As we continue to move through the season, one thing remains certain: this season is still wide open. Of course, teams like Oklahoma and North Carolina have made it clear that it’s Final Four or bust for the remainder of the year, but for the majority of the nation, everything is still up in the air. Top 10 teams are dropping three games in a row, number one teams seem to be catching the curse, and no one has definitively settled into the spot just yet. Yet, a few programs find themselves looking up with increased expectations, while other schools have found themselves needing to check their expectations as conference play moves forward.
In a season where there’s been little to cling to for Badger Nation, the last week has been the best Wisconsin has felt in a while. In an exhilarating game with Michigan State one week ago, the Badgers’ stars were able to get their footing and change the game. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig combined for 52 of the team’s 77 points, keeping the game within reach the entire 40 minutes and giving freshman Ethan Happ the opportunity to score the game winning basket with just 12 seconds left. Just a few days later, Wisconsin was on the road against Penn State in a game that easily could have slipped away coming off the high profile win against the Spartans. Led by Happ’s double-double, the Badgers escaped with a 66-60 victory. With the starters performing well, the Badgers have an opportunity to show that this won’t be a short trend when they host No. 25 Indiana on Tuesday.
It’s always tough to put a team coming off a loss on the upward trend, but when that loss comes against the #3 team in the country in a competitive game, that loss doesn’t seem quite so damaging to the résumé. In the case of Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns, their loss to the Kansas Jayhawks doesn’t seem so alarming considering their recent victories against #17 Iowa State and #6 West Virginia. Much like Wisconsin, the Longhorns have battled their way through early season struggles, and now have climbed to a record of 12-7 and have picked up some significant performance from their stars, giving them some crucial leverage in the conference. Texas averages five blocks per game, giving their plethora of attacking scorers ample opportunity to run out in transition and get to the cup. With three players averaging double figures for Texas, their defense will be key as they progress through conference play. Again, their situation parallels the Badgers’, as their conference schedule will more than allow them to earn their way into the NCAA Tournament in March. Texas will need sustained success from their front court if it hopes to continue trending in the right direction.
With three losses this season, Louisville hasn’t received the attention that the elite teams in the country have. Those three losses, two coming to top 15 teams, have been by a total of ten points. The Cardinals currently sit at third overall in the KenPom rankings, second overall in the powerful ACC Conference. Despite a recent hiccup against Clemson, a team that has more than proven it’s capable of beating good teams, Louisville has more than passed the test, maneuvering through it’s conference schedule 5-1 overall. Chinanu Onuaku has posted a double-double in five straight games, and freshman Donovan Mitchell has given the Cardinals more than a spark with his exciting play. Damion Lee has been able to consistently give Louisville offensive consistency, something that it’s lacked in recent years. Defensively, the inexperience of the Cards is wearing off and the press is back. When Rick Pitino teams combine stifling defense with consistent offense, they have a tendency to be dangerous in March.
Last year, Gonzaga entered the NCAA Tournament with a two-loss record, giving them the opportunity to enter the tournament at a very good ranking. That higher seed in the tournament gave them a much easier path to their eventual exit in the Elite Eight. This year, the Zags have already racked up five losses, and we’re not even out of January yet. Despite their slips in their record, Gonzaga has seen stellar performance from their two stars. Kyle Wiltjer has averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 rebounds, while Domantas Sabonis has averaged a double-double, racking up 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Fortunately for Gonzaga, they still will have a relatively easy conference schedule, and should still be able to make the tournament easily. The reality for Gonzaga is that if they don’t have a phenomenal regular season performance, they’ll enter the tournament at a relatively low seed, making their path to the Final Four very tough. With superstars like Wiltjer and Sabonis, though, anything can happen in March.
For the first time since 2007, Duke lost three in a row last week, marking the first time Duke had lost to three unranked opponents in a row since 1969. While they were able to stop the bleeding with a ten-point victory over struggling NC State this week, major flaws were certainly exposed. Scoring has certainly not been the issue for Duke, as they have five players currently average double figure points and a team average of 86 points per game. Losing Amile Jefferson, one of those double figure scorers, to injury has hurt Duke in more ways than one, as his points and veteran leadership have proven to be of incredibly high value to the Blue Devils. Undoubtedly, the high level of talent for Duke will prevail and they will start to string together some wins under Coach K’s guidance, but it has certainly been difficult to ignore the inability to close games for Duke. The return of Amile Jefferson will propel Duke in the right direction, and come tournament time, they’ll be ready.
I hate to be the one to pour salt in the wound for SMU, but following their loss to unranked Temple today, the season for SMU seems somewhat of a wash. The late timing of their preseason sanctions really prevented any of their players from transferring, meaning that their undefeated season was really all they had to play for. Now, they’ll meander through the remainder of their AAC Conference schedule, with the best possible situation being a regular season AAC title. Of course, Larry Brown’s team will come out and play hard, as there are many players with basketball aspirations after college; but nevertheless, it’s a tough day for Mustang Nation.
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