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Thursday, December 1, 2011
TMA: Badgers miss their shot

By Eamonn Brennan

The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best basketball action. It didn't sleep well last night, and it asks your preemtpive forgiveness for any typos or dumb mistakes. It will definitely try to take a nap before it watches The Throne.

No. 5 North Carolina 60, No. 7 Wisconsin 57: Wisconsin did everything right. Bo Ryan's team averages 60 possessions per game; this game had exactly 60. The Badgers never turn the ball over; they turned it over on just 6.7 percent of their offensive trips Wednesday night. The Badgers aren't big on getting to the foul line, and they aren't a great offensive rebounding team. Instead, they eschew offensive boards in order to get back on defense, and that trait was evident in how infrequently North Carolina was able to embark on its patented fast breaks. The middling marks in those two categories can be forgiven. Wisconsin was never going to outrebound North Carolina. Better to turn away and get back on defense, pronto. That worked, too.

The only thing Wisconsin did wrong -- the only thing it was noticeably worse at than in its six impressive wins that preceded Wednesday's trip to Chapel Hill -- was shooting. That's it. In its first six games, Wisconsin's average effective field goal percentage was a sterling 56.7 percent. On Wednesday night, it was 42.2 percent. There's your game right there.

That this game was as close as it was is a testament to Wisconsin's defense, the leveling effects of Ryan's clock-eating slow system, and UNC's struggles on the offensive end. Frankly, the Tar Heels' inability to grab this game by the scruff of its neck early is a bit disconcerting. A team with that much talent and experience should be able to impose its will on teams like Wisconsin, which can never hope to match up athletically. Instead, it took until the second half, right around the time Harrison Barnes started demanding touches (and just a few minutes before Roy Williams took off his jacket and screamed "let's go" in that "let's go, we're better than this, get it together" sort of way) for UNC to look like the aggressor.

The Tar Heels deserve credit for affecting so many of the Badgers' shots. Surely UNC's length had as much to do with Wisconsin's off night as anything else. But they don't get credit for much of the rest. In many ways, this could have -- maybe even should have -- been a second-straight loss, and at home to boot. Instead, the Tar Heels escaped.

Michigan State 65, Florida State 49: Those who tuned in to Wisconsin-UNC hoping for offense didn't get a ton of it, but the so-so scoring rate and slow pace of the night's marquee finale still seemed like an offensive explosion next to the game that preceded it.

A low-scoring, physical affair was to be expected in East Lansing, Mich. Florida State is the nation's most efficient (or anti-efficient, I guess) defense two years running, and Michigan State has, for its occasional troubles on the offensive end, played truly repellent defense early in the year. The only difference between these two teams was quality scoring from an emerging go-to guard. That guard's name is Keith Appling, a sophomore who posted a career high with 24 points (and tied his career high seven rebounds) and made the biggest shots down the stretch when Florida State had stymied MSU enough to pull within one around the 10-minute mark. Appling is a legitimate breakout candidate; he represents an overhaul from the defensive-apathetic days of former Spartans Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. Appling can score, but he's also one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and he rebounds, too. There's very little in his game to dislike.

Of course, it also helps that Florida State is, once again, Florida State. The Seminoles can defend. Boy, can they ever. Their offense, on the other hand, is about as bad as their defense is good. This has been the story for the past two seasons under Leonard Hamilton, and it doesn't look much like changing now. When FSU can keep opposing teams under a point per possession, as they've been doing all year, they're in OK shape. But if an opposing player gets hot, or the opposing team can defend and score competently (radical concept, I know), the Seminoles are bound to struggle.

Indiana 86, NC State 75: When Indiana had finally sealed the first non-Evansville true road win of the Tom Crean era -- a few seconds after guard Victor Oladipo punctuated the victory with a double-clutch reverse dunk -- Indiana forward Christian Watford flung the ball underhand and ran to celebrate with his teammates. It felt like an overwrought celebration for a Nov. 30 win over a team that hasn't gone to the NCAA tournament since the NBA created the one and done rule (2006). Casual fans may have been confused. Why so excited?

The answer is simple: After three years of horrible basketball, and a constant string of promising first-half performances followed by debilitating late-game collapses (especially in 2011; there's a reason why a team ranked No. 75 in KenPom went 12-20 overall), the Hoosiers finally sealed the deal on the road. For a while, it looked like Indiana would let the game fall away: When NC State took a seven-point lead with 7:47 left, it appears turnovers and fouls and all-around shaky defense would doom IU in the closing quarter of yet another game. When IU was able to battle back and eventually finish the game in high-flying fashion, it provided a signal that this team -- with brilliant freshman Cody Zeller and hyper-efficient guard Jordan Hulls leading the way -- was ready to re-enter something resembling college hoops normalcy.

At the end of the season, when Indiana looks back, it won't remember the NC State win for its effect on the RPI, or what it said about how good they were as of Nov. 30. They'll remember the NC State game as the first time in a long time the program was able to stand on the other guy's turf, take a few punches and emerge victorious all the same. That's why Watford threw the ball in the air. In so many intangible, hard-to-define ways, maybe this win really was that big.

Everywhere else: I'll let an early-morning tweet from none other than ESPN Analyst Jay Bilas tell you why you should probably go back and check the tape of that 94-88 double-OT UNLV win over UCSB: "UNLV's Mike Moser had 34 points, 10 rebounds in OT win at UCSB. Orlando Johnson had 36 points and 10 boards for the Gauchos. Strong." That pretty much sums it up. ... Creighton's 85-83 win at San Diego State left no doubt about the BlueJays' toughness, writes ESPN.com blogger Kevin Gemmell. ... In a resilient performance, Minnesota won its first game without Trevor Mbakwe, and Myron was on hand to check it out. ... Gonzaga shot 6-of-15 from three; Notre Dame shot 2-of-14, and that wasn't the only reason the Zags coasted to an easy win over the Tim Abromaitis-less Irish. ... Northern Iowa got a quietly solid 69-62 win at Iowa State. ... Nebraska lost at home to Wake Forest thanks to an uncontested layup with three seconds remaining, which can only be described as a deserved loss. ... Pittsburgh stayed out of trouble and got an 11-point win in the Pittsburgh city rivalry. ... Kansas cruised against Florida Atlantic. ... and Utah State moved to 3-3 after a surprising home loss to the now 5-1 Denver Pioneers who also, it should be noted toppled St. Mary's 70-58 last week. Interesting.