Here comes February, which is the on-deck circle for March. In other words, time is starting to become an issue in college basketball, especially with all the surprises to sort through. For example, these nine things that weren’t expected to be true on Feb. 1, but they are:
The faces at the top of the polls.
Wasn’t North Carolina supposed to be up in this ritzy neighborhood? Kentucky? Duke? All gone from the rankings. Gonzaga has slid down the ladder. The top four of the latest Associated Press poll are Purdue, Tennessee, Houston and Alabama, and there is something unusual about that quartet.
Not a national championship in the bunch. Only one Final Four trip – Houston – in the past 38 years. It’s been 43 years for Purdue, and never for Tennessee or Alabama. A combined 103 NCAA Tournament berths among the four, and still no happy endings. But they left the last weekend of January with promising karma.
There was Purdue's Zach Edey wrecking Michigan State with 38 points, not to be confused with the 32 he put on the Spartans in their first meeting. His Canadian support group from back home, led by his mother, was there Sunday. As the T-shirt she handed him after the game read on the back, He ain’t just tall, eh?
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There was Tennessee pushing past Texas 82-71, even while getting drubbed 44-3 in bench points. That’s because the Vols' defense held the Longhorns starters to 27 points, or the same total their own forward Olivier Nkamhoua scored by himself. He had produced only 25 points the previous five games.
There's Houston sitting atop the NCAA’s NET rankings, and yet to lose a road game. And Alabama 8-0 in the SEC, the only Power 5 team still unbeaten in its conference.
There are numbers that speak to the foursome's rise. Purdue at 21-1 has the best start of a Big Ten team in 12 years. Houston and Tennessee have combined to play 43 games and their defenses have held 30 opponents under 60 points, allowing only six to reach 70. Alabama, which must consider the train wreck that happened Saturday at Oklahoma as a mulligan, won its first seven conference games all by double digits, only the third SEC team in a half-century to do that.
Has their moment arrived? Time will answer that, but what we can do is keep track of their journey in February. This week comes with massive road tests; Purdue at Indiana Saturday, Houston at Temple Sunday, two weeks after the Owls stunned the Cougars on their own floor. In mid-February, Alabama will be at Tennessee. It has been a tad early to imagine the breakthroughs these teams could have in March, but not anymore.
The might of the Big 12.
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Yeah, the league was supposed to be good, because it usually is – but this good? Eight of the 10 lodge brothers are in the top 43 of the latest NET rankings, six are in the top 15 of the AP poll. And look what the gang did to the SEC on Saturday. There were 10 meetings between the two leagues, seven Big 12 wins. If TCU didn’t lose leading scorer Mike Miles Jr. in the opening minutes at Mississippi State, it might have been 8-2.
Want to see a league on a tear?
Oklahoma, with an 11-9 record and a three-game losing streak, welcomes in No. 2 Alabama, locks the exits and rolls the Tide by 24 points.
Kansas goes into Rupp Arena to face a Kentucky team with the fifth most offensive rebounds in the country and blanks the Wildcats 11-0 in second-chance points.
Kansas State stuffs Florida 64-50, its magic carpet ride now 18-3, three months after being picked to finish last in the Big 12.
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West Virginia takes down No. 15 Auburn 80-77 with 31 points, 10-for-17 shooting and seven 3-pointers from Erik Stevenson. In his previous 34 games he was 5-for-34.
Baylor misses 16 of its last 17 shots in the first half and still finds a way to beat Arkansas.
Here’s another odd sign of the league’s steel: Texas Tech defeated LSU in Baton Rouge but is 0-8 in the Big 12, one of the only eight teams in the nation without a conference victory. The other seven – Louisville, IUPUI, South Carolina State, Evansville, VMI, Pepperdine and New Mexico State – are a combined 31-125 overall. Texas Tech is 11-10.
There has been some conservation on the chance of all 10 members making the NCAA Tournament. Is that remotely possible? Probably not, but given the right February there could be eight or maybe even nine. Wouldn’t that make left-out Texas Tech a bit conspicuous?
The ACC with one team in the top 23 of the NET.
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That’d be Virginia, at No 15. In many ways it’s been a struggling league -- see Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Florida State. Duke is in seventh place in the standings. Clemson is the conference leader with a 10-1 ACC record and at the moment is 58th in the NET rankings, behind nine Big 12 teams.
But there are strange forces afoot with Clemson. The Tigers have won three ACC games by one point and come from behind at halftime in six of their 18 victories. Feb. 11 should be interesting. North Carolina, who was predicted to finish first in the ACC, hosting Clemson, who was supposed to finish 11th. The Tigers are 1-59 all-time in Chapel Hill.
Louisville is 2-19 overall and 0-10 in the ACC.
Never in the worst nightmare of a Louisville fan could they imagine this. Is there a win to be had? The best chance might be this coming Wednesday night when Georgia Tech is in town on a seven-game losing streak.
Gonzaga is in second place in the West Coast Conference.
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The streak-breaking loss at home to Loyola Marymount has put the Zags in the unfamiliar position of looking up at someone in the standings. They have won or shared the WCC season title 10 years in a row and 23 of the past 25 seasons. There is still a month to retrieve first place and restore the universe to its natural order, but that may require beating Saint Mary’s twice. The Gales have won 10 in a row and their four losses were by a combined 15 points, including a five-point grinder with Houston.
Northwestern is in second place in the Big Ten.
Where’s Indiana, picked to win the league? Where’s No. 2 pick Illinois? Where’s eternal power Michigan State? The Wildcats, voted 13th in the preseason media poll, have beaten all three, including Indiana and Michigan State on the road. There's the whiff of revival at Northwestern, after finishing 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th in the past four Big Ten seasons. Also, the Wildcats have been in only one NCAA Tournament in their history. All they need is a solid February to make it two.
Villanova is 10-11 and seventh in the Big East.
The Wildcats now own more defeats than in any season in the past decade. And there is still February to go. Oh, and Jay Wright appears to enjoying his television gig.
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Florida Atlantic with the nation’s longest winning streak.
The Owls haven’t lost a game since early November – by 13 points to Ole Miss – and now have reeled off 20 consecutive victories. The next closest is Eastern Washington at 12. They attack in waves, leading the nation in averaging 38 points a game off the bench. Coach Dusty May was once student manager for Bob Knight at Indiana and clearly learned a few things about winning. The streak gets a stern test Thursday at 15-7 UAB. Florida Atlantic is 3-12 all-time against the Blazers.
Kansas State's leading scorer.
That would be Kansas State and Keyontae Johnson. He had 13 points and 11 rebounds last weekend in the win over Florida. Johnson used to be his Gator. His last start there, he collapsed on the court in December of 2020, his career going into a two-year medical hiatus while doctors decided if he could play again. Yeah, he could, and transferred to Kansas State for his second chance. Now he's averaging 18 points a game for the No. 7 team in the nation, and nobody expected that to be happening on Feb. 1 -- either his numbers or Kansas State's ranking.
Pretty unpredictable regular season with a month to go, eh?