One man’s observations from another eventful Saturday afternoon of college basketball
1. I don’t trust Florida anymore. Sometimes, the numbers lie. Sometimes, a team with dazzling stats fails to justify the analytic mechanisms that elevate it. That could be the case with Florida. The BPI, the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin all love the Gators. Per the film, however, I see problems. The same Florida team that amassed a plus-18.8-points-per-game scoring margin in SEC play entering Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky (more on that soon) and crushed Marquette and Wisconsin in November has suffered four road losses in February alone. The Gators were outplayed by Arizona and Kansas State off campus in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure, they’ve spent of a chunk of the season punching teams in the mouth, but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and haven't beaten a single top-50 RPI team in a road game. And we really haven’t seen that dominant version of Florida, which began SEC play with historic margins of victory, in a month. Who are the Gators now? Well, the final minutes of the Kentucky loss told their story. They’re balanced and talented, but they fumbled in the last stretch of that loss because they couldn’t find that catalyst, that Ben McLemore/Marcus Smart/Doug McDermott/Trey Burke, to lead them beyond the funk that ruined the moment. They did not score in the last seven-plus minutes of the second half. They were the veterans, but they played like freshmen. It’s tough to believe in this program’s postseason potential when it continues to suffer road losses against hungry SEC opponents that don’t match them on paper. Guess what they’ll have to do to advance in the NCAA tournament? Beat hungry underdogs outside Gainesville. Yes, Kentucky re-entered the bubble convo with this win, but Florida did little to prove that it’s worthy of its statistical hype. Again.
2. Marcus Smart and the national/Big 12 POY conversation. Listen, I think Trey Burke deserves national player of the year, but I might change my mind if Victor Oladipo outplays him tomorrow. Here’s the general Burke argument -- and it’s a convincing one -- that circulates within college basketball media circles: “If you take him off that team, there’s no way they’re top 10 and competing for a Big Ten title.” And that’s accurate. I can’t argue against that. Here’s another one to consider: “If you take Marcus Smart off Oklahoma State’s roster, you probably have the team that finished 7-11 in league play last season and not the 13-5 team that’s competed for the Big 12 title in 2012-13.” Smart is the Big 12 player of the year. I like McLemore, Jeff Withey and Rodney McGruder, but Smart deserves the honor following his performance (21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals) in Saturday’s 76-70 win over Kansas State, a victory that jeopardized the Wildcats’ hopes of winning a Big 12 title. He should be a legit candidate for national POY, too.
3. The sad conclusion to Georgetown-Syracuse. Following his team’s 61-39 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, Jim Boeheim told reporters, “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf someplace. If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” That comment and his team’s lackluster finish to the regular season (1-4 in its last five) will continue to fuel the retirement speculation that’s surrounded Boeheim for years. John Thompson III might have won national coach of the year honors with his team’s Big East title-sealing win. But the lopsided effort -- the Hoyas’ largest margin of victory against Syracuse since 1985 -- offered a melancholy ending to this classic rivalry. Georgetown will join the Catholic 7, and Syracuse will move to the ACC next season. The two may reconnect in the future, but their battles won’t be regulated by league affiliation. So this could be the end, and as a college basketball fan, I wanted to see drama, overtime, controversy in the final seconds, a buzzer-beater, a comeback something. This rivalry deserved that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of one impressive squad smashing an opponent that failed to show up for the conclusion of this storied series.
4. Marquette wins its most crucial bizarre game of the year. The Golden Eagles love the theatrics that tend to define college basketball in March. Their 69-67 win at St. John’s was their fourth overtime game of the season in Big East competition. It was their third conference win by three points or less. Marquette hasn’t forged the prettiest path to the Big East title, but it earned a share of the crown with another gritty victory Saturday. St. John’s launched an impressive comeback in the final minutes that sent the game into overtime. Buzz Williams just smiled as his team prepared for the extra period; he’d been in that position multiple times this season, so his squad didn’t panic. With the game on the line, Vander Blue drove into the lane and beat the buzzer with the layup. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is what Marquette does. A team that was picked to finish in the middle of the standings earned a share of the Big East title. Wow. The Golden Eagles are clearly tough enough to make noise in the NCAA tourney, too.
5. Jim Crews for national coach of the year. Last season, I covered Saint Louis’ NCAA tournament appearance in Columbus, Ohio. Once Rick Majerus left the podium for a pregame media session, it took him 30 minutes to re-join his team. Fans wanted to talk to him. Other coaches wanted to talk to him. Friends wanted to talk to him. Reporters wanted to talk to him. He was an icon for that program and the entire sport. So when he took an indefinite leave of absence from the team in the months prior to his death in December, the Billikens had lost so much more than a coach. Sure, they had promise, but Crews didn’t have an easy task on his plate. He had to gain the trust of this talented group (he was an assistant in 2011-12) as it prepared for a battle in an Atlantic 10 beefed up by the additions of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler. He didn’t have one of his key players (Kwamain Mitchell injured his foot last fall) for the first two months of the season. But Crews overcame those obstacles. On Saturday, the Billikens secured a share of the conference crown with a 78-54 victory over La Salle. They’ve won 12 of their past 13. Their balance, defense (22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and experience could lead to a deep run in March. Sounds like a national coach of the year effort to me.
6. Meet Derrick Marks. In the final seconds of a 69-65 win that might have pushed his Boise State squad into the field of 68, Marks made a split-second decision to contest Xavier Thames' layup with 21 seconds to go. If Thames had made that shot, the Aztecs would have cut Boise State’s lead to one point. But Marks made plays like that all afternoon. The sophomore guard is just one of the reasons that the Broncos could win a game or two in the NCAA tourney -- I’m putting them in the field, although I’m not so sure about San Diego State anymore. Leon Rice’s program is healthy now (eight guys earned minutes against the Aztecs). The Broncos possess an offense that’s ranked 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy, and they’ve won five of their past six games. Watch out for the Broncos in the coming weeks. Huge victory for that team.
7. Get ready for drama in Nashville. Next week, the SEC tournament will take place in Nashville. This league is packed with bubble squads, and I think that will add to the drama in what could be the most exciting conference tournament of them all. Proof? On Saturday, Alabama beat Georgia on a half-court buzzer-beater, Tennessee overcame a late deficit to secure a key win over Missouri and Kentucky kept its NCAA tournament dreams alive with a victory over Florida. The chaos will continue in Nashville.
8. Florida Gulf Coast becomes first team to dance. The Eagles earned the field’s first automatic NCAA tournament berth with an 88-75 victory over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tourney championship. This is an Eagles squad that finished 8-10 (tied for sixth) in the conference last season, but their first victory of the 2012-13 season came against a top-10-bound Miami team. Kudos to Andy Enfield’s program.
9. Creighton-Wichita State III. The two Missouri Valley Conference power players split their season series this season. Despite their respective struggles, they were still the league’s top two programs. Their most recent matchup, which the Bluejays won, determined the regular-season champion. Creighton’s 64-43 victory over Indiana State and Wichita State’s 66-51 win over Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals of the MVC tournament guaranteed a third matchup between the league’s top two teams in Sunday afternoon’s final.
10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.