College basketball: Everything we expected, didn't expect in the first half of the season
Here at the continental divide of the college basketball regular season – this week is the halfway mark – time to pause and take a look around. Not everything has gone quite as planned, has it?
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The old No. 1 team that did get the most votes, Duke, has had to endure absences of its top freshmen, its star and now, its coach.
As Blue Devil Luke Kennard said, after Grayson Allen returned and Mike Krzyzewski left for his back surgery: “We’re writing kind of our own story, but it’s kind of a weird story right now.”
In the Big Ten, Nebraska went 3-0 in league play for the first time in 41 years. They lost at home to Northwestern, who is playing four of its opening five conference games on the road for the first time since 1956. Minnesota, a lowly 8-23 last season, started 15-2, meaning Richard Pitino has fewer losses than his father at Louisville. Both father and son are in this week's rankings, so the top 25 is now eight percent Pitino.
In the ACC, one of the leaders is Florida State, who in the preseason poll had been picked eighth and has not seen the NCAA Tournament in five years. The Seminoles came into this week 15-1, including their first 3-0 league start in 28 years and their first 11-game winning streak since 1970.
In the Big East, St. John’s, 1-17 in last year’s league play, opened this year by upsetting Butler. The Bulldogs turned around and beat No. 1 Villanova, who hadn’t lost in 20 games.
In the supposed year of the NBA-bound freshman, the nation’s leading scorer – by a bunch – is a 5-9 Central Michigan junior, Marcus Keene. The midway favorites for player of the year are two seniors – Josh Hart at Villanova and Frank Mason III at Kansas.
Results sometimes seemed to be traveling a curvy road down a mountain.
Indiana could beat Kansas and North Carolina, but not Fort Wayne.
Butler could go 4-0 against ranked opponents, including top-ranked Villanova, but lose to Indiana State, who is 6-10.
Location meant everything in the ACC, where ugly ducklings on the road turned into swans at home. Or was that the other way around? In a four-day span, Virginia Tech went from beating Duke by 14 points in Blacksburg to losing to North Carolina State by 26 in Raleigh. North Carolina State followed that romp at home with a 107-56 loss in Chapel Hill Sunday against North Carolina – the Tar Heels’ biggest margin ever in an ACC game and their most points against the Wolfpack in 231 meetings.
On one Saturday at home, Georgia Tech held the powerful North Carolina offense to only 63 points and upset the Tar Heels by 12. The following Wednesday on the road, the Yellow Jackets allowed Duke 61 points -- in the first half. The final 110-57 margin was the Blue Devils’ largest in an ACC game since 1965.
Virginia went to Pittsburgh having held 10 of its first 13 opponents to 53 or fewer points, and its 48.6 defensive average was by far the lowest in the land. Pitt scored 88 points in an overtime upset. Three days after that, Pitt traveled to Syracuse, fell behind 34-8 and lost by 11.
Other leagues had oddities, too. In the Big Ten, Iowa put forward a strong conference player of the year candidate in Peter Jok, who broke 30 points four times. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 in those games. When he doesn’t break 30, they’re 10-3.
Nebraska made its surprise march to the top of the standings but also lost to Gardner-Webb. Purdue’s only defeats were by Louisville, Villanova and Minnesota, combined record 43-6. But the Boilermakers also had to come from 12 back in the last seven minutes to beat Georgia State, scoring the last 20 points of the game.
The hot league is the Big 12, which had three teams ranked in the top seven last week, stood at 97-21 in non-conference games and posted an 82.2 winning percentage that was the 14th best in NCAA history.
All 10 teams in the conference have received votes in the polls at some point this season. This included TCU, who went 12-21 last season but started this one 12-2.
“As highly competitive a league as maybe we’ve ever had,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, and it certainly began that way. The first five games between Big 12 teams were settled by 11 total points.
“That just tells you what the Big 12 has in store for this year,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
One of those close games was Kansas barely keeping its 47-game Allen Fieldhouse winning streak alive with a 90-88 win over Kansas State -- the most points the visiting Wildcats had scored there since 1962. The Kansas victory was delivered by a driving buzzer-beating layup from Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk.
The Jayhawks lost their opener for the first time in 15 years – a 102-99 overtime epic with Indiana that saw 16 ties and 17 lead changes and seven players foul out – then won their next 14 in a row. But the fact their first two Big 12 victories were by six and two suggested a 13th consecutive league title might not come easily.
Only two unbeaten teams are left in the nation – Baylor and Gonzaga. Iowa State has played them both and lost by two points to each. Plus, they had a one-point overtime loss to Cincinnati.
“You win one or two of those games, you’ve got a tremendous resume,” coach Steve Prohm said. “I think we’re figuring some things out, but I think our biggest thing is. I’ve got to do a better job helping our guys close games out.”
Then there’s Baylor. The Bears’ unlikely journey to the top of the polls for the first time in their history has been fueled by a flair for the comeback. In starting 15-0, Baylor trailed at halftime in six of the wins and outscored the opponent by at least nine points in the second half each time. On the cusp of being No. 1, the Bears slipped by unranked Iowa State and Oklahoma State by two and four points at home. With a trip to West Virginia – where the Mountaineers’ turnover margin was 13.7, which is nearly seven better than anyone else in the country – it’s a question of how long they will stay there.
In the Pac 12, UCLA quashed Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak and was within seconds of doing the same to Oregon’s 34-gamer, until Dillion Brooks hit a 3-pointer. The Bruins, 6-12 in the league last season, transformed into an offensive marvel with six players averaging in double figures, a 92.8 scoring average, 53 percent shooting and 23 assists a game. Freshman Lonzo Ball is considered a strong national player of the year candidate, but some nights isn’t even the most productive rookie on his own team, with TJ Leaf averaging nearly a double-double.
In the SEC, another Kentucky freshman parade keeps on marching. With Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Edrice Adebayo combining for 51 points a game, the Wildcats beat 12 of their first 13 victims by at least 21.
We've won our first three SEC games by at least 23 points. The last time that happened: the 1953-54 season. pic.twitter.com/BalCUfC7c8— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 8, 2017
Their lone close victory was one for the ages. That came Dec. 17 in Las Vegas, when Kentucky outlasted North Carolina 103-100, thanks largely to Monk’s 47 points. It was the first time in history the Tar Heels had broken 100 in regulation and lost. Kentucky shot 54 percent, Carolina 53, and while the two teams were scoring 203 points, they were committing only 19 turnovers.
No wonder John Calipari said afterward: “If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball.”
That same day saw a rare coaching matchup in Norman, where Lon Kruger and Oklahoma hosted Tubby Smith and Memphis. Thus, on the same court were the only two men to ever lead five different schools to the NCAA Tournament. Smith won in overtime.
The sport doesn’t need just the marquee names for high drama. Consider this past weekend. On Sunday, Stony Brook trailed Albany by 19 points with 5:55 left, then scored the last 21 points of the game, and won 72-70 on Tyrell Sturdivant’s layup with 0.6 seconds left.
But that was only the second best comeback of the weekend. The most remarkable game of the season so far may have been played in New Mexico’s Pit Saturday night. That’s when Nevada trailed New Mexico by 25 points with 11 minutes left, by 14 with 70 seconds remaining, then hit six 3-pointers in 63 seconds to force overtime and eventually won 105-104 on Jordan Caroline’s three with two seconds left. Caroline had 45 points, but it was teammate Marcus Marshall who hit four 3-pointers in the final 52 seconds of regulation, banking in two of them.
Top that, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Marshall of Conference USA has had few dull moments. The Thundering Herd lost one night 111-105, won another night 112-106, and when they beat Charlotte 110-93 over the weekend, it meant they had gone 37 games in a row breaking 70.
To understand why, consider these December words from coach Dan D’Antoni: “The best shot in basketball is that corner three. The next best shot in basketball is any other three.”
Overtime games are in vogue. There were 12 on New Year’s Eve alone. Toledo played five in its first 10 contests. Indiana State started the season with two, then played three more in 14 days starting Dec. 21. Iowa played back-to-back OT games in the Big Ten for the first time in 37 years.
So is scoring. Four teams finished last season averaging 85 or more points a game. As of Sunday, there were 18.
In Nashville, one of the nation’s best neighborhood rivalries is livelier than ever. Never mind Duke-North Carolina. Belmont and Lipscomb are two miles apart and played twice in December in what they call the Battle of the Boulevard. The first game, Belmont came from 16 points down in the second half and won 64-62, with a full-court pass and reverse layup at the buzzer. A week later, the Bruins trailed by 10 at halftime and four in the last minute of overtime, then hit a couple of 3-pointers and won 78-76.
The leadership of seniors at two bluebloods – Villanova’s Hart and Kansas’ Mason has them prominent on player of the year lists. Just behind are a gaggle of freshmen, such as Ball, Leaf and Monk.
But there is also an intriguing up-and-comer sophomore from Purdue. Where after 17 games, 6-9 Caleb Swanigan has 14 double-doubles to lead the nation. He also has four 20-20 games in points and rebounds. The other 350 teams in the country have combined for four. The Big Ten has seen only two others in the past 20 years.
They call him Biggie, and Biggie has been trying to put any individual talk in perspective. “You’ve got to win. For people to remember you, you’ve got to win.”
Purdue is winning, all right, and with the Boilermakers 14-3, coach Matt Painter said of Swanigan, “He’s not one of those guys that just, when he was in seventh or eighth grade, he was going to be a phenom. He was 380 pounds. Now to be 245 and the work he puts in every day for his diet and his body, you’re just happy for a guy seeing his hard work pay off. I think he’s a national player of the year candidate. He’s definitely going to be an All-American just because his effort is so much of his game. How’s the effort going to go away? It’s not going to go away. He’s going to keep rebounding. I don’t know of anyone right now who’s impacting the game quite like he is in all facets of the game.”
Some numbers don’t necessarily add up. The Citadel is No. 1 in scoring with a 97.2 average, but 288th in shooting at 41.7. Go figure. The Central Florida defense entered last weekend far ahead in the nation in field goal percentage allowed, at 32.2, but was 345th in turnovers forced. A key part of that defense is 7-6 Tacko Fall. Having your shot altered by Fall should be no embarrassment, since – according to the UCF sports information department – he is one of the 40 tallest living humans in the world.
The first half blues belong to Connecticut. The Huskies went from No. 16 in the preseason polls to 6-9. To put nine defeats in Storrs context, the Connecticut women have not lost that many in the past five seasons combined.
Georgetown started 0-4 in the Big East for the first time in 18 years, that after a 15-18 season.
“There’s no magic dust that can be sprinkled,” coach John Thompson III said. “We’ve just have to come and fight.”
Speaking of trouble in the Big East, how about Butler’s charter flight woes? Returning from St. John’s, the Bulldogs’ plane had to make an emergency landing because of a cabin air pressure issue. Coming back from Georgetown, their plane was grounded by mechanical problems. Now they’re 14-2 and starting to prefer buses.
Among other struggles, San Diego State, who won or shared the Mountain West regular season title five of the past six years, started 0-4 in the league.
Michigan State suffered through a 4-4 start because of a brutal schedule – losing to Arizona, Kentucky Baylor and Duke, whose combined record through Sunday was 57-6. But there was also the home upset by Northeastern, and when the Spartans were beaten by Penn State this past Saturday – while starting four freshmen – Tom Izzo’s frustration needle edged into the red. “Humiliating,” he called the performance.
“I’m just so tired of trying to explain why I don’t see big light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I see us getting better, and the minute I say it, we take that for granted . . . So for me, it’s back to the drawing board, because we do not know how to play hard enough.”
With six losses by Jan. 7, the Spartans have to find some answers quickly in the second half, or face missing the tournament for the first time in 20 years.
Some darlings from last March found the first half to be painful. Remember Northern Iowa taking out Texas in the first round (and upsetting No. 1 North Carolina earlier in the season)? The Panthers have lost six in a row and are 5-10.
Stephen F. Austin, first-round conqueror of West Virginia and 69-3 in its league the past four years? The Lumberjacks are 6-9 and 1-2 in the Southland.
Oklahoma and Syracuse in the Final Four? Now the Sooners are 6-8 and winless in the Big 12. The 10-6 Orange have shown signs of life but not before suffering their worst loss in the 36-year history of the Carrier Dome, 93-60 to St. John’s.
Some things we saw coming: Villanova is capable of a repeat, Kentucky young and massively talented, Kansas a relentless contender and Gonzaga -- with 15-0 its best start in history— still a major national player. Some we didn’t. Baylor at the top of the polls, UCLA a mighty juggernaut one year after going 15-17, the struggles of Indiana and Michigan State in the Big Ten and Duke still trying to find stability in January.
“Everyone realizes the fluidity in college basketball,” Drew said. “I think everybody’s more concerned with the end of the season and where everybody finishes. We have that same thought. We have bigger goals.”
It has been 67 years since Baylor’s last Final Four. Something to keep track of the second half. One of many.