| USA TODAY
As the Big 12/SEC Challenge kicked off Saturday, it gave plenty of teams great opportunities to bolster their NCAA Tournament profiles — a rare opportunity in late January — without hurting their conference standings. Florida was a big winner in this category, picking up a Quadrant 1 (top-25 home, top-75 road) win over West Virginia to enhance its tourney rèsumè.
As the season nears the pivotal stretch in February, college basketball teams are starting to find their identity against top-tier competition.
Duke is an interesting case in that the Blue Devils had slipped to .500 and were struggling a week ago while they had taken significant time off around the holiday with game postponements. But their demolition of Clemson was evidence that coach Mike Krzyzewski can get this team ready to turn into a contender next month.
All the winners and losers from Saturday’s action.
Duke. The Blue Devils (7-5, 5-3) were drifting in the wrong direction after three consecutive losses that put them at .500 and in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament. But back-to-back victories, highlighted by Saturday’s 70-53 win over Clemson, has gotten this Duke team back on track. Saturday’s win was a collaborative effort, but Matthew Hurt continues to be the go-to guy for Krzyzewski, averaging over 19 points a game.
Baylor. The Bears (16-0, 8-0) remained undefeated by dispatching Auburn 84-72. Baylor has gone deeper into a season without a loss only once — a 17-0 start in 2011-12. Coach Scott Drew has a team that can fall into offensive lulls now and again, but the defense makes up for it to spearhead big runs. The Bears lead the nation in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy’s statistical analysis, and it once again showed.
Florida. The Gators (10-4, 6-3) defeated West Virginia 85-80 in the Big 12-SEC Challenge to pick up a big profile-boosting non-conference victory. Florida has won four in a row and needed this win to vault out of the NCAA Tournament bubble picture. Saturday’s outcome moves the Gators from a projected No. 9 seed to a safer range of No. 7 or No. 8.
Texas Tech. The Red Raiders (12-5, 4-4) came back to escape LSU in a 76-71 decision, surviving 29 points from the Tigers’ Ja’Vonte Smart. Texas Tech was win-hungry, after losing to West Virginia and Baylor in back-to-back games and having two games postponed due to COVID-19. Winning against an SEC foe was necessary for NCAA Tournament résumé purposes, especially when the grueling Big 12 slate offers few breaks.
Virginia Tech. The Hokies (13-3, 7-2) showed their mettle against the top team in the ACC, holding off cold-shooting Virginia 65-51. Virginia Tech was propelled by Keve Aluma’s 29 points and 10 rebounds. Most notably, the Hokies controlled the tempo against the highly-disciplined Cavaliers — which is not a feat many opponents accomplish.
Missouri. After trailing by 10 points with three minutes to go, the Tigers (11-3, 4-3) avoided an upset loss to TCU to force overtime and pull away 102-98. In a game that didn’t see much defense, Jeremiah Tilmon poured in 33 points for Mizzou.
Kansas. The Jayhawks (11-6, 5-4) looked ugly in a sloppy 80-61 loss to Tennessee for their Big 12/SEC Challenge clash. Coach Bill Self’s team struggles to compete when it’s not shooting the ball well (6-for-24 from three against Tennessee), but in this loss Kansas got manhandled on the glass, getting outrebounded 38-23. Those second-chance points alone were the difference-maker. This Kansas team has lost four of five and is simply getting out-hustled. The only good news? The Jayhawks’ January is over.
Florida State. The Seminoles (10-3, 6-2) fell to Georgia Tech 76-65 and had their five-game winning streak snapped to fall out of first place in the ACC. In the loss they shot just 21.4% from beyond the arc and turned the ball over 20 times — two areas coach Leonard Hamilton will have to focus on if this team has what it takes to be a contender in March.
Alabama. The Crimson Tide (13-3, 9-0) jumped into the top 10 of the Coaches Poll but weren’t up to snuff in the Big 12-SEC Challenge against a sizzling Oklahoma team, falling 66-61. That loss won’t affect ‘Bama’s SEC record, but it was a failed test against a top-tier opponent as coach Nate Oats’ team looks to morph into a contender.
Wisconsin. The Badgers (13-5, 7-4) fell 81-71 to Big Ten doormat Penn State and have lost two of their last three to fall in the Big Ten standings and NCAA Tournament seeding consideration. They were a No. 3 seed and now are closer to a No. 4. Wisconsin will get a rematch with Penn State on Feb. 2.
LSU. The Tigers (11-5, 6-3) are hovering around the No. 9 and No. 10 range as an NCAA Tournament bubble team despite being tied for second place in the SEC. Their 76-71 loss to Texas Tech was a missed opportunity. LSU doesn’t have many Quadrant 1 victories and the NCAA committee will notice.
Seton Hall. The Pirates are an NCAA Tournament bubble team and one way to drift off the bubble is by beating a top-5 opponent. Seton Hall came up short in that mission in an 80-72 loss to No. 3 Villanova. Now, the Pirates will have to avoid blemishes in Big East play while hoping to pick up another signature win later in February.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.