If someone can figure out Alabama this season, feel free to let me know. The Crimson Tide are the most unpredictable team in the country, with wins over Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, LSU and Tennessee -- and losses to the likes of Georgia, Missouri and Memphis.
Their win over Baylor on Saturday only added to the intrigue, as they looked like the better team from start to finish. Jahvon Quinerly dictated the tempo and won the point guard battle against James Akinjo (albeit a not-100% James Akinjo); Jaden Shackelford had 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists; and coach Nate Oats received great bench production from JD Davison and Juwan Gary. Alabama absolutely looked the part of a winner, from a physical, shooting and depth perspective.
But why can't the Crimson Tide do it every night? Alabama is now tied for the second-most Quadrant 1 wins in the country, while also being the only top-30 team in the NET with two Quadrant 3 losses. According to BartTorvik.com, Alabama is No. 8 in the country against Quadrant 1A opponents (5-1) and No. 47 against everyone else (9-6).
Given how many 3-pointers Alabama takes, one might surmise it's simply a case of whether its perimeter shots are falling. But that's not entirely true. It made just seven 3s in the wins over Baylor, Houston, LSU and Tennessee, two below its season average of 9.1. If you take its five biggest wins and five worst losses, Alabama made more 3s in the losses, including 10 against Memphis and 12 against Davidson. In their four SEC wins, the Crimson Tide are shooting 25.8% on 124 attempts. In their four SEC losses, it's 27.9% on 118 attempts.
It might simply be a swagger and attitude thing, where they play to the level of their competition. That's notoriously hard to quantify, though. Their defense, a unit that ranked No. 3 nationally last season and is down to No. 70 this season, is a clear problem spot. The Tide have allowed at least 1.00 points per possession in six of their seven losses, but done the same in just five of their 14 wins.
If anyone looked closely they'd notice that Alabama has lost 7 of the 9 games when they allowed opponents to hit 50%+ of their twos. Alabama's kryptonite is interior defense this season, not streaky 3 point shooting.— Sean Vinsel (@HoopsInsight) January 30, 2022
Not only does this make it difficult to evaluate them, it will also make the selection committee's job very difficult on Selection Sunday. Perhaps this week will clear things up: Alabama heads to Auburn on Tuesday before hosting Kentucky on Saturday.
Team of the Week: Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky has looked like a Final Four contender for more than six weeks at this point, but there were still questions. The only surefire NCAA tournament team that it beat entering the last week had been Tennessee. They had lost to LSU and Auburn during that stretch -- injuries were undoubtedly part of the reasons they lost those, but still, they were losses. The underlying numbers looked impressive, but it was understandable if some people wanted Kentucky to show it on a big stage.
Well, stages don't get much bigger than a Saturday night game at Allen Fieldhouse. And Kentucky showed up.
The Wildcats ran Kansas out of its own arena, jumping on the Jayhawks from the opening tip and not letting up until the final buzzer. They scored 51 points in the first half and cruised to an 18-point win. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that's Kentucky's largest margin of victory on the road against a top-five team in program history.
Keion Brooks had his best game in a Kentucky uniform, finishing with 27 points and eight rebounds. Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington didn't shoot the ball well, but they were highly effective in creating and playmaking, totaling 13 assists and four turnovers. Oscar Tshiebwe did Oscar Tshiebwe things, Kellan Grady hit 3s and guarded Ochai Agbaji, while Jacob Toppin made plays off the bench. Fully healthy, few teams nationally have the ceiling that Kentucky possesses.
Player of the Week: Bryce Hamilton, UNLV Rebels
Normally I like to require a perfect team week in order to earn Player of the Week honors, but sometimes an individual performance is too good to ignore. And that's the case with Hamilton. UNLV started off with a road loss to San Diego State, but Hamilton played well, finishing with 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting, six rebounds and two steals.
The senior guard deserves the award this week, however, because of what happened at Colorado State on Friday. The Rebels pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the week, knocking off the Rams in Fort Collins by 14 points. They went on 11-1 and 11-0 runs in the first half to lead at halftime by 18, and Colorado State could never really make it a game. It was the Rams' second loss of the season, and Hamilton was at the heart of everything. He finished with 45 points, went 5-for-8 inside the arc, 8-for-14 from 3, 11-for-14 from the free throw line, and also grabbed seven rebounds and five assists.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, with that performance Hamilton became the first Division I player with 45 points, five rebounds and five assists in a game since Trae Young in 2018.
And Hamilton has actually been putting up huge numbers for weeks now, averaging 32.5 points and 7.3 rebounds and shooting 51.6% from 3 over his past four games.
Win of the Week: UCLA Bruins 75, Arizona Wildcats 59
Arizona had looked like an absolute juggernaut offensively for most of the season, sharing the ball better than any team in the country, running opponents into submission and seemingly getting whatever it wanted at that end of the floor. Meanwhile, UCLA was having some trouble regaining its pre-COVID-19 pause form, struggling in wins over California, Utah and Colorado while losing at home to Oregon.
And then the two teams met last Tuesday, and UCLA looked every bit the Final Four team that it was last season. The Bruins went on a 12-0 run in the opening few minutes of the game, and Arizona rarely threatened the rest of the way. Mick Cronin's team was elite defensively, limiting the Wildcats to their lowest point total of the season. Arizona shot 16-for-47 inside the arc, by far its worst performance of the campaign. UCLA's transition defense limited the chances Arizona had of getting out and getting easy baskets; the Bruins made them work for everything against a set defense.
Johnny Juzang drops defender before hitting bucket
Johnny Juzang drops defender before hitting bucket
Johnny Juzang was the catalyst in the first half, finishing with 15 minutes, while Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit some big shots in the second half when the Wildcats looked like they could get back in the game. Jules Bernard also finished with 15 points.
Can UCLA get back to another Final Four? If it plays like it did last week, absolutely.
Coach of the Week: Ray Harper, Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Harper has long been considered one of the elite conference tournament coaches in the country, going to three NCAA tournaments from 2012 to 2017 -- despite conference records of 7-9, 10-10 and 9-7 in those three campaigns. But he has never won a regular-season championship, something that could be changing after this past weekend.
Jacksonville State, in its first season in the Atlantic Sun, pulled off one of the more surprising results of the weekend, going into Liberty and beating the Flames by 10. Liberty, the Atlantic Sun favorite with three straight conference titles, was riding a 45-game home winning streak, and hadn't lost on its home court in exactly three years. In fact, it had never lost at Liberty Arena. But Jacksonville State went to Lynchburg, Virginia, and shot the lights out from 3 en route to a win.
Harper's team is now 8-0 in the Atlantic Sun, riding a 10-game winning streak with an inside track to his first regular-season title. The Gamecocks get to the free throw line more consistently than anyone else in the league, make a lot of 3-pointers -- and start four seniors. It's a recipe that's clearly working.
Three teams with questions
Florida State Seminoles: A week ago, I had Leonard Hamilton as the Coach of the Week and the Seminoles looked like they were right back in the NCAA tournament hunt after six straight wins. And then Florida State went 0-2 last week, with a 14-point loss at Georgia Tech and a 13-point home defeat to Virginia Tech. For context: The Yellow Jackets and Hokies were the two worst teams in the ACC entering last week.
BYU Cougars: After looking like Gonzaga's biggest competition in the West Coast Conference, and a potential top-six seed come Selection Sunday, BYU took two losses as it enters its biggest week of the regular season. Santa Clara knocked off the Cougars on a buzzer layup, and then Pacific pulled off another upset on Saturday. With San Francisco and Gonzaga up next, things won't get easier for Mark Pope's team.
Seton Hall Pirates: Seton Hall might have the biggest gap in performance between a pre- and post-COVID-19 pause of anyone in college basketball this season. The Pirates started 9-1 before being forced to take a 17-day break. Since returning, they're just 3-6, with losses in four of their past five games, including a 21-point home defeat to St. John's on Monday. That puts them ninth in the Big East. They badly need a healthy Bryce Aiken back.
K.D. Johnson, No. 1 Auburn survive scare from Missouri
Auburn avoids the upset and sneaks by Missouri for the win 55-54.
1. Auburn Tigers (20-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Alabama (Tuesday), at Georgia (Saturday)
It wasn't a stress-free week for the Tigers, even though they won both games to remain atop the rankings. Saturday's win over Oklahoma was as expected, but they had to hang on in the final seconds to beat Missouri days earlier by one. K.D. Johnson made big play after big play down the stretch to knock off Mizzou, with the Georgia transfer bringing a cockiness and swagger that national championship contenders need to have. He was a high-level bucket-getter at the high school level, produced for the Bulldogs, then opted to enter the transfer portal, and Bruce Pearl took advantage. Johnson has been terrific for most of the past month, averaging 15.6 points and shooting 42.1% from 3 over the past seven games.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (17-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Pepperdine (Thursday), at BYU (Saturday)
Could Andrew Nembhard be coming back into form? After a start to the season that saw the former Florida transfer drawing praise as perhaps the best point guard in the country -- especially after a 24-point, six-assist outing against UCLA -- Nembhard slowed down dramatically. He scored in double-figures in just two of the first 14 games, although they came in key contests against the Bruins and Texas Tech. In the Zags' two losses to Duke and Alabama, he totaled 10 points, 15 assists and nine turnovers.
But over the past five games, Nembhard has been back to his scoring, assisting, playmaking best. During that span, which includes wins over BYU, Santa Clara and San Francisco, the Canada native is averaging 15.8 points, 6.6 assists and just 1.2 turnovers, while shooting 46.2% from 3.
3. Kentucky Wildcats (17-4)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Vanderbilt (Wednesday), at Alabama (Saturday)
Based on the eye test, it's clear Kentucky has looked like a title contender since losing to Notre Dame on Dec. 11. Do the numbers back that up? After that loss, the Wildcats were No. 21 at KenPom; they're now No. 3.
According to BartTorvik.com, Kentucky is the second-best team in the country since that game, with the third-most efficient offense in the country. It has scored at least 80 points in eight of its past 12 games, while holding opponents below one point per possession in eight of 12 games as well. One of the Wildcats' few weaknesses during the first month of the season was perimeter shooting -- but they seem to have rectified that in the past six weeks, pacing the SEC in 3-point shooting at nearly 37% from behind the arc.
Kyler Edwards makes beautiful dish for a basket
Kyler Edwards makes beautiful dish for a basket.
4. Purdue Boilermakers (18-3)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Minnesota (Wednesday), vs. Michigan (Saturday)
Jaden Ivey has had a terrific sophomore season after an outstanding finish to his freshman campaign, and he might have had the signature shot of his college career on Sunday afternoon. After blowing a 20-point second-half lead in the final 15 minutes against Ohio State, the Boilermakers had the final possession. It wasn't quite by design, but Ivey caught the ball on the wing, rose up and buried the winning 3 with 0.6 left and a hand in his face. Ivey has come off the bench the past two games after missing one game because of a hip injury, and it might have helped him rediscover his outside shot. He went 6-for-10 from behind the arc in two games last week after shooting 33.3% from 3 in his previous four.
5. UCLA Bruins (16-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: at Arizona (Thursday), at Arizona State (Saturday)
Here come the Bruins. UCLA is rounding into form once again, locking down on the defensive end and looking more consistently efficient offensively. It has held four straight opponents to under one point per possession, including forcing Arizona into its worst offensive performance of the season. UCLA had its second-worst offensive game of the season on Saturday against Stanford, but still won by 23 because it held the Cardinal to 35.7% shooting inside the arc and 3-for-20 shooting from the perimeter. The Bruins were missing Johnny Juzang, which helps explain some of their own offensive struggles in that one. Prior to Juzang entering COVID-19 protocols, he was playing like NCAA tournament Johnny Juzang, averaging 22.6 points and shooting 50.0% from 3 in his previous five games.
6. Duke Blue Devils (17-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at Notre Dame (Monday), at North Carolina (Saturday)
Trevor Keels has missed Duke's past three games, although it appears he'll be able to return soon. In his place, Jeremy Roach has been restored to the starting lineup, and A.J. Griffin has had to step up from the perimeter. Both players have answered the bell. Roach, who was dropped out of the starting five for three games before Keels' injury, has totaled 23 assists and three turnovers in his past three games, making good decisions and spearheading the offense. Griffin, meanwhile, had arguably the best game of his young career on Saturday against Louisville, making five 3s and finishing with 22 points. His two 3s late in the second half took all the momentum away from the Cardinals and sparked a 12-0 run that allowed the Blue Devils to pull away.
7. Baylor Bears (18-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. West Virginia (Monday), at Kansas (Saturday)
It's no surprise Baylor hasn't quite looked the same since Akinjo injured his tailbone in the Bears' first loss of the season against Texas Tech in early January. Since then, Baylor is 3-2, but its offense hasn't looked like it did for most of the first two months of 2021-22. Akinjo has tried to gut it out for three of those five games, but he hasn't been nearly as effective: The senior point guard has averaged 4.3 points and 3.7 assists, while shooting 22.2% from the field, 10.0% from 3 and turning it over eight times. Scott Drew needs him to fully recover for the stretch run of the season. Making matters worse was LJ Cryer's absence on Saturday. Cryer is the team's leading scorer but missed Saturday because of a foot injury -- and Baylor missed his perimeter pop against Alabama.
8. Arizona Wildcats (17-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. UCLA (Thursday), vs. USC (Saturday)
Arizona's offense finally hit a few speed bumps this week, one of the few times all season we've seen the Wildcats struggle at that end of the floor for an extended stretch. Even in its December loss to Tennessee, the Wildcats still scored 52 points in the second half. This past week, though, Arizona scored fewer than 70 points in a game, its second time this season. UCLA kept the Wildcats out of transition in Tuesday's loss, forcing them to do everything in the half court.
Against Arizona State on Saturday, the Wildcats really struggled from the perimeter, and shot just 3-for-23 from 3. The guards weren't at their best last week, either, with Bennedict Mathurin going 5-for-22 against UCLA and 5-for-16 against Arizona State, and Kerr Kriisa shooting a combined 2-for-20 in the two games.
9. Kansas Jayhawks (17-3)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Iowa State (Tuesday), vs. Baylor (Saturday)
I've been saying for weeks that Kansas just keeps "finding a way." The Jayhawks haven't looked great since the start of January, outside of the second half against West Virginia, but they were still gutting out wins. A one-point win over Iowa State and consecutive three-point wins over Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas Tech kept them in the top-five discussion nationally. But there was clearly something not quite clicking for them -- and then Kentucky went into Phog Allen and smashed them by 18.
Defense is undoubtedly an issue: Kansas has allowed at least 1.02 points per possession in four straight games -- the first time they've done that since 2017-18. David McCormack's inconsistency is still maddening. And we've yet to see the game-changing Remy Martin we saw flashes of early in the season.
10. Houston Cougars (18-2)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Tulane (Wednesday), at Cincinnati (Sunday)
Kyler Edwards is on a tear offensively for Houston. The former Texas Tech transfer accepted a complementary role next to Marcus Sasser during the first half of the season, but when Sasser and Tramon Mark were lost for the season, coach Kelvin Sampson needed someone to step up -- and Edwards did. In his past four games, he's averaging 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 47.9% from 3. During his three seasons in Lubbock, Edwards scored more than 20 points just twice, a number he has surpassed three times in the past two weeks. Houston's offense isn't as explosive or deep without Sasser and Mark, but the Cougars haven't missed a beat thanks to Edwards.
11. Villanova Wildcats (16-5)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Marquette (Wednesday), vs. UConn (Saturday)
Collin Gillespie wasn't at his best last season against Posh Alexander and St. John's. Alexander is one of the best and most aggressive on-ball defenders in the country, and he caused real issues for Gillespie, especially in the Red Storm's upset win last February. In two games against them last season, Gillespie averaged 9.0 points and shot 2-for 11 from 3. He also turned it over six times in the first meeting between the two teams.
But on Saturday, Gillespie finished with a team-high 17 points, shot 3-for-5 from behind the arc and turned it over just once. After some inconsistency from 3 early in the season, Gillespie's up to 43% on the season from the perimeter, including 13-for-20 over his past three games.
12. Wisconsin Badgers (17-3)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Illinois (Wednesday), vs. Penn State (Saturday)
Brad Davison has been recognized more for controversial trips and flops than for his offensive contributions during his five years in Madison, but the senior guard is arguably playing the best basketball of his career over the past month. As Johnny Davis enhances his Wooden Award candidacy and Tyler Wahl emerges as a legitimate complementary option, Davison has become a consistent second or third scorer and a reliable knockdown shooter. Over his past eight games, he's averaging 17.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while shooting 47.3% from 3 on nearly seven attempts per game. He has scored more than 20 points three times during that span -- including Thursday's 21-point performance against Nebraska, when he buried five 3s.
13. Texas Tech Red Raiders (16-5)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Texas (Tuesday), at West Virginia (Saturday)
Had Agbaji's game-tying 3 in the final seconds of regulation on Monday not fallen, the hype for Texas Tech would be through the roof right now. The Red Raiders have already beaten the Jayhawks, Baylor, Tennessee and Iowa State -- and they've been playing as well as anyone for most of the past six weeks. Their only losses since a 14-point defeat to Gonzaga on Dec. 18 came by four at Iowa State, a game at Kansas State that was their third in five days and Tuesday's double overtime loss at Kansas. Since that Gonzaga game, BartTorvik.com has the Red Raiders as the seventh-best team in the country. Perhaps most impressively, they've been doing it mostly without a fully healthy Terrence Shannon Jr., who has missed eight of the past 12 games and has clearly not been at his best due to a nagging back injury.
14. Michigan State Spartans (16-4)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Maryland (Tuesday), at Rutgers (Saturday)
The Spartans haven't been the picture of consistency this season, especially lately. Here are their past five games: two-point home win over Minnesota, home loss to Northwestern, 12-point road win at Wisconsin, one-point loss at an Illinois team missing Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo and a 16-point blowout of Michigan. But perhaps that dominant performance against the Wolverines will spark another winning streak for Michigan State. If it does, A.J. Hoggard might be a key moving forward. Hoggard was outstanding against Michigan, finishing with 11 points, 10 assists and just one turnover -- which came while Michigan State was up 18 in the final minutes. He adds a different dimension with his ability to attack off the dribble and push the tempo, and that's what Michigan State needed on Saturday.
15. Providence Friars (18-2)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: at St. John's (Tuesday), at Georgetown (Sunday)
Another week, another pair of close wins. Ed Cooley's team just continues to figure out ways to win, with four straight victories by single digits. Overall, 10 of the Friars' 18 wins have been by eight points or fewer, leading to their No. 1 ranking in KenPom's Luck metric. But there's something commendable about knowing how to win close games late, so we'll see if that continues moving forward. Providence is now 5-1 in Quadrant 1 games and 9-2 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents, after winning at Xavier and against Marquette this past week. Al Durham continued his stellar play since arriving from Indiana, putting up 22 points against the Musketeers and then finishing with 11 points and four assists -- including several big plays late -- against the Golden Eagles.
16. Ohio State Buckeyes (13-5)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. Iowa (Thursday), vs. Maryland (Sunday)
It's hard to drop Ohio State completely out of the rankings just because of a one-possession loss in the final second at Purdue, but I'll need to see more convincing performances in big games from the Buckeyes moving forward. Since an 18-point win over Wisconsin on Dec. 11, they're 5-3 with wins over Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, IUPUI and Minnesota. They haven't beaten a likely NCAA tournament team since that Badgers game, and lost by double digits to Indiana and Wisconsin earlier this month. The remaining schedule doesn't feature too many of those games, however. Ohio State hosts Iowa on Thursday in a chance to impress, but the Buckeyes won't play another likely NCAA tournament team until Indiana comes to town on Feb. 19.
Dropped out: None
In the waiting room
UConn Huskies: The Huskies have won five in a row since their overtime loss at Seton Hall, and now return home to face Creighton before entering a brutal seven-game stretch bookended by two games against Villanova. They'll have to hope R.J. Cole continues his stellar play; Cole has hit double figures in 14 of his past 15 games, including 25 points in Saturday's road win at DePaul.
Iowa State Cyclones: The Cyclones snapped out of their 2-5 stretch with back-to-back wins last week: a road victory at Oklahoma State and a home blowout of Missouri after a slow start. The metrics are starting to like Iowa State a bit more lately, but that will be put to the test with games against Kansas and Texas this week.
Alabama Crimson Tide: As I mentioned earlier, the Crimson Tide's résumé is exceedingly difficult to evaluate, given their collection of high-level victories and questionable losses. But it's going to be impossible to find a team with a better trio of victories than theirs, over Gonzaga, Baylor and Houston -- especially a team ranked in the top 20 of most predictive metrics.