Was that a stuffed Saturday or what? This was the first real one of the season where it was loaded up with good games and top teams from noon ET until deep into the evening. It felt nice to have that back. I declare we are now officially in the thick of the regular season.
We’ve got you covered with all you need to know from Saturday, too. Go check out ourfor more. Below, my top 10 takeaways from a loaded 10-plus hours. I’d say 2021’s off to a nice start.
1. The Big 12 will send seven teams to the NCAA Tournament
I’d anticipate everyone except Iowa State, Kansas State and TCU get there (as a reminder, Oklahoma State is eligible for the 2021 NCAA Tournament if its ongoing appeal with the NCAA over its postseason ban drags on beyond March, which is definitely on the table.) We had a noisy day in this league on Saturday, starting with one of the two or three biggest wins of Shaka Smart’s Texas tenure. The No. 8 Longhorns won for only the second time in school history at Kansas, beating No. 3 84-59 to give Bill Self his worst home loss as Kansas’ coach. It’s also Texas’ biggest win by margin on the road against a top-10 ranked team in school history. Texas did this after a 13-day layoff, holding Kansas to a miserable 3-of-23 from 3-point range, while Smart’s guys made 12 of their 26 triples.
Texas picked a great spot for its first road win; road victories were a theme on Saturday inside and outside the Big 12. Oklahoma State knocked off No. 13 Texas Tech 82-77 and bolstered its resume as well. Cade Cunningham converted three foul shots with 20 seconds and change remaining to help get OSU to OT against the Red Raiders, but the real takeaway is that the Cowboys didn’t need a huge performance from Cunningham to get this win. It was Avery Anderson (17 points, six rebounds) who was the Pokes’ MOP. As for Texas Tech, something to know: Chris Beard’s team is 1-3 vs. top-50 competition.
Last one in the Big 12: Oklahoma held off West Virginia, notching its first top-50 win of the season. This game was critical for the Sooners because the next two games are as tough a two-game stand as any team will have this season: at Kansas, at Baylor.
For the Hawkeyes’ legitimacy as a top Big Ten team and a Final Four contender, you need to win games like this game at No. 14 Rutgers. It was a 77-75 victory for the No. 10 Hawkeyes, who won for the second time in three seasons at the RAC in a tight one. Fran McCaffery’s team is 9-2, just tabbed its first road win this season (and its first win over a ranked opponent on the road in almost four years), now has four of its next six at home. Jordan Bohannon was really good again with some big buckets late, while Luka Garza (25 points) bit by bit took blows and delivered them against 14th-ranked Scarlet Knights. Frosh Keegan Murray announced himself with a personal-best 14 points and nine boards.
3. Colorado State’s comeback won’t be topped this season
I had a chance to catch up with Colorado State coach Niko Medved on Saturday night after he got back to the team hotel following the Rams’ most unexpected 70-67 victory last-second win at San Diego State after CSU rallied from a 26-point deficit. The Rams trailed 36-10 and had a 0.8% chance of winning at that point, according to KenPom’s projection.
“Today happened to be one of our historic moments that you’ll never forget,” Medved said. “A huge win for our program. To do that and to do it against them, against SDSU on the road, is pretty awesome.”
It couldn’t have started worse. San Diego State was ahead by double digits less than four minutes into the game and wound up making nine of its first 12 3-point attempts. Medved said the Aztecs switched every screen on defense, his team wasn’t ready for it, and suddenly the flood was on.
“I remember double-figure [comeback] wins, but I don’t remember anything like this in my career,” he said. “Down 26 and we had nothing going, I mean nothing.”
What Medved did have was some choice words for his team in a huddle — words he said he wouldn’t repeat — midway through the first half. Then CSU managed to cut the halftime deficit to seven.
“I told the team at halftime, ‘We’re going to win this game,” Medved told me.
The hero was Rams sophomore guard John Tonje. He missed practice the day before — he wasn’t even in California the day before. This CSU-San Diego State game was only scheduled a few days ago. Tonje’s father had long since planned to get married in Denver on New Year’s Day. Medved told him he needed to be there for his pops. So Tonje went to the wedding, flew on a commercial flight Friday night at 11 p.m. from Denver to San Diego and met up with the team on Saturday morning.
It was Tonje who hit a key layup to cut SDSU’s deficit in the final minute, then clinched a four-point play to give Colorado State the lead and locking up the win.
“I said, ‘You have to enjoy this, go be with your dad. That’s where you need to be,'” Medved said. “For him to do that, it’s just awesome stuff.”
The reward? Colorado State plays at SDSU again on Monday. It’s how the Mountain West is scheduling its league games this year, to work around the pandemic. Medved said the team was basking in this on Saturday before turning to prep on Sunday morning.
“If you can’t enjoy winning in this business you’ve got to do something else,” he said. “We enjoy it tonight. … I know we’ll be ready to roll — I just hope we don’t spot them a 26-point lead.”
4. Kentucky may have a chance to reverse its season
Win or lose, I didn’t expect Kentucky’s game against Mississippi State to matter all that much.
First, UK comes out looking dreadful. Mississippi State was pacing itself to a comfortable win. Then John Calipari seeks to get ejected, with Kentucky down six, and succeeds. But beyond all that, UK’s 78-73 double-overtime win (getting the Cats to 2-6) has become a huge story because of a player only Kentucky fans knew about prior to Saturday.
Dontaie Allen, who entered the day averaging 1.8 points and had played 19 minutes in Kentucky’s first seven games, dropped 23 points on 7-of-11 3-point shooting in 32 minutes and was singlehandedly responsible for lifting his team to a 1-0 SEC start. Making matters weirder, Calipari was stubborn against playing Allen leading up to this, then went to him as what-can-it-hurt option on Saturday. Allen found his groove when UK trailed by nine. He didn’t save the season, but he put off a doomsday scenario.
If Allen isn’t in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s home tilt against Vanderbilt, Kentucky fans may riot. By the way, Kentucky is 15-0 against Mississippi State since Calipari started coaching the program.
The alternate headline could be: Kansas and Tennessee, in losing at home, prove Gonzaga and Baylor are a class above. We had no shortage of surprising final scores on Saturday. Alabama 71, No. 7 Tennessee 63 is right there with all of them. This was Tennessee’s first loss of the season, it came at home and it was preceded by a 20-point beatdown on Wednesday at Missouri. Nate Oats’ team was confident and consistent from 3-point range (10 for 20) and delivered the kind of message that is going to have us hitting pause, if even for a few days, on our notions about how the Volunteers are supposed to be streets ahead of all others in that league.
“I tell our guys we have to be able to figure out how to win games when our shots aren’t dropping,” Oats said after the game. “If we’re going to win when we’re on fire and lose when we’re not, we’re not going to have a very successful season. I tell them the margin of victory can be determined by how you shoot it, but we still have to win the game. Whether it’s offensive rebounds, getting to the free throw line, getting transition buckets — it all starts with your defense and your effort.”
It’s been a good 24 hours for Tide fans.
6. Best image of the day: Keyontae Johnson‘s on hand for Florida‘s win over LSU
We’ll stick with the SEC, as the best matchup of the day between two unranked teams was LSU at Florida, the teams with a combined 10-2 record heading in. The Gators won 83-79, improving to 5-1 and maybe doing enough to hop into Monday’s AP Top 25. Colin Castleton is right there with any other player right now for SEC breakout guy. He scored 15 straight points for Florida in the second half. Nineteen of Castleton’s 21 came in the second half. He’s scored 20-plus in two straight games.
Florida is a better team this season than last season, and it’s doing so now without its best player.
The big news from this game was to see Keyontae Johnson, who appears to be better by the day, able to join the team and be on hand for this. Eventually, Johnson and his family will share more, when they can. But to see him out there, rooting on his teammates, it was such a welcomed sight.
7. Missouri is headed back to the NCAA Tournament
The No. 12 Tigers knocked off previously undefeated Arkansas, doing so in convincing fashion on CBS with one of the best collective defensive performances I saw on Saturday. The final: 81-68. Jeremiah Tilmon had one of his two or three best games in a Tigers uniform, the senior big going for 25 points and 11 rebounds.
Arkansas hasn’t played a tough schedule to this point, so it will rightfully have a few doubters. The win for Mizzou, bouncing back from a 20-point wrecking at the hands of Tennessee only three days prior, was significant. Cuonzo Martin’s team now claims wins over Oregon, Illinois and Arkansas. It is 7-1 and has one of the oldest rosters in the sport. I can’t confidently forecast what kind of seed Missouri is going to get, but I’d be shocked if this team isn’t in the field of 68 this year.
8. Clemson is the most under-discussed good team in the country
I must point out that Clemson eked out a 66-65 win at Miami early Saturday afternoon, securing an 8-1 record and probably catapulting Brad Brownell’s team into the rankings on Monday. Clemson’s only loss this season came at Virginia Tech. It’s defeated Mississippi State, Purdue, Maryland, Alabama and Florida State. It has the No. 2-ranked defense in college basketball. Clemson is comfortably in my power rankings.
And it all starts with Aamir Simms, who is one of the five best (maybe three best) ACC players. Simms is shooting 63% from 2-point range and 50% from 3-point range through nine games. Against Miami he had his best game of the season: 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four blocks and 1.43 points per shot. Clemson is good enough to finish in the top three of the ACC this season.
9. Richmond is doing itself and the A-10 no favors
Not a good home loss for the Spiders, dropping a 69-66 decision to St. Bonaventure, which has only managed three games through the first six-plus weeks of the season. Richmond started 4-0 but it’s now 7-3 with two of its last three outcomes being defeats, the other coming against Hofstra. The Atlantic 10 will be a multi-bid league this season, but if Richmond’s to be an at-large team it can’t take one more bad home loss. Look at the Spiders’ list of victims so far and not one team is at-large worthy, the best teams being Kentucky and Loyola Chicago.
10. UCLA wins a battle but is down maybe its best player
The Bruins won 65-62 at home over Colorado, improving to 7-2 and holding a 3-0 Pac-12 mark. That’s the good news. But an hour before tip, the school announced senior guard Chris Smith tore his left ACL in UCLA’s Thursday night win over Utah, which ends his season. This is damaging to UCLA’s long-term NCAA hopes (it can still get there, of course) and it’s even more disturbing for Smith, who was one of the last players to decide to return to college basketball in the offseason.
“After speaking with our team doctors and medical staff, I’m confident that Chris will make a quick and full recovery,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “Obviously, he is very disappointed and his teammates feel for him. Everyone at UCLA will help Chris through this, and I know that he will work relentlessly to be back to 100 percent.”
Smith had no guarantee of being drafted this past November, but it would have been possible. Now he’s on the shelf for months. One NBA source reached out to me and asked, “Chris Smith still a top-40 pick?” on Saturday.
I don’t know. But that is the gamble with something like this, and now Smith faces one of his biggest challenges yet. He carries a great reputation. No one who knows him is doubting his ability to come back just as strong and fighting for an NBA roster spot a year from now.