Six scores from Saturday that shook up league races

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source: AP

Some league leaders didn’t fare so well Saturday.

Three suffered their first losses of the season, while three more fell in crucial road games that either dropped them from the top of the standings or created opening for others. Just another packed weekend day in college basketball. You NFL fans just tuning in are gonna love it. (But more on that later.)

How crucial were the defeats? Let’s take stock.

Big 12: Missouri 74, Kansas 71
The day’s biggest game also had one if its most dramatic finishes and clutch performances (Marcus Denmon, take a bow) that gave the Big 12 race some added kick. Denmon scored 29 points, including three 3-pointers in the final 2:05 to rally the Tigers (21-2, 8-2) against their longtime rivals. More impressive? He wanted everyone to act like a win over the Jayhawks (18-5, 8-2) was a normal occurrence and didn’t warrant a court-rush.

Impact: Significant. Missouri, Kansas and Baylor (21-2, 8-2) are packed atop the Big 12 standings. The Jayhawks and Bears both seem bound for another two losses apiece (nasty road games coming up), while the Tigers get Baylor, K-State and Iowa State at home. Only a road game at Kansas looms as a likely loss. This may be the day where Missouri finally got within sight of a Big 12 title.

Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s 70, La Salle 66
Figures a Big 5 game would shake things up a bit. The Explorers (17-7, 6-3) couldn’t must a second-half comeback and lost sole possession of the A-10 lead in the process. Temple’s victory vs. Rhode Island makes it the league’s only two-loss team.

Impact: Crucial. The odds of La Salle running away with the A-10 were zero. But the chances of them staying in the hunt with a win Saturday were pretty good. Now the Explorers face a three-game stretch (at Richmond, vs. St. Louis, at UMasss) that easily could leave them at .500 in conference play. The Owls (17-5, 6-2) aren’t going to cruise to the regular-season crown, but they have a slightly easier path and one less loss.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa 65, Creighton 62
It seemed logical that the Blue Jays (21-3, 11-2) would lose another Valley game at some point, but most would’ve bet on Wichita State exacting revenge next weekend. Instead, the Panthers (16-9, 6-7) pulled out a thrilling win thanks to Anthony James’ 3-pointer at the buzzer (after Antoine Young’s 3 4.6 seconds earlier had tied the game). But hey, this kind of thing happens in the Valley.

Impact: Significant. Next week’s Creighton-WSU game takes on added importance now. The league’s two best teams (no other school is within four games) matchup in Omaha with the winner likely earning the top seed for Arch Madness? That’s some drama, brother. The only thing keeping it from being a high-stress situation is that both teams are likely headed for the NCAA tournament.

Mountain West: Wyoming 68, UNLV 66
Playing at a higher elevation does have its advantages. Unless you’re UNLV. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2) had their chances to avoid the upset, but couldn’t connect in the final seconds and now find themselves a game behind San Diego State. Wyoming (18-5, 4-3) didn’t seem overly worried about UNLV’s preferred up-tempo pace. Maybe that’s because playing at 7,200 feet doesn’t bode well for teams like that.

Impact: Significant. The MWC’s gone from two-team league to a deep, trying conference this season. Any edge is crucial, though UNLV does benefit by playing host to SDSU next weekend. Make up a game there and trips to New Mexico and Colorado State become more manageable.

MAAC: Iona 85, Manhattan 73
Technically not an upset (the Gaels were favored by 2.5 points; Kenpom had them losing by 1), this wasn’t a huge surprise given the talent gaps between the teams. Iona (19-5, 10-2) features three of the conference’s best players in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Momo Jones. Yes, they’d lost earlier in the season to Manhattan, at home even. But when they opened up a 19-point second-half lead, they weren’t about to blow it – like their 18-point lead earlier this season.

Impact: Crucial. Manhattan (17-8, 10-3) was one of two MAAC teams tied with Iona entering Saturday’s games. The other is Loyola (Md.), which plays host to the Gaels next Saturday. If the newly mature Iona team shows up – it’s all about focus for them – this conference race is over.

Sun Belt: Denver 75, Middle Tennessee 60
Another “non” upset (oddsmakers favored the Pioneers; Kenpom had it as a 1-point Denver loss), it was still Middle Tennessee’s first conference loss. The Blue Raiders’ only loss since Dec. 10 had been to Vandy (last weekend), but also lessening the surprise was their close victory against North Texas on Thursday. Maybe that’s why Denver closed out the final five minutes on a 14-5 run.

Impact: Minimal. The Blue Raiders (21-4, 10-1) are blessed to be in the league’s weaker division, avoiding the likes of Denver, North Texas, Arkansas-Little Rock and Louisiana Lafayette twice in a season. They’ll stil cruise to the division crown.

WAC: Idaho 72, Nevada 68
Forget the marquee teams. This was the stunner of the day. The Wolf Pack hadn’t lost since Nov. 25 (BYU), a stretch of 16 straight wins, including two against Pac-12 schools and their first eight WAC games. Nevada (at home!) was favored by 10.5. Kenpom had its chance of winning at 81 percent. Yet it was the Vandals (12-11, 5-4) who made the late plays and hit the shots for the win.

Impact: Moderate. Nevada (19-4, 8-1) still holds a two-game lead over New Mexico State and has already beaten the Aggies at their place. The Wolf Pack should still win the WAC, but this loss was certainly odd.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.