This is an important week in college basketball. There are a few non-conference games remaining, here and there. But this week really signifies the start of conference seasons and that always delivers a new level of intensity. The Big Ten and Big East races could get extremely crazy. This week, North Carolina and UCLA return to the rankings. Can Kentucky be far behind?
1. Duke -- If Mason Plumlee doesn’t beat you inside, then Seth Curry might knock you off with his outside shooting. Curry had 31 points in Duke’s victory over Santa Clara. The Blue Devils play Davidson before opening up ACC action.
2. Michigan -- Still had doubts about the Wolverines’ depth until John Beilein started three freshmen in that 88-73 victory over Central Michigan. The Big Ten race will be very, very interesting but at this stage, Michigan has accomplished the most and should give Indiana a real battle.
3. Louisville -- Rick Pitino’s Cardinals were impressive in their victory over Kentucky. Louisville heads into Big East play on a seven-game winning streak. The only blemish on the record remains that 76-71 loss to Duke and Pitino has all the pieces for a national championship run.
4. Kansas -- Some would argue that the Jayhawks are playing the best basketball in the land right now, and Jeff Withey is having a remarkable season. Since losing to Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Bill Self’s team has been dominating opponents. Interesting game coming up against Temple on Jan. 6.
5. Indiana -- We stuck with the Hoosiers after the loss to Butler, but the close call at Iowa Monday night indicates Indiana could have road problems in the Big Ten -- just like last season. Coach Tom Crean was happy about the Iowa win but this week’s snapshot puts Indiana at No. 5.
6. Arizona -- There isn’t much difference between No. 2 and No. 6, to be quite honest. Sean Miller’s team erased a lot of question marks on the way to a 12-0 record, winning close games and blowing out other opponents. Colorado is the first Pac-12 challenger.
7. Syracuse -- The Orange started slowly against Central Connecticut State, but in the blink of an eye Syracuse was on its way to a 96-62 victory. Once Jim Boeheim passes Bob Knight, the distraction over the 900-win club should be over for this team.
8. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes regrouped after the Kansas loss and crushed Chicago State 87-44. The Big Ten schedule starts with Nebraska on Wednesday and is followed by a big challenge Jan. 5 at Illinois.
9. Minnesota -- Tubby Smith’s team may be the biggest surprise in the nation and just one more indication of how rugged the Big Ten regular season race figures to be. The win over Michigan State was quite impressive and should give the Gophers momentum.
10. Gonzaga -- Kevin Pangos had another outstanding performance, scoring 23 points as the Bulldogs pulled out a 69-68 win at Oklahoma State Monday night. And don’t forget Kelly Olynyk’s 21 points as Gonzaga finished 5-0 against Big 12 teams in the non-conference season.
11. Florida -- Despite the losses to Kansas State and Arizona, coach Billy Donovan’s team looks good heading into SEC play. The Gators play at Yale before opening up against Georgia on Jan. 9.
12. Missouri -– The Tigers did everything at UCLA with the exception of closing the deal. Not many point guards this season will be able to top what Phil Pressey did against the Bruins.
13. Illinois -- The Illini will be an interesting case study during the early weeks of the Big Ten. John Groce has done a remarkable job in his first season. But that 81-79 scare against a bad Auburn team is a bit worrisome.
14. Creighton -- Doug McDermott’s campaign for national player of the year will continue in the Missouri Valley Conference. Interesting week for the Bluejays, at Illinois State and then home to a tough Indiana State team.
15. Cincinnati -- The Bearcats were exposed a bit inside in their loss to New Mexico. But Mick Cronin got his team to bounce back in a very impressive Big East come-from-behind win at Pittsburgh.
16. Georgetown -- The Hoyas haven’t played since a 65-48 victory over American U. on Dec. 22. Coach John Thompson III has probably been searching for ways to score more points since the Hoyas average only 66.6 points per game. That probably won’t cut it in the Big East.
17. San Diego State -- Think where the Aztecs might be if Arizona’s Nick Johnson hadn’t blocked Chase Tapley’s shot in Honolulu on Christmas Day. Sand Diego State is more than ready to battle in the Mountain West.
18. Notre Dame -- The Irish have rolled off 10 consecutive wins since losing to Saint Joseph’s in overtime on Nov. 16. Jack Cooley will cause problems for every team in the Big East. Big game coming up at Cincinnati on Jan. 7.
19. Butler -- The Bulldogs have games against Penn and New Orleans before settling into the serious business of trying to win the Atlantic 10 race. Conference play opens at Jan. 9 at Saint Joseph’s.
20. North Carolina State -- The Wolfpack seemed to mature during a seven-game win streak since losing at Michigan on Nov. 27. NC State opens ACC play at Boston College on Jan. 5. One week later comes the showdown at Duke.
21. North Carolina -- The Tar Heels have talent and they finally made a statement with that 79-73 victory over No. 20 UNLV on Dec. 29. P.J. Hairston came up big in place of Reggie Bullock, who was out with a mild concussion suffered in practice.
22. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys shouldn’t hang their heads after a 69-68 loss to Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are an elite team and Oklahoma State looks like a contender in the Big 12. Marcus Smart and Le’Bryan Nash are putting some sizzle in the season.
23. Pittsburgh -- The Panthers had their eight game winning streak snapped on New Year’s Eve with a 70-61 loss to Cincinnati at home. That may say more about how good Cincinnati is, but Pitt can’t feel good about wasting a 34-26 halftime lead. That’s unusual for Jamie Dixon’s program.
24. UCLA -- If Shabazz Muhammad has found himself, then UCLA will benefit greatly. We welcome the Bruins back after that 97-94 overtime victory over Missouri. With Cal and Stanford coming into Pauley Pavilion, can the Bruins start 2-0 in conference play?
25. Kansas State -- The Wildcats took care of business with wins over UMKC and South Dakota, so they don’t drop from the power rankings -- but they don’t move up. Oklahoma State visits Manhattan on Jan. 5. The winner of that one may earn the title of Big 12 challenger to Kansas.