TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Where was Collin Sexton?
That's all anyone wanted to know as Alabama took the floor for pregame warm-ups Wednesday night. Against No. 17 Auburn, the fabulous freshman guard with lottery potential and an average of 19.3 points per game was nowhere to be seen.
Right before tipoff, we found out why: an abdominal injury had knocked him out of the game. The disappointment inside the halls of Coleman Coliseum was audible. Sexton would be in street clothes as Alabama's archrival looked to extend its remarkable 14-game winning streak.
But Avery Johnson and the Crimson Tide had another stud freshman up their sleeve in guard John Petty. The lanky, dreadlocked rookie from Huntsville showed a sharpshooter's touch, scoring all but three of his 27 points from beyond the arc during a 76-71 win over Auburn.
Draining 8-of-13 3-pointers, Petty showed that he's capable of being much more than a role player. If anything, the former top-25 prospect reminded everyone why he was named Alabama's Mr. Basketball as a junior and a senior in high school. He's not afraid to take (and make) a shot from anywhere on the floor.
Petty said he knew he had to "step up" with Sexton sidelined. Petty added that he felt great when he saw a few early shots fall.
"I was open, so I shot," he said simply. "And I made it."
Herbert Jones smiled and nodded along as Petty confidently recounted his sweet shooting.
A few minutes later, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wasn't so cheerful.
"It was a missed opportunity because they were short-handed," Pearl said.
He said of Petty: "Great, great jump-shooter."
With Sexton's knack for getting to the basket and Petty's ability to light it up from long distance, the Crimson Tide might be on to something as they settle into the meat of their schedule. It's no coincidence that Alabama is 5-0 when Petty scores 15 or more points this season.
Johnson's squad has been largely inconsistent to this point, losing four of six games before reeling off two straight wins against South Carolina and LSU. But beating a ranked Auburn team at home could be the start of building a stronger NCAA tournament résumé.
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Tide as a No. 11 seed entering Wednesday night.
Amid the hoopla of beating their rivals, Johnson warned: "We're not a perfect team. ... We remember where we were three games ago."
It was then that Alabama lost by 19 points at Georgia. It was a game in which Sexton scored 23 points but got next to no support. Petty had one of his worst shooting performances of the season, going 1-for-8 from the field for three points.
Getting Petty to play more aggressively is a top priority moving forward.
Johnson said he has been proud of the way Petty has improved his jump shot, but that's not all.
"Petty is not just a 3-point shooter, now," Johnson said. "He can get inside the defense. He's expanding his game."
That could be bad news for the rest of the conference.
Alabama (12-6, 4-2) hosts Mississippi State on Saturday and goes on the road to Ole Miss on Tuesday.
Then comes a potential showcase game against No. 4 Oklahoma and its sensational freshman guard, Trae Young, on Jan. 27 in Tuscaloosa.
The matchup of Young and Sexton will be appointment viewing. But as we learned against Auburn, don't count out Alabama's other freshman guard.
Lose sight of Petty and he'll make you pay.
No. 7 Wichita State became yet another top-10 basketball team to fall to an unranked opponent Wednesday night when a long shot of a comeback bid came up short against SMU, resulting in an 83-78 loss. The Shockers got to hold that distinction for only a little more than an hour before No. 8 Texas Tech -- less than a week removed from the program's first-ever win in a top-10 matchup -- got to feel what it's like to be on the wrong end of an upset.
In Wichita, the Mustangs opened up a 10-point lead in the second half on the road and managed to hit enough foul shots to hold on for a big-time victory. A few hundred miles to the south, the Texas Longhorns were on their way to a 67-58 win over the Red Raiders.
Marshall has elevated his program to the status of national power over the past several years. A beating that stretched nearly wire to wire isn’t a reason to panic, though. Rough losses like this come with the territory. Texas Tech, if it continues growing under Chris Beard, will learn that same lesson plenty of times.
Just ask Villanova, which got its legs taken out by a hot-shooting Butler team three weeks ago. Or Duke, which lost by double digits to a middle-of-the-pack N.C. State team a week later. Or Michigan State and Arizona -- the latter lost to this same SMU team earlier in the season. The list goes on ... especially this season. In a college basketball season void of dominant juggernauts, the upset has become as common as a cold. The cure is to keep on playing.
The Shockers' defense had few, if any, answers for Shake Milton. SMU's junior guard played all 40 minutes and scored a game-high 33 points. He hit five of the six 3-point shots he attempted. The range he showed likely gave Wichita State's guards flashbacks to their loss to Trae Young and Oklahoma earlier in the season. SMU coach Tim Jankovich could barely believe it himself.
"Well, we draw up the one play that he shot about four times from about 45 feet," Jankovich said in a postgame interview with ESPN's play-by-play crew. "That’s one thing that was pretty amazing. When you see a guy do that what you're seeing is his heart ... How many guys have played better this year?"
Marshall's team has lost three games this season. Two of them came against red-hot shooters (the Mustangs shot 63 percent from the field and made half of their 3-point attempts Wednesday night) and the third was a tooth-and-nail battle against a Notre Dame team that was much stronger in late November before injuries ravaged their lineup. The Shockers recovered quickly the first two times.
Nights like these are inevitable, and luckily for Wichita State, the American Athletic Conference has just enough depth to make a loss like this forgivable, and the Shockers will keep moving forward. They will travel to No. 12 Cincinnati in mid-February and then make a trip to Dallas for a rematch with SMU a week later. The Mustangs -- with a 13-6 record and a couple of attention-grabbing wins against Arizona and now Wichita State -- will be an RPI booster for the league and are building a good case for their own spot in the NCAA tournament at season's end.
In reality, it wasn't all that long ago that Wichita State was on the opposite end of the equation in a game like this. Those days are gone. While the joy that the Mustangs are enjoying in the wake of their upset victory is a tremendous feeling, no one in Wichita would want to trade spots with them in the long run. Particularly in a season during which a few top-10 teams are seemingly toppled each and every week, an upset is nothing to be upset about for long.
But after an 87-69 shellacking at the hands of Kansas State in Manhattan on Tuesday, the Sooners may now be confronting a new and more modest reality. (If you're not shocked to be considering this possibility, you've likely been prepared on this topic most ably by my colleague Seth Walder.)
This team and its sensational freshman star, Trae Young, is still an amazing story, far more so than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago. Nevertheless, it almost certainly will have to develop new capabilities to prove it can truly compete with Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia for the Big 12 title in 2018.
Here is where OU finds itself with one-third of its conference season now in the books ...
Shooting 3s is great, but insanely great 3-point shooting can end abruptly
The Sooners entered their game against the Wildcats having made a rather incredible 47 percent of their 3-point attempts in Big 12 play. I'm not going to invoke the "live by the 3, die by the 3" aphorism here because I don't know what that is supposed to mean, exactly. (If you want less variation in 3-point production from game to game, it seems like you'd actually want to attempt more of them. Subject for another day.) I will say, however, that making almost half of your (many) 3-point attempts over the course of five conference games will hide some performance blemishes on both sides of the ball.
It's fair to say this is more or less what took place with Oklahoma early in the Big 12 season. Lon Kruger's men took the floor in Manhattan tied for the Big 12 lead along with KU and West Virginia, but the Sooners also started that game having shot a lower percentage on their 2s in conference play than they had on their 3s.
Kruger still will likely turn out to have a very good 3-point-shooting team, and this offense's best look will in all probability continue be a perimeter-oriented one. But we're getting a better grasp of just how good this entire team will look -- both on offense and on defense -- when those perimeter shots are falling at a very high but not unheard-of rate.
Young is now committing turnovers at a higher rate
In 2018, surely, we can make plenty of stylistic allowances on offense. This is supposed to be the age of Steph Curry, yet the reigning NCAA champion, North Carolina, didn't shoot all that many 3s last season. One size need not fit all when it comes to success in college basketball.
Still, the common denominator shared by just about every good offense is a turnover rate that is, at worst, average. And right now, Young is suffering through easily the most turnover-prone stretch of his still-young college career.
In the 421 offensive possessions during which he's been on the floor over Oklahoma's past six games, Young has given the ball away no fewer than 46 times. The Sooners' turnover rate as a team in Big 12 play is still acceptable (18.4 percent), but the material point is that it's significantly higher than what OU's Big 12 opponents are recording (14.8 percent).
Again, you can succeed on defense without forcing a high number of turnovers on defense. Not every team is built to be "Press Virginia." But if you're going to place your hopes on outscoring opponents by making a high number of 3s, you need to keep your turnovers to a bare minimum.
Oklahoma is no longer succeeding at that objective, and as a result the Sooners find themselves in effect falling between two performance stools. Clearly rivals like Texas Tech and West Virginia appear to have better defenses. But, increasingly, it also seems probable that a rival like Kansas is superior on offense, even with Young factored into the equation.
Young is just one player
One of the striking aspects of Young's unmistakable ascent has been how asynchronous it is. After all, isn't this supposed to be the era of position-less basketball? Shouldn't Oklahoma and every other team be spreading the floor with multiple players who can shoot, pass and drive? Yet the Sooners have taken a page from the past, seemingly, and put the ball squarely in the hands of one exceptionally assertive scoring point guard.
That decision has proved wise for much of the season. Still, even the example of Buddy Hield at this same program two years ago suggests that Young could use some help in 2018. Hield had running mates like Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard getting a high number of minutes and carrying a fair share of the workload on offense.
There's still time for a similar dynamic to occur in Norman in 2018, and for Sooners like, say, Christian James and Brady Manek to give Young a midseason lift. Until then, Young and Oklahoma appear headed for a season much better than anyone could have expected three months ago but a bit more ordinary than what we envisioned just two or three weeks ago. Right now a Big 12 title seems like a stretch.
At various points Monday night, both No. 5 Duke and No. 10 Kansas found themselves trying to avoid lopsided losses. It's an unusual spot for either team, so when it happened to both on the same night, it was truly a mathematic improbability.
The analytics will say that what happened next was even more unlikely: Duke erased a 13-point deficit with eight minutes remaining to win 83-75 at No. 25 Miami, and Kansas, which trailed by as many as 16, came back from nine down with under six to play to win 71-66 at No. 6 West Virginia.
At the same time, it probably shouldn't be that surprising. Duke and Kansas are still ... Duke and Kansas. Even if they're having what is perceived to be a down night (Duke) or even a relatively down season (Kansas), it's going to take more than a good 30 minutes to finish them off.
It's a lesson the Mountain teaches the Viper so very well in season four of Game of Thrones.
The win was particularly important for the Jayhawks, who are chasing a historic 14th straight regular-season conference title. Kansas tied UCLA's NCAA record of 13 straight (1967-1979) last season and entered Monday night in a four-way tie for the Big 12 lead with West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
If there were a game on Kansas' conference schedule that would have been easy to pencil in as a loss, it would have been Monday's tilt in Morgantown. WVU Coliseum has become a bona fide house of horrors for the Jayhawks, who had lost their four previous times in the building, including defeats of 12 and 16 points the past two seasons.
Those losses came during seasons where it was clear the Jayhawks were the better, more talented team. Headed into this one -- and even in its wake -- that was up for debate. West Virginia came into the game off a 72-71 loss at Texas Tech, but for the past two months, it had easily been the more impressive team.
Kansas came in with a three-game win streak but needed a pair of free throws with 15 seconds left to beat Kansas State two days ago.
West Virginia's pressure defense caused all sorts of problems early for Kansas and helped the Mountaineers to a 41-28 halftime lead. It was tied for the fewest points by Kansas in any half this season.
"We didn't play very well, but they make everybody play not very well," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "They're so good and create so much havoc. We got off to such a bad start, but fortunately in the second half when we struggled, the [WVU] lead didn't get over 12."
For Duke, the regular-season ACC title doesn't seem to carry as much value as the Big 12 does for Kansas -- the Blue Devils haven't won a regular season title since sharing the 2009-10 title with Maryland -- but a loss would have dropped them to an eye-opening 2-3 in conference play. Instead, they're a game and half behind ACC-leading Virginia with a game against the second-ranked Cavaliers at the end of the month.
The win at Miami was a reminder that this Duke team will still make some youthful mistakes, but once again, it has the potential to be very dangerous come March.
All three top-25 winners in action on Monday, in fact, faced double-digit deficits and came back to win. No. 23 Michigan trailed Maryland by 14 and came back to win 68-67 on a pair of free throws by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman with 1.2 seconds remaining.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- What you saw from Duke in the second half against Miami perfectly captures the yin-and-yang of Blue Devils basketball this season: maddening and uncontrolled at one glance, blitzkrieg talent falling like an avalanche at another.
Through 11 minutes in the second half, Duke had 11 points, thanks to the combination of too many turnovers, a disjointed offense and an opportunistic Miami team taking full advantage. Duke trailed by 13 points, and Mike Krzyzewski called his players into the huddle and delivered two simple messages:
Remember the comeback wins in Portland in November.
Quit playing like little kids.
What followed was a final eight minutes that brought out a team perfectly capable of winning a national championship off its superior talent alone. With Marvin Bagley III largely taken out of the game, freshman Gary Trent Jr. stepped up with a career-high 30 points, including several huge 3-pointers, to help Duke come back and win 83-75 on Monday night.
Afterward, Krzyzewski discussed how one team could look so flawed one second and so perfect the next.
"I thought we were trying to do things only by ourselves, and when you do that, especially in a team effort, you get tight because you're out there alone, and I thought we were tight," he said. "Once we started playing together, which we have, that's what happens. It's not just a young team. That's what happens with human beings. It changes, and thank goodness they were able to change while it was going on.
"That's the beauty of it. You can lose and then say, 'Boy, we should have done this' and try to correct it, but if you correct it while the stuff is going on, that's really good, and that's what happened tonight."
Yes, and the next step is to make sure the corrections become consistent, rather than performances filled with too much helter-skelter unpredictability. Players recalled coming back early in the season in the PK80 tournament against both Texas and Florida, but at some point, epic comebacks are best left for the drama section on Netflix.
"I think we have a great team," Bagley said. "We're only getting better from here. Every day, we're just trying to get better as a team, and we’re growing together."
With any young team, making corrections, growing and learning are all part of the maturation process. But now that Duke has played six games in the ACC, expectations are starting to grow. At some point, Duke wants to see this team put together a complete defensive performance to go with an offense that can diversify itself enough to get out of holes when the typical shots do not fall and mistakes pile up.
Defensively, for example, Duke went into the game ranked 14th in the ACC in scoring defense. Although it allowed 75 points to the Hurricanes, Krzyzewski was pleased the Blue Devils held them to under 40 percent shooting. That is a takeaway he will undoubtedly share with his team.
Then there is the performance from Trent, whom Krzyzewski credits with finding more of a groove since the staff installed specific offensive sets for him against Pittsburgh on Jan. 10.
A reporter asked Krzyzewski whether what Trent did against Miami qualified as a good performance, and he said, "He's been great. You can go higher than good. He's been good all season, but he's only shot OK. He's just worked hard all year, but in the last week and a half, he's shooting the ball quicker, and thank goodness."
Bagley put it this way: "[Trent] just stayed in the game. Obviously, my shot wasn't falling, a lot of the guys' shots weren't falling, and he just came up big for us with a couple 3s. He just played his butt off the whole time. We just tried to feed off him. It was his night, and everybody understood that. We just tried to feed off him, and he led us to this one."
It was an unusually quiet night for Bagley, who was held to 13 points. In games he has played more than 30 minutes, that qualifies as a season low. During the opening minute, Bagley felt his right shoulder pop out of place after he went up for a rebound. Then he missed five minutes while trying to pop it back in. Although he said his shoulder did not bother him during the game, Miami clearly keyed its defensive efforts in slowing him down.
That worked to an extent, and so did its half-court defense, at least to open the second half. As Miami coach Jim Larranaga said afterward, "I think we played a great 32 minutes, and then everything changed. The Gary Trent Show began."
To go with that, Duke switched to a zone defense that absolutely flummoxed Miami. The combination worked so well, Krzyzewski said, "We had to play almost perfect basketball, which we did kind of in the last 11 minutes."
If that trend continues ...
"I say this every game: 'We're not a finished product,'" Trent said.
It all happened quickly and unexpectedly in April of 2016. First, Georgia Tech pulled a shocker when it hired Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Then, a week later, Tigers AD Tom Bowen also pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he tabbed Tubby Smith to replace Pastner.
Chris Beard was a no-brainer for Texas Tech Red Raiders AD Kirby Hocutt, except for one minor issue. Beard had just accepted the UNLV gig.
Beard’s three daughters live close to Lubbock, Texas, and he knew he belonged in Lubbock. So he left Vegas after a brief, couple-week stint, took major criticism for the quick departure and has validated the decision by quickly turning the Red Raiders into a program that could crack the top five when the polls come out on Monday.
There was the win over Kansas in Lawrence 10 days ago, but there are shocking losses all the time. Boston College knocked off Duke back in December. But Beard & Co. have proved the win at Allen Fieldhouse was no fluke, not after coming back Saturday for a 72-71 win over a West Virginia team that hadn’t lost a game since Nov. 10.
Beard fits in Lubbock. It wasn’t that Smith hadn’t done a solid job. He took the Red Raiders to the NCAA tourney in his third season after the mess that Billy Gillispie left behind.
Smith gave the program credibility, but Beard has taken it to another level.
“Tubby left us a good base, and our first two recruiting classes have really produced and impacted the program,” Beard told ESPN on Saturday.
Keenan Evans has thrived under Beard and become one of the Big 12’s top players. He made a couple of huge buckets in the final five minutes. First there was a drive that tied the score at 60-60, and then a leaner from 17 feet that put the game away with 40 seconds remaining.
But the crazy aspect of all this is that Beard has done it in Big 12 play without 6-foot-8 senior Zach Smith, who was supposed to be the team’s top player this season. Smith rolled his ankle and played only four minutes against Baylor, logged six minutes in the win over Kansas and hasn’t played the past two games after suffering a broken bone in his foot in the win against Kansas State.
Beard told ESPN that he wasn’t sure if Smith will be back this season, only that he’s “out for a while.”
Texas Tech’s freshman duo of Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver has stepped up, but it’s the mentality that Beard -- a former Bob and Pat Knight assistant at Texas Tech -- has brought back to Lubbock that has made the difference. He’s a grinder, and after leaving Texas Tech following the hire of Gillispie, Beard has had to climb the ladder rung by rung. First it was the South Carolina Warriors in the ABA in 2011-12, then Division III McMurry in 2012-13, two years at Division II Angelo State, one at Arkansas Little Rock and the past two at Texas Tech.
It’s no shock with Beard’s grit that the Red Raiders have become one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“We’re good defensively and a work in progress offensively,” Beard said.
Now Texas Tech sits in a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12 with Kansas, West Virginia and Oklahoma. However, the Red Raiders have beaten Kansas on the road, the Mountaineers at home and will get a chance for revenge against Trae Young and the Sooners.
“We’re rolling now, but this league’s so good,” Beard said. “You can lose a couple in a row easily in this league. I don’t think the race will shake out until February.”
And if Texas Tech is still in the race, Red Raiders fans can thank Georgia Tech and Memphis for the assist.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Moritz Wagner spun toward a small patch of Michigan fans inside the Breslin Center -- maybe the only section of folks not searching for an exit at that moment -- with 24 seconds remaining in Saturday afternoon’s in-state rivalry game and let out a yell as he flexed.
Wagner scored a career-high 27 points in Michigan’s 82-72 toppling of No. 4 Michigan State to punctuate the end of an ugly week in East Lansing. The Spartans(16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) rolled into January looking like a prohibitive favorite to march through the Big Ten with its talent-loaded roster. After losing to Ohio State and barely holding off Rutgers in overtime at home, the league’s big, bad bully had to watch Saturday as the leader of its biggest rival celebrated at the end of two hours of pushing them around. The vibe around here changed in a hurry, and now the Big Ten’s overall pecking order looks a lot less like it is set in stone.
“Everything was going kind of smooth, but I’ve got to be my best and they’ve got to be their best,” coach Tom Izzo said. “There are going to be some ebbs and flows.”
Izzo said quelling this week’s ebb will require some soul-searching, especially from a backcourt that fell back into some bad habits against Michigan. The Spartans’ team-wide New Year’s resolution to do a better job of avoiding turnovers lasted about as long as most New Year’s resolutions. Michigan State coughed the ball up 18 times on Saturday, and the Wolverines turned those mistakes into 26 points in a game that remained close until the final minutes.
The sizzle remains for the Spartans. Senior Gavin Schilling threw down a ferocious alley-oop to end the first half, and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. had several blocks that caused fans in the first few rows to duck and cover. The offense as a whole, though, slogged through long stretches. After Schilling’s big dunk, Michigan State managed only one field goal in the next eight-plus minutes.
“If we turn the ball over, we’re going to lose,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “That’s been our problem since the jump. We still haven’t fixed that, so it’s coming back to bite us in the butt.”
Bridges and Jackson each scored 19 points in response to Izzo telling them earlier in the week that they needed to step up. Izzo said he wanted Bridges, the older of the Spartans’ two drool-worthy NBA prospects, to start playing like “more of a jerk” by taking control of games. And while Bridges was more aggressive creating his own looks at the start of the game, the rest of the offense didn’t follow.
Jackson helped keep things close by using mismatches in the paint to get to the foul line. He shot 13 free throws and made 10 of them. On the few occasions Michigan State was able to build some positive energy Saturday, Jackson was usually the catalyst. He blocked two shots on a single Michigan possession and followed that with a basket in the first half. He made a pair of free throws to give Michigan State a 55-54 lead with about eight minutes remaining.
In both cases, Michigan’s Wagner answered with a 3-pointer that sucked the wind of out the Breslin Center. Michigan coach John Beilein said Wagner, who was questionable heading into Saturday’s game after tweaking a previously injured ankle in practice two days earlier, relished his chance to play the villain role against Michigan State. Of all the players on the court Saturday, no one was bigger in big moments than Wagner.
“We answered several [times],” Beilein said. “It wasn’t like it was coaching expertise. It was good players making tough shots at tough times.”
Bridges agreed that he and his teammates were “out-toughed” by the Wolverines in their only regular season meeting this year. It stung, he said, “especially to a school like that, that doesn’t even focus on [being tough].”
Wagner’s big day pushed Michigan (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) into the conversations of teams that are now at the very least nipping at the Spartans' heels. No. 5 Purdue dismantled Minnesota on the road Saturday for its 13th straight victory and probably will jump Michigan State in the polls this week. The Boilermakers and Ohio State, both of whom remain unbeaten in conference play, won five combined games in the past week -- four of them by at least a dozen points.
Bridges said the fix for Michigan State is simple – get tougher on defense and rebounding and stop the turnovers. Holding off the rest of the Big Ten, though, won’t be quite as easy as it seemed just a week ago.
The new-look league's carnage is more likely to play out in the standings. The Big East has seven teams ranked in the RPI's top 50. While they range from third (Villanova) all the way to 49th (Providence), seemingly every team in that group has the pieces to be a threat to everyone else. It's hard to imagine any of these teams surviving the rest of the regular season without taking a couple of lumps. In a college basketball season that is shaping up to be rife with parity, the Big East may be the most treacherous among the “any given night” crowd. This weekend should provide a couple of opportunities to muddle the pecking order.
No. 23 Creighton(14-3, 4-1) is in prime position to announce its presence on Saturday with a trip to Xavier. The Bluejays are a dangerous team when they find their transition groove. They had assists on more than two-thirds of their field goals earlier this week in a win against Butler -- their fourth straight league victory.
No. 10 Xavier has dropped two games in a row. A blowout at the hands of No. 1 Villanova came on the heels of an upset loss at Providence last weekend. That leaves Chris Mack's team (15-3, 3-2) in need of a big win. Veterans like J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett have been at their best when emotions are high on their home court, which should make Saturday's game (2 p.m. ET, Fox) an entertaining battle.
Marquette, projected as an NCAA tournament 10-seed according to ESPN's Bracketology, might also prove to be another difficult out before the season ends. The Golden Eagles have a 12-5 record, but four of those losses have come against ranked teams.
They soundly beat No. 13 Seton Hall earlier this week, and with two players (Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey) averaging 20-plus points per game, they have the potential to stick with any of the league's other high-scoring teams in a shootout on a good night. Marquette travels to Butler on Friday night -- speaking of teams capable of outshooting the best of the best -- in a matchup of teams that both need a win to avoid falling in an early hole in league play.
Villanova for now remains the league's alpha dog. The Wildcats will be in Madison Square Garden this weekend, which should make that old guard of the Big East smile to see, for what should be a comfortable game against St. John's. They would be wise to treasure it while they can. Comfort won't be a luxury that anyone in this league will get to enjoy for very long over the course of the next couple of months.
Others worth watching
ACC defense: Points are hard to come by in the ACC this season. The league boasts six of the top 14 adjusted defense ratings on KenPom, by far the most of any conference in college basketball and easily the most the ACC has had in a decade. No. 3 Virginia (catch the Hoos host N.C. State on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU) is a mainstay in this category and is allowing a nation's lowest 53 points per game.
Miami, Clemson, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse are all not too far behind. That could lead to some closely contested games in the next six weeks. The one to watch this Saturday is No. 18 Miami vs. No. 19 Clemson. The Tigers (14-1, 3-0) haven't allowed more than 70 points in a game since November and have a chance to prove they are a legitimate threat in the league with a good showing at home this weekend.
Top 10 again: A matchup of top-10 teams has become a weekly event for the Big 12 -- a league that is as talented as it is wide open at the moment. More clarity (or more chaos) may come this weekend. One week after West Virginia took down Oklahoma to jump to No. 2 in the polls, the Mountaineers have to travel to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders snapped an eight-game winning streak this week. They nonetheless have a 76 percent shot of knocking off Bob Huggins & Co., according to ESPN's BPI predictor. The Sooners, meanwhile, host the TCU Horned Frogs, who are in danger of dropping to 1-3 in conference play despite a terrific start to the year.
State pride: The Mitten State will draw its battle line Saturday afternoon when Michigan travels an icy, 70-mile stretch of highway to East Lansing for its only meeting of the regular season with No. 4 Michigan State. The Spartans are a favorite on their home court, but the teams seem to be trending toward each other at the moment.
Michigan State barely squeaked past Rutgers in overtime earlier this week after losing to Ohio State on Sunday. Michigan (14-4, 3-2) lost a tight, controversial finish to Purdue this week and seems to be developing a bit of a rhythm with freshman Isaiah Livers taking on a bigger role in the offense. The Spartans are still the obvious team to beat in the Big Ten, but a loss to their in-state rivals may have them looking over the shoulder with a little concern moving forward.
PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe it was Jalen Brunson's secret weapon at one point. Maybe it was something he has consistently improved over the past couple of years.
But the helpless and unsuspecting look on the face of opposing point guards when Brunson takes them into the post for easy back-to-the-basket points a couple times every game is yet another staple when watching Villanova basketball nowadays.
And either way, the secret is out now.
“I’ve worked on it since I was in high school,” Brunson said after Villanova’s 89-65 win over Xavier. “I may not be taller than other defenders, so I know I can find ways to be creative deep in the post. Use my strength, use that a little bit. It’s something I’ve always had, always loved to do. ... I know that’s a part of my game where I’m really confident.”
When Brunson gets the ball in the post, defenses essentially have to leave him in a one-on-one situation because Villanova has three or four other players who will make shots from the perimeter if left open. It makes it very difficult for defenses to adjust.
“It’s an advantage for me,” Brunson said. “It’s an advantage for our team, because I’m able to make plays for others, not just myself, out of the post.”
It’s just another weapon in the arsenal for Brunson, who finished with 17 points, five assists and just one turnover in Wednesday night’s win that once again established Villanova as the favorite in the Big East. Ho-hum, just another consistently solid outing for the All-American point guard.
“They’re led by the best point guard in college basketball,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
Brunson isn’t the most talked about player in the country -- that’s Oklahoma's Trae Young. He isn’t the most hyped point guard in the country -- that’s also Young. He’s not even the biggest storyline on his own team this season -- that’s the breakout and NBA potential of Mikal Bridges.
But Brunson’s ascension into “the guy” for Villanova has been the key to the Wildcats' run to a No. 1 ranking.
With the departure of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins after last season, the expectation was that Brunson would take the reins of the Wildcats and become the leader, the closer, the go-to guy. But it’s hard to imagine anyone expected this.
The averages are impressive enough: 19.4 points, 5.2 assists, 59.0 percent shooting from the field, 49.3 percent from 3-point range. His numbers have gone up across the board -- except for turnovers, which have somehow gone down despite Brunson having the ball in his hands even more.
And while his counting numbers are not as gaudy as Young’s eye-poppingly consistent 25-point, 10-assist efforts, Brunson is also putting up efficiency numbers we haven’t seen in years. He ranks No. 1 in offensive rating among players who use at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, no player in the past eight seasons has had an offensive rating as high as Brunson’s with a usage percentage of at least 20 percent. He’s on pace to become the first major conference player in the past 20 seasons to average 19 points and own a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Brunson has taken his game to a new level this season, all while becoming the face of the program and the focal point of opposing defenses.
“He’s really good,” Mack said. “He’s stoic. If you peeled his face off, he would probably have wires coming out of it. He’s phenomenal.”
The most impressive thing about Brunson -- and this is indicative of the Villanova program as a whole --
is how consistent he is on a night-in, night-out basis. He really hasn’t had a truly bad game yet this season. He was limited to 21 minutes against Gonzaga earlier this season due to foul trouble, but still finished with 12 points and five assists. Brunson has turned the ball over more than twice in a game just once all season. He has never scored less than 10 points in a game. He has shot below 50 percent just three times, and never under 40 percent. In Villanova’s one loss, Brunson had 31 points and five assists.
That sort of consistency is simply uncommon in today’s game.
And in a season where top teams seem to struggle on a nightly basis, that sort of consistency is why Villanova is No. 1 in the country right now.
Still, the schedule-makers -- and three close games won by home teams on Tuesday night -- have made January unusually crucial in the Big 12 this season. In particular, the next seven days will have a significant impact on the conference race.
Can Kansas extend its streak to an incredible 14 consecutive Big 12 titles? We'll know a lot more than we do now in seven days.
First, consider the team the Jayhawks are already chasing ...
West Virginia can take control of the title race on Saturday ...
The Mountaineers survived a grueling test against Baylor on Tuesday in Morgantown and came away with a 57-54 win. It was a game in which Bob Huggins' team converted just nine of its 36 two-point tries, but again, it was a win.
If there's concern furrowing Huggins' brow, it could be that his team might not get a victory the next time it is held to less than a point per possession. Huggins has long won games with a combination of strong offensive rebounding and a minimum of turnovers. This season, however, that formula is proving more elusive.
The Mountaineers are still pretty good on the offensive glass (freshman Teddy Allen has been particularly good in that respect during limited minutes), but the WVU offense has given the ball away once every five trips down the floor early in Big 12 play. That has had a big impact on this team's shot volume.
Nevertheless, West Virginia sits atop the Big 12 at 4-0, the only team undefeated in league play. It's possible that the one-game lead the Mountaineers now have over KU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma could become a two-game lead within the next week. It would be difficult, but it's possible.
Next up for Huggins and his men is Saturday's game against the Red Raiders in Lubbock. West Virginia figures to get a big lift in that game, thanks to the return of Esa Ahmad. The 6-foot-8 junior has been held out of action this season after failing to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. He was the team's second-leading scorer last season behind Jevon Carter, and Ahmad should help the Mountaineers get more second chances on offense. His return is a boost to a team that is already 15-1 and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.
Still, the trip to Lubbock, even with Ahmad, doesn't project to be a walk in the park.
... or Texas Tech can pull itself into a first-place tie on its home floor
For a few minutes Tuesday night, it seemed like Chris Beard was about to take command of the Big 12 title race. His team entered the evening undefeated in conference play, and Tech was up on Oklahoma at the half in Norman. A win would have given the Raiders road victories at both OU and KU.
Looking ahead, however, Keenan Evans & Co. have a chance to bring league-leading West Virginia back to the pack on Saturday. Huggins and his staff will look at the numbers this week and see that the Red Raiders have been absolutely dominant on the defensive glass in Big 12 play. If, however, West Virginia finds a way to win in Lubbock, the Mountaineers' next game becomes even larger -- for WVU and for the entire Big 12.
Kansas can prove that the road to the title still goes through Lawrence come Monday ...
Bill Self's team took care of Iowa State 83-78 in Lawrence on Tuesday night, and this weekend, the Jayhawks will host Kansas State. No KU player would ever -- or should ever -- look past a game against the in-state rival, and Self will make sure of that. At the same time, the Wildcats haven't won a game at Allen Fieldhouse since 2006.
Let's go out on a limb and say Kansas wins on Saturday. That means the Jayhawks will be 4-1 in the Big 12 on Monday, when they visit West Virginia.
Speaking of streaks, KU hasn't won in Morgantown since 2013. Then again, Self's team has been, for the most part, outstanding on offense in Big 12 play. Svi Mykhailiuk is hitting 54 percent of his 3s against conference opponents, and the Jayhawks are taking excellent care of the ball. Maybe this is the year that streak ends.
... And Oklahoma can keep gliding along with just one conference loss
After possibly the best start to a college career in the past 15 years, Young is just 15-of-45 from the floor in his past two games. His shots are no longer falling, but he still recorded 14 assists in those two games, and, of course, one of those outings was a win at home over a very good Texas Tech team.
The big takeaway from Young's two-game "slump," however, might be that the freshman has scored 19 points on 19-of-24 free-throw shooting. He is still getting chances to score at the line, and that will be a clear plus for Lon Kruger's team going forward.
Oklahoma gets TCU at home on Saturday and visits Kansas State on Tuesday. Winning both games will be no small task, but if it happens, the Sooners might find themselves in a first-place tie in seven days' time.
Even though it's still January, the Big 12 is about to sort itself out.
Starting point guard Quade Green was ruled out less than an hour before tip-off, and three other scholarship players were out injured. Meanwhile, Texas A&M was getting two of its starters back from injury.
The Wildcats were down to seven scholarship players, with five freshman starters -- against a team that started three juniors, a senior and a freshman.
Oh, and coach John Calipari preached all week to anyone that would listen that his young Kentucky group wasn't tough, with a blown second-half lead from Saturday against Tennessee to prove it.
Two hours later, Kentucky eked out a 74-73 win over A&M, sending the Aggies to their fourth straight loss.
Calipari wasn't totally convinced by the Wildcats' improved toughness on Tuesday, but it was a step in the right direction.
"Toughness doesn't mean roughness," he said. "Toughness means that you're engaged, that you're playing people before they catch the ball, that you're meeting people before the ball hits the rim when you rebound, that you're sprinting the floor every time and bouncing, and you're talking. We got closer. But that's still going to be a work in progress. Until we get really good at that, we're going to be who we are."
What Kentucky is right now is not what it's going to be in two months, and the Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) are still taking baby steps toward what Calipari wants them to become by March. But If Saturday's loss showed a team that has trouble fighting back when it gets hit in the mouth, Tuesday's win showed a team that can throw some punches -- albeit inconsistent ones -- and survive with its back against the wall.
They can't do it for 40 minutes yet, especially defensively. Kentucky had several good stretches of zone defense, especially late in the game. A&M (11-5, 0-4 SEC) couldn't complete entry passes to Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, and the Wildcats collapsed with length on dribble-drives. But there were other times Kentucky switched off defensively for several possessions and A&M did whatever it wanted on the offensive end.
"We did some half-decent stuff," Calipari said. "But we went to man, they'd score five straight times."
The signs are there of a team beginning to come together, though. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped in for Green and had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He carried the offense for much of the first half. Hamidou Diallo scored 10 straight Kentucky points during one stretch and finished with 18 points. Kevin Knox had a couple of 3-pointers and 15 points.
But the key factor on this team moving forward is going to be PJ Washington -- and everyone seems to know it.
"The past couple games, he's been a little bit more vocal than the rest of us, and he's been playing really well and we're all starting to follow him a little bit," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "He's a really intense guy, and he gets us going, energy-wise."
The inexperienced Wildcats have been screaming out for a leader all season, and it was never more evident than in the Tennessee loss. Washington cramped up in the second half with the game tied 47-47 and didn't return. The Volunteers outscored Kentucky by 11 in the final 12-plus minutes with Washington out of the game. After that game, Calipari said the Wildcats had no shot to win once Washington went out.
Despite some missed free throws late, Tuesday was another step toward Washington making this his team. He finished with 16 points and four rebounds, but more important, he took charge in the final minutes.
"He has to take leadership of this team," Calipari said. "He has to do it now. He's the toughest guy. If a guy is not doing what he has to, you have the ability and the right now to tell him."
Calipari clearly has higher aspirations for this team. He knows where his players are in their development, but if he thought at all the Wildcats were a borderline top-20 team and one of several contenders for an SEC title, he would have been happy in Tuesday night's postgame press conference.
He didn't exactly seem that way.
He continued to talk about toughness and Kentucky's lack of consistency in that department; the missed free throws that allowed Texas A&M multiple chances to tie or win the game in the final minute; the poor communication and rotation on defense; and the Wildcats losing the ball and hoping for fouls instead of finishing strong in traffic.
"If you want to be tough, you can't try to be cool, you can't try to be cute, you can't try to be Hollywood," Calipari said. "You can do those things, but you're not a tough, focused, engaged player."
Calipari is clearly trying to get a point across. He knows Kentucky has the talent and potential to be a factor in March but knows they're not there yet. And he knows any sign of lethargy or a loss of focus -- for even a minute -- at the wrong time can end a season.
"We need those guys to play with a sense of urgency, a desperation, a toughness," Calipari said.
Tuesday's short-handed response was a step in that direction.
Before Michigan State suffered an 80-64 loss at Ohio State on Sunday -- a loss against a Buckeyes team with a new coach and just nine scholarship players -- the league had failed to give its fans a reason to care.
Beyond Michigan State and Purdue, a pair of powerhouses that will meet just once this season on Feb. 10 in East Lansing, Michigan, the league had few attractive matchups to offer.
Sunday's game only extended the boredom.
Michigan State and Purdue will still fight one another for the Big Ten throne. But with just one meeting between the two top teams, the Spartans' inconsistency and a conference filled with teams vying for tournament berths while boasting few significant games, the Big Ten will not generate the drama that has defined the league and entertained its supporters in recent seasons.
Some of this is connected to the serious injuries and off-court problems within the conference.
Minnesota's Reggie Lynch is suspended indefinitely for an alleged violation of the school's sexual misconduct policy -- he's appealing the ruling -- and the program just lost Amir Coffey for a significant stretch due to a shoulder injury. The school announced Coffey's injury prior to a Saturday home loss to Indiana, which entered the game without De'Ron Davis and Collin Hartman.
Both Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law have dealt with injuries at Northwestern. Justin Jackson is out for the season at Maryland. D'Mitrik Trice hasn't played since early December for Wisconsin, and Kobe King will miss the rest of the season.
But those teams had opportunities to compete for important wins in healthier times.
Law would not have saved Northwestern in its 30-point loss to Oklahoma last month. Jackson wouldn't have been the difference in Maryland's 30-point loss to Michigan State last week. The Golden Gophers had already suffered double-digit losses to Nebraska and Arkansas before their latest drama.
Joe Lunardi's most recent bracketology projects just four NCAA tournament berths for the Big Ten. Last year, the league sent seven teams to the tournament.
I'm from Big Ten country. And I live in Big Ten country now.
The historic beauty of the league has been its perennial grind: the tough road games, the dangerous teams at the bottom of the pack and the elite coaching.
It lacks that edge this season.
Ohio State is a great story, and Sunday's victory will help Chris Holtmann establish his brand and vision in Columbus. He can rebuild the Buckeyes, who are now 4-0 in Big Ten play. Archie Miller's leading a short-handed Indiana team into Minneapolis on Saturday and leaving with a win was a fun story, too.
The Boilermakers boast a squad full of hungry vets who have already led the program to wins over Arizona, Louisville and Butler. Michigan is intriguing and has a pair of solid wins over Texas and UCLA.
I'm still excited to see what happens when Purdue and Michigan State meet next month.
But Minnesota is in the middle of a sexual assault scandal and falling from its preseason position as a Big Ten sleeper. Northwestern made history last season with its first NCAA tournament team but might not earn an invitation this season if its problems persist. Ethan Happ is carrying a heavy load in what might become the worst Wisconsin season in years.
The league started the day with half its squads sitting outside the top 50 in ESPN's BPI.
That's a surprise because the Big Ten is usually must-see TV, a league with riveting storylines, high-level talent and with multiple programs contending for NCAA tournament invitations.
On Sunday, however, the league gave people only a reason to change the channel.
Duke remains the sport’s biggest conundrum, the most talented starting five in the country, the only team to beat Michigan State and the team with the biggest ceiling in college basketball. But the Blue Devils’ issues continue to come to the forefront, most noticeably on the defensive end. NC State scored 1.28 points per possession against Duke on Saturday, a week after Florida State hit 1.14 points per possession and a month after Boston College dropped 1.20. Through three ACC games, Duke is allowing nearly 93 points per game. That’s not going to win anything in March, regardless of Duke’s offense. The Blue Devils really struggle to guard dribble penetration, can’t contain pick-and-rolls and don’t have any consistent rim protectors.
Mike Krzyzewski isn’t exactly shuffling his lineups to find an answer, either -- he wants his main five to figure it out. That’s something he has alluded to all season, telling ESPN after Duke’s win over Indiana in late November that the development of the starting five is paramount. He wants them to get comfortable playing 30-plus minutes apiece, not relying on the bench, in preparation for the NCAA tournament.
If Duke continues to play defense like it did on Saturday, though, the Blue Devils won’t have to worry about getting worn down in the tournament.
They won’t be there long enough.
Duke’s shocker wasn’t the only storyline on a drama-filled Saturday.
Young’s stat line doesn’t look bad at all: 29 points, four rebounds, five assists.
But West Virginia made life for the Wooden Award favorite absolutely miserable in the Mountaineers’ 89-76 win. Jevon Carter, arguably the country’s best on-ball defender, began the game by face-guarding Young on the first few possessions, not even letting him get the ball. “Press Virginia” was physical with Young all game, bumping him, grabbing him, doing everything it could to frustrate him. And it worked. Young’s field goal percentage (8-for-22) was his lowest since the Sooners’ season opener. He had a season-high eight turnovers. And his five assists were tied for a season-low.
West Virginia basically dared Young to make a contested shot or have a teammate create a shot for himself. The Mountaineers weren’t going to get beat on drive-and-kick 3-pointers off Young’s penetration. And Young wasn’t getting consistent help. Brady Manek didn’t score a single point and took only two shots. Christian James had seven points. Kameron McGusty had 10 points on eight shots. Young is terrific, but he can’t do it on his own. In Oklahoma’s previous key wins, his supporting cast came up big: Manek had 21 points against Wichita State and 28 against Oklahoma State; McGusty had 22 against TCU; and James had hit double-figures in 13 of his first 14 games. The open looks just weren’t there on Saturday for Oklahoma.
Young will look to learn from Saturday’s experience. He was visibly frustrated at times in the first half, and let Carter and the veterans from West Virginia get in his head and win the mental battle. He forced things at times when nothing easy was coming. Things got better after halftime, though, and he’ll continue to adjust.
Oh, and he won’t have to face Carter and Press Virginia again -- until Feb. 5.
Xavier gets into the top five, will fall out of the top five
Xavier tied a program record by moving up to No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The Musketeers won’t break the program record, after falling 81-72 at Providence.
The Musketeers had flirted with close games the past few weeks, winning six games in a row by 10 points or fewer, needing double-digit second-half comebacks in two. All-American candidate Trevon Bluiett couldn’t bring Xavier back late in the game and was concerningly quiet after halftime, scoring zero points on four shots in the second half. Chris Mack has been able to rely on a number of secondary options in the last month, with stalwarts Bluiett and JP Macura shouldering most of the load. But Xavier won’t be able to survive if those two combine for only 21 points.
Xavier now has to go to Villanova on Wednesday, and the Musketeers have lost by 23, 13, 31 and 25 points in road games at Villanova since entering the Big East. Mack will need bounce-back games from Bluiett and Macura.
Colorado’s big week
Forty-eight hours later, Tad Boyle’s team has notched back-to-back upsets over Arizona State and Arizona. Freshman point guard McKinley Wright might be the most underrated star newcomer in the country. He had 19 points and five assists against Arizona State, and followed that up with 16 points and 10 assists against Arizona. Wright was originally committed to Dayton but reopened his recruitment when Archie Miller left for Indiana.
Speaking of the Millers, Archie’s brother, Sean, had some interesting comments following the game. “Our guys, they really struggle playing for me -- they really do,” Miller said. “I can’t get them to play hard.”
Arizona had won nine games in a row before Saturday, so it’s not the end of the world, but the comments are certainly not a great sign. Maybe there’s something to it, though: This year’s Wildcats are worse defensively than any outfit since Miller’s first season in Tucson in 2010.
Someone figure out the SEC, please
There’s simply no rhyme or reason to what has been going on in the SEC the first week-plus of conference play. Alabama beat Texas A&M by 22 last weekend, then turned around and lost to Vanderbilt and Georgia this week. Texas A&M was perhaps the conference favorite entering league play, but the Aggies are now 0-3 in the SEC after Tremont Waters’ game-winning 3 for LSU. Kentucky lost to Tennessee by 11. Auburn and Florida continue to roll. Mississippi State beat Arkansas and then lost to Ole Miss. Arkansas beat Tennessee last weekend and then lost to Mississippi State and Auburn this week.
Top to bottom, the SEC might be the deepest league in the country. All 14 teams are capable of beating one another, as we’ve shown. There might not be a national title contender in the bunch, though, especially with the way A&M is playing and Kentucky’s inconsistency. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we saw 10 teams or so with at least bubble hopes heading into March.
Right now, Florida and Auburn are playing the best basketball in the league. Florida seems to have shaken off its early-December issues, with two road wins this week. Bruce Pearl has done a terrific job with Auburn, as the Tigers have rattled off 12 wins in a row, including wins over Tennessee and Arkansas this week.
This time next week, though? It’s anyone’s guess who will be considered the best in the SEC.
Kansas ends skid with win at TCU
We don’t have to totally bury Kansas’ season just yet, as the Jayhawks bounced back from their 12-point home loss to Texas Tech with a road win at TCU. A loss to the Horned Frogs would have sounded the alarms in Lawrence, but they can take a rest for now -- especially since Kansas returns home for games against Iowa State and Kansas State this week.
There has been a weird trend for Kansas this season, though. The Jayhawks’ best performances have come away from home. Road wins over TCU and Texas. Beating Kentucky in Chicago. Beating Syracuse in Miami. We’ll see if that changes this week.
By the way, TCU has now dropped two of three since starting 12-0. It doesn’t get any easier for the Horned Frogs, either, as they travel to Texas and Oklahoma in their next two games. Jamie Dixon has done a great job with TCU, but things could get interesting in the next couple weeks.
The Cavaliers were ranked No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 15 in the latest ESPN Power Rankings -- and that was before Virginia did what it did on Saturday.
Tony Bennett’s team took down North Carolina 61-49, rarely being threatened in the second half and holding the Tar Heels to 29.6 percent shooting from the field.
This victory comes on the heels of Virginia absolutely trouncing in-state opponent Virginia Tech on Wednesday, beating the Hokies by 26 in Blacksburg. The lead was 30-plus at times in the second half.
Coming into the week, we had a feeling Virginia was very good. The Cavaliers were No. 4 in the BPI and No. 3 at KenPom, but their metrics are always impressive. Even last year, when Virginia lost 11 games, it finished No. 12 at KenPom. So there was still some doubt. The lone Top 25 opponent the Cavaliers had played this season was West Virginia, and the Mountaineers won that one by seven. Their best win was over an E.C. Matthews-less Rhode Island team in Brooklyn.
If you still had questions, it would be understandable.
Blowing out a Virginia Tech team on the road that hadn’t lost at home all season, and then completely stifling North Carolina to win by double digits has to be convincing. The Tar Heels average more than 74 possessions a game; on Saturday, Virginia limited them to 59 possessions.
This week puts Virginia back in the national conversation. Outside of Michigan State, Duke and Villanova, it’s a crapshoot. And the Cavaliers are absolutely in the mix.
Under Bennett, Virginia is always going to do two things: control the tempo and play defense. And right now, the Cavaliers are doing that better than anyone in the country. They rank No. 1 in scoring defense by a landslide. They rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They rank No. 351 in possessions per game -- fewest in the country. Just how Bennett wants it.
Their talent doesn’t jump off the page at you, but it never has at Virginia. The Cavaliers have everything they need. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are shot-makers from behind the arc, while Devon Hall has come on strong lately (12 points against Virginia Tech, 16 points against North Carolina). Rutgers transfer Nigel Johnson doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but he’s more dynamic than most guys on the Cavaliers. He brings some unpredictability to the offensive end and can also get after it defensively.
They’re not a perfect team by any means, of course. There’s no Malcolm Brogdon on the team, a player who can consistently create his own shot and get a bucket with the clock winding down, but that hasn’t been an issue yet. And there is always the potential of Virginia going cold and allowing a lesser team to stay in the game because of the low number of possessions.
There are always going to be people who don’t believe in Virginia, mostly due to the Cavaliers' style of play, how it’s not perceived to be aesthetically pleasing. But Bennett doesn’t care, nor should he, since it’s delivering results.
At the NCAA tournament last season, Bennett was asked about Virginia’s identity -- and he defended it.
“We are who we are,” he said at the time. “I think it’s OK to make guys defend. That’s going to carry over their professional career. I try to teach them to play the game the right way and whatever gives us a chance to win. But if someone doesn’t think it’s for them, I make no apologies for how we play. It’s our way.”
After this week, Bennett should believe in it more than ever.
After a “subpar” -- by Virginia standards -- season, the Cavaliers are back.