We have a new No. 1 team: Kansas. The Jayhawks reclaimed the top spot after avoiding an upset against New Mexico State on Saturday and watching Gonzaga fall to Tennessee. Kansas is a perfect 8-0.
The Jayhawks deserve the No. 1 ranking based on their resume, track record and obvious talent. But they haven’t played particularly well lately, nearly falling to the Aggies and needing overtime to beat Stanford on Dec. 1. But they have wins over Michigan State and Tennessee, and the starting five is still as loaded as any team outside of Duke.
The Udoka Azubuike loss hurts. Dedric Lawson is going to have to play more center now and LaGerald Vick isn’t going to maintain his 55.8 3-point percentage all year. Quentin Grimes’ usage rate has plummeted since he burst onto the scene against Michigan State; he’s averaging 8.3 points on 40.4 percent shooting. Grimes and Devon Dotson have shown the ability to perform in big games, but they’re inconsistent. That’s to be expected of a freshman backcourt. But it’s also the inherent downside of having a freshman backcourt.
— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) December 9, 2018
The good news: this is all the more reason to like Kansas going forward. It feels like they have a ton of untapped potential, yet they’re still the No. 1 team in the land with wins over Tennessee, Michigan State and Marquette. They may get caught by a lesser opponent here soon, but the Jayhawks are clear national title contenders.
Tennessee may have lost to Kansas in November, but that’s the only blip on the Volunteers’ resume. They defeated then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Sunday and rose four spots to No. 3 as a result.
These guys are so fun to watch. The Volunteers are further proof that experience still matters in college basketball. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are combining to average 37.8 points and 15.3 rebounds per game, but what’s most impressive is their collective playmaking. They combine to average 7.7 assists, and they’re both big guys.
That’s how you overcome spotty guard play. Tennessee can play through Williams and Schofield; they’re just too strong for most defenders, but are smart enough to dish to the open guy when opponents help. The Volunteers have a top-15 offense and defense. Only two other schools, Kansas and Duke, can say that.
On the flip side of Sunday’s result, Gonzaga conceded the No. 1 spot and dropped to No. 4. That feels right. The Bulldogs didn’t play their best but still gave Tennessee a good fight, and they’ve looked the part against the best competition the sport has to offer.
That said, this is damaging for Gonzaga’s eventual hopes at a No. 1 seed, given that it won’t have the opportunities to notch signature wins that other schools will. The Tennessee result could determine seed lines for a team that plays in the WCC. But as far as what we think of the Bulldogs in general, this shouldn’t change their perception. Gonzaga is a top-five team. Even though they were ranked first going into the week, it’s not as if they were head-and-shoulders above everyone else.
Another marquee name that fell this week was Kentucky, which dropped 10 spots to No. 19 after losing to Seton Hall in heartbreaking fashion. That may seem harsh at first glance; Kentucky was the preseason No. 2 team, and its only other loss is to Duke.
But the Wildcats haven’t looked good in their wins either and have yet to win outside of Rupp Arena. The team just doesn’t have an identity right now. There are good players, like Keldon Johnson, Reid Travis and P.J. Washington. But those guys aren’t the type of high-end stars we’re accustomed to seeing on Kentucky rosters.
The defense has been the biggest downfall for the Wildcats. Opponents are shooting 40 percent from 3-point range against them, which ranks 334th in the country. On the flip side, Kentucky makes 34 percent of its 3s. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how big, strong and athletic you are. The math is the math, and the Wildcats are losing the 3-point battle right now.
There’s certainly some luck baked into 3-point defense. But if you watch Kentucky games, they allow a bunch of open looks; they gamble in passing lanes when they shouldn’t and struggle to fight through screens. John Calipari is an excellent defensive coach, and he should figure this out. But the Wildcats have really struggled on that end this season.
A few more tidbits: Marquette, Syracuse and Houston joined the top 25 this week. The Golden Eagles are a legitimate threat to win the Big East, and if you’ve never watched Markus Howard play, you ought to. There’s not a shot he can’t make.
Buffalo is up to No. 14, while Furman rose to No. 23. It will be a grand accomplishment if those two schools make it through nonconference play unscathed. Villanova and Ohio State rose four spots apiece; Chris Holtmann is doing a remarkable coaching job once again, and Jay Wright’s squad is slowly but surely rounding into form.
Next week’s slate is fairly light due to finals. After that, the college basketball season really picks up. We can’t wait.