-- That pregame speech meant something.
In the minutes that preceded his Auburn squad's 75-70 victory over Kentucky on Saturday -- a win that demanded an escape from a 12-point deficit -- Bruce Pearl looked at the camera and debuted his latest imitation of Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman." He preached toughness and heart. He told his players that Kentucky would have to "run though" them to win. And he assured the Tigers that victory would await their effort.
Then, Auburn actually won the game after losing 18 in a row to the Kentucky Wildcats -- the only team not named Florida that has captured an SEC regular-season title since John Calipari's arrival in 2010 -- who now seem desperate for a midseason trade that would enliven their listless frontcourt.
Caesar might fall. Not just in the SEC but everywhere. The kings don't look like the kings right now.
And that's enticing. These races feel more exciting with the new blood that has tossed their personal playlists into the conference title party mix.
Yeah, a 38-1 Kentucky team is fun to track and watch. But there's nothing wrong with a Royal Rumble, either.
BYU's win at Gonzaga last week? No fluke, although its loss to Portland in its next game makes that a legit question, but proof that the Cougars (38.6 percent from the 3-point line) and Saint Mary's (46 percent from the 3-point line, No. 1 in the country) threaten Gonzaga's claim to the throne the Zags have owned for more than a decade.
West Virginia's victory over Kansas and its tough loss at Oklahoma on Saturday only elevated the drama in a Big 12 race that might not end with a 12th consecutive crown for the Jayhawks.
The Pac-12 should order extra trophies. Entering Sunday, seven teams stood at .500 or better. Two of the teams beneath that bunch, Utah and Cal, are led by future lottery picks. A UCLA squad with wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky also lost to Washington State.
The Big Ten is Maryland's league. Unless it's Iowa's. Or Michigan State's or Wisconsin's. Forget that. It feels like Indiana's, right?
In one week, Clemson defeated nationally ranked Louisville, Duke and Miami ... in basketball. So North Carolina is the only thing that makes sense in the ACC today. But this is where the fun continues. We should enjoy these conference races that have felt like foregone conclusions in the past.
Embrace the uncertainty.
Now & Then
Team we picked to win the ACC in November: North Carolina
Barbershop talk then : Marcus Paige and five 6-10 dudes? It's over.
There was no reason to doubt North Carolina's preeminence in the ACC. Sure, Virginia, Miami, Duke and Notre Dame all had the makings of contenders. But no team had the nucleus that the Tar Heels constructed for the 2015-16 season.
Team we'd pick to win the ACC now : North Carolina
Barbershop talk now: Why won't the Charlotte Hornets make a midseason trade for Brice Johnson? I don't get it.
Both Marcus Paige (14.1 PPG, 4.0 APG) and Brice Johnson (16.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG) made the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list. And the Tar Heels, who lead the nation with a 47.3 percent success rate on their jump shots, are 5-0 in league play. But their toughest opponents won't arrive until February. So we don't know everything about this squad, but they're playing like ACC champs.
Team we picked to win the Big 12 in November: Kansas
He had a talented recruiting class. And Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham were all set to return. A 12th consecutive championship for Bill Self and Kansas seemed like the obvious conclusion for the Jayhawks.
Team we'd pick to win the Big 12 now: Oklahoma
Barbershop talk now: Buddy Hield is gonna score 100. Trust me, man. It'll happen.
The Sooners suffered a loss in the most exciting game of the season, a three-overtime thriller against the Jayhawks in Lawrence two weeks ago. But they won't have to travel to Lawrence again. On Saturday, they outplayed a West Virginia squad that they'll see again on Feb. 20 in Morgantown. The Kansas rematch is in Norman. In perhaps the tightest race in the country, Oklahoma could block KU's path to a 12th consecutive Big 12 title.
Team we picked to win the Big Ten in November: Maryland
Barbershop talk then: I'm serious, man. The kid is named Diamond Stone.
It didn't seem fair. Melo Trimble, one of the nation's top young players, and NBA prospect Jake Layman would join transfers Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter on a team that Diamond Stone, a likely one-and-done, might anchor? Mark Turgeon had enough talent for a Big Ten title run and lengthy stay in the Big Dance, it appeared.
Team we'd pick to win the Big Ten now: Maryland
Barbershop talk now: What did I tell you about Diamond Stone?
Yes, the Terps suffered a road loss to North Carolina, and they couldn't defend a hot-shooting Michigan team in a road loss to the Wolverines last week. But they bounced back by orchestrating the most lopsided loss in Thad Matta's tenure at Ohio State (100-65) on Saturday. Plus, Maryland will face Iowa (home), Michigan State (road) and Indiana (road) in single matchups this season. That's an advantage in this race.
Team we picked to win the Big East in November: Villanova
Barbershop talk then: You're a Nova fan? Man, I can spell Ryan Arcidiacono's last name without Google. A-r-c ... I think there's an 'h' somewhere in there.
Villanova is the only champion that the Big East has known in its second life as a conference. With Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono returning and elite recruit Jalen Brunson arriving, Nova looked like the eventual Big East champs entering the season.
Team we'd pick to win the Big East now: Villanova
Barbershop talk now: I heard that Jay Wright's suits are lined with gold. That's the rumor.
Villanova's loss to Oklahoma and Virginia, both outside Philadelphia, encouraged doubters. Plus, Xavier, Butler and Providence all emerged from the nonconference season with quality wins. But the Wildcats, 6-0 in league play, opened the season with a 31-point win over Xavier. This is still their conference.
Team we picked to win the Pac-12 in November: Arizona
Barbershop talk then: Yeah, they lost two first-round picks but it's Arizona. Warm weather and winning.
That's just what they do. It's not easy to recover from the losses of Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell -- three players on NBA rosters this season -- but Sean Miller assembled a strong recruiting class and added Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson. With the return of Gabe York and Kaleb Tarczewski, the Wildcats seemed destined to win another Pac-12 title.
Team we'd pick to win the Pac-12 now: USC
Barbershop talk now: The "Dunk City" guy? Really? They're good? In basketball?
Why not, right? The Pac-12 doesn't have a team that has separated itself from the field at this point. But the Trojans, who recorded a 5-31 record in the Pac-12 during Andy Enfield's first two seasons, have secured wins over Arizona, hindered by injuries all season, and UCLA (at Pauley Pavilion). They're playing top-30ish defense right now and shooting 41.1 percent from the 3-point line, both keys to their 4-1 start.
Team we picked to win the SEC in November: Kentucky
Barbershop talk then: Skal. His last name has 11 syllables or something. That's all I know.
Since John Calipari arrived in 2010, Kentucky and Florida have split the past six SEC regular season championships. And that trend, it seemed, would continue this season with another game-changing recruiting class in Lexington connecting with returnees Tyler Ulis, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress.
Team we'd pick to win the SEC now: Texas A&M
Barbershop talk now: I called this. Remember when I told y'all that Jalen Jones was a star? You remember, right?
The top of the SEC features a handful of squads who all seem equipped to make a run and win the championship, a list that includes Kentucky, LSU, Florida, South Carolina and possibly Vanderbilt. But Texas A&M is the most complete team in this league and the in-conference leader in offensive and defensive efficiency. And the Aggies are led by standouts Danuel House (15.9 PPG) and Jalen Jones (17.2 PPG).
Team we picked to win the WCC in November: Gonzaga
Barbershop talk then: Dude, I don't know how they pulled it off. But Arvydas Sabonis might start for Gonzaga this season. I'm for real.
Mark Few had Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. And the Zags had won the WCC championship every season since 2001 -- except during the 2011-12 season when Saint Mary's won the crown. Even without Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga still looked like the top dog in the WCC.
Team we'd pick to win the WCC now: Saint Mary's
Barbershop talk now: Let me guess. Randy Bennett's best players are from Australia. I knew it.
Australian standouts Emmett Naar (13.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 59 percent from the 3-point line) and Dane Pineau (11.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG) back a Saint Mary's squad that leads the country in 3-point shooting (46 percent). The Gaels have also held their opponents to a top-15 mark of 41.2 percent inside the arc. It's hard to imagine any team but Gonzaga winning the title. But Saint Mary's is the best squad in the conference today.
Team we picked to win the Atlantic 10 in November: Dayton
Barbershop talk then: Man, that's not Sean Miller's brother. No way. Look it up.
Archie Miller's Dayton squad won two NCAA tournament games last season with six scholarship players during a tumultuous season that the Flyers salvaged by earning a tourney berth and wins over Boise State in the First Four and Providence in the first round before suffering a loss to Oklahoma in the second round. This season's squad entered the season with a deeper crew and a dangerous trio of Dyshawn Pierre, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard so the A-10 crown seemed like a reasonable goal.
Team we'd pick to win the Atlantic 10 now: VCU
Barbershop talk now: Who braids Mo Alie-Cox's hair? Just curious.
Will Wade replaced the beloved Shaka Smart in Richmond. But he maintained some of the coach's defensive principles. The Rams, who haven't lost since Dec. 19, have forced turnovers on 24 percent of their opponents' possessions. Melvin Johnson is an 89 percent shooter from the free throw line and a 44 percent marksman from beyond the arc. That helps. The Rams are playing like champs.
Team we picked to win the AAC in November: Connecticut
Barbershop talk then: It'll be the Rodney Purvis Show. You'll see.
The Huskies followed their 2014 national title run with a trip to the NIT last season. But Kevin Ollie added transfers Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller. Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton returned too. Everything about UConn basketball suggested that the Huskies would rise to the top of the conference again.
Team we'd pick to win the AAC now: SMU
Barbershop talk now: They're gonna hop on a bus and challenge all the Final Four squads at a playground in Houston. My buddy has a friend on the team. He told me.
The SMU Mustangs are banned from the NCAA tournament, but they're not barred from a pursuit of a perfect season and AAC championship. Nic Moore and Jordan Tolbert guide a program that's started the season with a 17-0 mark and elevated itself above the rest of the AAC.
Back to the Basket
Bronson Koenig overcomes slump
If Wisconsin hopes to salvage the season and find some momentum in the Big Ten, it will need Bronson Koenig (27 points, 4-for-8 from the 3-point line) to compete the way he did in Sunday's come-from-behind win over Michigan State in Madison. He'd made just 11 of 33 shots (33 percent) in Wisconsin's three previous games, all losses.
Jaysean Paige rises
West Virginia lost to Oklahoma on Saturday but Paige showcased his growth after a tough nonconference effort. He scored 18 points against the Sooners, which was the sixth time in the last seven games that's he has recorded 17 or more.
Bad blood between Iona and Monmouth on Friday and Northern Illinois and Western Michigan on Saturday led to weekend scuffles. That's unfortunate for the MAAC and the MAC, two quality mid-major leagues that shouldn't be defined by those moments.
Even though Duke suffered back-to-back losses to Clemson and Notre Dame, the staff feels as if they're coaching a squad that's three possessions from entering the week with a 17-1 record after tight losses to Utah, Clemson and Notre Dame. The team's margin for error is slim compared to last season. So the Blue Devils really need to focus in those crucial moments down the stretch. That could change their season.
Derek Willis is UK's answer?
"If you ask me, he moved by all the other bigs. That's my opinion." That's what Calipari told reporters about the senior's effort (12 points, 12 rebounds) in Saturday's loss at Auburn. A positive for Willis and a bad sign for Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.
Big East title for Providence?
Um, not without any swagger on offense. The Friars have failed to register above a point per possession in their past three games -- two of which they've lost (to Marquette on Jan. 5 and Seton Hall on Saturday). Both home games. Ugh.
That's somebody's child, Jaron Blossomgame!!!!!
Congrats, Jaron. Your Clemson squad just defeated Louisville, Duke and Miami all in the same week. Kudos. But let's talk about what you did against Duke in the final seconds. That nasty flush? You didn't have to rock the rim like that. You saw the replay. Marshall Plumlee's futile attempt to swat the smash that made Clemson fans turn up. That's not right.