#1 Kentucky 73, #5 North Carolina 72
Nobody who watched this game believes that this wasn't the best game of the season so far. Both teams have tremendous talent, and the game was played with a ton of passion and effort. The lead was never more than a few points for either team. I had bet on North Carolina pregame because I thought that they'd be a tough match-up for Kentucky. The Wildcats tend to struggle to score in the half court, and rely on turnovers to score points. North Carolina typically doesn't turn the ball over very often. Also, UNC has the athletes capable of taking advantage of the fact that Kentucky isn't a particularly good defensive rebounding team.
But two things turned in Kentucky's favor. First, they proved that they're much better against man-to-man than against a zone. They were able to get the ball into the paint on offense better against North Carolina than they could against St. John's a couple of days ago. Second, North Carolina rushed way too much on offense in the first half. Their 6-for-9 three-point shooting gave them the halftime lead, but they were playing at a frenetic pace, particularly in the opening ten minutes. It was like they were trying to make up for the glacial pace of the Wisconsin game. The problem was that not only did it cause them to commit more turnovers than they should have, but they were also rushing some terrible shots. There's no reason to take off-balance shots with Anthony Davis in your face if you've still got 20 seconds left on the shot clock.
Late in the second half it seemed like North Carolina wore down a little. They have a deeper bench than Kentucky, but it didn't produce. PJ Hairston and Reggie Bullock hit a few threes, but that was it. James McAdoo was invisible, and Justin Watts barely even played. Kentucky is never going to get a lot of production from their bench, but their starting lineup is so talented that they don't really need it. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was probably the best player on the floor (even better than Harrison Barnes), with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Anthony Davis somehow finished with only two blocks, but he must have redirected at least a half dozen others. And, of course, it was his block of a John Henson jumper in the final seconds that won the game.
Kentucky, having beaten Kansas and North Carolina and with room still to grow is off to an excellent start this season. They will head to Indiana next Saturday and will welcome Louisville to town on New Year's Eve. North Carolina has a pair of losses, but it's nothing to panic about. Both losses were true road games against elite teams. I still think they're the favorite to win the ACC and to earn a 1 seed in March. Their schedule gets a little easier for a few weeks. They'll play Evansville on Tuesday, Long Beach State next Saturday and Texas on December 21st. They won't play another road game for more than a month.
Nevada 76, Washington 73, OT
This game happened in the wee hours late last night and was buried on ESPNU, but it really was a very fun game. It was also the Deonte Burton show. Burton had 31 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, including a game-tying three-pointer at the end of the regulation (when for some bizarre reason Washington chose not to guard, as if they were up by four instead of three), and eight of his team's ten points in overtime. Burton scored 13.7 points per game last season as a freshman and looks even better this season. If he doesn't go pro he could end up an All-American by the time he's a senior. He's just very impressive.
The biggest problem for Washington so far this season has been that Abdul Gaddy and Tony Wroten just haven't lived up to their talent. The two combined for 24 points, 10 assists and 9 turnovers in this game. It's not terrible, but it's not what Washington needs. Wroten was supposed to be a super-frosh. And Gaddy was supposed to be a super-frosh two years ago and still hasn't really panned out. The Huskies have lost to both quality teams they've played so far this season and are now 4-2. And with Marquette (on Tuesday) and Duke (next Saturday) up next, that record will likely get worse before it gets better. The Pac-12 is awful this season, so it's going to be very hard for any team from that conference to earn an at-large bid if they haven't done a lot of the work before starting the conference regular season.
Nevada is only 5-3, and this is their first quality win, but they have only lost to quality teams (UNLV, BYU and Missouri State). I think it's unlikely that the WAC is going to get an at-large bid this year, but Nevada is definitely in the mix to win the conference, along with Utah State and New Mexico State. They have a couple of tricky road games up next, at Arizona State on Wednesday and at Montana next Saturday.
#15 Michigan 76, Iowa State 66
Michigan almost suffered a horrible collapse in this game. They led by 22 halfway through the second half, but a 10-0 Iowa State run helped get the lead down to six in the final minute. But eight straight made free throws in the final 45 seconds put this game away for Michigan. That comeback was sparked by Royce White, the transfer from Minnesota, who has been the best player for Iowa State in the early going this season. He scored 22 points (on 10-for-15 shooting) and had 13 rebounds here. Michigan got another nice performance from Trey Burke (13 points), who is getting better as a backcourt mate with Tim Hardaway, Jr. That duo might not end up being quite as explosive as last year's duo of Hardaway and Darius Morris, because Morris was on another level, but they'll be close enough. And Michigan's front court and defense are both better than last season.
Michigan responded well here after the disappointing loss to Virginia. They also have wins over Memphis and UCLA, so their Tournament resume is in pretty good shape. Right now, Michigan looks to me like the third best team in the Big Ten. I'd give the narrow edge over Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana (I didn't list those four teams in any particular order). Ohio State is the clear Big Ten favorite, and I think Wisconsin is the clear #2.
Iowa State is definitely playing better this year than last year, though the results aren't there yet. They have narrow losses to Michigan, Northern Iowa and Drake. Their best win was probably the victory over Providence. They will play Prairie View A&M on Tuesday, and then get rival Iowa at home on Friday. That will be their final competitive game before beginning Big 12 play on January 4th against Texas.