It's holiday season -- and final exam season -- in college basketball. But it's also the last stretch of nonconference games for teams hoping to secure resume-boosting victories that might help them on Selection Sunday. That's why the upcoming slate matters. Here's this week's version of What's Real and What's Fake.
Texas Tech has been lost in the conversation about potential Final Four contenders -- but that could change on Thursday.
Texas Tech, ranked first on KenPom.com in adjusted defensive efficiency after holding its first 10 opponents to a 36.8 percent clip inside the 3-point arc, will face Duke, which owns the No. 2 mark in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com, at Madison Square Garden in New York on Thursday. A Duke squad that has amassed a 3-1 record against Auburn, Indiana, Gonzaga and Kentucky could face its most perplexing opponent thus far.
On the first possession of a matchup against Texas Tech last month, Nebraska's James Palmer Jr., a 6-foot-6 NBA prospect and a preseason all-Big Ten selection, drove left along the baseline after Jarrett Culver eliminated his other options. As he prepared to take a midrange jumper, he shuffled his feet and traveled when Tariq Owens, who is averaging 2.7 BPG, closed out.
On Texas Tech's first offensive possession in that game, Matt Mooney, a South Dakota grad transfer, tried to throw an alley-oop to Owens, who bobbled the pass before he dribbled out of the lane and found Culver, an NBA prospect, on a bounce pass as he cut toward the basket for an easy layup.
That is Texas Tech basketball: meticulous man-to-man defense and a patient offensive attack. Chris Beard's talented squad averages 68 possessions a game. Duke played a 72-possession affair, three below its average, in a loss to Gonzaga.
The Red Raiders hope to control the tempo and the game on Thursday.
"They are fundamentally sound defensively and don't gamble," said one assistant coach who has faced Texas Tech this season. "They focus possession by possession and have a shot-blocker protecting the paint in Tariq now. They also turn the ball over at a low rate, so they always get shots offensively."
And that formula could help the Red Raiders stifle a young Duke team.
Owens is an agile, imposing interior defender, and Culver, who has held opposing players to just 0.385 points per possession in isolation scenarios, according to Synergy Sports, allows the Red Raiders to adjust on defense. And that's the team's most significant component against a Duke team with three wings -- Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish -- who could go 1, 2 and 3 in the next NBA draft, and a point guard, Tre Jones, who has played his way into the first-round conversation.
"They're rock solid on defense," said one opposing head coach who faced Texas Tech this season. "They switched everything with an excellent shot-blocking presence. Really good motion offense. They take good shots, and Culver is a nightmare matchup. Guys can make 3-pointers. Maybe vulnerable to pressure, as no clear point guard in my view."
Texas Tech could be another bowling pin that Duke runs over
Texas Tech has not faced a team like Duke. Williamson, Barrett and Reddish possess a core of talent that's unmatched in college basketball. Plus, Duke continues to play top-five defense.
The only team that stopped Duke was a veteran Gonzaga squad that was connecting on 80 percent of its shots at one point in the first half. The Blue Devils defeated the other likely NCAA tournament squads on their schedule -- Kentucky, Auburn and Indiana -- by 61 points combined. And the loss to Gonzaga wasn't decided until the final seconds of a two-point game on a neutral site after Duke made a furious comeback.
Yes, Texas Tech boasts a strong defense. But five of its previous opponents are sub-300 teams on KenPom.com. Duke is a different monster.
The Red Raiders have not been tested by an elite opponent. And Texas Tech's offense lacks the playmakers that fuel Duke's squad.
The Red Raiders have the versatility to switch on defense, but Duke's trio of high-level wings can space the floor in ways Texas Tech's previous opponents could not. This is a great test for both teams. But Duke's dominant ways, channeled through its athleticism, explosiveness and talent, could continue against the Red Raiders.
Yes, the Pac-12 is terrible
Every year, Pac-12 fans tweet conspiracy theories about ESPN's coverage of the West Coast product.
The league's supporters often feel overlooked. But the truth is, ESPN and other national publications always cover the Pac-12 ... when the league does something worth mentioning. That hasn't happened in a few years.
This is a league that has lost to Texas Southern (Oregon), Belmont (UCLA), Hawaii (Utah), Seattle (Washington State), Montana State (Washington State) and Yale (Cal) this season. The best wins for the league ranked sixth among all conferences on KenPom.com came against Syracuse, Mississippi State, Iowa State and Notre Dame.
A conference that sent three teams to the NCAA tournament last season could send fewer teams in 2018-19 at this pace. No, the selection committee does not favor leagues. But significant nonconference victories boost the value of wins in league play. You can't build a strong resume for an at-large in this season's Pac-12.
And on Tuesday night, USC lost to Santa Clara, a team with home losses to Prairie View A&M and Idaho State, in double overtime. Steve Alford's team suffered a home loss to Belmont on Saturday off a late backdoor cut. Arizona State, the pride of the league, finished 7-for-24 from the 3-point line and lost to Vanderbilt, which is without five-star guard Darius Garland, 81-65 on Monday night. No Pac-12 team is ranked higher than 40th (UCLA) in the NCAA's latest NET rankings.
This is a league that has done nothing to prepare itself to chase enough bids to exceed last season's three-team pool in the NCAA tournament.
Right now, the Pac-12 is not a good basketball conference.
Nassir Little should play more
Well, any theories about the five-star freshman's playing time were silenced on Saturday when Little logged 21 minutes and scored seven points in North Carolina's 103-90 win over Gonzaga in Chapel Hill.
Little, a potential top-five pick in next summer's NBA draft, is averaging 11.5 PPG in 19.8 minutes per game. He has not made one start this season.
He's a gifted player, but UNC's previous challenges in losses to Michigan and Texas weren't centered on his playing time. Luke Maye wasn't stretching the floor -- he entered Saturday's game connecting on just 31 percent of his 3-pointers after making nearly 47 percent from beyond the arc in league play last season -- and Cam Johnson had been inconsistent. The Tar Heels' defense surrendered 1.15 points per possession to Texas and 1.20 PPP in the loss to Michigan.
Although Little is an explosive scorer, North Carolina has held opponents to 1.00 PPP with him on the floor compared to its 0.93 mark without him, per hooplens.com. That doesn't mean Little alone was holding the defense back, but those numbers (the team is measurably improved on offense when he plays) have created an imbalance that Roy Williams has managed.
Williams' vision made sense Saturday, when the team scored 103 points in 84 possessions against Gonzaga. North Carolina isn't perfect, but it's a great team with a chance to win the ACC. Little's role might change, but right now, he's the perfect contributor off the bench for a squad that used him properly in its most important win of the season.
Quade Green failed at Kentucky
Last week, the sophomore and former five-star recruit announced his decision to leave Kentucky. After averaging 8.0 PPG and making 42 percent of his 3-pointers this season, Green told John Calipari that he knew he'd lost his mojo in the rotation and wanted to find a place where he could take on a larger role.
That's a mature move by Green. But it's also unfair that every five-star kid who plays for Kentucky falls into the one-and-done batch. Either you leave after a year or you're clearly not good enough to play for Kentucky. That's the unfortunate branding assigned to any elite player who signs with the Wildcats.
And it's wrong. Green is a good player. During his freshman season, he nearly averaged double-figures. On any other team, he would have been commended for an outstanding freshman season.
Green could have stayed. But he also had to make the best decision for his career. He's a sophomore with a chance to author a great second chapter at another school, not a bust who failed to follow his predecessors by turning pro after one year.
At Kentucky and elsewhere, we need to give freshman players a break. Yes, some of them will turn pro. But the majority of those players are young, evolving athletes who lack the strength and skills to play at the next level. That's why they're in college. To improve. To mature. To adjust their career visions as they compete against other talented athletes and learn where they stand.
For Green and others like him, we should recognize as much and congratulate those players for slowing down and searching for a better path toward a brighter career. Kudos to Green for making the right decision.
Hardaway: Don't need a relationship with Barnes
Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway discusses the scuffle with his team and Tennessee's saying he didn't agree with Rick Barnes' comments.
Penny Hardaway's comments on Rick Barnes are surprising
Tennessee won 102-92.
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway accused Tennessee's bench of approaching his team with "fists balled" toward the end of the game.
After his team's win, Bone said he knew Memphis players would "flop."
On Tuesday, Hardaway finished a fiery media conference with this: "Rick Barnes, get the [expletive] out of here," according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Everything is going well, it seems.
Some folks suggested Hardaway had taken things too far. Perhaps crossed the line of professionalism. That's fine.
But this is also Memphis and Tennessee. Have you ever been to the state of Tennessee and met anyone in that state who wasn't passionate enough to say "[expletive] out of here" about any rival coach or player?
Hardaway is speaking for a fan base that despises the team that crushed his Tigers on Saturday. He's not here to make friends. He's here to rebuild Memphis basketball.
Barnes could win a national coach of the year. Barnes could win a national title. Barnes is the king of the state and the rivalry right now. And Hardaway wants that to change, beginning with next year's top-ranked recruiting class.
Yeah, he had a lot of WWE lines in his Tuesday media conference. But anyone who loves Memphis basketball is probably happy to hear a coach express such passion after a heated game against an in-state rival.