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Sunday, June 16, 2024

College Basketball Power Rankings: Undefeated Purdue is a big problem


Thanksgiving Week always delivers the goods in college basketball, and the past week has given us a great look at many of the teams we expected to be contenders.

The action revved up with the Maui Invitational, which saw Creighton and Arkansas play the best game of the year to date. I cannot get over the level that the Jays and Razorbacks hit, with Creighton winning 90-87 behind a combined 66 points from Ryan Nembhard, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Baylor Scheierman. Arizona was king at the Lahaina Civic Center, though, showcasing that it has a frontcourt as strong as any in the country. More on the Wildcats below. 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that not only is North Carolina not our No. 1 team, but the Tar Heels aren’t even playing like a top-15 squad right now. UNC lost twice in the PK 85 Invitational, capped off by the wildest game of the season to date, a 103-101 defeat to Alabama in quadruple overtime!

The issue with UNC? Late-game execution. North Carolina let Caleb Grill grill them in Iowa State’s semifinal win, and the Heels missed opportunities to put Alabama away. From playing hero ball to poor inbounding and everything in between, it was jarring to see a team that made the national title game a year ago struggle so much late in games. 

Caleb Love and RJ Davis combined to take 60 shots and only made 21 of them against the Crimson Tide. As explosive as the veteran guard duo can be, things can turn quickly when they are taking bad shots. The added dimension is that Northwestern transfer Pete Nance has struggled to fill the void left by the departure of Brady Manek. There’s certainly time for the Tar Heels to figure things out, but at this moment, Virginia is the best team in the ACC. 

Sunday’s action did not disappoint, as Purdue took down Duke in emphatic fashion, Gonzaga rallied to beat Xavier, and UConn showed the nation that the Huskies may be as dangerous as they’ve been since their last national championship season in 2014. More on all of that following our updated rankings.

1. Houston (6-0)
Last week: 1

The Cougars survived a scare from Kent State thanks to top-shelf defense and 19 points from one of the best guards in the country, Marcus Sasser

2. Arizona (6-0)
Last week: 14

The powerhouse frontcourt duo of Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis are averaging a combined 38.3 points and 18.0 rebounds per game, and the Maui champion Wildcats are undefeated. 

3. Purdue (6-0)
Last week: Unranked

The Boilermakers have answered their backcourt questions with big-time freshmen and the playmaking of junior Ethan Morton. It helps that Zach Edey is playing as well as anyone in the country. 

4. Virginia (5-0)
Last week: 3

Fifth-year senior Jayden Gardner is a big-time player for the Cavaliers and had 26 points in a win over Maryland Eastern Shore.

5. Creighton (6-1)
Last week: 6

Even though the Jays lost the Maui Invitational final, their offensive balance and toughness were so impressive in the tournament. Greg McDermott has a group that is capable defensively as well, which is what has us buying the Jays in the top five. 

6. Texas (5-0)
Last week: 4

Chris Beard has a deep backcourt, and don’t sleep on New Mexico State transfer Sir’Jabari Rice. He brings additional NCAA Tournament experience to the Horns, and had 19 points in a win over Texas-Rio Grande Valley this weekend. Things get real again for the Horns on Thursday when they host Creighton. 

7. UConn (8-0)
Last week: Unranked

The Huskies rolled through the PK85 Invitational, beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State by double-figures to improve to 8-0 on the season. It’s the best start by Connecticut since 2013-14 when the Huskies last won the national championship. This team is deep, improved offensively and has a great core to build around with Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins. The Huskies are legit. 

8. Arkansas (5-1)
Last week: 9

Eric Musselman has so many weapons on his team, and we have not even seen top recruit Nick Smith yet. The Razorbacks are so long defensively and have an explosive ability. They’re also the best dunking team in the country. 

9. Gonzaga (5-2)
Last week: 7

The Bulldogs hit a different gear when they found themselves down 71-63 to Xavier with 6:19 on the clock. An 18-4 run followed, with Julian Strawther rising to the occasion and leading the Zags with 23 points. Drew Timme was Drew Timme with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds, but he needs help. Strawther supplied it. Up next for the Zags? Baylor on Friday at the Sanford Pentagon. No rest for the weary.

10. Indiana (6-0)
Last week: 8 

The 6-0 Hoosiers are ranked 14th in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. Trayce Jackson-Davis has been as advertised, averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. IU hosts North Carolina Wednesday night. Assembly Hall will be electric. 

11. Baylor (5-1)
Last week: 11 

The Bears are 5-1 and freshman Keyonte George led them past McNeese State with 17 points. A big week lies ahead with a trip to Marquette Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1) and a game at the Sanford Pentagon against Gonzaga on Dec. 2. 

No. 12 Kansas (6-1)
Last week: 5

Even though the Jayhawks fell to Tennessee in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, chalk that up to a learning moment. Jalen Wilson is still one of the best players in the country and Gradey Dick has been sensational. 

No. 13 Duke (6-2)
Last week: 12

The Blue Devils struggled with Purdue, but Jeremy Roach’s leadership and clutch playmaking has been present with this team. He really stepped up in the win over Xavier and has to be the alpha in key moments. 

No. 14 Illinois (5-1)
Last week: 15

Brad Underwood has a deep Illini team with a nice blend of freshmen and experience. Skyy Clark, RJ Melendez and Terrence Shannon Jr. combined for 52 points in a win over Lindenwood on Friday. A big stretch is ahead with Syracuse on Tuesday, a trip to Maryland on Friday, then the Jimmy V Classic against Texas at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6.

No. 15 Auburn (7-0)
Last week: Unranked

Junior guard Wendell Green Jr. led the Tigers past Saint Louis with 22 points in Sunday’s win over Saint Louis. The Tigers are also one of the best defensive teams in the country, sitting at fourth in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency. 

Team of the Week: Purdue Boilermakers 

Despite saying goodbye to a top-five NBA draft pick Jaden Ivey, Purdue is playing like one of the best five teams in America. It’s remarkable what the great Matt Painter has done to start his 18th season, retooling a roster that fits perfectly around an All-American frontrunner, 7-foot-4 superstar center Zach Edey. In winning the Phil Knight Legacy championship game over Duke, 75-56, the Boilers completed a run that saw them take down Gonzaga and the Blue Devils by a combined score of 159-122. 

To break down what makes this team one of the best in the country at the moment, let’s start with Edey. The junior has taken on the lead role for this team and run with it, averaging more than 24 points to go with 12 rebounds per game over the last four contests. He’s established a confidence factor, and the guard play around him has been superb. Edey’s classmate, Ethan Morton, has elevated his playmaking skills, totaling 31 assists to just seven turnovers on the season. Beyond those two, Painter has a dynamic freshman duo in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, who have combined for over 20 PPG and possess poise beyond their years.

The final thing that stands out, and perhaps the most surprising factor? Purdue is bought in on the defensive end of the floor. That’s often been a knock on the Boilers, but Purdue showed their ability to guard on Sunday by holding Duke scoreless in the final seven minutes of the title game. Painter’s offensive system is one of the best in America. Factor in Edey’s evolution and a team that’s connected defensively, and the Boilers have gone from a team with a question mark around them entering the season to one that could win the Big Ten title. 

Conference of the Week: SEC

The title race in the Southeastern Conference is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season because the league has multiple teams capable of making a run to the Final Four. Tennessee shut down Kansas offensively in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game, making a statement with a 64-50 win over the defending national champions. The Vols’ backcourt duo of Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler is going to be quite a handful for teams to deal with all season. Meanwhile, Alabama and North Carolina battled in the wildest game of the season to date, with the Tide taking down the Tar Heels 103-101 in four overtimes! We knew Jahvon Quinerly would be vital for Alabama, but bringing in Mark Sears adds a layer to the Tide’s backcourt. Plus, Brandon Miller is one of the best freshmen in America. 

That freshman trend is certainly felt at Arkansas. Even in the loss to Creighton at the Maui Invitational, I thought the Razorbacks built up as much goodwill as you could in a loss. They followed that up with a win over an experienced San Diego State squad to take two of three in Hawaii. Anthony Black is such a high-level talent and transfers Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile have both been quality additions.

 Meanwhile, Bruce Pearl and Auburn are 7-0 on the season after beating Saint Louis on Sunday. First-year Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans led the Bulldogs to the Fort Myers Tip-Off title with wins over Marquette and Utah. Another first-year head coach in the league, Missouri’s Dennis Gates, has started 7-0. And, while Kentucky didn’t do anything notable this week, you have to believe they will be a factor near the top. In summary, the SEC is stacked. 

Coach of the Week: Tommy Lloyd, Arizona Wildcats 

Entering the season, the Wildcats were thought to be a Top 20-25 team that would contend in the Pac-12. Three weeks into the campaign, reigning Associated Press national Coach of the Year Tommy Lloyd and Arizona have shown that they are reloaded and could be a Final Four candidate. The 6-0 Wildcats made a statement in Hawaii, beating Cincinnati, San Diego State and Creighton to win the always-challenging Maui Invitational. You would never know that Arizona lost three of the top 33 picks in the NBA Draft this past June (Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, Christian Koloko).

Player development is the theme in Tucson, with Ballo going from the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year to a superstar center. He went for 30 points and 13 rebounds against an elite rim protector — Kalkbrenner — and a Creighton team that was unbeaten entering the Maui title game. Then there’s Tubelis, who leads the team in scoring with over 19 points per game to go along with eight rebounds. The way that Lloyd has schemed to build around a two-headed monster in the post has been impressive. Junior guard Kerr Kriisa, perhaps as important of a weapon as any for the Wildcats, has 45 assists to 17 turnovers. He’s averaging 7.5 dishes per game. Texas transfer Courtney Ramey has proven himself early on, averaging 16 points per game through three contests. 

The Wildcats are 39-4 with Lloyd at the helm, and for good reason. Sure, he inherited talent from Sean Miller, but the 47-year-old has exceeded expectations in Tucson. 

Mid-Majors of the Week: Bryant Bulldogs and Siena Saints 

The Bulldogs went to Syracuse and took down the Orange 73-72 on Saturday, despite the fact that the cards were stacked against Jared Grasso’s team. Doug Edert, along with the Orange’s Judah Mintz, was ejected for this strange altercation below, while Earl Timberlake and Antwan Walker both fouled out. 

It marks a great win for a 6-1 Bryant team that made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in their Division I era. Credit to Bulldogs senior guard Sherif Gross-Bullock, who came up with the game-winner for Bryant. 

 Meanwhile in Orlando, how about Siena? After beating Florida State by 17 on Thanksgiving, the Saints earned their first win over a Big East program in 19 years with a 60-55 victory over Seton Hall to finish third in the ESPN Events Invitational. Sophomore guard Javian McCollum was big-time in three Thanksgiving week games, totaling 56 points for Carmen Maciariello.

Read more:

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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