Oklahoma’s rise and Michigan State’s tumble are top NCAA basketball stories to watch this week in college hoops.
Welcome to February, college hoops fans! Only 28 days separate us from the glory that is March and the return of the NCAA Tournament after a coronavirus-related cancellation last year.
This next month is critical for programs looking to get to March Madness, as bids can be sewn up with key wins or fade away with ill-timed losses. Let’s take a look at the five things college basketball fans need to know this week, beginning with a surge from the Oklahoma Sooners.
Story of the Week: Oklahoma surging
The Big 12 is absolutely stacked, but the Sooners haven’t gotten enough attention just yet. That should change as a result of a stupendous January from Oklahoma, which racked up four top-10 victories, making them the first program to do that in a calendar month since 1974.
The latest win came on Saturday against Alabama, an impressive effort since the Sooners were down two starters due to COVID-19 protocols. Oklahoma is a well-rounded team that is currently riding a three-game winning streak against Kansas, Texas (on the road) and Alabama. Next up is a huge game against Texas Tech Monday night before a relative breather against Iowa State over the weekend.
Team of the Week: Michigan State
The blue bloods haven’t fared too well this year, and Michigan State is no exception. All of the momentum from a 6-0 start has faded as the Spartans dropped to 8-6 after a two-loss week that has taken them off the NCAA Tournament bubble entirely.
Tom Izzo’s team hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997, but the Spartans are running out of time to turn things around in a rugged Big Ten. Tuesday’s game at Iowa is a must-win for Michigan State, which sorely lacks quality wins since their road victory at Duke hasn’t aged well due to struggles from the Blue Devils.
Freshman of the Week: Jalen Johnson, F, Duke
A big reason for Duke’s early struggles was an injury to freshman forward Jalen Johnson. A foot injury sidelined Johnson until mid-January, and his return has coincided with Duke’s recent turnaround.
Having Johnson on the floor is huge since his ability to attack the rim draws defenders in with him, allowing players like Matthew Hurt to stretch the floor from the outside. The Blue Devils saw Johnson pour in 18 points in a win over Georgia Tech while contributing a more balanced nine-point, eight-rebound effort in a resounding victory over Clemson on Saturday.
Cinderella watch: Belmont Bruins
There is something beautiful about watching one team simply dominate its league in a mid-major conference. That has been the case for Belmont, which is off to an impressive 18-1 start that includes a solid 12-0 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Bruins can pour it on offensively, averaging 82.5 points per game, and have five players averaging double-digit points per game. A pair of road games are on tap for Belmont this week, which will travel to Eastern Illinois and SIU-Edwardsville as the Bruins look to continue compiling wins to enhance their resume in case they stumble in the conference tournament.
Games of the Week: In-state rivalries highlight the action
There are a pair of marquee matchups on tap this week that highlight in-state rivalries. The more significant game in the national title conversation comes on Tuesday night when Baylor puts its undefeated record to the test in a road matchup against Texas. The contest features two of the Big 12’s best and should be a treat for all fans.
The more well-known rivalry takes the stage on Saturday night as a resurgent Duke looks to make a statement when they host North Carolina. Neither team has lived up to the hype at this point, but the passion in this series almost always produces drama so it is well worth tuning in.
For more NCAA basketball news, analysis, opinion and features, check out more from the FanSided college basketball section to stay on top of the latest action.