Arizona, Duke and Kentucky basketball occupied the top three spots of the initial Top 25 polls. Saturday, all three served notice that, despite some struggles, they are still very much the national championship contenders they were projected as prior to the season.
Discussion of any one of the three possibly running the table was kicked around various media outlets — albeit more vehemently in Kentucky’s case. And for John Calipari’s bunch, the dream of becoming the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976 is alive.
Though hardly a certainty Kentucky basketball runs through a down SEC unscathed, the outlook is much more promising than just a week ago. The Wildcats struggled to put away two middling conference foes, needing two overtimes against both Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
But in a 22-point rout of surging Alabama, the depth and balance Calipari has routinely preached as the strength of Kentucky basketball was much more evident than in the narrow escapes.
Eight Wildcats scored at least five points, including three in double-figures off the bench. It was a vast departure from the previous Saturday, when Aaron Harrison went into Hero Ball mode and shot an abysmal 4-of-20 from the floor (and 2-of-13 from behind the arc).
“I told guys if you don’t throw it to the post, you’re coming out,” Calipari said via UKAthletics.com. “It’s pretty simple.”
Indeed, it is simple. This particular Kentucky basketball team is at its most vulnerable when its balance is negated and the Harrison twins try to shoot the Wildcats out of trouble. If Kentucky avoids that situations, puts its tremendous size to use and attacks from inside-out, there’s no reason the ‘Cats couldn’t head into March perfect.
The undefeated dream died early for both Arizona and Duke, but both looked better for it. Each played arguably their best games of the season in double-digit-point wins over Top 10 conference foes.
What’s more, both Arizona and Duke won by effectively retooling what vexed it in a pair of earlier losses.
Duke stumbled into Saturday’s ACC showdown at Louisville on a two-game losing skid, in which it allowed a combined 177 points to NC State and Miami.
In those defeats, the Wolfpack and Hurricanes shot 55 and 51.8 percent from the floor, with Miami canning an additional 50 percent of its 3-point attempts.
“Really not just the last two games… our defense hasn’t been good,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said per GoDuke.com
In other words, Kryzyzewski’s team was perilously close to being renamed the Uke Blue Evils.
But at Louisville, Duke proved it has some D in it by holding the Cardinals below 30 percent shooting. And K’s willingness to deviate from man-to-man to run zone defense fueled the resurgence.
“We have run zone before during the season,” Kryzyzewski said. “We have worked on it. But, we didn’t need it.”
Having the option to employing when it was needed gave Duke a dimension it was missing. Oftentimes, a team successful adjusting is contingent on its ability to try something different collectively.
Other times, a single player finding his rhythm can have a huge impact.
Such was the case for Arizona, which rode freshman Stanley Johnson’s 18-point second half to blowout Utah, 69-51.
Johnson’s aggressiveness after halftime was in stark contrast to his 2-of-4 showing in a loss at Oregon State.
And, that Johnson was effective within the flow of the Wildcats’ offense was a welcome change compared to the loss at UNLV, when Johnson went just 3-of-11 from the field.
It also didn’t hurt Arizona that Johnson was 5-of-7 from the free throw line against Utah, not 6-of-11 as was the case vs. UNLV.
Of course, one player can make a huge difference but isn’t necessarily the sole factor behind a turnaround. Arizona was beaten on the boards in both of its losses; Saturday, the Wildcats enjoyed a plus-21 advantage.
Johnson said in his postgame interview with Ryan Hansen (above) that head coach Sean Miller’s renewed emphasis on attacking the glass resonated.
So long as Arizona remains committed to dominating in rebounds, the Wildcats will be exceedingly difficult to unseat in the Pac-12; their most likely contender, Utah, learned that.
And each of the preseason top three — Arizona, Duke and Kentucky — learned that championship-caliber teams are championship-caliber because they learn from their missteps.