College Basketball Nation: Pac-12
The Pac-12 has followed the script for the most part.
Entering this season, anyone could recognize Arizona’s perch atop the conference with McDonald’s All American Aaron Gordon joining one of the nation’s best frontcourts.
Steve Alford, meanwhile, had come to Los Angeles to save UCLA.
Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal all looked like potential NCAA tourney teams.
But even though we knew that about this league, no conference is teetering on a bigger platform of uncertainty right now. Maybe this is a three-bid league. Maybe it’s a six- or seven-bid league.
The Pac-12 picked the perfect city, Las Vegas, for this toss-up conference tournament.
On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed Arizona’s season and program. Ashley, a sophomore, stretched the floor in ways that few big men can.
But Sean Miller’s recruiting spoils in recent years have been a godsend to the program. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the starting five a true small forward and creates a mismatch nightmare for every frontcourt that faces Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski.
Everything is pointing to Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, and the Wildcats earning a top seed and a place in Anaheim. But what could mess that up? A loss to Washington or Utah -- a pair of sub-50 teams in the RPI -- in Thursday’s quarterfinals wouldn’t help.
A quarterfinal loss to Oregon State (if the Beavers were to get past Oregon in the first round) could demote UCLA, too. And it’s not like the Bruins are hot right now (2-3 in their past five games).
But neither has much to worry about right now, it seems. They’re dancing.
As for the rest of the league? Well, that’s not necessarily the case.
Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal are all fighting to lock up berths in the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which defeated Arizona over the weekend, is probably the safest member of the group. The Ducks likely feel secure after defeating the Wildcats, but that buzz will die fast if they lose to Oregon State on Wednesday.
Stanford is searching for its first NCAA tournament berth under Johnny Dawkins. An NIT bid for Arizona State, which enters the conference tourney after suffering back-to-back road losses to Oregon State and Oregon, would be disappointing. The Sun Devils and Cardinal could be matched up on Thursday in a quarterfinal game with high stakes.
Colorado continues to deal with the question, "Who are the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie?" Including its Jan. 12 loss to Washington when Dinwiddie suffered his season-ending knee injury, Tad Boyle’s program is 7-8 without the previously projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Colorado has a chance to prove it would still be a respectable addition to the field and a solid seed with a run this week. Its overtime road loss to Cal over the weekend didn’t help.
Team with the most to gain
On Feb. 1, Justin Cobbs drove off a pick and connected on a 17-footer that beat the buzzer and then-No. 1 Arizona. Cal fans stormed the court and all seemed well for Mike Montgomery’s program.
That thrill, however, didn’t last. Cal has gone 4-5 since then but enters the conference tournament following a weekend overtime victory over Colorado.
Cal is still alive. The Bears are currently in Joe Lunardi’s "First Four Out" grouping. So a couple wins, beginning with a potential matchup against Colorado in Thursday’s quarterfinals, could be the difference for Cal.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 tourney affects the league’s pool of at-large berths once they’re announced on Selection Sunday.
It could be bigger than that, though. Few leagues have faced as much speculation about coaches who might be on the hot seat. This might be a pivotal tourney for Dawkins, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone and Oregon State's Craig Robinson.
It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.
We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.
With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.
Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:
- Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
- Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
- Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
- Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
- Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
- Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
- T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
- Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
- Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
- Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.
How important was Saturday’s win?
Dawkins: Well, it was probably -- at this time of the year, having an opportunity to play a ranked opponent on a home court -- I think it was one of our signature wins this year. I think we’ve had a few of those this year. We’ve won at UConn when they were undefeated. We had a win at Oregon. ... I think we’ve beaten three [teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time] this season.
Some squads around the country are losing momentum right now. Your team is going the other way. What has been the key to finishing strong?
Dawkins: Well, our guys are excited. We have guys on our team that are seniors that want to leave their legacy on our program. They see it as an opportunity and we’re right in the middle of everything. We still have everything in front of us that we want to play for. The conference is still not decided. The champion is not decided. We still have the conference tournament. So, with everything to look forward to, it’s an exciting time to be playing. …. It shows the type of environment we have. Our kids are still anxious and realize they’re still playing for things.
Dawkins: I think it’s huge. Any time you can have some older players who’ve been through it and they want to accomplish something, it can be something that can really help prepare your team to have a really great season. And our guys have stepped up, like Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Those guys have really given us a big lift this year in leadership.
How important is an NCAA tourney bid, not just for the program, but for your tenure?
Dawkins: I don’t look at it this way. I look at it as it’s important for our group to make the tournament because these guys are seniors. They’ve been through a lot. We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs the last few years, injuries and so forth, that have set us back and I’m glad to see the resiliency that we’ve showed. Our kids have fought through all of that. They’ve never made excuses. We’ve never made excuses. We have an opportunity now to continue to strive toward our goals.
In the social media age, how difficult is it to stay away from the pressure when people outside the program are talking about how important a bid is for your program and for yourself?
Dawkins: For me, it’s easy. I don’t follow it all. Even back during my playing days in college, I never read articles, pro or con, with regards to our program or myself. I’m oblivious to all of that. I think that’s a good way to live. There’s so much information floating out there. Who really knows what’s going on? Who really has the answers? Who are the decision-makers? None of that is taken into account. It’s just people assuming and saying things. I don’t get into that. And I try to discourage my players from doing it as much as possible because it can have them focus on things that are inconsequential to what we have to do as a team. During the season, I try to have them understand -- ‘Stay focused on us; don’t focus on anything else’ -- because it can pull a team apart, which is the saddest thing. And it can also, for individual players if you’re not strong-minded, it can kind of get you if you’re disagreeing with things that you’re reading.
What were the benefits of working with Coach K?
Dawkins: I worked for him for 11 seasons. I think he instills a certain passion and desire you have to have to be successful in this profession. Of course, his preparation is second to none and the things that are required to be good, you learn all of that from working under him. And the biggest thing is you learn what this profession is really about. It’s about the young people that we coach. You want to give of yourself to the program. You want to give of yourself to your kids.
Until Saturday -- including the loss at California in which it happened -- the Wildcats had averaged .997 points per possession since the Ashley injury. The loss of his unique skill set, a mix of interior strength, floor spacing and size, proved impossible to replace. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is an excellent player in his own right, but a different one. And so the Wildcats struggled in every game, save for a home blowout of Oregon State, scrounging for points, fighting close finishes, narrowly avoiding losses, watching one-time player of the year candidate Nick Johnson take a massive scoring nosedive.
"We wanted to give Gabe an opportunity at the beginning,” Miller said. “Sometimes if you give a guy a fresh opportunity they play with more confidence. And it ended up working. He shot the ball like he’s capable of. Rondae’s role didn’t change. He played the same amount of minutes [31 on Wednesday]. It kind of gave Gabe what I would call a new beginning where you have a chance to start and be out there. It was great to see."
No one would go so far as to say York's starting role led to Arizona's breakout performance Saturday. That would be silly, not least of which because York scored just four points on nine percent usage Saturday. But the ability to bring Hollis-Jefferson off the bench, where he was so useful before Ashley's injury, is important, as is Arizona's general ability to space the floor. The three-guard look is a good one, at least according to early returns.
And anyway, it would be just as silly to attribute too much of the Wildcats' success to offense in the first place.
No, where the Wildcats have always been best this season is on the defensive end. That hasn't changed since the Ashley injury: Arizona ranks No. 1 in the country in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing opponents just .869 points per trip. In Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have allowed .891. Pac-12 teams shoot just 41 percent from inside the arc against Arizona, and the Wildcats force the second-most 2-point field goal attempts of any team in the league -- and 26th nationally.
York's installation in the starting lineup might change these facts slightly. We'll see. For now, as long as Johnson and T.J. McConnell are running shooters off the perimeter, and Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski are behind them ready to fill in Miller's adaptive pack-line defense, the Wildcats are going to keep playing the best defense in the country. Let's see how far they've come offensively in their rematch with Cal Wednesday night.
Now that you’ve had a few hours to breathe and think about it, how did your program pull off that upset win over your archrivals on Friday?
Sendek: It was a very entertaining college basketball game. Over the course of 50 minutes, I don’t think either team had more than a six-point lead. The game was hard-fought. Obviously, the game could’ve gone either way. We were fortunate in the end for [Jordan Bachynski] to come up with the blocked shot and seal the win for us.
Sendek: We’ve had a string of games like this lately. We’ve now played three overtime games. Even some of our other games that didn’t go into overtime were close and hard-fought. I think it’s just very reflective of how strong the conference is right now. It’s very competitive. On most nights, there’s not a lot of separation between teams.
How worried were you at the end of Friday’s game, when Carson hung on the rim and the crowd rushed the court before the game was over?
Sendek: To be honest with you, I didn’t know what had happened because I thought time had expired. ... I started to wonder, 'Why isn’t Arizona leaving the court?' Then the official finally grabbed me and told me what the situation was. It all happened in a matter of seconds. It just was like a blur. Before you knew it, there was [time] put back on the clock and we had to finish the game again.
You lost three of your first five Pac-12 games but you’ve won six of your past seven. What has been the key to this run?
Sendek: I think sometimes too much is made of those kinds of runs. Three of five we lost. ... Two of those were at UCLA and at Arizona. This time we played Arizona at home. I don’t get too caught up in stretches and the runs each game. ... I do think our team has continued to get better, and I would say everybody in our league has done the same.
How important is an NCAA tournament bid to this team?
Sendek: It’s important to our team. I think it’s the No. 1 goal that we have as players and coaches. We’ll give it our best shot for sure. Compared to other challenges that people have around the world, other sufferings that take place every day, I don’t know how important it is. But in the world of sports, our world, it’s our No. 1 goal right now.
How much pressure do you feel to add an NCAA tournament appearance to your resume?
Sendek: I guess it depends on how much control you want to give other people over your own feelings. I think a certain amount of pressure can be a good thing if it’s self-imposed. But to the extent that others apply pressure to you, I don’t know that that has any great value.
What has Marshall added to your program?
Sendek: He’s been terrific. Jermaine has made one big shot after another for us. He’s just brilliant down the home stretch of games, and I think he’s really added a level of maturity and bestowed great confidence on his teammates. He’s just been a phenomenal teammate for us -- certainly down the stretch of the Arizona game ... he made one big shot after another.
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Somewhere in that sea of yellow, he was stuck. Justin Cobbs couldn’t breathe. The curse of victory for a young man who wasn’t wild about being swallowed by a crowd after Cal’s 60-58 upset win over No. 1 Arizona on Saturday.
But that’s what happens when the undefeated No. 1 squad in the country falls for the first time on the opponent's home floor. That’s what happens when a three-game losing streak is ended that way. And that’s what happens when a senior point guard hits a game winner with 0.9 seconds to go, a development so stunning that Bears fans rushed the court early.
Fearing a technical foul that might ruin the moment, team and school officials eventually cleared the floor after Cobbs hit a jump shot from the left corner over 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski.
“I just stepped back and was able to shoot a shot I could make,” said Cobbs, who finished with 19 points and seven assists. “Step back and shot it with confidence and it went in.”
Haas Pavilion, which hosted Cal’s first win over a No. 1 team at the on-campus facility, exploded. Saturday night’s festivities had already started on the hardwood.
There were the fraternity brothers dishing out hugs whether they were wanted or not. There were the cheerleaders maintaining their perfect kicks and pom-pom pumps in the midst of the frenzy. There were the young men fixing their hair and posing for selfies. There were the young women nearby who thought they were fools.
There was the 20-something fan who speechless, yet screaming to a friend she’d put on speakerphone. “Like I don’t even know what to say!”
Cobbs survived the madness. But it had reached his phone by the time he’d returned to the locker room. There were 135 text messages awaiting him just 30 minutes after the win. “I got 89 [Twitter] mentions,” he said.
Cobbs was smiling.
Four years ago, he couldn’t find many reasons to smile.
The Los Angeles native left the West Coast to begin his collegiate career at Minnesota during the 2009-10 season. But he didn’t thrive in former Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s system. And he missed home.
It was bigger than that, though. He wasn’t even sure he still wanted to play.
At Cal, however, Cobbs got his groove back following a transfer in 2010. He’s been one of the top guards in the Pac-12 throughout his career. And he’s a leader who is respected by his teammates and coaches.
In the final seconds Saturday, Cobbs dribbled up the floor. Mike Montgomery had decided to let his team play for the win instead of calling a timeout and attempting to set up something.
Arizona had lost Brandon Ashley early in the game to a foot injury that could end his season. There was a noticeable difference in the Wildcats’ interior defense without him.
Cal exploited that.
“Anytime you lose a starter to an injury during a game, it takes a lot of resolve on your group and team to fight,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
By the time Cobbs had a shot at the game winner, Arizona had already been conditioned to monitor Kravish in space because he’d hit so many jump shots. That potential threat, one that Cal had built up throughout the evening, possibly made Tarczewski react too slowly when Richard Solomon came up to set the screen and give Cobbs some extra time to take the shot.
The Bears entered Saturday’s game on a three-game losing streak. Cobbs had a similar late-game opportunity during an overtime loss to Arizona State on Wednesday. But he missed.
Cobbs’ teammates, however, never doubted him. So as he dribbled up the floor against the No. 1 team in the country, they expected him to make it.
“I already knew,” said Solomon, who had 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals. “The whole team has faith in Justin to knock that shot down. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. We gonna celebrate tonight.”
It was just one basket. It doesn’t change everything for Cal.
It does, however, validate so much for Cobbs.
The decision to return home. The toughness to stick with the game even when he was unsure about his future. The courage to take another possible game winner even though the last one didn’t fall.
“[That shot] does a lot of things, because after my freshman year I was questioning a lot of things,” Cobbs said. “Whether this sport was for me, whether I was good enough to play at this level. I’m just blessed. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to come to another program and have another opportunity where I can get on the floor and show what I can do. It’s tremendous for me. I’m just going to embrace it and keep getting better.”
That's the only legitimate explanation for what happened to No. 1 Arizona in its occasionally turbulent outing against Stanford. Utah gave the Wildcats trouble at home before that. Both teams pushed the Wildcats. Somehow.
Well, it's not the only explanation. In Arizona's 65-56 victory over Utah last Sunday, the Wildcats made only three of their 14 3-point attempts. Freshman star Aaron Gordon struggled in a 3-for-13 outing. He went 2-for-10 in a 60-57 victory over Stanford on Wednesday. The team missed 11 of 29 free throws.
But the Wildcats held on both nights.
The challenges, however, solidified what we all know about conference play. Regardless of the league, it's never easy. It's never a breeze. From the Missouri Valley to the Big 12, playing 16 or 18 games against familiar foes creates pitfalls at some point in the year, even for elite teams.
So it's not prudent to overlook Arizona's next test, a road game at Cal on Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network). The Bears are spiraling downward, locked in a three-game losing skid with the No. 1 team in the country coming to town. That's not good. But they're desperate.
And Justin Cobbs (15.5 points per game, 6.0 assists per game) could have a big night. Maybe the Cal team that scored 96 on a ranked Oregon squad will show up.
Considering their recent efforts, however, that's unlikely. In reality, the Bears would need a near-perfect game to beat Arizona.
Sean Miller can win games in many ways.
That's the benefit of having so many capable athletes. Miller doesn't rely on one guy in clutch situations because he doesn’t have to. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (perhaps the future of the program), Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell can all make plays, offensively or defensively, to give Arizona a boost in those scenarios.
Few teams in the past decade have had the luxury of employing so many gifted athletes.
The road, where the Wildcats have displayed some of their vulnerabilities, is often the platform for disaster, though.
No, they shouldn't have much trouble with Cal. But sometimes strange things happen on the road. Arizona's past two games have re-emphasized that notion.
So expect the Wildcats to come out strong and remove that possibility early.
Then again, maybe they'll end up in another scrap.
So, here’s a funny story: On Wednesday, a man didn’t want to talk to the media. When this man did talk to the media, he talked about how he didn’t want to talk to the media. The rest of the hour, he stood in silence.
This was, by nearly any metric, the biggest sports story of the day.
College basketball tends to get overshadowed by the NFL this time of year. The rules changes and scheduling tweaks the sport has made in recent seasons have been great, but competing with the galactically insane popularity of the National Football League, where Marshawn Lynch Goes to Media Day can be a thing, means some portion of the sports-loving populace is always going to miss out on college hoops.
This season, more than any in memory, that means missing out on a lot. Because as a jam-packed Wednesday night proved, the 2013-14 college basketball season has been amazing.
Meanwhile out West, Arizona, the best team in the country and the best and most balanced group we’ve seen since Anthony Davis led Kentucky to a national title two years ago, staved off a Stanford team and crowd in Palo Alto, Calif., so rabid legendary broadcaster Bill Walton said at halftime that he saw a “revolution going on here.” Not quite: Arizona’s own brilliant freshman, Aaron Gordon, had a key dunk and a massive block in the closing minutes. National player of the year candidate Nick Johnson made a 3-pointer with less than a minute left. The Wildcats held Stanford to just two field goals in the final 10 minutes, guarding their way out of their first loss of the season.
On Tuesday night, Wichita State -- the third of college basketball’s three remaining unbeatens -- moved to 22-0. Which meant that after Wednesday’s results, according to ESPN Stats & Information, there are now three teams 20-0 or better for the first time since Indiana, UNLV and Rutgers did it in 1976. According to Ken Pomeroy’s projections, there is now a 51 percent chance one of those three teams will finish the regular season without a loss. We’ve officially reached the point where can discuss the prospect of a loss-less season and feel less ridiculous than realistic. How bonkers is that?
Almost as bonkers as what’s happening to Ohio State and Wisconsin? Both teams spent the first two months of the season talking up an unbroken string of victories. Both teams spent Wednesday night at rock bottom.
On Jan. 4, Ohio State beat Nebraska by 31 at home to move to 15-0 on the season. Since then, the Buckeyes are 1-5, losing Wednesday in overtime at home to Penn State 71-70. As of Jan. 8, Bo Ryan’s team was 17-0, with a group of wins as impressive as any team’s: Florida, Saint Louis, Virginia, Marquette, Iowa. Since then Wisconsin is 1-4, and on Wednesday night the Badgers scored 56 points in 68 possessions and allowed 43 second-half points in a loss to Northwestern at the Kohl Center. What? What?!
Ohio State is a guaranteed defensive beast suddenly not defending; Wisconsin is a clinically efficient offense that shot 26.7 percent from the field at home in a loss to Northwestern. None of this makes any sense.
Look at KU now: Center Joel Embiid, who started playing basketball two years ago, has morphed into the sport’s best big man on both ends of the floor. Wiggins has posted two back-to-back career-high scoring nights -- 27 points, and then 29 -- in the Jayhawks’ past two games. On Wednesday, in Kansas’ 92-81 win over Iowa State, KU averaged 1.23 points per possession. That number is just a tick higher than its average output against Big 12 opponents to date. It’s an offense so good it almost doesn’t matter how often it turns the ball over, which is still probably too much. But who cares? A month ago, Kansas was supposed to yield the Big 12 title for the first time in nine years. Now it’s the easy favorite to win a 10th.
Wednesday basically summarized everything you need to know about the 2013-14 season: There are a handful of great teams, at least a dozen realistic Final Four contenders, as much young talent as the sport has seen in at least a decade, and the usual dizzying unpredictability that makes college basketball so much fun year in and year out.
So, yeah, if you’re a “casual fan” -- if you’re the type of person who spent most of your week catching up on all the latest Lynch “distraction” buzz -- then you should know you’ve missed a lot. But you should also know the best six freshmen in the country are all playing on Saturday. You should know that the Big Ten is tilting on its gloriously weird axis. You should know that not one but three teams will enter February undefeated. And you should know that Doug McDermott is chasing a historic 3,000 career points mark, and that you can set your browser to bookmark Creighton’s remaining schedule here.
That’s the good news, casual fan: You might have missed a lot, but there’s so much more to come. As one NFL player might -- or might not -- say, college basketball is in beast mode. And you made it just in time.
It seems like every team had to make some sort of adjustment in conference play.
No. 17 Ohio State and Illinois were in need of major overhauls after both entered Thursday’s meeting on four-game losing streaks.
No. 1 Arizona and No. 6 Florida had the luxury of needing only a few tweaks.
And then there were teams such as No. 15 Cincinnati and Colorado, which have had to adjust to the loss of injured players.
None breathed a sigh of relief quite like the Buckeyes did, though. Ohio State topped the Fighting Illini 62-55 and can, at least temporarily, change its season’s narrative. Its 15-0 start flipped to "What’s wrong in Columbus?" very quickly as losses piled up and offensive weaknesses were exposed.
There was nothing more symbolic of the Buckeyes' struggle through four games as one sequence early in the second half Thursday.
Amir Williams had a clear path to the rim and a sure dunk that he bounced off the back of the rim. Ohio State controlled the ball and Williams again found himself making his way to the basket when he got his shot altered and the Illini headed the other way.
The Buckeyes didn’t let their losing streak, nor their 29 percent shooting in the first half, create unnecessary pressure. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta figured out ways to get his two leading scorers open shots. Some of them came off Illinois’ 15 turnovers, but many others came in half-court sets.
Smith hit a huge 3-pointer with 1:25 left that gave Ohio State a 58-50 lead, and the Illini never got within one basket the rest of the way.
Just as the Buckeyes got a temporary reprieve from their struggles, it seems like trouble for Illinois is about to hit unfair levels. The Illini still have three games remaining in a five-game stretch that features four ranked opponents.
They left Columbus with many questions on how they can adjust, especially after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 17.4 points per game, was held scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting against Ohio State.
Arizona isn’t searching for much of anything after winning its 19th straight game. Wildcats coach Sean Miller is keeping his rotation tight, using only eight players against the Buffaloes. But eight was obviously enough for Arizona, which never trailed, as Nick Johnson led the Wildcats with 18 points.
The way Arizona is playing, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Spencer Dinwiddie would have made much of a difference.
Dinwiddie was Colorado’s leading scorer before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 12 in a loss at Washington. Wing Tre'Shaun Fletcher was hurt in the same game, but he's expected to return. Since then, the Buffaloes have been trying to find a viable third scoring threat to help replace Dinwiddie's 14.7 points per game.
It’s unfair to expect too much from freshman Jaron Hopkins, who replaced Dinwiddie in the lineup. He finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Both Josh Scott and Askia Booker have been consistent double-figure scorers, and they contributed 13 and 11 points, respectively, against the Wildcats. But it was sophomore forward Xavier Johnson who had the kind of breakout performance that could signal readiness for a bigger role.
Johnson scored a game-high 21 points -- just one shy of his career high -- included 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. It was the only game this season in which he logged more than 10 field goal attempts.
No. 15 Cincinnati has had its share of attrition this season with freshman center Jamaree Strickland being declared ineligible, guard Jeremiah Davis III transferring to Ball State and forward Jermaine Lawrence suffering from turf toe that has kept him sidelined the past three games.
But the Bearcats continue to move forward and lead the American Athletic Conference after their 69-51 win over UCF. Sean Kilpatrick led the way with 19 points, but it is their defense -- one that held UCF to just 26 percent from 3-point range -- that keys their victories.
Arguably no ranked team has had to make as many adjustments as Florida this season, with injuries and suspensions forcing coach Billy Donovan to juggle his lineups. The Gators have proven to be a resilient group, as Alabama can attest.
On a night when the Gators shot only 37 percent, they still made 10 3-pointers. Michael Frazier II made five of his attempts beyond the arc for a game-high 18 points as Florida beat the Crimson Tide 68-62 for their third SEC road win.