It was hard to get a feel for North Carolina heading into its game against Gonzaga on Saturday night. The Tar Heels had lost their two toughest games of the season, a three-point defeat to Texas and a blowout loss at the hands of Michigan. Their best win was over UCLA in Las Vegas, a victory that looks less and less impressive as the season progresses. Moreover, much of the discussion surrounding Carolina this season centered on its usage of elite freshman Nassir Little, who has consistently come off the bench instead of starting.
Turns out, the Tar Heels are really, really good once again -- and maybe, just maybe, Roy Williams knows what he's doing with Little.
Carolina's 103-90 win over Gonzaga was one of the more impressive offensive performances of the season, with the Tar Heels scoring 1.23 points per possession and shooting better than 50 percent from both inside and outside the arc. Cameron Johnson (25 points) continued his hot streak, and his evolution into a consistent matchup problem for opponents has been huge for the Tar Heels. Meanwhile, Luke Maye had his best game of the season -- and it's not a coincidence it came against a team that also likes to play big.
As for Little, he scored only seven points in 21 minutes, but the team was statistically better when he was on the floor. What he allows the Tar Heels to do is put Maye and Johnson in favorable matchups at both ends of the floor. According to Hoop Lens, the Tar Heels' offense this season is marginally improved when Little, Maye and Johnson are on the court together, but their defense is 0.13 points per possession better.
Against Gonzaga, it called for a bigger group at the outset, though, and Williams' decision to roll with Garrison Brooks paid off. Brooks finished with nine points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
Little allows Williams to mix and match his frontcourt based on opponents and situations, and it worked on Saturday. Will Little, a projected top-five pick, see an enhanced role as the season progresses? Probably. But for now, the current setup is working for Williams and Carolina.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (9-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: Tuesday vs. South Dakota (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+), Saturday at Arizona State (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Six of Kansas' nine wins have come by single digits, which is nice for learning how to win close games -- but the Jayhawks have been consistently allowing teams to stay in games. That will undoubtedly be an issue in Big 12 play, but it could be a factor on the road at Arizona State this weekend. The Sun Devils have been terrific this season.
2. Duke Blue Devils (9-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Tuesday vs. Princeton (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Thursday vs. Texas Tech in New York (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
It's a nice problem to have when you can debate which of the Duke freshmen has a better Player of the Year case. RJ Barrett has hit the 30-point mark twice already and scored fewer than 20 points just once. His usage is among the national leaders, but he has been efficient through one month. Zion Williamson has been superbly efficient and has also made consistent contributions defensively.
3. Michigan Wolverines (11-0)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Saturday vs. Air Force (4 p.m. ET, BTN)
Michigan is still missing some of that killer instinct we saw in November, as the Wolverines' five worst defensive performances of the season have come in their past five games. They should have a chance to correct some of those issues over the next few weeks, as Air Force and Binghamton come to Ann Arbor before Big Ten play.
4. Tennessee Volunteers (8-1)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: Wednesday vs. Samford (7 p.m. ET, SECN+), Saturday vs. Wake Forest (noon ET, ESPN2)
Grant Williams rightfully gets most of the attention when discussing the Volunteers, but Admiral Schofield has been on an absolute tear lately. He has notched at least 20 points in five of his last six games, going for 29 points and 11 rebounds over the weekend after hitting 30 points -- including several late baskets -- in the win over Gonzaga.
5. Nevada Wolf Pack (11-0)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: Saturday vs. Akron (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
Will the Wolf Pack's slow starts eventually catch up with them? The upcoming four-game stretch is sneaky. Home vs. Akron, at Utah, home vs. Utah State and then at The Pit against New Mexico. Nevada has had halftime deficits in three of its past four games, but it has come back to win each game. Given most of the remaining schedule, though, there aren't too many obvious bumps in the road.
6. Virginia Cavaliers (9-0)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: Wednesday at South Carolina (7 p.m. ET, SECN), Saturday vs. William & Mary (2 p.m. ET, ACCNE)
The Cavaliers had last week off and now have to go on the road to face a South Carolina team that's in the midst of a brutal stretch. Virginia's open to the ACC schedule is one of the most difficult in the conference: Three of its first five are on the road, and the home games are against Florida State and Virginia Tech. There are a couple of potential first-loss spots in there.
7. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: Tuesday vs. UT Arlington (9 p.m. ET), Friday vs. Denver (9 p.m. ET)
Saturday's defeat against North Carolina marks two losses in a row for the Bulldogs, whose defense has fallen off a cliff in the past few weeks. They had given up 1.1 points per possession or more in four of their previous five games -- and then Saturday allowed 100-plus points for the first time since 2007. Gonzaga should get right with six straight home games.
8. Auburn Tigers (9-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: Wednesday at NC State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Saturday vs. Murray State (4:30 p.m. ET, SECN)
Overshadowed for the last few years in both high school and college, Jared Harper is playing like one of the best point guards in the country. He had 31 in Saturday's overtime win against UAB, and in Harper's last seven games, he has scored at least 20 points four times, bizarrely sandwiched around a three-game stretch where he totaled 19 points.
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders (10-0)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Thursday vs. Duke in New York (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Thursday's showdown with Duke at Madison Square Garden has been circled on the calendar for weeks, as the Red Raiders have faced a fairly soft schedule since blowing out USC and Nebraska in Kansas City. It's no secret what the key on Thursday will be: Duke's No. 2-ranked offense vs. Texas Tech's No. 1-ranked defense. Pace will be a major factor for the Red Raiders.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-2)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Saturday vs. Kentucky in Chicago (5:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
Saturday was a statement win for the Tar Heels, as they dominated Gonzaga from very early and never looked back. The emergence of Cameron Johnson has been a huge boost for Carolina, and it also received bench production from Seventh Woods (14 points), especially down the stretch of the first half. A neutral-court showdown against Kentucky in Chicago is up next for the Tar Heels.
11. Florida State Seminoles (9-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Southeast Missouri State 85-68 on Monday; Wednesday vs. North Florida (7 p.m. ET, ACCNE), Saturday vs. Saint Louis (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Phil Cofer, last season's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, has not played for the Seminoles this season due to a right foot injury. However, Cofer is expected to return for Florida State's three-game week -- including Monday's game, at least in a limited capacity. He'll bring experience, size and versatility to the frontcourt.
12. Virginia Tech Hokies (9-1)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: Wednesday vs. North Carolina A&T (7 p.m. ET, ACCNE)
If Nickeil Alexander-Walker keeps up this production in ACC play, we're going to be talking about him as a potential All-American this season. It's also no surprise he's moved into the top 20 of ESPN's NBA draft rankings. Alexander-Walker has hit at least 20 points on five occasions this season, he's shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range and he's had at least three assists in every single game.
13. Michigan State Spartans (9-2)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Friday vs. Oakland (7 p.m. ET, BTN)
Nick Ward has always been productive during his time on the floor -- but that's been the issue: staying out of foul trouble and on the floor. Mix in some tiffs with Tom Izzo in the past and Ward has always left some meat on the bone when it comes to his numbers. That's changing lately, as Ward has scored 20-plus points in three of his last four games and grabbed nine rebounds in two of them. In his last three games, Ward has shot an otherworldly 28-for-31 from the field.
14. Wisconsin Badgers (8-1)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: Saturday vs. Grambling (noon ET, BTN)
If it hasn't happened already, it's time to put Ethan Happ on every-game triple-double watch. He did it in the season opener against Coppin State and has come four assists short on three occasions. Happ has double-doubles in nine of 11 games, and he has already put up 30-plus points twice. These are Player of the Year-type numbers.
15. Ohio State Buckeyes (9-1)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: Tuesday vs. Youngstown State (7 p.m. ET, BTN), Saturday vs. UCLA in Chicago (3 p.m. ET, CBS)
Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson has been highly productive on a per-minute basis and has carried the Buckeyes at times, including Saturday, when he finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Wesson's per-40 numbers would be 25.9 points and 11.3 boards. He just needs to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble.
16. Buffalo Bulls (10-0)
Previous ranking: 16
This week: Tuesday at Syracuse (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Friday at Marquette (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Saturday's win over Southern Illinois kept Buffalo unbeaten at 10-0, but we will know a lot more about the Bulls by the end of the week. It starts Tuesday at Syracuse, and while winning at the Carrier Dome is no easy feat, the Orange were just dropped at home by Old Dominion. Three days later, on Friday, Nate Oats' group heads to Marquette in another chance for a marquee win.
Dropped out: None