The biggest challenger in college basketball? The road

The road is a monster. It swallows teams whole once conference play begins.

Fine, that’s an exaggeration. But the switch from December’s neutral-site games in warm locations and nonconference home matchups against teams without postseason ambitions to January’s gritty road games in conference play is always, for some, a big shock.

On Saturday alone, four top-15 teams — Kansas, Kentucky, Florida State and Nevada — suffered losses on the road. Michigan State, tied 72-72 with 4 minutes, 39 seconds to play at Ohio State, left Columbus with a victory only after a strong finish.

Here’s what we learned after Saturday’s slate.


What’s wrong with Kansas?

That’s a fair question for the No. 5 Jayhawks, who suffered a 77-60 loss at Iowa State on Saturday.

The team’s first problem is the health of Udoka Azubuike, who sat out Saturday’s game with a right wrist injury. The Jayhawks are not the same team without Azubuike, who missed four games in December with an ankle injury. The Jayhawks didn’t lose by 17 points solely because they didn’t have Azubuike.

They lost to a good Iowa State team. Azubuike’s absence wasn’t the culprit for a Jayhawks squad that committed 14 turnovers in the first half and ultimately had as many field goals in the game as it had turnovers (24).

Yet, the Jayhawks are not the world-beaters they appear to be when Azubuike (70.5 percent clip inside the arc) is healthy. Entering Saturday’s game, Kansas had made 46.3 percent of its 3-pointers with Azubuike on the floor and just 31 percent of those shots with him on the bench, according to HoopLens.com.

The Jayhawks (12-2, 1-1 Big 12) are Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns when he’s available and Devin Booker‘s Phoenix Suns when he’s not.

They lost at Arizona State without him two weeks ago. They lost at Iowa State on Saturday.

Bill Self’s pregame statement really didn’t clarify anything about Azubuike, who missed the bulk of his freshman season with a wrist injury, other than he’s scheduled to get an MRI on Sunday.

If he’s out for an extended stretch, Kansas could be in trouble in a league full of tough teams. Texas Tech is playing the best defense in America. Iowa State is healthy and ready. TCU has made 58 percent of its shots inside the arc, a top-10 mark in America.

The Jayhawks remain the Big 12 favorites and, as we’ve learned in past seasons, that probably won’t change. But this team needs Azubuike to get healthy and stay healthy.

Why can’t Kentucky defend the 3-point line?

If you believe in the Ken Pomeroy philosophy on 3-point shooting, then you know an opposing team’s 3-point field goal percentage is a poor measurement of a team’s ability to defend the arc. James Harden‘s buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in his face earlier this week was a good example of the shooter being far more important than the defender in those situations. A team’s best bet is to do everything possible to prevent those shots.

But No. 13 Kentucky, which suffered a 77-75 loss at Alabama on Saturday, has to be a baffling case even for someone like Pomeroy.

In Saturday’s game, Alabama finished 10-for-23 from the 3-point line against the Wildcats, who have lost three games to teams that far exceeded their 3-point shooting average when they played Kentucky.

Alabama (34.8 percent), Duke (32.4 percent entering Saturday’s game against Clemson) and Seton Hall (32.6 percent) are all ranked outside the top-100 teams in 3-point shooting this season. They’re all somewhere between average and below average.

But in those teams’ victories over Kentucky, they finished a combined 33-for-75 (44 percent) from beyond the arc. In all, Kentucky’s opponents have made 38.4 percent of their 3-pointers, one of the worst marks in America. That matters.

One play Saturday, which highlighted the Wildcats’ greater challenge, matters even more.

Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr. raced down the floor after a Keldon Johnson miss. Both PJ Washington and Reid Travis, Kentucky’s top big men, trailed the play. As a result, Johnson had to cover the post as he waited for Travis and Reid to get back. Through the chaos, Lewis had a clear shot from beyond the arc as Tyler Herro made a late attempt to block it. Lewis hit the shot.

And that happened throughout the game.

Last season, 43 percent of Kentucky’s opponents’ shot attempts were 3-pointers. But those opponents made just 30.1 percent of those shots, a top-five defensive mark. This season, 37.2 percent of Kentucky’s opponents’ shots have been 3-pointers. That number is just as important as the 38.4 percent success rate for those squads.

Kentucky (10-3, 0-1 SEC) has to do more to limit 3-point attempts. Its opponents took an average of 25 3-pointers per game in the Wildcats’ three losses. That’s a problem. Kentucky’s opponents are getting good looks from beyond the arc, which is only encouraging them to take more, and they’re making them.

That could be the flaw that ruins Kentucky this season.

Can Iowa State win the Big 12?

Let’s start with this: Iowa State is really good. And Saturday’s lopsided victory over Kansas in Ames proved as much. When I talked to Lindell Wigginton and Marial Shayok on Saturday, both players told me the Cyclones felt they had to hit the reset button in December after Wigginton, Cameron Lard and Solomon Young all returned from injuries and other issues.

But Saturday’s win showcased the full potential of a healthy Iowa State team. The Cyclones, who made 52 percent of their shots versus the Jayhawks, dominated a Kansas team that was the unanimous No. 1 squad in the country a few weeks ago.

Shayok led all scorers with 24 points. Wigginton, a few weeks into his return from a foot injury that cost him the majority of the games in November and December, finished 2-for-11. The struggles of Wigginton, a pro prospect, allowed Steve Prohm to unveil his incomparable depth. He has a potential first-round pick in Talen Horton-Tucker. He has definitive role players. He has it all.

The Cyclones (12-2, 2-0) have the talent to climb the ladder in the Big 12.

Is Virginia the best team in America?

Against No. 9 Florida State on Saturday, No. 4 Virginia had a 63-34 lead with 2:50 to play. Florida State’s late rally made the final score, 65-52, less impressive. But anyone who watched that game saw the most dominant performance against a top-10 team since Duke beat Kentucky, both top-10 at the time, by 34 points in the Champions Classic.

Virginia (13-0, 1-0 ACC) is just scary. Opponents have made just 34.2 percent of their shots against the Cavaliers’ half-court defense, per Synergy Sports data. The team has made 39.3 percent of its 3-pointers. And its opponents have committed turnovers on just over one-fifth of their possessions. Florida State (12-2, 0-1) committed 15 turnovers in 63 possessions Saturday. Virginia and Duke will face off Jan. 19 in Durham, North Carolina.

That game will answer key questions about the ACC’s pecking order.

But Virginia is just good everywhere. And the Cavaliers have three players — Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy — who could all secure all-ACC honors. It’s not crazy to think Virginia might be America’s best team right now.

How good is Cassius Winston?

Winston strengthened his case for the Wooden Award with his performance in No. 8 Michigan State’s 86-77 victory at No. 14 Ohio State on Saturday.

Without Joshua Langford, who remains sidelined by a left ankle injury, Winston finished with 25 points (8-for-12 from the field), 5 assists and a steal.

He’s not only the catalyst for this team, but he’s one of the best players in the country. He proved that again in a key road win for the Spartans (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten).

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