Six observations from an entertaining Saturday afternoon of college basketball:
Southern (SWAC) might be better than Kentucky: I’m not one to get into a transitive discussion, but the truth is that Kentucky just lost to a Texas A&M program that suffered a 53-51 home loss to Southern on Dec. 22. I know it doesn’t work like that. And you can’t ignore the fact that Elston Turner (40 points, 6-for-10 from the 3-point line) played like Jesus Shuttlesworth (“He Got Game”) in the 83-71 win. But entering this game, the Aggies -- like the majority of the SEC -- were a mediocre squad. But the Wildcats are moving toward mediocrity with every poor performance. Remember when Rupp Arena was special? The Wildcats had won 55 consecutive games there before Baylor stopped that streak last month. This group managed to win five in a row. That’s decent, I guess. I’ve hyped the Wildcats’ potential all season. I’m done with that. This young group is a mess -- a lot of talent, no substance.
The Bruins are coming: UCLA can officially put its Nov. 25 loss to Cal Poly behind it. This is not the same team. The Bruins’ 78-75 victory over Colorado in Boulder was their ninth in a row. What’s changed? Well, Shabazz Muhammad (18.5 ppg) is in shape now. And he certainly looks the part of the elite recruit that many expected to carry the program in 2012-13. But it was Travis Wear (23 points) who came up big against the Buffaloes. That was a crucial road win for a UCLA team (51.7 percent from the field) that has played its way into the Pac-12 title picture and evolved into a program that could be one of the nation’s best in the coming months. The Bruins’ defense is improving. (Colorado committed 14 turnovers and shot 5-for-17 from the 3-point line.) And their offense (19th according to Ken Pomeroy) is jelling. Watch out for UCLA.
Hello, C.J. Leslie: The Wolfpack junior forward was a McDonald’s All-American. Talent has never been the question with Leslie. Effort? That’s a different discussion. Throughout his career, he has been accused of lacking a killer instinct. He’s often discussed in terms of potential. On Saturday, however, Leslie (9-for-16, 25 points, six rebounds, two blocks) quieted his doubters with a dominant performance in No. 20 NC State’s 84-76 home win over No. 1 Duke. It was NC State’s sixth win over a No. 1 team (6-27, per ESPN Stats & Info). Leslie hit a pair of free throws, a jump shot and a layup during an 8-0 run at the end of the first half. The Wolfpack carried the momentum established by that rally into the second half. Leslie wasn’t the only contributor in the program’s win, but his performance was vital. NC State is a different squad when he plays with that energy.
Indiana and Minnesota win: No. 5 Indiana and No. 8 Minnesota did plenty to boost their respective national reputations in the Hoosiers’ 88-81 win over the Gophers in Bloomington. For the bulk of the game, Indiana proved that it is one of the best teams in the country with a dominant performance that nearly KO’d Minnesota. The Hoosiers were 7-for-11 from the 3-point line and led 52-29 at halftime. It was an amazing performance. A lot of teams would have been resigned to defeat if trailing by 23 points at the half, especially against a Hoosiers squad that had won 18 in a row at Assembly Hall. Not Minnesota. This gutsy crew, by far Tubby Smith’s most skilled, scored 52 points and held the Hoosiers to a 1-for-8 clip from beyond the arc in the second half. They kept fighting and had a legitimate shot at the upset late. That’s what matters for a program that could face the No. 1 team in the country Thursday when it welcomes Michigan in to Minneapolis. The Gophers can feed off that finish.
Death by 3-pointer: The Illini shoot a lot of 3-pointers (435, second in the nation). They live by the 3-ball. Against the Badgers, however, No. 12 Illinois was hurt by that one-dimensional attack. The Illini shot 2-for-14 from beyond the arc in a 74-51 loss (Wisconsin led 39-19 at halftime) in Madison. Illinois went 3-for-24 from the 3-point line in its 84-67 home loss to Minnesota on Wednesday. Not only are the Illini struggling to hit 3s, but they also aren’t defending the 3-point line, as Minnesota and Wisconsin went 19-for-38 combined on their 3s. The Illini are 2-4 in their past six games after winning their first 12. They’ve won just two of their past 13 conference games. This is why it’s so difficult to trust fast starts. John Groce’s squad could certainly be described as overrated.
North Carolina prevails in must-win over Florida State: The Tar Heels needed this one. They’d lost their first two ACC games (against Virginia and Miami) and had to avoid an 0-3 start in the ACC. They hadn’t cracked 60 points since that 79-73 win over UNLV on Dec. 29. They entered Saturday’s matchup at Florida State without Leslie McDonald, who tweaked a knee prior to the game. Yet the Tar Heels competed like a team that understood the stakes in their 77-72 victory over the Seminoles. P.J. Hairston led the way with a career-high 23 points (4-for-9 from the 3-point line). Marcus Paige sealed the game with a pair of late free throws. I was impressed with their relentlessness, especially since they were playing on the road.
Sure, Syracuse managed to beat Villanova 72-61 without senior James Southerland, who missed the game due to an eligibility issue, but any lengthy stretch (see: Fab Melo) without the sharpshooter (37.5 percent from 3-point line, 13.6 ppg) could jeopardize the Orange’s Big East title hopes.
Virginia opened ACC play with a win over UNC and then lost consecutive road games to Wake Forest and Clemson? Oh, that makes sense.
Short-handed Mississippi State (eight guys played Saturday) secured its second consecutive SEC victory with a 72-61 road win over Georgia. Rick Ray should celebrate. Seriously.
If only Notre Dame could avoid UConn. The Fighting Irish are 46-2 in their past 48 home games. Connecticut is responsible for both defeats, including Saturday’s 65-58 loss.