Hey, everyone! Welcome back to basketball season. This is our weekly check-in to all things basketball, across the entire landscape. If something happens on the hardwood, you’ll hear about it every Monday morning, right here.
THE BIGGEST STORY IN BASKETBALL
College basketball received an etch-a-sketch level shake-up this week, with 12 of the top 17 teams in the AP Poll losing in the last seven days. No longer does a handful of top teams appear to be on a pedestal above the pack. Every team in America is flawed. There is a group of 10-12 teams with a shot at the championship, though each of those teams could fail to reach the Sweet 16 with the wrong match-up or a cold night early in the tournament.
Let’s take a peak at some of the teams who dropped a game this weak, and what we learned about their chances to reach the Final Four:
Villanova: Jay Wright’s Cats lost at Marquette, before beating Virginia at the buzzer this week. Marquette charged from a late deficit with a tight 1-3-1 zone defense. Villanova failed to play inside-out against the zone, choosing to rifle threes over the defense instead. Nova has the shooters to pull that off in theory, but that’s not a sound strategy against a team as good as the Golden Eagles.
Villanova’s bigger issue has been their complete lack of depth. Only 19 coaches in America (out of 351) play their bench players a lower percentage of available minutes than Jay Wright. Right now, with Phil Booth sidelined with an injury, Wright’s rotation is seven guys, with no wiggle room. Only one of those seven players is listed at 6’8 or taller. Only one is a true point guard. This leaves Villanova only some foul trouble or a rolled ankle from playing guys with almost no experience this season or sticking with the rotation and playing out of position. Neither is ideal and could be the Wildcats Achilles heel moving forward. But, barring a collapse down the stretch, the Wildcats win over Virginia essentially locks up not just a top seed, but the number one overall seed.
UCLA: The Bruins lost to Arizona and USC in back-to-back contests over the last week. UCLA’s offense is the best in the nation. Defense? Not really on the agenda this season in Westwood. UCLA ranks outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency. The last team to reach the Final Four with that distinction was Dwyane Wade’s Marquette team in 2003. There have been 52 Final Four teams since then. Defense wins in March and it remains to be seen if UCLA can truly get stops when they need to. Keep an eye on the Bruins remaining showdowns with Oregon and Arizona later this month.
Kansas: The Jayhawks losing at West Virginia is no real reason for concern, especially after they responded by winning at Rupp Arena later in the week. Watching both games though, the cracks in Kansas’ armor are quite clear. With Carlton Bragg’s indefinite suspension underway, Bill Self’s frontline is capable of being bullied on the glass and in the paint. His response all season has been playing athletic freak Josh Jackson at power forward. Against Kentucky, this paid off, as Jackson was clearly the best player on the floor, totaling 20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. In the same way UCLA dares you to try to outscore them, Kansas knows bigger teams can take advantage of the Jayhawks’ size issues, but challenges them to then stop Jackson on the other end. Self’s backcourt of veterans, Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, is as steady as could be, but Jackson will determine Kansas’ fate this year. As he goes, so go the Jayhawks.
Duke: I mean, what can even be said about Duke at this point? The Devils lost a home game to NC State for the first time since the week the OJ Simpson murder trial began in 1995. Then Saturday, Duke won a squeaker against Wake, but not without plenty of drama. After spending the week banned from the locker room and wearing team apparel, per the possibly-post-surgery-pain-killer-using Coach K’s request during his leave of absence following back surgery, the Dukies needed late game heroics from Luke Kennard to overcome the feisty Deamon Deacons. Grayson Allen, ever in the news, had quite the afternoon. He received a technical foul for being on the retaliating end of a trash-talking incident (the refs never see the instigator, always the response) and then was smack dab in the middle of a typical basketball “fight” (in which nothing happens, but there’s a little tiny scuffle on the court):
It’s become clear that the rest of the ACC is completely aware of Allen’s…issues (?) on the court and are looking to prod him at every opportunity. Duke hasn’t won a game with Grayson Allen in the lineup, in which he did not get involved in some sort of incident, since December 19. I don’t usually buy arguments about distractions, but when the distractions are on the court on an every game basis, they can’t be ignored. Allen needs to find a way to avoid the spotlight, for more than one reason.
First, the scuffles and trash talk and emotions of the game are only going to hurt his play and his team’s chances to win. The more he can step away from the “action”, the better. Secondly, this is also true of Duke’s actual basketball strategy. The best college basketball player on Duke’s roster is Luke Kennard. The sooner Jeff Capel and Kennard’s teammates realize this, the better.
Kennard was incredible Saturday, scoring 34 points on just 14 field goal attempts, adding 4 assists and 4 rebounds. Duke is at its best with the ball in Kennard’s hands, with Allen, Matt Jones, and Jayson Tatum ready to shoot or slash off of a kick-out. When Allen and Tatum are isolated and take contested jump shots, the Blue Devils’ offense stalls. Duke is still the most talented team in America and will likely enter the tournament as the most terrifying 5 or 6 seed we’ve ever seen. If Allen can slide into a role as a secondary scorer, with Kennard’s play supplanting the “incidents” as the top story on Tobacco Road, this team is still a threat to win it all.
BASKETBALL IS FUN!
With all of the hot takes and super serious basketball related opinions out there, it’s important to remember that this is a game being played and watched for fun. Every week we’ll highlight something on the lighter side of the hoops world.
A Texas Tech player forced a turnover, from the bench:
Joel Embiid’s response to his All-Star snub was perfect:
All the pieces and posts you need to read to be on the ball.
Palestra Back: Last week’s post previewed the Kentucky-Kansas game that already happened.
And PB shirts are still on sale!
Mark Titus’ profile of London Perrantes from earlier in the week looks a little more important after the Wahoos’ loss to Villanova.
Was my mini-Duke rant not enough for you? SBNation’s Ricky O’Donnell had one too.
The always wonderful Johnathan Tjarks asked a simple question, “Is Joel Embiid the best two-way center in the NBA right now?“. Spoiler alert: Yes.
May the Tuesday Top Tens rest in pieces. Long live Rank Shots! If you’re not familiar, this is where we rank the best teams in the NBA, college basketball, and another totally irrelevant something.
- Golden State Warriors
- San Antonio Spurs
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Houston Rockets
- Toronto Raptors
- OKC Thunder
- Memphis Grizzlies
- LA Clippers
- Florida State
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
Mid-Basketball Game Back-up TV Options
When all four games go to commercial, you’ve gotta find something.
- Seinfeld reruns
- Food Network
- Shark Tank
- Parks and Recreation reruns, which are almost always on
- American Pickers
- Impractical Jokers
- Whatever movie TNT is showing that you’ve already seen 20 times
- One of those channels that shows old concerts for some reason
Game of the Week
For the past two seasons, I’d list out every single game worth watching in this space. It took me a lot of time and effort to do something you didn’t really need. You can head over to your favorite scores website or app to see every game, but this is the one you’ll have wished you watched:
Baylor at Kansas, Wednesday at 9 PM on ESPN2
Arizona at Oregon, Saturday at 4 PM on ESPN
After our best games this weekend were two special late January non-conference battles, we’re back to the peak of league play with regular season crowns on the line. Wednesday’s Big XII match-up could be the deciding factor in Kansas continuing its improbable streak of 12 straight regular season conference championships. To keep that going, the Jayhawks will need to hold serve against the team tied with them in the standings. Baylor hosts Kansas on February 18, but a road win by either would be a huge step in winning the conference.
As for the Pac-12, UCLA has hit some potholes lately, leaving Arizona in the drivers seat. Oregon will need to make-up ground after a recent loss to Colorado, and a raucous home crowd in Eugene could be the perfect medicine.
Duke-Notre Dame on Monday, Creighton-Butler on Tuesday, Warriors- Clippers on Thursday.
Purdue-Maryland, Notre Dame-North Carolina, and Kentucky-Florida on Saturday.
Clippers-Celtics on Sunday afternoon, before the Super Bowl.
I’m not a gambling man, and wouldn’t recommend you are either, but since this blog began, I’ve been asked for gambling advice just as often as I’ve been asked about my genuine basketball opinion. Even if I don’t have any money in the game, I watch a lot of hoops and might just be able to pick you some winners. (Last week 1-2/ Season 10-14)
Notre Dame (+1.5) at home over Duke: I don’t understand this line at all. The Irish are playing as well or better than Duke right now, but are home underdogs? Give me that point and a half!
Oklahoma State (-1.5) over Oklahoma: Another screwy line, as the Cowboys have outplayed the Sooners all year. Oklahoma is better than their record indicates, having now lost three games in overtime, but even on the road, the Pokes are the better team and have more to play for.
Falcons (-3) over Patriots: Football!
Enjoy the games, folks.
(Note: Every edition of This Week in Hoops will end with a song. I’ve compiled all of these songs into a playlist that you can find here.)
This post previously featured two differences in the “Best Bets” section. I originally picked the Sixers-Kings game, before learning Joel Embiid would not be playing. The OU-OSU pick was subbed in. While finding that line, I noticed the ND-Duke line had shifted by half a point since this post went live. It was adjusted accordingly.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.