By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Basketball Writer
Houston returned to No. 1 in the AP men’s college basketball poll on Monday for the third time this season, while Northwestern and Texas A&M barged into the rankings after each had a pair of impressive wins last week.
The Cougars, riding a seven-game winning streak, jumped over Alabama and back into the top spot, where they spent two weeks in November and December and had another two-week stint last month. They picked up 48 first-place votes from the 62-member national media panel to lay claim to No. 1 with just two weeks left in the regular season.
“This is my fourth year coaching these guys. We’ve developed a really good program here,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, referring to his veteran leaders that went to a Final Four two years ago and the Elite Eight last season. “But the emphasis is ‘we have.’ One person doesn’t do it. I’m proud of our program. I’m proud of everyone in it.”
The Crimson Tide dropped only one spot after losing to Tennessee and routing Georgia in their lone week at No. 1. They held onto seven first-place votes, while Kansas also earned seven to climb two spots to No. 3 in this week’s poll.
UCLA remained at No. 4 while Purdue slid two spots to round out of the top five.
“We’re not as good a basketball team, from a tactical standpoint, as last year’s basketball team yet,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, whose team is trying to become the first back-to-back national champions since Florida in 2006 and ’07. “From a competitive standpoint, this team is an equivalent, or on par, with that team.”
That was evident Saturday, when the Jayhawks rallied from 17 down to beat No. 9 Baylor 87-71 in Allen Fieldhouse.
Virginia was at No. 6 after beating Louisville and Notre Dame last week. Arizona was seventh while Texas fell two spots to eighth after losing to Texas Tech and needing overtime to beat Oklahoma. The Bears held their spot while Marquette moved back into the top 10.
The Volunteers dropped to No. 11 after following up their win over Alabama with a loss to Kentucky. Gonzaga, Miami and Kansas State were next, with Saint Mary’s giving the West Coast Conference two teams in the top 15.
The Gaels (24-5, 13-1) and Bulldogs (23-5, 12-2) each play midweek games before their showdown on Saturday.
Xavier held steady at No. 16 this week while Indiana, UConn, Creighton and Providence rounded out the top 20.
Northwestern entered the poll for the first time in more than two years at No. 21 after following its upset of Purdue two weeks ago with wins over the Hoosiers and Iowa. San Diego State, Iowa State and TCU were next, with Texas A&M making it back into the poll after spending one week at No. 24 in November.
“We haven’t gotten ahead of ourselves,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. “We’ve had big aspirations of who we could be, and not many people believed it. I’m sure a lot of people laughed at them. But we had them and they were real. And these guys have followed up on it. But we’re still in the moment. For me, it’s not a time for reflection.
“We want more,” Collins continued. “We can reflect at the end of the year, when it’s all done in a month’s time. And we can look back at the ups and downs. But we’re trying our hardest right now to stay in the moment.”
IN AND OUT
The Wildcats, winners of five straight, and the Aggies entered the poll at the expense of North Carolina State and Florida Atlantic. The Wolfpack lost to Syracuse on Tuesday and the Owls lost to Middle Tennessee on Thursday.
RISING AND FALLING
There was very little movement in this week’s poll. Providence made the biggest climb at just four spots to No. 20 after wins over Creighton and Villanova. Iowa State likewise made the biggest fall at four sports to No. 23 after following a win over TCU with a loss to Kansas State on Saturday.
The Big 12 continues to lead the way with six teams in the AP Top 25 and Oklahoma State receiving a vote. The Big East has five teams in the poll — and all in the top 20 — while the SEC and Big Ten have three teams apiece.
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