Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. Parity Rocks Conference PlayThe theme of this college basketball season isn’t going away. There are no dominant teams. From Indiana to Duke to Louisville, or whoever else inherits the top spot in the rankings this season, their stay won’t be a long one. But what we’re seeing this season is about more than big-time upsets. Not every surprising result is a top-five stunner. It’s the parity in conference play that makes pegging conference frontrunners and Final Four contenders so adventurous. The insanity continued over the weekend, and frankly, I don’t envision it stopping any time soon. This – hotly-tested games, minimal gaps between the best and worst of each league, contested conference races, no clear favorites – is college basketball at its finest. It comes at you from so many different angles, so many different time zones, so many different TV channels. It gives you unranked Villanova knocking off two top-five teams in a week, and UCLA losing to the little-brother Arizona school two days after beating big brother, and Marshall Plumlee and Alex Len engaging in mid-game dunk warfare. And then, just when you’ve seen enough, it brings you another healthy heaping throughout the week. Before we get there, the weekend brought us plenty to dissect and deliberate. Time to dive in.
Your Watercooler Moment. Villanova Strikes Again.
Two top-five upsets highlighted an excellent week for the Wildcats (Photo credit: Getty Images).
There is no rational explanation for why Villanova was able to take down not just one but both of the Big East’s best teams this week. The Wildcats are still worlds away from the perimeter-oriented teams that fared so well under Jay Wright over the past decade. But they got those wins, and now Villanova’s season is headed in an entirely different direction. A week ago, the Wildcats were licking their wounds after dropping consecutive games against Pittsburgh and at Providence. The first was predictable and totally understandable; the second one hurt. It hurt not just because you’d rather not lose to a talented but young Providence team on the road under any circumstance, but because the rigorous two-game stretch that loomed left the possibility for a sustained losing streak. That rigor, in hindsight, was ‘Nova’s upset gold. And the weirdest part: Louisville and Syracuse, both ranked in the top-six in Kenpom’s defensive efficiency rankings entering Saturday, are about as upset-proof as tom-five teams come this season. Sure, the Cardinals’ offense betrays them from time to time, and when the bad, turnover-proned, wacky Russ Smith overwhelms the All American-level star we’ve seen in large stretches this season, Rick Pitino’s team can lose. And yes, the Orange have their warts, especially without their best shooter, James Southerland. But that baseline defensive commonality buffers against bad shooting nights, against 25-point games from Darrun Hilliard and poor late-game foul management. Seeing one of these teams go down in Philadelphia would have been run of the mill stuff for this season. But two, both lorded over by hall of fame coaches with decades of upset-avoiding wisdom at their disposal? Can’t say I saw this coming.
Also Worth Chatting About. Bruins Still Maturing.
As the season rolls on, the Bruins will continue to get better (Photo credit: AP Photo).
Swinging through a late-week road trip bookended with games at the two Arizona schools without a loss was a pipedream from the start. UCLA is an explosive offensive team, flush with talented freshmen and a handful of valuable role players, plus a much-improved defense. It is not the best team in the Pac-12; at least not yet. By season’s end, Ben Howland’s team is the odds-on favorite to own that title, but the Bruins have a few tweaks to make before they reach their peak. They won the more important of the two games, beating Arizona Saturday in relatively comfortable fashion, and that’s the biggest takeaway from this brutal two-game stretch. UCLA, like its Pac 12 challengers (Oregon, Arizona), is not experienced or balanced enough to stroll through conference play without a few hiccups along the way. Besides, Arizona State is quietly playing some excellent hoops on both ends of late; the Sun Devils entered Saturday making exactly half of their two-point shots, tops in the Pac 12. If Jordan Bachynski is going to give you 22 points and 15 rebounds, Carrick Felix adds 23 and 11, and David Wear can’t hold his side of the bargain (five points on 2-for-12 shooting), competing – much less winning – is a dubious goal.
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