7:15 AM ET
Jeff BorzelloESPN Staff Writer
- Basketball recruiting insider.
- Joined ESPN in 2014.
- Graduate of University of Delaware.
November and December were fun. We had some marquee games — Duke vs. Gonzaga still stands out — some surprises, some disappointments. But the meat and potatoes of the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season is set to truly begin: conference play.
So before we get to this week’s awards and rankings, here’s a quick look at the biggest question facing each of the major conferences when league play heats up this week.
ACC: Is anyone good besides Duke?
The Blue Devils have separated themselves as the best team in the league, but there’s a canyon between them and the rest of the league. We think North Carolina is probably solid, but after that the best bet might be Wake Forest, or a Virginia Tech team that lost to the Demon Deacons by 19 at home.
American: Can Memphis get on the same page?
More on Houston a little later, but with the Cougars’ injuries, they’re no longer a shoo-in to win the league. And we’ve seen Memphis‘ ceiling with a 14-point win over Alabama. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the Tigers’ floor far more often this season.
Big East: How vulnerable is Villanova?
The Wildcats opened Big East play with a 20-point loss to Creighton but bounced back with a comeback win over Xavier. For me, Nova is still the league favorite, but Seton Hall, Xavier, UConn and Providence will all have something to say.
Big Ten: How deep is the league’s middle of the pack?
From an NCAA tournament perspective, we’ve yet to get a handle on how deep the league is outside of Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois. Wisconsin has a great résumé, Michigan could turn things around, but Indiana and Minnesota are relatively unproven and Iowa and Maryland haven’t been consistent enough yet.
Big 12: Which teams emerge from the middle and bottom half of the league?
Baylor and Kansas are likely to be a cut above the rest of the conference this season, but questions remain about everyone else. Is Iowa State for real? Will Texas hit its ceiling? Which of Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia is consistent enough offensively? TCU is unproven, too.
Pac-12: It’s three top-10 teams and nobody else, right?
The top of the Pac-12 is as good as it gets nationally. Arizona has looked like a Final Four contender through the first two months of the season, UCLA is still a top-10 team and USC is unbeaten and looks awesome defensively. But it’s pretty clear so far that there might not be another NCAA tournament team in the league.
SEC: Who’s the favorite?
There are five teams deserving to be ranked in the top 20 nationally this week, and you can make a case for any of the five as the favorite: Alabama looked like the pick, but the Crimson Tide then lost to Memphis and Davidson in back-to-back weeks. It should be a terrific race.
Team of the Week: Davidson Wildcats
When Colorado State had to bail on its game in Birmingham against Alabama due to COVID concerns, the Crimson Tide looked for an alternative, and up stepped Davidson. It turned out to be an ill-advised choice for the Crimson Tide, as Davidson held on for a 79-78 win.
The Wildcats led by as many as 13 in the second half and were up 10 in the final minutes, before Alabama went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to one. Then Jahvon Quinerly‘s game-tying free throw with three seconds left rimmed out and Davidson hung on. Bob McKillop has developed a reputation as being one of the most difficult coaches in the country to prepare for on a short turnaround, and he lived up to that in Birmingham, with Davidson shooting 50% from 3, 56% from 2 and scoring 1.19 points per possession against one of the best defenses in the country.
With the win, Davidson also singlehandedly lifted the entire Atlantic 10, and gave the league more optimism for a multiple-bid Selection Sunday. The A-10 had a difficult first couple months of the season, and a 37-point loss by St. Bonaventure to Virginia Tech earlier this month really damaged its hopes of an at-large bid. Davidson’s win not only gives the Wildcats a marquee victory, it also provides a potential quality win for the Bonnies (or someone else) moving forward.
Oh, Davidson also turned around less than 24 hours after the Alabama game to beat Johnson & Wales by 42.
Player of the Week: Darius McGhee, Liberty Flames
I usually don’t pick a player coming off a losing week, but the Christmas break combined with countless COVID-related cancellations left me with very few options.
Honorable mentions for this week go to Temple’s Zach Hicks, who came off the bench against Delaware State and made 10 3-pointers and finished with 35 points, and Jordan Usher, who scored 30 points — including the game-tying free throws in regulation and nine points in overtime — to lead Georgia Tech to a win over Georgia State.
From a purely individual standpoint, though, it’s hard to top what McGhee did this week for Liberty. The Flames didn’t leave Hawaii with a great return at the Diamond Head Classic, going 1-2 with narrow losses to Stanford and BYU, but McGhee was fantastic.
The 5-foot-9 point guard and reigning Atlantic Sun Player of the Year went for 22 points in a win over Northern Iowa and followed that up with a 41-point performance in the Flames’ three-point loss to Stanford. He wrapped up the event with 29 points and five assists against BYU. In three games, McGhee averaged 30.7 points and shot 15-for-36 from 3 en route to earning MVP honors at the tournament.
Win of the Week: Tennessee Volunteers 77, Arizona Wildcats 73
It’s been an up-and-down nonconference season for Tennessee. The Volunteers lost by 18 to Villanova in November, before turning around a day later and running North Carolina out of the gym. They then lost to Texas Tech in early December in one of the worst offensive games the sport has ever seen. But Rick Barnes’ team still finished the first half of 2021-22 on a high note, with a four-point win over previously unbeaten Arizona last Wednesday.
One of the elite defenses nationally this season, Tennessee completely stifled Arizona in the first half, opening the game on a 16-2 run and leading by 15 before another strong run late in the first half. Arizona continued to come back and cut Tennessee’s lead to one possession and even tied it once in the second half, but the Volunteers constantly had answers. John Fulkerson had 24 points and 10 rebounds and made several key baskets late. Justin Powell had 11 points off the bench and made a second-half impact. And Josiah-Jordan James was very good up front.
The officiating was a big talking point following the game (and rightfully so), but Tennessee still managed to slow Arizona’s offense like very few teams have this season, and showed toughness in the second half by making clutch buckets late to hang on for the win.
Coach of the Week: Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt Commodores
Stackhouse hasn’t had the smoothest of runs during his first two and a half seasons with the Commodores. Some of the bumps in the road have come as a result of a lack of SEC-caliber talent, some have been brought on by Stackhouse himself; but this past week might have been the highlight of the former NBA veteran’s reign in Nashville so far.
Vanderbilt went to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic, beat host Rainbow Warriors on Wednesday, then had a very impressive two-point win over BYU. A title game opportunity against Stanford was canceled due to COVID issues in the Cardinal’s program, but it was still a good week for the Commodores.
Vandy is still going to be toward the bottom of the SEC, but Stackhouse has slowly upgraded the talent and the Commodores have been competitive more often than not this season. Scotty Pippen (44 points in two games last week) is terrific, but Jordan Wright and Myles Stute have also taken steps forward. Dayton transfer Rodney Chatman has made an impact too since joining the fold three games ago and Minnesota transfer Liam Robbins hasn’t even suited up yet.
Three teams with questions
Virginia Cavaliers: The Cavaliers have been in this space before, but this team is very likely headed toward the NIT barring a dramatic turnaround. A 17-point home loss to Clemson is the latest eye-opening result, two weeks after a loss at James Madison. The offensive issues are well-documented, but this is also trending to be Tony Bennett’s worst defense since 2011.
Northern Iowa Panthers: Entering the season, Northern Iowa was expected to compete for a Missouri Valley title. The Panthers were picked third in the league, but received six first-place votes and were considered right up there with Drake and Loyola Chicago. They’re now 3-7 against D-1 competition entering January after losses to Liberty and Wyoming.
Georgia Bulldogs: Georgia’s win over Memphis on Dec. 1 looked like a potential season-changing victory, but it hasn’t panned out that way. The Bulldogs are 2-2 since that game, including home losses to George Mason and East Tennessee State. They have a nonconference game left against Gardner-Webb, but four of their first six SEC games are on the road.
1. Baylor Bears (11-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Northwestern State (Tuesday), at Iowa State (Saturday)
While some thought Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua might move into the starting lineup after providing such a boost off the bench last season, the former UNLV freshman has remained in his reserve role and continued to excel. Tchamwa Tchatchoua brings so much energy and rebounding ability when he’s on the floor, but he’s added more scoring to the repertoire this season. He has scored in double figures in five of his last six games, including 16 points and nine rebounds against Alcorn State last week. And it’s surely just a small sample size thing, but Tchamwa Tchatchoua has hit four straight 3s, after not making a single shot from behind the arc in his first two years in college.
2. Duke Blue Devils (11-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Clemson (Wednesday), at Notre Dame (Saturday)
Duke actually trailed at halftime to Virginia Tech on Wednesday, but the Blue Devils used separate 13-0 and 13-2 runs in the second half to put the Hokies away and win by 11. It was actually Duke’s third-worst defensive performance of the season, but one of the major bright spots was the continued stellar play from freshman A.J. Griffin. Griffin started the season very slowly after suffering an injury in October, but he’s now scored at least 11 points in three of his last four games. Against Virginia Tech, the forward came off the bench to play a season-high 24 minutes and finished with 13 points and four rebounds, while making a 3 for the fourth straight game. With his size, athleticism and ability to make shots from the perimeter, a consistent Griffin would give Mike Krzyzewski yet another perimeter option.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (11-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Nicholls State (Wednesday)
Mason Gillis, who started the final 23 games of last season before missing the first four of this one due to suspension, is beginning to work his way back into the mix and saw 19 to 22 minutes in each of the Boilermakers’ last three games. Against Incarnate Word on Monday, Gillis finished with 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and two 3s. Over his last three games, the sophomore forward is averaging 8.3 points and 3.7 rebounds. Not that Matt Painter needs any more depth, especially in the frontcourt, but Gillis gives him another option next to Trevion Williams or Zach Edey.
4. Kansas Jayhawks (9-1)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Harvard (Wednesday), vs. TCU (Saturday)
Kansas didn’t play anyone last week after its game against Colorado was called off due to COVID issues within the Buffaloes’ program, but the Jayhawks are back in action this week and will get Big 12 play underway this weekend. Relatively speaking, Kansas has one of the easier opening stretches to conference play (when it includes road trips to Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma in the first two and a half weeks, it’s not actually easy) — and doesn’t face Baylor or Texas until February. Baylor’s opening stretch to league play looks similar on paper, although the Bears have to go to Ames on Saturday in an attempt to hand Iowa State its first loss of the season.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs (10-2)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. North Alabama (Tuesday), at San Diego (Thursday), at Loyola Marymount (Saturday)
It came against Northern Arizona, but Chet Holmgren might have had his most impressive offensive outing of the season last Monday. The potential No. 1 pick finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocks and went 3-for-5 from 3. Holmgren is now 6-for-12 from behind the arc in his last three games, and is averaging 11.7 rebounds over that stretch. He’s had a couple of quiet games in big spots this season (two points against Texas, five points against Texas Tech), but he’s been very efficient on the offensive end, shooting 77% from 2 and 37% from 3 while dominating on the defensive end and showing himself as a capable defensive rebounder.
6. UCLA Bruins (8-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: None
UCLA still hasn’t played since its win at Marquette on Dec. 11, and the Bruins announced Friday that their scheduled games this week against Arizona and Arizona State have been postponed because of continued COVID-19 issues in their program. UCLA remains on pause. As of now, its next game is scheduled for Jan. 6 against Stanford.
7. Arizona Wildcats (11-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: None
I’m not going to drop Arizona too far for a four-point loss on the road against a top-20 team, in which officiating decisions were the biggest talking point. In terms of potential trouble spots for the Wildcats: It was surprising to see them outplayed inside. Much of that had to do with foul issues for Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis, but the two stars combined for just 10 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes on the floor. Bennedict Mathurin simply didn’t get enough help on the offensive end, finishing with 28 points, eight boards and five assists before fouling out, and Arizona came up just short late in the game. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Fulkerson went for 24 points and 10 boards. Moving forward, I’m not all that worried though; the Wildcats’ starting five won’t have a combined 23 fouls most games.
Gabe Brown grabs the steal and goes coast-to-coast for the basket.
8. Michigan State Spartans (10-2)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. High Point (Wednesday), at Northwestern (Sunday)
Gabe Brown wasn’t exactly the model of consistency during his first three seasons in East Lansing. He had shown flashes of his ability at times off the bench, including 15 points in the NCAA tournament against LSU as a freshman and 20 points against Oakland last season, but he posted double-figure scores just 16 times in three seasons. As a senior, Brown has taken a step forward and been a reliable scorer all season. He hit double figures in all but one game, and put up nine points in that contest. Brown has been efficient despite the increased usage, and he’s drawing fouls at a higher rate. He was also very solid in Michigan State’s two Big Ten games so far, averaging 15 points and 6.5 rebounds while going 7-for-11 from 3-point range in wins over Minnesota and Penn State.
9. Iowa State Cyclones (12-0)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Baylor (Saturday)
It gets real for Iowa State beginning this weekend. The Cyclones’ first six games of Big 12 play feature home matchups against Baylor and Texas Tech, a two-game road trip to Oklahoma and Kansas, followed up by a home game against Texas and a return game at Texas Tech. The showdown with the Bears on Saturday will be a test for Iowa State’s top-10 defense. The Cyclones have been outstanding at forcing turnovers and being aggressive with their half-court defense, forcing opponents out of rhythm. But Baylor has a veteran point guard and will prove a challenge on the glass for Iowa State’s bigs. At the other end, Iowa State — which has struggled to score at times this season — will face an elite defense.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. New Orleans (Tuesday), at Nebraska (Sunday)
The Buckeyes haven’t played since Dec. 11 against Wisconsin, but their game against New Orleans on Tuesday is still on for now. While the break likely slowed some of Ohio State’s momentum, it might have also given the team more time to get healthy. Justice Sueing, last year’s second-leading scorer, has missed all but two games this season with an abdomen injury. Eugene Brown III missed four games in late November and early December, but was able to play a combined 21 minutes in Ohio State’s last two games. Former Harvard transfer Seth Towns hasn’t played at all this season after undergoing back surgery in September.
11. USC Trojans (12-0)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: None
Like its crosstown rival, USC also remains on pause. The Trojans canceled their game against Oklahoma State earlier this month and announced Friday that this week’s games against Arizona State and Arizona are also off the schedule for now. Their next game is Jan. 6 at California. I’ll leave you with this stat from ESPN Stats & Information about USC’s elite defense, though.
USC has held ALL 12 of its opponents to under 40% field goal shooting, the first D-I team to do so in the first 12 games of a season in more than 15 years.
— Jared Berson (@JaredBerson) December 24, 2021
12. Tennessee Volunteers (9-2)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: at Alabama (Wednesday)
Tennessee’s defense has carried the Volunteers for most of the season, holding all but one opponent to less than one point per possession. And against Arizona, it was no different. The Wildcats were held below that one-point-per-possession threshold for only the second time all season, shot just 33.3% from 3 and received very limited production from their anchors in the paint. But Tennessee’s offense is also starting to come together before SEC play kicks off, becoming just the second team to score one point per possession on Arizona this season. Over the last three games, the Volunteers have become dominant on the offensive glass, grabbing at least 36% of their second-chance opportunities in each of those wins. Barnes has been using bigger lineups for much of the season, but now the likes of Fulkerson, James, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic are turning it into an advantage up front.
13. Seton Hall Pirates (9-1)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at Providence (Wednesday), vs. Villanova (Saturday)
Seton Hall hasn’t played since its enormous back-to-back wins over Texas and Rutgers on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12. The Pirates were hampered by COVID issues for a few games and then their game against DePaul last week was called off after the Blue Demons had their own COVID issues. It’s going to be a difficult return to the court for Seton Hall this week, as Kevin Willard’s team has to travel to Providence on Wednesday before returning home to face Villanova on Saturday.
14. Auburn Tigers (11-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. LSU (Wednesday)
The return of Allen Flanigan was perhaps the biggest talking point from Auburn’s win over Murray State on Wednesday. Flanigan was a projected first-round pick in the 2022 NBA draft over the summer, but underwent Achilles surgery in September and hadn’t played until last week. The versatile 6-6 wing averaged 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season, shooting 33.8% from 3. Fully healthy, he likely would have been a candidate for SEC Player of the Year. He only managed three points and four rebounds in his return, but he’ll be a huge boost for Bruce Pearl as he works his way back to full health.
LSU makes quick work of Lipscomb as they pick up the 95-60 win.
15. LSU Tigers (12-0)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: at Auburn (Wednesday)
Maybe more than any other undefeated team in college basketball, LSU’s credentials will truly be put to the test beginning this week. The Tigers head to Auburn on Wednesday before returning home to face Kentucky and Tennessee. Three road games to Florida, Alabama and Tennessee surround a home game against Arkansas over the following 10 days. It’s going to be a huge chance to see whether Will Wade’s defense is really the best in the country. Up until now, it’s been impenetrable. No opponent this season has managed one point per possession, and only Penn State scored more than 0.9 points per possession. No team has scored more than 63 points in a single game and all but two have been held to 60 points or fewer.
16. Alabama Crimson Tide (9-2)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Tennessee (Wednesday)
Alabama has now lost two of its last three games, and the Crimson Tide’s defense has begun to show cracks over most of the last five. Some of that has to do with competition — games against Gonzaga and Houston preceded the losses to Memphis and Davidson, which sandwiched a six-point win over Jacksonville State. Alabama allowed at least 1.02 points per possession in four of those five games, while four of those opponents also grabbed at least 29.6% of their offensive rebounding opportunities. Gonzaga and Houston made nine 3s apiece, while Davidson made 12 shots from behind the arc at a 50% clip. Alabama’s offense received a lot of headlines last season, but it was the Crimson Tide’s defense that was more impressive, ranking third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This year, it’s down to No. 53.
Dropped out: Houston Cougars (No. 15)
In the waiting room
Houston Cougars: Injuries are set to become a real concern for Kelvin Sampson, as the Cougars lost both double-figure scorer Tramon Mark and potential AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser for the rest of the season in the last week. Mark was a double-figure scorer off the bench, while Sasser was the team’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game.
Colorado State Rams: Colorado State missed a chance at a potential statement win when it had to back out of its game against Alabama, and the Rams haven’t played since beating Mississippi State on Dec. 11. We’ll have to see whether the Rams pick up where they left off when they return, which isn’t scheduled to be until Jan. 4 against Air Force.
Kentucky Wildcats: It looks like John Calipari’s team might be beginning to hit its stride. After blowing out North Carolina by 29 last weekend, Kentucky then dominated Western Kentucky to the tune of 95-60 on Wednesday. Oscar Tshiebwe‘s performance this season garners not only Transfer of the Year attention, but All-American attention as well.