The Big 12/SEC Challenge
For most of the season, the Big 12 has been the toast of NCAA Basketball. Considered the toughest and deepest conference in the nation, six of the 12 institutions in the conference have placed in the AP Top 25 at some point this season, with five of those six schools gracing the Top 10. Meanwhile, entering this week, the SEC conference had three teams ranked in the Top 25, with no team higher than 19 (and that team was Auburn!). While several teams have graced the Top 25 at some point this season, many of those teams crashed and burned. Kentucky went from #5 in the preseason poll to completely out of the poll. Florida was 8th in the preseason poll and played one of the season’s best games vs. Duke before tumbling. They reentered the Top 25 last week after a five-week absence. At one point this season, Texas A&M had a valid argument that they were the top team in the entire country. Now they are in such a slide that their status for the NCAA Tournament is in flux.
Heading into the Big 12/SEC challenge, it appeared that the Big 12’s advantage was, at the very least, as large as the advantage the ACC had on the Big Ten entering their challenge earlier this season. The difference? While the ACC lived up to the expectations of the experts, the Big 12 did not.
While the final tally was close (SEC only won by a 6-4 margin to earn their first ever win in the challenge), nobody expected the SEC to win, and most thought the Big 12 would win handily. So, what happened? As is always the case in challenges like this, match-ups play a big role in who comes out victorious. In keeping with the theme of the season, only three of the ten winners won on the road, with the biggest shocker being an inconsistent Kentucky going to West Virginia and coming out with a 7-point victory. The other road wins weren’t quite as shocking (Tennessee destroying Iowa State; Texas Tech over South Carolina by seven), so Kentucky likely pulled off the most impressive win of them all on the week. Alabama was a Top 25 squad earlier in the season, so winning a home game over Oklahoma was not completely unexpected.
While this was a surprising result, it doesn’t change things by much. Texas A&M could have used a second signature win over a Big 12 squad, but Kansas easily disposed of them. Baylor, a team that has fallen apart after a strong start, could have used a strong effort at Florida, but lost by 21. Arkansas’ one-point win over Kansas State may be huge when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. There is still plenty of time for potential bubble teams to make noise within their conferences, but these games offered a unique mid-season opportunity to earn big wins over schools from another power conference.
The Scoring Machine
The last time a player averaged 30+ points per game was in 1996-1997, when Charles Jones of Long Island averaged 30.1 points per game (he followed that up with a second straight scoring title in 1997-1998). Last season, Marcus Keene of Central Michigan came within a basket of pulling off the feat, as he ended the season at 29.97 (officially, this rounds up to 30 points per game, but still is not a “true” 30+ points per game) That squad went 16-16, thanks to having the 349th worst scoring defense in the land.
Trae Young still has a chance to break the 21-year drought, though there is concern that he is starting to slow down. In three of his last four games, his FG% has been below 40%. He bottomed out against Alabama, where he scored 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting.
During Oklahoma’s 12-1 start, Young averaged 29.4 points per game on 47.1% shooting (he shot 40.2% from 3-point range). During their recent 3-4 stretch, Young has still scored at a high rate (30 points per game), but is doing it on 41.1% shooting. While the three-point percentage was the same, he is shooting only 42.1% from 2-point range during this stretch, down from his 55% number in the first 13 games.
I am not stating anything other than the obvious when I say that Oklahoma is at their best with their freshman star is scoring frequently and efficiently. Lately, he has been more of a volume scorer. Oklahoma is still the nation’s highest scoring team, and Young is the biggest reason why. However, if Oklahoma wants to take advantage of the only season where Young is likely to grace their court, they need to right the ship. Young regaining his short-range scoring touch will play a big role in that.
- Virginia (20-1) (2) – First win at Duke since January 14, 1995 is enough to catapult the Cavaliers up to the #1 slot in my rankings. Duke made their customary second half comeback, but Virginia was able to persevere in a hostile environment to earn one of the most impressive wins in college basketball this season.
- Villanova (20-1) (1) – Winning a game at Marquette is not as impressive as Virginia winning at Duke, but is still impressive in a year where teams are routinely losing on the road. Their next two opponents are tough (Creighton, Seton Hall), but they get both at home.
- Purdue (21-2) (3) – If you want to see a tremendous display of offensive basketball, bring up the second half of the Michigan-Purdue game on your iPad. For the second time this season, the Boilermakers had just enough to hold off the Wolverines to maintain a solid lead in the Big Ten regular season race. They followed that up with a close victory at Indiana. This week, they play Maryland at home and a tough defensive team (Rutgers) on the road. Both should be relatively easy wins.
- Michigan State (20-3) (5) – While Ohio State applies pressure to Purdue’s Big Ten lead, it is the Spartans that have the horses to overcome the 2-game deficit. Their only match-up of the season against Purdue is on 2/10 in a home game. They need the Boilermakers to slip up before then, while also keeping pace. They started that process with a comeback win at Maryland on Sunday. They play Penn State, Indiana, and Iowa before that big Purdue game, and while that looks easy enough, two of those games are on the road.
- Xavier (19-3) (7) – Need to navigate through five games before getting another shot at Villanova, a team that blew them out earlier this season. Those games won’t be easy, as they go on the road to face Butler and Creighton before a home game against Seton Hall that leads into Villanova. Wow.
- Duke (18-3) (4) – The loss to Virginia drops the Blue Devils a full three games behind the Cavaliers. Making matters worse is that Virginia holds the tie-breaker, given that the two squads will not face again. Duke can pretty much toss aside any real shot at the regular season conference crown. That isn’t their biggest issue, however, as their complete lack of focus in the first half of games is going to cost them more than just a random late January game if they can’t get it fixed.
- Cincinnati (19-2) (8) – They are just cruising through the weak part of their schedule. They have won 12 straight, with eight of those 12 games on their home court against some not-so-elite competition. That doesn’t negate their talent level, but sometimes it is tough to gauge a team like this completely. The conference just doesn’t offer enough hurdles. They eventually will play back-to-back road games against SMU and Houston, leading to a home game against Wichita State. Those three games should allow us more insight to how good they really are.
- Kansas (17-4) (6) – Five-game winning streak snapped at Oklahoma. Followed that up with an impressive 11-point win over struggling Texas A&M. On Monday night, they travel to play Kansas State, a team they only beat by one at home earlier in the season.
- Arizona (18-4) (10) – Six straight wins! Yay! They beat middling Utah by one at home! Boo! They aren’t doing all that much to impress. What they ARE doing, however, is winning. Some teams can only wish to not impress while winning at the rate the Wildcats are.
- Texas Tech (17-4) (12) – After losing three of four, they have bounced back nicely, winning a home game against Oklahoma State before going on the road to knock off a South Carolina squad that has played better recently (they were 2-1 in their last three games, with all three games against teams ranked in the Top 25)
- Auburn (19-2) (18) – Followed up the 5-point loss at Alabama with a 14-point win over Georgia, a 18-point win at Missouri, and a 25-point win over LSU. The computers really like this squad, and they certainly pass the “smell” test. This is the type of squad that will be overlooked on brackets because nobody sees Auburn as a basketball power, but the potential for the Sweet 16 or Elite 8 is real.
- Wichita State (17-4) (16) – Their back-to-back losses to SMU and Houston are still troubling, but at least they took care of two middling opponents since. This talented, but surprisingly inconsistent, squad gets a bit of a break, as they only have one contest this week: A date at Temple. While road games have been rough for many teams this year, the Shockers have done well for themselves, as they are 5-1 in true road games.
- West Virginia (16-5) (9) – After being in the debate for the best team in the country, the Mountaineers have put together a 1-4 stretch, including a home loss against middling Kentucky in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. They take on last-place Iowa State next, as they attempt to get back on track.
- St. Mary’s (21-2) (17) – Added a season sweep of BYU to their list of accomplishments this season. They will try to accomplish the same this week against San Diego on the road. San Diego played them tough at home earlier in the season, so that game has “trip up” potential.
- Oklahoma (15-5) (11) – After an impressive 1-point win at TCU, Oklahoma has lost its last four road contests, three of which were against teams not ranked in the Top 25. As I stated a few weeks ago, this may just all be a correction: Oklahoma is not the great team we saw earlier in the season, but are also not the team that is struggling a bit now. They will go as far as their offense will take them.
- Gonzaga (19-4) (19) – Knocked off San Francisco by 9, completing a season sweep where the Dons made them break a sweat in both games. They don’t play again until the calendar turns to February, when they have a home game against San Diego.
- Clemson (17-4) (15) – Pulled out a road victory against Georgia Tech Sunday evening, which may get them back on track after a miserable performance at Virginia earlier in the week, a game in which they scored only 36 points. Their lack of offense overall continues to be concerning, but they are good at point suppression. North Carolina comes to town on Tuesday.
- Ohio State (18-5) (14) – Penn State is not a bad basketball squad, and Ohio State was bound to slip up at some point. The big surprise is that the loss came in a home game for the Buckeyes, who had only lost one game at home leading into the contest (vs. Clemson). Given that they beat Nebraska by only five points in the game before the loss to the Nittany Lions, there is at least a bit of concern that they have peaked, or at least have run into a temporary wall.
- Rhode Island (17-3) (20) – Their 12th straight win was not an easy one, as Duquesne traveled to Rhode Island and lost by only three, while holding the Rams to their second lowest scoring output of the season. Overall, they continue to cruise along in a conference that is as middling as I can ever remember it being.
- Tennessee (15-5) (24) – Drew one of the easier opponents in the Big 12/SEC challenge, and took full advantage of it when they destroyed Iowa State by 23 on the road. They had one of the nation’s toughest early-season schedules, and they are 6-1 in their last seven contests.
- Kentucky (16-5) (NR) – The most impressive winner in the Big 12/SEC challenge, going on the road to beat West Virginia. Kentucky lacks depth. They lack a veteran presence. They are also insanely talented, and you never know when a freshman class will blossom (or if they will). Was the win over an (admittedly) struggling West Virginia squad a sign of maturity, or a random impressive win that will be followed by more inconsistency? Vanderbilt and Missouri (road game) are next.
- Creighton (17-5) (NR) – The high-flying Blue Jays struggled a bit in their win at St. John’s, but a win like that impresses me, because it shows Creighton can potentially win games that are played in the 60s rather than the 80s. Their next two weeks feature important games – Villanova (on the road) and Xavier (at home).
- Louisville (16-5) (21) – Came close to yet another impressive road win before succumbing to Miami by three. They followed that up with a destruction of Wake Forest at home. The Cardinals are an interesting team to watch down the stretch, as I still think this squad has sneaky Sweet 16 potential. Their next game is at Virginia. Louisville has played pretty well on the road this year, but this is the ultimate test.
- Florida State (16-5) (NR) – The high-scoring Seminoles have won three straight, including a 103-94 slugfest against long-time rival Miami. Two road games against Wake Forest and Louisville are coming up next.
- Nevada (18-4) (23) – After knocking off Boise State in a battle for league supremacy, Nevada went on the road and lost one of the best games you likely didn’t see – a 104-103 double overtime loss to Wyoming. While a loss to a middle-of-the-pack team would normally lead to a team getting dropped from the Top 25, Nevada’s overall body of work still merits this slot. They will have a full week to sit on that loss, as they don’t play again until January 31st, a home game against Fresno State.
North Carolina (16-6) (13) – They have an impressive win at Tennessee, and defeated Clemson at home, but their schedule hasn’t been extremely difficult. Losing at Virginia Tech and at home against North Carolina State is frustrating, and they have to travel to Clemson to play a team looking for a bit of revenge. This is a big drop, but I think it is deserved.
Arizona State (16-5) (22) – Their defense is killing them, and losing a home game against Utah was enough for me to finally toss them from the Top 25. They travel to Washington this week to take on Washington and Washington State as they attempt to get back to the team that won some impressive games earlier this season.
Miami (15-5) (25) – Squeaked by Louisville before succumbing to Florida State. Miami’s defense is not at the level it was in the beginning of the season, and I don’t think they have enough offense to make up for any defensive lapses. Their last six opponents scored 70+ points against them.
New Mexico State (18-3) – 7 straight victories, and 6-0 in conference play. Utah Valley State is second in the conference (5-1, 16-6), and New Mexico State destroyed them by 27. Nobody within the conference has been close, and they have a win over Miami on their ledger as well. Dangerous team, but it is hard to get over the hump when your conference doesn’t offer stiff competition for one dominant team.
Seton Hall (16-5) – DePaul isn’t good, but the Pirates have been struggling. Beating DePaul on the road was something they desperately needed. They play at Villanova this week in a game that will show us just how scrappy this team can be.
Louisiana (19-3) – The Ragin’ Cajuns like to run. The Ragin’ Cajuns are deep with veteran talent. Eight players average 15+ minutes per game, with a 9th player who averages just under ten. They are a strong rebounding team and create a lot of turnovers. They have been the kings of the Sun Belt recently, and that may be why it is tough for them to find great competition in the non-conference. Clemson gave them a shot this year, and won by 29. Those are the games that cause pause, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team pull off an NCAA Tournament upset if they are able to get there.