- Is it time to worry about Kentucky? Will Kansas's record streak come to an end? That and other takeaways as we head into the final stretch of the regular season.
We’re one month away from Selection Sunday, and this college basketball season continues to be full of surprises. The most notable result of Saturday came when No. 2 Virginia fell to Virginia Tech in overtime at home, its first loss since Dec. 5. The Cavaliers had been 13-point favorites, but it’s hard to quantify the motivation of a bubble team that knows it has a major opportunity in front of it. Meanwhile, the Big 12 race took a turn, Purdue and Michigan State played a thriller and Kentucky’s struggles continued. Here are six takeaways from the day to keep an eye on going forward:
Who’s No. 1?
If you’re wondering who will be the top-ranked team in the AP poll on Monday, the answer is fairly obvious: Michigan State will all but assuredly assume the position, thanks to losses by all three teams above it (Villanova, Virginia, Purdue) this week. But if you’re wondering who the best team in the country is, there’s even less clarity than there already has been in this roller-coaster season. The Wildcats, Cavaliers and Boilermakers are all still extremely solid teams that rode the top of the rankings for a month, but their vulnerabilities were on display in the last week. The Spartans are one of the country’s most balanced teams and have now won eight straight, but they aren’t without their own potentially fatal flaws at times—most notably taking care of the ball. Duke’s defense remains a major question mark, and so on. The only thing that seems certain right now is that, unlike many other years, there’s no clear favorite for the national title. This has been a wild, turbulent season so far, and it might wind up bringing one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments in recent memory.
Hello, Texas Tech
With six games remaining on the schedule, the Big 12 leader is… not Kansas? After the Jayhawks lost to Baylor on Saturday and Texas Tech took care of Kansas State, the Red Raiders moved into sole possession of first place in the league at 9–3. They currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Kansas by virtue of their Jan. 2 win in Lawrence, but the two will meet for a rematch on Feb. 24 in Lubbock. That result will likely be pivotal as to whether KU will win at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title for the 14th straight year, but this final stretch of games won’t be easy for anyone in this merciless conference. In the meantime, West Virginia still lurks in the picture at 7–5 despite its loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday. Like the rest of the country, all of the Big 12’s top teams have at least one major area of concern: Texas Tech has an elite defense, but does it have enough offense to seriously contend? Can Kansas find ways to win when its three-point shot isn’t falling? Will West Virginia find the defensive consistency it needs? Will Oklahoma’s defensive deficiencies make Trae Young’s NCAA tournament stay a short one?
A B1G Upset Brewing
Who’s now alone in first place in the Big Ten? Hint: It’s not Purdue. And it’s not Michigan State, despite its big win over the Boilermakers on Saturday. That honor belongs to the only team to defeat both this season: Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ improbable run could ultimately result in the program’s first regular-season conference title since 2012. They’re in the driver’s seat with four games left—though three of those will be on the road, including at Michigan—and they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over both the Spartans and Boilermakers. Should Ohio State stumble twice, Michigan State is probably in the best position to take advantage. The Spartans own the head-to-head with Purdue and while three of their remaining four games are on the road, they’re all against teams from the league’s bottom half. Regardless of how the Big Ten title race ends up, expect MSU to enter the conference tournament on a 12-game win streak. It would be highly surprising if anyone outside of Ohio State, Michigan State or Purdue wins the tourney crown, but stranger things have happened—such as last year, when No. 8 seed Michigan became the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big Ten tournament.
Panic Time in Lexington?
Is it time to definitely sound the alarm on Kentucky? The Wildcats dropped a third straight game for the first time in the John Calipari era when they fell by 11 at Texas A&M on Saturday. UK is now 6–6 in the SEC and has a tough remaining schedule, including trips to Auburn and Florida and home contests against Alabama and Missouri. Outside of Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the ‘Cats just aren’t getting enough offensively. Hamidou Diallo hasn’t scored more than 13 points in a game in a month and has made just three of his last 16 three-point attempts. P.J. Washington has scored 13 points total in the last three games. As a team, Kentucky has averaged 0.93 points per possession during its skid. Defensively, its interior defense broke down again Saturday, as the Aggies’ Robert Williams and Tyler Davis combined for 24 points, including six dunks.
It’s looking increasingly less likely that this team will put everything together in time to make a deep NCAA tournament run. You might remember 2013-14, when a Wildcats team that also started five freshmen turned a No. 8 seed into a Final Four trip, but keep in mind that A) that team finished 12–6 in the SEC, and B) it entered the NCAAs ranked 19th on kenpom.com, with the 19th-best adjusted offensive effiency and 32nd-best defense (Kentucky currently ranks 32nd overall, 57th in offense and 21st in defense). On the flip side, this year’s SEC is stronger and deeper as a whole than that of 2013-14, and for better or for worse, the Wildcats still have six games plus the conference tournament to make changes. Where they go from here is up to them.
Gonzaga Reasserts Itself
Back on Jan. 18, the Zags got knocked down a peg when they got beat on their home floor by Saint Mary’s, but they got their revenge and then some on Saturday in a 13-point win over the Gaels that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests. The Bulldogs turned around their fortunes by homing in on Jock Landale, double-teaming the big man who torched them for 26 points in Spokane and limiting him to just four field-goal attempts and four points in the rematch. They also held Saint Mary’s, which came into the game ranked third nationally in three-point percentage, to just 25% (5-for-20) from the perimeter. With the win, Gonzaga is now in position to win a share of the WCC crown for the sixth straight year. Both teams are atop the standings at 13–1, making it very likely they’ll finish tied for first (though the Bulldogs must still travel to third-place BYU). It also sets up a rubber match in the WCC tournament final, where Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have met in each of the last two years. It feels like the two are on a collision course for the tournament crown yet again.
Life on the Bubble
Saturday was a mixed bag for teams that were listed as “True Bubble Teams” in SI.com’s latest Bubble Watch. Virginia Tech picked up a massive win for its chances by knocking off No. 2 Virginia in overtime, Alabama had an impressive rout of No. 15 Tennessee, Texas A&M defeated Kentucky, Wichita State crushed UConn, TCU took care of Texas, Arkansas handled Vanderbilt, Missouri edged Mississippi State in overtime, LSU beat Ole Miss and Nevada beat San Diego State—but more importantly saw leading scorer Caleb Martin suit up just two days after he was announced out indefinitely with a Lisfranc sprain in what was thought to be a big blow.
On the other hand, USC fell at Arizona in its last chance for a marquee win, Providence lost to DePaul by 17 at home, Washington got beat by Oregon State in double OT, NC State couldn’t pull off a season sweep of UNC, Boise State lost to Utah State, Kansas State got shut down by Texas Tech, UCLA fell at Arizona State, Marquette became St. John’s latest victim, Georgia lost to Auburn and South Carolina dropped its fifth straight.
If you’re keeping track by conference, that’s a pretty brutal day for the Pac-12. Outside of Arizona, and—very likely—Arizona State, the conference has no sure NCAA tourney teams. Washington has some big wins and entered Saturday second in the league, but getting sunk at the buzzer at Oregon State did it no favors. UCLA did do itself plenty of favors with a win over Arizona on Thursday, but squandered a chance to bolster its résumé further at ASU. Meanwhile, USC has nearly played itself out of the at-large discussion and remains with just one top-50 RPI win (Middle Tennessee).