- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Hopefully, you ignored college football. Hopefully, you procrastinated putting up your Christmas decorations. Hopefully, after Kentucky's thrilling win over North Carolina this afternoon, you stayed plopped in that couch groove, remote in one hand and snacks in the other, ready to flip from one hoops affair to the next.
Why? Because UK-UNC was merely this Saturday's opening salvo. Sure, it was the best and most important and most entertaining and most talented and most insert-your-adjective-of-choice-here game of the day. But it wasn't the only one. Let's run through the rest of this afternoon's action -- beginning with Xavier's remarkable comeback win over Purdue. (Tu!)
No. 11 Xavier 66, Purdue 63: Technically, a brief glance at the Game Flow illustration in the link to the left tells the story here. The Purdue lead was 20-6 after 10 minutes. It was 33-22 after 20 minutes. It was -- get this -- 55-36 after 30 minutes. Then, in the final 10 minutes, and especially the final five, Xavier staged a marvelous comeback, ending the game on a 30-8 run and holding on in the end to get the most unlikely of wins.
You can look at the box score and know this, and therefore know the story of the game. But believe me when I say this is one you had to see to believe. In particular, you needed to see X guard Tu Holloway, whose late-game transformations -- Holloway goes from inefficient to "oh my God, did you just see that?!?" -- are one of the strangest and most compelling performance storylines in college basketball this season. It pains me to say this, but in his past two games, Tu Holloway became college basketball's Tim Tebow. (I know, I know. I couldn't resist.)
As in Xavier's victory at Vanderbilt on Monday, Holloway was pedestrian to downright bad for much of Saturday afternoon. Before the final five minutes, he was borderline invisible, when he wasn't committing one of his six turnovers, that is. And then, just as it did Monday night in Nashville, something clicked. After the five-minute mark, Holloway went 3-of-4 and scored 13 of his 21 total points, including the three consecutive dagger 3s he stuck in the closing moments when his team needed them most. He won the game with his shooting and finished it off with his free throws.
It's strange, this lightbulb that seems to click only in the closing moments. But whatever it is that goes off in Holloway's head when the game is on the line in the closing moments, Xavier fans will take it. Thanks in large part to Holloway's late-game heroics, the Musketeers end this week with two crucial nonconference wins over two power-six teams, one of which came on the road.
There's a ton of season left, but would anyone want to draw the Muskies in an elimination game right now? For all its occasional struggles -- and by occasional, I mean "for the first 35 minutes of any given game" -- this Xavier team not only appears to be balanced and talented, but also appears to be as difficult an out as any team in the country. If you're up on the Musketeers, you better bury them deep. As long as Holloway's on the floor and the lead is mathematically in reach, you're never, ever safe.
As for Purdue, Matt Painter and Co. will certainly be unhappy to lose a game they controlled for so long in such heartbreaking fashion. And the sight of Robbie Hummel wincing at the end of the Boilermakers bench -- Hummel was crippled by apparently excruciating cramps for much of the afternoon -- was certainly an unwelcome one. But there are bright sides. For one, Hummel's injuries were merely cramps. (Seeing the Purdue senior, in the midst of a heartwarming comeback from two major ACL surgeries, hold his leg after contact is the quickest way this side of an Eli Roth movie to feel one's stomach turn in knots.)
More important, it should be noted that Purdue was the vastly superior team for much of the game. A loss is a loss, of course; no distinction will be made for its type during the résumé comparison season in early March. But the Boilers can take something from this game. They were the better team for its majority -- on the road, in a tough environment, against an experienced and talented team, with its best player cramping late -- and at the end of the day, maybe that's what's worth remembering.
No. 16 Marquette 61, No. 7 Wisconsin 54: Make no mistake: Marquette is a good team. Arguably a very good one. Even without star Jimmy Butler, last season's do-everything scorer, rebounder, glue guy and teammate extraordinaire, the Golden Eagles are still very good.
Even so, this is a borderline shocking result. Why? Because Wisconsin doesn't lose at home, like, ever. Before Saturday, in 11 seasons under Bo Ryan, UW was 156-11 at the Kohl Center. The Badgers were working on a 23-game home winning streak against all opponents; the last time they lost a nonconference home game was Dec. 23, 2008. So for the Golden Eagles to come in and get a win in this underrated in-state hoops rivalry -- well, yeah, that's a shocker, no matter how good this Marquette team is.
Of course, the Badgers gave Marquette the opportunity almost from the starting tip. Wisconsin posted an uncharacteristically awful shooting performance Saturday afternoon, particularly in the first half, when the Badgers scored just 22 points and found themselves in a 10-point hole at halftime. Things improved slightly in the second, but UW still finished 16-of-50 from the field and 5-of-19 from 3. For a team averaging 44 percent from 3 and 50 percent from 2 this season -- a team that relies on slowly working the ball in pursuit of a high-percentage final shot -- that simply won't get it done.
Wisconsin's slow pace -- its greatest advantage at times -- also makes it very difficult for the Badgers to mount a comeback. They tried, and cut the lead to within striking distance late in the second half even despite a tough charging call on point guard Jordan Taylor that cost the Badgers a three-point play and sent Taylor to the bench with his fourth foul. But Marquette was just as good down the stretch. Guard Darius Johnson-Odom didn't have a hugely efficient night (17 points on 15 shots), but anytime he can get his 18-foot step-back jumper off, it becomes an unstoppable offensive weapon. Meanwhile, Marquette is getting good contributions from sophomore Vander Blue and freshman guard Todd Mayo (younger brother of O.J.).
Wisconsin may have shot itself in the foot in this one -- not unlike Tuesday's close call at North Carolina -- but Marquette deserves the credit. The Golden Eagles took advantage early, made enough plays to finish the game and in the process notched one of the biggest wins of Buzz Williams' ever-promising tenure at the program. Impressive stuff.
Illinois 82, No. 18 Gonzaga 75: Maybe Gonzaga beats Illinois on a neutral court. But maybe not.
That's the feeling one got while watching this game, in which Illinois -- a young team but one with talent, which is something yours truly has been saying all season -- never looked overmatched or overwhelmed against a ranked Bulldogs team with designs on a deep tournament run. A little like UK-UNC, this win didn't feel like the benefit of home-court advantage as some deciding factor. Illinois can play with people. Now we know.
Of special note? Illinois forward Meyers Leonard. The sophomore missed much of the first half thanks to foul trouble, but he returned in the second with a determined style of play. The end result: 21 points and 6 rebounds on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. Those are impressive tallies any way you slice them, but considering Leonard posted those numbers while matched up with Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, they're doubly so. Throw in the balanced performances from starters D.J. Richardson (19 points), Brandon Paul (13 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and Sam Maniscalco (10 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) and, well, don't look now, but this Illinois team might well be better than last season's disappointing senior-led squad. It certainly looked the part Saturday.
No. 17 Pittsburgh 61, Tennessee 56: In Maui, the Tennessee Volunteers proved themselves to be a flawed but hard-nosed and pesky bunch, one that would refuse to roll over for their apparently more talented opponents. That quality was on full display against Pitt, which led UT by eight with 1:46 to go. That's when the Vols began fouling, and after an elbow cost guard Ashton Gibbs a technical foul -- and gave Tennessee the customary shots and possession -- the Panthers missed the front end of two one-and-ones and watched as Trae Golden's 3 cut the lead to 58-56 with 11 seconds remaining.
It wasn't pretty, but the Panthers pulled this one out after forcing a jump ball on Tennessee's key possession late. They'll be thankful for that when seeding time comes around this spring. But let it be known: Tennessee was supposed to be rebuilding. That may be true. But don't tell the Volunteers. Because they aren't yielding anything in the meantime.
Other noteworthy results from the afternoon: The jury is still out on Iowa State; the Cyclones don't have any truly bad losses (at Drake is forgivable, and so is a home loss to UNI), but after Saturday's 75-65 loss at Michigan, Fred Hoiberg's rebuilt team hasn't made us sit up and take notice either. ... Ryan Boatright's home debut after a six-game NCAA rules suspension went swimmingly: The freshman guard scored 23 points and led his team to a game-opening 14-2 run in what was arguably a struggling UConn team's most impressive performance of the year, a 75-62 victory over Arkansas. ... Usually, UCLA-Texas is a marquee game. Not this season. The Bruins are now 2-5 after today's home loss to the Longhorns, which was briefly interrupted by a power surge that caused the lights to dim in the aging Los Angeles Sports Arena, UCLA's temporary home. One imagines Ben Howland would have preferred the lights stay off. ... BYU played at the home of the Utah Jazz (hey, there's nothing going on there) and dusted off Oregon with a 13-0 run in the second half of its impressive 79-65 win. Noah Hartsock led the way with 23 points and 12 boards for the Cougars. In other news, the Horizon League began conference play -- yes, conference play -- on Saturday, with the two biggest results a 77-71 overtime win by Valpo at Butler and Cleveland State's 66-61 win at preseason Horizon favorite Detroit. We know to never count out Butler (or Detroit if Eli Holman ever returns), but it's becoming apparent that the Crusaders and Vikings are the teams to beat in the Horizon.