In a week overshadowed by the FBI leaks, the games still went on, there were still upsets in full swing, and there are several teams that improved or hurt their stock to contend in the NCAA tournament, whether their title will be legitimate or not. Some teams may be playing with the same positivity that these players received when getting the money that they didn’t deserve, while the falling teams may be sweating more than Sean Miller after hearing the FBI wiretap of his statement on paying DeAndre Ayton $100,000. Here are my three risers and fallers for this week’s rankings.
Rising: #8 Kansas Jayhawks
Just when we thought that there is parity in the Big 12 that can end Kansas’s Big 12 regular season title streak, the Jayhawks locked it up again, with two big wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech. This just proves how Kansas, year in and year out, always get the key road wins necessary and win those big conference games down the stretch. After losing to both of these teams in their previous meetings, Kansas throttled an ice-cold Oklahoma team by 30 and then carried that momentum to win a thriller in Lubbock against Texas Tech. They put an absolute downpour offensively on the Sooners, with their 104 points being their 3rd highest point total of the season and their highest point total against a Power 5 conference opponent. They had 6 players in double figures, led by star player Devonte Graham who had 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists. They also were very efficient and productive as a team when it came to their shot selection. They shot 61% from the field (39-for-64) and a whopping 55.2% from 3 (16-for-29). Graham was 5-for-11 from 3, while Malik Newman and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk combined for 8-for-13 from behind the arc. Meanwhile, defensively they continued Trae Young’s woeful February, holding him to just 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. Despite him having 9 assists, his scoring touch wasn’t on against a well-coached Kansas defense, which is coming together after it looked iffy in the first half of the season. Moving on to the win against Texas Tech, the offense continued to be in full force against the 9th ranked Texas Tech defense. Despite only putting up 76 as a team, they upped the Red Raiders’ 63.5 points per game allowed point total for the season. Graham was strong once again, with 26 points and 4 assists, and again 4-for-7 from 3-point territory. Mykhailiuk had 21 points and 4 assists as well, on a very efficient 6-for-14 shooting. Defensively, they weren’t spectacular, but had a strong performance against another top scorer. They held Keenan Evans (averaging 17.2 PPG) to just 6 points on 1-for-6 shooting. This once again shows the progression of this Kansas defense getting it going when it matters. So despite other teams putting up a better fight than usual to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 regular season title, the Jayhawks once again sealed it up, and these young players are playing balanced Bill Self basketball at the right time in the season. And these two quality wins, especially winning convincingly 104-74 against Oklahoma, should rise them into the Top 5 of the new rankings.
Riser: Kentucky Wildcats
These young Wildcats have been on my down list many times so far this season, looking more vulnerable at home this year than ever before. But in a week where not many teams stood out significantly, Kentucky beating two quality opponents, including one on the road, gives them a chance to rise back into the top 25. These two opponents are the suddenly resurgent Arkansas Razorbacks, who have won 5 of their last 6 and came into their matchup with Kentucky on a 4-game winning streak. The other is the Missouri Tigers, who have been a bubble team all season long, and despite losing 5-star phenom Michael Porter Jr., are still playing very well. Starting with their dominant win at Arkansas, the Wildcats had 5 players in double figures, including 3 of them coming off the bench. Kevin Knox led the way with 23 in that game, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put on 18 points to go along with 7 assists. They also outscored the Razorbacks bench 38-6 in that contest, with Jarrad Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, and Quade Green all posting double digits. Defensively, they held Arkansas’s top scorer, Jaylen Barford (18.1 PPG), to just 12 points on 4-for-16 shooting. As a team defense, they also held the Razorbacks to just 29 points in the second half after the game was tied at halftime at 43. Overall, winning on the road in convincing fashion against a team coming in winning 4 in a row is one way to make a mark. And they continued that convincing play against Missouri, as they throttled them 87-66 at Rupp Arena. Against a talented Missouri defense (76th overall, 68.3 points per game allowed) the Wildcats had 6 players in double digits, once again led by Kevin Knox’s 21 points. Jarrad Vanderbilt was all over the place on both ends of the floor in this game, with 11 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Kentucky also was surprisingly good from 3 in this game, shooting an efficient and productive 10-for-16 as a team. Meanwhile, John Calipari’s defense only allowed the Tigers to have 2 scorers in double digits. Top scorer Kassius Robertson had 26 points and 3 assists for Missouri. However, the defense held the rest of the team to just 40, and all very inefficient shooting percentages, as the Tigers shot 36.2% from the field, 32.3% from 3, and 63.6% from the line. Overall, any team this young has their ups and downs, but this isn’t an unfamiliar situation for Coach Cal, who has constantly dealt with freshmen his entire coaching career. And with these two convincing wins, expect this to be a sign of things to come for Kentucky long-term, and expect them to be back in the Top 25 in the new rankings.
Rising: Oregon Ducks
Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks have been quietly going about their business all season long, and lately that business has been winning. A lot of people, including myself, didn’t think they stood much of a chance after losing Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher, and Jordan Bell after their Final Four run last year. And granted, they are still not a guaranteed tournament team by any means possible. However, they are 19-10, rising among bubble teams, and played some of their best basketball this week against the two Arizona schools running the Pac-12 for much of the season. First, it was against the struggling Arizona State Sun Devils, another bubble team that, despite getting off to a great start, hasn’t played as well in the second half. However, I’ll focus on knocking them later. Let’s continue to praise Oregon, who got very good production from their starting lineup. All 5 players had a role in that game, with three players in double-digits, led by Elijah Brown’s 19 points. And those that didn’t score double digits had great assist totals, with Troy Brown having 4 and Payton Pritchard having 6. Defensively, they held the 20th-ranked Arizona State offense to just 68 points as a team, and completely shut out top scorer Tra Holder, who shot 0-for-6 for the entire game. They also shut out 11-points per game scorer Romello White, and forced him into a cold stretch enough to sit him out longer than usual, as he played only 10 minutes. And after a defensive outburst against Arizona State, they had an offensive outburst against the previously 14th ranked Arizona Wildcats. They won 98-93 in overtime against the Wildcats, and had all 5 starting players in double-digit scoring. Elijah Brown led the way with 30 points and 3 assists, and Mikyle McIntosh added 20 points and 3 assists. They also shot 42.4% from 3 and 83.3% from the line in the game, and were even stronger in the second half, where they outscored Arizona 46-40. Overall, you can never sleep on a Dana Altman, who has been one of the best coaches in college basketball in the last 3 or 4 years. And despite losing their top players from their Final Four run last year, this team can win in both ways and is still getting good productivity at the right time.
Falling: #6 Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech has been a very talented breakthrough team all year, with a good offense and a very talented defense, as well as good depth. However, they have certainly been struggling lately, with close losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas this past week. These losses shouldn’t necessarily spawn panic in my opinion, as they still have talent on their roster and a good identity. However, they will certainly fall in the rankings and likely out of the Top 10 with conference losses they can’t afford to have at this point in the season. Top scorer Keenan Evans struggled in both games, with just 2 points against the Cowboys and 6 points against the Jayhawks. As a team offense, only scoring 71 against a 210th ranked Oklahoma State defense is a sign of concern as well. Also, shooting 41.7% against that iffy defense doesn’t help their case either. Against Kansas, they didn’t have a great shooting percentage either, shooting 42.9% from the field. Granted, Kansas is a better-coached and more talented defense, but it is still a concern for an offense that is very good and balanced and a team that is #6 in the nation and playing at home. In my opinion, this team is not in trouble, but Evans struggling like this will only hurt the rest of the offense, and the defense that is #9 in the nation is going to have to play like that against top offenses to prove they are really that good.
Falling: Alabama Crimson Tide
One of the teams that were part of the scandal for paying and bribing players was this Alabama team with star freshman Collin Sexton. Despite the fact that they should be criticized for that 100%, as college athletes should not be paid, this article focuses on the team’s play, which also is a sign of concern. They got blown out by Auburn, who is granted a good team, but getting dominated 90-71 should never happen for a team with this level of talent. They also lost to Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, which despite Arkansas playing well, is still a loss you don’t want to take at this point in the season. Against Auburn, three of their four usual double-digit scorers were held under 10 points, with John Petty shooting a woeful 1-for-9 in that game. Defensively, which is this team’s strong suit (105th overall, 69.6 PPG), they allowed 4 Auburn scorers in double figures and another one with 9 points and 4 assists. They were also outscored badly in the second half, 50-36, allowing too many big runs, which is in area that should be improved for a defense meant to be that good. Moving on to Arkansas, their defensive woes continued, as they allowed 6 scorers to get into double digits. Granted, Arkansas does have a talented offense like Auburn. However, statistically it has been a front-loaded offense, with Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon doing the bulk of the scoring for this Razorback team all year. But to allow 6 different scorers in double figures is a bad mark for what is a team that prides themselves on their defense. And like Texas Tech, if the Crimson Tide want to make a stronger tournament case, they are going to need that defense to play better to steal some close wins when their offense that isn’t as balanced has down games.
Falling: Arizona State Sun Devils
What was one of the last undefeated teams remaining in college basketball in the first half of the season, this Sun Devil team has slipped to become just an average team in college basketball in the second half of the season, especially in the Pac-12 conference. They are now 7-9 in conference play, which is 4th worst in the Pac-12, and could affect their seeding come time conference championships and even NCAA tournament. And the way they’ve been playing, they are slipping further from even being a guarantee in the tournament. They struggled this week, with losses to Oregon and Oregon State. Granted, Oregon had been playing very well, but for the 20th ranked Arizona State offense to struggle like they did has to be a sign of concern. Shannon Evans II (25 points) and Remy Martin (15 points) were their only consistent and effective scorers in that game, scoring 40 of the team’s 68 points. They had only one other double digit scorer, and as I mentioned above when discussing Oregon, having your top scorer and another double digit scorer getting goose eggs should never happen to a team that is currently in tournament position. Moving on to their second loss, they lost to an Oregon State team that is currently 14-14 and hasn’t been relevant in college basketball in a long time. Their defense allowed 5 scorers in double digits to an offense ranked 195th in the nation, which granted isn’t terrible but isn’t spectacular either. And offensively, despite Tra Holder bouncing back with 23 points, they only had one other scorer in double digits, with Kodi Justice scoring 12. However, Evans II fell to scoring just 9 and Romello White once again scored just 8, with those guys averaging double digits for the season normally. For a 20th ranked offense to be that streaky against two defenses that are solid but not elite, there is certainly a sign of concern for this team that relies a lot on their offense going forward. And especially since they have been just average following their 12-0 start to the season, going just 7-9 since, this team is in a lot of trouble if they don’t turn things around quickly.