College Basketball Nation: Eric Atkins

Weekend Homework: Welcome to the ACC

January, 3, 2014
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The ACC is showing no favoritism toward Duke to start conference play.

The Blue Devils open up Saturday at Notre Dame (4 p.m. ET, CBS), one of three new members to the league, and a program desperate to show it belongs in the ACC.

Students are gone on break, but the game is a sellout and Irish head coach Mike Brey expects the crowd to be even crazier than the norm for a big-time game in South Bend, Ind.

"What a way to start the ACC," Brey said on Thursday's ESPNU college basketball podcast. "It will be great, really loud. People who don't normally get tickets will fill that lower bowl seats. They're wacky and it's a good atmosphere when they're here. We don't beat Canisius without them."

Brey said he has had to remind fans and the players that there are 17 more ACC games after the Duke game. He likened the lead-up to the opener to the perception of the Notre Dame-USC football game as the game to circle during the regular season.

"But to have Duke coming in really warms up our fans [to the ACC]," said Brey.

The Irish are starting anew after Jerian Grant, the team's leading scorer, became academically ineligible on Dec. 23 after a heartbreaking late-possession loss to Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. The Irish had to reinvent themselves against the Golden Griffins, notably Grant's backcourt mate, Eric Atkins. Atkins scored 10 points and took six shots, including one 3-pointer, against Ohio State. He scored 30 against Canisius, taking 14 shots and eight 3s. He'll have to have a similar game dodging Quinn Cook to beat Duke Saturday.

"We were searching throughout the game," Brey said of trying to find lineups against Canisius. "We had lineups we never would have imagined back in August.

"We're almost like in a new season.”

The Irish won't have time to figure out whom to play with Duke looming. But it is no secret Atkins has to score, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem -- two freshmen who are suddenly getting significant time -- will have to defend, and the Irish will have to exploit Duke's deficiencies inside by having Garrick Sherman, Tom Knight and Zach Auguste be effective inside.

"We're going to have to change defenses and be aware of the arc, take away their shooters and use our big guys," Brey said. "We have the front-line guys with Sherman and Auguste trending up and Tom Knight has delivered for us. We've got to throw the ball in the post and use our big guys. We've got to change the tempo. Since we lost Grant, we've got nothing to lose the rest of the way."

And it starts by playing with house money against one of the two ACC title contenders -- especially at home. Notre Dame doesn't have to return the game to Duke in the unbalanced ACC schedule this season. Beat Duke and suddenly Notre Dame's profile changes since the selection committee will judge the Irish more by their post-Grant games than by how they played before the suspension. That doesn't mean the Irish don't get points for knocking off Indiana in Indianapolis or shouldn't be penalized for losing to Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana State. Still, this is the Irish team to evaluate.

And to beat Duke the Irish will have to deal with Jabari Parker, arguably one of the top three players in the country.

"He has the poise and demeanor of a 22-year-old senior," Brey said. "You have to be aware of him. He'll be tough to deal with one-on-one. We'll have to play zone as well."

Notre Dame doesn't have the history of playing Duke or any of the ACC schools, save the fellow former Big East members Pitt and Syracuse. But the older ACC schools don't have the knowledge of playing at Notre Dame or going against the Irish.

Duke has had one bad half since losing late to Arizona at the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 29 at MSG. That was against UCLA on Dec. 19 at the Garden, and a tie game with the Bruins turned into a 17-point Blue Devils rout.

This has been a difficult week for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose 71-year old brother, William, a former Chicago firefighter captain, passed away on Dec. 26. Coach K said Thursday that William "was my hero." Coach K has been in Chicago with his family this week and will join the team for the game Saturday. He'll rejoin the Blue Devils in time for what should be one of their tougher road assignments this season in their first true road game in 2013-14.

But this game is not about Duke. The Blue Devils will be fine, regardless of the result of this road game. Nope, this is all about the Irish -- about who they are now, and what they may become this season.

Impressions: ACC Media Day

October, 16, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The slogan plastered across the Atlantic Coast Conference’s signage read: “The Best Get Better.” And it seemed every coach and player who sat down for an interview pitched from the same talking points to that end.

The additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame will unequivocally make the league that grew up on basketball the nation’s best. And at least on paper, it’s hard to argue against it.

“For 60 years the ACC has been the best conference in college basketball,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “… There may have been a little lull where the Big East, the [SEC] or Big Ten -- I don’t see anybody being the best –- any better than us now. I don’t care what year it is.”

Duke was the overwhelming choice to win the conference by media attending today’s event. The Blue Devils garnered 50 first-place votes out of 54. Syracuse received three first-place votes and was picked second. North Carolina, which got one first place vote, was picked third.

Since 1997, there have only been three years when the Tar Heels or Blue Devils didn’t have at least a share of the ACC regular-season championship. The newcomers are expected to challenge the stranglehold UNC and Duke have had on the title.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyewski
AP Photo/Nell RedmondMike Krzyzewski's Duke team was picked by the media to win the conference title.
“We’ll have instant rivalries,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It won’t take long to develop a Duke-Syracuse … that’s why I think our conference is way ahead -- of anybody.”

At the very least, the newest league members should add needed depth after the ACC received only four NCAA tournament bids last season.

The league will have three active Hall of Fame coaches in Krzyzewski, Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim -- and add a fourth next season when Rick Pitino and Louisville become a member.

Boeheim once voiced resistance to the move when talk of the Orange joining the ACC remained just talk. Now that Syracuse is in the league, he spoke like a longtime resident of Tobacco Road.

Boeheim said the transition from being a charter member of the Big East to the ACC wasn’t difficult because his former league changed so much. He pointed out the ACC now has more former Big East schools (including Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College) than the current Big East (Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Georgetown.)

“I mean, there’s a certain degree of nostalgia of being in that league because that’s where you worked 34 years,” Boeheim said. “But this is a better league.”

Boeheim pointed out that Syracuse has sold more than 20,000 season tickets, which has already surpassed last season’s total of about 15,000. Duke’s visit to the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1 is already sold out and the North Carolina game on Jan. 11 isn’t far behind.

“The only thing our fans will miss,” Boeheim said, “is the Big East tournament.”

Other notes:
  • Many players hate that Maryland is playing in its final season before joining the Big Ten, but it has nothing to do with the Terrapins being an ACC charter member or the tradition it’s had in the league. The Maryland/Washington, D.C. area has produced a lot of players who were looking forward to coming home to College Park. “It still feels weird to think about they’re not going to be there,” said Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins, a Columbia, Md., native. “The only thing I think about is beating them, actually. That’s the only thing I can think about. I’m really looking forward to that Jan. 15 game.” Pitt forward Talib Zanna said facing Maryland was what excited him most about joining the league. “I know a lot of people when you don’t say Duke or North Carolina they look at you like you’re crazy,” Zanna said. “Duke and North Carolina have a lot of history, they win a lot of games but I’m looking up to playing Maryland just because that’s where I grew up. I just want to play in the arena.”

  • The ACC will have its share of impact transfers this season, including Duke’s Rodney Hood, who came from Mississippi State; Virginia’s Anthony Gill, who came from South Carolina; and Maryland’s Evan Smotrycz, who played at Michigan. Hood thinks it is a trend that will only increase. “Other than the money, it does feel like free agency,” Hood said. “Guys transfer for different reasons. I’m sure mine was different than a lot of other guys. I really like the school I was at and made a basketball decision.”

  • Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair was selected the ACC preseason Player of the Year by the media. Fair was the leading scorer for the Orange last season, but it’s his leadership role that will have to expand this season after the departures of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. “It’s something I haven’t experienced since high school,” Fair said. “Not so much to carry the team, but lead the team.”
1. The Anaheim Classic is going through some changes that should make it a more intimate event, building up toward a more unique championship day. The tournament, played over Thanksgiving weekend, has been at the Anaheim Convention Center, but has had plenty of sparsely populated games. So, the plan is to move the first two days of the tournament to Cal State-Fullerton's Titan Gym. The final day of the event will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim to give it more of an elite ending. And to raise the profile of the event, the name will no longer be the Anaheim Classic but rather the Wooden Legacy. The first two rounds will be Nov. 28 and 29 with the championship day on Dec. 1. The tournament has headline teams in Creighton, San Diego State, Marquette, Arizona State and Miami with the College of Charleston, George Washington and the host Titans. Fullerton needs to take advantage of their homecourt and play well for two reasons -- to play rare higher-level games at home and to ensure the crowds are decent.

2. The cuts for the World University Games team playing in Russia could be some of the hardest for USA basketball. Junior national director Jim Boeheim of Syracuse will have a hard time whittling down this list. The team, which will train the last week of June in Colorado Springs, should be the overwhelming favorite in the event. But getting down to the cut list of 24 will be quite a chore for Boeheim and WUG coaches Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan). Here is the list: Eric Atkins (Notre Dame), Markel Brown (Oklahoma State), Deonte Burton (Nevada), Quinn Cook (Duke), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Davante Gardner (Marquette), Treveon Graham (VCU), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Luke Hancock (Louisville), Joe Harris (UVA), Tyler Haws (BYU), Andre Hollins (Minnesota), Rodney Hood (Duke), Josh Huestis (Stanford), Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Devyn Marble (Iowa), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Chasson Randle (Stanford), Will Sheehey (Indiana), Aaron White (Iowa), Kendall Williams (New Mexico).

3. The list will be cut down to 12. Everyone could use making the team to better themselves. But Hood could use it more than anyone else after sitting out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State. Hood needs game action before he starts to star for Duke. Fair, Grant, Hairston, Jefferson, McDermott and Payne all are trying out for the team after making the decision to return to school. The fact that two players from Indiana, Duke, Notre Dame, New Mexico and Iowa are on the first list is a sign about these three teams' future next season. Kirk and Grant have a chance to be headline players next season. So too, does White. The one player who could benefit as much as anyone is Ferrell, who will have to be even more of a playmaker next season without Victor Oladipo on his wing.

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Louisville Cardinals' 69-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to advance to the Big East tournament finals.

What it means: Louisville is one victory away from winning the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Notre Dame was eliminated in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (28-5) have now won nine straight games since losing to the Fighting Irish in that five-overtime classic back on Feb. 9. If Louisville wins Saturday, it almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9), ranked No. 24, heads home disappointed, but helped its cause by upsetting No. 12 Marquette in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Fighting Irish were projected to receive a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology.

This was also Notre Dame's final game as a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish will play in the ACC next season. Louisville will join them the following season.

The turning point: Peyton Siva nailed a 3-pointer on the very first possession of the game, Louisville went ahead by as many as seven, and led almost the entire first half. Notre Dame briefly tied the game at 22, on a Garrick Sherman bucket with 6:03 remaining. But the Cardinals outscored the Fighting Irish 10-3 the rest of the way. Luke Hancock drilled a trey from the corner before the buzzer, giving Louisville a 32-25 halftime lead.

Notre Dame drew within three points on three separate occasions early in the second half. And trailing 45-41 with 6:58 remaining, Eric Atkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, with a chance to cut the lead to two. The Fighting Irish drew no closer. The dagger was another Hancock 3-pointer with 4:09 left, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 55-44. Louisville put the game away from there.

Star watch: Russ Smith, who had 28 points in Louisville's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored 20 more on Friday to lead the Cardinals. Siva added 12, and he also had 6 assists and 7 steals. Gorgui Dieng had 8 points, 12 rebound and 4 blocked shots.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame.

Number crunch: Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers -- nine fewer than Villanova committed against Louisville on Thursday. But the Fighting Irish shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19-for-52), while Louisville shot 45.5 percent (25-for-55). It's the sixth consecutive contest the Cardinals have held their opponent under 40 percent. Louisville, arguably the best defensive team in the country, is on top of its game.

What's next: The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in this tournament, will play No. 5 seed Syracuse in the title game. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The Fighting Irish head back to South Bend and start preparing for the Big Dance.
1. Notre Dame was fully prepared to stick out the next year in the old Big East as per its requirement. But Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said once the seven Catholic-based schools decided to leave, the Irish were likely gone as well. As late as a month ago, however, Swarbrick had informed all his coaches to prepare to play in the old Big East. Now, they are all off to the ACC, and Swarbrick and Irish men's basketball coach Mike Brey were pleased to at least know they can move forward in their new home. Brey has been sentimental about this being the final Big East tournament for the Irish. The players didn't know until Tuesday -- and Eric Atkins said prior to Wednesday's victory over Rutgers that he fully anticipated playing next season at Madison Square Garden. Once he knew this was it, he said it made this tournament even more special. The Irish will get Boston College and Georgia Tech as home-and-home rivals next season. Notre Dame and the other 14 ACC schools will get two other teams they'll play twice, for eight double-up games. The other 10 league games will be singles, either home or road.

2. Rutgers has a lame-duck season in the soon-to-be-named conference, and that's actually OK with the Scarlet Knights administration and coach Mike Rice. There is no rush to race to the Big Ten when there is still so much to do. Rice, who has two seasons left on his contract, probably didn't need to be in the Big Ten next season. He has 90 percent of his team returning and, in the to-be-named conference, has a chance to be a factor and show improvement. Rutgers hasn't been party to the decision-making of the schools that will remain -- including decisions on what the league will be called and where its conference tournament will be next season. Rutgers is recruiting for the Big Ten, not this league, so it doesn't matter. Rice expects the conference to play a true round-robin schedule of 18 league games with a 10-team league in 2013-14.

3. Employees of the splitting Big East still don't know if they're working for the old or new league. Since the break just occurred, there haven't been requests by the new league to bring any of the staffers along. For now, the staffers remain committed to the old Big East and have work to do on putting the 2014 conference tournament out for bidding. The key will be which facility has the dates available, since arenas are typically booked for specific dates a year out. The favorites remain an existing facility that has hosted similar events, such as those in Memphis (Conference USA) and Hartford, Conn. (Big East's women tournament).


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quick thoughts from Notre Dame's 64-50 victory over No. 8 Kentucky, the program's fourth straight win over a top-10 team:

Overview: For the first five minutes, as UK's highly touted young players carved up Notre Dame's less touted veterans, it appeared as if sheer talent might be enough to carry this group through its first true road test as a team. That notion ended quickly and without ceremony. The Irish turned their 3-for-8 shooting in the first five minutes into a tidy 15-for-27 first half, working for good shots and making most of them, all the while containing Kentucky on the other end of the floor.

By the time the half was over, ND led 36-25, and UK looked a bit lost, content to take bad shots, unable to get free on its basic dribble actions, forcing wild shots in a congested lane. The story didn't change in the second half. The Irish opened a 53-35 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds remaining thanks to a clock-countdown heave of a 3 from ND guard Jerian Grant. With no offensive burst left in them, and facing a Notre Dame coach whose teams happen to specialize in extending possessions and burning clock, the young Wildcats were essentially done.

Turning point: It would be tempting to look at Alex Poythress' second foul, at the 14:38 mark, when UK held a 12-6 lead, as the game's obvious turning point. It would also be facile. Poythress' absence was noticeable, no doubt, but Notre Dame was simply better for more of the game, including when Poythress was involved. Everything the Irish wanted to do -- pick-and-rolls with Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins, corner 3s for Grant and Cameron Biedscheid -- they did, while Kentucky failed to find anything remotely easy on the other end.

Key player: Atkins. Grant hit big shots, as did Biedscheid, and Cooley led the way on the boards (as usual), but Atkins was the steadiest and most efficient presence for the Irish. He shot 7-of-11 from the field, dicing UK's defense along the way.

Key stat: Kentucky shot 19-of-47 from the field (a season-low 40.4 percent. The Irish were good offensively, and they deserve plenty of credit for physical play on the offensive end, but the obvious key is UK just didn't make any shots. (This was true even of good post moves for Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. UK has some things to work on, but it won't shoot as badly as this again for a while.)

Miscellany: There was a particularly weird moment in the second half when UK guard Julius Mays dribbled the ball off Noel's foot. It immediately went out of bounds ... but no one on the floor but Mays noticed. He stood there, angry, then realized he had a chance to sneak the ball back into play. Notre Dame fans freaked out, the refs turned and saw the play and the ball was called dead. Then the ref reprimanded an ND cheerleader, apparently for yelling at him during the play. It was a thoroughly unusual 30 seconds of basketball. ... In the second half, veteran Irish forward Scott Martin made a nice step-back move on Cauley-Stein that caused the UK forward to turn all the way around. By the time Cauley-Stein recovered, Martin had already sunk his 3-pointer. So much for Notre Dame as the boring utilitarian, huh? ... Ryan Harrow, Kentucky's mysteriously absent guard, shaved his flat-top and got minutes, though they were limited, and he was largely ineffective. Harrow's limits have forced Archie Goodwin into the point guard role, and while Goodwin has handled the transition well to date, he did not look at all comfortable in the Joyce Center. ... In the arena, Notre Dame's black-on-black-on-black uniforms looked pretty awesome. Judging from my Twitter feed, they were not so warmly received on TV. ... According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK's 50 points were its fewest-ever under Calipari and the fourth-fewest of any Kentucky game in the past 15 years. The 14-point loss was also the second-most lopsided in the Calipari era.

What's next: Notre Dame has some time off before a Dec. 8 home game against Brown followed by a Dec. 15 matchup with Purdue. Kentucky, on the other hand, has exactly two days to cure what ails it, as a talented but struggling Baylor team comes to Rupp Arena on Saturday.

Numbers To Know: Monday recap

November, 27, 2012
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Player of the Night – Jeff Withey
Withey recorded the second official triple-double in Kansas history with 16 points, 12 rebounds and a school-record 12 blocks in the Jayhawks' win against San Jose State. It was the most blocks by a power six conference player in a triple-double since Stanford’s Brook Lopez also had 12 in 2007. In the last 15 years, the only other player with a 16-12-12 game was Northwestern State’s D’or Fischer in 2001 against Siena.

Scorer of the Night – Isaiah Canaan

Two nights after scoring 30 against Old Dominion, Canaan scored a season-high 32 points in Murray State’s 88-79 win against Lipscomb. He’s the only player with back-to-back 30-point games this season, and the first Murray State player to do so since Isaac Spencer in 1999.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Ed Daniel

While Canaan took on the bulk of the scoring, Daniel did the dirty work for Murray State. He recorded his fourth straight double-double, finishing with 20 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks. That included a double-double in the second half alone (11 points, 11 rebounds). Daniel joins James Singleton (2002) and Cuthbert Victor (2004) as the only Racers with a 20-15-5 game in the past 15 years.

Duo of the Night – Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins
Notre Dame had two players with double-digit points and assists in the Irish’s 92-65 win against Chicago State. Grant scored a career-high 22 points to go with 10 assists, and Atkins scored 13 points to go with a career-high 11 assists. In the last 15 years, only one other pair of teammates had points and assists double-doubles in the same game: Connecticut’s Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker in 2010 against Notre Dame.

Bench Star – Jaye Crockett

For the third straight game, Crockett came off the bench to lead Texas Tech in scoring. On Monday, he had 20 points and eight rebounds in just 23 minutes in a comeback win against Jackson State. Over the last three games, Crockett is averaging 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds.
Martin/BreyAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWith Scott Martin returning, coach Mike Brey has high expectations for Notre Dame next season.
What if Tim Abromaitis got a (probably deserved) sixth year, too? Imagine how excited Mike Brey would be then.

As it stands, the Notre Dame coach is already quite stoked. On Friday, he learned that senior Scott Martin would be granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, his sixth overall, thanks to a lost 2008 year transferring from Purdue and an ACL tear that cost him his 2010 season. On Monday, Martin and Brey got around to discussing the decision with the media, and as Martin cracked jokes about the bad economy ("So I figured why not stay in school for one more year?"), Brey wrapped his arms fully 'round his own very high expectations for the 2012-13 Fighting Irish. From the Chicago Tribune:
"I want this group to dream extremely big dreams, because they are very realistic," Brey said. "And dream them from Day One. We got a lot of work to do it. But I am excited about chasing big goals.

"We've talked about the Big East tournament, trying to win that. We've talked about playing deep in the NCAA tournament. This is a group that should be able to digest all that and do that. That's exciting for me, going forward. I like to have that: Boy, we can do it and we're expecting to do it."

Those are indeed big goals for this team, particularly without Abromaitis, but there are reasons to expect so much. Notre Dame's mid-season Big East run in 2012 proved this group of Irish, when cohesive and self-contained, can play with just about anyone in college hoops on any given night. It's an experienced group, but it's also one that keeps improving. Forward Jack Cooley proved to be one of the best offensive rebounders in the country in 2012 (and an underrated post scorer to boot), and he could compete for Big East player of the year honors in 2012. Sophomore guard Jerian Grant is an equally underrated perimeter presence who pulled off the rare feat of a high assist rate (29.5 percent) and a relatively low turnover rate (15.6 percent) in his 2012 season.

That duo alone would have kept this Irish team near the top of the Big East next season. Martin's return -- alongside good and/or emerging guards Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton-- gives the Irish a deep, experienced, well-rounded team.

It's tempting to look at this Irish lineup, compare it to the talented heavies in the Big East and wonder if Brey isn't merely wishcasting. But the more you dig in, the more you appreciate Grant and Cooley's performances in 2012 ... well, no wonder Brey is so excited. He has every reason to be.


GREENSBORO, N.C. – With his team trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, Xavier guard Tu Holloway had one thought: “If it comes down to one of us winning this game on a shot, I’m going to win this game for us.”

It did.

And he did.

With 21.3 seconds left Friday night, Holloway banked in the go-ahead field goal to beat seventh-seeded Notre Dame 67-63 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Xavier, the No. 10 seed in the South, will play No. 15 seed Lehigh at Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday.

“My best game ever? I could say most important game ever,’’ Holloway said.

He played like it.

During a postseason in which his team is still trying to erase the memories of a reputation-shrinking December brawl on its home floor against crosstown rival Cincinnati, the senior seemed determined not to let it end early.

[+] EnlargeDezmine Wells
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFreshman Dezmine Wells hit the free throws that iced Xavier's upset of Notre Dame.
Trailing 48-38 in the second half, Holloway capped a 13-3 Xavier run with a jumper to knot the score at 51-all. Counting that bucket, Holloway scored eight of his team’s next 10 points, taking back the lead 59-58 with 3 minutes, 23 seconds left when he stole the ball and scored at the other end.

The teams traded the lead after that. And even after Holloway’s bank shot, which gave his team a 64-63 lead, Notre Dame had a chance to tie it.

But with 2.8 seconds left, as Irish guard Eric Atkins hit the front end of a one-and-one, teammate Jerian Grant was called for a lane violation when he left his position behind the 3-point arc too early as he ran in for a rebound.

Mike Stuart, a member of the three-man officiating crew that worked the game, said in a prepared statement about the call: “The rule is that anyone outside the 3-point arc is under the same restrictions as the free throw shooter. They cannot penetrate the arc until the ball hits the rim, in which case No. 22 [Grant] was clearly way down in the lane before the ball ever hit. It’s an obvious violation, by the rule.”

The whistle gave the ball back to Xavier, and Dezmine Wells buried two game-sealing free throws after Notre Dame guard Pat Connaughton was whistled for an intentional foul.

Holloway finished with a game-high 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting.

“The moment’s never too big for him,’’ Xavier coach Chris Mack said of Holloway. “… That’s who he is, he’s extremely courageous. He’s never one to let somebody else take over. He doesn’t do it selfishly; he just has a huge belief in himself. And his teammates do, and his coach.”

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Quick thoughts from 10th-seeded Xavier's 67-63 victory over No. 7 seed Notre Dame:

Overview: The Duke loss preceding this game will be talked about for quite a while. But so will the ending to this one.

Xavier guard Tu Holloway’s game-winning bank shot with 22 seconds left at Greensboro Coliseum -- followed by a lane-violation call on Notre Dame in the final seconds -- capped a down-to-the-wire, adrenaline-pumping affair.

It finished in odd fashion. With 2.8 seconds left and Xavier leading 65-63, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins went to the line for a 1-and-1 and a chance to tie it. But as he made the first, teammate Jerian Grant was called for a lane violation when he left his position behind the 3-point arc too early as he ran in for a rebound.

Mike Stuart, a member of the three-man officiating crew that worked the game, said in a prepared statement about the call: "The rule is that anyone outside the 3-point arc is under the same restrictions as the free throw shooter. They cannot penetrate the arc until the ball hits the rim, in which case No. 22 [Grant] was clearly way down in the lane before the ball ever hit. It's an obvious violation, by the rule."

(A similiar call was made at a key moment during top-seeded Syracuse's 72-65 victory over UNC Asheville during the second round of the East Regional on Thursday.)

The call gave the ball back to Xavier, and on the ensuing inbounds pass, Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton was whistled for an intentional foul when he grabbed Dezmine Wells' jersey. Wells hit both free throws to seal the victory.

Turning point: Notre Dame led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but with 7 minutes, 3 seconds left, Holloway capped a 13-3 Xavier run with a jumper to knot the score at 51-all. Counting that bucket, Holloway scored eight of his team’s next 10 points, taking back the lead, 59-58, with 3:23 left when he stole the ball and scored at the other end.

Key player: Holloway had another great game, finishing with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting.

Key stat: Notre Dame was 4-for-9 from the free throw line; Xavier was 18-for-27.

Miscellaneous: Xavier is one of only eight schools that have made at least seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. ... This marked the third straight trip to the tournament for the Irish.

What’s next: No. 10 seed Xavier will face 15th-seeded Lehigh -- which upset No. 2 seed Duke earlier Friday -- on Sunday for the right to advance to the South Region semifinals in Atlanta.
NEW YORK – Somewhere in Philadelphia, Bruiser Flint should be crafting his argument:

"The Top 100 Reasons Why My Team Deserves To Be in the NCAA Tournament."

South Florida provided 99 for the Drexel coach.

The Bulls, fighting to prove why they belonged in the bracket, instead gave the selection committee a litany of reasons for why they didn’t.

Forget the RPI and the 1-9 record against RPI top-50 teams. Forget the unbalanced schedule that worked against the Bulls in terms of SOS.

Just go to the eye test and watch the final few minutes of regulation and the extra period in their 57-53 overtime loss to Notre Dame. The federal government could put it on a loop to force bad guys to confess.

It was equal parts painful and foolish, a one-two self-inflicted punch that could prove to be a knockout.

Missed layups, missed front ends of one-and-ones, turnovers, dribbling aimlessly for 23 of the final 25 seconds with a four-point deficit and throwing the ball out of bounds on a last-ditch attempt to win it.

How did USF blow it? Let us count the ways.

And the Bulls blew it on a bubblicious night when Texas and Cal likely played their way in with wins and North Carolina State and Colorado State at least played their way into the discussion.

Instead, USF joined Washington, Northwestern and Mississippi State in the losers’ bracket of teams that will spend an uncomfortable Sunday evening.

[+] EnlargeStan Heath
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireStan Heath's USF squad will be biting its nails ahead of Selection Sunday after an ugly loss.
Of course, beauty or ugliness, as Stan Heath said, is in the eye of the beholder -- and when the USF coach gazed upon the mess, he saw a masterpiece.

“Hopefully we erased any doubt of what kind of basketball team we are,’’ he said. “We belong. We definitely belong. Giving that kind of effort on the defensive end, you have to really appreciate when you have teams that sacrifice themselves on the defensive end. People on the outside, the casual observer, don’t know how difficult that is, don’t understand that. Teams like us not only get in, they win and advance.’’

Heath’s assessment of his defense is fair. The Bulls do play hard and they challenge shots, using their size inside to make everything difficult. In one ridiculous effort, Gus Gilchrist managed to block Jerian Grant despite falling backward and out of bounds.

But this wasn’t about the defense making things ugly. Good defense should be lauded.

This is about the offense making things uglier.

As active and disruptive as the Bulls’ defense is, their offense is that lackluster. It is like watching chess, with players just standing around like statues.

South Florida led by three with 2:45 to play in a game when three points might as well have been 300, and lost. Frankly, it lost multiple times.

First, when with 33 seconds to play and USF up 45-44, Jawanza Poland got out on the break with absolutely no one but a row of cheerleaders near him and the basket ... and missed a layup.

“He should have finished that layup,’’ Heath said. “He’s point-blank, all by himself. He makes it and the game is over. It’s done.’’

Second, when Poland, strangely fouled by Scott Martin after that miss, clanked the front end of a one-and-one.

Third, when Poland made the worst 33 seconds of his life even worse, fouled Pat Connaughton.

Because the Irish were every bit as culpable in this disaster, Connaughton naturally missed one of two free throws to tie it with 26 seconds left.

“That was unusual,’’ Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said with a chuckle. “We threw a bomb to Pat and he got fouled. I thought, this is getting wild.’’

Ah, but there were five more minutes of wild to come. Notre Dame edged out to a four-point lead when Eric Atkins, without a field goal in the entire game, drained a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play.

USF got the ball back and point guard Anthony Collins showed all the urgency of a senior citizen on a freeway.

It would have been a comedy of errors if weren’t so hard to understand and if the potential ramifications weren’t so bad.

“I’ll be honest, I won’t sleep,’’ Heath said. “You want to hear your name called on Sunday at 6 o’clock. I think we’ve done a great job by putting ourselves in a great position. I think our team is worthy. But there’s some people that have a lot of information that make wise decisions and we’ll let our case rest with them.’’

There is no shame in losing to Notre Dame. The Irish are a very good team, owners of a 22-10 record now and a legit top Big East squad.

And Heath should be commended for what he’s done. He has retooled a team that won 10 games all of last season into one that won 12 in the Big East alone this season.

But at this time of year it is not enough to talk about what you’ve done. You have to compare your results and your game to others.

You have to look like an NCAA tournament team -- and in its last game before Selection Sunday, USF didn’t.
Overview: Notre Dame is in the Big East tournament semifinals -- and the Fighting Irish are awfully fortunate to be there.

No. 6 seed South Florida had No. 3-seed Notre Dame on the ropes in the final minute of regulation Thursday night, but made several critical mistakes that allowed the game to go into overtime (see more below). And the Irish took care of business from there, winning 57-53.

Notre DameSouth FloridaIt's a crushing loss for South Florida (20-13), which was looking to go to the Big East semis for the very first time. It also means the Bulls' NCAA tournament status is very much up in the air -- a win against Notre Dame (22-10) would have essentially sealed a bid to the Big Dance.

Turning point: The first half was a strange one. South Florida hit eight of its first 10 shots, opening up a 20-8 lead -- but then went into a nine-minute, 12-second drought, during which it fell behind 26-20. The Bulls closed to within 28-26 at intermission.

The game remained tight throughout the second half, and then things went haywire in the final minute. First Victor Rudd turned the ball over with 40 seconds left and the Bulls up 45-42, which led to two Notre Dame free throws. Then the Bulls inbounded the ball, broke the press and found Jawanza Poland for a wide-open layup -- but he missed it.

Poland was fouled in the scramble for the ball, went to the foul line -- and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Then Poland tried to intercept a pass on defense and was whistled for a foul -- Pat Connaughton made one of two free throws, and we ended up in overtime.

The big play in OT was a trey by Eric Atkins -- who didn't score a single point in regulation -- that pushed Notre Dame's lead from 51-50 to 54-50 with 30 seconds remaining. South Florida's Toarlyn Fitzpatrick hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left to make it 54-53, then Notre Dame was fouled and hit one of two free throws. And on South Florida's last-ditch chance to tie or win the game, having to go the length of the floor with one second left, the Bulls threw the ball out of bounds. A perfect ending.

Key player: Notre Dame had three players in double figures, but the biggest player of the night was Atkins. The sophomore guard averages 12.4 points per game, but had a goose egg for 40 minutes, and it's tough to stay in a game mentally when you haven't broken through on the scoreboard for that long. But he finally got his chance in overtime, and he delivered when it counted most. Atkins had six points in overtime, and also had six assists in the game.

Rudd had 16 points to lead South Florida.

Key stat: Notre Dame outscored South Florida at the foul line, 13 to 3. South Florida shot just five free throws on the night.

Miscellaneous: South Florida point guard Anthony Collins suffered a finger injury on his left hand late in the second half, and sounded like he was in intense pain. He did return to the game with his fingers taped, but that's something to keep an eye on with USF going forward.

What's next: Notre Dame will play No. 7 seed Louisville in Friday night's second Big East semifinal, which should tip at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The two teams met once in the regular season, and it was a thriller -- a 67-65 Notre Dame win in double overtime at Louisville.

For South Florida, it's nervous time, until Selection Sunday rolls around and the Bulls see if their name is called.

Casting our ballots: Big East

February, 29, 2012
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Editor’s Note: To see our expert picks for each of the nation’s 12 top conferences, click here. To cast your vote in these races, visit SportsNation.

A quick look at the player and coach of the year races in the Big East:

Player of the year

Syracuse is far and away the best team in the Big East Conference.

Which is great when it comes to winning games, but a real problem when you’re trying to sort out player of the year trophies.

Usually you can at least find one obvious candidate from the best team in the conference. With the Orange, that’s impossible. Together they are unbeatable, but individually they almost cancel one another out. Is Scoop Jardine more valuable than Kris Joseph? Does Joseph do more than Fab Melo? How about Dion Waiters, the guy who comes off the bench to rank second on the team in scoring?

[+] EnlargeJohnson-Odom
Howard Smith/US PresswireMarquette's Darius Johnson-Odom's 18.4 points per game could earn him player of the year honors in the Big East.
All four will get and deserve votes but Syracuse is truly a sum-of-its-parts squad, one where every piece is critical but none more than the others. Someone on this team could win Big East POY -- and if we were voting, we’d lean Waiters -- but it’s not likely.

So who are the obvious candidates? There are two front-runners – Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones.

Johnson-Odom has been terrific for a team that has been rock steady all year. Second in the Big East (behind Jones) in scoring, he averages 18.4 points per game. He’s scored in double figures in every game he’s played in save one -- suspended for the first half against West Virginia, he had nine.

Jones, in the meantime, had to be great for coach Bob Huggins’ young team to survive -- and the senior forward has been great. Along with leading the league in scoring and rebounding (20 points and 11 boards), he’s put up 18 double-doubles this season.

Some other long shots to consider: Marquette's Jae Crowder, Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley, Georgetown’s Jason Clark and Seton Hall’s Herb Pope. St. John’s freshmen D’Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless have been terrific but there’s another newcomer award for them.

It’s a tough pick between the two favorites and I waffle daily but I’d probably lean Johnson-Odom because he has not only been sensational, his team has been, too.

Coach of the year

Interesting test case here -- do you reward the guy who has steered the loaded roster to near perfection or do you celebrate coaches who have had surprising success?

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/US PresswireJim Boeheim has coached Syracuse to near perfection. But does he deserve to be the Big East coach of the year?
Jim Boeheim is one trip to South Bend away from perfection, achieving such rarefied air despite dealing with the fallout from the Bernie Fine scandal in December. Outsiders might argue that a kindergartener could coach a team with so much depth and talent. What looks easy, though, isn’t always. Managing a team -- especially in this day and age, when premier players come in with premier egos -- is not easy.

And Boeheim hasn’t steered a team to near perfection in any old league. He’s done it in the Big East.

Mike Brey and John Thompson III, meantime, took the opposite run to success. Neither is supposed to be here.

The Irish were picked ninth in the league, and that was before Tim Abromaitis blew out his knee. After that? No one figured Brey’s team to be of any consequence.

But Brey, who memorably retooled his team two years ago after Luke Harangody’s injury, has done it again. Notre Dame is 12-5 in the league, vying for a top-four finish. Brey, who won coach of the year honors last year, has imbued his team with confidence, handing over the keys to the sophomore backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, and letting them run the show.

Thompson’s year at Georgetown has been equally impressive and equally surprising. The Hoyas were picked 10th in the preseason coaches’ poll after losing Chris Wright and Austin Freeman to graduation.

Instead, Georgetown is knotted with Notre Dame at 12-5. Henry Sims has been an eye-opener, the ideal point-center for the Hoyas’ Princeton style, and Otto Porter is arguably among the top freshmen in the conference.

Outsider choices: Mike Dunlap and Stan Heath. Dunlap is supposed to be an assistant, helping Steve Lavin. Instead, while Lavin recuperates from prostate cancer surgery, Dunlap has been running the show at St. John's, and running it with a roster stuffed to the gills with freshmen. Heath, meantime, has pulled himself off the hot seat and the Bulls into the conversation, taking South Florida to its best finish since joining the Big East.

This is another can’t-go-wrong choice. And hey, could you argue with Marquette's Buzz Williams winning it too? Not me.

My pick: Boeheim. The name of the game is winning, and no one in the league has done that better this year than the Syracuse coach.

Irish keep rolling, eye Garden

February, 22, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The big, burly Jack Cooley emerged in the paint to deflect the hopeless Jabarie Hinds' shot, Hinds' sixth miss on a Wednesday night that saw him whiff on eight of his nine attempts inside a hellacious Joyce Center. Eric Atkins ended up with the ball and threw ahead to backcourt mate Jerian Grant, who lifted off from outside the paint, going for what his coach would later term "the jugular."

Grant's monster slam attempt from the left side rimmed out toward the Notre Dame bench, just as his momentum was carrying him that way. Five seconds later, alone with the ball in his hands, Grant swished his fourth and final 3 of the night, pausing in front of his bench to take in the celebration of a lead that never stopped growing.

If ever a sequence summed up the Irish's night, the Irish's past month, amidst this historic stretch, it came in that 12-second sequence midway through the second half of a 71-44 rout of West Virginia. Notre Dame has now won nine straight games, a school record in Big East play, and there's no sign of things slowing down.

The Irish's next stop comes Saturday at Madison Square Garden, and a win there over St. John's will clinch a double-bye for the return trip nearly two weeks later for the Big East tournament.

"I think it's a bonus, just to be able to get in there and play a game and then be back," Grant said. "I think we can get a nice rhythm in there, and it will be good for us when the tournament comes."

Grant's 20 points off 8-for-11 shooting (including 4-of-5 from 3) led the attack for the Irish, who had four players in double-figures. They shot better than 61 percent from the floor, breaking open a two-point game at halftime and holding the Mountaineers to just 16 points in the second half.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Jerian Grant
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENotre Dame's Jerian Grant scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting -- including 4-of-5 from 3-point range -- in a blowout of West Virginia.
"I don't know what the school record for misses is," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said, "but I think if I would have left Jabarie Hinds in tonight he would have had it."

Grant, meanwhile, was a catalyst on both ends of the court. He was active on the perimeter, forcing the Mountaineer guards into bad spots, and capitalized on the other end with a pair of fast-break dunks that jarred the leftover tension from a rugged first half.

"Jerian got some nice dunks tonight, they were pretty impressive," forward Scott Martin said. "But I think what's more important than those is his defensive energy, and the way he bothers people. Him and Eric up top, they frustrate people -- I would not want to bring the ball up against those two. They have a very nice chemistry, the way they hand people off, and they have that unspoken little connection there that's paying dividends for us."

Right now that backcourt and so much more has the Irish 12-3 in the Big East, tied for second place and undefeated in the past 32 days since a Jan. 21 upset over then-undefeated Syracuse. They've been rolling since, wrestling one away in Morgantown two weeks ago, completing a school-record 20-point comeback in an overtime win Saturday at Villanova and playing a nearly perfect second half Wednesday to continue this run.

The last Notre Dame team to win eight in a row in Big East play featured current assistants Harold Swanagan and Martin Ingelsby in 2001, Mike Brey's first season as the Irish's head coach.

"He kind of joked about it, about saying you guys can talk smack to those two," Atkins said of Brey.

For now, Brey will talk to his team about playing at the Garden, an obstacle the three-time conference coach of the year has yet to overcome, never reaching the title game and the accompanying Broadway lights that come with it.

A quick turnaround awaits Monday against Georgetown at the Verizon Center, where the Irish, stinging from the loss of leading scorer Tim Abromaitis, fell to 5-4 in a loss to Maryland nearly three months ago.

But that reminder will be put on hold for a few more days.

"We're a lot different than the team that was in D.C. in that building in December," Brey said, stating the obvious. "That's what I'm gonna talk about Sunday."
Here are a few things we learned from the biggest games Saturday afternoon. Check back later for analysis of tonight's games.

No. 3 Ohio State 58, No. 20 Wisconsin 52: Ohio State is hardly a breakneck team, but its adjusted tempo this season is 68.9 possessions per 40 minutes, far above those of many of its Big Ten brethren. The Buckeyes like to get out on the break a little. Thad Matta has a ton of talent, shooting, athleticism, scoring, you name it, and the Bucks aren't shy about letting it shine in the open floor.

In other words, this is exactly how Wisconsin wanted this game to go. It wanted it to be slow -- as slow as possible, in fact -- and it was. These two teams traded 57 possessions Saturday afternoon. If you had told Bo Ryan this game would be this slow, he'd have given his team an excellent chance of knocking off what might just be the best team in the nation. This is the luxury of having Jordan Taylor commanding your team: If you want the game to be deathly slow, with supreme economy of movement and as few possessions as possible, you can't do better than the Badgers' point guard.

The only problem? Ohio State has Jared Sullinger. Wisconsin does not. "The Artist Currently Known As Sully" just so happens to be very comfortable playing half-court offense, and as good as UW was on defense -- as much as it shaded and doubled and harried and harassed -- Sullinger was simply too much. He played all 40 minutes Saturday. He scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field in the first half alone. He finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds (5 offensive), 3 steals, just 1 turnover and an 8-of-10 shooting mark at the charity stripe. He was too much. Jared Berggren did his best, and the Badgers kept their shape well defensively -- there's a reason OSU scored just 1.02 points per trip -- but they never found an answer for the big man on the block.

They also learned the lesson anyone who has played this Ohio State team (or last season's version, for that matter) already knows: The Buckeyes defend, too. Per Ken Pomeroy's metrics, the Bucks are the stingiest per-possession defense in the country. The second stingiest? Wisconsin. But while the Badgers allow .81 points per trip, OSU allows an absurd .77, the rare team that forces turnovers but doesn't give away fouls and one that also cleans up the defensive glass. UW has had its troubles scoring from time to time this season, but the Buckeyes are a whole 'nother animal.

Play fast, play slow, play at your court, play in Columbus. Play however you like. If you don't have someone who can guard Jared Sullinger -- never mind a group of players to check the insanely talented group around him -- and/or an offense that can find a way to score against this kind of defense, it doesn't really matter. Ohio State is going to beat you.

Wyoming 68, No. 13 UNLV 66: For much of the season, during a remarkably quick turnaround, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has been the consensus favorite for national coach of the year. Deservedly so. But any mention of the words "coach of the year" should also, after today, be followed closely by the words "Larry Shyatt."

Shyatt's story is remarkable. Wyoming gave him his first head-coaching gig in 1997, but after a successful season, he left to take over at Clemson, where he stayed until 2003. Shyatt spent the past several years on Florida coach Billy Donovan's bench, until this offseason, when he returned to Laramie to start over and repay a debt he felt he owed for his quick departure 15 years ago.

And what a return it has been. In 2010-11, the Cowboys finished 10-21 overall and ranked No. 215 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. After a two-point stunner over UNLV -- during which they led for nearly all 40 minutes and turned it over just eight times -- the Cowboys now are 18-5 and ranked among Pomeroy's top 60 teams in the country. This is primarily thanks to their defense, which Shyatt has transformed entirely. Last season, the Cowboys were hands down the worst defensive team in the Mountain West. This season, the defense is among the MWC's best, and on Saturday, it held UNLV to 3-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc.

The question now -- after the school's first victory over a ranked team in 12 years -- is whether Shyatt's miracle story can end with an NCAA tournament berth. The jury is still very much out, and Wyoming probably will have to grab another big win or two to be bubble-relevant going forward. But NCAA tournament or no, this team has made a drastic year-over-year turnaround. It has gone from a no-name afterthought to a program on the rise. And Shyatt's prodigal return is the reason.

Notre Dame 76, No. 15 Marquette 59: It's not fair to say the Fighting Irish looked totally irredeemable in their 8-5 nonconference start, but they certainly didn't look good. Notre Dame was dominated by Missouri, handled by Georgia, no match for Gonzaga, beaten by Maryland and overwhelmed by Indiana. Any time the Fighting Irish played a good (even decent) team, they looked exactly like what all thought they were: rebuilding, in transition, mediocre, meh.

Now? After Saturday's strong home win, which was keyed by a massive second-half run, it's impossible to discount the Irish. The Syracuse upset of two Saturdays ago was more than a random upset or a product of ND's mystically inexplicable propensity to upset elite teams in South Bend. No, Mike Brey's team is much more than that. Guard Eric Atkins is among the nation's most improved players, but he might be eclipsed in that category by forward Jack "Don't Call Me Mini-Harangody" Cooley, who, after years of geeks like me writing, "Hey, that guy looks exactly like Luke Harangody," is rapidly making his own name. (And Patrick Connaughton, whose Irish-name swagger deserves serious respect, was tremendous, too: 23 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 big blocks on huge defensive stops. Dude can play.)

Most impressive in this game was Notre Dame's late push, even if "push" feels like an understatement. With eight minutes remaining in the second half, the Irish led 54-48. The final score speaks for itself. Marquette is a good team, and the Irish simply ran away. The only conclusion: Notre Dame is pretty darn good, too.

No. 11 Florida 73, Vanderbilt 65: It was the opinion of this writer that Florida and Vanderbilt felt like identical SEC twins: guard-oriented perimeter offenses led by sharpshooters (Vandy's John Jenkins, Florida's Kenny Boynton), versatile play from outside-in small forwards (Vandy's Jeffery Taylor, Florida's Bradley Beal) and one true post presence apiece (Vandy's Festus Ezeli, Florida's Patric Young). So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that this game's box score featured such near-identical numbers for both teams. Each team recorded 12 assists; each team snagged nine steals. Both teams turned the ball over at about the same rate. The teams' effective field goal percentages were similar. Vanderbilt shot 18 free throws. Florida shot 17.

You get the idea. So what was the difference? Simply put, 3-point shooting. The Gators made 11 of 24 shots from beyond the arc. VU shot just 8-of-25 from long range. There were other differences, too: Florida outrebounded Vandy on the offensive glass, grabbing 36.8 percent of its available misses to just 28.6 percent for the Commodores. But the real difference was shooting. Florida made three more of its 3s, and it shot 16-of-17 from the charity stripe.

All told, it wasn't Vanderbilt's best offensive day, but there are promising signs. For one, it didn't score the ball particularly well and still hung with a good team on the road. For another, there are signs Vandy's defense, which has played so well (surprisingly so) in the SEC campaign, is for real. It held the nation's best offense to 1.09 points per trip at home; compared to UF's usual output, that's not too shabby.

In the end, this is just what Florida does. It makes shots. It made a few more of them in this one. Not a bunch more. Just a few. But in a game this close, with such a doppelganger of an opponent, a few extra makes were all the Gators needed.

No. 24 Florida State 58, No. 18 Virginia 55: The scoreline says it all. If you don't like slow, plodding, offensively challenged basketball, this was not the ACC matchup for you. But it also was the rare game in which both teams can come away feeling pretty good. Virginia's task in Tallahassee was to take on one of the nation's best defenses and hottest teams, one that recently had found a scorching offense to go along with its typically staunch defense.

Florida State no doubt hoped to keep the good offensive vibes rolling, but more important in the end was holding serve on its home floor. After an incredible streak that included a 33-point win over UNC and a win at Duke, the last thing the Seminoles needed was a lackluster home loss to pull their record (and, maybe, their spirits) back to earth.

FSU didn't keep the offense rolling. Virginia's defense was nearly up to the task. The Cavaliers forced Leonard Hamilton's team into a turnover on 31 percent of its possessions. Unfortunately, UVa coughed it up even more frequently than did FSU. That's the thing about this Florida State team, which is now 7-1 in ACC play: When the Noles are shooting the ball well and scoring it with ease, they're just about unstoppable. But even when they're not, that defense will always be there, providing a baseline when the going gets tough. That has to be comforting, doesn't it?

No. 6 North Carolina 83, Maryland 74: How good are the Tar Heels? Sometimes it's hard to tell. They often look dominant, every bit the national title contender we assume they'll be in March. Just as often, though, they struggle, particularly on the road and frequently against teams they should rather easily handle. Maryland is one such team.

On Saturday, facing the Terrapins in front of a rowdy crowd, the Tar Heels struggled. There's no other way to put it. Maryland brought it, sure, but UNC often seemed to be on its heels, no pun intended. UM center Alex Len was excellent, and Terrell Stoglin showed why he probably should be an all-ACC inclusion by the end of the season. By the 17-minute mark in the second half, Maryland had opened a nine-point lead. Suddenly, as analyst Len Elmore said, the Heels found themselves in a dogfight.

Here's another reason Carolina is so often so hard to appraise: This team seems to have the fabled ability to "hit the switch," i.e., to suddenly focus its efforts, let talent take over and go win the game even when not playing well. And that's what happened Saturday. UNC seemingly flipped its switch, started locking down on defense, started getting easy buckets on offense, started making 3s -- you know, basically, all the things this team should do -- outscoring Maryland 46-34 in the second half en route to a victory. It wasn't pretty, and we often tend to expect more from purportedly great teams, but it's impossible to dismiss this team's talent and its ability to transform that talent at a moment's notice.

No. 2 Syracuse 95, St. John's 70: And so all was well in the land of the Orange. When sophomore center Fab Melo was lost to a lingering first-semester academic issue, Syracuse lost its first game of the season without him, and even in the two wins that followed -- at Cincinnati and in questionable fashion over West Virginia -- the Orange didn't look anything like their typically dominant selves. With so much depth and talent, it was hard to pin all this on Melo's absence ... but it was hard to compare Syracuse's offensive output with and without Melo (not to mention its block percentages, where Melo really excels) and not think the newly trim and focused big man didn't have a much bigger effect on this team's 20-0 start than many originally thought.

And then you watch Saturday's game, Melo's first since his return. You see the big man score a career-high 14 points on a tidy 5-of-6 from the field. You see the Orange roll St. John's to the tune of 1.34 points per possession on a day when they didn't shoot the 3 particularly well (just often). You see them tie a season high with 24 second-chance points and 52 in the paint.

Given all that, you can't help but think Melo is absolutely crucial to this team's national title chances. And then our fine friends at ESPN Stats & Information send along the following statistics, and you see the facts in all their glory: With Melo, Cuse is 21-0, and averages 38.9 points per game in the paint (28.7 without him), 14 second-chance points per game (6.3 without) and 1.18 points per possession (1.00 without), and has an offensive rebound percentage of 39.5 (25.5 without).

So, yeah, I suppose you could say he's pretty important. Impressive performance for Melo, impressive win for Syracuse.

Memphis 72, Xavier 68: "That Used To Be Us." It's the title of Thomas Friedman's questionably considered new book. It also feels appropriately descriptive of the Xavier Musketeers, who spent the first two months of the season earning difficult wins thanks to late rallies but were the victims of such a rally Saturday afternoon at the FedExForum.

Xavier opened a 10-point lead in the second half, but Memphis fought back. The Musketeers opened another one with seven minutes remaining, finding themselves up double digits (62-51) as the Tigers' ugly offense appeared headed toward a losing effort. And then something funky happened. Memphis used a 12-1 run to rally all the way back and tie the game at 63-all with 2:12 remaining. And then something even funkier happened. Memphis closed out the game with a score of made free throws. The Tigers shot 24-of-28 from the line, including 9-of-11 in the final two minutes. Joe Jackson alone was 12-of-12. All told, Memphis went on a 17-1 tear, and the game went from 62-51 to 68-63 before the Tigers closed it out.

It was a nice -- and much-needed -- win for Memphis, sure, but more than anything, it spoke to the seemingly downward trajectory of the Musketeers. This team hasn't been the same since the Dec. 10 brawl, of course, but at this point, the cause-and-effect is beginning to look tenuous. Now more than ever, it looks like X really wasn't all that good in the first place. Losing on the road is hardly a crime. Losing like this? It's something closer.

Some more observations from this afternoon's games:
  • Is Arizona on the rise? It's hard to ignore the three-day stretch the Wildcats had, getting not one but two wins on their Bay Area road trip. First, the Wildcats held on for a win over apparent league favorite Cal on Thursday, and then they looked even more impressive in their 56-43 victory at Stanford on Saturday afternoon, holding the Cardinal to just 16-of-63 (!) from the field and 3-of-12 from 3 in their own building. Zona might or might not get on the bubble by the end of the season, but these sort of performances might just carry the Cats to the top of the league's standings before all is said and done. At the very least, Sean Miller's team is worth keeping an eye on.
  • Butler's offense is not worth keeping an eye on -- and it continues to cost the Bulldogs games. It's been the case all season, really, and it was the case again today. The Dogs lost to a team that made just two of its 10 3-point field goal attempts and shot just 20-of-47, because Butler's offense was even worse: 18-of-51 from the field, 4-of-19 from 3, just one made field goal from any bench player, a tough 0-of-7 night from Ronald Nored. The Bulldogs can't score. Nothing new here. But give some measure of credit to Detroit for a tough win on the road. Hinkle Fieldhouse was sold out, and the Titans got the job done in Indy for the first time since 1999.
  • Baylor loves to play close games. It's either that or the Bears can't help themselves. Whatever the reason, the good news is Baylor seems more capable than most of winning those close games, particularly on the road. It did so twice this week. The first came in a three-point win at Texas A&M on Wednesday. The second came Saturday afternoon, when Oklahoma State rallied from a nine-point deficit to take a 57-56 lead on Keiton Page's 3 with 1:42 remaining. Baylor ended up finishing the game in the final moments, which is nothing new. The Bears have played eight games decided by five points or fewer this season. With the exception of the 89-88 loss to Missouri, they've won every single one. That might not be by design, and it probably doesn't help Bears fans' blood pressure levels, but it's the kind of trait that might come in handy in March.
  • Seton Hall is officially off the wagon. A loss at UConn is understandable, even forgivable, but the Pirates were absolutely smacked, 69-46, by a team that had lost six of its previous eight games, to say nothing of Jim Calhoun's sudden and indefinite medical absence. That's Seton Hall's sixth consecutive loss. Unfortunately, the Pirates' happy redemption story is rapidly shrinking under the rigors of Big East play. Shame.
  • Before Saturday, South Florida's Big East record was 6-3. Considering the Bulls entered conference play with a 7-6 record and their best conference win was at Villanova, it was fair to say that surprising league start had more to do with South Florida's schedule than its skill. After today's blowout loss at Georgetown -- USF's worst conference loss since joining the Big East and its worst loss period since 2004 -- I think we can officially cement that perception.

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