When the NFL playoffs occupy a January Saturday, the number of evening games with ranked teams can typically be counted on one hand. With no more Saturday football, the college basketball season unfurled its first industrial-strength Saturday. Most of the bigger games were blowouts, but that won’t prevent The Student Section from selecting the top five stories at this comparatively early stage in the season. We won’t be producing bracketology for another full month, so any inclinations about seeding and bracketing for the Big Dance are still a long way off. For now, let’s look at teams and conferences in college hoops, and what Saturday suggested about them:
5 – KENTUCKY FINDS STABILITY
Reasonable people would say that Kentucky was not very convincing in a three-game stretch of Louisville, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. The Wildcats pounded Missouri at home on Tuesday, but Missouri is poor. This Saturday’s road game at Alabama got Kentucky’s attention before tip-off… and clearly, the Wildcats’ claims about being ready to roll were genuine. Quality shot selection combined with a supremely effective defense which allowed Alabama only seven foul shots enabled the Wildcats to dominate the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
It is easy to be uncharitable to Kentucky — it is, for instance, instinctive to look at Alabama’s track record of failure under Anthony Grant and not assign much value to UK’s performance. However, the Wildcats have now stacked together consecutive wins while also producing an authoritative SEC road game — two things that had not yet been done by Big Blue in 2015.
This win over Alabama — and the manner in which it was achieved — don’t mean everything to the Cats, but they sure mean something. Kentucky has stabilized. That matters.
4 – ARIZONA LANDS PUNCHES, AND UTAH DOESN’T PUNCH BACK
The Pac-12 Game Of The Year, Part One, went to Arizona in a ninth-round knockout. The Wildcats powered the ball to the basket while clobbering Utah on the boards. The Utes get a crack at Arizona in Salt Lake City later in the season, and one figures that at home, they’ll create a very different game. This was not so much a commentary on the Utes’ deficiencies, though they were in fact exposed. This was much more about Arizona answering a lot of doubts and quieting its critics with a tremendous display of defense and rebounding… and the very best incarnation of T.J. McConnell, who was the best player on the floor in Tucson. If this version of McConnell shows up, Arizona should be in the Final Four.
3 – THE SEC PLAYS ITSELF TOWARD THE MARGINS
The Southeastern Conference isn’t doing anything to change national perceptions of its lack of depth. On Saturday, Florida, Arkansas, and LSU all lost. Florida’s loss might not be considered bad, since Georgia is surging right now behind Kenny Gaines and finished third in the SEC last season. (The Bulldogs also won at Kansas State, a win that looks better and better with time.) However, there’s no excuse for the setbacks LSU and Arkansas endured at home.
Saturday’s events created more questions about the ability of a non-Kentucky SEC team to make the NCAA tournament. There will probably be a second team, but its identity is less certain after Saturday.
One more note about Florida’s loss to Georgia: It marked the first Gator loss in an SEC game since March 17, 2013, in the SEC Tournament final to Ole Miss. That makes you appreciate Florida’s run last year under Billy Donovan.
2 – THE BIG 12 IS A LAND OF HAYMAKERS
The Big 12 is a drunken barroom brawl right now. Guys are throwing huge punches, giggling, and then getting whacked by someone else’s punches. No one is getting away from the bar without a scratch, either.
West Virginia crushed Oklahoma in the middle of the week… and then made only 13 field goals in a stinkbomb loss to Texas, which had been struggling, but then woke up against WVU.
Oklahoma’s blowout loss to West Virginia was followed up with a rout of Oklahoma State in which everything went right for OU. Oklahoma State pushed Kansas hard on Tuesday, but regressed in a big way on Saturday. The first two weeks in the Big 12 have largely featured wild variances in performance from one game to another — usually but not always based on home and road splits. Baylor and Iowa State seem to be the teams in the league that play more close games than most.
What’s hilarious about the Big 12: Kansas State, the team that lost at home to Georgia and Texas Southern, leads the conference. Sure, Kansas is still the league favorite, but the Big 12 could very well become a conference in which six or seven teams are no better than 10-8 in the league, yet get high seeds in the NCAAs due to the perception that the conference is strong. It might be hard to evaluate Big 12 teams on Selection Sunday for that very reason.
1 – LOUISVILLE AND THE DEAD-END PROBLEM OF BAD SHOOTING
Mike Krzyzewski is no fool.
He knew that Louisville can’t hit the side of a barn, with shooters such as Luke Hancock and Russ Smith not about to walk through that door.
Coach K zoned the Cardinals on Saturday, and Louisville proceeded to show why Duke’s approach was the right one.
Louisville is going to get zoned to death for the rest of the season, and if someone doesn’t become a reliable jump shooter, what are the Cardinals going to do? They play hard. They play solid defense (although they lost heart early in the second half, due to their shooting woes — that’s a fixable problem). They just can’t hit shots. How does a coach amend such a deficiency?
“Guys, we need to hit shots.” Well, what else can a coach do except bring in a sports psychologist or a shot doctor?
Duke did what it had to do on Saturday, avoiding a rare three-game losing streak. The Blue Devils prevented a crisis from emerging.
What about Louisville, though? The Cards seem to have a shooting crisis on their hands, and have to do something about it before this season spirals out of control.