Hear that? It’s the one-month warning bell. One month from Monday, the First Four tips off in Dayton, and the mayhem can begin. As if college basketball hasn’t been knee-deep in the stuff already.
Take the generally accepted theme for this season. Parity, no truly dominant teams, the door open for all manner of upstarts in March. But consider this number: 143-10.
That’s the combined record of the top of the heap of the NCAA’s NET rankings – San Diego State, Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, Dayton and Duke. Doesn’t that sound pretty, you know, dominant? So the narrative of this season is subject to change. Constantly.
But at the moment, here are some of the numbers that seem especially pertinent, with one month go.
6-0 — Baylor’s record vs. ranked opponents. That’s why the Bears have driven pitons into the formerly icy slope of the No. 1 ranking, and look entirely at home at the top. Have you noticed how they play defense? The Big 12 has, averaging barely 56 points a game against Baylor. The five-week run atop the polls is the longest for a school from the state of Texas since Elvin Hayes was leading Houston in 1968.
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11-0 — Kansas’ record since losing to Baylor 67-55 a month ago. The Jayhawks no doubt remember the details of that day; how their offense was shackled and held to the lowest Kansas point total at home in nearly 20 years, how the Bears savored changing an 0-17 history in Lawrence. Which is why their reunion Saturday in Waco is one of the biggest regular season games of the year.
83 —Gonzaga has been held under that total once since Thanksgiving weekend. The offense remains one of the man-made wonders of the college basketball world, with enough fire power to light up a small city. Seven players average in double figures. Someone gets hurt or has an off night, they just plug in another Zag. That’s how a team can look scary in March.
12 – Starting lineups for Duke this season. Mike Krzyzewski’s roster might have no one named Zion, but it apparently does have uncommon depth and versatility that allow him to try this, that or another, in response to injury, or whenever he gets the idea the Blue Devils just need a different look. Some nights, Duke is an absolute beast; witness five victories by 30-plus points in the ACC. But as the recent North Carolina and Florida State games showed, they know how to win close, too.
0 — San Diego State still hasn’t lost yet, and the rest of the Aztecs’ regular season will be reserved for finding out if they ever do. The next question, if they run the table, is how they’ll handle the most rare weight of carrying an unbeaten record into the NCAA Tournament.
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22-0 — Dayton’s record in regulation. Only overtime losses to Kansas and Colorado mar the Flyers’ overall record, and they remain the best shooting team in the country, as they have been all season. In short, Dayton ain’t going away. Obi Toppin, your March is ready.
1-4 — Michigan State’s record the past five games, and had there not been a last-second basket to save the day at Illinois, that would be 0-5. The assumption is that Tom Izzo will find the right buttons, because he nearly always does. But the fact remains the team that started the season No. 1 has nine defeats, and time is getting a little short to find Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman the steady help they’ll need to be around long next month. “I’m not thinking about the tournament or winning another game because we’re finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win,” Izzo said. “I know some of the reasons for that, but not all of them.”
7 —Points the past two games for ACC scoring leader Jordan Nwora, as Louisville floundered against Georgia Tech and Clemson, speaking of former No. 1 teams hitting hard times. “I don’t have all the answers right now, I just don’t,” Chris Mack he told reporters of the Cardinals’ offensive funk, after they were shellacked at Clemson 77-62.
4-0 — Maryland’s record on the Big Ten road during its current eight-game winning streak. That includes Saturday at East Lansing Saturday, when the Terrapins pushed aside Michigan State in its own arena with a 14-0 closing run. They have also won five games after trailing by double digits. Maryland, noted for recent tournament under-achievement, is sending out a message that this year might be different. “That’s four in a row for us on the road, when everybody was wondering if we were ever going to win on the road,” coach Mark Turgeon said.
18 — Four different Creighton players scored that many points the other night in the win at Seton Hall. Exhibit A of the balanced and productive offense that has pushed the Bluejays to within a game of the top in the Big East. Creighton could win the league because it has been playing the best lately. Not an exotic concept. Tuesday will tell more, when the Blue Jays visit Marquette, but they’ve already beaten Seton Hall and Villanova at their places, and three of their five remaining games are in the friendly confines of Omaha. That includes the season finale with league leader Seton Hall, if it comes to that.
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10-16 — The record seems unfathomable. They’re making a horror movie at North Carolina, where the Tar Heels have dropped 11 of 13 games, six by three points or under. They lost on shots at the buzzer against Duke after leading by 13, with 0.4 seconds left against Virginia Tech after leading by 12, and with 0.8 seconds left Saturday against Virginia. A 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left forced overtime against Clemson, after leading by 13. Then on Monday, UNC squandered a 15-point lead to Notre Dame, falling 77-76 after Nate Laszewski's 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left. North Carolina leaves you wondering what could possibly happen next, as the Tar Heels have gone from crisis control to a salvage operation for this season. “There’s no secret formula you can say to the kids right now. They’re devastated,” Roy Williams said after the Virginia game. “The game is filled with a lot of things that are extremely high, and some lows that are as low as you can possibly imagine. But you’ve still got to keep coming back and keep playing.”
2-21, 1-23, 2-22 — Those were Penn State’s all-time record at Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue before this season. The Nittany Lions won at all three places, a statement of how times have changed. Penn State’s last NCAA Tournament victory was 2001, but history obviously hasn’t mattered much to this bunch. Who here had Penn State ahead of Michigan State in the Big Ten standings in mid-February?
1969 — That’s the last year Colorado had any piece of a conference lead this late in the season. Until now. The 20-6 Buffs sharing the top of the Pac-12 with Oregon is one of the more unsung feats among the major conferences. And they beat Dayton, which has been extraordinary hard to do. One possible spoiler for their Pac-12 party plans: They finish the regular season with three consecutive road games.
55 — Virginia’s position in the most recent NET rankings, right behind Liberty. The 17-7 Cavaliers don’t have a lot of margin for error if they want to avoid going from the national championship to the NIT. Such is life when you’re No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, but No. 347 in scoring offense.
42.6 — BYU’s 3-point shooting, the finest in the nation. The Cougars are also third in overall field goal percentage. These guys can light up a gym, which is fair warning for anyone who might run into them later. The 21-7 record includes losses to Gonzaga, San Diego State and Kansas, all No. 1 seeds in the early NCAA bracket. They have the potential to torch anyone on a hot night, which is why Gonzaga’s visit to Provo Saturday could be fun.
15-10 — Georgetown’s record, but that’s only the tip of the story, as the Hoyas are among the most fascinating of the bubble teams. Remember when they had four players suddenly leave the program in December and proceeded to win six games in a row? They were missing their top two scorers at Butler Saturday – Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven, both injured – and thus trotted out a lineup with nobody averaging in double figures. They beat Butler 73-66. The 43rd NET ranking still has them in the hunt, with a big finish.
“I remember when I was playing,” coach Patrick Ewing said, “Coach (John) Thompson always talked about having a junkyard dog mentality. No matter what the adversity is, you scratch, you claw and be able to come away with a win. I think that’s what we’ve been doing, not only today but all year . . . It’s challenging but it only makes it more rewarding.”
Patrick Ewing coaching his first NCAA Tournament team, 35 years after he played his final game as a Hoya in the famous championship game loss to Villanova. Just one of the scenarios still on the table. One month to go.