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Friday, March 1, 2013
Thursday thoughts: One falls, one survives

By Myron Medcalf

A few observations from a wild Thursday night:

Virginia ... college basketball’s mystery. As Virginia began to separate itself from No. 3 Duke in a 73-68 victory, I really didn’t think about the Blue Devils’ flaws as much as I considered the Cavaliers’ strengths ... and weaknesses.

This is the same Virginia team that suffered losses to Delaware, Old Dominion, George Mason, Clemson and Wake Forest. This is the same Virginia team that also defeated North Carolina and Wisconsin. And the Cavaliers have positioned themselves to win 13 ACC games (they’re 10-5 now).

The win over Duke enhanced Virginia’s mysterious at-large profile. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi had placed the Cavs among his “last four in” heading into Thursday's action.

That makes sense.

Does this?

A Duke team pushing for a No. 1 seed -- a No. 1 seed it might have lost for good Thursday -- loses to an unranked squad, days before a prime-time matchup against ACC powerhouse Miami?

In 2012-13? Yes, it does.

Every day, folks ask me to pick a national-title favorite. Can’t do it yet. Too many talented teams have failed to perform on the road. So it’s difficult to project success when we have so many skilled programs that can’t duplicate their home efforts during off-campus matchups.

Duke isn’t the only top-10 team that has suffered a road loss to an unranked squad. Just the latest one.

Six minutes into the second half of Thursday’s game, Virginia led by double digits. A late Duke run closed the gap, but Virginia controlled the game. Duke couldn’t stop Joe Harris, who registered a career-high 36 points (shooting 12-for-20). The Blue Devils didn’t get enough offense or defense from Rasheed Sulaimon (who shot 2-for-10). And they were soft on both ends of the floor.

Once Ryan Kelly returns, Duke should improve. That’s assuming he’s healthy and truly ready to contribute after missing a chunk of the season with a foot injury.

But the Blue Devils have been torched too often by solo acts. And they give up too many easy shots (ACC opponents are shooting 45.2 percent from the field, ninth in the conference). Kelly alone can’t solve those issues.

Sure, Virginia was hungry for a victory that ultimately boosted its résumé.

But Duke failed to make stops in the second half. It’s that simple. Harris is good. But the Blue Devils made him look like a superstar.

Now, Virginia will enter the final stretch with more confidence about its postseason status. Questions remain about Duke’s defense. Thursday’s loss only magnified those concerns.

But I’m not going to act as though Duke losing at Virginia is any different than Indiana losing at Minnesota or Miami losing at Wake Forest.

Kelly Olynyk
Kelly Olynyk and Gonzaga are likely headed upward, to a No. 1 ranking, after winning at BYU.
This is the norm this season with the elite teams in college basketball. To be honest, I like the parity.

Should set up a fabulous NCAA tournament.

What do you want from Gonzaga? Yes, there’s a good chance the Zags will earn the top slot in the new Associated Press poll next week. That’s assuming they defeat Portland this weekend. If that happens -- it should -- Mark Few’s program probably will secure its first No. 1 ranking. A No. 1 seed makes sense, too, following Thursday’s gutsy 70-65 road win over a BYU squad that gave Gonzaga a scare with a late charge.

Saint Mary’s and BYU are the only two teams in the West Coast Conference with top-60 RPIs. But the Zags defeated both by an average of 11.8 points in four regular-season matchups.

On Thursday, they escaped the Cougars at the Marriott Center, one of the nation’s toughest venues. With 10:53 to play, the Zags led by 11 points. With 4:18 on the clock, however, BYU had tied the game 60-all after a 17-6 rally.

That run changed the arena vibe. The Zags were clearly vulnerable in a foreign venue. But they survived. And in 2012-13, that’s worth something.

So many nationally ranked squads have fallen to unranked opponents on the road that it’s expected now. I give credit to any team that can secure a victory outside its home venue. And that’s what the Zags did.

It definitely wasn’t pretty down the stretch, but they pressured the Cougars in the final minutes to preserve the win.

I understand the doubts about Gonzaga’s position as a likely No. 1 squad and seed. The WCC has provided only minimal competition for Few’s team. The Bulldogs lost to Butler in January. They suffered a home loss to Illinois in December.

But Gonzaga is doing what any team in its position should. It is dominating its opponents. The Zags clearly are the best team in their conference and one of the best squads in the country. Plus, their nonconference wins over Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State look even better now.

Until later in March, however, they won’t have many opportunities to prove they’re the best team in America. They don’t face Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State in league play. They don’t go to Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut each week.

They’re stuck with average teams in the WCC and multiple below-average squads. Still, they outplayed another conference opponent in a tough environment Thursday.

Is that enough to warrant a No. 1 slot? Maybe, maybe not.

But what other options do the Zags have? They’re doing everything they can right now to prove they’re legit.