This week was not for Top 10 teams. Three lost on the same day at home, as I mentioned in my last article noting flaws of these top teams. The top 3 teams all lost, with Virginia being the latest victim in overtime against rival Virginia Tech. Duke lost their Tobacco Road Rivalry game against UNC on Thursday. Basically, what that means is expect some shakeup, and expect some big time fallers and some new risers. Here are the three biggest risers and fallers from this week in college basketball.
Up: #21 North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels weren’t expected to be the 1 or 2 seed like they perennially were in years past with all the players they lost from their National Championship team. However, the win against a talented and hungry Duke team especially the way they played in the second half showed that this team is still built for the big games. And what it also showed is that they have a more well rounded offensive identity. They were able to destroy Duke with the three point shooting game in the second half, and shooting 11 for 33 for the entire game. A lot of that came from Kenny Williams, who shot 6-for-12 from 3-point territory, and Cameron Johnson who shot 4-for-8. In a starting lineup where Theo Pinson, Luke Maye, and Joel Berry have been the featured players, it was the other two members of their starting lineup that were the dynamic scorers. And for a UNC team that has been top heavy most of the year after losing a lot of players to either graduation or the NBA draft, getting those secondary scoring options is key. A win like this still shows how Roy Williams does a great job of preparing his team for the big game and those featured primetime matchups. That will help this team inn ACC championship and eventually March Madness, where they are projected to be a 4 or 5 seed right now. Following Duke, they won a big road game against N.C. State as well, which should give them some ground in the ACC standings, as the Wolf Pack came into that game 17-8. They also scored 96 points in that game, getting back to that traditional Tar Heel identity, which only has been found in about half the games against some of the best teams in the nation. So with the combination of that and the big primetime win against Duke, this Tar Heel team should rise in the ranks and certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.
Up: Texas A&M Aggies
Upsetting two ranked SEC teams will get you on this list pretty easily, and that is what the Aggies pulled off this week against Auburn on Wednesday and Kentucky this past Saturday. It was T.J. Starks who broke out against Auburn, with a surprising 23 points, which is way more than expected for a player averaging 7.8 points per game. However, balanced production is still always key, with three other starters in double digits and a bench player in Duane Wilson one point short with nine. That may seem easy against Auburn that doesn’t have a great defense (199th in nation, 72.9 points per game) but the Aggies also did the same against Kentucky, whose defense is sensational year in and year out, especially with the size on this year’s Kentucky Wildcats. Nevertheless, the Aggies pulled off that balanced scoring, scoring 85 points as a team and having every player in their starting lineup score double digits and 3 out of 5 players also having 3 or more assists. This was an A&M team that was a 3 seed 2 years ago and pulled off one of the best comebacks in tournament history against Northern Iowa. And 2 years later, various analysts had them as one of the top teams, led by talented big man Tyler Davis. However, they underperformed expectations much of the year, and the rest of the SEC seemed to get better. But now, Texas A&M is playing some of their best basketball and getting themselves back into the tournament picture with wins like these two.
Up: Virginia Tech Hokies
One of the teams that pulled off one of those Top 3 upsets was this Virginia Tech team, beating the #2 ranked and possible #1 at the end of the week team in the Virginia Cavaliers. They did that with some great defense, forcing top Virginia players Ty Jerome (4 for 14 shooting) and Kyle Guy (5 for 21 shooting) to bad shooting percentages. And as I mentioned in my flaws article, Virginia’s offense is barely in the Top 300 and certainly not deep. So even though both Jerome and Guy got double digits, they didn’t have many other options that scored well in that game, and Buzz Williams had a very good gameplan with that in mind. Offensively, Justin Robinson led the way for the Hokies, with 20 points and 7 assists against the stifling Cavalier defense. Nickeil Alexander-Walker also added 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting from three, which is very impressive against those defensive-minded guards that Tony Bennett has recruited year in and year out. In addition to that, they also dominated NC State the game before. They strived on 47 first half points as a team and an individual 32 point and 4 assist performance from Robinson. With that win, Virginia Tech now also passed NC State (as well as Louisville) in the standings in the ACC, and certainly improved their tournament chance. It’s still close, with half a game or 1 game separating several teams. But with Virginia Tech playing well against the conference’s tough teams, they could certainly hold or even improve their spot. And the 5th and 6th best teams from the best conference in college basketball should get into the tournament, and this is the Hokies’ best chance in a long time.
Down: #3 Purdue Boilermakers
I mentioned in my flaws article how Purdue’s biggest weakness, despite being a complete team, was the lack of depth scoring they had on their bench. And sometimes, that is the one thing that loses close games during tournament time. Well, Purdue lost two games this week with a tournament feel, losing with under 3 seconds to both Ohio State and Michigan State. Against Ohio State, that limited depth blew an 8 point lead with under 4 minutes to go. And despite some decent free throw shooting, the defense couldn’t get any stops, and Keita Bates-Diop made the winning layup with 2.8 seconds left. Bates-Diop led the whole way for the Buckeyes with a double-double, 18 points and 11 rebounds. Andre Wesson added 13 points on 3-for-5 from 3, including some key ones in that 8-point comeback to tie. As for Purdue, they only got those free throws at the end of the game, and are going to have to be more clutch to do it. And sometimes, being clutch is being more well rested, and when you get zero bench points, that doesn’t help your team finish. Not to mention, starting guard P.J. Thompson also had a goose egg in the box score, and Vincent Edwards only had 8 points on 3-for-12 shooting. So in translation, when you can stop a lot of Purdue’s starting players, you can do good things, indicated by both Ohio State and Michigan State this week. With the Spartans, they also won the game with under 3 seconds to go, as Miles Bridges sunk a deep 3 with 2.6 seconds left. Like Ohio State, Michigan State’s talented defense was able to hold a lot of the starters to low point totals and bad shooting percentages. Both Edwards shot poorly in that game, as did every other starter besides Isaac Haas. However, the theme remains discrepancy in bench points. Michigan State had 24 bench points, where Purdue had just 7, and all coming from one player. That’s a bad sign for Purdue against these talented Big 10 teams, both of which should be in the Top 10 in the new rankings, if they can’t finish these close games. Purdue is a very talented team, but these two losses should drop them down to the lower part of the Top 10 poll.
Down: #17 Oklahoma Sooners
What was starting to become the new breakthrough of the Big 12 to challenge the Kansas Jayhawks hasn’t done great since beating the Jayhawks in one of the best matchups of this college basketball season. Since then, they have lost twice in conference, falling to West Virginia and then to an iffy Iowa State team. One theme that has been constant with this Oklahoma team within their struggles is an iffy defense. Like their football team, their basketball team, when it’s at its peak, is a tremendous offense with not a lot of defense. It worked for them to make a Final Four run in 2016, led by dynamic shooter Buddy Heild. However, in their Final Four matchup that year against Villanova, the Wildcats’ defense did well enough against that offense, and their offense dominated what is a poor Sooner defense. This team is very similar, led by offensive phenom Trae Young. However, their defense remains their Achilles heel, and it hurt them against West Virginia and Iowa State. Starting with the Mountaineers, they scored 75 points and had several second half scoring runs. 75 points doesn’t seem drastic, but for a West Virginia team known for their defense, 75 is a pretty high total, especially when it comes from unexpected sources. Lamont West had 17 points off the bench and Sagaba Konate, more of a rebounder and defender, got a double-double, with 14 points and 11 rebounds. This is concerning for the Sooners when playing against other top defenses, like West Virginia, who they have already lost twice to this season. And then there is Iowa State, who has not been the same team after losing their two best players from last year. They have a nice freshman in LeAndre Wigginton, but don’t have much else to get excited about, hence being just a 13-11 team. But like their football team, their basketball team also got upset in Ames, with their poor defense on showcase there. Iowa State put up 88, with Ligginton leading the way with 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. All 5 starters had double digit scoring, including two players with 19. And in college basketball, when you score 80 points, it is usually a win, especially when Trae Young is as dynamic as we know him to be, with 22 points and 11 assists. Oklahoma has other talented offensive players as well, and as a result have been a top 10 offensive team. However, this Oklahoma team is going to fall in the rankings from their 17 last week. And in order to improve, Lon Kruger is going to have to get this defense playing better sooner or later, no pun intended.
Down: #24 Kentucky Wildcats
A John Calipari freshman phenom Kentucky team unranked? Seems like we would’ve entered the matrix. Well, that is turning into a sense of reality, after losing to Tennessee and then Texas A&M. Similarly to what I was saying about Kansas perennially being unbeatable at home, Kentucky has been known for that as well. However, Rupp Arena hasn’t been as difficult for some visiting teams, especially in the SEC. And a new breakthrough Tennessee Volunteer team added to that list. Struggling for Kentucky in that game was their offense, with Kevin Knox having just 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting, P.J. Washington having just 4 points, and Hamidou Diallo held completely scoreless. Kentucky scored just 59 points in that game, and ended up losing by 2 on a late three pointer by Lamonte Turner. However, allowing 61 points in a game at Rupp Arena is always a win for Kentucky in previous years. This core, however, hasn’t been as consistent. Then, they had a game where they scored enough to win, but the great John Calipari defense could not come through. They allowed 85 points against Texas A&M, who is an emerging team, playing some of their best basketball right now. However, that defense doesn’t normally allow all scorers in double digits the way they did against the Aggies, especially inside with all their size. And Kentucky has had various games where their defense has struggled more than expected, and a lack of consistency has resulted all year long, even against teams they should dominate, such as Vanderbilt. With that streakiness, there is more question marks floating around this Kentucky team than in years past. They will definitely fall out of the rankings this week after coming in at 24 and it will take a large streak to get them back to where we know Kentucky basketball to be. Because as of right now, believe it or not, this team would be a 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.