STORRS, Conn. — Rare is the occasion that my power rankings opens with a dateline, but I was in the building Wednesday night for Xavier's 82-79 win over UConn, a top-20 Big East affair.
So this week's Hey Nineteen will start there.
What began as a Xavier bombardment ended in a gripping Musketeers escape inside a bumping Gampel Pavilion, which at a few points hit ear-splitting levels after Connecticut managed to cut a 17-point second-half deficit down to a one-possession game.
"That was the loudest building I've ever been in," Xavier associate head coach Adam Cohen told me outside the team locker room after the win.
Xavier led wire to wire, opening the game 9-0 in the first four minutes, then bloating its lead to 15 points by halftime — a margin that would prove pivotal after UConn made a couple of second-half pushes to bring some much-needed drama to the best matchup of the night in college basketball.
UConn's Jordan Hawkins had 28, the second-highest point total of his career. In fact, if not for Huskies coach Dan Hurley calling timeout with 20.2 seconds to go, Hawkins would've gotten at least 30. With Hawkins hunting for space and Xavier up 80-77, Hurley had seen enough of the broken play unfolding 15 feet in front of him. He called timeout as Hawkins rose up for a 2-point shot. The attempt went in but didn't count. The Huskies missed their next shot and Xavier held on.
It was UConn's sixth loss in eight games. The Huskies have gone from 14-0 and No. 2 in the polls to 16-6 and sixth in the Big East (5-6). For all of UConn's issues — Andre Jackson's inaccurate shooting; the lack of production from bigs Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan on Wednesday; worries over bench players' production thinning out; the weakening perimeter defense — Hurley wasn't defeated when I spoke with him after the game.
"We can get this thing back on track," Hurley told CBS Sports. "We can win the Big East Tournament."
I've spoken with Hurley after games before and seen him much more frustrated and in desperate want of answers. This wasn't that. He has confidence in this team, and despite UConn's monthlong swoon, I agree with Hurley. No matter where UConn is seeded in the league bracket at Madison Square Garden, it will be a threat to beat all other teams.
But Xavier will be favored to win that thing when all 11 teams convene in Manhattan in March. Sean Miller's 17-4 Musketeers are one of the biggest stories in the sport. Miller said Wednesday's win was his team's best of the season, and it's hard to argue (even with the home victory vs. Marquette). Xavier just swept its season series with UConn for the first time as Big East brethren.
"They have a very, very good team," Miller said of the Huskies. "Certainly they're hard to beat here. And the other part of it is, kind of how the game was. How many times do you see a team just never be able to recover in the second half? And we fixed ourselves about two or three times, where I'm not sure every team is able to do that with how many things were going well for them with the crowd."
Miller gave me an all-access look at Xavier in November at the PK85 event in Portland, Oregon. On Wednesday night, he told me his team has grown immensely from the one that went 1-2 in that event with a win over Florida and competitive losses to Duke and Gonzaga.
"Desmond Claude and Jerome Hunter have really become very good players for us, Big East players," Miller said. "Souley (Boum) he's taken a big step, in terms of his shooting and his performance."
Boum, who came via from UTEP, is one of the five best transfers in the country, averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 assists and 4.1 rebounds. He's helping guide a team that is elite offensively (fourth in points per possession) and one big happy collective at the moment. As I stood in the hallway in the bowels of Gampel Pavilion, Xavier players were sporadically pouring out of the locker room and downright beaming. Goofing on each other, gassing each other up. Life's grand when you're 17-4 and alone atop the Big East.
Miller's made this all work right away, and for a team that fell apart and missed last year's NCAAs. He looks like a man carrying less on his psyche as well; in late December, he was cleared by the Independent Resolution Panel of the IARP in its ruling on Arizona's NCAA case from when he was coach of the Wildcats.
"Life is different, it really is," Miller told CBS Sports. "It's different for my family. It's different for me. I truly can coach, you know, because you love it. Coach players, plan practice. It's not easy when a lot of other things are happening. So yeah, kind of grateful that five-year-and-two-month period of time is closed."
Five years, two months. A ridiculous amount of time for anyone to await judgment in college sports, but that's how long it took between the FBI case breaking in 2017 and Miller's involvement in the matter finally ending.
Heading into this season, expectations for Xavier were something like this: Probably third-, fourth- or fifth-best team in the conference. Miller could get suspended a few games, a bargain the school was more than willing to deal with. But above that, an NCAA Tournament showing of any kind would be cherished after the program's longest drought in decades.
Almost three months into the season, everything has shifted. Not only is this the best team in the Big East, it's growing into a rare year in which Xavier, one of the best programs to never make a Final Four, is molding itself into a national championship contender.
As a result of its best win of the season, the Muskies move up five spots in this week's Hey Nineteen. Let's get to the list.
Hey Nineteen Power Rankings
Reminder: My rankings are not solely about whom I think is "best." This is a weekly encapsulation of the 19 hottest, most successful and/or most *interesting* teams, combining team quality with win quality but also having no shame for recency bias and rewarding significant winning streaks. All records shown are vs. D-I competition.
|Record: 18-2 | Last week: 3. The Crimson Tide only beating Mississippi State by three points at Coleman Coliseum? That's what happened Wednesday night, thanks to a dismal 5-of-28 performance from the 3-point line from Bama. A win's a win, though, and with a nine-game winning streak, this is your new No. 1 in the Hey Nineteen. Mississippi State averages 64.0 possessions and won the tempo battle. On Saturday, an Oklahoma team that averages 63.8 possessions will host the Crimson Tide ... and Oklahoma is desperate. Probably one to keep an eye on.|
|Record: 19-1 | Last week 4. For as good as the Boilers have been, their fans know nothing is automatic when facing Michigan on the road, which is exactly what Matt Painter's team is facing on Thursday. The Boilermakers have one win at the Crisler Center since 2013. Personal note: I'll be taking my first trip to Mackey Arena this weekend for the Michigan State game (on CBS, 12:15 p.m. ET). Been on my bucket list for a long time, and you Purdue fans out there have a large reputation to live up to!|
|Record: 17-3 | Last week: 8. Poor, poor Georgia. The Bulldogs traveled to Knoxville on Wednesday night and went home with 41 points in their pocket. Tennessee put up 70 and held a team to 45 or below for the sixth time this season. The Big 12/SEC Challenge's final iteration is this weekend. The highlight matchup is Texas at Tennessee. These two met last season; Texas won 52-51 at its place. |
|Record: 17-3 | Last week: 1. The Bruins' 14-game winning streak was snapped over the weekend with a 58-52 loss at Arizona. Reasonable loss in an elite environment. Want to know why UCLA is going to be a Final Four candidate through March? In every game this season, the Bruins have committed fewer turnovers than they've forced. On average, they're committing 10.0 and inducing 17.1 per game.|
|Record: 15-3 | Last week: 11. The Wahoos still trail Clemson by one game in the ACC standings, but they are still comfortably rated by all predictive metrics as the ACC's best team. Next up is Boston College. UVA has the benefit of hosting this game, and it probably won't be competitive. The Cavs are 10-1 in their last 11 against BC with the wins coming by an average of 13.4 points. |
|Record: 15-4 | Last week: 9. The Cyclones are just menacing on defense. ISU is forcing teams to turn the ball over at the nation's highest rate, 28.0%. Nearly half of those turnovers, 13.4%, are non-steals, according to KenPom.com. T.J. Otzelberger's team will turn you into knots, then squeeze you out by keeping the game in the high 50s or low 60s. Final Four contender. |
|Record: 17-3 | Last week: 7. An encouraging sign about Kansas State has been its adaptability. The Wildcats played the 309th-ranked nonconference SOS, per the NET, but inside the tiger cage that is the Big 12, this team's managed a 6-2 start and is +22 in scoring differential. That's passable. Long-term, I'm a seller on K-State actually finishing atop the Big 12 standings. Florida, winner of five of its past six, comes to town on Saturday.|
|Record: 17-3 | Last week: 12. Longhorns freshman Dillon Mitchell hasn't been asked, and won't be expected, to be a top-three guy on this team. If UT is going to elevate its ceiling, though, Mitchell has to come out of his shell a bit more as we turn to February. He's averaging 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 21.3 minutes. Good teams become great teams when guys like Mitchell emerge has game-changers right alongside the usual suspects averaging double figures. |
|Record: 17-4 | Last week: 14. Since I loaded up with on-the-court stuff with Xavier atop this week's power rankings, here's something lighter for this capsule, something I thought about Wednesday night while at my press seat: I don't think another school has a better primary/alternate/second alternate uniform deployment than Xavier. Every X uni is the goods. Who would you put in that category? Gotta be three uniform options.|
|Record: 20-1 | Last week: 10. This capsule is specifically for my man, Gary Parrish, who does not have the hottest team in the country, these 21-1 Charleston Cougars, winners of 20 straight, ranked in his Top 25 And 1. In BartTorvik.com's Wins Above Bubble metric, which evaluates how a team has performed vs. its schedule, Charleston is 21st nationally — meaning its lack of Quad 1 wins is a smoke shield to this team's overall quality. Rank this team, GP! |
|Record: 17-1 | Last week: 13. The Owls were the featured item in this week's Court Report, so when you're done with the power rankings, head over there and give that a look. One item that didn't make the story: Dusty May told me he was smitten with the area years before taking the job, thanks to having boys who played grassroots basketball around the state. "It was one of those feelings where you pull into a place and say, 'Wow, I could see myself here and this feels right,'" May said.|
|Record: 16-5 | Last week: 15. The Golden Eagles are keeping chase with Xavier and Providence atop the Big East, in search of something that's eluded the program for years: a conference title. Marquette last finished atop the Big East standings in 2013, and it hasn't won a conference tournament championship since 1997 when it was in C-USA. That's its only postseason league title. Next two (at DePaul, home vs. Villanova) are quite winnable. |
|Record: 17-4 | Last week: 16. The Gaels violated Pepperdine on the road (73-44) last Thursday, then tore through Santa Clara at home (77-58), which finally led to this team cracking this week's AP Top 25 at No. 22. It's SMC's first appearance in the polls this season. It nine-game winning streak is its longest since the 2017-18 season. Next up is a road trip to BYU on Saturday. |
|Record: 17-3 | Last week: 17. Credit to Jay Bilas for bringing this up during Arizona's win over UCLA last weekend. If you want the emblem of why Zona is such a good up-tempo team and tough defensive assignment, check this out: 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis has scored 91 points in transition and is averaging 1.38 points per possession in those scenarios, making him the most efficient transition player in the conference. At 6-11. Stunning.|
|Record: 19-2 | Last week: 2. One of my favorite stats was publicized/coined recently by the folks over at CBBAnalytics. They call it "Hakeem Percentage." And what is that, you ask? It's a team's total percentage of defensive possessions with a block or steal. Fittingly, Houston leads the country with a 32.2% rate per 100 possessions. The home loss to Temple was vexing (thus the big drop this week), but the Coogs saved face by beating UCF by 11 on the road Wednesday.|
|Record: 16-4 | Last week: 6. The Zags' home loss to LMU was historic; the Lions hadn't won at The Kennel since the old Kennel, back in 1991. How did the Bulldogs respond? Drew Timme had a career-best 38 points on the road in a 99-90 win over Pacific. Timme scored 18 straight (and was 17-of-23 from the floor, hello), reinforcing his foothold on the No. 2 position in the National Player of the Year race behind Zach Edey. Gonzaga also avoided back-to-back losses, which it hasn't accrued since December 2018.|
|Record: 16-4 | Last week: NR. Here is your reason to believe in this team: After losing three of four games (two on the road, and by an average of 5.0 points), TCU won for the first time ever at Allen Fieldhouse and for the first time ever over a team ranked 14th or better. After that? TCU refused to play with its food, beating Oklahoma 79-52 on Tuesday — and without starting C Eddie Lampkin, who has an ankle injury.|
|Record: 17-4 | Last week: NR. The Tigers are atop the ACC and have an impressive record ... but still are not convincing predictive metrics; they're sub-50 in every mainstream computer algorithm. The schedule is going to get tougher soon, so the next two need to be wins if this team is going to for sure be in the NCAA Tournament picture. Go beat lowly Florida State on the road, then beat bad Boston College at its gym as well.|
|Record: 15-5 | Last week: NR. Winners of five straight. I caught up with Scott Drew this week, and he noted that one reason for Baylor's January resurgence is how well L.J. Cryer, Adam Flagler and Keyonte George blend together. " They defer to each other when someone is getting going, which is great," Drew said. George is a top-five freshman this season, and Drew told me, "He's really coachable and he's a pleaser, meaning he wants his teammates to like him and he likes his teammates." That trio could wind up being the best backcourt in the country. |