Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. Embrace a New National Champion. The hustle and bustle of conference play boils down to one of two objectives: 1) scramble and fight and scrap your way into the NCAA Tournament; or, for the elite teams, 2) pile up enough evidence to be deemed worthy of a favorable draw and seed. The goal that ties those two together is reaching the championship game and, ideally, winning it. Kentucky made it look easy last season, and based on the way Calipari reloaded with another top recruiting class (albeit less heralded than the 2011 group), it was not unwise to believe he could do it again. That avenue remains open, in the crude sense that the Wildcats are still eligible for postseason competition. In actuality, the fate of their title defense season was sealed this weekend, when Kentucky allowed Texas A&M – a low-rung team in an uncharacteristically weak SEC – to deliver the Wildcats’ second home loss of the season. Given the talent at his disposal, and his experience in grooming, molding and motivating said talent, John Calipari could well propel his young team back into the national conversation. I just don’t see it. Saturday’s loss marked the unofficial retirement of UK’s faint repeat hopes. But don’t worry, next season’s rejiggered squad, anchored by what some are calling the greatest recruiting class of all time, can bring everything full circle. The championship trophy will not return to Lexington in March. That’s not official; it’s what my eyes tell me. There will be a new champion in 2013, and the weekend’s action shed more light on the race for that top prize.
Your Watercooler Moment. Number One Goes Down. (Wheelchair, Ahoy!)
The hyperbolic reviews surrounding Duke’s sterling nonconference performance were completely warranted. The Blue Devils navigated a minefield of ranked opponents, including three top five teams in a two- week span, and the conquest of an absolutely loaded Battle 4 Atlantis Field. Few teams have ever pieced together a November and December stretch with so many quality wins against so many good teams – wins that, in regard to Minnesota, VCU, Temple, Clemson and Santa Clara, are looking better and better by the week. The totality of accomplishment is almost immeasurable. The Blue Devils were thrust atop the polls and praised for their offensive efficiency. Mason Plumlee seized the early lead in the National Player Of The Year race. Seth Curry’s toughness (he has battled chronic leg pain all season) and resolve was eulogized. The outpouring of national praise almost made it feel like Duke was the only real team that mattered in the ACC. UNC had fallen off the map. NC State got tabbed with the “overrated” tag. Florida State was a sinking ship. What many seemed to conveniently forget was that the Wolfpack – the same team that (gasp!) lost to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor and at Michigan, causing large swaths of college hoops fans to write them off as a specious product of the preseason hype machine – were selected by the coaches and media in separate preseason polls to win the league outright. Those two early-season losses threw everyone off the Wolfpack bandwagon, which, come to think of it, might just be the best thing that ever happened to NC State’s season. While the nation fawned over Duke’s top-50 RPI wins and Plumlee’s double-doubles and Rasheed Sulaimon’s youthful verve, the Wolfpack were slowly, surely, methodically rounding into form. When the opportunity presented itself Saturday, as a Ryan Kelly-less Blue Devils team strolled into Raleigh, the Wolfpack did what every coach and media member predicted they’d do before the season began. They took care of the gaudy Blue Devils, and afterward, in the midst of a delirious post-game court-storming, the Wolfpack reveled in the culmination of their roller coaster season.
Also Worth Chatting About. Take Your Pick: Indiana or Michigan.
It required less than two weeks for conference competition to slay college basketball’s remaining unbeaten teams. Michigan had looked flawless in its first two Big Ten games, blowout wins over Northwestern and Iowa, generating all kinds of national championship hype along the way (the home win over Nebraska wasn’t as pretty, but it didn’t discredit the Wolverines’ glowing stature). Ohio State, meanwhile, exposed real flaws in a 19-point blowout loss at Purdue earlier in the week. Their faint hopes of pulling an upset at home against Michigan were, well, exactly that: faint. Michigan’s seeming invincibility, Ohio State’s disproportionate offense – any discussion of the Buckeyes invariably panned to a common concern over a lack of complementary scorers to supplement DeShaun Thomas – and the matchup advantages that implied, conveniently glossed over the fact that the Big Ten is a ruthless, rugged, unforgiving road, particularly when rivalries are involved. Ohio State’s victory proved, if nothing else, that the most extreme evaluations of each team to date – that Michigan is the best team in the country, and Ohio State a middle-pack-to-lower-tier Big Ten outfit – were a bit ambitious on both ends. In fact, the former trope may have been discredited before Michigan even took the floor Sunday, because Indiana, in its first real test since losing to Butler in early December, reminded everyone why the national consensus settled so firmly on the Hoosiers as the preseason number one team in the country. The final score at Assembly Hall Saturday will skew the reality of Indiana’s home toppling of Minnesota. The first half showcased an overwhelming offensive onslaught, fueled by rapid ball movement, aggressive and attentive defensive work, can’t-miss shooting aggressive and a booming home crowd. It was the epitome of Indiana’s basketball potential, bottled up into a 20-minute segment, unleashed on one of the nation’s best and most physical teams (Minnesota). An informal poll measuring the Big Ten’s best team following this weekend would favor Indiana, but I’m not so sure we can make that assumption based off two critical games. The conference season is a long and enduring grind. We’ll gather more evidence and draw that distinction later this winter. Deal?