Eight snap judgments from an eventful college basketball weekend

The Dagger
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/120693/" data-ylk="slk:Bryce Alford">Bryce Alford</a> helped UCLA torch Michigan for 102 points Saturday night (AP)
Bryce Alford helped UCLA torch Michigan for 102 points Saturday night (AP)

Three Big East teams won marquee games. UCLA and Michigan put on a first-half shooting display for the ages. Shorthanded North Carolina survived a scare.

It was an eventful weekend in college basketball. Here are eight snap judgments:

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1. UCLA’s offense is the nation’s most lethal

How demoralizing must the halftime score have been for Michigan on Saturday night? The Wolverines shot 65.5 percent from the field, buried 12 of 16 attempts from behind the arc and jogged to the locker room tied with UCLA after Lonzo Ball knocked down a long 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.

While Michigan’s torrid shooting slowed down in the second half, UCLA maintained its pace. The second-ranked Bruins scored an astonishing 1.59 points per possession over the course of the game and pulled away for a 102-84 victory.

Saturday’s performance against a Michigan team that had been solid defensively cemented UCLA as the nation’s most efficient offense. The freewheeling, hot-shooting Bruins are bringing “Showtime” basketball back to Los Angeles by averaging 97.5 points per game and a national-best 1.25 points per possession.

In addition to his contagious eagerness to push the pace and make the extra pass, Ball’s presence at point guard has allowed Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to do what they do best — play off ball, run off screens and look to score. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf has also emerged as multifaceted scorer capable of knocking down pick-and-pop mid-range jumpers or baby hooks from the low block.

2. Josh Hart isn’t just a player of the year candidate — he’s the early favorite.  

In a season in which nobody had emerged as a clear-cut early frontrunner in the national player of the year race, Villanova’s Josh Hart may have just changed that. The best player on the nation’s top-ranked team kept the Wildcats undefeated on Saturday with a one-man tour de force against Notre Dame.

With Villanova trailing by nine midway through the second half and in desperate need of a spark, Hart hoisted his team onto his back. Eighteen of the senior guard’s career-high 37 points came during the final 13 minutes of the game, rallying the Wildcats to a 74-66 victory in a battle of two of college basketball’s final eight unbeaten teams.

Hart had a hand in almost every key basket of Villanova’s comeback, from a steal and layup to cut the deficit to five, to a deep 3-pointer that sliced it to three, to a driving layup that pulled the Wildcats within one. His 37 points on 14 shots matched the scoring output the rest of the Wildcats managed on 36 field goal attempts. Eleven rebounds and four assists from Hart were also both team highs.

There are still plenty of other national player of the year contenders around the country, from Kansas’ Frank Mason, to UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, to Duke’s Luke Kennard. But for now, they’re all chasing Hart, who so far is college basketball’s best all-around player.

3. Duke is still the team to beat 

The window for opposing teams to catch Duke at less than full strength may soon slam shut. The preseason No. 1 Blue Devils looked worthy of that honor Saturday night when they rolled to a 94-45 rout of overmatched UNLV.

Grayson Allen, the preseason All-American who had been hampered by a toe injury for the past few weeks, regained the explosiveness he had been lacking. He scored a career high 34 points, sank 12 of 16 shots and threw down a soaring one-handed dunk that was among the most impressive of the season so far.

Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, two of Duke’s three heralded freshmen sidelined by injuries to start the season, continued to shake off the rust by combining for 19 points off the bench. Once projected lottery pick Harry Giles returns from his latest knee injury later this month, the Blue Devils will be able to unleash their entire freshman class.

A healthy Duke could be even scarier than anticipated before the season because projected role players Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson have exceeded expectations. With their teammates sidelined or hurting, Kennard has averaged 20 points and risen to the forefront of the player of the year race, while Jefferson has chipped in 15.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

4. North Carolina needs Joel Berry back in time for Kentucky

While North Carolina rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to survive Tennessee’s upset bid on Sunday night, the Tar Heels’ uneven performance made one thing abundantly clear. They could be in trouble next Saturday against Kentucky if star point guard Joel Berry’s ankle injury hasn’t yet fully healed.

Berry, North Carolina’s second-leading scorer and best playmaker, is averaging 14.8 points and 4.7 assists and shooting 41.9 percent from behind the arc. Backup Nate Britt is a capable distributor and pesky defender, however, he is less of a threat either scoring off the dribble or as a jump shooter.

In two starts in Berry’s absence, Britt is just 4 of 22 from the field. Opposing defenders are able to sag off Britt and clog the middle of the floor because they don’t respect his ability to sink spot-up jumpers.

Credit North Carolina for finding a way to overcome Berry’s absence and Isaiah Hicks’ foul trouble on Sunday, but this came at home against rebuilding Tennessee, a program expected to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. The Tar Heels will need Berry’s scoring and playmaking against Kentucky and its latest stable of talented freshmen.

5. The Mountain West’s fate may be sealed

No longer is a second straight one-bid season just a chilling possibility for the beleaguered Mountain West. It’s now a near certainty after a weekend in which preseason Mountain West favorites San Diego State and New Mexico both suffered dismal losses.

The Aztecs (4-4) lost at home to Pac-12 bottom feeder Arizona State on Saturday, the maraschino cherry on top of a crushing eight-day stretch that also included road losses to Loyola (Chicago) and Grand Canyon. The Lobos (6-4) fell Saturday at in-state rival New Mexico State and are still in search of their first victory over an opponent in the top 125 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.

Poor starts aren’t catastrophic for power-conference programs with ample opportunities for quality wins in league play, but the Mountain West affords no such chances. The Mountain West collectively owns just two victories over top 50 opponents, San Diego State’s neutral-court win over No. 50 Cal and Boise State’s upset of No. 44 SMU.

A year ago, San Diego State went 16-2 in league play, reached the title game of the Mountain West tournament and still landed in the NIT. Whoever wins the league this season will likely face a similar fate if they don’t win the Mountain West tournament.

6. Notre Dame’s strong start is no mirage 

The lingering question about Notre Dame’s 8-0 start was whether it was more a result of the Irish’s schedule or talent. The only credible opponents they had beaten were Colorado, Iowa and Northwestern, none of whom are surefire NCAA tournament teams.

Although Notre Dame suffered its first loss at the hands of Villanova on Saturday afternoon, the Irish validated their early success more than they had in any of their previous victories. They led the top-ranked team in the nation for 31 minutes before Josh Hart’s 34-point onslaught enabled Villanova to overtake them and finally put them away in the final minute.

Notre Dame’s success is especially impressive considering all the talent the Irish have lost from back-to-back Elite Eight teams. They’ve said goodbye to Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste the past two years, yet they appear poised to finish in the upper half of the loaded ACC and return to the NCAA tournament once more.

What was most impressive about Notre Dame was the performance of point guard Matt Farrell, a backup on the fringes of the rotation the past two seasons. Farrell scored 18 points, dished out six assists and continued to perform like one of the nation’s most improved players.

7. The state of Florida’s best team might be Florida State

Florida State swept longtime rivals Florida and Miami in football this season to solidify itself as the state’s best team. The Seminoles may claim that title in basketball too if the outcome of Sunday’s matchup with Florida is any indication.

An 83-78 victory over the 21st-ranked Gators improved Florida State to an 10-1 to start the season. The Seminoles also have top 100 victories over Illinois and Minnesota to go with a three-point loss to Temple.

Attacking the rim has been Florida State’s greatest strength all season, and Sunday’s victory was no exception. The Seminoles scored 83 points against a formidable Florida defense despite only sinking four threes the entire game.

Six-foot-7 sophomore Dwayne Bacon was Florida State’s best player on Sunday because the Gators could not keep him out of the lane. Sixteen of Bacon’s game-high 24 points came in the second half as the Seminoles built a 13-point lead and then held off a furious Florida rally in the final minutes.

8. Wichita State will remain a factor nationally without Baker and VanVleet

Even in its first season without graduated stars Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, Wichita State won’t fade from national relevance. The Shockers proved that Saturday by notching their most impressive win of the season on Saturday, a 76-73 victory over Oklahoma in pro-Sooners Oklahoma City.

Balanced offense, physical defense and superior depth carried Wichita State against the Sooners just like it has all season so far.

Wichita State limited the Sooners to 30.8 percent shooting by packing in its defense, walling off driving lanes and trying to force Lon Kruger’s team into taking mostly contested jump shots. The Shockers took control of the game with a methodical 14-4 run over a nine-minute stretch midway through the second half, building the nine-point cushion they needed to close out a big win.

Beating Oklahoma was the strongest sign yet that Wichita State can absorb the loss of Baker and VanVleet without too much slippage. The Shockers miss Baker’s multifaceted scoring and VanVleet’s pick-and-roll mastery, yet they’re 9-2 with victories over the Sooners and LSU and a pair of near misses against Michigan State and Louisville.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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