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College Basketball Weekly 10: Duke adjusts, Arizona and Kentucky Flex their Muscles

Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor

If the theme of last week was Duke and Kentucky getting a dose of reality, this weekend was a chance for both to re-establish themselves as national favorites.

Both went on the road Saturday and delivered lopsided wins. Duke’s win, though, has to be considered the more important of the two. The Blue Devils faced an NCAA-caliber opponent and threw out its defensive gameplan for an 11-point.

Kentucky never lost last week, but as John Calipari noted, overtime games count as losses for this team. Overtime would not be necessary as Kentucky twice won in routs this week over Missouri and on the road against postseason contender Alabama.

Arizona’s only trip into the national consciousness in recent games was a loss to Oregon State, but the Wildcats too re-established their Pac-12 bona fides with an impressive performance against its only true challenger in the league.

Kansas only wishes it could say the same as Iowa State ran all over the Jayhawks to open the window on perhaps a non-Jayhawk team winning the Big 12.

That only scratches the surface of what we learned this weekend in college basketball, here’s what else we learned during the college basketball weekend.

1. Duke’s switch to zone ends slump

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wouldn’t be on the verge of 1,000 wins if he weren’t willing to adjust on the fly. He already has a lineup led by three freshmen, and now he’s playing a zone defense. If a Duke team playing zone seems like desperation, it was. But it was also necessary. After giving up 87 points (NC State) and 90 points (Miami) to two teams with attacking guards, Duke abandoned its trademark man-to-man defense for a zone — at least for one game. The switch neutralized Louisville’s penetrating guards Chris Jones and Terry Rozier and forced the Cardinals to take a bunch of jumpers, their biggest weakness. Louisville shot 4-of-25 from long range in a game that was rarely in doubt, and Duke cruised to a 63–52 win. Only Presbyterian (44 points) scored fewer against Duke this season.

2. Arizona isn’t stepping aside in the Pac-12 yet

With Utah obliterating its first four Pac-12 opponents and Arizona slipping up against Oregon State, the Wildcats’ status as Pac-12 favorite seemed up for grabs. Arizona reaffirmed its place in the league in resounding fashion with a 69–51 win over the Utes on Saturday. Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell played one of the best games of his career, scoring 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting with six assists. Most impressive was Arizona’s offensive performance against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Only three teams have averaged better than one point per possession against Utah this season and none better than Arizona’s 1.2.

3. Iowa State’s offense is mighty scary

Those who complain the college game is too slow and too low scoring should root for Iowa State. The Cyclones’ offensive game was on full display against the Big 12’s best Saturday night. Iowa State defeated Kansas 86–81 in Ames in a game that might open the window for a team not named Kansas to win the league. Iowa State destroyed Kansas in transition all night, outscoring KU 21–10 on the fast break. Iowa State wore out Kansas to such a degree that Bill Self had to burn his final timeout with 6:26 to go when Iowa State stretched its lead to 14. Point guard Monte Morris ran the offense in expert fashion (10 assists, two turnovers) and was one six Cyclones to score in double figures.

4. Virginia can survive an off game

Now is the time of year when the top teams are starting to be tested in conference play. Undefeated Virginia is not immune. The Cavaliers were down by five in the second half against Boston College, a team that hasn’t won an ACC game this season. Moreover, guard Justin Anderson, arguably the Cavaliers’ top player, was 0-for-8 from the field. But Virginia — like it did a week earlier against Notre Dame — played well when it mattered the most and pulled away for a 66–51 win.

5. Kentucky is fine

After back-to-back overtime challenges against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, Kentucky is back to being a dominating force again. The Wildcats clobbered Missouri and Alabama by a combined score of 156–85 last week, but the more meaningful result was against the Crimson Tide on the road. Kentucky did to Alabama what it did to so many opponents in November and December. The Wildcats shot 15-of-29 from 2-point range — they were a combined 23-of-76 against the Rebels and Aggies — and the Kentucky bench outscored the starters 37–33. Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis all scored in double figures off the bench. No starter scored more than nine.

6. Texas discovers its edge again

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Can we believe again in Texas? After back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the Longhorns lacked a top-50 win since defeating UConn on Nov. 30. Texas rectified that with a 77–50 rout of surprising West Virginia. The Longhorns’ frontcourt rediscovered its toughness, with Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner combining for 51 points. Texas had some trouble against WVU’s press, turning the ball over 19 times, but Rick Barnes has to be pleased that his team won with such ease.

7. Florida is flirting with the NIT

At this point it’s easy to forget Florida was a preseason top-10 team and viewed as a potential challenger to Kentucky in the SEC. If the Gators don’t figure things out, they’re going to play in the NIT for the first time since 2009. Florida lost at Georgia, 73–61, on Saturday afternoon, its seventh defeat of the season. The last time Florida had seven losses before February was 1997-98, Billy Donovan’s second season in Gainesville. Granted, Florida played a brutal non-conference schedule, and the Gators are replacing a core of players that reached four consecutive Elite Eights, but this team is just average at best. The Gators turned the ball over 19 times against Georgia and let the Bulldogs shoot 56.1 percent from the field.

8. LSU is underachieving ... again

LSU should be pushing for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009. Instead, the Tigers are racking up puzzling losses. The Tigers have two players in DraftExpress’ top 100 prospects (Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey). Only Kentucky has more in the SEC. Yet LSU has already lost to Old Dominion, Clemson and Missouri, and on Saturday the Tigers coughed up a 13-point second half lead at home to Texas A&M. The Tigers are far too talented to struggle with middle-of-the-pack SEC teams in Baton Rouge.

9. Syracuse is in real trouble...

Even with freshman Chris McCullough (9.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) Syracuse was a four-loss team that scraped by Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. In their second game without McCullough, Syracuse lost 66-53 to Clemson. Syracuse’s already-thin bench was non-existent against the Tigers, playing a total of 13 minutes and contributing and 0-of-6 line from the field. Syracuse is 13-5 now, but that mark is going to take a major hit down stretch when Syracuse plays Duke and Pittsburgh twice, plus North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia and NC State. Right now, it’s tough to see Syracuse getting enough quality wins to get into the NCAA Tournament.

10. ...And so is Michigan

Losing to NJIT and Eastern Michigan in a span of four days in December is now the second worst thing to happen to Michigan this season. The Wolverines lost their best player, Caris LeVert, for the remainder of the season to a broken foot Saturday. LeVert was leading Michigan in scoring (14.9 ppg), rebounds (4.9 rpg), assists (3.7 apg) and steals (1.8 spg). The Wolverines sit at 4–2 in the Big Ten and have to wonder how many wins are left on the schedule with LeVert sidelined.

Short stuff

• Is it time to acknowledge Louisville’s ceiling? The Cardinals are 4-3 against the KenPom top 100, but those three losses are to Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. None of the wins (Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana and Western Kentucky) were against top 20 teams.

• Maryland isn’t going anywhere. The Terrapins announced their arrival in the Big Ten with a season sweep of Michigan State, first with a double overtime win in East Lansing and then a 75-59 win Saturday in College Park.  Maryland still needs to prove it can perform consistently on the road in the Big Ten — one of the Terps’ two losses this season is to Illinois without Rayvonte Rice in Champaign — but Mark Turgeon’s team remains one of the major surprises of the season. 

• Seven ranked teams in the Big 12, but unranked Kansas State (4-1) has a half-game lead in standings.

• The underrated Buddy Hield pulled Oklahoma out of its two-game funk in convincing fashion. The junior was 10-of-10 from the field (including four 3-pointers) for 27 points in an 82-65 rout of Oklahoma State.

• Notre Dame center Zach Auguste returned from a brief academic-related absence, but it hardly seemed to matter in a 75-70 win over Miami. Auguste played only nine minutes as Notre Dame went with a small lineup against the Hurricanes. Notre Dame hit seven of its final 12 3-point attempts after starting 2-of-16 from long range.

• Poor Luke Fischer. The Marquette center shoots nearly 77 percent from the field but missed an easy one that would have put the Eagles up late against Xavier. The Musketeers completed a wild comeback to beat Marquette 62-58, but let’s acknowledge the job Steve Wojciechowski has done in his first season. Marquette won’t go to the Tournament, but they’re fare more competitive than expected.

• Ohio State goes as freshman D’Angelo Russell goes. He scored 27 points in a 76-67 loss to Iowa, but it took him 22 shots from the field to get there. Russell is averaging 23.3 points per game and 54.8 percent shooting in Ohio State’s three Big Ten wins and 17.7 points per game and 32.1 percent shooting in Ohio State’s three conference losses.

• Frank Haith picked the right time to get out of Missouri and the right time to land at Tulsa. His junior-laden team is 5-0 in the American after defeated UConn and USF last week. If the Golden Hurricane can beat Memphis on Wednesday, the Golden Hurricane could be 10-0 in the league when it faces SMU on Feb. 7.

• Speaking of SMU, the Mustangs keep rolling despite allegations of academic improprieties from the NCAA. SMU defeated East Carolina 77-54 in its first game without Keith Frazier. SMU won’t face another top-100 team until Feb. 5 against Cincinnati.

• The fun stat line of the week: Louisiana Tech’s Alex Hamilton scored 30 points, largely because he hit 20 free throws on 23 attempts in a 75-68 win over Middle Tennessee.