NCAA hoops power rankings: Gonzaga, Auburn, Kansas set the pace

We call these “power rankings,” because that’s what they are about.

They are not about accomplishment. It helps to show one can beat significant opponents, and that’s the fundamental ingredient of any NCAA Tournament bracket projection, but that doesn’t always equate to pure power.

They are not based on anyone’s metric, or a reading of them in combination.

They are, at the core, an assessment of which teams look to be moving toward being ready to compile victories in the biggest games: those played with league titles on the line, those played in conference tournaments and, of course, those played on the road to the Final Four.

This ranking is entirely subjective and open for debate, but remember this is the assessment of someone preparing to cover a 32nd Final Four, who covered college basketball for the first time when Mike Krzyzewski was in his fourth season at Duke.

Let the madness begin.

1. Gonzaga (15-2, 4-0 WCC)

It astounding that after reaching two NCAA title games in five seasons and reaching six consecutive Sweet 16s and stacking 20 March Madness victories in that period – how could there still be so many questioning the Zags’ veracity as a national power? What do you need to see? This is the most overwhelming offensive team in college basketball. They have topped 100 points in their past three games, and that includes 110 against BYU, an almost certain tournament entrant and the No. 17 defense in Division I. The Zags are No. 1 in the nation in effective field goal percentage, according to KenPom.com. And here’s what’s really frightening: Freshman 7-footer Chet Holmgren still can be far better than in his first 16 college games.

2. Auburn (17-1, 6-0 SEC)

The Tigers would have been No. 1 in this week’s AP poll if they’d gotten more support from some of the metrically-oriented voters. Frankly, the only thing I care less about than the poll is how much sushi costs in a given restaurant. (It could be free, there’s no way I’d order it). But people get pretty worked up about it. So how deserving is Auburn, really? Well, the Tigers have a top-15 offense and a top-10 defense. They have a game-changing player in Jabari Smith, who has had more success than Holmgren but could become more of a difference-maker than he’s been. They haven’t faced as many severe challenges as some other top teams, and they won’t either, because of a league schedule that demands they play once each against three of the other four top-25 teams in the NET. So that means more pressure to win Saturday’s home game against Kentucky.

3. Kansas (15-2, 4-1 Big 12)

Am I allowed to say Kansas is a weird team? I suppose my editors will decide after I submit this. But what else to think of a team with such inconsistent center play, that might play 10 or 11 players on a given night, that has seemed a bit reluctant to embrace its current point guard, Dajuan Harris and yet seems to find ways to win (nearly) every night? One of the reasons is they have so many places to look. Another is they are coached by one of the absolute best in the game.

4. Baylor (16-2, 4-2 Big 12)

So we’ve seen the Bears can be beaten. Can they be beaten with James Akinjo at full strength? He injured his tailbone in a home game against Texas Tech and wound up shooting 5-of-14 from the field, tried to play on it against Oklahoma State and was even worse. So the Bears dropped their only two games of the season, then visited West Virginia without him and won while at last getting a high-end performance out of forward Matthew Mayer. I’ve been amazed they played so well with Mayer contributing so little. If he’s ready to break out, that’s trouble for everyone else.

5. Kentucky (15-3, 5-1 SEC)

There are holes in this Kentucky lineup, principally the one that should be occupied by a regulation-sized wing who can drive the ball. (For instance, someone like Shaedon Sharpe). But whereas much of this top 10 is searching for one point guard who can tear into a defense, the Wildcats have two. For real. Point guard Sahvir Wheeler is an assist machine, and backcourt partner TyTy Washington may be more effective creating his own shots – high-quality shots – than any player in the country. The only problem has been the lack of high-end achievement. Auburn is right there Saturday afternoon to provide the opportunity. It will not be easy.

6. Arizona (15-1, 5-0 Pac-12)

The Wildcats popped across the Mississippi River for a game against Illinois, conquered one of the nation’s best teams and really tough road environments, and one might think that would have been enough to convince everyone this team is a serious threat. But they had opportunities for statement-type wins against UCLA and USC wiped away by COVID pauses, so they still face a lot of doubt. Based on their dominance of Stanford, probably too much doubt.

7. Purdue (15-3, 4-3 Big Ten)

It still says power ratings, and no one has more than the Boilers. Dealing with Zach Edey can be so overwhelming for opponents. Wing Jaden Ivey is playing three feet above everyone’s heads. But as everyone saw in the Indiana game, Purdue lacks the sort of direction from the point guard position that can be the difference in a highly competitive game. This program has a solid, team-first culture. But who is the Boilers’ oncourt leader, the player who can (figuratively) grab his teammates and either fire them up or settle them down?

8. Duke (14-3, 4-2 ACC)

Nobody else is putting four first-round picks on the floor, but the Devils are one of many teams fighting their own lack of a first-rate point guard. The absence of such a player is one reason All-America candidate Paolo Banchero can go basically 10 minutes without a shot during the second half at Florida State – a game in which he was playing well. The attempt to sort out that concern will define the Blue Devils’ results in a season defined by Mike Krzyzewski’s final lap around the college basketball scene.

9. Villanova (13-5, 6-2 Big East)

The Wildcats are 151st in the nation in block shot percentage. They block two shots per game. Given the nature of their lineup, that’s what you’d expect. The tallest player in the rotation is 6-8. They play winning defense by not allowing opponents to run comfortably through their preferred actions, by being physical and rebounding effectively. But it’s hard to win the biggest games without protecting the rim.

10. Illinois (13-4, 6-1 Big Ten)

It still is nearly impossible to accurately rank the Illini, because they’ve been three different teams in 17 games. There was Illinois with Andre Curbelo at point guard but without All-American center Kofi Cockburn because of a bogus NCAA suspension; there was Illinois with Cockburn but without Curbelo because of a concussion that cost him 12 games and, now, there is Illinois with both of them and trying to figure out how Curbelo fits back into the operation. They have one of the highest ceilings of any team, but there’s no way to know when they’ll get there. Or if.

11. UCLA (12-2, 4-1 Pac-12)

The defensive efficiency stats at KenPom.com indicate the Bruins are the 19th most effective defense in college basketball. Is that what you’re seeing? Maybe it’s the lingering effects of the team’s extended COVID shutdown, but they’re allowing opponents to shoot 41.8 percent from the field and struggling to get stops when it’s essential. There’s so much room to improve.

12. LSU (15-3, 3-3 SEC)

After winning 19 games last season and reaching the SEC Tournament final with an 82-points-per-game offense, the Tigers were reinvented by coach Will Wade into an elite, precision defensive outfit after losing Cam Thomas and Trendon Watford. They went from 124th in defensive efficiency to first in one offseason. That’s like me learning to sing like Bruno Mars after a few Friday nights at karaoke.

13. Wisconsin (15-2, 6-1 Big Ten)

Teams that pay excess attention to All-America candidate Johnny Davis – and how could you not? – are learning that means being punished just as severely by Tyler Wahl.

14. UConn (13-4, 4-2 Big East)

They missed star center Adama Sanogo for four games, and gifted wing Tyrese Martin for four games. Huskies coaches are pleased that allowed point guard RJ Cole to blossom as a scoring point guard, but it also has led to UConn being behind in its development. UConn dropped games they maybe should have won, but also have room for improvement some others on this list do not.

15. Houston (16-2, 5-0 AAC)

Marcus Sasser was leading the Cougars in scoring before he was injured and lost for the season on Dec. 25. They are 5-0 since. It’s sort of like when star guard Caleb Mills decided to transfer out last season after playing four games. What happened then? Oh, right: Houston wound up in the Final Four.

16. Ohio State (12-4, 5-2 Big Ten)

More than any team on this list, the Buckeyes have to play with precision in order to excel. They have some great individual talent – hello, E.J. Liddell – but don’t feature overwhelming size in the frontcourt and nearly everyone in the backcourt is either new to the program or new to college basketball. They can beat literally everyone at their best, but they’re in reach of a lot of less-regarded opponents.

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