- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Louisville gets a big win on the road, Florida has the week from hell, UConn shows signs of life in a loss at Syracuse, Missouri has its way in yet another disappointing performance from Baylor and UNLV holds on for a thrilling win over San Diego State. As is tradition, here's what we learned from those games -- and more! -- Saturday afternoon.
[Editor's note: Per usual, we encourage you to stay with the blog all day for on-site reports from our writers across the country and, later, our recaps of all the big-time Saturday night action, including Wichita State-Creighton, Michigan State-Ohio State and Kentucky-Vandy.]
UNLV 65, San Diego State 63: One team must win, and one team must lose. UNLV fans will be thrilled. San Diego State fans will agonize. The contours of this relatively new rivalry couldn't be more pronounced, and this season's series -- with both games decided by two points; SDSU won the first at home 69-67 -- will only add fuel to that fire. In a guttural, emotional sense, if you're an Aztecs fan, this loss hurts. If you're a UNLV fan, you're downright stoked. So it goes.
But once the reflexes give way to perspective, both fan bases might realize this was the rare instance in which both teams can legitimately claim victory -- if not on the scoreboard, in terms of perception.
For UNLV, the win represents a restoration of the Rebels' first-place claim to the top of the Mountain West standings; this victory moved both teams to 6-2 in league play. It showcased the rich vein of talent first-year coach Dave Rice has tapped. Forward Mike Moser was excellent on offense and a source of havoc on defense. He finished the game with 19 points, nine rebounds, six -- yes, six -- steals and four blocks. Chace Stanback struggled, but his teammates had his back. Brice Massamba scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Oscar Bellfield went for 15 points and six assists, and Anthony Marshall contributed eight assists (a few of them spectacular), six rebounds and two steals.
For SDSU, the two-point loss was proof of this team's enduring grit. That's a bit cliche, I know, but you have to cite it when you see it, and boy, do the Aztecs ever have it. It doesn't take much for UNLV's uptempo attack to bury opponents at the Thomas and Mack. Just ask New Mexico. Instead, every time the Rebels looked ready to finally break through and run away -- as they did at the 7:50 mark of the second half, when they led 60-50 -- SDSU just kept fighting back. Chase Tapley, the oft-forgotten fifth wheel in last year's dream season, has become a full-fledged star. He dropped 22 points and made four of his seven 3-point attempts, including a series of huge shots to close the lead -- and overtake it at 63-62 -- in the closing minutes.
For UNLV, its ability to hold on at home, swallow any jitters and make the big plays (particularly on the offensive glass in the final minute) is only good news for the future. For SDSU, its ability to hang tough and nearly escape an insane road environment with a win says much the same. UNLV won this game, and its record and eventual NCAA tournament seed will reflect as much. But anyone who watched all 40 minutes of this affair couldn't help but come away as impressed with the Aztecs as the Rebels. We don't know how this league will play out in the coming weeks, but we do know this much: The Mountain West has two very good teams at the top. Impressive stuff, all the way around.
No. 4 Missouri 72, No. 6 Baylor 57: I thought my colleague Myron Medcalf summed it up perfectly in the closing moments of Missouri's second win over Baylor this season. As Myron wrote, "Missouri continues to prove that the question isn't 'How will Missouri guard team X?' but 'How will team X match up with Tigers?'"
Spot on, isn't it? All season, the question about Mizzou has been whether its severe lack of size leaves it at a disadvantage against teams such as Baylor and Kansas (or any number of the national foes on the prospective road to the Final Four). As we've long since learned, that lack of size -- and the barrage of guards that replaces it -- is much more to MU's advantage than to its opponents'.
That was true against Kansas last Saturday, but it's especially true of Baylor. On paper, the size of Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and even Anthony Jones and Cory Jefferson should wreak havoc on a Missouri team that starts three diminutive guards and Kim English, a shooting guard, at power forward. Instead, as in the first contest (an 89-88 Mizzou win in Waco), it worked to the Tigers' advantage. Baylor simply couldn't keep tabs on Flip Pressey, Marcus Denmon and Michael Dixon; the trio combined for 51 points on 17-of-30 from the field and a downright blistering 12-of-22 mark from long range.
Few teams can stop this Missouri attack. That's why it ranks No. 2 in the nation (and No. 1 in the Big 12) in points per possession this season. But the Bears, particularly coach Scott Drew, didn't do themselves any favors, either. Drew stuck to his team's trademark zone defense long after Missouri had hit its 11th and 12th 3s on the day. When he finally switched, English almost immediately used a curl screen to free himself for a sweet open jumper, and the Tigers kept pulling away. In other words, it's not as if man defense was the great untapped panacea. (In fact, as our Stats & Info's Ryan Feldman wrote this morning, Missouri was much better against Baylor's man defense in the first meeting.) But Baylor needed to do something to cool off -- or at least pressure -- Missouri's scorching-hot shooters. It didn't, at least not until it was too late.
We've grown accustomed to seeing these sorts of performances from the Tigers. It's a testament to how impressive this team has been all season (and the job Frank Haith has done, of course) that most of us expected Mizzou to prevail over the No. 6 team in the nation with relative ease. Missouri is really good, especially on offense. What's more, if you like sharp, controlled, uptempo basketball, there are few teams in the country more worth your time. Missouri is must-see hoops TV.
What this result says about Baylor is a matter of similar certainty: This is a very talented team as capable of impressive wins as downright baffling losses. This wasn't one of them, but it revealed many of the same issues. There is no reason a team with the 10th-ranked effective height figure (per Ken Pomeroy) should be so bad on the defensive glass. (The Bears rank No. 9 in the Big 12 in opponents' offensive rebounding rate. Only Oklahoma State has been worse.) There is no reason a team with these sorts of offensive weapons should be held to 36.2 percent from the field against a team allowing the ninth-highest effective field goal percentage in its conference. There is no reason Perry Jones III should be so passive (he went 2-of-12 on Saturday), why powerful forward Quincy Acy should attempt just three field goals, why a group that could dominate in the post with ease if it wanted to should toss up 17 3s (and make only four).
All told, the Bears are as frustrating to watch as Missouri is enjoyable. This team should be better. It isn't. Unless something unlikely changes in the weeks to come, that will be the story of a 2011-12 season that once contained almost unlimited promise.
Tennessee 75, No. 7 Florida 70: Since he arrived at Florida in the mid-'90s, Billy Donovan has achieved nearly every kind of success a coach can have. He's won two national titles. He's won a score of conference trophies. His teams are near-annual fixtures in the NCAA tournament; he recruits some of the best players in the country on a yearly basis. This is the best Florida has ever been at this strange roundball sport. Where hoops is concerned, these are the Gators' glory years.
What, then, can explain Florida's weird relationship with Tennessee? After Saturday's loss -- the second to the rebuilding Vols this season -- UF is 6-12 against Tennessee since 2004. The Volunteers have won eight of the past 12 against the Gators. When Bruce Pearl was leading Tennessee in its own hoops glory years, this hardly felt unusual. Pearl's teams were frequently good, particularly at home, and it's hard to beat good teams on the road in SEC play. But now that Pearl is gone and Cuonzo Martin is leading a 13-12 restoration project, Tennessee's strange near-dominance has continued. You figure it out. I can't.
In any case, the reasons for this particular edition's outcome are not particularly difficult to identify. Florida's oft-lackluster defense let it down again, allowing the Vols to score 75 in 66 possessions. In the meantime, UF's offense -- which is usually good enough to mask defensive lapses -- was just plain off. The Gators hoisted 30 3s but made just 11. Other than that, they scored just nine 2-point field goals.
It's an old identifier, one hoops analysts are often far too quick to use, but it fits here: Florida (which shoots the most 3s in the country, and accurately, too) lives and dies by the long-range shot. If those shots don't fall, the Gators haven't proved they can seek out balance and get easy buckets from Patric Young in the paint. They were outscored 36-14 in the paint Saturday. There's nothing wrong with firing 3s. They're worth an extra point, after all. But when you're cold, you have to find easy ways to score. It's not rocket science. Florida appears to lack that ability.
No. 23 Louisville 77, West Virginia 74: With so many teams across the country -- not to mention in the Big East -- looking adrift in the second week of February, the Louisville Cardinals present a refreshing contrast.
For so much of the season, this team's offensive struggles looked likely to derail a once-promising campaign. On Jan. 7, the Cardinals scored .92 points per trip in a home loss to Notre Dame. A few days later, the Cards were drubbed at Providence 90-59, and the only thing more disconcerting than the strange defensive drop-off -- PC scored 1.34 ppp that day -- was Louisville's continued inability to counter on the offensive end. Those struggles continued the week after, at Marquette, where UL posted another bad offensive night (.89 ppp). The Cardinals' defense would be fine. But as the midseason Big East losses revealed, a good D wasn't good enough to make up for such thorough offensive woes. If Rick Pitino's team couldn't score consistently, its hopes of a deep NCAA tournament run could be only limited.
A few weeks later, after Saturday's 13-point rally in Morgantown's brutal atmosphere, there's no mistaking the Cardinals' forward progress. Louisville scored 77 points in 61 possessions, getting balanced double-digit scoring from five players. One of those players, freshman guard Wayne Blackshear, made his debut performance after early season injuries kept him out of the lineup, and he was immediately productive, posting 13 points and four rebounds on 5-of-9 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3 in his 20 minutes of run. Blackshear's productive entry into the rotation is a fantastic sign for this team, but the trend lines are moving upward anyway.
Louisville has now won six in a row (including road games at Pitt and Seton Hall). Those wins have been due in part to its defense, the fourth best in Big East play to date, but also to an impressive offensive burst. In its past six games, Pitino's team is averaging 1.12 points per trip. The Cardinals aren't setting the world ablaze, but the improvement can't be discounted. Outside of Syracuse, there aren't many teams in the Big East playing better.
No. 2 Syracuse 85, Connecticut 67: Speaking of Syracuse, there are few places in the country you'd rather not visit after a road loss like the one Connecticut took at Louisville this week. The Huskies were not only outplayed but outworked. Ryan Boatright said the Huskies "basically gave up." Alex Oriakhi called it "embarrassing." Both were right. Games like that can rupture already shaky teams. They can lead to season-destroying slumps. After the Louisville loss, UConn was 3-7 in its past 10. A team this talented should never be on the bubble. The Huskies most certainly were and are.
So on to Saturday. The final score in this one looked ugly, and maybe it was always going to. With Fab Melo fully restored in the middle of SU's brutal 2-3 zone, the Orange are almost impossible to beat in the Carrier Dome. But despite the ugly final score, UConn actually acquitted itself well. Syracuse controlled the game and its pace for much of the first half and early into the second, and appeared set to pull away early and often. But the Huskies kept coming, never quite able to overtake Cuse but never truly fading away, either. After 30 minutes of this back and forth, a C.J. Fair dunk gave SU a nine-point lead. But by the 6:28 mark in the second half, the Huskies had fought back again, closing the lead to just 63-61.
That was the closest the Huskies would get. Two Scoop Jardine 3s and a handful of Dion Waiters buckets unleashed an impressive 22-6 run in the final minutes. This just in: Syracuse is really, really good. But for a Huskies team that spent most of its time at Louisville walking back on defense (and watching the Cardinals dunk with ease) -- and spent the days after questioning its own emotional makeup -- this was a much more encouraging display, even in a loss.
No. 5 North Carolina 70, No. 20 Virginia 52: How would the Tar Heels bounce back? That was the eminent question surrounding North Carolina this week. Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes all experienced the worst of what college basketball has to offer in Wednesday night's devastating come-from-ahead home loss to rival Duke. They no doubt spent the next two days hearing gleeful (or downright angry) Duke and UNC fans flood the Triangle's local airwaves with criticism -- of their bad decision-making, their defensive lapses, their turnovers and (perhaps most cuttingly, at least from what I heard on my day-after drive from Chapel Hill to Charlotte) their Tar Heels heart.
In the end, perhaps this was the perfect way to regroup. Virginia is a good, steady team, but one whose best and most important player -- Mike Scott -- does most of his work in the interior, where UNC's defense is at its strongest. Scott still scored 18 points Saturday, but he needed an uncharacteristic 17 shots to get there, while guards Jontel Evans and Joe Harris combined to shoot 6-of-20 from the field. Most of those shots felt difficult, challenged; Zeller and frontcourt mate John Henson forced the Cavaliers' perimeter players to finish most of their drives moving away from the rim, rather than toward it. Meanwhile, Zeller (25 points, nine boards, three assists, three steals, one block) rebounded from Wednesday's disaster brilliantly.
UNC's offense was hardly vintage, and the Tar Heels' struggles from beyond the arc (they were 1-for-10 today) are still a concern. But facing one of the nation's best defenses, with the horrors of this week still (no matter what they might say publicly) undoubtedly fresh in their minds, the Heels flashed the kind of defense that should be their bulwark against occasional struggles (or, you know, full-on crunch-time meltdowns) the rest of the way.
Other random observations from this afternoon's games:
North Carolina wasn't the only first-place ACC team in need of a rebound after a brutal loss Wednesday night. That condition applied to Florida State, too, which lost to one of the worst power-conference teams in the country (Boston College) earlier this week. ESPNU analyst (and former Wake Forest coach) Dino Gaudio was dead on in his studio analysis Saturday: When Florida State's guards are good -- when they're taking care of the ball and shooting well -- the Seminoles are an entirely different team. That backcourt play is what led them to the seven straight ACC wins, to their blowout of UNC, to their road win at Duke, and that backcourt play is what cost them questionable losses in the nonconference as well as the ACC opener to Clemson. Bernard James and Okaro White are predictable contributors in the paint. James (18 points, six rebounds, two steals, four blocks) was excellent Saturday, and FSU got past a streaking Miami team as a result. It's the FSU guards who are the wild card.
And how would Duke move on from its insane, emotionally draining win? Would Maryland take advantage of that still-questionable defense and shock the Blue Devils at home? Not so much. Coach K's team moved on from Wednesday's win-for-the-ages with a solid if unspectacular home-court defense. Austin Rivers was off from the field, but balanced scoring from Seth Curry and Miles Plumlee, as well as a defense that held Maryland to far less than a point per trip, were more than enough to get the Blue Devils a win. Hangover avoided.
Early candidate for Weirdest Game of the Day award goes to Texas 75, Kansas State 64. Why? Because the Wildcats scored 40 points in the first half, taking a 13-point lead and apparent command of the game into the break. And then things fell apart. K-State posted a 24-point second half as the Longhorns found their offense en route to a 48-point (!!) second-half outburst. What was the difference? Free throws. Texas shot 48 free throws Saturday. Kansas State shot 12. The Longhorns attempted seven more free throws than field goals; they posted a free throw rate of 117.1 percent. That should be impossible. Apparently, it is not.
How good was Marquette's offense in its 95-78 win over Cincinnati? Count the ways: The Golden Eagles scored 1.39 (!!) points per trip, shot 34-of-60 from the field and cashed 20 of their 24 free throw attempts. Cincinnati wasn't bad, per se. (Although the Bearcats might want to rediscover their mid-Big East form before their NCAA tournament chances fade from distance.) On the contrary, Marquette -- which has now won nine of its past 10 -- was just too good. Considering the Golden Eagles started from a 16-4 deficit in the first few minutes (something Buzz Williams' team does almost every game, it seems), this was an offensive burst for the ages.
Rick Majerus got another key conference win Saturday, moving to 8-3 in the A-10 after a 59-52 victory at La Salle. That defense was typical. SLU entered Saturday ranked No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In a wide-open A-10, one in which Temple appears the only sure thing, the Billikens' defensive brilliance could take them far.
If Virginia Commonwealth keeps stacking solid CAA road wins, we might just have to consider this Rams team -- which is now 22-5 and 13-2 in conference play -- in the at-large bubble picture. The Rams' schedule was a bit weak this season, but even so, considering the stars they lost after 2011's miraculous Final Four run, they've been better than anyone could have expected in 2012.
Larry Shyatt's storybook first season at Wyoming hit a snag Saturday afternoon. This team has never been much to look at on offense this season, but even so, it's hard to hold a team to 48 points and lose by 10, which is exactly what the Cowboys did in the Pit today against New Mexico. Then again, when you shoot 14-of-54 from the field and just 5-of-16 from 3, it's not hard to figure out how you put up just 38 points in 57 possessions. This loss might not knock Wyoming entirely out of the bubble race, but unless Shyatt's squad can find some offense on the road down the stretch, those long-shot hopes could fade rather quickly.
Saturday's Southern Illinois-Indiana State game didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but when an NCAA record is set, we take notice. That's exactly what happened when the Sycamores finished the game 12-for-12 from the 3-point line, the most 3s without a miss in NCAA history. The previous record for most 3s without a miss was nine, by Minnesota against Penn State on Jan. 11, 2009.