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Saturday, January 19, 2013
Five observations from Saturday afternoon

By Eamonn Brennan

1. Florida is that good.

Yes, Missouri was missing leading scorer Laurence Bowers, and yes, the game was in Gainesville. Even so, what Florida did to Missouri on Saturday -- an 83-52 stomping that began in the first minute and never relented -- was an explosive statement of purpose from a team that should be regarded as one of the best in the country.

It's not just the demolition of Mizzou, though that was a nice data point to add to the rest. It's how Florida has played all season. Entering Saturday, the Gators ranked No. 1 overall in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, with the No. 2 offense and the No. 2 defense.

After four games, the Gators are outscoring their SEC opponents to the tune of 0.42 points per trip. The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, which went 16-0 in SEC regular-season play, finished the season with a 0.26 efficiency margin, the most dominant performance any conference champion posted in any league last season. Playing this well in a down SEC, it's not ridiculous to think UF could do the same.

2. Michael Carter-Williams is a quick study.

Carter-Williams arrived at Syracuse last season as a highly touted shooting guard -- a lanky 6-foot-6 wing player who would, as soon as he was able to break into a loaded backcourt, add to SU's heavily stocked arsenal of scorers. But Jim Boeheim needed a point guard, so that's what Carter-Williams has been -- one of the best point guards in the country.

On Saturday, MCW had to learn on the job again. Against a relentless Louisville defense, one that forces the second-most turnovers per possession of any defense in the country, Carter-Williams initially struggled. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva forced him into turnover after turnover, and at several points, particularly early in the second half, it appeared as if the Cardinals were going to force enough giveaways to pull away from a more-than-game Syracuse opposition.

But Carter-Williams, who woke up Saturday with the nation's third-highest assist rate, quickly tidied things up. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Carter-Williams had eight turnovers in the first 32:30, but none in the final 7:30. He also accounted for Syracuse's final 13 points, scoring 11 of them and assisting on the other two.

In the closing moments, MCW's most underrated ability -- forcing steals -- got him a run-out, which he finished with a fast-break dunk that, but for a wild series of late possessions, gave the No. 6 Orange the slim but decisive edge they needed to topple No. 1 Louisville on the road. It was an impressive performance by Boeheim's team in many regards, but no one was more impressive in the biggest moments of the game than Syracuse's infinitely adept sophomore.

3. Wichita State can really guard.

The Creighton Bluejays are one of the nation's best offensive basketball teams. This season they've averaged 1.20 points per possession on offense, fourth-best in the country. They entered Saturday with the nation's highest 2-point (56.9 percent) and 3-point (45.4) field goal marks. They have a host of efficient role players who can beat you inside and out, and in Doug McDermott, they feature not only college basketball's most dynamic scorer but also one of its most efficient and versatile.

And on Saturday, the Shockers made them look utterly average.

Granted, a road trip to a good Wichita State was always a tall order for Creighton; one doubts Greg McDermott and his staff will come away from this hard-fought loss -- wherein 46 percent 3-point specialist Ethan Wragge missed two good looks to tie the game on the final two possessions -- all that angry or upset. In some regard, Creighton deserves credit for hanging in and nearly forcing overtime in a brutal road environment. But it was impossible to watch Gregg Marshall's team guard for 40 minutes and not be thoroughly impressed. The Shockers fought through every screen, bumped every cutter, pressured McDermott early without giving up too many open looks to his cohorts and grabbed 70 percent of the available defensive rebounds. Creighton, usually so ruthlessly clinical, never really found its rhythm.

Arsalan Kazemi
Arsalan Kazemi was again in the thick of it for Oregon, here pulling down one of his 11 boards.
4. Oregon is Arizona's true Pac-12 challenger.

Since last spring, when UCLA coach Ben Howland locked down the nation's best recruiting class, the 2013 Pac-12 was prospectively seen as a duel between the conference's great old powers, Arizona and UCLA. Though the Bruins stumbled early in the season, they have played much better since. Led by the intuitive offensive brilliance of hyper-hyped guard Shabazz Muhammad, they entered Saturday having won 10 in a row. In other words, don't get me wrong: UCLA is not to be taken lightly.

It's just that, well, it's now officially time to anoint Arizona's true competition for the 2013 Pac-12. That team is the Oregon Ducks.

Oregon's win at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon was made all the more impressive by how well UCLA has been scoring lately. This is a team that had averaged 1.14 points per possession in its 10-game winning streak. The Ducks shut that whole thing down, holding UCLA to just 0.93 points per trip and cinching the defense ever tighter as the minutes counted off in the second half.

It's hard to say too much about the job Dana Altman has done in just his third season in Eugene, and it's impossible to say enough about what Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi gives Oregon on the defensive end. Before Saturday, Kazemi ranked second in the country in defensive rebounding rate (31.2 percent) and 17th in steals percentage (5.1), the only player in college basketball remotely so adept at rebounding and forcing steals. The Iranian national's insertion into a tough, veteran UO lineup has made all the difference, and now the Ducks -- already a winner over Arizona -- are chasing a Pac-12 title.

5. Arizona State is not there yet.

Over the past few weeks, a soft but steady murmur has broken out among the college-hoops cognoscenti: Watch out for Arizona State. And rightfully so. After the disaster that was 2011-12 -- when ASU finished 10-21 and No. 223 in the KenPom rankings -- through Friday the Sun Devils were 14-3, No. 83 in the efficiency rankings and, at the risk of being obvious, just way way way better at basketball in every possible regard. It was a reality we all slowly woke up to, the idea that Arizona State, so bad a season ago, was not only improved but might actually find its way into the NCAA tournament. All it really needed was a quality win, and what better opportunity than in-state rival and basketball big brother Arizona -- in Tempe, no less?

Not so much. The Sun Devils fought valiantly for much of the game before Arizona recognized a weakness -- point guard Jahii Carson, the real engineer of the ASU turnaround, was playing with three fouls. Arizona started penetrating at Carson constantly, forcing the talented redshirt freshman into matador defense. When he picked up his fourth, the Sun Devils fell flat. As Wildcats senior Solomon Hill told the AP: "He's the heart of the team. They've only got six or seven guys, and it's a big drop-off when Jahii's out of the game."

It's a disappointing result for the Sun Devils fans, many of whom are just coming in from the (totally figurative) cold and getting excited about the program again. But it was a reminder of how important Carson is to Arizona State and how, if this team plans to get to the postseason, it needs to keep him on the floor at all costs.

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