Conference play arrives in fits and starts, and there are plenty of moments when it is said it “really” begins. But on Tuesday night, it certainly felt like this new decade had acquired some serious hoops momentum, with major-conference mayhem bubbling up in every direction.
Let’s start — where else? — in Piscataway. Yes, in Piscataway, New Jersey …
3 things from Tuesday
The Scarlet Knights could actually go dancing
Think of how many times Rutgers has been a basketball punchline. For starters, the Scarlet Knights haven’t appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1991. At that time, the program was a member of the Atlantic 10.
Since then, Rutgers has cycled through the Big East and the American. As for the Big Ten, its fans have complained at length about this program being allowed to join the league, well, ever since this program joined the league.
No longer. After beating No. 20 Penn State 72-61 at home on Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights are 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten. Steve Pikiell’s team entered the game ranked No. 29 in the NET, and let’s just stop right there, shall we?
Before Tuesday’s victory, Rutgers was already ranked in the top 30 in the NCAA’s metric of choice. There’s a solid chance that this team emerges from an exceptionally deep Big Ten this season with a conference record of .500 or even above. This is uncharted territory for the Scarlet Knights, for the Big Ten, and, yes, for anyone under the age of 29.
Give Pikiell credit. He has had the Knights playing defense more or less from the day he arrived, but now, in the coach’s fourth season, this team is also scoring at a respectable rate. The Knights didn’t have leading scorer Geo Baker (broken thumb) for the game against the Nittany Lions, but it didn’t matter. Ron Harper Jr. was 12-of-12 at the line, and, characteristically, Pikiell’s men dominated their defensive glass.
Rutgers plays a road game at Illinois this weekend before returning home for back-to-back home dates against Indiana and Minnesota. All four teams in that sentence are nourishing hopes of a tournament bid, some of those hopes being more remote than others. But the Scarlet Knights and their beautiful top-30 NET ranking are very much in that mix. It feels like 1991 all over again.
Jay Heath pushes through traffic in the paint before sending a pass out to the wing for Jared Hamilton who pulls up for a go-ahead 3-pointer.
The ACC is down, and it looks strange
It was just a few months ago that the ACC earned and indeed deserved three No. 1 seeds in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Duke, North Carolina and eventual national champion Virginia all received spots on the top lines in their respective regions.
That feels like a very long time ago. The Tar Heels are 8-6 and in serious danger of missing the tournament entirely. Tony Bennett’s defending champions have a markedly better-looking record at 11-3, but the men from Charlottesville have worries of their own. The Cavaliers fell 60-53 at Boston College on Tuesday, and, to this early point in the ACC season, the Virginia offense has scored a near-league-worst 0.90 points per possession in conference play.
Both UNC and UVa have been consistently outstanding for the balance of the past decade, of course, and a league can’t see dips in two programs of that caliber and not show a drop-off, both visually and statistically. (For the record, the Blue Devils look fine. This is not a 2019 No. 1 seed jinx. Duly noted.)
Meaning, by default, the top of the league this season might belong to Duke, Louisville and Florida State. Past those teams, are there any sure-fire NCAA bids? Good question.
If the season ended today, Virginia would go dancing, naturally. But, again, that’s it, with an emphasis on “sure-fire.” (NC State would just barely make the cut, according to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket.)
Sending a relatively small number of teams to the tournament isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a major conference, particularly if one or more of those representatives gets to the Final Four. But, for the time being, ACC basketball outside of Durham, North Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; and Tallahassee, Florida, appears to be a work in progress.
Davion Mitchell hits the tough 3-pointer over the defender as the shot clock winds down.
The Bears just keep winning ugly
The most remarkable thing about Baylor isn’t that the team recorded a tough 57-52 victory at Texas Tech on Tuesday, or that the Bears are 12-1 and ranked No. 4 in the nation. No, the feature that stands out is that Scott Drew’s group has now won 11 games in a row while starting Big 12 play by missing shots and committing turnovers.
This is an offense that in its two conference wins has connected on just 39% of its 2-point attempts while giving the ball away on 23% of its possessions. Both of those numbers are, of course, terrible, but BU has found a way around the shortcomings.
Freddie Gillespie has been a man among boys on the offensive glass, and, as a team, Baylor has pulled down an incredible 47% of its misses in its two Big 12 victories. A showdown at Kansas this weekend looms next.
If you’re BU, pulling out of your 2-point shooting slump against the likes of Udoka Azubuike would seem unlikely. Still, even a normal number of turnovers would translate into a markedly improved offense.
3 things for Wednesday and Thursday
Seminoles test their success
Florida State is receiving a good deal of justified praise for its impressive 13-point victory at Louisville last weekend. Next up for Leonard Hamilton’s team is a road game at Wake Forest on Wednesday before heading home to host Virginia this weekend.
That trip to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, might sound non-threatening if you’re FSU, and, who knows, perhaps it will be. Still, the Demon Deacons are coming off a win at home against Xavier as well as a road victory at Pitt.
Danny Manning’s team has started ACC play making better than 42% of its 3s. That success rate might not last for the entire conference season, but regression to the mean will be cold comfort for the Noles if Wake’s perimeter success does last for the next 40 minutes.
The Hoyas need a win
Few programs have had a more mercurial 2019-20 than what Georgetown has put together already. From the easy win over Texas and the close loss to Duke (both at Madison Square Garden) to the defeat at home to UNC Greensboro and a more recent 16-point setback at Providence, the Hoyas have seen it all.
The loss to the Friars came without Mac McClung, but the sophomore returned for the subsequent game at Seton Hall only to see his team lose again by 16 points. Georgetown hasn’t recorded a victory against a major-conference opponent since defeating Syracuse at home on Dec. 14. Now St. John’s will pay a visit to Capital One Arena on Wednesday.
Patrick Ewing’s men are currently showing up as a classic bubble team in projected brackets, and the Hoyas badly need to recapture their December swagger. At stake is the program’s first tournament bid since 2015.
Showdown in the Pac-12
Oregon and Arizona are the class of the Pac-12 on paper, and on Thursday they will play in Eugene (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). There will be a rematch in Tucson in late February, but this contest should have weighty downstream consequences on the conference race.
With freshmen Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji leading the charge, UA has improved dramatically on offense since last season. Nnaji is coming off a 17-11 double-double against Arizona State, and Mannion has recorded 31 assists against just 11 turnovers in his past four outings.
As for the Ducks, featured scorer Payton Pritchard now has five games under his belt since freshman N’Faly Dante became eligible. Dana Altman has been bringing Dante off the bench and limiting his minutes. Still, a version of Oregon that has Pritchard, Dante, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis and Francis Okoro all at full strength should be entertaining to watch.
Colorado, Stanford, Washington or other teams yet to be named might also have something to say about the Pac-12 race before it’s all said and done. Still, a meeting between the Ducks and the Wildcats is big.