Saturday’s slate of top-10 matchups not only offered a chance for some of the most exciting basketball we’ve witnessed this season but it was also an opportunity to answer a few questions. In the ACC, North Carolina had soared ahead of its meeting with rival Duke, and then, it lost at Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils are stacked with a projected lottery pick (Kyle Filipowski) and a fleet of five-star prospects, but Jon Scheyer’s squad had not defeated many elite teams, as it prepared for the Tar Heels. Which team would prove something on Saturday?
Houston had been on a five-game winning streak. But could they stop Kansas if the Jayhawks got hot in Allen Fieldhouse? Would Johnny Furphy’s breakout stretch continue for Kansas? Could Dalton Knecht add another big performance in his pursuit of Zach Edey and the Wooden Award? And would Kentucky actually play defense?
By the end of Saturday night, we had some answers.
ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi have taken in the three big top-10 matchups and have some thoughts.
Filipowski, Ingram get testy in Duke-UNC matchup
Tempers flare as Duke and North Carolina try to help their teammates up from the floor.
Medcalf: Hubert Davis has not been shy about praising Harrison Ingram (21 points, 5-for-9 from the 3-point line, 13 rebounds, 4 steals), the Stanford transfer, for his poise, impact and leadership. On Saturday, he played like the third star on a team with national title ambitions. With RJ Davis (5-for-14) struggling, Ingram put together one of the most impressive all-around efforts of the weekend and strengthened the idea that the Tar Heels could make their second Final Four run in three years. For everything Ingram did on offense, he was also disruptive for a group that turned Duke (5-for-19 from the 3-point line) into a subpar 3-point shooting team (the Blue Devils had connected on 39 percent of their shots from beyond the arc entering the game). With Armando Bacot and Davis, the Tar Heels have a pair of legit elite talents. But Ingram’s best game of the year arrived in the biggest game of the year. And that’s a promising sign for Davis’ rotation and Ingram’s future contributions for a team with national title dreams.
Borzello: Armando Bacot has taken a backseat offensively this season to RJ Davis, which is admirable in a way, but Hubert Davis was vocal earlier this week about needing Bacot to return to the production level he had earlier in his career in order for Carolina to reach its full potential. After averaging 6.3 points and 6.7 rebounds over his last three games, Bacot looked like his dominant self against Duke. He finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. Carolina made a concerted effort to get him touches in good spots in the post and Bacot was able to go to work early and often. He was also active on the offensive glass and rarely forced offense when Duke was able to double-team him on the block. Davis has been arguably the best guard in the country this season, but Bacot gives Carolina a physicality and post presence that very few teams can match on the interior. When he plays like he did tonight, it brings a different dimension to the Tar Heels’ offense.
Joe Lunardi’s bracket impact: North Carolina strongly affirmed its No. 1 seed status. The Tar Heels remain fourth among those on the top line of the projected bracket, but took a big step toward collecting what would be the ACC’s first 1-seed in five years. Perhaps more importantly, it’s now quite likely Carolina will open its NCAA tournament run-regardless of seed-in nearby Charlotte. This huge in-state advantage has been enjoyed frequently by ACC teams over the years. Duke, on the other hand, continues to live in the 3/4 seed range, but could obviously improve on that with a victory in the teams’ rematch next month.
Kansas fans go wild after this Kevin McCullar Jr. sequence
Kevin McCullar Jr. gets a steal and goes all the way for a huge slam to put Kansas up 15 over Houston.
Myron Medcalf: During their five-game winning streak they enjoyed before their loss at Kansas on Saturday, Houston had been a dangerous defensive team that had held their opponents to a 44 percent clip inside the 3-point line. But the other side of that success was worth considering, too: The Cougars had gone cold. During those five games, Houston was a sub-300 team with a 44 percent clip inside the 3-point line on offense. They finished 16-for-40 (40 percent) in their loss to the Jayhawks, who made 78 percent of their 2-pointers. Kansas made nearly 70 percent of their field-goal attempts. The best defensive team in America couldn’t stall Bill Self’s squad. But they also couldn’t keep up with that offensive barrage. And that has quietly been a subplot for this Houston squad. Can Houston win it all? That will depend on its ability to not only defend a hot team but to match it.
Jeff Borzello: Kansas was lights-out offensively on Saturday, but it’s been the continued emergence of Johnny Furphy as a legitimate offensive option that takes the Jayhawks to another level at that end of the floor. All season, Bill Self spoke about the need to find a reliable fifth player outside of his four veteran anchors — Hunter Dickinson, Kevin McCullar Jr., KJ Adams and Dajuan Harris Jr. At different times, Elmarko Jackson, Nicolas Timberlake and Jamari McDowell all stepped up, but nobody could do it consistently until Furphy was inserted into the lineup in mid-January. He’s scored in double-figures in six straight games, and went for 17 points and eight rebounds on Saturday against Houston, hitting three 3-pointers. The freshman from Australia has 6-foot-9 size, is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range and is a finisher in transition. His ability to stretch the floor and take some of the heat off Dickinson and McCullar Jr. makes Kansas much tougher to defend.
Lunardi’s bracket impact: Even in defeat, Houston remains a solid No. 1 seed on our board. A single loss at Phog Allen Field House isn’t going to cause much of a budge in the Cougars’ power numbers. They came into this game ranked first in NET, BPI and KenPom, as well as second in our Strength of Record (SOR) metric. For Kansas, this was an optimal first step back to a possible No. 1 seed. The Jayhawks will most likely be a 2-seed when we update the full bracket on Tuesday, but the top line is well within reach for a program that has lived in the 1-seed neighborhood virtually all of Bill Self’s tenure.
Vescovi blows a kiss to the Kentucky fans after the 3
Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi knocks down the 3-pointer and blows a kiss to the Kentucky crowd.
Medcalf: Kentucky’s talent can’t overcome its defensive woes. That’s a challenge that could lead to another early finish in March. Days after it suffered a loss to Florida — the Gators registered 118 points per 100 possessions — Kentucky gave up 103 points to Tennessee in a loss. Kentucky boasts multiple projected first-round picks in 2024, per ESPN’s latest mock draft. But that talent can’t erase history: No team with a sub-75 mark in adjusted defensive efficiency has ever won a national title. The Wildcats were 76th in adjusted defensive efficiency before the Tennessee home loss on Saturday. They have surrendered 85 points or more in seven games this season. Rob Dillingham (35 points against the Vols) and his teammates can put up big numbers, but the Wildcats just don’t have the statistical makeup of a Final Four team based on their defensive issues. How bad are they? Four sub-100 teams on KenPom have wins over the same UNC-Wilmington (50 percent clip inside the arc) team that beat Kentucky on Dec. 2 at Rupp Arena. This isn’t a problem for John Calipari’s squad. It’s a crisis.
Borzello: The story for Tennessee the last few weeks has been Dalton Knecht, Dalton Knecht, Dalton Knecht. The Northern Colorado transfer has been one of the best players in college basketball all season, but he’s taken his game to a new level in the past five games, averaging just under 32 points per game over that span. On Saturday in Lexington, though, Knecht cooled off, finishing with 16 points on 5-for-14 shooting. But the Volunteers showed they can win without him having a monster performance. Zakai Zeigler showed elite playmaking ability with 26 points and 13 assists, while Josiah-Jordan James went for 26 points. The team shot 12-for-30 from 3-point range and also scored 42 points in the paint. Knecht is the reason Tennessee has a dramatically improved offense this season — and he’ll likely be the catalyst if the Vols make a deep run in March — but putting up 103 points on the road at Kentucky without Knecht going off is a great sign for Rick Barnes’ side.
Lunardi’s bracket impact: Tennessee firmly made its case for a No. 1 seed by racing past Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Vols’ wire-to-wire victory certainly passed any possible “eye test,” giving us five teams with legitimate top line profiles. The knee-jerk reaction after Saturday would be to drop Houston and move Tennessee up, but that would be the wrong impulse and unlikely what the committee would do in similar circumstances. The Cougars still have the metrics and wins to sit behind only Purdue and UConn, leaving UNC and UT for the final spot. The Tar Heels’ slight edge is reinforced by a pre-conference win over the Vols. Kentucky, meanwhile, lost a chance to regain a top four seed while losing for the third time in four starts.