All things considered, we had a good weekend of college hoops with no shortage of results to spark conversation, speculation and reflection. Here are my 10 takeaways and things to know as we inch closer to the madness of March.
1. Illinois is the most unreliable pretty good team
The No. 14 Fighting Illini could not overcome shorthanded No. 21 Ohio State, losing 87-81 on their home floor and dropping to 9-5. Ohio State didn’t have its top two options at point guard, including starter C.J. Walker, yet it didn’t matter. Credit to Chris Holtmann, who seems to nudge up in the abstract “best coaches in the sport” rankings with each passing season.
But for Brad Underwood’s team to drop two straight at home against Maryland and Ohio State is eyebrow-raising enough to question whether this team will ultimately have the steadiness to make the Final Four. I picked Illinois in the preseason to be one of the last four teams left. To this point, however, Illinois looking like it’s merely gotten a little better from last season vs. making that huge jump, which was the expectation when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn bypassed turning pro and came back. Dosunmu continues to be quite good (22 points, five assists, four rebounds on Saturday) and Cockburn had a fifth straight double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds). Defensively? Illinois is underachieving. That fact is reflected in its record. If you really want to pick apart Illinois at this point, know this: despite all the hype, it does not own a win over a top-20 KenPom team.
I’ll button up with this: I’ve watched this camera trickery no fewer than 20 times. Cue up some Jamiroquai.
2. Baylor still impressive in close(ish) call
The matchup of the weekend was No. 2 Baylor at No. 15 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were coming off a last-second comeback win over Texas and positioned to pull off the best two-win stretch of any team this season. It looked like it was going to go that way for a while, but then Baylor finally had shots drop late and ultimately pulled away, 68-60. Texas Tech kept star Jared Butler scoreless for 35 minutes, then Butler hit an important 3 to finally get on the board with 4:59 remaining, giving Baylor a five-point lead in the process. Scott Drew’s team permanently held the cushion thereafter. There aren’t more than five spots on the schedule where Baylor will be vulnerable to lose this regular season. This was one of them, and it’s the first time this season Baylor hasn’t won by double digits. Texas Tech got cold feet, but it will take a 1-1 split with Texas and Baylor. At 12-0, the Bears now have a two-day turnaround before facing Kansas at home. Last season, Kansas won that much-hyped No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup by three points. I know — ‘cause I was there.
I was the only writer to pick No. 23 Minnesota to win outright against No. 7 Michigan on Saturday, so thank you to the Golden Gophers for making me stumble into the occasionally sage forecast. It was a dominant W, 75-57. Richard Pitino’s team is assured they’ll remain ranked when the polls refresh on Monday. I take almost no stock in previously unbeaten Michigan falling here. The Wolverines got off to an 11-0 start and had an off day on the road (without Eli Brooks, due to a foot issue) in the toughest league in America against a team that’s easily going to be a single-digit seed. It happens.
What the result reinforced was the dichotomy with Minnesota’s home-and-away splits. All 11 Minnesota victories have come at home while all four road games have ended in defeat. Minny’s 5-4 vs. top-50 competition this season. At home against top-50 clubs the Golden Gophers win games by an average of 15.0 points, with four wins over ranked teams included. On the road, those four defeats have been by 19.8 points. This pattern reminds me of Rutgers last season, when RU lost only one home game and won just twice on the road.
4. Frank Martin checks in while watching his team from home
South Carolina coach Frank Martin is the only coach in major American sports who at this point is believed to have contracted COVID-19 twice. Martin first caught the coronavirus in May. His second bout came last week, and it was worse than the first. I got on the phone with Martin Saturday night, during his team’s game at LSU, to discuss what it was like to watch from his couch and what it’s like to go through this a second time.
“The first time we were pretty much in a lockdown as a country, right at the beginning of May,” Martin said. “There was so much unknown about it that we were already at home. I wasn’t working, no players on campus, no recruiting, so it was a little different to manage. Psychologically it still impacted me. I was worried about my family. There was no cure for this thing. It was frustrating.”
Then, almost two weeks ago, Martin’s wife, Anya, started to feel sick. Martin kept his distance at home just in case.
“My family and I, we really don’t do anything. We’re home and I’m in the gym, it’s the only thing I do,” he said.
They both took tests at South Carolina on Jan. 7. That afternoon, as Martin was involved in a powerful, hour-long conversation with his team about the insurrection at the United States Capitol the day before, he was abruptly pulled away. He and his wife’s tests came back positive. Martin was puzzled and planned to take another test the next day just to be safe. He did, and it came back positive again. Martin felt fine into Friday morning.
“Then mid-afternoon Friday I felt like I got run over by a truck,” Martin told me through intermittent coughing. “My whole thing just changed. Everything hurt. I had a headache, started coughing. It literally felt like I’d been jumped by 10 dudes and got the snot beat out of me.”
He was bedridden Friday afternoon and incapable of leaving his bedroom for three days.
“It was a struggle to get out of the bed to use the bathroom,” Martin said. “I had major diarrhea, couldn’t keep food down. I was dehydrated, had no energy, had no food. I was beat up.”
By Monday afternoon (six days ago) he started to get a little better. And by the end of the week Martin was finally on his way back to normal. Fortunately, his wife was able to turn the corner more quickly and wasn’t suffering symptoms as severe as his. Martin’s due to leave isolation early this week and return to work. It was the latest barrier for a Gamecocks program that until Saturday had played just five games and was out of competition from Dec. 5-Jan. 2.
We spoke as he watched his team put up a good effort against an LSU squad that is certainly on its way to a good NCAA Tournament seed. Martin was on the couch, watching in his living room with his wife and 13-year-old son.
“They’re dealing with me bouncing off the couch on every bad play and good play,” he said. “I get emotionally attached. I feel weird, is what I feel. Because the preparation, the practice, the strategy, the mistakes you made in practice that when you make them in a game, I’m void of all that. I wasn’t there this week. I’m like an invested fan right now, is what I am, and we just just have to, I hope we play better.”
South Carolina (3-3) went on to lose 85-80.
Martin was not the only person precluded from taking the trip. Another assistant, Chuck Martin, also had to stay back in South Carolina, leaving Bruce Shingler as acting head coach. Martin was not allowed to communicate with his team during the game, but he said that didn’t bother him. He’s not a micro-manager. He was on the phone with his staff Friday night, sent the players a note over group text, then let them be all day Saturday.
“They got this,” he said. “They don’t need me yakking in their ears or trying to have conversations with them. I have all the confidence in the world in my staff.”
Martin has coached basketball for 36 years. This was only the third game he’s ever missed. The first came when he was a young assistant at Northeastern and was sent off to check in on a recruit. The second time came in 2014, in the season finale when Martin was suspended. His team was bad that year and Martin was at his wits’ end. He didn’t even watch that game (which South Carolina won), opting instead to go watch his daughter’s cheerleading competition.
“I needed to disengage with that one,” he said. “This one’s been difficult.”
Martin hopes to be back on the bench for South Carolina’s next game at Missouri on Tuesday.
5. Iowa back to being best in the Big Ten?
“[FILL IN THE BLANK] is the best team in the Big Ten” has been a title shared through the first two months of the season by Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. (Ohio State, you may be next!) The No. 5 Hawkeyes (12-2) are wearing that hat again. They took advantage of a light Sunday college hoops slate by sacking Northwestern 96-73 on CBS. The result means Michigan and Iowa are tied atop the league standings with both teams sharing the same loss: at Minnesota.
Take your pick on the best team. I’d lean Iowa, slightly. If those two remain a small tier above the rest of the league, know that they only have one scheduled game and we’ve still got weeks to go before we get there. Michigan is scheduled to host the Hawkeyes on March 4. Both squads will probably lose at least two more games before we reach that point.
As for Northwestern, it was a 6-1 team with a 3-0 Big Ten record less than three weeks ago. There was chatter about Chris Collins getting the program to its second NCAA Tournament in school history. Since then, the Wildcats have dropped five consecutive games, all against ranked teams, and will need an unthinkable turnaround to give itself any chance at dancing.
6. Chances of blue blood-depleted Dance increase
You might’ve heard: the NCAA Tournament is at risk this season of lacking some of the biggest programs. Arizona, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan State are six of the 10 biggest brands in college hoops. All are far from locks to make the NCAAs, and we already know Arizona (self-imposed postseason ban) is done. On Saturday, Kentucky and North Carolina did themselves no favors by losing at Auburn and Florida State. Indiana lost Thursday at home vs. Purdue, too. Michigan State is off this weekend due to COVID-19 and Duke’s next game is Tuesday at Pitt, which just swept Syracuse (another prominent program at risk of not dancing).
According to Bart Torvik’s T-Ranketology forecast, which assigns percentages to a team’s chances of making the tournament, here’s where each stands as of Sunday (with Arizona obviously at 0).
• North Carolina (8-5, 54th in the NET): 46.4%
• Indiana (8-6, 56th in the NET): 36.3%
• Duke (5-3, 93rd in the NET): 32.9%
• Michigan State (8-4, 83rd in the NET): 27.1%
• Kentucky (4-8, 97th in the NET): 2.0%
Every NCAA Tournament since 1984 has had at least four of the six above schools make it. The most recent example where at least three didn’t was 1983, when Arizona, Duke and Michigan State missed out. UNC and Duke last missed the same NCAA Tournament in 1977, which was also the most recent instance that all six aforementioned schools missed in the same year.
7. Virginia just took control of the ACC
The most impressive win of Saturday was No. 18 Virginia mowing down No. 12 Clemson 85-50, continuing a torture theme that Tony Bennett’s established against Brad Brownell. The Tigers are averaging 46.2 points in their last five meetings against the Cavs and have lost 11 straight games against UVA by an average of 16.0 points. Clemson, in fact, entered Saturday with the No. 1-rated per-possession defense at KenPom. Virginia was 14th. After the game, UVA was up to No. 9 and Clemson dropped to SEVENTH. This was Clemson’s moment to get a signature win, take command of the ACC race and put itself on a path to getting its best seed in NCAA Tournament.
The Wahoos got out to a 20-3 lead in the first 11 minutes and led by 30 at the half. Virginia dropped 85 points on a Clemson team that was allowing 57.6 per game. UVA sank 15 3-pointers on 27 attempts to remain perfect in the ACC (5-0) and ensure it will remain ranked on Monday. Clemson was coming off a COVID-19 pause, and it looked like it. Virginia was expected to be the ACC’s best team in the preseason. It’s been somewhat quiet and not all that dominant, but checking in now, that projection is right on track. A stunner: this 35-point margin is the second biggest road win against a ranked team in men’s D-I history.
8. A good theory on the wacky nature of back-to-backs
On Friday night, Cleveland State won 66-64 over preseason Horizon League favorite Wright State. The win improved the Vikings to 9-0 in the league. The teams had a rematch on Saturday, as the Horizon is operating like most mid-major leagues and scheduling teams on consecutive days in a pandemic-afflicted season.
What transpired Saturday was no surprise: Wright State, a good team in its own regard, lashed back with an 85-49 win, handing Dennis Gates’ Vikings their first loss in more than a month. This script flip isn’t uncommon. It’s become almost expected this season to see results between the two same teams on back-to-back days be starkly unalike.
I caught up with Gates after CSU’s loss. He was driving back to Cleveland in his car, trailing the team bus, making the near-three-hour ride back. He brought up an interesting analogy.
“In baseball you have doubleheaders and different important pieces, like pitchers,” he said. “I studied this and talked to Mike Martin Sr., the all-time winningest baseball coach at Florida State (where Gates was previously an assistant coach) as it related to back-to-back games or doubleheaders. The one thing he said to me is, in baseball, we’ll go through it and have an instant response to the game before, whereas previously in basketball you wait three weeks or a month to grow. By the time you play that team again, you’re a different team, they’re a different team. Here, you’re meeting right after you found out who this team is and you’re able to add your Xs-and-Os, or your adjustments.”
Gates referred to these back-to-backs as essentially one 80-minute, elongated game with two 40-minute halves and a protracted halftime. Cleveland State won the first half Friday, Wright State won the second half Saturday. I asked Gates what his expectations were for the second game, and he said he didn’t really have many, other than he knew the quality of the opponent, the quality of the coach and the fact the game was in their home gym meant the game was guaranteed to be tougher than Friday night.
“The first game you get to have the element of surprise because you’re facing someone for the first time and they don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “The second game is more of a conference tournament feel to it, the grind and the grit. You’re going to get someone’s best shot, especially if you [won] that first game. No one wants to be swept on their own floor.”
Cleveland State is one of the interesting mid-major stories going at the moment. It intentionally played just three nonconference games, all in Ohio, and one of them included allowing an NCAA-record 40-0 run against Ohio in November. The team responded by losing by just six at Ohio State in its next game, then peeled off nine straight wins. Gates took the job in July 2019, when all but three players bailed on the program. He hasn’t had summer workouts with his players two straight years, yet the Vikings sit on top of the Horizon League standings, have yet to have one COVID-19 positive in the program and have their next four games scheduled at home.
9. Gonzaga cruises on its worst night of the season
For the first time in nine home games, Saint Mary’s covered against Gonzaga — and it was only because Oumar Ballo missed a dunk on the Bulldogs’ final possession. No. 1 Zags 73, Saint Mary’s 59. For 20 minutes, the game was interesting. Saint Mary’s held a lead for more than 50% of the first half and led by as many as 10 early. Then Gonzaga had a 20-3 run to close out the first half, and the game was basically over by the 14-minute mark of the second half.
This was Gonzaga’s 39th straight road win in the WCC against an unranked opponent, the last loss coming to SMC in 2016. Gonzaga’s won 18 games in a row. It’s the longest win streak in the country. Gonzaga (14-0) didn’t even play that well. Joel Ayayi, who is mighty consistent, was the team’s best player, but Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard were all sub-par. Gonzaga did get taken out of their game to a certain extent by Saint Mary’s.
And the Bulldogs still won by 14. The only way Gonzaga loses before the NCAA Tournament is if a significant injury occurs or BYU plays nearly flawlessly at home in the season finale.
10. It took 52 days for every team to get in a game
Every team that has opted in to playing this season has now played at least one game. It took until Saturday for that statement to be factual. The final two schools, American and Loyola Maryland out of the Patriot League, both finally played the first game of their seasons. American dropped a heartbreaker, 87-86, in overtime at Navy. The Greyhounds of Loyola also opened on the road, at Lafayette, and faced a Leopards team with four games under its belt. After a double-digit halftime rally by Loyola, Lafayette won 77-75, but the big story from this one was the sideline debut of Tiny Adams, a female assistant on Loyola’s staff who was hired in October and is one of two active female assistants in men’s Division I. I previously detailed some of Adams’ story, and you can read that right here.