Saturday’s college basketball slate wasn’t just the best the sport has seen this year to date; it could end up being the best of the entire season. With five ranked-vs-ranked showdowns, including battles between title contenders and several other intriguing matchups between high-major teams, the sport got a major showcase opportunity and delivered with several terrific games.
Here’s a look at some major takeaways from an action-packed Saturday.
Houston Takes Big Step Toward a No. 1 Seed
By nature of playing in a weaker conference like the AAC, No. 5 Houston gets fewer opportunities to bolster its résumé against elite opponents than teams from more traditional power conferences. That has a direct impact on NCAA tournament seeding, as we saw last year when the Cougars were given a No. 5 seed despite entering the Big Dance as the No. 5 team in KenPom. So after missing an opportunity to break through last weekend against Alabama, the stakes were high for Houston’s No. 1 seed hopes on the road at No. 2 Virginia, and the Cougars answered the bell with a 69–61 win.
After spotting UVA the game’s first nine points, Houston controlled the game. Much of that came down to three-point shooting: A streaky Virginia team from deep made three triples in the first 7:02 of the game, but just three more the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Houston hit eight threes, a major lift against Virginia’s pack line defense that forces lots of perimeter jumpers. The Cougars generally executed well offensively despite the game’s slow pace, dishing out 17 assists on 25 made field goals and turning it over just eight times. It was the type of performance against a fellow No. 1 seed contender that the selection committee will remember come March.
Houston will now likely be favored in every game left on its schedule. Based on KenPom, they’re projected to be double-digit favorites in 17 of their 19 remaining games. It’s hard to imagine a one-loss Cougars team not getting a one seed, and the top overall seed might even be in their sights depending on how other top teams navigate league play.
Kansas Hasn’t Missed a Beat
The No. 8-ranked defending national champions reminded everyone why they should be among the top contenders to win it all this year in an 84–62 drubbing of No. 14 Indiana. The Hoosiers did lose star point guard Xavier Johnson early in the game to a foot injury, but things were already getting out of hand for IU before their floor general went down.
The major question mark with Kansas coming into the season was the team’s lack of a proven traditional big man, instead turning to undersized athletic big K.J. Adams at center. Adams has played well all season long, and brought it again Saturday against one of the best big men in the country in Trayce Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis was silenced offensively, particularly in the first half when KU took control of the game. And offensively, Adams’s mobility and skill as a passer gives this offense a different look than the post-up-centric bigs Bill Self has traditionally deployed.
Kansas also continues to get great point guard play from Dajuan Harris, who dished out 10 assists and added three steals to go with his 10 points on the night. Harris belongs on any list of the best point guards in the country, consistently getting teammates the ball in the right spots. For Kansas to not just win, but dominate against a good Indiana team in a game their best player in Jalen Wilson shot 4-for-18 from the field is a clear statement that this group is among the nation’s elite.
North Carolina Breaks Through
It’s far too soon to know whether North Carolina’s 89–84 overtime victory over No. 23 Ohio State will go down as an aberration. But if the Tar Heels end up turning things around and living up to their preseason No. 1 billing, this win (and how they won it) should be remembered as a potential turning point.
Ohio State led most of the way, including by double figures in the second half. The Heels’ defense struggled to get stops, Carolina got relatively little from its bench and shot just 6-for-28 from deep. Despite all that, UNC battled back, getting a 28-point, 15-rebound performance from Armando Bacot reminiscent of the team’s NCAA tournament run and 20-plus points each from R.J. Davis and Caleb Love. And after Ohio State regained the lead in the final seconds, the Heels executed perfectly to get a clean look for Pete Nance that tied the game as the buzzer sounded on regulation.
There are still some structural flaws with this Carolina team, but maybe the Heels are starting to get their March mojo back. Bacot and Love made clear during PK85, which marked the start of the team’s four-game losing skid that knocked them from No. 1 to unranked, that the team was still gelling despite returning four starters. Wins like this one have a way of bringing a group together, and there’s no debating the Heels have the pieces to make noise nationally still.
Gonzaga Explodes Offensively Against Alabama
For No. 15 Gonzaga to push for a national championship, the Bulldogs need to be elite on the offensive end. A team built around Drew Timme at center without an eraser like Chet Holmgren blocking shots on the back end is always going to have its flaws defensively. Saturday’s 100–90 win in Birmingham against No. 4 Alabama was the first time this season Gonzaga’s offense has truly felt overwhelming, a great sign for a team that has dealt with question marks in the backcourt throughout a loaded nonconference schedule.
Timme getting whatever he wants offensively often feels like a given with the Zags. The difference against Alabama was how well the team’s supporting cast played. Nolan Hickman looked far more in command of the offense than he has at times this season, as the sophomore point guard didn’t force anything and tallied 13 points and four assists with just one turnover. Malachi Smith and Rasir Bolton got into the lane and made things happen. Plus, x-factor Anton Watson had one of the best offensive games of his career, putting up 17 points and five rebounds in addition to his always-steady defensive work.
To win in what was essentially a road game against an Alabama team coming off wins over Houston and Memphis in the last week was incredibly impressive, and showed off the blueprint for this team to make a deep March run. It may take some scoring outputs in the 90s and 100s for the Zags to go to a Final Four, but they proved Saturday against one of the best teams in the country that they’re up for the challenge.
UCLA Adds to Winning Week
After missing two big opportunities in close games against Illinois and Baylor in November, No. 16 UCLA entered this week needing résumé-topping wins before entering Pac-12 play. And after beating Maryland resoundingly in College Park Wednesday, the Bruins stayed on the East Coast and got a huge 63–53 win over No. 13 Kentucky in the second game of the CBS Sports Classic.
As they have for much of the season, UCLA relied heavily on its “Big 3” of Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez and Jaylen Clark. That trio accounted for nearly 80% of the team’s shots in the game, making big plays when it mattered to help stem the tide of a Kentucky comeback and come away with an impressive victory. This was a grind-it-out affair reminiscent of the games Mick Cronin’s teams won regularly when he led Cincinnati, battling their way to victory despite making just two threes in the game. The Bruins leaned on their defense, holding defending National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe to just eight points on 4-for-12 shooting. Meanwhile, Kentucky guards Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves never got going, shooting a combined 4-for-26 from the field.
UCLA needs more from freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona, who scored just three combined points and struggled to make an impact after appearing to have turned the corner over the last month. Bailey in particular could prove to be a pivotal piece come March because of his ability to create his own shot, a skill set not replicated on this Bruins roster.
No. 1 Purdue Survives a Scare
Last season, Purdue climbed to No. 1 in the AP Poll in early December, then immediate lost its first game as No. 1 to Rutgers and never regained the top spot.
The Boilermakers were able to avoid a similar fate this time around with a 69–61 win over Davidson, but its first foray as the nation’s No. 1 didn’t go as smoothly as had hoped. Purdue struggled to put away a Wildcats team with losses to Charlotte and Delaware on its recent ledger, and for the second straight game struggled offensively after being virtually unstoppable in November. Some of that offensive slowdown can be attributed to shooting variance: Purdue shot just 3-of-25 from deep Saturday after a 7-for-29 performance against Nebraska last weekend, two of the three worst marks the Boilers have shot this season.
Still, with No. 3 UConn once again cruising in a 19-point win at Butler on Saturday, expect the debate over who should top the polls to intensify this week. The Huskies are ranked No. 1 on KenPom, while Purdue comes in at No. 7 on the analytics-based rankings platform.