As teams start to gear up for conference play, their resumes become more and more defined. High-level non-conference wins usually translate into conference success, and this past weekend, we learned that Butler has as good of a chance as anyone to knock off Villanova in the Big East.
College basketball rankings: Full AP Top 25
The Wildcats are clear-cut favorites in their league, but it’s looking like they’ll have excellent teams jockeying with them for the Big East crown. No. 9 Creighton is unblemished, while Butler, which jumped five spots to No. 13 this week, now has wins over Indiana, Cincinnati, Arizona and Utah. At No. 17, Xavier is not far behind.
The Bulldogs have as balanced of a roster as anyone. After a brief cold streak in which he was removed from the starting lineup, Kelan Martin made his presence felt on Saturday against the Hoosiers, scoring 28 points while consistently unleashing fury from behind the 3-point line.
There are better No. 1 options in college hoops than Martin, but what makes Butler so tough is its depth and role allocation; the pieces make sense together, and it never feels like anyone is reaching beyond their means or playing out of position.
Kamar Baldwin is a premier on-ball defender and a nightmare to stop in transition, so that’s what he’s asked to do. The offense runs much more smoothly when the ball is in Tyler Lewis’ hands, so Chris Holtmann puts the ball in Lewis’ hands. Andrew Chrabascz can attack a closeout or beat teams from distance when he catches the ball in the pick-and-pop, so Holtmann uses him at the Bulldogs’ primary ball-screener. If all of that sounds simple, that’s because it is. But that’s where Butler excels. It’s cliché, but it works; every Bulldog does his job, and the sum winds up being greater than the parts. Other college basketball programs could stand to learn something from that formula.
The other huge result this week came on Saturday evening, when Kentucky knocked off North Carolina in a high-scoring thriller behind Malik Monk’s 47 points. The Wildcats didn’t budge in the AP Poll, while the Tar Heels fell one spot to No. 8.
Clearly, the voters didn’t overreact to UNC’s loss. The Tar Heels ran into a one-man buzzsaw on Saturday in Monk, but it’s pretty evident that they’re still one of the best teams in America. It’s worth noting that North Carolina is the only top-13 team that has two losses, but Roy Williams also put together an immensely challenging non-conference schedule for his group. With games against Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in the books, the Tar Heels are battle-tested.
As awesome as No. 9 Creighton has been, the Bluejays’ next best opponent after Wisconsin is probably North Carolina State. Nothing against the Wolfpack, but the Tar Heels have challenged themselves more than schools below them in the rankings despite having an inferior winning percentage.
Elsewhere in the poll, slowly but surely, Oregon is beginning to climb its way back up the rankings. The Ducks have won eight games in a row after a slow start and find themselves ranked at No. 20; their schedule was really tough at the start of the season, and they were without Dillon Brooks.
The slate has cooled off in December, and Brooks is shaking off his early-season rust. He has 20 or more points in three of his past five games, but he’s still not playing a whole lot; Brooks only reached the 30-minute threshold once in that span. He’s been very effective in limited burn.
Dylan Ennis is another reason why Oregon is playing much better than it did earlier this season. In the Ducks’ overtime win on Nov. 22 against Tennessee, Ennis went 1-for-9 from the field; since then, he’s served as an excellent complementary piece, averaging 12.9 points per game on 52 percent shooting. Star players snag headlines, but options three, four and five on any team are absolutely crucial. Earlier this season, Oregon’s star player was hurt, and its depth guys were underperforming.
Now, Brooks is healthier, and the supporting cast is thriving. Perhaps the Ducks can vault into the top 15 with a strong start to Pac-12 play.