Saturday's afternoon games thrill, enlighten

January, 15, 2011
1/15/11
4:17
PM ET
Let's call it tempered excitement. That's the way I'd characterize the feelings I had about this Saturday slate of games. There were plenty of good matchups on the schedule -- a few ranked battles, some solid conference contests, and so on -- but nothing appeared likely to rise to the level of "great."

Boy, we were wrong.

Sure, there wasn't a top-five game on the docket today, but who cares? The games we've seen already have had everything: Big comebacks, impressive performances, crucial wins, and, most importantly, entertaining basketball. It's been a great day so far, and we're not done yet.

Here are some assorted thoughts on what we've seen -- and learned -- thus far:

    [+] EnlargeKhris Middleton
    AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Khris Middleton drives around Missouri's Laurence Bowers during overtime Saturday.
  • Missouri is the most entertaining team in the country. Texas A&M is one of the best. (No. 13 Texas A&M 91, No. 12 Missouri 89): Here's a good assumption about these Missouri Tigers: If you tune in, you're going to get a thrilling game. That game will be up-tempo. That game will be well-played. That game will probably even go into overtime. Today's amazing OT thriller in College Station was no exception. Hopefully, this game garners A&M some much-needed love, because this group of Aggies is one of three non-Kansas Big 12 contenders currently in the mix for the conference title. (The others? Missouri and Texas. Kansas State and Baylor have a lot to do before they get back in this conversation.) A&M is just so solid. That doesn't sound like high praise, but within the confines of coach Mark Turgeon's style, it is. How about just nine turnovers in an overtime game against Missouri? The Aggies, with a 13-game win streak that's the longest at that school since 1916, are also one of the best overall rebounding teams in the nation -- they do it on the offensive and defensive ends almost equally well -- and they get to the free throw line at a high rate even when their offense isn't working. Throw in a couple of emerging stars, especially forward Khris Middleton, who scored 28 points today (11 in OT), and you've got a team that's built to play the top teams in the Big 12 -- and the top teams in the country, frankly -- as tough as anyone.
  • You can't go to sleep against this Louisville team. (No. 17 Louisville 71, Marquette 70): This was Marquette's game to win. For 35 minutes, the Golden Eagles dominated this game. Buzz Williams' team was scoring at its usual rate -- this is a very good offensive team, and has been even in its losses this season -- but it was also shutting down Louisville's scattershot offense. Preston Knowles was quiet, Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom were getting quality buckets, and Marquette was cruising, up 18 with 5:44 left. Then the run came: Knowles got hot, Louisville started forcing turnovers, Marquette took (and missed) plenty of bad shots, and before anyone knew it -- including Rick Pitino, who described the ensuing game-closing 24-5 run by saying "It all happened so fast," -- Louisville had stolen the 71-70 win at home. Marquette can make plenty of noise at the highest levels of the Big East this season. The Eagles are that good. But they can't suffer mental breakdowns like they did Saturday, or they'll see more than their fair share of crushing come-from-ahead losses in the next two months.
  • Maryland is better than you think. (No. 7 Villanova 74, Maryland 66): Pundits who don't pay much attention to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings were inclined to call Maryland's double-digit second-half lead a "major upset." The more statistically inclined among us knew better: As of Saturday, Maryland is ranked just two spots behind Villanova in Pomeroy's rankings because of one simple fact: the Terrapins have played the best defense in the country to date (oh, and having Jordan Williams doesn't hurt -- he of the 25 points and 14 boards today). So, no, this wasn't a shocker. Nor was it all that shocking when Villanova, led by a brilliant 17-point flourish from Corey Fisher, scored 19 straight points in the second half to eventually bury the Terps. It's hard to win on the road, after all, and the Terps are still a young team that could benefit from a little more composure down the stretch. But don't call the first 30 minutes of this game a fluke. It wasn't. The record doesn't necessarily back it up, but Maryland is good.
  • Northwestern can't get over the hump. (No. 24 Michigan State 71, Northwestern 67): Yet another disappointing, almost-had-it result for the Wildcats. Two weeks ago, Northwestern was handled by Michigan State at home before making a last-ditch comeback attempt that almost won the game in the closing moments. Today in East Lansing, the Wildcats were even more impressive, but the ultimate result was the same. That means Northwestern, now 2-4 in the Big Ten, is still in search of its first marquee win, a win it desperately needs to begin building a legitimate NCAA tournament résumé.
  • Tennessee is hanging around, or the SEC East is a mess. Maybe both. (Tennessee 67, Vanderbilt 64): OK, so this wasn't the most fortuitously timed College Gameday location. Tennessee has been flagging in recent weeks, seeing its play decline while its head coach begins his eight-game SEC suspension. But today's win, a come-from-behind home victory over a solid Vanderbilt team -- the Vols, like Louisville, were down 17 at one point -- at least counts as a step in the right direction.

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