The first full Saturday of 2023 produced a college basketball slate featuring everything we love about the sport. With conference play hitting full stride around the country, there were blowouts, thrilling finishes and stunning upsets.
No. 7 Alabama provided the most eye-catching blowout by, while no. 25 Iowa State provided the thrilling finish in a 69-67 victory at No. 17 TCU. As for the stunning upset, there is little question that it belonged to Washington State.
The Cougars took down No. 5 Arizona 74-61 on the road for the program’s first-ever road win against a top-five foe. The victory also marked the Cougars’ first win over a top-five team anywhere since 1983 and was particularly stunning given WSU’s poor start to the season.
Arizona (14-2, 3-2 Pac-12) shot just 31.7% from the floor and got just two points from its bench as it fell behind by as much as 18 in the second half. Mouhamed Gueye led Washington State with 24 points, including 13 in the second half, as the Cougars improved to 7-10 (2-4).
Such an unexpected outcome only cemented that there are few truly dominant teams in college basketball this season. Of the top six teams in the AP Top 25, four lost games this week as chaos begins to engulf the sport with the arrival of a new calendar year.
Let’s dive a little deeper into Saturday’s action by examining who the winners and losers were from around the country.
Winner: UConn back in the winner’s circle
Lotta folks abandoned the UConn ship and swam thousands of miles in the opposite direction after it dropped two straight games – both in Big East play – to Xavier then Providence to end the 2022 calendar year and open the new year. Now, a lot of those folks are looking pretty silly right now. The No. 4 Huskies handled their business to trendy contender Creighton 69-60 to end their two-game skid in a game that wasn’t all that close. Both teams traded punches into the second half, but UConn took control midway through the final frame and ballooned its lead to as many as 12 before settling on a ho-hum nine-point home win.
After two straight losses in league play, UConn needed not only a win, but one over a good team that could help catapult it back into the mix for the regular-season race. It got exactly that in limiting the visiting Bluejays – the third-best 3-point shooting in the Big East – to a dreadful 2 of 16 shooting from 3-point range. It was just the third time since Greg McDermott took over the program in 2010-11 that Creighton made two or fewer 3s in a regular-season conference game.
“Our identity is elite defense, top-five defense,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley. “What makes teams special is when they are super efficient on both ends of the court, when our defense is on point.”
Loser: Kentucky comes out flat again on the road
Kentucky suffered its second-largest loss against an SEC foe since John Calipari’s arrival in Lexington on Saturday as the Wildcats came out flat and subsequently got flattened in a 78-52 beatdown at the hands of Alabama. It doubled as the Crimson Tide’s largest win over the Wildcats, besting their previously-held record of 25 points which stood since 1990.
“That’s one I don’t know if I want to watch the tape,” said Calipari afterwards. “We did what we wanted to do but we missed every shot. You can’t have three of your starters go 3 for 27 – three of your starters that you’re banking on to make baskets. We looked discombobulated again because everyone held onto the ball. Everyone caught it then bounced it first. You’ve got to give [Alabama] credit.”
It was Kentucky’s third road loss of the season in as many outings after falling in a semi-away environment (not The Kennel but not necessarily a neutral court) vs. Gonzaga on Nov. 20 and then losing at Missouri just before the New Year. Combined, UK led 23 total seconds in both of those losses and never led against both Gonzaga and Alabama.
Winner: Michigan State’s yo-yo ride trending up
It’s still early January and it feels like Michigan State has already gone through an entire season’s worth of swings. The Spartans, once ranked as high as No. 12, have lived outside the polls for the past month after two ugly losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern on Nov. 30 and Dec. 4. Since then, the Spartans have rattled off six straight victories. While a handful of those came against mid-major opposition, the Spartans won comfortably and played stout defense. In a 59-53 win over rival Michigan on Saturday, the Spartans held the Wolverines to just 34.5% shooting. Although the win was no work of art, it improved Michigan State to 11-4 (3-1 Big Ten), and it may be enough to get Sparty ranked again come Monday.
Winner: Jerome Tang gets best of mentor
For 19 years, Jerome Tang stood shoulder to shoulder next to Scott Drew and helped build a champion — an actual champion! — at Baylor. That changed last offseason when Tang finally spread his wings and took his first head coaching job at Kansas State, setting up Tang’s Wildcats for at least two head-to-head meetings annually with Drew’s Bears.
Score check: 1-0, Tang.
K-State went into Waco on Saturday and stunned Baylor 97-95 in OT behind Markquis Nowell’s 32 points and 14 rebounds. Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson added 24 points on 9 of 13 shooting in helping out-duel the home-bound Bears.
“I love Scott,” said Tang postgame. “Thankful for the Baylor fans and the welcome. That was really cool. Then it turned out to be one heck of a basketball game.”
Loser: TCU’s home court advantage
TCU fell at home in its second loss all season to drop to 13-2 as Iowa State marched into Fort Worth and won 69-67, and it appears the Cyclones spun up trouble with very little resistance in front of a home TCU crowd that looked sparse at best and completely empty.
Of course, TCU fans may have something else on their mind – the Horned Frogs are playing in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, punctuating a dream season – but it’s nevertheless jarring to see a 13-1 team (now 13-2) fielding this type of home attendance.
Winner: Providence is red hot
Providence improved to 6-0 in Big East play for the first time in program history, but not without some drama. The Friars led by at one point before holding on for dear life down the stretch in an 83-80 win vs. St. John’s. The Friars were picked to finish fifth in the league but are off to yet another roaring start after overachieving in a similar fashion last season. The Friars were picked to finish seventh in the Big East in 2021-22 but wound up winning the league. Veteran coach Ed Cooley lost five of his top six scorers from that squad but has proven to be a transfer portal magician yet again. All five starters reached double figures for Providence against the Red Storm, who are off to a 1-5 start in league play.
Loser: Villanova misses a chance for a quality win
You can count Xavier as a winner for the weekend as well in the same category as Big East counterpart Providence, but I’d argue its win isn’t as significant and impactful big-picture as Villanova’s loss. Falling 88-80 at home dropped it to 2-3 in conference play and wiped out a quality opportunity to claim a Quad 1 win on its home court. The Wildcats have been up and down throughout the season in the first year under new coach Kyle Neptune, and while it’s way too early to write any team off one week into the calendar year, it feels like it’s teetering closer and closer to being an NIT team than an NCAA Tournament team. Only one of its wins all season has come against a team projected into the field in Jerry Palm’s latest bracket: Oklahoma, which is narrowly projected into the field of 68. Nova is going to have to come alive and stacking wins in Big East play in short fashion.
Loser: Wisconsin misses the chance to take hold of the Big Ten
Illinois traveled to No. 14 Wisconsin reeling off an 0-3 start to Big Ten play and the loss of key freshman guard Skyy Clark, who has stepped away from the program for personal reasons. Wisconsin was off to a 3-0 start in league play and had a chance to emerge from the day as the Big Ten’s only team still unbeaten in conference play. The Badgers squandered the opportunity with some porous defense as the Illini picked up a 79-69 win with 49 second-half points. Wisconsin entered allowing opponents to shoot just 30.8% from 3-point range, but Illinois drilled 10 of 19 shots from beyond the arc to hand the Badgers their first league loss.
Alabama made the biggest statement of the day in the SEC by annihilating Kentucky. But if there is such a thing as an “impressive” win over lowly South Carolina, then No. 8 Tennessee found it. The Volunteers crushed the Gamecocks 85-42 on the road to improve to 3-0 in the SEC. The Volunteers held South Carolina to a ridiculous 25% shooting mark and kept freshman star GG Jackson scoreless. Two of Tennessee’s conference wins have come by more than 30 points.
Loser: Duke needs late-game luck
No. 16 Duke finished its 65-64 win over Boston College by making just 1 of its last 14 attempts from the field. The Blue Devils led 52-38 in the second half but almost gave the game away late. Fortunately, Duke hit 17 of 19 free-throw attempts, which helped the Blue Devils overcome 15 turnovers and a 29.2% second-half shooting percentage. A win is a win, especially on the road. But on the heels of an 84-60 loss at NC State on Wednesday, there was nothing particularly inspiring about the way Duke played.
Winner: FAU wins 13th straight
Florida Atlantic nearly blew a 20-point lead against Charlotte, but the Owls hung on for a 71-67 victory to extend their winning streak to 13 games. The Owls entered at No. 12 in the NET, and while they haven’t yet received any respect from AP Top 25 voters, there is no doubt that something special is brewing in Boca Raton. The winning streak is the longest in program history, and the Owls could find themselves in consideration for the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament bid if this keeps up.
Loser: Arkansas goes cold on the road
After making just 2 of 16 attempts from 3-point range in a 72-59 loss at Auburn, No. 13 Arkansas is officially ice cold on the road. The Razorbacks made only 4 of 25 long-range attempts in a road loss at LSU to begin league play, meaning they are just 6 of 41 from deep in their only true road games to date. At 12-3 (1-2 SEC), the Razorbacks have a home showdown with No. 7 Alabama is up next and will need to shoot far better in the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena to contend with the red-hot Crimson Tide.
Winner: Clemson is the last unbeaten ACC
Clemson matched its best-ever start in the ACC by improving to 5-0 in league play with a 75-74 win over a Pitt team that entered 4-0 in conference games. The Tigers trailed 67-59 with 5:30 remaining but used a 13-2 run from there to take control on the road. Four players reached double digits, led by Chase Hunter’s 17. The junior guard scored 13 in the second half to pace the Tigers, who are the last unbeaten team in ACC play. A road game at Duke is up next on Wednesday, but the Tigers suddenly look formidable after a 1-3 start to the season.