College basketball Power Rankings: Houston edges out Kansas, questions for Kentucky

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, January 9, 2023

We're essentially starting from scratch this week. Not because college football's end gives us a chance to reset for the final two months of the regular season of men's college basketball, but because last week completely blew up the rankings. Nine of the 16 teams in the Power Rankings took at least one loss, the next two programs in the waiting room lost games, and a long list of schools ready to take their place also suffered defeats.

Purdue lost at home to Rutgers on Monday, opening up the door for No. 2 Arizona to take the top spot ... until the Wildcats lost at home to Washington State on Saturday. So that leaves us with a battle between Houston and Kansas. Both have just one loss, with the Cougars falling at home to Alabama and the Jayhawks dropping one in the Bahamas to Tennessee.

Houston has the edge in metrics-based rankings: No. 1 in the NET, No. 1 at KenPom, No. 1 in the BPI.

Kansas counters with the most Quadrant 1 wins in the country, with six. The Jayhawks have quality victories over Duke, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, NC State and Texas Tech.

For now, we'll give the edge to Kelvin Sampson's squad. While Kansas has more résumé-boosting wins, the Cougars' win on the road at Virginia might be the best win for either team.

On to this week's awards and rankings.

Team of the Week: Kansas State Wildcats

Had Rutgers not lost Sunday, the Scarlet Knights would have been a good option. Northwestern and NC State had very nice weeks. Iowa State's was solid. But nothing compared to Kansas State going on the road to Texas and Baylor and coming away with two victories. Especially in the fashion in which it did so.

First, the Wildcats scored 116 points in the win at Texas -- the most points ever scored by an unranked team in a road win over a top-10 opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They then pulled out an overtime win at Baylor, where head coach Jerome Tang spent his previous 19 seasons as an assistant under Scott Drew.

That's now three consecutive wins over ranked opponents -- just the third time in Big 12 history an unranked team has accomplished that.

Player of the Week: Markquis Nowell, Kansas State Wildcats

Here at the Power Rankings, we try our best to avoid repeating awards, but this week it was impossible. Because Nowell very likely would have won this award even if Kansas State hadn't pulled out the road win at Baylor on Saturday night. He was that good. And taken into context, he might have had the best week of any player all season. Against Texas on Tuesday, Nowell had 36 points on 14 shots from the field and shot a perfect 12-for-12 from the free throw line, while also dishing out nine assists and turning the ball over just once. Add in three steals for good measure.

He might have topped it against the Bears. He finished with 32 points and 14 assists against Baylor, becoming just the second player in Big 12 history to finish with 30 points and 10 assists vs. a ranked opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The other? Trae Young.

And here's one more stat: Nowell is just the third Division I player to average 30 points and 10 assists in a three-game stretch over the past 25 seasons -- and the only one to do it against three ranked opponents.

Wins of the Week: Rutgers Scarlet Knights 65, Purdue Boilermakers 64; Washington State Cougars 74, Arizona Wildcats 61

Road wins over the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Power Rankings both deserve recognition, especially when you factor in margin of victory. Rutgers landed the first salvo, handing Purdue its first loss of the season -- the second season in a row the Scarlet Knights have defeated a No. 1-ranked Purdue team. The Boilermakers took a lead on a Fletcher Loyer 3 with under 30 seconds left, but Cam Spencer responded with his own, and Purdue couldn't convert on its final chances.

Arizona was poised to take over the top spot in the rankings, but Washington State had other ideas. The Cougars snapped Arizona's 28-game home-court winning streak by going on an 11-2 run late in the first half, steadily increasing their lead, then holding off the Wildcats after a late 14-2 run cut Wazzu's lead to five. Mouhamed Gueye was fantastic, finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and three assists for the Cougars.

Coach of the Week: Dusty May, Florida Atlantic Owls

Entering the season, Conference USA was expected to feature one of the most intriguing mid-major title races. UAB, North Texas and Western Kentucky were all loaded. Florida Atlantic? Not really in the conversation and picked fifth in the preseason poll. Two months into 2022-23, though, FAU has a strong grip on first place in the league, solidified after beating the Mean Green on the road two weeks ago and the Blazers at home this past week. The Owls are 14-1, own the nation's second-longest winning streak and might be the best true mid-major team in the country. May has done a terrific job since taking over in 2018: He has led five straight winning seasons at a program that hadn't finished above .500 in the seven years prior and is now the winningest coach in program history. He also might have FAU poised for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.

Three teams with questions

Kentucky Wildcats: Like, a lot of questions. The Wildcats were absolutely pummeled by Alabama on Saturday, losing by 26 and scoring just 52. It was one of Kentucky's worst performances since Calipari took over in 2009. That's now four double-digit losses this season, and Cal might be running out of his famed "tweaks."

Stanford Cardinal: Stanford's season bottomed out over the weekend, when the Cardinal lost by 22 points at California. The defeat dropped them to 0-5 in the Pac-12 and 5-10 overall this season. Jerod Haase was clearly under pressure entering the season, but his seat is now as hot as ever.

Indiana Hoosiers: This isn't solely based on a pair of one-possession losses to Iowa and Northwestern in the past week. The Hoosiers are now 3-5 in their past eight games, and are without Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson indefinitely -- meaning it doesn't appear Jalen Hood-Schifino and Trayce Jackson-Davis will have much help for the near future.

Power Rankings

1. Houston Cougars (16-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. South Florida Bulls (Wednesday)

We wrote last week that Houston needed freshman Jarace Walker to break out of his mini slump; he's the X factor and matchup problem who takes the Cougars from a top-10 team to maybe the best team in the country. Walker has shown that the past two games. He had 23 points, 10 rebounds and three assists against SMU Mustangs, then followed it up with 21 points and five boards at Cincinnati Bearcats on Sunday. He also went 4-for-8 from 3-point range in the two games -- after making just eight 3s in his first 15 games of the season. Kelvin Sampson has plenty of shot-makers and playmakers in the backcourt, and Walker just brings another dimension, especially if his outside shot is falling.

2. Kansas Jayhawks (14-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Oklahoma Sooners (Tuesday), vs. Iowa State (Saturday)

Kansas picked up back-to-back road wins last week, knocking off Texas Tech and West Virginia. K.J. Adams Jr. continued his remarkable ascent up the Jayhawks' offensive pecking order, now scoring in double figures in eight straight games after not doing so at all in the first 44 games of his college career. He's undersized against pretty much every big man he goes against, but his motor never stops running, he seems to always be in the right place and he runs the floor. Adams is also not afraid of big moments, finishing a layup in traffic with six seconds left to beat Oklahoma State on New Year's Eve.

3. Purdue Boilermakers (15-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Nebraska (Friday)

Purdue suffered its first loss of the season at home against Rutgers last Monday. But the Boilermakers showed a lot of toughness and resilience and bounced back by going on the road and beating Ohio State and Penn State. And while Zach Edey's 30 points and 13 boards on Sunday night solidified his status as the Wooden Award favorite, it was once again the supporting cast that really boosted Matt Painter's team. Fletcher Loyer hit the game winner against Ohio State with 10.5 seconds left, and Braden Smith was terrific in both wins (15.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 6.5 APG, only two total turnovers).

4. Alabama Crimson Tide (13-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Arkansas Razorbacks (Wednesday), vs. LSU Tigers (Saturday)

Alabama's defense, which was the catalyst for its SEC title run in 2021 but fell off a cliff last season, has returned this season. And it has only gotten better since conference play started. In the Crimson Tide's first three league games, they didn't allow a team to score more than 0.88 points per possession. On Saturday, they held Kentucky to its fewest points per possession since 2012, according to KenPom's database, allowing just 52 points on 68 possessions. Some of the hot SEC start is variance -- teams are shooting 57.4% from the free throw line against them -- but Nate Oats' squad's ability to pressure the perimeter, protect the rim and cause issues with size is legitimate.

5. UConn Huskies (15-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Marquette Golden Eagles (Wednesday), vs. St. John's (Sunday)

UConn bounced back from its two-game losing streak with an impressive defensive performance in Saturday's win over Creighton Bluejays. One potential issue that has cropped up in the Huskies' recent matchups is defensive rebounding, something that wasn't a problem at all in the first two months of 2022-23. UConn allowed both Providence Friars and Creighton to grab more than 40% of their misses, by far the Huskies' two worst efforts of the season. On the plus side, Adama Sanogo was dominant against Ryan Kalkbrenner, someone he has had trouble against previously. After averaging 10.4 points on 45.8% shooting in his previous five games against the Bluejays, Sanogo went for 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting, including a pair of 3s.

6. Tennessee Volunteers (13-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (Tuesday), vs. Kentucky (Saturday)

Rick Barnes' team is a favorite of the predictive metrics, ranking No. 2 at KenPom, No. 2 in the BPI and No. 2 at Sagarin. There's also not a large gap between the Volunteers and Houston, the No. 1 team across the board. Much of this stems from Tennessee's dominance on the defensive end of the floor. The Vols have allowed just one team to score more than 1.00 point per possession in a game, and only two teams have scored more than 0.90 points per possession. They're elite at contesting shots inside and outside the arc (they're No. 1 in 3-point percentage defense), and they force turnovers at a top-five rate nationally.

7. Arizona Wildcats (14-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Oregon State (Thursday), at Oregon (Saturday)

What's going on with what looked to be the nation's best offense through the first 13 games of 2022-23? The Wildcats have now scored under one point per possession in three straight games, their longest such streak since Tommy Lloyd took over in Tucson. There have been issues both inside and out. Oumar Ballo hasn't been nearly as dominant on the interior, shooting just 12-for-30 (40%) in the past three games. Prior to that, he was shooting 74.1% on the season. Arizona is also all the way down at 10th in the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting, making just 21.3% of its perimeter attempts in conference play. Kerr Kriisa is 7-for-26 from 3 in the past three games, while Courtney Ramey is 2-for-14.

8. UCLA Bruins (14-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Utah (Thursday), vs. Colorado (Saturday)

UCLA making nine 3s in back-to-back games against Washington Huskies and USC Trojans in January shouldn't go unnoticed. The Bruins weren't incredibly accurate or anything like that (9-for-23, 9-for-26), but that type of balance is needed in Westwood. Why? Well, there might not be a more 2-point-reliant team in the country. According to KenPom, the Bruins rank No. 352 in 3-point attempt rate, No. 347 in free throw rate, No. 323 in percentage of points from 3s and No. 342 in percentage of points from free throws. It's really difficult to win games at the business end of the NCAA tournament without consistently making shots from the perimeter. So the recent uptick in 3-point shooting (helped by David Singleton's move into the starting lineup) is a big plus.

9. Gonzaga Bulldogs (14-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: at BYU (Thursday), vs. Portland (Saturday)

Gonzaga has now rattled off nine wins in a row, although it's clear the Zags won't have as easy a stroll through WCC play as they've had in recent years: Their games at San Francisco and Santa Clara this past week both went down to the final minute. On the positive side, though, it wasn't Drew Timme bailing out Gonzaga time and time again. Rasir Bolton was fantastic down the stretch against the Dons, finishing with 21 points and five 3s. And then Nolan Hickman made a ton of big plays against the Broncos, finishing with 20 points and four 3s. Hickman needs to be good for this team to be good.

10. Xavier Musketeers (13-3)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: vs. Creighton (Wednesday), vs. Marquette (Sunday)

Xavier's offense is humming right now. The Musketeers are playing at one of the fastest tempos in college basketball -- a huge change from Sean Miller's time at Arizona -- and are sharing the ball as well as anyone in the country. It has led to a unit that's top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency, top 25 in 2-point percentage and top five in 3-point percentage. They've scored at least 83 points in four of their five Big East games, and that's despite subpar perimeter shooting efforts against Seton Hall and UConn. If Xavier can hold serve at home against Creighton and Marquette this week, it's very likely to be 9-0 in the Big East entering the rematch with UConn in Storrs.

11. Kansas State Wildcats (14-1)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Oklahoma State (Tuesday), at TCU (Saturday)

All the attention this week has been on Markquis Nowell, and deservedly so, but Keyontae Johnson might be the best story in men's college basketball this season. Everyone's familiar with the story, but he has somehow returned to the court to play the best basketball of his life. Johnson is averaging career highs in points (18.8 PPG), rebounds (7.1 RPG) and assists (2.5 APG), while shooting 58.2% from the field and 41.7% from 3-point range. He averaged 26.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the two wins last week -- which, in most weeks, would have been good enough to win National Player of the Week honors.

12. Texas Longhorns (13-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. TCU (Wednesday), vs. Texas Tech (Saturday)

It has been a roller-coaster week for the Longhorns. It started with the team allowing a record-setting 116 points to Kansas State at home on Tuesday. Two days later, Chris Beard was fired. Two days after that, Texas went to Oklahoma State and gave up just 46 points in a road win against the Cowboys. There might not be a bigger turnaround defensively from one game to the next. The Longhorns allowed a season-high 63.9% 2-point percentage from Kansas State, but Oklahoma State shot just 32.0% from inside the arc against them.

13. Iowa State Cyclones (12-2)

Previous ranking:
In the waiting room

This week: vs. Texas Tech (Tuesday), at Kansas (Saturday)

How does T.J. Otzelberger keep doing this? After being picked last in the 2021 Big 12 preseason poll, he led the Cyclones to the Sweet 16. Entering this season, they were picked eighth in the preseason -- and are now 12-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big 12 after road wins at Oklahoma and TCU last week. They're once again elite defensively, difficult to score against and actually lead the nation in defensive turnover percentage this season. And, they aren't as awful offensively as they were last season. They're more balanced, and Gabe Kalscheur's reemergence in the past month has been a boost.

14. TCU Horned Frogs (13-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: at Texas (Wednesday), vs. Kansas State (Saturday)

Mike Miles Jr. would have been in the mix for Player of the Week had TCU not lost to Iowa State on Saturday (and had Nowell not had one of the best weeks in years). He had 33 points on 21 shots in the road win at Baylor, constantly putting pressure on the Bears with the ball in his hands and from the perimeter. He followed that up with 18 points against Iowa State. The Cyclones loss was the first game all season TCU lost with Miles in the lineup. He has been one of the best guards in college basketball, and has shown he's capable of carrying the Horned Frogs for long stretches.

15. Virginia Cavaliers (11-3)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. North Carolina (Tuesday)

We've focused on Virginia's shooting at a few different points this season, but the Cavaliers are in the midst of their best 3-point-shooting stretch since the first three games of 2022-23. They've made at least 42% of their 3s in each of the past three matchups, including double-digit 3s in two of those three. In all three, they've made 10.3 3s on 44.9% shooting. In the eight games prior to that stretch, Virginia made just 5.1 3s on 28.7% shooting. Freshman Isaac McKneely's increase in minutes is directly correlated to the perimeter improvement; he's 9-for-17 from beyond the arc in the past three games.

16. Miami Hurricanes (13-2)

Previous ranking:

This week: vs. Boston College (Wednesday), at NC State (Saturday)

Miami's nine-game winning streak came crashing down in stunning fashion Wednesday, when Georgia Tech -- winless in the ACC entering last week -- finished the game on a 12-0 run to shock the Hurricanes. The biggest thing for Jim Larrañaga will be getting Isaiah Wong back on the right track. After scoring 24 points and dishing out five assists in the win over Virginia, he was playing as well as any guard in the country. But in the two games since, he has averaged 10.5 points and shot 5-for-22 from the field -- including 0-for-12 from 3. Wong is the type of talent who makes Miami a potential second-weekend NCAA tournament team.

Dropped out: Wisconsin Badgers (No. 14), Baylor Bears (No. 15), Arkansas Razorbacks (No. 16)

In the waiting room

Providence Friars: Ed Cooley has another Big East contender on his hands. The Friars have won nine in a row and are off to a 6-0 start in conference play, with a 12-point win over UConn as the marquee victory on the ledger. Bryce Hopkins has been one of the best transfers in the country.

Arkansas Razorbacks: It was a mixed week for the Razorbacks, who came back from down 17 to beat Missouri on Wednesday before falling by 13 at Auburn on Saturday. The offense has struggled mightily in the recent losses to LSU and Auburn; they were a combined 6-for-41 from 3 and scored fewer than 0.88 points per possession in both games.

Wisconsin Badgers: A six-game winning streak was snapped on Saturday, with the Badgers falling by 10 at Illinois. The Badgers were without Tyler Wahl, who suffered an ankle injury after playing just nine minutes in Tuesday's win over Minnesota. Wahl is the team's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder and was averaging 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in the eight games prior to injury.

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