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Saturday a day of missed opportunities

1/16/2011

From start to finish, Saturday was a day of missed opportunities. How so? Through this evening, seven teams -- six of them unranked, all seven of them on the road -- blew considerable second-half leads on the way to come-from-ahead losses. From the fine folks at ESPN Research, who manage to deliver handy little info-blurbs like this even as their brains are swarmed with NFL minutiae:

  • Maryland led by 12 at No. 7 Villanova

  • Northwestern led by eight at No. 24 Michigan State

  • Nebraska led by 10 at No. 3 Kansas

  • Virginia led by 10 at No. 1 Duke

  • Vanderbilt led by 17 at Tennessee

  • No. 12 Missouri led by 12 at No. 13 Texas A&M

  • Marquette led by 18 at No. 17 Louisville

In the end, only South Carolina -- which won 72-69 at Florida on Saturday afternoon -- prevented its arguably superior foe from coming all the way back and stealing the win late. Throw in Penn State's near-miss at Ohio State and the list of teams that blew chances at marquee résumé wins only grows.

Last Saturday gave us the attack of the conference upsets. This Saturday was an onslaught of missed chances and unrequited upsets.

Of course, any day with -- count 'em -- 143 games isn't defined by just one theme. In no particular order, here's a look at the more intriguing outcomes from Saturday afternoon's late games. (For an early-afternoon recap, merely scroll down the page. Or, you know, click here.)

  • No. 2 Ohio State 69, Penn State 66: Both teams' recent MO's emerged in this game, which, but for Jared Sullinger's monster 3-point play with 13 seconds left, would have been the biggest upset of the day (and, for that matter, in recent PSU history). How so? Penn State entered the game having upset its previous two ranked opponents -- Michigan State and Illinois -- in conference play. Ohio State entered the game having struggled to bury away inferior teams; the Buckeyes' last three games were wins over Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa by a combined margin of 12 points. So maybe it wasn't a surprise that this Penn State team hung with Ohio State for all 40 minutes Saturday afternoon. At this point, Big Ten foes ought to fear the Nittany Lions any time Talor Battle and his suddenly resurgent supporting cast take the floor. That's a little bit weird, considering this Penn State team lost to Ole Miss, Maine, Virginia Tech and Maryland, a game that saw Penn State score 39 points (!) at home (!!) in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Maybe, just maybe, the Nittany Lions can make a run. At the very least, they're as dangerous as any previously struggling high-major team in the country. (And yes, I just made that category up. Just go with it.) And Ohio State? Much like the team one bullet-point below, the Buckeyes just keep skating away with near-miss victories. At some point -- at home vs. a team that lost by 10 to Maine, for starters -- you'd like to see your likely new No. 1 be a little more dominant, no?

  • No. 3 Kansas 63, Nebraska 60: This game was mentioned above, and for good reason -- Nebraska yielded a 10-point lead that allowed Kansas to steal its 69th straight win at Allen Fieldhouse -- but it bears further consideration if only to inform everyone, if college basketball fans weren't aware already, that this Nebraska team is much better at basketball than anyone expected. Why? Because the Cornhuskers defend. Coming into Saturday's game, Nebraska's was the No. 13-ranked defense in adjusted efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. No, not No. 13 in the Big 12. (Wait, what?) That rank is national, folks. Doc Sadler's team makes life difficult for opponents in nearly every aspect of defensive basketball. The Huskers foul infrequently, force their opponents into misses and prevent opponents from rebounding those misses under the rim. No, Kansas shouldn't be winning by three at home against this team, but this win was just as much about Nebraska's defensive excellence as it was the Jayhawks. Something to keep in mind as the Big 12 season moves forward. Meanwhile KU, like Ohio State, continues to barely survive close tests at home and on the road. The Jayhawks' and Buckeyes' ability to win close games like this is, in its own way, impressive. But it can't -- and won't -- last forever.

  • No. 6 San Diego State 87, New Mexico 77: This is an impressive performance in any context. Given how the aforementioned unbeatens fared today, San Diego State's dominant win at New Mexico is even more worthy of our praise. In a week that featured Duke's loss to Florida State and two marginal near-misses apiece for OSU and KU, you have to appreciate the Aztecs' ability to just keep rolling along. This game was close until the half. That's when SDSU opened up a 17-point lead, and taking both New Mexico's famed Pit crowd and Steve Alford's overmatched team out of the game in one fell swoop. The Lobos may not be as good as they were last year, but this is still a talented team that boasts one of the toughest home court atmospheres in the country. San Diego State had no problem with either. Throw in the Aztecs' grind-it-out win over UNLV on Wednesday, and -- with apologies to the Syracuse Orange, who suffered none of Kansas and Ohio State's affliction in two dominant wins this week -- the award for Most Impressive Week By An Unbeaten Team goes to, you guessed it, the Aztecs.

  • No. 21 Wisconsin 76, No. 16 Illinois 66: Another top Big Ten opponent, another ho-hum home victory for the Wisconsin Badgers. Jay Bilas incisively described this game on "GameDay" this morning, when he responded to a request for his prediction with "The game is at the Kohl Center. Enough said." (I'm paraphrasing, but that was basically it.) With their low turnover, high-efficiency offense, the Badgers are hard enough to beat when they're in your building. When they're at home, they're practically unbeatable. Jon Leuer scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds, the Badgers didn't turn the ball over, like, ever and Wisconsin made 34 of its 41 free-throw attempts -- Mike Kitts and crew called a combined 54 fouls in this one -- to build their an unclimbable edge over Demetri McCamey and company. In other words: ho hum.

  • Iowa State 72, Baylor 57: Nebraska isn't the only team in the Big 12 playing surprisingly well, nor is it the only team doing so thanks to inspired defense. That's a pretty good description of the Iowa State Cyclones, too. Both teams have stingy defensive personalities, but the Cyclones back up their defense with a little bit of offense, too, and therein lies the reason for today's "upset" win over Baylor. You might have noticed the word "upset" in scare quotes in that last sentence. Why? Because I'm not sure this Baylor team can consider itself all that much better than the likes of Iowa State at this point in the season. After all, the Bears -- despite all that talent, including guard LaceDarius Dunn and possible No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Perry Jones -- have yet to beat anyone with a chance of making the NCAA tournament this season. Baylor flubbed its soft nonconference schedule, and its two season-opening Big 12 wins came against Texas Tech and Oklahoma, the two worst teams in the conference to date. The minute the Bears got into a road environment against an even marginal team, and guess what happened? Exactly. So is this an upset? Actually, who cares? Let's forget the semantics and just say this: Iowa State, a team many expected to be one of the worst in major-conference basketball this season, has already far exceeded those expectations. And the Bears, a team many thought could get back to the Elite Eight this season, have done nothing to justify theirs.

  • Southern Miss 86, No. 22 UCF 69: Another game like this, and we might have to start sounding the Drudge-esque "pretender" siren every time we talk about the UCF Knights. After a 14-0 start, Central Florida has now lost two in a row. The first came at Houston last Saturday. The latest, a 17-point road blowout, came today, as former Iowa State head coach Larry Eustachy and Southern Miss got one of its biggest wins in recent program history. (According to the AP, this was the first home win over a ranked team for the Golden Eagles since -- get this -- 1986.)

  • Old Dominion 75, Hofstra 64: If you don't know much about the Colonial Athletic Association, you probably wouldn't realize what a big win this was for Old Dominion. But this conference is extremely competitive -- Hofstra, nobody's pick to come out of the league this season, was 5-0 in conference play coming into Saturday's game -- and the Monarchs will have to be on their toes nearly every time they go on the road the rest of the season. Fortunately, they have players like Frank Hassell and Kent Bazemore, who combined for 36 points and 18 rebounds in today's impressive road win.