Five things we learned this week: Oregon’s peaking, Kentucky’s struggling and Gonzaga’s statement
1. Gonzaga may not be the best team in the country, but they’re the most consistent among the elite: I don’t think there is a “best team in college basketball” because I don’t think there is any team in the country that is without noticeable and exploitable flaws. Kansas has no depth on the interior and can’t guard anyone. Kentucky can’t score in the half court and lacks a measure of toughness inside. UCLA can’t guard anyone. Baylor’s guard play and been shaky in recent weeks. Arizona is heavily reliant on inconsistent freshmen. Duke is Duke.
You get the point.
The only possible exception to that is Gonzaga, the last remaining undefeated team in the country. The knock on this team earlier is the season was that they didn’t have a go-to guy. They didn’t have someone that could take a game over, that could be relied upon to demand the ball and make a play at the end of a clock or to quell another team’s run.
But isn’t that exactly what Nigel Williams-Goss has been doing? Take Thursday night, for example. Williams-Goss had 33 points as Gonzaga went into the Marriott Center and knocked off BYU. That many point is always going to come in an impressive performance, but perhaps what stood out the most is that he always had an answer. The Zags took control early and held a pretty significant lead for much of the game, but every time BYU made a run and looked like they were ready to make this thing interesting, Williams-Goss had an answer. BYU isn’t great, but they’re talented and play in one of the rowdiest environments in the country; 19,000 screaming Mormons pack that building every game.
The Zags are balanced, they are deep, they are big, they defend and they have their go-to guy. They also have yet to put together the kind of ugly performance we’ve seen out of every other title contender this season.
2. Kentucky is going through growing pains: Right now, Kentucky is a mediocre basketball team loaded with talented basketball players. Part of it is that Malik Monk has been struggling with his shooting stroke the last two weeks, and when Monk is off, the Wildcats simply cannot score in the half court. Part of it is that De’Aaron Fox has been battling a bum ankle and an illness that held him out of a game and seemingly sapped him on injury in another. Part of it is that Bam Adebayo just isn’t the kind of force on the block that Kentucky needs him to be.
The biggest reason for their recent struggles, however, is that teams are starting to figure out how to have success against them. Keep Fox from turning the corner going left, stay attached to Monk as much as possible, get physical in the paint, attack the glass, limit transition. That’s exactly what Florida did in their 88-66 win over the Wildcats on Saturday.
Most good teams go through something like this. The issue isn’t midseason struggles, the question is what the response will be. When teams figured out they could beat up Kansas in the paint, Kansas started playing zone. When Duke struggled playing lineups with two big men, they moved Jayson Tatum to the four. In 2014, John Calipari famously “tweaked” his offense to get his 10-loss team to the national title game. What will this year’s tweak be?
3. Oregon’s best can beat anybody’s best: I’m not sure Arizona fans can be all that upset about what happened in Eugene on Saturday, because I’m not sure that any team in the country could’ve gone into Matthew Knight Arena and beaten Oregon that day. Hell, I’m not sure anyone could’ve kept it close.
At one point in the first half, Oregon had made 10 threes and Arizona had scored 11 points. The Ducks hit 16 of their first 21 long-range bombs. Their defense, which has been underrated all season long, held Arizona to one tough spot per possession, and the Ducks were able to beat Arizona down the floor in transition when they secured the rebound.
I say all that to say this: When Oregon is playing like that, they are damn-near unbeatable. They aren’t always going to play that way - hell, two days earlier, they needed Dillon Brooks to score 12 straight points in the final minutes to avoid losing at home to Arizona State - but Saturday served the rest of the nation with notice: The Ducks belong in the conversation with the rest of the nation’s elite as national title contenders.
4. Duke is all-in on small-ball: The Blue Devils got Coach K back on Saturday in a win over Pitt, but that wasn’t the story of their weekend because what the Blue Devils did on Saturday didn’t differ all that much from what they did on Monday, or last Saturday. Duke has fully bought into the idea of playing small-ball, of rotating Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Frank Jackson through the three back court spots while allowing Jayson Tatum to spend as much time as possible at the four.
This is the best lineup that Duke can put on the floor. It allows Tatum to take advantage of mismatches against bigger defenders while keeping the floor spread for Allen and Kennard, who can create off the dribble and help to nullify Duke’s point guard issues. The issue is going to be how the Blue Devils adjust to the fact that it is going to cut into some player’s minutes. Harry Giles III is going to struggle to crack 10 minutes a game if Amile Jefferson isn’t in foul trouble. Marques Bolden is going to be firmly planted on the Duke bench.
And if that’s what it’s going to take for the Blue Devils to win, they’re just going to have to live with it.
5. The Big 12 title race is going to be a roller coaster ride: On Wednesday night, Kansas beat Baylor in Phog Allen Fieldhouse which, essentially, gave the Jayhawks the inside track to their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title ... until they went and they lost in that same building on Saturday to Iowa State. That loss opened up the door for Baylor to pull even with the Jayhawks, which was massive because the Bears still get to host Kansas later on this season ... but then Baylor lost at home to Kansas State. That meant that the big winner of the day in the conference was West Virginia, who could pull within a game of first place and draw even with Baylor in second place in the conference ... until they lost at home to Oklahoma State.
I don’t expect this ride to slow down.