College Basketball Nation: Alabama

The Morning After: Big Ten in flux

February, 10, 2010
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap post. Try not make it awkward.

[+] EnlargeE'Twuan Moore
AP Photo/Al GoldisPurdue's E'Twaun Moore scored 25 points against Michigan State.
No. 6 Purdue 76, No. 10 Michigan State 64: Well, now we've got a Big Ten race. As recently as eight days ago, it seemed an undefeated Michigan State team was primed to run away with the Big Ten. No more. Kalin Lucas sprained his ankle. The Spartans were blown out in Madison and then edged at Illinois. And Tuesday night, with a clearly laboring Lucas in the lineup, the Spartans couldn't stop a balanced, thorough, complete Purdue team. That leaves us with a logjam at the top of the Big Ten, one that should provide plenty of entertainment as the season winds down, and one that ought to leave Tom Izzo and company less than thrilled.

Then again, it was probably only a matter of time before Michigan State came down to Earth a bit, right? That's not even the best way to phrase it, I guess, because a loss to Purdue doesn't constitute some sort of statistical correction. The Boilermakers are just good. Robbie Hummel can score and direct from distance. E'Twaun Moore has what Steve Lavin might call a "complete toolbox, the hammer, the screwdriver, the bandsaw." (I just made that phrase up, but it sounds like something Lavin would say, only less awesome.) Chris Kramer is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. And, perhaps most importantly, JaJuan Johnson is becoming a dominant force in the paint.

Johnson has been good in the past, but he hasn't always gotten the touches his high level of efficiency should demand. He hasn't needed to; Hummel and Moore and even Kramer can handle the scoring load just fine, thanks. But Johnson is a uniquely effective weapon for the Boilers. He can score in the paint, stretch defenses with outside jumpers and, on the defensive end, disrupt any interior shots with his freakishly long arms. (I hope that's not mean to say. Those arms are freakish.) Purdue has its own flaws. It's not a perfect team. But the Boilermakers are solidly balanced enough to play with anyone anywhere.

Oh, and Michigan State fans? Don't freak out. Your team is banged up and in the middle of the toughest part of their Big Ten season. There are worse places to be than 9-3. You'll be all right. Probably.

Illinois 63, No. 13 Wisconsin 56: Don't look now, but Illinois is 9-3 in the Big Ten. And don't look now, but the way Illinois has put themselves in the thick of the Big Ten race after a shaky start is worthy of serious respect. Beating a Kalin Lucas-less Michigan State team at home is one thing. Going to Wisconsin and handing the Badgers their sixth loss (and their first-ever to an unranked team) at the Kohl Center under Bo Ryan is entirely another. Demetri McCamey deserves much of the credit -- McCamey scored 27 points on an efficient 11-for-17 shooting Tuesday night, adding seven assists (though he did have five turnovers, which I suppose we can let slide). Forward Mike Tisdale was likewise efficient, scoring 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting. The Illini have plenty of flaws, and there's no question they caught Wisconsin on a particularly bad shooting night -- the Illini aren't a great defensive team this year, at least not yet -- but when Illinois is shooting this well, it's hard to blame their opponents for their success. They deserve the credit, and with the aforementioned Michigan State loss, they deserve to be in the thick of the Big Ten race. Now all Bruce Weber's team has to do is play this well the rest of the season. Easy, right?

No. 24 Vanderbilt 90, No. 12 Tennessee 71: 43. 43! That's the number of free throws the Vanderbilt Commodores shot in their 90-71 win over Tennessee in Nashville last night. There's a reason the Dores scored 90 points -- the Volunteers fouled 29 times in 40 minutes. Vanderbilt's free throw rate -- a ratio of free throws to field goal attempts -- was a mind-boggling 84.3 percent. Of course, Vanderbilt actually had to make these free throws. They did, hitting 37 of those 43. (Exclamation points are also applicable here. Thirty-seven made free throws!) And that's almost all you need to know: Vanderbilt built a big lead early, protected the ball, got good looks, and got to the line so often my head is literally spinning even as I type this.

In any case, it's a great win for Vanderbilt -- both for the team's tournament chances and for its in-state bragging rights. Bruce Pearl has done an admirable job keeping Tennessee tourney-bound in the wake of the Tyler Smith New Year's Day fiasco. Tuesday night -- a chippy, ugly affair, punctuated by the constant clang of Tennessee's misses -- was not in that vein.

Everywhere else: Kentucky kept Alabama at bay for a relatively easy win at Rupp Arena; John Wall got his first double-double and DeMarcus Cousins got his seventh in his past seven games ... Providence had a legit chance to upset Georgetown Tuesday, leading 47-40 with 15 minutes remaining, but Georgetown rallied in time to take a nine point win in Rhode Island ... Texas couldn't win in Norman, but Texas Tech (barely) could ... Vermont and Boston played a barnburner, which Vermont won on a layup in the final 10 seconds ... Wichita State took another step back in the Missouri Valley, losing at the previously 0-13 Evansville ... and Wake Forest handled Boston College in Winston-Salem.

Saddle Up: In search of Kalin

February, 9, 2010
Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown. (In lieu of a video preview for tonight's game, which I had planned to do until a cold made me sound like Tom Waits on Saturday morning, here's an extra-beefy edition of Saddle Up).

No. 6 Purdue at No. 10 Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Kalin Lucas picked a bad time to be injured.

OK, obviously Lucas didn't decide to be injured. Obviously, he'd prefer to be on the floor at all times. But say the Ghost of Ankle Injuries Future visited Lucas in his sleep one night in October (hey, it could happen -- haven't you ever seen "A Muppet Christmas Carol"?) and told him he would have one ankle sprain this year, and that he could point to the Spartans' schedule and decide when it would be, I'm betting he wouldn't have picked this stretch of the Big Ten season.

A Lucas-less Michigan State team was forced to into an orange-colored cauldron on Saturday. Now the Spartans are staring down a crucial matchup with Big Ten rival Purdue. They're also looking at a potential three-game losing streak and a loss of their solo hold on the Big Ten's top spot.

It's not that Michigan State can't beat Purdue without Lucas, whose status will be a game-time decision. The Spartans are at home, which is always nice; heck, Indiana almost beat Purdue on the Hoosiers' home floor last week. And Michigan State showed some things without Lucas in their loss to the Illini -- namely, that they can still score, that they have decent, untapped depth and that Draymond Green is more versatile than you think. And Purdue doesn't exactly wow you with its guard play, at least not at the point guard spot, the one major hole in the Boilermakers' lineup.

But it will be tough if he's not able to play. The Spartans committed 20 turnovers at Illinois on Saturday, and it was obvious why: Kalin Lucas wasn't on the floor. Without him, the Spartans still got out in transition, but in the half court they frequently looked lost, settling on long jump shots from guards Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. When he's on the floor, Lucas gets a majority of the Spartans' possessions, and he's efficient with them. When he's not there, the Spartans are left to score by committee.

It won't help that the Boilermakers, after a three-game losing streak toward the beginning of the conference season, are beginning to hit their stride. Purdue has rattled off five straight wins -- including a win at Illinois and a tight home victory over Wisconsin -- and have looked impressive in doing so.

Purdue isn't a statistical powerhouse. Their defense is stalwart but not elite, and their offense overwhelms you with its efficiency. They're just sort of good at everything. They're smart shot selectors. They never turn the ball over. They force opponents into bad looks. They clean up their defensive boards. It's pretty simple stuff.

With or without Lucas, the Spartans have a chance to win if they force Purdue into outside shots. Again: It's simple, but true. The Boilermakers are not a good 3-point shooting team -- at 31.6 percent, they rank in the high 200's in the country in 3-point percentage -- nor is their offensive rebounding particularly impressive.

This is key. If Izzo can get his defenders to sink in a zone, make Purdue launch a few more 3s than Matt Painter would like, the Spartans should be able to turn long rebounds into transition layups. On the other hand, if Purdue is scoring in the paint, it's doubtful the Spartans will be able to hold onto the ball long enough against Purdue's frantic, turnover-inducing, man defense to stay afloat.

Bonus Saddle Up Purdue-MSU linkage!:

No. 12 Tennessee at No. 24 Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Sure, this matchup isn't quite as sexy as the Big Ten battle above, but it is still well worth your time.

On New Year's Day, it looked like Tennessee's hopes of a successful season were over. But look at the Vols now: 18-4 overall (with a win over Kansas to boot), 6-2 in the SEC and, barring a catastrophic collapse, a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile, Kevin Stallings' team has been quietly handling its SEC business. Saturday's loss at Georgia was a low point, sure, and Vandy is just barely above the tempo-free water mark, but they've shown themselves capable of handling the Volunteers before -- Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in Knoxville on Jan. 27. If that hot-shooting team shows up at Memorial Gym tonight, the Vols will have plenty to reckon with.

Everywhere else: Alabama will visit Kentucky and face the wrath of emerging monster DeMarcus Cousins ... Georgetown heads to Providence, apparently avoiding the countrywide snow fiasco, and will look to avoid a South Florida-esque letdown on the road ... The Illini head to the Kohl Center, where they're likely to find a stark departure from Saturday's jubilant festivities in Champaign ... VCU takes on George Mason; with a win, the Rams could get a share of first place in the CAA ... and two middling Big 12 teams will attempt to write their respective ships, as Texas Tech goes to Norman to face the Longhorn-killing Sooners.
  • First, a few leftover Texas-Kansas notes: Mike DeCourcy writes that Kansas is making Big 12 dominance look easy. That causes Rush The Court to make a pretty trenchant observation: "Often you hear the media say that it’s a “wide-open field” as we’re heading up to the Tournament, only to say afterwards that Team X (as in UNC’s case last year) was “clearly the best team” after they win it all in April. I have a feeling that we’re going to by hearing the same contrasting platitudes this year, except that Kansas will be this year’s UNC." North Carolina occasionally stumbled during the regular season in 2009-10, only to roll through the tournament with nary a challenger. Kansas looks primed to do the exact same thing, only the Jayhawks already look dominant enough (and relatively stumble-free, at least so far) to win at all.
  • Yes, Bill Self has Twitter, and yes, he's using it to poke fun at Brady Morningstar: "Just got back to lawrence. Guys feel pretty good abt themselves. Different guys stepping up. Fun abt bradys ft. Never seen that."
  • In case you needed another look at that Texas-themed design on the back of the Longhorns' new Nike HyperElite uniforms, here you go. There's a star and some rays of light and a building, I think. It's actually kind of Art Deco, and I have a major soft spot for all things Art Deco. (Including Bioshock 2, which, yay, comes out today.) All it needs is an old-school train rolling through an idealized city and we'd be right there.
  • DeMarcus Cousins is an Alabaman, but that doesn't mean he has any love for his homestate school. Quite the contrary, in fact -- in this video by the Lexington Herald-Leader's John Clay, Cousins says he didn't attend Alabama because it was a "bad situation." When asked to elaborate on his coy response, the big man says he "doesn't really want to talk about it." Mobile Press-Register reporter Gentry Estes, who has an awesome name, says Cousins is probably referring to some hurt feelings over former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried's -- and then new coach Anthony Grant's -- decisions not to recruit Cousins due to concerns about his attitude. Whether Cousins would have attended Alabama seems unlikely anyway (why go to a transitional program when you can play for John Calipari at Memphis neé Kentucky?) but athletes still like to know they're wanted in their own backyard. Apparently, Cousins wasn't. So, yeah. If I were Alabama, I'd start devising ways to keep Cousins off the glass. A doubly motivated DeMarcus -- who has morphed into the most important and productive player in Calipari's lineup these last few weeks -- will be fearsome to behold.
  • You know what's confusing? Why Pierre Henderson-Niles would leave Memphis at this point in the season. Is the frustration with Josh Pastner -- or maybe it's the other way around -- so great that the two can't stick it out a while longer for the good of Memphis' tournament chances? Apparently so.
  • "The A-10 currently has six teams -- Rhode Island, Temple, Xavier, Charlotte, Richmond and Dayton -- in the top 43 of the RPI. That means when those teams start facing each other, which they will five times in the next 10 days alone, those games will be RPI helpers. Much like the Missouri Valley Conference in 2006, if results break the right way, all of these teams are going to have very strong computer profiles at season's end, with a series of league wins that should be very valuable in at-large consideration. This year, the A-10, literally and figuratively, could get a major at-large haul." That's SI's Andy Glockner on the A-10, which has a plethora of teams worthy of tournament consideration in 2009-10. It probably helps that the Missouri Valley isn't as good as it usually is, and of course it doesn't hurt that the Pac-10 is a one-bid league. Is this the year of the A-10? It's certainly looking that way.
  • Here's the story: Purdue blog Hammer And Rails runs a semi-joking post saying Syracuse is overrated because of the Orange's exhibition loss to LeMoyne. After Syracuse fans raid his house and threaten his family -- just kidding; they actually wrote very reasonable, well-received responses in defense of their club-- BoilerT does something people who spend their time arguing on the Internet never do: apologizes. It's a small victory, but this is what John Lennon was talking about, guys.
  • Athens Banner-Herald columnist David Ching makes the case for Georgia's Mark Fox as SEC coach of the year. It's no secret Fox has done a fantastic job in his first year in Athens; it's also no secret that coaches with his league record (2-6 in the SEC), no matter how hard their team plays, probably aren't going to win any awards.
  • Seth Davis says Georgetown learned from last year's letdown.
  • It's Tuesday, so here are your Tuesday Truths. Mr. Gasaway is especially good on why West Virginia looks better on paper than they do in person: "Take West Virginia last night. Please! (Har!) The Mountaineers have a really nice EM because they've been able to pummel teams like Rutgers, South Florida, St. John's, DePaul, and, yes, Pitt. Pummeling teams, even non-NCAA tournament teams, is a good marker of quality and I don't minimize that. Still, it's also true that Bob Huggins' team has seen its two main rivals, Syracuse and Villanova, come to Morgantown, and in those games the Mountaineers are 0-2, having been outscored by 0.06 points per trip. Looking ahead, West Virginia closes the season by hosting Georgetown and then going to Villanova. If they're smart they'll seize the opportunity to show what they can do against top-quality opponents."
  • Mike Brey isn't taking his foot off the pedal as Notre Dame hits the stretch run of the Big East. Brey wants to make the tournament. To ensure his players' complicity, he's started running two-a-day practices. Maybe a big deal, maybe not, but it's easy to see how that strategy would backfire, yes? Your players get mad at you and don't play hard, or, failing that, your players play as hard as possible but don't have the energy to compete late in games. It's a risky gambit, but like I said: Brey wants to make the tournament. He's putting his chips on the table. That's one way to do it.
  • Dan Hanner smartly explains the impact of RPI and how it relates to Northwestern's tourney chances.
  • Pete Thamel writes a brief vignette on Rhode Island 17-year-old high school player Andre Drummond, who Thamel says might be U.S. basketball's next great big man prospect.
As always, follow me on Twitter to send me your links and tips. Happy Tuesday, people. Try to stay out of the snow.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best action. Thought for the morning: Even if you have to work on Saturday, Friday still feels awesome. That never goes away. Why is that? What's so special about this day? Anyway, per the usual, try not to make it awkward.

No. 7 Purdue 78, Indiana 75: It's hard to say when Indiana fans are going to start feeling discouraged by games like Thursday night's loss to highly ranked and obviously superior rival Purdue, when they won't be able to take moral victories away from losses like this, when their patience will eventually run out. It isn't happening yet, and it shouldn't -- and last night's game proved why. Sure, the Hoosiers didn't pull out the victory. But for a team that started last year's season with one returning player, and is relying on freshmen and sophomores and two transfers, lost its high scorer and most promising youngster Maurice Creek to a kneecap fracture in late December, to stay with Purdue up to a last-second Verdell Jones three that hit the front rim, well, that's an accomplishment. The Hoosiers played hard. They never gave up. The crowd was rocking. For a moment, you could forget the Hoosiers were still in rebuilding mode; the team and the arena and everyone else seemed to forget it too. It was just Purdue-Indiana, just like the good old days. That this was even possible is a testament to the job Tom Crean has done at IU. He hasn't been perfect, to be sure, but if teams take on the personality of their coaches, Crean is one hard-working, thorough, and determined dude -- and IU will be back in the top 20 sooner rather than later.

Give some credit to the Boilermakers, too. It's not easy to win in Assembly Hall, even when the team there isn't vintage Indiana. This year's Boilermakers are the first team to do so since 1999. How'd they do it? They kept up with a torrid Hoosiers offense with buckets of their own, and they took advantage of their size and athleticism by getting to the rim and getting fouled. (Purdue posted a 50 percent free throw rate. Shooting this many free throws is helpful.) It was an impressive win, the Boilermakers' fifth in a row.

No. 9 Duke 86, No. 19 Georgia Tech 67: Take a good long look at Duke's four factors output from last night's blowout win over Georgia Tech. It's crazy. A 55.4 FG percentage. An 18.2 percent turnover rate. A 45.9 percent offensive rebounding rate. A 64.3 percent (!!) free throw rate. Do any one of these things, and your offense should be in good shape; do all three of them, and you can chalk up 1.3 points per trip, which is what the Dukies somewhat insanely did last night. No wonder Pomeroy's numbers still love this team so much: They are efficient. Whether they can put together these sorts of performances on the road is a different question. Andy Katz made a good point last night: Duke, despite being a less talented team than Kansas, never seems to get pushed the same way Kansas does at home. That's a huge home court advantage; no wonder Coach K didn't schedule any real non-conference road games other than the one required by Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Kansas can take its show on the road this year. Duke hasn't. The Dukies are 14-0 in Cameron Indoor Stadium and 1-4 outside it. Do the Crazies really matter that much? Are Duke's shooters just that used to Cameron's rims? Duke is an awfully good team, but it's weird they can't prove it off-campus.

Everywhere else: In other "road conference games are hard to win" news, Tennessee hit a drought at the wrong time Thursday night, scoring a mere seven points in the last eight minutes at LSU but avoiding the upset all the same, winning 59-54. ... Portland can call itself a victim of scheduling: The Pilots are a solid team capable of upsetting Gonzaga, but not right after a Gonzaga loss. ... Butler went to 12-0 in the Horizon with a hard-fought home win over Detroit. Gordon Hayward led with 18 points and 10 boards. ... Florida continues to get the benefit of buzzer-beating shots. Erving Walker's jumper with 11 seconds left lifted the Gators to a one-point win at Alabama. ... It might be time to pay attention to Maryland again. The Terps went on the road for their latest ACC win, topping Florida State in Tallahassee, and are 5-2 in the conference, and one game behind rival Duke, which should make Feb. 13's trip to Cameron Indoor mighty interesting. ... Notre Dame beat Cincinnati handily in South Bend. ... For more on last night's Pac-10 results, check out Diamond and Andy's posts early this morning.

Wednesday night observations

January, 28, 2010
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBilal Dixon and Providence had reason to celebrate after an 81-66 win against UConn.
Something I didn’t think I would see: Providence ahead of Connecticut in the Big East standings. PC is 4-4, UConn is 3-4.

How about this quote from PC coach Keno Davis: “We can beat anybody in the country. We have enough talent, but we have to play extremely hard.’’ I’m not sure I’m buying that proclamation, but it’s good to know Davis has that much confidence in his crew.

UConn’s win over Texas was as impressive a W as we’ve seen this season. But I knew if Connecticut was an elite team the Huskies had to win a game on the road that they’re supposed to -- and they didn’t. It’s odd looking at the Big East standings and seeing UConn ranked No. 19 yet in 11th place in the league.

  • Not sure there was as impressive a road performance in the SEC (save Kentucky winning at Florida) as Vanderbilt’s win at Tennessee. The Commodores got spirited production out of Jermaine Beal (25 points) and held the Vols to 6-of-20 on 3s. Vandy goes into Kentucky on Saturday with a chance to actually build a two-game lead on the Cats. Huh?

  • No one should fault BYU for losing at New Mexico, 76-72. The Pit is and will be one of the toughest places in the country to play, and I can tell you from years covering the Lobos that there is no opponent that gets the place as amped as the Cougars. BYU remains the MWC favorite even with the loss to the Lobos. But UNM desperately needed the win to stay in the race.

  • Memphis coach Josh Pastner picked up a quality road W by winning at Marshall to keep the Tigers in the C-USA league race.

  • Villanova’s 18-1 record and 8-0 mark in the Big East after beating Notre Dame is as impressive as any in the country. But the Wildcats' schedule is back-loaded with road games at Syracuse, Georgetown and West Virginia that will be tough to tackle.

  • Duke won again at Cameron. I just don’t see the Blue Devils losing at home. So that’s eight ACC wins right there. The Devils have already won at Clemson. So that’s nine. Pick up at least two road wins out of BC, Miami or Virginia (don’t see UNC or Maryland) and the Blue Devils will likely win the league with 11 wins. That’s unless Maryland decides to string together a bunch of road wins.

  • Florida is winning the games it should at home now with a 79-63 win over Georgia to move to 4-2 and move closer to an NCAA berth after two NIT years.

  • Drexel snuffed out Northeastern’s win streak at 11 (which was the third-longest in the country) with an impressive 61-48 win on the road.

  • Hard to generate buzz for William & Mary now after the Tribe lost to James Madison by a deuce to fall to 6-4 in the CAA.

  • Hard not to cheer for Oklahoma State to beat Texas A&M on Wednesday, the ninth anniversary of the tragic plane crash that killed 10 people associated with the program. OSU beat the Aggies to move ahead of them in the standings at 4-2 (A&M is 3-3).

  • What has happened to LSU’s offense? The Tigers led Alabama at the break, but scored just 13 points in the second half. Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer were a combined 4-of-18 in the 57-38 loss at Alabama. The defending SEC champs are now 0-6 in league play.

  • Believe it or not, Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins had an eight-point play in the Pride's 93-54 win over UNC Wilmington. He scored on a layup and was fouled. But it was ruled an intentional foul and then Wilmington’s Benny Moss got a technical for arguing. Jenkins hit all four free throws (two for the intentional and two for the technical) and then Hofstra got the ball because of the intentional foul and Jenkins scored off the inbound pass with a floater. In five seconds, the score went from 26-9 to 34-9. Wow.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap post. Try not to make it awkward.

No. 18 Georgia Tech 66, No. 16 Clemson 64: Sometimes size is all you need. That's the prognosis over Georgia Tech's last-second win over Clemson Tuesday night, wherein Trevor Booker fouled Zachary Peacock on the arm with three seconds remaining, putting Peacock on the line to hit the game-winning free throws. Booker shouldn't feel too bad; he led Clemson in points (19), rebounds (nine), steals (three) and blocks (two), and in the all-important "impressive breakaway dunk that causes a "SportsCenter" anchor to inexplicably and awesomely reference 'Lost In Translation'" category with one. (Check the highlights here if you don't believe me.) In the end, though, the Georgia Tech win came down to size, specifically the size possessed by Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors. Favors went for 17 and 14, and finally appeared to be breaching his uber-prospect potential -- this was one of those "oh, THAT'S why" games -- and he and Lawal scored a combined 66 percent eFG. Their work on the interior also gave Georgia Tech a decided offensive rebounding advantage, and in a tough, somewhat ugly conference game, that was enough to make the difference.

Wichita State 60, No. 22 Northern Iowa 51: Those of you who tuned in to Purdue-Illinois expecting a raucous Assembly Hall crowd had to feel a little disappointed; every time I dialed up the Big Ten on my remote, the Orange Krush and company were downright demure. Not so in Wichita. There, the Shockers played the streaking Northern Iowa Panthers for a shot at the Missouri Valley regular-season crown and, even more importantly, a chance to prove that the MVC isn't just a one-bid league in 2009-10. The Shockers opened up small lead after small lead against UNI, guarding the Panthers all the way out to 25 feet and holding what is usually a good 3-point shooting team (29.9 percent on the season) to a dismal percentage (11.8 percent). Wichita State made the most of its possessions by grabbing offensive rebounds, and Northern Iowa could never erase the deficit.

It's a huge win for the WSU program generally and coach Gregg Marshall specifically, and it gets Wichita State right back in the hunt in the MVC, which is all Marshall and company could ask for Tuesday night. Thanks to some impressive play and a rowdy home crowd, the Shockers got it.

No. 15 Purdue 84, Illinois 78: This is a held serve, isn't it? Sure, road wins are tough, and road wins at Assembly Hall are tougher, but you would expect a good Purdue team to go into Champaign and beat a mediocre Illinois squad, would you not? That's fair, yes?

OK, so the Boilermakers have had their share of troubles these last three games, but this team is still talented, well-coached, deep (except at point guard, where it's very shallow) and experienced. Methinks the Boilers -- who got back to their efficient ways Tuesday night, scoring 1.12 points per possession (even as they allowed more than a point per possession on the defensive end) -- will be just fine.

No. 8 Tennessee 63, Alabama 56: Tennessee won for three reasons Tuesday night. One, the Volunteers didn't turn the ball over. Like, at all. Two, the Volunteers got to the free throw line at an extraordinary rate, especially for a road game -- someone should tell the referees in Tuscaloosa what home-court advantage is supposed to mean -- and three, Wayne Chism. Chism scored all of his 11 points in the final seven minutes of the game, helping the Volunteers close out another SEC win, this one on the road. The question now is how long Tennessee can keep this up. After all, it's still four scholarship athletes down, including Tyler Smith, the Vols' best all-around playmaker before his dismissal. Can Tennessee keep rolling? Hey, it's come this far.
Saddle Up is a quick preview of the basketball your TV wants you to watch tonight. Here is Thursday night's rundown.

My mind is big on finding themes where perhaps there are none. I recognize this is foolish. But if there is any sort of theme to be drawn out of tonight's action, it's whether the teams on hand are real or fake, about which side of their personalities are the real deal. It's like figuring out a girlfriend after a couple of months; that's when things start to get familiar and real, whether you like it or not.

All right, that analogy was terrible. Sorry. Let's just get to previewin':

No. 16 Clemson at No. 18 Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Can either of these teams win the ACC? It's not looking good: Despite Kyle Singler's odd senior-year struggles, Duke is looking like an efficient beast unlikely to yield many conference losses. This is Duke's conference to win. But Georgia Tech and Clemson have proved themselves more than capable of beating the conference's usual powers. So which team is a contender? Which team can unseat Duke? If anyone can do it, it's probably Clemson; the Tigers are one of only four teams (Duke, Maryland, and Virginia being the three others) with a positive efficiency differential, and they have the ACC record to show for it. A win at Georgia Tech -- something Duke couldn't accomplish last week -- would go a long way toward proving the Tigers are more than just another footprint in Duke's path to an easy conference title. A loss means ... well, not a whole lot. It means Georgia Tech can win home games against solid teams, and it means Clemson probably isn't as good as their 20-point win over North Carolina. It's a confusing conference, this ACC. Let's see how it plays out.

No. 15 Purdue at Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Can Purdue right the ship? After a 14-0 nonconference tear, the Boilermakers are looking suddenly vulnerable, having lost three straight Big Ten games, one of which came in a come-from-behind loss to Ohio State at home -- the kind of thing this Purdue team would have seemed incapable of three weeks ago -- and an upset loss to Northwestern in Evanston on Saturday. (Which was an awfully nice, résumé-building win for the Wildcats, for what it's worth.) Purdue doesn't look like the defensive buzz saw that took down a full-strength Tennessee team in one of the best games of the young season in November. They don't look like the team that beat West Virginia by 15. Ever since they hit conference play the Boilermakers look like a mediocre defensive team, and this Purdue team can't afford to be mediocre on defense. It's, like, their thing. They need to be good at it, or all hopes of a Final Four will be gone faster than Conan O'Brien. (Topical humor! What, are people not still talking about Conan O'Brien? Have we moved on?)

Meanwhile, Illinois is 4-1 in the Big Ten and is looking a little more coherent than in their disappointing non-conference start, but that start has just as much to do with playing Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State than anything else. Tonight is Illinois's chance to prove they deserved their preseason top 25 ranking, or at least some reasonable slice of it. It would be a quality Big Ten win. Heck, it would be a quality win, period. Illinois doesn't have nearly enough of those this year.

No. 22 Northern Iowa at Wichita State, 9:05 p.m. ET, ESPNU: If the above options don't excite you, how about a little quality hoops from the Missouri Valley? Northern Iowa is ranked for a reason: The Panthers have won their last 15 games and have only been challenged a couple of times during that stretch, quietly going from MVC unknown to national mid-major power in the course of a couple of months. (In the meantime, if anyone can figure out how this UNI team lost to DePaul on Nov. 20 -- beyond "It was November and weird things happen in November" -- feel free to fill me in.) Tonight is the country's chance to get acquainted with the Panthers. While doing so, enjoy the Wichita State Shockers, who have racked up their own impressive record (16-3, 5-2 MVC) and appear to be UNI's most relevant challenger. At the very least, the Shockers can prove that the MVC is more than a one-bid league in 2009-10.

Everywhere else: Is Tennessee ripe for a letdown? You would have said that before their handy win over Auburn and their gutty overtime victory over Ole Miss, and that didn't work out so well. But now the Vols must take their underhanded show on the road, where a rebuilding Alabama team awaits ... Can Northwestern follow up its home win over Purdue with a road win over the Evan Turner-energized Ohio State Buckeyes? It doesn't seem likely, but neither did Saturday's victory ... Miami built a gaudy nonconference record before it got into ACC play, and things have headed downhill from there; tonight's match up with Boston College in Miami should be a brief respite from the losing.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap post. Try not to make it awkward.

Clemson 83, North Carolina 64: Two conclusions. 1). North Carolina is, as of Jan. 14, not very good. 2). Clemson's basketball fan support is at an all-time high, and the Tigers are better for it.

On the first: This isn't exactly a shocker. After all, North Carolina came into Thursday night's game ranked No. 41 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings. They're merely OK defensively, and in past years this was fine, because the offense was otherworldy. That's not the case this year; UNC is 40th in points per possession, scoring about 1.1 points per trip. That's just ... meh. (And it doesn't help when you turn the ball over on 30 percent of your possessions, either.) It's certainly not what we've come to expect from Roy Williams' North Carolina teams, who have overwhelmed their opponents on the offensive end since the day Roy found a house in Chapel Hill. This team is young and new and not vintage UNC, and it shows. On nights like Wednesday, it shows badly.

Make no mistake, though, North Carolina wasn't merely bad on Wednesday. Saying so would be a disservice to Clemson and its fans. This is the second conclusion: Don't look now, but Clemson is starting to look like a pretty darn good ACC program. They've got the ability, sure. That's not entirely new; Oliver Purnell's teams have been playing at about this level for a few years now. But more than anything, Wednesday night showed just how far Clemson's fan base has come. It was this time last year that Clemson writers were aghast wondering why so many people were showing up to noon tip-offs at Littlejohn Coliseum. That was unlike Clemson fans, who typically prefer their football. (They're in South Carolina, after all. Don't fish prefer the water?) Newsflash: Clemson basketball has plenty of fans, too, and those fans are relishing the Tigers' stellar on-court product.* Chicken, meet egg.

*Speaking of on-court relish, this of course doesn't excuse the court-storming that went down on Wednesday night, which I'll get to in a later post. Here's a preview: Tsk-tsk, Clemson students. Tsk. Tsk.

Texas 90, Iowa State 83; Kansas 84, Nebraska 72; Missouri 94, Texas Tech 89: Well, it was fun while it lasted. Most of Wednesday's talk revolved around how well Big 12 teams had done at home in 2009-10; the conference was 112-1 going into Wednesday night's games. I said yesterday that that stat would be tested, and if it held up after Wednesday night's games, something seriously freaky was going on. Never mind. All three Big 12 road teams won on Wednesday night, even Missouri -- ostensibly rebuilding after an Elite Eight last year, but quietly 14-3 and 3-0 in conference -- at Texas Tech. I think we can rule out the supernatural.

Michigan State 60, Minnesota 53: Minnesota is almost good enough to be ranked. Almost. The Gophers have lost five of their last six games to ranked teams (that stat courtesy of the wonderful folks in the ESPN research department), including on Wednesday night, when they played Michigan State almost even for 40 minutes in East Lansing and only barely came up short. The Spartans, meanwhile, are starting to find their groove after some struggles in the early nonconference season. Sound familiar? (I meant that rhetorically. Of course it sounds familiar. The Spartans do this every year.)

Pittsburgh 67, Connecticut 57: Dana said it best last night: Pitt is legit. Simple, syntactically rhythmic and also, you know, true. Pittsburgh was supposed to rebuild in 2009-10. They were supposed to feel every pound of DEJuan Blair's body mass lifted from underneath the opponent's basket. (Which, by the way, note to every NBA GM that didn't take Blair in the late first or early second round: You are idiots. I'm not the first to tell you, but I'll gladly join the chorus. Letting Blair go to the Spurs in the late second round. Unbelievable.) Anyway, the point is, Pittsburgh isn't missing its big three nearly as much as we all thought. They're doing just fine, actually, perched quite neatly atop the Big East with wins at Syracuse , at Cincy and now at UConn. Jamie Dixon: coach of the year?

Everywhere else: Duke destroyed Boston College at Cameron, which: duh ... Syracuse dismantled Rutgers in New Jersey, which again: duh ... BYU had no problems with Air Force on its way to a 12th win in a row, and speaking of coach of the year candidates, Dave Rose, come on down ... Northwestern had a chance to notch a huge Big Ten win over Wisconsin but lost hold of the game in the closing minutes, losing 60-50 and taking another step toward a perpetual NCAA tourney-less existence ... Georgia plays hard, that's for sure; unfortunately the Bulldogs' best effort is often not quite good enough, and such was the case in yet another close loss to a ranked team Wednesday night ... Hey, wait a second. Is that Virginia? Beating Georgia Tech? Why yes, yes it is! More on this later in the day ... Utah State outlasted Nevada in a close overtime WAC win ... Vanderbilt barely escaped Alabama in Tuscaloosa ... and Xavier battled toward the top of the A-10 with a win over Charlotte.