Less than three weeks into the 2021-22 college basketball season, we have our first No. 1 debate.
After the way Gonzaga dispatched Texas and UCLA, it seemed unlikely the Zags were going to relinquish the top spot anytime soon. But Duke showed a level of skill, physicality and talent Gonzaga hadn’t seen since last year’s national championship game against Baylor — and the Blue Devils knocked off the Zags in Las Vegas. With Kansas and UCLA also suffering their first losses last week, a clear two-team battle for the top spot emerged: Duke vs. Purdue.
Purdue looked like a legitimate national championship contender two weekends ago, when the Boilermakers went to the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event and beat North Carolina and Villanova on back-to-back days.
But we’re going to give Duke the slight edge this week. The reasoning is pretty simple: Duke’s wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky are just a bit more impressive than Purdue’s victories over Villanova and North Carolina. From a qualitative standpoint, I like Duke a little bit more so far too.
In a dream world, Duke and Purdue would have been matched up against each other in this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That’s not the case, but both teams will be tested. The Blue Devils travel to Columbus to face Ohio State, while Purdue hosts Florida State.
It’s not often you’ll see a team beat the reigning No. 1 team in the country then move to No. 1 in the Power Rankings, so it’s hard to pick someone other than the Blue Devils for Team of the Week honors.
Gonzaga hadn’t lost a regular-season game since the 2019-20 campaign, the Zags had steamrollered top-5 opponents Texas and UCLA earlier this season and they were favored by nine points at tipoff versus Duke. We’ve been lucky to have several marquee matchups in the first few weeks of the season, but Friday’s game felt different. The buzz in Las Vegas came through very clearly, even on television, with the arena seemingly poised to erupt after every basket.
And Duke lived up to the hype. The Blue Devils were fantastic in their win over Gonzaga, starting with Paolo Banchero having one of the best first-half performances we’ve seen from a freshman in some time. Mark Williams played like a first-round pick, limiting Drew Timme at one end and scoring 17 points at the other. Wendell Moore Jr. continued his excellent junior season, registering 20 points and six assists, with much of that coming when Banchero had to leave the game with cramps. Trevor Keels had six assists and was a real factor defensively, and Jeremy Roach made plays late. Even Joey Baker and Theo John had their moments off the Blue Devils bench.
It was as complete a performance as we’ve seen from a team this season, especially in such a big game against such a good opponent.
Greg Gard needed someone to step forward and become a go-to guy this season after the departure of several seniors, and Davis has clearly become that guy. He didn’t start a single game last season, but he has emerged as one of the nation’s biggest breakout stars in the first month of the campaign. Davis helped lead Wisconsin to a Maui Invitational championship last week, setting career highs in points on two separate occasions.
Davis had 21 points and nine rebounds in the opening win over Texas A&M then followed that up with 30 points, four rebounds and four steals in the upset victory over Houston. Davis made several plays down the stretch to slow the Cougars’ second-half comeback and help the Badgers hang on for the victory. Davis’ worst game came in the title game against Saint Mary’s, but he still finished with 20 points and seven rebounds.
One more note on Davis: Wisconsin’s lone loss this season (versus Providence on Nov. 15) came when Davis was out with a lower-body injury.
Win of the Week: Dayton 74, Kansas 73
Dayton went to Orlando, Florida, for the ESPN Events Invitational on a three-game losing streak, with defeats at home to UMass-Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay. Three games later, the Flyers are champions of the event — with one of the best victories of the season in their back pocket, a stunning 74-73 win at the buzzer over Kansas.
Early on against the Jayhawks, it looked like business as usual for Bill Self’s team. Kansas jumped out to a 13-2 lead and led by 10 at the half. Dayton came out of halftime on a tear, however, going on a 16-1 run to take the lead. The Flyers never went away, either, even when Kansas looked like it was going to pull out the win with a 12-2 run late — a stretch fueled by several Dayton turnovers.
After Malachi Smith cut Kansas’ lead to one with 45 seconds left, the Jayhawks came back down and threw the ball inside to David McCormack. McCormack proceeded to commit an offensive foul and give the ball back to Dayton with under 20 seconds left. Smith drove the lane and had his shot blocked by McCormack, but Mustapha Amzil grabbed the loose ball, drove across the lane and lofted a high-arcing shot that hit the rim and the backboard before falling through the hoop.
The HP Field House erupted, Dick Vitale went wild and we had one of the best moments of the 2021-22 college basketball season so far.
DAYTON STUNS No. 4 KANSAS AT THE BUZZER 😱
First top-5 win for the Flyers since 1984. pic.twitter.com/IWgGZfpzQh
— ESPN (@espn) November 26, 2021
Iowa State (6-0) has already tripled its win total from last season. That might be the easiest way to sum up Otzelberger’s impact on the Cyclones since taking over from Steve Prohm last spring. It was supposed to take a couple of years for Otzelberger to turn things around in Ames, but after one month of the season, Iowa State is already on a sharp upward trajectory.
The Cyclones had one of the more surprising weeks of anyone in the country, going to Brooklyn, New York, as the lone non-Top 25 team in the NIT Season Tip-Off and emerging as champions after recording two wins by a combined 31 points. They opened with a 12-point triumph over Xavier, getting 30 points from Penn State transfer Izaiah Brockington and 19 points from freshman Tyrese Hunter. The eye-opener came on Friday night, however, with Iowa State pummeling Memphis by 19 points. It was Minnesota transfer Gabe Kalscheur‘s turn to go for 30 points, and the Cyclones forced 22 Memphis turnovers.
These two wins should continue to resonate, and Iowa State’s guards will keep the Cyclones competitive most nights in the Big 12. It’s a tremendous turnaround from last season’s two-win campaign.
Three teams with questions
Oregon Ducks: What is going on with Dana Altman’s squad? The Ducks have lost their past three games against Division I opponents, looking woeful in the process. There was the 32-point loss to BYU, a 12-point defeat to Saint Mary’s and then Houston beating them by 29. Oregon scored fewer than 0.80 points per possession in all three games and didn’t break 20 points in the first half of any of the three.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: The Scarlet Knights have come crashing down to Earth following the end of their long NCAA tournament drought last season. They’ve now lost three games in a row, to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass — with Saturday’s defeat to the Minutemen coming on a 3 at the buzzer. It won’t get much easier over the next two weeks, with Clemson, Illinois, Purdue and Seton Hall on the schedule.
Most of the ACC: Entering Thanksgiving, the entire ACC had one win over a team ranked in the top 70 at KenPom. That number quadrupled over the weekend, with Duke beating Gonzaga and Louisville picking up a pair of solid wins against Mississippi State and Maryland. But the rest of the league has yet to impress. Every team besides Duke has at least one loss, and nine teams have two or more defeats.
1. Duke Blue Devils (7-0)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Ohio State (Tuesday)
We’ve talked about Duke a couple of times already in this piece, so let’s look at one of the unsung players on this year’s roster: Jeremy Roach. A former five-star recruit coming out of high school, Roach hasn’t made a huge impact when it comes to points and assists despite starting regularly as a freshman and playing at least 33 minutes in five of the team’s first seven games this season. But back in high school, Roach’s best attribute was arguably his confidence and toughness late in games, his winning mentality. That was evident against Gonzaga on Friday. Roach didn’t have a great night offensively, shooting 3-for-13 from the floor with just one assist, but he made a driving layup with 42 seconds left, to give Duke a three-point lead, then hit a free throw with one second left to seal the win. On the season, Roach has 23 assists to 11 turnovers and nine steals in seven games.
2. Purdue Boilermakers (6-0)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Florida State (Tuesday), vs. Iowa (Friday)
When discussing freshmen, Purdue’s Caleb Furst hasn’t received enough attention nationally. He has started each of the Boilermakers’ first six games and given Matt Painter a different dimension in the frontcourt. The 6-foot-10 lefty has hit double figures three times, grabbed at least eight rebounds on four occasions and also pitched in on the defensive end. More importantly, he has hit four 3-pointers in his past four games, making them at a 40% clip on the season. With Zach Edey and Trevion Williams taking up space on the block, Furst’s ability to step out and drag defenders away from double-teaming Edey or Williams has been crucial to Purdue’s offense. Mason Gillis, who started at the forward spot last season, has returned to the team after missing the opening four games of the season — but Furst kept his starting spot.
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs (6-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Tarleton State (Monday), vs. Alabama (Saturday)
The ESPN college hoops team had an extensive breakdown of Duke’s win over Gonzaga late Friday night, so make sure to check that out. But I wanted to highlight one key thing from the game: Gonzaga’s turnovers and 3-point shooting issues, as that might be where teams look to exploit the Zags moving forward. Gonzaga turned the ball over 17 times, while Duke coughed it up just eight times. Instead of the Zags getting out and scoring easy buckets in transition, where they are so lethal, it was Duke that took advantage of live-ball turnovers and poor transition defense by Gonzaga. The Blue Devils forced Gonzaga to play in the half court offensively, aggressively defended Andrew Nembhard off of ball screens and had Mark Williams protecting the rim. That led to Gonzaga needing to make shots from the perimeter, and they didn’t fall Friday night. The Zags shot just 6-for-21 from 3.
4. Baylor Bears (7-0)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff (Saturday)
Look who’s back in the top five despite losing four starters from last season’s national championship team. Baylor makes the move after facing four top-100 opponents in one week and looking fairly dominant in wins over Stanford, Arizona State, VCU and Michigan State. The Bears cruised to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship with a 17-point victory over the Spartans. One of the bigger stories for Baylor this season has been the early-season performance of freshman wing Kendall Brown, who has scored in double figures in all seven games so far this season, while missing just 16 shots in seven games. He has been a factor on the defensive end, he had 10 assists in a game earlier this season against Nicholls State and he has even made four 3-pointers. His length and two-way ability is going to be huge moving forward.
5. UCLA Bruins (6-1)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Colorado (Wednesday), at Washington (Sunday)
UCLA’s 20-point loss to Gonzaga feels like a lifetime ago, given all that happened during the latter stages of Feast Week, but the Bruins’ defense is worth looking at for a few sentences. Gonzaga annihilated the Bruins, especially in transition, with Andrew Nembhard doing whatever he wanted with the ball in his hands. UCLA allowed better than 1.17 points per possession to Gonzaga. Earlier this season, Villanova scored 1.05 points per possession and shot nearly 46% from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ overtime loss to UCLA. Defense is a potential problem, because UCLA also wasn’t great at that end of the floor until the final rounds of the NCAA tournament last season. The Bruins allowed at least 1.03 points per possession in six straight games prior to facing Abilene Christian in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
6. Villanova Wildcats (4-2)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Penn (Wednesday), vs. Saint Joseph’s (Saturday)
Villanova only had one game this past week, an easy win over La Salle at The Palestra. But there were a couple of noteworthy things from a personnel perspective for Jay Wright’s Wildcats. One was the return of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who came off the bench for six minutes against the Explorers. Cosby-Roundtree wasn’t expected to play at all this season after dealing with multiple surgeries on his legs throughout his college career. Whatever he provides this season will be a bonus, but he’s experienced, he’s 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds and he’s a very good defensive player. The other was Trey Patterson seeing an extended role off the bench. Wright has talked about trying to get Patterson some more minutes, and the wide margin of victory likely helped on Sunday. Patterson didn’t score at all in his 15 minutes, but he brings really good size and versatility in the frontcourt.
7. Kansas Jayhawks (5-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at St. John’s (Friday)
Kansas’ loss to Dayton was ugly, but it came on a buzzer-beater, and the Jayhawks’ season-opening win over Michigan State looks more impressive today than it did three weeks ago, so they don’t drop too far in the rankings. In order for Kansas to live up to its preseason expectations, though, Bill Self has to get Jalen Wilson going. The sophomore forward was suspended for the first three games of the season, and he has been something of a nonfactor during most of his three games back. He had seven points, five boards and four assists against North Texas but totaled just six points on 10 shots in games against Dayton and Iona. This is a player who averaged nearly 12 and eight last season, creating matchup problems with his size and versatile offensive skill set. Maybe Wilson is just knocking off some rust or maybe he just isn’t as effective coming off the bench, but a return to last season’s form is imperative for Kansas.
8. Texas Longhorns (4-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Sam Houston State (Monday), vs. UT Rio Grande Valley (Friday)
Chris Beard is still clearly tinkering with his lineups, which is to be expected. One move he made a couple of games ago was bringing Andrew Jones off the bench instead of keeping him in the starting lineup — and it worked well against San Jose State and Cal Baptist. Jones had 13 points and three steals against San Jose State then 15 points and five assists in the win over Cal Baptist. That came after games against Gonzaga and Northern Colorado in which he totaled nine points on 12 shots. Christian Bishop has come off the bench in the past three games after starting the opening two, and he is averaging 10 points and 4.7 rebounds as a reserve as opposed to 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds as a starter. The next step is working Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu into the rotation.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks (6-0)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Central Arkansas (Wednesday), vs. Little Rock (Saturday)
Au’Diese Toney wasn’t the most heralded of the Razorbacks’ transfers this season, with Chris Lykes and Stanley Umude garnering bigger headlines. And Toney didn’t get too much early-season pub due to JD Notae putting up big scoring numbers and Lykes thriving in a sixth man role. But Toney has been a perfect fit for Eric Musselman’s system, playing in something of an undersized 4-man role. He had 13 points and nine rebounds against Kansas State, 19 points and nine rebounds in the Hall of Fame Classic title game against Cincinnati then a solid 12 points in an easy win over Penn on Sunday. Toney had 14 offensive rebounds in three games last week, and he is shooting better than 64% from inside the arc. Musselman has done well in the past with versatile wings and forwards, and Toney is the latest.
10. Kentucky Wildcats (5-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Central Michigan (Monday)
Daimion Collins rose up the recruiting rankings as his high school career progressed, and he has carried that momentum into his freshman season in Lexington. There was promising preseason buzz about his highlight-reel plays in practice, and he has shown flashes of that through six games. Collins finally moved into the starting lineup against North Florida last week and responded with 12 points, six rebounds and a blocked shot — but his length and explosiveness at both ends of the floor were a real factor. He provides an interesting foil next to Oscar Tshiebwe, given the West Virginia transfer’s physicality and dominance on the glass and in the paint. Collins landed his start due to Keion Brooks Jr. being out with an illness, but it’s an interesting option for John Calipari to use even after Brooks returns.
11. BYU Cougars (6-0)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Utah Valley (Wednesday), at Missouri State (Saturday)
BYU’s earlier wins over San Diego State and Oregon have lost some of their luster, as the Aztecs and Ducks haven’t quite looked as good as expected thus far. But the Cougars continue to look impressive, including in Saturday’s 11-point win at in-state rival Utah. Alex Barcello is excelling, but the offseason addition of Milwaukee transfer Te’Jon Lucas has been crucial to BYU’s hot start. Lucas was a part-time starter at Illinois to begin his career, then he really established himself during two seasons at Milwaukee. But his arrival in Provo has given Mark Pope a bona fide playmaker at the point of attack and allowed Barcello to focus more on scoring and shooting. Lucas had 18 points in both games last week, and he has had 30 assists to just 10 turnovers on the season. He also is shooting better than 46% from 3-point range, which is a huge rise from last season’s 27.5% (although it could be the result of a small sample size).
12. Arizona Wildcats (6-0)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. Washington (Thursday), at Oregon State (Sunday)
Christian Koloko‘s emergence as a real factor at both ends of the floor has been one of the biggest keys in Tommy Lloyd’s first six games at the helm. Koloko had flashed his potential during his first two seasons in Tucson, continuing to add strength and muscle and developing a more well-rounded skill set to the one he had coming out of high school. But it’s all coming together as a junior. The 7-foot-1 Koloko is one of the top shot-blockers in the country, with at least four swats in four of six games. But it’s his advancement on the offensive end that takes Arizona to another level offensively. He dominated against Michigan, winning his head-to-head battle against Hunter Dickinson with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, then followed it up with 20 points against Sacramento State over the weekend. Koloko has scored at least 13 points in five straight games.
13. Florida Gators (6-0)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: at Oklahoma (Wednesday)
The preseason buzz coming out of Gainesville centered mostly on Charleston Southern transfer Phlandrous Fleming Jr., an excellent two-way player in the Big South who was adapting seamlessly to life at an SEC program. But that didn’t come across during the first couple of games of the season, as Fleming came off the bench and had 13 points on 14 shots in wins over Elon and Florida State. Maybe the preseason sparkle had worn off? Not so fast. Fleming has stepped forward in the past four games, including 19 points and four steals in last week’s win over Ohio State. He has scored in double figures in four straight games, and Fleming earned a start against Troy on Sunday, tallying 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, one block and a steal in 24 minutes on the floor.
14. Tennessee Volunteers (4-1)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Presbyterian (Tuesday), at Colorado (Saturday)
Rick Barnes is relying on freshmen more than most coaches in the SEC, especially notable in this age of quick-fix transfers. The Volunteers start Kennedy Chandler at the point guard spot, as expected, but Zakai Zeigler is playing a bigger role than most people had anticipated, and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield was a key player in Tennessee’s weekend win over Tennessee Tech. Chandler has bounced back well from his struggles against Villanova, while Zeigler has played at least 26 minutes in back-to-back games, totaling 22 points, nine assists and just one turnover. Huntley-Hatfield was dominant in Tennessee’s preseason scrimmage, but he hadn’t shown that type of production until this past week. He had 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting against Tennessee Tech. Another freshman, Jahmai Mashack, hasn’t seen the same role as the others, but he is in the rotation.
15. Michigan State Spartans (5-2)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Louisville (Wednesday), vs. Toledo (Saturday)
After Michigan State’s season-opening loss to Kansas, there were some real questions about the Spartans this season. Did they have a consistent point guard? A go-to guy offensively? Which returnee would take the necessary step forward? While not every question has been answered, Tom Izzo’s team has a lot more optimism now than it did three weeks ago. The Spartans beat Loyola Chicago and UConn at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week before falling to Baylor. Gabe Brown has been a consistent double-figure scorer, A.J. Hoggard has been a capable playmaker and Malik Hall has had a couple of breakout games. The real ceiling for this team will be determined when Max Christie starts to assert himself as a scorer and Tyson Walker becomes more consistent and aggressive at the point guard spot.
16. Houston Cougars (5-1)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Northwestern State (Tuesday), vs. Bryant (Friday)
Houston is still capable of being the best defensive team in the country — in fact, the Cougars are No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom — but the Cougars have now had two head-scratching performances in the first six games of the season. The first came against Hofstra in the season opener, when they needed to come back to beat the Pride and gave up 75 points on 63 possessions. The second came against Wisconsin at the Maui Invitational, but that time, Houston’s comeback effort fell short. Both opponents went about their offense in different ways, but the biggest commonality was taking care of the ball. Hofstra turned it over on just 15.5% of its possessions, while Wisconsin turned it over on 14.3% of its possessions. Both would have been top-5 opposition efforts in that department last season.
In the waiting room
USC Trojans: The Trojans picked up their first impressive victory of the season on Friday, beating San Diego State by 15 and holding the Aztecs to just 43 points — and only 15 in the first half. Andy Enfield’s team hasn’t allowed any of its first six opponents to reach 1.00 point per possession. Saturday’s game at Washington State is intriguing.
UConn Huskies: It was a week of adversity in the Bahamas for the Huskies — and while it was a mixed bag in terms of results, they showed plenty of toughness. There was the double-overtime win against Auburn and an overtime victory versus VCU, with a narrow loss to Michigan State in between. Taking care of the ball and making shots from the perimeter are the keys moving forward.
LSU Tigers: There wasn’t much fanfare surrounding the Tigers, but they had a quietly impressive week. They beat Belmont by 30 then knocked off Penn State and Wake Forest to win the Emerald Coast Classic. Tari Eason has been one of the nation’s best sixth men so far this season, with three double-doubles in seven games off the bench. He also had 20 and nine against Penn State.