If you thought that February would really clear up the 2016 college basketball season, and that the jumble of January would give way to something more orderly this month, it’s not looking good.
It’s hard to get a read on teams in the first place, but now — in at least a few isolated instances — it appears that more variables and plot twists are entering the picture.
February is often a month when one of two things happen:
A) A team that has consistently won gets a little bored with the grind of conference life. Difficult travel logistics in the latter stages of a long season wear on a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old athletes. That’s going to happen. The laws of sports physics aren’t going to stand in the way of that on most occasions. Top teams and prime players — having proved themselves from mid-November through January — want a big challenge or an electric moment to stimulate their senses. Playing bad or mediocre opponents far away from home can feel like a chore.
B) A team that has established a very high standard through January then hits a wall. The legs go dead, or the pressure mounts, or the conference schedule is backloaded with tougher games, or any combination of the above. This is especially true for teams which are not used to being targets for everyone else in their league.
After Tuesday night in college basketball, which teams fit into each example?
Example A would certainly seem to apply to North Carolina, which played poorly at Boston College even before Roy Williams suffered another episode related to vertigo (caused by a sudden head movement). Regardless of that distraction, the Tar Heels took the court and played an unsettled, uneven game against a Boston College team which — though occupying the ACC cellar — had a chance to make its season in a home game. North Carolina just made a trip to South Bend, Indiana, one of the most geographically extreme locations in the ACC, and then had to go to another geographical corner of the conference in New England. That’s a brutal stretch. The only thing which could have made this sequence more daunting is if the teams played on Monday and not Tuesday, following UNC’s game against Notre Dame on Saturday.
Yes, North Carolina is a less than imposing team when Marcus Paige is not at his best. Yet, how much of the team’s labored quality of play at the present moment is due to the accumulated strain of the season in general? The point of asking the question is not so much to elicit an answer, but to ensure that the tension point is wrestled with.
Briefly consider another possibility for Example A: Dayton didn’t face difficult travel logistics on Tuesday — the Flyers played at home — but Archie Miller’s team might have gotten bored with the Atlantic 10 season. It fell well behind Duquesne before scrambling to beat the Dukes in the kind of contest which screams, “Is it March yet?” The Flyers seem to want to be there now, but they have two and a half weeks left in this month, just like the rest of us.
Now, let’s turn to Example B, in which Texas A&M seems to be a primary case of a team that has hit the wall, unaccustomed to a place of such prominence at this point in the season.
Kentucky has rosters that turn over so much from year to year. Yet, despite that fact, there will almost always be two or three core players who stay, enabling John Calipari’s annual rosters to maintain some degree of cohesion. In this sense and to this extent, Kentucky maintains a culture in which a certain level of expectations always exists.
Texas A&M doesn’t have that. The Aggies have returned to a relatively high level in the college basketball world this season, owning their best chance at making the Sweet 16 since the 2007 team under Billy Gillispie. In the period of almost 10 years separating the Acie Law Aggies from this current bunch, the program has drifted. The 2016 season — being in the limelight, at the top of a conference race — is a new experience for Billy Kennedy and his players.
It seems to be showing.
The recent home-court loss to South Carolina was more a reflection of the Gamecocks’ ability to show they’re a legitimately good team. The previous loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday — decisive and entirely undramatic — was a much more alarming sign. Moreover, A&M had lost at Arkansas and drifted through an unconvincing game against Missouri in the weeks before this past one. If a team appears to be hitting a wall, A&M is a pretty good example.
Another possible example is Miami, though the Hurricanes are still winning instead of tumbling downward in their conference. Miami is getting by these days, doing just enough to win, but the Hurricanes — as gaudy as their overall record might be — are not at the point where they’re flexing their muscles. They’ve looked fairly ordinary over the past few weeks. If they are intentionally trying to save some energy or enthusiasm for the stretch run, they’re doing a pretty good job of convincing us of such a fact.
These two examples above — A and B — will apply to some teams across the country. However, the 2016 season has been defined by its lack of definition more than anything else. The very puzzle of the current campaign is that teams have defied easy categorizations. They have not fit into many clear patterns. The only real pattern which has emerged in 2016 is that as soon as Team A gets into the top six of the rankings, it loses.
Therefore, it’s hard to ascertain in a lot of instances if Team A is bored… or spent… or just not that great. Evaluation is more difficult this February than ever before.
Pattern — what pattern? The mystery of 2016 deepens.