Welcome to halftime. Not of a game, but the college basketball season, meaning there will be no dance acts or dogs with Frisbees. Just questions. Lots of questions.
Matter of fact, that’s as good a theme as any from the first half. It’s the Year of the Question.
That comes from the rather unstable landscape. The No. 1 team has already lost three times, from Duke to Villanova to Michigan State. Ranked teams have been beaten 24 times in the past nine days, 14 of them by unranked opponents. Four of the top five lost to an unranked foe in the past four days.
The Top 25 this weekend…— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 8, 2018
“You don’t see that very often,” Tom Izzo was saying Sunday, after his No. 1 Spartans were hammered at Ohio State. Someone brought up Michigan State’s youth; starting four sophomores and a freshman.
“It’s a good excuse,” Izzo said. “That’s the difference with having a bunch of young guys. I think a lot of teams have a bunch of young guys around the country.”
Thus, the upset parade.
“It’s kind of unheard of,” Izzo said. “And I think it’s because a lot of teams have the same situation, whether it be Arizona or Duke or this team or that team.”
Here’s what’s unusual: We begin the second half and the march toward March with so much to wonder about the bluest of the bloods.
1. Will Duke ever fix the defense?
The young Blue Devils have coughed up an average of 93 points in their first three ACC games. If such a thing keeps up, even Marvin Bagley III won't be enough. “The reality of the continuity that you have to bring every day, it’s not there yet,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m disappointed in all of us; me, my staff and the team, in not figuring that out yet.”
from last night's win over Duke pic.twitter.com/2wR4AYBAkU— NC State Men's Bball (@PackMensBball) January 7, 2018
2. Will Arizona ever regain its mojo?
There were troubling words from Sean Miller after the latest loss, about getting his team to play hard. “I can’t reach them. I really can’t.”
3. If Kansas is no longer impervious at home, and short on bodies, can the Jayhawks keep their mystical hold on the Big 12? Or is that West Virginia banging at the door with pitchforks?
4. Is North Carolina as wobbly as it's looked on occasion, such as getting outscored 25-3 in points off turnovers in the Virginia loss? “A big ol’ butt-kicking, that’s all it was,” Roy Williams called it.
5. Will Kentucky’s blue-chip kids come of age in time? The Wildcats are starting to fall a tad behind their customary schedule. “I have a toughness issue, because what people do is watch the tape and throw these guys around. They will not fight you back,” John Calipari said.
ICYMI: Tennessee rallied to beat Kentucky, 76-65!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 7, 2018
Despite trailing most of the 1st, Vols rallied behind Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams for the W.https://t.co/xaWbuzFRk4 pic.twitter.com/Cy4N3TQJFz
6. As for Michigan State, was Sunday an aberration, or a sign? Izzo is convinced it was the former. The Spartans arrived in Columbus with the nation’s top average winning margin, best field goal percentage defense and shooting percentage, and most blocks. Then everything went in reverse. Ohio State shot 63.6 percent the second half and won by 16 points. Michigan State hit only 39 percent for the game, and swatted but one shot.
“I hope what gets learned is what coaches say every day. If you aren’t ready to handle distractions and changes, you’re not going to be a great team,” Izzo said. “If you were around my guys, you wouldn’t say they’re big-headed. This was just virgin territory for them. They’ve never been there. Last year there weren’t a lot of big games, we were just playing to get into the tournament. They’ve had experience playing, but not experiencing this kind of thing. I think that’s what Duke has. I think that’s what Kentucky has.”So the inconsistencies of youth might be an issue all season, even in the most gilded of places, on a landscape where so much is expected from those so young. Comes with the territory, and the talent.
“I’ve got worse news. I think that’s the way college basketball is going to be,” Izzo said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of that. How is anybody going to be a veteran team? Even an average player who has a couple of big games, all of a sudden he’s on the draft board.
“The problem with that is there’s no chemistry then. I think we’re really hurting college basketball.”
It would seem to leave big name schools with big name coaches having big-time issues to settle between now and March. Or maybe that's just the nature of the sport, circa 2018.
“I would not read much into any of those outcomes, including this one,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said of his own Buckeyes’ ambush of Michigan State. “It’s hard to win on the road. When you have that kind of number (ranking) by your name, man, you get a different look from teams."
There are other answers the sport must find by March.
7. Will Trae Young get his history?
Nobody has ever led the nation in both scoring and assists. The Oklahoma freshman is No. 1 in both at the moment -- not to mention the hottest name in Norman -- but his lead in assists is shrinking.
8. Will Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy ever not have a double-double? So far, he has 17 in 17 games.
9. Will Marquette’s Markus Howard ever miss a free throw? At the moment, he’s 51-for-51.
10. Who’ll end up player of the year?
Still a healthy list. A Bagley here, a Miles Bridges there. But Young has the most direct path, so long as he doesn’t have to play against West Virginia too often.
11. The coach of the year?
Too early to call, as the election analysts would say. A good place to start is Jay Wright, back at No. 1. His Villanova machine never takes its foot off the gas. Izzo might be due, too. Or Bob Huggins.
There are also the masters of reclamation.
Bobby Hurley has taken a nationally ignored Arizona State program and put it in the top five of the rankings.
Jamie Dixon has made TCU relevant in the Big 12, and lots of people thought that would never happen.
Is Auburn, without an NCAA Tournament bid for 14 seasons, really 14-1? Applause for Bruce Pearl. And for Brad Brownell, at 14-1 Clemson.
Oklahoma won 11 games last season. These Sooners are already at 12, so Lon Kruger will attract votes, as long as he gets Trae Young to the gym on time.
Washington’s Mike Hopkins in his first year: He's taken the Huskies from 2-16 in the Pac-12 and 9-22 overall last season, to 2-1 and 12-4.
Keith Dambrot in his first season at Duquesne: A 3-0 start in the Atlantic 10 and 12-4 overall, one season after the Dukes were 3-15 and 10-22.
12. Who'll get the coveted disappointment of the year trophy?
USC has tumbled from the top-10 to six losses, and even plain luck has turned on the Trojans. They lost to Stanford Sunday night on a 50-foot Hail Mary at the buzzer. Arizona might throw its hat in the ring, too. But the most noticeable drop in magic has probably been at Northwestern. The Wildcats charmed the masses with their first NCAA Tournament ride last season. They were expected back. Hampered by injuries, they already have seven defeats.
13. Who is this year’s Northwestern, if there is one?
With the Wildcats’ breakthrough last March, only four Division I schools around for the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 are still waiting for a first bid. William & Mary is one. The 11-4 Tribe currently lead the Colonial, and have two of the three top 3-point shooters in the country. Maybe it's their time.
14. Is the Big Ten bad, or what?
Wisconsin might miss its first NCAA Tournament in two decades. Iowa is struggling. Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota have missed key personnel with injuries, or in the Gophers’ case, suspension. Only two league members are listed in the top-25. The 11-3 wipeout in the Big Ten/ACC challenge was stark and telling.
Then again, Ohio State has been one of the nation’s best surprises so far, and Michigan State and Purdue are looking like genuine candidates for deep March runs. The irony would be all this bad publicity for the Big Ten, and two teams end up in the Final Four.
15. Finally, who’s on the fast track to the four No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament?
Depends on the hour. Michigan State and Villanova look the surest, with Duke next, if the Blue Devils ever stop giving up 90. But there are a pack of others lining up for consideration.
West Virginia has won 14 in a row and forced Young into more turnovers than assists, proving he is still a freshman and can be kept from vaporizing the box score.
Virginia seldom allows more than 52 points, which makes the Cavaliers pretty hard to beat. Wichita State is getting healthier, and tougher, and soon will dust off the we-get-no-national-respect mantra for another March. Purdue has a hard-to-defend combination of 7-footers and 3-point threats. Or Arizona State, if it keeps its surge going, from getting no votes in preseason polls. The usual suspects are always Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona. But not at the moment.
So the first half with its questions now gives way to the second half with its quest for answers. That includes the biggest names, from Durham to Lawrence to Lexington to Tucson – still searching, like everyone else this season.