If you have yet to watch the immensely physical and disciplined Virginia Cavaliers play basketball, you’re missing out. Despite not having the notable athletes of most elite college basketball programs, the Cavaliers have still managed to stifle their opponents consistently with their potent defense while their offense is adept enough to take and make high percentage shots near the basket. With impressive wins over the likes of Duke and Clemson last week, the Cavaliers emphatically proved that they can not only hang tough within the ACC but that they are arguably one of the best teams in the country. Barring any serious injuries, it’s difficult to imagine the well-coached and fundamentally sound Cavaliers faltering in any way that prevents them from winning the ACC Conference outright.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
I don’t care who you are. Any program that is able to be undefeated in conference play by the end of January deserves strong consideration as being the best team in the country. After staving off a second-half comeback by Duke in their latest victory, the Cavaliers have drawn a line in the sand and are daring any overly confident program to cross it and take them on.
2. Villanova Wildcats
The Wildcats demotion from first to second has more to do with Virginia’s dominance over ranked competition than Villanova’s devastating loss of Phil Booth. Although the Wildcats have other notable and capable playmakers amongst their starting five, they lack the needed depth to hold on to their top ranking for much longer.
3. Purdue Boilermakers
Although the Boilermakers had to utilize every little bit of talent they had on defense and offense to ultimately beat Indiana on the road, their fearlessness and physicality when pursuing the basket is an aspect that will allow them to keep winning regardless of who they play. With Carsen Edwards and Isaac Hayes being the tough-minded leaders of this impressive program, the Boilermakers should continue to make mincemeat out of their upcoming competition.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Despite the despicable scandal that is currently surrounding this program, the Spartans have managed to stay focused on winning consistently within their conference. Although they needed some late-game stops and clutch shots to take out Maryland on Sunday, the Spartans have at least returned to being one of the better defensive programs in the country.
5. Duke Blue Devils
Despite the loss to Virginia over the weekend, the Blue Devils still looked much better on defense than they did at the beginning of the season. However, the Blue Devils need to clean up the silly turnovers and their inaccurate ways when it comes to shooting free throws if they hope to win close games against elite competition (16 turnovers, 45.5 FT% in the loss to the Cavaliers).
6. Xavier Musketeers
Frustrating both Creighton and Seton Hall fans by knocking their respective programs out of the top-25 rankings in back-to-back weeks, the Musketeers relentless shooting ways have allowed them to erase one seemingly insurmountable deficit after another. Considering they are great to exceptional at passing, shooting and rebounding the basketball, the Musketeers may be destined to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats
For whatever reason, the fantastic defense of the Bearcats has hardly been mentioned in the same breath as the Virginia Cavaliers, whom they are only second to in points allowed per game (56.2). True, the Bearcats competition is significantly weaker, but they have won all but one of their conference contests by double-digits.
8. Arizona Wildcats
With their inexplicable three-game losing streak way back in the rearview mirror, the potent offense of the Wildcats has allowed this program to reach their potential as a top-10 team in the country. While the Wildcats have been playing with fire a bit as they just skirted by Utah in their latest victory, they have at least converted most of their tight game affairs into important wins.
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders
When healthy, the Red Raiders are an elite defensive program that has the potential to make an impressive run in the NCAA Tournament. While their anemic offense will undoubtedly cost them some winnable games down the stretch of the season, their consistent defense should allow them to win more than enough tight games to keep them in conference title contention.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
By defeating Texas A&M over the weekend, the Jayhawks were able to quell some of the noise surrounding their bitter defeat to Oklahoma earlier in the week. While the offense is capable of shooting and making baskets quickly, it needs to be a bit less streaky for them to be considered serious title considers by the end of the season.
11. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Similar to their conference rivals in Gonzaga, the Gaels are a great program that needs more notable victories for them to be considered a competitive team going into the NCAA Tournament. However, the Gaels at least have taken care of business against both of their competitive conference opponents in BYU and Gonzaga.
12. Gonzaga Bulldogs
As the Bulldogs continue to dominate their weak competition, fans and pundits are waiting with baited breath until Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s face off again in a couple of weeks. It’s not personal Bulldogs fans, but your program needs to dispatch BYU and Saint Mary’s in the coming weeks if they want to be taken seriously.
13. Auburn Tigers
With an offense that continues to become more aggressive and efficient each week (86 PPG), the Tigers relentless style of basketball has propelled them to heights that even they would have to concede was unexpected going into this year. Despite the off-court distractions at the start of the season, the Tigers have persevered and have willed themselves to one gritty victory after another.
14. Wichita State Shockers
After losing back-to-back contests two weeks ago, the Shockers did what any great team is supposed to do: they bounced back with a competitive furry. Beating both UCF and Tulsa by 19 points each, the Shockers emphatically put themselves back on the map as one of the deadliest and most efficient scoring teams in college basketball.
15. Oklahoma Sooners
Earlier in the week, the Sooners competed with and ultimately defeated a top-five Jayhawks program to keep themselves in the conversation as one of the best teams in the Big 12. Unfortunately, Oklahoma conceded most of the ground they gained in the aforementioned win as they lost to Alabama over the weekend. It bears repeating: without any type of effort on defense the Sooners are doomed to falling short of winning the Big 12 Conference by the end of the season.
16. Ohio State Buckeyes
Despite a tough loss to Penn State last week, the Buckeyes can hardly be considered pretenders at this point. Although their inconsistent offense is a bit of a concern, the Buckeyes clearly have the pieces to carry them defensively, an aspect that has worked out for them more often than not this year.
17. West Virginia Mountaineers
After appearing to be one of the most well-rounded programs in college basketball just a couple of weeks ago, the Mountaineers have struggled mightily on offense and defense. Losing four of their last five games, the once defensively resilient Mountaineers have relinquished 70 points or more during their last four losses. Where this befuddled program goes from here is anyone’s guess.
18. Tennessee Volunteers
As the Volunteers slowly but surely continue their ascent up the SEC standings, it’s hard not to take notice of a program that lacks electric playmakers yet still somehow finds a way to win consistently. During their last five games, the Volunteers have held their opponents to 63 points or less, an impressive development that should allow them to stay competitive in close affairs even without a prolific offense (76.7 PPG).
19. Rhode Island Rams
Although their schedule may be severely lacking in marquee wins, the Rams have looked fairly dominant during their 12-game winning streak. While their over-reliance on their formidable defense may do them in at some point, it’s to hard argue with the results that they have produced thus far as they are currently undefeated in conference play.
20. Clemson Tigers
Once one of the surprising success stories in college basketball, the underappreciated Tigers may be in serious trouble after losing star forward Donte Grantham to a season-ending injury last week. Luckily, this team does have four other starters that are reliable at making high-percentage shots, which combined with their stingy defense may just be enough to garner them a coveted place in the NCAA Tournament.
21. Kansas State Wildcats
Quietly, the defensively sound Wildcats have won four games in a row, with two of those wins coming against ranked opposition. Although their schedule gets significantly tougher as they face both Kansas and West Virginia this week, they clearly possess the poise and confidence to win one if not both of those intimidating contests.
22. North Carolina Tar Heels
Just when it appeared that they were poised to take over the ACC, the offensively gifted Tar Heels were exposed in back-to-back losses as being overly reliant on Luke Maye and Joel Berry as being their primary scorers. If the Tar Heels have any hopes of persevering down the stretch, they need Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson to step and be more than just decent mid-range shooters.
23. Florida Gators
Despite their 15-6 overall record, the resilient Gators are currently second in the SEC standings (6-2 in conference play). Although their defense is below average, the Gators do have enough prolific shooters to keep them relevant and competitive as the season progresses.
24. Arizona State Sun Devils
Enjoy it while you still can Sun Devils fans. As their offense continues to be extremely inconsistent, the Sun Devils appear to be simply just throwing the ball up from beyond the arch and hoping that it will go in the hoop. While Arizona State clearly has the shooters to be a great program, their static identity has been exposed far too often for them to sustain any type of consistent success going forward.
25. TCU Horned Frogs
Although it’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Horned Frogs, they have at least fared better recently against solid competition. With a win over West Virginia last week, the Horned Frogs flashed their potential of being a highly efficient offensive team that can do just enough defensively to hang tough with the top tier opponents in the country.