Everything in college basketball is upside-down — and not just because of the pandemicSteve Greenbergon February 9, 2021 at 10:44 pm

Michigan State v Duke
Seemingly all the usual contenders — including Michigan State — are down for the count. | Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Where to find the usual blue bloods? On the outside looking in. Meanwhile, Illinois rises and Loyola is back in the big-time.

You think a pandemic has made this college basketball season strange? Well, you’re right about that. But this season took leave of its senses from the jump for all kinds of reasons.

One example: the Champions Classic doubleheader back on Dec. 1. Actually, it’s more like four examples.

Preseason No. 6 Kansas probably thought it was a big deal when it beat No. 10 Kentucky 65-62 in Indianapolis. No. 8 Michigan State had to be feeling itself after topping No. 9 Duke 75-69. But now? Kentucky is 5-12 heading into Tuesday’s game against Arkansas, folks. Duke is 7-7 heading into Tuesday’s game against Notre Dame.

Kansas is unranked for the first time since 2009, snapping a record-setting 231-week streak in the Top 25.

And Michigan State? Oh, boy. The Spartans — the pride of the Big Ten — are near the basement of the conference standings. They were in 12th place with a record of 3-7 in league games entering Tuesday’s visit by Penn State.

The bluest of the blue bloods — Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas — all are outside the Top 25. Those four and UCLA are all unranked for the first time since 1961.

Is the world ready for an NCAA Tournament without John Calipari and the Wildcats? Without Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils? Try not to injure yourselves while leaping from your Barcaloungers and roaring in the affirmative.

It’s all just so different from what we’re used to. Then again, different is kind of good, isn’t it?

Different is Illinois landing haymakers at No. 6, flirting with the upper reaches of the national rankings for the first time since 2005 and showing Final Four potential. Guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn are the best duo in the league and right up there with any in the country.

Loyola v Michigan
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Porter Moser has the Ramblers rolling again.

Different is Loyola, too. At No. 22, the Ramblers — 18-3 overall and a head-turning 12-1 in Missouri Valley play — have their first regular-season ranking since the 1984-85 season.

“It means that, in February, we’re where we want to be,” coach Porter Moser said. “It doesn’t mean anything more than that.”

Come on, of course it does. It means there’s a mighty good college team in town to watch. You don’t need me to tell you that isn’t always the case.

The Ramblers play two games this weekend at 18-1 Drake, the other MVC heavyweight this season. It’s shaping up like a two-bid season for the league, but the NCAA Tournament selection committee never fails to give one or more deserving mid-major conferences the royal blow-off. It’s best for the Ramblers to just keep winning.

“I love our team,” Moser said. “I love how hard they work. We’re definitely locked in.”

The blue bloods are jealous.


Speaking of Loyola in 1985: If you don’t know the names Alfredrick Hughes, Carl “Go-Go” Golston, Andre Battle and Andre Moore, you’d better ask somebody. What a team that was.

People remember that squad for going to the Sweet 16 and giving Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown a tough game, but my best memory is of a February clash against DePaul at what was then called the Rosemont Horizon. The Blue Demons were loaded as they always were back then, and they sucked up so much oxygen in the city that even a team as exciting as Loyola struggled for its share.

Some NBA rookie by the name of Michael Jordan was making a few headlines, too.

But DePaul had to play the Ramblers. Hughes and Battle went off for a combined 51 points in a 78-71 victory. Rogers Park had the “it” team for the rest of that season.

• The Illini are sixth, but two of the teams they’re looking up at are No. 4 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan. Seven of the Big Ten’s 14 teams are ranked this week. Clearly the best league in the country, right?

Hmm, maybe not. The Big 12 has six of its 10 teams in this week’s poll. That includes No. 2 Baylor, which would clobber any Big Ten team in a best-of-seven series. Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia all are highly dangerous, too.

Prediction: One of these leagues is going to put two teams in the Final Four. And that’ll settle it.

Nebraska v Ohio State
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
These days, Fred Hoiberg has little to clap about.

• How you doin’, Fred Hoiberg? Nebraska is 0-7 in Big Ten play, that’s how. Paul Zipser and Cameron Payne never looked so good.

• Be careful if you’re shoveling snow today. You might hurt Otto Porter.

• Speaking of the Bulls, a minor bone to pick with Jason Goff, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill, the trio that does the team’s studio shows on NBC Sports Chicago:

Every time the Bulls lose to a non-playoff type of team, must the theme of the postgame show be that it was a game they should have won? Since when “should” the Bulls win any game? Aren’t the Bulls — especially with Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Porter sidelined — still a team any opponent with a pulse puts in the “should” category?

Look, I said it was minor, didn’t I?

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