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Mike Lopresti | | February 4, 2021

How 5 ranked college basketball teams went down in 1 fitful night

Julian Champagnie explains to Andy Katz how St. John's upset No. 3 Villanova

One night, five ranked teams — two of them in the top-5 — bushwhacked by five unranked opponents. And yet one more sign that Kentucky is headed to a depth it hasn’t seen in decades. If the last stretch of the regular season is to be a turbulent ride sometimes hard to understand, COVID and all, Feb. 3 gave us fair warning.

How to explain what happened in Queens?

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports Villanova's Caleb Daniels fights through a double team from St. John's Vince Cole and Rasheem Dunn.

No. 3 Villanova led the nation in fewest turnovers a game, at 8.3. The Wildcats’ total was 17 against the St. John’s pressure. Guard Collin Gillespie had only 12 in 12 games. He committed six in one night.

And St. John’s used to be 1-5 in the Big East, coughing up 86 points a game. The Red Storm is 5-1 since then, allowing under 67. Villanova, known for capable and efficient offense, scored 49 points in the last 35:21, and finished with only three more field goals than turnovers. Yet another startling number produced by the pandemic? Well, this one was: The Wildcats were the highest ranked victim in a game played on St. John’s campus since 1966. Pre-COVID, games like this would usually be at Madison Square Garden.

No matter the site, it suggested the Red Storm defense – third in the nation in steals – could be a major factor in the Big East race at the end, never mind St. John’s was picked to finish ninth in the league. “They kind of sped us up.” Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl said. They’ve done that to a lot of teams, lately. “When you play the way we play, it takes a while to pick up on it,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said.

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How to explain what happened in Greenville, N.C.?

Since Dec. 22, East Carolina had five losses, three postponements and never produced 70 points in a game. The Pirates were 259th in the country in scoring. “It’s been a tough month,” coach Joe Dooley said. They were also 0-33 against ranked opponents since 2002 and 0-14 against the top-5 all time.

So here came No. 5 Houston, at 15-1 with the sternest defense in the land, not having allowed more than 65 points in a game this season.

East Carolina 82, Houston 73.  The defensive Cougars were allowing only 56 points a game. The Pirates passed that total with 10:29 still left to play. It figures. Numbers on paper can be worthless — especially this season. “Rarely do we get out-competed or other teams play harder than us,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We hang our hat on being tough, but we weren’t any of those things tonight.”

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How to explain what happened in Omaha?

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing.

Georgetown was picked to finish last in the Big East, and began the season right on cue, starting 3-8. Then came one of those 20-day pandemic pauses. “I think we just exhaled,” coach Patrick Ewing said. When the Hoyas returned, they rallied from 15 points down to beat Providence, and Wednesday outgunned No. 15 Creighton on its own court 86-79.

Georgetown came into the game 265th in the nation in field goal percentage. The Hoyas promptly shot 50 percent, hitting 10-for-21 in 3-points. Leftover was a question or two about Creighton, which has struggled for momentum lately, losing three of its past six. “We didn’t have an answer for them defensively,” coach Greg McDermott said.

How to explain what happened in Pittsburgh?

The Panthers had dropped three games in a row, the most recent an 84-58 pounding at home by Notre Dame that so alarmed coach Jeff Capel, he promised lineup changes. Ten minutes before tipoff Wednesday against No. 16 Virginia Tech, he informed guard Xavier Johnson — who had started 78 of 79 games in his career — that he’d open the game on the bench.

“It just woke me up. It made me more humble,” Johnson said later. “When I came into the game, everything seemed to be slow.”

So Virginia Tech noticed. Johnson scored 32 points with seven assists and five rebounds as the Panthers beat the Hokies 83-72. That was the most points ever for a Panther off the bench. He is only the third major conference player in 25 years to not start a game but go 30-5-5.

Pitt wanted this game, all right. In the last 8:29, the Panthers were 8-for-9 shooting and 11-for-12 from the free throw line. Once 8-2, Pittsburgh might be dangerous again.

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How to explain what happened in Gainesville?

South Carolina had dropped four of five conference games, including becoming the only SEC team so far to lose to Vanderbilt. Virus problems had been with the Gamecocks all season. Florida, meanwhile, had just charged into the rankings at No. 22.

So South Carolina goes only 4-for-19 from the 3-point line, including missing all four in the second half, but that doesn’t matter, because the Gamecocks muscle up and outscore the Gators 50-30 in the paint, and win 72-66. “We just laid down,” Florida’s Tre Mann said.

As South Carolina coach Frank Martin noted afterward, “You’ve got to make some 3’s to win, but whoever wins the fight for the paint still wins the game.”

It had already been a tough day for the Florida camp, with word coming hours earlier that SEC preseason player of the year Keyontae Johnson — who collapsed during a December game with a heart issue — had been ruled out of returning this year. He’ll continue to be on the bench. “He will spend the rest of the season focused on being the best coach and teammate he can be,” his family wrote in a release.

Finally, how to explain what happened in Columbia?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports Missouri celebrates its win over Kentucky.

Eons ago it seems, when the season started, Kentucky was picked to contend for the SEC title, of course, and Missouri was voted 10th.  By Wednesday night, Missouri was ranked No. 18 and second in the league. Kentucky was an unfathomable 5-10.

Make that 5-11, as Missouri took over in the end to win 75-70.  They’ve seen that horror movie before in the Bluegrass, because closing time has become a nightmare for the Wildcats. They are plus-22 in scoring in the first 36 minutes of games this season . . . and minus-39 in the last four.

And so, all manners of historical lows face Kentucky. The Wildcats have missed only two NCAA Tournaments in 29 years, but that grows ever more likely. Over 87 years, they’ve averaged only 3.3 SEC losses a season. They’re already 4-5. They have had — and this is as remarkable as it gets — one losing record since 1927, and that was 32 years ago. But 5-11 is an open door to that infamy.

The Wildcats went into the Missouri game with a scoring average that would be the program’s lowest in 36 years, an assist-turnover ratio that would be the worst since 1976, and a team shooting percentage that would be the lowest since 1963. That’s been wasting a lot of good defense. Before the season, John Calipari was 202-19 when his Wildcats held opponents to 40 percent shooting or less. This Kentucky team is 4-5.

What ails Kentucky? The four-minute flu is the most obvious. “I feel like when we find the answer, we’ll feel a lot better,” guard Davion Mintz said after the Missouri loss. “The reason I feel optimistic is because no one at this point has accepted losing.”

That such a thing would even be a danger at Kentucky . . . well, that’s college basketball in 2021.

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