Power Rankings: Louisville takes over top spot

We said last week that Feast Week was going to upend the rankings, but even we didn’t see this coming. Eight of the teams in the Power Rankings suffered losses, including four of the top five and five of the top seven. Two teams — Oregon and Texas Tech — dropped two games.

The biggest winner of the week, by far, was Michigan. The Wolverines went to the Battle 4 Atlantis as no better than the fifth favorite to win the tournament, with a loaded field that included top-10 teams North Carolina, Gonzaga and Oregon, as well as Seton Hall. And all Juwan Howard’s team did was go out and dominate the event, beating Iowa State by seven, North Carolina by nine and Gonzaga by 18 in the title game. Michigan was expected to take a big step back from the past few seasons, with the departure of John Beilein and three starters from the 2018-19 campaign.

But Zavier Simpson has improved across the board, becoming much more of a threat from behind the arc and scoring in the half-court offense, while also maintaining his efficiency as a playmaker and effectiveness as an on-ball defender. Jon Teske is still an elite defender and has become more of a factor down low, and Isaiah Livers is breaking out this season. The Wolverines also have shot exceptionally well from behind the arc this season, and they are defending almost as effectively as in the past few seasons. There’s not a team in the country with as impressive a win collection as the Wolverines.

They don’t vault from unranked all the way to No. 1, however. Louisville takes over the top spot after Michigan State and Duke both suffered losses last week. The Cardinals have cruised through the first months, not falling victim to upset losses like some of their top-10 brethren. Of their first seven games, only one came within single digits — and Louisville led Akron by 14 with four minutes left in that one. The Cardinals are experienced, balanced and deep, and they have a legitimate star who can carry them offensively in Jordan Nwora.

In fact, Louisville is the only team in the top nine of our preseason rankings without a loss.

Will the Cardinals’ reign on top last longer than that of their predecessors? They will be tested on Tuesday … against Michigan.

1. Louisville Cardinals (7-0)
Previous ranking:
3
This week: vs. Michigan (Tuesday), vs. Pittsburgh (Friday)

Louisville hasn’t really been tested yet this season, but that’s about to change this week. The Cardinals will host Michigan on Tuesday, then Pittsburgh on Friday. And next week, they will travel to New York City for a game against Texas Tech. We’ll know more about Chris Mack’s team in about 10 days, but so far, things are looking great for the Cardinals. While we’ve focused on the injury returns and the point guard situation in recent weeks, All-American Jordan Nwora is on a tear. Nwora has scored 21-plus points in five of seven games, shooting 50% from 3-point range and 90% from the free throw line. He is one of the elite offensive players nationally.

2. Michigan Wolverines (7-0)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: at Louisville (Tuesday), vs. Iowa (Friday)

We’ve already discussed Michigan at length in the intro, so let’s look at the breakout junior campaign from Isaiah Livers thus far. Livers has scored in double figures in all but one game this season and is averaging 17.0 points after going for 21 points in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game against Gonzaga. He has been one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, knocking down three 3s per game at a 51.2% clip. Livers showed flashes of his offensive ability during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, but his emergence as a go-to guy has been huge for Juwan Howard.

3. Kansas Jayhawks (6-1)
Previous ranking:
6
This week: vs. Colorado (Saturday)

Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike are staking their claim as the best inside-outside combination in college basketball. Dotson went for 31 points against Dayton in the Maui Invitational title game, and while he did turn it over six times, he also had six rebounds, four assists and five steals. He has settled down in the turnover department since his one-assist, six-turnover effort in the season opener against Duke; prior to the Dayton game, Dotson had 25 assists and 10 turnovers in a five-game stretch. Azubuike had 29 points and four blocks versus Dayton, but the biggest thing for the big man from Nigeria has been simply staying on the floor. He is in better shape and has done a better job of staying out of foul trouble.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes (7-0)
Previous ranking:
8
This week: at North Carolina (Wednesday), vs. Penn State (Saturday)

Chris Holtmann’s team will leave Columbus for the first time this week as it heads to North Carolina on Wednesday for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That game will provide a test for the Buckeyes’ point guards — going against Cole Anthony — and their big men, as the Tar Heels are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and are coming off a game in which they grabbed nearly 53% of their misses. One key could be Buckeyes forward Andre Wesson. He has been inconsistent so far this season, both due to an eye injury and a different role from last season, but he is coming off a 19-point, seven-rebound game in which he made four 3-pointers. Wesson is a tough matchup for Carolina.

5. Maryland Terrapins (8-0)
Previous ranking:
10
This week: vs. Notre Dame (Wednesday), vs. Illinois (Saturday)

Maryland faced its stiffest competition of the season on Sunday against Marquette — and the Terrapins went out and played arguably their best game thus far. They held Marquette star Markus Howard to just six points on 1-for-12 shooting, two days after he scored 51 points in a win over Southern California and 91 points in a two-game span. Anthony Cowan Jr. had a breakout week at the Orlando Invitational too, averaging 24.0 points and 4.3 assists, while shooting 45% from 3-point range. Maryland has been hovering around the top 10 for the first month of the season, but it had yet to really have a statement performance or get a statement win. Sunday’s outing provided that for Mark Turgeon and the Terps.

6. Virginia Cavaliers (7-0)
Previous ranking:
11
This week: at Purdue (Wednesday), vs. North Carolina (Sunday)

Virginia has its toughest two-game stretch of the season this week, as the Cavaliers head to Purdue on Wednesday and then play host to North Carolina on Sunday. If they get out of this week without a loss — no sure thing, of course — there’s a chance they will be favored by double digits in every game until mid-January at Florida State. We also need to make sure we highlight just how absurdly good Virginia’s defense has been through seven games. The Cavaliers’ raw defensive efficiency is tops in the nation, according to KenPom, allowing just 67.1 points per 100 possessions. For reference, Texas Tech led the nation last year in raw defensive efficiency, at 87.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s obviously early, and the schedule has had some easy games, but like we said, it has been absurd.

7. North Carolina Tar Heels (6-1)
Previous ranking:
5
This week: vs. Ohio State (Wednesday), at Virginia (Sunday)

What a stretch for the Tar Heels: neutral vs. Michigan, neutral vs. Oregon, home vs. Ohio State, at Virginia — with a trip to Gonzaga coming after a home game against Wofford. If Carolina wants to get a win this week, it will have to improve at the offensive end. Right now, the Tar Heels have their lowest adjusted offensive efficiency (per KenPom) since 2009-10, when they went 5-11 in the ACC and missed the NCAA tournament for the only time in Roy Williams’ tenure in Chapel Hill. Things won’t get that bad, as their numbers are still good enough to rank in the top 20 nationally. But they’re sub-200 nationally in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. It’s hard to win games against good teams that way.

8. Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-1)
Previous ranking:
7
This week: vs. Texas Southern (Wednesday), at Washington (Sunday)

After a stellar start to the season, Gonzaga’s graduate transfer backcourt combo of Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge came back to earth in the Bahamas. In three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Gilder averaged 5.0 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists while shooting 4-for-17 from the field and 3-for-10 from 3-point range. Woolridge was a bit better due to his 14 assists in three games, but he scored 4.0 points, shot 4-for-19 from the field and missed all three of his 3-point attempts. Both were banged up during the tournament, but while Mark Few is stocked up with options in the frontcourt, he doesn’t have much perimeter depth behind his starters, outside of Joel Ayayi. That is magnified when they’re struggling.

9. Duke Blue Devils (7-1)
Previous ranking:
2
This week: at Michigan State (Tuesday), at Virginia Tech (Friday)

The big question for Duke entering its showdown at Michigan State is how the Blue Devils go about replacing Cassius Stanley, who suffered an injury against Winthrop last week and is out for at least a few weeks. Stanley was known mostly as a freak athlete coming out of high school, but he has been active defensively and is the team’s best 3-point shooter. Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire saw increased roles after Stanley went out against Winthrop, with Baker scoring 16 points and making four 3-pointers. Alex O’Connell also can provide perimeter shooting. Duke will miss Stanley’s athleticism and finishing ability in transition, but there are shooters on the roster who can step up.

10. Kentucky Wildcats (6-1)
Previous ranking:
9
This week: vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (Saturday)

The Wildcats are in the midst of a 15-day stretch in which they will play just one game, at home against Fairleigh Dickinson. It’s a good chance for John Calipari’s team to get healthy — Nate Sestina’s practice injury notwithstanding — and for the young roster to continue to jell. Without Sestina, Calipari could go with more Kahlil Whitney or Keion Brooks Jr. at the 4, allowing the three guards to play together extensively. By the way, why Duke ahead of Kentucky? Well, the Blue Devils have wins over Kansas and Georgetown and the loss to Stephen F. Austin, while Kentucky has the win over Michigan State and a loss to Evansville. Duke gets the edge for now, an edge that could disappear with road trips to East Lansing and Virginia Tech coming this week.

11. Michigan State Spartans (5-2)
Previous ranking:
1
This week: vs. Duke (Tuesday), vs. Rutgers (Sunday)

The Spartans not only lost to Virginia Tech in their first game at the Maui Invitational, they left Hawaii allowing more than one point per possession in three straight games. When they allowed teams to hit that threshold last season, the Spartans were just 7-7. In other words, that has to change. So what’s the problem? Michigan State is still struggling to rebound defensively, an issue the Spartans had the past couple of years, and they’re also letting teams get to the free throw line at a much higher rate than a season ago. The Spartans also have allowed three teams to make 10 or more 3-pointers in their first seven games. This team can score with anyone, but the Spartans have to shore things up at the other end of the court.

12. Arizona Wildcats (9-0)
Previous ranking:
13
This week: at Baylor (Saturday)

Arizona finally had an off day, in terms of scoring, from its three freshman starters in the Wooden Legacy title game against Wake Forest, but Sean Miller was able to lean on his veterans to get the win. Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green combined to shoot 6-for-24 from the field and totaled 22 points (although Mannion did have seven assists to just two turnovers, and Green and Nnaji combined for 20 rebounds). However, Chase Jeter went for 17 points and nine boards, while Dylan Smith had a season-high 20 points — his third-straight double-figure scoring game. Things are about to get tougher for the Wildcats. They head to Waco to face Baylor on Saturday, then host Gonzaga one week later.

13. Auburn Tigers (7-0)
Previous ranking:
In the waiting room
This week: vs. Furman (Thursday)

The Tigers might not be forcing turnovers at as high a rate as they did a year ago, but their new-look perimeter trio might be better defensively than last year’s group. Through seven games, Auburn has just been overwhelming opponents with athleticism and aggressiveness at that end of the floor. J’Von McCormick brings athleticism, Samir Doughty is long and athletic, and Isaac Okoro has size and versatility. Richmond’s guard trio of Jacob Gilyard, Blake Francis and Nick Sherod is averaging nearly 55 points per game on the season; the Tigers held them to 31 points and 2-for-15 shooting from 3. Auburn also might have set the tone for Davidson’s struggles this season; Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson combined to average 34 points per game last season; in the season opener against the Tigers, they totaled 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting.

14. Dayton Flyers (5-1)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: vs. Houston Baptist (Tuesday), vs. Saint Mary’s in Phoenix (Sunday)

It’s Obi Toppin’s world. The sophomore forward broke out on a national stage at the Maui Invitational last week, averaging 22.3 points and 7.0 rebounds against Georgia, Virginia Tech and Kansas. Toppin did it in a variety of ways: scoring with his back to the basket; finishing above the rim; and knocking down shots from the perimeter (he shot 6-for-11 from 3-point range). He moved all the way up to No. 13 in ESPN’s NBA Draft rankings. Toppin will get a few more marquee spots before Atlantic 10 play begins too, as the Flyers face Saint Mary’s in Phoenix and Colorado in Chicago over the next few weeks. Those are massive chances for Dayton’s potential at-large résumé, as well.

15. Florida State Seminoles (7-1)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: at Indiana (Tuesday), vs. Clemson (Sunday)

It looks like Florida State’s seemingly endless streak of exceeding preseason expectations will continue this season. The Seminoles are coming off an Emerald Coast Classic championship with three-point wins over both Tennessee and Purdue, on top of their road victory at Florida in early November. The only negative on the ledger so far is a two-point road loss at Pittsburgh in the season opener. The Seminoles are back to playing elite defense, holding all but two opponents (Pitt and Western Carolina) to below 0.90 points per possession, while sophomore Devin Vassell has emerged as a consistent option alongside veterans Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker.

16. Oregon Ducks (6-2)
Previous ranking:
4
This week: vs. Hawaii (Saturday)

Despite two losses at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Oregon stays in the rankings this week. The Ducks still have wins over Seton Hall, Memphis and Houston — and two losses to Gonzaga and North Carolina by a combined five points aren’t enough to make them fall all the way out of the rankings. One positive from last week for Dana Altman’s team was the emergence of freshman C.J. Walker. The five-star forward totaled 30 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals in the past three games — after totaling four points, 15 rebounds, one block and one steal in his first five games. Meanwhile, Anthony Mathis needs to find his shot again. He went 1-for-12 from behind the arc in the Bahamas.

Dropped out: Texas Tech (12), Tennessee (14), Baylor (15), Utah State (16)

In the waiting room

Baylor: Scott Drew’s club dropping out of the rankings had little to do with the team, as the Bears were simply jumped by some of last week’s tournament winners. An elite backcourt battle awaits against Arizona on Saturday.

Tennessee: The Volunteers suffered a close loss to Florida State, but they bounced back by beating VCU on a Lamonte Turner 3-pointer at the buzzer. Neutral-court wins over Washington and VCU will hold up pretty well throughout the course of the season.

Memphis: The Tigers’ two best wins of the season — versus Ole Miss and NC State — have come since James Wiseman began serving his NCAA suspension. Precious Achiuwa has stepped up in Wiseman’s absence, averaging 19.0 points and 11.5 rebounds over the past four games.

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