Five thoughts from this past week:
1. Homecourt advantage is huge. This is nothing new, of course, but it was reinforced by the early back-and-forth jabs thrown in the Big East last week. On Wednesday, Notre Dame defeated the No. 9-ranked Georgetown Hoyas, who had a successful run through the nonconference slate despite one of the more difficult schedules in the country. Then, on New Year’s Day, the Irish went to Syracuse and were beaten rather thoroughly by an athletic and intelligent team. Does this mean Syracuse is the best team in the Big East? That Georgetown isn’t? That Notre Dame is better than we thought? Or worse? For now, it just means that it’s very, very tough to get wins on the road during conference season, especially in a conference as tough at the top as the Big East.
2. The sky is not falling at Illinois and Michigan State. Illinois fans were worried about the Illini. Michigan State fans were worried about the Spartans. But both teams felt the comforts of home cooking this week -- the aforementioned point about home-court advantage applies here, too -- and each proved there’s plenty of time to rebound from their respective nonconference disappointments. Illinois got a nice win over a tough Wisconsin team Sunday, no easy feat, and one last year’s Illini team couldn’t accomplish when it desperately needed a résumé-building win last February. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s win over 13th-ranked Minnesota on Friday came with at least one very encouraging sign baked in: Tom Izzo’s team only turned the ball over eight times, a far cry from its usual offensive-imploding turnover tendencies. The Spartans struggled against the best teams on their schedule in November and December, but this convincing home win provided some notion that Michigan State will make its customary improvements as league play rolls along. Sorry, Chicken Little. Check back with us in a month.
3. Kentucky keeps getting better. You know what’s scary? That this Kentucky team -- a group packed with star-studded freshmen Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones -- is still missing its best player. Enes Kanter may or may not be eligible in 2011 (the NCAA’s final decision on the Turkish forward’s eligibility should be just around the corner), but with their convincing win at Louisville on New Year’s Eve, the Wildcats proved they’re capable of a deep tournament run with or without Kanter. Like the team he leads, Knight continues to improve his all-around efficiency, and the emergence of forward Josh Harrellson -- who exploited Louisville’s shallow front line with a career day Friday -- gives Kentucky a major interior boost. To think this team is still scratching the surface of its potential, and doing so while a likely top-five NBA draft pick sits on the sideline in warm-ups, is a frightening proposition for a suddenly shaky SEC East.
4. Tennessee continues to baffle. Speaking of the SEC East, remember when Tennessee was arguably the most impressive team in the country? How quickly things change. Not that long ago, amidst the swirling uncertainty of Bruce Pearl’s ongoing NCAA troubles, the Volunteers beat Villanova in Madison Square Garden and easily handled No. 3 Pitt in Pittsburgh. Those were simpler times. Since then, Tennessee has lost to Oakland, Charlotte, USC and Charleston. Three of those losses, including Friday’s 91-78 drubbing to the Cougars, came in Knoxville, where the Vols have looked defensively soft and offensively stagnant. It’s a staggering turn of events, given where Pearl’s team was a month ago. And with Pearl set to miss UT’s first eight SEC games thanks to a suspension by commissioner Mike Slive, things don’t look likely to improve anytime soon. From world-beater to bubble team in less than a month: These are your 2010-11 Tennessee Volunteers.
5. The UConn women deserve our praise. The last thing this blogger wants to do is get caught up in the inane debate governing the Connecticut women, their ability relative to men’s college hoops, and their place in history. Comparing UConn’s streak to UCLA’s is about as worthwhile as comparing UCLA’s win streak to Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak. Different sports, different eras, different circumstances -- there’s no good way to quantify this thing, and it’s more than a little annoying when people try. Instead, after the streak-busting loss at Stanford on Thursday, let’s just shower the Huskies with love: UConn won 90 straight games. They are the only team in women’s hoops history to win national titles in back-to-back undefeated seasons. Of those 90 victories, 88 came by 10 points or more. That is certifiably insane. The Huskies didn’t just beat the best their sport had to offer. They crushed all comers. Forget the abstract comparisons, or whether the Huskies can beat a men’s college hoops team. This streak was fantastically dominant in its own right. That’s what I’ll remember.