The anticipation of Saturday's Auburn vs. Kentucky game was second to none for a conference game this season. Two Final Four contenders playing their best basketball of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season, with a No. 1 pick favorite (Jabari Smith) battling in the frontcourt against a Wooden Award contender (Oscar Tshiebwe). The winner would also have the inside track to an SEC regular-season title, as this was the only head-to-head matchup between the Tigers and Wildcats this season. Due to injuries, however, the game faded somewhat in the second half, with Auburn pulling away and establishing itself as the clear No. 1 team in the country. The Tigers are also now the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC.
And that got me thinking: Most of the regular-season title battles are already trending toward one-horse races, despite six weeks remaining until conference tournaments. ESPN's College Basketball Power Index (BPI) is a predictive metric that, among other things, estimates the probability of each team winning a conference title, while BartTorvik.com does conference title odds as well.
In the ACC, BPI gives Duke an 83.5% chance at a conference title, while Torvik puts the Blue Devils with a 79% chance of at least a share of the title. Villanova is the pace-setter in the Big East, sitting at 82.1% in the BPI and 84% at Torvik. Arizona, which plays at UCLA on Tuesday, is at 92.8% in the BPI and 89% at Torvik. The Big 12 is expectedly shaping up to be a two-team race, with Baylor (47.8% and 57%) and Kansas (43.5% and 50%) potentially going back-and-forth over the next two months. And after Saturday's win, BPI gives Auburn a 90.4% chance, while Torvik has the Tigers at 95%.
Perhaps the only top-six league with a strong chance for chaos is the Big Ten, where Illinois' back-to-back losses to Purdue and Maryland sent the standings into disarray. After Purdue's win over Northwestern on Sunday, Torvik has Purdue as the favorite -- but with only a 36% of at least a share and 18% of an outright title. Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin all have at least a 23% chance at a share.
Of course, this can all change very quickly, and predictive metrics aren't always correct. But it does show there are clear-cut favorites moving forward in most of the top leagues.
Team of the Week: Marquette Golden Eagles
Shaka Smart wasn't supposed to make a huge impact in his first year at Marquette. The Golden Eagles finished one game below .500 last season, lost several key pieces and nobody was overly surprised when they were picked ninth in the Big East's preseason coaches' poll. Instead, they've played themselves into the top 25 with six straight wins and a Team of the Week performance.
Marquette started with as impressive of a win as we'll see all season in the Big East, going to Villanova and knocking off the Wildcats by three. It ended the game on a 21-9 run, capped by a Justin Lewis 3-pointer with 11.9 seconds left to pull out the win. Marquette held Villanova to 6-for-24 shooting from behind the arc and made 13 3s of its own. It was the Wildcats' worst offensive performance since their loss to Baylor in December.
On Sunday, Marquette continued to roll with an 11-point win over Xavier. Lewis once again led the way, finishing with 20 points and 13 rebounds after going for 21 and seven against Villanova. It was another high-level performance down the stretch for the Golden Eagles, who held the Musketeers without a field goal from the 6:06 mark of the second half until a layup with 34 seconds left.
Player of the Week: Isiaih Mosley, Missouri State Bears
There might not be a player in better form nationally right now than Missouri State junior guard Isiaih Mosley. Earlier this month, he went for 43 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the Bears' one-point loss to Northern Iowa. He followed that up with 33 points against Southern Illinois and 32 points against Valparaiso last week. But Mosley didn't slow down this past week.
Take a look at some of Jabari Smith's early highlights at Auburn to understand why he could go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.
Mosley had 24 points in an easy home win over Illinois State on Wednesday, and then capped a ridiculous five-game stretch with 40 points and eight rebounds in an upset of Loyola Chicago on Saturday. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Mosley is the first player to score 40 points against a top-25 team since Cade Cunningham did it last season. He's also the first Missouri Valley player with 40 points against a top-25 team since 1988.
40 points? In a road win? Over a top-25 team? Check, check, check. That's enough for Player of the Week honors.
Win of the Week: Indiana Hoosiers 68, Purdue Boilermakers 65
Purdue has had Indiana's number in recent years, winning nine straight games over the Hoosiers since 2016. And after the Boilermakers jumped out to an early lead on Indiana on Thursday night -- and sent Trayce Jackson-Davis to the bench with foul trouble -- it seemed like a 10th straight win was in the cards.
But despite the absence of its sophomore forward, Indiana managed to slow down Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, force Purdue to create offense in the half-court and went on a 17-2 run late in the first half to open up a double-figure lead. Without Jackson-Davis, Mike Woodson relied heavily on his backcourt. Rob Phinisee had one of his best games in an Indiana uniform, burying four 3s and finishing with 20 points. Xavier Johnson didn't turn the ball over at all and scored 18 points.
Purdue came back to take a lead in the final minutes, but Phinisee hit a 3 with 18 seconds left to give the Hoosiers a one-point lead. Purdue came down, but Jackson-Davis -- who only played 11 minutes overall -- forced Jaden Ivey into a difficult shot, corralled the rebound and hit two free throws to give the Hoosiers the win. An Indiana loss to Michigan on Sunday kept the Hoosiers from Team of the Week contention, but knocking off Purdue was huge for their season.
Coach of the Week: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State Seminoles
There are few guarantees when it comes to college basketball nowadays. But much like misguided debates about Gonzaga's schedule or some sort of controversy surrounding Brad Davison, Leonard Hamilton garnering recognition for his coaching ability is an annual occurrence. And we're at that point again.
Florida State lost four of its top six players from last season, but the Seminoles were still considered a preseason top-25 team, mostly because of Hamilton. There are few better coaches at managing rosters and peaking at the right time than him: Florida State has made three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight in the last three NCAA tournaments.
After losing three in a row to drop to 5-4 on Dec. 12, however, it looked like a down season was in store for the Seminoles. Yet Hamilton and Florida State have now won eight of their last nine games, with last week's 3-0 run including a home win over Duke and a road win at Miami -- both by one point.
Caleb Mills is coming into form after transferring from Houston, and freshman Matthew Cleveland has been a consistent factor despite coming off the bench. But Hamilton continues to find success with his two usual staples: size and depth. Florida State once again ranks first nationally in average height, while consistently using 10 or 11 guys.
Three teams with questions
North Carolina Tar Heels: The Tar Heels lost to Miami and Wake Forest by a combined 50 points this week. Fifty points. Let that sink in. Giving up 85 points to the Hurricanes was eye-opening; giving up 98 points to Wake Forest was flat-out alarming. On paper, Carolina has as much talent as anyone in the ACC, outside of Duke -- but the Tar Heels are entering late January with their best win coming over an average Michigan team.
West Virginia Mountaineers: Given the nature of the Big 12 this season, it seems like one team is always going to be in crisis -- and this week it's the Mountaineers. They've now lost three in a row to drop to 2-4 in the league, with another brutal stretch coming up: Oklahoma at home, followed by road trips to Arkansas and Baylor and then home games against Texas Tech and Iowa State.
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles: It's hard to argue that the Golden Eagles are a team with questions, since they're 7-2 in the Summit -- but their loss on Saturday to North Dakota State drops them two games behind South Dakota State in the loss column, and leaves them with just a 15.3% chance to win the league, according to BPI. The world wants to see Max Abmas back in the NCAA tournament!
Matthew Mayer knocks down the big 3-pointer as Baylor regains a double-digit lead.
1. Auburn Tigers (18-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Missouri (Tuesday), vs. Oklahoma (Saturday)
Auburn should have moved to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll last week, but its win over Kentucky on Saturday should finally get the Tigers there.
Speaking of No. 1: The debate over the favorite for the top pick in June's NBA draft might be over. Jabari Smith is a special, special player. He might not put up the scoring numbers of Paolo Banchero or have the elite rim-protecting ability of Chet Holmgren, but Smith does things very few players can do on a basketball court. Against Kentucky, he started out the second half fairly quiet. Down the stretch, though, he buried a one-dribble elbow jumper over two defenders, then drove the lane, pump-faked to get space and found Walker Kessler for an easy dunk. That's just something 6-foot-10 forwards shouldn't be able to do. He should be the leader for No. 1 right now.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Loyola Marymount (Thursday), vs. Portland (Saturday)
Speaking of Holmgren, the former No. 1 recruit is starting to play his best basketball of the season. Against San Francisco last week, the 7-footer had a career-high 22 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and also made two 3s. Over his last four games, Holmgren is averaging 15.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.3 blocks, while shooting 54.5% from 3 on nearly three attempts per game. He was actually tested against San Francisco -- which starts 6-10 Patrick Tape and 6-9 Yauhen Massalski, and is one of the few teams in the WCC that can match Gonzaga's size up front -- but Holmgren grew into the game and established his dominance at both ends of the floor. His becoming more of a consistent factor in the paint is a good sign for his development moving forward.
3. Arizona Wildcats (16-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at UCLA (Tuesday), vs. Arizona State (Saturday)
From a physical standpoint, Oumar Ballo looks the part. The Mali native stands 7 feet tall, weighs 260 pounds and has shown flashes in high school and college of being able to produce. But Ballo hadn't quite put it together consistently this season.
That might be changing. After hitting double-figures four times in two seasons at Gonzaga and Arizona, Ballo was dominant in easy road wins at Stanford and California this past week, totaling 35 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, and missing just two shots in two games. He also shot 13-for-16 from the free-throw line, which is a big step in the right direction for him after he shot 55.2% from the stripe last season. With Azuolas Tubelis missing the win over Cal and questionable for Tuesday's game against UCLA, Ballo could continue to see an increased role this week.
Rob Phinisee's clutch 3-pointer with less than a minute left puts Indiana up for good over Purdue.
4. Baylor Bears (17-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Kansas State (Tuesday), at Alabama (Saturday)
Baylor bounced back from its two-game losing streak with a pair of solid road victories over West Virginia and Oklahoma. And while getting James Akinjo back from injury was a boost for Scott Drew, Matthew Mayer regaining his early-season form was a hugely positive sign for the Bears. After scoring in double figures in six of his first eight games and averaging 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds during that span, Mayer really struggled for the next month. Over his next seven games, he averaged just 5.1 points on 31.9% shooting from the field and 19.0% shooting from 3. With Akinjo and Jeremy Sochan suffering injuries, Baylor needed someone to step up in recent weeks -- and Mayer has responded. In his last three games, he's putting up 16.0 points and 3.7 rebounds on 45.9% from the field and 42.9% from 3.
5. Kansas Jayhawks (16-2)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Texas Tech (Monday), vs. Kentucky (Saturday)
Kansas just keeps continuing to find a way to win games, staying in the mix for a potential 1-seed in March. The Jayhawks had a couple of three-point road wins this past week, pulling out wins in the final minute against both Oklahoma and Kansas State. It's clear they're not playing their best basketball right now, with Remy Martin's injury a key factor, but the fact that they keep winning games is a good sign. The offense has been fine, scoring at least 1.07 points per possession in each of the last three games, but Kansas also allowed 139 points on 129 possessions in its two wins last week. The Jayhawks have allowed more than one point per possession just five times all season, and two of those instances happened last week. They're about to start a brutal stretch: vs. Texas Tech, vs. Kentucky, at Iowa State, vs. Baylor, at Texas.
6. Duke Blue Devils (15-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Clemson (Tuesday), at Louisville (Saturday)
A.J. Griffin's development into a consistent complementary piece of Duke's offense due to his high-level shot-making from the perimeter has been the Blue Devils' biggest positive storyline over the last few weeks. After scoring in double figures in five of six games, Griffin moved into the starting lineup four games ago, and promptly responded with a career-high 22 points, including three 3s. He struggled against NC State and Florida State but was the team's catalyst against Syracuse's zone in the blowout win on Saturday, finishing with 15 points, all of them 3-point shots. Trevor Keels' leg injury doesn't seem like a long-term issue, but Griffin stepping up and providing some perimeter pop should mean Duke doesn't see too much of a dropoff while Keels is out.
Malik Hall puts up 14 points off the bench as he leads No. 14 Michigan State's upset of No. 8 Wisconsin, 86-74.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (16-3)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Iowa (Thursday), vs. Ohio State (Sunday)
It was a mixed week for the Boilermakers, who started off with a double-overtime win at a hot Illinois team, followed it up with a three-point road loss at Indiana and then took care of business with a 20-point home win -- without Jaden Ivey -- over Northwestern on Sunday. Sasha Stefanovic made six 3s and scoring 22 points against the Wildcats, after making five 3s and finishing with 22 in the win over the Fighting Illini. Eric Hunter came up big off the bench for Purdue, finishing with 10 points and five assists after scoring 11 against Illinois.
Purdue's defense has been a bit of an issue over the last three or four weeks, allowing at least 1.02 points per possession in five of six games entering Sunday. Against Northwestern, however, the Boilermakers locked in late in each half -- stretches that determined that game. The Wildcats made just three field goals in the final 10:45 of the first half, enabling Purdue to take a 12-point lead into the break. And then they had just four points in the final 6:30 of regulation, as the Boilermakers pulled away for the resounding win.
8. Houston Cougars (17-2)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at UCF (Saturday)
Nothing seems to be able to slow down Houston in AAC play. The Cougars have suffered two season-ending injuries to key players and had another starting guard go down with an injury that ended up not being as serious as feared, yet nothing has seemed to faze Kelvin Sampson's team. Houston has now won nine in a row after obliterating East Carolina by 43 points on Saturday. The Cougars' résumé from a quality win perspective isn't great -- their best wins are over Oregon and Oklahoma State at neutral sites -- but the predictive-based metrics love this team, and they also rank in the top 15 at KenPom in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The only other teams that can say that? Gonzaga, Baylor, Auburn and Arizona. Not bad company. Could upcoming road games at UCF, Cincinnati and SMU slow down Houston at all?
9. UCLA Bruins (13-2)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: vs. Arizona (Tuesday), vs. California (Thursday), vs. Stanford (Saturday)
After a quiet middle part of the season, Johnny Juzang has turned back into the All-American that carried UCLA to a Final Four last season. After going eight games without hitting the 20-point threshold, he has now scored 23 points or more in four straight games. He had 28 points in a narrow road win at Utah on Thursday, and followed that up with 23 points and six rebounds in a road win at Colorado. The Utah-Colorado road swing is one of the more difficult trips in any major conference, and the Bruins escaped with two key wins. In his last four games, Juzang is averaging 24.5 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 46.7% from 3. In order to beat Arizona on Tuesday, Juzang will have to keep up his shooting -- while also helping teammate Jaime Jaquez return to form.
10. Kentucky Wildcats (15-4)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Mississippi State (Tuesday), at Kansas (Saturday)
I'm not dropping Kentucky too much for its road loss to the No. 1 team in the country -- a game in which the Wildcats were without their two best guards for long stretches. When star freshman TyTy Washington Jr. left the game in the first half with an ankle injury, Kentucky led by nine points and seemed to be in control of things. In fact, a Washington jumper had just capped a 7-0 run before he landed on Oscar Tshiebwe's foot and twisted his ankle. Washington wouldn't return.
Sahvir Wheeler also had to miss time after getting blindsided by a Walker Kessler screen. I still think a fully healthy Kentucky team is a legitimate national championship contender -- so we'll just have to hope Washington's injury isn't a long-term issue. He's had a terrific freshman season, and was playing his best ball over the last few weeks.
IUPUI Jaguars vs. Ohio State Buckeyes: Full Highlights
11. Michigan State Spartans (15-3)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Illinois (Tuesday), vs. Michigan (Saturday)
Last weekend's loss to Northwestern looked like it might highlight some real deficiencies for the Spartans. They turned the ball over 17 times, shot 28.6% from 3 and didn't seem to have an answer when they needed a basket late. Those concerns seem a bit less pressing after Michigan State bounced back with an impressive 12-point win at the Kohl Center on Friday, snapping Wisconsin's seven-game winning streak. Tom Izzo received excellent point guard play from Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard, who combined for 24 points, 10 assists and just four turnovers. Malik Hall gave quality production off the bench while freshman Jaden Akins, who has flashed on a couple occasions this season, had 10 points and a pair of 3s off the bench. There's not a real scoring star on this team (Gabe Brown is the closest one), but Izzo has so many options in his rotation.
12. Villanova Wildcats (14-5)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. DePaul (Tuesday), vs. St. John's (Saturday)
A week ago, it looked like Villanova had things figured out. The Wildcats had won six in a row, were blowing out opponents and were clicking. Then they blew a lead at home to Marquette on Wednesday and lost, then struggled mightily at Georgetown on Saturday before pulling away late for an 11-point win. On Wednesday, it was the offense that was a problem: 'Nova shot just 25% from 3 against the Golden Eagles, scoring 0.89 points per possession and seeing Justin Moore and Collin Gillespie shoot a combined 9-for-26 from the field. Both players bounced back against Georgetown, but the defense failed to show up. The Hoyas scored 40 first-half points and 1.13 points per possession overall -- the most 'Nova has allowed since its blowout loss to Creighton in mid-December.
13. Wisconsin Badgers (15-3)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Nebraska (Thursday), vs. Minnesota (Sunday)
Wisconsin's steady rise into the top 10 came to a crashing halt on Friday, courtesy Michigan State. While there were a number of reasons for Wisconsin's struggles against the Spartans, the absence of Tyler Wahl was crucial: The junior forward suffered an ankle injury in the win at Northwestern earlier in the week, but had hoped to suit up against Michigan State. He wasn't able to play, however, and Wisconsin missed his frontcourt production. Wahl has been one of most improved players in the Big Ten this season, seeing his numbers jump from 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds to 11.0 and 5.7. Over his last four games, he had averaged 17.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while shooting 65.9% from the field.
14. Texas Tech Red Raiders (15-4)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: at Kansas (Monday), vs. Mississippi State (Saturday)
It was another week with two wins for Texas Tech, but one stat really jumped out when looking at the Red Raiders' victories: Texas Tech shot 74 -- seventy-four! -- free throws in its wins over Iowa State and West Virginia, making 54 of those attempts. The Red Raiders' free-throw rate, which is simply free-throw attempts divided by field-goal attempts, was an insane 82.6 against the Cyclones and 61.0 against the Mountaineers. For comparison's sake, the nation's leader in free-throw rate is Manhattan, at 46.6. Some of Texas Tech's statline stems from its opponent: Iowa State ranks in the 300s in defensive free-throw rate, while West Virginia needed to ratchet up its pressure and committed fouls in the process. Some of it is Texas Tech struggling to make shots from the perimeter and needing to be more aggressive. And some of it is the usual late-game fouls. Regardless, it was noteworthy.
15. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-4)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Minnesota (Thursday), at Purdue (Sunday)
We're in the middle of an oddly quiet stretch for Chris Holtmann's Buckeyes, who won't play a Big Ten opponent between Jan. 16 and Jan. 27. But they did schedule a nonconference game last Tuesday against IUPUI, in which Ohio State went on separate 18-2 and 19-0 second-half runs and won by 47 points. It's hard to truly take anything from that game, although seeing Cedric Russell once again provide some perimeter pop -- 4-for-5 from 3 -- could still be a useful weapon later in Big Ten play. The former Louisiana transfer has only seen double-figure minutes seven times this season, but he had 12 points against Duke, nine points against Northwestern and is shooting 51.9% from 3 on the season. Meechie Johnson has missed the last three games with an injury, so Russell could continue to see minutes.
16. Providence Friars (16-2)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Xavier (Wednesday), vs. Marquette (Saturday)
Providence is the new battleground for the predictive metrics vs. résumé-based metrics debate, replacing Iowa State this week. The Friars racked up two more wins over Georgetown and Butler this past week, running their record to 16-2 overall and 6-1 in the Big East. They're 4-1 against Quadrant 1 opponents and 7-2 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents, with wins over Texas Tech, UConn, Wisconsin and Seton Hall. Entering Sunday, the Friars were No. 7 in ESPN's Strength of Record metric.
But efficiency-based and predictive metrics don't love Ed Cooley's club. They're 56 at KenPom and 38 in the BPI, resulting in a No. 38 ranking in the NET. So how good are the Friars? We should find out more this week with a road trip to Xavier on Wednesday and a home game against red-hot Marquette on Saturday.
In the waiting room
LSU Tigers: After building one of the best résumés in the country with a 15-1 start, the Tigers have lost three in a row to Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee, and drop out of my top 16. They've scored fewer than 0.91 points per possession in all three games and badly miss Xavier Pinson, who has missed four games with a knee injury.
UConn Huskies: The Huskies cruised to a pair of wins over Butler last week, running their winning streak to three games, and have winnable tilts against Georgetown and DePaul this week. Dan Hurley's team still hasn't lost a game by more than four points all season, and they're the lone team to beat Auburn this season.
Marquette Golden Eagles: As mentioned at the top, this team has seen an unbelievable turnaround and coaching job by Smart for Marquette. The Golden Eagles started 0-3 in Big East play, but have since won six in a row, including this week's wins over Villanova on the road and Xavier. Marquette has six Quadrant 1 wins, tied for the second-most in the country behind Baylor.