The lone game of the weekend between ranked teams gave us overtime and elevated Kentucky's status yet again in this unpredictable season. Perhaps UK is rounding into reliable form? The No. 15 Wildcats won 76-74 at No. 18 Texas Tech, snapping TTU's 54-game winning streak vs. nonconference opponents at home.
It was the harshest road environment Kentucky has faced -- and maybe will face -- this season. John Calipari's team improves to 15-4 and has won seven of its past eight, with three of those wins coming on the road. This being a game in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it means Kentucky wraps its nonconference slate with an all-around-respectable 10-3 record. For Texas Tech, a gashing home loss, a big opportunity gone and now pressure really gets applied in the always-tough Big 12.
There are three notable and important plot lines to know from this one. Here are the big takeaways from Kentucky's big win.
1. Nick Richards has evolved into a throwback college star in just about every sense: Five-star recruits don't expect to stay at Kentucky for two years, let alone three. But Richards, a center, is a junior. And he might be the favorite for SEC player of the year at this point. This despite him not attempting a 3-pointer this season, despite not being the focal point of the offense. Used to be that if you were 6-11 and played for a power program, you'd grow into a top-tier player in college basketball by your third year. That process has mostly dissolved, but Richards is bringing it back.
It's a fun story. His hard work and patience are paying off. On Saturday, Richards was again the most important player for UK. He notched his eighth double-double of the season -- and hit two foul shots at the end of overtime that gave the game its final score. Richards finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Richards is averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 boards and 3.1 blocks since Jan. 1.
His story doesn't have many parallels at Kentucky in the past 20 years. Fun to see, and he'll have a big say in how deep UK goes in the NCAAs.
2. It's a great sign that Kentucky's backcourt slumps and it still wins another road game: UK's Ashton Hagans had an up-and-down game, but his defense on Davide Moretti on TTU's final possession included two clean swipes of the ball that offed the Red Raiders' hopes of tying and/or winning the game. That was a positive. Also a positive: Immanuel Quickley's continuance as a reliable distance shooter. He had 21 points and made four of his eight 3-point attempts, including a .
But Hagans' offense was bad and freshman Tyrese Maxey had one of the three worst of his 19 games in a Wildcat uniform. Maxey accumulated four fouls, scored seven points, had five turnovers and was 2-of-10 shooting. But Kentucky overcame that. It overcome some iffy officiating. This backcourt trio is too good to be bad consistently, so the fact UK's 15-4 even without having top-flight performances from the triad is a positive sign.
Wouldn't shock me at all if we looked up in the first week of March and regarded this backcourt as the best in hoops.
3. For only the third time in 60 years, we could have both title-game contenders miss the following year's NCAA Tournament: Texas Tech was somewhere in the neighborhood of a No. 9 or No. 10 seed heading into Saturday. With this loss, TTU is a brutal 1-7 in Quad 1 games. At 12-7, they're dancing on the fence. Certainly this team can win its way comfortably into the field, but it's now a legitimate toss-up. (Having eight of its wins coming vs. Quad 4 competition is not helping.)
Then you've got reigning champ Virginia, all the way down at No. 64 in the NET and sporting a 12-6 record with a road game against Wake Forest forthcoming on Sunday. The Wahoos would not be in the field if we seeded it today.
So should UVA and TTU continue on their paths, they'll become just the third couple to face off in the national title game, only to miss out on the ensuing season's NCAA Tournament in the expanded-bracket era. Going back to 1960 -- 60 years -- the only other times we've seen the final two not earn Dance tickets the next year:
- Michigan State and Indiana State not getting there in 1980 after squaring off in that historic 1979 championship.
- Florida and Ohio State hitting the reset button in 2008 after the Gators won their second straight in 2007 over Greg Oden and Mike Conley. (Ohio State won the 2008 NIT, though.)
It gets/remains stressful for the Red Raiders: they host 16-3 West Virginia on Wednesday and then travel to 16-3 Kansas next Saturday. Virginia will follow up its road game against Wake Forest with a home test against 16-2 Florida State, which already beat UVA on Jan. 15.