Some assorted thoughts on the bulk of Saturday's afternoon action:
Baylor 64, No. 8 Kentucky 55: With the benefit of a couple months' distance, it's entirely likely we will look back at this game as nothing more than a good win for Baylor. We will cite it in bubble calculations, and that will basically be that.
Maybe that's for the best. Because while Baylor surely deserves some credit for holding on to win in Rupp Arena -- the first in 55 games and the first in John Calipari's tenure, so no easy feat -- this loss was almost entirely about the Wildcats and the massive offensive funk they find themselves in.
At Notre Dame, Kentucky's poor offense was a product of excellent help and rotations by an experienced Irish team. In South Bend, UK's skittishness could be ascribed to the tough road environment -- the type of thing a young team is supposed to do in its first road game of the season.
On Saturday, things were even simpler: Kentucky just played poorly. Baylor, an OK defensive team that largely relies on athleticism and up-tempo offense -- and which had lost to Colorado and Charleston this season -- scored 0.83 points per trip, committing 19 turnovers in the process. Any other day in Lexington, those numbers mean you're going to get mercilessly crushed.
But thanks to missed shot after missed shot -- 3-for-14 from Nerlens Noel, 1-for-11 from Kyle Wiltjer, 2-for-9 from Julius Mays -- Kentucky scored just 0.73 per possession, the worst tally of the Calipari era.
In a way, that should give UK fans some hope. I mean, your team isn't going to shoot 29.6 percent at home all that often. It isn't going to go 4-for-22 from 3 frequently either. (The last time UK shot that poorly from beyond the arc was when John Wall's team fell to West Virginia in the Final Four.) When the offense comes together a bit, organizationally and individually, UK will look much more daunting.
But Saturday's result is disconcerting. After taking some expected lumps on the road Thursday night, UK returned home, where it has been unbeatable against Calipari, and laid the ultimate egg. It's a long way to March, but that's not the type of thing you often see from national title contenders, even in December.
No. 5 Louisville 69, Illinois State 66: Saturday nearly became an awful day for everyone in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Illinois State led for much of the game. Louisville had to get a bunch of stops between the 10- and 5-minute marks of the second half to crawl back in front and needed a Chane Behanan block, some late Peyton Siva free throws, a missed 3 by ISU and a very close no-call* to slink away with a three-point home win.
*For the record, I thought it was the right no-call. If you watch the play again (and I have, over and over), you can see Illinois State guard Tyler Brown basically lean in and initiate the contact with a jumping Behanan. Were it not a last-second heave, he might have gotten the call, but in head-fake/jump-in situations, the tie should never go to the offensive player. Go make a basketball play instead.
Louisville didn't play particularly well -- shooting 5-for-21 from 3 and getting basically nothing from role guys Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, Zach Price and Kevin Ware -- but you should walk away from this result knowing not just that Louisville will occasionally struggle to score (duh) but also that Illinois State is very much the real deal in the Missouri Valley Conference. Jackie Carmichael (20 points, 9 rebounds) is one of the best rebounders in the country, and he has added some really smart, intuitive offensive post work to his repertoire. Brown is a really strong player at the guard spot. Northwestern's three-point overtime win over Illinois State last Saturday was a much better win for the Wildcats than anyone realized at the time.
No. 17 Cincinnati 58, Alabama 56: There are a few things you know you're going to get from a game featuring either Cincinnati or Alabama: rebounding, physicality and, above all, hard-nosed defense. The Bearcats entered this game ranked No. 9 in the country in efficiency defense; the Crimson Tide arrived in Cincinnati ranked No. 11.
Defense -- and an incredibly tight, well-played second half -- is exactly what we got. Neither team broke a point per possession, and while Anthony Grant's team rebounded better, it also turned the ball over more. When it did break through, Cincinnati's scoring was typically balanced, as JaQuon Parker, Sean Kilpatrick, Cheikh Mbodj, Titus Rubles and Cashmere Wright all scored at least eight points. But it could never score efficiently enough against Alabama's defense to build any sort of cushion down the stretch.
All of which brought us to a tied game with 6 seconds remaining. Wright raced down the floor, stepped back to the left baseline and arced up a gorgeous floating fallaway jumper that couldn't have been better; it barely even touched the net. After an afternoon of defense was ended by a brilliant offensive play, Bearcats coach Mick Cronin turned to Grant and dramatically rolled his eyes, as if to say "Ah, jeez -- what are you going to do?"
Virginia Tech 81, No. 15 Oklahoma State 71: Virginia Tech wasn't supposed to be good. Virginia Tech wasn't even supposed to be average.
Virginia Tech was supposed to be a mess. The school fired Seth Greenberg this summer, replacing him with former Hokies assistant James Johnson, hired not only out of affinity but as a way to maintain "continuity" in the program. That didn't work: The Hokies' best player, NBA prospect Dorian Finney-Smith, transferred. Top recruit Montrezl Harrell asked for a release and got it (he now plays for Louisville). The Hokies would be Erick Green and not much else, another of the ACC's rebuilding projects, move along, nothing to see here.
One November of basketball later, it is clear the Hokies are not what we thought at all.
On Saturday, the Hokies took down a ranked Oklahoma State -- the same Marcus Smart-led team that impressed us early with wins over Akron, Tennessee and a 20-point victory over NC State -- on their home floor in Blacksburg, Va. It was the Hokies' second victory of the week. The first came in arguably more impressive fashion, when Tech drubbed Iowa on Tuesday night, but even then, with no good wins to compare it to, it was easy to surmise that Iowa was merely really bad at defense.
Indeed, the common denominator between that game and Saturday's was offense, specifically Virginia Tech's and even more specifically Green's. Green had 28 points and 7 rebounds Saturday, which brought his season averages to 24.3 points, 5.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. (He entered Saturday with a 129.8 offensive rating on 28.1 percent usage in a ton of minutes, all of which is awfully good.) Earlier in the season, Green was one of many players casually thrown on the preliminary Wooden Award ballot. That inclusion no longer appears so casual.
Virginia Tech may not be an ACC contender -- home wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State are nice and the Hokies are playing great on the offensive end, but let's not go too far -- but that is not the applicable curve on which to grade this team. What's important is that Johnson didn't slide into Wake Forest territory, even if it looked like he had every personnel-related excuse. There will be no historically bad rebuilding seasons here. I did not see that coming.
Other afternoon results of note: Xavier moved to 6-1 with a nice win at Purdue. Wasn't Xavier picked ninth in the Atlantic 10 this year? Whoops. … No. 11 Creighton hosted A-10 favorite Saint Joe's, which was one of the premier games of the day right up until the point when Creighton decided to score 1.16 points per trip and hold the Hawks to just 0.76. Creighton won 80-51. … No. 25 New Mexico seems incapable of playing anything but close games. It also seems quite good at winning them. The Lobos moved to 8-0 with a 77-68 overtime win at Indiana State. … After Tuesday's big home win over Michigan State, you could have forgiven Miami for a letdown on the road at Massachusetts. Not so much. The Hurricanes won 75-62 in Amherst, and it must be said that UMass doesn't look anywhere near as good as some of the preseason hype suggested. … How bad is the Colonial Athletic Association this season? Its overwhelming preseason favorite, Drexel, lost by nine at home to Rider, which would be bad even if it weren't Drexel's fifth loss of the season already. Yikes.