In a typical year of college basketball, November offers early excitement, December yields separation and January aims for clarity.
But this February demands scrutiny, especially in a season that has felt like a piggyback ride up a rocky hillside. This search for the teams that might surprise us, the programs that treaded water in the first three months of the year but gradually developed the strong stroke that often sends waves through March Madness, did not begin Saturday.
Yet, the feverish day -- see Buddy Hield, Kansas-Kentucky and that Danuel House dunk -- submerged a significant storyline in Gainesville, Florida, that could resonate with both the casual and dedicated crowds once the NCAA tournament approaches.
The only highlight that most witnessed from Florida's 88-71 victory over West Virginia (and the nation's best defense) involved a brief pregame scuffle that started when the Mountaineers' dancing caught the Gators' attention.
But look closer.
Florida, possessors of a top-10 defense and a '71-Pinto of an offense, walloped the best defense in America and won by 17 points. Yes, suspended forward Jonathan Holton didn't play, but he alone would not have suppressed Florida's come-at-me-bro performance.
Within that KO, Florida answered the question that bubbled for months as Mike White's team tussled through the first four weeks of SEC play: What if the Gators could score?
And then Saturday, they did. Take this dazzling, 74-second burst for example. It began when John Egbunu bumped Devin Williams off the block and scored on a layup. Then, KeVaughn Allen hit a transition 3-pointer from the right corner as Daxter Miles Jr. flew past him. On Florida's next possession, Allen connected on another shot from beyond the arc. The Mountaineers seemed flustered during the subsequent timeout and never recovered.
Press Virginia got worked by a Florida team that has scored 80 points or more in four of its past five games.
Florida's 2-5 record in true road games does not present the full story. The Gators were down 67-66 with 26 seconds to go in a recent loss at Texas A&M in College Station. They lost at Michigan State by six points in December. Three of their seven losses this season featured final margins of three points or fewer.
They're so close to the top tier, it seems. But the Gators entered Saturday's game connecting on just 42.2 percent of their shots from the field. They registered 1.26 points per possession against a West Virginia team that had forced more turnovers per game than any squad in America and had held its previous opponents to .87 points per possession, the top mark among major conference schools according to ESPN Stats & Info research.
The formula for victory in basketball is simple.
Force stops and score buckets. Repeat.
The latter had been a problem throughout the season for Florida. But its effort on Saturday showcased the difference between a team that shot 33 percent inside the arc in a one-point loss to Vanderbilt and the team that recorded 1.26 points per possession against the biggest defensive bully in America. If this becomes a trend, especially against the toughest remaining SEC opponents on its schedule, Florida could become a problem for the league and whomever it might see in March.
If White's program rolls in the next month, we shouldn't react as if we just found Florida in college's basketball's couch cushions. Florida is here now. Been here.
The Gators just lack the consistent scoring knack that's necessary to defeat the best. On the nights when they feel right on offense, however, they're a challenge for anyone.
That was Saturday's biggest surprise. But probably not the last for the Gators.
Teams that could surprise us in the next month
Why we believe: Will Wade's squad hasn't lost a game since Dec. 19. The Rams have forced turnovers on nearly a quarter of their opponents' possessions, one of the top marks in America, and they're shooting a solid 38 percent from beyond the arc. Who wants to see VCU in March?
Why we might be wrong: The Rams failed their nonconference tests (losses to Wisconsin, Duke, Cincinnati and Florida State) that would make the shellacking that the A-10 has endured thus far seem more impressive.
Why we believe: Texas eventually got hot after losing Cameron Ridley (12.7 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game) to a foot injury. The Longhorns started 1-3 in the Big 12 without the big man. Now, they're riding a 5-1 stretch in their past six games. That run includes a road win over West Virginia, a victory over Iowa State and Saturday's 14-point win over a Vanderbilt squad that entered the game in Austin with four wins in its previous five games. Shaka Smart's squad continues to grow and overcome its obstacles.
Why we might be wrong: They're still struggling to protect the rim without Ridley, and that defensive gap could become more apparent in upcoming matchups against Oklahoma (twice), West Virginia and Iowa State (in Ames, Iowa).
Why we believe: Utah has won five in a row, and during this rally, projected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl has averaged 20.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Utah has attained a 55.4 percent clip inside the arc, a top-20 mark and held its opponents to a 42.9 percent mark within the 3-point line, a top-25 ranking. This looks like a dangerous group.
Why we might be wrong: Back-to-back losses in the Bay (Stanford, California) preceding that 18-point home loss to Oregon still make us wonder if it's too soon to list Utah here.
San Diego State Aztecs
Why we believe: You probably don't want to go against San Diego State right now. The Mountain West can't stop Steve Fisher's squad. The Aztecs boast a 9-0 record in league play, and they're currently ranked second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. Their opponents have made just 40 percent of their shots inside the arc, also the No. 2 mark in the country.
Why we might be wrong: The Mountain West doesn't have a team that has cracked the BPI's top 70, and only four squads from the conference are in the top 100 (Boise State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV). So it's difficult to measure the value of SDSU's achievements over the past month.
Wichita State Shockers
Why we believe: The key conversation surrounding Wichita State: How will the NCAA's selection committee, the judge, assess Wichita State's case for inclusion as an at-large squad if the Shockers don't win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament? But that conversation might be moot if the Shockers continue their charge through the league. The Shockers have held MVC opponents to a 40 percent clip from inside the arc (No. 1 in the conference) and a 32.9 percent mark outside of it. Also, tell your friends that Fred VanVleet had 26 assists and three turnovers in his past five games. He finished with 32 points on Sunday.
Why we might be wrong: While Van Vleet -- 41.5 percent assist rate (sixth in the nation) -- missed a stretch with a hamstring injury, we learned he's one of the most indispensable players in the country. He committed six turnovers in his team's 80-76 overtime road loss at Seton Hall on Dec. 19, Wichita State's most recent loss. They need him to excel most nights to keep this streak alive. There's a lot of pressure on the senior.
Why we believe: John Beilein is staging the most impressive coaching job of his tenure. The Wolverines are 7-2 in the Big Ten, a record that includes a win over Maryland. Caris LeVert, a potential first-round pick in this summer's NBA draft, missed six of those seven Big Ten victories because of injury. Yet, the Wolverines are still top-10 nationally in turnover rate (14.7 percent) and 3-point percentage (41.3).
Why we might be wrong: LeVert could return as early as this week, but we're still not sure if he'll regain his pre-injury form in time to help the Wolverines deal with an upcoming Big Ten slate that includes Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Maryland (road), Wisconsin (road) and Ohio State (road).
The Ben Simmons Story: Why the best prospects often play together at traditional powerhouses
Whenever a group of elite prospects picks one school, the fairness police cry foul and cite a list of grievances against a one-and-done culture that Adam Silver's NBA created when it barred high school kids from entering the draft beginning in 2006.
On Saturday, however, we all watched one of the most fluid, complete freshmen we've witnessed at the collegiate level take one shot in the final 10 minutes of LSU's loss to No. 1 Oklahoma. LSU coach Johnny Jones said he wanted to run high-low action late with the projected No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, but Oklahoma interrupted those attempts. That, in part, is fair. Oklahoma did disrupt Simmons' best intentions throughout the game. But Jones didn't do enough to put the rock in his star's hands.
Simmons finished a matchup against the No. 1 team in the land with a 22 percent usage rate, fourth on his team. That's ridiculous.
Players in Simmons' tier often choose to play together and under a proven brand based on the success of their predecessors and the idea that their collegiate coaches will find ways to utilize them if they prove they deserve the touches. That's why John Calipari assembled one of the greatest classes in recruiting history last season in Lexington. That's why Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow joined forces under Mike Krzyzewski and why Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum will do the same next season. That's why five-star recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf chose UCLA. They want to play with other elite players and operate within a system that will highlight their strengths. Yes, the potential one-and-done prospects want to elevate their respective draft stocks. But they also want to develop and win.
Simmons has the numbers that prompted Buddy Hield to call the youngster "the best player in college basketball" after Saturday's matchup, but we're all left with this feeling that we're seeing only a fraction of his capabilities. His silence down the stretch of that game will magnify the criticism of LSU and Jones. But that's what happens when you sign the best college prospect in years and can't find a way to put the ball in his hands at the appropriate moments.
Sure, Simmons is not the first one-and-done to think outside the box. Kevin Durant played for Texas. Michael Beasley dominated at Kansas State. In recent years, however, the elite prospects who've found the most success competed together at traditional powers (Kansas in 2013-14; Duke and Kentucky in 2015-16). That's why the trend of top recruits forming their own trios and quartets underneath the umbrellas of programs with established track records will continue. Simmons' season thus far has done nothing to suggest any other path makes sense for the talents in that unique group.
We see you, Grand Canyon, but whipping the WAC ain't exactly front-page news
Last week, Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle tweeted his disappointment with the lack of coverage his 19-3 squad had received. And he had a point. The Antelopes had defeated San Diego State and Houston during the nonconference season. They'd won a bunch of games.
But he missed a crucial element in his tweet. Folks aren't paying attention because Grand Canyon plays in the WAC, which contributed to the overall assessment of a schedule that's ranked 228th by ESPN's BPI. Plus, a weekend loss to Seattle won't help Majerle's ambitions.
Still, the former Phoenix Suns star has molded this program, which transitioned to the Division I level in 2013, much faster than anyone anticipated. Majerle wants to show the world -- now -- that his program, led by Joshua Braun (17.5 PPG), will make noise once it's eligible for the NCAA and WAC tournaments in the 2017-18 season.
We understand that. It's a smart move. But you can't blame the public for its minimal excitement about a team that's not facing top competition.
Louisville and the value of a name
Listen, the No. 16 Cardinals hadn't really earned all the praise heaped upon the program this season, but many offered kudos because it's Louisville, which entered Saturday's 63-47 loss to Virginia at the YUM! Center as the only team in America ranked among the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. But the Cards failed their tests against Michigan State, Kentucky and Virginia, their three chances to validate the emerging hype.
And this is why the name Louisville means so much. A win over Pitt is the only meaningful victory on its résumé. Because it's Louisville, however, some make assumptions about its strength -- ideas based on its legacy and gaudy numbers that aren't supported by quality wins. If Louisville runs through the final chapter of the ACC season -- a daunting path that begins with North Carolina on Monday and features six games involving teams ranked in last week's Associated Press poll but (as well as a trip to Pitt on Feb. 24) -- then the Cards will deserve every compliment. If Saturday's lopsided loss, however, starts a free fall, then we'll wonder how Louisville ever rose in the rankings in the first place.
Beat the Buzzer
Texas A&M and a defense that stopped a train
My goodness, Texas A&M. The Aggies held Iowa State, ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, to 0.86 points per possession on Saturday. It was just the second time this season that an opponent had held the Cyclones under 0.9 PPP and the third time Iowa State had failed to surpass the 1.0 PPP mark.
Wayne Selden Jr.'s reminder
Yes, the junior star (33 points) impressed on every level in Kansas' 90-84 win over Kentucky on Saturday. But this was the expectation when he was the third five-star recruit, along with Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, in Bill Self's 2013 recruiting class. Selden isn't necessarily exceeding his ceiling. He's just finally reaching it this season.
SMU is still focused
After a loss at Temple ruined SMU's shot at a perfect season, many wondered if the Mustangs would lose focus down the stretch. But their 12-point win over Memphis on Saturday proved they're stilling chasing the American Athletic Conference championship, and they don't view this season as a waste. Ben Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert, three key veterans, won't allow this SMU squad -- banned from the NCAA tourney because of NCAA sanctions -- to take its eye off that goal.
Not again, Miami
Just when you wanted to think about Miami's chance to make a push for the ACC title and make a run in March, both still possible, the Hurricanes allowed NC State to shoot 51 percent from the field in a 16-point loss to the Wolfpack on Saturday. Yes, the Hurricanes are a talented bunch, but when they're bad, they're really bad.
That's somebody's child, Wayne Selden Jr.