With January nearing its conclusion, and despite the ever-present cancellations and postponements that have come with the coronavirus pandemic, college basketball’s bigger picture is slowly coming together. With a number of telling games on the Tuesday night slate, ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi got together to discuss what they witnessed.
Kentucky fought to the finish in Tuscaloosa but fell to 5-10 against a red-hot Alabama team. Are you ready to pronounce the Wildcats finished? What will endure as the biggest single flaw of this UK group?
Medcalf: During his postgame news conference on Tuesday, John Calipari suggested his team could still make a run, but nothing the Wildcats have done so far has inspired that belief. It does feel like it’s over. And it makes you wonder what will happen with this team if and when it’s clear that it’s not a tournament team and the dream officially dies. Would the Wildcats even accept an NIT bid, assuming there is an NIT and Kentucky qualifies? The team’s offensive challenges on all shots, including layups, are its greatest flaw. The Wildcats can’t shoot. Not outside the arc (32.6% in league play) or inside the arc (worst team in SEC play). They just can’t find ways to score.
Borzello: If by finished, you mean they won’t make the NCAA tournament, then yes, they’re finished. The Wildcats have shown flashes of life, beating Florida by 18 on the road and LSU by 13 over the weekend, but I have no faith that they can string together enough consistent performances to win the SEC tournament. And to think about an at-large bid, they would probably have to go 9-1 or thereabouts the rest of the way — that’s just not happening. Kentucky has had issues all season making shots from the perimeter and the Wildcats don’t have anyone who can just go get a bucket. B.J. Boston was supposed to be that guy, but he’s not, and Terrence Clarke hasn’t played in a month.
Gasaway: Kentucky has a pulse, barely, because the calendar is still the Wildcats’ friend. It’s still January. But, yes, this is a steep hill to climb at 5-10 and with a NET ranking that, at tipoff in Tuscaloosa, clocked in at No. 80. If you’re an optimist in Lexington, you note that Kentucky made Alabama look way, way worse than the Crimson Tide did against Arkansas and LSU. Maybe Calipari can build on what was an undeniably strong defensive performance, but that building needs to start right now. Who knows, maybe Clarke will return from his foot injury and key an eleventh-hour resurgence.
Lunardi: I’m not willing to write Kentucky’s obituary unless the Wildcats lose on Saturday (ESPN/ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET) to Texas. If that game was to somehow fall into the win column, a path remains — however narrow — for Kentucky to receive positive at-large consideration. It’s a high-level, nonconference win the Cats simply must have. In the meantime, Big Blue Nation has to endure — perhaps for the first time under Calipari — an overrated recruiting class and an underperforming set of veterans.
A Shaka Smart-less Texas team was knocked off at home by a suddenly relevant Oklahoma group Tuesday. Is your needle pushing closer to ‘worried about the Longhorns’ or ‘impressed with the Sooners’ after the performance?
Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves drives in and puts in a shot from behind the backboard that goes into the basket.
Gasaway: Definitely pushing closer to “impressed with the Sooners.” Texas was missing not only its coach, but also Courtney Ramey, Jericho Sims and Brock Cunningham. The Sooners looked really strong even before the game in Austin. We might look back at the end of the season and say that OU had the best defense in the Big 12 besides Baylor’s. On the other side of the ball, the 23 points Austin Reaves rang up against the Longhorns was no mistake. He has found a way to get it done all season even as he has struggled from beyond the arc.
Borzello: Not overly concerned with Texas. The Longhorns didn’t have starters Ramey and Sims, and obviously Smart wasn’t there, either. Three losses to Villanova, Texas Tech and Oklahoma by a combined seven points isn’t exactly setting off alarm bells for me. But man, Oklahoma is good. The Sooners have wins over Kansas, Texas and West Virginia — and they have a terrific backcourt with three guys who are capable of big nights offensively in De’Vion Harmon, Austin Reaves and Umoja Gibson. And Gasaway is right: They’re the second-best defense in a league filled with teams typically very good at that end of the floor. Only two teams in the last month have hit one point per possession against the Sooners.
Medcalf: I agree with the crew. A game against a Texas team missing two key players and its head coach seemed like the perfect setting for an upset in a mostly empty building, so I’m definitely “impressed with the Sooners.”
Lon Kruger, one of two coaches who have taken five different teams to the NCAA tournament, has been doing this for a long time, making it easy to overlook his coaching ability. But this Oklahoma team, picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the Big 12, is a real contender with top-40 efficiency on offense and defense. Its only double-digit losses unfolded against Xavier in the third game of the year and earlier this month at Baylor. The Sooners have the league’s lowest turnover rate, too. But they have a ridiculous five-game stretch ahead that includes matchups against Alabama on Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN App, noon ET), Texas Tech, Baylor and West Virginia. Still, they have a chance to emerge as a serious threat to make a run in March.
Lunardi: Count me among those impressed by the Sooners. This is the kind of game Oklahoma simply hasn’t won in recent years. Don’t let the questionable at-large bids fool you; Oklahoma hasn’t had a winning record in the Big 12 since reaching the Final Four in 2016. If the Sooners can back it up with a weekend win over Alabama, they’ll be in the top half of an NCAA bracket for the first time in five years.
North Carolina and Duke are tightly grouped in the top data-based rankings, including KenPom (UNC at No. 32 and Duke at No. 35 after Tuesday’s wins). Based on what you saw Tuesday and prior to Tuesday, which team is better right now and which has the higher ceiling?
North Carolina guard Leaky Black breaks away for a powerful one-handed jam.
Medcalf: I think North Carolina is the better team right now, proved by its recent wins over the middling ACC squads that Duke couldn’t beat prior to Tuesday’s win over Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels still have youthful, inconsistent guard play, but they’re clearly improving.
I still think Duke has the higher ceiling. I think Matthew Hurt–Jalen Johnson have the potential to carry Duke down the stretch the way they did against Georgia Tech on Tuesday, going 13-for-22 combined. And DJ Steward, who has finished with 14 or more points in the team’s last four wins, could anchor the trio in the coming weeks. North Carolina has played 16 games; Duke has played 11. After 11 games this season, UNC was 7-4 after weathering a 2-4 stretch. Duke should continue to improve as the NCAA tournament approaches. And if that growth comes, the Blue Devils will have the edge over rival North Carolina.
Borzello: I jumped off the Duke bandwagon in early December (the last time I voted for the Blue Devils in the AP poll was Dec. 7) and haven’t looked back. I thought the Blue Devils had some serious issues early in the season, most notably a real lack of identity, and that hasn’t changed. They don’t shoot it well, they’ve had inconsistent guard play and they’re unimposing defensively. We’ll see if the win over Georgia Tech sparks anything, but I’m going to be cautious.
On the other hand, I think North Carolina is starting to figure things out. The Tar Heels have won six of their last seven games, they’re beginning to get the balance they’ve missed for most of the season and they’ve cut back on turnovers — a huge problem early on. Caleb Love wasn’t great on Tuesday, but he turned it over just once. Kerwin Walton has added perimeter pop since moving into the starting lineup eight games ago. RJ Davis and Leaky Black have been solid. Garrison Brooks isn’t playing at the level he was last season, but Brooks, Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe are still as good a post trio as you’ll find in the country. Carolina is better than Duke now and should be better than Duke in March.
Gasaway: I’ll second what my colleague Mr. Borzello said. With Duke in 2021, it’s unclear how the Blue Devils expect to win. At least with North Carolina, it’s plain that the Tar Heels, per usual, want to crash the offensive glass and force misses in the paint. Brooks and Bacot combined to score 37 points on just 21 shots against Pitt, and Sharpe might be the best pure rebounder on the roster. To be sure, this UNC team is still figuring things out and, even after winning six of seven, the numbers for shooting from both sides of the arc in ACC play are, well, unsightly. But at least the Heels are moving in the right direction, and finishing two or three games above .500 in conference appears well within reach. Not too many people at the end of December would have guessed we’d be saying as much.
Lunardi: If Duke and Carolina played a best-of-seven, it would go the distance. If they were the last two teams in front of the NCAA selection committee for a tournament spot, North Carolina would get the nod. The Tar Heels have better wins and have been more consistently above average. Hardly a ringing endorsement for two of the game’s giant programs. Duke might yet have more upside, but we’ve yet to see it.
What’s something else that caught your attention on Tuesday night?
No. 18 Tennessee wreaks havoc on the paint by shooting 12-of-20 on layups and dunks to escape with a close 56-53 win over Mississippi State.
Medcalf: I still don’t know what to think about Tennessee. The Vols tussled with Mississippi State in a 56-53 win on Tuesday but needed every second to secure the win. A few weeks back, Tennessee had been touted as one of America’s elite teams. Since dominating Missouri on Dec. 30, however, the Vols are just 4-3 and two of those wins were against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, both at the bottom of the league’s standings. Interested to see what happens in this weekend’s matchup against Kansas (Saturday, ESPN, 6 p.m. ET). Tennessee hasn’t looked like a national title contender in weeks.
Borzello: Drake! The Bulldogs’ unbeaten record was really put to the test on Tuesday night, coming off a 22-day COVID-19 pause to head on the road to face a 9-1 Missouri State team. And they looked like they hadn’t played in weeks during the first half, when MSU got out to a 17-point lead. But Drake only allowed 20 points in the second half and ended up winning by seven to improve to 14-0. There’s a rematch Wednesday at Missouri State, and then we can start peeking ahead to the Feb. 13-14 series with Loyola Chicago.
Gasaway: Memphis won its third straight game, a 76-72 victory at home over SMU. The Tigers will get one shot at Houston, on the road, next month, and if by chance Penny Hardaway’s men pull off the upset things could get interesting in bubble terms. For now, Memphis is lurking in the 70s in the NET rankings, but the best win the American has to offer would do wonders for the U of M’s profile. Finally, if the Tigers somehow go dancing, their opponents would cringe when they saw that bracket reveal. This defense is for real.
Lunardi: The number of teams stumbling out of a COVID-19 pause continues to rise. Over the weekend it was Richmond, losing at home to La Salle. Tuesday it was Saint Louis, losing its return to play against Dayton (also at home). Ask any coach and they’ll tell you, “I have no idea how my guys are going to play” in the first game back. Makes me think the NCAA should allow returning teams some kind of scrimmage or exhibition game to knock off the rust. And it’s why I think teams thinking about a tank job in their conference tourneys should be careful what they wish for.