Weekend takeaways: SEC/Big 12 Challenge proves need for more nonconference games later in regular season

Alabama, Florida State, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin.

Those eight teams, all of whom currently sit in the AP Top 25, lost this weekend. That’s just the start of what we’ve witnessed over the past 36 hours. Here are my 10 takeaways from the last weekend of college basketball in January.

1. SEC/Big 12 Challenge is so refreshing

The SEC/Big 12 Challenge started in 2014, and it’s created great late-January games over the years; my trip to Lawrence, Kansas, in 2016 to see Kentucky vs. KU remains a top-10 highlight so far in my CBS career. College basketball’s big conferences should try and do more of this — to schedule non-league matchups in late January or early February as a way to spice up the sport. Until then, at least we have this.

On Saturday we saw huge wins, thrilling finishes and unexpected scores. The SEC won 5-4 this year (no Texas-Kentucky game). I’ve saved a few specific takeaways for bigger matchups, but I’ll quickly touch on two here:

Baylor predictably ran away from Auburn 84-72. BU’s guards had a wonderful collective performance, while Auburn freshman star Sharife Cooper learned a lot about what a great team looks like. He was held to 15 points on sub-50% shooting.Missouri dodged disaster by winning 102-98 at home in OT vs. TCU. The Tigers trailed by 10 late, then got weird and hit four 3s in a two-minute span to force the bonus session. In early December this game is a nothing burger. But in the context of Mizzou’s season now, as it pushes for a quality seed? That much more urgent. 
Cade Cunningham hit the winning shot for Oklahoma State to get the Pokes past Arkansas. The Hogs could have really used this win. Instead, OSU gives more and more credence to the Big 12 being a seven-bid league.  

2. Stop underrating and overlooking Oklahoma 

No. 24 Oklahoma ended No. 9 Alabama’s 10-game winning streak by pulling off a 66-61 home victory despite not having starter Austin Reaves and reserve Alondes Williams, both of whom sat due to COVID-19 protocol. The Sooners locked down Bama, preventing the Tide from hitting a field goal in the final four-plus minutes of the game — a feat no other team may duplicate against Nate Oats’ squad this season. Oklahoma’s win, according to ESPN’s research, marks the first time since 1974 that a team can claim four regular-season wins against top-10 foes in the same month. OU already beat Kansas, Texas and West Virginia in January, the former two immediately preceding Saturday’s Tide takedown. 

It’s easy to overlook this Sooners team, but within the context of this season — and the perspective of the past decade — the Sooners are due much more recognition. Do you realize that Lon Kruger’s had an NCAA Tournament team all but two seasons since he arrived a decade ago? It’s no surprise why OU doesn’t receive more love. Unless Buddy Hield is winning Player of the Year or Trae Young is winning Freshman of the Year, the Sooners get lost in the shuffle. Maybe that changes this season. I caught up with Oklahoma assistant Carlin Hartman (a rising star who should be running a program of his own soon enough) to get more insight on what’s happening. 

“Every couple of of years you’re going to get a really good, program-changing type of player, but for the most part we’ve done it with guys that are maybe under the radar,” Hartman said. “But anyone that comes to our program is going to be someone who fits the mold of the university. I think that’s where the consistency comes in. Recruiting the right guys and once they get here they know that it’s just not about the two hours that we have within the practice time we spend. We recruit guys that love the game, love the process, that get in the extra time on their own. This is probably the best collective of guys we’ve had since the Final Four run.”

And it’s mostly transfers and lower-rated players dating back to their high school days. Oklahoma’s highest-rated former recruit is De’Vion Harmon, who was the 47th-ranked player in the 247 Composite for the class of 2019. This team is good enough to be a Final Four dark horse. 

No team can claim a better three-game streak this season than what OU just did: vs. No. 15 Kansas, at No. 5 Texas, vs. No. 9 Alabama. The Sooners are in the midst of a gauntlet. A road tilt vs. Texas Tech awaits on Monday, then Baylor, West Virginia and a Tech rematch come between Feb. 10-16. 

“We do not talk about it,” Hartman said about this hellish stretch. “Coach Kruger doesn’t even allow you to think beyond the moment. He so good and so calm and all about our guys getting better every single day.”

Kruger is so quiet that it makes it too convenient to overlook him and this program. Kansas is the Big 12 blue blood. Baylor might be the best team in the sport this season. West Virginia is coached by Bob Huggins. Texas Tech made the most recent national championship game with stock-riser Chris Beard. Texas and Shaka Smart are an easy sell. And even Oklahoma State has the potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. Oklahoma gets lost in the mix.

“I don’t know if he’ll ever truly get his just due, but because he’s so un assuming and he doesn’t want the fanfare and doesn’t ask for it, we’re going to be a program that flies under the radar,” Hartman said. 

3. Michigan State’s NCAA tourney streak in huge trouble

Sunday’s biggest draw was Michigan State-Ohio State. The Spartans, who came off COVID pause less than a week ago, were tending to gaping wounds caused by their 67-37 loss at Rutgers on Thursday. The 13th-ranked Buckeyes provided an urgent matchup. MSU wasn’t expected to win, but it had the opportunity to do it; MSU had won the previous five between these two. 

Michigan State failed the test, playing catch-up from about the 12-minute mark of the first half and lost 79-62. The Spartans have now lost six of eight and are 2-6 in the Big Ten. MSU sits at 8-6 and on Monday will fall out of the top 100 in the NET. It’s bizarro to consider the Big Ten could have 10 NCAA Tournament bids, yet a Tom Izzo-coached team isn’t included in that group. It sure seems like that’s where we’re headed. 

Put the Spartans alongside Kentucky: those March regulars aren’t making the NCAA Tournament. Izzo’s streak of taking Sparty to every NCAA Tournament since 1998 (22 straight) is going to end unless one of two things happen: 1) Michigan State finds magic in a bottle and wins the Big Ten auto bid, or 2) this team pulls off the best in-season turnaround of Izzo’s career. The first seems more likely than the second. An annoyed Iowa group awaits on Tuesday, so good luck. 

4. Duke’s tournament streak still up in the air

One week ago in this takeaways space I told you that all hope was not lost for then-.500 Duke. The Blue Devils won their next two games — which they were favored in — vs. Georgia Tech and Clemson. The Clemson victory on Saturday was a statement: 79-53, the team’s best win through 12 contests this season. Duke tied a season-high with 20 assists. It’s still not projected to make the NCAA Tournament, but Mike Krzyzewski’s team has a shot. If it makes it to the Dance, perhaps reverberations from this win will be a big reason. Next up is at Miami on Monday. Duke had five players in double figures, the play of the game being this poster from freshman Jalen Johnson. 

5. Michigan might’ve won the Big Ten this weekend

A top-three matchup of the weekend went down Friday night. No. 19 Illinois held off No. 7 Iowa in a fun, ragged affair that featured 22 lead changes and eight ties. Illinois won 80-75 in the only scheduled game between these two this year. Ayo Dosunmu had 25 points, 19 of which came in the first half. Dosunmu’s a top-10 player, a reality predicted in the preseason. He’s also just one of two players putting up at least 20 points, six boards and four assists on a nightly basis. (Northern Arizona’s Cameron Shelton the other.)

The Iowa loss brought to light the fact that a talented Hawkeyes team is nonetheless searching for more legitimacy in its résumé. Iowa is 3-3 vs. Quad 1 opponents and 6-4 vs. Quad 1 and 2 foes. Illinois’ win knocked Iowa to 6-3 in the Big Ten, which gives Michigan a two-game lead in the loss column. The Wolverines are on COVID-19 precautionary pause (no one has tested positive recently, but the UK-strain variant has been detected within the athletic department), meaning their next game isn’t until Feb. 11 at the earliest. 

With a reduced number of games for Michigan its cushion in the Big Ten is that much softer. Wisconsin’s chances of vying for the league title went poof after the Badgers were lackluster (81-71) at Penn State, losing to the Nittany Lions for the first time in almost 10 years. Iowa and Illinois are the only teams at present within reaching distance. The Wolverines are scheduled to play at home vs. the Illini in their first game back, on Feb. 11, and have their only game vs. Iowa this season also scheduled at home (March 4). It would be a surprise if Michigan doesn’t finish atop the conference ledger.   

Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois nabbed a much-needed win over Iowa on Friday.
USATSI

6. Florida will be in the NCAAs

The Gators grabbed as important a win as anyone after walking into West Virginia’s house and pulling off an 85-80 upset. That’s four straight for Mike White’s team; Florida hasn’t won five games in a row in almost two years. Saturday’s W was big, and now the Gators have roadies against LSU and Tennessee in the next 11 days. Florida forward Colin Castleton is by no means underrated in the SEC at this point, but he could be on the verge of a national breakout in February. Castleton had 21 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, and was the difference in which team won and which team did not.

Frankly, it was a bit surprising to see Florida withstand WVU’s physicality by consistently displaying plenty of its own. Noah Locke added 19 points via four 3-pointers that proved significant. At this point I’m trusting UF to do what needs to be done to eventually get its name called on Selection Sunday, but the outcome scope is wide. I’d venture the ceiling is a No. 5 seed and the floor is a No. 11. 

7. Mac McClung has All-American potential

Texas Tech stole a win at LSU. 

Put Mac McClung on the WANTED poster. 

The Red Raiders were down seven with a minute remaining and proceeded to go on a 12-0 closing run to flip the game, win 76-71 and give McClung his latest highlight reel to consider for All-American status. The junior shooting guard is averaging 17.5 points, shooting 51% from 2-point range and 36% from 3. McClung drained a triple with 59 seconds to go, then got another 28 seconds later. But it was his poke-free steal that landed in Terrence Shannon Jr.’s hands to get TTU over the top with 23 seconds left. Shannon had 23 and 10. McClung ended with 22 points, five rebounds, two steals.

Texas Tech is 12-5, LSU 11-5.

The game was McClung’s fourth straight with at least 20 points. If he wasn’t on the roster Texas Tech would be a bubble team. But his transformation from fledgling star at Georgetown to all-around stud at TTU has been a must-see story in college basketball this season. McClung is a top-20 player at this stage and has a shot at Second or Third Team A-A status in March. 

8. Kansas tracking toward worst seed in decades

No. 15 Kansas was pasted 80-61 by 18th-ranked Tennessee, the loss so poor that the Jayhawks might fall out of the polls Monday. At 11-6, let’s bump KU down one seed line from Jerry Palm’s most recent projection. That puts Bill Self’s squad as a No. 5 seed.

If that seed holds — or gets worse — it will be Kansas’ worst in decades; KU has never been worse than a No. 4 since Self arrived. What’s more, the program has made the NCAAs every season since 1990, which is the longest streak in history. Under Self, since 2003-04, Kansas’ average seed in the Big Dance is 2.0. For the program since ’90, it’s 2.3. Only twice in the past three decades have the Jayhawks been worse than a No. 4: a No. 6 seed in 1999 and an 8 in 2000. 

But this year will likely be different. Kansas’ spot in the tournament will look out of place; we’re not used to seeing this program aligned next to a 5, 6 or 7 on a bracket. The upside: Kansas appears destined to enter the NCAAs with less pressure and expectation than any other year this century. Perhaps the underdog role could suit this school well. In this 30-plus year run of making every NCAA tourney, KU has never had more than 10 losses in a season. Will that streak be able to continue this year? If it does, it will be due to the mercy of a reduced schedule in a pandemic-affected season. 

9. ACC topples its own table

The ACC had one of those wacky weekends. Let’s start at the top: No. 7 Virginia was outscored by 22 points in the second half at No. 20 Virginia Tech, tying for the worst second-half showing by margin in Tony Bennett’s UVA tenure. The Wahoos had their 15-game ACC winning streak end and took their first league loss. What made it bizarre was UVA blowing a double-digit lead and surrendering a 19-0 run Hokies run. VT did not have its second-leading scorer, Tyrese Radford, but it was no matter because Keve Aluma had 29 and 10.

More intrigue: Prior to the Virginia loss on Saturday, Florida State got done in by Georgia Tech 76-65. It was a season-sustaining win for the Yellow Jackets, who’ve won six of eight. But UVA had a shot to take a stranglehold two-game lead on the conference due to the Seminoles’ no-show in Atlanta. Instead, this is the top of the ACC:

Virginia 7-1
Virginia Tech 7-2
Florida State 6-2

The ACC is very much up for grabs. All told, because Duke and Georgia Tech won, it was a good weekend for the league. And yet: Pitt was flattened at home by a bad Notre Dame team 84-58. The 8-5 Panthers dropped a third straight game and sent their NCAA Tournament hopes into the middle of the lake.

10. Jay Wright shares John Chaney memories

John Chaney’s death on Friday prompted sport-wide mourning in college hoops. But there is only one person actively coaching who knows what it’s like to be a decade-long face of college basketball in Philadelphia: Jay Wright, who spent Saturday morning reading myriad tributes and obituaries. For about 15 years, Chaney was the successful embodiment of college hoops in the City of Brotherly Love. That honor went unclaimed for a few years after his retirement in 2006, but it didn’t take long for Wright to have it bestowed upon him. 

So I asked Wright on Saturday, following Villanova’s 80-72 win at Seton Hall, how his impressions of Chaney changed from when he was a young assistant at Drexel and Villanova in the mid-1980s compared to when Chaney left the profession 15 years ago. In the 1987-88 season, Temple made it to No. 1. Villanova was a top-20 team that season too, and Wright back then was cutting his teeth as an assistant where he’s now won two national titles.

“He was larger than life when I was a player and assistant coach,” Wright said. “As an assistant coach, I was intimidated and in awe of him. And when I came back as a head coach, and he was still the head coach at Temple, I was still intimidated and in awe of him. And we had some battles when I first got here that weren’t pretty, but off the court we’d have our Big 5 dinners with the Big 5 coaches and our wives. We’d leave there, my wife, Patti, would say, ‘Oh, he’s so sweet. I love John.’ I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know, he was sweet tonight …  but when you compete with him, man.’ But, really, he would forget the competition in the offseason anywhere he’d see you. He was very kind, and any time we made an NCAA run he always called me and was always really supportive. And you could tell he was proud of Villanova representing Philadelphia basketball. He took great pride in Philadelphia basketball. I learned that from him.”

Wright said Chaney is as highly regarded in Philadelphia as any head coach who made it in that town, no matter the sport. 

“I wish I had a better vocabulary to describe how big he is and respected,” Wright said. “He is in Philadelphia, and I guess, having a four-hour TV show on Christmas Eve night that everybody watched, I’ve never heard of any other sports figure that did that. And everyone loved it. I watched it. He’s an incredible guy.”

Chaney finished his career with 741 wins across D-II and D-I, with 516 wins in Philly at Temple. Wright is 139 overall wins behind him (602-268 record) and needs 35 more wins with Villanova to get to 517 in his career.

Published: 2021-01-31 21:38:00

Tags: #Weekend #takeaways #SECBig #Challenge #proves #nonconference #games #regular #season

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