We're always worried about what's next.
But we have three months to argue about March Madness and the meaning of UCLA's upset over Kentucky on Thursday -- if it means anything. We'll deal with conference play and the Big East race that adds a new contender every night once the league fun begins in three weeks.
Table those conversations for a moment.
Let's talk about now and the sense of urgency a collection of teams frequently on the fringes in conference-race convos and Final Four discussions should demonstrate in the coming weeks and months. These chances to punch through a climate that feels more navigable for the blue-collar programs in a blue-chip era do not arrive often.
Let's talk about the significance of this moment and the regret they'll feel if they don't crash the powerhouse party. This year.
If Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona fail to meet expectations this season, they won't receive much sympathy because they don't recruit. They just pluck the best from the prep basketball crop each season.
The schools that can't afford a house on Lake Sign Whomever You Want? Well, it's more difficult to reload and rebuild. That's why Arkansas fans flipped when Malik Monk picked Kentucky. Tomorrow ain't pleasant for the teams that rarely experience the game's great heights. It's scary. So when there's a chance to grab a slice of the success that's a constant for a handful of elite programs, they embrace the idea and hope to avoid having their hearts broken.
That's why the sense of urgency is rising for the squad's that might not return to this plateau in the near future.
LSU? Unless Ben Simmons has a twin we don't know about, it's time to get serious. Oklahoma and Iowa State will lose some of their best players after the season. Kris Dunn is a Wooden Award candidate who just led Providence to another exciting finish in a rivalry game against Rhode Island. He's going to get paid after this season. Providence has no time to waste. Wichita State is running out of chances to save its hopes of an at-large bid in the farewell season for hobbling point guard Fred VanVleet and senior wing Ron Baker. And Vanderbilt seems capable of challenging Kentucky in the SEC.
Folks, we can't really talk about March in tangible terms because we're not even sure about next week. The contenders aren't in fighting shape yet. Those on the margins make noise one night (Oregon beats Baylor) and within weeks, we don't recognize them (Oregon loses against UNLV). We love the action, but it's also befuddling.
A week of intriguing matchups -- Oklahoma-Villanova (in Hawaii) on Monday; West Virginia-Virginia (in New York), Maryland-UConn (in New York) and Florida at Miami all on Tuesday -- might provide some clarity.
In a foggy scene, however, Purdue is one of the previously unsung teams that has emerged. It's a group that's led by one of the nation's most appealing frontcourt trios: Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons and Caleb Swanigan.
"I think we have the best center in basketball," Matt Painter told ESPN.com, "with the combination of [Haas and Hammons]."
Rapheal Davis, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year who has missed the team's past three games with a knee injury, will return this week to a crew that entered Sunday ranked second in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Both Hammons and Davis will graduate after this season.
"There's no question," Painter said, "we have a very good nucleus."
He said he benched Hammons early in the season because he wanted to send a message to the oft-troubled big man that the Boilermakers would go forward without him, if necessary. Too much at stake. A chance to be "special." It worked. Hammons' effort -- 12.8 points, 8.2 rebounds a night -- has been a key factor in Purdue's 8-0 start. The team picked a good year to surge.
But the Boilermakers must keep the mojo going. It's not easy to assemble the group that Painter guides this season, one that offers Purdue an opportunity to complete its best season since the 2009-10 squad reached the Sweet 16.
Here are some of the other schools that need to win big right now:
Urgency Level: That moment when Will Smith realizes he has to save the world from robots or aliens.
Why they have to win big now: LSU's 119-108 victory over North Florida backed the glorious assessments and near-deification of Ben Simmons' skills. It also revealed the Tigers' obvious flaws. Simmons recorded 43 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks but LSU surrendered 1.29 points per possession in that game. That's why the projected No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft is the leader of a 4-3 team. But when will the LSU Tigers -- a team that has cracked the NCAA tournament field once since 2009 -- play with that determination we all anticipated when they signed Simmons as part of a strong incoming class and brought back vets like Tim Quarterman? Adding Craig Victor, an Arizona transfer, and Keith Hornsby, still sidelined by injury, won't fix that unless the team embraces a new attitude.
Urgency Level: Report cards were sent home today and your mom is on her way.
Why they have to win big now: The Big East is a strong league. Recent feats by Providence, Butler, Xavier, Georgetown and Marquette suggest that undefeated Villanova -- still the favorite in the league -- will face its most arduous path to the title since the conference's inception. Providence will lose a vital component of its current success when Kris Dunn turns pro, an inevitable development based on how he's playing right now. His numbers look fake: 18.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.0 BPG, 3.6 SPG. He's one of the most versatile players in recent college basketball history. When he's on, Providence can compete with any team in the league and beyond. With Ben Bentil and Rodney Bullock continuing to grow next to him, Dunn could lead the Friars to a Big East crown and a lengthy stay in March. It's a unique situation for Providence. The Friars must capitalize this season.
Urgency Level: You get a "Did you remember her birthday?" text and you're at the golf course.
Why they have to win big now: Damian Jones essentially declared for this upcoming NBA draft last season. He wanted to avoid the questions about his future. He's playing like a lottery pick. And teammate Wade Baldwin IV (15.0 PPG, 1.5 SPG) looks like a first-round selection, too. Coach Kevin Stallings went through a series of trials before he put this group together. The Commodores -- still the best team name in college basketball -- entered Sunday night's matchup against Baylor (a 69-67 road loss) with one of the best defenses in America (opponents were shooting 36.5 percent inside the arc). They have the size and talent to challenge Kentucky in the SEC, and with Baldwin and Jones both potentially exiting, they can't think about next season. Vandy has to reach its ceiling now.
Iowa State Cyclones
Urgency Level: Your boss requests the report you haven't started yet.
Why they have to win big now: Former coach Fred Hoiberg left a top-10 squad behind when he departed Ames for the Chicago Bulls. And so far, Steve Prohm's undefeated Cyclones, who will face rival Iowa this week, have handled the expectations with the poise you'd expect from a squad with an abundance of experience. But Georges Niang, Naz Mitrou-Long, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader -- four of the team's top five scorers -- will exhaust their eligibility after this season. And Monte Morris might consider the NBA after this season. So Prohm will rebuild soon. He can. But at this point, he does not have a top-25 recruiting class on the way. That's why this feels like a must-win-big season for a program that will lose its top players after this season.
Wichita State Shockers
Urgency Level: You're affiliated with the Detroit Lions.
Why they have to win big now: On Saturday, Fred VanVleet returned after missing four games with a hamstring injury (Wichita State finished 1-3 during that stretch) and helped the Shockers defeat Saint Louis. He finished with 11 points and seven assists. He's pushing through the pain because he knows what every Wichita State fan knows: you don't get a VanVleet-Ron Baker pairing every season. That's a special duo. If the Shockers can get healthy -- Anton Grady is recovering from a spinal injury -- they will still reign in the Missouri Valley Conference, especially if Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp excels now that he's available. This week's matchups against UNLV and Utah (Intrust Bank Arena) in Wichita could boost the resume and collective confidence of a group that will lose its irreplaceable backcourt mates after this season.
Urgency Level: Club wants $40 for the cover charge but you only have $15.
Why they have to win big now: Coach Lon Kruger returned four of five starters from last season after Buddy Hield (21.4 PPG) decided to stay another season. Oklahoma enters Monday's matchup against Villanova with a chance to show the college basketball world that's it's a viable threat to Kansas' Big 12 title streak and a team that's capable of launching a deep run in March. The pivotal adjustments made by pick-and-pop threat Ryan Spangler will matter Monday and beyond. Last season, the 6-foot-8 forward took 14 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. This season? Per hoop-math.com, more than 20 percent of his shots have been 3-pointers and he's shooting 50 percent from behind the line. The Sooners have everything. But Hield, Spangler and Isaiah Cousins (13.2 PPG) are all seniors. The time is now in Norman.
Beat the Buzzer
November neutral-site games weren't as illuminating as we thought: Remember when Syracuse and Texas A&M were rising and Wisconsin and Duke were on their way down after their efforts in November neutral-site games?
Won't learn much about Kentucky before SEC play: The Wildcats' rivalry game against Louisville on Dec. 26 is the only meaningful matchup on their upcoming nonconference slate before they see LSU on Jan. 5. (The Arizona State game on Saturday ain't nothin' to play with, though.)
Gabe York is the leader Sean Miller has been searching for: Miller worried about leadership after losing T.J. McConnell. But after Saturday's come-from-behind win AT Gonzaga, this looks like York's team.
Gonzaga's defensive problem: Gary Bell's defensive talents hid some of Gonzaga's individual weaknesses in recent years because the 6-2 wing could lock up all five positions. The Zags don't have a player they can switch when they need to adjust matchups and corral hot-handed opponents this season. They miss Bell as much as they miss Kevin Pangos. Maybe more.
We see you, UNLV: Stephen Zimmerman Jr.'s length, passing ability and defensive disruptiveness have turned UNLV into a legit Mountain West contender. The team's win over Oregon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Friday proved as much.
That's somebody's child, Darius Thompson!!!
Was that necessary, Darius?!! (Wait, you didn't see it? Watch this!) Why did you do that to that young man from William & Mary on Saturday? And then you stared at him like "Don't even jump next time, dude." So vicious. Write him a letter or something. Tweet an apology. Something. That's just wrong.