Saturday, January 21, 2012
What we learned on wild Saturday afternoon
By Eamonn Brennan
This Saturday promised one of the best wall-to-wall slates of college hoops fixtures thus far this season, and the afternoon action didn't disappoint. In fact, it just about blew my mind. Let's take a comprehensive look at what we learned from said afternoon action, shall we? (Check back late tonight for a recap of the evening action.)
Florida State 76, No. 4 Duke 73 What we learned: How cool is Leonard Hamilton? Bad charge call? He just smiles. Another bad, potentially crucial, game-deciding charge call? A smile and a wink. A buzzer-beating 3 to upset No. 4 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium -- the same 3 that sent FSU's bench into a joyous on-court scrum? A quick nod. A walk to midcourt. A handshake. No big deal, right?
Hamilton isn't the celebratory type; he's as steady a presence as there is in college hoops. But what his team did Saturday -- just a week after it blew the doors off against North Carolina at home -- was worth much more than the cucumber-cool reaction Hamilton offered. This was a massive, season-changing win for the Florida State Seminoles.
There were plenty of opportunities to fade away. Midway through the second half, Ryan Kelly hit two 3s and a fast-break dunk to extend Duke's lead to 58-50, its widest margin of the afternoon. The crowd was rocking. FSU's shots weren't falling. It appeared Duke would do what Duke does: Gather itself, extend a lead, and ride out another ho-hum ACC home victory. Instead, the Seminoles kept battling. Within a minute, they had closed the eight-point lead to just five, and by the time the game reached its crucial moments -- the final minute -- FSU pulled just ahead at 71-70.
Things stayed tight all the way through. Kelly received the benefit of the doubt on a pretty clear charge with 20 seconds left and Duke guard Austin Rivers made a great move to the rim to tie the game at 73 with just 6 seconds remaining. But FSU guard Luke Loucks, calm as his head coach, advanced the ball to guard Michael Snaer in time for Snaer's buzzer-beating, game-winning 3 just a few feet in front of the visitors bench. That's when the ecstasy, apparently shared by all but Hamilton, commenced.
So what did we learn? We learned that the Noles are indeed very real. Are they as good as their 33-point blowout over UNC? Of course not. But they're good enough -- strong enough, defensive enough, big enough, tough enough -- to present matchup problems for some of the best teams in the country, even on those teams' home floors. Before the season, we thought Florida State was the third-best team in the ACC. After losses to Harvard and Princeton and a wipeout at Clemson, that projection looked wildly optimistic. Now, it almost feels cautious. If the Seminoles play like this the rest of the way, they're definitely better than that.
No. 5 Missouri 89, No. 3 Baylor 88 What we learned: This one-point deficit was reached thanks to a meaningless last-second 3 from Baylor's Brady Heslip, and so the score line belies the real takeaway from this Tigers road win: Missouri is no illusion. No. This team is just flat good.
Can any other conclusion be reached? Consider the accomplishment here: The Tigers went on the road against the No. 3 team in the country, one with as much size and athletic interior talent as any of the nation's contenders -- a quality supposedly anathema to Mizzou's very essence -- and scored 1.24 points per possession in a win that required a first-half battle, a second-half push and a late survival of an inevitable Baylor run. The Tigers are simply relentless on the offensive end, attacking the tiniest of defensive gaps with more speed than any other backcourt in the country.
If you were wondering why Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe is so handily dominating competition this season -- leading the nation in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage by a huge margin to date -- you received your answer today. Ratliffe cuts and spaces in the middle of the paint as well as any forward in the country. He's a tireless, opportunistic offensive rebounder with great hands and lightning-quick feet. And more often than not, Missouri's guards -- particularly Phil Pressey, who was brilliant in Waco -- break down the defense, ruin its rotation and find Ratliffe for easy finishes around the rim. His line Saturday, against all that long, NBA-worthy Baylor talent: 27 points on 11-of-14 from the field (see?), 8 rebounds (6 offensive) and 2 blocks. He was, per the usual, brilliant. Meanwhile, Pressey finished with 18 points and 7 assists, 6 steals and 5 rebounds. Can't understate his total impact on the game.
There are concerns for Baylor going forward. Perry Jones III continues to live up to the occasionally unfair "soft" label; when you're a 6-foot-11 lottery pick, and the opposing team had only two contributors bigger than 6-6, 8 points and 4 rebounds just doesn't cut it. The Bears, despite their clear size advantage, allowed the Tigers to rebound 48.3 percent of their misses on the offensive end; per Ken Pomeroy's rankings, Baylor is the 220th-best team in the nation on its defensive glass. When you can run a front line of Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller (who turned in a stellar scoring performance today, it should be noted), why are you getting so consistently and comprehensively outworked on the boards?
Still, let's give the Tigers a huge amount of credit. When Missouri were blown out at Kansas State, the concerns about this team's size were seemingly validated. Sure, Mizzou played well in the nonconference. Sure, the shots were falling. Sure, Ratliffe was on a tear. But could Frank Haith's team really keep it up in conference play? Weren't the Tigers, among any team with an undefeated nonconference record, the most likely to fade into Big 12 mediocrity? The answer, as we now know, is a resounding no. Small? Sure. Guard-oriented? You bet. This team is what it is. What you see is what you get. And what you get is one of the best offensive -- check, that, one of the best, period -- teams in the nation, bar none. Great win.
West Virginia 77, Cincinnati 74 (OT) What we learned: If you haven't seen Kevin Jones play lately, you're missing the Big East Player of the Year to date -- and a legitimate national POY contender, too. Frankly, you might not recognize him. Jones, who struggled to adapt to a star role last season, has emerged as all that and more in 2011-12. This form was again on display today, especially late in regulation, when Jones hit a massive go-ahead 3 to help WVU push Cincinnati to overtime, where the Mountaineers outlasted the Bearcats for a massive home win. Jones finished with 26 points on 11-of-15 from the field, hitting both of his 3-point attempts and grabbing 13 rebounds in the process. Like I said: If that's not the Big East Player of the Year thus far, I don't know who is.
In the meantime, despite the loss -- and a truly questionable layup attempt by Dion Dixon, when the Bearcats needed a 3 to tie -- Cincinnati can come away from this game looking pretty good. Just a few days after beating UConn on the road, it faced down a star-led squad on its brutal home court and very nearly, but for a few late errors and big plays by West Virginia, came away with a win. If you thought Cincinnati was the second-best team in the league after the win over the Huskies, you might still feel that way now.
Tennessee 60, No. 11 Connecticut 57 What we learned: The Huskies can't stop the slide. Saturday's loss at Tennessee marks UConn's fourth loss in its past six games, and was again emblematic of the woes facing this team: disjointed offense, a willingness to take bad shots, lack of leadership in tough situations, interior play far below the sum of its insanely talented parts. We knew Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee squad would come out and play hard in Knoxville. Even when the Volunteers have been bad this season (which has been often: This win moves them to a mere 9-10 overall), they've played with a blue-collar, let's-work-hard spirit preached constantly by their first-year head coach. Today it paid off.
But Connecticut deserves much of the blame here, too. Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi should be dominating undermanned frontcourts like UT's. Instead, they combined for 11 points and were obviously outplayed by freshman Jarnell Stokes, who posted a double-double in his third career game. The same Stokes who was a 17-year-old kid in high school last month. Great win for the Vols, of course, but the postgame questions will be all about UConn. As of Jan. 21, this team -- so talented, so promising, so mystifyingly mediocre -- still has miles to go before it can be considered a Big East contender, let alone one with national title aspirations.
No. 2 Kentucky 77, Alabama 71 What we learned: There are no moral victories in college hoops. Alabama coach Anthony Grant will be eager to share that rather cliché bit of information with his team following Saturday's loss at Kentucky. And it's true -- a win is a win, a loss is a loss, and minimal nuance is allowed to color those stark W's and L's at the end of the season. Still, in the final moments of Bama's impressive Saturday road stand, against the No. 2 team in the country and a program that has won its past 47 road games, the longest active streak in Division I, the only thought that occurred to this viewer was: "Well, no matter whether they win or lose, this was a great game for Alabama."
It was. The Crimson Tide are in the midst of a three-games-in-eight-days scheduling bump, one that put them on the road at Mississippi State (loss), at home against Vanderbilt (loss, and an ugly one at that) and then, mercilessly, on the road at Kentucky. Yet Alabama never quit coming at the typically impressive Wildcats. Even when struggling forward Tony Mitchell fouled out with five minutes remaining, the Tide kept getting scores and free throws and good looks, pushing the game and preventing UK from ever finishing in comfort.
In the end, Anthony Davis' freakish interior defense saved Kentucky's day; the last of his four blocks came with 7 seconds left to preserve a four-point lead, and thus the expected result was achieved. But give Alabama credit: That was a gutsy, tough road performance. This team seemed easy to write off over much of the past two months, but if Saturday's performance was any indication, it will be a worthy competitor in the coming SEC stretch run.
Dayton 87, Xavier 72 What we learned: The Flyers have come a long way since Nov. 30. That's when this team lost 84-55 to Buffalo at home, three days after winning the Old Spice Classic title game over Minnesota. Four days later, Dayton was blown out at Murray State. At that point, first-year coach Archie Miller appeared to have a sincere rebuilding project on his hands. Nearly two months later, the Flyers are, well, flying. This 15-point home win over putative Atlantic 10 favorite Xavier puts them at 4-1 in A-10 play, another excellent addition to a résumé that includes victories over Alabama, Saint Louis and, most recently, a strong 10-point win at Temple. By now, Dayton isn't a rebuild. It isn't a neat little story. It's a legitimate A-10 contender with an easy case to make for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament. Who saw that one coming?
In the meantime, Xavier's off-and-on struggles -- which appeared to abate with a four-game winning streak in A-10 play -- reared their ugly head again. The Musketeers were mediocre on offense and downright bad on defense, allowing 87 points in 65 possessions, or 1.33 points per trip. Sometimes it's ugly offense, sometimes it's lenient defense, but in either case, it's clear Chris Mack's team hasn't put its midseason slide entirely in the rearview.
Tyshawn Taylor didn't have a single turnover, and 22 points, as Kansas held off Texas.
Some other observations from Saturday afternoon's selections:
I didn't get to see all of Kansas' tough 69-66 road win at Texas, but the portions I did see lent some solid eyeball observations to my current theory on Texas: The Longhorns have plenty of holes, particularly in their frontcourt, but they're much better than most people seem to think. To wit, the Longhorns entered Saturday ranked No. 24 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They're solid on the offensive glass, good at getting to the free throw line, and while they don't play vintage Rick Barnes defense, they keep games close enough to give lights-out scorer J'Covan Brown chances to go win the game late. He had one such chance Saturday, and it missed, but the lesson was well-taken: Texas will give superior teams fits from here on out. Don't say you weren't warned. (And how 'bout Tyshawn Taylor's continued torrid pace with 22 points and ZERO turnovers? What a three-game stretch.)
Playing Kentucky's brutal Davis-led defense must have a way of making other defenses feel wide open. That appeared to be the case in Fayetteville today, where the Arkansas Razorbacks -- fresh off a loss to the Wildcats this week -- made their first 11 shots and went 80 percent from the field in the first half against Michigan. Early in the second half, the score was 49-33 Arkansas, and a blowout appeared to be in the works. But the shooting slowed down, Michigan made its comeback, and the Razorbacks narrowly avoided a late loss when Wolverines guard Trey Burke's last-second 3 missed. Bad second half, but a nonetheless solid win for freshman B.J. Young and the rest of Mike Anderson's young team. And what a day for the SEC, eh?
Purdue had the toughest task of any team in the country Saturday afternoon: The Boilermakers had to fight a Midwestern snowstorm that trapped them on their airport tarmac and prevented them from getting more than a few hours of sleep before the 12 p.m. ET tip. Predictably, Michigan State rolled. Purdue has serious issues on both ends of the floor, particularly with an offense that offers little but a barrage of outside shots. But it's hard to blame the Boilermakers too much for the lopsided 83-58 result.
Yes, it's hard to win on the road. Yes, it's hard to win on the road in the Big East with a team comprised almost entirely of freshmen. But it's even harder to lose when your opponent shoots 3-of-24 in the first half, 12-of-41 for the game -- which ties Harvard for the season record for fewest field goals in a win -- and makes just three of its 14 3-point field goal attempts on the afternoon. And yet, that's exactly what Rutgers did Saturday, as Georgetown overcame a legendarily poor shooting performance (effective field goal percentage: 33.8) to rally for a late win. Hoyas freshman Otto Porter continued his stellar freshman campaign, scoring Georgetown's final six points and nailing the winning free throws with just 8 seconds remaining. Georgetown fans won't necessarily be pleased with this one, but when you shoot this poorly and still get a win, and thanks to a steady freshman to boot, there's encouraging stuff in there somewhere.
Maryland will eagerly await to hear the status of freshman center Alex Len, who left the Terps' 73-60 loss to Temple at the Palestra with an ankle injury. Len has helped lead a quiet stretch of solid play from the Terps. With him, this team can compete in the ACC. Without him, well, it's not looking good.
Poor Boston College. The Eagles showed signs of improvement in two early ACC wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech, but Steve Donahue's team returned to early-season form Saturday, which is a way of saying it got beat soundly at home by another very marginal team -- in this case, a 71-56 home loss to Wake Forest. Yeesh.
What happened to Belmont? Everyone's favorite mid-major darling -- which returned the lion's share of personnel from last season's 30-5 campaign -- fell 79-78 at USC Upstate on Saturday, dropping to 13-7 overall and 6-2 in the Atlantic Sun to date. The other loss came at home to Lipscomb earlier this month, and all of a sudden the Bruins' expected A-Sun dominance looks entirely vulnerable. Strange times in the Volunteer State.