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Power Rankings: Plenty at stake for Duke, North Carolina

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A rivalry renewed as Duke, UNC face off Wednesday (0:53)

With 49 ACC titles and numerous Hall of Famers between them, UNC and Duke face off Wednesday hoping to deliver another game to remember. (0:53)

Annually one of the most hyped games of the regular season, this season's Duke vs. North Carolina game at Cameron Indoor Stadium is no different -- and this time, it's a lot more expensive too.

There has been a significant difference in the attention given to both teams this season. Duke has been on the national radar since the preseason, as the Blue Devils have Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and a couple more first-round picks surrounding them. They also beat Kentucky by 34 points on the opening night of the season. North Carolina isn't exactly flying under the radar since, you know, they're North Carolina -- but the Tar Heels are clearly playing second fiddle to Duke on Tobacco Road this season.

So what's at stake on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN)?

First, let's look at the ACC title race. North Carolina can forge a three-way tie at the top of the standings if the Tar Heels can get a win in Durham. Virginia's win at Virginia Tech on Monday moved the Cavaliers to 11-2 in the league, and both of these teams would be the same if Carolina wins on Tuesday.

Duke likely stays at No. 1 in the 1-seed pecking order regardless of result on Wednesday. The Blue Devils clearly have the best NCAA tournament resume in the country, and the team behind them is Virginia -- who Duke already beat twice this season.

North Carolina is squarely in the mix for a 2-seed at this point, and a win in Cameron would be a huge boost to the Tar Heels' profile. They've already beaten Gonzaga, but the next-best wins on their ledger are over Louisville and Virginia Tech.

Both teams love to push the pace, both teams love to crash the glass -- Carolina a little bit more on the defensive end -- and the game will likely come down to individual matchups. Coby White has been one of the more underrated freshman stars in the country this season, but Duke's Tre Jones will look to shut him down. Will Carolina go big and try to put Luke Maye on Williamson or Barrett? Will they go small and play Nassir Little for extended minutes -- and is Little fully healthy?

Monday: Put Kentucky in the top tier now, please

Is it time to expand the elite group to five teams and include Kentucky?

The temptation is there after the Wildcats obliterated Tennessee in the second half of Saturday's 17-point win in Lexington, but remember, we've gone down this path a few times with the Wildcats this season.

Obviously, we did it at the start of the season before they lost by 34 to Duke. Then we did after they handled North Carolina in Chicago and won at Louisville by 13 -- but they then lost at Alabama by two points. The bandwagon got full again after the 10-game winning streak in January and February, prior to the home defeat to LSU.

And now, we try it again after the win over Tennessee.

Take the entire season into account, though, and it's pretty clear Kentucky is among the five best teams in the country right now. The Wildcats have lost three games since Nov. 6, by a combined five points. They're No. 5 at KenPom and No. 6 in the NET, BPI and Sagarin rankings. They've beaten Tennessee, North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville, and have eight Quadrant 1 wins -- third-most of anyone in the country.

They have an elite defense, one that has improved considerably since Ashton Hagans took over the starting point guard duties. It's currently ranked No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom, but if you take into account just the games since Hagans moved into the starting lineup, BartTorvik.com has the Wildcats with the No. 4-ranked defense.

Offensively, they still have some issues shooting the ball, making 10 or more 3-pointers just three times all season -- but they're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and get to the free throw line at a high rate. More importantly, they finally found a consistent go-to-guy: PJ Washington. Washington has played as well as anyone in the country over the past month, making a push for All-American honors. He has scored 20 or more points in seven of his past eight games.

We're not saying John Calipari has a perfect team or is even a Final Four favorite, but the Wildcats have steadily improved since the opening-night embarrassment and are hitting their stride according to the typical Calipari timeline.

The Tennessee rematch in Knoxville on March 2 is going to be a true litmus test for the young Wildcats away from home -- and will go a long way toward determining the SEC regular-season champion -- but right now, Kentucky has a strong case as being a solidly top-five team.

1. Duke Blue Devils (23-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. North Carolina (Wednesday), at Syracuse (Saturday)

The first of two Duke-North Carolina games comes up on Wednesday, and the Blue Devils can begin to get some separation in the ACC race with a win in Durham. RJ Barrett's recent play is cause for optimism for Mike Krzyzewski, as the freshman star is coming off just the fourth triple-double in Duke program history -- in a game in which Barrett also had zero turnovers.

2. Virginia Cavaliers (23-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat Virginia Tech 64-58 on Monday, at Louisville (Saturday)

Virginia still only has the two losses to Duke on its ledger, but the Cavaliers have looked off the pace a little bit in recent weeks. They went to Virginia Tech and beat the Hokies on Monday, but turnovers were once again an issue. It was the fourth time in the last six games that Virginia turned it over on at least 20 percent of its possessions -- a number they hit just four times all last season. Tony Bennett will hope to see his team tighten up its passing and uncharacteristic decision-making moving forward.

3. Tennessee Volunteers (24-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Vanderbilt 58-46 on Tuesday, at LSU (Saturday)

Tennessee bounced back from its first loss in two months with a win on Tuesday, but the Volunteers had their worst offensive performance of the season, against a team that's winless in the SEC. Tennessee has shot just 13-for-46 from 3-point range in the past two games, and the Volunteers rely on that perimeter balance to open up the lane for Grant Williams & Co. up front. Tennessee did have its best defensive performance of the SEC campaign on Tuesday, though.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (25-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Pepperdine (Thursday), vs. BYU (Saturday)

Josh Perkins played his best game in weeks on Saturday, finishing with 15 points, nine assists and just one turnover. Perkins is still the biggest key to Gonzaga's hopes of winning a national championship, and more performances like his on Saturday will go a long way. He's a four-year starter with plenty of big-game experience, and he has had his best season in a Gonzaga uniform in 2018-19.

5. Kentucky Wildcats (22-4)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Missouri 66-58 on Tuesday, vs. Auburn (Saturday)

Kentucky won at Missouri on Tuesday, but John Calipari will have a big concern moving forward: senior forward Reid Travis left the game in the second half and the school announced he has a sprained right knee. We will have to wait to see the extent of the injury, but if Travis is out for an extended period, backup EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards will need to play bigger roles. Travis gives the Wildcats experience and toughness down low.

6. Michigan Wolverines (23-3)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Minnesota (Thursday), vs. Michigan State (Sunday)

The first of two Michigan-Michigan State showdowns takes place on Sunday, but the Wolverines must first travel to Minnesota to play a Golden Gophers team that could use another marquee win for their tournament hopes. The first time around, Michigan needed some last-second help to beat Minnesota by two -- and Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews really struggled offensively. It can't be a game the Wolverines overlook.

7. Houston Cougars (25-1)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. South Florida (Saturday)

Houston caught fire in the second half against Tulane -- including a 35-5 run that spanned just about 10 minutes and featured nine Houston 3-pointers -- for the Cougars' 25th win of the season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. have been the stars for Kelvin Sampson all season, and Sunday was no different: The two combined for 14 3-pointers and 50 points. Houston's résumé continues to improve, and the December win over LSU looks better and better.

8. North Carolina Tar Heels (20-5)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Duke (Wednesday), vs. Florida State (Saturday)

One thing to monitor in the days leading up to the Duke showdown on Wednesday will be the status of Nassir Little, who played 11 minutes in the first half against Wake Forest despite suffering an ankle injury against Virginia last week -- but then didn't play in the second half after getting hit in the chest. Roy Williams told reporters after the game that Little was "OK," but given the importance Little could play in terms of matching up with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, it's worth watching.

9. Michigan State Spartans (21-5)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. Rutgers (Wednesday), at Michigan (Sunday)

How will Tom Izzo adjust to life without Nick Ward moving forward? He was able to replace some of Joshua Langford's production with Kyle Ahrens and an increased role for Aaron Henry -- but there are fewer options up front. Xavier Tillman fits the Michigan State mold, and Thomas Kithier will provide depth. But more than ever, this is going to be Cassius Winston's team moving forward. The Spartans will go as far as Winston can take them.

10. Nevada Wolf Pack (24-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: at San Diego State (Wednesday), vs. Fresno State (Saturday)

While Eric Musselman has preached for much of his Nevada career that depth isn't really needed in college basketball, he did play three bench players for 20-plus minutes apiece on Saturday. One of those was Jordan Brown, who has now played at least 13 minutes in five of his past six games -- after hitting that number just seven times all season. Is that a product of Nevada blowouts, Musselman saving some legs for March or really extending the rotation?

11. Kansas Jayhawks (20-6)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Texas Tech (Saturday)

Well, look at the Big 12 standings now. Kansas is just a half-game back of Kansas State, tied with Texas Tech for second place. Can the Jayhawks win the Big 12 yet again? They have a week off before heading to Lubbock for their toughest remaining game on the schedule: at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have won four in a row, but Kansas blew them out by 16 earlier this month in Lawrence.

12. Marquette Golden Eagles (21-4)
Previous ranking:
12
This week: vs. Butler (Wednesday), at Providence (Saturday)

Theo John has picked up at least four fouls in seven of his past eight games, limiting his minutes on the court. He's averaging 7.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes on the season, and Marquette's defense suffers when he's not in the game as a result. He's one of the nation's best shot-blockers and is the team's best defensive rebounder in conference play. The Golden Eagles need him on the court come March.

13. Purdue Boilermakers (19-7)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Indiana 48-46 on Tuesday, at Nebraska (Saturday)

Purdue isn't going to win too many games with Carsen Edwards shooting 4-for-24 from the field, but the Boilermakers got a tip-in from Matt Haarms with 3.2 seconds left to beat Indiana in Bloomington. They are now in a dead heat with Michigan and Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten -- and they have the easiest schedule remaining of the three teams.

14. LSU Tigers (21-4)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. Florida (Wednesday), vs. Tennessee (Saturday)

With Tennessee losing at Kentucky on Saturday night, the Tigers are now in a tie for first in the SEC with the Volunteers. And look at the schedule: This Saturday, Tennessee visits Baton Rouge. LSU just has to get through Florida first. Will Wade has done a tremendous job with this team in SEC play, losing just one game by one point since Dec. 12. One thing to watch: The Tigers have allowed at least one point per possession in five straight games and just allowed Georgia to score 1.23 points per possession.

15. Louisville Cardinals (18-8)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Syracuse (Wednesday), vs. Virginia (Saturday)

Louisville nearly had a disastrous week but ended up with a key split to keep the damage to a minimum. Had the Cardinals lost on Saturday to Clemson, they would have been on a three-game losing streak heading into games at Syracuse and vs. Virginia. On the other hand, they need to take care of the ball far better. In the past three games, the Cardinals have 37 assists and 52 turnovers.

16. Texas Tech Red Raiders (21-5)
Previous ranking:
Unranked
This week: vs. Kansas (Saturday)

Texas Tech replaces Iowa State after the Cyclones lost at home to Baylor on Tuesday. Chris Beard and the Red Raiders are right in the thick of the Big 12 hunt after winning four in a row -- and they have a real opportunity this weekend, when Kansas comes to Lubbock. After a couple slip-ups in mid-January, Tech is back playing defense at an elite level. Its last four opponents have scored a combined 0.80 points per possession.

Dropped out: Iowa State (No. 16)