ESPN Power Rankings: "Michigan State finding its groove."

ESPN Power Rankings: "Michigan State finding its groove."

Basketball

ESPN Power Rankings: "Michigan State finding its groove."

Michigan State – now at 13-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten – isn’t just surging to those of us who are paying close attention. The polls are starting to see the Spartans’ level of play – and ESPN’s “Power Rankings” are catching up with what’s happening in East Lansing.

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Don’t look now but the important people are catching on to what’s brewing with Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

There are plenty of Spartans out there who are still mad at ESPN for the way the monster covered various elements of the tragic story that took over the Michigan State community a year ago – but those same people will probably eagerly point out to anyone within shouting distance that ESPN is highlighting the Spartans in the monster’s current Power Rankings.

A lot of people out there think that ESPN is a really big computer that is plugged into a powerful outlet in a wall that’s located in a faraway land called Bristol, Connecticut.

ESPN is actually comprised of actual people who do lots of things that allow all of the people who yell and scream about how much they hate ESPN to enjoy lots of sports on TV, on computers, on phones, and, soon, via chips that will be inserted into people’s fingernails for a mere $199 a month.

Jeff Borzello is a human who writes lots of great stuff for ESPN.

Just a bit ago, ESPN’s large computer management machine published Borzello’s latest offering that culminates with his weekly college basketball “Power Rankings.”

Borzello appears to be paying attention to what Michigan State has been up to over the last few weeks.

Here’s a teaser – his first line that may border on plagiarism straight from SpartansWire (we’re kidding, Jeff – but thanks for reading…) –

“Don’t look now, but Michigan State is quietly inching its way toward the top-five conversation — and potentially the national title contender discussion.”

Perusing through Borzello’s Power Rankings is fun, enlightening, and even eyebrow-raising.

There sure are areas of his ranking breakdown that we could quibble with – but we’re going to just take this in, let it sit with us for a bit, and see if Borzello continues to pay attention as the Spartans continue to work their way through the Big Ten.

Here you go, folks – see if you think he’s plagiarized from SpartansWire for yourself……

Power Rankings: Michigan State finding its groove

Don’t look now, but Michigan State is quietly inching its way toward the top-five conversation — and potentially the national title contender discussion.

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of buzz for most of the first month of the season. They entered the campaign as a borderline top-10 team after losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the NBA, and then got handled by Kansas for 37 minutes in the season opener before making the final margin only five. Three weeks later, they went to Louisville and lost to the Cardinals in overtime.

Since then, however, Tom Izzo’s team has done what Tom Izzo teams generally do. They have slowly gotten better and better and seem to be hitting their stride entering the final two months of the regular season. The Spartans won at Ohio State on Saturday, to go with wins over Iowa, Florida and Texas. There might not be a true elite-level win in that group, but Michigan State’s performances have been impressive.

The Spartans have one of the most efficient offenses in the country, and much of that can be credited to the All-American-caliber play of point guard Cassius Winston. They are playing at a much faster pace than in recent years, they’re sharing the ball as well as anyone in the country — and they’re taking care of the ball. Nick Ward has also figured out to how to stay on the floor for more than 20 minutes a game this season, and his efficiency and ability to draw fouls has remained at a high level. Throw in junior Joshua Langford, who has missed the past two games with a foot injury, and Izzo’s core trio is consistent and balanced.

Unlike the past couple of years, Izzo also has a ton of experience on the roster. Along with the aforementioned trio of juniors, Kenny Goins is a senior and Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens are juniors. Izzo’s teams are at their best when they’re older, with some younger guys filling in. One of those is sophomore Xavier Tillman, who has emerged as an elite rebounder and will be a double-double machine by the time his career in East Lansing is over.

The Spartans aren’t a finished product yet, as they will hope for a quick return from Langford, but they are coming together with Big Ten play heating up.

1. Duke Blue Devils (12-1) 
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Wake Forest (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN), at Florida State (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN)

The week we’ve all been waiting for: Duke finally plays a true road game. The Blue Devils actually play two true away games this week, at Wake Forest and at Florida State. Granted, Duke has played several neutral-site games already this season — in New York, Indianapolis and Hawaii — so it’s not as if the Blue Devils have been bunkered down in Durham for two months. But road games, especially conference road games, are different.

2. Michigan Wolverines (15-0) 
Previous ranking: 2
This week: at Illinois (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET on FS1), vs. Northwestern (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, BTN)

After a slow start to the season, Jordan Poole started becoming a consistent third option — but he has developed into more than that in recent weeks. He has now scored 17 or more points in six of his past nine games, forming a three-headed monster alongside Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews. In addition to making 3s at a 48 percent clip, Poole has also been a weapon as a playmaker.

3. Tennessee Volunteers (12-1) 
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Missouri (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2), at Florida (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but look at Tennessee’s upcoming schedule. The Volunteers don’t play Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State or LSU until Feb. 16 or later. They get Alabama and Arkansas at home in the next couple of weeks. There’s two games against Florida, but Rick Barnes’ team could conceivably go into Valentine’s Day with just one or two losses — before a brutal finishing stretch.

4. Virginia Cavaliers (12-0) 
Previous ranking: 6
This week: at Boston College (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU), at Clemson (Saturday, noon ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN)

While Virginia’s defense will always get the majority of the credit, this season’s version of the Cavaliers also has the second-best offense of Tony Bennett’s coaching career. They have three guys capable of getting 20-25 points on a given night — something they were missing once De’Andre Hunter went down with an injury last season.

5. Gonzaga Bulldogs (12-2) 
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Pacific (Thursday, 11 p.m. ET on ESPN2), at San Francisco (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

Saturday was huge for Gonzaga — not because the Bulldogs beat Santa Clara, but because of the return of guard Geno Crandall and, perhaps more notably, forward Killian Tillie. Tillie had been out the entire season with an ankle injury, while Crandall has been out since late November with a fractured hand. Tillie could slot into the starting lineup when he’s 100 percent, while Crandall provides needed backcourt depth.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders (13-1) 
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. Oklahoma (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPNews), at Texas (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on Longhorn Network)

Texas Tech’s defense is on another planet right now. The Red Raiders have allowed just one team all season to reach 0.9 points per possession for an entire game — Northern Colorado back in late November. Tech won that by 31 points. Even Duke only managed 0.85 points per possession. Tech’s raw defensive efficiency is No. 1 — and more than five points per 100 possessions better than No. 2.

7. Michigan State Spartans (13-2)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Purdue (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2), at Penn State (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

With Joshua Langford sidelined the past two games, Kyle Ahrens has seen a bigger role on the wing — but much of the offense has continued to fall on the shoulders of Cassius Winston and Nick Ward. Winston went for 25 points in the win over Ohio State, while Ward has tallied 21 points in each of his past two games. They’ll carry the load until Langford returns.

8. Kansas Jayhawks (12-2) 
Previous ranking: 3
This week: vs. TCU (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2), at Baylor (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN)

It was a bad weekend for Kansas. Not only did the Jayhawks get blown out by Iowa State, but news came down Sunday night that Udoka Azubuike needs surgery for a torn ligament in his right hand and will miss the rest of the season. Azubuike has already missed five games this season, and the Jayhawks are just 3-2 in those outings. The dominant big man just provides a dimension down low that will be impossible to replace.

9. Virginia Tech Hokies (13-1) 
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at Georgia Tech (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN)

The Hokies can’t get caught looking ahead this week. They head to Virginia next Tuesday, but first have to play at Georgia Tech on Wednesday. A win there and Buzz Williams’ crew is 14-1 (3-0 in the ACC) with a real statement opportunity in Charlottesville. Wabissa Bede’s emergence as a defensive stopper has been a boost for the Hokies; he locked down Boston College’s Ky Bowman over the weekend.

10. Nevada Wolf Pack (14-1) 
Previous ranking: 5
This week: vs. San Jose State (Wednesday, 11 p.m. ET on CBSSN), at Fresno State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPNU)

How the Wolf Pack respond moving forward will be interesting to see. The quest for an unbeaten season is no longer in play, so some of the intrigue is gone. At the same time, some of the pressure is also gone for Eric Musselman’s team. Its next game is against San Jose State, which has won two Division I games all season and lost its last two games by a combined 50 points.

11. North Carolina Tar Heels (11-3) 
Previous ranking: 13
This week: at NC State (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN), vs. Louisville (Saturday, noon ET on ESPN)

Since North Carolina lost to Kentucky, the Tar Heels’ third defeat in six games, they have begun to buy in defensively and dominate at that end of the floor. Three of their four best defensive performances of the season have come in the past three games, against Davidson, Harvard and Pittsburgh. All three opponents have scored fewer than 0.79 points per possession.

12. NC State Wolfpack (13-1) 
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. North Carolina (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN), vs. Pittsburgh (Saturday, noon ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN)

Kevin Keatts’ team has a massive opportunity this week when North Carolina comes to town. The Wolfpack beat the Tar Heels last season in Chapel Hill, but Carolina was also the last team to beat NC State in Raleigh. Expect up-tempo pace, plenty of points and a battle on the glass. The contrast between Carolina’s size and NC State’s slew of versatile perimeter options will be interesting.

13. Auburn Tigers (11-2) 
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Ole Miss (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2), vs. Georgia (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

The Tigers have been off since Dec. 29 and in fact have played only two games since the loss at NC State on Dec. 19. They seemed to have righted some of their wrongs in the win over North Florida, but that could have been a result of the competition. One thing to monitor is Danjel Purifoy‘s role. He missed all of last season and the first nine games of this season, and has played sparingly since becoming eligible.

14. Florida State Seminoles (12-2) 
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Miami (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET on ACC Network/Watch ESPN), vs. Duke (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN)

We’re still waiting to really figure out the Seminoles. The metrics look good and they’ve got a couple of nice wins, but they also lost to a middling Villanova team and got destroyed by Virginia (despite a late 16-0 run to make it less embarrassing). Leonard Hamilton’s team has a huge opportunity this week, as it hosts Miami and then No. 1 Duke.

15. Houston Cougars (15-0) 
Previous ranking: unranked
This week: at Temple (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPNews), vs. Wichita State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on CBSSN)

One of three unbeatens remaining in college basketball, the Cougars are sort of the forgotten of the trio. Kelvin Sampson has this team rolling, though. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country, and while they don’t have a Rob Gray on the offensive end, they have multiple options. Houston has already defeated LSU, Oregon, Utah State and three other top-100 opponents.

16. Kentucky Wildcats(10-3)
Previous
 ranking: 13
This week: vs. Texas A&M (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network), vs. Vanderbilt (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network)

Kentucky gets to right the ship a little ship a little bit this week, with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt coming to Lexington, but the Wildcats have to develop some consistency, especially on the perimeter — at both ends of the floor. We’ve now seen five teams make double-digit 3-pointers against the Wildcats, and Kentucky has only two players on its roster that have made more than 10 3s this season.

Dropped outOhio State (No. 16)

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