The most important question goes unanswered
Quick: Raise your hand if you know or care -- or think you'll know or care five months from now -- which teams won the ACC/Big Ten and Big East/SEC challenges last week.
Higher in the back, please?
Tick tick .
OK. Me, neither.*
As intriguing as are many of the individual matchups in these let's-whet-our-appetites-and-wish-it-was-March-already events, that's just what they are: early-season litmus tests to, in many cases, give us an idea of whether those early-season pollsters projected correctly, which blue bloods still have some work to do and which not-quite-Cinderellas could surprise us in the end.
One thing about this year's challenges, though: They actually created some challenging questions for this still-early season.
The biggest one of all:
Who's No. 1?
This one's frustrating, because in retrospect, it seems so easy: Just match them up in the challenge!
Instead, after No. 2 Duke rallied from a 10-point deficit against No. 4 Ohio State to win 73-68 and No. 1 Indiana blew out No. 14 North Carolina 83-59, we're left to debate the merits of What a Team has Accomplished versus What You're Pretty Sure a Team can Accomplish.
There's no doubt Duke has the better résumé. The Blue Devils have faced the most difficult early-season schedule in the country and didn't just survive, but thrived. Not only did they beat three top-5 foes in then-No. 3 Kentucky, then-No. 2 Louisville and the Buckeyes, they went ahead and threw in wins against VCU and Minnesota into the mix, as well.
On paper, it doesn't look like Duke should be that much better than that head-scratching team that didn't consistently defend, didn't seem to mesh, and didn't make it past their first game in last season's NCAA tournament.
But losing guard Austin Rivers to the first round of the NBA draft opened the door for freshman Rasheed Sulaimon to star early, for senior forward Mason Plumlee to become the go-to-guy on offense, and for Quinn Cook to emerge as a bona fide threat at point guard. The defense has improved, and so has team chemistry.
Meanwhile, Indiana, ranked No. 1 since the preseason poll, is pretty much what we expected it to be: fast, deep, balanced, talented and much stingier on defense. The Hoosiers displayed their offensive omnipotence by running all over (and past) the Tar Heels earlier this week, seven days after surviving Georgetown in an overtime win in Brooklyn during their closest game yet.
Heck, even in a matchup in which national player of the year favorite Zeller scored six points, Indiana still beat Georgia by 13 points.
The only thing neither team has faced is a true road test. Duke's win against Kentucky came in Atlanta, and the Blue Devils topped VCU, Minnesota and Louisville in the Bahamas and OSU at home. Indiana has ventured outside of Bloomington only for two games, in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
Pit the Blue Devils against and Hoosiers right now, and the Hoosiers might win. Or the Blue Devils might win. It might go to overtime or it might go to double digits. That's the frustrating part. The challenging part, if you will.
And the debate might just continue until March.
A few more challenging questions from the week that was:
Which established players have made the biggest gains from last season?
We knew the likes of Zeller, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Creighton's Doug McDermott and Michigan's Trey Burke were going to be stars; they were, after all, AP preseason All-Americans. But there have been a passel of other notables who obviously put some noteworthy work in during the offseason. They include:
• Plumlee, Duke: Not all that long ago, the forward couldn't be left on the floor when the game was on the line because of his horrific free throw shooting. But he's making 76.1 percent of his foul shots this season, up from 52.8 percent last season. His scoring (11.1 ppg to 19.6 ppg) and shooting (57.2 percent to 65.4 percent) have also improved, and his play during big games has pushed him into the early NPOY conversation.
• Brandon Paul, Illinois: A streaky shooter last season, the senior guard has added consistency to his scoring, shooting 48 percent overall and 41.5 percent from 3-point land -- both career bests. He's recorded double figures in each of his team's eight games, and is a huge reason why Illinois is undefeated.
• Otto Porter, Georgetown: The 6-foot-8 sophomore is averaging only two more minutes per game than last season -- but he is also averaging almost two more points (11.6) and one more block (1.8), has doubled his assists per game (3.2) and has already made 6 of 9 3-pointers after shooting 22.6 percent from beyond the arc last season.
• Erick Green, Virginia Tech: After averaging 15.6 points in 2011-12, the senior guard is among the nation's scoring leaders at 24.9 ppg and led the Hokies with 28 points in Saturday's 81-71 win over No. 15 Oklahoma State. He's a big reason Virginia Tech -- picked to finish 10th in the 12-team ACC by the conference media -- is 7-0 and averaging 86.1 points per game under first-year coach James Johnson.
• Allen Crabbe, Cal: The junior has been huge for 6-0 California, particularly on the offensive end. He's averaging 22 points and shooting 52.3 percent overall and almost 44 percent from 3-point range. This from a player who entered the season never wanting to say, "I need to be more aggressive" again.
Will we see the likes of UK, NC State and UNC in the top 10 again?
Um. Ergh. Argh.
Before you repeat the "Overrated!" chant too many times, remember that Kentucky (which started the season at No. 3 but lost to Duke and Notre Dame), NC State (began at No. 6 but was defeated by Oklahoma State and Michigan) and UNC (which moved up as high as No. 9 in Week 3 but trailed by 20-plus points in losses to Butler and Indiana) all have the potential to be really good. But the key word here always has been "potential."
The Wildcats won the NCAA title last season with a freshman-laden team. But this is a new freshman-laden team, one that's still trying to find its defensive footing and focus. And it hasn't helped that it has had to flip-flop at point guard due to transfer Ryan Harrow's illness, then absence because of family issues.
The Wolfpack made believers out of a bunch of people with a run to the Sweet 16 last season. But even with the return of star forward C.J. Leslie and the addition of a heralded freshman class, perhaps it was too much to expect that they'd immediately pick up right where they left off. Expectations are something to get used to.
As for the Tar Heels, the expectations may have been too high, too early, for a team starting a freshman at point guard, and whose most experienced post player started only three games last season. Head coach Roy Williams has been concerned about his team's toughness, and its slate only gets tougher come January.
As we learned from the challenges, growing up -- and moving back up the polls -- will be a challenge for all three. But it will be interesting to see where they stand come March.
* For the record, the ACC and Big Ten tied 6-6, while the Big East beat out the SEC 9-3.
Baylor wants to prove it's here to stay
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Lost amid the caterwauling and worry over the fact that Kentucky has now lost two games in a row is this little nugget: In beating the Wildcats 64-55, Baylor won a nonconference road game against a Top 25 opponent for the first time in the program's history.
And won it, by the way, in one of the most notoriously difficult places to win a game: Rupp Arena.
That no one really paid the victory any mind isn't a surprise to Baylor. After two Elite Eight runs in the past three years, the Bears still feel like outliers on the national college basketball picture.
"Oh yeah, people don't give us the respect we deserve," senior guard Pierre Jackson said. "We still have to prove people wrong."
A year ago, Baylor waltzed into the preseason armed with a loaded roster and a heap of expectations, and though the Bears made it back to the Elite Eight, they never looked quite as good during the games as they did in the layup lines.
This season, head coach Scott Drew has another pretty roster -- including 7-foot-1 freshman Isaiah Austin -- but an equally shaky start. Before their win over Kentucky, the Bears lost to College of Charleston.
It is that inconsistency that gives the doubters credence to go all-in on Baylor, a niggling sense that their margin for error is minuscule. And no doubt, that was the case against UK. Kentucky shot 29 percent for the game and 18 percent from the arc, pulled down 21 offensive rebounds but only scored eight second-chance points, and yet was in the game until the bitter end.
Why? Because Baylor coughed up 19 turnovers and got smoked on the boards 48-37.
So this was not exactly a thing of beauty. But what Baylor has, at least right now, is a healthier balance of freshmen and veterans. Drew's roster includes five rookies, but he also has a been-there-done-that veteran backcourt in the form of Jackson, A.J. Walton and Brady Heslip. They simply don't get rattled, and when the game needed to be won, they won it.
"They've been through big games, they've been through 30-win seasons, they've been through [being] a game away from a Final Four," Drew said. "They're used to playing in front of big crowds, big stages and again make big plays."
A year ago, Kentucky ended Baylor's season in the Elite Eight, eliminating the Bears with relative ease, 82-70. Players from that team -- Quincy Acy among them -- reached out to guys on this season's squad and asked them to exact a little bit of revenge.
Never mind that this Wildcats team is entirely different from the one that beat Baylor -- the Bears wanted to take back the victory.
They did, but that only wins the battle, not the war. Baylor is a team that, on personnel alone, should factor into the Big 12 race. Whether this game is a one-hit wonder or the start of something with more staying power will determine that.
"We wanted to come out strong and show people that our two losses at the beginning of the season don't mean anything," Austin said. "We're still a powerhouse program."
Team of the week: Miami
Miami coach Jim Larranaga said that Durand Scott would make a difference. The Hurricanes didn't have him for an odd road loss at Florida Gulf Coast.
But they have him now, and Scott was instrumental in two wins that surely will resonate down the stretch, against Michigan State at home and at UMass.
Scott was suspended for the first three games of the season as part of a six-game suspension that started at the end of last season. Miami has multiple offensive options when Durand and center Reggie Johnson are on the floor. The Hurricanes are defending and are learning how to finish games.
Duke is the class of the ACC so far, but Miami has every right to believe it can be second to the Blue Devils. It may not happen, but Miami has the personnel to challenge NC State, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Virginia or Florida State.
-- Andy Katz
Editor's note: This edition is for games played from Sunday, Nov. 25, to Saturday, Dec. 1.
1. So much for the ACC being "top heavy." The league looks as balanced as it's been in years following last week's ACC-Big Ten Challenge, when a handful of teams picked to finish in the middle-to-lower portion of the conference posted huge wins. Virginia's victory against Wisconsin might have been the biggest head-turner -- mainly because it occurred in Madison. Even though Michigan State had looked shaky in its previous few outings, Miami will still receive a major momentum boost from its victory over the No. 13 Spartans. No one expected Virginia Tech and first-year coach James Johnson to beat an improved Iowa squad -- especially by 15 points. The good vibes carried over to Saturday, when the Hokies upset No. 15 Oklahoma State in Blacksburg.
2. North Carolina isn't close to being as good as it was in 2011-12, when the Tar Heels were one of the two best teams in college basketball before an injury to point guard Kendall Marshall in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Still, rare are the occasions when Roy Williams' squad doesn't even look competitive. That was the case Tuesday, when No. 1-ranked Indiana pasted 14th-ranked UNC 83-59. The 24-point loss was the third worst of Williams' career in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels appeared intimidated and soft at times. Forward James Michael McAdoo, who is projected as an NBA lottery pick, finished with 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Williams needs to find a way to light a fire in McAdoo if UNC has any hopes of becoming an elite team.
3. What in tarnation has happened to Drexel, which entered the season as a borderline Top 25 team that was expected to win the CAA title? Saturday's 75-66 loss to Rider dropped the Dragons' record to 2-5, making Bruiser Flint's squad one of college basketball's biggest disappointments thus far. To be fair, Drexel has hardly played a soft schedule. Four of its losses are to Kent State, Illinois State, Xavier and Saint Mary's. Two of the defeats came in overtime, and three were by single digits. Still, with four returning starters -- including standout guard Frantz Massenat -- from a 29-7 team, the Dragons' record is inexcusable.
-- Jason King
Three things I learned
1. UCLA has no magic bullets. With the defections of Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb and that tragicomic home loss to Cal Poly in the rearview mirror, probably the biggest question preceding UCLA's matchup with San Diego State at the Honda Center on Saturday night was whether Ben Howland would stop worrying and learn to love the zone.
Howland is a notorious man-to-man enthusiast, and he prefers hard-nosed half-court basketball, but it's clear the specific talent he has assembled in this swing-for-the-fences season doesn't quite fit that mold. Credit Howland for adapting. A 2-3 zone has shown some promise, and his team is running the break a bit better. But in Saturday's loss to SDSU, the Aztecs still shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3, and wound up scoring just more than 1.1 points per trip. UCLA looked better, to be sure, but there are no sexy light-switch solutions here. It's a process.
2. The same, of course, could be said for the Kentucky Wildcats, who this week officially disabused anyone still holding on to the notion that UK was going to easily roll to another national title in John Calipari's fourth season in Lexington.
Kentucky was awful Thursday night at Notre Dame, but that came on the road against a veteran team that played very well. It was forgivable. Saturday's home loss to Baylor was just plain putrid: The Wildcats shot 29.6 percent from the field, made just four of their 22 3-point attempts, missed 9 of 18 free throw attempts and all together scored a whopping 0.73 points per trip. It is still early, and UK is still young, but it's clear this isn't another vintage Calipari team. Good as it may end up being, this team will be much more of a project.
3. On Saturday, I learned just how much affection there is in the college hoops world for legendary, and too-early-deceased, former coach Rick Majerus. I had always heard the stories, and I always knew Majerus was a genius; you could see that from the way he coached the game, even well past his glory days at Utah.
But I didn't know how many lives Majerus had touched, how distinct his personality was, and how many people will grieve over his passing. It's one thing to be one of the greatest pure basketball coaches of all time. It's another to be missed like this.
-- Eamonn Brennan
Best of the rest
Syracuse's James Southerland took home the week's top billing as a result of his 35-point outburst in the Orange's 91-82 win over Arkansas. Here are five others who distinguished themselves this past week.
1. Mason Plumlee, Duke: The senior's bid for national player of the year honors continued this week. He scored 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in Duke's 73-68 win over No. 4 Ohio State on Wednesday. He also finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in his team's 88-50 win over Delaware on Saturday.
2. Erick Green, Virginia Tech: Green raised his national stock with a pair of stellar performances. He finished with 24 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in the Hokies' 95-79 victory against Iowa on Tuesday. He followed that performance with 28 points (shooting 4-for-7 from beyond the arc) and seven rebounds in Virginia Tech's 81-71 upset win over No. 15 Oklahoma State on Saturday.
3. Jordan Hulls, Indiana: He had 17 points, three rebounds and three assists in last Sunday's win over Ball State. Then he was catalyst for the Hoosiers in their lopsided victory over the Tar Heels on Tuesday. In that game, he finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers.
4. Pierre Jackson, Baylor: The 5-10 guard led the Bears to a road win over the Wildcats. He recorded 17 points, and his seven rebounds, five assists and four steals minimized the impact of his seven turnovers.
5. Durand Scott, Miami: Scott returned to the Miami lineup and helped see the Hurricanes to wins over Michigan State (15 points, six rebounds and two assists) Wednesday and UMass (15 points, seven rebounds and four assists) Saturday.
-- Myron Medcalf
They Said It
"If you just look at the numbers and the stat sheet and say we won the game
before the game, I'd say you're crazy. I'd think it's virtually impossible."
-- Georgetown coach John Thompson III, after his team defeated Tennessee 37-36 Friday night. No player on either squad registered double figures.
"That's what happens when you have a bunch of freshmen out there."
-- Kentucky coach John Calipari, after his team suffered a 64-55 loss to Baylor on Saturday at Rupp Arena, snapping a 55-game home winning streak. The Wildcats shot 29.6 percent from the field.
"Bad boys. Bad boys. Whatcha gonna do?"
-- Indiana's Victor Oladipo when asked about his team's performance in its 83-59 smashing of North Carolina in Bloomington on Tuesday, part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
-- Myron Medcalf