Five observations from this past week:
1. National title favorite? Try favorites. For much of November and December, the Duke Blue Devils were rightfully considered the lone true national title favorite, a steamroller of talent trailed by a handful of solid but flawed, potential contenders. That dynamic has changed. We don't have any new details on the status of Kyrie Irving's toe, but this week Coach K said Irving would be out "for a long time" and that his players were in the process of becoming a "different team." Couple that ominous-sounding diagnosis with the recent performances of teams like Ohio State and Kansas -- two loaded teams with star freshmen of their own -- and it's clear Duke is no longer head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
2. Something's wrong with Kansas State's offense. The Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 3 nationally and riding the kind of optimistic wave that tends to wash aside legitimate personnel concerns. When you have so much, why worry about what's missing? Alas, at this point in the season -- on the heels of a 44-point stinker in a loss to Florida on Saturday -- the Wildcats could be missing former point guard Denis Clemente more than anyone would have imagined. K-State has a couple of offensive issues to deal with. One is Jacob Pullen's shooting. The other is free throw rate. Last season, Kansas State had the fourth-highest free throw rate in the country. This season, the Wildcats are ranked No. 108 in the country in the stat. It's hard to tease out how much of this is a function of Clemente's absence -- certainly Pullen got more open looks from 3-point range with Clemente pushing the pace and getting into the lane -- and how much is just a slow start by Frank Martin's team thus far. One way or the other, though, the Wildcats have to find a way to get to the line more often. Until they do, that preseason optimism will continue to wane.
3. Michigan will stay out of the Big Ten cellar. The Wolverines aren’t exactly setting the world ablaze, but they’re significantly better than the doom and gloom that preceded this season. On Saturday, the Wolverines thoroughly handled the same Oakland team that took Michigan State to the wire and upset Tennessee last week. Michigan’s only other “quality” win came at Clemson, but no matter: It’s clear from their performance so far that the Wolverines will be plenty competitive in the middle of the Big Ten this season. Michigan’s offense isn’t great, but the defense is the 17th-best in the country, according to Pomeroy, and sophomore guard Darius Morris boasts the second-best assist rate in the country (48.4 percent). Michigan’s best-case might be a No. 7 spot in the Big Ten and a fringe bubble case by season’s end, but whatever. Compared to where this program seemed to be this offseason, as long as Michigan isn’t fending off Iowa, Indiana and Penn State for last-place Big Ten honors, everything else is gravy.
4. Central Florida is an NCAA tournament team. If the tournament started today, you’d have to include UCF in your tournament bracket. The Knights can claim dominion over the Sunshine State after wins over South Florida, Florida and Miami, the last of which came Saturday in Sunshine, Fla. The UF win looks especially impressive after the Gators’ win over Kansas State later at the Orange Bowl Classic. And now that UCF is past those in-state tests, and has few likely nonconference challenges left before league play begins, it can focus on what now looks like a totally realistic Conference USA title campaign. Before this season, the Knights were interesting only because they had the spawn of Michael Jordan on their team. Thanks in large part to the play of Marcus Jordan, this team is worth your attention for competitive reasons, too.
5. Kendall Marshall needs more minutes. Point guard play was one of the main contributors to North Carolina's troubles last season. It has reared its ugly head in 2010-11, too. Only this season, Roy Williams has a ready-made remedy on his bench. That remedy’s name is Marshall, who was brilliant in limited action in the Tar Heels’ loss to Texas Saturday. He has an intuitive feel for the game, can penetrate against the quickest of defenders, and finds UNC’s lanky big men better than either Dexter Strickland or Larry Drew II. (Marshall’s 41.8 percent assist rate would place him among the top 15 in the stat nationally if he had enough possessions to qualify for Pomeroy’s list.) Strickland and Drew II have improved, but Marshall is the driver Williams’ up-tempo offense needs. Now all Roy has to do is give him the keys.