While most of the focus in the sports world will be in Houston this week, the college hoops season is quietly picking up steam.
Coming off the most eventful seven days of the year so far, here are seven things you might have missed.
We just witnessed the wildest week of the season
Conference play is now in full swing and we’re seeing lots of close, compelling games between teams which know each other well. Seven teams which started last week ranked in the Top 10 lost at least once while two (Kentucky and Florida State) actually lost twice.
That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It proves that there is no dominant team this season, but with more parity from top-to-bottom we’re likely headed for one of the most compelling NCAA Tournaments we’ve seen in recent years. This is a sport built on the concept that “any team can win on any given night.” That seems especially true this season.
Top-ranked Gonzaga is inching closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament
One of the few teams that didn’t get tripped up was Gonzaga. The Zags had a rare three-game week (thanks to a weather delay which moved their game against Portland to last Monday) but showed no mercy, beating the Pilots, San Diego and Pepperdine by a combined 104 points.
The wins – coupled with losses by Villanova and Kansas – allowed the ‘Zags to move to No. 1 in the new AP Poll released Monday. With so much carnage around them and an out of conference schedule that includes wins over Arizona, Florida and Iowa State, it means that Mark Few’s club is inching closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There’s still the possibility they go undefeated as well, but will face one of their toughest tests of the season this Thursday at BYU.
Villanova wins the game of the weekend
The Wildcats won one of the most entertaining games of the entire season Sunday, overcoming a 12-point deficit with under 11 minutes to go to beat then-No. 12 ranked Virginia 61-59. The winning bucket came courtesy of a Donte DiVincenzo tip-in at the buzzer.
With the win, the Wildcats avoided a second-straight loss (they fell at Marquette earlier in the week) and inched closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There are still plenty of big games left in the always-tough Big East, but if the Wildcats take care of business they should be on the top seed-line come Selection Sunday.
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Kentucky likely cost itself a No. 1 seed with a loss to Kansas
While Virginia-Villanova was the most entertaining game of the weekend, Kansas-Kentucky was the one with the highest stakes. The Wildcats lost 79-73 in Rupp Arena and likely cost themselves a shot at a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance as well.
As others have pointed out, Kentucky is just 3-4 against teams ranked in the RPI Top 50 (retroactive to Saturday) and playing in the SEC (where only Florida is ranked in the new Top 25) there aren’t a lot of places to pick up quality wins. The Wildcats have made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament without being a No. 1 seed before (most recently making the Final Four as a No. 8 seed in 2014) and will likely have to do so again in 2017. Kentucky isn’t likely to past fall the two or three seed-line but cost themselves a No. 1 on Saturday.
Northwestern is the most pleasant surprise in the country
Northwestern is still looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth in school history. They took one step closer on Sunday with a 68-55 victory over Indiana Saturday. The win gives the Wildcats their sixth straight in Big Ten play and leaves them at 7-2 in the conference overall. Northwestern hasn’t done either of those things since the 1930’s.
It also means that barring something catastrophic, Chris Collins’ club should finally break that NCAA Tournament streak in 2017. The Big Ten is down this year and even though the schedule does get tougher (they play Purdue twice and Wisconsin and Maryland once apiece) there are more than enough winnable games to get them into the field of 68. If the Wildcats win the games they’re supposed to, they’ll be dancing for the first time ever.
But Georgia Tech is the biggest shocker of the season
If Northwestern is the “most pleasant” surprise, Georgia Tech is the biggest one. The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the ACC this year, yet sit at 5-4 in league play entering the week. Even more impressive is who they have beaten. The Yellow Jackets toppled both Florida State and Notre Dame this past week, giving them three wins over ranked teams so far this season.
With those wins, it means that Georgia Tech is firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and looking at their schedule they should actually pick up enough wins to get there. The Yellow Jackets benefit from an insanely easy back-stretch where they don’t play North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State or Louisville (the top four teams in the ACC) or Duke the rest of the season. Like Northwestern, the Yellow Jackets should end up in the field of 68.
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Pitt suffered the worst loss of the season
Pitt lost to Clemson on Saturday to drop their sixth straight game overall. But that’s not why we’re writing about them here. Instead it’s because of a 106-51 loss to Louisville on Wednesday which proved to be one of the most pathetic efforts any team has put forth all season. The Panthers trailed 51-18 at halftime and fell down 74-24 at one point before making a late run to keep the loss from being even worse.
This is a club which made the NCAA Tournament in 11 of 13 seasons under Jamie Dixon, but in their first season without him the Panthers won’t just miss the tournament but could finish last in the ACC. And things won’t get easier for Pitt any time soon. Their next two games are at North Carolina and Duke.
What you need to watch this week
Speaking of Duke, they are featured in Monday’s signature game at No. 20 Notre Dame. The Blue Devils picked up a massive win at Wake Forest on Saturday and now will look to make it two straight. The Irish meanwhile have lost two in a row and are looking to get back on track themselves.
On Tuesday the action shifts to the Big East, where No. 22 Creighton visits No. 16 Butler. As mentioned, No. 1 Gonzaga travels to BYU on Thursday. There are a slew of marquee games on Saturday, highlighted by No. 23 Purdue at No. 17 Maryland and No. 5 Arizona at No. 13 Oregon.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP