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The ACC’s struggles during the first half of the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season have been no secret. I’ve discussed it multiple times here in the Power Rankings, and the lack of a non-Duke team even competing for a spot in the top 16 has been evident. The hashtag #OneBidACC appeared briefly on Twitter timelines — OK, maybe just mine, because I tweeted it in jest — following North Carolina’s loss to Notre Dame on Wednesday.
After the weekend, though, the conference has renewed momentum entering the final two months of the regular season. Miami’s win over Duke earned the most headlines, answering a lot of questions about the Hurricanes’ validity and clearly placing Jim Larranaga’s team at the head of the queue when it comes to discussing the second-best team in the ACC. But more on the Hurricanes later.
North Carolina bounced back from its loss to Notre Dame with a dominant decision over Virginia, while the Fighting Irish won their fifth in a row, going on the road and taking down Georgia Tech. Throw in Wake Forest’s overtime victory versus Syracuse and the NCAA tournament picture for the league looks a lot better now than it did entering the weekend.
Duke is still the only lock, but first-place Miami looks like more than just a team on a hot streak against inferior opponents. North Carolina should still get a bid. Wake Forest is unbeaten at home and continues to take care of business. Notre Dame, with a nonconference win over Kentucky in its back pocket, is a threat. Louisville remains a possibility. And we still expect at least one of the first-half underachievers — Florida State, Virginia Tech, Virginia — to make a run at some point.
The ACC is still some distance behind the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Big East when it comes to strength in depth at the top of the league, but the overall bid situation might not be as dire as it looked a week ago.
Miami’s Kameron McGusty goes up for the tough layup to put the Hurricanes ahead of Duke.
Through one month of the season, Miami was on a path to yet another disappointing campaign, losing three of its first seven games, including a home defeat to UCF, a 16-point loss to Dayton and a 32-point blowout at the hands of Alabama. The offseason buzz about being a potential sleeper in the ACC seemed wide of the mark.
Since the calendar turned to December, though, it’s been a different story. The Hurricanes have rattled off nine wins in a row and are off to a 5-0 start in the ACC. While most of the wins during that streak came at home against beatable opponents, they made a statement on Saturday night. Miami went into Durham, North Carolina, and knocked off No. 2 Duke 76-74. The Canes forced 17 turnovers, scored in transition and were consistently aggressive off the dribble, attacking Duke’s defense and getting into the paint.
Miami has two key ingredients that will result in a lot of wins: high-level guards and tons of experience. Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty and Jordan Miller all transferred to Coral Gables, Florida, while Isaiah Wong has started a ton of games over the past three seasons. Those four players combined for 64 points on Saturday; the Blue Devils simply didn’t have an answer for Larranaga’s small-ball lineup.
That’s been key to Miami’s winning streak. The Hurricanes are playing smaller and faster, and they are challenging teams to try to outscore them. After playing under 70 possessions in six of its first nine games, Miami has exceeded that number in six of its past seven. It has scored at least 1.00 point per possession in nine straight tilts, registering 82 or more points in four of its past five. Miller, meanwhile, is averaging 10.0 points and 5.5 rebounds and is shooting 38.2% from 3 as a starter.
The Wooden Award race has been as wide open as I’ve ever seen through the first two months of the season, but one name is beginning to emerge as the favorite at the midway point: Wisconsin sophomore guard Johnny Davis, who just had one of the best individual weeks of the season.
Davis didn’t start a single game last season for the Badgers, but he has immediately become one of the elite scorers in college basketball now that he is a regular starter under Greg Gard. Davis was terrific earlier in the season, with a 30-point outing against Houston and 23 points and nine rebounds in a win over Indiana in early December. But this week was his true statement week.
It started with a truly legendary performance in a road win against Purdue on Monday. Davis finished with 37 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals while shooting 13-for-24 from the field. According to ESPN Stats and Information data, Davis was just the fourth player over the past 25 seasons with 35 points and 10 rebounds in a win over a top-five team — and the first since Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez in 2009.
Davis followed that up with 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a win over Iowa, making three 3s and going toe-to-toe with Iowa star forward Keegan Murray in one of the better individual battles we’ll see all season. Davis’ performance against Maryland on Sunday was his worst of the week, but he still managed 19 points and seven rebounds in the road win.
Leading his team to a 3-0 record and a win at top-five Purdue while averaging 27.3 points and 10.0 rebounds? Won’t be too many better weeks.
Kansas Jayhawks vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders: Full Highlights
Of course, Miami winning at Duke and Wisconsin taking down Purdue were two of the best victories we’ll see all season, but the Hurricanes already earned Team of the Week honors, and I highlighted Johnny Davis as Player of the Week. That doesn’t take anything away from Texas Tech, which handed Kansas its first loss since Thanksgiving week.
While the Red Raiders were off to a strong start to the season, the big question when assessing them was whether they could score at a high level against good teams. Take their three toughest opponents so far: Tennessee, Gonzaga and Iowa State. In those three games, they scored 0.73 points per possession, 0.85 points per possession and 0.72 points per possession. They didn’t score more than 57 in any of the three games — even though they beat the Volunteers.
But against Kansas on Saturday, despite missing Terrence Shannon and Kevin McCullar, it was Texas Tech’s offense that led the way for the upset. The Red Raiders dominated the Jayhawks in the paint, outscoring them 44-18. They had 15 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds and shot better than 61% inside the arc. Bryson Williams had 22 points and eight boards, while Clarence Nadolny had the first double-figure scoring game of his career with 17 points.
Texas Tech will hope to carry its momentum into Tuesday’s trip to Waco, Texas, against top-ranked Baylor.
The reasoning for this choice is twofold. One, props to Valentine — and San Francisco coach Todd Golden — for scheduling on the fly and setting up arguably the premier mid-major nonconference game of the season in a matter of hours. Both Loyola Chicago and the Dons had an because of COVID-19 reasons, and opted to face each other instead of battling a clearly inferior opponent or taking more days off.
The other reason is Loyola’s on-court performance. The Ramblers ended up beating San Francisco 79-74, giving them their best win of the season and a noteworthy résumé victory if they don’t win the Missouri Valley tournament. It was Loyola’s first game since Dec. 10 because of a COVID-19 pause. The Ramblers also forced San Francisco into its second-worst 3-point shooting performance of the season.
Loyola then narrowly avoided following up with a letdown by beating Bradley in overtime to improve to 11-2 on the season and 2-0 in the Valley. Valentine, in his first season as Porter Moser’s replacement, has the Ramblers as a legitimate Top 25 team with the best at-large résumé of any mid-major.
Three teams with questions
DePaul Blue Demons: All the optimism from the first month of the season seems like a distant memory. DePaul lost its fourth game in a row on Saturday, and while losing to Villanova is not something to be disappointed about, the Blue Demons are now 0-4 in the Big East and a last-place finish is within the range of outcomes once again.
Virginia Tech Hokies: After harboring Top 25 hopes for much of the offseason, the Hokies dropped to 0-3 in the ACC after a home loss to NC State on Tuesday. They are now just 8-6 overall. Wins away from home over Maryland and St. Bonaventure have lost their luster; it’s going to be an uphill battle to make the NCAA tournament now.
Arkansas Razorbacks: After rising into the top 10 nationally with a 9-0 start, the Razorbacks have collapsed. Losses this past week to Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have dropped them to 0-3 in the SEC, with losses in five of their past six games. There are some winnable games over the next few weeks, but Arkansas needs to turn things around quickly on the defensive end.
1. Baylor Bears (15-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Texas Tech (Tuesday), vs. Oklahoma State (Saturday)
Baylor had to battle to stay unbeaten last week but was still able to get double-digit victories over Oklahoma and TCU. The Bears’ guards were the catalysts in both games, with James Akinjo and Adam Flagler combining for 49 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against the Sooners, and 42 points, five rebounds and 10 assists against the Horned Frogs. Akinjo is playing at a legitimate Big 12 Player of the Year level and also deserves to be in the All-American discussion. The biggest question moving forward surrounds the status of freshman forward Jeremy Sochan, who left Saturday’s win with an ankle injury and didn’t return. Sochan has been the X-factor for Baylor this season and had his best two performances on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds in the two wins.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (12-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. BYU (Thursday), at Santa Clara (Saturday)
Gonzaga played on Saturday night for the first time since Dec. 28, a home game against Pepperdine that was another step forward for five-star freshman Hunter Sallis. Considered a dynamic combo guard coming out of high school, Sallis didn’t carve out a consistent role over the first month and a half of the season, playing seven minutes or fewer against Texas, Duke, Tarleton State and Texas Tech in November and December. It could be the lesser competition over the past three games, but Sallis has played at least 19 minutes in each of those. During that stretch, the Nebraska native is averaging 10 points and 3.7 rebounds, missing just two shots inside the arc. He had 13 points on eight shots against Pepperdine.
3. Arizona Wildcats (12-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Colorado (Thursday), vs. Utah (Saturday)
The Wildcats have barely been able to get a game over the past few weeks, mostly due to their scheduled opponents having COVID-19 issues. But they did get back on the court last Monday against Washington, cruising to a 16-point win. It was actually one of their worst defensive efforts of the season, allowing more than one point per possession for the third time all season, but the offense was clicking at a high level. Arizona made 12 3-pointers and had three players with at least 21 points — led by Bennedict Mathurin with 27.
Johnny Davis may have emerged as the clear favorite for the Wooden Award, but Mathurin deserves to be in the conversation behind him. The sophomore guard has scored at least 24 points on six occasions and is shooting 62.1% from inside the arc and 38.6% from 3. Mathurin has also showed up in a big way against each of Arizona’s best opponents. He’ll continue to be the go-to-guy when it matters.
4. UCLA Bruins (10-1)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Oregon (Thursday), vs. Oregon State (Saturday)
UCLA hasn’t quite picked up where it left off before its 26-day pause, but the Bruins got back in action last week with a pair of wins. One player who didn’t miss a beat was Tyger Campbell, who had 11 points and 10 assists in Thursday’s win over Long Beach State and then 17 points and four assists in a victory against California on Saturday. It’s also promising that Cody Riley was able to return to the starting lineup; he had missed eight games since leaving the season opener after just four minutes with a left knee injury. He played 47 minutes in the two games last week, totaling 17 points and seven rebounds. Riley provides Mick Cronin with an experienced anchor on the interior.
5. Auburn Tigers (14-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Alabama (Tuesday), at Ole Miss (Saturday)
While the rest of the SEC continues to beat up on each other through the first couple of weeks of the conference season, Auburn is emerging as the favorite in the league. And it’s the Tigers’ depth and balance that has set them apart so far. There might not be a better example of that than Wendell Green, who started the first three games of the season but has since excelled in a sixth man role. After taking some time to adjust, he has been terrific at the point guard spot. In his past seven games, the sophomore is averaging 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 42.9% from 3. The former Eastern Kentucky transfer has been getting into the lane consistently, making plays or drawing fouls at a high rate.
6. Duke Blue Devils (12-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Wake Forest (Wednesday), vs. NC State (Saturday)
Duke hasn’t quite been able to return to its November form, when the Blue Devils looked like arguably the best team in college basketball. An extended break over the holidays due to COVID-19 added to the loss of momentum, with Duke struggling to put away Georgia Tech on Tuesday — before falling at home in a stunning upset loss to Miami on Saturday. I discussed it from a Miami perspective earlier, but on the flip side, the Blue Devils had real problems taking care of the ball, and the inconsistent shooting from the perimeter came back to haunt them. Duke turned it over 17 times and was rarely able to get out on its own for easy baskets in transition. The Blue Devils weren’t able to make up for it from behind the arc, either, going just 6-for-21 against the Hurricanes.
7. Kansas Jayhawks (12-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week:vs. Iowa State (Tuesday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)
The Jayhawks suffered their first loss since late November on Saturday, falling behind late in the first half and then being kept at arm’s length by Texas Tech for most of the second half. So what happened? The most obvious thing is Remy Martin’s health. He missed the Jan. 1 game against George Mason with a knee injury before returning against Oklahoma State and then playing just 12 minutes against Texas Tech. He had seven points against the Cowboys and just two against the Red Raiders. Martin’s confidence and ability to create off the bounce adds a different element to this Kansas team when he’s healthy.
Bill Self also needs David McCormack to find some consistency, which hasn’t been his strong suit through four years in Lawrence. McCormack has had back-to-back double-figure scoring games just once this season. His scoring output over his past five games: 2, 14, 1, 17 and 4.
8. Purdue Boilermakers (13-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Nebraska (Friday)
Purdue had a difficult week, losing at home to Wisconsin and then struggling at Penn State before pulling out a seven-point win over the Nittany Lions. Defense was the biggest issue for the Boilermakers, who have now allowed at least 1.07 points per possession in three straight games. They had no answer for Johnny Davis, who did whatever he wanted on the offensive end en route to 37 points for the Badgers. Against Penn State, it was Jalen Pickett carving up Purdue to the tune of 21 points and 10 assists.
Purdue’s overall defensive efficiency ranking has dropped into the 60s nationally, and while it’s a small sample size, the Boilermakers are No. 13 in the Big Ten in 2-point defense. Simply put, Matt Painter’s team is allowing too many open shots from opponents, especially inside the arc. Purdue is good enough offensively to make up for it, but it’s becoming more challenging.
9. Michigan State Spartans (13-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Minnesota (Wednesday), vs. Northwestern (Saturday)
Michigan State’s in-state rivalry game against Michigan on Saturday was postponed due to COVID issues within the Wolverines’ program, meaning the Spartans will carry an eight-game winning streak into this week. An emerging key for Tom Izzo’s team has been the play of freshman Max Christie. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Christie had an up-and-down first few weeks of the season and then missed the final game of 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols. But his best game since arriving in East Lansing came last week, against Nebraska. Christie buried three 3s, finishing with a season-high 21 points. He has now scored in double figures in each of his last three games played, averaging 16.3 points and shooting 9-for-14 from behind the arc over that stretch. If Christie can be a consistent second option alongside Gabe Brown, Michigan State’s offense will be in good shape.
10. USC Trojans (13-0)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Stanford (Tuesday), vs. Oregon State (Thursday), vs. Oregon (Saturday)
USC’s Isaiah Mobley pulls up from long range and knocks down the 3-pointer in the second half.
USC was another team coming off a long layoff this past week, having not played since Dec. 18 due to COVID-19 issues. The Trojans returned Thursday against California and hit their stride late in the second half after showing some rust early. The defense wasn’t quite as dominant as it was before the pause, but USC’s offense had one of its best performances of the season, scoring 77 points on 64 possessions and dominating inside the arc. The Trojans shot 56.2% on 2s and consistently crashed the offensive glass for second-chance opportunities. USC’s game against Stanford on Saturday was postponed until Tuesday, giving Andy Enfield’s team an unenviable three-games-in-five-days stretch this week.
11. LSU Tigers (14-1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Florida (Wednesday), vs. Arkansas (Saturday)
LSU bounced back nicely from its lone loss of the season against Auburn, having as good a week as anyone. In fact, the Tigers likely would have earned Team of the Week honors if not for Miami’s road win at Duke on Saturday night. Their defense continues to perform at a truly elite level, holding Kentucky to 60 points on 71 possessions, and Tennessee to 67 points on 72 possessions. No opponent has made more than one-third of its 3s against LSU this season, and only one team has turned it over on fewer than 20% of its possessions. One thing worth monitoring this week is the status of guard Xavier Pinson. He landed awkwardly in the second half against Tennessee and needed to be helped to the locker room. He did return to the bench later in the game, and early signs are that he avoided a major injury.
12. Villanova Wildcats (11-4)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Xavier (Wednesday), vs. Butler (Sunday)
Eric Dixon finds an open lane and drives to the hoop for a slam dunk in the final minutes of Villanova’s win over DePaul.
Villanova has certainly found its footing since struggling in the first five weeks of the season. The Wildcats have now won four games in a row, including hammering Creighton by 34 points on Wednesday and coming back to win at DePaul by 15 on Saturday. Justin Moore has emerged as a clear second option alongside Collin Gillespie in the backcourt, averaging 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists and making five 3s in two games this past week. Gillespie has been slightly more up-and-down than expected this season, but he’s starting to find his form from the perimeter. After shooting 39.6% from behind the arc over the first 12 games of the season — including a combined 3-for-15 effort in losses to Baylor and Creighton — Gillespie has made 47.6% of his attempts in his past three games, while also totaling nine assists and two turnovers in two wins last week.
13. Iowa State Cyclones (13-2)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Kansas (Tuesday), vs. Texas (Saturday)
It was very much a mixed bag for the Cyclones last week, as they slugged it out with Texas Tech on Wednesday for a 51-47 win that wasn’t easy on the eyes, and then lost by 13 at Oklahoma with an offense that looked as good as it has since their nonconference schedule ended in mid-December. This team is going to go as far as its guards and its defense can take it. An off night from either the backcourt or the defense, and it’s going to be tough to consistently win. Iowa State was able to beat Texas Tech because the defense was elite. And while Izaiah Brockington and Tyrese Hunter were terrific offensively against Oklahoma, the Sooners went on a 23-4 run late in the second half to take control of the game. Numbers-wise, it was by far the worst defensive performance of the season for Iowa State.
14. Houston Cougars (13-2)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week:at Tulsa (Saturday)
Jamal Shead feeds Josh Carlton who dunks it plus a foul.
Josh Carlton didn’t seem like the most likely beneficiary of Houston’s perimeter injuries, but the former UConn transfer has been on a tear since Tramon Mark and then Marcus Sasser suffered season-ending injuries. Over his last nine games, Carlton is averaging 16.1 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 65.9% from the field. He moved into the starting lineup six games ago and averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds — including a ridiculous 6.2 offensive rebounds per game — over that stretch. But Carlton took his game to a new level last week, finishing with 30 points and 11 rebounds in a win over South Florida on Wednesday and then going for 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in Saturday’s win over Wichita State. He had 10 (10!) offensive rebounds in the win over the Shockers.
15. Kentucky Wildcats (12-3)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Vanderbilt (Tuesday), vs. Tennessee (Saturday)
It’s hard to knock Kentucky for its loss at LSU on Tuesday, given that Sahvir Wheeler left the game just four minutes in with an injury, and then freshman guard TyTy Washington also got hurt and missed the final minutes. The Wildcats still had chances to win late, but a frenetic final minute saw the Tigers pull away for a five-point win. They really responded on Saturday, though. With Wheeler still out, Washington took the full-time point guard role — and was terrific. Washington set Kentucky’s single-game assist record, dishing out 17 assists, to go with 17 points and just two turnovers. It was enough to overshadow Oscar Tshiebwe’s 29 points and 17 rebounds, the latest in a string of dominant performances from the West Virginia transfer. I’m still buying stock in the Wildcats.
16. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Wisconsin (Thursday)
Following Ohio State’s 23-day layoff, E.J. Liddell needed a couple of games to return to his early-season form. Liddell went 2-for-14 in the Buckeyes’ overtime win at Nebraska, then was 3-for-12 in the 16-point loss at Indiana. But he bounced back in a major way against Northwestern on Sunday, putting himself back in the Wooden Award discussion. The junior forward finished with 34 points on 12-for-20 shooting in the win over the Wildcats, also grabbing four rebounds and blocking five shots. He had his most prolific 3-point shooting effort of the season, too, making five of his seven attempts from behind the arc. That might be the most promising sign moving forward for Liddell, as he has struggled of late from 3, shooting just 22.7% from the perimeter in his previous six games.
Dropped out: Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 14), Tennessee Volunteers (No. 15), Providence Friars (No. 16)
In the waiting room
Wisconsin Badgers: Greg Gard’s team had a hugely impressive week and now owns wins over Purdue and Houston, both away from home, as well as a 4-1 Big Ten record and improving metrics. Davis is the superstar, but Tyler Wahl had 16 points and 9 rebounds against Iowa and then 21 points against Maryland.
Seton Hall Pirates: The Pirates suffered a pair of narrow losses after a 17-day layoff, but bounced back this past week with a win at Butler and a home victory over UConn. Kevin Willard’s backcourt was tremendous against the Huskies, with Kadary Richmond dominating in the second half for 27 points and Bryce Aiken finishing with 22 points and seven assists.
Texas Tech Red Raiders: The Red Raiders’ defense hasn’t missed a beat since Chris Beard left for Texas, which makes sense given that new coach Mark Adams was considered the architect behind their performance at that end of the floor under Beard. But Adams has taken the “no middle” mentality to a new level this season.