This is what we've been waiting to see from Kentucky since the Wildcats entered the season after fighting for the No. 1 preseason spot with Kansas. A talented team with five-stars and McDonald's All-Americans up and down the roster, John Calipari was noticeably confident about his team in October and November.
And then Nov. 6 happened. Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points in the season opener. Almost immediately, the Wildcats' luster was gone.
We hadn't truly seen Kentucky get that swagger back -- until Saturday night.
Tennessee went into Lexington with the No. 1 ranking in both polls (No. 2 in the power rankings, though) and exited with a blowout 86-69 loss on its ledger.
Kentucky came out of halftime with a six-point lead and grew the margin to 24 points in the first seven minutes of the second half. Tennessee made a couple of mini-runs at different points down the stretch, but the result was never in doubt. This was a game Kentucky controlled for the vast majority of the 40 minutes, and the Wildcats looked like the team we thought could compete for a national championship come early April.
PJ Washington continued his ascent from glue guy into legitimate All-American and potential top-20 pick, and Keldon Johnson hit shots from the perimeter while Tyler Herro had a career high in rebounds. Reid Travis brought physicality down low against a team known for its toughness. And Ashton Hagans took care of the ball, distributed offensively and disrupted defensively. Kentucky made shots from the perimeter in the first half and consistently got to the free throw line in the second half. The Wildcats dominated the paint.
It was an impressively complete effort -- especially after Kentucky snapped its 10-game winning streak with a home loss to LSU on Tuesday. The Wildcats are now back in the mix for a 1-seed should any of the top four teams falter over the next few weeks.
Will Tennessee be among those teams?
The Volunteers won't fall too far in the rankings yet. They still have the profile of a top-four team, as this was their first loss since November. They still have the win over Gonzaga in their back pocket and are still tied for first place in the SEC. But the road is about to get a little tougher. The Volunteers still have to go to LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn -- and also host Kentucky and Mississippi State.
If Rick Barnes' team is still on the 1-line come Selection Sunday, it will have earned it.
Tuesday: Duke stuns Louisville with wild late comeback
Duke had 36 points in the first 30½ minutes of Tuesday's game against Louisville. With just over nine minutes left, the Cardinals led by 23.
Nine-plus minutes of game time later, Duke emerged with a two-point victory, 71-69.
The Blue Devils pulled off one of the most stunning comebacks in recent years -- and the biggest comeback by Duke since it erased a 31-point deficit in the second half against Tulane in 1950.
Duke scored almost as many points in the final 9:04 as it did in the first 30:56. The Blue Devils forced 13 second-half turnovers by the Cardinals, turning them into 15 points. Duke scored 18 transition points in the second half after totaling only four in the first half. With 9:13 left in the second half, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Louisville had a 99.9 percent chance to win the game.
But Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish wouldn't be denied. Williamson, despite being saddled with four fouls for the final nine-plus minutes of the game, scored 14 points in the second half. Reddish scored 16, including the go-ahead free throws with 14 seconds left. Williamson and Reddish combined for 27 of Duke's final 35 points.
We were all set to move Tennessee back to the No. 1 spot after dropping the Volunteers on Monday morning -- but Duke put a stop to that. The Blue Devils' pressure defense was simply overwhelming in the final minutes against Louisville, to the point that no one on the Cardinals wanted to dribble the ball against Tre Jones and the Duke defense.
On a night Michigan and Kentucky both suffered surprising losses, including one in controversial fashion, it was Duke's 23-point comeback -- yet another statement by the Blue Devils -- that stole the show.
Monday: Duke is your new No. 1 (apologies, Vols)
Tennessee has been No. 1 in our rankings since mid-January, when the Volunteers escaped against Alabama and Duke beat Virginia. Rick Barnes' team hasn't lost since.
But we're dropping the Vols to No. 2 this week.
We've said since the beginning of last season that these rankings aren't done like the AP or coaches' polls, in which winners rise, losers fall, and that's about it. These are based on an entire body of work, not just how a team is playing now or whom we would take on a neutral floor. And right now, the answer is clear: Duke is No. 1.
The Blue Devils beat Virginia for the second time this season on Saturday, this time in Charlottesville and at full strength. Aside from the fact that Duke has two losses and Tennessee has one, there isn't a category that puts the Volunteers ahead of the Blue Devils.
NET? Duke. Strength of schedule and nonconference SOS? Duke by a landslide. KenPom? Duke. BPI? Duke. Sagarin? Duke. Quadrant 1 wins? Duke.
If Duke stumbles again or Tennessee beats Kentucky twice in the next six games, we could revisit the debate. But right now, it's hard to come up with an argument (besides record) to put the Volunteers ahead of the Blue Devils based on the overall body of work.
1. Duke Blue Devils (23-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Louisville 71-69 on Tuesday, beat NC State 94-78 on Saturday
RJ Barrett notched just the fourth triple-double in Duke history on Saturday, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists -- and, perhaps most important for Mike Krzyzewski, zero turnovers. Zion Williamson also finished with 32 points despite missing time in the second half with foul trouble. Next up for the Blue Devils is the first of two rivalry games against North Carolina.
2. Tennessee Volunteers (23-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat South Carolina 85-73 on Wednesday, lost to Kentucky 86-69 on Saturday
Tennessee ran into a second-half buzz saw in Lexington on Saturday, getting thoroughly outplayed by the young Wildcats en route to a 17-point loss. Rick Barnes simply didn't get enough from his ancillary offensive weapons, with Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden combining for seven points on 3-for-18 shooting. The loss snaps the Volunteers' 19-game winning streak and also drops them into a tie for first place in the SEC standings with LSU.
3. Virginia Cavaliers (22-2)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat North Carolina 69-61 on Monday, beat Notre Dame 60-54 on Saturday
After winning in Chapel Hill on Monday, Virginia went ahead and had one of its worst offensive outings of the season against Notre Dame. The Cavaliers scored just 60 points on 61 possessions and shot worse than 38 percent on two-pointers. Tony Bennett's squad now heads on the road for two tough games: at Virginia Tech and at Louisville.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (25-2)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Loyola Marymount 73-60 on Thursday, beat San Diego 79-67 on Saturday
For the second straight game, Gonzaga actually had a competitive contest in the second half. But once again, the Bulldogs pulled away down the stretch. Josh Perkins played his best game in weeks, finishing with 15 points, nine assists -- and just one turnover. Perkins is still the biggest key to Gonzaga's hopes of a national championship, and more performances like Saturday's will go a long way.
5. Kentucky Wildcats (21-4)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: Lost to LSU 73-71 on Tuesday, beat Tennessee 86-69 on Saturday
The PJ Washington second-half resurgence continued against Tennessee on Saturday night. After averaging 20.7 points and 8.6 rebounds over his past six games, Washington more than held his own against Tennessee's vaunted frontcourt tandem of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Washington finished with 23 points and five rebounds, and also blocked two shots.
6. Michigan Wolverines (23-3)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: Lost to Penn State 75-69 on Tuesday, beat Maryland 65-52 on Saturday
Michigan came out swinging on Saturday afternoon and withstood a couple of Maryland runs in the second half to bounce back from its loss to Penn State earlier this week. Zavier Simpson was very good for the Wolverines, dishing out eight assists to just one turnover -- and also hitting two 3-pointers and making both of his free throws. His poor free throw shooting and perimeter shooting has been an issue at times this season, but Simpson stepped up on Saturday.
7. Houston Cougars (24-1)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat UConn 71-63 on Thursday, at Tulane (Sunday)
Heading into the season, there was some belief that UMass transfer Dejon Jarreau would help replace Rob Gray's production from last season. A former ESPN 100 prospect, Jarreau ended up missing seven of the first eight games due to suspension -- and he hasn't been consistent since. Over the past two games, though, Jarreau has come alive: He totaled 34 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in wins over Cincinnati and UConn.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels (20-5)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: Lost to Virginia 69-61 on Monday, beat Wake Forest 95-57 on Saturday
Carolina shot nearly 75 percent in the first half, from both inside and outside the arc, and thoroughly dominated Wake Forest for 40 minutes. Cam Johnson had 27 points. One thing to monitor will be Nassir Little, who played 11 minutes in the first half despite suffering an ankle injury against Virginia -- but then didn't play in the second half after getting hit in the chest. Roy Williams told reporters after the game that Little was "OK."
9. Michigan State Spartans (20-5)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Wisconsin 67-59 on Tuesday, vs. Ohio State (Sunday)
It seems the Spartans' slump is officially over. They went into the Kohl Center and pulled away from the Badgers down the stretch en route to an impressive road win. Cassius Winston was once again terrific, with 23 points and six assists. Kenny Goins and Nick Ward provided some balance down low. Coach Tom Izzo's team has a chance to build some momentum with two home games before a trip to Michigan.
10. Nevada Wolf Pack (24-1)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Wyoming 82-49 on Saturday
It has now been more than a month since the Wolf Pack had a game within single digits -- although three of Nevada's next four games are at San Diego State, home vs. Fresno State and at Utah State. On Saturday, Tre'Shawn Thurman stepped forward with a double-double and Eric Musselman had three bench players play 20 minutes or more; could that be a sign Musselman is extending his rotation down the stretch?
11. Kansas Jayhawks (20-6)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat TCU 82-77 in OT on Monday, beat West Virginia 78-53 on Saturday
Well, look at the Big 12 standings now. Kansas is just a half-game back of Kansas State, tied with Texas Tech for second place. Can the Jayhawks win the Big 12 yet again? They have a week off before heading to Lubbock for their toughest remaining game on the schedule: at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have won four in a row, but Kansas blew them out by 16 earlier this month in Lawrence.
12. Marquette Golden Eagles (21-4)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat DePaul 92-73 on Tuesday
Another Marquette game, another massive Markus Howard performance. The All-American guard had 36 points on 21 shots against DePaul on Tuesday night, marking the fourth time in the past five games Howard has hit the 30-point mark. The Golden Eagles have the rest of the week off -- and coach Steve Wojciechowski has to hope Howard won't cool off during the break.
13. Purdue Boilermakers (18-7)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: Lost to Maryland 70-56 on Tuesday, beat Penn State 76-64 on Saturday
After taking 27 shots in a losing effort on Tuesday, Carsen Edwards went 6-for-11 from the floor in Saturday's win, finishing with an efficient 21 points (despite his seven turnovers and four fouls). The Boilermakers are keeping pace with Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten race and now head on the road for two games against struggling Indiana and Nebraska.
14. Louisville Cardinals (18-8)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: Lost to Duke 71-69 on Tuesday, beat Clemson 56-55 on Saturday
Louisville has to learn how to finish games. After the stunning collapse against Duke on Tuesday, the Cardinals nearly gave away another game to Clemson on Saturday. They were up seven with just about 10 seconds remaining and needed a desperation block from Jordan Nwora on the final possession to preserve the win. Despite the struggles, it was a key victory, as games at Syracuse and vs. Virginia are next on the slate.
15. LSU Tigers (21-4)
Previous ranking: Unranked
This week: Beat Kentucky 73-71 on Tuesday, beat Georgia 83-79 on Saturday
Losing at Georgia after beating Kentucky in Lexington would have been the ultimate of letdown spots, but LSU pulled away down the stretch for a win in Athens. With Tennessee's loss at Kentucky on Saturday night, the Tigers and Volunteers are in a tie for first in the SEC. And look at the schedule: next Saturday, Tennessee visits Baton Rouge. LSU just has to get through Florida first.
16. Iowa State Cyclones (19-6)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: Beat Kansas State 78-64 on Saturday
Iowa State got payback on Kansas State for the Wildcats' one-point win in Ames just over a month ago, beating Bruce Weber's team in Manhattan by 14 points. Talen Horton-Tucker scored effectively, and Marial Shayok was active on the glass, but Lindell Wigginton's performance was key. He had 23 points in 24 minutes -- including five 3-pointers. Last season's leading scorer has been up and down this season, but perhaps Saturday's effort is a breakout effort.
Dropped out: Wisconsin (No. 15)