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College basketball

Twists and turns in the road this season

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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Ask Roy Williams. Ask John Calipari. Ask Jim Calhoun. Ask Mike Krzyzewski. Ask Jim Boeheim. They will all agree.

The toughest games on the schedule begin with the word “at.’’

If you are attempting to chart the flow of college basketball this season, good luck.

Who’s great?

Who’s very good?

Who’s going to emerge in March and April as the elite of the elite and make their way to the Final Four in New Orleans?

Oh, chalk will probably prevail in most cases, which means that North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Kansas could be still playing on the first weekend in April.

But for the rest of the regular season? All bets are off. Especially when teams get on buses or planes or trains and hit the road.

For evidence, we give you:

Duke losing at Temple.

Florida losing at Rutgers.

Connecticut losing at Rutgers.

Florida State losing at Clemson.

North Carolina losing at Florida State.

Clemson losing at Boston College.

Virginia Tech losing at Boston College.

Michigan State losing at Northwestern.

Connecticut losing at Seton Hall.

Sometimes losses are stunning no matter where they are played, or at least surprising. The latest was Cincinnati’s 70-67 win at UConn Wednesday night, although the Bearcats had been one of the Big East’s hottest teams in recent weeks.

Who could have envisioned Wagner going to Pittsburgh in December and pulling off a 59-54 upset over the then-13th-ranked Panthers? Pitt has gone south since and is at the bottom of the Big East. Wagner, under the guidance of coach Danny Hurley and assistant Bobby Hurley, has instilled some pedigree into the program, and the Seahawks are a legitimate threat against anyone.

Still.

“It’s become a bear to win on the road, no question,’’ said Calhoun, whose Huskies have lost at Seton Hall and Rutgers and barely won at South Florida (in addition to the home loss to Cincinnati). “Other than Syracuse, I don’t think there are any great teams out there, so there isn’t much separation. You really can’t take a night off.’’

Syracuse, which is 20-0 for the first time in school history following its victory over Pittsburgh Monday night, has yet to face a true road challenge. The back end of the Orange’s schedule includes trips to Louisville, Rutgers, and UConn in three of their last five games.

Some road losses you can see coming. Baylor was one of three unbeaten teams when it faced a tough test against Kansas at Allen Field House Monday night.

Kansas, despite three losses, was a slight favorite going into the game and won going away, 92-74.

“We’re one of the best teams, but we’re five games [into the Big 12 race],’’ said Kansas coach Bill Self. “That would have been a big deal for us and our aspirations in the league not to win tonight.’’

Baylor coach Scott Drew had it figured out.

“Night in and night out, you’re going to face good teams,’’ he said. “And if you don’t play well and they play well, you’ve got no chance.’’

Sometimes, however, there seems little explanation, such as North Carolina losing by 33 to Florida State - the worst loss ever suffered by a Williams-coached Carolina team.

The given is that the really good teams will find a way to win on the road, which is what separates them from everyone else. And it’s almost a given that beating an elite team on its home court is impossible.

But as Calhoun said, the gap between the good teams is closing, and the number of great teams is dwindling. And even the bottom-feeding teams are showing teeth at home this season.

When did Rutgers become so invincible at home? And BC has two more ACC wins at this point than anyone projected. That the same team that lost to Rhode Island at home last month can beat Clemson and Virginia Tech this month is a sign of progress - and proof that whatever coach Steve Donahue is selling, the Eagles are buying.

Donahue is a good coach who knows how to build programs.

Stay tuned. There is much more to come.

Saint Joseph’s and Marquette proved that it’s not how you start that counts, but how you finish. Against UMass last weekend, Saint Joseph’s grabbed a 20-3 lead but lost, 71-62. On Monday, Marquette trailed, 18-2, in the opening minutes but finished with a double-digit (74-63) victory over Louisville. So enraged was Marquette coach Buzz Williams at his team during the opening spurt that during a timeout he literally did not talk to the players . . . The most effective chair slam since Bob Knight was performed by Iowa coach Fran McCaffery in a game against Michigan State Jan. 10. McCaffery was so upset with the way things were going in an eventual 95-61 loss that he slammed his chair on the court during a timeout. In the next game, the chairs were safe and so were the Hawkeyes, who posted a 75-59 win at Michigan . . . BC’s wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech were surprising but not stunning; both are chronic underachievers. Still, any wins for the Eagles (especially at home) should be regarded as money in a bank for a team that is young and undergoing a tough on-the-job-training schedule in the ACC.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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