As the calendar turns to February, Kentucky stands alone.
The Wildcats are the only undefeated team remaining after Virginia’s 69-63 loss to Duke on Saturday, allowing Kentucky to enter rare territory.
In the last 10 seasons, only five teams have been undefeated for the first AP poll in February. They are: 2015 Kentucky, 2014 Wichita State and Syracuse, 2011 Ohio State and 2008 Memphis.
While Kentucky’s feat is notable, the Wildcats’ final game of January — a 70-55 home win over Alabama — was another performance that’s becoming routine for a team that’s towering over the rest of its conference.
For entertainment value, we have to go to the ACC. The 15-team league has been full of drama, no more so than this week.
Duke, a team that seemed to be flirting with disaster (by Duke standards), suddenly regrouped in the final five minutes to beat undefeated Virginia. The Blue Devils, days after dismissing a key veteran, were on the verge of falling to 4-4 in the ACC before rallying to topple an unbeaten team on the road.
In other games this week, Louisville came back from down 18 in the second half to aid a North Carolina collapse. A Pittsburgh team that just to lowly Virginia Tech beat a 20-win Notre Dame squad that has had the magic touch in the last two minutes. And NC State, a team that’s been no stranger to late-game disappointments, mustered a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired in overtime to avoid a potential devastating loss to Georgia Tech.
What the ACC will give us in March is anyone’s guess, but the league is giving us a memorable January and February.
1. Duke was magnificent in winning time
Magnificent, flawless, resilient — whatever word you want to put on Duke’s final five minutes against Virginia, it’s probably appropriate. Virginia did to Duke what it does to every opponent — shut down action around the basket on defense and wear down opponents with a methodical offense. In the final 5:08, though, Duke cracked the code. After Duke’s Justise Winslow was called for a flagrant foul for grabbing at the leg of Justin Anderson at the baseline, the Blue Devils outscored Virginia 22-9 for a 69-63 win. What really made the difference was Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones from beyond the arc. Duke missed its first nine 3-point shots before making six of its final eight, including the dagger from the freshman Jones. The win comes at a critical time in the season for Duke, after losing in the final seconds against Notre Dame, losing in lopsided fashion to NC State and Miami in the last seven games and dismissing junior wing Rasheed Sulaimon. A team that can rally like this on the road against an undefeated team is going to be scary in March.
2. Virginia was mighty impressive, too
This was a huge moment for Duke but also a game that Virginia could have won. That said, don’t jump off the Virginia bandwagon yet. The Blue Devils had to empty the tool box to beat the Cavaliers on the road. Duke suddenly got hot from 3 late and mixed up defensive looks to throw Virginia’s methodical offense off balance. Before the final moments, Virginia played one of its finest games of the season. The Cavs held Jahlil Okafor in check for most of the game as the stud freshman finished with as many field goals as turnovers (five). Virginia itself shot only 3-of-13 from 3, but grabbed 15 offensive rebounds. If this is the kind of effort and ability it takes to beat Virginia, watch out.
3. Wisconsin is in March form ... without its starting point guard
This much is certain: The last team Iowa wants to see in the Big Ten tournament is Wisconsin. In two games against the Hawkeyes since Jan. 20, Wisconsin has won 82-50 in Madison and 74-63 in Iowa City. Iowa has trouble guarding just about anyone, but especially the Badgers. And it’s not just Iowa that should fear Bucky. Wisconsin is averaging 1.38 points per possession during its last four games, remarkable considering that the Badgers are without starting point guard Traveon Jackson. Wisconsin is also averaging 2.2 assists per turnover in four full games without Jackson, who is out with a broken foot. Perhaps Wisconsin is just an awful matchup for Iowa this season, but Wisconsin is going to be a matchup problem for almost any team when the Badgers are finally healthy. Case in point...
5. North Carolina’s collapse is Louisville’s gain
The Tar Heels wasted a perfect opportunity to move to the top of the ACC standings with an epic collapse in a 78-68 overtime loss at Louisville. The Tar Heels led comfortably for most of the matchup and led 57-53 with eight minutes to go. Then, Carolina fell apart after the 7:18 TV timeout. The Heels went 0-of-7 from the field with three turnovers to finish regulation and 3-of-5 from the field with two turnovers and 2-of-6 from the free throw line in overtime for a 14-point swing in less than 12 minutes. For Louisville, though, this was a critical win, giving the Cardinals their first top-30 RPI victory of the season.
6. Notre Dame ran out of miracles
During the last two weeks, Notre Dame has been the king of wild finishes. The Irish overcame a four-point deficit in the final minute to beat NC State, and on Wednesday, Jerian Grant recovered his own turnover to hit a wild shot with a second left on the shot clock to help beat Duke. Against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame ran out of good fortune. Notre Dame trailed Pittsburgh for most of Saturday’s game before Grant recovered from an ineffective start to score Notre Dame’s final nine points, including the go-ahead free throw. On the ensuing possession, Pitt’s James Robinson hit the game-winning jumper with 13 seconds left and picked up the game-clinching steal to hand Notre Dame only its third loss of the season. The wild finish capped a week in which a Pitt team that lost to Virginia Tech turned around to beat a team that just defeated Duke.
7. A new leader in the Missouri Valley?
Northern Iowa was ready for its moment. With a 19-2 start and top-20 AP ranking, the Panthers’ season had been building to this matchup with Wichita State. Northern Iowa savored it with a 70-54 rout of the Shockers in which the Panthers led for the final 28:34. Wichita State had won 29 regular season MVC games in a row, but the Shockers were no match for senior forward Seth Tuttle, who scored a career-high 29 points. The 3-point line summed up the game effectively. Both teams made five 3-pointers. Northern Iowa needed seven shots to do it. Wichita State needed 24. The Panthers and Shockers are tied at 9-1 for the MVC lead. They’ll meet again in Wichita on Feb. 28 for the regular-season finale.
8. Florida is not done yet
Florida’s margin of error to reach the NCAA Tournament is razor-thin, but give the Gators credit for getting back into the discussion. Anything but the NIT looked like a dream a week ago when Florida had dropped three in a row to fall to 10-9. The Gators bounced back this week to beat Alabama on the road and Arkansas at home, both top 50 teams on KenPom. Florida will have double-digit losses — the worst so far to RPI No. 132 Florida State on the road — but the wins this week will be key resume-builders. Florida needed every second to get to this point, too. After a 2-for-9 game from the floor, Michael Frazier rose to occasion to hit the game-tying and game-winning free throws with 1.9 seconds left to beat Arkansas 57-56. The star of the day, though, was Dorian Finney-Smith, who had 16 points, four assists, four offensive rebounds and a pair of highlight-reel buckets.
9. VCU suffered a devastating loss
VCU took its first Atlantic 10 defeat of the season, falling to Richmond 64-55 at home, but the Rams suffered a bigger loss. Senior guard Briante Weber suffered a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus against Richmond, ending his brilliant career. Weber was the leader of VCU’s havoc defense for four years. His 374 career steals was 11 short of the all-time NCAA record held by John Linehan of Providence. He’s a team leader and the face of VCU’s signature style. Few teams will suffer a more crippling injury this season.
10. Texas’ time has come and gone
The Longhorns were still ranked in the top 25 for some reason last week. Clearly, pollsters’ habits are hard to break. That should change. At this point, it’s impossible to ignore Texas’ struggles. The Longhorns lost 83-60 to Baylor in another lopsided game that’s become commonplace for Texas in conference play. The Longhorns aren’t a good defensive team, but they don’t help their case with inefficient games like this. For some reason, Texas took 26 3-point shots (making only five) and got only seven buckets from centers Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner. Texas had 70 shots from the field and scored only 60 points. At this point, the 14-7 Longhorns are one of the nation’s most disappointing teams.
• Seton Hall has recovered from a 1-4 swoon in the Big East and will be well-positioned for the second half of the conference season. After defeating Marquette on the road on Wednesday, Seton Hall defeated Xavier 90-82 to move to 5-4 in the league. Most important was the return of freshman Isaiah Whitehead. After missing nine games with a foot injury, Whitehead came off the bench to score 18 points in 23 minutes.
• It’s still tough to buy into Villanova as a top national contender. Twelve days after losing to Georgetown by 20, the Wildcats were shredded in the first half against DePaul. Nova regrouped in the second half to win 68-55, but that’s too many absentee performances for what’s supposed to be the top team in the Big East.
• St. John’s has been hanging by a thread in recent weeks, so give the Red Storm credit for beating a hot Providence team 75-66 and holding LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn to five points each in the first half. If St. John’s (now 3-5 in the Big East) can get through Butler, Creighton and DePaul, the Red Storm will have a critical stretch ahead of them through the end of February.
• Bruce Pearl made his return to Knoxville, but his Auburn team lost 71-63 to Tennessee. The competitive game was a clear sign that Pearl’s program is going to get better. Donnie Tyndall, whose tenure is in the shadow of an NCAA investigation from his days at Southern Miss, needed this win to end a two-game losing streak to stay relevant in the SEC.
• The best individual stat line of the weekend couldn’t salvage a bad loss. LSU’s Anthony Mickey had 25 points and 20 rebounds in a 73-67 loss to Mississippi State.
• We’ll say this: NC State games this season are always exciting to the end, no matter the opponent and no matter the result.