Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Nobody’s safe after an upset-filled weekend in men’s basketball

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Now up on the No. 1 chopping lock — Arizona. How long will the Wildcats stay safe there? If the past weekend showed anything in college basketball, it’s that nobody is safe. Neither the big names nor the small.

Not three of the top four ranked teams in last week’s Associated Press Top 25.

Not Purdue, facing its kryptonite in Northwestern, losing to the Wildcats for the second consecutive season while ranked No. 1. Never mind the Boilermakers scored 88 points and outrebounded Northwestern 52-27. Purdue had been 53-0 in its last 53 games when hitting 80, and had never lost a game in its history when outrebounding the opponent by 25. Now they have, 92-88 in overtime.

MORE: Northwestern forces 17 turnovers, Buie drops 31 points to defeat No. 1 Purdue in overtime

Not Marquette, even when ranked No. 3 for its highest spot in 46 years. The Golden Eagles lost for the third consecutive time to neighbor Wisconsin.

MORE: Wisconsin men’s basketball stuns No. 3 Marquette

Not No. 4 Connecticut. The Huskies’ extraordinary 24-game winning streak by double digits against nonconference opponents survived a championship run through the 2023 NCAA Tournament, but not a trip to Lawrence, Kan.

No. 7 Duke wasn’t safe on the road, losing its ACC opener for the first time in six years, 72-68 at Georgia Tech. That was just after a defeat at Arkansas.

No. 12 Kentucky wasn’t safe where the Wildcats nearly always are, in their old Kentucky home. They were shocked 80-73 by UNC Wilmington which had been 1-39 against ranked opponents and 0-29 on the road, until the Seahawks showed up in Rupp Arena.

No. 18 Villanova was about as safe as bugs taking on a windshield in the Philadelphia Big 5 competition, which it had once controlled with an iron hand. The Wildcats went 0-3 and could not shoot 40 percent against Drexel or Saint Joseph’s or Penn, nor did they lead any of the three in the second half. Drexel had been 1-18 all-time against Villanova and had not beaten a ranked team in 13 years.

Florida State wasn’t safe with any lead. Three days after squandering a 17-point advantage and losing to Georgia, the Seminoles were up 14 on North Carolina, but then were blown away by a 22-0 Tar Heels run. North Carolina went from 14 down to 14 up in under 13 minutes of the second half.

Michigan wasn’t safe against Oregon, but the Wolverines have grown accustomed to nausea at the very sight of the Ducks. Oregon won 86-83 on a three-pointer by freshman Jackson Shelstad with 1.4 seconds left. Not to be confused with the one-point overtime Ducks win over Michigan in 2019, or the one-point Oregon escape in the 2017 Sweet 16. And to think, come next season they’re conference pals.

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Georgetown wasn’t safe with a two-point lead against TCU and the Horned Frogs 30 feet from the basket. That’s when Emanuel Miller banked in a prayer at the buzzer for an 84-83 TCU win. Officials checked the monitor to make sure Miller got the shot off in time, and he certainly did. But wait! Was that Miller’s foot on the sideline just before he let fly? It absolutely seemed to be, but since the infraction was not called in real-time, the call could not be changed in that situation.

No. 21 Mississippi State wasn’t safe at home against a Southern team with a 1-6 record, even leading 59-48 with 4 ½ minutes left. The Jaguars threw a 12-0 knockout punch to win 60-59.  

Nebraska wasn’t safe against in-state cousin Creighton, even with its first 7-0 record in three decades. The 89-60 pounding the Cornhuskers took was their worst against Creighton since 1932.

Auburn wasn’t safe against Appalachian State, a program with a 2-27 record against the SEC. But not anymore, the Mountaineers knocking over the Tigers 69-64. That’ll teach a high major to dare play App State at home. No one had even tried since 2000.

And the centerpiece of sudden disaster the past weekend: Yale was not safe leading Vermont by three points with 0.6 seconds left, and having possession of the ball, even with ESPN’s GameCast declaring the Bulldogs’ chance of losing to be 0.0 percent.

But then… an offensive foul on Yale trying to inbounds. Ball to Vermont. Pass to TJ Long who put up a three-pointer and was bumped. Not much, mind you, but enough to get a foul call. Shot banked in, Long made the free throw, four-point play, Vermont won 66-65. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my career.” Vermont coach John Becker said afterward. 

Who has?

Onto this landscape of quickly shifting fate rides the Arizona Wildcats. The season is but a month old but Arizona is already the third different No, 1. Maybe we should get to know the Wildcats a little better before, you know, something happens to them.

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They’re an offensive juggernaut, third in the nation in scoring at 93.4 points a game and second in scoring margin at 30.9. They lead the country with an average 47-28 rebound superiority. They have outscored seven opponents 334-170 in the paint.

Arizona opened the season by putting up 61 points in its first first half, against Morgan State. They went in Cameron and beat Duke. They out gritted Michigan State.

They’re doing all this with considerable balance. Six players average at least 9.9 points a game, but none more than 13.3. There have been at least five Wildcats in double-figure scoring in six of their seven games, and four in the other. Which is how an offense can put up 93 points a night but have no one in the top 90 in the country in individual scoring.

Kylan Boswell’s 54.9 percent shooting from behind the arc is the second-finest in Division I.

In his third season as head coach. Tommy Lloyd is 13-4 against ranked opponents. Before that, he was a key Mark Few assistant at Gonzaga for two decades. Before that, he was a biology major at Whitman College in Washington, whose alumni list includes Adam West, TV’s Batman.

Arizona’s top two scorers, Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson, have produced big games in the NCAA Tournament, except for other teams. Love scored 30 points against UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 28 against Duke in the Final Four for North Carolina in 2022. Johnson had 14 in the national championship game last April for San Diego State.

Eight different countries are represented on the roster. Including Mali’s Oumar Ballo, preseason All-Pac 12.

Arizona is the last Pac-12 or West Coast team to win the national championship, and that was 27 years ago. Since their last Final Four in 2001, the Wildcats are 0-5 in Elite Eight regional championship games.

Arizona was last No. 1 in 2014, but here the Wildcats are again. How long can they stay safe at the top? Wisconsin will be in Tucson this weekend and starting Dec. 16, they’ll face three ranked teams in eight days — Purdue in Indianapolis, Alabama in Phoenix and Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas.

There’s real danger in that stretch. And apparently nearly everywhere else in college basketball.

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