Tales of defensive excellence, a monster game in the American Athletic Conference and a Big Ten team’s hot streak dominate this week’s edition of the Top Freking 10.
1. ARIZONA (last week: 1)
My man crush on Arizona increases with each passing viewing. Sunday night, the Wildcats were tied with Utah with just under 11 minutes to play. After a few sloppy defensive possessions, Arizona got its act together, holding the Utes to four points over the next nine-plus minutes. Zona guard Nick Johnson, a favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year, scored eight of his game-high 22 points during the same stretch. It was powerful to watch the McKale Center go from funeral-like to frenzied as they watched the home Wildcats turn up their defense — when the Wildcats match discipline with their collective wingspan on defense, good luck — and get thundering dunks from Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon.
2. SYRACUSE (LW: 2)
Generally, a good indicator of a good defensive team is not fouling. The Orange are ranked 10th out of 345 NCAA teams in fewest fouls per game. Syracuse entered Saturday’s tilt at Miami, Fla., averaging 16 fouls per game, but managed to be whistled only 11 times in a 65-52 win. Discipline is a factor in not fouling, as is the fact that Syracuse’s players are well-versed in the program’s 2-3 zone. Without a standout shot blocker, the stats indicate the Orange rely on theft and overall team defense, as they rank seventh and sixth, respectively, in the nation in steals per game and scoring defense.
3. WICHITA STATE (LW: 3)
The Shockers dismantled Drake 78-61 Saturday for their fourth consecutive triumph of at least 15 points. Poor Loyola of Illinois (8-12) is slated to be 21-0 Wichita State’s next victim tonight. And if you didn’t catch WSU guard Tekele Cotton’s slam against Illinois State on Jan. 22, be sure to YouTube it. A poor Redbird defender will have visions of Cotton posterizing him for the foreseeable future.
4. KANSAS (LW: 5)
Another week, another tough slate of Big 12 games for the Jayhawks — though the schedule eases up soon. KU welcomes Iowa State, ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Poll, on Wednesday before traveling to No. 25 Texas Saturday. The Longhorns are the surprise team of the Big 12, sitting at 5-2 in conference play and 16-4 overall after losing their top four scorers from 2012-13. After playing Texas, Kansas has five straight games against Big 12 foes not ranked in the AP Top 25 or in the top four of the conference standings.
5. FLORIDA (LW: 6)
After dumping rival Tennessee by 26 Saturday to end a three-game losing streak to the Volunteers, the Gators are now unbeaten in their past 11 games. Florida limited Tennessee, who had scored 78, 66 and 81 points in three previous games, to 41 points.
6. SAN DIEGO STATE (LW: 7)
I’ve chronicled the Aztecs’ defensive wizardry in this space before — San Diego State is No. 1 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (36.2) — but they had an off-game Saturday at Utah State, allowing the Aggies to shoot 52.7 percent. Xavier Thames rescued the visitors though, scoring 10 of his 31 points in overtime in a 74-69 win.
7. LOUISVILLE (LW: 9)
Louisville and Cincinnati meet Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville for the first of two matchups over the next month. Both teams play pressure-oriented defense — UC coach Mick Cronin is a Rick Pitino disciple — but things come easier on offense for the Cardinals, who average 83 points per game, 12 more than the Bearcats.
8. CINCINNATI (LW: 10)
Temple’s Dalton Pepper nearly wrecked the Bearcats’ 11-game win streak Sunday, scoring 27 of his 33 points in the second half as UC blew a 19-point lead. Playing without springy forward Justin Jackson for all but six minutes of the game, the Bearcats’ defense took a hit. If Jackson can’t suit up against Louisville, don’t put a lot of stock in Cincinnati’s chances Thursday.
9. MICHIGAN (LW: NR)
The Wolverines get the jump into the rankings by applying the same logic I used to bump Kansas back into the Top Freking 10 last week — they are absolutely on fire in a really tough conference. Michigan’s last three games at Wisconsin, home vs. Iowa and at Michigan State resulted in three victories. The elevated play of Nik Stauskas (22.3 points a game in his last four outings) is a key reason for UM’s hot streak, but entire team deserves credit for ranking fourth in the nation in assist/turnover ratio despite losing consensus national player of the year Trey Burke to the NBA.
10. MICHIGAN STATE (LW: 4)
I’m cutting the Spartans a little slack. They played without star forward Adreian Payne for the fifth straight contest Saturday night vs. Michigan, and were without swingman Branden Dawson for the first of what will be many games after the junior broke his hand hitting a table. Guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris are also battling injuries for MSU, which needs to get healthy soon or risk of falling behind in the Big Ten race.
Dropped out: Iowa (8)
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.