Philadelphia, PA – I wouldn't have wanted to be in Frank Martin's locker room Saturday afternoon.
The same holds true for those of Roy Williams, or Tom Izzo or John Beilein. Winning on the road is difficult in college basketball, especially so in conference play against familiar opponents, surrounded by fans with an agenda of hatred. It's loud, unsettling, difficult to hear, move, breathe.
It's especially difficult when it's not a normal occurrence. North Carolina hadn't played a true road game in 43 days, a contest it also lost at Kentucky, before venturing to Tallahassee. Kansas State had just ended an emotionally taxing three-game gauntlet against Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State before entering Norman, where it was playing just its second true road game since December 4.
It's staggering to think how little the nation's top teams travel (unless they are headed to the palm trees of Maui or the bright lights of New York City). The road less traveled is a tumultuous trip, as Saturday illustrated with home teams winning 14 of 18 games involving ranked teams.
North Carolina was waxed at Florida State (more on the eye-popping blowout later). Michigan State fell at Wisconsin. UNLV succumbed to San Diego State, which has its own scheduling oddity of playing its first Division I team since late December. Michigan lost at Iowa. The aforementioned Kansas State didn't put up much of a fight at Oklahoma. And even some top teams that did survive road tests hung on by the skin of their teeth (Kentucky outlasting Tennessee, Gonzaga holding off Loyola Marymount).
At one moment or another, I watched all of those games on Saturday and picked up one trend: indecision. Whether it is crowd noise or uncomfortable surroundings, each and every road team played passive, unsure and tentative, not winning traits in a sport of sudden reaction.
North Carolina's "embarrassing" (in the words of Dexter Strickland) loss at Florida State was the worst of the Roy Williams era, even more lopsided than a 32-point waxing at Duke during a 17-loss season that ended without an NCAA Tournament invitation. It was the most surprising loss of the season because no one saw it coming, especially since the Seminoles already lost to two Ivy League schools and at Clemson by 20.
Teams that excel in hostile environments come out with an aggression that helps offset the contributing factors working against them. And if they don't, an avalanche likely ensues.
"We didn't come out with any energy. We came out flat," Kansas State's Will Spradling said as the Wildcats trailed by as many as 18. "If you're playing in anybody else's gym and come out flat you're going to get punches. When we got punched we didn't hit them back."
Michigan's Beilein echoed Spradling's sentiment and lamented on his team's tentative execution, calling it a bunch of "hope 3s and hope passes."
Hope may win presidential elections, but it rarely wins college basketball games on the road.
The Wolverines dropped to 0-3 in true road games. Kansas State is 1-2, the same for the Tar Heels. Road records are an important stat to watch as March comes around, and until then, teams like the ones above and others around the country will get plenty more chances to showcase their toughness, wherewithal and comfort surrounded by uneasy distractions.
Winning on the road is tough, but the struggles for some of the nation's top teams are correctable. I just wouldn't have wanted to be one the players in the losing locker rooms Saturday. The worst part of road trips is the quiet, unsettling trip home.
5 THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
1. Creighton celebrated its victory over Southern Illinois on Sunday with Doug McDermott's 1,000th career point. The unassuming standout tallied 25 points and reached the point milestone in the middle of his sophomore season. McDermott started the weekend ranked second nationally in scoring, and he is a name to watch, as are his Bluejays, as the season progresses. Creighton improved to 6-1 in a solid Missouri Valley Conference.
2. Bravo, Miami. The school has received a legitimately bad reputation over the last 20 years for the players it recruits and the actions off the field by student athletes, coaches, athletic personnel and boosters. The words "recruiting" and "Miami" have produced shady connotations, but the school is working to clean up its public perception. Miami is telling boosters they can't provide occasional meals for athletes or host them at their homes, even though both are acceptable under NCAA rules. Former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro is on the record as saying he provided extra benefits to 72 Miami football players and recruits from 2002 to 2010. The U's athletic department remains under NCAA investigation for its improper actions, an inquiry largely stemming to Shapiro's allegations.
3. I still don't know what to make of UConn. I've been lamenting for weeks that the Huskies needed more consistent production from point guard Shabazz Napier and forward Alex Oriakhi, who had been phased out in part so Jim Calhoun could play a smaller lineup that included freshman Ryan Boatright. That, for the foreseeable see, will change as Boatright has been benched for the second time this season as the NCAA investigates his eligibility. Without Boatright, both Jeremy Lamb and Napier played every minute in a 67-53 victory over Notre Dame, while Oriakhi played better with 12 points and seven rebounds. It will be interesting to monitor the guards' minutes and Oriakhi's play as UConn goes back to a more traditional look for the time being.
4. Pittsburgh is 0-5 in the Big East, which is an unbelievable stat to write. The Panthers are the conference's only winless team, leaving head coach Jamie Dixon searching for underlying positives and teaching moments. I don't think Ashton Gibbs signed up for this when he balked on the NBA Draft.
5. An update on the Todd O'Brien- St. Joe's situation. The story got major play in this weekend's New York Times after the NCAA decided to deny O'Brien's waiver to play for UAB this season as he pursues a graduate degree. The story has been largely painted as O'Brien vs. his former coach, Phil Martelli of St. Joe's. The New York Times article not only rips Martelli's hypocrisy, but also takes on the NCAA, questioning how a governing body that claims to care about the welfare of its student athletes could take such a hardline position? I concur, especially considering that if St. Joe's and Martelli had a compelling reason to deny the request it would have been made public by now. Shame on you St. Joe's. Tisk-tisk NCAA. I recommend the Times article for anyone who is asking many of the same questions.
1. Syracuse (19-0): At least during the regular season, too much balance will never be a bad thing. The Orange are outscoring their opponents by over 14 points per game, and their leading scorer (Kris Joseph) averages just 13.7 points per contest. Is he the guy with the ball at the end of an Elite Eight game? Is it Dion Waiters? Scoop Jardine?
2. Kentucky (17-1): The Wildcats have completely reinvented themselves as a defensive-minded team. They have been under 70 in two of their three SEC games, yet continue to hold serve because of their intimidating front line led by freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. Those two, along with preseason All-American Terrence Jones, blocked eight shots in the win over Tennessee.
3. Baylor (17-0): Now comes perhaps the biggest week in program history. After hanging 106 on Oklahoma State to soundly answer my "can't score" beef from last week, the Bears head to Allen Fieldhouse to face Kansas and answer my "tough to win on the road" study from up above. If that's not enough, Baylor follows up on Saturday at home against Missouri.
4. Ohio State (16-3): I actually moved the Buckeyes up one spot despite a loss last week. Losing at Illinois to a career night from Brandon Paul (43 points and 8-of-10 from long range) is nothing to hang your head about. The bounce- back 80-63 waxing of Indiana is very impressive. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who entered the game averaging just 6.4 points per game, poured in 28 against the Hoosiers. If he can provide some space for William Buford and Deshaun Thomas, look out.
5. Missouri (16-1): A solid week after the disaster in Manhattan, the Tigers showed their mettle at Iowa State then put their foot on the gas early against Texas. This team can score. The only issue is their number of scoring options, which dries up fast when the perimeter game isn't working. The biggest welcome sign from Saturday's 84-73 win over Texas was the 21-point, 10-of-12 effort from big man Ricardo Ratliffe, yet he still only grabbed four rebounds.
6. Duke (15-2): The wins haven't been pretty, and if the Virginia guards make any of their 14 attempts on Thursday, we could be writing a different story. The Blue Devils offense continues to work best with Quinn Cook at the point, allowing Austin Rivers and their shooters to play best off the ball.
7. North Carolina (15-3): Lethargic, sleepy and unprepared are some of the words to pop into the brain when describing the Tar Heels' inexplicable effort in Tallahassee. It got so bad that Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton suggested Williams remove his main stars from the floor in the closing seconds to avoid getting run over. The problem? That had already happened for 40 minutes.
8. Kansas (14-3): The key to Monday's tilt in Lawrence is Thomas Robinson against Baylor's front line. He has been Mr. Everything for the Jayhawks this season, but I expect Baylor head coach Scott Drew to throw the kitchen sink at him, rotating Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Anthony Jones III to wear him down. Robinson's endurance and some help from his supporting cast will dictate the outcome.
9. Michigan State (15-3): The streak had to end some time. Izzo just chalked it up to "life in the Big Ten," which is a valid point. The Spartans need to be more disciplined defensively than they showed against Northwestern, but for now, we will count it as a blip on the radar for a team that is better than anyone could have predicted at the season's outset.
10. Murray State (18-0): Who else belongs here after a topsy-turvy week? The Racers handled Tennessee Tech, one of the Ohio Valley's solid teams, on Saturday, and if they don't look ahead, may not face a stiff test until a February 2 date with Southeast Missouri State.
11. Connecticut (14-3): A big jump up is warranted after a solid week with wins over West Virginia and Notre Dame. As discussed above, the Boatright suspension will tax UConn's depth and put more heavy lifting on a front line that has largely disappointed to date.
12. UNLV (16-3): San Diego State is a tough place to play, so a two-point setback doesn't offset the quality wins to date. The positive is that the Runnin' Rebels shot just 35 percent, Chace Stanback made only 3-of-9 shots, and they were still in the game until the final horn.
13. Indiana (15-3): Remember the "needs to change" rant I went on last week? Indiana STILL is relying far too much on the outside shot, as illustrated by a 0-2 week that included a bad home loss to Minnesota. The Hoosiers made just 11-of-39 three-point shots during the two-game slide.
14. Florida (14-4): This week was all about the Gators' defense, not its top 5 efficient offense. Florida held Georgia to 48 points and 36 percent shooting, then forced South Carolina into a 9-of-24 effort from long range in a 2-0 week that moves it up the charts.
15. Virginia (14-2): The Cavaliers can ball. They lost their only game of the week and yet joined the Fine 15 because they proved their worth in a difficult setting and had two chances to force overtime in the closing seconds. Mike Scott is a flat-out man, scoring 23 points with nine rebounds in Durham. It's amazing that the Cavs nearly came out victories when its best shooting guard, Sammy Zeglinski, missed all eight of his shots.