The holidays and finals are finally fully behind us, and that means conference play has begun in earnest around the country. The games in November and December are nice, but here are when things really ratchet up and get interesting. Here’s what you need to know from Thursday.
BAD NIGHT FOR FRINGE TOP-25 BIG TEN TEAMS
Unless you’re No. 21 Indiana, which fought off a spirited effort from Illinois to claim 73-65 win at Assembly Hall. Iowa and Wisconsin were not so fortunate.
First, the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery’s team has probably been over-ranked since beating so-so Oregon and UConn teams in November, but what they’ve endured their last two road games really drives the point home. They lost by 22 in East Lansing to Michigan State in December – hey, it happens – but they were absolutely dismantled by a good-but-not-great Purdue team Thursday. Carsen Edwards had 21 points and the Boilermakers shot 53.2 percent from the floor. The Hawkeyes now rank 120th defensively on KenPom, a number that will almost assuredly keep them out of the NCAA tournament. So will a stat like this:
It might be time to start wondering just how good 22nd-ranked Wisconsin is, especially after the Badgers’ ugly performance in a 59-52 loss to Minnesota at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin’s best win came on a neutral against Oklahoma in November, and now they’ve dropped back-to-back games after losing to Western Kentucky last week. The offense looked incredibly clunky against the Gophers, especially when potential All-American Ethan Happ was at the foul line, where the 50 percent free-throw shooter made just one of seven attempts. Happ had 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks, but if he’s going to be a disaster at the line, it’s going to be a major problem late in games for the Badgers.
Wisconsin has always been prone to total offensive collapses from time-to-time, but given how much they struggled last year, it might be worth monitoring now. As for Minnesota, the Gophers are putting together a nice NCAA tournament resume with wins against Washington and Nebraska already recorded. Amir Coffey looked like a stud, too, going for 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
ARIZONA STATE STARTING TO SLIDE
Our guy Scott Phillips spent a considerable number of words earlier Thursday explaining just how bad the Pac-12 is this year. It’s one-bid bad, which is just astounding for a conference purported to be among the most powerful in the country. You know what’s not going to help that perception? Arizona State slinking back to mediocrity for the second-straight year.
The Sun Devils has given away any good will they engendered when they knocked off Kansas on Dec. 22 with a second-consecutive loss, this one a 96-86 setback at home to Utah. That, of course, comes on the heels of a 67-66 home loss to Princeton last week. And all of that come son the heels of Arizona State’s 1-6 finish to the season last year.
The Pac-12 is bad, as evidenced by one of its best teams being, well, not good.
SAN FRANCISCO CONTINUES TO BUILD ITS CASE
Staying out on the west coast, let’s take a moment to talk about San Francisco, which defeated St. Mary’s 76-72 to improve to 13-2 on the year with a neutral-site loss to Buffalo and an away L to UC Santa Barbara. The Dons have beaten Harvard, Cal and Stanford, and now sit in the top-45 of KenPom with a win over one of the WCC’s stalwarts.
They’ve got Pepperdine on the road this weekend before a week off and the most monumental game of its season, with No. 7 Gonzaga coming to play in the Bay. Beating the Zags is a major ask, but if the Dons can do it, their at-large resume starts to look pretty sweet, especially when put up against some of their allegedly Power 5 west coast brethren.
Bill Russell’s alma mater getting it done.