The Big East put six schools in last season’s NCAA Tournament, and, this season, it’s had four different teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. So the league — clearly diminished from its best years, but still a top-four men’s basketball conference in this country — has been operating at a high level, undeniably. And yet Villanova is just running through it.
I mean running straight through it.
Folks love to talk about how Gonzaga dominates the WCC, and how Wichita State controls the MVC. And, yes, Memphis once won 64 straight against C-USA opponents, but that was mostly the result of John Calipari recruiting about 11 levels above the rest of the league, then using superior athletes to overwhelm the Rices and Tulanes of the world.
What Villanova is doing is so different than all of that, though.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats aren’t merely defeating grossly inferior opponents on the regular. They’re defeating legitimate teams on the regular — like Xavier and Providence, Butler and Georgetown, etc., — to the point where they’ve somehow won 22 straight against Big East opponents heading into Sunday’s game with No. 16 Providence.
Twenty-two straight! In a top-four league!
Simply put, that’s amazing.
So while I can’t promise Villanova will advance to the Final Four this season, or even make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, what I can promise, I think, is that you’ll never again see another program string 22 wins in the Big East. Honestly, it’s probably harder to win 22 straight Big East games than it is to win three straight Big East titles. And, oh yeah, Villanova seems on its way to doing that, too.
BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Further proof that navigating the Big 12 is the toughest challenge in college basketball is the fact that Oklahoma will spend this week playing at Iowa State and Baylor, two places where just about anybody would be expected to lose. The top-ranked Sooners fell at ISU on Monday, which allowed No. 13 Baylor to take sole possession of first in the league standings. Regardless, if OU bounces back Saturday and wins at Baylor, Lon Kruger’s team would then have a resume featuring six top-50 KenPom wins and zero losses outside of the top 20, and thus have a real case to remain No. 1, despite the loss at ISU earlier this week, when the AP and Coaches polls update Monday.
NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Michigan State was, three weeks ago, No. 1 in the AP and Coaches polls. Now, thanks to a three-game losing streak that includes home losses to Iowa and Nebraska, the Spartans are 11th and sliding with No. 7 Maryland set to visit the Breslin Center on Saturday. So this isn’t ideal, is it? At a time when Michigan State could use a game against Rutgers, it gets a game against Melo Trimble’s Terrapins. And, yeah, the Spartans are at risk of losing four straight games for the first time since 2007.
NEXT-NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Iowa has beaten Michigan State twice this season, and KenPom now projects the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten by two games. That projection, of course, is rooted in them never losing at home, which means Sunday’s game against No. 22 Purdue is crucial to Iowa’s longterm plans.
FUN GAME BETWEEN UNRANKED TEAMS: It’s always fun, or at least typically fun, when old Big East rivals get together. So Georgetown-Connecticut should be fun Saturday — even if neither team is currently ranked in the Associated Press poll or even projected to make the NCAA Tournament, according to CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm.
ONE PLAYER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Cat Barber isn’t in the National Player of the Year conversation for a variety of reasons, mostly because North Carolina State, at 11-8, isn’t nationally relevant this season. But the junior guard is averaging 22.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists, and he had 31 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in Tuesday’s win at Pitt. In other words, the 20th-ranked Duke Blue Devils better be careful Saturday, or they might enter next week with their first four-game losing streak since 2007.
LOCK OF THE WEEKEND: SMU is 18-0 with seven scholarship players, and the eighth-ranked Mustangs are clearly the best team in the AAC, which is rough because SMU has a postseason ban that won’t allow it to participate in the league tournament or represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. Still, finishing undefeated remains an obvious goal, and I’m on board, if only because it would be a fascinating story to watch unfold. So let’s lay the points with Larry Brown’s team at Temple and #GetPaper.
FIVE THINGS WORTH NOTING
1. UNLV has won three straight by double-digits since firing Dave Rice after a 9-7 start, which suggests the players have responded, on some level, to the coaching change. Next up is Saturday’s game at Nevada, where first-year coach Eric Musselman has a program that won just nine games last season already at the 11-win mark this season.
2. No, the 11-game winning streak Indiana is taking into Saturday’s game against Northwestern doesn’t include a win over a team that’s currently ranked. But when you open 5-3 with losses to Wake Forest and a school (UNLV) that subsequently fired its coach, an 11-game winning streak that pushes you to 16-3 is awesome, details be damned.
3. Kansas is no longer the favorite to win the Big 12, according to KenPom. But the Jayhawks will remain lots of people’s pick until they’re more than just one game out of first in the league standings. For third-ranked KU, the only way to stay that way is to handle Texas at home, which means Bill Self’s team needs to do on Saturday what seventh-ranked West Virginia couldn’t earlier in the week, i.e., handle Texas at home.
4. Texas A&M is now the favorite to win the SEC, according to KenPom. And a testament to how good the Aggies have been — and, on some level, how disappointing most of the rest of the league has been — is that KenPom actually projects Billy Kennedy’s team to finish 15-3 in the SEC and win the league by three games. The 10th-ranked Aggies get Missouri at home on Saturday. So there’s no reason to think that projection will change this weekend.
5. If Oklahoma doesn’t remain No. 1 in the AP and Coaches polls Monday, odds are it’ll be North Carolina that replaces the Sooners — provided, of course, UNC wins Saturday at Virginia Tech. The second-ranked Tar Heels will be favored, obviously. But don’t forget that 13th-ranked Virginia lost at Virginia Tech earlier this month.
FINAL THOUGHT: The fact that Kentucky and Duke are struggling relative to preseason expectations is rooted in the reality that both are currently without their top five scorers from last season, and their heralded freshmen, in general, have mostly underwhelmed.
Which makes what Sean Miller is doing at Arizona even more impressive.
Miller lost his top four scorers from last season, three of whom are now in the NBA. Meantime, his fifth-best scorer, Kaleb Tarczewski, missed eight games earlier this season with a foot injury. And five-star recruit Ray Smith has missed the entire season with a knee injury. And five-star recruit Alonzo Trier, who was averaging 14.8 points through 16 games, is now out for 4-to-6 weeks with a broken right hand.
Regardless, Arizona is 16-3 heading into Saturday’s game at California.
The Wildcats’ three losses are by a total of just nine points.
Two of the three losses are to currently ranked teams.
Consequently, Miller still has a realistic chance to win his fourth Pac-12 title in a span of six seasons, and did you realize he’s won six league titles in his past nine seasons as a head coach dating back to his days at Xavier? It’s a remarkable run. So while I know some Arizona fans have been frustrated by a lack of Final Fours, it’s hard to look at what Miller’s done, and what Miller is currently doing, and not be incredibly impressed.
He’s running this Arizona program at a seriously high level.
And the obstacles placed in front of him don’t seem like obstacles at all.