Regular season college basketball is going to have a tough time pulling eyes away from the NFL and college football playoffs.
Credit the sport for making a good effort during the weekend.
Two undefeated teams, Kentucky and Virginia, played games down to the wire, including one in double overtime.
The hammer finally fell on an undefeated team when NC State upset Duke with surprising ease. The surprises continued into Sunday evening when Oregon State defeated Arizona for the Beavers’ first win over a top 10 team since 2000.
With shorthanded Wisconsin’s loss to Rutgers, four of the AP top seven lost this week and two of the winners had to battle tooth and nail to stay undefeated.
Indeed, the second full weekend of conference play rewarded both the hardcore basketball fans and the channel-flippers.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Kentucky survives in overtime … twice
The Wildcats are 15–0 and will be favored in every game the rest of the way. Last week, though, proved that Kentucky will have a difficult time making it through the regular season without a loss. Days after an overtime home win over Ole Miss, Kentucky needed two OTs to beat Texas A&M, 70–64 — and the Aggies were playing without leading scorer Jalen Jones. Conventional wisdom suggests that Kentucky is only beatable if it’s not hitting shots from the 3-point line. We might need to change our thinking; against Ole Miss, the Wildcats connected on 11-of-20 from the arc yet still almost lost at home, and they went a respectable 9-of-28 from 3 in the win in College Station. Kentucky is still the best team in the nation and the favorite to win the national championship, but the first week of conference play was far more challenging than anyone could have imagined.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy probably had the best summation of where Kentucky is right now: “They're young," he told reporters. "They're going to have moments like that. They're going to be challenged. They're going to second-guess things. They're going to throw the ball away. ... They're going to get upset when the coach gets on them.”
2. Duke is vulnerable on the road
Most would agree that Duke boasts the second-best roster in the nation, but we must remind ourselves that the Blue Devils still start three freshmen. And like most teams that rely heavily on freshmen, this team will struggle to play well consistently on the road. Duke passed its first true road test of the season, beating an outstanding Wisconsin team in Madison in early December, but struggled to win at Wake Forest last Wednesday and then lost by 12 points at NC State on Sunday. After a home date with Miami on Tuesday, the Devils play four of their next five games on the road, including grueling trips to Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia.
3. Virginia has the killer instinct
Playing with an identity is great. Virginia certainly has built one under Tony Bennett with a stifling defense and an efficient — if not overly exciting — offense. What shouldn’t be ignored is that the no-name Cavaliers are going to be tough to beat anytime, anywhere. Virginia had the most impressive win of the week, a 62–56 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend to stay undefeated. Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton got his shots, but the Cavs limited Jerian Grant to six points, his lowest total since Dec. 17, 2012. Notre Dame led by as many as eight in the second half, but Virginia took over late. In the final five minutes, Notre Dame was 3-of-10 from the field with a turnover. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 3-of-5 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. That’s how you win games on the road.
4. Marcus Paige is a battler...
Marcus Paige, a preseason All-American, has struggled as a junior. His scoring is down by more than four points per game, and his shooting percentage has plummeted from .440 to .366. Paige’s team, North Carolina, has also underachieved, carrying an 11–4 record into Saturday’s home game against Louisville. The Heels were on their way to a fifth loss — and a second straight defeat at home — before rallying from 13 down in the second half to edge Louisville in dramatic fashion. Paige, nursing a foot injury, delivered the decisive play, hitting a driving layup with 8.5 seconds remaining to give North Carolina the lead for good.
5. ...And so is Marcus Foster
A return to the NCAA Tournament is in doubt for disappointing Kansas State, but the Wildcats do have a bit of life left thanks to guard Marcus Foster. Against Oklahoma, the sophomore returned to the starting lineup after being banished to the bench in the previous two games. Starter or not, Foster certainly was the finisher. He hit the game-tying basket to force overtime and then hit the game-winning 3 with a man in his face to give the Wildcats a 66–63 victory. The win might be too little, too late for a team that has already lost seven games, but a road win over a good OU team could serve as a nice springboard for K-State.
6. Tinkle is the man in Corvallis
For the past half-dozen years, Oregon State basketball was relevant for one reason: Its coach, Craig Robinson, was the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama. Now, however, the Beavers are making headlines for their actual play on the court. First-year coach Wayne Tinkle inherited a program that lost its top five scorers from a team that went 16–16 in 2013-14. Tinkle coaxed a 9–3 record from this group in non-conference action and has followed up with a 2–1 start in league play. Sunday night, Oregon State recorded its biggest win in years, knocking off Pac-12 favorite Arizona 58–56 in Corvallis. The Beavers’ leading scorer is Gary Payton II, the son of the former OSU star and NBA Hall of Famer.
7. Texas needs Isaiah Taylor at full strength
Point guard Isaiah Taylor is back in the Texas lineup, but the Longhorns need him to return to form. Taylor, who missed 10 games with a wrist injury, returned in time for the Big 12 season. Having him on the floor clearly wasn’t a cure-all for Texas, which dropped games to Oklahoma (70–49) and Oklahoma State (69–58) last week. Taylor was a combined 7-of-25 from the field with eight assists and four turnovers in the two losses. The Big 12 offers few breaks, so Taylor’s progress will need to be quick. The good news, though, is that Texas doesn’t play again until Jan. 17 at home against West Virginia.
8. Iowa State escaped a dramatic week
The Cyclones’ 2–0 start in the Big 12 hasn’t been easy, but after a 64–60 loss to South Carolina in the final non-conference game of the year, Fred Hoiberg will take it. Iowa State’s first two conference games, wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia, both came down to the final possession. Admire Iowa State’s gumption to win late, but Hoiberg has to be concerned about his team’s inability to put teams away. The Cyclones led Oklahoma State by as many as 11 in the second half and twice led West Virginia by eight in the second half.
9. Michigan is figuring it out
Michigan limped into Big Ten play with a 7–5 record that included losses at home to NJIT and Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines, a combined 26 games over .500 in league play the previous three seasons, didn’t figure to be much of a threat in conference play. Well, it’s never a good idea to count out a John Beilein-coached team. The opening schedule hasn’t been overly taxing, but Michigan is 3–1 in the Big Ten after beating Minnesota on Saturday. We’re not quite ready to label this team a contender — the other wins are against Illinois and Penn State, and the loss came against Purdue — but Beilein has to be encouraged that his inexperienced team is finding ways to win games.
10. Indiana can play a little defense after all
It’s safe to say Indiana is not Kentucky or Virginia in the defensive end. The Hoosiers rank 175th nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. That’s why Indiana’s result Saturday came as a bit of a surprise. The Hoosiers held on to beat Ohio State 69-66 to inch IU closer to being an NCAA Tournament team. Sophomore forward Troy Williams (15 points, 12 rebounds) and freshman James Blackmon (18 points) were fantastic, but don’t ignore the defensive adjustment. Ohio State started 4-of-9 from the field and shot 32.7 percent the rest of the way. Buckeyes star freshman D’Angelo Russell was off his game, shooting 3-of-15 from the field with 13 points.
• Rutgers is not a great basketball team. Wisconsin, when healthy, is a Final Four contender. How much should we read into even a shorthanded Wisconsin team losing at Rutgers? Frank Kaminsky missed the game with a concussion, and point guard Traveon Jackson missed most of the second half with a knee injury. If both are healthy, Wisconsin is fine, and benches should be short enough in the NCAA Tournament to ignore the Badgers’ nine bench points against Rutgers.
• What a rude awakening for Washington. The Huskies started 11-0 with wins over Oklahoma and San Diego State. The Huskies are 0-4 since, including three losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 100 (Stony Brook, Cal and Washington State).
• Maybe we should have remembered that Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte have played a ton of college basketball. Both of them scored 20 points in Oklahoma State’s win over Texas. They combined for another 40 points in the 63-61 loss to Iowa State on Tuesday. If Travis Ford can get the rest of the roster going, Oklahoma State could start to look awfully dangerous.
Athlon Sports executive editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.