Nearly every power conference in college basketball has been facing questions about how good it’ll be this season: ACC teams not named Duke or Virginia Tech are struggling in general; the bottom of the SEC looks very weak; the Big Ten suffered an assortment of ranked losses this week; and the Pac-12 continues to do Pac-12 things. The Big 12 has yet to be tested too heavily.
And then there’s the Big East. I was all set to write a fawning intro about this conference, given its dominance over the Big Ten in the Gavitt Games, and with multiple teams entering the weekend with an opportunity to win marquee MTEs. And then Sunday came. Villanova blew another lead and lost to Purdue in the title game of the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic. Marquette got rocked by St. Bonaventure at the Charleston Classic. And Creighton lost to Colorado State at the Paradise Jam.
So, there might be a little less fawning — but it’s clear the league as a whole is going to be better than we thought, especially those teams in the middle. Villanova remains the favorite, but Seton Hall and Xavier notched huge wins over Michigan and Ohio State, respectively, and look like legitimate top-25 teams. UConn does as well. Providence and Creighton both had road wins over Big Ten teams; Marquette beat Illinois, Ole Miss and West Virginia in a five-day span; and St. John’s took Indiana to the wire in Bloomington. Even DePaul — DePaul! — is 4-0.
This season’s Power Rankings weren’t expected to feature a whole lot of Big East teams. Villanova seemed far and away the favorite, but there didn’t seem to be another clear-cut top-25 contender in the league. Two weeks in, though, we’re a lot closer to four Big East teams in the top 20 than we are to just one.
Purdue established its early-season national championship hopes this past weekend, clearly cementing itself in the upper tier of the rankings alongside the likes of Gonzaga, UCLA and Kansas. The Boilermakers opened the week beating Horizon League title contender Wright State by 44 points on Monday, then traveled to Connecticut and beat North Carolina and Villanova on back-to-back afternoons.
There are simply few teams in the country that can match Purdue from a personnel standpoint. The Boilermakers have the most dominant post duo in the country in 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and preseason All-American hopeful Trevion Williams (more on them later). They have a legitimate lottery pick in sophomore guard Jaden Ivey, everyone’s favorite pick for breakout player at the start of the season. Then they have a slew of shooters to surround the three stars — who have made double-digit 3-pointers in four of five games this season, including identical 10-for-23 efforts in the two games at Mohegan Sun.
Ivey’s development into a legitimate playmaker who can consistently find teammates was particularly key for Purdue over the weekend. He tallied 13 assists in two games, turning the ball over just twice.
“He was more impressive in person,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said on Saturday. “Everyone talks of him as being a first-round, lottery-pick-type of player. He is that.”
Few players all season will be able to match what Utah State’s Justin Bean did this past week. He started by playing all 50 minutes in a double-overtime win over Penn, finishing with 33 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and four steals. He then followed that up with a ho-hum 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists to beat New Mexico State. But he saved maybe his best performance for Sunday to seal this award: 24 points, 19 rebounds, three assists and two steals to beat Oklahoma and win the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
To summarize: In three games, Bean averaged 24.7 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals — while also leading Utah State to three wins in four days and an MTE championship. Bean has always been a factor defensively and on the glass, but he often took a back seats offensively to the likes of Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta. Now, as a senior, Bean is the go-to guy for the Aggies, and he’s proving his worth so far.
Conference mate David Roddy of Colorado State deserves a special shout, too. He had 30 points and nine rebounds against Bradley in the opening round of the Paradise Jam, and then went for 36 against Creighton on Sunday.
There were plenty of highly impressive victories this week. Purdue’s aforementioned Mohegan Sun wins, Marquette beating Illinois, BYU crushing Oregon in Portland. When in doubt, though, always go with a true road win — and one that will presumably have staying power all season. Seton Hall was a bit of a mystery team entering 2021-22. The Pirates were coming off their worst season since 2015, and had lost co-Big East Player of the Year Sandro Mamukelashvili. But Kevin Willard was hoping a mix of experienced returnees and incoming transfers could lead to a bounce-back season. Based on last Tuesday’s results, those hopes should come to fruition.
Seton Hall went into Ann Arbor and erased an 11-point second-half deficit to beat then-No. 4 Michigan by two. Even more significantly, the win came with Syracuse transfer Kadary Richmond — who garnered significant preseason NBA draft buzz — going scoreless in 20 minutes on the floor. Jared Rhoden led the way with 16 points, but oft-injured Bryce Aiken, who hasn’t played a full season since 2016-17 due to a variety of knee and ankle injuries, was the hero down the stretch. The former Harvard transfer scored six of Seton Hall’s final seven points, including the winning free throws.
Coach of the Week: Mark Pope, BYU Cougars
If I can extend this award to include about a week and a half’s worth of play, it’s a no-brainer to choose Mark Pope. It started on the first day of the early signing period, when the Cougars landed their highest-ranked recruit in almost a decade in top-30 prospect Collin Chandler. (It doesn’t hurt that they beat out in-state rival Utah for Chandler’s signature.) They followed that up with a win over San Diego State two Fridays ago. But the big reason for excitement in Provo was the 32-point win over Oregon in Portland.
Oregon really struggled offensively during the opening minutes, but a 14-2 run midway through the first half turned an eight-point BYU lead into a 20-point margin that was rarely threatened through the end. The Ducks eventually got it down to 17 in the second half, but BYU outscored them 25-10 the rest of the way.
What Pope has done since taking over the Cougars in 2019 is tremendous. In his first season, BYU had its best team since the Jimmer Fredette years. Last season, the Cougars went back to the NCAA tournament as a 6-seed. And now the Cougars look to be a legitimate threat out West again. It’s not hard to make the case that the West Coast pecking order this season is Gonzaga and UCLA, then BYU. And that’s a credit to Pope.
Three teams with questions
North Carolina Tar Heels: This defense has real issues. Over its past four games, North Carolina has allowed an average of 88.0 points and more than nine 3-pointers per game. Three of the Tar Heels’ past four opponents have scored at least 1.20 points per possession, and Purdue and Tennessee shot a combined 55% from the field and 44.2% from 3-point range.
Syracuse Orange: Giving up 100 points? At home? To Colgate? Matt Langel is a coach on the rise and has done a terrific job at Colgate, but the Raiders were 1-2 against Division I competition entering the weekend and had already lost by 10 at Cornell. Syracuse had actually looked promising at both ends of the floor in its opening two games, and this could just be an anomaly, but losing to Colgate for the first time since 1962 has to be mentioned.
Oregon State Beavers: Oregon State’s Cinderella run to the Elite Eight last season seems like a long time ago. The Beavers are now 1-4 to start 2021-22, with home losses this week to Samford and Princeton. Granted, both came by one point apiece, but Oregon State trailed for most of the first 37 minutes against Samford, and was down by as many as 11 in the second half against Princeton. It also lost at Tulsa to open the week last Monday.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (4-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: vs. Central Michigan (Monday), vs. UCLA (Tuesday), vs. Duke (Friday)
There won’t be many — if any — weeks in college basketball this season more challenging than what Gonzaga face over the next five days. After what should be a warm-up game against Central Michigan on Monday, the Zags play UCLA and Duke in a 72-hour span. On paper, Gonzaga isn’t as good as it was last season, given how elite and fluid that offense looked from day one of the 2020-21 campaign. But if Mark Few’s current team can get out of this week unscathed, they should be in that conversation once again.
Aside from the known commodities, it’s going to be a big week for Julian Strawther. He has taken a huge step forward so far this season, scoring at least 17 points on three separate occasions, but he’ll also have to go up against the likes of Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Wendell Moore Jr. and Trevor Keels this week.
2. Kansas Jayhawks (3-0)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: ESPN Events Invitational (Thursday-Sunday)
The first week of the season evidently wasn’t a blip for Ochai Agbaji. The senior wing followed up his electric start with another 25 points and four 3-pointers against Stony Brook. He’s now averaging 26.3 points and 4.0 rebounds, while shooting 57.7% from the field and 41.7% from 3-point range. It seems that Bill Self has found his go-to guy.
The next step for the Jayhawks will be integrating Jalen Wilson back into the fold. Wilson was suspended for the first three games of the regular season following a DUI arrest, but he’s eligible to return for the ESPN Events Invitational on Thursday. Kansas opens with North Texas but could face a title-game showdown against Alabama if both teams make it that far. Does Wilson immediately slot back into the starting lineup? That’s the question, especially because Dajuan Harris has totaled 16 assists to just four turnovers in his place.
UCLA’s Jules Bernard makes a nice move in the lane and somehow gets his shot to fall over two defenders.
3. UCLA Bruins (4-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. Bellarmine (Monday), vs. Gonzaga (Tuesday), at UNLV (Saturday)
With Juzang and Jaquez garnering most of the attention so far this season, and Tyger Campbell excelling in his head-to-head matchup against Villanova’s Collin Gillespie, Jules Bernard‘s start to the campaign has been understandably overshadowed. But the senior wing has become a real asset for UCLA, providing yet another scoring option with size. Through four games, he’s averaging 18.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, making 50% of his 3-point attempts.
Bernard showed flashes of his scoring and shooting ability last season, ranking eighth in the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage, but has since become more aggressive and assertive. His length and somewhat unorthodox offensive style have made him a difficult matchup for opponents thus far.
4. Purdue Boilermakers (5-0)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Omaha (Friday)
It’s still early, but Matt Painter getting the Zach Edey-Trevion Williams combination to work effectively — to dominate, to be more precise — has been one of the biggest storylines of the opening month of the season. The Boilermakers’ two recent games at Mohegan Sun against high-level competition provided the perfect example: Edey looked solid early against North Carolina but struggled after the opening few minutes, and both players dealt with foul trouble. Then, late in the game, Williams asserted his dominance and helped the Boilermakers pull away.
Against Villanova, it was Edey’s turn to dominate. The Wildcats simply had no answer for his 7-foot-4 size. In those games, Edey totaled 30 points in 38 minutes, while Williams had 29 points in 33 minutes. There isn’t a team in college basketball that can match that post production.
5. Duke Blue Devils (5-0)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. The Citadel (Monday), vs. Gonzaga (Friday)
It was nice to see Mark Williams break out of his mini-slump to open the season. A promising 7-footer who entered his freshman season with some hype and proceeded to show flashes, especially down the stretch, Williams was garnering breakout season expectations before 2021-22. Then through three games, he totaled just 11 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Impressive for one game, not so much for three. He snapped out of it against Gardner Webb and Lafayette last week, though, averaging 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocks. He will have a stiffer test this week, when the Blue Devils face Gonzaga in Las Vegas. Williams will have to deal with Drew Timme’s assortment of post moves on the interior at one end of the floor, and then go against Chet Holmgren’s shot-blocking at the other.
6. Memphis Tigers (4-0)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Virginia Tech (Wednesday), vs. Iowa State/Xavier (Friday)
Things pick up a bit this week for Memphis, when the Tigers head to Brooklyn for the Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off to face Virginia Tech and then potentially Xavier in the title game. Early returns for Penny Hardaway’s team have been impressive so far, however, especially the inside dominance of Jalen Duren. Through four games, Duren has two double-doubles and is averaging 15.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks. He has been highly efficient around the rim, missing just seven shots in four games and also getting to the free throw line at one of the highest rates in the country. A showdown against All-ACC big man Keve Aluma on Wednesday night will be a terrific early test for the freshman. Memphis’ defensive rebounding hasn’t been great thus far, so keeping Aluma off the glass will be key.
7. Baylor Bears (4-0)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Battle 4 Atlantis (Wednesday-Friday)
Despite the returns of Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler, and the additions of James Akinjo and Kendall Brown, one player who continued to come up in preseason conversations surrounding Scott Drew’s team was LJ Cryer. Cryer played in 20 games last season, racking up just nine minutes over the final 11 games of the season. It was simply a crowded perimeter group in Waco.
But with minutes and production now available, Cryer has stepped up — even though he has come off the bench in three of four games. The 6-1 Texas native has tallied at least 20 points in three of four games, shooting an absurd 53.8% from 3-point range and also dishing out 12 assists in four games. He entered college with the reputation of an undersized scoring combo guard — and he has been just that so far through four games this season.
8. Villanova Wildcats (3-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at La Salle (Sunday)
A 3-2 team being ranked in the top 10 looks odd, but the Wildcats’ losses came against UCLA on the road and on a neutral site against Purdue — two of the four best teams in the country. There were some concerning signs in both games, though, none more so than the fact that Villanova led by double digits late in both games, and ended up losing. And according to ESPN Stats & Information research, before this week Villanova had blown double-digit second-half leads in just two games over the past two seasons combined.
It’s really an eye-opening development for an uber-experienced team with one of the best point guards in the country in Gillespie. That said, I still think Villanova is one of the true national championship contenders this season, even if its late-game execution is a work in progress.
9. Texas Longhorns (3-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Cal Baptist (Wednesday)
Two more games, two more chances for us to get a look at what Chris Beard plans to do with his rotation. One of the most noteworthy changes from the opening week was Tre Mitchell moving into the starting lineup and Christian Bishop going to the bench. The change has worked: Both players saw their scoring and rebounding numbers increase (although not playing Gonzaga might have something to do with that). Mitchell has pro size and skills, but he’ll need to put it together against top competition consistently. Averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds last week should help. Meanwhile, Marcus Carr, one of the top scorers in high-major hoops last season at Minnesota, took just 11 shots in two games, averaging 4.5 points. The healthy return of Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu shouldn’t be too far away.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks (3-0)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. Kansas State (Monday), Cincinnati/Illinois (Tuesday), vs. Penn (Sunday)
I think Jaylin Williams might determine Arkansas’ ceiling this season. The 6-10 sophomore big man is one of the best passers in the country for someone his size. It was that passing ability that helped the Razorbacks knock Texas Tech out of the NCAA tournament last season. Through three games this season, Williams finding teammates for easy baskets continues to be an asset. He had five assists in each of the first two games against Mercer and Gardner-Webb, and then dished out seven assists against Northern Iowa. He also had 11 points against the Panthers, just the second double-figure scoring outing of his college career. Eric Musselman has a slew of perimeter pieces, and JD Notae, Chris Lykes or Davonte Davis will end up leading the team in scoring most nights — but Williams provides a different dimension that most opponents simply aren’t used to facing.
11. Kentucky Wildcats (3-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: vs. Albany (Monday), vs. North Florida (Friday)
After some first night overreactions regarding TyTy Washington Jr.‘s slow start against Duke, the five-star freshman guard has steadily improved with each game. He had just nine points on 14 shots against the Blue Devils, but John Calipari said after the game that he wanted him to play through his struggles because he would be better off moving forward. In the Wildcats’ three games since, Washington has averaged 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. His outside shooting and ability to take care of the ball are still coming along, but he’s clearly getting more confident with each game — culminating in Friday’s 20-point, 11-rebound, five-assist performance against Ohio. With Davidson transfer Kellan Grady still getting accustomed to life in the SEC, Washington’s abilities to score and get his own shot are much needed.
12. Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: ESPN Events Invitational (Thursday-Sunday)
Entering the season, it was unclear how much to expect from freshman 7-footer Charles Bediako right off the bat. Many freshman big men struggle early, needing time to get used to the increased speed and physicality at both ends of the floor. Bediako was perceived to be pretty raw in terms of his offensive skill set as well. But he has quietly made an immediate impact for Nate Oats, starting all four games at the center spot as the Crimson Tide’s main source of size down low. Averages of 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds aren’t going to jump off the page, but he’s also blocking more than two shots per game and shooting nearly 67% from the floor. As long as he can anchor Alabama’s defense and provide some balance for the perimeter trio of Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford and Keon Ellis, Bediako is doing his job.
13. Houston Cougars (3-0)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: Maui Invitational (Monday-Wednesday)
Houston’s opening-night overtime win over Hofstra could ultimately look like a wake-up call. The Cougars were very poor defensively that night, allowing more than 1.05 points per possession, something they did just four times all last season. It was uncharacteristic of a Kelvin Sampson-coached team. He clearly got that point across to his group, because here are the results of the two games since: Rice scored 46 points on 65 possessions in a 33-point Houston win, while Virginia scored 47 points on 59 possessions in a 20-point win for the Cougars. Houston hasn’t finished outside the top 25 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com since 2017, and a team with six juniors or seniors among its top eight players shouldn’t end that streak. Marcus Sasser and Kyler Edwards will continue to produce points on the offensive end, the Cougars will continue to dominate the offensive glass and that defense will take care of the rest.
BYU downs No. 12 Oregon behind a strong 25-point performance from Alex Barcello.
14. BYU Cougars (4-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Texas Southern (Wednesday), at Utah (Saturday)
We touched on BYU’s week earlier, but the Cougars’ 32-point win over Oregon in Portland is going to end up looking like one of the more eye-opening results of the first month of this season. The Ducks had just throttled an SMU team expected to compete for an NCAA tournament bid, while BYU struggled offensively in a home win over San Diego State. Then BYU turned around and ran Oregon out of its own state. Alex Barcello put people on notice once again, too. He had 25 points and four 3-pointers in that win, and has somehow missed just seven shots all season, despite taking 13 3-pointers and 27 shots total. He’s averaging 20.5 points and 3.0 assists, while shooting better than 70% from the field and 60% from 3-point range. There might not be a better shooter in the country.
15. Arizona Wildcats (5-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Sacramento State (Saturday)
Tommy Lloyd’s first season in Tucson started with NCAA tournament expectations, but that bar might have to be raised after the past week. Arizona went to Las Vegas and won the Roman Main Event, beating Wichita State and blowing out Michigan in the process. The Wildcats squandered a 16-point lead against the Shockers before winning in overtime, but there was no sweating down the stretch against Michigan. Arizona was fantastic against the Wolverines. Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis were a load in the paint, Bennedict Mathurin made shots from the perimeter and midrange and Dalen Terry was aggressive to the rim. Kerr Kriisa had seven assists and zero turnovers. But the most impressive aspect might have been Arizona’s defense. The Wildcats were swarming, looking to jump passes, hounding players on the catch and double-teaming Hunter Dickinson in the post.
16. Seton Hall Pirates (3-0)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: vs. Ohio State (Monday), vs. California/Florida (Wednesday), vs. Bethune-Cookman (Sunday)
Back in September, I polled coaches in each of the major conferences about potential surprise teams this season. The Big East was almost unanimous in its backing of Seton Hall in this regard. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock that Kevin Willard has the Pirates looking poised to return to the NCAA tournament after a down season in 2020-21. There’s an intriguing mix of experience (eight of the nine players who faced Michigan were juniors or seniors), defense (the Pirates rank first in effective field goal percentage defense at KenPom) and room to grow (Kadary Richmond hasn’t hit his stride, Bryce Aiken needs to stay healthy, etc.). Over the next three weeks, we’ll find out more about Seton Hall, as it faces Ohio State and potentially Florida — and then hosts Texas in early December.
In the waiting room
St. Bonaventure Bonnies: Even for a veteran team with plenty of experience like the Bonnies, it sometimes takes a few games to get going. Last Sunday, Mark Schmidt’s club needed a late 17-1 run to beat Canisius. Exactly one week later, the Bonnies were up 27 en route to a blowout victory over Marquette and the Charleston Classic title.
Florida Gators: We’ve spoken about the Florida defense a couple times already this season, but there was another notch in the Gators’ belt on Thursday, when they limited stud Milwaukee freshman Patrick Baldwin Jr. to 13 points and three rebounds on 6-for-15 shooting — after the potential lottery pick averaged 20.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in his first two games.
Tennessee Volunteers: It was a mixed week for the Volunteers, with a loss to Villanova and a bounce-back win over North Carolina, but they leave the week with some optimism. Rick Barnes might have stumbled onto a real player in freshman Zakai Zeigler, whom the Vols signed late in the summer. He played just 30 minutes total in the first three games but had 18 points and five assists in 28 minutes against the Tar Heels.