Ness Notes: Feb 10 CBB 'State of the Union'

by Larry Ness

The latest AP poll was released Monday afternoon and for the 12th straight week, Gonzaga was No. 1 and Baylor No. 2 (note: The AP rankings have been a basketball staple since the 1948-49 season). That was hardly a surprise nor was the fact that Kansas dropped out of the top-25, having lost FIVE of its previous seven. While it was not a surprise, it sure was noteworthy. Bill Self's Kansas team was ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll after last season's shutdown. However, despite losing key players like PG Dotson (18.1-4.1-4.0) and the 6-10 Azubuike (13.7 & 10.5), this years' team opened No. 6 in the preseason poll. Kansas lost its season-opener to No. 1 Gonzaga but heading into its Jan 12 game at Oklahoma St, the Jayhawks were 10-2 and still ranked No. 6. However, a 75-70 loss at Stillwater was the beginning of Kansas losing those five of seven games, falling to 12-7 (6-5 in Big 12).

The Jayhawks began their top-25 streak on Feb 2, 2009. Their decade-plus of dominance, which began the season after winning the national championship, included 10 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, five conference tournament titles, two more Final Four trips and a runner-up finish in 2012. Kansas run of consecutive top-25 appearances at 231. As fate would have it, Kansas played Monday night and was hosting Oklahoma St, which was the team that began the Jayhawks' run of FIVE losses in seven games (see above). The Cowboys (12-5 / 5-5 Big 12) entered Monday's game having just entered the AP poll for the first time this season earlier in the day at No. 23. It marked Oklahoma St's first ranking under head coach Mike Boynton (he's in his fourth season at Norman) and was the school's first top-25 ranking since Feb of 2015. Playing its first game as an unranked team in 12 years, Kansas responded by beating Oklahoma St 78-66! Kansas has a home game with Iowa St on Thursday and then plays the Cyclones in Ames on Saturday. Considering that Iowa St is 2-11 overall (0-8 in the Big 12), one wonders if a 3-0 week would be enough to get Kansas back in next Monday's rankings. My bet would be yes. As for Oklahoma St, the Cowboys host Kansas St (5-16 / 1-11 Big 12) on Saturday and a win may not be enough for them to stay in the top-25 "Come Monday" (there HAS to be Jimmy Buffet fans out there!).

Gonzaga was 31-2 when last season was shut down and finished second in the AP's final poll, behind No. 1 Kansas (28-3). However, Gonzaga was the AP's No.1-ranked team and has NEVER looked back. With Kansas' 231-week streak over, the Bulldogs' run of 90 consecutive top-25 rankings becomes the longest-active run. Gonzaga also owned the nation's longest-active winning streak at 22 in a row as it entered Monday's game with BYU in Provo, while also having recorded 15 straight double-digit victories! However, the Cougars owned the distinction of being the last team to beat Gonzaga. The date was Feb 22, 2020, the site was the same as Monday's venue (Marriott Center) and the final score was BYU 91 and Gonzaga 78. Deja vu? There wasn't much suspense in this one, as the Bulldogs started quickly and never trailed in stretching the nation's longest active winning streak to 23 games with an 82-71 victory, the team's 16th straight win by double digits. That said, while Gonzaga is 19-0 this season, the Bulldogs remain a sub-.500 team ATS at 8-9-2.

No. 2 Baylor is the nation's only other unbeaten team at 17-0 but unlike Gonzaga, checks in a MONEY-MAKING 13-4 ATS. However, the news wasn't all good for the Baylor basketball program. The school announced Monday that it would be postponing three more games, in accordance with Big 12 Conference men's basketball interruption guidelines. Baylor had already postponed two games vs TCU this past Saturday and a road tilt at Oklahoma scheduled for this week. Now, the Bears will also miss their next three games vs Texas Tech on Feb 13, at West Virginia on Feb 15 and vs West Virginia on Feb 18. Following the postponements, the Bears will have just three Big 12 games on their schedule, although it's expected the conference will attempt to reschedule the postponed games. For now, Baylor's next scheduled game is Feb 20 vs Oklahoma State.

It's just another reminder that we are still stuck in "The Year of COVID," Here's another. ESPN's Joe Lunardi released his latest Bracketology on Tuesday morning and noted for the record, the following. "The 2020–21 college basketball season is unique. All involved — coaches, players, administrators, media, fans — can expect postponements, cancellations and adjustments to the normal cycle of games and the postseason. This includes the NCAA tournament, which is under the largest microscope after the abrupt end to the 2019–20 season. The 2021 tourney is on schedule, albeit at a single site, but it would be foolish to proceed without pandemic contingencies." In addition to the standard 68-team NCAA projections, Bracketology now includes 48-team and 16-team versions. The truth is there is no way to know at this point what Selection Sunday will bring, so all bases must be covered by these rules. Also for the record, the top-four regional seeds were Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Ohio St. 

That's the same order as the AP's top-four, with 13-1 Michigan moving up to No. 3 in Monday's poll (from No. 4) and 15-4 Ohio St up to No. 4 (from No. 7). 13-5 Illinois moved up to No. 6 on Monday (from No. 12) and gives the Big Ten THREE teams in the top-six (seven in the top-25). The Big 12 has six teams in the top-15, led by No. 2 Baylor and No. 7 Texas Tech (14-5). The other four are No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 13 Texas, No. 14 West and No. 23 Oklahoma St, for now (see above re: OSU). Texas is in a free-fall, having lost THREE straight and FOUR of five and I'm not quite sure how (why?) the Longhorns are ranked as high as they are.

Falling out of the top-25 along with Kansas were No. 21 UCLA, No. 22 Florida and No. 25 Drake. Drake entered the rankings for the first time since the 2007-08 season on Feb 1 with a 16-0 record. However, after extending their start to 18-0, the Bulldogs lost 74-57 at Valparaiso (Crusaders are just 7-12 on the season) on Saturday and dropped out. "Movin' on up (in)" were 15-3 USC at No. 20 (last ranking was back in Dec of 2017), 17-3 Loyola-Chicago (last ranking was back in the 1984-85 season), 12-5 Oklahoma St at No. 23 and 11-6 Rutgers at No. 25. 

Let me comment on two of the "new entries." Rutgers opened the season 6-0 and was ranked No. 11 in the Dec 21 poll but lost SIX of seven, including FIVE in a row. However, a four-game winning streak has them back in at No. 25. The fact that NONE of those wins came over a ranked opponent didn't seem to matter much to the voters. That has to frustrate Belmont of the OVC, as the Bruins are 20-1 and have won 17 straight (tied with Baylor for 2nd-longest active winning streak) since losing back on Dec 5. Winthrop (Big South) falls into a similar category, having opened its season 16-0 and had won 21 straight going back to the end of last season before losing 57-55 at home to UNC-Asheville on Jan 29. The Eagles will finally get back on the court this coming Thursday and Friday, after a near two-week break. Winthrop will play back-to-back nights at Radford, which is 13-7 but 12-2 in league play (Eagles are 13-1). One last thing, before getting to a Tuesday and Wednesday update. It was noted above that Loyola entered Monday's poll for the first time since the final poll of the 1984-85 season and some may say hey, I remember the Ramblers' dramatic run to the Final Four in 2018. However, that team may have made the Final 4, but it never cracked the top-25 that season.

Tuesday recap: In the Big 12 (SIX top-25 teams), No. 7 Texas Tech lost 82-71 at home to No. 14 West Va, while No. 13 Texas barely edged Kansas St 80-77 in Manhattan. The Wildcats are just 5-16 overall (1-11 in the Big 12) and I'll go back to an earlier thought and ask again, why is Texas ranked so high? How the mighty have fallen. Duke opened as the AP's 9th-ranked team but Tuesday night Notre Dame rallied to defeat Duke 93-89 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, delivering another blow to the Blue Devils' NCAA Tournament aspirations. Duke (7-8, 5-6 ACC) has now lost three games in a row, including two at home across a four-day period (Duke is now under .500 for the first time since 1999!).Then there is Kentucky, another NCAA 'Blue Blood.' The Wildcats opened as the nation's No. 10 team in the AP's preseason poll but Arkansas made two free throws with 4.3 seconds left to give the Razorbacks an 81-80 win at Kentucky. It was the first win for Arkansas over Kentucky since Feb 27, 2014. Kentucky fell to 5-13 (4-7 in the SEC) with its fourth straight loss. An NCAA tourney without Coach K and Coach Cal? It's looking like a VERY real possibility. That's NOT all. 

Wednesday preview: Three top-10 teams are on the road on Wednesday. The trio includes No. 8 Houston at USF, No. 9 Virginia at Georgia Tech and No. 10 Missouri at Ole Miss. The surprise team in this trio is Missouri. Houston was coming off three seasons of 27, 33 and 23 wins (pandemic-shortened) and opened 17th in the AP's preseason poll (highest preseason ranking since the 83-84 team opened No. 3). UVa had won an average of 29.7 wins per season, capping that six-year run by capturing the national championship in 2019. The Cavs were not able to defend their title in 2020 when COVID forced the NCAA to shut down the season (Cavs finished 23-7). As for Missouri, Cuonzo Martin began his fourth season with the Tigers in November and was coming off seasons of 15-17 and 15-16. Missouri's 13-3 record this season has come out of nowhere. I noted earlier that Rutgers re-entered the rankings at No. 25 on Monday and Wednesday will play at No. 15 Iowa, which enters having lost FOUR of its last five.

Closing thought regarding Monday's AP poll.  Kentucky is the winningest program in NCAA history, followed by Kansas, North Carolina and Duke, while UCLA ranks 7th in wins. The last time Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA were all unranked was 1961!

Good luck...Larry

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