With Houston and Kansas, the top-two teams in last week's poll, both falling at home (and No. 3 Purdue barely escaping) over the weekend, college basketball has officially ratcheted up a notch as we enter the final week of January.
The Cougars' loss was the fifth by the top team in the nation and the second by Houston alone. North Carolina also had a pair earlier in the season, and Purdue had its own slip-up earlier this month after four consecutive weeks at No. 1. The Boilermakers are back on top of , but, as you'll read, they'll have a lot of work to do to be there a week from now.
This week's slate has plenty of important games and features what should be one of the best Saturdays of the season. The Big 12/SEC Challenge will provide a brief respite from conference play for several of the nation's top teams, but it's no break from top-level competition. Couple that with several big games elsewhere, and it's a crucial week before we flip the calendar to February. Without further ado...
This week's top games
No. 9 Kansas at No. 17 Baylor (Monday, 9 p.m. on ESPN) -- With the NFL no longer playing on Saturdays or Mondays, college hoops takes center stage. That starts tonight with Kansas taking on Baylor. The Jayhawks have lost two straight and only had a trio of three-game losing streaks under Bill Self since 2003-04. Avoiding their fourth will be no easy task.
Baylor has been more up-and-down this season than in the past three campaigns, but Scott Drew's squad seems to be figuring things out during a four-game winning streak. The Bears have found more balance offensively, with three different leading scorers -- Adam Flagler, Keyonte George and LJ Cryer -- in their last three games and the Big 12's best offensive efficiency. Defense, though, has been the key: The Bears are down to 67.5 PPG allowed over their last four after allowing 87.3 in their first three conference games.
Kansas, meanwhile, needs someone to help Jalen Wilson, and that "someone" probably has to be Gradey Dick. The freshman star has gone 7 of 26 from the field and 3 of 16 from 3 in the two straight losses.
No. 5 Kansas State at No. 12 Iowa State (Tuesday, 9 p.m. on ESPNU) -- The Big 12-leading Wildcats can gain further separation from the pack with a win in Ames, while the Cyclones could move into a tie atop the standings if they can defend home court.
This one features contrasting styles. Iowa State owns the conference's best defensive rating in league play. Kansas State sports the league's No. 2 offensive rating. Iowa State's formula is pretty straightforward: Pound the glass, create a ton of turnovers (it has the No. 1 forced turnover rate in Division I) and protect the rim with the No. 2 block rate in Big 12 play. With Robert Jones and Osun Osunniyi holding down the middle and capable shooters Jaren Holmes, Caleb Grill and Gabe Kalscheur on the outside, the Cyclones have plenty of options for points. The issue is they don't have any super explosive options, while Kansas State has two: Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, who rank first and third, respectively, in the Big 12 in points off isolation possessions. Johnson in particular could present matchup issues for Iowa State's three- and four-guard lineups.
No. 13 Xavier at No. 19 UConn (Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. on FS1) -- Back on New Year's Eve, then-No. 22 Xavier handed then-No. 2 UConn . Since then, the Musketeers are 4-1 with a lone, confounding loss to DePaul while the Huskies are just 2-4.
In the first meeting, Xavier destroyed UConn's defense with 77 half-court points. For reference, only one other team has scored even 65 half-court points against the Huskies this season. The catalyst was the pick-and-roll; UConn allowed a season-high 12 points to rollers.
This is exactly what Xavier wants to do -- and is built to do. Of the 111 D-I teams that have run at least 75 pick-and-roll possessions through the roller, Xavier ranks second in points per possession and effective field goal percentage, only behind Creighton. Jack Nunge (first three clips) and Zach Freemantle (last clip) are matchup nightmares who can rim run or pop out to the 3-point line, and with the Musketeers' excellent floor spacing -- five players are shooting over 39% from deep -- they have room to roam.
Utah State at San Diego State (Wednesday, 11 p.m. on CBS Sports Network) -- Don't forget about the mid-major conferences. The Aztecs lead the Mountain West with a 6-1 conference record and Utah State is one of four teams one game back at 5-2. The Aggies haven't won at San Diego State since 1998, though.
Utah State is shooting 42.7% on 3-pointers, best in Division I, and Steven Ashworth leads the way at 48.6%. Ashworth has deep range that he uses both as a spot-up shooter and off the dribble, and he has a bevy of floaters and runners inside the arc. Reigning MWC Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah will have his work cut out for him when dealing with screens.
No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee (Saturday, 6 p.m. on ESPN) -- Like I mentioned earlier, college basketball is taking advantage of no NFL on Monday and Saturday, and the Saturday portion features . The crown jewel here is probably Texas at Tennessee. Both squads boast terrific depth, with nine or 10 players seeing regular action. There are subplots galore here, but the top one is Rick Barnes coaching against his former program, where he's the all-time wins leader.
Barnes' current bunch, though, looks the part of one thing he couldn't become in Austin: National champions. The Volunteers' defense lead Division I in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and, unsurprisingly, efficiency. Tennessee defends the rim well, forces turnovers at a high rate and attacks the offensive glass hard.
One area to watch will be turnovers. Tennessee is 243rd in turnovers per game, and Texas is very good at not only forcing turnovers but turning them into points. The Longhorns' 1.165 points per possession in transition is ninth among 160 Division I teams with at least 250 transition possessions. They don't just run hard. They run with a purpose, creating great spacing.
No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky (Saturday, 8 p.m. on ESPN) -- Is Kentucky finally figuring things out? The Wildcats backed up a win at Tennessee with wins over Georgia and Texas A&M, and they can match their longest winning streak this season if they beat Vanderbilt on Tuesday. The magic number is 10: Kentucky is 6-1 when it commits 10 or fewer turnover and 7-5 when it doesn't.
Kentucky leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage thanks to the magnificent Oscar Tshiebwe, who is averaging 16.6 PPG and 14.0 RPG, and Kansas is not particularly adept at preventing offensive rebounds. We'll see if the Jayhawks feature a little more size than normal. Either way, Jalen Wilson, KJ Adams and Kevin McCullar need to lead the charge on the glass.
Michigan State at No. 1 Purdue (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. on CBS) -- Just a week ago, the Spartans and Boilermakers treated us to , with Zach Edey's 32-point, 17-rebound masterpiece helping Purdue escape East Lansing with a victory.
The Spartans' lack of depth has loomed large this season; their 13.7 bench points per game is 325th in Division I and last in the Big Ten. It'll be up to Tyson Walker, who had 30 points in last week's meeting, to lead the charge once again.
Three NBA prospects to watch
- With injuries and illness around him, Kyle Filipowski has been instrumental in keeping Duke afloat, and the 7-footer will have two good opportunities to showcase his game this week. On Monday, he'll have a tricky matchup against Virginia Tech. The Hokies have lost seven straight but space the floor well, often deploying five capable, willing 3-point shooters. Filipowski's ability to defend in space will be tested. On Saturday, he faces Georgia Tech. Filipowski is 16th in the prospect rankings and .
- Arkansas has slipped recently, but Anthony Black played a huge role in ending the Razorbacks' four-game losing streak with 17 points and a career-high eight assists in a win over Ole Miss. He has scored in double digits in three straight games for the first time since November. He faces struggling LSU on Tuesday and then gets a great test against guard-laden Baylor -- and potential fellow lottery pick Keyonte George -- Saturday. Black is 10th in the prospect rankings.
- Jarace Walker's up-and-down freshman season continued last week with a pair of quiet games. He'll have two opportunities to get on track this week: first on Wednesday at UCF and then on Saturday against Cincinnati, against whom he had 21 points earlier this month. The Houston freshman is 14th in the prospect rankings.