College basketball's fourth full week finally brought us a shakeup at the top of the polls, as Michigan State lost to this season's most bipolar program, North Carolina.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge kept the momentum of good nonconference matchups going after last week's glut of holiday tournaments. Whatever that competition lacked in drama was made up by other freestanding matchups, particularly epic buzzer-beating wins for UConn and Colorado.
There are dozens of storylines bouncing around the game, but let's examine a few in some more detail.
In the Year of the Freshman, fans and analysts drew up preseason battle lines over the All-American and Player of the Year candidacies of Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker.
Over the early weeks of the season, sophomore Marcus Smart and wizened senior Doug McDermott reminded us that they were not to be forgotten. Monday night, UConn's senior leader Shabazz Napier made sure his name was still in the hat.
Napier's buzzer-beater and subsequent hasty exit made for a great SportsCenter highlight, but his four-point play on the prior possession was the moment that truly cemented his clutch credentials. Napier rolled an ankle while being fouled on a three-pointer, then shook it off to make a foul shot and put the Huskies in front.
UConn's critics have clucked about the Huskies surviving their four power-conference opponents by a total of five points. Concerns about Napier and Co. running out of miracles before season's end are valid, to be sure.
What can't be ignored, though, is Napier's production in those quality games. Against Maryland, Boston College, Indiana and Florida, Napier averaged 22.8 points, five rebounds, 3.8 assists and two steals per game.
Some of the other teams atop the polls, including presumptive No. 1 Arizona, don't have a true go-to guy crowned yet for those tense late-game situations. UConn does, and he's a man making these moments part of his legend. Shabazz Napier makes the Huskies hard to bet against in crunch time.
Shabazz Napier's victims got welcome news regarding the sprained ankle that put senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin in the horizontal position seen at left. GatorZone's Chris Harry reported Saturday that Florida's veteran playmaker will be in the lineup when UF hosts Kansas on Tuesday.
Now, examine that first paragraph again. Fresh off a trip to Storrs to face a surging UConn squad, the Gators will be greeted at home by a Top-10 Kansas team smarting from a dramatic loss at Colorado. A week later, the Gators will travel to Madison Square Garden to take on a Memphis team that finally got a major monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back (more on that momentarily).
Three top-20 nonconference games in the span of two weeks give the Gator hoop team more quality opposition than the average SEC football team faces in four years.
Despite a laundry list of personnel woes—injuries to Wilbekin and fellow PG Kasey Hill, guard Eli Carter's medical redshirt, Damontre Harris' reported exit from the program and Chris Walker's continuing ineligibility—Florida nearly took UConn down.
Wilbekin, Hill and Walker could all be back contributing by Christmas. Walker in particular will make the Gator frontcourt more fearsome. In the meantime, however, UF has a pair of brutal matchups to survive. Win, and they're major high points on the NCAA seeding resume. Lose, and Florida could potentially bid a temporary farewell to its Top-25 standing.
If the Memphis basketball program could be described in one word since its resurgence under John Calipari, that word is "swagger." The Tigers have cruised with ease to Conference USA titles, then left fans wanting more in the NCAA tournament, Derrick Rose's heroics notwithstanding.
This year's team would have to earn its swagger as members of the new American Athletic Conference, but even before the Tigers square up with any conference foes, there was the matter of Oklahoma State.
The first meeting was a drubbing, but Memphis learned from it and took the Cowboys down at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. The most noteworthy fact about the Tigers' rematch win was that it was coach Josh Pastner's first over a team ranked in the Associated Press poll at game time.
Back from Orlando, UM's next tipoff came against Southland Conference contender Northwestern State, the kind of game that a careless team could easily overlook. All the Tigers did was hang 96 on the Demons and keep it moving.
The Tigers' wins over LSU and Oklahoma State are the only real bragging points on the nonconference slate, at least until December 17's meeting with Florida at Madison Square Garden. A win there—and no choking on the schedule's other cupcakes—would make the Tigers 10-1 and position them as a legitimate contender in The American.
It's been more than 15 years since anyone recorded 32 points and 15 assists in a regulation Division I game. UMass point guard Chaz Williams put up those totals in a 105-96 victory over BYU on Saturday.
The Minutemen, now 8-0, keep adding marquee victories, combining the BYU victory with others over LSU, Clemson and New Mexico. A season-opening win over Boston College continues to lose luster by the day.
Williams is more than doing his part, averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game, the latter figure second in the nation, according to StatSheet.com. The BYU victory was Williams' second double-double of the season, as well as the second time he's made five three-pointers in a game. Most impressively, the 15 dimes came against only one turnover.
No Atlantic 10 team can claim as potent a schedule as UMass' so far. An undefeated run through that slate, coupled with VCU's up-and-down efforts and St. Louis' struggles to beat top opponents, has taken the Minutemen from intriguing dark horse to imposing favorite to win the league.
An Atlantic 10 title run would keep UMass on the national radar all year, which would put the (allegedly) 5'9" Williams in front of TV viewers, thereby keeping him front of minds for All-America consideration by season's end.
Back in July, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was championing the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference as potentially "the greatest conference in the history of basketball" in an interview with the ACC Digital Network.
Fast forward to December, and the 15-team ACC is not even the best league of this season so far.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge ended in a 6-6 tie for the second straight year. North Carolina drew the event's biggest headlines by knocking off No. 1 Michigan State, but has also absorbed head-scratching losses to good-but-shouldn't-be-THAT-good Belmont and UAB.
Duke stifled Michigan, but has already lost neutral-site (read: NCAA tournament preview) games to fellow Final Four contenders Kansas and Arizona.
Further down the pecking order, Notre Dame's defense had no answers for Iowa and has fallen at home to Indiana State. Boston College, anticipating an NCAA tournament return, loaded the schedule with heavy bites and has choked on every one, even dropping a game to rebuilding USC. Virginia has likewise lost all of its quality games, unless you're a big SMU fan.
Only newcomers Pitt and Syracuse are carrying the ACC banner to the top of the polls, but the Panthers' schedule hasn't exactly been fierce.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 could put six of its 10 members in the NCAA tournament if Texas is for real. The Big Ten still has five teams with one loss or fewer. The ACC still has plenty of time to establish itself, but nobody should be channeling Comic Book Guy any more this year.
Save it for next year when Louisville arrives.
Breathless hype surrounded Duke newcomers Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood coming into the season, and they've mostly lived up to it.
Perhaps the most impressive Blue Devil, however, has been junior point guard Quinn Cook. Cook became the first Duke player other than Parker or Hood to lead the team in scoring when he skewered Michigan for 24 points and threw in nine assists to boot.
For the season, Cook is averaging better than 14 points and six dimes per game. He takes care of the ball to the tune of 3.6 assists per turnover. He's a 62.5-percent true shooter according to StatSheet.com, nearly a 10-point improvement over last year.
If Cook's outside shot keeps falling—and since he hit nearly 40 percent last year, there's no reason to think it won't—he'll give the Devils the highly capable third option they thought they had in the chronically underachieving Rasheed Sulaimon.
The new 10-team Big East had an intriguing mix of programs set to contend for its championship this season. Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton got the lion's share of preseason hype. St. John's, Providence and Xavier were intriguing dark horses.
But did anyone expect the last unbeaten team in the conference—and its highest-ranked in early December—to be Villanova?
The Wildcats' schedule was a yawner through five games, with a four-point squeaker win over Delaware being the most noteworthy result in that span. Once Jay Wright's crew escaped Philadelphia for the Bahamas, however, it put the entire game on notice.
Villanova fought its way to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, knocking off Kansas and Iowa in the process. There was no jet lag, either, as Philly Big 5 opponents Penn and St. Joseph's were savagely dispatched on the Cats' return home.
The 'Cats still have a Big 5 battle left against La Salle, then the main event comes on December 28 at Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The Orange are the best in the ACC at this early stage, and a Villanova win would stamp the Wildcats' early surge as legitimate.
Two of the best backcourts in America were on display when Missouri hosted UCLA on Saturday. Both teams needed a marquee victory for their early efforts, and the Tigers came away with a well-fought 80-71 win.
The three-guard lineup of Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross—all Division I transfers—has combined for 54 points and 15 rebounds per game through nine outings. They're currently the SEC's highest-scoring trio by a substantial margin.
Forwards Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III are providing yeoman work on the glass, with Williams ripping down 15 rebounds against the Bruins. Coach Frank Haith gets solid bench support from senior Tony Criswell and junior Keanau Post.
Freshman point guard Wes Clark (pictured) is a dynamic presence off the bench who put up nine points and five assists against West Virginia.
The 9-0 Tigers still have the Braggin' Rights game against Illinois and a visit to NC State before SEC play begins. They'll need both wins to truly cement this start as a sign that they're ready to contend for an SEC title.
Mizzou's frontcourt may be occasionally overmatched against big, veteran crews like Florida's and the lengthy youth of Kentucky, but the Tigers' backcourt will take a back seat to nobody in the SEC.
Rick Barnes' seat was among the hottest in America entering the season, as the Texas coach needed to rebound from a lost 2012-13 campaign.
Nine games in, the Longhorns appear to have assembled a schedule that will game the RPI well. The slate is marked with teams that should be able to slip into the RPI's top 100, whether they be power-conference also-rans (Temple, Vanderbilt) or potential small-conference kingpins (South Alabama, Mercer, Stephen F. Austin).
The Horns' lone slip-up so far is a four-point neutral-site loss to BYU, a team that has hovered around the RPI's top 20 for most of the season so far.
A trip to North Carolina and a visit from Michigan State provide the Longhorns a pair of potential bargaining chips before Big 12 play begins. From there, Texas can make its case to the selection committee if it handles business against the also-rans and pulls a couple of upsets over the likes of Baylor and Iowa State.
The Horns are playing top-40 defense so far, according to Ken Pomeroy. That must continue if UT intends to get back to the dance.
Through eight games, we've learned one thing about Kansas super-frosh Andrew Wiggins: He likes a stage.
The Jayhawks' dramatic loss to Colorado was the third time he's faced a major-conference opponent, the second time on the U.S. mainland. Both Saturday's game and the second game of his career, against Duke at the Champions Classic, saw Wiggins lead his team in scoring with 22 points. Against the Buffaloes, he got 17 in the second half.
For a scorer of Wiggins' potential, though, here's a surprising figure: The Colorado game was only the third time that the freshman has taken more than 10 shots. While it's impressive that he's bought into KU coach Bill Self's team-first approach, the Jayhawks will go as far as Wiggins is willing to take them.
If Wiggins defers in pressure situations, he's deferring to...whom? Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid and Frank Mason aren't exactly a Final Four nucleus so far.
There's no shortage of potential "stage" moments upcoming. The Jayhawks' five remaining non-Big 12 games are against Florida, New Mexico, Georgetown, MAC favorite Toledo and San Diego State.
Wiggins is a national story no matter who he's playing, but if he straps the Jayhawks to his back and carries them to wins over those opponents, he'll finally start earning some of the hype he drew before he took his first shot.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.