The Morning After is our semidaily recap of last night's best basketball action. It takes its romantic cues from Evelyn Waugh.
No. 2 Syracuse 56, South Florida 48: We're getting to the point of the season when almost every game either (a) affects a regular-season conference title chase or (b) carries major bubble implications and must be discussed as such. This had a little of both, although at this point, math aside, it's hard to imagine Syracuse not finishing this season atop the Big East. More than anything, this game was about South Florida, about its stellar Big East play, about its nascent NCAA tournament at-large résumé and about whether getting in the Dance is also a matter of proving -- strictly from a visual standpoint -- that you belong.
There's a shorter term for this. It's called the eye test.
The eye test is indeed a fickle mistress. It certainly has its value. Longtime college basketball viewers can develop accurate gut feelings about teams. We can look at body language and cohesion and all the little things you can just feel if you ever played basketball, or still play it, even casually and recreationally, today. All-out help defense. Crisp, intelligent passing. Real (not fake) hustle. Well-timed cuts. And so on. But the eye test is all about how you use it. Looking to form impressions, to get a feel? Go for it. Trying to select and seed college basketball's best 37 at-large teams in the NCAA tournament? Proceed with caution.
Which is why South Florida is 2012's most interesting at-large candidate. It might be the most interesting bubble team of the past five years. It is certainly, as the Bubble Watch wrote this week, one of the strangest. The Bulls' overall record is pretty mediocre. Their best win came at home, by one point (56-55) against Seton Hall. Their next-best wins -- versus Pitt, at Pitt, versus Cleveland State -- are decent enough, but they're hardly marquee. But Stan Heath's team now has a 10-5 record in the Big East. In most seasons, it's almost impossible to go 10-5 through 15 games in the Big East without being an NCAA tournament lock, but USF has found the right season, and right combination of wins, to do it. Other than Seton Hall and Pitt, here are the Bulls' Big East victories: Rutgers, at Villanova, St. John's, at DePaul, Providence, at Providence, Villanova. Their losses have come to UConn, Notre Dame, Marquette, Georgetown and now Syracuse. It's as if there's an invisible line slicing through the Big East. If you're below it, South Florida probably beat you. If you're above it, you're safe. And ne'er the twain shall meet.
They almost met last night. South Florida played Syracuse as close at the Carrier Dome this season as any team other than Georgetown. Much of that -- particularly the close, low-scoring first half -- seemed to have more to do with Cuse's ugly shooting than it did with USF. But the Bulls made a second-half run, closing a 12-point gap to just 47-44 by the five-minute mark. Then, Scoop Jardine finished an and-one, Kris Joseph laid in two quick buckets, and it was essentially over from there.
Was the committee watching? What did it see? Did it see the large jungle cat that is Syracuse playfully toying with a much smaller animal until it finally decided to get serious? Or did it see a USF team worthy of its gaudy Big East record? Did it see a team that, as Heath has suggested recently, isn't the same squad that lost to ODU, Penn State and VCU in November?
I have no idea. Frankly, I'd guess a loss is a loss. But a hard road loss at Syracuse? Are there shades of gray? South Florida has Cincinnati, Louisville (on the road) and West Virginia left to play. If it doesn't reverse its current trend of merely picking on the Big East's weakest prey, we might never get an answer.
For the sake of speed in this rushed morning (the podcast booth awaits!), let's go everywhere else as quickly as possible: No. 18 Notre Dame dominated West Virginia 71-44 in South Bend, the Irish's ninth straight win in Big East play. What a remarkable turnaround. In the meantime, West Virginia is flailing. There's nothing wrong with losing to ND on the road, but being uncompetitive? Shooting 31.5 percent overall and 9.1 percent from three? Yikes. Go carefully into the gaping bubble maw, Eers. ... Minnesota dropped to 5-10 in the Big Ten after a home loss to No. 6 Michigan State. Give Tubby Smith credit for pushing his team forward despite the early season loss of star forward Trevor Mbakwe. This season could have been a disaster. Instead, it wasn't so bad! The Gophers definitely are almost certainly not going to the tournament now, though. ... No. 19 Wichita State clinched the Missouri Valley title with a win at Illinois. Hats off to Gregg Marshall and his players -- this is the best mid-major team in the country. By a lot. ... Wednesday night brought another nice win for No. 22 Temple, which held off La Salle at La Salle, 80-79 in overtime. The Explorers might have gotten on the bubble with a win. With the loss, not so much. ... Wyoming took No. 25 San Diego State to overtime in Viejas Arena, an accomplishment in and of itself, but the Aztecs -- which have been plenty shaky down the stretch -- pulled away in overtime to avoid their fourth straight loss. ... Whatever chance George Mason had of earning an at-large bid was likely lost with the OT stunner at Northeastern. ... VCU managed to leave Wilmington with a four-point win. ... Drexel, meanwhile, just keeps winning; Bruiser Flint's team is now 22-1 in its past 23 games. ... And, last but not least, Wednesday night was a bad news night for C-USA fans hoping the conference could notch more than one at-large bid: Southern Miss lost 76-68 in double OT at UTEP, while UCF fell at Rice, 83-74. I'm not ready to make any one-bid proclamations just yet. But it certainly appears to be heading that way.