As January approaches, and despite continued cancellations and postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic, college basketball is slowly coming to an end. ESPN.com hosted several meetings Tuesday night with the Myron Medcalf College basketball team, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi to discuss what they saw.
Kentucky struggled to finish in Tuscaloosa, but fell back to 5-10 against a hot Alabama team. Are you ready to declare the Wildcats complete? What is the biggest weakness of this British group?
Medcalf: At Tuesday’s press conference, John Calipari suggested that his team could still be in shape, but nothing the Wildcats have done so far has inspired that belief. It feels like it’s over. And you wonder what will happen to this team when it becomes clear that this is not a tournament team and the dream officially dies. Will the Wildcats accept NIT’s offer, assuming there is an NIT and a Kentucky? The team’s biggest weakness is its offensive challenges on all shots, including layups. Wildcats can’t shoot. Not outside the arc (32.6% in league play) or inside the arc (worst team in SEC play). They can’t find a way to score.
Borzello: If by fact you mean that they don’t play in the NCAA tournament, then yes, they do. The Wildcats have shown some of the clichés of their lives, beating Florida by 18 points and LSU by 13 over the weekend, but I don’t think they can put together a performance consistent enough to win the SEC tournament. And to think of a big bet, they’d probably have to go 9-1 or the rest of the way – that’s not happening. Kentucky has had problems shooting from the perimeter all season, and the Wildcats have no one who can make a bucket. B.J. Boston should have been that guy, but he wasn’t, and Terrence Clark hasn’t played in a month.
John Calipari and Kentucky won over Alabama on Tuesday night. Marvin Gentry-USA Sports
Gas way: Kentucky barely has a heartbeat, as the calendar is always a friend of the Wildcats. It’s still January. But yes, it’s a steep hill to climb, with 5-10 points and a NET score that was 80th at the tipoff in Tuscaloosa. If you’re an optimist in Lexington, note that Kentucky made Alabama look much worse than the Crimson Tide did against Arkansas and LSU. Calipari may be able to count on an unquestionable defensive performance, but the execution must begin now. Who knows, maybe Clark will come back from his leg injury and make a last-minute recovery.
Lunardi: I’m not ready to write Kentucky’s obituary yet, unless the Wildcats lose to Texas on Saturday (ESPN/ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET). If this race is somehow in the cards, Kentucky still has a long – albeit narrow – way to go to reap a positive reward. This is an important non-conference victory that the Cats simply must win. At the same time, the Great Blue Nation – perhaps for the first time under Calipari – has to contend with an overrated recruiting class and an underperforming veteran class.
TeamShaka Smart-less Texas was hit by a suddenly relevant group from Oklahoma on Tuesday at home. After a gig, does your needle go more towards Longhorn care or Sooner care?
Oklahoma guard Austin Reeves goes in and fires a shot from behind the plate to the basket.
Gas way: Either way, the speeds are almost impressive. Texas was not only missing their coach, but also Courtney Ramey, Jericho Sims and Brock Cunningham. The Sooners looked very strong for the game in Austin. You can say at the end of the season that OU had the best defense in the Big 12, next to Baylor. On the other end of the court, Austin Reeve’s 23 points against the Longhorns were no mistake. He found a way to do it all season, even when he was struggling behind the arc.
Borzello: I’m not too worried about Texas. The Longhorns didn’t have Ramey and Sims snacks, and apparently neither did Smart. Three defeats against Villanova, Texas Tech and Oklahoma by a total of seven points is not exactly a wake-up call for me. But, hey, Oklahoma’s good. The Sooners won over Kansas, Texas and West Virginia – and they have an excellent backcourt with three guys capable of hitting great nights in De’Vion Harmon, Reaves and Umoja Gibson. And Gasaway’s right: They are the second best defense in a league full of teams that are generally very good on this side of the field. Only two teams have scored a point against the Sooners in the last month.
Medcalf: I agree with the team. Playing against a Texas team missing two key players and the head coach seemed like the perfect setting for a defeat in a virtually empty building, so I’m really impressed with the Sooners.
Lon Kruger, one of two coaches to lead five different teams to the NCAA Tournament, has been doing this for a long time, making it easy to overlook his coaching abilities. But this Oklahoma team, which was rated high in the preseason and finished sixth in the Big 12, is a legitimate contender with a top 40 record on offense and defense. His only double-digit defeats were against Xavier in the third game of the season and earlier this month at Baylor. The Sooners also have the lowest turnover rate in the league. But they have a ridiculous five ahead of them with games against Alabama on Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN App, noon ET), Texas, Baylor and West Virginia. Still, they have a chance to prove they are a serious threat and walk away in March.
Lunardi: Think of me as one of those impressed Sooners. It’s the kind of game Oklahoma hasn’t won in recent years. Don’t be fooled by questionable bids; Oklahoma hasn’t seen a Big 12 victory since reaching the Final Four in 2016. If the Sooners manage to back that up with a win over Alabama over the weekend, they will be in the top half of the NCAA category for the first time in five years.
North Carolina and Duke are close in the top data list, including at KenPom (UNC in 32nd place and Duke in 35th after Tuesday’s wins). Based on what you saw Tuesday and Tuesday before, which team is the best right now and which team has a higher cap?
North Carolina guard Leakey Black storms into a powerful one-handed jam.
Medcalf: I think North Carolina is the best team right now, as evidenced by recent wins over average ACC teams that Duke couldn’t beat before Tuesday’s win over Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels still have a young and inconsistent guard game, but it is improving significantly.
I still think Duke has a higher ceiling. I think Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson have the potential to keep Duke on track, as they did Tuesday against Georgia Tech, where they combined to make a 13 on 22. And DJ Stewart, who has scored 14 or more points in the team’s last four wins, could form the top trio in the coming weeks. North Carolina played 16 games, while Duke played 11. After 11 games this season, UNC has maintained a 7-4 lead after surviving a 2-4 run. Duke will continue to improve as the NCAA tournament approaches. And when that growth comes, the Blue Devils will have an advantage over their Tar Heel rivals.
Borzello: I got off the Duke train in early December (I last voted for the Blue Devils in the AP poll on December 7) and haven’t looked back. I thought the Blue Devils had some serious issues at the beginning of the season, including a real lack of identity, and that hasn’t changed. They don’t shoot well, have inconsistent guard play and won’t back down on defense. We’ll see if a win against Georgia Tech does anything, but I’ll be cautious.
On the other hand, I think North Carolina is starting to get the hang of things. The Tar Heels have won six of their last seven games; they are starting to find the balance they missed most of the season; and they have cut back on attrition, a major problem at the beginning of the season. Caleb Love wasn’t very good on Tuesday, but he only turned the ball over once. Kerwin Walton has added a pop perimeter since joining the starting team eight games ago. RJ Davis and Leakey Black are solid. Harrison Brooks isn’t playing at the level he was last season, but Brooks, Armando Baco and Day’Ron Sharp are still the best position trio in the country. Carolina is better than Duke now and should be in March.
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Gas way: I will support what my colleague Mr Borzello said. With Duke in 2021, it’s unclear how the Blue Devils plan to win. At least at North Carolina, it’s clear that the Tar Heels, as usual, want to break the offensive glass and get into the paint. Brooks and Beckot combined to score 37 points on just 21 shots against Pitt, and Sharp might be the team’s best rebounder. Of course, this UNC team is still thinking, and even after winning six of seven games, the numbers for shots on both sides of the arc in the CCA game are, well, unsightly. But at least the Talons are moving in the right direction, and two or three games above .500 in Conference seems feasible. Few would have thought we would be saying the same thing at the end of December.
Lunardi: If Duke and Carolina had played in the best-of-seven series, she would have been all over it. If they were the last two teams competing for a spot in the tournament before the NCAA’s qualifying committee, North Carolina would get the green light. Resin sales were better and more consistent than average. Hardly any support for two major game programs. Duke may have more potential, but we haven’t seen it yet.
What else did you notice Tuesday night?
Tennessee, ranked No. 18, devastated the offense with 12 of 20 layups and dunks and earned a narrow 56-53 victory over Mississippi State.
Medcalf: I still don’t know what to think of Tennessee. The Flights battled Mississippi State on Tuesday and won 56-53, but needed every second to win. Tennessee was named one of the best teams in America a few weeks ago. But the Waves have been in tears since they beat Missouri on the 30th. December won only 4:3. Two of those wins were against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, both of which are at the bottom of the championship standings. It will be interesting to see what happens this weekend against Kansas (Saturday, ESPN, 6 p.m. ET). Tennessee hasn’t looked like a candidate for the national title in weeks.
Borzello: Drake! The Bulldogs’ invincibility record was put to the test Tuesday night. After a 22-day hiatus, COVID-19 had to take on a Missouri State team that was 9-1 away from home. And it looked like they hadn’t played for weeks in the first half when MSU took a 17-point lead. But Drake picked up just 20 points in the second half and eventually won by seven points to win 14-0. Missouri State hosts a return game on Wednesday and then we can start thinking about the series with Loyola Chicago on 13 and 14. February is coming.
Gas way: Memphis won its third game in a row, 76-72 at home against SBU. The Tigers have an away game against Houston next month, and if Penny Hardaway’s men manage to win that game, things could get interesting. Memphis currently hides in the 70s in the NET rankings, but the best win the Americans have to offer would do wonders for M University’s profile. When the Tigers finally dance, their opponents will crush for the support that is released. This protection is real.
Lunardi: The number of teams tripping over the COWID-19 break continues to increase. Last weekend it was Richmond who lost at home to La Salle. Tuesday, it’s St. Louis who lost its return game against Dayton (also at home). Ask any coach and he will tell you: I have no idea how my guys will play in the first game. I think the NCAA should allow returning teams to participate in some sort of scrimmage or practice game to get the rust off. That’s why I think teams considering quitting their conference games should be careful what they wish for.