Tennessee has been No. 1 in our rankings since mid-January, when the Volunteers escaped against Alabama and then Duke beat Virginia. And Rick Barnes’ team hasn’t lost since.
But we’re dropping them to No. 2 this week.
We’ve said since the beginning of last season that these rankings aren’t done like the AP or coaches’ polls, in which winners rise, losers fall and that’s about it. It’s based on an entire body of work, not just how they’re playing now, or who we would take on a neutral floor. And right now, the answer is clear: Duke is No. 1.
The Blue Devils beat Virginia for the second time this season on Saturday night, this time in Charlottesville and at full strength. And aside from the fact Duke has two losses and Tennessee has one, there’s not a category that puts the Volunteers ahead of the Blue Devils.
NET? Duke. Strength of Schedule and nonconference SOS? Duke, by a landslide. KenPom? Duke. BPI? Duke. Sagarin? Duke. Quadrant 1 wins? Duke.
Now, if Duke stumbles again or Tennessee beats Kentucky twice in the next six games, then we could revisit the debate. But right now, it’s hard to come up with an argument to put the Volunteers ahead of the Blue Devils based on an overall body of work — outside of pure win-loss record.
1. Duke Blue Devils (21-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Louisville (Tuesday), vs. NC State (Saturday)
Duke did things to Virginia’s defense that no team has done to the Cavaliers since Tony Bennett arrived in Charlottesville — and if Duke is going to shoot like it did on Saturday night, give the Blue Devils the national championship trophy right now. That’s unlikely, however. They now head to Louisville on Tuesday; could it be a letdown spot after the big win?
2. Tennessee Volunteers (22-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. South Carolina (Wednesday), at Kentucky (Saturday)
One more game stands between a Tennessee team ranked No. 1 in the polls heading to Kentucky on Saturday to face one of the hottest teams in college basketball. The Volunteers will host South Carolina on Wednesday in a rematch of a game Tennessee won by 22 points on the road. Tennessee’s offense remains elite, and the defense is also looking better. The Vols have held four of their past five opponents to fewer than one point per possession.
3. Virginia Cavaliers (20-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at North Carolina (Monday), vs. Notre Dame (Saturday)
There’s not a ton of time for Tony Bennett to dwell on what happened against Duke on Saturday night, as a trip to Chapel Hill to face a North Carolina team that has won seven games in a row awaits on Monday. The Cavaliers have defeated the Tar Heels three straight times over the past two years. Obviously, the pace battle will be a huge factor, as the Tar Heels rank No. 5 in adjusted tempo and Virginia slots in at No. 353.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Loyola Marymount (Thursday), at San Diego (Saturday)
How will Gonzaga replace Killian Tillie? Had the Bulldogs not done it for the first half of the season, there might be more concern. The most obvious solution is for Mark Few to do what he did for the first 15 games: play freshman Filip Petrusev for longer stretches. His role diminished considerably once Tillie returned, but Petrusev played 21 minutes against Saint Mary’s and finished with 15 points.
5. Michigan Wolverines (22-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Penn State (Tuesday), vs. Maryland (Saturday)
It was hard to predict Jon Teske would be the game-changer on Saturday in the win over Wisconsin. After a three-game stretch in which Teske totaled just 19 points on 21 shots, he went for 17 points and 12 rebounds — and, more importantly, limited Ethan Happ in the second half. Teske’s development into an inside-outside weapon and an elite defender has been impressive.
6. Kentucky Wildcats (20-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. LSU (Tuesday), vs. Tennessee (Saturday)
Kentucky is not that far from a 1-seed in projected brackets, something that was impossible to see coming five weeks ago. The Wildcats have seven Quadrant 1 wins at the moment, tied for the third-most in the country. They’ve beaten North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville. There’s a huge chance for John Calipari’s team on Saturday, when Tennessee and its 18-game winning streak comes to town.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels (19-4)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Virginia (Monday), at Wake Forest (Saturday)
Coby White continues to perform as one of the best freshmen in the country — despite not getting the attention he would seemingly deserve. He finished with 33 points and six assists on Saturday, including 23 points in the second half and five 3-pointers in the final seven minutes of regulation. White has now scored at least 15 points in six of UNC’s past seven games.
8. Houston Cougars (22-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: at UConn (Thursday), at Tulane (Sunday)
Another high-level defensive performance from the Cougars, who held Cincinnati scoreless for the final six-plus minutes of Sunday’s game and finished on an 8-0 run to beat the Bearcats and take control of the AAC standings. Former UMass transfer Dejon Jarreau had perhaps his best game in a Houston uniform, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
9. Nevada Wolf Pack (23-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Wyoming (Saturday)
It will be interesting to see what the committee ultimately does with the Wolf Pack. They were a 4-seed in the bracket reveal on Saturday despite getting out to a 23-1 start. However, they simply lack quality wins. Their best wins are over Utah State and Arizona State, two teams that aren’t locks to make the NCAA tournament. Their big remaining chance comes at Utah State on March 2.
10. Michigan State Spartans (19-5)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Wisconsin (Tuesday), vs. Ohio State (Sunday)
We continue to see how vital Nick Ward is to the Spartans’ success. He finished with 22 points and nine rebounds in the blowout win over Minnesota on Saturday after totaling 30 points and 10 rebounds over Michigan State’s previous three games — all losses. He needs to be a dominant force down low, as Cassius Winston can’t do it all offensively by himself. (Matt McQuaid’s going for season-highs in points and assists didn’t hurt, either.)
11. Kansas Jayhawks (18-6)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at TCU (Monday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)
After a long week in the Big 12 in which Kansas dipped to the middle of the pack, the Jayhawks are now tied for second — but still 1.5 games behind Kansas State. The Jayhawks get the Wildcats in Lawrence in two weeks, but four of their final seven Big 12 games are on the road — including trips to TCU on Monday and one to Lubbock next Saturday. There’s a lot of work to do.
12. Marquette Golden Eagles (20-4)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at DePaul (Tuesday)
Sacar Anim’s emergence is coming at an opportune time for the Golden Eagles. Freshman Joey Hauser has totaled eight points in his past three games after scoring double figures in seven of his previous eight. Sam Hauser scored just four points against Villanova after dropping at least 19 points in six straight games. Anim, however, has now hit double figures in three straight games.
13. Purdue Boilermakers (17-6)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Maryland (Tuesday), vs. Penn State (Saturday)
That’s now eight wins in a row for the Boilermakers, who are likely to be favored in every game the rest of the season after Tuesday’s trip to Maryland. If Purdue can get through that game with a win, it will have a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten title. Michigan, the co-leader atop the standings, has to face Michigan State twice in the final two weeks of the season.
14. Louisville Cardinals (17-7)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Duke (Tuesday), vs. Clemson (Saturday)
Louisville has now lost two of three, and Duke comes to town on Tuesday — and the Cardinals still have to face Virginia twice in their final four games of the season. Chris Mack’s defense has struggled of late, allowing at least one point per possession in three straight games after letting just one opponent hit that mark in the previous six contests. That obviously won’t work against Duke.
15. Wisconsin Badgers (17-7)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: vs. Michigan State (Tuesday)
We’ve probably been too down on Wisconsin’s profile and should have moved them into the rankings early. So we’ve rectified that and slotted them in at No. 15 despite the loss to Michigan on Saturday. The Badgers have top-12 rankings in the NET, BPI and at KenPom. They have seven Quadrant 1 wins and a top-15 Strength of Schedule. They can take another jump with Michigan State visiting Madison on Tuesday.
16. Iowa State Cyclones (18-6)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: at Kansas State (Saturday)
The Cyclones were on the wrong side of history on Saturday, as TCU’s win was the Horned Frogs’ first road win over a ranked team since 1998 — and only the second in program history. Iowa State shot just 29.2 percent from 3-point range and had its worst defensive performance since an early-December loss at Iowa. If the Cyclones still harbor Big 12 title hopes, Saturday’s trip to Kansas State is a must-win.
Dropped out: None