They fell like pins in a Tuesday night bowling league. This isn’t March, but here is what madness can look like in college basketball on one night in January.
Villanova, the No. 1 team in the AP poll, was taken down, 74-72, at Marquette, a team the Wildcats led by 30 in a rout only 17 days earlier.
Kentucky, the No. 4 team in both polls and picked by everyone in the modern world to win the SEC, was beaten, 82-80, by a 10-9 Tennessee team picked to finish 13th.
“It’s something that you love as a college basketball player, games like this,” the Volunteers’ Lew Evans said.
Lots of guys felt that way Tuesday night, from Milwaukee to Morgantown.
Here are the takeaways from a night of carnage at the top of the polls:
Welcome to No. 1, Gonzaga
The 20-0 Zags, who haven’t trailed since four games ago, have been there only once in history. Make that two, unless they catch the upset flu in the next few days.
Used to this...— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) January 24, 2017
Zags are the first team to reach 20 wins this season pic.twitter.com/B0rbWiHQs0
No, Villanova’s steely veterans do not always have the answer.
Matter of fact, they can clang like everyone else. Kris Jenkins was 0-for-7 Tuesday, the team 6-for-34 from the three-point line. To see the Wildcats, normally as reliable as Old Faithful, blow a 15-point halftime lead is rather stunning and so is watching their defense give up 69.6 percent shooting in the second half. And their bench getting outscored 38-6.
The gap over their Big East brethren seems to be closing, at least on the road. They had won nine in a row over Marquette and were 6-0 in Big East history against Butler. They lost to both.
The rest of the Big 12 might be sensing an opportunity against the Kansas empire.
The Jayhawks came into Tuesday 7-0 in the conference, but four of the wins had been by single digits. And now this.
Kansas has flaws, and some nights, they’re going to be fatal.
"We made a couple turnovers, took some bad shots. After fighting so hard we have to make smart plays." - Jackson on maintaining momentum— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) January 25, 2017
Free throw shooting, for instance. The Jayhawks were 6-for-15 Tuesday night, which is not much out of character.
And lack of depth. They were outscored 27-10 the last 9.5 minutes by a West Virginia team that has 10 players rolling and out.
“We didn’t play poorly for the first 30 minutes, but obviously, we closed miserably. And they dominated us late,” Self said. “Their freshness and our fatigue played a factor down the stretch.”’
Tennessee is to Kentucky like ants are to picnics.
The contrast pedigree might be stark. Kentucky has been to 17 Final Fours, Tennessee to none. But the Volunteers have been a constant irritant to the Wildcats through history, beating them 69 times – more than anyone else. And on 19 occasions, it was an unranked Tennessee team doing the honors against a ranked Wildcat favorite.
This one was particularly heartening for the Vols, who had shown their potential by causing trouble with other big names this season – losing by two to North Carolina and pushing Oregon to overtime. But they were still 0-5 against ranked opponents.
What does our first victory over a top-five opponent since 2010 look like?— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 25, 2017
A little something like this pic.twitter.com/dEVaIKgSmd
“We have had some ups and downs,” coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t like to talk about being young because there are a lot of teams in the country that are young. I think it’s just about me doing by job to teach them how to win, teaching them what goes into losing.”
You remember Rick Barnes. He led Texas to 16 NCAA Tournament bids in 17 seasons – and was fired.
Did he mention youth? Tennessee starts three freshmen. Then again, Kentucky starts four. So seven rookies answered the bell Tuesday night in Knoxville, but the evening belonged to a senior, with 25 points from Robert Hubbs III.
But no, Tennessee is not Kentucky. The Volunteers have only one starter taller than 6-5. That’s 6-10 Kyle Alexander, who four years ago had never played basketball and spent his time in Ontario with volleyball and soccer. They don’t usually have stories like that in Lexington. But they still have trouble with the Vols.
In case anyone’s missed it, West Virginia is top tier.
The Mountaineers might have four losses to unranked opponents – by a total of 11 points – but they have now taken out two No. 1 teams in Baylor and Kansas – by 21 and 16. Plus ending Virginia’s 24-game home court winning streak.
“Everybody who follows us and knows anything about basketball knows we’re five or six possessions away from maybe not losing, or losing one,” Bob Huggins said.
And they are more than a one-trick pony, needing dozens of turnovers from the opponents to get by. Kansas made only 13. If they have really cleaned up their recent offensive sloppiness, which led to two losses last week as Tuesday night suggested -- with 22 assists in 29 field goals -- West Virginia is a problem for anyone.
“They heard enough what our problems were,” Huggins said. “I don’t know why you have to go through what we’ve gone through the last week or so for it to sink in. I told them in April, we can’t turn the ball over and we’ve got to make free throws, and we did both of those tonight.”
Huggins said he has also detected a new purpose. Take Esa Ahmad. He had scored only 21 points in four games. Huggins noticed him in the gym at 9 o’clock Monday evening doing extra work. The next night, he put 27 on Kansas.
“We’ve got to go on a run now,” Nathan Adrian said. “We gave away three games we shouldn’t have. We’ve got to go win games we’re not supposed to win.”
Steve Wojciechowski’s program at Marquette is growing up.
Oh, the Golden Eagles have shown they could score. If the 84.1 average is still there at the end, it will be the school’s highest since 1955. And they were only three days removed from outgunning Creighton 102-94 in Omaha. But when the pushing comes to shoving in the second half, can they stop anyone?
They gave up 63 after halftime to Butler, 58 to Wisconsin, 54 to Creighton, 53 to Fresno State. Even 46 to Houston Baptist. That’s put a big demand on the offense – score big or bust.
Imagine the long odds Tuesday night, then, when they trailed Villanova 39-24 at halftime. But Marquette’s 50-33 dominance in the second half – the Wildcats had an awful time of it against a 1-3-1 zone – meant a different team had shown up.
“It’s nice not to have to score 95 points to win a game,” Wojciechowski said. “There were a number of breaking points throughout the game where teams I’ve had here -- maybe even including this one – would have not kept fighting. Our guys kept fighting and at the end, they found a way to win. One of the hurdles that we have to overcome is being able to win games where maybe we don’t shoot the ball as well as we‘re traditionally used to shooting the ball. Second halves have been our downfall defensively. Not tonight.”
Marquette had been 1-10 all-time against No. 1 teams, so the win total was doubled in one night. This done with Markus Howard – its leading scorer in Big East games – limited to seven point-less minutes because of foul trouble.
So here in the 100th anniversary of Marquette basketball and the 40th anniversary and the 1977 national championship and Al McGuire’s tearful farewell, Wojciechowski’s program has a signature win. A signature week, for that matter, when you throw in the victory over Creighton.
“I think they’re thirsty,” he said of the Golden Eagle masses. “For wins like this.”
Kentucky might be 17-3, but the young blue chippers from the Bluegrass are having some trouble with listening. So sayeth their coach.
John Calipari can have the floor.
Lot of mistakes tonight, but that doesn't mean our guys didn't fight. There was plenty of that. pic.twitter.com/qpeIglxnGP— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 25, 2017
“I am not getting through to some guys. I told them after, they will continue to lose. I have done this 30 years. You cannot do this stuff they are doing and win basketball games. You cannot do it. I do not want to call guys out but I could go right down the line. `Here is what I am asking you to do and you refuse to do it.’ We’re all freshmen. We may need to lose a few games in a row and then have them come to my office en masse and say, `Coach, we surrender. Tell us what you want us to do. We can’t win now but we think we can. We thought we were playing out in Vegas, but we’re not.’ We have all young kids. It is growing pains,” he said. “We are not playing like we were two weeks ago. Maybe we got arrogant. It comes back to what I am accepting as a coach, and obviously, I am accepting this kind of play from young kids. I have got to do a better job, and I will.”
Three of the top four ranked teams beaten in one night, leads blown, rallies staged, and John Calipari on a roll. Are you not entertained?