Saturday, February 5, 2011
Recapping a bubbly Saturday's early action
By Eamonn Brennan
Saturday was not the most enticing day of college hoops we've seen this season. Saturday night's "College GameDay" feature, a 9 p.m. ET tilt between No. 11 Kentucky and No. 23 Florida, is the only matchup of two ranked teams on the schedule. But I'm not complaining. Why? Two reasons:
1. You should never complain about a full Saturday of college hoops. The offseason is way too long. You have to appreciate this stuff while it lasts. It'll be July (ugh) soon enough.
2. Saturday's games have actually been pretty solid. We've had a handful of shocking upsets (I'm looking at you, Washington), a menagerie of one-possession squeakers, and most noticeably -- especially for the first Saturday of February, which still feels too early to spend too much time worrying about the bubble just yet -- a variety of important long-term ramifications for a variety of teams on all sides of the bubble.
So, no, I'm not complaining. Instead, I'm recapping, analyzing and enjoying. Below is a look at some of the more intriguing bubble-oriented games of the day. Join me, won't you?
Baylor 76, No. 16 Texas A&M 74: Just when you thought the Bears were done for good, they go and do something like this ... and totally redeem themselves! OK, so not totally; Baylor still has plenty of work to do to build a solid NCAA tournament résumé. But the Bears' huge win at Texas A&M this afternoon does salvage what appeared to be an all-but-cooked NCAA tournament at-large candidacy after they lost an ugly game at Oklahoma Wednesday.
So how did Baylor get this win? Two obvious areas of the game stick out. The first is pure shot conversion: The Bears made 51.8 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from the 3-point line, and notched an effective field goal percentage of 58.0 percent. A&M, on the other hand, went 42.9 percent from the field, 34.8 percent from 3, and 50 percent eFG, a product of Baylor's length and athleticism in Scott Drew's preferred zone defense. The second advantage area for Baylor? Rebounding. The Bears rebounded a higher percentage of theirs and the Aggies' misses on both ends of the floor. This is the way to beat A&M -- a very good rebounding team -- at home.
That's how Baylor got its two crucial buckets of the game, both of which came in overtime. The first came off a Perry Jones rebound and putback with just a minute left in the game. The second came with 3.1 seconds remaining, when Anthony Jones grabbed an offensive board and scored a layup to give Baylor the decisive bucket late.
For Texas A&M, the loss caps a brutal week. The Aggies lost at Nebraska last Saturday and were blown out at home by Texas Monday before this disappointing defeat. A&M appears to be backsliding; if they do, it's possible this win won't mean quite as much for Baylor down the stretch as it does Saturday. But no matter. The Bears desperately needed something resembling a marquee win, and they got one here.
Northwestern 71, No. 24 Illinois 70: Speaking of apparent backslides, Bruce Weber's Illini have now lost five of their past seven games, including a loss at Indiana and, now, Saturday's ugly performance at Northwestern. The Illini have a whole host of problems, some of which have been year-long bugaboos -- poor shot selection, lack of an interior presence, Demetri McCamey's inexplicable passivity, soft perimeter defense -- and all of which showed up in the loss to the Wildcats. If there's anything we know about college basketball, it's that you don't want to overreact to road conference losses; they happen to every team regardless of relative superiority. But given their recent results, this loss feels like an especially pertinent one for Illinois. It seemed the Illini were set to turn things around after a convincing win over Penn State this week. Instead, suddenly, the talented team that entered the season with Big Ten title hopes finds itself slowly, but surely, looking like yet another bubble candidate. If Illinois fans aren't already engaging in much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and I'm pretty sure they are), then now is the time to start.
George Mason 62, Old Dominion 45: How about some love for the George Mason Patriots? Entering the season, most observers pegged Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth as the Colonial's two main title contenders. Jim Larranga's team rarely got that sort of love. But after Saturday's double-digit home win over ODU, Mason is now 11-2 in league play, good enough to tie VCU for the Colonial lead to date. (VCU got a solid win at James Madison Saturday to move to 11-2, too.) That's especially impressive considering the unusual depth we're seeing in the Colonial this season. VCU, ODU, Mason, Hofstra and even Drexel are all solid, and more than one of them could eventually warrant consideration for an at-large berth by the time the season is over. If the past week -- which, besides Saturday's game, featured a 21-point win over Hofstra -- is any indication, Mason just might be the toughest of the bunch.
Oregon 81, No. 19 Washington 76: At the risk of encroaching on Bill Raftery's well-established choke hold on the "Sleepless In Seattle" pun market, let's just say Huskies fans are about to start having some serious REM-cycle issues. What appeared for much of the season to be the Pac-10's best team -- not to mention one of the most underrated and efficient teams in the country -- Washington suffered its second straight disaster in Oregon. Thursday's loss to Oregon State cost UW its spot at the top of the Pac-10 standings. Saturday's loss throws the whole conference title picture into whack. But it also does something worse: It casts doubt on this Washington team, which appeared to be rolling after the loss of Abdul Gaddy and the transition of Isaiah Thomas to the point guard spot. Clearly, that's not the case. Even worse, Washington, like Illinois above, is suddenly in frightening bubble territory, with no notable nonconference wins to speak of. (And we need to give some love to these Ducks, too, specifically coach Dana Altman. This team has no business beating Washington State and Washington in back-to-back games, but that's exactly what Altman and Co. just did. Impressive.)
Butler 73, Cleveland State 61: Has Butler found its defense? Brad Stevens will be hoping so, at least. Stevens' disappointing bunch has scored at a high rate -- but yielded points far too easily -- throughout the 2010-11 season, and the result has been a mediocre Horizon League record, a handful of ugly losses (including Thursday's loss at 8-14 Youngstown State) and a steep fall from the national title-type heights they scaled during the previous season. This game won't put Butler back on the good side of the bubble -- sorry, but no team with five Horizon losses is going to be an at-large candidate anytime soon -- but it does do two things. First, it damages Cleveland State's already tenuous at-large hopes. Second, in holding the Vikings to a point per possession on the road, Butler has provided some hope that it can still find ways to defend with something resembling previous season's tenacity. That has been missing all season. But if Butler finds it, and slots it in next to that super-efficient offense, the Bulldogs might not be dead yet.
Kansas State 86, Iowa State 85: Before this season started, you can bet Kansas State coach Frank Martin wasn't circling a Feb. 5 date at Iowa State as a likely "must win." But that's actually what this game was for the Wildcats. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a "must not lose" game. A loss might have officially doomed Martin's team to the sub-bubble scrap heap. With a win over the scruffy and surprisingly tough Cyclones, Kansas State's bubble hopes -- which are buoyed by a strong computer profile and a few solid wins here and there -- remain alive. The next step? Seeing if Jacob Pullen's 17-point second-half explosion and game-winning last-second layup can key a return to the preseason All-American's formerly high-flying form.
Memphis 62, Gonzaga 58: And, finally, the loss that officially broke the Gonzaga at-large berth camel's back. (In case you're wondering, yes, every team has a camel, and every loss is a straw, and ... ah, nevermind. Dumb metaphor. Let's move on.) Gonzaga was already on supremely shaky NCAA tournament territory after its lost weekend in the Bay Area Jan. 20-22, when the Bulldogs lost at Santa Clara and at San Francisco. The Bulldogs have some good wins but nothing truly great, and they just lost a home game to a Memphis team that is fully on the bubble itself. Whether the Tigers get a boost here is up for debate. What seems certain is that if Gonzaga plans on extending its 12-year NCAA tournament appearance streak, it's probably going to have to win the WCC tourney to do so.
Kansas couldn't pull away from a pesky Nebraska team until the second half, but pull away they did. The Jayhawks won 86-66 in Lincoln, and Brady Morningstar (19 points, six assists, two rebounds, one steal) had his best game of the season in the process.
Oklahoma State avoided a bad home loss against a much-improved Oklahoma team. It's been an awful season, and there are plenty of reasons to criticize Jeff Capel for the Sooners' current predicament, but he deserves credit for getting this current batch competitive. The Sooners have every right to be one of, if not the, worst major-conference teams in the country. That they're not is a credit to the job Capel has done this season.
In what might be the stat of the day, Alabama went the final 8:30 of the game (regulation and overtime) without a field goal, yet found a way to win 65-60 at Tennessee. The Crimson Tide went 10-for-10 from the free throw line in OT and improved to an SEC-best 7-1 in conference play. The Vols were without Scotty Hopson, but give Bama credit. This is one heck of a defensive team (if you want to go the final 8:30 without a basket and win, you certainly better be).
And, last but not least, Indiana and Iowa played one of the more thrilling games we've seen in the Big Ten this season. Iowa held on for a late win, getting its first conference road victory and denying the Hoosiers their third straight win in the process. But the lasting import of this game will come thanks to Indiana freshman Will Sheehey, who might have won the dunk of the year contest with a crazy one-handed second-half jam over what appeared to be Iowa's entire defense. (This photo should give you some idea of what we're talking about.)