska (Tuesday), at Michigan State (Saturday)

Remember when Maryland couldn’t win true road games? After losing their first four away games of the season, the Terrapins have won their past three — including Friday night’s nine-point victory at Illinois. That victory put Mark Turgeon’s team atop the Big Ten standings, one game ahead of Penn State and the Fighting Illini. Senior point guard Anthony Cowan has taken his game to a new level over the past few weeks, bouncing back from some off outings early in Big Ten play. In Maryland’s past four games, Cowan is averaging 21.5 points and 5.0 assists (and only 1.8 turnovers) while shooting 44% from 3-point range. Maryland’s defense is still going to be its calling card, but the Terps’ uptick in offensive efficiency during the six-game winning streak has been as a result of Cowan’s recent performances.

10. Florida State Seminoles (20-3)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: at Duke (Monday), vs. Syracuse (Saturday)

Patrick Williams arrived in Tallahassee last summer already armed with attention from NBA scouts. There was plenty of one-and-done talk. And then Williams got off to a slow start to his career and, in fact, hasn’t even started a game for the Seminoles yet. But he’s starting to produce more consistently and could be one of the keys to Florida State’s March success. Williams has scored 14 points in back-to-back games, home wins over North Carolina and Miami. When Williams is effective at the power forward spot, coach Leonard Hamilton has one of the more versatile and dangerous lineup combinations in the ACC, able to go 6-4, 6-6, 6-7 and 6-8 one through four, and then can throw 6-8 RaiQuan Gray or one of his two 7-footers at the center spot.

11. Auburn Tigers (21-2)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Alabama (Wednesday), at Missouri (Saturday)

There were plenty of questions about the Tigers after they were blown out in back-to-back games in mid-January, ending their unbeaten run of 15 games to start the season. That’s not to say the questions were undeserved; at the time, Auburn’s best wins had come against Mississippi State and NC State. Six games later, Bruce Pearl’s team is tied atop the SEC standings — with the tiebreaker against both Kentucky and LSU. Three of the past four wins have come in overtime and the victory over Kentucky was closer than the nine-point margin, but the Tigers are finding ways to gut out victories late. J’Von McCormick was the hero against LSU, but Samir Doughty‘s return to his early-season form has been huge; Doughty is averaging 24.0 points over his past three games.

12. Penn State Nittany Lions (18-5)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Purdue (Tuesday), vs. Northwestern (Saturday)

Penn State is the team that should feel the most aggrieved by the NCAA’s top-16 reveal. Not only were the Nittany Lions not in the top 16, they also weren’t listed among the three teams that committee chair Kevin White said garnered the most discussion outside the rankings. This group can’t really do much more to prove it is a top-16 team — and that’s why the Lions are in this week’s Power Rankings. Their six-game winning streak has them second in the Big Ten, just one game behind Maryland; they’re ranked in the top 15 of the BPI, KenPom and Sagarin ratings and in the top 20 of the NET; they have six Quad 1 wins and an 11-5 record against Quads 1 + 2. That’s unquestionably a top-16 profile.

13. West Virginia Mountaineers (18-5)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Kansas (Wednesday), at Baylor (Saturday)

Bob Huggins’ team likely will be solidly in the top 10 or outside the top 16 by this time next week. The Mountaineers have one of the more daunting weeks anyone in college basketball will face this season: home vs. Kansas on Wednesday and at Baylor on Saturday. Their road form is becoming concerning. West Virginia has lost three straight road games and has the worst road record of anyone in the top 16 (3-5). In their past three road games, the Mountaineers have been outscored by 34 points. Freshman Miles McBride — one of the breakout players of the first half of the Big 12 season — needs to find his stroke again. Over his past three games, he is averaging 6.0 points and shooting 2-for-11 from 3-point range.

14. Kentucky Wildcats (18-5)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Vanderbilt (Tuesday), vs. Ole Miss (Saturday)

Welcome to the show, Johnny Juzang. The freshman from California hadn’t scored more than six points in a game all season — before coming off the bench to score 13 points in 24 minutes against Tennessee on Saturday. He hit all three of his 3-point attempts after shooting just 5-for-25 from behind the arc in his first 19 games. Juzang has played a bigger role in the rotation since Kahlil Whitney fell out of favor and then left the program, and he entered college with the reputation of a knockdown perimeter shooter. For a team ranking No. 350 in percentage of points from 3-pointers and shooting just 32.4% from 3-point range on the season, Juzang could end up providing a major boost to the Wildcats’ offense moving forward.

15. Villanova Wildcats (17-6)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Marquette (Wednesday), at Temple (Sunday)

Villanova likely saw its Big East regular-season title hopes go up in flames with a home loss to Seton Hall on Saturday, and the Wildcats now have lost three games in a row and sit three games behind the Pirates. There have been issues at both ends of the floor, but the defense has been the primary culprit during the losing streak. Villanova has allowed at least one point per possession in all three games. Essentially, teams are making shots and the Wildcats aren’t turning opponents over. The latter has never really been a strong suit for Jay Wright-coached teams over the past few years, but opponents shooting 46.4% on 56 attempts from 3-point range over the past three games is tough to overcome.

16. Colorado Buffaloes (19-5)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Oregon (Thursday), at Oregon State (Saturday)

There have been a couple of hiccups along the way, but Colorado now sits atop the Pac-12 standings heading into the final seven games. It’s going to be a difficult stretch for the Buffaloes, with five of those remaining seven coming on the road, including games at Oregon and Stanford. While Colorado’s defense has been more consistent than its offense over the entire season, the Buffs’ offense has been by far the best during Pac-12 play and is operating at a high level right now. The Buffaloes are making shots, both inside and outside the arc, they’re getting to the free throw line and they’re taking care of the ball. It is an experienced, balanced unit with two of the best players in the league in McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey.

Dropped out: Oregon (14), Iowa (15), Creighton (16)

In the waiting room

Butler Bulldogs: Butler was ready to rise back into the Power Rankings after the last-second win over Villanova earlier in the week, but the Bulldogs then got blown out by Marquette. Sean McDermott continues to be the harbinger of success for coach LaVall Jordan’s team. McDermott had 21 points in the win over Nova and just two points and zero field goals against Marquette. He has averaged just 7.0 points in five Big East losses for Butler.

Oregon Ducks: The Ducks’ performance in conference play has been average. They’ve now lost back-to-back games to Stanford and Oregon State, and their overall efficiency in Pac-12 play is only +1.8, according to KenPom. Their hopes for a regular-season title likely will be dashed if they don’t beat Colorado on Thursday.

Marquette Golden Eagles: After a difficult start to the Big East campaign, the Golden Eagles now have won six of their past seven — including a 19-point win over Butler on Sunday. The most impressive part about the win over the Bulldogs was that Markus Howard shot just 4-for-11 from the field (still led the team in scoring) and coach Steve Wojciechowski got enough help from the supporting cast for an easy victory.

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