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Saturday, January 22, 2011
OSU, Nova start day with huge road wins

By Eamonn Brennan

Welcome to Saturday. Or, at least for college hoops fans, Saturday as it should be. There's no baseball, college football, NFL playoffs, or any other popular-but-inferior (kidding!) sport to distract the casual fan from the hoopy goodness you and I have been enjoying for two months now. No, it's just college hoops, and what better way to welcome in the sports tourist than with two huge conference games featuring two ranked league contenders apiece?

Yes, I'm talking Villanova-Syracuse and Ohio State-Illinois, both of which deserve the recap treatment. So, without further ado:

No. 7 Villanova 83, No. 3 Syracuse 72: Well, this was a surprise.

Jay Wright
Villanova coach Jay Wright, left, and Corey Fisher had an easy time picking apart Syracuse's zone.
It's not so much that Villanova's double-digit win was surprising in and of itself, though it was; at this point, any double-digit win at the Carrier Dome must be greeted with some measure of shock. Syracuse entered the game having lost exactly five home games in the past two and a half seasons, the last coming Feb. 14, 2010, when Louisville legitimately shocked Jim Boeheim's team in Syracuse. The Orangemen haven't lost often in recent seasons, and they certainly haven't suffered many of those losses at home.

But more surprising than the win itself was the way Villanova got it. Jay Wright's team didn't just solve Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone. The Wildcats shredded it. The Cuse entered Saturday's top 10 matchup with the stingiest zone in the Big East, one that was allowing a mere .95 points per possession to conference opponents. Villanova scored 1.58 points per trip on offense Saturday afternoon (per scacchoops.com). That's a crazy number for any game -- Villanova came into Saturday averaging 1.13 points per trip against Big East foes -- let alone one against this rangy, athletic Boeheim zone.

With the exception of some late press-break trouble and a 9-0 Syracuse run in the closing minutes, believe it or not, this Villanova team made Syracuse's elite defense look downright pedestrian. Impressed? Of course. Surprised? That too. A few more assorted thoughts follow:
No. 1 Ohio State 73, No. 22 Illinois 68: If you pegged this game as the first loss of Ohio State's season, you weren't alone. Thousands of orange-clad Illinois fans -- and, as if you care, yours truly -- were right there with you.

Jared Sullinger
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger drives by llinois' Mike Tisdale on Saturday. Sullinger finished with 27 points.
It certainly had that feel, didn't it? A tough environment. A ranked conference opponent. An apparently vulnerable No. 1 coming off a couple weeks of unimpressive performances, including a four-point escape at Michigan and three-point home wins against Minnesota and Penn State. All the warning signs of a No. 1 upset -- which would have been only the third in Illinois hoops history, a stat I had trouble believing when CBS put it into my brain -- were there.

Instead, we got another impressive performance from Ohio State, another comprehensive game from freshman Jared Sullinger, and another example of why this Buckeyes team is now your undefeated No. 1 in the first place: They're really, really tough to beat.
Hey, wait a second. Did I just spend 1700 words recapping two games? Yes. I did. The day's first fixtures were just that good.

But here's the best part: This day isn't even close to over yet. I hope your couch groove is ready. Mine certainly is.