BIG EAST bubble teams lose hope, storied programs gain momentum in action-packed slate of Saturday games

by Jake Zimmer
Twitter: @JakeZimmer12
For the latest in college basketball, follow @NCAAHoopsDigest on Twitter.

There was certainly no shortage of high-profile contests on Saturday.  From critical Big Ten matchups to bubble teams trying to strengthen their case for an at-large bid to the Big Dance, Saturday was to be every college basketball geek’s fantasy.

The betting man, in stark contrast, would’ve found himself contrite.

Saturday left many upsets in its wake; some of them have the potential to kill seasons, while others are mere blips in the road for teams that will have no doubts they’ll hear their names called on Selection Sunday, just three weeks away.

Let’s dive into the top five upsets around the NCAA this weekend.

5. Kentucky (+7.5) def. #19 Tennessee, 70-55

The Wildcats have “surprised many but shocked none” this year; they started 1-6 due to soul-crushing losses to the likes of Richmond, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame. But after winning its first three in-conference games against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Florida, Kentucky’s hopes had been restored…at least, enough to keep them relevant in the SEC.  Despite entering Saturday’s matchup in Knoxville with a 7-13 record (6-7 SEC), Kentucky managed to easily take care of business against the 19th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, en route to their third straight win.  The ‘Cats took advantage of a 15-0 run early in the first half, went up 23-10 against the Vols, and never looked back.  They had four players in double-figures, and 6’10” freshman Isaiah Jackson paced all offensive contributors with 16 points.  Kentucky held Yves Pons and John Fulkerson – two of the top offensive Volunteers this year – to just 14 points.

UK freshman Isaiah Jackson swats away a shot en route to a 15-point win over #19 Tennessee. PIC: Tim Letcher, UK Athletics

It’s no secret that Kentucky has had its share of struggles this year, but head coach John Calipari’s messaging has remained consistent. “Even when we were playing bad, I still believed in them,” said Calipari. “They’re kids. You keep working with them, but you hold them accountable when they’re not doing it right.”

To assess how poorly Tennessee played to yield a 15-point loss, Vols coach Rick Barnes’ postgame comments sum it up nicely. ”That we were beaten by just 15 is a surprise,” Barnes told the media after the game. ”We were that bad. We got stagnant; we play better when we move it & get going.”

4. #23 Kansas (-1.5) def. #15 Texas Tech, 67-61

There’s truly nothing like a Chris Beard-run Texas Tech squad; they suffocate shooters (especially on the perimeter), force turnovers, and back it up with high-quality offense.  Even though Kansas may have been the betting favorite, it’s always a tall order to knock off the Red Raiders – the Jayhawks managed to squeak out a 58-57 win in Lubbock back in December, but even the most touted experts had Texas Tech as the team to beat on Saturday.

But Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks knew what they had to do to come out on top: get out to an early lead, limit the turnovers, and shut down Mac McClung.  Sure enough, they fired on all cylinders: they led for all but 13 seconds (when it was tied at 0), turned the ball over a mind-boggling six times (ten less than their last performance against Texas Tech), and held Mac McClung to 4-for-13 from the field…enough to cruise to a 67-61 victory in Lawrence.

“We took good care of the ball,” said Self. “I think the guys knew that they would try to pressure us…they turned us up in the second half there for a stretch.”

Some call this a great basketball game, others just call it a bore. We call it an upset.

3. DePaul (+11) def. St. John’s, 88-83

As the New York Post’s Zach Braziller so elegantly described in his column Saturday night, “Five weeks of quality basketball. Eight wins in 10 games. Upsets of Villanova in Connecticut. It all went up in smoke Saturday at empty Carnesecca Arena.”  We couldn’t have said it any better.

Julian Champagnie needs to be the leader for the Johnnies as they look to the NCAA Tournament. PIC: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It all seemed to be going well for St. John’s, who willed itself into consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament; not just from its loud fans on New York metro-area message boards, but through its statement BIG EAST wins in January and February.  The Red Storm certainly had its share of woes last year, but has seemed to chart a course on-track for long-term success.  Mike Anderson, the second-year head coach, silenced his doubters (at least temporarily) by proving he can, indeed, “recruit New York,” as judged by his potential BIG EAST Rookie of the Year candidate in Brooklyn native Posh Alexander.  But it all fell apart with a five-point loss to DePaul on Saturday night, who won just two of its 12 games against in-conference opponents. 

All positive attributes and benchmarks for the Johnnies – unparalleled depth, staunch defense, and a “catch-me-if-you-can” tempo – all seemed to evaporate against the Blue Demons.  They committed 14 turnovers, made only 12 of their 33 shots from beyond-the-arc, and had a bench that was outscored 49-32 by DePaul.

Now, with three weeks left in the season, St. John’s is most certainly on the outside looking in. They finish the season with three games against tough opponents, each in their own ways – at #10 Villanova, and home against Providence and Seton Hall.  Just as it appeared the Johnnies were ready to make a run for the Big Dance, they find themselves at a crossroads.

 2. North Carolina (-4.5) def. Louisville, 99-54

Roy Williams made his intentions very clear: Carolina needed another home game.

The story does have a happy ending, mind you – the Tar Heels added Northeastern, beat them 82-62, and carried on with their day.

For North Carolina, the 2020-21 season is about proving they’re here to stay, and last year’s 14-19 record was a fluke. It hasn’t been nearly as much of a worry as last year – Carolina owns some quality wins over NC State, Duke, Miami, and Syracuse, among others.  However, they’ve still registered losses against the “top-tier” ACC programs: Virginia, Clemson, and Florida State have all knocked down the Heels this year.  UNC had desperately been searching for its statement win.

Carolina took care of business and trounced Louisville, 99-54, in what Tar Heel twitter is already calling the “best win of the year.”  The Tar Heels leveraged a whopping 60.9% mark from the field, 21-6 run in the last seven minutes of the first half, and five players in double-figures to smack up the Cardinals, who have not played in nearly three weeks due to a COVID-19 pause.  Already up 77-50 with five minutes to go, the Heels cruised to a 20-0 run to end the game, and effectively kill Louisville’s chance of at least diminishing the lead.

Carolina is now 8-0 at home this year, and registered its eighth in-conference win.  They’ll add another one against Marquette next week, who has lost six of its last eight…and, as they’ll tell you, they didn’t even have to ask Twitter.

1. Duke (+2) def. #7 Virginia, 66-65

Haven’t we seen this movie before?  As we recall, the main character might’ve been a fella named Grayson Allen…

Almost five years ago to the date – February 13, 2016 – an unranked Duke contingent played #7 Virginia at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  Duke was down 1 in the final seconds, and with time expiring, they couldn’t find an open player to try to put the Blue Devils ahead.

No sweat for Grayson Allen, though – he had the defense draped all over him, and instead of passing it out, he took an acrobatic one-handed shot.

Despite having a lack of late-game heroics, Duke was able to reclaim the lead late in the second half, holding off a last-second three en route to a 66-65 win.  In a game in which Virginia led 56-51 in the final minutes (and even 65-61), Coach K knows the significance of a home win over the Cavaliers.

“It’s sad that fans were not at this game,” said Krzyzewski. “This was an epic game. Every possession was fought; seemed like every dribble at times. [Virginia is] an outstanding team & program. They’re veterans and they played like it – they’re so poised & they play great defense. Our kids played great defense tonight, too, and came up with some really big plays.”

For Duke, this statement win against the Hoos comes just a few days after 5-star recruit Jalen Johnson announced his departure from the team, ending his college career and declaring for the NBA Draft.  Since that point, the Duke Blue Devils are 5-0.

“It’s okay that a guy will just quit,” said ESPN’s Jon Crispin on College Basketball Live on Saturday night.  “But there is a galvanizing effect – you lose a guy and everybody else comes together.  This game was about culture; this group stood by Jalen, and they came together as a group to stay focused.”

Honorable Mentions: 

#13 West Virginia (+2.5) def. #12 Texas, 84-82

Essentially a toss-up in Austin this week, the Mountaineers snuck away with a two-point win. Texas led by as many as 19 points, but blew the lead – was it because of team issues and run-ins with the officials? We’ll never know, but Shaka Smart’s antics could’ve contributed.

Georgetown (+4) def. Seton Hall, 81-75

What year is this?  Georgetown is on a roll after being picked to finish last in the BIG EAST by most experts.  The Hoyas took care of business against Seton Hall, who is desperate for wins knowing they’ll need some help to get in to the NCAA Tournament.