Dinner is served in college basketball. The appetizers — all those non-league games, conference vs. conference challenges and holiday tournaments — were nice. But now comes the good stuff.
Conference play brings a new level of theater, and for an idea of how it electrifies the season, just look at the first full weekend.
The past two days gave us 15 overtime games, a couple of top-10 stalwarts absolutely blown away, a team jump ahead 21-0 and lose, another go 7 ½ minutes without a field goal in the second half and win. It gave us a game-saving Hail Mary from near midcourt and a game-winning dunk after a full-court pass. It gave us things that hadn’t happened in decades. It even gave us a man coaching the second half with a towel around his waist, hiding the rip in his pants.
It gave us Duke still looking like No. 1, but Michigan and Virginia and Tennessee pushing hard in the rearview mirror, while the field of unbeaten teams was downsized from four to three. Meanwhile, the original No. 1, Kansas, took a whipping at Iowa State and then heard the news that vital big man Udoka Azubuike was gone for the season with a wrist injury. Tough weekend in Lawrence.
Shall we take a quick tour of all the dizzying developments?
Start in New Mexico, where they don’t call it The Pit for nothing. A month ago, the Lobos were pummeled 100-65 by in-state rival New Mexico State. Two weeks ago, they dropped to 5-6 with their fourth home defeat, a loss to Penn. Saturday, they steamrolled No. 6 Nevada 85-58.
Suddenly, the list of unbeaten teams was down to three, and it was time to wonder how the Wolf Pack would respond after crashing to Earth. And who planned this coup? With his defense leaking and giving up more than 80 points a game, New Mexico coach Paul Weir threw out his original season plan and changed to a zone. In the past three victories, the Lobos have allowed an average of 54 points a game. Nevada shot 33 percent.
Jump to Ames, Iowa, and that was No. 5 Kansas losing the ball again . . . and again . . . and again. Iowa State had 13 steals, forced 24 turnovers, and generally tormented the Jayhawks in a 77-60 shellacking, the Cyclones’ largest winning margin over Kansas since 1973, and largest ever over a top-5 team. Has anyone noticed Iowa State is 12-2? The bashing left Bill Self mulling the loss of Azubuike and also a void he perceives in his locker room. “There’s not a lot of stuff going on in there from a leadership standpoint,” Self said.
The Jayhawks have gone from No. 1 to a team with questions to answer.
Off to Knoxville, where No. 3 Tennessee put the General Sherman treatment on Georgia. The final was 96-50, tied for the second most lopsided Volunteers SEC win ever. Georgia helped create it by going 1-for-20 in 3-pointers. Repeat, 1-for-20. Note what the Tennessee offense has been up to — 56 percent shooting the past five games and 10 games this season with 20 or more assists. “The more options you have,” coach Rick Barnes said, “the harder you are to guard.”
So Georgia noticed, and a lot of other opponents have, too. Tennessee seems very serious about staying among the elite.
Now say hello to Charlottesville, where unbeaten No. 4 Virginia’s defense slapped the handcuffs on No. 9 Florida State in the weekend's main event. The Seminoles came in averaging 81 points but managed only 15 field goals — same as their number of turnovers, and that’s never a good sign. The 65-52 throttling continued a frustrating trend for Florida State; the Cavaliers have held the Seminoles under 70 points for 16 meetings in a row. So complete was this shackling, Virginia went more than seven minutes with a field goal in the second half — and was outscored 4-2.
Coming soon to the ACC! Virginia’s defense visits Duke’s freshmen in two weeks. The wait for that ought to be enough to fill Krzyzewskiville with tents.
The Cavaliers’ fellow unbeatens tagged along Sunday.
At Ann Arbor, No. 2 Michigan committed only three turnovers in brushing off Indiana 74-63, taking a 30-13 lead and never looking back. That makes four double-digit victories over ranked opponents this season for the Wolverines, who are 15-0. One more win, and they match the school record.
At Houston, the Cougars briskly put away Memphis 90-77, their 28th consecutive home victory. They won't be staying down at No. 19 for long, will they?
Other familiar powers kept trending up, too. Was Michigan State in trouble at Ohio State? Not when the Spartans shot 13-for-17 the second half. Pssst. Still seven weeks until the Spartans see Michigan. And how’s Gonzaga look with its roster at full strength for the first time all season? Try a 43-point win over Santa Clara. In other words, really good.
The weekend displayed a Big East that might unfold without a script.
In Georgetown, St. John’s had lost 13 in a row, going back to 2003. Not anymore. The Red Storm won 97-94 in overtime, behind 37 Shamorie Ponds points. That’s the highest St. John’s score in a Big East game in 20 years. On Lou Carnesecca’s 94th birthday, no less.
At Providence, Villanova went more than seven minutes without a point, was outscored 16-0, and still won 65-59. That made six victories for the road team in the first 10 games of Big East play, and it is clear the league could be in for a wild and wide-open ride, with it flagship programs — Villanova and Xavier — trying to piece together new teams.
“I think there’s a lot of teams that could be anywhere from one to five (place), and that same team could be five to 10,” Villanova coach Jay Wright had said. “And we’re one of them.”
Try to follow the Big East flow chart: Marquette went into last week as the league’s only ranked team, but lost by 20 points to St. John’s, who took its first loss of the season at Seton Hall, who was beaten Sunday by DePaul, who was picked by just about everybody to finish last in the conference, but nearly also won the road at Villanova, who was picked first. Meanwhile, Georgetown was without two injured starters but won at Butler with 26 points from Greg Malinowski, a transfer from William & Mary who was averaging under six points per game. Got all that?
The Big East is not only the league of twisting plots but also torn pants. At Butler, LaVall Jordan was adorned with a towel for the second half of the 84-69 win over Creighton, after he ripped his pants while crouching down in distaste over an official’s call. Just like Providence’s Ed Cooley so memorably did in the conference tournament championship game last March. Must be a Big East thing.
“I thought of Ed Cooley right away, so . . . I knew the game plan immediately,” Jordan said. “I yelled at the bench for a towel. They thought it was because I was sweating. It was a wardrobe malfunction.”
The weekend carried bad karma for a couple of SEC heavies.
In Tuscaloosa, the arena was buzzing, even if half the state of Alabama had left for California, and the football championship game. “It’s playing us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari reasoned, since the Wildcats are everybody's big draw. Those who showed up watched the Tide win 77-75 and end their 10-game losing streak against Kentucky, whose recent surge was put on pause.
In Gainesville, Florida had South Carolina down 14 points, before the Gators missed 11 of their last 12 shots and went the final 7:17 without a field goal. That gave the Gamecocks a chance in the last seconds, if they could only come up with a winning play.
Boy, did they. Felipe Haase’s 90-foot pass would have made Tom Brady proud, hitting Chris Silva in the hands, which allowed him to dunk in the winner for a 71-69 victory.
Elsewhere, at Eastern Illinois, the Panthers survived 84-81 in overtime over SIU-Edwardsville. It’s a season trait. Eastern Illinois is 5-6 in regulation games so far, but 4-0 in overtime games.
At Old Dominion, Western Kentucky seemed to quickly have the day in hand, with a three-touchdown lead at 21-0. All a mirage. Old Dominion missed its first 12 shots but went 7-for-11 from the 3-point line in the second half and won 69-66.
At Evanston, Northwestern eked out a 68-66 Big Ten win over Illinois on Sunday. The Wildcats are apparently working on their master’s in tight squeezes. They lost their first two conference games 68-66 and 62-60.
They’re enduring rare pain in Wichita, where the Shockers lost in overtime to Temple. Wichita State had been 76-4 at home the past six years, but there is no sanctuary given the rebuilding necessary this season. The Shockers are 7-7, and in trying to find the right combination of all the new faces, Gregg Marshall used 112 different lineups in the first 13 games.
Hofstra got is 10th win in a row because Justin Wright-Foreman buried a 34-footer at the buzzer to beat Northeastern. The nearly impossible runner gave him 42 points – the 69th consecutive game he has scored in double figures -- but as coach Joe Mihalich said afterward, “I don’t know if impossible and shot go together with Justin.”
UCLA pounded California 98-83, so the Bruins have put up 92 and 98 points for two Pac-12 victories, after scoring 58 in the loss to Liberty that triggered the firing of Steve Alford. “Been a really tough week,” said interim coach and CPR administrator Murry Bartow.
Tough week at Oregon, too, where freshman star Bol Bol was lost for the season to injury, which means his college career will likely last nine games. The Ducks then lost at home to Oregon State 77-72 in their 351st meeting of the series. Those two have played more often than the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals. It was the first time since 1993 the Beavers opened Pac-12 play with a win on the road.
We can end the tour at Duke, where the Blue Devils beat Clemson in Cameron for the 18th consecutive time. Only, none of the other 17 had a 360-degree dunk by Zion Williamson, who yet again made the highlight shows buzz. “There’s no ceiling on how many times he can twirl,” Mike Krzyzewski said later, “as long as he puts the damn thing in.”
IN-GAME ZION 360 😱pic.twitter.com/YhlLFXiiie— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 6, 2019
That crowd-pleasing, roar-inspiring moment spoke for the weekend. So many things to cheer for, so many conference races off to uproarious starts. Krzyzewski opened his press conference with four words. “The ACC has begun.” They’re saying that now in every league. The shank of the season is here.