PLAYER OF THE WEEK: R.J. Barrett, Duke
Barrett went out on Saturday evening and reminded everyone in the country that Duke is more than just Zion Williamson.
Playing on the road in front of a record crowd against a Syracuse team that had already beaten Duke once this season, Barrett popped off for 30 points and seven assists on 14-for-20 shooting from the floor and 2-for-5 shooting from three. He carried the Duke offense throughout the first half, as the team’s struggles from beyond the arc once again became the biggest talking point for a team that ranks near the bottom nationally in three-point percentage. Once Syracuse started to try and force the ball out of his hands, he became the facilitator, setting up the likes of Alex O’Connell — who scored 17 of his career-high 20 points in the second half — in a 75-65 win.
It was utterly dominant and a stark reminder that, yes, Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball, but that R.J. kid is pretty damn good, too.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Texas Tech Red Raiders
There is no team in the country that is currently hotter than Texas Tech is.
Three weeks ago, the Red Raiders went into Lawrence and got drubbed by Kansas, 79-63, in a game where they trailed by 25 points midway through the second half. They have won five games in a row since that loss by an average of 27 points, and in those five games, Texas Tech is shooting 58-for-124 (47%) from three. That run was capped by one of the most all-encompassing beatdowns that we have seen from anyone this season — a 91-62 evisceration of Kansas that put the Red Raiders a game up on the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings and in sole possession of second place, one game behind Kansas State.
On January 31st, Texas Tech ranked 101st in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. After this run, the Red Raiders now rank 47th.
I do not expect Tech to be able to continue shooting at this clip the rest of the season, but I do think that this group, with the way that they are capable of defending, is good enough to get to a Final Four and win the national title if they can continue to shoot anywhere near this well.
1. THERE ARE FIVE TEAMS IN THE TOP TIER
We reached an era where we love talking about tiers in college basketball, and I have to admit, I am one of those people that loves it the most.
So let’s do it.
As of today, there are five teams that are very clear sitting a cut above everyone else in the sport. There are five teams that we can call the favorites to win the national title. Let’s talk through them all:
1. DUKE: This is obvious. The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country when they are at full strength, and based on what we know about Zion Williamson’s knee injury, there is no reason to think that he won’t return to the lineup at some point soon. When Duke is hitting their threes, they are borderline unbeatable, but there is hardly a guarantee, on a night-by-night basis, that they are going to be hitting said threes. That’s where this weekend’s win over Syracuse becomes interesting: Alex O’Connell, the real AOC, hit five threes and scored 20 points. Is he the key that unlocks Duke’s Death Lineup?
2. GONZAGA: There is only one team in college basketball that has beaten a full strength Duke this season, and it is the Zags. Their depth up front took a hit when Killian Tillie went down for the second time, and there are some valid concerns about Josh Perkins, their ability to defend and whether or not we can trust a team that will end the season on a two month run of not being tested, but there is no questioning the talent they have or just how good they can be offensively.
3. VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers have lost twice this season, and both of those losses came against Duke. This is probably the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era, and I say that because De’Andre Hunter is an absolute monster that gives them the kind of lineup and matchup versatility the ‘Hoos have lacked in recent seasons. They are legit.
4. KENTUCKY: I’ve been on the ‘Kentucky is back’ bandwagon since they pummeled North Carolina two months ago. The rest of the world is catching up to me after the Wildcats pummeled Tennessee and Auburn on back-to-back Saturdays this month. With how good P.J. Washington has been for the last five weeks, the Wildcats are going to be a threat to beat anyone and everyone they see in March.
5. NORTH CAROLINA: If there is a questionable addition to this list, it’s probably the Tar Heels. I say that because we’ve seen North Carolina be somewhat inconsistent this year. But in the last week, UNC went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and pounded the same Duke team that won at Syracuse by 16 points. Then, on Saturday, they pounded a Florida State team that had won eight straight games. Luke Maye is starting to get it going. Nassir Little looks like he’s ready to turn a corner. This is a dangerous basketball team, one that looks like they are getting ready to peak at the right time.
2. SUNDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF MICHIGAN CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE
Everything was lining up for Michigan to make a run at winning the outright Big Ten regular season title this year. The Wolverines had four games left on their Big Ten schedule, with two of those games coming against the Spartans. Not only that, but the first of the two — on Sunday — came in Ann Arbor in a game where Michigan State was playing without Josh Langford and Nick Ward, their second- and third-best scorers. That meant all of their offense would be running through Cassius Winston, who was going to spend the afternoon dealing with Zavier Simpson, who is a pest when playing anyone, let alone his team’s biggest rival in a game that had Big Ten title implications.
And what happened?
Winston went for 27 points and eight assists as Michigan State went into Crisler Arena and pushed around the Wolverines. They won 77-70. They got what they wanted on the offensive end of the floor, especially down the stretch. They also made the Wolverines look utterly inept on the offensive end of the floor, and in the end, that’s their Achilles’ heel. It doesn’t matter how good Michigan is defensively if good teams are going to be able to stifle them offensively.
3. SATURDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF TENNESSEE CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE
The Volunteers climbed all the way to No. 1 in the nation by steamrolling the dregs of the SEC. Now that they are starting to play the teams at the top of the conference, things are … well, they are not going as well as the Vols had hoped. One week after going into Lexington and getting absolutely mollywhopped by Kentucky, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge, took on an LSU team that did not have Tremont Waters available and got precisely nothing out of their star big man Naz Reid and still found a way to lose.
I love the idea of this Tennessee team. They are a group of unheralded kids that have taken the nation by storm, winning an SEC title last year and 23 of their first 24 games this year. But the more I watch the Vols, the more I think that there is a ceiling for this team that isn’t as high as some of the teams they are going to see in the Elite Eight and beyond. They aren’t guarding like they did a year ago, and while they have been uber-efficient on the offensive end of the floor this season, the things they do well can be taken away far too easily.
This is the first time all year I’m officially worried.
4. KANSAS STATE IS ONE WIN AWAY FROM WINNING THE BIG 12
Tonight’s game in Phog Allen Fieldhouse might just be the biggest game that Bruce Weber has coached since he took Bill Self’s Illinois team to the national title game in 2005. He’s going into Lawrence with a one-game lead on Texas Tech and a two-game lead on Kansas in the race to be the first team to win an outright Big 12 title since 2004, the first year that Self was at Kansas after leaving the Illini.
And the game couldn’t come at a better time.
Kansas is coming off of a 29 point loss at Texas Tech on Saturday. Kansas State is coming off of a 39 point win over Oklahoma State. They haven’t won in Lawrence since 2006. This is the game-changer.
5. JAY WRIGHT DOESN’T KNOW THAT YOU ARE ALLOWED TO SHOOT TWO-POINTERS
You live by the three, you die by the three, and over the course of the last three game, Jay Wright’s team has been murdered by the three-ball. They have now lost three games in a row — to St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown — and four of their last five, falling two games off of the pace set by Marquette at the top of the Big East.
And while some will look at this and say that it is proof that Villanova’s start to conference play was inflated by who they were playing, I think the bigger issue is that teams have figured out what Villanova wants to do and Jay Wright hasn’t found an answer yet.
On the season, the Wildcats are shooting 53.2 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, the second-highest percentage in the country. But during this three-game losing streak, 109 of their 178 field goal attempts — a whopping 61.3 percent — have been three-balls. They have made just 30, or 27.5 percent, of those threes during the losing streak.
Villanova can’t find ways to score inside the arc, and because of that, they are being forced to shoot contested threes.
That’s a bad combination of things.