Texas, Pittsburgh add tumult at the top

February, 19, 2011
2/19/11
7:29
PM ET
Texas Longhorns loseBruce Thorson/US PresswireTexas had won 11-straight Big 12 matchups before stumbling against Nebraska on Saturday.
Everyone just keeps losing.

A week after the last undefeated team in the nation (Ohio State) lost its first game of the season (at Wisconsin), the rest of the prospective No. 1 contenders -- and No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds -- haven't fared any better on the road in conference play.

Kansas lost at Kansas State. Pittsburgh lost at St. John's. And, yes, Texas lost at Nebraska. Everyone just keeps losing.

The Longhorns' 70-67 loss was certainly the most surprising. Texas had won its first 11 Big 12 games in comprehensive fashion, dominating lesser Big 12 foes at home and on the road. Rick Barnes' team pasted Texas A&M in College Station and Austin. They locked Kansas down in Allen Fieldhouse. Only once, in a 69-60 win over Baylor last Saturday, had the Longhorns' margin of victory been inside single-digits. UT's defense wasn't just the best in the Big 12. It was the best in the nation by a wide margin.

But the Longhorns ran into a pretty good defensive team in its own right. Nebraska entered Saturday's game with the No. 14-ranked adjusted efficiency defense in the country and the No. 2-ranked D in Big 12 play. That defense was stellar: Texas shot 36.4 percent from the field and 12-of-36 from inside the arc, well below the Longhorns' season two-point field goal average of 49.5 percent. Much of that was thanks to some impressively tight defense on Jordan Hamilton, the brilliant sophomore wingman whose unique array of mid-range moves usually carves defenses up. Instead, Nebraska forced Hamilton's game to the perimeter, where he shot 11 3-pointers and made only three -- his only made field goals of the day. Hamilton finished 3-of-16 in Lincoln.

Excellent field goal defense is usually the Horns' specialty, but Texas got a taste of its own medicine Saturday. Save for a thrilling late comeback in the final two minutes of regulation, Hamilton and Co. couldn't keep pace, and the Huskers held on for their biggest win of the season.

There are a few takeaways here:

  1. It's hard to win on the road in conference play. In case you needed another reminder, here you go.
  2. Nebraska is a legitimate bubble candidate. No, the Cornhuskers' computer profile Insider won't make you swoon. No, a 6-6 Big 12 record isn't the sexiest mark in the world. Yes, the losses to Davidson and Texas Tech are disconcerting. But any team with three top-50 RPI wins (even if one is against Oklahoma State), two of which came against Texas A&M and Texas, has a place in the bubble conversation going forward. And ...
  3. Even dominant teams are capable of losing more than few of their remaining games.
[+] EnlargeD.J. Kennedy
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireD.J. Kennedy and St. John's toppled another top seed Saturday as they beat Pittsburgh 60-59.
Texas wasn't the only top seed to fall. Pittsburgh suffered its first loss in nearly a month Saturday, when the Panthers were just the latest top team to fall to St. John's at Madison Square Garden. (The Johnnies are really putting together a tourney profile, huh? Is there any team in the nation with as many good wins?) That means every single one of Joe Lunardi's -- and pretty much everyone else's -- top four overall tourney seeds has lost in the past seven days.

But this trend doesn't stop at the top four. In fact, seven of the current Associated Press top 10 lost this week. Joining the top four were Notre Dame (lost to West Virginia 72-58), Georgetown (lost to Connecticut 78-70 on Wednesday), and Wisconsin (lost to Purdue 70-62 on Wednesday). (Only Duke, San Diego State, and BYU survived.) Those losses are a microcosm for a larger trend we've seen all season, a combination of takeaway No. 1 above: home teams have a major advantage in conference play regardless of talent and there are no great teams this season -- a grating refrain you've probably heard a thousand times by now.

I'm not exactly sure that's true. After all, Ohio State is still 24-1, and many a "great" team have fallen to the Badgers in Madison. (And, as Doug Gottlieb noted on our podcast Friday, Wisconsin basically had to play a perfect second-half to knock off Ohio State at home.) A road loss to Nebraska -- again, one of the best defensive teams in the country, and the second-best in the Big 12 -- is nothing to be ashamed about. Pittsburgh has handled the majority of its daily Big East death march with unique ease. Duke has two road losses and that's it. Are we sure these aren't great teams? Relative to what?

Still, even if it's true, we seem to trot out that "no-great-teams" cliche every year. It's like a reflex. If one team isn't a clear national title favorite, we assume everyone must just be mediocre.

We won't know whether that's true until these No. 1 seeds clash in the NCAA tournament. We won't really be able to say any team among OSU, Texas, Kansas, Pittsburgh, and Duke is great -- or non-great, I suppose -- until one team has a chance to make a defining NCAA tournament run. For now, things are bunched at the top, and we just don't know.

There are a couple of things we do know. The first is that none of these teams is likely to drop off the No. 1 seed line thanks to this week's losses. All four have done too much to date to have those odds undone by one loss.

But it is fair to say the No. 1 seed situation will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks. Duke could now make a pretty significant case that its résumé is just as good as any of the teams on the No. 1 line. And while most of the teams above the Aztecs just keep losing, San Diego State -- let's not forget Steve Fisher's team, huh? -- just keeps winning. (It won at Air Force Saturday.) Were SDSU to win out the rest of the way -- which would include next Saturday's rematch with Jimmer Fredette and BYU, as well as the season closer versus Colorado State -- they would be 28-1 heading into the Mountain West tourney with six top-50 RPI wins, a top-five RPI of their own, and their only loss being on the road to BYU, another top-five RPI squad. Would San Diego State get a No. 1 seed then? Better yet, could we then starting calling them a great team?

That would still be too early. In the end, San Diego State will play by the same rules as the rest of the top 10: We may or may not have a great team in that group, but whether we do or not won't be decided by a few mid-February conference road losses.

Fact is, as of Saturday, we just don't know. We may have five great teams. (Hey, it could happen.) We may have three, or two, or one. We'll find out in the NCAA tournament. Until then, when someone starts trotting out that annual "no great teams" chestnut, don't buy in. At least not yet.

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