The Battle of New Jersey
It has been a long time since Rutgers held supremacy in New Jersey over Seton Hall. The last time the Scarlet Knights made the NCAA Tournament was back in 1991. The last time they won a game in the NCAA Tournament was in 1983. Back in those days, Rutgers was a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, so they never once made it to the Big Dance as a member of the Big East conference, and have yet to even be in the neighborhood of the bubble as a member of the Big Ten conference.
Since Rutgers last made the tournament, the Pirates have made it eight times, though they last won a game in 2004. College basketball in New Jersey (my home state) hasn’t exactly been on a roll, but Seton Hall has at least started to show signs of life.
That was until Saturday afternoon, when Rutgers shocked the Pirates with a second-half comeback. It broke a four-game winning streak in the series by Seton Hall, who hold a 34-24 advantage in the rivalry that, at one time, held court within the Big East conference. It was the first game they have played each other where at least one team was ranked (Seton Hall) since their February 4th, 2001 game, which Rutgers also won.
As for Rutgers, this is not likely the beginning of an age of dominance for them, though they are off to an encouraging 10-3 start. In addition to beating Seton Hall, they hung tough against Florida State earlier in the season before succumbing by five. They played within ten of overwhelming Big Ten favorite Michigan State. They have allowed the third least points per game in the country, which can be deceiving at this time of the year, but as stated above, they have played some good competition.
I thought Rutgers made a strong hiring when they grabbed Steve Pikiell from Stony Brook, a school that was able to win 20+ games five straight seasons under his tenure, making an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. That squad ended the season 20th in points allowed, so Pikiell has a history of strong defensive squads.
I have been bullish on Seton Hall all season, and losing a rivalry game doesn’t kill my enthusiasm. There will be plenty of opportunities for them to make some noise in the Big East regular season.
Time to take Oklahoma Seriously
An upset over a struggling USC team, even if it was on a neutral court (in Los Angeles!), probably made people take notice of the Oklahoma Sooners. A true road win against Final Four contender Wichita State should be enough to make people start taking a second look at just how good Oklahoma may be.
I ranked them 25th entering last week, though I was weighing their resume vs. a dozen or so teams before settling on them because my eyes were starting to become crossed. This week, they will be a Top 25 team without any kind of internal debate.
Freshman Trae Young has been the catalyst for the Sooners, averaging 28.8 points per game. Fellow freshman Brady Manek is chipping in 10.1 points per game for the team that many figured may need some time to recover from losing sharpshooter Buddy Hied. Last season, they took a major step back, finishing 11-20, with two separate 7-game losing streaks mixed in. The turnaround in Norman has been remarkable, as they are currently averaging 93 points per game (3rd in the NCAA). Their high-octane offense has come with defensive difficulties, as highlighted by their 318th rank in points allowed per game. They don’t rebound all that well, though senior Khadeem Lattin gives them a big presence under the boards with his 8.4 rebound/game average. The fact that a team that is only two years removed from a “glory period” is not yet perfect is hardly surprising. For as long as Young keeps putting the ball in the hoop, and the team overcomes their defensive liabilities by putting the ball in the basket, they will have success. I don’t know if they are ready to rise back to near the top of the Big 12, but they are more dangerous than I (and many others) expected them to be.
Upsets in the Top 25
Going into this week, I didn’t expect to see much movement in college basketball, given that this is typically a week where teams don’t play the very best competition. Going into Saturday, it appeared I was going to be right, as the teams in the Top 25 were mostly cruising through their pre-holiday schedules.
That changed on Saturday, as Florida State took their first loss of the season when Oklahoma State took them down by a point. Other upsets on Saturday included a loss by Notre Dame to beleaguered in-state rival Indiana, while Florida’s descent into the abyss continued with a loss to Clemson.
Kansas barely survived a trip to Nebraska (winning by one), while East Tennessee State blew a 20-point lead against Xavier. Both Kentucky (Virginia Tech) and Michigan State (Oakland) had to work hard to put away lesser opponents to earn victories. It was a wilder day of college basketball than many predicted, but that is the nature of the college basketball beast.
When the dust settled, we were left with four unbeaten squads (Mississippi State and Georgetown also lost, but those were hardly upsets): Villanova, Arizona State, TCU, and Miami. Villanova has a two-game road trip within the Big East coming up, though neither DePaul nor Butler appears to be a major roadblock this season. (A trip to Butler is never easy, though). After that, they have a home game against Xavier. Arizona State, which showed it can play at a slower pace with a win Sunday over Vanderbilt, have to travel to Arizona at the end of the month. TCU has a gauntlet to get through, as their first three Big 12 games will be vs. Oklahoma, at Baylor, and vs. Kansas. Miami, who has been a quiet 9-0, take a trip to the big island of Hawaii before starting ACC play at Pittsburgh. They have a gauntlet coming up in January, a three-game stretch vs. Florida State, at Clemson, and vs. Duke.
If you put a basketball to my head, I would say that Villanova will be the last of the unbeatens, though who knows? It wasn’t long ago that I was convinced it would be Duke.
My Top 25 (Last week’s ranking in parenthesis):
- Villanova (11-0) (1) – As expected, not having any trouble against other Philadelphia schools. They have a game vs. Hofstra this week in their last game before conference play.
- Duke (11-1) (2) – Still strange to see them on the bottom of the ACC, given they have played in the only ACC game to date. They haven’t played since that game, but will welcome Missouri Valley school Evansville on Wednesday. Missouri Valley schools can be tough, but Duke should be fine. Their second conference game will come against Florida State.
- Michigan State (10-1) (3) – If not for their struggles against Oakland, I was thinking of swapping Michigan State and Duke. They did pull away from Oakland by 13, but the game was closer than that. They have four weak non-conference opponents at home before getting back to Big Ten play vs. Maryland, also at home. I don’t know when they might lose next.
- Arizona State (10-0) (7) – They own wins over Kansas State, Xavier, St. John’s, and Kansas. Vanderbilt is not very good this year (it appears), but they were able to slow the Sun Devils down. Arizona State still won by 12 after a rough start to the game. Their resume is as good as anyone’s, so I have jumped them over a few teams that also didn’t lose this week.
- Miami (9-0) (5) – Lackluster effort in their 9-point win at George Washington. It is tough to read this team until they start playing better competition. They have a long trip to play 6-2 Hawaii next Saturday.
- Texas A&M (9-1) (6) – They earned this easy part of their schedule, as they played some of the toughest competition in the game in the first month of the season. A game at Alabama will be a nice test in their SEC opener on 12/30.
- North Carolina (10-1) (9) – As impressive of a victory as any on Sunday, when they knocked off Tennessee by five on the road. Michigan State blew them out, but beyond that, the Tar Heels have been impressive. The CBS Sports Classic will feature a game between Carolina and Ohio State next Saturday.
- West Virginia (10-1) (11) – Remember when Texas A&M destroyed them in Germany in the season opener? They have run through everyone since. Their first Big 12 game looms at Oklahoma State.
- Xavier (10-1) (8) – A furious comeback was needed to knock off East Tennessee State, but they were able to pull it off. Sometimes, a scare is needed at this time of the season. Another scare may await them on 12/22, when they go on the road to face Northern Iowa.
- Kentucky (9-1) (12) – The schedule hasn’t been great, but they survived a tough test against Virginia Tech. Rivalry games against UCLA and Louisville are next on their slate.
- Wichita State (8-2) (4) – There is no way to sugar coat it: Oklahoma took this squad to school, dropping 91 points on them. They also recently allowed South Dakota State to put up an 85-point effort against them, so their defense needs to get back into shape.
- Kansas (8-2) (13) – Beating Nebraska on the road by a point is hardly inspiring, but many teams in the country are winning games in uninspiring ways. Survive and advance applies to December as well.
- Oklahoma (8-1) (25) – Consecutive wins in Los Angeles over USC and at Wichita State have put Oklahoma solidly on the map. There is intense competition coming within the Big 12, where the contenders will quickly be separated from the pretenders.
- Virginia (9-1) (16) – Nothing big happened this week, as their only game was a win over Davidson. While the Duke conquerors of Boston College await in a home game late in the month, I expect them to get to their January 3rd showdown at Virginia Tech without any additional losses.
- Cincinnati (9-2) (17) – Put Mississippi State’s dream of an undefeated season to sleep, and followed that up with a win over UCLA, who have essentially lost all of their big early season games. They are done with the toughest part of their early season schedule, and will begin American Conference play with a game vs. Memphis.
- Purdue (11-2) (20) – Cruised by Butler in an in-state rivalry game. They look and play the part of the second best team in the Big Ten, and may not see much of a challenge until their 1/9 date at Michigan.
- Gonzaga (9-2) (19) – Major scare vs. North Dakota ended with a 6-point victory in overtime, and a game at San Diego State may also make them sweat a bit. They are scoring the basketball, and have an impressive 15.7 margin of victory, but the ride so far has its share of shaky moments.
- TCU (10-0) (21) – Always nice to gain 3 spots in the rankings without even playing a game. They will next play a Big 12 tune-up game against Texas Southern. Tough Big 12 opener vs. Oklahoma at the end of the month.
- Seton Hall (9-2) (10) – I have been bullish on them, and didn’t penalize them much for their last-second loss against Rhode Island. Losing to Rutgers, however, is a bit harder to forgive. Creighton will be their first Big East game on 12/28.
- Arizona (8-3) (22) – Knocked down New Mexico on the road to extend their winning streak to five. I am slowly moving them up the rankings, but they will have a shot at a big jump when they play Arizona State in their Pac-12 opener later this month.
- Florida State (9-1) (15) – Their signature win over Florida looks like less and less of a feat by the week. We’ll see if their heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma State is a sign of things to come, or just a blip on their way to the upper echelon in the ACC.
- Baylor (9-2) (23) – Their most impressive win remains vs. Creighton, as they failed their biggest early season tests. Won’t be tested again until their Big 12 opener at Texas Tech, which is followed by a home game vs. TCU.
- Texas Tech (9-1) (24) – Their win vs. Boston College could help them if they were ever to fall back to the bubble. The Big 12 is going to be a gauntlet for everyone to get through.
- Clemson (9-1) (NR) – Squeaked by Florida by coming back from a 12-point deficit in the Orange Bowl Classic, and have a win against Ohio State on the road. Losing to a down Temple school stings a bit, but they have looked pretty good overall. An in-state rivalry game against tournament darling South Carolina is up next.
- Creighton (8-2) (NR) – Wins vs. Northwestern and UCLA have lost some of their luster as the season has gone along, and their other two tough games (Baylor, Gonzaga) resulted in losses, including a blowout at Gonzaga. The 4th ranked offense (by points per game) in the country has its flaws, but I considered them the best of the bunch when comparing them to other teams for this slot.
Notre Dame (8-3) (14) – That win vs. Wichita State seems so long ago. They have now lost to Ball State and Indiana, making it impossible to rank them.
Florida (6-4) (18) – Amazing how close this team came to knocking off Duke. It has been a free fall ever since.
Boise State (10-1) – Impressive record, but a not-so-impressive schedule. On Monday night, they can prove themselves with a game at SMU.
Stephen F. Austin (10-1) – Played two games against the SEC, losing to Mississippi State by five, while beating LSU by one. Neither is considered an SEC contender, but a nice job of scheduling by the solid mid-major. They next travel to Missouri on Tuesday.
St. Mary’s (9-2) – Those back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia continue to linger, as they don’t have much substance on their schedule.
Tennessee (7-2) – Played well in their big test against North Carolina, but ultimately fell in a home game. A win there would have obviously zoomed them way up.