Earlier today, I wrote about the eventful day in the Big East, as Villanova upset No. 3 Syracuse and Louisville dropped its third in a row in a loss at Georgetown. Here are a few other afternoon thoughts from around the college hoops landscape:
1. Kentucky does not look like a tournament team. Unless the tournament in question is the NIT.
I know, I know: A win is a win, and Kentucky held on for a 75-70 home victory over LSU on Saturday. And I know: There's still some time left for this young Kentucky team to figure it all out. But it's clear, at least right now, that the Wildcats have some pretty significant flaws, flaws that could put their already tenuous tournament position in even greater jeopardy the rest of the way.
Chief among them? Defense. The Wildcats had allowed .97 points per possession in SEC play prior to Saturday, seventh-best in a league that most certainly does not house seven good teams. (Maybe three.) It ranked last in the league in forced-turnover rate, and it had allowed SEC opponents to grab 32.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 10th-best in the conference. These same flaws were apparent Saturday, too. Kentucky scored efficiently throughout the game; it shot 52 percent from the field and a tidy 61 percent from inside the arc (it shot 11 3-pointers and made just two). And still the Wildcats allowed the Tigers -- a 10-7 team with a 1-5 SEC record and the 209th-ranked offense in the country, per KenPom.com -- to put up 70 points at Rupp Arena, to push for a game-tying play until the final possession, to make Ashley Judd a nervous wreck on live television.
Kentucky began the week with a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and that sounds about right, but that was before Tuesday's loss at Alabama. If I had to bet on UK making it to the tournament or not this season, I'd take the former option. But if it can't get at least some separation from the worst teams in its own down league at home, John Calipari's team will find itself at serious risk of missing the tournament just 11 months after winning it all. Heck, that risk is already here.
2. Minnesota's losses are starting to pile up. Lose at Indiana? No big deal -- you're supposed to lose at Indiana. Lose at home to Michigan? Not preferable, but hey, Michigan's really good. Lose a low-scoring game at Wisconsin? Welcome to the last decade of Big Ten play, right?
Taken separately, none of those three losses -- the latest of which came today, 45-44 in Madison -- is cause for overwhelming concern. But taken alongside Minnesota's 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, it's no wonder why Gophers fans are starting to freak out. Saturday's result makes for four consecutive losses in Big Ten play. That would be bad enough, but the methods by which these losses have come have been a product of both bad defense (Indiana and Michigan scored a combined 1.24 points per possession) and bad offense (the Gophers were held to just .84 points per trip against Northwestern and Wisconsin) -- a veritable sampler pack of ways to lose Big Ten games.
Even worse? Forward Trevor Mbakwe reinjured his wrist on the final play Saturday, which forced forward Rodney Williams to take the game-deciding free throws, the last of which he clanged. If that injury causes Mbakwe to miss games, the Gophers, who rely so much on offensive rebounds, could lose their best rebounder and interior scorer. You never want to encourage panic in January, not for a team this good anyway. But if Minnesota fans start freaking out ... well, you can understand where they're coming from, at least.
3. Duke had a "program win" over Maryland. That's what guard Quinn Cook called Duke's 84-64 win over the Terps on Saturday afternoon, and whether you're willing to go that far or not, the fact of the matter is that Duke rebounded from its unsightly 90-63 thrashing at Miami -- during which the Hurricanes slapped the floor defensively, openly (and comedically) taunting Duke in the second half of a blowout -- with gusto. The freshmen led the way, particularly shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and that is excellent news for a team that needs other contributors to step up as Ryan Kelly recovers from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's lineup for much of January. More than anything, though, Saturday's bounce-back victory showed that the Blue Devils' horrific Wednesday night wasn't necessarily the sign of a larger decline. If anything, it was a sign of just how good Miami really is.
4. Iowa State got a huge win over Kansas State. Late January is not too early for a fan base to be concerned with its bubble team's prospective position, and right now it seems like it's the only thing many basketball fans in Iowa -- both fans of Iowa and Iowa State -- can talk about. The Cyclones will have other opportunities to get big résumé wins in Big 12 play, but they took advantage of a major one when they toppled No. 11-ranked Kansas State 73-67. Led by Will Clyburn's 24 points and 10 boards, the Cyclones shot 64 percent in the second half, hoisting up 47 points on a good K-State defense. In Bubble Land, these are the kind of games -- against good but beatable teams at home -- you have to take advantage of. For Iowa State, which suffered a horrible loss at Texas Tech on Wednesday night, it was just what the doctor ordered.
5. It's time to pay attention to Arizona State. This is not the first time we've said as much about Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils* this season, but it is the first time Herb Sendek's team has backed it up with a quality win.
Just last week, as Arizona State prepared to play rival Arizona in its own building, we all perked up, forced to pay attention to a team with a 14-3 record -- coming off a three-point loss at Oregon -- hosting its hated in-state rival at home. Naturally, Arizona proceeded to stomp Carson & Co., and it was just as easy to discard Arizona State once more. After all, who had the Sun Devils actually beaten? Arkansas? Colorado at home? Meh. Meh.
Not anymore. Arizona State's 78-60 win over UCLA on Saturday eliminates wipes away that dismissive disclaimer. It's a good win in its own right, but it's made doubly impressive by the fact that UCLA is coming off its own uber-impressive victory Thursday night at Arizona. Maybe the Bruins were tired. They certainly looked it. But it would be folly to take any credit away from ASU, which was led by a 40-minute performance from Carson (who has more 20-point games than any other ASU freshman in school history, save James Harden and Ike Diogu), a 22-point, 15-rebound performance (on 10-of-12 shooting, no less) from center Jordan Bachynski and a defensive performance that held hot-shooting UCLA to just 25-of-72 from the field (and just 5-of-24 from 3).
The win moves Arizona State to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a stunning turnaround from the depths the program sank into in 2011-12. Sendek has turned things around quickly, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Carson and friends anymore.
*Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good name for a band.
San Diego State was at risk of falling off the MWC title radar after two straight losses -- the first to UNLV at home, the second a 58-45 defeat at Wyoming. "Falling off" isn't this program's M.O. these days, so it was fair to expect the Aztecs to come out strong at home against New Mexico. What I didn't expect was New Mexico to struggle so mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 34 points in the loss. Both sides played some ugly offense, but 34 points? Really?
Oh, speaking of which, want to hear about the worst half of offensive basketball in the history of Division I? I thought you might! This afternoon, Northern Illinois trailed Eastern Michigan 18-4 at the half. It shot 1-for-31 from the field and finished the half with 29 straight misses. In the process, according to ESPN Stats & Information, NIU broke Division I records for fewest points (4) and lowest field goal percentage (3.2 percent) in a half and tied the all-time record for fewest field goals in a half (1). Yeah. It was that bad. Searching for a positive angle, the NIU press release on the game lead with: "Northern Illinois posted its best defensive effort in seven seasons, allowing just 42 points on Saturday afternoon, but it came in a losing effort as the Huskies fell to Eastern Michigan, 42-25, at the EMU Convocation Center." Sure, we scored only 25 points -- but at least we played great defense! Silver linings!
A couple of months ago, we might have expected Memphis to struggle with Marshall; before the season, the Thundering Herd, who barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season, were the only obvious challenger in Conference USA. But with all of Marshall's struggles -- the Herd are 9-11 with losses to South Dakota State, Hofstra, West Virginia, Delaware State and UTEP -- Memphis' squeaky one-point home victory is little more than an artful bad-loss dodge.
George Washington pounded Charlotte 82-54 at home, moving to 4-2 in Atlantic 10 play, including a one-possession loss to Temple on Jan. 16. Not a team anyone in the A-10 should want to play right now, those Colonials.
Marquette's win over Providence was delayed by the invasion of a single bat. Make of this new knowledge what you will.