Wichita State and Virginia are surging, Kentucky and others are sinking
The first weekend in March was not a bad way to start the greatest five weeks in the college basketball season.
Wichita State wrapped up an undefeated regular season. Virginia came a little closer to winning the ACC. Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky — all preseason top five teams — looked completely out of sorts.
In other words, unpredictability reigns.
More unlikely storylines are sure to occur as conference tournaments start later this week in most of the traditional one-bid leagues.
Our focus for the week, though, starts with the major programs hitting their stride (Wichita State and Virginia) and others with newfound concerns (Syracuse, Michigan State, Ohio State and Cincinnati), plus some of the bubble teams that helped their case Saturday.
College Basketball Recap: 10 Things to Know
1. There is no disputing Wichita State’s bid for history
In the NCAA Tournament, teams like Wichita State generally end up darlings. Turns out going 31-0 draws scrutiny. Wichita State completed the first undefeated regular season in a decade and the first 31-0 start in 23 seasons with its 68-45 win over Missouri State. The achievement, though, has drawn a similar level of scrutiny — or in some cases, scorn — as Boise State’s best teams in college football. And that’s fair. Wichita State is no mid-major deserving to be the lovable underdog. The Shockers pay coach Gregg Marshall $1.75 million, and as noted by their coach, they draw 10,000 fans per game and travel on private planes. But 31-0 against any schedule is worthy of history. We spelled out Wichita State’s other superlatives in its undefeated season elsewhere, but this is a team that will be favored to make it all the way to an unprecedented 35-0.
2a. Virginia picked up its biggest win in 20 years in unlikely fashion
It's tough to find more unlikely heroes than Akil Mitchell. The senior forward who averages seven points per game scored eight in the first half to keep Virginia afloat in time for Malcolm Brogdon to give the Cavaliers a commanding lead in the ACC standings with a 75-56 win over Syracuse. Brogdon finished with 19 points including eight during the run that decided the game as moved Virginia to 16-1 in the ACC. Think about it: Joe Harris, a preseason ACC player of the year contender, scored six points on 2-of-10 shooting and Virginia still scored 75 against Syracuse.
2b. Time to worry about Syracuse
Despite starting 25-0, the Orange might slip to a No. 2 seed after this 1-3 slide. This team is not ready to advance deep in the Tournament. Syracuse has gone five consecutive games without averaging a point per possession (one point per possession is considered average). Syracuse hasn’t even shot 45 percent from the field since Jan. 25 against Miami. What’s troubling is that the performance against Virginia wasn’t even particularly bad by Syracuse’s recent standards as the Orange shot 35.7 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from 3.
3. Kentucky is an absolute mess
The talk of Kentucky winning a national title or reaching the Final Four is long gone. It’s time to start wondering if Kentucky is going to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. By virtue of being a team far too talented to get a seed as low as Kentucky will get, the Wildcats have a good chance to win a game in the Tourney. But there’s little reason to have any faith in Kentucky after Saturday. Going to overtime with LSU and losing to Arkansas — bubble teams both — is one thing. Losing to South Carolina, the worst team in the SEC, is another. John Calipari got himself ejected arguing with officials, but his team still attempted 42 free throws to South Carolina’s 33. The offensive execution was dreadful as Kentucky shot 35.3 percent from 3-point range and an unbelievable 22.9 percent from 2-point range.
4. We’re not going to say Oklahoma State is back, but...
Any time a team beats Kansas, it’s worthy of note. Oklahoma State has won three in a row since Marcus Smart returned from suspension, no win bigger than a 72-65 defeat of Kansas. Smart scored 21 points, mainly due to volume (14 shots from the field, 14 free throws). Teammate Markel Brown was the more efficient scorer, adding 21 points on 4-of-7 shots from the field and 10-of-10 free throws. Oklahoma State caught Kansas on a night when the Jayhawks committed 22 turnovers, in part due to 11 Oklahoma State steals. Feel free to put Oklahoma State in a bracket, just don’t expect the team you saw in December and January.
5. Louisville collapsed
Winning on the road against a good team is tough, but, still, Louisville did not look great in its collapse against Memphis. The Cardinals had been a dominant team recently, even if it was largely against bad teams in the American. At Memphis, the Cardinals took an eight-point lead with 4:47 to go but ended up losing 72-66. Memphis got hot from the free throw line, but Louisville helped out with no fied goals in nearly five minutes to finish the game.
6. Michigan State suffered a “complete meltdown”
Even in Branden Dawson’s return, Michigan State looked as weak as it has all season. The Spartans lost 53-46 at home to an Illinois team that’s 6-10 in the Big Ten. Michigan State was just as inept in the offensive end as you’d imagine for a team that couldn’t muster 50 points against the Illini. Outside of Gary Harris, who scored 19 points, Michigan State shot 11 of 30 from the field. Tom Izzo called the game a “complete meltdown.” The Spartans are 4-6 since Jan. 21 and stand a chance to enter the Big Ten tournament with seven conference losses as they finish the regular season with Iowa and Ohio State.
7a. Cincinnati’s offensive shortcomings will bite them in March
At least Cincinnati’s defense showed up at UConn. That’s the only reason Cincinnati had a chance to defeat the Huskies in Hartford in a 51-45 loss. At the same time, this game continued to show that Cincinnati may have trouble scoring points in the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats scored only four points in the first 12:07 in the second half and struggled in traditional (45 points, 27.1 percent shooting) and advanced (0.672 points per possession) metrics. The key is bottling up Sean Kilpatrick, who was the only Bearcat with more than eight points. Cincinnati doesn’t have secondary scorers to overcome a 4-of-16 game from its star player.
7b. Another coach/official confrontation draws attention
Only a week after Jim Boehiem’s tantrum and ejection, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin nearly had a similar confrontation with official Ted Valentine. Cronin didn’t get a technical foul arguing a questionable out-of-bounds and after running in front of his bench toward Valentine. Cronin had to be restrained by three of his players and an assistant, but Valentine didn’t come out of this much better, nearly going nose to nose with the Bearcats coach.
8. No bubble team had a better week than Xavier
The Musketeers have struggled to get into a groove in the Big East, but they’re hitting a stride at a good time. After defeating St. John’s on the road early in the week, Xavier defeated Creighton 75-69 on Saturday. Doug McDermott was productive as usual with 27 points, but Xavier held the rest of the Bluejays to 5 of 22 from 3-point range. For Xavier, Justin Martin had 19 points and 16 rebounds, and Semaj Christon finished with 21 points.
9. Oregon had a decent week, too
It’s time to call Oregon’s turnaround legitimate. The Ducks had lost eight of 10 at one point after starting 13-0, but they have since recovered in the last week. Oregon played their way back into the NCAA Tournament field with a six-game losing streak. The signature win was an 87-83 win in double overtime against UCLA, but Oregon avoided an upset by defeating USC 78-63. The lopsided win as deceptive was the game was tied in the final 10:21
10. SEC bubble teams handled themselves well
Besides Florida, most of the SEC seems to be looking for ways to be disappointed on Selection Sunday. Give at least a little credit to Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas for avoiding home upsets. Arkansas had the toughest challenge, beating Georgia 87-75. Tennessee crushed Vanderbilt 76-38, and Missouri defeated Mississippi State 85-66. Granted, we’re giving these teams credit for doing things they should do anyway, but that doesn’t happen all the time in the SEC. Just ask Kentucky.
• Now is a good time to start doubting Ohio State. Few teams had a worse week than Ohio State, which lost Thursday to Penn State and Sunday to an Indiana team playing without standout freshman Noah Vonleh.
• Pittsburgh isn’t on the bubble, but the Panthers came close to testing that with an 85-81 win over Notre Dame in overtime.
• Utah is going to go to the NIT which is a.) really good for the program Larry Krystkowiak inherited three years ago and b.) a little unfortunate. Utah is 8-8 in the Pac-12, but the Utes gave themselves a paltry non-conference schedule as they continued the rebuilding process. Utah’s strength of schedule is ranked 112th in the RPI.
• The jockeying to be the Atlantic 10’s last at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament will be tight. Dayton defeated UMass 86-79 to stay in contention while Richmond may be out after losing 66-43 to Rhode Island.
• Saint Louis has lost two in a row after starting 12-0 in the Atlantic 10, and neither game, whether at home against a bad Duquesne team or on the road at VCU, has been particularly close.
• From the land of the bizarre, the SWAC will allow four teams ineligible for an NCAA Tournament bid to play in the conference tournament. If an ineligible team wins the tournament, the SWAC’s automatic bid will be awarded to the eligible team that advances the furthest or the highest-seeded team if multiple teams are eliminated in the same round. The four ineligible teams includes league leader Southern (13-2 in the SWAC), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (8-7), Mississippi Valley State (5-10) and Grambling State (2-10).