Not long ago, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa State stood among the ranks of the unbeaten.
Now, Bo Ryan, Thad Matta and Fred Hoiberg may wonder when they’re going to win another game.
Around the same time — in December and earlier this month — teams like Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and a few other preseason favorites had legitimate concerns about their ability to contend for big prizes at the end of the season.
Not so much anymore.
Such is the story of the college basketball season. Hot teams cool off. Young teams mature into conference play. That much was clear on Saturday.
The major storyline was the play of Kansas. The Jayhawks endured four losses against the toughest schedule in the country, but they are starting to look like national championship contenders after defeating Oklahoma State 80-78 in Lawrence on Saturday.
The reason wasn’t the play of Andrew Wiggins, but that of Joel Embiid, who is quickly overtaking his freshman teammate in terms of headlines. Sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe, a liability to start the season, also had a key game.
Consider this: Kansas defeated perhaps the No. 2 team in the Big 12 and with ease for most of the game despite a virtual no-show from, on paper, what could be its best player.
Kansas’ win wasn’t the only major storyline of the weekend, but it was the most important.
10 Things You Need to Know from the Weekend in College Basketball
1a. Joel Embiid is Kansas’ best freshman and it’s not really close
Let the NBA Draft people sort out the futures of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but right now, Embiid is the best freshman on Kansas’ roster. Embiid was the key player for the Jayhawks as Kansas built a 19-point lead early against Oklahoma State. The freshman finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocked shots in the 80-78. One of Embiid’s many key sequences was a dunk of an alley oop pass from Naadir Tharpe over national player of the year contender Marcus Smart and then moments later swatted away a shot at close range. Meanwhile, Wiggins was near invisible in one of the biggest games of the season. He finished 1 of 5 from the field with one missed shot in the second half.
1b. Naadir Tharpe is becoming a game changer
Tharpe started the season as a liability, but the Jayhawks wouldn’t have defeated Oklahoma State without him in the second half. Tharpe finished with 21 points, including a jumper with 34 second remaining, a dagger that turned out to be the game-winning basket.
1c. Oklahoma State lost all composure early
Bad shots. Bad fouls. Poor composure. Oklahoma State made a game of it late against Kansas, so the Cowboys have to wonder what would have happened if they had played a sharper game from the start in Lawrence. Le’Bryan Nash picked up two early fouls. Markel Brown was in foul trouble in the first half, too, and ended up fouling out after a personal and technical late, one of three OSU technicals in the game. And Marcus Smart was among many Cowboys who couldn’t get a shot until the final minutes.
2. Duke played its best game since December
ACC play has been shaky for Duke so far with losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, but Saturday was a return to form. The Blue Devils demolished NC State 95-60 and won in key ways that had hampered them through ACC play so far. Duke was content to let T.J. Warren score 23 points since it took him 19 shots to get there. And the Duke defense that had struggled mightily forced 21 turnovers, scoring 33 points off of them. Freshman Jabari Parker (23 points, seven rebounds) was great, but Mike Krzyzewski has to be thrilled to get a combined 24 points from Andre Dawkins and Rasheed Sulaimon off the bench.
3. Kentucky gave up 20 offensive rebounds and won thanks to Andrew Harrison
Tennessee jumped to a nine-point lead on Kentucky in part by controlling the glass in the offensive end. The Volunteers finished with 20 offensive rebounds to Kentucky’s 17 defensive boards, but the Wildcats still won 74-66. Point guard Andrew Harrison had his best game of the season, though, with a second-half surge. Harrison finished with 26 points and went 10 of 10 from the free throw line. The Wildcats, who have struggled from the line all season, went 23 of 24 on Saturday.
4. Indiana’s signature win was a mirage
Indiana is back to being a fringe NCAA Tournament team at best despite handing Wisconsin its first loss of the season earlier in the week. The Hoosiers had one of their worst offensive performances of the Tom Crean era in a 57-54 loss at home to a Northwestern team with a losing record. Indiana shot 25 percent from the field (15 of 60) for the most embarrassing loss in the Big Ten this season.
5. Wichita State’s chances of running the table in the Valley look much better
A week after Wichita State’s close call on the road in overtime against Missouri State, the Shockers still look like they could run the table in the Missouri Valley. Wichita State had no difficulty defeating the No. 2 team in the league with a 68-48 win over Indiana State on Saturday. Granted, the Shockers still have to face the Sycamores on the road, but homecourt advantage in Terre Haute isn’t worth 20 points.
6. Pittsburgh acquitted itself as a top ACC team
Syracuse continued its undefeated start to the season, but Pittsburgh earned a bit of credibility in the 59-54 loss. The Panthers never went away against Syracuse and led by 3 with 4:41 to go. Most impressive: Pitt owned the offensive glass as the Panthers grabbed 16 offensive rebounds while Syracuse claimed 24 defensive boards. Syracuse is the class of the ACC, but Pitt may end up being No. 2 or No. 3 by the end of the season. Lamar Patterson, with 18 points and already one of the season’s breakout players, might be an ACC player of the year contender.
7. We were too quick to write off Michigan
During the midseason report, Athlon Sports noted Michigan as one of the nation’s disappointing teams. Part of that was in anticipation that of the Mitch McGary injury catching up to the Wolverines. Michigan is 9-0 without him after defeating Wisconsin 77-70 in Madison on Saturday. Guards Nik Stausaks and Caris LeVert made up for the absence of their fellow sophomore by combining for 43 points as the Wolverines withstood a late Wisconsin rally. LeVert had one of the best games of his career, adding seven rebounds and four assists, but Stauskas is a Big Ten player of the year contender. A jump shooter on the team that reached the title game last season, he has a more well-rounded game this season and has become a leader on a team that needed one.
8. Kevin Ollie isn’t happy
The uncalled foul and the ejection probably didn’t play a major role in UConn’s 76-64 loss to Louisville, but Huskies coach Kevin Ollie joined Iowa coach Fran McCaffery on the short list of the best coach freakouts this season.
9. Baylor has an execution problem
If anyone wanted to be generous to Baylor in the Bears’ loss to Texas Tech last week by chalking it up as a one-time lapse on the road, that argument should fall on deaf ears. Baylor has fallen apart in recent games as the Bears returned to Waco to lose 66-64 to Oklahoma for its third loss in four games. The final possession was a disaster — the game ended with the ball in the hands of Royce O’Neal (6.1 ppg) — but this loss was determined earlier. Baylor shot 20 3-pointers, despite making only six, and shot 50 percent from the 3-point line. Baylor is 10 of 40 from 3 and 26 of 54 from the free throw line in the last two games.
10. Watch out: Texas is overachieving
Rick Barnes has been criticized for lackluster results with talented teams in recent seasons — no Sweet 16 trips since 2008, for example. If Texas has been an underachiever in recent seasons, this team has been one of the country’s top overachievers. It’s true Barnes’ recruiting classes aren’t as highly rated as they once were, but fringe top-100 prospects Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix are leading a Longhorns team ready to contend for the NCAA Tournament. Holmes and Felix combined for 40 points in an 86-76 win over Iowa State. On its NCAA resume, Texas has a non-conference win over North Carolina, three consecutive Big 12 wins and no embarrassing losses.
While everyone was watching the NFC title game, Oregon further proved it is falling apart. The Ducks lost their fourth consecutive game with an 80-72 loss to Oregon State. Oregon started the season 13-0. ... Not many teams are going to win in Salt Lake City. UCLA made the final score look closer with a late push, but Utah dominated in a 74-69 win. The Utes went 8-28 in their first two seasons in the Pac-12. At 3-3, they may double that conference win total this season. Kudos to coach Larry Krystowiak. ... Virginia captured a season sweep of Florida State with a 78-66 win over the Seminoles. Joe Harris (15 ppg in his last four) is rounding into form. ... Seton Hall won at Georgetown for the first time since 2003 with a 67-57 victory. What are you doing, Hoyas? ... Butler picked up its first Big East win by outscoring Marquette 43-25 in the second half and overtime. Marquette may go from preseason conference favorite to missing the NIT. ... Providence isn’t an NCAA Tournament contender yet, but the Friars are worth watching after defeating Georgetown, St. John’s and Creighton in consecutive games.
Not long ago, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa State stood among the ranks of the unbeaten.