What We Learned From a High-Stakes Saturday of College Hoops
It was a loaded Saturday in college basketball, and the afternoon and night largely delivered, from Duke flexing its muscle on the road, to Marquette getting a thrilling win on a defensive stand, to an early-evening edition of #Pac12AfterDark. We're at the point in the season where pretty much all major games have significant stakes tied to them, whether it's the teams fighting for a No. 1 or No. 2 NCAA tournament seed or the ones just trying to get off the bubble. Let us catch you up on everything you might have missed and what it means going forward.
Michigan Gets Revenge … and a Leg Up in the Big Ten Race
The No. 6 Wolverines avenged their first loss of the season by pulling away late to beat No. 19 Wisconsin at home, 61–52. Unsurprisingly, it was a defensive battle in Ann Arbor, with Michigan ultimately getting the upper hand thanks to big second-half performances from two players: Charles Matthews and Jon Teske.
After Ethan Happ torched the Wolverines for 14 points before halftime on 7-for-10 shooting, Teske helped shut the senior down in the second half, holding Happ to four points on 2-for-9 shooting, while also adding 17 points and 12 rebounds on the afternoon. Michigan also cracked down defensively on the perimeter, limiting the Badgers to just 12 three-point attempts overall—Wisconsin’s fewest since a November game against Virginia.
Matthews, meanwhile, came alive in the final 20 minutes to snap out of a mini-slump he’s been in. He scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, including getting a number of key buckets in the closing minutes to help seal the win. Matthews’s performance is exactly what Michigan has needed of late, as it’s looked to get back to more consistency on offense.
The win put the Wolverines alone atop the Big Ten at 11–2, though Purdue has played one fewer game and also has only two losses. Michigan has a tough remaining schedule, with two games apiece with Michigan State and Maryland, but it’s in excellent position for a double bye in the conference tournament, if not at least a share of the crown.
Kentucky Lands a Perfect 10
The Wildcats continued their march back to contender status by hanging on for their 10th straight win, a 71–67 road victory at Mississippi State. Trailing by as many as 18 at one point, the Bulldogs rallied on multiple occasions, but were always met with an answer by Kentucky. Sophomore big man PJ Washington continued his stellar play of late for the ‘Cats, posting 23 points and hitting all three of his attempts from the outside. He’s now scored at least 10 points in eight straight games, and is averaging 20.8 over his last six, playing up to the level that many anticipated ever since he announced he was returning for a second season in blue and white.
Kentucky can now shift its focus to a huge week back in Lexington, with home games against No. 21 LSU (on Tuesday) and No. 1 Tennessee (Saturday). The matchups will have a major impact on the SEC race, where the Vols currently lead at 10–0 and the Wildcats and Tigers sit right behind at 9–1. They’ll also be key in Kentucky’s very-real chase for a No. 1 seed in March. No matter what, this team has clearly proven how much its grown since getting demolished at the Champions Classic; now, it can take a further step by knocking off one of the nation's very best.
UNC Shows Mettle in Surviving a Scare
With a massive showdown against Virginia coming on Monday night, the Tar Heels were facing a bit of a trap game at home against Miami on Saturday afternoon. The Hurricanes nearly left Chapel Hill with a win, and likely would have were it not for a game-tying three to force overtime by senior Luke Maye. It would have been a bad loss for UNC, as Miami sits tied for last in the ACC at 2–9, but instead Roy Williams’s squad squeaked out an 88–85 win to remain tied with Duke for the conference lead at 9–1.
It was far from North Carolina’s best effort on either end, but the Heels were saved by 33 points from freshman Coby White, who made 7 of 10 threes to lead the team’s 50% day from the perimeter. And there’s something to be said for UNC getting put on the ropes by Chris Lykes (who finished with 27) and the Hurricanes and responding by coming out on top. A bigger test now awaits in less than 48 hours against a Virginia team coming off a loss to Duke, the first time this season the Tar Heels will face either the Hoos or the Blue Devils.
Duke Blitzes Virginia From...the Perimeter?
The No. 2 Blue Devils turned in their best three-point-shooting day of the season in Charlottesville, connecting on 13 of 21 attempts (61.9%) in an 81–71 win over No. 3 Virginia. It’s easy to picture Duke never matching that mark again this season—and almost certainly not the 8-for-11 effort it had from three in the first half—and yet, does it matter? The Blue Devils turned it over 15 times, yet stole the ball 12 times from a team that ranks in the top 10 in offensive turnover rate. Time and time again as UVA tried to claw back into it, Duke had an answer on the other end, shooting 54.2% inside the arc and grabbing the offensive rebound on more than a third of its overall misses. Coach K’s team now owns a season sweep of Virginia—that is, unless the Hoos get one more crack in the ACC tournament.
LSU Tops Auburn in Key SEC Battle of the Tigers
Auburn loves to do two things to find success: play fast and hit threes. It did both on the road at LSU on Saturday, yet still fell, 83–78, thanks to 19 turnovers and a large disparity at the free throw line. Losing on the road to a top-25 team is perfectly acceptable, but it was yet another opportunity missed by Auburn to grab a marquee victory this season. It still doesn’t have a win over a team that seems secure for an NCAA tournament bid, which is pretty concerning in February.
LSU, meanwhile, is still fully in the mix in the SEC race as it gears up for a crucial trip to Lexington to face Kentucky on Tuesday. LSU is also short on truly marquee wins this season, but is in better current shape than Auburn. A win at Kentucky would go a long, long way for March seeding.
The Big 12 Gets Even More Puzzling
Every time it looks like a team in the Big 12 could have an advantage this season, something seems to quickly pull them back to the pack. Iowa State entered Saturday with a favorable schedule to make a run at first, and instead fell at home to TCU, 92–83, to drop into a three-way tie for second. The Horned Frogs lit up the Cyclones’ defense with 1.21 PPP, the most an opponent had scored on Iowa State in two months. Freshmen starters Tyrese Haliburton and Talen Horton-Tucker combined for just seven points and the offense turned it over 15 times.
Meanwhile, short-handed Kansas made sure not to slip up at home against Oklahoma State, keeping pace in the conference race at 7–4. The Jayhawks have had a brutal last couple weeks, getting bad news on Silvio De Sousa, having senior Lagerald Vick take a leave of absence for personal matters and also missing Marcus Garrett on Saturday due to an ankle injury. The Jayhawks made do, though, knocking down 11 of 29 threes and getting 23 points (and five threes) from recent freshman revelation Ochai Agbaji. In Waco, their in-state rival, Kansas State, handed Baylor its second straight loss to put some cushion between it and the rest, leading a trio of challengers by two games in the loss column. The Wildcats have a challenging remaining schedule, but are now in the driver's seat for their first regular season title since they shared the crown with Kansas in 2013.
Gonzaga Gets Bad News
Before the Zags took the floor for Saturday night’s matchup with Saint Mary’s, it was announced that forward Killian Tillie would likely miss the rest of the regular season, and possibly postseason, with a partially torn plantar fascia. The news is obviously a blow for the Bulldogs, as Tillie was their second-leading scorer and top three-point shooter a season ago.
Tillie missed the first 15 games this season with a stress fracture in his foot, and discussion of Gonzaga’s ceiling was often tempered with the realization that the Zags weren’t yet at full strength. Now, it appears, full strength may never arrive. Even in the nine games that Tillie has played this year, he’s been clearly rusty, averaging 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds and shooting just 30% from three (he shot 48% as a sophomore).
Now, the Bulldogs know that they may not get Tillie back at all, and if they do, he’s likely not going to suddenly take on his sophomore form. It’s obviously a bad break for a program with legitimate national title hopes, but all is far from lost. Gonzaga beat Duke at the Maui Invitational without Tillie, after all, and the emergence of Brandon Clarke alongside Rui Hachimura in the frontcourt has been a massive development. Without Clarke’s presence, the absence of Tillie would have been felt far more, and he should continue to play a key role in unlocking this team’s potential.
Meanwhile, on the court Saturday night, the Bulldogs put an absolute whooping on Saint Mary's, winning 94-46. The Gaels aren't the team we're used to seeing in recent years, with 10 losses and no shot at an at-large NCAA tournament bid, but they're far from pushovers. Saint Mary's entered the day ranked No. 40 on kenpom and with the nation's No. 11 efficient offense, and Gonzaga absolutely demolished them. Tillie or no Tillie, don't underestimate this team.
Michigan State Rights the Ship at Home
The Spartans snapped a surprising three-game skid by dispatching Minnesota at home, 79–55. A loss here would’ve signaled the alarm in East Lansing, but instead they easily handled the Gophers. A left arm injury that led to the early exit of leading rebounder Kenny Goins brought concern, but X-rays fortunately showed no break. MSU has a big road trip to play Wisconsin in Madison on Tuesday, but still two weeks before it faces in-state rival Michigan for the first of two times this year.
Marquette Beefs Up Its Résumé
Marquette may be behind Villanova in the Big East standings, but there’s a reason it entered the day ranked higher than the Wildcats in the eyes of the Selection Committee. ‘Nova had won 11 straight games, but how many of those truly moved the needle? Outside of their November win over Florida State on a neutral court—no doubt an excellent one—their best win this year would likely be considered St. John’s at home, a team that is No. 40 in the NET rankings and No. 51 on kenpom. The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, have non-conference wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo to hang their hat on, and now added a thrilling win over the Wildcats on Saturday.
FSU Outlasts Louisville in Overtime
Despite getting zero combined points from Phil Cofer, PJ Savoy and Christ Koumadje, the Seminoles battled back from a 10-point deficit with 10 minutes to go to force overtime with Louisville, eventually winning 80–75 in Tallahassee. Florida State has now gone from a 1–4 start in the ACC to being 6–4 and winners of five straight. Sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele continued his breakout play of late, scoring 22 off the bench and adding seven rebounds, while Terance Mann scored 20 and went 3-of-4 from three. The loss dropped Louisville to 8–3 in the ACC, one game behind Virginia and two behind Duke and UNC, right before the Cardinals welcome the Blue Devils to the KFC Yum! Center for a showdown on Tuesday.
Nevada Gets Revenge on New Mexico, With Authority
The Wolf Pack made sure there would be no repeat embarrassment when they faced New Mexico this time around, turning the tables on January’s surprising blowout by routing the Lobos in Reno, 91–62. Nevada had shut the door by halftime with a 51–26 lead, and all five starters ended the night in double figures, as well as Jazz Johnson off the bench. A road trip to Utah State on March 2 feels like the only potential obstacle to Nevada closing the regular season on a 16-game winning streak.
Clemson Gets the Win It Desperately Needed
Entering Saturday, Clemson’s best win this season was over … Lipscomb. Now, the Bison are a legit team out of the Atlantic Sun, but it’s never a good sign when a Power 5 team is calling that its best win in February. A thin résumé is why the Tigers have been firmly on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble so far, which is why Saturday’s 59–51 home win over Virginia Tech was so important for them.
Despite a disappointing season so far, Clemson still has a chance to right the ship and get to the dance. It’s ranked 30th on kenpom and (entering Saturday) 43rd in the NET, right alongside fellow bubble teams in the latter. The Hokies were missing No. 2 scorer Justin Robinson on Saturday, but it’s still a clear résumé-builder for the Tigers, who now hit the road for clashes with Miami and Louisville next week.
Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman Goes Off
The Pride’s 16-game winning streak was snapped at Northeastern last weekend, but the CAA leaders got back in the win column with back-to-back victories this week, including rallying to beat William & Mary on Saturday. After a couple of recent uncharacteristic games by the nation’s third-leading scorer, Justin Wright-Foreman—he had “only” 15 and 16 points—the senior exploded for a career-high 48 against the Tribe. Wright-Foreman hit 7 of 12 threes, 9 of 12 twos and 9 of 11 free throws to complete his big day, lifting Hofstra to a 93–87 win. The Pride are now 11–1 in the CAA and remain a potentially dangerous low seed should they make the NCAA tournament.
Utah Stuns UCLA at the Buzzer
The game had little to do with the NCAA tournament picture, as both the Utes and Bruins need a miracle (aka winning the Pac-12 tournament) if they want to go dancing, but Utah provided some of the biggest fireworks of the day when it erased a 22-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining and shocked UCLA on Parker Van Dyke's buzzer-beating three. It's the latest thing that's gone wrong for the Bruins in a season that also, of course, included the firing of Steve Alford, but a big win for a Utah team that has overachieved (even in a very down Pac-12) at 7–4 in conference.
Arizona State Rides the Roller Coaster
Just three days after a nightmare 21-point home loss to Washington State, Arizona State bounced back by handing Washington its first Pac-12 loss, 75-63. Romello White, who scored just four points against Wazzu, had 17 to lead the way on Saturday, and Luguentz Dort added 15. Coming off a defeat to the Cougars and with five of their final seven games on the road, the Sun Devils likely needed to beat the Huskies to stay on decent footing in the at-large picture (don't forget, they have non-conference wins over Kansas and Mississippi State), and the win revived hope that the Pac-12 won't be a one-bid league. Washington couldn't find enough offense as its 12-game win streak came to an end, but it should still be in good enough shape heading down the stretch.
...and Washington State Wins Again?
In case you were wondering just how bizarre this Pac-12 season has been...
Congrats to Washington State, which may be 10–14 overall this season and just 3–8 in the worst major conference, but has now made history this week and earned back-to-back Pac-12 wins for the first time since 2017.