Want to prove you’re one of college basketball’s best teams? Maybe think about just staying home.
In a season with fewer elite teams than usual, home court advantage is as much a necessity as it is a luxury in league play. The first Saturday in January proved as much. Ten Top-25 teams hit the road. Seven – yes, SEVEN – of the 10 lost.
The biggest scalp was taken by NC State, which knocked off No. 2 Duke, 96-85. The Wolfpack handed the star-studded Blue Devils their second loss of the season – a defeat that dropped the ACC favorites to 1-2 in conference play.
But Duke wasn’t the only giant to be toppled. No. 5 Xavier fell to unranked Providence. Trae Young and No. 7 Oklahoma struggled with No. 6 West Virginia’s defensive pressure, and lost on the road, 89-76. No. 8 Virginia held No. 12 North Carolina to 49 points in Charlottesville, and took down the Tar Heels. No. 14 Arizona went to Colorado and saw its nine-game winning streak snapped.
Even No. 11 Texas A&M, playing at home, lost to unranked LSU on a miracle shot at the buzzer. That makes six top-15 teams that went down. And five of the six lost by nine points or more.
Late in the day, No. 10 Kansas barely avoided becoming the seventh at TCU. Devonte’ Graham came through down the stretch to hold off the 16th-ranked Horned Frogs, 88-84. But just outside the top 15, No. 17 Kentucky fell to No. 23 Tennessee. The Vols became the first team to beat the John Calipari-coached Wildcats at home three seasons in a row.
This is life in January. This is why teams can’t take conference games lightly. That’s the case every year, but perhaps this year more than ever.
Take a look at Providence’s 81-72 victory over Xavier, where one of the best scorers in the country got shut down for the final 20 minutes of the game. Trevon Bluiett (12 points) was held scoreless in the second half as the Musketeers fell to 15-2. Their No. 5 ranking might have been generous, given close calls against the likes of East Tennessee State and DePaul. Providence finally got over the hump as an underdog.
In Colorado’s 80-77 upset, the Buffaloes took a 45-29 lead at halftime before Arizona remembered to get the ball to Deandre Ayton (26 points, 11-17 FG). Sean Miller’s team mounted a second-half comeback, but fell short down the stretch, and Colorado coach Tad Boyle had some pointed comments after the win.
North Carolina, meanwhile, coughed up 19 turnovers while shooting below 30 percent in its 61-49 loss. The Tar Heels weren’t favored, so the result wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the Tar Heels came in averaging nearly 85 points per game. Virginia controlled the tempo, held UNC’s starting frontcourt to 12 points, held the Tar Heels as a team to 0.83 points per possession, and dealt them their second loss in as many games.
Oklahoma, likewise, faced a tough test against a fellow top-12 team. But the Sooners really struggled with Press Virginia. Young got 29, but on 8-of-22 shooting. Oklahoma was held under a point per possession for the first time since a Nov. 23 loss to Arkansas – the only other blemish on its 12-2 record.
And then there was Duke. The Blue Devils, for the most part, have been extremely impressive. They bested Florida State in a high-level game last weekend, and took down now-top-ranked Michigan State in conference play. But they’ve been far from perfect. They had to come back from double-digit deficits in the final 10 minutes in wins over Texas and Florida.
They tried to mount a similar late charge on Saturday, and got to within three on Gary Trent Jr.’s layup with four minutes remaining, but couldn’t get over the hump. Their defense, as it has threatened to be all season, was a problem. Mike Krzyzewski has the most efficient offense in college basketball, but his defense doesn’t even rank in the top 100. Its weakness is often disguised by the offense’s strength. NC State made sure it wouldn’t be this time. Kevin Keatts got his first ACC win, and NC State students got themselves another court storm.
— Jamie Shaw (@JamieShaw5) January 7, 2018
Saturday offered up excitement outside the Top 25 as well. Florida’s last-second victory at Mizzou was stunning to say the least.
As has been the case for most of the season, we’re bound to see some major shakeups in the polls. And there could yet be more upheaval Sunday. No. 1 Michigan State travels to unranked but 3-0-in-conference-play Ohio State. No. 4 Arizona State, coming off two consecutive losses, goes to Utah. Miami and Florida State meet in a Top-25 showdown.
The first full week of conference play isn’t even complete yet, but already, college basketball is as wild as ever.
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