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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | December 1, 2021

9 storylines November gave us in men's college basketball

Top men's basketball conference games in December

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The roars were so loud at Ohio State, you’d have thought the Michigan football score had been legally overturned. But no, this was yet another upset in the last hours of November for college basketball. “I hope,” Buckeyes’ coach Chris Holtmann would say afterward, “the students enjoy it well into the morning.”

Ohio State’s rush past No. 1 Duke 71-66 was the seventh game of the month that an unranked team had taken down a top-10 opponent. It likely meant a third different name on the top line of the polls in the season’s fifth week. It added to the Buckeyes’ reputation as accomplished big-game hunters; they’re a rather startling 8-3 in their last 11 games against No. 1. This latest one came in a rare package. The Blue Devils blew a double-digit halftime lead (13) and lost. According to ESPN, they had won 185 such games in a row since the last time that happened.

So it was a properly boisterous first month of the season, where in a final week of tumult, No. 2 UCLA would be steamrolled by No. 1 Gonzaga, who would then be upended by No. 5 Duke, who would then be outscored 12-0 the last four minutes by Ohio State, who earlier had needed a last-second basket at home to beat Akron. One moment, it was Dayton taking out Kansas for the first time since 1968, the next it was Iona sideswiping Alabama, giving the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference its first victory over a top-10 team after 119 consecutive losses.

Looks like it’s going to be a mentally taxing season. “There’s a tough-mindedness that teams — if they don’t have it, they’d better get it,” Holtmann said.

Here are nine appealing storylines that November gave us.

1. Iowa State

The month ended with 18 unbeaten teams, and Iowa State was one of them at 6-0. This is where we need to insert the part that the Cyclones were 2-22 last season.

They beat No. 25 Xavier by 12 points and No. 9 Memphis by nine. They have snapped a batch of losing streaks — 18 in a row overall, eight at home, 19 against ranked opponents, 28 away from home, 25 against power conferences. No opponent has shot better than 44 percent against them; their turnover differential is plus-4.7 and five different Iowa State players have scored 15-plus points in the past three games. In dumping Memphis, the Cyclones blocked 10 shots and had 13 steals.

Behold the value of fresh faces. T.J. Otzelberger, twice an assistant in Ames, came from UNLV to be the new coach, and the top six scorers include five transfers from five different schools and one freshman.

Iowa State looks like a whole new team.

“We knew what we had. We knew that we could play but we just had to go out there and show it every night,” said leading scorer Izaiah Brockington, who arrived this season from Penn State. “It definitely feels like we’re bringing basketball back to Ames. We’re bringing the magic back. But it’s just a start, we want more.”

One striking quality about Iowa State is how all these strangers have melded so quickly. Otzelberger started working on that in the summer, when he had his new team of transplants together for bowling, movie trips, breakfast every morning.

“We outlined how our day would go every day,” he said. “When you play together as a group, there’s a basketball component to it, but there’s also a people component. You have to want to play for each other, you actually have to care about each other and you have to invest that time off the court.”

On the court, it was simple. Otzelberger told them what he wanted — ball pressure, rebounding, toughness — and it would be a daily exercise to make it happen.

“You just don’t get good at it by hoping to,” he said. “You’re not going to play better in the game than you practice. We need to practice at such a high level that when we get to a game, we only know one way to do things.

“I’m not a real exciting or forward-looking type of person. I do the same thing every single day, our team does the same thing every single day.”

Last season Iowa State did the same thing lots of days, too. Lose.

2. Purdue

The Boilermakers have been playing basketball since 1896 and have never spent one second at No. 1. If they beat Iowa Friday night, that will very likely change next week.

Others have won higher profile games, but nobody has aced the eye test this season more than 7-0 Purdue. The Boilermakers have trailed only 22 minutes and 53 seconds in a seven-game start that includes wins over North Carolina and Villanova and the 93-65 mashing of Florida State Tuesday night. They have broken 90 points in six games, and shot 50 percent in all seven — the longest streak for the program in 35 years. They are only the third team in 20 years to go seven games in a row with 80-plus points while shooting better than 50 percent overall and 35 percent from the 3-point line. The national stat leaders list is a Purdue pamphlet — second in Division I in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting, third in rebound margin.

POWER 36: Andy Katz places Purdue high in his latest rankings

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton called the Boilermakers “the most complete team I’ve played against in a long time . . . This team has Final Four written all over it.”

Friday night should be interesting in Mackey Arena. The only team in the nation scoring more points a game than Purdue is Iowa.

3. Duke

There’s a good team being built in Mike Krzyzewski’s final construction job, but how good? The Blue Devils appeared to be on fumes Tuesday night when they missed 24 of 31 shots in the second half and let a 13-point halftime lead get away at Ohio State. Their last points came at 4:29. So the No. 1 spot was a quick layover. Maybe there was a hangover from the Gonzaga win in Las Vegas, maybe the Buckeyes were too aroused on their own court to be held back. It’s a hard world for visitors in Big Ten arenas.

Whatever, it ended with Krzyzewski having to make his way through court-storming Ohio State students to get to his locker room. “Those guys are real good but they’re young and they have not gone through anything like this,” he said of his team. “I call it an energy cycle. The season has different energy cycles. We knew that we were at the end of this one. (The Buckeyes) play hard so they wear you out. If they don’t show up and play as hard as they do, then those last five minutes would have looked different.”

Krzyzewski saw the fading shooting and 23 Duke fouls — nearly 11 more than average — as evidence of weary minds and bodies trying to cope with the Ohio State surge. He called the Gonzaga-Ohio State two-step a learning experience, understanding it will have to be for March. “There’s an emotional toll that wears on you, too. In order to win big, you’ve got to be able to win multiple big games in a row. If this was the NCAA (tournament), you win on a Friday, you’ve got to win on a Sunday. We were not able to do that, that’s kind of how we will talk about it.”

FOLLOW THE ACTION: Click here for all ACC/Big Ten Challenge updates 

This is what we do know about Duke; the Blue Devils aren’t beating themselves, committing only 18 turnovers the past three games and outscoring opponents this season 152-53 in points off turnovers. Wendell Moore Jr. continues to look like a capable leader while freshman Paolo Banchero continues to look like the phenom he is. Whatever they do will be compelling theater all year, with this Kryzyzeski’s last ride.

4. Baylor

The national champion Bears haven’t gone anywhere. Minus four starters from the past glorious April, they’re 7-0 by an average margin of 25.2, forcing 20 turnovers a game and have come up with 66 steals against their last five opponents. Eight players average between 30 and 18.4 minutes. After being rolled over by Baylor 75-58, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo allowed how the Bears “just keep bringing waves at you . . . I kind of enjoyed watching them.” We’re some time from knowing if a repeat is truly doable, but the early signs are promising.

Baylor is back near the top this season.

Baylor is the only school in Division I with Associated Press top-10 teams in men’s basketball (No. 4), women’s basketball (No. 5) and football (No. 9).

5. West Coast Conference

The Gonzaga Empire — otherwise known has the WCC — accounts for two of the 18 unbeatens. Strange thing, neither is the Zags. San Francisco is 8-0 for the first time since 1976. BYU is 6-0, having stampeded Oregon by 32 points — per ESPN stats, the first unranked team to beat a ranked opponent by 30-plus points away from home in 28 years. Also, Santa Clara beat Stanford by 16 and TCU by 19 and Saint Mary’s outlasted Notre Dame for its first win ever over a sitting ACC member.

In other words, November suggested the league might not be a Gonzaga pleasure cruise. That the Zags are not among the unbeatens is understandable enough, since they’ve already played three top-5 opponents. Alabama and Texas Tech are still on the non-conference docket, so there are still tests ahead to see how mighty Gonzaga is. That includes their conference.

6. Dayton

The U-turn of the month belonged to the Flyers. They sputtered off the start line, losing consecutive home games to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay. Then they went to Disney World and stunned Kansas, the winning shot a floater in the lane at the buzzer from Mustapha Amzil, who had not taken a shot all game. It was Dayton’s first win over a top-four team since 1984, and the Flyers kept rolling to win the ESPN Events Invitational.

This young-to-the-max team — 12 freshmen are on the roster — might just have been getting acquainted in those early defeats.

7. State of Oregon

What basketball gods has this state offended? Oregon State, coming off a magical Elite Eight trip last March, is 1-6 and lost three consecutive games by five points. Oregon went from No. 12 in the AP rankings to an 81-49 drubbing by BYU, a 62-50 defeat by Saint Mary’s and a 78-49 mashing by Houston.

POLL: Take a look at the latest AP rankings

Starting every game in slow motion had been a problem for the Ducks, who scored 52 total points in the first half of those three losses, shooting 24.7 percent. So the 46 first-half points in Monday’s 87-47 romp over Montana were a welcome sight. “It’s been a long two weeks,” coach Dana Altman said. Pac-12 play starts this weekend, so both the Beavers and Ducks will have to find their A games in a hurry.

8. Max Abmas

He returned to Oral Roberts as the nation’s leading scorer from 2021. And ask Ohio State or Florida how dangerous he was last March, as he nearly shot his Cinderella team into the Elite Eight. This season began a little slowly with a real clunker at Central Arkansas, when he missed 15 of 18 shots and produced only eight points. Now he’s back to Super Max, with 23, 29 and 38 points his past three games, hitting 54 percent.

The 38 came in an 87-80 win over cross-town cousin Tulsa, when the Golden Eagles fired away with 41 3-point attempts, and only 14 shots inside the arc. If they are to return to the NCAA tournament, Abmas will have to conjure up more magic. Any March could use a 6-foot biomedical chemistry major scoring 23 points a game.

9. Kentucky . . .

The Wildcats are 6-1. After seven games last year, they were 1-6. But that’s not the most jarring new look in Kentucky. It’s this: Freshman TyTy Washington Jr. is the leading scorer but the next five are juniors or graduate students. Kentucky? What alternate universe is this?

Sahvir Wheeler is the nation's best passer.

Two of the juniors are at the top of national rankings after November — Sahvir Wheeler is leading the country in assists per game and Oscar Tshiebwe has been an absolute terror on the boards. He’s had at least 16 rebounds five times, and is No. 1 in the nation by more than two rebounds a game.

Imagine how many he’d be grabbing if he used both hands all the time? “He tried to grab balls with one hand. You know how many of those he brought it? Zero,” John Calipari said.

Iowa State in the rankings after going 2-22? Kentucky on the move with upperclassmen? John Wooden’s alma mater finally getting to No. 1? November provided a lot of intriguing plots. That’s what November is for.

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