Krzyzewskiville closed by the flu? All those Dukies waiting to get into the North Carolina game sent home by a bunch of germs? What are our college basketball rivalries coming to?
It’s not normal. But then, little is this season. Listen to the words of confusion from some of the most hallowed coaches in the land, coming out of the weekend. It’s February, and they still don’t seem to know what they’ll get on a daily basis.
All Kentucky had to do was put away a Missouri team it had never lost to. The Wildcats didn’t. “The biggest thing is, we still refuse to pass the ball. I don’t have the answer for that,” John Calipari said. And just why did leading scorer Kevin Knox disappear with only five points? “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”
All Kansas had to do was avoid losing at home for the third time in a season, something that had not happened this century. The Jayhawks lost, to Oklahoma State, partly by being outmuscled 26-7 in second chance points. “That is the least competitive I have ever seen,” Bill Self said. “I think it starts between the ears. We need to be more prepared to play. Of course, that’s on me for not getting them ready. It’s also on me for allowing us to be so soft.”
All Arizona had to do was close out a game at Washington after roaring into the lead with a 47-point second half. Instead, the Wildcats were beaten when a loose ball was picked up and buried for a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Arizona is atop the Pac-12, but there are moments the Wildcats leak. “We had no answer for them on defense,” Sean Miller said. “That’s been a part of who we’ve been from the onset.”
Even Saturday's winners were wary.
All Michigan State had to do to win comfortably at Indiana is play like the nation’s leading rebounding team it is. The Spartans didn’t, getting blown away on the boards 53-29, including a staggering 25-3 in offensive rebounds. They barely survived 63-60. Said Tom Izzo called the 25-3 stat “an insult to me, my players and anyone that’s ever played here.” Michigan State, which dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3 in the Big Ten standings, has won six in a row, and might be finding its way, as Izzo teams tend to do. But there are nights he still wonders.
A 31-point win over Pittsburgh was absolutely medicinal for North Carolina after three consecutive losses, but Roy Williams can only hope his Tar Heels feel the sense of urgency they should. “They are only hearing it from us every 13 seconds. If they don’t get it by now, we need to start speaking in a different language.”
Such unease among so many bluebloods this close to March is unusual. But it’s been a screwball season. The pre-season top-10 teams now have 51 losses, and only three of them are leading their conferences.
And even the Ivy League has gotten a little daffy. Just when defending champion Princeton was supposedly headed for a showdown with league leader and old rival Penn, the Tigers lost to Brown 102-100 in overtime in the highest scoring game in school history. And they’ve been playing basketball since 1900. It was also their second overtime game (and loss) on the same weekend; that had never happened to Princeton in the history of the Ivy League.
So in response to all the chaos out there, here’s the amended roster of rivalries to watch the rest of this season.
Duke vs. North Carolina
Well, of course. It's Superglued to any list of best rivalries. But when they get together Thursday for the first 2018 installment of their annual saga, it’ll seem a little odd. That’s the third place team in the ACC playing a team tied for seventh. P.S. One thing this series needs sooner or later -- a meeting in the NCAA Tournament, just like Villanova-Georgetown, Kentucky-Louisville and Indiana-Purdue. Imagine the heat.
Villanova vs. the new wave in the Big East
Georgetown and St. John’s haven’t held up their ends of the old rivalries with the Wildcats lately. It’s Xavier always pushing Villanova now. And Butler. Maybe Villanova and Butler don’t sound like rivals, but the Wildcats are 54-2 against the rest of the world the past two years and 0-3 against the Bulldogs, having twice been knocked out of the No. 1 ranking. Much more of that, and they will be.
Virginia vs. the offenses of the ACC
Next Saturday, Feb. 10, @CollegeGameDay will be back in JPJ for the third time as No. 2 Virginia hosts the Commonwealth Clash matchup with Virginia Tech! #GoHoos https://t.co/3tnT3P265X pic.twitter.com/J9o3utf1cX— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 3, 2018
Never mind the question if anyone in the league can beat the Cavaliers. Can anyone break 70 against them? Virginia doesn’t get much buzz for being the No. 2 ranked team and 11-0 in ACC play, but maybe that’s because suffocating opponents like a boa constrictor doesn’t get you on SportsCenter. Not one ACC opponent in 11 games has scored more than 28 points in the first half against Virginia.
Duke vs. the pitfalls of talent
All those Blue Devil phenoms can score, and love to do it. But will they ever completely buy into what Krzyzewski is selling them about the need for reliable, consistent defense? The mission Saturday was to slow down St. John’s Shamorie Ponds. He scored 33. Seldom is Krzyzewski as publicly frustrated as he was Saturday.
Kansas vs. the Big 12 conspiracy
"They were just better than us today from the jump -- more athletic, quicker." - @CoachBillSelf on OSU's performance and some of the team's downfalls from today's match #KUbball pic.twitter.com/PBqsEZ2cm0— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) February 3, 2018
The other conference members are all plotting a coup, wanting to kick the Jayhawks off the throne after 13 years. And now many of them think they can. Four teams are within a game of the top. “Anybody in this league can beat us,” Self said. “This league is a monster when we talk about competitive teams.”
Kentucky vs. youth
Calipari faces this issue every winter. By February, it’s usually solved. Not this season, and it’s starting to get a little late. Kentucky is three games off the lead in the SEC it usually owns – behind Auburn.
Purdue vs. the road
The Boilermakers have been on absolute tear with the nation’s longest winning streak now at 19. (Pause for trivia question. Who was the last team to beat Purdue?). But they have been dodging bullets on the Big Ten road – winning by five at Maryland, one at Michigan, seven at Indiana, two at Rutgers. (Give up? Western Kentucky).
Purdue is 12-0 in the Big Ten, and gets Ohio State at home Wednesday and then visits Michigan State Saturday. Win those two, and the Boilermakers can talk going unbeaten in league play. That hasn’t happened in 42 years, with Indiana’s unbeaten national champions in 1976.
Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s
The West Coast Conference is the one league where the situation seems normal. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. It’s Ohio State-Michigan back in the Ten Year War, only without Bo and Woody. They’ve combined to win the past 15 regular season West Coast titles in a row, and 17 of the past 19 tournaments. The nearest teams to them in the standings this season are four games back. Saint Mary’s won at Gonzaga 74-71 in January in a game that had 22 lead changes. They were Nos. 13 and 14 in last week's Associated Press poll, giving the WCC as many teams in the top 14 as the ACC.
Wichita State vs. Cincinnati
Winner of the Rebooted Rivalry of the Year Award. A half-century ago, they lit up the Missouri Valley Conference as national powers. Then they went their separate ways.
For Cincinnati, this renewed rivalry has to be calmer than the one with crosstown Xavier, anyway. There have been 22 technical fouls in that one the past 10 years. This season’s meeting was fairly incident-free during the game. Then they got into it in the handshake line.
Crazy. So it goes in 2017-18.