We’re one week closer to March and just witnessed another hectic, entertaining week in college basketball.
A look at the newest AP Top 25:
Just when it finally looked like someone other than Kansas might win the Big 12, the Jayhawks went and won at West Virginia and handled Baylor at home. Kansas rose to No. 5 after its big week and is now 6-1 in the Big 12.
The Jayhawks still have their warts. Devonte’ Graham is the team’s only reliable shot-creator. Kansas shoots the 3 well, but it lacks an interior presence. It doesn’t typically hold an athletic advantage over opponents.
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But Bill Self’s squad has defended incredibly well lately, which wasn’t the case early in the season. Kansas has held its past three opponents under 74 points; in the Jayhawks’ three losses, opponents averaged 85.
That’s encouraging if you’re a Kansas fan. Had someone told you the Jayhawks would rip off five straight Big 12 wins, you would have thought they simply caught fire from behind the 3-point line. After all, even if this Kansas didn’t resemble past Kansas teams, it could still overwhelm foes with elite outside shooting. There was always a path to success – but it was a very specific one.
That hasn’t been the case, which is good, because the Jayhawks are proving they can win in multiple ways. If that 3-point barrage is coming, Kansas will really take off. There’s plenty of time to go, but once again, the Big 12 looks like Kansas’ to lose.
No. 4 Duke only climbed one spot, but the Blue Devils had a nice week. Duke stormed back in the second half to beat Miami and dominated Pittsburgh.
Like Kansas, Duke’s defense is finally coming around. A disclaimer: the Jayhawks have played better teams than the Blue Devils. But Duke has allowed 75 points or less in its last four games, which is progress. Mike Krzyzewski is playing more zone – a sentence that was unfathomable 10 years ago – and it’s working. Duke struggles with man-to-man principles. But the Blue Devils are long, athletic and huge – the first three checkpoints for any successful zone defense.
A reason why more teams don’t go zone: it’s hard to rebound. In a man-to-man scheme, box out assignments are obvious. In a zone, there’s uncertainty. Two guys could easily box out the same person, leaving an offensive player unattended. It usually takes great communication and years of experience to successfully execute a zone.
Duke still needs to improve, but having a gargantuan front line of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter covers up deficiencies. Bagley and Carter are both elite rebounders, so a miscommunication won’t come back to bite them as often as it would two smaller guys playing a zone.
The Blue Devils aren’t the juggernaut many expected. But considering the chaos we see every week in college basketball, are they that much less likely to win a national championship than we thought? Probably not. It’s fun to watch such a talented team learn on the fly and improve on a daily basis.
MORE: Andy Katz’s Power 36
A third blueblood didn’t fare as well last week. That’s Kentucky, which lost to South Carolina and Florida and fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since March 2014. The Wildcats are likely still NCAA tournament bound, and have the ability to change the narrative with a hot stretch.
But nothing stands out about this Kentucky squad. There are too many big men and not enough guards. There’s no obvious superstar. Jarred Vanderbilt’s return should help – he’s a multi-dimensional forward who gives John Calipari more lineup flexibility (would love to see a Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel lineup, by the way). That look would give Kentucky its best chance of having shooting, ball-handling and defensive switchability on the floor at the same time. We’ll see what Calipari has in store, because at this point, he needs to try some new looks.
A few more nuggets: Ohio State is up to No. 13 (was No. 22 last week) and is 8-0 in the Big Ten. Chris Holtmann is in the thick of the coach of the year conversation; nobody expected Ohio State to make the tournament before the season (perhaps not even Holtmann). Saint Mary’s went from unranked to No. 16 in the span of a week. The Gaels are a hard team to evaluate – they haven’t had NCAA tournament success and usually flame out in big games. But they just beat Gonzaga on the road, and the Jock Landale-Emmett Naar combination remains one of the most dangerous in the country.
Oklahoma dropped eight spots to No. 12, while Wichita state fell 10 spots to No. 17. Key questions for both teams: is this just a slump for Trae Young, or have opposing coaches learned how to defend him? Yes, Young had a monster statistical day against Oklahoma State, but the turnovers are piling up. It will be fascinating to see Young readjust to the adjustment. And for Wichita State: where is the defense? The Shockers rank 57th on that end – well below a usual Gregg Marshall team’s output. Folks will point to the conference change, but these problems popped up in nonconference play. Wichita has the pieces to make a tournament run and the coach to solve these unusual defensive woes. But losing to SMU and Houston is a bad look.
Villanova, Virginia and Purdue all look solid in the top three spots. They flew above the craziness last week.
Stay tuned to see if they can sustain such consistent dominance. If we know anything about this sport, it’s that an upset is probably coming.