NCAA Basketball Rankings: B/R Experts' Week 17 Poll

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 24, 2014

NCAA Basketball Rankings: B/R Experts' Week 17 Poll

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    It's amazing how much one whistle can change the perception of a team.

    When Jim Boeheim was asked how his players would handle two straight losses on Saturday after the loss at Duke, he joked that they might as well just quit playing.

    It's hard not to overreact to the result of such a marquee game, but let's remember that had Tony Greene called a block instead of a charge, Boeheim would not be a YouTube sensation right now and his team would still only have one loss.

    A year ago, Syracuse lost seven of its final 12 regular-season games and ended up in the Final Four.

    Our power rankings are supposed to be a snapshot of how we perceive the teams right now. I still had the Orange at No. 3 this week. My colleagues Jason King and Kerry Miller had them lower, and I can understand why, especially after that Boston College loss.

    But what happened last season with Syracuse is a reminder of how quickly a season can turn around in college basketball. Just look at how North Carolina—winner of nine straight—is playing right now after losing to Belmont, UAB and Wake Forest earlier in the season.

    If there were ever a year where multiple teams that have looked awful for a stretch ended up in the Final Four, this would be it.

25-21: Texas-Ohio State

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    25. Texas (20-7, 9-5 Big 12): Texas had a rough week, with road losses at Iowa State and Kansas. The Longhorns' 31-point loss at Kansas was embarrassing, but few teams in the country (if any) could have gone on that road swing and come away with even one win.

    24. Connecticut (21-6, 9-5 American): For the Huskies to have postseason success, they're going to need to get some production outside of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The backcourt duo went for 30 points in Sunday's loss at Southern Methodist, while the other three starters combined for just 10 points.

    23. Southern Methodist (22-6, 11-4 American): Hey, college basketball coaches, speak up if you'd like to go up against this Larry Brown guy in the postseason. (Crickets.) The Mustangs' win at UConn on Sunday was another banner victory for the program and the second win this month over a ranked opponent.

    22. Iowa State (21-5, 9-5 Big 12): The Cyclones have won six of seven—no small feat in the Big 12—and are now tied for second in the conference standings with Texas and Oklahoma. They have the best shot at finishing runner-up to Kansas with the easiest schedule of the three left.

    21. Ohio State (22-6, 9-6 Big Ten): The Buckeyes are 6-1 since Sam Thompson replaced Shannon Scott in the starting lineup. It's not always visually pleasing, but you can never argue with Thad Matta's results.

20-16: New Mexico-San Diego State

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    20. New Mexico (21-5, 12-2 MWC): New Mexico upset San Diego State on Saturday and moved into a tie for first place in the Mountain West with the Aztecs. Aussie big man Cameron Bairstow, who scored 26 points in the win, has emerged as one of the best big men in the country.

    19. Iowa (19-7, 8-5 Big Ten): I want to believe in the Hawkeyes. I've been trying to convince myself that they're a solid Final Four sleeper pick, but it's hard to keep the faith when they keep coming up empty in big games they should win. They've now lost three of their last four home games. 

    18. Michigan State (22-6, 11-4 Big Ten): The last time Michigan State won back-to-back games was in January. But whenever you talk about the Spartans, you must offer up this caveat: They looked like the best team in the country when they were healthy, and as long as a completely healthy squad is a hope down the road, don't give up on Sparty.

    17. Villanova (24-3, 12-2 Big East): The Wildcats are great—as long as they're not playing Creighton. They gutted out a win on Saturday against St. John's, which is actually a quality win considering Steve Lavin finally has his team playing to its potential.

    16. San Diego State (23-3, 12-2 Mountain West): The Aztecs, losers of two of the last four, have had a run similar to Syracuse's. And just like the Orange, they've struggled to score lately and have been far less dominant. That doesn't mean, however, that you should discount what they accomplished over the first three months of the season.

15-11: Michigan-Saint Louis

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    15. Michigan (19-7, 11-3 Big Ten): If Michigan pulls off the Big Ten title—currently a half-game up on Michigan State—John Beilein should be in serious consideration for Coach of the Year. No one gave the Wolverines a chance after Mitch McGary got hurt, and even with McGary, few would have picked Beilein's team to win the conference.

    14. Kentucky (21-6, 11-3 SEC): Kentucky needed a last-second bucket from Julius Randle to beat LSU in overtime at home on Saturday. Maybe life shouldn't be that hard for the Wildcats in Rupp, but for a team that seems to always be under so much pressure, it was good to see they stayed composed in that moment.

    13. Wisconsin (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten): The Badgers have won five straight and are looking a lot like the early-season version of themselves that scored with ease. Big man Frank Kaminsky is averaging 21 points over his last three games.

    12. Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2 American): Sean Kilpatrick is carrying the offense, but he appears plenty capable. He scored 28 points in Cincy's 58-57 loss on Saturday to Louisville. Considering how hard it is to score against the Bearcats, they can get by with just one great offensive weapon.

    11. Saint Louis (25-2, 12-0 A-10): Saint Louis travels to VCU on Saturday and UMass on its last Sunday of the regular season, March 9. The Billikens have a chance to build their case for a high seed in the NCAA tourney with those two games.

10. North Carolina

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    Record: 20-7, 10-4 in ACC

    Last Thursday after UNC's win over Duke, I wrote this:

    These aren't Roy Williams' Tar Heels. Not the ones that play beautiful basketball, run and gun and score before you know what hit you.

    These guys just hit you.

    Whoops. It's like the Tar Heels took the notion that they didn't play beautiful Roy Williams basketball as a challenge. And these dudes have been up to any challenge lately.

    Against Wake Forest on Saturday, they were a classic Williams-coached team, running and gunning their way to a 105-72 win.

    Don't expect the Heels to win like that all the time. The identity of this team is still a group that will outmuscle, out-athlete and outhustle just about any team in the country, not a group that will depend on simply outgunning every opponent.

    But it had to be nice for Williams to see his team is at least capable of running offense that's easy on the eyes.

9. Virginia

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    Record: 23-5, 14-1 in ACC

    Tony Bennett has his team in position to win the ACC, and with a win over Syracuse next Saturday, Virginia could have a two-game lead on the field.

    Bennett's pack-line defense has been the key during the Cavaliers' 11-game winning streak and is the reason they are in control in the ACC.

    No defense in the conference is even close to playing at the level of Bennett's, as evidenced by the gap in defensive efficiencies in conference play between Virginia and the field, per (subscription required).

    1. Virginia: 90.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions)
    2. Syracuse: 98.7
    3. North Carolina: 98.7
    4. Pittsburgh: 99.8
    5. Clemson: 101.7

8. Syracuse

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    Record: 25-2, 12-2 in ACC

    There's really no way to positively spin a loss at home to Boston College, but Syracuse can't feel too badly about its loss on Saturday at Duke. If C.J. Fair's charge is called a block, the Orange very well could have escaped Cameron with a win.

    Because of how close the Orange were at Duke, back-to-back losses is no reason to create panic in 'Cuse nation. But what Syracuse should be worried about is the team's inability to make outside shots over the last three games. In those three games, which included a near loss to N.C. State, Syracuse has made just six of 33 threes.

    For Syracuse to get back to playing at an elite level, Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney need to start hitting shots again, particularly Cooney. Cooney did not appear to be shooting with much confidence at Duke, where he missed all three of his three-point attempts.

7. Louisville

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    Record: 23-4, 12-2 in AAC

    Louisville is starting to look like the team that had lofty preseason expectations, and the offense is even performing better than last year's championship team thanks to a more giving, wiser Russ Smith.

    Smith played hero with the game-winner on Saturday at Cincinnati, but not before he gave it up seconds before to a teammate. He also made a great pass down the stretch to set up a Montrezl Harrell dunk. 

    The Cards are a better shooting team this year, which has allowed them to play more comfortably in the half court. Last season, the champs scored 0.876 points per possession in the half court, and this year, they're scoring at a 0.945 clip, according to Synergy Sports Technology's numbers (subscription required).

    This production is coming against a weaker schedule than last season and this year's defense is not at the same level, but the Cards might not be as far behind the championship team as perceived.

6. Creighton

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    Record: 23-4, 13-2 in Big East

    Part of what makes Doug McDermott such a great scorer is that his teammates are great passers.

    McDermott takes and makes some difficult shots, but often he's set up beautifully. No one does a better job of setting him up than senior wing Grant Gibbs.

    It's no coincidence that since Gibbs returned from a knee injury on Feb. 7, McDermott has somehow taken his game to another level. Mr. McBuckets is averaging 29.3 points in those six games, and his worst outing was 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a loss at St. John's.

    At some point, McDermott and the Bluejays have to slow down from this historic pace they're on, right? Based on how they pass the ball, I wouldn't bet on it.

5. Arizona

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    Record: 25-2, 12-2 in Pac-12

    Arizona had been struggling to score the ball since Brandon Ashley was lost for the season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson replaced Ashley in the starting lineup, and Hollis-Jefferson is a valuable asset for the Wildcats, but he's not a good outside shooter.

    That left Sean Miller with a lineup that really only had one outside threat, Nick Johnson, and Johnson is not the most consistent shooter. Not only could Ashley make shots, but just the threat of using him as a ball-screener also created openings and space for Arizona's guards.

    Miller had to do something to make it easier to run offense, and what he's done—inserting Gabe York into the lineup—has worked well so far. York, the team's best shooter, had 15 points in his first start against Utah. He scored only four points on Saturday at Colorado, but the offense played its best game in weeks and just his presence on the floor for 30 minutes made a difference.

4. Duke

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    Record: 22-6, 11-4 in ACC

    This college basketball season has been great, but there is only one thing it needs to reach another level: more Marshall Plumlee.

    Not only does Plumlee give Duke what it's missing (a rim protector), but he is also like the walk-on who finally gets a chance to play and will do anything his coaches tell him to stay on the court. He's a taller, slightly goofier Rudy. And his effort is contagious.

    Mike Krzyzewski said after the loss to North Carolina that his team was missing "it" down the stretch. If you could define "it," it would probably be effort, and the effort was definitely not lacking against Syracuse.

    Part of that was Plumlee playing a season-high 19 minutes. Coach K said he would have played more had he not experienced cramps. The big fella is awkward and the Blue Devils lose some offensive firepower when he's on the court, but they have enough shooters and scorers that they can afford to play one non-scorer.

    So, Coach K, it's time to fully unleash college basketball's Rudy on 'roids.

3. Kansas

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    Record: 21-6, 12-2 in Big 12

    My colleague Jason King was at KU's impressive 85-54 win over Texas on Saturday and wrote that he'd take the Jayhawks' A-game versus anyone else's. 

    I agree with Jason. I'm skeptical, however, of KU's defense because statistically it's the worst of Bill Self's 11 seasons at Kansas. But the Jayhawks have a chance to get hot and win the title, mainly because of all the weapons Self has at his disposal on offense. 

    That offense has the highest adjusted efficiency, per, of any KU team since the 2008 title team. 

    And look again at what the Jayhawks did to the Longhorns. Their 1.33 points per possession were the most scored against UT's defense since the 2007-08 season. The Horns also had their worst offensive output of the year. So even though the Jayhawks have been inconsistent, mainly on D, they still have shown the potential to play at an elite level on both ends.

2. Wichita State

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    Record: 29-0, 16-0 in Missouri Valley

    Ending the regular season undefeated is almost a given now for Wichita State. The Shockers finish at Bradley and then at home against Missouri State. The coaches of those two programs (Geno Ford and Paul Lusk) are a combined 0-11 against Wichita State since they arrived at their respective schools.

    What the Shockers are experiencing right now is similar to what Gonzaga went through a year ago. For some reason, people want to be skeptical of a team that climbs the rankings with a weak schedule. I get that somewhat, but should we just discount the Final Four run last year? And the fact that this team is better than the one that went to the Final Four?

    A lot of teams play crummy schedules each year. If going undefeated were so easy for schools like Wichita State, it would happen every year.

    And before you just trash on the schedule, it's worth noting the Shockers won at Saint Louis, the 11th-ranked team in our rankings this week. They're 3-0 against major-conference schools. And they've made it unscathed through what has historically been one of the better mid-major conferences. The league is down this year, but Wichita State is the national championship for every one of those schools.

    We should be celebrating the Shockers—not dogging on their accomplishment.

1. Florida

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    Record: 25-2, 14-0 in SEC

    A year ago, Florida dominated the SEC but could not win close games. The Gators won every one of their games by double digits and were 0-6 overall and 0-4 in the SEC in games decided by single digits.

    This season, the Gators have not been quite as dominant in SEC play—as far as just smashing opponents—but they're undefeated. They have won nine conference games by 10 points or less, and in those nine games, they've outscored their opponents 109-86 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. 

    That's why I trust the Gators more than any team in the country. They're not the most talented, but they've matured from a team that couldn't finish to one that makes winning plays down the stretch. In a season without a dominant team, that's worthy of garnering the tag as the favorite to win the title. 

    C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBRUnless otherwise noted, all quotes and paraphrased statements obtained firsthand.