The Wildcats lost their third game in the last two weeks on Saturday, falling in the final minutes to Florida, 66-64.
We keep waiting for Kentucky to take the next step, to become the team that its No. 2-ranked recruiting class indicated last spring and summer. But the Wildcats are definitely not that right now, and it's unlikely they're going to become that in the next six weeks before the NCAA tournament. They lack consistent playmakers at the point of attack; they go through long droughts from the perimeter; and they still have defensive issues.
They also have really struggled at the end of games recently, even if they were able to pull out wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Part of that is the lack of a go-to guy or a true leader, but it finally caught up to them against Florida. The Gators are as experienced and battle-tested as anyone nationally, Chris Chiozza is the ultimate closer and Kentucky simply couldn't come up with enough big plays to close out the home win. Once Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a 3-pointer with 5:35 left to put the Wildcats up three, Florida responded with an 11-2 run to effectively put the game out of reach. During that Florida run, here was Kentucky's offense: five missed 3-pointers, one turnover, one missed layup and one made P.J. Washington layup. One of those 3-point attempts hit the side of the backboard.
If there was ever a stretch that epitomized Kentucky's youth and general struggles this season, that was it.
Whenever Kentucky wins, though, it seems as if the Wildcats are inching closer to becoming the SEC favorite or a team that can play at the Final Four in San Antonio in April. We all want to think the talent on that roster will put it together and become a force. But we can probably put that to rest.
Kentucky isn't consistent enough to win a national championship. The Wildcats lack leadership and experience. But they're absolutely talented enough to win a couple of games in March and get out of the first weekend. And maybe that's all they are this season.
The roster was flawed from the start. It didn't have the typical John Calipari point guard, but it had a slew of combo forwards and Hamidou Diallo. There weren't any knockdown perimeter shooters, any explosive point guards, any consistent low-post threats. None of that has changed.
Our expectations should have been adjusted earlier than mid-January.
The return to health of Jarred Vanderbilt should help, as he immediately gives Kentucky another interchangeable part. Quade Green will work himself back into the mix after missing three games and playing 17 minutes against Florida. Kevin Knox and Diallo will show flashes of becoming a go-to guy, while Washington is the most likely candidate to become a leader. Gilgeous-Alexander might cement himself as the best NBA draft prospect on the team.
But even if all that happens, Kentucky's ceiling this season is more a top-15 team than a national title contender.
And that's OK, even though there are going to be plenty of people in Lexington who disagree.
Maybe we should have known not to count out Mike Krzyzewski when it comes to elite prospects, but Zion Williamson picking the Blue Devils on Saturday night counts as a stunner in the recruiting world.
Heading into Saturday, there was no buzz for Duke. Clemson was seen as the favorite, but if not the Tigers, staying in-state and going to South Carolina or heading to North Carolina or Kentucky all were seen as more likely options. There were even some questions as to whether the Blue Devils were still heavily involved for Williamson.
We should have known better.
Krzyzewski pulled the proverbial rabbit out of a hat, landing Williamson -- and securing the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 prospects in the 2018 class, something that’s never been done since the ESPN recruiting database started in 2007.
Krzyzewski is simply on another level on the recruiting trail right now. He has now landed four top-10 prospects in back-to-back years. He’s landed 11 top-three prospects since 2007, seven more than anyone else in the country.
Duke has surpassed Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country. The Blue Devils undoubtedly will have the No. 1 recruiting class this year, the fourth time in the past five years Krzyzewski has landed the top-ranked group nationally. He had gone the one-and-done route before, getting Kyrie Irving and Jabari Parker -- but he fully jumped on board when he recruited Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow in the 2014 class. That trio led Duke to a national championship and started a recruiting cycle that brought us to Saturday night.
Krzyzewski saw what having the best talent in the country can do, but what also happened was Duke now had to get used to completely redoing rosters from year to year. Okafor, Jones and Winslow all left. The following year, Brandon Ingram left after one season. After last season, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Frank Jackson were all one-and-done prospects -- while Luke Kennard spent two years at Duke before entering the NBA draft.
This spring, Duke will bid farewell to senior Grayson Allen, and will also likely have to replace projected first-rounders Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Trevon Duval. Krzyzewski knew he needed reinforcements, and Barrett, Reddish and Jones weren’t enough on their own.
Williamson might not be the missing piece, either, but Krzyzewski now has talent that will likely be unrivaled in college basketball -- much as he did last season and this season. Having Reddish, Barrett and Williamson on the court at the same time creates a number of issues for defenses. Barrett is a terrific two-way player who has improved his playmaking ability; Williamson is a battering ram in transition, but also an underrated passer; and Reddish can handle the ball and create plays for himself and others very well for a 6-foot-7 wing. Krzyzewski will be able to spread the floor and let his three elite prospects go to work in one-on-one situations, and defenses won’t be able to focus on one player. Throw in Jones or Duval running the show, and Gary Trent Jr. knocking down open shots, and there will be few defenses capable of defending Duke.
In an age where the common thought is “Duke and Kentucky always get the best players” or “the rich get richer” in recruiting, it’s easy to overlook just how special this recruiting class is for Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils. Getting the top three players in the country is unheard of. There are any number of complications to getting it done: ego, chemistry, resources, etc.
But Krzyzewski went to Barrett, a small forward; Williamson, who wants to be a small forward; and Reddish, a small forward, and somehow convinced all three to play their one season of college basketball in Durham, North Carolina, next season.
There’s no one else in college basketball able to do that right now.
Next time, we won’t be surprised.
Sure, Young scored an incredible 48 points. Yes, I really, really enjoyed watching Lon Kruger's freshman do what he does, particularly in the second half, when he erupted for 28 of his points.
But, seriously, 39 shots? Part of me hopes this continues because it makes for absolutely incredible spectating. Seeing any boundary broken or any custom rewritten is good TV, particularly in the occasionally hidebound culture of college basketball.
Besides, if Young is able to squeeze more points out of each of his innumerable possessions than his teammates, the smart play really is to give him all the run he can handle. In theory, that could be the case here.
I'm just not sure it really is the case here. For starters, Oklahoma scored just 1.01 points per possession in a losing effort against the Cowboys.
Young recorded seven turnovers, which now brings his total in Big 12 play up to 52. To restate some points that were made in this space just a few days ago, the Sooners as a team absolutely can't afford to have a worse-than-average turnover rate. Some teams can get away with that, often with superb defense, but this particular OU group is not built to win when committing a fair number of turnovers.
After this loss to the Cowboys, Oklahoma has outscored its Big 12 opponents by just three points over the course of seven games. In other words, opposing conference teams are playing offense against the Sooners almost precisely as well as OU, a team led by quite possibly the best player in the country. Something about that picture isn't optimal if you're Kruger.
Furthermore, it's not as if Young doesn't have teammates who are capable of being -- and indeed have been -- good secondary options on offense. Christian James and Brady Manek are shooting a combined 41 percent on their 3s. When Young is at his best, he capitalizes on the presence of teammates like that by drawing two defenders and hitting the open man.
You can't seize those opportunities, though, if you're busy missing 25 shots in 43 minutes. I hesitate to ever say a player has recorded "just" eight assists, but the eight assists OU's freshman recorded against the Cowboys does feel like his floor. It's probably no mistake that Oklahoma as a team fared best when its point guard was getting into double digits for assists.
Make no mistake: Young is still, and should be, the front-runner for national player of the year honors. He was a perfect 12-of-12 at the line against Oklahoma State, an effort that gave him a very good offensive rating for the game and, by the way, made the result as close as it was. Much or even most of the time, Young is brilliant as a point guard.
The question isn't whether Young is really sensational, it's whether Oklahoma would have a better chance of winning more games if the freshman did not record the highest figure for possession usage in the 17-season data set at kenpom.com. I suspect the answer to that question could well turn out to be "yes."
At a minimum, Young and Kruger might reach an agreement to look long and hard at shot selection inside the arc. The freshman is shooting just 42 percent on his 2s in Big 12 play, and he was 6-of-19 on his 2-pointers against Oklahoma State.
Who knows, with a few more assists and a continued green light from beyond the arc, Young could well live up to the expectations he raised with incredible performances against Wichita State, Northwestern and TCU. If it plays out that way, maybe 39 shots in a losing effort in January will prove to have been an experiment well worth trying. I do know one thing: I can't wait to watch Young, either way.
Wichita State started the week with a 15-2 record and ranked No. 7 in the nation. Now, after back-to-back losses at SMU and Houston, the Shockers are left wondering what exactly has gone wrong.
To be sure, the Mustangs and the Cougars are quality opponents, both of whom were highly conscious that they were playing games that will likely be crucial to their NCAA tournament hopes. In this sense, Wichita State's bad news could yet turn out to be good news for the American Athletic Conference.
Nevertheless, Gregg Marshall's team was expected to be better than this now that Markis McDuffie has come back from his stress fracture. Instead, the Shockers are falling further behind Cincinnati in the conference title race, not to mention seeing their projected NCAA tournament seed fall.
So what went wrong?
The Shockers have been surprisingly average on defense
The main issue with Marshall's team isn't necessarily what mattered in Saturday's outing. The loss to Houston was a bit of a slugfest (the Cougars won 73-59 in a 71-possession game), but on the season as a whole WSU has allowed American opponents to score 0.97 points per possession.
That's not a terrible number by any means, but it's a far cry from what the aforementioned Bearcats have allowed in conference play (0.82). What's particularly surprising about Wichita State's performance on defense is that we saw essentially this same group of players play exceptionally well on that side of the ball a year ago.
In American play, Wichita State has allowed opponents to convert 48 percent of their 2s, a figure that's significantly higher than what we saw from this defense a year ago in conference play. Sure, that was a different conference (the Missouri Valley), but the trend has been unmistakable. In their loss to SMU, the Shockers allowed Shake Milton to go 6-for-8 inside the arc on his way to a 33-point outing.
The one thing that has stayed the same from year to year has been the Shockers' dominance on the defensive glass. This has been the best defensive rebounding team in American play by a wide margin, but, as we've seen, that hasn't been enough.
McDuffie may still be rounding into form
Since returning from his stress fracture, the 6-foot-8 junior has played in eight games (Marshall is still bringing him off the bench), and, for the most part, McDuffie has looked like his usual self. The one exception to that, however, has been playing time.
McDuffie is averaging just 17 minutes a game since his return, and the Shockers could use more of him than that. Last season, he started 27 games and powered Wichita State past Illinois State in the MVC tournament title game with an 11-of-11 performance at the line. As he gets back up to speed, it's reasonable to expect that we'll see improvement from Wichita State. Certainly the Shockers are going to need McDuffie in their two matchups against Cincinnati.
The good news: Shamet and Frankamp are still Shamet and Frankamp
In the loss at Houston, Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp shot a combined 2-of-10 from outside the arc. That definitely contributed to the Shockers' dismal showing on offense, but fans in Wichita can take solace in the fact that, over the long haul, this is a backcourt that will score points.
Even counting their off day, Shamet and Frankamp have combined to make 44 percent of their 3-pointers this season. Accuracy from the perimeter is the strength of Marshall's current offense, and Wichita State has multiple scoring options from deep. (I see you, Austin Reaves.) This has still been the league's best offense in American play, one that has scored 1.15 points per trip.
Two-game losing streaks are never fun for a top-10 team. Still, if Wichita State merely plays to its potential on defense and gets McDuffie up to speed, this group can look a lot more like the "old" Wichita State in a hurry. Keep an eye on the Shockers.
No. 18 Kentucky hosts Florida in a battle for the top of the Southeastern Conference on Saturday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN). Despite hovering near the top of the league, both teams are trying to overcome some notable flaws as they work their way through the thick of the conference schedule.
An early leg up in the standings would be helpful, but a rough night for the Wildcats or the Gators could shine the spotlight on some questions that need answering for the traditional top dogs in a conference bubbling with new and intriguing teams.
John Calipari’s Wildcats are as long and as athletic as they have ever been. A team built to dominate an NBA combine workout doesn’t guarantee consistent results on the court, though. Kentucky (14-4) suffered its roughest loss of the season -- a double-digit beating at South Carolina -- earlier this week.
At times, Kentucky’s athleticism is overwhelming for opponents. At others, it shows that a team loaded with elite pieces doesn’t become an elite team if they don’t all fit together properly. The sum of their skills is good enough to beat Florida (or just about anyone else in the country) if they jell. The lack of one or two true shooters will also cost them some games.
Florida doesn’t lack a go-to offensive player, but junior KeVaughn Allen is trying to push his way out of a slump. Allen will hope that a return to form against Arkansas earlier this week is a sign of good things to come. After scoring a combined total of 17 points in his first four games of 2018, the Arkansas native dropped 28 against the Razorbacks in a victory Thursday.
Florida coach Mike White told reporters that he tried just about every psychological approach he knows to help pull Allen out of his funk. Last week, White said he was confident that Allen would find his stroke again, and he was just would patiently wait for that to happen. Kentucky’s defense -- especially against the 3-pointer -- is as good as any that Allen and his teammates will face this season. A good showing against the Wildcats would be a good sign for Florida.
Others to watch
A milestone for Bates-Diop: Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop is only two layups shy of reaching 1,000-point mark in his career at Ohio State. The redshirt junior’s recent breakout stretch has included back-to-back Big Ten player of the week accolades. Forget the mediocre night against Northwestern earlier this week. Nobody in the conference is playing better than the 6-foot-7 redshirt junior right now. As a result, his Buckeyes are ranked No. 22 in this week’s AP and coaches' polls and have yet to lose a conference game.
On Saturday, Bates-Diop has a chance to keep things rolling against Minnesota (noon ET, BTN). The Gophers are on the ropes after losing three straight against Big Ten opponents. A team that started the season in the top 15 could keep hopes of a turnaround alive by beating the Buckeyes.
Pac-12 supremacy: It had been nearly two years since Stanford’s most recent victory over a ranked opponent, but after a solid win over No. 16 Arizona State on Wednesday, the Cardinal only have to wait a few days for a shot at another résumé-building victory. No. 14 Arizona and Stanford (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS), are currently tied atop the Pac-12 standings. Center Josh Sharma and fellow big man Reid Travis could give the Cardinal the depth they need in the paint to deal with freshman star Deandre Ayton.
ACC bubble buster: The conference schedule has not been kind to a Florida State team that won 11 of its first 12 games to start the season. The Seminoles have lost three of the past four heading into a Saturday matchup against Virginia Tech (noon ET, ESPN2). The Hokies are currently fall in the “next four out” category in ESPN’s bracketology. They have a big week ahead with games against Florida State, North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Seminoles’ seat in the tournament is not yet in jeopardy, but it will be headed in that direction without a win to help them pull out of the current tailspin.
Heading into Thursday night's highly anticipated matchup between No. 13 Gonzaga and West Coast Conference foe Saint Mary's, Gaels coach Randy Bennett had been happy with the lack of attention paid to his team. Despite the 17 wins and the preseason prognosticators leaning his team's way for the conference title, he was content with slipping out of the spotlight and into Gonzaga's shadow.
Well, goodbye anonymity.
Thursday night's 74-71 upset of Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, was huge for the Gaels -- who entered the night winners of 12 straight but losers of 12 of their previous 14 against the Bulldogs -- for a variety of reasons.
Most important, if Saint Mary's, which is currently viewed by ESPN NCAA bracketologist Joe Lunardi as a 9-seed, was going to assert itself not just in its own conference but on the national landscape, it had to win this game -- on the road and against the team that would likely have been scribbled into the conference champion column (again) in pen if it had won Thursday.
With a solid trio of Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson, the Gaels (18-2, 7-0 WCC) are certainly built to get to the NCAA tournament with few blemishes, but Thursday night they had to prove to us -- and most likely themselves -- that they could be more than just a fun mid-major and beat a Gonzaga team that's a little down talent-wise but is still on a relatively higher level as far pure talent and potential.
There's really no gray area for a team with these components in a season like this. One way or the other, this game was going to be a defining moment for these Gaels: They were either going to show the nation they belonged or they weren't.
In a hostile environment and during one of the most chaotic games you'll see, Saint Mary's did exactly that.
And it says a lot that the Gaels were able not only to win, but to win in the fashion they did. This was a game that featured 22 lead changes (19 coming in the first half) and nine ties, but Saint Mary's didn't grab its first lead of the second half until Landale's layup at the end of a 9-0 run gave the Gaels a 65-63 lead with 5 minutes, 54 seconds left. That was their first lead since going up 32-30 with 5:54 remaining in the first half.
The Gaels were also desperately looking for any way to guard 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Rui Hachimura, who was nearly unstoppable with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting off the bench for the Zags (16-4, 6-1).
Saint Mary's uncharacteristically sloppy first-half moments led to seven turnovers, which contributed to 10 Gonzaga points, and leading man Landale had just nine points in the first 20 minutes of play.
It was hard enough for the Gaels to look at the scoreboard and see their 62 percent first-half shooting (56 percent from 3) still left them trailing by four.
And as the second half continued, you couldn't help but wonder if this game was fitting into the worn narrative that Saint Mary's just isn't ready to truly contend with the Zags. But as Landale and Hermanson got hot, Gonzaga started to cool and tighten. Even when Saint Mary's took that lead, there as a feeling of unease for the Gaels. There was too much back-and-forth for the road team to stomach, right?
Well, in the clutch moments, it was Saint Mary's that finished and found its own (right) way.
Landale's 17 points in the second half -- on an impressive 8-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds -- combined with Hermanson's 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting propelled the Gaels to be the better team late, as Gonzaga's Silas Melson, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr. couldn't find much of a rhythm at all, combing for just eight points after intermission.
The second half was the Gaels' time to shine, and they did, with the reemergence of their top players, 22 points in the paint, only one turnover, and by ending the game making five of their final seven buckets, compared to Gonzaga making just one of its last seven.
Naturally, Thursday night was a wake-up call for the Zags, who are now looking up at the Gaels atop the WCC standings, but it was also a wake-up call for Saint Mary's, which proved a lot to itself.
These are the victories long-term tournament teams have. Now, this has to become a launching point for a Gaels outfit that's no longer playing behind anyone.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Where was Collin Sexton?
That's all anyone wanted to know as Alabama took the floor for pregame warm-ups Wednesday night. Against No. 17 Auburn, the fabulous freshman guard with lottery potential and an average of 19.3 points per game was nowhere to be seen.
Right before tipoff, we found out why: an abdominal injury had knocked him out of the game. The disappointment inside the halls of Coleman Coliseum was audible. Sexton would be in street clothes as Alabama's archrival looked to extend its remarkable 14-game winning streak.
But Avery Johnson and the Crimson Tide had another stud freshman up their sleeve in guard John Petty. The lanky, dreadlocked rookie from Huntsville showed a sharpshooter's touch, scoring all but three of his 27 points from beyond the arc during a 76-71 win over Auburn.
Draining 8-of-13 3-pointers, Petty showed that he's capable of being much more than a role player. If anything, the former top-25 prospect reminded everyone why he was named Alabama's Mr. Basketball as a junior and a senior in high school. He's not afraid to take (and make) a shot from anywhere on the floor.
Petty said he knew he had to "step up" with Sexton sidelined. Petty added that he felt great when he saw a few early shots fall.
"I was open, so I shot," he said simply. "And I made it."
Herbert Jones smiled and nodded along as Petty confidently recounted his sweet shooting.
A few minutes later, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wasn't so cheerful.
"It was a missed opportunity because they were short-handed," Pearl said.
He said of Petty: "Great, great jump-shooter."
With Sexton's knack for getting to the basket and Petty's ability to light it up from long distance, the Crimson Tide might be on to something as they settle into the meat of their schedule. It's no coincidence that Alabama is 5-0 when Petty scores 15 or more points this season.
Johnson's squad has been largely inconsistent to this point, losing four of six games before reeling off two straight wins against South Carolina and LSU. But beating a ranked Auburn team at home could be the start of building a stronger NCAA tournament résumé.
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Tide as a No. 11 seed entering Wednesday night.
Amid the hoopla of beating their rivals, Johnson warned: "We're not a perfect team. ... We remember where we were three games ago."
It was then that Alabama lost by 19 points at Georgia. It was a game in which Sexton scored 23 points but got next to no support. Petty had one of his worst shooting performances of the season, going 1-for-8 from the field for three points.
Getting Petty to play more aggressively is a top priority moving forward.
Johnson said he has been proud of the way Petty has improved his jump shot, but that's not all.
"Petty is not just a 3-point shooter, now," Johnson said. "He can get inside the defense. He's expanding his game."
That could be bad news for the rest of the conference.
Alabama (12-6, 4-2) hosts Mississippi State on Saturday and goes on the road to Ole Miss on Tuesday.
Then comes a potential showcase game against No. 4 Oklahoma and its sensational freshman guard, Trae Young, on Jan. 27 in Tuscaloosa.
The matchup of Young and Sexton will be appointment viewing. But as we learned against Auburn, don't count out Alabama's other freshman guard.
Lose sight of Petty and he'll make you pay.
No. 7 Wichita State became yet another top-10 basketball team to fall to an unranked opponent Wednesday night when a long shot of a comeback bid came up short against SMU, resulting in an 83-78 loss. The Shockers got to hold that distinction for only a little more than an hour before No. 8 Texas Tech -- less than a week removed from the program's first-ever win in a top-10 matchup -- got to feel what it's like to be on the wrong end of an upset.
In Wichita, the Mustangs opened up a 10-point lead in the second half on the road and managed to hit enough foul shots to hold on for a big-time victory. A few hundred miles to the south, the Texas Longhorns were on their way to a 67-58 win over the Red Raiders.
Marshall has elevated his program to the status of national power over the past several years. A beating that stretched nearly wire to wire isn’t a reason to panic, though. Rough losses like this come with the territory. Texas Tech, if it continues growing under Chris Beard, will learn that same lesson plenty of times.
Just ask Villanova, which got its legs taken out by a hot-shooting Butler team three weeks ago. Or Duke, which lost by double digits to a middle-of-the-pack N.C. State team a week later. Or Michigan State and Arizona -- the latter lost to this same SMU team earlier in the season. The list goes on ... especially this season. In a college basketball season void of dominant juggernauts, the upset has become as common as a cold. The cure is to keep on playing.
The Shockers' defense had few, if any, answers for Shake Milton. SMU's junior guard played all 40 minutes and scored a game-high 33 points. He hit five of the six 3-point shots he attempted. The range he showed likely gave Wichita State's guards flashbacks to their loss to Trae Young and Oklahoma earlier in the season. SMU coach Tim Jankovich could barely believe it himself.
"Well, we draw up the one play that he shot about four times from about 45 feet," Jankovich said in a postgame interview with ESPN's play-by-play crew. "That’s one thing that was pretty amazing. When you see a guy do that what you're seeing is his heart ... How many guys have played better this year?"
Marshall's team has lost three games this season. Two of them came against red-hot shooters (the Mustangs shot 63 percent from the field and made half of their 3-point attempts Wednesday night) and the third was a tooth-and-nail battle against a Notre Dame team that was much stronger in late November before injuries ravaged their lineup. The Shockers recovered quickly the first two times.
Nights like these are inevitable, and luckily for Wichita State, the American Athletic Conference has just enough depth to make a loss like this forgivable, and the Shockers will keep moving forward. They will travel to No. 12 Cincinnati in mid-February and then make a trip to Dallas for a rematch with SMU a week later. The Mustangs -- with a 13-6 record and a couple of attention-grabbing wins against Arizona and now Wichita State -- will be an RPI booster for the league and are building a good case for their own spot in the NCAA tournament at season's end.
In reality, it wasn't all that long ago that Wichita State was on the opposite end of the equation in a game like this. Those days are gone. While the joy that the Mustangs are enjoying in the wake of their upset victory is a tremendous feeling, no one in Wichita would want to trade spots with them in the long run. Particularly in a season during which a few top-10 teams are seemingly toppled each and every week, an upset is nothing to be upset about for long.
But after an 87-69 shellacking at the hands of Kansas State in Manhattan on Tuesday, the Sooners may now be confronting a new and more modest reality. (If you're not shocked to be considering this possibility, you've likely been prepared on this topic most ably by my colleague Seth Walder.)
This team and its sensational freshman star, Trae Young, is still an amazing story, far more so than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago. Nevertheless, it almost certainly will have to develop new capabilities to prove it can truly compete with Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia for the Big 12 title in 2018.
Here is where OU finds itself with one-third of its conference season now in the books ...
Shooting 3s is great, but insanely great 3-point shooting can end abruptly
The Sooners entered their game against the Wildcats having made a rather incredible 47 percent of their 3-point attempts in Big 12 play. I'm not going to invoke the "live by the 3, die by the 3" aphorism here because I don't know what that is supposed to mean, exactly. (If you want less variation in 3-point production from game to game, it seems like you'd actually want to attempt more of them. Subject for another day.) I will say, however, that making almost half of your (many) 3-point attempts over the course of five conference games will hide some performance blemishes on both sides of the ball.
It's fair to say this is more or less what took place with Oklahoma early in the Big 12 season. Lon Kruger's men took the floor in Manhattan tied for the Big 12 lead along with KU and West Virginia, but the Sooners also started that game having shot a lower percentage on their 2s in conference play than they had on their 3s.
Kruger still will likely turn out to have a very good 3-point-shooting team, and this offense's best look will in all probability continue be a perimeter-oriented one. But we're getting a better grasp of just how good this entire team will look -- both on offense and on defense -- when those perimeter shots are falling at a very high but not unheard-of rate.
Young is now committing turnovers at a higher rate
In 2018, surely, we can make plenty of stylistic allowances on offense. This is supposed to be the age of Steph Curry, yet the reigning NCAA champion, North Carolina, didn't shoot all that many 3s last season. One size need not fit all when it comes to success in college basketball.
Still, the common denominator shared by just about every good offense is a turnover rate that is, at worst, average. And right now, Young is suffering through easily the most turnover-prone stretch of his still-young college career.
In the 421 offensive possessions during which he's been on the floor over Oklahoma's past six games, Young has given the ball away no fewer than 46 times. The Sooners' turnover rate as a team in Big 12 play is still acceptable (18.4 percent), but the material point is that it's significantly higher than what OU's Big 12 opponents are recording (14.8 percent).
Again, you can succeed on defense without forcing a high number of turnovers on defense. Not every team is built to be "Press Virginia." But if you're going to place your hopes on outscoring opponents by making a high number of 3s, you need to keep your turnovers to a bare minimum.
Oklahoma is no longer succeeding at that objective, and as a result the Sooners find themselves in effect falling between two performance stools. Clearly rivals like Texas Tech and West Virginia appear to have better defenses. But, increasingly, it also seems probable that a rival like Kansas is superior on offense, even with Young factored into the equation.
Young is just one player
One of the striking aspects of Young's unmistakable ascent has been how asynchronous it is. After all, isn't this supposed to be the era of position-less basketball? Shouldn't Oklahoma and every other team be spreading the floor with multiple players who can shoot, pass and drive? Yet the Sooners have taken a page from the past, seemingly, and put the ball squarely in the hands of one exceptionally assertive scoring point guard.
That decision has proved wise for much of the season. Still, even the example of Buddy Hield at this same program two years ago suggests that Young could use some help in 2018. Hield had running mates like Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard getting a high number of minutes and carrying a fair share of the workload on offense.
There's still time for a similar dynamic to occur in Norman in 2018, and for Sooners like, say, Christian James and Brady Manek to give Young a midseason lift. Until then, Young and Oklahoma appear headed for a season much better than anyone could have expected three months ago but a bit more ordinary than what we envisioned just two or three weeks ago. Right now a Big 12 title seems like a stretch.
At various points Monday night, both No. 5 Duke and No. 10 Kansas found themselves trying to avoid lopsided losses. It's an unusual spot for either team, so when it happened to both on the same night, it was truly a mathematic improbability.
The analytics will say that what happened next was even more unlikely: Duke erased a 13-point deficit with eight minutes remaining to win 83-75 at No. 25 Miami, and Kansas, which trailed by as many as 16, came back from nine down with under six to play to win 71-66 at No. 6 West Virginia.
At the same time, it probably shouldn't be that surprising. Duke and Kansas are still ... Duke and Kansas. Even if they're having what is perceived to be a down night (Duke) or even a relatively down season (Kansas), it's going to take more than a good 30 minutes to finish them off.
It's a lesson the Mountain teaches the Viper so very well in season four of Game of Thrones.
The win was particularly important for the Jayhawks, who are chasing a historic 14th straight regular-season conference title. Kansas tied UCLA's NCAA record of 13 straight (1967-1979) last season and entered Monday night in a four-way tie for the Big 12 lead with West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
If there were a game on Kansas' conference schedule that would have been easy to pencil in as a loss, it would have been Monday's tilt in Morgantown. WVU Coliseum has become a bona fide house of horrors for the Jayhawks, who had lost their four previous times in the building, including defeats of 12 and 16 points the past two seasons.
Those losses came during seasons where it was clear the Jayhawks were the better, more talented team. Headed into this one -- and even in its wake -- that was up for debate. West Virginia came into the game off a 72-71 loss at Texas Tech, but for the past two months, it had easily been the more impressive team.
Kansas came in with a three-game win streak but needed a pair of free throws with 15 seconds left to beat Kansas State two days ago.
West Virginia's pressure defense caused all sorts of problems early for Kansas and helped the Mountaineers to a 41-28 halftime lead. It was tied for the fewest points by Kansas in any half this season.
"We didn't play very well, but they make everybody play not very well," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "They're so good and create so much havoc. We got off to such a bad start, but fortunately in the second half when we struggled, the [WVU] lead didn't get over 12."
For Duke, the regular-season ACC title doesn't seem to carry as much value as the Big 12 does for Kansas -- the Blue Devils haven't won a regular season title since sharing the 2009-10 title with Maryland -- but a loss would have dropped them to an eye-opening 2-3 in conference play. Instead, they're a game and half behind ACC-leading Virginia with a game against the second-ranked Cavaliers at the end of the month.
The win at Miami was a reminder that this Duke team will still make some youthful mistakes, but once again, it has the potential to be very dangerous come March.
All three top-25 winners in action on Monday, in fact, faced double-digit deficits and came back to win. No. 23 Michigan trailed Maryland by 14 and came back to win 68-67 on a pair of free throws by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman with 1.2 seconds remaining.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- What you saw from Duke in the second half against Miami perfectly captures the yin-and-yang of Blue Devils basketball this season: maddening and uncontrolled at one glance, blitzkrieg talent falling like an avalanche at another.
Through 11 minutes in the second half, Duke had 11 points, thanks to the combination of too many turnovers, a disjointed offense and an opportunistic Miami team taking full advantage. Duke trailed by 13 points, and Mike Krzyzewski called his players into the huddle and delivered two simple messages:
Remember the comeback wins in Portland in November.
Quit playing like little kids.
What followed was a final eight minutes that brought out a team perfectly capable of winning a national championship off its superior talent alone. With Marvin Bagley III largely taken out of the game, freshman Gary Trent Jr. stepped up with a career-high 30 points, including several huge 3-pointers, to help Duke come back and win 83-75 on Monday night.
Afterward, Krzyzewski discussed how one team could look so flawed one second and so perfect the next.
"I thought we were trying to do things only by ourselves, and when you do that, especially in a team effort, you get tight because you're out there alone, and I thought we were tight," he said. "Once we started playing together, which we have, that's what happens. It's not just a young team. That's what happens with human beings. It changes, and thank goodness they were able to change while it was going on.
"That's the beauty of it. You can lose and then say, 'Boy, we should have done this' and try to correct it, but if you correct it while the stuff is going on, that's really good, and that's what happened tonight."
Yes, and the next step is to make sure the corrections become consistent, rather than performances filled with too much helter-skelter unpredictability. Players recalled coming back early in the season in the PK80 tournament against both Texas and Florida, but at some point, epic comebacks are best left for the drama section on Netflix.
"I think we have a great team," Bagley said. "We're only getting better from here. Every day, we're just trying to get better as a team, and we’re growing together."
With any young team, making corrections, growing and learning are all part of the maturation process. But now that Duke has played six games in the ACC, expectations are starting to grow. At some point, Duke wants to see this team put together a complete defensive performance to go with an offense that can diversify itself enough to get out of holes when the typical shots do not fall and mistakes pile up.
Defensively, for example, Duke went into the game ranked 14th in the ACC in scoring defense. Although it allowed 75 points to the Hurricanes, Krzyzewski was pleased the Blue Devils held them to under 40 percent shooting. That is a takeaway he will undoubtedly share with his team.
Then there is the performance from Trent, whom Krzyzewski credits with finding more of a groove since the staff installed specific offensive sets for him against Pittsburgh on Jan. 10.
A reporter asked Krzyzewski whether what Trent did against Miami qualified as a good performance, and he said, "He's been great. You can go higher than good. He's been good all season, but he's only shot OK. He's just worked hard all year, but in the last week and a half, he's shooting the ball quicker, and thank goodness."
Bagley put it this way: "[Trent] just stayed in the game. Obviously, my shot wasn't falling, a lot of the guys' shots weren't falling, and he just came up big for us with a couple 3s. He just played his butt off the whole time. We just tried to feed off him. It was his night, and everybody understood that. We just tried to feed off him, and he led us to this one."
It was an unusually quiet night for Bagley, who was held to 13 points. In games he has played more than 30 minutes, that qualifies as a season low. During the opening minute, Bagley felt his right shoulder pop out of place after he went up for a rebound. Then he missed five minutes while trying to pop it back in. Although he said his shoulder did not bother him during the game, Miami clearly keyed its defensive efforts in slowing him down.
That worked to an extent, and so did its half-court defense, at least to open the second half. As Miami coach Jim Larranaga said afterward, "I think we played a great 32 minutes, and then everything changed. The Gary Trent Show began."
To go with that, Duke switched to a zone defense that absolutely flummoxed Miami. The combination worked so well, Krzyzewski said, "We had to play almost perfect basketball, which we did kind of in the last 11 minutes."
If that trend continues ...
"I say this every game: 'We're not a finished product,'" Trent said.
It all happened quickly and unexpectedly in April of 2016. First, Georgia Tech pulled a shocker when it hired Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Then, a week later, Tigers AD Tom Bowen also pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he tabbed Tubby Smith to replace Pastner.
Chris Beard was a no-brainer for Texas Tech Red Raiders AD Kirby Hocutt, except for one minor issue. Beard had just accepted the UNLV gig.
Beard’s three daughters live close to Lubbock, Texas, and he knew he belonged in Lubbock. So he left Vegas after a brief, couple-week stint, took major criticism for the quick departure and has validated the decision by quickly turning the Red Raiders into a program that could crack the top five when the polls come out on Monday.
There was the win over Kansas in Lawrence 10 days ago, but there are shocking losses all the time. Boston College knocked off Duke back in December. But Beard & Co. have proved the win at Allen Fieldhouse was no fluke, not after coming back Saturday for a 72-71 win over a West Virginia team that hadn’t lost a game since Nov. 10.
Beard fits in Lubbock. It wasn’t that Smith hadn’t done a solid job. He took the Red Raiders to the NCAA tourney in his third season after the mess that Billy Gillispie left behind.
Smith gave the program credibility, but Beard has taken it to another level.
“Tubby left us a good base, and our first two recruiting classes have really produced and impacted the program,” Beard told ESPN on Saturday.
Keenan Evans has thrived under Beard and become one of the Big 12’s top players. He made a couple of huge buckets in the final five minutes. First there was a drive that tied the score at 60-60, and then a leaner from 17 feet that put the game away with 40 seconds remaining.
But the crazy aspect of all this is that Beard has done it in Big 12 play without 6-foot-8 senior Zach Smith, who was supposed to be the team’s top player this season. Smith rolled his ankle and played only four minutes against Baylor, logged six minutes in the win over Kansas and hasn’t played the past two games after suffering a broken bone in his foot in the win against Kansas State.
Beard told ESPN that he wasn’t sure if Smith will be back this season, only that he’s “out for a while.”
Texas Tech’s freshman duo of Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver has stepped up, but it’s the mentality that Beard -- a former Bob and Pat Knight assistant at Texas Tech -- has brought back to Lubbock that has made the difference. He’s a grinder, and after leaving Texas Tech following the hire of Gillispie, Beard has had to climb the ladder rung by rung. First it was the South Carolina Warriors in the ABA in 2011-12, then Division III McMurry in 2012-13, two years at Division II Angelo State, one at Arkansas Little Rock and the past two at Texas Tech.
It’s no shock with Beard’s grit that the Red Raiders have become one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“We’re good defensively and a work in progress offensively,” Beard said.
Now Texas Tech sits in a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12 with Kansas, West Virginia and Oklahoma. However, the Red Raiders have beaten Kansas on the road, the Mountaineers at home and will get a chance for revenge against Trae Young and the Sooners.
“We’re rolling now, but this league’s so good,” Beard said. “You can lose a couple in a row easily in this league. I don’t think the race will shake out until February.”
And if Texas Tech is still in the race, Red Raiders fans can thank Georgia Tech and Memphis for the assist.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Moritz Wagner spun toward a small patch of Michigan fans inside the Breslin Center -- maybe the only section of folks not searching for an exit at that moment -- with 24 seconds remaining in Saturday afternoon’s in-state rivalry game and let out a yell as he flexed.
Wagner scored a career-high 27 points in Michigan’s 82-72 toppling of No. 4 Michigan State to punctuate the end of an ugly week in East Lansing. The Spartans(16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) rolled into January looking like a prohibitive favorite to march through the Big Ten with its talent-loaded roster. After losing to Ohio State and barely holding off Rutgers in overtime at home, the league’s big, bad bully had to watch Saturday as the leader of its biggest rival celebrated at the end of two hours of pushing them around. The vibe around here changed in a hurry, and now the Big Ten’s overall pecking order looks a lot less like it is set in stone.
“Everything was going kind of smooth, but I’ve got to be my best and they’ve got to be their best,” coach Tom Izzo said. “There are going to be some ebbs and flows.”
Izzo said quelling this week’s ebb will require some soul-searching, especially from a backcourt that fell back into some bad habits against Michigan. The Spartans’ team-wide New Year’s resolution to do a better job of avoiding turnovers lasted about as long as most New Year’s resolutions. Michigan State coughed the ball up 18 times on Saturday, and the Wolverines turned those mistakes into 26 points in a game that remained close until the final minutes.
The sizzle remains for the Spartans. Senior Gavin Schilling threw down a ferocious alley-oop to end the first half, and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. had several blocks that caused fans in the first few rows to duck and cover. The offense as a whole, though, slogged through long stretches. After Schilling’s big dunk, Michigan State managed only one field goal in the next eight-plus minutes.
“If we turn the ball over, we’re going to lose,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “That’s been our problem since the jump. We still haven’t fixed that, so it’s coming back to bite us in the butt.”
Bridges and Jackson each scored 19 points in response to Izzo telling them earlier in the week that they needed to step up. Izzo said he wanted Bridges, the older of the Spartans’ two drool-worthy NBA prospects, to start playing like “more of a jerk” by taking control of games. And while Bridges was more aggressive creating his own looks at the start of the game, the rest of the offense didn’t follow.
Jackson helped keep things close by using mismatches in the paint to get to the foul line. He shot 13 free throws and made 10 of them. On the few occasions Michigan State was able to build some positive energy Saturday, Jackson was usually the catalyst. He blocked two shots on a single Michigan possession and followed that with a basket in the first half. He made a pair of free throws to give Michigan State a 55-54 lead with about eight minutes remaining.
In both cases, Michigan’s Wagner answered with a 3-pointer that sucked the wind of out the Breslin Center. Michigan coach John Beilein said Wagner, who was questionable heading into Saturday’s game after tweaking a previously injured ankle in practice two days earlier, relished his chance to play the villain role against Michigan State. Of all the players on the court Saturday, no one was bigger in big moments than Wagner.
“We answered several [times],” Beilein said. “It wasn’t like it was coaching expertise. It was good players making tough shots at tough times.”
Bridges agreed that he and his teammates were “out-toughed” by the Wolverines in their only regular season meeting this year. It stung, he said, “especially to a school like that, that doesn’t even focus on [being tough].”
Wagner’s big day pushed Michigan (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) into the conversations of teams that are now at the very least nipping at the Spartans' heels. No. 5 Purdue dismantled Minnesota on the road Saturday for its 13th straight victory and probably will jump Michigan State in the polls this week. The Boilermakers and Ohio State, both of whom remain unbeaten in conference play, won five combined games in the past week -- four of them by at least a dozen points.
Bridges said the fix for Michigan State is simple – get tougher on defense and rebounding and stop the turnovers. Holding off the rest of the Big Ten, though, won’t be quite as easy as it seemed just a week ago.
The new-look league's carnage is more likely to play out in the standings. The Big East has seven teams ranked in the RPI's top 50. While they range from third (Villanova) all the way to 49th (Providence), seemingly every team in that group has the pieces to be a threat to everyone else. It's hard to imagine any of these teams surviving the rest of the regular season without taking a couple of lumps. In a college basketball season that is shaping up to be rife with parity, the Big East may be the most treacherous among the “any given night” crowd. This weekend should provide a couple of opportunities to muddle the pecking order.
No. 23 Creighton(14-3, 4-1) is in prime position to announce its presence on Saturday with a trip to Xavier. The Bluejays are a dangerous team when they find their transition groove. They had assists on more than two-thirds of their field goals earlier this week in a win against Butler -- their fourth straight league victory.
No. 10 Xavier has dropped two games in a row. A blowout at the hands of No. 1 Villanova came on the heels of an upset loss at Providence last weekend. That leaves Chris Mack's team (15-3, 3-2) in need of a big win. Veterans like J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett have been at their best when emotions are high on their home court, which should make Saturday's game (2 p.m. ET, Fox) an entertaining battle.
Marquette, projected as an NCAA tournament 10-seed according to ESPN's Bracketology, might also prove to be another difficult out before the season ends. The Golden Eagles have a 12-5 record, but four of those losses have come against ranked teams.
They soundly beat No. 13 Seton Hall earlier this week, and with two players (Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey) averaging 20-plus points per game, they have the potential to stick with any of the league's other high-scoring teams in a shootout on a good night. Marquette travels to Butler on Friday night -- speaking of teams capable of outshooting the best of the best -- in a matchup of teams that both need a win to avoid falling in an early hole in league play.
Villanova for now remains the league's alpha dog. The Wildcats will be in Madison Square Garden this weekend, which should make that old guard of the Big East smile to see, for what should be a comfortable game against St. John's. They would be wise to treasure it while they can. Comfort won't be a luxury that anyone in this league will get to enjoy for very long over the course of the next couple of months.
Others worth watching
ACC defense: Points are hard to come by in the ACC this season. The league boasts six of the top 14 adjusted defense ratings on KenPom, by far the most of any conference in college basketball and easily the most the ACC has had in a decade. No. 3 Virginia (catch the Hoos host N.C. State on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU) is a mainstay in this category and is allowing a nation's lowest 53 points per game.
Miami, Clemson, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse are all not too far behind. That could lead to some closely contested games in the next six weeks. The one to watch this Saturday is No. 18 Miami vs. No. 19 Clemson. The Tigers (14-1, 3-0) haven't allowed more than 70 points in a game since November and have a chance to prove they are a legitimate threat in the league with a good showing at home this weekend.
Top 10 again: A matchup of top-10 teams has become a weekly event for the Big 12 -- a league that is as talented as it is wide open at the moment. More clarity (or more chaos) may come this weekend. One week after West Virginia took down Oklahoma to jump to No. 2 in the polls, the Mountaineers have to travel to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders snapped an eight-game winning streak this week. They nonetheless have a 76 percent shot of knocking off Bob Huggins & Co., according to ESPN's BPI predictor. The Sooners, meanwhile, host the TCU Horned Frogs, who are in danger of dropping to 1-3 in conference play despite a terrific start to the year.
State pride: The Mitten State will draw its battle line Saturday afternoon when Michigan travels an icy, 70-mile stretch of highway to East Lansing for its only meeting of the regular season with No. 4 Michigan State. The Spartans are a favorite on their home court, but the teams seem to be trending toward each other at the moment.
Michigan State barely squeaked past Rutgers in overtime earlier this week after losing to Ohio State on Sunday. Michigan (14-4, 3-2) lost a tight, controversial finish to Purdue this week and seems to be developing a bit of a rhythm with freshman Isaiah Livers taking on a bigger role in the offense. The Spartans are still the obvious team to beat in the Big Ten, but a loss to their in-state rivals may have them looking over the shoulder with a little concern moving forward.