Saturday’s slate of games featured some surprising finishes. Teams were exposed. Others were discovered.
It was a tutorial on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the college basketball scene this time of year. Here are a few things I learned:
What we learned: The Orange aren’t just deep -- they're really good
Syracuse has been praised as one of the deepest teams in the country. The Big East power possesses a talented backup at every position. Sometimes, however, the “depth” tag suggests a team lacks individual talent. That’s not the case with the Orange. North Carolina State started strong but Syracuse didn’t panic. It just turned to its stars. Dion Waiters (career-high 22 points), Scoop Jardine (16 points) and Kris Joseph (21 points) led an SU squad that hit 56.5 percent of its shots. North Carolina State was up early and then -- Bam! -- the Orange snatched the game back. Even with a target on their backs as America’s new No. 1 team and a highly publicized investigation of a former assistant coach, they continue to operate like a team without any distractions. Cuse has survived every Bernie Fine development and overcome the obstacles on the floor. Can’t get overly excited quite yet about a team that just played its first road game, but the Orange seem to have it all right now.
What we learned: Florida’s backcourt is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams
Well, the Aggies don’t belong anywhere near the top 25, judging by Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Gators. They can’t score. The Big 12’s worst scoring offense and worst free throw-shooting team couldn’t find the buckets to compete with Florida. Give UF credit for attacking early (opened the game on an 18-2 run), putting its potent offense to work and getting to the free throw line (30 attempts). The Gators are going to have trouble against bigger teams given their size disparity, but as Saturday’s game proved, opposing teams continue to have problems matching up against a team with their backcourt depth (three guards scored 16 or more, led by Kenny Boynton’s 22 points and his six 3-pointers). One question remains, though. Patric Young took two shots. You have to wonder whether he’ll become a more consistent part of Florida’s offense in SEC play. One thing is clear: When this team gets going, it’s a hard one to stop. There are still defensive concerns, but the Gators are going to compete in the SEC if they continue to produce this level of offense.
What we learned: Perry Jones can lead Baylor to a national championship
Baylor’s NCAA title hopes will be directly linked to its identity outside of Waco. The Bears were 1-3 away from their home floor during the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule. Those road woes followed the Bears into the Big 12 season. In a gritty game Saturday against a BYU squad that’s always tough on its home floor, Perry Jones III scored a career-high 28 points and played with the heart that’s expected of a star. After suffering a late knee injury, Jones checked back into the game and scored on a putback with 20 seconds to play that capped the win. Pierre Jackson blocked Brandon Davies’ 3-point attempt at the buzzer. BYU held a 13-point lead in the first half, but Jones kept the Bears alive in a hostile environment. He’s NBA-lottery good. We knew that before Saturday’s game, but since his return from an NCAA-mandated suspension at the start of the season, he’s looked like an NCAA championship-caliber leader, too.
What we learned: Gonzaga is not discouraged by early struggles, but Arizona might be
This was a significant game for a pair of teams that had dropped from the rankings in recent weeks as they failed to meet preseason projections. Both needed this game in Seattle. Gonzaga played like it understood the stakes. Arizona did not. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game, and Zona spent the rest of the contest trying to close the gap. But that early onslaught from Gonzaga set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Zags held off Arizona’s late charge that cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:03 to play. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Solomon Hill, went 1-for-7 and finished with six points, his second single-digit effort in three games. The fall continues for Arizona, an Elite Eight team last season but one that has lost four of its past seven games. Give Gonzaga credit, though. The Zags seemed motivated and focused, despite suffering their recent ups and downs. Saturday’s version of Elias Harris (25 points) should help Gonzaga in what should be an excellent WCC race with BYU and Saint Mary's. Hopefully, the 2-for-11 player who showed up for last weekend’s loss to Michigan State never returns.
What we learned: UNLV is legit
With about 41 seconds to play in this game, Illinois' D.J. Richardson drove right in and went up for a dunk that wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But Quintrell Thomas swatted the shot like it mattered. Thomas and Mike Moser gave UNLV a combined 30 points with leading scorer Chace Stanback (2 points) struggling, as UNLV strolled into Chicago and locked up an Illinois team that came in at 10-0. The Runnin’ Rebels now have dropped a pair of undefeated, nationally ranked squads (North Carolina, Illinois), and their only two losses came against quality opponents on the road (Wichita State, Wisconsin). This Mountain West standout is legit. The Rebels can clamp down defensively. Illinois went 16-of-63 from the field (7-of-25 from the 3-point line). Surprisingly, Illinois didn’t feed big man Meyers Leonard (3-of-8) enough in the second half. During some stretches, Leonard’s teammates just missed him and settled for bad shots. Other times, however, Leonard couldn’t breathe with UNLV defenders swarming him.
What we learned: Josh Pastner is still trying to figure out this team
Let’s start with giving Louisville credit. The Cardinals held off Memphis’ relentless pursuit, after watching their 13-point second-half lead become a 58-55 deficit. Behind Russ Smith’s career highs of 24 points and seven steals, Louisville pulled off a solid home win. But it also was another game in which Memphis baffled observers with its inefficient use of its immense talent. Will Barton is special (28 points, 16 boards), and he’s surrounded by a variety of highly skilled athletes. But that hasn’t been enough for the Tigers. Their four losses have come against quality opponents, but at what point will this group get over the hump? When will it stop playing in spurts and begin improving shot selection in tight stretches? Those are all key questions for Pastner going forward. He has some talented players on his roster. But getting all that talent to work together is still a challenge.
More observations from Saturday:
* No. 2 Ohio State stayed strong when Jared Sullinger left Saturday’s 74-66 victory over South Carolina with a foot injury, but you have to wonder whether the sophomore’s ailments will hamper him and the program the rest of the way.
* Both Mississippi State and Detroit proved they’re legitimate conference contenders during the Bulldogs’ 80-75 victory over the Titans. MSU is 11-1 now, while the return of center Eli Holman (12 points, 9 rebounds) increases Detroit’s potential of winning a Horizon League title.
* The Missouri Valley race will be the most competitive in the country. Indiana State’s 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt was just a reminder of the conference’s parity and talent. The Sycamores will compete with Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Missouri State in what should be a heck of a two months in the Valley.
* A game-winning tip-in with a second to play by Butler’s Andrew Smith helped the Bulldogs snap a three-game losing skid with a 67-65 win over Purdue. The Big Ten is really big this season, and Purdue lacks a consistent interior presence. That will create a variety of issues for the Boilermakers in conference play.