Over the past couple of months — as I addressed in this very column a few weeks ago — there has been a clear top tier of teams forming in the Power Rankings. Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State are the projected No. 1 seeds across the board, and Duke and Dayton are right behind that quartet. Those teams make up the top six in the NET rankings, the top six at KenPom, six of the top seven in the BPI and more than likely the top six in Monday’s AP poll.
There’s another team knocking on the door, though, but everyone seems slightly hesitant to go all-in on it just yet. Maryland has won eight games in a row after its late surge at Michigan State on Saturday night, and the Terrapins sit atop the Big Ten standings entering the final three weeks of the regular season. It’s not totally unexpected that Maryland still has its doubters, as it feels like we’ve been down this road before. Over the past four seasons, the Terps are just 14-14 in February — despite making the NCAA tournament in three of those four seasons. They’ve overachieved their seed line in the NCAA tournament only once under coach Mark Turgeon, and underachieved twice.
But this year’s team feels different, and it has really answered some questions over the past few weeks. After a loss at Wisconsin on Jan. 14, Maryland was 3-3 in the Big Ten and, most notably, 0-4 in true road games. That’s when the eight-game winning streak began, and that stretch has included four road wins — capped by Saturday’s victory against Michigan State. After a hot start against the Spartans, Maryland was outplayed for the first 17 minutes of the second half and looked like it was about to fold. But the Terps ended the game on a 14-0 run, which included three 3-pointers from Anthony Cowan Jr. It was a comeback that showed some mental toughness, perhaps the No. 1 thing that has been questioned about Maryland the past several years.
Maryland has a résumé that stacks up favorably to the teams inside the top six, with seven Quadrant 1 wins and 12 Quadrant 1 and 2 wins (both would rank third among the top six). The Terrapins don’t have a truly elite win, with Saturday’s win over a struggling Michigan State team their best victory of the season. Qualitatively, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country and have two legitimate All-American candidates in Cowan and Jalen Smith.
Maryland won’t enter the NCAA tournament as a Final Four favorite, and the perception of the Terps won’t be on par with those of the top six teams nationally, but I feel confident saying there’s a tier break in the rankings between Maryland at No. 7 and the rest of the country.
1. Baylor Bears (23-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Oklahoma (Tuesday), vs. Kansas (Saturday)
No MaCio Teague, no problem … against West Virginia, at least. The school announced just before the Bears’ game against West Virginia that Teague wouldn’t play because of a wrist injury and that he was day-to-day moving forward. If he’s out for an extended period, that would be a hit to Baylor, but Scott Drew does have senior Devonte Bandoo capable of stepping into the starting lineup, and sophomore Matthew Mayer stepped up off the bench with 13 points in 17 minutes. Baylor has the best perimeter group in the country, and while the Bears would be tested without Teague — the team’s second-leading scorer — they’re well-equipped to play without him in the short term.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. San Francisco (Thursday), at BYU (Saturday)
Load management has officially hit Spokane. Killian Tillie missed Gonzaga’s game against Loyola Marymount on Feb. 6 after practicing in full the day prior, then returned to play 25 minutes at Saint Mary’s two days later. He then missed Saturday’s win at Pepperdine despite having a week off since the win over the Gaels. Will he play both games this week (home vs. San Francisco and at BYU)? The road trip to face the Cougars will be the toughest remaining test until likely the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, as BYU possesses an elite offense and has won six in a row to solidify itself in second place in the West Coast Conference. The Cougars are also 13-2 with Yoeli Childs on the floor; they will give Gonzaga a test.
3. San Diego State Aztecs (26-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. UNLV (Saturday)
The Aztecs are now only six games away from entering the NCAA tournament without a loss. Sunday’s game against Boise State was supposed to be a stiff test, but San Diego State never trailed and the margin was double-digits for the final 20-plus minutes. Here’s what’s left: home vs. UNLV, home vs. Colorado State, at Nevada, and then the Mountain West tournament. UNLV playing at home during the conference tournament could be dicey, but the Runnin’ Rebels are projected to be on the other side of the bracket, meaning a potential matchup probably wouldn’t happen until the title game, if at all. San Diego State’s only two league games that have been decided by fewer than nine points came at home against 7-19 San Jose State in early December (still a strange one) and at UNLV in late January.
4. Kansas Jayhawks (22-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Iowa State (Monday), at Baylor (Saturday)
Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike have been the staples all season for the Jayhawks, but Marcus Garrett separated himself as the third guy on this team. He has been considered a versatile, elite defender for most of his career in Lawrence, but he has stepped up on the offensive end during his junior campaign. He hadn’t made a 3-pointer since Jan. 14 against Oklahoma and had made only 10 all season, but on Saturday, Garrett went 6-for-9 from behind the arc. He finished with 24 points, five rebounds, seven assists and four steals in a blowout of the Sooners. He has totaled 16 steals in his last four games. I’m not sure the 3-point shooting is here to stay, but being a reliable third option would be huge for Bill Self.
5. Duke Blue Devils (22-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at NC State (Wednesday), vs. Virginia Tech (Saturday)
The way Mike Krzyzewski has chopped and changed his rotation this season has been fascinating to follow, and the only constants seem to be Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. (and Wendell Moore, when healthy). Right now, Matthew Hurt is in the starting lineup and he has tallied double figures in back-to-back games. It was only one week ago that he played just 17 minutes total in two games. Jordan Goldwire is a mainstay in the backcourt next to Jones, which would have been viewed as a surprise heading into the season. And Alex O’Connell is back as a consistent bench piece after playing 31 minutes in five games a few weeks ago. He brings much-needed perimeter shooting, and has hit five 3s in three games. And this could all change once Cassius Stanley returns! The freshman guard missed the easy win over Notre Dame with an eye injury.
6. Dayton Flyers (23-2)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at VCU (Tuesday), vs. Duquesne (Saturday)
Dayton’s quest for a top-two seed on Selection Sunday will come down to its next five games, which include road trips to VCU and Rhode Island. But the Flyers passed one of their tougher tests last week, running Rhode Island out of the gym with a 17-0 run to start the game and cruising from there. It was also a big week for Obi Toppin’s Wooden Award hopes, as he was likely one of the top two candidates entering the week and Luka Garza’s Iowa Hawkeyes had lost three of five entering Sunday. Dayton continues to roll and Toppin hasn’t had too many off nights in Atlantic 10 play. If the Flyers enter the NCAA tournament with two or three losses, Toppin is likely winning the award.
7. Maryland Terrapins (21-4)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Northwestern (Tuesday), at Ohio State (Sunday)
We already discussed Maryland at length, so let’s get into the Big Ten title race. The Terrapins would have been at a disadvantage had they lost at Michigan State on Saturday night, but with the win, they’re in the driver’s seat moving forward. It’s clear that Penn State — only one game back of the Terps — has an easier finishing stretch, and the Nittany Lions also own the tiebreaker. Maryland hasn’t lost at home all season, but the three remaining road games are difficult: versus Ohio State, Minnesota and Rutgers. Remember, the Scarlet Knights are 17-0 at the RAC this season. The key will be getting a consistent third option behind Cowan and Smith. Darryl Morsell has played well in recent weeks, including 18 points at Illinois, while Eric Ayala had some big first-half buckets against Michigan State.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions (20-5)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Illinois (Tuesday), at Indiana (Sunday)
Eight wins in a row for Pat Chambers’ Nittany Lions, and they’re cemented as the biggest competition to Maryland for the Big Ten regular-season title. They also own the tiebreaker over the Terrapins, thanks to the head-to-head win back on Dec. 10. There’s no return game in College Park, either. Mike Watkins has clearly woken up since moving out of the starting lineup to the bench following the team’s three-game losing streak in January. Watkins has hit double figures in four of his past five games, tallying two double-doubles in that span, despite coming off the bench in each contest. He’s actually playing fewer than 50% of Penn State’s minutes in Big Ten play, but he’s one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the league and his return to form has been a boost for the Nittany Lions.
9. Florida State Seminoles (21-4)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Pittsburgh (Tuesday), at NC State (Saturday)
This team is starting to go as Patrick Williams goes. We talked about him last week, but the trend is continuing. He struggled mightily against Duke on Monday, scoring seven points on 2-for-9 shooting. Against Syracuse on Saturday, however, Williams finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, stepping up with Devin Vassell not playing. In Florida State’s four losses this season, Williams has missed one game and averaged 6.3 points and 2.0 rebounds on 5-for-20 shooting. He’s a future pro and gives Leonard Hamilton a ton of lineup versatility — and he’s capable of providing an athletic, inside-outside threat that no one else on the team can give.
10. Seton Hall Pirates (18-7)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Butler (Wednesday), vs. St. John’s (Saturday)
That’s now back-to-back losses for Kevin Willard’s team, and what was once a three-game lead at the top of the Big East standings is down to one game — with a three-game finishing stretch beginning next week featuring road trips to Marquette and Creighton and a home game against Villanova. What has been at fault the past couple of games? Offensively, the Pirates are struggling from the perimeter, shooting 16-for-59 from 3-point range — but they’re not a great 3-point shooting team anyway. The defensive woes are more apparent. They had two of their four worst defensive games of the season in the two recent losses, and one of the constants was Creighton and Providence having too much success at the free throw line. The Bluejays made 21-for-25 from the stripe, while Providence shot 25-for-35.
11. Auburn Tigers (22-3)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Georgia (Wednesday), vs. Tennessee (Saturday)
The Tigers stay in the same spot as last week despite a loss to Missouri, as a couple of teams around them also suffered defeats — and the loss came without star freshman and potential top-five NBA draft pick Isaac Okoro. Auburn’s résumé is going to be an interesting test case for the committee. The résumé-based metrics (ESPN’s strength of record and KPI) have the Tigers ranked inside the top 10. The efficiency-based and/or predictive metrics have them around the top 25. One thing in Auburn’s favor is its 13-3 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. The Tigers need Okoro back, though. He’s not an overly aggressive offensive player, but he has become more assertive in conference play, especially shooting the ball from the perimeter. He’s a high-level athlete and contributes at both ends of the floor.
12. Villanova Wildcats (19-6)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: at DePaul (Wednesday), at Xavier (Saturday)
Seton Hall’s stumbles have Villanova just one game back of the Pirates in the loss column, but the Wildcats’ final six Big East games feature four on the road. Jay Wright will have to hope freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is on his game for the stretch run. Robinson-Earl had 17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in the one-point win over Marquette, his first time with a double-figure scoring effort since January. In fact, in the Wildcats’ six losses this season, the freshman forward is averaging 7.8 points and shooting just 13-for-53 from the field (24.5%). For the season, he’s averaging 11.1 points and shooting 44.4%. After a recent three-game slump — for both Robinson-Earl and Villanova as a team — two wins this past week could put that in the rearview mirror.
13. Louisville Cardinals (21-5)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Syracuse (Wednesday), vs. North Carolina (Saturday)
That certainly wasn’t an ideal week for Louisville, especially on the offensive end. The Cardinals lost to Georgia Tech and Clemson, struggling early and essentially playing catch-up for 80 minutes. It comes on the heels of a stretch in which Louisville was playing some of its best offense of the season, scoring at least one point per possession in 10 straight games and at least 1.2 points per possession in four of its last five. In the two losses to the Yellow Jackets and Tigers, however, they were down to 0.88 points per possession. The offensive struggles were highlighted by Jordan Nwora’s forgettable week. He totaled seven points in two games, shooting 2-for-11 from the floor. Louisville is now a half-game back of Duke in the ACC standings.
14. Creighton Bluejays (20-6)
Previous ranking: unranked
This week: at Marquette (Tuesday), vs. Butler (Sunday)
There might not be a team in the Big East playing better basketball than the Bluejays right now. They’ve won seven of their last eight games, and their road win at Seton Hall on Wednesday — combined with the Pirates’ back-to-back losses — has them just one game back in the Big East standings. The return game comes in Omaha in the season finale. Creighton has the best offense in the country since the calendar turned to 2020, according to Bart Torvik’s adjusted efficiency rankings. During the recent 7-1 stretch, the Bluejays have scored at least 1.11 points per possession in all seven wins and made at least 10 3-pointers in five of the seven wins. When Creighton is hitting its shots, the Bluejays can beat anyone.
15. Kentucky Wildcats (20-5)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at LSU (Tuesday), vs. Florida (Saturday)
Kentucky struggled for most of the 40 minutes against Ole Miss, but the Wildcats erased a seven-point second-half deficit to come out with their fourth straight win. There’s a couple of things worth noting from Kentucky’s recent play. One, the Wildcats have done it despite Ashton Hagans not playing his best basketball. In his last five games, Hagans is averaging 7.6 points, 4.6 assists and 3.6 turnovers. Two, Kentucky hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 12 to Evansville, but it felt — anecdotally — like the Wildcats struggled more at home. It’s not just anecdotal, though. According to Torvik’s adjusted efficiency rankings, Kentucky is No. 51 in the country in home games and No. 10 in road games.
16. West Virginia Mountaineers (18-7)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Oklahoma State (Tuesday), at TCU (Saturday)
It’s a worrying time for the Mountaineers. While losses to Kansas and Baylor aren’t the end of the world, the underlying numbers are troublesome. They’ve scored 0.85 points per possession or fewer in each of their past three games (all losses) and they’re not getting to the free throw line at the high rate at which they’ve become accustomed. They completely collapsed offensively down the stretch against Kansas and then let Baylor get out to a huge lead to start the second half on Saturday. The metric-based rankings still love West Virginia, but its NCAA profile has some holes. The Mountaineers are 3-6 on the road, below .500 against Quadrant 1 opponents and their best win is against Ohio State back in December.
Dropped out: Colorado (16)
In the waiting room
Oregon Ducks: Oregon revived its Pac-12 title hopes with a win over Colorado, but the Ducks now have to head on the road to face Arizona State and Arizona, which are a combined 9-1 in February. Will Richardson has been terrific lately, but Dana Altman will hope Chris Duarte gets out of his shooting slump. Entering the weekend, he was just 4-for-18 from 3 in his past three games, then went scoreless against Utah on Sunday.
Colorado Buffaloes: The Buffaloes lost their grip on the Pac-12 title with a road loss at Oregon on Thursday, but they bounced back with a 22-point win at Oregon State. Tyler Bey has quietly been making a push for the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and his 21-point, 15-rebound outing against the Beavers certainly won’t hurt his case.
Marquette Golden Eagles: Marquette edges Butler for the final mention in this week’s rankings, despite a one-point loss at Villanova in the Golden Eagles’ game of the week. The two teams split their two regular-season meetings, but Marquette is scoring 4.3 more points per 100 possessions than its opponents in Big East play — while Butler is getting outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions.