Last night, two of the best teams from what is widely regarded to be the best basketball conference in the NCAA this year lost. To unranked teams...on their own home courts. Wisconsin, a team which had just two home losses last season, already has two in the first month of conference play thanks to the drubbing Drew Crawford and the rest of the Northwestern Wildcats inflicted upon them. Crawford's 30 points led to a 69-56 shocker at the Kohl Center.
Meanwhile, at the Value City Arena in Columbus, another upset which was even more shocking had already concluded. D.J. Lewbill's go-ahead bucket with just under two seconds left in overtime gave Penn State (yes, the Penn State squad who had gotten their first Big Ten win of the season less than a week earlier) a 71-70 comeback win over the once-vaunted Ohio State Buckeyes.
Yes, Ohio State has fallen off considerably due to erratic all-around play and inconsistent scoring since beginning conference play undefeated and ranked third in the nation. And yes, this Wisconsin team may have been been a tad overrated in the preseason.
What is going on in the Big Ten, however, is indicative of the parity in college basketball. Realignment is constantly molding and shifting the basketball landscape as we know it, and premier teams are now realizing that losing stars after one year, while having to play against lesser teams with players who are accustomed to each others strengths, weaknesses and inner thoughts, is often a distinct disadvantage.
As the now-24th-ranked Buckeyes can attest, what is taken for granted one week can be yanked away in heartbeat before mid-week has even rolled around. College basketball, more than any other sport, is a night-to-night, matchup-based battle which cannot be predicted on paper. So, in line with the preeminent talking heads and sportswriters (many of whom are one in the same), I will now contradict myself and try to do the seemingly impossible: predict just who will make it out of this weekend unscathed, while handing out arbitrary, premature honors in the process.
Cue the legendary Motown group, the O'Jays: "Give the people what they want..."
Matchup most likely to determine a regular-season conference title: (13) Cincinnati at (12) Louisville, 1/30- 7 p.m., ESPN
Cincinnati hasn't lost since an embarrassing neutral court defeat at the hands of crosstown rival Xavier in which they managed to score just 47 points. Other than a beatdown of 18th-ranked Memphis and an ugly 44-43 win over former conference rival Pittsburgh, the Bearcats' detractors will argue that Mick Cronin's team hasn't bested any opponent that could make noise in March.
All any team can do is beat whoever is put in front of them, though, and Cincy has done that thanks in large part to a stifling defense that ranks fifth in the nation in points allowed, with just under 57 per game. They do this despite not being a particularly dominant team on the boards—it does help, however, that they're ranked in the top 20 in both rebounds and blocks.
Senior guard Sean Kilpatrick is the main generator of the team's offense, scoring over 19 points per game, but senior forward Justin Jackson (good for 11 points and seven rebounds a contest in 2013-14) is the true X-factor and key for the team's all-around success moving forward.
Louisville, on the other hand, has been plodding along just as quietly as any reigning champion possibly could. A lot of this, of course, is due to the fact that their conference, the American Athletic Conference, is in its inaugural year and, thanks to the disappointing play of the Temple Owls, will be lucky to get four teams into the Big Dance come March.
Rick Pitino's Cardinals, however, just keep winning, despite losing their floor general from last year's national victor (Peyton Siva) and other key players such as Chane Behanan (dismissed/transfer) and Kevin Ware (injury). Russ "Diculous" Smith is a surefire Wooden Award candidate, and Montrezl Harrell, often an afterthought on the championship-winning squad of last spring, is averaging a whopping 8.5 rebounds and picking up much of the slack left by Behanan's departure.
Louisville ranks in the top 15 in Division I in points scored, over 83 a game, and represents the most offensive firepower that Cincinnati has seen to this point all year (and probably will see before the tournament). Everyone from Naismith to Izzo says defense wins championships, though, and if the Bearcats' D shows up tonight, the two-game difference in conference play that Cincy would give themselves with a win could very well be all they need to clinch the one-seed in the AAC tournament.
Still, I'm picking Louisville, and Harrell specifically, to rise to the challenge tonight. Louisville 73, Cincinnati 66
Best Chance at Redemption: (16) Iowa State vs. (23) Oklahoma, 2/1- 4 p.m.
This doubles as the best game to not be nationally televised this weekend, partially because nobody expected the Big 12 to be this good. Certainly nobody expected the Sooners to be this good. Okie could lose this game and still move into the Top 20 thanks to their home win over Oklahoma State in a victory that certified not only temporary state bragging rights, but also announced to the rest of the conference that they have no intentions of going away any time soon.
Center Ryan Spangler is averaging a double-double (over 11 rebounds and 10 points), and the scoring load for the Sooners is balanced by Cameron Clark (16.5 points per outing) and Brady Hield (16.4 ppg). The redemption in this game, however, is the Iowa State Cyclones' for the taking.
After surpassing expectations themselves throughout their non-conference schedule (which included takedowns of Michigan and cross-state rival Iowa), Fred Hoiberg's group fell back to Earth upon re-entering Big 12 play. Two losses to Kansas, the most recent coming last night in a 92-81 defeat, and another to Texas were preceded by an early conference slate loss to (guess who?) Oklahoma, 87-82.
Spangler was the star of that game, scoring 16 points and pulling down 15 rebounds while also blocking a pair of Cyclone attempts from the field. Cyclone guard DeAndre Kane (23 points, nine rebounds and four assists) almost single-handedly kept ISU in the game before being forced to leave with a leg injury before the contest's completion. Iowa State will need more post presence from their star big man, Melvin Ejim, down low if they hope to bring down a Sooners team which seems to be at the peak of their powers.
The Cyclones are true to their name at home, with a destructive and overpowering record at Hilton Coliseum this season (their only loss thus far was against the Jayhawks). Oklahoma shot out of their minds in the first meeting between these two from three-point range (43.3 percent), including six treys from Hield, who scored 23 for the game. The Cyclones (just over 23 percent), on the other hand, were particularly ice cold from long range.
Iowa State gets the job tonight, though it should be won of Saturday's most hotly contested games. Iowa State 77, Oklahoma 74
Best Chance to Save The Season: Georgetown vs. (7) Michigan State, 2/1- 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1
The Hoyas have been largely disappointing since the season began. Though no one expected a Top-15 team in D.C. this season, not even the most respected experts thought that Georgetown, the school of Ewing, Thompson and Mourning, would be outshined in their own city by the George Washington Colonials, a good bet to make it into the national tourney this year from the Atlantic 10 conference.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been laudable (17 points and three assists a game), but Markel Starks, the team's leader, has struggled at times with shooting and turnovers (2.5 a game, compared to four assists). Nate Lubick is solid as a post presence, but still gets banged around by the likes of Marquette's Davonte Gardner and even Creighton's Doug McDermott.
JTIII's team has now lost five straight and six of their last seven against Big East competition which isn't as good as it was last year. It is readily apparent to any Hoya follower, or casual collegiate hoops observer, that the team misses Otto Porter's range and defensive stopping ability.
However, G-Town does have the good fortune of meeting the championship-contending Spartans at their most vulnerable. Power forward Adreian Payne will still be out against the Hoyas in their tilt on Saturday at Madison Square Garden (he is expected to be back for their meeting with Penn State five days later), and Brendan Dawson, another starter in the post, isn't expected back until March.
If Georgetown isn't cold from the field, Lubick and Mikael Hopkins, who leads the Hoyas in rebounds with nearly six per contest, have the ability to pound the ball down low and create both scoring opportunities for themselves, as well as kickout chances for Starks and, even more so, Smith-Rivers, who is shooting a staggering 42.7 percent from behind the arc.
I'm going out on a limb here and saying that Georgetown, no stranger to the bright lights of MSG thanks to their yearly participation and strong showing in the Big East tournament, will take advantage of a decimated Michigan State squad still recovering from an emotional road victory against Iowa on Monday night. Michigan State is still one of the foremost teams to watch out for come mid-March, but Georgetown will score the upset on this first day of February. Georgetown 65, Michigan State 61
Sunday's Best Game: (10) Michigan at Indiana, 2/2- 1 p.m., CBS
This year's edition of the Hoosiers is a far cry from the collection of last year, headlined by wunderkind guard Victor Oladipo and dependable big man Cody Zeller, both now in the NBA. But Yogi Ferrell, recognized mostly last year for his outstanding defense, has raised his game this season out of necessity, and has done so with aplomb. His 17.5 points per game overshadow the fact that he is also the only Hoosier averaging at least two assists per game.
Noah Vonleh has been solid down low with over 12 points per contest, but he will have his hands full against a Michigan frontcourt which is succeeding even without last year's starting power forward, Mitch McGary, likely lost for the year for the Wolverines after back surgery.
The team's true success lies in the elevated play of their swingmen. Glenn Robinson III, who didn't follow last year's teammates Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA, has stabilized his all-around play, scoring at a better clip than he did last year while handling himself better in the paint in McGary's absence.
The real star of the team, though, has been Nik Stauskas, who served mostly as a pure spot-up shooter last year but can now be seen beating opponents off the dribble and jab-stepping his path to open attempts on the way to over 18 points a game. Forget the arbitrary tag of "Wooden Award candidate." The Canadian-born Stauskas may very well be the front-runner for the prize at this point in the season.
It is a fool who underestimates the magical powers of Assembly Hall. Indiana beat Wisconsin, undefeated and ranked third at the time, 75-72 on January 14, and gave a full-staffed Spartans a run for their money on that same court prior to that season-altering triumph. Still smarting from a rare home setback against Northwestern, the Hoosier faithful will be rocking heartily in hopes that their home team can now hand the Wolverines their first Big Ten loss.
Ultimately, though the game should be hotly contested into the final minutes, Robinson III will shine on the way to what will eventually be a Wolverine win. If Indiana does pull this one out, however, don't be too shocked.
Another game to watch out for is 18th-ranked Pittsburgh, led by star forward Lamar Patterson and point guard James Robinson (who has the best assist-to-turnover ratio, at 4.2/0.9, in the nation) against Joe Harris and the surprising Virginia Cavaliers.
The Michigan-Indiana game will be closer, however, because of the special brand of slow-it-down and shoot-it-up nature of most thrilling Big Ten contests, and because the Oakland Zoo will help to take the Cavs out of the game early (as well the stout shot-blocking abilities of Panther big man Talib Zanna). After Monday's loss to the Duke Blue Devils, Pitt will not falter twice in a row at home.
Michigan 68, Indiana 62
Pittsburgh 86, Virginia 73