Look at No. 1, and all seems right in the world of college basketball.
Kentucky, seemingly a Final Four contender every year, sits atop the polls. Surrounding Big Blue, more blue bloods: Duke. North Carolina. Wisconsin. Kansas. Louisville.
But elsewhere, the weekly rankings are changing. Programs such as Virginia, Utah and Notre Dame are rising. Usual suspects are absent. As much as any year in recent memory, this season’s Top 25 boasts fewer perennial powers and more newcomers, hinting that balance in college basketball is growing.
“I think it’s just the landscape,” said Mark Turgeon, the coach at No. 16 Maryland — another school that has flip-flopped the recent power structure. “There is so much parity, and it’s so hard to be good every year. … And that’s what’s amazing about what Kentucky does, and the Dukes of the world, the North Carolinas, the Kansases.”
Some schools might always wield the scepter, having rooted their programs in long-standing tradition, sparkling facilities and extensive donor bases. But others — established but without the same year-in and year-out success — have meandered their way up the ladder as well.
Virginia, undefeated and at No. 2, is building on last year’s Sweet 16 appearance. No. 8 Notre Dame, coming off a victory over Duke on Wednesday, has the best offense in the nation, one fueled by seven players shooting 51 percent from the field or better. Utah hasn’t made the NCAA tournament this decade, but the Utes, led by precise point guard Delon Wright, are at No. 11 and were one of Division I’s hottest squads before losing at UCLA on Thursday.
No. 17 West Virginia has struggled in the years following the 2010 Final Four, but Bob Huggins appears to have the Mountaineers back among the elite this year. No. 18 Northern Iowa has outplayed its neighbors to the south, the Iowa Hawkeyes. Little Dayton fell out of the Top 25 on Monday but has proved that last year’s Elite Eight was no fluke.
Why the changes? Coaches have different theories. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — who has watched his own squad fall from glory to a degree this season — points to well-built rosters working against coaches in the recruiting process.
“Kids want to go where they can star and start immediately,” Izzo said, “and they aren’t willing to pay any dues.”
He and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan also point to schedules and conference play becoming more difficult among power leagues as they try to put more matchups on national television.
“In case anybody hasn’t let you know, winning is hard,” Ryan said. “And winning consistently is really hard.”
Turgeon noted that veteran rosters could aid borderline teams. Many of this year’s outliers, though, rely heavily on at least one or two underclassmen, including the Terrapins, who are led by freshman point guard Melo Trimble.
What seems to matter more is stability. In this week’s AP poll, only one program — No. 25 Butler, under first-year coach Chris Holtmann — has a coach with less than four years of tenure at his school, while 15 programs have had a coach for seven years or longer.
“You don’t find in that list people who have changed a whole lot of what they’ve been doing — they might have been on the fringe of the Top 25,” Ryan said. “So you might want to look more at the top 50, I think. Because 26 through 50, there are some really good programs in there and have been for a long time.”
Can the flirtation continue?
Purdue (13-8, 5-3) has sneakily put together a decent start in the Big Ten, and it is coming off big home victories over Iowa and Indiana. Can the Boilermakers continue the charge on the road at limping Northwestern (5 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU)? Without many opportunities for signature victories remaining, Matt Painter’s bunch needs to take care of business if it wants to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
Banged up Iowa: A week ago, the Hawkeyes lost 6-9 senior Aaron White to a neck injury in a 67-63 loss to Purdue, and the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer is questionable for Saturday’s home game against Big Ten leader Wisconsin (11 a.m., ESPN).
Iowa center Gabe Olaseni also tweaked an ankle in practice this week. No longer in the Top 25, the Hawkeyes are eager for a victory after a pair of road losses to the Badgers and Boilermakers.
In-state battle: Sunday’s Michigan-Michigan State bout (noon, Ch. 4) isn’t quite as exciting now as it looked at the beginning of the season. The Wolverines, even without Caris LaVert, are looking better than they did during their bizarre four-game nonconference losing streak, although they lack a meaningful conference victory. The Spartans, meanwhile, are still trying to prove they have grown from a sporadic start.
'Big Three' watch
A weekly update on Minnesotans Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Duke), Reid Travis (DeLaSalle, Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (Cooper, UNLV):
Jones has scored a total of 58 points in Duke’s past three games, his first three-game stretch in which he has scored in double digits each night. No. 4 Duke visits No. 2 Virginia on Saturday night.
Vaughn scored 31 points and led the Rebels in rebounds (nine), steals (three) and blocks (two) in Saturday’s overtime victory over Utah State.
Travis returns soon from an upper leg stress fracture.
Big Ten power poll
Wisconsin (18-2, 6-1): There was that hiccup at Rutgers, but it’s once again looking like the Badgers and the rest.
Ohio State (17-5, 6-3): It’s now clicking for freshman Jae’Sean Tate, and suddenly the Buckeyes are blowing out good teams.
Maryland (18-4, 6-3): The Terrapins don’t have any bad losses, but they haven’t beaten any ranked teams, either.
Purdue (13-8, 5-3): Bryson Scott is back from Matt Painter’s doghouse, and that can only help the surging Boilermakers.
Iowa (13-7, 4-3): The Hawkeyes face Wisconsin for the second time in three games.
Indiana (15-6, 5-3): Bad week for the Hoosiers, who lost at Ohio State and Purdue after sitting at No. 1 here a week ago.
Michigan State (13-7, 4-3): The Spartans, last in the Big Ten in free-throw shooting, are still searching for consistency.
Michigan (13-8, 6-3): Can the Wolverines win a big game without Caris LeVert? They have five games against the top six teams in their last nine.
Nebraska (12-8, 4-4): The Cornhuskers are still looking for their first league road win.
Illinois (13-8, 3-5): They still have not won two in a row in conference play.
Penn State (14-7, 2-6): The Nittany Lions hope a two-game winning streak is the start of the payoff from their relentless style.
Gophers (13-9, 2-7): They are on pace for half as many Big Ten victories as a year ago, when they went 8-10.
Northwestern (10-10, 1-6): The Wildcats’ past three games have been lost by one or two points.
Rutgers (10-12, 2-7): That Wisconsin victory looks like more and more like a fluke. The Scarlet Knights don’t seem close.