College basketball has felt like a sports soap opera recently, hasn't it?
Steve Alford got fired on his day off. Kansas just lost the most important big man in the Big 12 to a season-ending injury. Gonzaga reintroduced Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, both of whom had missed extensive time due to injuries. Nevada lost for the first time all season -- to New Mexico, by 27 points. And Michigan State's Josh Langford missed his second game due to an ankle injury that might sideline him for a lengthy stretch.
Drama, no? Which is why it's important to separate what's real and what's fake amid the drama.
The Big 12 title streak is over for Kansas
Don't do this, America. Trust me on this one. I've done it too much.
I am the former chairman of the "KU's Streak Will End This Season" club. And every season I spent in that role, I was eventually proved wrong. Now, it's easy to see why the doubts are strong after the school announced Sunday that Udoka Azubuike will miss the rest of the season with a hand injury -- two years after a hand injury cost him the second half of his freshman season.
They're not the same team without him; at the very least, there's a significant void in the paint. Saturday's 17-point loss at Iowa State proved as much. They're one of America's best offensive teams (46.3 percent from beyond the arc, per hooplens.com) and one of the country's most impressive defensive teams (Azubuike averaged 1.6 blocks per game) when he's available.
Without him? They go from dominating like Michael Jordan's Dream Team in 1992 to struggling like Carlos Boozer's Dream Team in 2004. (Yes, Boozer played on a Dream Team.)
That's a problem. Iowa State, clearly, is a real contender. And Texas Tech is the college basketball equivalent of Clemson football's defense (which, as we know, just shut out Alabama in the second half of the title game). I can't remember the last time the Jayhawks looked this vulnerable.
Oh wait -- yes I can: last year, when they were 8-4 after 12 games in conference play. Or was it when they were 5-3 after eight games in 2015-16? Or maybe it was when Kansas had an 11-4 record with three Big 12 games to play and Buddy Hield's Oklahoma squad coming for their crown?
In every aforementioned case, the streak continued.
They. Have. Won. Every. Big. 12. Title. Since. The. 2004-05. Season.
That streak precedes the iPhone. I was carrying one of those old 37-pound laptops around campus and listening to Ludacris in 2004-05. A bunch of Jayhawks players were in preschool when the streak started. Think about that. I'm not sure how Bill Self will extend his Big 12 title streak, which stands at 14 consecutive championships, outright or shared. But I will not do what I've done in the past and assume the streak is over. He has Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, the key pieces of a top-10 recruiting class. He has Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson, a pair of players who could earn first-team All-Big 12 honors. And he has Allen Fieldhouse, where he has lost just 13 games since the 2003-04 season.
It's too early to make any assumptions about KU's reign potentially coming to an end. The smarter play is to assume Self will tinker with his lineup and find a way to win No. 15.
UCLA is aiming too high
No, we're not talking about the ridiculous Rick Pitino rumors.
Since Alford was fired by UCLA last week, there have been rumblings that the key issue with the Bruins might not be the coach but the program's expectations. I disagree with that notion.
Going forward, UCLA can't offer $2.6 million per year and expect to attract a top candidate, whether that's Fred Hoiberg or an elite college coach. But the Bruins still have one of the strongest brands in college basketball. In 2016, the school signed a $280 million deal with Under Armour.
Although Alford struggled throughout his tenure, he recruited seven first-round picks and multiple top-10 recruiting classes. In 2019, UCLA remains an attractive option for the best high school players in America. So what's wrong with a school with that name, that talent potential and that legacy not being content with mediocrity?
I don't think the Bruins will ever dominate basketball the way they once did under John Wooden. But the supporters of that program don't expect that. They're not naive. They're also not going to cheer for a team that can't win Pac-12 titles or make a run in the NCAA tournament. Those around the program want a new coach who can build, in time, a contender. That's a reasonable expectation at a school like UCLA.
The ranking of St. John's
Somehow, Chris Mullin's team started the week ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll -- three spots behind a Marquette team it beat by 20 points last week. St. John's only loss came on the road against Seton Hall and it was marked by late-game officiating chaos.
No guarantees this will continue through Big East play. But St. John's entered the week playing top-25 offense, by far the best production under Mullin. It's a Big East contender that deserved a higher ranking.
Houston chasing an undefeated regular season
On Saturday, New Mexico handed Nevada its first loss of the season. But the Wolf Pack weren't the only team chasing an undefeated regular season.
Kelvin Sampson's Houston team is 15-0, including a 2-0 start in the American Athletic Conference. Wichita State and Cincinnati battled for the conference title last season. But they're not as strong as they were a year ago. That could help Houston's cause.
The Cougars are playing top-15 defense and they've held opponents under 44 percent inside the 3-point line this season. They're not a great 3-point shooting team (33.2 percent), but Armoni Brooks, Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr., their top three scorers, can all hit those shots. Plus, only three teams (SMU, UCF and Cincinnati) are ranked within the top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com.
But all of this could look ridiculous soon. Houston has played 13 of 15 games at home. Beginning with a matchup at Temple on Wednesday, the Cougars will play four of their next six games on the road. If Houston can preserve its undefeated résumé after that stretch, an undefeated regular season will become a more realistic possibility.
Virginia Tech is a serious threat in the ACC
But Virginia Tech's tremendous start has been overlooked.
Virginia Tech has made 44.2 percent of its 3-pointers while playing top-40 defense. And Nickeil Alexander-Walker (18.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, 2.4 SPG, 47.2 percent from the 3-point line) is a projected first-round pick who has quietly launched an All-America campaign. All of this early success -- the Hokies have one loss, at Penn State on Nov. 27 -- is even more impressive with Chris Clarke (suspension), the team's leading rebounder last season, and top-100 recruit Landers Nolley (NCAA clearance issues) sidelined for the year.
They've been a disciplined defensive team that's limited opponents' free throw attempts and protected the rim as well as any Virginia Tech team under Buzz Williams.
All positive signs for the ACC's most compelling sleeper.
Antoine Davis is doing crazy things
Want another reason to get ESPN+? How about a bunch of chances to watch Detroit's Antoine Davis, who is honestly just here to get buckets. He's averaging 27.3 PPG, the No. 2 mark in America entering the week. But that doesn't tell the full story. He scored 33 points against Northern Kentucky on Saturday. He dropped 48 points on Wright State last week. That was his third 40-point performance of the year, the top mark against Division I opponents, per ESPN Stats & Information.
He's made 86 percent of his free throws and 41 percent of his 3-pointers.
He's only 6-foot-1. Yes, Detroit is struggling at 6-10, but who cares? Davis is undefeated.