The meat and potatoes of the college basketball season, conference play, has arrived.
I know a few leagues have begun scheduling conference games earlier and earlier, with the ACC having intraconference matchups on the season’s opening night in early November, but that just doesn’t feel right. Cold nights in January and February — that’s conference play. And it’s when teams can really separate, pretenders are revealed and contenders are established.
Especially in a season like the one we’ve experienced for the past eight weeks, we need to figure out who’s real and who’s not. For example, the Big East has eight of its 10 teams with nine or more wins — and one of the two that doesn’t, Seton Hall, is almost assuredly an NCAA tournament team. The Big 12 has eight teams that are 8-3 or better. The Pac-12 has six teams with double-digit wins. Not everyone can make the NCAA tournament!
Outside of separation, the biggest storyline heading into 2020 is going to be whether any team will cement itself as the best in the country. We’ve shuffled through six teams to this point, but Gonzaga seems far more likely to remain atop the rankings for an extended period. The Bulldogs don’t play another top-100 KenPom team until a home game against BYU on Jan. 18, and they don’t face a top-100 KenPom or BPI team on the road until February.
Of course, we thought the same of Kentucky back in November, and the Wildcats went out and lost to Evansville at home. We’ll see if Mark Few’s team can stop the never-ending cycle of No. 1 teams.
There were a couple of significant changes to the rankings this week, due to Kentucky beating Louisville and West Virginia knocking off Ohio State — but for the teams that were relatively untested, we’re going to take a look at what they need to improve upon over the next couple months.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (13-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Detroit (Monday), at Portland (Thursday), vs. Pepperdine (Saturday)
For Gonzaga, the biggest thing is going to be health. The Bulldogs have already had a couple of injury issues with Killian Tillie and Anton Watson, but Tillie is back and healthy and Gonzaga has coped without Watson during his on-and-off availability the last few weeks. Fortunately for Few, he has the frontcourt depth to withstand short-term absences to Tillie and Watson. However, Tillie is a difference-maker for Gonzaga and, when healthy, is arguably the team’s best player. He brings an element at both ends of the floor that few teams can simply replace. Continued health in the backcourt is also paramount, as Gonzaga does not have the depth behind Ryan Woolridge at point guard that it has up front.
2. Duke Blue Devils (11-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Boston College (Tuesday), at Miami (Saturday)
Duke needs Tre Jones back and to find a consistent third option once he returns. Jones has missed the past two games with a mild foot sprain, and Jordan Goldwire has filled his spot in the starting lineup. Goldwire has done fine against Wofford and Brown, and he brings aggressiveness on the defensive end. But he’s not Jones — especially this season’s version of Jones, who has become a legitimate go-to option late in games. Along with Jones and dominant freshman big man Vernon Carey Jr., Mike Krzyzewski is hoping someone else steps up as a consistent weapon. They’re likely hoping it ends up being Matthew Hurt or Wendell Moore, but returning shooters Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell have provided more perimeter pop in recent weeks.
3. Baylor Bears (9-1)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Jackson State (Monday), vs. Texas (Saturday)
There’s an argument to be made that Baylor has been the most consistently good team in the country so far this season, but the Bears are unlikely to reach their true ceiling without a healthy Tristan Clark. Clark was one of the best big men in the Big 12 last season when he went down in January with a knee injury, averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 boards while leading the nation in field goal shooting at 73.7%. He has played in only six games this season, including just 10 minutes in December. He’s recovering from the knee injury, but has also experienced foot soreness. When on the court, Clark hasn’t been the same player: 5.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 33.3% shooting.
4. Kansas Jayhawks (10-2)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. West Virginia (Saturday)
Kansas will enter Big 12 play with momentum after going to Palo Alto on Sunday and throttling Stanford by 16 on the road. The Jayhawks got contributions in a number of ways, making better than 40% of their 3-pointers, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and forcing 19 turnovers. If Isaiah Moss can shoot like he did on Sunday — and at Iowa before he grad transferred — Kansas will have another dimension offensively. One area the Jayhawks need to improve, though, is taking care of the ball. They rank sub-200 nationally in turnover percentage, and coughed it up times on Sunday. Devon Dotson has settled down since turning it over six times in the season-opener against Duke, but Kansas doesn’t have another true point guard on the roster and Marcus Garrett is perhaps the only other secondary ball-handler.
5. Oregon Ducks (11-2)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Colorado (Thursday), at Utah (Saturday)
The Ducks need clarity on Shakur Juiston‘s health. Juiston, a graduate transfer from UNLV, has missed the past five games with a lower leg injury and Dana Altman told reporters last week that it’s going to be “a while” with no definitive timetable. Juiston brings experience and rebounding to the frontcourt, and while the arrival of freshman N’Faly Dante will help on the defensive end, it’s still a key piece missing for the Ducks. On the plus side, Juistin’s absence has allowed freshman C.J. Walker to become a factor for Oregon. He was barely a part of the rotation during the first three games of the season, but has started in Juiston’s place in each of the past five games and brings versatility and athleticism at both ends of the floor. However, he only played seven minutes in Sunday’s game.
6. Auburn Tigers (12-0)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Mississippi State (Saturday)
Auburn still doesn’t have a true marquee win on its ledger, and that’s unlikely to change until the Tigers play Kentucky in February (assuming Florida doesn’t suddenly live up to preseason expectations). But the TIgers are going to have to become more consistent from behind the 3-point line if they’re going to remain unbeaten. For a team that wants to attempt as many 3-pointers as they do, the percentage of makes needs to go up. So far this season, Auburn is making perimeter shots at the lowest clip in the Bruce Pearl era. Heading into the Lipscomb game on Sunday, the Tigers had made more than one-third of their 3-pointers in a game just once since mid-November — including four games where they made six or fewer 3s.
7. San Diego State Aztecs (13-0)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Fresno State (Wednesday), at Utah State (Saturday)
The biggest thing on San Diego State’s wish list should be a win at Utah State on Saturday. If the Aztecs get by the Aggies in Logan, they should be favored in every game the rest of the season — and will have the best chance of any team in the country to go undefeated. It’s unclear if Utah State big man Neemias Queta will be available for that game, as he left the win over Florida after missing the first eight games of the season with a knee injury. Either way, Saturday’s tilt will feature one of the best guard matchups we’ll see this season: San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn vs. Utah State’s Sam Merrill. Flynn and Merrill are two of the best guards in the country, period.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Wisconsin (Friday)
Ohio State has now lost two of its past four games after falling on a neutral court to West Virginia on Sunday. The Buckeyes still have wins over Kentucky, Villanova, Penn State, North Carolina and Cincinnati, so they remain in the top 10, but their guard play and half-court offense simply wasn’t good enough. DJ Carton and CJ Walker combined for three assists and nine turnovers, and the team made seven 2-pointers all afternoon. To make matters worse, it was reported by the Columbus Dispatch that forward Kyle Young is being evaluated for appendicitis. Young has started all 13 games for Ohio State this season and has been a key cog due to his energy and relentlessness on the glass.
9. Butler Bulldogs (12-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at St. John’s (Tuesday), vs. Creighton (Saturday)
Butler has been solid at both ends of the floor this season, ranking in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency and top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Zero teams have scored 70 points against the Bulldogs, and only one has reached 65. But what LaVall Jordan should hope for in conference play is a return to form for Kamar Baldwin. The star senior guard has gone MIA when it comes to scoring, totaling 10 points in the past three games, shooting 4-for-28 from the field and 2-for-12 from 3-point range. Baldwin is still contributing, dishing out 14 assists in those three games, but if Butler is going to win the BIg East, it’s going to need its best player to perform like an All-American.
10. Memphis Tigers (11-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Tulane (Monday), vs. Georgia (Saturday)
Even without James Wiseman, the Tigers have established themselves as one of the elite defensive teams in the country. Only one team in December even reached 0.80 points per possession against Memphis. However, the Tigers need improved consistency and production from their perimeter group on the offensive end. They rank in the bottom 50 nationally in turnover percentage and are also among the bottom nationally in percentage of points from 3-pointers. They coughed it up a combined 55 times against Jackson State and New Orleans in the past two games, and have made more than eight 3-pointers in a game just twice this season. The return of freshman Lester Quinones should help in both categories.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers (11-1)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Kansas (Saturday)
Bob Huggins’ group makes the biggest jump into the rankings this week, with the Mountaineers beating Ohio State in Cleveland on Sunday. What makes the win even more impressive is that they did it with minimal production from freshman big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who played just eight minutes due to foul trouble. West Virginia got a huge performance from freshman guard Miles McBride, who came off the bench to score 21 points. The Mountaineers now own wins over Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Pittsburgh and Rhode Island, along with Sunday’s victory. The lone loss came at St. John’s in Madison Square Garden. West Virginia will be heavily tested again over the next three games, with trips to Kansas and Oklahoma State and a home game against Texas Tech.
12. Louisville Cardinals (11-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Florida State (Saturday)
It’s a steep drop for Louisville for an overtime loss at Kentucky, but the Cardinals’ overall résumé is somewhat lacking outside of the blowout home win over Michigan. There are some positives to take away from the loss in Lexington, as Chris Mack received solid contributions from Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton and Lamarr Kimble with Jordan Nwora struggling. But Nwora’s struggles to be efficient against good teams this season have become an issue. He went just 2-for-10 from the field against Kentucky, finishing with eight points; earlier this month, he went 4-for-16 from the field and finished with 14 points against Texas Tech. Even against Michigan, Nwora finished with 22 points — but it took him 23 shots to get there. Going against Florida State and the Seminoles’ size and length is going to be another test this weekend.
13. Villanova Wildcats (9-2)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Xavier (Monday), at Marquette (Saturday)
It’s still hard to figure out the Wildcats, who haven’t played since beating Kansas on Dec. 21. They’re constructed very differently than previous Villanova teams under Jay Wright, with more size and versatility along the frontline as opposed to a perimeter-heavy group in the past. But Wright can tick a few potential problem areas if he can get a healthy Bryan Antoine. The former five-star prospect underwent shoulder surgery last spring and missed the first three games of the season before returning — but hasn’t made much of an impact. He has scored 13 points in six appearances, and didn’t even get off the bench against Kansas. A healthy Antoine not only would give Wright a bit more depth (he’s essentially using six guys in his rotation), but would also provide a dangerous perimeter scorer.
14. Michigan Wolverines (10-3)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Michigan State (Sunday)
Michigan gets thrown into the fire right away when the calendar turns to 2020, as the Wolverines must travel to East Lansing for a showdown with Michigan State. Heading into full-time Big Ten play, Michigan has to hope Isaiah Livers returns from his groin injury soon. But Juwan Howard’s team also needs to get a few more easy points in big games. The Wolverines aren’t a great offensive rebounding team and they don’t get to the free throw line a ton, meaning they need to work for a lot of their points. When their 3-pointers fall — pretty much every game besides losses to Louisville and Illinois — it’s not an issue. But if those are shots aren’t falling, can Michigan manufacture points in other ways?
15. Kentucky Wildcats (9-3)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Missouri (Saturday)
Kentucky snapped a two-game losing streak by taking down its biggest rival on Saturday, hanging on to beat Louisville in overtime. The Wildcats answered a lot of questions in that game, making 3-pointers, battling in the paint and really working on the defensive end. Will all of that last? We’ve seen flashes of it before from Kentucky, but the Wildcats need to do it on a more consistent basis. Nick Richards went for 13 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville; in Kentucky’s three losses, Richards totaled 13 points and 10 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey played his best game since the opener, Immanuel Quickley played perhaps the best game of his Kentucky career. The Wildcats enter SEC play with a weird résumé, one that includes losses to Evansville and Utah but also one that includes wins over Louisville and Michigan State.
16. Maryland Terrapins (11-2)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Indiana (Saturday)
The biggest news coming out of Maryland’s week was the debut of freshman center Chol Marial. Marial was considered an elite prospect early in his high school career, but a mixture of injuries and transfers meant he was barely seen on the high school circuit the past couple years. And then Marial, who still ended up an ESPN 100 prospect, missed the first 12 games with a stress fracture in both legs. But he made his first appearance for the Terps on Sunday against Bryant, and played 14 minutes off the bench. Marial finished with six points and five boards. His arrival was made more important by the fact freshman big men Makhi Mitchell and Mahkel Mitchell announced their intentions to transfer over the weekend.
Dropped out: Penn State (15), Florida State (16)
In the waiting room
Penn State: The Nittany Lions will enter 2020 as a potential NCAA tournament team — but they will also have to fight history if they’re going to get there. They’ve started seasons hot before under Pat Chambers, including 10-3 in 2017-18 and 12-1 in 2014-15. They missed the dance in both seasons; can they finish the job in 2020?
Florida State: Florida State will get a huge chance for a statement ACC win this weekend, when the Seminoles travel to Louisville to face the Cardinals. One key for Leonard Hamilton’s team will be pressure defensively. The Seminoles are forcing turnovers at a high rate, and Louisville has had some trouble getting comfortable offensively against teams who extend defensively.
Michigan State: Even though Ohio State, Michigan and Maryland are all inside the Power Rankings and the Spartans are on the outside looking in, it would be far from surprising to see Tom Izzo’s team atop the Big Ten standings come March. Their next three Big Ten games are all at home, too, so they have a chance to build momentum.