College basketball rankings: Alabama, UCLA, Iowa State among 5 newcomers

I’m in Honolulu this week for the greatest November MTE of all time: the Maui Invitational. The field includes four of the top five teams in this poll. Whoever wins the tournament is No. 1 here next week. I don’t care what else happens around the country. Arizona could beat Michigan State by 50 on Thanksgiving, and I’m not budging off that promise. This could be a preview of the Final Four. It might better in terms of the quality of teams we’ll get at the Final Four because crazy stuff happens in the NCAA Tournament and the best teams don’t always end up playing on the final weekend.

Whatever you have to do, clear your Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and enjoy.

Reminder: The setup of this season’s Top 25 is that I’ll give nuggets on an unspecified number of teams each week. So if a team appears in the table but not the text below, that’s why. 

CJ Moore’s Top 25 for Monday, Nov. 20

In the first month over the last four seasons, only one team (Villanova in 2021) has scored over a point per possession against Tennessee’s defense. Last season on their way to winning the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Volunteers held their three opponents to 0.797 points per possession and kept Kansas to 50 points in 67 possessions in the championship. Tennessee potentially has to beat two No. 1 seeds from last year — Purdue in the semis and Kansas in the finals — to win Maui. Marquette, a No. 2 seed last year and the team I believe has the best offense in the country, also potentially looms in the finals. You would think with those offenses someone is going to ruin this first-month stat, but if it somehow continues, then Tennessee is likely winning this tournament.

2. Kansas

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored a combined two points in KU’s first two games then went for 23 on Tuesday against Kentucky. Has another player ever scored two points in the first two games of a season and then dropped 20-plus in the third game? I’m asking, because I haven’t figured out a way to search this. If someone has an answer, leave it in the comments and I’ll give you a shoutout in the next Top 25.

3. Marquette

If you enjoy creativity on the basketball floor, then tune into Marquette. Chances are Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones or Oso Ighodaro are going to do something that makes you go, “Did he really just try that?” Jones is the king of this, but Ighodaro wins the award this week. Watch how he starts this fast break:

Yes, that was a tap pass between his legs. Followed by some kind of scoop hook by Stevie Mitchell. Never change, Marquette.

4. Arizona

One of my favorite things about college basketball is when a guy waits his turn and then crushes. Kylan Boswell came off the bench last year and backed up Kerr Kriisa. Kriisa transferred to West Virginia, opening up an opportunity. So far Boswell is averaging 13.5 points on a ridiculous 85.1 effective field-goal percentage. He’s made 15-of-22 3s. Some guys cannot make that many in an empty gym with no defense. When your point guard shoots like that, that’s how you average 99.6 points per game.

5. Purdue

Braden Smith is generating 16 points per game out of ball-screen offense, up from 10.9 points per game last year. What makes a Smith-Zach Edey pick-and-roll devastating to guard is that most teams are playing in drop coverage, scared of giving Edey an advantage. That’s opening up shots for Smith, and he’s making teams pay. So far he’s shooting 7-of-13 against drop coverage.

If he makes those shots, defenses will have to adjust by using the big up higher in coverage and then using help defenders to tag Edey. That’ll create open 3s for Purdue. There’s not a great way to defend it. Defenses are taking the calculated gamble that Smith will either turn those shots down or miss them. That he’s making those shots is a great early sign for the Boilers.

UConn’s 20-point win over Indiana on Sunday was its 21st straight against nonconference opponents. Here’s what’s even more eye-popping about the streak, especially considering six of those wins came in the NCAA Tournament: The Huskies have won every one of those games by double digits!

10. Kentucky

One perk of John Calipari’s new souped-up, let-the-3s-fly offense is that a very young team is not doing what young teams usually do — turn the ball over. The Wildcats have a 10.6 turnover rate, which is seventh-best in the country. They had only eight turnovers in the loss to Kansas. As long as that ball control lasts, there’s no reason Calipari should abandon this fun-and-gun style this season.

14. North Carolina

One promising development for North Carolina: Armando Bacot is shooting 85 percent from the line after hovering in the mid-60s his first four seasons. I studied Bacot’s free-throw stroke to see if he’s made any tweaks. It appears he’s not bringing the ball as close to his forehead, and his release point is not as far back. The picture on the left is this season, right is last season.

Screen Shot 2023 11 19 at 6.54.23 PM

Bacot has always lived at the free-throw line. If he keeps this up, those potential extra couple of points a game could be the difference in some close games.

16. Miami

I want to thank Wooga Poplar. He was on my preseason breakout list, and he’s averaging a team-best 18.8 points per game so far while going 19-of-32 from 3. Miami’s bench is a concern, but that starting five is one of the best in the country. Kind of like last season. That turned out all right for the Hurricanes.

This is the one team I’m giving a pass this week for losing to a mid-major. The Trojans were without two of their three best players — Boogie Ellis and Kobe Johnson — and they lean so much on their three perimeter guys that I’m not surprised they lost at home to UC Irvine. Plus, the Anteaters are always well-coached and one of the best mid-majors out West. That’s not a bad loss considering the circumstances. Ellis and Johnson were back on Sunday and combined for 42 points in an 81-70 win over Brown.

Virginia ranks dead last at KenPom in pace. That’s a badge of honor in Charlottesville. Tony Bennett is playing exactly how he wants to play.

The competition has been lousy, but the track record in the T.J. Otzelberger era suggests what Iowa State is doing defensively is a sign of what’s to come this season. Iowa State is turning opponents over on Division I-best 30 percent of possessions and blocking 16.7 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts. That means that on over one-third of its defensive possessions, Iowa State’s opponents aren’t even getting off a shot at the basket. The Cyclones’ 2-point defense (33.3 percent) is also the best in the country, and they rank ninth in defensive rebounding rate. Otzelberger had a top-10 defense the last two years, and it’s looking like that streak should continue.

Turkish forward Berke Buyuktuncel will make his college debut Monday against Marquette. Mick Cronin said on Sunday that Buyuktuncel is his best pro prospect. It’ll be interesting to see how his presence influences UCLA’s style of play, because so far the Bruins are defying modern basketball by attempting only 17.9 percent of their shots from 3. Cronin leaning heavily into a foreign pipeline — UCLA has seven international players — is also one of the more interesting storylines to monitor.

Leading returning scorer Tolu Smith is out until January with a foot injury, so we’ll have to wait to see the best version of this team. But the 5-0 Bulldogs already have three wins against high-majors. Considering that Chris Jans led this team to the NCAA Tournament last year and that most teams play bad schedules early, Mississippi State deserves to be ranked.

Penny Hardway’s starting five has three fifth-year seniors and two fourth-year seniors. Those five players have played at 16 different schools. Welcome to the wacky era of college basketball.

Dropped out: Villanova, Florida Atlantic, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Arkansas

Keeping an eye on: James Madison, Florida, Texas, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado, Princeton, Clemson, Liberty

(Photo of Purdue’s Braden Smith: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

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