AP Top 25's highly ranked teams look vulnerable after 2 days of losses to unranked foes

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Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes watches his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Starkville, Miss. Mississippi State won 77-72. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Bill Self had just watched his third-ranked Kansas team squander a 16-point lead to lose on the road to an opponent picked to finish last in the Big 12 when he was asked how he will remember the game.

“To be real candid with you,” Self told reporters in his postgame news conference, “I hope I don't.”

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It's a sentiment that could apply to many of the headliners in the AP Top 25 after a bumpy few days.

Top-ranked Purdue and No. 2 Houston lost Tuesday. Fifth-ranked Tennessee and No. 9 Oklahoma joined the Jayhawks in losing Wednesday. Each loss came on the road to an unranked foe, offering an early end to the unbeaten watch for the Cougars and a reminder to everyone else that college basketball's natural order is very different in the era of older teams, the transfer portal and talent dispersed across the country.

If anything, it's following the lead of last year's chaotic season that included a record 54 teams cracking the Top 25 before the NCAA Tournament ended with no 1-seed even making a regional final and no team seeded higher than No. 4 reaching the Final Four.

Houston (14-1) fell at Iowa State in a low-scoring grind as the nation's last unbeaten team. That prompted NCAA director of media coordination and statistics David Worlock to note that this marked the fourth time in seven years that the sport lost all unbeatens before Jan. 12; there had been at least one as late as Jan. 13 in 40 of 41 seasons before that.

The problems popping up for the top-10 losing teams this week came in multiple areas.

It was a matter of composure for some, such as Self saying the Jayhawks (13-2) didn't show as much poise against UCF as in other games. Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson was more blunt, saying his team “just kind of peed down our leg” with first-half turnovers that had Houston down 14 early.

“I don't know if it was as much Iowa State, it was us,” Sampson said, offering only terse responses during a 110-second postgame news conference. “We were just, um — I don't know what it was. I wish I did.”

If it's any consolation to Sampson, Houston wasn't alone in facing turnover issues. The quintet of top-10 losers this week averaged 15.6 turnovers leading to 19.6 points for their opponents backed by home crowds, highlighted by TCU's 25 points against the Sooners (13-2).

Kansas (18.1%) and Oklahoma (18.6%) rank in the 200s nationally in KenPom's measure of per-possesion turnover rate.

For Tennessee (11-4), a primary problem was slowing Mississippi State big man Tolu Smith III (23 points) in what is growing into an exploitable vulnerability.

In the Volunteers' three other losses, Purdue's Zach Edey (23 points, 10 rebounds), Kansas' Hunter Dickinson (17 points, 20 rebounds) and North Carolina's Armando Bacot (22 points, 11 rebounds) all thrived. Throw in Smith, and the four bigs shot a combined 65.9% (27 of 41) against a program known for its defense and physicality.

It left coach Rick Barnes saying his team must prove it can effectively defend opposing bigs.

“(It's) understanding that you're allowed to armbar for one,” Barnes said of ways to improve. “And I think if you're allowed to armbar, nobody should be able to back you down. I really believe that. It's leverage, it's getting down low and holding your ground. If you do that, we can come and help."

As for the Boilermakers (14-2), they've had trouble defending the arc in losses going back to an overtime stumble at Northwestern on Dec. 1. The Cornhuskers hit 14 3-pointers in; Tuesday's win; in all, Purdue allowed 24 of 43 (55.8%) from deep in their losses.

Afterward, coach Matt Painter was frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of preparation for the potential court-storming by fans after Nebraska's first win against a top-ranked team in 41 years. Then he simultaneously noted the larger issue.

“I don't understand that,” Painter said. “It's about like our defense.”


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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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