In Tobacco Road’s self-proclaimed “greatest basketball rivalry of our time,” North Carolina traveled 10 miles to Duke on Saturday.
North Carolina won 91-87. Somebody had to, barring COVID-19 interference.
Ultimately, an NCAA champion will make this “the year of Gonzaga,” or whoever survives the April finale.
But the real story should be: What part did the pandemic play in taking down the bluebloods? Why was the college basketball world so thoroughly blindsided by failed elites?
It’s a season like no other. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils stood Nos. 56 and 66, respectively, in Friday’s latest NCAA tournament ranking tool — the NET — with Kentucky (76) and Michigan State (95) even lower. Add Kansas, which is fighting off another scandal intrigue and losing a sixth game in 10 (to West Virginia, 91-79, Saturday), thus assuring a drop from its No. 22 NET status.
The NET employs a formula to grade net efficiency while dropping win percentages and scoring margins, and should henceforth draw our attention from the traditional Top 25.
And that new system works well for Brad Underwood’s Illini, fresh off a 75-60 thumping of Wisconsin Saturday. The NET already has Illinois at No. 4, which if sustained could mean a preferable seeding in the basketball event that really matters: March Madness.
You see, the Big Ten standings are already a jumbled mess with leader Michigan, No. 3 in the NET, unable to play since Jan. 22 and calling off Illinois’ Thursday night visit.
What matters now is who grabs the 3-4 positions behind the nation’s runaway leaders, Gonzaga and Baylor.
Traditional powers declineSo what happened? Has the pandemic hand-picked the lungs, brains and blood stream of the perennial powerhouses? Have they been psychologically waylaid?
Did Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman mean that much to Tom Izzo’s Spartans, who are now 3-7 in the Big Ten after ending a four-game losing streak with a win Saturday evening against woeful Nebraska?
Has the agonizing investigation fouled Bill Self’s recruiting at Kansas?
How could Coach K’s Blue Devils, seemingly headed for his 13th Final Four and perhaps his sixth Division I title when the games were halted a year ago, look up to 65 teams rated ahead of them. At this point, they’re not even on the bubble.
Count the combination of reasons.
➜ Even with decades of momentum, you’re bound to feel it when you lose three draft picks after 2019, and follow with Vernon Carey, Tre Jones and
Cassius Stanley after last season, and then see Alex O’Connell enter the transfer portal (to Creighton).
➜ It hurts when sure-fire Top 10 NBA draftee Jonathan Kuminga picks the G League over the Dookies.
➜ You can’t explain a year when 2021’s No.1 NBA draft choice, Cade Cunningham, and others make non-traditional college choices. Oklahoma State was banned from the NCAA tournament in June, and Cunningham could have gone elsewhere. But he didn’t waiver. Really?
➜ Chicago’s DJ Steward shared Illinois Player of the Year honors with Illini Adam Miller, and while Steward is having a more productive season (13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds) than Miller, neither he nor fellow freshman Jalen Johnson have quite met Duke expectations.
➜ Furthermore, all projected one-and-dones aren’t legitimate. As TV analyst Dan Dakich asked: “Who’s ranking the rankers?” Good question.
Kentucky opened 1-6 and carried a current 1-5 tailspin against visiting Tennessee Saturday night, having lost to Missouri (75-70) Wednesday for only the second time ever.
Projected lottery pick Terrence Clarke has been sidelined the last nine games, and 6-7 sophomore Keion Brooks has missed significant playing time … the Wildcats are shooting barely 30 percent from the arc … and it customarily takes time for John Calipari’s youngsters to find themselves defensively.
With 11 setbacks already, Calipari will soon surpass his most losses there (21-12 in 2013). But why, with 29 Kentucky freshmen leaving in his first 10 years, would his get-rich-quick, one-and-done system suddenly peter out? After all, Calipari’s soon-to-be pros peaked with 38 wins twice, and 30, 32 and 35 as well. Call this one complicated.
Illini are thrivingThis drop-off by the heavyweights has significant meaning for Illinois.
The path through the NCAA tournament, while always treacherous, will have fewer bumps.
Coming off their shaky overtime triumph at Indiana, the Illini hit Wisconsin with a 1-2 punch that was surely unmatched by anyone in the country Saturday. Ayo Dosunmu put up All-America numbers — 21 points via 12 field attempts and 9 of 11 free throws, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. He was spectacular (despite seven turnovers) as he joined Sergio McClain and the late Mark Smith as the only Illini to record a triple-double.
Meanwhile, Kofi Cockburn rammed eight fearsome dunks in an NCAA-leading 13th double-double (23 points, 14 rebounds).
Wisconsin went 0-for-9 on first-half treys, was outrebounded 46-19 and couldn’t deal with Dosunmu and Cockburn throughout.
Don’t ask when Illinois plays again. Josh Whitman is working with the Big Ten to find a partner before Northwestern a week from Tuesday.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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