College basketball Power Rankings: UCLA reenters the fray, Mississippi State debuts

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, December 19, 2022

Of the seven Kansas players who saw more than five minutes in the 2022 national championship win over North Carolina, only two returned for the 2022-23 season. Out the door went first-round picks Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun and three other veterans.

So it's fairly remarkable that Bill Self has the Jayhawks back in the top five -- and, after their demolition of Indiana, back on the shortlist of teams that can cut down the nets in a few months.

Kansas has looked as impressive as any team in the country since losing to Tennessee in the Bahamas on the day after Thanksgiving. The Jayhawks are 4-0 since that defeat, winning those four games by an average of 27 points.

They have two bonafide studs in Jalen Wilson, one of the nation's biggest breakout stars, and Gradey Dick, one of the nation's best freshmen. Kevin McCullar Jr. is a versatile, two-way player. Dajuan Harris Jr. is an incredibly underrated point guard at both ends of the floor: he has 35 assists to just seven turnovers in his last four games. And K.J. Adams Jr.'s toughness, along with four straight double-figure scoring games, has allowed Self to utilize his small-ball lineup to such success.

Can Kansas repeat? Men's college basketball hasn't seen back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and Kansas won't be favored to do so. But the Jayhawks look like they will be a factor come late March and early April once again.

Onto this week's awards and rankings.

Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

Given the loaded nature of Saturday's schedule, there were several viable options for this category, but only one candidate had two résumé-boosting wins this week, both away from home. UCLA has quietly gone about its business since losing back-to-back games in Las Vegas before Thanksgiving to Illinois and Baylor, but the Bruins hadn't really been tested since. That changed this past week, as Mick Cronin's team traveled across the country to face Maryland and Kentucky.

UCLA absolutely battered the Terrapins in College Park, going up 49-20 at halftime and leading by as many as 38 points in the second half. Jaylen Clark and David Singleton led the way offensively, but it was the Bruins' defense, both limiting clean looks and forcing turnovers, that helped with the big early lead. Saturday's game against the Wildcats was closer, but UCLA led for the final 38 minutes and pulled away late for a 10-point win. Jaime Jaquez Jr., was the catalyst against the Wildcats, but the defense forced 18 turnovers and didn't let Kentucky get anything inside the arc.

Players of the Week: Drew Timme, Gonzaga Bulldogs and Brandon Miller, Alabama Crimson Tide

It's something of a cop-out, but it's hard to break the tie between Timme and Miller -- Timme's team won the game, but Miller's performance was the talking point throughout. Until the last couple of weeks, Timme had been struggling this season, by his standards at least. He was averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds through the first eight games, but he has turned it around with 26.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists over the last four games. That stretch was capped Saturday against Alabama, when Timme finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists, shooting 12-for-18 and just proving too much to handle for the Crimson Tide.

Meanwhile, Miller put on a show. The nation's best freshman has been fantastic all season, but he turned it up last week. It started with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in a 91-88 win over Memphis. Twenty-one of those 24 came in the second half. He carried that momentum over to Saturday, when he went for 36 points, 6 rebounds and 6 3-pointers against the Zags. Miller has already demonstrated he's one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the country despite standing 6-foot-9, but against the Zags, he showed off an advanced offensive package, going off the dribble, making pull-up jumpers, displaying the entire arsenal.

Win of the Week: Houston Cougars 69, Virginia Cavaliers 61

There were a lot of options for this one, too. But of the handful of marquee wins Saturday, only one came against the AP No. 2 team, and only one came against a ranked unbeaten team. Virginia jumped out to an early 9-0 lead -- and then Houston controlled most of the final 36 minutes. In a game between two teams that pride themselves on defense, toughness and controlling the tempo, the Cougars won those battles.

They also had more firepower. Marcus Sasser struggled shooting the ball, but J'Wan Roberts kept them in the game early, and freshman Jarace Walker had his best game so far. After losing at home to Alabama Crimson Tide last weekend, Houston wanted to make a statement that it was still on the shortlist of national championship contenders. Saturday was exactly that.

Coach of the Week: Bobby Hurley, Arizona State Sun Devils

Hurley entered this season with a seat as hot as anyone's in college basketball. His athletic director, Ray Anderson, gave Hurley a vote of confidence toward the end of last season, a dreaded sign of what's to come the following year. But after Sunday's win over San Diego, Arizona State is off to an 11-1 start -- with the lone blemish a shocking one-point loss at Texas Southern on Nov. 13. The Sun Devils beat Michigan in New York, Creighton in Las Vegas and defeated Colorado and Stanford to open Pac-12 play. They're the third-ranked team in the Pac-12, according to ESPN's BPI -- and can make a statement on New Year's Eve, when Arizona comes to Tempe for an in-state showdown.

Three teams with questions

Creighton Bluejays: Since beating Arkansas in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational to improve to 6-0, the Bluejays have lost six in a row -- including a home game against Nebraska and neutral-site affairs against BYU and Arizona State . Ryan Kalkbrenner's absence is a huge part of their struggles, but nothing is going well for the Bluejays right now.

Indiana Hoosiers: Mike Woodson's crew has now lost three of its last four, with the defeats coming by 15 points (Rutgers), 14 (Arizona) and 22 (Kansas). Jalen Hood-Schifino was out for three games, and when he returned SaturdayXavier Johnson suffered a foot injury that looked like it could keep him out a while. The Hoosiers have been outscored 92-46 in the paint in their last two games against Arizona and Kansas.

South Carolina Gamecocks: The expectations weren't overly high for the Gamecocks in Lamont Paris' first season, but losing to East Carolina (less than three weeks after losing to George Washington by 24) is still disappointing. They're just 5-6 with two home games remaining before SEC play begins. It doesn't look promising for what will likely be G.G. Jackson's lone season in college.

Power Rankings

1. UConn Huskies (12-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Georgetown (Tuesday)

UConn had been the most consistently dominant team throughout nonconference play, but would things change at all once Big East play started and the Huskies had to hit the road to battle familiar faces? Based on Saturday's evidence, not so much. UConn beat Butler by 22 points, going on a 13-0 run late in the second half after the Bulldogs cut the lead to six points. After so much publicity was given to Donovan Clingan's eye-opening efficiency last week, it was Adama Sanogo's turn to take back the attention on the interior. Sanogo had 27 and 14 against Butler, and is now averaging 20.0 points and 7.8 rebounds on 60% shooting in his last four games.

2. Purdue Boilermakers (11-0)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. New Orleans (Wednesday)

After starting the first 12 games last season and showing flashes of skill and inside-outside ability, Caleb Furst moved to the bench and played an inconsistent role the rest of 2021-22. This season, he came off the bench for the first seven games, and was then inserted into the starting lineup with Mason Gillis dealing with a back issue -- and he has responded. Furst had 12 points and 13 boards against Davidson on Saturday and has scored in double figures in three of his four games as a starter. And don't worry, I wasn't going to leave without a Zach Edey update: the Wooden Award front-runner had 29 and 16 Saturday.

3. Arizona Wildcats (10-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Montana State (Tuesday), vs. Morgan State (Thursday)

In beating Tennessee on Saturday night, Arizona showed a real toughness some have questioned since its loss to Houston in last season's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats won the battle in the paint, getting 13 more second-chance points than the Vols and going plus-16 from the free throw line. Entering Saturday, Tennessee did most of its damage offensively on the offensive glass and at the charity stripe. But the Vols had just two second-chance points and took only 10 free throws. Arizona scoring 75 points against the nation's best defense, especially when the Wildcats' 3-pointers weren't falling, is more impressive than it sounds.

4. Houston Cougars (11-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. McNeese State (Wednesday)

When Jarace Walker arrived on campus, he came with considerable hype. A top-10 recruit in the 2022 class, Walker had established himself as one of the most difficult matchups in the country due to his physical strength and skilled offensive game. But through six weeks of the season, he had only shown flashes of his ability -- and not consistently. In fact, entering Saturday, he had scored in single digits in five of six games.

But against Virginia, Walker showed off the full arsenal. A season-high 17 points, a season-high four assists, as well as seven rebounds and two 3s, which matched a season-high. There are simply not many players in men's college basketball capable of handling someone who is 6-foot-8, 240 pounds and can make plays off the bounce or shoot from 3.

5. Kansas Jayhawks (10-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Harvard (Thursday)

Kansas' victory over Indiana on Saturday was a complete performance: Six players scored in double figures, the Jayhawks shot 53.8% from 2, 43.8% from 3, made all seven free-throw attempts. Then, they locked Indiana down defensively, holding the Hoosiers to 0.82 points per possession. Despite all the recent blowouts, Bill Self has essentially trimmed his rotation down to seven players recording double-figure minutes per night. It's the five starters, then Bobby Pettiford Jr., plus one more: Zuby Ejiofor against Indiana, Joseph Yesufu against Missouri, and MJ Rice and Ernest Udeh Jr. also seeing time recently.

6. Virginia Cavaliers (8-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Miami (Tuesday)

Virginia looked stagnant in its half-court offense against Houston for long stretches Saturday, and while that's not unusual given the Cougars' defensive prowess, Tony Bennett's team will need to get more from its perimeter group moving forward. Kihei Clark was just 2-for-8 (with eight assists, to be fair), while Reece Beekman struggled en route to four points and Armaan Franklin had 10. The Cavaliers also made just six 3s -- the sixth straight game in which they've made six or fewer 3s. During that span, they're shooting 29.4% from behind the arc. It's a stark change from the opening three games of the season, when Virginia made 11 3s a game and shot 51.6% from 3.

7. Texas Longhorns (9-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Louisiana (Wednesday)

Under acting head coach Rodney Terry for the foreseeable future due to Chris Beard's indefinite suspension following his felony arrest, the Longhorns needed overtime to beat Rice on Monday before knocking off Stanford on Sunday. After Marcus Carr struggled mightily in the loss to Illinois earlier this month, the former Minnesota transfer has turned things around offensively. He had 28 points against Rice, then followed it up with 17 points against the Cardinal. Importantly, he shot 6-for-13 from 3-point range in those two games and also had five assists to just one turnover Sunday.

8. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Montana (Tuesday)

Gonzaga's second-half performance against Alabama on Saturday was simply remarkable. It was the first time in a long time the Zags looked like the Zags. They had 53 points in the final 20 minutes, shot 74.1% from the field, 66.7% from 3 and scored 1.43 points per possession. That's incredible efficiency from Mark Few's ballclub. We mentioned how good Drew Timme was Saturday, but Nolan Hickman (13 points, four assists, zero turnovers) was steady and Anton Watson had one of the best games of his college career, finishing with 17 points and really providing a spark.

9. Alabama Crimson Tide (9-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Jackson State (Tuesday)

After allowing more than one point per possession just once in its first nine games of the season, Alabama gave up 88 points to Memphis on Tuesday and then got torched in the second half Saturday against Gonzaga. Against the Tigers, Nate Oats' squad gave up 16 offensive rebounds and 54 points in the paint. Against Gonzaga, it was 50 points in the paint and 57% shooting. Nimari Burnett missing both games with a wrist injury, which will keep him out indefinitely, certainly made an impact; he had played so well at that end of the floor against Marcus Sasser in Alabama's win over Houston last weekend.

10. Tennessee Volunteers (9-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Austin Peay (Wednesday)

Arizona was the first team to score more than one point per possession against Tennessee all season, and it was mostly due to the Wildcats' strength in the paint. The Vols allowed Arizona to shoot 60% inside the arc while dominating the offensive glass and drawing fouls consistently. There aren't many teams with Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo on the interior, though, so the defeat is unlikely to start a trend. More concerning is Josiah-Jordan James missing his sixth game with knee soreness. He's only played twice in the last month, scoring a total of three points. In his three healthy games this season, James was the Volunteers' leading scorer.

11. Arkansas Razorbacks (10-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. UNC Asheville (Wednesday)

It might have taken the injury to Trevon Brazile for Jordan Walsh to hit his stride as a freshman. The five-star recruit was off to a slow start through one month, hitting double figures in two of his first nine games of the season. But he has picked up the slack without Brazile. He had 12 points against Oklahoma last weekend, then backed it up with 18 points and four steals in Saturday's win over Bradley. He didn't miss a single shot from the field against the Braves, and is now shooting 61.5% inside the arc this season. If his outside shot continues to come along, he's going to be a key piece for Arkansas moving forward.

12. Baylor Bears (8-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Northwestern State (Tuesday)

Entering the season, how the pecking order in Baylor's perimeter group would ultimately play out was unclear. Keyonte George was the five-star freshman, but Adam Flagler was a veteran college scorer and LJ Cryer was fully healthy and another proven point producer at the college level. With Big 12 play around the corner, George seems to be staking his claim as the team's go-to guy. With Flagler and Cryer out against Tarleton earlier this month, George had 22 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. And against Washington State on Sunday night, he followed that up with a team-high 19 points - including 12 points and three assists after halftime.

13. UCLA Bruins (10-2)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: vs. UC Davis (Wednesday)

It feels as if he's flown under the radar for most of this season, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. is playing the best basketball of his career and looks like one of the best wings in the country. He's averaging a career-high 17.1 points, shooting a career-best 56.3% from the field and looks fully healthy after dealing with ankle injuries for most of last season. Kentucky didn't really have an answer for him Saturday as he finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals -- and looked like he could get a shot in the paint any time he wanted. He's is good enough to carry this team on the offensive end.

14. Duke Blue Devils (10-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Wake Forest (Tuesday)

Duke had the week off after finishing the nonconference portion of its season 10-2. Perhaps the biggest revelation of the first six weeks of the season -- besides Kyle Filipowski cementing himself as one of the best freshmen in the country -- has been Jeremy Roach showing he can be the go-to guy for the Blue Devils. He had the most experience in the program entering 2022-23, which inherently gave him a leadership role. And he's risen to the occasion in big games: 16 points against Kansas, 21 points against Xavier, 22 points against Iowa. Roach's performance against the Hawkeyes at the Jimmy V Classic provides some real promise moving forward.

15. Illinois Fighting Illini (8-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Missouri in St. Louis (Thursday)

Illinois beat Alabama A&M by 21 Saturday: Matthew Mayer had 21 points, Terrence Shannon Jr. went for 18. Nothing to see here, right? Well, not exactly. After the game, Mayer said the team has "a lot to figure out internally between the players and coaches" and that he's "just upset." Shannon added, "It's just something we got to figure out as a team. Once we figure it out, we'll be ready to talk about it." It would have raised eyebrows regardless of when those quotes were said, but coming after a 21-point win is certainly something to note.

16. Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-0)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: vs. Drake in Nebraska (Tuesday)

Mississippi State rises into the top 16 almost by default, with Maryland losing its third straight game, Indiana losing for the third time in four games and Kentucky disappointing in a big game again this season. But Chris Jans and the Bulldogs are off to an 11-0 start, one game away from entering SEC play unbeaten. (They start league play with Alabama and Tennessee, by the way. Certainly a chance to make a statement.) They're not coming off their best week of the season, however, struggling in wins over Jackson State and Nicholls State, the latter coming by two points. Their defense is elite and has yet to allow a team to score one point per possession all season, but the perimeter shooting needs to improve. The Bulldogs shot 2-for-14 from 3 against Nicholls and rank in the 300s nationally in 3-point percentage.

Dropped out: Maryland Terrapins (No. 14), Indiana Hoosiers (No. 15)

In the waiting room

Wisconsin Badgers: Wisconsin has just two losses this season, by one in overtime to Kansas and by three at home to Wake Forest. And the Badgers quietly have six wins against teams ranked inside the top 75 at KenPom -- including road victories at Marquette and Iowa and a home win over Maryland.

TCU Horned Frogs: After being essentially written off after two weeks of the season following a couple of close wins and a home loss to Northwestern State, the Horned Frogs are starting to look like the top-25 team they were projected to be in the preseason. They're 4-0 since Damion Baugh returned to the court.

Marquette Golden Eagles: Marquette's 26-point blowout win over Baylor back in late November will still go down as one of the more surprising nonconference performances of the season, simply based on the margin of victory. The Golden Eagles only have three losses: to Purdue, Mississippi State and Wisconsin, by a combined 11 points.

Related Video