Sunday, February 19, 2012
What we learned from Saturday night
By Eamonn Brennan
This Saturday was always going to be a bit more underwhelming than recent weeks, but boy, did it end well. Once it ended, that is. Creighton students rushed the court before the game was officially over. Their reverse storm, in which they calmly walked off the court, was one of the most surprisingly orderly things I've ever seen. Bravo, Bluejays fans. Bravo.
Read up on Long Beach State-Creighton, Michigan-Ohio State and the rest of Saturday night's action here. If you missed our afternoon recap, catch up now.
No. 19 Michigan 56, No. 6 Ohio State 51: Here's something I learned Saturday -- Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1986. As Dan Shulman said on the broadcast, that's kind of hard to believe. Here's something else we learned Saturday: The Wolverines have a legitimate chance to break that streak this season.
The race for the Big Ten title is officially a three-way affair. How did Michigan get there? By taking care of business at home. Saturday's win was the Wolverines' 16th consecutive victory in Ann Arbor. For much of the past 10 years, under Tommy Amaker and then John Beilein, Crisler was usually a cold, detached, almost lifeless place. On Saturday, it was rocking in Minute 1 and Minute 40 and constantly in between.
Of course, a home atmosphere is nice, but it doesn't mean much if your team can't play. And Michigan most certainly can play. Point guard Trey Burke continued his impressive freshman campaign against the Buckeyes, scoring 17 points -- including a flurry of much-needed late buckets, one of which he took straight at former grade-school teammate Jared Sullinger -- and dishing five dimes against the best perimeter defender in the country, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Tim Hardaway Jr. added efficient perimeter scoring, while forward Jordan Morgan scored 11 points and 11 rebounds against Sullinger. Those matchups -- point guard and forward -- should be Michigan's weaknesses, particularly against OSU. In this one, Burke and Morgan turned them into strengths.
That said, Michigan won the game on the defensive end, where it held the Buckeyes to .91 points per trip, and in some part it has the Buckeyes to thank. Shooting guard William Buford struggled yet again, going 3-of-12 and continuing his senior slump. Credit the Wolverines for forcing the Bucks into perimeter jump shots, but also blame Ohio State, which often settled for those jumpers without first attempting to get Sully into an iso situation on the low block. When Sullinger did touch the ball, the Buckeyes usually got a score. They figured this out eventually, which is what got them back into the game in the second half. But it was too little, too late. You wouldn't think you'd need to "figure out" that you should probably give the ball to Sullinger because, you know, he's really good.
Look, Ohio State remains a very good defensive team. After all, holding Michigan to 56 points on its own floor is no easy task. But the Buckeyes' offense, particularly its perimeter shooting (or lack thereof), looks like a serious liability. It lurched helplessly against Michigan State's defense last Saturday, and it played right into Michigan's hands tonight. As a result, OSU allowed its sworn rival to tie it in the league standings, a game behind MSU in the loss column. If the Buckeyes can't fix these problems, their March ceiling -- once as limitless as any team's in the country -- will suffer accordingly.
No. 14 Murray State 65, No. 16 Saint Mary's 51: How much fun is Murray, Ky., having right now? With a rare national audience and Dickie V in the house, the Racers played as well as they have all season, as their fans -- an intense, buoyant bunch -- gleefully soaked it all in. Judging by Vitale's rave reviews of the small burgh, I'd say Murray might be one of the best places in the country to spend this exact Saturday night. I kind of wish I was there. (My colleague Jason King is and had this to say about the game.)
In any case, the nation got a chance to see what this Murray State team was all about, and the timing couldn't have been better. After its loss to Tennessee State two weeks ago, the tone of the discussion around the Racers changed from "Whoa, this team could go undefeated!" to "Well, that was fun, but check out that at-large profile -- Murray State could miss the tournament!" I think we can put that debate to rest. The Racers might not be a national title contender, but with Isaiah Canaan leading the way (he had 23 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, a 5-for-8 mark beyond the arc and at least two or three downright crossovers that made this viewer yelp in enjoyment), they are certainly one of the better mid-major teams in the country and one that can give plenty of outfits issues in the NCAA tournament. Sure, some of the wins were shaky, and sure, the Ohio Valley Conference is bad, but when you win your first 23 games, guess what? You're pretty good.
Saint Mary's was far less convincing. The Gaels' offense was hobbled by Matthew Dellavedova's rolled ankle and Rob Jones' early foul trouble, but those weren't the primary causes -- and the road atmosphere and tough Murray defense don't explain it all, either. In reality, the Gaels, who have lost three of their past four (all by double digits), are just flat-out struggling. Over the course of the WCC season, the Gaels have posted about 1.17 points per possession (adjusted), best in the league. In their three recent losses, Dellavedova & Co. have failed to exceed a point per trip. Much like Creighton, this team's defense isn't nearly good enough to get the job done when the offense struggles. Much like Creighton, if the Gaels don't throw points in at something near their usual rate, they're going to lose. It's really just that simple.
We couldn't have predicted the ending, but we should have seen the entertainment value coming. These teams both excel most at one thing: scoring the basketball. That's what Creighton does. When the Bluejays don't put the ball in at a high rate, they lose, as they did in their recent three-game losing streak, culminating with a home blowout at the hands of Wichita State last weekend. The defense simply isn't good enough to save Creighton from an off night.
Fortunately, Creighton has Doug McDermott. McDermott has been great all season, though he's struggled of late, and it's no coincidence his team had lost three of its past four in that span. But on Saturday night, he was amazing. Not "amazing" in a "wow, this sesame chicken is amazing" sort of way; McDermott was actually, literally amazing. He scored 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting and added 11 rebounds, six of which on the offensive end. The most impressive came late in the second half, when McDermott flew to the hoop and somehow tipped in a wayward shot arcing halfway over his head. Once it was clear McDermott was on, LBSU coach Dan Monson ordered his charges to begin aggressively double-teaming the opposing coach's son. But McDermott's eager passing and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands -- see the aforementioned tip-in -- neutralized that strategy. He was just so good. And at the perfect time, too.
As entertaining as this game was, as memorably as McDermott performed, the good news for Long Beach is that a loss at Creighton hardly hurts its at-large profile. Chances are, this team will continue its blistering Big West pace and get to the NCAA tournament in academic, auto-bid fashion. But if something goes awry in the conference tournament, LBSU's crazy nonconference schedule -- the toughest in the country by, like, a lot -- should be more than worthy of the committee's respect. Whatever happens, we'll always have Saturday night in Omaha. What a game, man. What a game.
Other observations from the night that was:
All season, Arkansas has been bad on the road (where it is still winless) but great in its own building (where it was undefeated). That trend ended emphatically against the Gators. Florida hung a 98-68 offensive blitz on the young, up-tempo Razorbacks, led by Erving Walker's career-high 31 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Walker has been criticized this season, and rightfully so; his insistence on forcing bad shots in bad situations (at Kentucky, for example) is maddening. But you can't really play much better than he did Saturday night. Insane line.
Harvard's vaunted defense handled rival Yale with relative ease, which immediately brings to mind images of old men in smoking jackets, teasing each other over cigars and snifters of cognac. (This is how I see Harvard-Yale. I know it's silly, but I can't help it.) This creates a rather compelling finish to the conference season: Harvard, the long-dormant program with sudden title expectations, will face traditional league powers Penn and Princeton at home this week. If the Crimson win, they'll sew up at least a share of the Ivy title, maybe more. There's something slightly poetic about that.
Huge win for Xavier, which held on to its slim margin in the final seconds of overtime to beat Dayton, 86-83. The Musketeers have been flagging badly along the bubble cut line lately and they desperately needed a home win tonight to stay viable. Oh, and here's a fun fact (unless you're a Dayton fan): This loss made it 27 straight for the Flyers at rival Xavier. Dayton hasn't won there since -- get this -- 1981. Yikes.
Speaking of fun facts, after an 18-point effort in a 64-53 win over Minnesota, Northwestern forward John Shurna became the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, toppling Billy McKinney's 35-year hold on the honor. That's all well and good, but Shurna is no doubt more focused on the here and now, where the Wildcats couldn't afford to drop this game and still hope to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid, at least if the bracket was selected tomorrow. The victory keeps Northwestern very much alive. Minnesota's chances, unfortunately, will suffer in proportion.
When it rains, it -- well, you know. The cliche certainly applies to Villanova, which is struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season but had, even without Maalik Wayns (knee) and James Bell (ankle), a 20-point lead in this game. Notre Dame came back and won in overtime and, well, yeah: That's a tough way to lose. Villanova could surely have used some brief flash of sunlight in an otherwise dark year. It was so, so close Saturday. And then it wasn't. Brutal. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won its eighth game in a row. The Irish don't always look pretty, but they get the job done.
Southern Miss lost at Houston. Yep. That happened. It's bad news for Larry Eustachy's team, of course -- it puts a definite dent into the Golden Eagles' otherwise stellar tourney résumé, which features gaudy RPI and SOS numbers -- but also bad news for Conference USA, which would no doubt prefer to be a multi-bid league this season. Speaking of which, Memphis took its own awful loss today, too, 60-58 at home to UTEP. Yes, Memphis lost to UTEP at home. The Tigers had been quietly working their way through C-USA play with relative ease, but the offensive inconsistency that plagued them in their nonconference slate crept back in against the Miners, and that doesn't bode well for the coming tournament. Mild C-USA intrigue abounds!
Speaking of bad losses by Mississippi teams, what is going on at Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were listless at Auburn -- Auburn! -- in a 65-55 loss, MSU's third in a row in a season that is stunningly spiraling in the direction of the bubble. The Bulldogs are just 6-6 in the SEC and have games against Kentucky and at Alabama this week. Uh-oh.
And speaking of uh-oh and three-game losing streaks, Gonzaga lost in the closing seconds at San Francisco -- the third consecutive year it's lost to the Dons on the road. The Zags shot 51 percent and yet still lost, falling into a tie with BYU for second in the WCC, one game behind 12-2 Saint Mary's.
Colorado State held on for a rather ugly win over Wyoming. This was a definite bubble elimination game, one Wyoming couldn't afford to drop if it wanted to preserve any chance of at-large consideration. The victory won't put CSU in the field by any means, but it keeps the Rams alive, if only barely.
Watching Georgetown, it's hard not to be impressed with the Hoyas' pinpoint Princeton offense. But this team's real strength is its defense. We saw that again Saturday, as Georgetown held Providence to 25 percent shooting at the Dunk, a win that pushed Georgetown to 10-4 in the Big East and should quell any lingering concerns its fans may have had about another late-season collapse. That's not happening.