Another week, another new team at the top of the 2021-22 men’s college basketball rankings.
This time it’s a familiar face, and one that has been lurking in the shadows, as the college basketball world spent all offseason debating top-five teams and has rotated a new No. 1 team seemingly every week since the start of the campaign.
Baylor hasn’t lost since March 12 of last season, and is now 37-2 since the start of 2020-21. So maybe we should have taken the Bears more seriously as a potential No. 1 team in the preseason. But when a team — even one as good as the reigning national champions — loses four starters, including a pair of stars in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, it’s not easy to overcome quickly.
For most teams, at least. For Scott Drew and Baylor, there have been no such issues. The Bears have rolled through each of their first nine games this season, capped by Sunday’s 57-36 win over Villanova. Also on their résumé is a 17-point win over Michigan State at the Battle 4 Atlantis. While Baylor’s defense in the past two seasons was outstanding, the Bears have statistically been even better at that end of the floor so far this season.
For them, the overarching question has now changed: It has gone from “How does Baylor follow up last season’s national championship?” to “Can Baylor repeat?”
On paper, the Bears might not have the star power of Duke or Gonzaga, or the size and experience of Purdue, but they’re elite defensively, balanced offensively and have a great mix of hungry newcomers and savvy veterans. While Duke and Purdue had their names atop the rankings for only one week, Baylor has the makeup to, at the very least, close out 2021 at No. 1.
When a team moves to No. 1 after a thoroughly impressive victory, it’s always hard to avoid picking them as Team of the Week. Baylor on Sunday had one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen in a marquee game in a long time, suffocating Villanova for 40 minutes en route to a 57-36 win.
To get a feel for how good the Bears’ defense was on Sunday, here are three stats from ESPN Stats & Information:
Villanova was held to its lowest point total and lowest field goal percentage under Jay Wright
Villanova was held to under 40 points for the first time since 1979
Thirty-six points is tied for the fewest points by an AP Top 10 team in the shot-clock era.
Baylor’s defense has been its calling card all season thus far. The Bears rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com and have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 0.92 points per possession. I thought there might be a dropoff at that end of the floor without stout on-ball defenders like Mitchell and Butler and a versatile, physical defender like Mark Vital. But Baylor has somehow improved. Sunday was an absolute clinic defensively.
One of the best NBA prospects returning to college basketball this season, Mathurin has taken his game up a few notches since 2020-21. As a freshman, he went through long stretches when he wasn’t nearly as assertive as he could be, and he also had some typical first-year inconsistency. That’s a distant memory at this point, as Mathurin looks like one of the best players in the country through the first month of the 2021-22 season. That was made clear this past week.
Mathurin opened things with 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 29-point win over previously unbeaten Wyoming. He was 8-for-10 from inside the arc and also made a pair of 3s. But the reason Mathurin wins Player of the Week is what he did on Saturday against Illinois. In a tough road environment in Champaign, he hit five 3s and scored 30 points to help lead Arizona to an impressive road victory over the Fighting Illini. He was terrific in the first half, keeping Arizona within striking distance after the Illini’s 19-0 run, and then hit big shots in the second half alongside Kerr Kriisa.
A win over the previously unbeaten No. 1 team in the country? A buzzer-beater from just inside half court to win the game? A court storming in one of the best homecourt environments in the country?
Rutgers’ victory over Purdue on Thursday night had it all.
The Scarlet Knights entered the game on the heels of a 35-point road loss at Illinois last weekend, along with four losses in their past five games. But a return home to the RAC — sorry, Jersey Mike’s Arena — brought new life to Steve Pikiell’s team. A 16-2 first-half run gave Rutgers the lead entering halftime, but Purdue began to pull away midway through the second half. Ron Harper Jr. wouldn’t let the Scarlet Knights’ upset hopes go away, however, helping close the gap in the final minutes. Harper would finish with 30 points, 10 rebounds, five 3-pointers — and of course, one of the best shots we’ll see all season.
🚨 RON HARPER AT THE BUZZER!!!!!!!! 🚨
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) December 10, 2021
About 30 miles Northeast of Rutgers’ shocker over Purdue, Seton Hall had a statement-making win of its own on Thursday night. The Pirates knocked off No. 7 Texas for their second win over a top-10 team this season, following their win over then-No. 4 Michigan back in November.
Seton Hall, though, took the next step and followed it up with a 77-63 rivalry win over those Scarlet Knights on Sunday night. Despite losing co-Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili from last season, Willard has Seton Hall in the top 15 nationally after last week’s two wins brought the Pirates to 9-1 overall. While the road victory at Michigan isn’t as impressive now as it was a few weeks ago, wins over the Wolverines and Longhorns have staying power — and it’s clear the Pirates are far better than expected.
Seton Hall was picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll but after one month, it’s the conference’s the highest-ranked team in this week’s Power Rankings.
Three teams with questions
Florida Gators: Even if Florida had won its final two games this past week, the Gators’ 15-point home loss last Monday to Texas Southern would still go down as one of the bigger head-scratchers of the season and warrant inclusion in this section. The Tigers were 0-7 at the time and 23.5-point underdogs. It was Florida’s worst offensive performance since Nov. 10, 2019, and its worst defensive effort since last season. The Gators also then fell to Maryland on Sunday, their third loss in four games.
Pac-12: I know it’s early, but the Pac-12 is quietly headed toward being a three-bid league on Selection Sunday. UCLA, Arizona and USC all hold spots in the top-16 rankings, but no other Pac-12 teams found themselves in Joe Lunardi’s Friday bracket. The closest to becoming a fourth team was Washington State — but then the Cougars lost to South Dakota State at the buzzer on Saturday.
Missouri Tigers: Nobody expected Missouri to beat Kansas on Saturday, but losing by 37 in a rivalry game? That was ugly. It also drops the Tigers to 4-5 against Division I teams this season, a record that includes a 21-point loss at Liberty and a 14-point home loss to UMKC. Given the SEC’s strength in the top half of the league, it’s going to be a long, long season in Columbia.
1. Baylor Bears (9-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Oregon (Saturday)
While I highlighted Baylor’s defensive performance on Sunday earlier, I have to show some love to James Akinjo here. The former Georgetown and Arizona transfer has been a bit up and down so far this season, mixing two double-figure assist games with single-digit scoring efforts in four of eight games and a two-assist, seven-turnover showing against VCU. But Akinjo was fantastic against Collin Gillespie and Villanova on Sunday, finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals — and just one turnover. He was a factor at both ends of the floor, getting into the lane consistently and then competing defensively. He outplayed his All-American counterpart and showed why Baylor still has the goods, and the guards, to make another Final Four run come March.
2. Duke Blue Devils (7-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. South Carolina State (Tuesday), vs. Appalachian State (Thursday), vs. Cleveland State (Saturday)
Duke was off this past week and hasn’t played since its 71-66 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 30, but the Blue Devils weren’t totally quiet over the past few days. They retook the No. 1 spot in the 2022 recruiting class rankings by landing No. 30-ranked senior Matt Mitchell, who chose them over UCLA. That gives coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer five top-50 recruits in the 2022 class, including three five-stars and four ranked in the top 30. That’s a heck of a haul for Scheyer, who took the lead on Duke’s 2022 recruiting class after being named Mike Krzyzewski’s future replacement back in the spring. On the court, the Blue Devils are finally back in action in the coming week, with three games in five days, followed by nothing but ACC games the rest of the season.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (9-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Butler (Saturday)
Purdue narrowly avoided becoming just the third-ever program to drop each of its first two games as the No. 1 team in the AP poll, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Boilermakers overcame a 12-point deficit in the final six minutes of regulation against NC State, before pulling away in overtime to win by 10. Trevion Williams came just one assist shy of a triple-double off the bench, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, four blocks and two steals. Earlier in the week, there was the aforementioned buzzer loss to Rutgers. Purdue really struggled to make shots from the perimeter against the Scarlet Knights, but the Boilermakers’ defense was far more of an issue in that one. Rutgers — Harper, specifically — played unbelievably well offensively, but Purdue also allowed its highest 3-point percentage of the season and was also outscored at the free throw line.
4. Arizona Wildcats (9-0)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Northern Colorado (Wednesday), vs. Cal Baptist (Saturday)
Christian Koloko‘s breakout season has received plenty of attention, as have the impressive season starts from returnees Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis. But it has been Kriisa’s step forward at the point guard spot that made the difference in Arizona’s win over Illinois on Saturday. Kriisa had a career-high 19 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists, including a slew of difficult runners and floaters in the second half when Illinois had the momentum. His ability to quickly grasp Tommy Lloyd’s offensive system has played a major role in Arizona’s hot start to the season. The Estonia native plays with a ton of confidence, can make plays in both the half court and in transition and was outstanding utilizing ball screens and manipulating Illinois’ defense on Saturday.
Ochai Agbaji splashes the 3-pointer right before halftime to put the Jayhawks up 22.
5. Kansas Jayhawks (8-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Stephen F. Austin (Saturday)
The Jayhawks likely couldn’t be happier that they and Missouri opted to resume their rivalry. They ran the Tigers out of Lawrence on Saturday, grabbing a double-digit lead within the first six minutes and ultimately winning by 37. All five starters scored in double figures, although the headliner was Ochai Agbaji, who continues to play at an All-American level. He had 21 points and five 3s against Missouri, the seventh time in nine games that he has eclipsed the 20-point mark. And in the other two games, he scored 17 and 18. Agbaji is shooting better than 49% from 3, better than 63% from 2 and is drawing fouls at the highest rate of his career. His improvement off the dribble in attacking the rim has added a different dimension to his game and made him much more difficult to defend.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide (8-1)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Memphis (Tuesday), vs. Jacksonville State (Saturday)
Alabama has been a completely different team since its loss to Iona. Over the past two games, the Crimson Tide have knocked off Gonzaga and Houston — two of the best defenses in the country over the past few seasons — and scored 1.14 and 1.18 points per possession in the process. They made better than 38% of their 3s in both games. And Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford have established themselves among the best backcourts in the country. Quinerly is a magician with the ball, impossible to keep out of the lane. He averaged 17.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in those two wins. Shackelford is shooting the ball at an elite level, going 11-for-15 from 3 in those two wins, while averaging 23.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. Nate Oats once again has the SEC’s best team, and a potential Final Four team.
7. Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. Texas Tech (Saturday)
Ever since Andrew Nembhard staked his claim in the nation’s best point guard conversation against UCLA before Thanksgiving, he hasn’t been producing at the same level. Against the Bruins, he had 24 points, two 3s and six assists. In the four games since, Nembhard has totaled 21 points and is shooting 0-for-11 from behind the arc. His assist-to-turnover ratio has also dipped, with him coughing it up 13 times, after turning it over just 12 times in his first six games. What changed? Particularly in the games against Duke and Alabama, those teams were far more aggressive defending him in ball screens, forcing him to make decisions quicker and not letting him dictate the tempo. It will be interesting to see Nembhard against Texas Tech’s top-five defense on Saturday in Phoenix.
Jaime Jaquez connects from distance on three occasions to help UCLA to a 35-21 lead over Marquette at the half.
8. UCLA Bruins (8-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Alabama State (Wednesday), vs. North Carolina (Saturday)
Jaime Jaquez missed most of UCLA’s win over Colorado with a head injury, but returned for Saturday night’s trip to Marquette — and the Bruins badly needed him. Jaquez had 24 points and 11 rebounds, with 14 of those points coming in the first 15 minutes, when UCLA jumped out to a 22-point lead over the Golden Eagles. Jaquez is a difficult matchup for most opponents due to his size, physicality and ability to score inside and out. And with Johnny Juzang struggling to make shots against Marquette and the supporting cast besides Tyger Campbell not providing much offense, it was on Jaquez to make plays early and push UCLA’s lead. The Bruins’ NCAA tournament run last season was predicated on Juzang and Jaquez shouldering most of the scoring load, so they’ll be relieved he didn’t miss much time with the injury.
9. Michigan State Spartans (9-2)
Previous ranking: 15
When Tyson Walker committed to Michigan State, he was expected to provide scoring and playmaking but also be a bit steadier at the point guard spot than Rocket Watts. Through the first seven or eight games of the season, it was a mixed bag from the Northeastern transfer. Walker averaged 5.1 points, 4.8 assists and 2.9 turnovers in the first eight games, shooting 39.5% from the field and making just five 3s. Unsurprisingly, the Spartans’ offense didn’t seem like it was hitting its stride yet either. That has changed over the past three games. Walker averaged 12.0 points, 6.0 assists and 1.7 assists in wins over Toledo, Minnesota and Penn State, shooting 52% from the field and making four 3s. As he gets more comfortable, this Michigan State offense is only going to get better.
10. Iowa State Cyclones (10-0)
Previous ranking: In the waiting room
This week: vs. Southeastern Louisiana (Sunday)
It was something of an odd week for arguably the biggest surprise team in college basketball this season. Iowa State started out pummeling in-state rival Iowa, which had just pushed Purdue and Illinois and had a healthy Keegan Murray back in the lineup. Izaiah Brockington had 29 points and 10 boards against his old conference foe, and the Cyclones limited the Hawkeyes to 53 points and 0.80 points per possession. They followed that up with a 47-37 win over Jackson State. That’s right, 47 points. The fewest Iowa State has scored in a game since Jan. 27, 2018, in a 23-point loss to Tennessee and their fewest in a win since beating Fairfield 47-46 in 1980. But it’s another plus for the Cyclones’ defense, which has quickly become one of the best in college basketball through the first month of 2021-22. They held Jackson State to 0.61 points per possession and still have yet to allow a team to reach the 1.00 point per possession threshold.
E.J. Liddell soars through the paint for a block to stop Wisconsin from scoring.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Kentucky (Saturday)
There’s a really strong case to be made that E.J. Liddell is the current Wooden Award favorite one month into the season. He’s averaging 20.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.0 blocks, shooting 56% from the field and 35.3% from 3-point range. He has shown up in three of the Buckeyes’ biggest games of the season: 28 points against Seton Hall; 14 points, 14 boards and six assists against Duke; and 28 points, nine rebounds and four assists in Saturday’s win over Wisconsin. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Liddell is the only Division I player over the past 10 seasons to average 20 points and three blocks through 10 games of a season. Liddell causes huge matchup problems for opponents, and he’s making a huge impact on the defensive end of the floor this season, too.
12. USC Trojans (10-0)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. UC Irvine (Wednesday), vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday)
Entering the season, some wondered whether Isaiah Mobley was primed for a breakout season now that his younger brother, Evan, was off to the NBA. He showed flashes during last season’s NCAA tournament, averaging 16.0 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games. But Mobley started this season more on the inconsistent side, going through slumps shooting the ball from the perimeter and notching three single-digit scoring efforts in his first eight games. Over the past two games, however, Mobley has looked like one of the best players in the Pac-12. Against Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday, he hit five 3-pointers en route to 23 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. And then on Sunday against Long Beach State, Mobley followed it up with 21 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of assists — plus two more 3-pointers.
13. Seton Hall Pirates (9-1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Iona (Saturday)
Bryce Aiken and Jared Rhoden? Second-half players. The two seniors consistently made plays down the stretch in both of Seton Hall’s wins this week. After a scoreless first half against Texas, Aiken scored 10 points in the second half, including a pull-up 3-pointer in the final minute to give the Pirates a four-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Against Rutgers on Sunday, Aiken finished with 22 points, 14 of them coming in the second half. Rhoden kept the Pirates in the game early on Thursday, but had 10 of his 18 points after halftime. It was a more dramatic difference on Sunday, with Rhoden scoring 14 in the second half to help hold off Rutgers and give Seton Hall the win. Willard has a veteran team that he trusts to make plays when it matters, and Aiken and Rhoden are backing up that belief so far.
Jabari Smith rocks the rim with a powerful dunk.
14. Auburn Tigers (8-1)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. North Alabama (Tuesday), at Saint Louis (Saturday)
It was a pretty solid week all around for the Tigers. First, their punishment from the NCAA came down on Friday — and it included no further postseason ban, and only a two-game suspension for head coach Bruce Pearl. Then they went to Atlanta and blew out Nebraska by 31. Jabari Smith continued his quest to enter the No. 1 draft pick conversation, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists. Perhaps more importantly, guards Zep Jasper, K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. combined for 37 points, 12 assists and just five turnovers. Allen Flanigan might also be back for the start of SEC play at the end of the month. Before suffering a right Achilles injury in September, he was a projected first-round pick and potential SEC Player of the Year candidate. He’ll add a different dimension to Auburn’s attack.
15. Villanova Wildcats (7-3)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at Creighton (Friday)
So, that was rough. Villanova simply couldn’t get in any sort of rhythm against Baylor on Sunday, shooting 22.2% from the field, scoring 36 points and finishing with just 0.60 points per possession. I went through some of the Wildcats’ historic lows on the offensive end above, but at least their defense was pretty solid. Baylor scored fewer than 0.95 points per possession, its lowest output since a February loss to Kansas last season. One area on the offensive end that should get turned around quickly is Brandon Slater. He scored in double figures in each of his first eight games but has just six points on 3-for-22 shooting over his past two. His emergence was such a positive factor for Villanova over the first month of the season, and the Wildcats need him back to that early-season form.
16. Houston Cougars (8-2)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: vs. Louisiana (Tuesday), vs. Oklahoma State (Saturday)
Can’t bring myself to drop Houston after it lost a one-point game on the road against a top-10 team- … especially because the Cougars might have won that game on replay. The most impressive thing about them on Saturday night was the fact they didn’t really play all that well, and still had the ball with a chance to win. Alabama scored 1.18 points per possession against them, which would have been the third most that the Cougars gave up all of last season. Houston shot just 34.6% from 3. But it was dominant on the offensive glass, grabbing 21 offensive boards and racking up 23 second-chance opportunities. It forced a dozen turnovers, most of them coming in the first half, turning them into 16 points. And the Cougars have Marcus Sasser, who finished with 25 points and hit some big shots late. I still think Houston is a clear second-weekend NCAA tournament team.
In the waiting room
LSU Tigers: The only thing the Tigers are missing right now is a marquee win, but they are ranked No. 2 in the NET and have two solid wins over Belmont and a good Wake Forest team. A neutral site game this weekend against Louisiana Tech won’t be easy, but LSU’s first seven games of SEC play will be the real test: Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee again.
Colorado State Rams: A late 17-2 run preserved Colorado State’s unbeaten record in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State, with the Rams overcoming some early struggles at both ends of the floor and an off-night shooting from star point guard Isaiah Stevens — who still finished with 10 assists. Circle Dec. 21 on your calendar: The Rams head to Alabama to face the Crimson Tide.
Xavier Musketeers: Travis Steele’s team dominated Cincinnati in Saturday’s rivalry game, with former Iowa transfer Jack Nunge going for 31 points and 15 rebounds off the bench in the 20-point win. The Musketeers have quietly built up an impressive résumé, with wins over Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State and now Cincinnati — and a lone loss coming to unbeaten Iowa State.