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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Kevin Sweeney

Houston, College Basketball’s Final Undefeated Team, Deserves Your Attention

The first Saturday of 2024 is in the books, a day that brought us a whopping 146 men’s college basketball games as conference play gets into full swing around the country. There wasn’t a singular defining game on the books, but we still saw plenty of noteworthy happenings throughout the day that should set the stage for the rest of the season.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the biggest games of the Saturday slate.

L.J. Cryer leads Houston with 16.9 points per game on 39.6 percent shooting from three-point range.

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Houston Is the Last Undefeated Standing

It happened earlier than Sports Illustrated predicted, but we’re down to one undefeated team left in men’s college basketball: Houston. The two other remaining unbeatens each fell Saturday: James Madison was tripped up on the road by Southern Miss, while Ole Miss was blown away by Tennessee to open its SEC slate.

Meanwhile, Houston continued its dominance to start the season, mowing down an overmatched West Virginia team to move to 14–0 on the year. KenPom considers the Cougars to be the nation’s best team by a wide margin, despite UH’s lack of big-name wins in nonconference play. Why? An absolutely suffocating defense that ranks first nationally in both effective field goal percentage defense and opposing turnover rate. That, combined with dynamic guard play from L.J. Cryer and Jamal Shead, has kept the Cougars program rolling despite losing Marcus Sasser, Tramon Mark and Jarace Walker this offseason. Road tests next week at Iowa State and TCU should tell us a lot: Survive those two, and Houston’s record could remain unblemished for a while. 

It’s Time to Give Hubert Davis His Flowers

A year ago, North Carolina was the butt of plenty of jokes around college basketball, stumbling from AP No. 1 in the preseason to missing the NCAA tournament altogether. Such a failure called into question Hubert Davis’s future in Chapel Hill. But Davis has pressed all the right buttons since, retooling this roster into a group with a legitimate chance to win the ACC and push for a Final Four berth.

The latest evidence: winning on the road against an excellent Clemson team, the Heels’ second straight road win. Perhaps more impressive is how North Carolina has won those games, grinding out a pair of victories with sharp defense and toughness after that end of the floor had been a persistent problem over the first two seasons of the Davis era. Transfer adds Cormac Ryan and Harrison Ingram have been the perfect pieces to round out a nucleus that also features star guard RJ Davis and rebound machine Armando Bacot. This group should be considered favorites to win the ACC as it stands today.

Florida Atlantic Takes Another Damaging Loss

Florida Atlantic was trending toward spending most of the year in the top 25 and earning a strong seed on Selection Sunday after beating Arizona in Las Vegas before Christmas. Since then, though, things have gone awry: The Owls lost for the second time in three games Saturday, this time on the road against Charlotte. FAU dug itself a hole early, trailing by as many as 17 early in the second half before rallying to tie the game multiple times in the closing minutes. But a foul by Bryan Greenlee on a 49ers jump-shooter gave Charlotte the chance to win it at the free throw line in the closing seconds, and the 49ers closed it out with a pair of makes at the stripe.

After a 35–4 FAU team advanced to the Final Four last season, these Owls have already absorbed three losses with over two months of the season remaining.

Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

For now, that loss sits in Quad 2. But after taking two Quad 4 losses in nonconference play (including one to Florida Gulf Coast just before the calendar flipped to 2024), FAU’s résumé is suddenly not so pretty. The Owls shouldn’t be in too much trouble for an at-large bid just yet, but its margin for error is narrowing in a conference without many games to boost its résumé during league play.

Seton Hall Surges Early in Big East Play

No team has boosted its NCAA tournament more in the last three weeks than Seton Hall, which over the course of its first four Big East games has stacked some serious quality wins. First came a victory before Christmas over UConn, then the Pirates followed that up this week with wins at Providence and at home against Marquette.

Those three wins should more than make up for what was a lackluster nonconference portion for the Pirates, who lost their four biggest games of non-league play. Senior guard Kadary Richmond has broken through of late, with 21 points and five assists Saturday against the Golden Eagles to continue his strong stretch. Plus, SHU has started defending the way coach Shaheen Holloway demands. I’m not sure the Pirates have quite enough firepower to push for the Big East crown, but not many teams are playing better than the Hall right now.

Kentucky’s Impressive Road Win

Still questioning whether Kentucky’s youth is ready for the big stage of conference play? The Wildcats answered some big questions Saturday with their road win at Florida. Kentucky’s young group rallied from a halftime deficit to surge past a feisty Gators team in the final minutes, boosted by big plays from freshmen Reed Sheppard and Aaron Bradshaw. 

That Kentucky won a challenging road game while shooting just 5-for-20 from three and getting outrebounded is a testament to the maturity of this Wildcat club. These are precisely the types of wins Kentucky needed if it has serious SEC regular season title aspirations.

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