Down went Louisville Tuesday night. Maryland, too. Know what that means?
As of 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 10, every team in the Associated Press or coaches’ preseason top-10 rankings had lost. Every last one.
Know what else? Four No. 1 teams have already been beaten this season. And an unranked underdog has taken down a top-5 opponent six times.
What’s going on out there? “I think it just means it’s a great year for college basketball,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said, his Red Raiders having just upended top-ranked Louisville.
Is anyone No. 1? You have to wonder after the first month, which was not especially kind to the top-10ers. Let’s review some of the wrong turns, words of woe, and where they go from here.
It seems ages ago the Spartans were the top-ranked team. Since then, there were three losses in their first eight games, offensive struggles, the prolonged absence of the injured and very valuable Joshua Langford. And most of all — trying to recover from tragedy, after Cassius Winston’s brother was killed by a train. Winston was supposed to be a national player of the year candidate, not a shattered sibling in mourning. “My message to the team was to play with a broken heart,” Tom Izzo said, the first game after Zachary Winston died. “I’ve coached a lot of games in my career, but this was by far the most difficult day.”
Weeks later, the 6-3 Spartans are still trying to regain their equilibrium, and so is their star. Winston had 23 points, seven assists and three steals in the win over Rutgers the other night that began Big Ten play for Michigan State. A good sign, but it will be a process. “We’re just going to inch forward, closer and closer, to try to get back,” Izzo said.
DOWN GOES NO. 1: How Texas Tech beat top-ranked Louisville at the Jimmy V Classic
Kentucky and Duke
Both landed on the wrong side of upsets that made the ground shake.
John Calipari was 148-4 at home against unranked opponents — until Evansville showed up one night. Maybe even more stunning, he’s had cause to grouse about empty seats in Rupp Arena. What’s the world coming to?
Same question for Duke, when the Blue Devils lose at home to a non-conference opponent, for the first time in 151 games? “We’re all disappointed in ourselves,” Duke freshman Cassius Stanley said the night Stephen F. Austin turned Cameron Indoor Stadium into its own private party. “The Duke lineage, they haven’t lost a non-conference game here in 19 years, so for us to be that team kind of stinks. Actually, it stinks a lot.”
Neither team has lost since, and both are still making a home in the top-10, as their youngish rosters begin to age. But they each proved one of the themes of this season so far: Nobody gets away with not bringing their A game, not even at home.
From No. 6 to out of the rankings after three losses — the latest a 76-62 thumping at Butler, where the Gators’ struggles were on full display. A team 300th in the nation in 3-point shooting still put it up 26 times from behind the arc — and missed 20 of them. Florida defenders fouled a Butler 3-point jump shooter three times, thereby handing the Bulldogs nine free throws. Not the recommended way to win on the road.
Coach Mike White did not hide his vexation about his young team, nor his wishes for the future: “So many things we have to get better at, but we have to be bought into getting better . . . . Our culture has to be better. Our locker room has to get better.
“These guys have got to find their way, and it can’t be their way. It has to be a winning formula for Division I, which they haven’t been through.”
The 76-51 bludgeoning at Ohio State went directly into the Wildcats’ Big Ten Bad News collection, next to the 27-point whipping by Michigan and 26-point bashing by Purdue last season. “I knew we’d have a lot to learn but I didn’t think we’d be that far behind at this point,” coach Jay Wright said then. “It looks like we are.” The Wildcats seem to be learning and catching up. Sophomore Saddiq Bey in particular is coming along well. He’s averaged 23 points in the three most recent victories. He had two at Ohio State.
Yeah, the Cavaliers’ offense was expected to take time, with the top three scorers gone from the national champions. But still. The paint wasn’t dry on Purdue’s 69-40 rout when Virginia’s narrative switched from applause for the defense to wondering about its ability at the other end. The Cavaliers don’t need a lot of points to win — Tony Bennett teams are 119-3 when holding the opponent under 50 — but they do need more than 40. It's just kind of hard to imagine a top-10 team that's 349th in the nation in scoring.
The 56-47 victory over North Carolina was a promising response to the Purdue loss, especially the 25 points off the bench. They certainly could use the return of second leading scorer Braxton Key, out with a wrist injury. “That is who we are right now,” Bennett said. “We have to fight and scrap and play with guts. Sometimes we have, sometimes we haven’t.”
And then there’s North Carolina
The Tar Heels have had onlookers leafing back through the archives, for the wrong reasons.
They haven’t broken 80 points in a game yet, and we’re talking 70 years since that happened. They haven’t shot 50 percent in a game, either, and we’re talking six decades. The 74-49 drubbing by Ohio State was followed by the 56-47 loss to Virginia, and meant North Carolina had not reached 50 in consecutive games for the first time since the 1947-48 season.
The Tar Heels have had only three games with more assists that turnovers. Only three games where more than two players scored in double figures. At last check, they were 304th in the nation in shooting, 314th from the 3-point line, 307th in free throw shooting, and 268th in turnover margin.
Cole Anthony has been the freshman phenom everyone expected, but there's been trouble after that. Roy Williams is only three wins away from passing his mentor Dean Smith, and moving into No. 4 on the all-time list, behind Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight. Just guessing, he couldn’t care less about that at the moment.
“I’ve got no answers,” he said after one game.
“It’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been,” he said after another.
Maybe nostalgia will help. The 6-3 Tar Heels play in their old home Carmichael Arena — Michael Jordan’s former stage — on Saturday, against Wofford.
Louisville and Maryland were the last unbeatens from the preseason top-10, but not anymore. The Cardinals were knocked off Tuesday by a Texas Tech team that had just dropped three in a row, the game turning on blocked shots by a Red Raider walk-on. The Terrapins could not break 70 against a Penn State team that three days earlier had given up 104 to Ohio State.
That leaves Kansas or Ohio State in line for No. 1, and either would be the fifth different top-ranked team, in seven polls. You might remember how Kansas started its season. The Jayhawks committed 28 turnovers, losing to Duke. But they're 8-0 since, and feature the wondrous stat line of Udoka Azubuike, with his 82.2 field goal percentage. He’s missed 13 shots all season — and blocked 17. Ohio State, meanwhile. just keeps flattening opponents. The Buckeyes have led by at least 25 points in seven of their nine games, including against Villanova, North Carolina and Penn State.
By the way, remember the Champions Classic? If Kansas is No. 1 next week, that means all four teams in the field –— Michigan State, Kentucky Duke and the Jayhawks — will have taken a turn at the top of the polls by Dec. 16. Moral of the first month of the season: Lots of teams out there could be No. 1. Or maybe no one is.