Sure, Saturday’s slate presented the possibility for March-like chaos. The kind of Saturday that might shift things -- rankings, standings, records, assumptions -- it seemed.
But sometimes sports are stubborn and don’t cooperate with expectations.
College basketball surpassed the hype, however, and offered the most tantalizing afternoon of nonconference scraps we’ll witness before March Madness arrives. Four top-10 squads -- No. 7 Duke, No. 4 Kentucky, No. 5 Iowa State and No. 8 Purdue -- fell and No. 11 North Carolina redeemed itself with a convincing win over No. 22 UCLA.
Duke’s indefinite chapter without Amile Jefferson continued with a troubling 77-75 loss to 7-foot NBA prospect Jakob Poeltl (19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks) and the Utah Utes. Kentucky couldn’t get past Ohio State. Wait. Kentucky lost to Ohio State?!?! Iowa State dug another early hole and paid for that in a loss to Northern Iowa, a team that now boasts two top-5 wins after defeating North Carolina earlier this season. And Butler blemished Purdue's perfect record.
Those are the highlights. But North Carolina's win over UCLA, without Kennedy Meeks, was achieved by a squad that displayed a fire it lacked in last weekend’s loss at Texas. Virginia made its case as the best team in the ACC with a double-digit victory over Villanova. Texas A&M, ranked 24th, embarrassed No. 16 Baylor in College Station. Creighton challenged No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman before the Sooners snatched the momentum in the final minutes. And No. 13 Arizona beat UNLV in Tucson after a late rally by the Runnin' Rebels.
We’ve waited to identify a “great” team, although we may not discover one this season. Saturday’s contests presented opportunities for some of the best teams to show the college basketball world they’re worthy of that distinction. Instead, we were left with the pleasant notion that college basketball might lack a juggernaut. But we should smile because the game is blessed with an abundance of good teams that will meet in March to decide the final hierarchy.
And if Saturday’s events doubled as a preview, then we’re going to see something special after Selection Sunday.
So much happened Saturday. But what does it all mean?
Here are the biggest questions after Saturday’s games:
Will Duke be Duke without Amile Jefferson?
In the final seconds of an exciting matchup at Madison Square Garden, Brandon Ingram caught an inbounds pass with seconds on the clock in overtime and nearly completed Duke’s great come-from-behind effort. But his finger roll clanked off the rim.
Duke displayed a relentless spirit that will help this young group once ACC play begins. But Poeltl’s success portends more pitfalls for a Duke frontcourt that will face the big bodies from Virginia, Miami, North Carolina, Pitt and Louisville possibly without Jefferson, the team’s leading rebounder and key interior defender. Duke needed Jefferson to suppress Poeltl, who scored in transition, fed teammates from the post and had his way around the glass. The Blue Devils certainly didn’t look like the same squad without Jefferson, and they will encounter more issues in the paint as long as he’s sidelined by a foot injury.
What’s wrong with Kentucky?
Consider this: Texas-Arlington registered 1.06 points per possession against Ohio State when the Mavericks defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus on their home floor in November. On Saturday, the Buckeyes held Kentucky to 0.97 PPP and forced a 17.4 percent turnover rate. Ohio State is barely a top-50 defense.
But the Buckeyes exposed Kentucky’s offensive challenges -- issues that will haunt them in SEC play -- in Saturday’s significant win. Kentucky is a subpar offensive team right now. The Wildcats have made just 35.0 percent of their jump shots inside the arc (182nd per hoop-math.com). They’re one of the nation’s worst 3-point-shooting teams (29.7 percent, No. 303) and they’re struggling from the free throw line (67.4 percent, 223rd). Kentucky has defeated most teams this season because it is equipped with a rare mix of talent and size. So, Saturday’s loss to an Ohio State team that hadn’t impressed anyone before it met the Wildcats should be concerning for the program’s supporters, especially with the competition in the SEC. Texas A&M defeated Baylor by 19 points Saturday. Vanderbilt is tough. South Carolina could be a sleeper. Florida is growing. Meanwhile, Kentucky is incomplete and must address some serious issues. And fast.
Is the Big East the pound-for-pound king of college basketball?
Right now, yes. The conference might earn the crown that the Big Ten and Big 12 have traded in recent years. It’s a true gauntlet right now in the Big East. Saturday proved as much.
Xavier stayed perfect with a 24-point victory over Auburn. Butler scored 74 points against a Purdue team that’s ranked first in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings. Seton Hall defeated a Wichita State squad that was coming off a 17-point victory over Utah. Villanova lost to Virginia but never quit on the road against a national championship contender. Georgetown lost to UNC-Asheville on Saturday, and Incarnate Word defeated St. John’s on Friday, so it’s not all wonderful in the Big East. But with Marquette rising, Providence evolving into a more dangerous unit every week and the rest of conference prospering, this is clearly one of the strongest leagues in America.
How will the Naz Long injury affect Iowa State?
Saturday’s Iowa State team did not compete like a squad that could outplay the Jayhawks or Sooners or even Texas or Baylor. Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun finished 9-for-14 with a team-high 28 points. In the past, coach Steve Prohm would adjust and send Long, sidelined by a season-ending hip injury, to harass Washpun.
They didn’t have an answer for him. So what will Iowa State do against Buddy Hield, Wayne Selden Jr., Isaiah Taylor, Danuel House and the other perimeter threats in the Big 12? That’s not clear. And that’s a major problem for this team going forward.