College Basketball Power Rankings: Duke moves up, freshmen impress in Week 1 debuts

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 16, 2021

It is sometimes said that college basketball needs a better start to the season.

The sport has tried a few different things over the years, highlighted by the 24-hour marathon and the Champions Classic, but those often came a few days after the official tipoff. There should be few complaints after the first week of the 2021-22 campaign.

The Champions Classic was an outstanding headliner to opening night, while two top-five matchups --UCLA vs.Villanova and Gonzaga vs.Texas-- also received plenty of buzz over the opening weekend. With three top-10 battles anchoring the schedule, this should be the template for the coming years.

But the results from the rest of the country might have been even more interesting than the marquee matchups. The ACC saw five teams lose home games, including Virginia falling to Navy, while the Pac-12 notched six losses. Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, California, Nebraska, Washington, Stanford and other power conference teams all suffered surprise Week 1 defeats.

Before we get to the awards and rankings, a quick refresher on the rules of the Power Rankings:

1. This isn't a poll; teams don't automatically fall because of a loss. Head-to-head matters, but it isn't the only thing.

2. We try to avoid repeating awards in a given week (for example, Gonzaga, Drew Timme and Mark Few winning Team, Player and Coach of the Week).

Let's dive in.

Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

Was UCLA going to be more like First Four UCLA or Final Four UCLA? Were the Bruins the team that barely made the NCAA tournament or the team that won five in a row and came within a 40-footer of having a chance to make the title game?

Based on this past week, the answer is much closer to the latter. Mick Cronin's team hammered Bakersfield in the opener then came back late in the second half to beat top-five Villanova in overtime on Friday night.

UCLA looked every bit a national championship contender, with Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. creating issues all night against the Wildcats and Tyger Campbell being his steady, clutch self at the point guard spot. Moreover, the Bruins did it all against Villanova without Cody Riley, who suffered a knee injury just a few minutes into the season opener.

In a bigger-picture sense, Pauley Pavilion on Friday night was good for college basketball. UCLA generating buzz, in front of a lively crowd, with celebrities such as Jessica Alba and Cedric the Entertainer in attendance -- that was good for college basketball. UCLA's performance might not be great for college basketball fans who want to sleep before 1 a.m. ET every night over the next five months, but it's fun for the sport.

Player of the Week: Drew Timme, Gonzaga

I could have just as easily gone with Gonzaga as the Team of the Week or its dominant win over Texas as the Win of the Week. But the most impressive aspect of that game was by far Drew Timme -- and it also might be the best performance we see from him all season. That's not a slight on Timme; he is the Wooden Award favorite for a reason. It's a compliment to how good he was against the Longhorns on Saturday night.

After taking a back seat to Chet Holmgren in the opener against Dixie State and finishing with 11 points, Timme came out against Texas and simply dominated. He tallied 11 points in the first four-plus minutes and eventually finished with 37 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 15-for-19 shooting. Texas opted to guard him straight up from the opening tip; it didn't work out too well.

Timme used his size and strength to finish around the basket when Timmy Allen or Brock Cunningham defended him; and when the bigger Christian Bishop or Tre Mitchell guarded him, he found ways to score with his footwork and the ability to finish with both hands. Timme was a technician in the paint, with a counter for anything the Longhorns threw at him. It was one of the best individual performances we'll see all season.

Win of the Week: Duke Blue Devils 79, Kentucky Wildcats 71

Duke was another top-10 team with a massive, statement-making win this week. The Blue Devils were fairly comfortable handling Kentucky on opening night at Madison Square Garden, leading many to think Mike Krzyzewski's team might have actually been underrated entering the season. Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels were fantastic.

Banchero, in contention to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, lived up to the hype. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Banchero created problems all night for Kentucky, showing an impressive ability to handle the ball, make contested shots inside the arc and absorb contact around the rim to get to the free throw line. When he needed to go to the locker room for cramps, Keels took over, scoring 12 points in a game-changing 24-8 run then making another couple of buckets to seal the game after Kentucky cut the lead. The two stars combined for 47 points.

Wendell Moore Jr. -- who had a triple-double later in the week -- also was solid, and Theo John provided much-needed physicality and toughness off the bench, allowing Duke to cruise despite shooting just 1-for-13 from 3-point range. The Blue Devils should be a Final Four threat in Coach K's final season.

Coach of the Week: Jeff Boals, Ohio Bobcats

The post-Jason Preston era is off to a flying start. Not too many mid-majors had a better week than Ohio, which took down Ohio Valley favorite and borderline preseason top-25 teamBelmont on Tuesday, then backed that up by going on the road and beating defending Horizon League champion Cleveland State by 11.

There were questions entering the season about how Boals might try to replace Preston, given how crucial the latter was to everything the Bobcats did on offense in 2020-21. Mark Sears has provided the answer in a big way. After starting just five games last season, Sears stepped into the starting lineup and averaged 21.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists in two games, while making 5 of 6 3-point attempts. He isn't the same type of player as Preston, but with Ben Vander Plas helping to create matchup problems and Jason Carter dominating following his return from Xavier, Boals doesn't need Sears to be Preston.

The Mid-American Conference is crowded at the top, but Ohio has made a clear statement it's going to be a factor in the title race this season.

Three teams with questions

Most of the Atlantic 10: One week into the season, just five of 14 teams in the A-10 sit without a loss. Those defeats include Manhattan over Fordham, UC San Diego over George Washington, Sacred Heart over La Salle, UMass Lowell over Dayton -- with Richmond, VCU, Duquesne and UMass all suffering double-digit losses. It might be too early to talk at-large bids, but this league looks an awful lot like St. Bonaventure and not much else this season.

Pittsburgh Panthers: It was a terrible week for Jeff Capel and Pitt. It started with a 15-point home loss to The Citadel on opening night. Wednesday brought the news that top-50 2022 recruit Judah Mintz was planning to decommit from Pitt and reopen his recruitment. Then on Friday, the Panthers went to West Virginia and trailed by as many as 21 points in a 15-point defeat. Last season ended with Pitt losing 10 of its final 12 games, and the struggles have continued this campaign.

Georgetown Hoyas: It was only eight months ago that Patrick Ewing's Hoyas won the Big East tournament and went to the Big Dance. But they opened this season with a nine-point home loss to Dartmouth, a team that hadn't played a game in 20 months and that has a 14-42 Ivy League record over the past four seasons. Georgetown was expected to encounter difficulties this campaign, but Saturday's performance was still an inauspicious start.

Power Rankings

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Alcorn State (Monday), vs. Bellarmine (Friday)

While Timme received nearly all the praise coming out of Saturday's win over Texas, Holmgren had 14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks in his college debut against Dixie State -- becoming the first player in the past 25 seasons with 10 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five blocked shots in his Division I debut, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The potential No. 1 NBA draft pick didn't need to do much against the Longhorns and finished with just two points, five rebounds and two blocks. But Holmgren's presence at the rim was a huge deterrent in the first half. Texas essentially refused to try to attack the paint out of fear Holmgren would alter the shot. The Longhorns went at him more in the second half, but it was too late. Holmgren won't put up the offensive numbers of Banchero, but scouts won't be any less impressed.

2. Kansas Jayhawks (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Stony Brook (Thursday)

Entering the season, Kansas seemingly ticked every box for a national championship contender. The Jayhawks had depth, size and physicality on the inside, enjoyed enough scorers and shooters on the wings and added a top-tier point guard in Remy Martin. But some wondered if Bill Self had a legitimate go-to guy, someone who would step up late to get a bucket when needed. Through two games, it seems Ochai Agbaji is going to take that role and excel. The senior forward had 29 points in the opener against Michigan State and followed it up with 25 points in a win over Tarleton. Agbaji hit three 3-pointers in each game, but the more impressive part of his game was his willingness to drive off the bounce and look for his own shot at the rim. That's a clear improvement from the past few years.

3. UCLA Bruins (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Long Beach State (Monday), vs. North Florida (Wednesday)

Campbell completely changed the game in Friday's win over Villanova. He was an underrated part of the Bruins' Final Four run; their offense was predicated on taking care of the ball and getting scorers in a space where they could score. Campbell did both. He had 27 assists to seven turnovers in six NCAA tournament games. He continued that stellar play against the Wildcats. After a quiet first half, Campbell came alive in the second, making two big 3s when Villanova extended the lead and executing clutch plays late in regulation and in overtime. He also, importantly, helped contain Collin Gillespie.

4. Purdue Boilermakers (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Wright State (Tuesday), vs. North Carolina (Saturday), Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament (Saturday and Sunday)

Getting Trevion Williams and Zach Edey to coexist was always going to be a key part of Matt Painter's job this season. Williams was one of the best big men in the country last season and a potential All-American candidate, while the 7-foot-4 Edey dominated all summer and was a standout in preseason practices. So what was Painter's plan? To the surprise of many, he started Edey in both of last week's games and brought Williams off the bench. It worked. Edey averaged 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games, while Williams had 11 points and eight rebounds in the Boilermakers' win over Indiana State. "If you're worried about playing time and you're worried about starting, then you're worried about the wrong thing," Williams said after Friday's win. "If Purdue wins, that's all that matters."

5. Villanova Wildcats (1-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Howard (Tuesday), vs. Tennessee (Saturday), Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament (Saturday and Sunday)

I can't penalize Villanova too much for unsuccessfully taking one of the best teams in the country to overtime on the road, especially in a game that might be one of the best we'll see during the nonconference portion of the season. As far as potential areas of concern, the Wildcats' rim protection and defense in general weren't impressive. Villanova is rarely a great shot-blocking team, but UCLA's 1.18 points per possession would have been the Wildcats' second-worst defensive effort all of last season, according to Much of that comes from UCLA making tough shot after tough shot, but Villanova's lack of depth and size was noticeable, especially down the stretch. On the positive side,Justin Mooreseems capable of taking the next step as a junior, while Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon look like solid starters for Jay Wright.

6. Duke Blue Devils (3-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Gardner-Webb (Tuesday), vs. Lafayette (Friday)

I talked about Duke's freshman stars earlier, but Wendell Moore Jr. looks like he is ready for a much bigger role on the offensive end this season. The junior wing had plenty of preseason buzz, and he has lived up to it early. Against Kentucky, he looked much more fluid with the ball in his hands, more capable as a playmaker and more confident in his outside shot. He came out of high school as a five-star recruit who used his strength to score going to the rim against most defenders. He had an inconsistent first two seasons in Durham, North Carolina, but is going to be a great complement to Banchero and Keels this season. Through three games, Moore is averaging 15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists -- and he had a triple-double (19 points, 10 boards, 10 assists) against Army. He also is shooting 68.2% from inside the arc and already has taken 14 3-pointers.

7. Memphis Tigers (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Saint Louis (Tuesday), vs. Western Kentucky (Friday)

I'll hold off on full praise until the schedule stiffens up, but early returns on Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren have been positive. The two star freshmen -- and potential top-five draft picks -- have looked as expected through two games. With the preseason discussion surrounding Bates as the team's primary playmaker, he has arguably had more ballhandling help than expected, with senior point guard Alex Lomax starting alongside him in both games. But Bates had four assists in the opener against Tennessee Tech, and he has looked the part as a scorer, averaging 16.0 points and shooting 50% on 12 3-point attempts. Duren has been his active, high-motor self, especially defensively. He had a double-double against North Carolina Central, and he is averaging 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks through two games.

8. Michigan Wolverines (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Seton Hall (Tuesday), at UNLV (Friday), Roman Main Event (Friday and Sunday)

The transition from mid-major star to high-major role player is often hard. Mike Smith adapted well last season for Juwan Howard, and the Wolverines might have found another in Coastal Carolina transfer DeVante' Jones. The Sun Belt player of the year, Jones took more than 13 shots per game last season and averaged 19.3 points. In two games this season, he has totaled 12 shots and has had 10 assists to one turnover. That type of buy-in is going to be key for Michigan. Then there's Terrance Williams II. A name not found on many breakout lists, Williams looks to have a key role off the bench for the Wolverines. He had 15 points in the opener against Buffalo then eight points and five boards against Prairie View A&M.

9. Baylor Bears (1-0)

Previous ranking: 10

This week: vs. Nicholls (Monday), vs. Central Arkansas (Wednesday), vs. Stanford (Saturday)

It's hard to take too much from a one-game week, especially when that one game is against Incarnate Word. But it was good to get a look at the new-look Bears, who replaced four starters from last season's national championship team. Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer were expected to take on bigger roles offensively, and both players did, although their minutes were limited in the 87-60 blowout. Five-star recruit Kendall Brown looked more assured offensively than expected, while classmate Jeremy Sochan flashed the potential that drew so much hype in the preseason. One trend I'm watching is James Akinjo, who was the go-to guy at Georgetown and Arizona and might have to take a back seat in Waco, Texas. He had 10 points on nine shots but did dish out six assists with only two turnovers. The first top-25 opponent for Scott Drew's team might not come until the final of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament later this month.

10. Texas Longhorns (1-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Northern Colorado (Wednesday), vs. San Jose State (Saturday)

I thought Texas might be a work in progress, given all the incoming transfers and the time it takes to build chemistry in actual game competition. But the Longhorns were basically run out of Spokane, Washington, on Saturday night, trailing by double figures in the first 10 minutes and rarely threatening the rest of the way. The lack of an answer to Drew Timme on the defensive end was a problem, as was the tentativeness offensively. Chris Beard is bringing in several players who were high-level scorers at their previous stops, so unselfishness was a theme in the preseason -- but the pendulum can sometimes swing too far. Guys like Marcus Carr and Tre Mitchell and returnees Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones need to remain aggressive, especially when the game is slipping away. That combined with their inability to attack the rim against Chet Holmgren was a difficult combo to overcome against the Zags. I'm confident they'll figure it out, though.

11. Oregon Ducks (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. BYU (Tuesday)

Once Oregon added Syracuse transfer Quincy Guerrier last summer, I was intrigued to see if Dana Altman would go with a small-ball lineup featuring the 6-foot-8 forward and 6-foot-7 Eric Williams Jr. as the lone frontcourt players. Through two games, Altman did just that, and it helped the Ducks to one of the more under-the-radar week one wins: a 23-point drilling of potential NCAA tournament team SMU. Will Richardson has taken a massive step forward in the backcourt, following the departures of Chris Duarte and LJ Figueroa. Richardson averaged 19.0 points, hitting eight of his 13 3-point attempts. It's also worth noting that Altman has kept a pretty tight seven-man rotation, even in two blowouts; given that six of the players are between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-8, the versatility and interchangeability of the roster enables Altman to mix and match for different lineups. It's the perfect roster for him.

12. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Marquette (Monday)

Coleman Hawkins' development has been fascinating to track. He had a strong high school senior season at Prolific Prep (California), then Brad Underwood sang his praises last offseason; but Hawkins struggled to get consistent minutes in a veteran frontcourt that earned a 1-seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament. This preseason, Underwood once again said Hawkins was going to be a potential breakout for the Fighting Illini. And through two games, the steady drumbeat of the past two years is hitting a crescendo. The 6-foot-10 sophomore is averaging 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 2.5 assists. He also has hit a pair of 3-pointers. His combination of size, skill and two-way ability makes Hawkins an awfully intriguing prospect -- but how he and Kofi Cockburn coexist up front will be interesting to watch.

13. Arkansas Razorbacks (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Northern Iowa (Wednesday)

Former Jacksonville transfer JD Notae absolutely thrived in a sixth man role last season, averaging 12.8 points off the bench and consistently providing a major offensive boost. He has now moved into the starting lineup, and perhaps he should have been considered a dark horse candidate for SEC player of the year with the expanded role. Notae opened the season with 30 points against Mercer then had 18 against Gardner-Webb. He made nine of his 21 3-point attempts in those games -- and also racked up nine steals. Taking over for Notae in the sixth man role is Miami transfer Chris Lykes, who hadn't come off the bench in a game since March 2018. But Lykes has bought into it and looks to be enjoying his instant offense role. He had 16 points in the opener.

14. Kentucky Wildcats (1-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Mount St. Mary's (Tuesday), vs. Ohio (Friday)

While Kentucky is more experienced than I've seen in the past, the Wildcats are still trying to turn a very deep and talented newcomer class into a cohesive unit -- so it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise that their progression is a little bit behind that of Duke's, especially when you factor in a couple of preseason injuries. On the plus side, Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler has looked fantastic as the playmaker, dishing out 22 assists in two games, while West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe might end up leading the nation in rebounds. Tshiebwe averaged an absurd 20 boards in back-to-back games to start the season, 22 of which were on the offensive end. One note from over the weekend: Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick will undergo surgery this week and is expected to miss the season with a hamstring injury. He was arguably the best shooter in the portal and could have really stretched the defense for the Wildcats.

15. Alabama Crimson Tide (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. South Alabama (Tuesday), vs. Oakland (Friday)

Alabama had a quietly difficult opening-week schedule, with games against potential NCAA tournament teams Louisiana Tech and South Dakota State. The Crimson Tide dispatched both, scoring 1.29 points per possession and averaging nearly 100 points per game in the process. Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford are picking up where they left off last season, but the emergence of senior wing Keon Ellis has been the storyline for Alabama. Ellis had generated consistent positive buzz all offseason, playing himself onto NBA draft boards in the process. He is averaging 16.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists, while making five of his nine 3-point attempts. Ellis' emergence gives Nate Oats yet another versatile perimeter player.

16. Houston Cougars (2-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Virginia (Tuesday)

Houston nearly became one of the biggest upset victims of the first week, needing to overcome a double-digit deficit in the final 10 minutes to beat Hofstra in overtime. Replacing Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau was never going to be easy, but Marcus Sasser is certainly taking advantage of the available shots. The 6-foot-2 guard finished last season with back-to-back 20-point efforts in the Elite Eight and Final Four, and he is picking up where he left off. He had 25 points in the win over Hofstra and followed it up with 26 points against Rice. He has made 44% of his 3-point attempts, and he also dished out eight assists in both games. Sasser and Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards are going to form a dynamic offensive backcourt. The Cougars will face Virginia this week in a battle of two of the best defensive teams in the country.

Dropped out: None

In the waiting room

Tennessee Volunteers: Five-star freshman Kennedy Chandler, the top point guard recruit in the country last season, has lived up to expectations so far. He had 20 points -- making all four of his 3-point attempts -- and four assists in the opener against Tennessee-Martin then tallied 16 points, six assists and three steals against East Tennessee State. He looks like the real deal.

North Carolina Tar Heels: While the Tar Heels ultimately pulled out the win, their defensive performance against Brown was one of the bigger eye-opening "efforts" of the opening weekend. Brown, which hadn't played a Division I team since March 2020, scored 50 points in the first half and 1.23 points per possession before the Tar Heels pulled away. Hubert Davis' first big in-season task is clear.

Florida Gators: Florida struggled to defend during SEC play last season, so Mike White went out and landed arguably the best defensive class in the country from the portal. It showed on Sunday, as the Gators held Florida State to 55 points, 35% shooting from inside the arc and just over 0.80 points per possession. White's top six players this season are seniors; they could be a factor in the SEC.

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