What we learned from Kentucky, UConn domination and the first top 16 reveal

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Saturday marked exactly one month until Selection Sunday -- and if teams weren't aware that a sense of urgency was needed moving forward, the NCAA tournament selection committee's mock bracket reveal happened early Saturday afternoon. For teams with hopes of sitting in the top quarter of the bracket, they suddenly knew exactly where they stood in the eyes of the committee and what they needed to do moving forward.

UConn learned it was No. 2 behind Purdue -- and then had to play a top-five team inMarquettea couple hours later. Auburn was perhaps a spot or two lower than expected and then was set to play host to a desperate Kentucky team later that night. (For what it's worth, the Huskies and Tigers fared very differently in their respective games.)

What else mattered on Saturday? ESPN's Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi break down the big storylines from another packed weekend of games.

No. 22Kentucky Wildcats 70,No. 13Auburn Tigers 59

Myron Medcalf: Just a few weeks before Selection Sunday during the 2014-15 season, Notre Dame was second in adjusted offensive efficiency and 151st -- not a typo -- in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. That squad made a run to the Elite Eight, where it lost to Kentucky on Andrew Harrison's free throws with six seconds to play. The Fighting Irish never became an elite defensive team to extend that run. Kentucky faces a similar challenge. But this week, the Wildcats (102nd in adjusted defensive efficiency entering Saturday) have shown they can improve before the 68-team bracket is set next month.

They held Ole Miss to just 88 points per 100 possessions on Tuesday. And during the first half on Saturday, they limited the Tigers to just 28% of their attempts. The same Tigers that had scored at least 80 points in 17 previous games. Kentucky has played with more defensive energy in recent days. If it can make that effort consistently down the stretch, it could change its postseason fortune.

Jeff Borzello: Kentucky might have found something on Saturday with the power forward-center duo of Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso. Thiero gives the Wildcats a different level of physicality and energy at the 4, especially in up-and-down games against deep, athletic teams like Auburn. He went for 14 and 8 against the Tigers.

Onyenso is someone to watch moving forward. The arrival of Aaron Bradshaw and the midseason addition of Zvonimir Ivisic seemed like it might relegate Onyenso to the bench, but he's started the past six games and his ability on the defensive end gives John Calipari a rim protector. He had 10 blocks to go with eight points against Ole Miss and seven points, 11 boards and two blocks against Auburn. He also didn't allow the Tigers to dominate the paint. This duo might change when Tre Mitchell returns, but it's working for now.

Joe Lunardi's bracket impact: Kentucky gained more than Auburn lost in terms of bracket impact. The Wildcats move up a full line (5-seed, No. 20 overall) thanks to a near wire-to-wire road victory. The Tigers came in with a good bit more cushion in terms of seeding and will retain the No. 4 seed they received in the NCAA's Saturday reveal. Looking ahead, though, it's not inconceivable these two rivals could trade places between now and Selection Sunday.

No. 1 UConn Huskies 81, No. 4 Marquette Golden Eagles 53

Medcalf: On its way to a second consecutive national title in 2007, Florida beat then-No. 3 Ohio State86-60 during a 17-game winning streak. This was a Buckeyes team with eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick Greg Oden and multiple NBA prospects, who finished the season on a 22-game winning streak. That streak was snapped by the Gators in the national title game. Ohio State's greatness vanished when it met the true king of the sport.

The same thing happened to No. 4 Marquette on Saturday. The Golden Eagles are very good. They have a double-digit win over Kansas, among other highlights. But UConn toyed with them for two halves.

The Huskies' dominant performance was similar to Florida's in 2007 and should be talked about the same way. If the Huskies are destined to become the first team since the Gators in 2006 and 2007 to repeat as national champions, Saturday's effort over the Final Four-level Marquette team was strong supportive evidence of that possibility.

Borzello: Donovan Clingan might be the differentiator between UConn and everyone else in college basketball. There are other elite big men, of course, including the Wooden Award favorite leading the other dominant team in the sport. But the way the Huskies have become utterly unbeatable since Clingan returned to full health in late January is remarkable. UConn's offense has always been at a championship level, although having someone like Clingan (17 points, 10 rebounds on Saturday) running to the rim and finishing is a huge boost. But the impact he's had on their defense is unparalleled.

Since Clingan returned, UConn's defense has been right there with the defenses of Houston and Iowa State as being among the elite in college basketball. Teams simply can't score around the rim when he's on the floor -- further evidenced by Marquette going 5-for-15 on layups.

Lunardi's bracket impact: UConn's case for the No. 1 overall seed continues to improve after this blasting. The Huskies are still a bit shy of Purdue in the résumé department, but certainly close enough to warrant tracking the two teams over this final month. As for the Golden Eagles, the committee gave them the top No. 2 seed in Saturday's reveal and their seeding won't change, even though their place among the 2-seeds will obviously drop.

Quick thoughts

Duke rises again

Duke has now won four in a row and seven of its past eight games since its loss at rival North Carolina earlier this month. The Blue Devils are hitting their stride at the right time. And the emergence of freshman Jared McCain is the most promising development. His 35-point effort -- he tied the scoring record for a Duke freshman -- in the 76-67 victory at Florida State was a showcase for a player with NBA dreams and the potential to help this team make a Final Four run.

Mark Mitchell, Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach are already a trio few teams in the country can match. But when McCain plays the way he did on Saturday -- his eight 3-pointers set a record for a Duke freshman -- the Blue Devils look like a squad that can make a run in March. --Medcalf

Not so fast, South Carolina

It's gut check time for the Gamecocks, who were arguably the biggest surprise in college basketball this season, going from last in the preseason SEC poll to league title contender. But since rising to No. 11 in the country, Lamont Paris' team is no longer able to sneak up on teams and has dropped back-to-back games this week: at Auburn by 40 and at home against LSU, which had lost six of seven.

So how will the Gamecocks respond to their first real adversity of the campaign? Their defense, which was so impressive in marquee wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, has now allowed more than one point per possession in five straight games. And here's another thing: South Carolina's final five games of the regular season are all against teams in ESPN's latest bracket. --Borzello

The NCAA vs. Lunardi

The only surprise in Saturday's committee reveal was the inclusion of San Diego State as a 4-seed. Most thought Creighton or Clemson would be in that spot. The Aztecs came in at No. 14 overall, which is great news for SDSU's chances to hold its position and perhaps a signal of how the committee will view the rest of the Mountain West a month from now. For the record, yours truly had San Diego State at No. 19 overall, so it's not like the Aztecs came out of nowhere. It's a fair evaluation and a good job by the committee overall. --Lunardi

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