It’s mid-January and you know what that means! No — not that it’s time to get fake-fired up for this weekend’s lousy NFL playoff games. It means that we’re knee deep in college basketball season!
That’s right, we are now into the new year, and with a couple conference games under our belts, we’re slowly but surely learning quite a bit about the teams, coaches and players we’ll follow through March. There’s no more hiding behind crappy out of conference schedules, games that aren’t on TV or that one player that your coach insists is ready for a breakout but we all know won’t (Yes, I’m looking at you, everyone on Duke’s bench). Instead, we’re slowly but surely finding out who is good, who’s not and who is a legit title contender.
And with another weekend ahead of us, I decided to do a little something different with my column this week: Give you a few different storylines (both nationally and locally to Kentucky) that are worth keeping an eye on.
Will we get any further clarification on the state of the SEC this weekend?
If you follow my work, you know that I have been driving the SEC basketball bandwagon since the summer. And so far, I feel like I look pretty smart; I’m honestly not sure there’s a better conference top-to-bottom, from first team to last than this one. Some conferences have more national title contenders at the top, but none has a 1-14 Death March like the SEC does.
Therefore, the question heading into this weekend isn’t whether upsets will happen, but instead where. More importantly, can a couple teams that desperately need wins pick them up?
We’ll get to Kentucky momentarily, but the two games that I’m most curious about are Texas A&M at Tennessee and Missouri at Arkansas. As I wrote on Wednesday after Kentucky beat A&M, I’m convinced that Texas A&M is better than their record indicates. And now that they finally have a full roster (after a month full of injuries, suspensions and illness) I really do believe they’re about to make a mini-run. The simple truth is that no one has more top to bottom talent in the SEC than the Aggies do (except maybe Kentucky) and now it’s about putting it together. And if they can’t put it together this weekend, it’s fair to ask if they ever will this season.
Then there’s Missouri-Arkansas. I’ll admit that I’ve been stunned that Missouri has been able to stay afloat without Michael Porter Jr., but I’ve also been equally as stunned to see the Arkansas Razorbacks drop three straight after a solid start to league play. Remember, this is a team that picked up several good wins in the out of conference play, including taking down Oklahoma at the PK80 Tournament. They’re still one of only two teams to beat Oklahoma all year.
Sometimes the most desperate teams are the most fun to watch. And A&M and Arkansas are certainly that right now.
What about Auburn?
Staying in the SEC, I’ve got to ask: Is there a more surprising club in all of college basketball right now than Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers? If there is one, I’m having trouble finding it.
Seriously, I don’t think people appreciate how incredible what they’re doing is. Keep in mind, Auburn lost two of its best players to the FBI probe, big man Austin Wiley (who will be suspended for the year) and sophomore guard Danjel Purifoy who was the team’s second leading scorer last year. And despite all that, they’re still tied for first in the SEC! How is that possible? It’d be like Kentucky losing Hamidou Diallo and P.J. Washington this past preseason and not missing a beat. And ultimately, whether you like Bruce Pearl or not, and whether you feel bad for the Tigers or not (since most of their problems are self-inflicted) this whole little run is still pretty incredible.
But just how incredible is it? We’re about to find out, with three of Auburn’s next four games on the road, starting Saturday at Mississippi State.
By the way, how wild would it be if in a season where his program was under the constant watch of the FBI, Bruce Pearl went out and won National Coach of the Year?
Saturday’s best game might be its ugliest
Moving away from the SEC, the best game on paper Saturday might be a matchup between No. 2 West Virginia and No. 8 Texas Tech. But while this one looks fun from a rankings perspective, be prepared: It could get ugly. Not ugly in a “watching Louisville run a half-court offense kind of way.” But ugly in a “both teams play insane defense and points will be at a premium” way.
Looking at the stats, these two teams are absolutely incredible on the defensive end of the court. As things stand, Texas Tech actually ranks in the Top 5 nationally in both fewest points allowed (60.5) and field goal percentage defense (holding opponents to 37.5 percent) and West Virginia forces over 20 turnovers per game, which is third most nationally. It could make for an ugly product on the floor, even if these are two really good teams.
In a sort of related note, if you have no rooting interest in this game, go ahead and pull for Texas Tech. Their head coach Chris Beard has one of the wildest backstories I’ve ever heard. The dude has coached everywhere from junior college to the ABA (whatever that is) and as recently as four years ago, was actually coaching at a DII school. Then he went to Little Rock, led them to the NCAA Tournament in his first and only year there, and took the Texas Tech job.
So just how good of a coach is this guy? He once set a school record for wins at two different schools, in back-to-back years, which really is an incredible stat when you think about it. And now he has Texas Tech — Texas… freakin’ Tech!!! — rocking and rolling.
The second best game of the day also features Big 12 schools
It comes in Norman, Oklahoma where TCU takes on Trae Young and Oklahoma.
At this point the Trae Young narrative has been beaten to death (so you don’t need me to tell you anything more), but what I can tell you is this: These two teams already played once this season, in what turned out to be one of the best games of the season. Oklahoma won 90-89 on a last second play from… you guessed it… Trae Young. Surprise, surprise, right?
Texas Tech-West Virginia is the “bigger” game on paper. But if you’re looking for the “best” game to watch, this might be it.
Will Michigan State reach its potential?
Guys, I’ve got a confession to make. And I really hope you don’t judge me. But a few weeks ago, I made a really bad joke on Twitter. Again, please forgive me. I promise to never do it again.
It was about the Michigan State Spartans. And the joke was — and again it was bad — me calling the Spartans “The Noah’s Arc of college basketball, because they have two of everything.”
Yes, I felt like Jon Rothstein the second I hit “send.” And yes, I promise to never say anything like it again.
Watching Michigan State-Maryland, and excuse the lame pun, but MSU is Noah's arc: Two of everything. Point guards, shooters, rim protectors, wings. Spartans are really, REALLY awesome
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 5, 2018
At the same time, as bad as the joke was, it was kind of accurate. The Spartans really do have two of everything. Two points guards, two shooters, two rim protectors, two elite wings, you name it. That’s also why I believe that they’re the best team in the country. They have elite talent, play great defense and have no obvious weakness.
What’s weird though is that since I sent that tweet, the Spartans have fallen apart (maybe it was bad karma on my end for the awful joke). In their two most recent games Michigan State got crushed by Ohio State, and needed overtime to beat Rutgers at home. Yes, Rutgers!
I still think that when they’re clicking, the Spartans have the best team anywhere in college basketball. But they will need to prove it, starting with their game Saturday against Michigan, which tips off at noon ET.
Are we sure Arizona is any good?
If you listen to my podcast here on KSR — and if you aren’t listening, what the hell are you doing with your life? — you know that me and my co-host Nick Coffey have spent a lot of time asking one simple question: Is Kansas actually any good? I’m pretty sure the answer is “no” and at the same time, I also think it’s fair to start asking that same question about Arizona. The Wildcats were my preseason national championship pick but then proceeded to have a disastrous November, bounced back nicely in December, but now that we’ve entered conference play are kind just “meh.” They lost at Colorado last week (not an easy game because of the altitude) and then nearly lost at home to Oregon State. That my friends, is not good.
On a different note, let me throw out a theory that I heard a few days back that might be worth exploring: How much is this FBI/NCAA investigation weighing on Sean Miller? And more importantly, how much does he need the assistant coach that was fired as part of the sting?
The simple truth is that Miller doesn’t strike me as a warm and cuddly guy, and if you read up on a lot of his top player’s recruitments, they were much closer to the assistant coaches than they were to Miller. As we know, there are plenty of places where the head coaches are very active in their players recruitments (cough, Kentucky, cough). But apparently Arizona is not always one of them.
On kind of on the same subject, I also noticed something interesting last week that no one is really talking about. After the loss to Colorado, Miller dropped a comment that no one really paid attention to, but perked my ears. He said “I have a hard time reaching our guys.”
To me, that’s a very interesting comment, and I feel like it’s about more than just coaching, but also his relationships with the players. It’s something to keep an eye on, starting Saturday when they host Oregon.
What about UCLA?
With Kentucky’s loss to UCLA earlier this season, it’s probably worthwhile for UK fans to follow what the Bruins are doing this season. Kentucky doesn’t necessarily need UCLA to be good going forward, but it certainly would make that loss look better.
Well, I’ve got good news for Wildcats fans: UCLA is coming on strong. I actually think they’re one of the more underrated teams in college basketball right now.
If anything, they’re actually kind of like a West Coast version of Kentucky: A young team that has all the talent in the world, but also has at times this year has played down to their competition. Of their four losses, the Bruins had huge leads in two of them (at Michigan and at Stanford) and completely gave things away down the stretch. Had they won those two games, they’d probably be a Top 15 team right now. Instead, they’re 13-4 and lying in the weeds, but should be able to pick up another win against a good Colorado club on Saturday night.
By the way, remember after the Kentucky-UCLA game when I told you that Aaron Holiday was better than anyone realized? Yeah, he’s leading the Pac-12 in scoring during conference games and is averaging over 19 points per game this season. He’s also probably the early favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. If anything, this once again proves that you’ve always got to listen to Nostra-Torres. He never lets you down.
And finally, what about Kentucky?
Honestly, I don’t know what there is to say that I haven’t already written here at KSR about these Cats. I also don’t know where I stand relative to everyone else reading, but I am incredibly optimistic, probably more optimistic than most. Yes, they’re an insanely young team, but when they’re locked in (as they have been for most every game except the UCLA game and the second half against Tennessee) they can play with anyone. It doesn’t hurt that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and P.J. Washington are turning into stars before our eyes.
Still, Saturday will be an interesting test. Not a “big” test. Not a “tough” test but an interesting one. Yes the Cats are on the road, but they’re also playing arguably the worst team in the SEC against Vanderbilt. Do they come out, jump down the Commodores throats and win convincingly? Or do they struggle, play flat in various moments and allow an inferior team to hang with them?
We’ll find out in a few hours. But as weird as it sounds, this does feel like a really important game for Kentucky. If they are who I think they can be — which is a good team that can compete for an SEC title and deep tournament run — than they come out, take an early lead on a team that they are clearly more talented than and run away with the game. If they are who they’ve been at times this year, then they allow that inferior team to hang around.
So which Kentucky will we get? And which Kentucky will they be going forward? We will get the answers soon.
It’s just one of many fascinating stories entering the day in college basketball.