NCAA Basketball: Takeaways & Top 25

The Blue Blue Devils

I don’t know what to say about the Duke Blue Devils at this point.  On Saturday afternoon, they finally decided to show up in the first half against an inferior opponent…only to get blitzed in the second half by that opponent.  St. John’s hasn’t won a Big East game all season.  They have some close games on their resume, but most teams have close games on their resume.   The fact that they haven’t been able to win any of those games in the Big East speaks volumes for how good they are.  That is, not very good.

I can write all day about one-and-done players.  I can write all week on teams that recruit multiple one-and-done players in an effort to squeeze a title run out of them before they go on to greener pastures.   While some people don’t like the players going to college for a year before turning pro, this is not their fault.  If you were a freshman in college and a company knocked on your dorm door to offer you a $200,000 salary to quit school now and come work for them, you would probably wish your roommate luck as you quickly packed your things.   The players are simply playing within the system that is outlined.   Many of them don’t want to step foot on a college campus, but have little choice to do so.  More on that in a different article at a different time.

I am more against universities loading up their rosters with these freshman prodigies, because the vast majority of them are not ready mentally to deal with the pressures of trying to lead a major program to a title.   When you are 18 years old, playing against young adults who are 21-22 years old, you are going to run into some trouble.  These kids may not have your talent, but they outshine you in maturity.  While the Red Storm is not a team of superstars that are going to make a dent in the tournament (or even BE in the tournament), they are a team with experience.    Guard Bashir Ahmed, who scored 19 points on Saturday, is a senior.  Forward Tariq Owens (17 points) is a junior.  He is a junior who is not a big-time scorer, yet was able to pour in 17 against the vaunted Duke front court.  On Tuesday, he played 24 minutes against Xavier, and didn’t score a point.

The big star of the game was sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds, who followed up a dominant effort against Xavier (31 points) with an even better performance in today’s game against Duke (33 points).   Ponds’ season has been wildly inconsistent:  Before scoring 64 points in his last two games against top competition, he scored a total of nine in his previous two games, including a 0-for-12 effort at Butler.

St. John’s played on Saturday without any fear.  They know they need to go on an insane hot streak and a big run in the Big East Tournament to have any chance at getting the committee to notice them.  But for one day on a Saturday afternoon, they showed a group of Duke freshmen that just because you have the most talent does not mean you have the most heart.

Jayhawks Have Lost their Wings

With Duke losing, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Kansas to get a tighter grip on the fourth #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (there is still a month to go, so anything can happen.  Nobody is guaranteed anything).   Of course, Kansas once again stumbled at home, this time to an unranked Oklahoma State team, to further open the door for other schools to sneak in.

I have not been high on Kansas for most of this season, but they were still able to perch themselves on top of a league that appears to be the strongest in the nation.   Their loss on Saturday dropped them into a tie with Texas Tech for first place.

Kansas has now lost five games, and surprisingly enough, four of those have come on their home court.   The last time Kansas lost more than ONE game at home before this year was back during the 2006-2007 season, when they went 21-2 on their floor.

The flip side of the argument is that they have played very well on the road, as a five-point loss at Oklahoma represents their only road loss this season.   They have beaten Texas, TCU, West Virginia, and Kansas State in true road games.  Their win at Nebraska, who has worked their way into the tournament discussion, was also impressive.

Heading into Saturday, they were 15th in the country in margin of victory (most of the schools above them are among the elite teams in the country), though much of that cushion came from their destruction of teams earlier in the season.  Heading into their home loss against Washington (their first overall loss of the season), they were first in the country in margin of victory, at over 30 points per game.   This number was highly deceiving.  While other teams were playing in elite tournaments earlier in the season, the Jayhawks were playing in the less-crowded Miami Invitational, where they cruised to a title with a win over a down Syracuse squad.  Given what has happened around college basketball, there is still time for Kansas to claim a #1 seed.  They could have started that journey on Saturday.   It didn’t work out for them in much of the same way it didn’t work out for Duke.

Top 25

  1.  Virginia (22-1) (1) – You know you are a great defensive team when people start to question you over giving up a whopping 64 points against Louisville.  They obviously weren’t satisfied with that, as they followed it up by allowing 44 in a road game against Syracuse.   For most teams, 44 points allowed would be a season best.  For Virginia, it is their 4th best.
  2. Villanova (22-1) (2) – It is too bad that we are likely heading in a direction where Virginia and Villanova wouldn’t be able to meet in the NCAA Tournament unless they both got to the title game.  The Wildcats offense against the Cavaliers defense would be something to behold.
  3. Purdue (23-2) (3) – There were upsets this weekend, and none would have been bigger than Purdue losing to Rutgers.  The Scarlet Knights put a hurting on the Boilermakers in the second half, but it wasn’t enough, as Purdue escaped New Jersey with another W.
  4. Michigan State (22-3) (4) – It would be silly to completely dismiss them as a potential #1 seed (and since I am ranking them #4, I must currently believe that they are deserving of the slot).   They barely won against a bad Indiana team on Saturday, but road wins are not easy to get regardless of opponent.   If they want to further cement their claim to one of the four #1 seeds, there is that date with Purdue coming up on Saturday.
  5. Xavier (21-3) (5) – Xavier had their own big scare this weekend at home.  They had to go to overtime to beat a middling Georgetown team, but they were able to hang on and keep their hopes alive for a #1 seed.   They are also very much alive for the Big East crown, though a gauntlet of tough games await.
  6. Cincinnati (21-2) (7) – The Xavier-Cincinnati showdown every year is always a big game.   Xavier’s win over the Bearcats this year could turn out to be huge when it comes to tournament seeding.  An ugly date with Central Florida is next, as both teams like to a play a rugged, slow-it-down defensive style.  Cincinnati won the first meeting this year by a score of 49-38.
  7. Texas Tech (19-4) (10) – There is a big neon sign down in Texas that simply reads “Why not us?”  That isn’t true, but the Red Raiders’ won an important game at TCU on Saturday, and this veteran-laden squad is among the most dangerous teams to watch over the next month and a half.
  8. Auburn (21-2) (11) –  They are confident, and are in completely seek-and-destroy mode.   Four players average 10+ points per game, two of which are juniors and two of which are sophomores.   Bruce Pearl has done a fantastic job of coaching a team that lost two key cogs to suspension due to the recruiting violation controversy that rocked college basketball this past fall.   Off the basketball court, it has been a challenging season.  On the basketball court, this squad is one of the game’s best stories.
  9. Duke (19-4) (6) – Thought about as the best team in America before the season began, the Blue Devils have even anything but.  They hang on to a Top 10 ranking mainly because so many other schools can’t seem to get their acts together either.   They travel to North Carolina and Georgia Tech next, and neither will represent a breather.
  10. Kansas (18-5) (8) – Their streak of regular season conference titles is in serious jeopardy, though they still control their own destiny.  Their dreams of a #1 seed have faded a tad, but many top schools remain on their schedule to work themselves back up the ladder.  A struggling TCU squad visits Kansas next.
  11. St. Mary’s (23-2) (14) – 18th straight victory on Saturday, as they were able to get by a tough San Diego squad.  They are doing what they need to do within conference play, as they refuse to stumble.  After visiting Loyola Marymount next, they welcome Gonzaga to their home floor on Saturday in a major showdown for league supremacy.  If St. Mary’s can complete the season sweep, they are highly likely to take home the conference title.
  12. Clemson (19-4) (17) – After a big win over North Carolina, there wasn’t any let down, as they were able to maintain focus to take out Wake Forest on the road. It is not crazy for anyone to consider them the second best team in the ACC.
  13. Gonzaga (21-4) (16) – Their wins recently haven’t been dominant, but they also were never in real danger of losing the games.  This has not been the typical “dominate conference competition” season for the Bulldogs, but they are still winning decisively enough.
  14. Ohio State (20-5) (18) – That stumble at home against Penn State is still a rather strange loss, but they have rebounded by not losing a game since.  Now comes the biggest test of them all:  A date on the road against Purdue.  Win that, and the forgone conclusion of Purdue winning the conference title will no longer be.
  15. Tennessee (17-5) (20) – Three straight 20+ point victories leading into their game at Kentucky.  While Auburn holds a solid conference lead, their main competition may just come from Pearl’s old stomping grounds.  Working against Tennessee is that they don’t have any games left with Auburn – they lost the only match-up of the season.
  16. Arizona (19-5) (9) – Every time you think this squad may be getting on a roll, they end up sleepwalking through a loss.   They own a couple of impressive wins over Texas A&M and Arizona State back when both schools were in the Top 10 in the country.   However, those teams have faded, lessening the accomplishment for the Wildcats, who are doing nothing more than leading a conference that isn’t very strong.
  17. Rhode Island (19-3) (20) – They are now 11-0 within the watered down Atlantic 10, and it would take an epic meltdown for any team to even get close to them in the regular season.   Davidson is in second place, but have lost three conference games. (It should be noted that Rhode Island and Davidson have to still play each other twice, giving Davidson at least a glimmer of hope).
  18. West Virginia (17-6) (13) – Took out their frustrations lately on Kansas State, a solid squad who the Mountaineers destroyed by 38 on Saturday.   That ended their 3-game losing streak, and should give them some confidence heading into Oklahoma next.
  19. Wichita State (17-5) (12) – There were probably those who expected the Shockers to be undefeated within their conference leading into their late-season match-up against Cincinnati (2/18 is their only match-up of the year).  As it turns out, the Shockers are the team on the wrong end of the shocks, including a bad loss against Temple last time out.
  20. Oklahoma (16-6) (15) – Trading losses and wins in their last five games (L-W-L-W-L).   While all three of those losses were on the road, all three were also against unranked opponents.   They haven’t won a road game since the calendar turned to 2018 (lost road win was at TCU on 12/30), and that is concerning.  They continue to win at home, and that is where they play West Virginia next.
  21. Nevada (20-4) (25) – This team scores in bunches, and is a lot of fun to watch (especially since they also give up points in bunches).  They beat Colorado State on the road in a more subdued affair, as they continue to hold on to their conference lead over Boise State.   Boise State gets a chance to avenge their loss to Nevada on Valentine’s Day in a conference title showdown.
  22. Kentucky (17-6) (21) – As expected, they struggled against Vanderbilt after their big win over West Virginia.  They followed up the tough game against Vanderbilt with a loss at Missouri.  They are hanging on by a thread – a team talented enough to pull off an NCAA Tournament upset in the second round, but inconsistent enough to not even get to that second round.
  23. Michigan (19-6) (NR) – The cardiac kids just never seem to play a blowout game.  They had to scrap their way to a home win over a torn apart Minnesota squad, but if you are a Wolverines fan, you are used to those kind of wins.   They hung tough twice against Purdue, though both were close losses.  A tricky trip to Northwestern, where they haven’t fared well in recent years, awaits.
  24. Louisiana (20-3) (NR) – Now 10-0 in the Sun Belt, and every one of those wins has been by double digits.  Their biggest non-conference test (at Clemson) did not go well at all, but they do own smaller wins against Iowa and Richmond.    I am not here to claim that they have big wins over big competition – I am here to say they are destroying what is typically a decent conference, and own one of the nation’s most exciting offensive styles.  If nobody else wants to lay claim to the bottom part of the rankings, why not choose a mid-major team that is winning, and doing it convincingly?
  25.  Washington (17-6) (NR) – Swept the Arizona schools in back-to-back games, running their winning streak to four.  They defeated Colorado on the road (no easy task) during this streak, and own a win at Kansas earlier this season.

Dropped Out:

Creighton (17-6) (22) – No shame in losing to Villanova on the road, but they weren’t even competitive.  Creighton has hung around at the bottom (and just outside) the Top 25 all season long.

Louisville (16-7) (23) – 1-3 since I first put them back in the Top 25 two weeks ago.  Losing by 10 on Virginia’s home floor is actually not bad, but following that up with a home loss to Florida State is more than enough to drop you out.

Florida State (17-6) (24) – Nice job beating Louisville on the road, but lost to Wake Forest on the road in the game preceding that.   With a home game against Virginia and a road game against Notre Dame on the docket, they can easily push themselves right back into the Top 25 with an impressive week.

Just Missed:

New Mexico State (20-3) – Heavy consideration to finally crack my Top 25 until Washington’s win over Arizona.  I think Louisiana plays in a tougher conference, even if they don’t own as impressive of an out-of-conference win (New Mexico State beat Miami).   They have been on this list three weeks running…

Butler (17-7) – Four straight blowout wins, though it should be noted that DePaul was their opponent TWICE during the streak.   Going to Marquette and winning by 20 was an eye-opener, and they are still the only team to beat Villanova (also own a non-conference win over Ohio State).  Peaking at the right time?

Middle Tennessee (18-5) – The team that destroyed brackets a few years ago is 10-1 in Conference USA play, and played a strong out-of-conference schedule.  They came up just short in their toughest games, however (lost by six to Auburn, five to USC, and three to Miami).   If they would have converted two of those into wins, they would be easily in the Top 25.  As is, they just come up short.

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