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Weekend Look Ahead: Kentucky could do what without Noel?

Seven top-10 teams are on the road this weekend. So you know at least one of them (and probably more) is going down. Let’s get ready for what’s to come with the Look Ahead.

Top game: The Big Ten has been at the center of college basketball all season thanks to the fact that six members have, at some point, been ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. Those teams are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State, and Wisconsin has already beaten four on that list. The 20th-ranked Badgers get a shot at a fifth on Sunday, when No. 13 Ohio State visits the Kohl Center for a game between two teams tied for third in the Big Ten.

Another interesting matchup: Jamie Dixon’s Pittsburgh Panthers have won seven of eight games and established themselves as one of the sport’s best teams even if their national ranking doesn’t reflect it. So why doesn’t their national ranking reflect it? Probably because Pitt accomplished little of note before January thanks to a non-league schedule that ranked 333rd at KenPom.com. But there’s nothing Dixon can do about that now. All he can do now is look forward, take his 16th-ranked Panthers to Marquette on Saturday and try to escape with a victory over the 18th-ranked Golden Eagles that would ensure Pitt starts next week with just as many league wins as any other Big East school.

Yet another interesting matchup: Oklahoma State has won six straight games since starting 2-3 in the Big 12 to move into a tie with Kansas and Kansas State atop the Big 12 standings and earn a No. 17 ranking in the AP poll. KU and KSU are favorites at home this weekend over Texas and Baylor. So if the Cowboys want to keep pace they’ll probably need to handle Oklahoma on Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Probably will be a blowout: Michigan has lost three of four, causing some to lose faith in the Wolverines as a serious national-title contender. Please do not count me among those people. This rough stretch has more to do with the schedule than anything else because the losses that surrounded a win over Ohio State were losses at Indiana, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State. Nobody could reasonably expect to do better than 2-2 in those four games. So, really, how bad is 1-3? Not too bad, I think. But, either way, that stretch is now over. Next up for the fourth-ranked Wolverines is Sunday’s game against Penn State, and a game against a Penn State team that’s 0-12 in the Big Ten is all anybody needs to return to winning ways.

Definitely could be an upset: I loved Duke with Ryan Kelly and still like the Blue Devils without him. But they aren’t the same team with their stretch-four on crutches — proof being how they struggled last Sunday on the road against a bad Boston College team, then struggled Wednesday at home against an average North Carolina team. So though I’m well aware that Duke is ranked second and Maryland is 5-6 in the ACC, I still won’t be surprised if the Blue Devils get caught Saturday inside the Comcast Center, a place where NBA scouts will gather to watch Maryland’s Alex Len battle Duke’s Mason Plumlee.

Player trying to keep rolling: Speaking of Plumlee, he’s been consistently awesome lately. The 6-foot-10 senior has made 46 of 66 field goal attempts (that’s 70 percent) during Duke’s six-game winning streak and is averaging 18.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. DraftExpress.com now projects him as the 11th pick in June’s NBA Draft — six spots below Len, who is taller and younger but not nearly the college player.

Player trying to get rolling: Arizona had just two losses this time last week. Now the Wildcats are on a two-game losing streak, a game behind Oregon in the Pac-12 and probably out of contention for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that Bracketologists were earlier this month projecting them to get. (Things change quickly in this sport, huh?) There are several reasons for the slide — among them Solomon Hill’s poor performances in both losses. The 6-7 senior missed eight of 12 shots in last weekend’s loss to California and nine of 14 in Thursday’s loss at Colorado. He’s made just four of his past 19 3-point attempts heading into the ninth-ranked Wildcats’ game at Utah on Sunday.

Three things you should know before you go

  1. Miami is getting a lot of attention for being 11-0 in the ACC, as it should. But there are six other Division I teams with perfect league records. They are No. 5 Gonzaga (11-0 in the WCC), No. 22 Memphis (10-0 in C-USA), Akron (11-0 in the MAC), Norfolk State (11-0 in the MEAC), North Carolina Central (10-0 in the MEAC) and Louisiana Tech (13-0 in the WAC).
  2. VCU and Saint Louis both have home games this weekend (against George Washington and Charlotte) that they should win. If they do, Tuesday’s game between the Rams and Billikens will be huge and for sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  3. The A-10 and Mountain West enter the weekend with four teams each ranked in the top 50 at KenPom.com. That’s the same number of top-50 teams that are in the Pac-12 and SEC and just one fewer than the ACC provides.

Final thought: So I worked the Memphis-UCF game the other night, came home, caught the end of Duke-North Carolina and then watched this week’s episode of Courtside with Seth Davis on DVR, at which point I heard my colleague, Jeff Goodman, say this: “I think [Kentucky] could play better without Nerlens Noel.”

You should’ve seen my spit-take.

Kentucky play better without Nerlens Noel?

I’m not sure how anybody could reasonably come to that conclusion. How is a team supposed to lose its best player and best defensive player and top pro prospect in February and get better? Has that ever happened? I mean, in the history of college basketball, has that ever happened? Did Goodman also think Cincinnati could play better without Kenyon Martin?

Yes, Kentucky still has good players.

No, I’m not ready to bury the Wildcats completely.

But Noel was the lone consistently great part of this talented team that hadn’t really accomplished much before he suffered a torn ACL in Tuesday’s loss at Florida, which means John Calipari suddenly finds himself relying on a group of young guys who’ve proved unreliable to date. And now they’re going to suddenly get better? Without a dominant shot-blocker in the back to cleanup mistakes and single-handedly win games?

Man, I just don’t see it.

And I don’t see how Goodman sees it, either, unless what he really meant when he said that UK could play better without Noel is that the Wildcats can’t possibly get much worse.

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