There was only one logical way to end a college basketball weekend that had already produced head-scratching losses from so many of the sport’s blue-blooded titans.
Down went top-ranked Michigan State on Sunday evening, and in one-sided fashion no less.
Ohio State’s 80-64 rout of the visiting Spartans didn’t merely highlight the remarkable job new coach Chris Holtmann has done developing the unheralded collection of players he inherited from Thad Matta this summer. The result also provided further evidence that this college basketball season features plenty of good teams but no great ones.
In a dizzying, upset-riddled week in college basketball, four of the nation’s top five teams suffered unexpected losses at the hands of unranked foes. Besides Michigan State, second-ranked Duke surrendered 96 points in a loss at NC State, fourth-ranked Arizona State fell in overtime at Colorado and fifth-ranked Xavier played from behind from nearly start to finish in a loss at Providence.
Of course, the carnage was by no means limited to the top five in the polls. Twelve of the top 17 teams in the AP poll have suffered losses since Monday, a list that includes some of the sport’s most notable programs, from Kansas, to North Carolina, to Arizona, to Kentucky.
Whereas most recent seasons have featured at least one team with an unbeaten record deep into conference play, the dream of an undefeated national champion this season died before New Year’s Eve. Now there are only six one-loss teams remaining: Villanova, Virginia, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Clemson and Auburn.
One explanation for this week’s chaos is that it’s early in conference play and many top teams are still playing their first true road games against quality opponents. The other is that so many of the sport’s traditional powers have glaring flaws that make them more vulnerable than usual.
Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley give Duke the nation’s most explosive offense, but the Blue Devils’ defense is a complete mess. They’re currently allowing 1.21 points per possession in ACC play, dead last among the conference’s 15 teams.
With top freshman Billy Preston still ineligible and midseason addition Silvio De Sousa not yet ready to play, Kansas lacks any semblance of frontcourt depth behind Udoka Azubuike. The Jayhawks also lack a surefire NBA draft pick on their roster for the first time in awhile.
Kentucky replaced last season’s top seven scorers with a freshman class that may not be quite at the same level as previous star-studded editions. North Carolina is more inexperienced in the frontcourt than ever before under Roy Williams. Arizona’s point guard play remains a concern, as does a defense that has improved since November yet remains only ordinary.
Before this weekend’s carnage, Villanova and Michigan State were widely considered the two most complete teams in the country. The soon-to-be-top-ranked Wildcats did hold off Marquette at home, but they’re not defending as well as previous Villanova teams have. Meanwhile the Spartans laid an egg in their first true road game of the season against an opponent not named Rutgers.
Keita Bates-Diop erupted for 32 points for Ohio State, strengthening his early bid for Big Ten player of the year honors. The Spartans misfired consistently from behind the arc, while the Buckeyes enjoyed more success scoring at the rim against Michigan State than any other team has this season.
The lack of a dominant team in college basketball has some pros and cons for the sport.
On one hand, the public is often drawn to juggernauts like North Carolina’s 2009 national title team or Kentucky’s most formidable teams of the John Calipari era. On the other hand, the slimmer-than-usual margin between the top teams and everyone else suggests this year’s NCAA tournament should be especially unpredictable and action-packed.
In a year when there doesn’t appear to be any truly elite teams, everyone has hope.
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