Duke remains the sport’s biggest conundrum, the most talented starting five in the country, the only team to beat Michigan State and the team with the biggest ceiling in college basketball. But the Blue Devils’ issues continue to come to the forefront, most noticeably on the defensive end. NC State scored 1.28 points per possession against Duke on Saturday, a week after Florida State hit 1.14 points per possession and a month after Boston College dropped 1.20. Through three ACC games, Duke is allowing nearly 93 points per game. That’s not going to win anything in March, regardless of Duke’s offense. The Blue Devils really struggle to guard dribble penetration, can’t contain pick-and-rolls and don’t have any consistent rim protectors.
Mike Krzyzewski isn’t exactly shuffling his lineups to find an answer, either -- he wants his main five to figure it out. That’s something he has alluded to all season, telling ESPN after Duke’s win over Indiana in late November that the development of the starting five is paramount. He wants them to get comfortable playing 30-plus minutes apiece, not relying on the bench, in preparation for the NCAA tournament.
If Duke continues to play defense like it did on Saturday, though, the Blue Devils won’t have to worry about getting worn down in the tournament.
They won’t be there long enough.
Duke’s shocker wasn’t the only storyline on a drama-filled Saturday.
West Virginia tops Young, Oklahoma
Despite 29 points from No. 7 Oklahoma's Trae Young, No. 6 West Virginia goes on to win 89-76.
Young’s stat line doesn’t look bad at all: 29 points, four rebounds, five assists.
But West Virginia made life for the Wooden Award favorite absolutely miserable in the Mountaineers’ 89-76 win. Jevon Carter, arguably the country’s best on-ball defender, began the game by face-guarding Young on the first few possessions, not even letting him get the ball. “Press Virginia” was physical with Young all game, bumping him, grabbing him, doing everything it could to frustrate him. And it worked. Young’s field goal percentage (8-for-22) was his lowest since the Sooners’ season opener. He had a season-high eight turnovers. And his five assists were tied for a season-low.
West Virginia basically dared Young to make a contested shot or have a teammate create a shot for himself. The Mountaineers weren’t going to get beat on drive-and-kick 3-pointers off Young’s penetration. And Young wasn’t getting consistent help. Brady Manek didn’t score a single point and took only two shots. Christian James had seven points. Kameron McGusty had 10 points on eight shots. Young is terrific, but he can’t do it on his own. In Oklahoma’s previous key wins, his supporting cast came up big: Manek had 21 points against Wichita State and 28 against Oklahoma State; McGusty had 22 against TCU; and James had hit double-figures in 13 of his first 14 games. The open looks just weren’t there on Saturday for Oklahoma.
Young will look to learn from Saturday’s experience. He was visibly frustrated at times in the first half, and let Carter and the veterans from West Virginia get in his head and win the mental battle. He forced things at times when nothing easy was coming. Things got better after halftime, though, and he’ll continue to adjust.
Oh, and he won’t have to face Carter and Press Virginia again -- until Feb. 5.
Colorado snaps Arizona's 9-game winning streak
Deandre Ayton's 26 points are not enough as McKinley Wright IV's double-double leads Colorado past No. 14 Arizona 80-77.
Xavier gets into the top five, will fall out of the top five
Xavier tied a program record by moving up to No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The Musketeers won’t break the program record, after falling 81-72 at Providence.
The Musketeers had flirted with close games the past few weeks, winning six games in a row by 10 points or fewer, needing double-digit second-half comebacks in two. All-American candidate Trevon Bluiett couldn’t bring Xavier back late in the game and was concerningly quiet after halftime, scoring zero points on four shots in the second half. Chris Mack has been able to rely on a number of secondary options in the last month, with stalwarts Bluiett and JP Macura shouldering most of the load. But Xavier won’t be able to survive if those two combine for only 21 points.
Xavier now has to go to Villanova on Wednesday, and the Musketeers have lost by 23, 13, 31 and 25 points in road games at Villanova since entering the Big East. Mack will need bounce-back games from Bluiett and Macura.
Colorado’s big week
Forty-eight hours later, Tad Boyle’s team has notched back-to-back upsets over Arizona State and Arizona. Freshman point guard McKinley Wright might be the most underrated star newcomer in the country. He had 19 points and five assists against Arizona State, and followed that up with 16 points and 10 assists against Arizona. Wright was originally committed to Dayton but reopened his recruitment when Archie Miller left for Indiana.
Speaking of the Millers, Archie’s brother, Sean, had some interesting comments following the game. “Our guys, they really struggle playing for me -- they really do,” Miller said. “I can’t get them to play hard.”
Arizona had won nine games in a row before Saturday, so it’s not the end of the world, but the comments are certainly not a great sign. Maybe there’s something to it, though: This year’s Wildcats are worse defensively than any outfit since Miller’s first season in Tucson in 2010.
Someone figure out the SEC, please
There’s simply no rhyme or reason to what has been going on in the SEC the first week-plus of conference play. Alabama beat Texas A&M by 22 last weekend, then turned around and lost to Vanderbilt and Georgia this week. Texas A&M was perhaps the conference favorite entering league play, but the Aggies are now 0-3 in the SEC after Tremont Waters’ game-winning 3 for LSU. Kentucky lost to Tennessee by 11. Auburn and Florida continue to roll. Mississippi State beat Arkansas and then lost to Ole Miss. Arkansas beat Tennessee last weekend and then lost to Mississippi State and Auburn this week.
Top to bottom, the SEC might be the deepest league in the country. All 14 teams are capable of beating one another, as we’ve shown. There might not be a national title contender in the bunch, though, especially with the way A&M is playing and Kentucky’s inconsistency. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we saw 10 teams or so with at least bubble hopes heading into March.
Right now, Florida and Auburn are playing the best basketball in the league. Florida seems to have shaken off its early-December issues, with two road wins this week. Bruce Pearl has done a terrific job with Auburn, as the Tigers have rattled off 12 wins in a row, including wins over Tennessee and Arkansas this week.
This time next week, though? It’s anyone’s guess who will be considered the best in the SEC.
Kansas ends skid with win at TCU
We don’t have to totally bury Kansas’ season just yet, as the Jayhawks bounced back from their 12-point home loss to Texas Tech with a road win at TCU. A loss to the Horned Frogs would have sounded the alarms in Lawrence, but they can take a rest for now -- especially since Kansas returns home for games against Iowa State and Kansas State this week.
There has been a weird trend for Kansas this season, though. The Jayhawks’ best performances have come away from home. Road wins over TCU and Texas. Beating Kentucky in Chicago. Beating Syracuse in Miami. We’ll see if that changes this week.
By the way, TCU has now dropped two of three since starting 12-0. It doesn’t get any easier for the Horned Frogs, either, as they travel to Texas and Oklahoma in their next two games. Jamie Dixon has done a great job with TCU, but things could get interesting in the next couple weeks.