It didn't look like a great slate of games coming in, but Saturday turned out to be full of upsets and last-second thrillers. Here are some things we learned from all the action ...
The Top Three
What we learned: Wow. A true beatdown. Perhaps we don’t have an elite team in college basketball this season. North Carolina has as much potential as any team in the country to warrant that title, but Saturday’s meltdown -- the most lopsided of the Roy Williams era -- contradicted much of what we thought we knew about the Tar Heels. The Seminoles are always feisty against Carolina and Duke and tend to be giant-killers, but this was just silly. The Noles were 12-for-27 from the 3-point line in this victory. Deividas Dulkys was 8-for-10 from beyond the arc and scored a career-high 32 points. He had scored a combined 32 points in his previous nine games. The Tar Heels lost their fire once the barrage began. The Seminoles saw a vulnerable team and pounced. For the third time this season, the Heels lost a game outside of Chapel Hill. But in this loss, they were bullied and lethargic. How will UNC recover, and what on earth is the ACC about right now?
What we learned: Cuonzo Martin’s Volunteers haven’t looked like an 8-9 squad over the past week. In their past three games, they’ve defeated Florida, nearly knocked off Mississippi State on the road and battled Kentucky for all 40 minutes. Freshman Jarnell Stokes, the highly touted prep player who joined the team Monday, recorded nine points and grabbed four rebounds in his debut. Once Stokes gets into shape, he’s going to have a major effect on a Tennessee squad that led Kentucky by eight in the second half and stuck with the Wildcats until the end. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (18 points, 4 blocks) are two of America’s best, but their squad is going to get caught in league play soon if it continues to show up only after halftime.
What we learned: This game was over when Ed Cooley announced stud point guard Vincent Council would not play. The Friars’ leading scorer might not have affected the final outcome, but he could have helped his squad’s deplorable offense (3-for-14 from beyond the arc, 22 turnovers) against Cuse's press. Council was a beast in PC's 31-point destruction of Louisville earlier this week. But Syracuse proved, again, that it’s the undisputed No. 1 team in the country. SU has separated itself from one of the most competitive leagues in the country. The Orange’s 19-0 start matches the best in school history. With North Carolina losing to Florida State and Kentucky struggling against Tennessee, it’s about time that Syracuse gets more credit for its strong start. Best team. In the country. No debate.
The Midwest Upsets
What we learned: Oh, Big Ten. How you always find a way to amaze us. Within the past week, the league’s top three teams all have fallen in upsets. At home in Evanston, the Wildcats (losers of four of their previous five entering the game) snapped Michigan State’s 15-game winning streak as John Shurna led four double-figure scorers with 22 points. This game meant a few things: (1) There’s far less separation between the top and bottom of the Big Ten than there appeared to be two weeks ago. (2) Much like Michigan and Wisconsin, the Spartans are looking for a consistent No. 3. Draymond Green and Keith Appling were the team’s only two scorers in double figures. (3) Northwestern needs to prove it can put together a string of games that resemble Saturday’s outing. The Wildcats have pieces, but they tend to showcase their potential in spurts. Wonder whether this season will be different.
What we learned: I can’t figure out Iowa or the Big Ten right now. The Hawkeyes knocked off their second nationally ranked opponent in two weeks. And in a Big Ten that’s as hard to peg as any league in the country right now, the Hawkeyes look like a factor. I didn’t say contender. But the Hawkeyes prove the Big Ten doesn’t offer any easy victories. No pushovers in this conference (see Minnesota-Indiana, Northwestern-Michigan for further proof). For Michigan, this game just confirmed how much the Wolverines rely on Tim Hardaway Jr. He is 17-for-55 in the team’s four losses. The only way the Wolverines -- now 1-3 on the road -- will make a push toward the top of the Big Ten standings is if Hardaway is more consistent.
What we learned: Frank Martin was enraged after his team lost to an undefeated Baylor squad Tuesday at home. He preached defense in his postgame interviews. That was a major challenge for the Wildcats on Saturday, too. The Big 12’s eighth-ranked scoring defense allowed a Sooners team that lost its first three Big 12 games to shoot 55 percent from the field. K-State's performances against Mizzou and Baylor suggested the Wildcats deserve a spot among the Big 12’s elite. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, with the Wildcats having dropped three of their past four games. Their conference slate gets easier from here over the next few weeks, but the Cats will find themselves in vulnerable spots, especially on the road, if their defensive woes continue. That's now 3-8 in its past 11 Big 12 road games for KSU. After a strong debut, Lon Kruger’s squad fell hard (the Sooners had lost four of five entering Saturday’s game). But the Kansas State victory should be a major confidence booster for OU. The Sooners snapped a 14-game losing skid against ranked opponents.
The Mountain West Thriller
What we learned: The Mountain West is going to make noise in March. The league’s top two squads, both nationally ranked, battled for 40 minutes in San Diego. This wasn’t a basketball game. It was a title fight. I wasn’t there, but it felt like a tournament game from my couch. This game had some of the best back-and-forth action I’ve seen all season. Neither team could pull away. Jamaal Franklin (team-high 24 points) tumbled over a photographer in the final seconds and hurt his ankle. But he returned to the floor moments later and scored the game-winning bucket. Steve Fisher continues to exceed expectations after losing Kawhi Leonard to the NBA draft and three other starters. The Rebels won’t beat the top squads in their league or the NCAA tournament if their two leading scorers, Chace Stanback (7 points, 3-of-9 shooting) and Mike Moser (9 points, 3-of-11), struggle in big games. But San Diego State is headed to Las Vegas on Feb. 11 for the rematch. Can’t wait to see that. This matchup wasn’t just a boost for the two teams on floor; it was a boost for the entire league. The Mountain West is tough. And don't forget about New Mexico, which won its 13th straight with a victory at Wyoming. The Aztecs and Lobos go at it Wednesday night.
Taking Care Of Business
What we learned: The Tigers aren’t conventional. They’re undersized in a league with a multitude of skilled bigs and they’re not very deep. But Frank Haith used seven players in his second consecutive victory since last week’s lopsided loss at Kansas State. Ricardo Ratliffe led the Tigers with 21 points (10-of-12). Marcus Denmon, who had six in a win at Iowa State on Wednesday, scored 18 against the Longhorns. Phil Pressey (18 points, 10 assists, 0 turnovers) continued his impressive play. Few teams possess the perimeter depth and skill to challenge Missouri’s talented backcourt for 40 minutes. J’Covan Brown scored 34 points for the Horns, matching the combined scoring tally for the team’s other four starters. But they couldn’t defend a Mizzou team that held a 43-30 edge at halftime and finished with four scorers in double figures. A week ago, folks questioned the Tigers' legitimacy. But they clearly have regained their mojo since the KSU loss and should pose a threat to any top-tier Big 12 team.
What we learned: Alabama entered this game on a five-game winning streak. But Bama won’t beat most teams in the SEC by scoring 52 points. JaMychal Green (14 points) was the Crimson Tide's only double-digit scorer. The Bulldogs weren’t much better. However, Arnett Moultrie’s 25-point, 13-rebound output was the difference. The two teams combined to shoot 4-for-26 from the 3-point line, but Dee Bost was 3-for-3 from long range in the closing minutes and that was that. Man, the SEC is confusing. Kentucky is obviously the league’s best, but who are Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5? This was an opportunity for these squads to make a definitive statement about their places in the league. Didn’t really happen. I expected more from this one, but hey, Mississippi State will take the win.
Some more observations from Saturday
Baylor looked like a national champ in its 106-65 victory over Oklahoma State. No, the Cowboys aren’t an elite team. But the Bears shot 52 percent on 3-pointers (15-of-29) and had almost twice as many rebounds as OSU (48-25). Nine players scored for the Bears. Their depth is underrated, and it’s going to be a huge asset in March.
Iowa State blew a 12-point second-half lead and lost its second consecutive matchup against a ranked opponent in its 82-73 defeat at Kansas. But with Royce White (18 points, 17 rebounds), the Cyclones can win nine or more in the Big 12. By the way, a career-high 28 points out of Tyshawn Taylor should quiet a few of his critics.
Connecticut is such a different team when Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond are fully engaged. Drummond (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Oriakhi (12 points, 7 rebounds) were impressive in the Huskies’ 67-53 win at Notre Dame, ending the Irish's 29-game home win streak. The Huskies didn’t have Ryan Boatright, but they played like a complete team with their bigs being so active.
Pittsburgh played better Saturday but still lost at Marquette 62-57. The Panthers, the models of consistency over the past decade, have lost six straight and are 0-5 in the Big East. Holy cow. Let that one sink in.
His team lost once again in a close game at Cincinnati, but it's worth mentioning the effort by Villanova's Maalik Wayns, who had a line of 39 points (6-of-13 from 3), 13 rebounds and six assists, and put his struggling Wildcats in a position to win on the road.
Xavier has won three in a row, after topping St. Bonaventure 77-64. Mark Lyons and Tu Holloway combined to score 33 points in the victory. The Musketeers didn’t secure any signature wins during this mini-revival, but that doesn’t matter. X needed to get back to winning as it prepares for the Atlantic 10's toughest squads. Until someone in the conference knocks off the Musketeers at the Cintas Center (where they've beaten 42 consecutive A-10 opponents), this team is still the league favorite in my opinion.
Conference USA should be fun this season. Like Xavier, Memphis -- a decisive winner at Houston on Saturday night -- should still be considered the favorite until someone proves they can beat the Tigers on the road. But Marshall and UCF played a classic in a 65-64 Thundering Herd victory, and both could give Memphis trouble. Southern Miss is right in the mix as well.
Meanwhile, in the Mid-American Conference, Akron now has to be considered the favorite after a 68-63 victory over Ohio, which looked so solid in nonconfernece play but has faltered of late. The Zips have wins at Mississippi State and Marshall. If they make the NCAA tournament, look out.
Have to be impressed with the way Oregon swept the Arizona schools. Winning in Tempe is nothing to be overjoyed about, but winning in Tucson -- no matter how mediocre the Wildcats have been for most of the season -- is still special for any Pac-12 school. The Ducks are as good a bet as any to win this crazy league.
You know who won't win the Pac-12? The Ducks' rival, Oregon State. The Beavers have played great at times this season, but the bottom line is 1-5 in a down conference after a horrendous double-digit loss at Arizona State on Saturday.
You know who just might win the Pac-12? Stanford. The Cardinal now are 5-1 in the conference after a 20-point beatdown of Colorado, which began 3-0 (all at home) but got a rude awakening in the Bay Area by Cal and Stanford.
Gonzaga was shaky early Saturday night, but the Zags have to be happy with their 62-58 win at Loyola Marymount, a team that has knocked off UCLA and Saint Louis this season. Mark Few's team was absolutely humiliated at Saint Mary's on Thursday. A bounce-back victory was a must, and the Zags got it done.