The CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas was the perfect summation of this past week in the 2021-22 college basketball season.
What was expected to be an elite doubleheader featuring Ohio State vs. Kentucky and UCLA vs. North Carolina ended up being one game between Kentucky and North Carolina, after Ohio State and UCLA had to withdraw due to COVID-19 issues. Both the Bruins and Buckeyes are off all this week due to COVID-19 issues.
The past week brought back memories of the 2020-21 season, during which games were canceled or postponed one day before (or in the case of Memphis vs. Tennessee, one hour before). It also brought back scheduling on the fly, as the Wildcats and Tar Heels quickly adjusted to face each other. For the first month of this season, it seemed like those issues were in the rearview mirror, left behind in the NCAA tournament bubble and its two-week pauses, daily testing and empty arenas. With the emergence of the omicron variant, however, they’re very much back — and will certainly impact the next few weeks of college basketball.
Some teams excelled in that type of environment last season, though, and on Saturday Kentucky looked poised to hit its stride with SEC play just around the corner. The Wildcats had one of the most impressive performances of anyone last week, battering North Carolina 98-69.
Sahvir Wheeler set the tone at both ends of the floor, playing aggressive on-ball defense against the Tar Heels, pushing the tempo in transition and consistently getting to the rim. Wheeler finished with 26 points, 8 assists and 4 steals. Moreover, Kentucky had its best 3-point shooting effort since last season, making better than 53% of its outside attempts.
There weren’t too many options for the award this week. Kentucky had a chance, but we discussed the Wildcats above, and we’ll get to Memphis a bit later after its win over Alabama. Creighton did have the impressive win over Villanova, but the Bluejays also lost at home to Arizona State. So let’s go with Ed Cooley’s Friars.
While Seton Hall’s rise to the top 25 after being picked fifth in the preseason Big East poll has received plenty of attention, Providence will undoubtedly be in this week’s top 25 — it was already on my ballot last week — after being picked seventh in the preseason poll. The Friars had one of the more impressive wins this past week, going to Hartford and knocking off UConn in a defensive slugfest 57-53.
Providence went on a 17-1 run spanning both halves to take a double-digit lead, keeping the Huskies at arm’s length for most of the second half and then holding on in the final minutes for the win. A.J. Reeves played outstanding basketball, finishing with 16 points (his third straight game with at least 16) and the Friars were elite defensively, holding their fifth straight opponent below 1 point per possession.
A season ago, Williams was a part-time starter on a solid Oklahoma team that ultimately got bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Gonzaga. When he left the Sooners and transferred to Wake Forest, there wasn’t too much buzz surrounding his potential impact. Well, five weeks into the season, Williams might be the most impactful transfer in college basketball.
The guard carried the Demon Deacons to two wins last week over VMI and Charlotte, putting up huge performances in the process. In the comeback win over VMI, Williams had 36 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists; against Charlotte, he went for 34 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Overall, he shot 22-for-32 from inside the arc and 4-for-11 from 3 last week. He has been one of the best players in the ACC this season, now averaging 21.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists on 58.0% shooting.
Wake Forest has been one of the biggest surprises in the country, starting 11-1 this season, and Williams is leading the way.
Memphis entered last week in desperation mode. The Tigers were one of the biggest talking points in college basketball after one month, as a home loss to Murray State on Dec. 10 left them at 5-4 overall and on a four-game losing streak entering games against Alabama and Tennessee. What was going on with Penny Hardaway’s team? Going against an Alabama team coming off wins over Gonzaga and Houston didn’t seem like the best recipe for a season-saving victory.
But the Tigers looked like a completely different group against the Crimson Tide. They shared the ball (20 assists); had much better shot selection (64.9% from 2, 34.8% from 3); and forced 20 turnovers, turning them into easy transition opportunities. Hardaway opted to use some of last season’s veterans for extended minutes, with DeAndre Williams reprising his role as the centerpiece of the offense and Landers Nolley making an impact as a playmaker. Lester Quinones and Tyler Harris were very good off the bench. Meanwhile, freshman Jalen Duren had one of his better games so far, looking far more effective on the offensive end.
The Tigers’ Saturday game against Tennessee was canceled due to COVID-19, as is their Tuesday matchup against Alabama State, but they now have some momentum entering AAC play.
Coach of the Week: Speedy Claxton, Hofstra Pride
Claxton’s debut season at the helm since the Hofstra legend replaced Joe Mihalich in the spring saw a couple of near misses early on. In its season opener on Nov. 9, Hofstra led Houston for about 39 minutes before blowing a double-digit lead and losing in overtime. Against Maryland, the Pride let a lead in the final minute slip to lose by 2 points. A couple of days later against Richmond, Hofstra once again led at halftime before losing.
On Saturday against Arkansas in Little Rock, however, Claxton and Hofstra weren’t going to squander another opportunity. Despite missing main scorer Zach Cooks, the Pride took an early lead and never really seemed at risk of losing their grip on the game. They led by multiple possessions for the better part of 30-plus minutes, and a late 13-2 run put the game out of reach for the Razorbacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was Hofstra’s first win over an AP Top 25 team since 1976, and the first marquee win of the Claxton era.
Three teams with questions
Villanova Wildcats: Villanova hasn’t seen a two-game stretch like it had this past week against Baylor and Creighton in more than 20 years: a 20-point loss at Creighton followed a loss by 21 at Baylor last weekend. It’s the program’s first back-to-back 20-point losses since 1998-99. Two alarming stats from those two games: Nova had nine assists total in the two losses, and shot just 10-for-50 from 3. And, as Jim Root of the Three Man Weave pointed out, the Wildcats’ recent 3-point shooting is still only 23-for-100 if you add in the win over Syracuse right before this two-game losing streak.
St. Bonaventure Bonnies: The Bonnies are still arguably the best team in the Atlantic 10, but it’s not as clear-cut as it was at the beginning of the season — which is concerning for their at-large hopes if they don’t win the automatic bid. They were destroyed by Virginia Tech on Friday, 86-49, in star guard Kyle Lofton‘s first game back after a three-game absence.
Oregon State Beavers: Just nine months after Oregon State came within two baskets of the Final Four, the Beavers are now 1-10 after losing at home to UC Davis and getting handled fairly easily (also at home) by Texas A&M. They’re on a 10-game losing streak since winning the season opener against Portland State.
1. Baylor Bears (10-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Alcorn State (Monday)
For a little more than 20 minutes on Saturday night, it looked like Baylor was going to become the latest victim of the No. 1 curse. The Bears were down 4 points at halftime to Oregon, in a game that shouldn’t have been that close; Adam Flagler had singlehandedly kept them in the game with five first-half 3-pointers. In the second half, though, Baylor turned up the intensity and ultimately improved to 10-0. James Akinjo and Kendall Brown were the catalysts in the second half, both scoring 15 of their 17 points in that period. The Bears continue to impress and look the part of a legitimate threat to go back-to-back. Just check these two nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information.
Baylor is the first defending national champion to win each of its first 10 games of the season by 8 or more since UNLV did so in 1990-91.
Baylor has played 40 games since the start of last season and won 35 of them by 8 or more points.
— Jared Berson (@JaredBerson) December 19, 2021
2. Duke Blue Devils (10-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Virginia Tech (Wednesday)
Duke finally got back on the court after a two-week break, following the Blue Devils’ one loss so far to Ohio State in late November. It was an easy three wins over South Carolina State, Appalachian State and Elon — but the most promising sign was the play of A.J. Griffin. The freshman had missed a couple of weeks in the preseason for a sprained knee, and then got off to a slow start over the first month of the season. But he played 20 minutes per game in last week’s three games, showing flashes of the talent that made him a five-star recruit and potential lottery pick. Griffin went for 29 points and four assists against South Carolina State, and had another double-figure scoring effort against Appalachian State. He also shot 6-for-11 from 3 in the three games.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (10-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Incarnate Word (Monday)
After three middling performances — including that one loss — Matt Painter tweaked his starting lineup. Zach Edey, the 7-foot-4 sophomore who had moved into the starting lineup before the first game of the season but put in a couple of inconsistent performances, went to the bench. And in stepped preseason All-American Trevion Williams, who had been dominant and dragged Purdue across the line in the win over NC State last weekend. Of course, the move worked to perfection. Edey had his best game in a few weeks, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks in 20 minutes off the bench, while Williams didn’t miss a 2-point shot and had 10 points and six boards, despite dealing with foul trouble. It’s such a luxury for Painter to be able to rely on both dominant bigs.
Oumar Ballo elevates for the big-time block
4. Arizona Wildcats (11-0)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Tennessee (Wednesday)
One of the positives of this past week for Tommy Lloyd’s team was bench production. The Wildcats play a pretty tight eight-man rotation, with three transfers shouldering the load off the bench: Justin Kier (Georgia), Oumar Ballo (Gonzaga) and Pelle Larsson (Utah). All three made an impact in wins over Northern Colorado and Cal Baptist. Kier scored in double figures in both wins, and has now hit that threshold in three of his past four games. Larsson hit three 3s in the win over Cal Baptist, his second time this season. The big surprise has been Ballo, who was barely playable at Gonzaga last season. But he has worked on his body and his game at both ends of the floor. Against Cal Baptist, he went for 10 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks in 20 minutes.
5. Kansas Jayhawks (9-1)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Colorado (Tuesday)
There have been a few times this season where it looked like Jalen Wilson was ready to turn the corner and return to his form of last season. One of the team’s best players and an every-game starter a season ago, Wilson was suspended for the first three games of 2021-22 and hasn’t truly gotten up to speed yet. He’s yet to start a game this season. But with David McCormack getting into early foul trouble and playing just 10 minutes against Stephen F. Austin on Saturday, Bill Self needed someone else in the frontcourt to step up. Enter Wilson, who had his best game of the season. He finished with 10 points and four rebounds, and was the most aggressive we’ve seen him yet, providing some optimism that he could start rounding into form heading into conference play. He provides a different dimension for the Jayhawks.
6. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-2)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Northern Arizona (Monday)
Evidently Gonzaga got tired of hearing it was too reliant on scoring in the paint and wasn’t consistent enough from the perimeter. Against Texas Tech’s vaunted no-middle defense on Saturday, Gonzaga didn’t force the issue with Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren in the post. Timme took only four shots, while Holmgren took just one 2-pointer. Instead, the Zags just put the Red Raiders away from the perimeter. They made 13 3s, the Bulldogs’ most in a game since the first-round NCAA tournament win over Norfolk State last season, at a 41.9% clip — their second best of the season. Andrew Nembhard snapped out of his mini-slump, Rasir Bolton hit five 3-pointers and freshman Nolan Hickman made some plays off the bench. It was a good sign for Gonzaga’s balance moving forward.
7. UCLA Bruins (8-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: NONE
UCLA hasn’t played since its win at Marquette on Dec. 11 due to COVID-19 issues. The Bruins had to cancel their scheduled game against Alabama State last Wednesday about an hour before tipoff, a few hours after announcing head coach Mick Cronin was out due to COVID protocols. And then on Friday afternoon, they officially had to withdraw from the CBS Sports Classic, where they were scheduled to face North Carolina. They were scheduled to play Cal Poly this Wednesday, but that game is off, too. Right now, UCLA’s next game is at home against Arizona on Dec. 30.
8. Michigan State Spartans (9-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Oakland (Tuesday)
Michigan State didn’t have any games this past week, and fortunately it had nothing to do with COVID-19. The Spartans simply didn’t have any games on the schedule. They do have two more nonconference games — vs. Oakland in Detroit and a home game against High Point — before full-fledged Big Ten play begins at the start of January. So far this season, the biggest key for Tom Izzo’s team has been its defensive prowess. The Spartans rank sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom, ranking in the top 50 nationally in defensive free throw rate, 3-point defense, 2-point defense and block percentage. Much of that stems from Marcus Bingham‘s dominance on the interior, but the Spartans are also much more connected defensively than last season. Only three teams have scored more than 0.96 points per possession against Michigan State.
9. Alabama Crimson Tide (9-2)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Davidson (Tuesday)
After beating Gonzaga and Houston in back-to-back weekends, the Crimson Tide came back to earth a little bit this past week, losing by 14 at Memphis and then struggling en route to a 6-point victory over Jacksonville State. Alabama had major turnover issues against Memphis, and struggled to make shots from the perimeter. The turnover issues weren’t as big of a problem against Jacksonville State, but the shooting woes continued. Jaden Shackelford was a microcosm of the offensive issues: After totaling 46 points on 11-for-19 shooting from 3 against the Zags and Cougars, he had 10 points on 1-for-9 shooting from 3 against Memphis and Jacksonville State.
10. Iowa State Cyclones (11-0)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Chicago State (Tuesday)
Iowa State has one more December game, on Tuesday against Chicago State, before embarking on its Big 12 schedule. And that’s when we’ll truly find out whether the Cyclones are going to be a factor in the top half of the conference. On New Year’s Day, they will get a huge chance to make a statement, with top-ranked Baylor coming to Ames. The Bears have played only one true road game so far this season: Saturday’s contest at Oregon, where they struggled for 20 minutes before pulling away. Iowa State, in Hilton Coliseum, should give them a game. After Baylor, Iowa State is at home vs. Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, at Kansas, home vs. Texas and at Texas Tech. If the Cyclones come out of that six-game stretch at 3-3 or better, the national hype should begin to grow.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: NONE
Another team hit by COVID-19 issues, Ohio State had to cancel its matchup against Kentucky in Las Vegas. It would have been a big chance for the Buckeyes, who are on a four-game winning streak dating back to their win over Duke in late November, to continue to build momentum before Big Ten play begins. Tuesday’s game against Tennessee Martin has also been canceled. That means Chris Holtmann’s team has just one more game remaining in December, a home tilt against New Orleans on Dec. 28.
Boogie Ellis drives, fakes out his defender with a nice up-and-over move and then drains the shot on one foot to keep USC ahead.
12. USC Trojans (12-0)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: None
It doesn’t feel like USC has quite hit its stride yet, but the Trojans are now 12-0. They’re being carried by their defense, holding both UC Irvine and Georgia Tech to fewer than 0.90 points per possession in their two wins in the past week. In fact, only one team has reached one point per possession all season against Andy Enfield’s defense, and that came in a 20-point win over Utah. The offense isn’t performing in the same way, although Saturday did bring USC’s best 3-point shooting effort of the season. It also might have broken Boogie Ellis out of his slump. The Memphis transfer was terrific to start the season, averaging 17.0 points in his first five games. Over the next six games, he averaged just 6.7 points on 29.8% shooting — and that included a 19-point game against Utah. But on Saturday against Georgia Tech, he finished with 16 points and seven rebounds on 50% shooting. Due to COVID-19 issues, USC’s game against Oklahoma State this week has been called off.
13. Seton Hall Pirates (9-1)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at DePaul (Thursday)
After a huge week in which the Pirates took down then-No. 7 Texas and in-state rival Rutgers over a four-day span, Kevin Willard’s program saw its momentum come to a complete halt. Due to COVID-19 issues, Seton Hall had to withdraw from its game against Iona, scheduled for Saturday, and then also had to cancel Monday’s Big East opener against St. John’s. And according to Big East policy, if the Pirates are forced to forfeit, they will be given a loss in the league standings. It won’t count against their overall record and won’t impact their Power Rankings position, but it’s obviously not how they wanted to start conference play. Seton Hall’s next game is on Thursday against DePaul, which is having COVID-19 issues of its own.
14. Auburn Tigers (10-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Murray State (Wednesday)
Saturday’s comeback win over Saint Louis was a wake-up call for the Tigers. Bruce Pearl’s team hadn’t really been tested in almost a month, when it lost to UConn in double overtime. Since then, Auburn had won by fewer than 17 points just once. But on Saturday, on the road, Saint Louis punched the Tigers in the mouth. And they responded. They erased a 13-point second-half deficit to pull out a 4-point win. Walker Kessler was the star, dominating at both ends of the floor. He consistently altered shots defensively and had several easy finishes around the basket. Wendell Green came off the bench and carved up the Billikens’ defense down the stretch, continuing his stellar play. Green has 26 assists and just five turnovers in his past four games. K.D. Johnson hit a tough game winner in the final minute, too. This team just has so many weapons, and Allen Flanigan isn’t even back yet.
Josh Carlton snags the rebound and hammers a dunk for Houston.
15. Houston Cougars (10-2)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: vs. Texas State (Wednesday)
The Cougars bounced back nicely from their heartbreaking loss at Alabama last weekend, beating Louisiana and Oklahoma State by double digits this past week. They also did it with some personnel issues in both games. Against Louisiana, Marcus Sasser and Reggie Chaney were out with injuries, but up stepped their replacements: Bakersfield transfer Taze Moore (14 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) and Josh Carlton (17 points, nine boards). Against Oklahoma State, it was Moore who had to miss the game, but Sasser returned to make four 3s and finish with 15 points. Carlton is an interesting piece for Houston moving forward. He was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country last season at UConn and had 14 offensive boards in two games last week.
16. LSU Tigers (11-0)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Lipscomb (Wednesday)
LSU officially finds itself in the top 16 this week after wins over Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech. The Tigers are now 11-0 with only one more game until SEC play begins. The biggest thing to know about Will Wade’s team this season is defense. The Tigers rank No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom, No. 1 in effective field goal percentage defense, No. 1 in steal percentage and in the top 20 in turnover percentage, 3-point defense, 2-point defense and block percentage. Only one team all season has scored above 0.90 points per possession against them, and not a single team has scored more than 63 points in a game against them either. Those numbers will change as the schedule stiffens, but this team is guarding better than anyone in America right now.
Dropped out: Villanova Wildcats (No. 15)
In the waiting room
Colorado State Rams: Niko Medved’s team will miss a massive résumé-boosting chance on Tuesday, as the Rams had to withdraw from their scheduled game against Alabama due to COVID-19 concerns. They also had to cancel their game against Tulsa. On the plus side, they’ll enter Mountain West play unbeaten.
Xavier Musketeers: With Villanova looking more vulnerable than it has looked in years, UConn struggling to open conference play and Seton Hall dealing with COVID-19 issues, the Musketeers have a chance to set the tone at the top of the Big East. And we’ll find out pretty quickly whether they’re a legit title contender. They go to Villanova on Tuesday, and then UConn comes to town on Dec. 28.
Providence Friars: Don’t forget about Ed Cooley and the Friars, though! This is a team that now has wins over Texas Tech, UConn, Wisconsin and Northwestern — with three of those four coming away from home. The 18-point loss to Virginia looks bizarre in retrospect, but Providence has size, experience, toughness and is well-coached.