College Basketball Nation: Festus Ezeli

Editor's note:’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on SEC, click here.

Five offseason storylines in the SEC ...

1. Life is good in Lexington: At any other program, with any other coach, when you win a national title and send your six best players to the NBA draft, you are not supposed to compete for a national title 12 months later. But this is not any other program, or any other coach. This is Kentucky as led by John Calipari, a finely tuned college hoops machine.

After harnessing the insane talents of Anthony Davis and the team-first ethos of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- the NBA draft's No. 1 and No. 2 overall selections -- Calipari has cleared the "one-and-dones can't win a title" hurdle, if it existed in the first place. So now what? Naturally, Calipari reeled in another talented recruiting class -- the No. 2 class in the country, according to RecruitingNation, the first time in four years Kentucky hasn't been ranked No. 1 -- that includes the No. 1-ranked player in the class, center Nerlens Noel, and top-15 recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin. Sophomore power forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top-20 recruit in 2011, will take on a much larger role, and former NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will step in at point guard.

Is Calipari's latest refresh as good as Davis & Co.? Doubtful. Then again, few teams are. What's certain is that the Wildcats will again be ranked in the top five to start the season, will defend like crazy and are a clear threat -- if not the outright favorite -- to repeat as national champions. Indeed, the state of Big Blue Nation is strong.

2. Missouri and Texas A&M deepen SEC hoops: Few realignment moves have driven as much discussion (read: vitriol) as Texas A&M and Missouri's respective decisions to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC. The 2012-13 season will be the first for both under the new banner, and the Tigers are more likely to make an immediate impact. In addition to returning guards Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey, a big-time breakout candidate, coach Frank Haith has assembled a transfer-heavy team (Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross) that should compete for the SEC title right away. Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy has a more protracted rebuild on his hands, but if A&M continues the program growth it experienced in the past decade, the SEC -- where basketball has always been football's little brother -- will be much stronger for it.

3. South Carolina lands … Frank Martin. Huh? South Carolina is not a basketball school, but the Gamecocks made the best -- and most surprising -- hire of the offseason when they persuaded Kansas State coach Martin to leave his budding program behind. Martin has relentlessly denied rumors that his departure stemmed from untenable disagreements with K-State athletic director John Currie, particularly involving senior Jamar Samuels' NCAA-imposed ineligibility debacle in March. For his part, Martin sounds sincere when he says he felt embraced by South Carolina and that he relishes the chance to build something from scratch in Columbia. It will take a while, but Gamecocks fans have every reason to be thrilled.

4. Other new faces in new places: Martin wasn't the only offseason coaching change in the SEC. At LSU, Trent Johnson -- whose final three seasons never came close to his debut 2008-09 campaign -- was replaced by former North Texas coach Johnny Jones. Meanwhile, after two turbulent seasons that capped a 14-year career at the school, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury retired. Former Purdue and Clemson assistant Rick Ray, who was an applied mathematics major and Chicago-based actuary before deciding to take a chance on coaching, gets his first crack at a head-coaching gig in Starkville.

5. Vanderbilt starts fresh, to say the least: Did any team in the country lose as much this offseason as Vanderbilt? The Commodores waved farewell to their top six players, including all five starters: All-SEC guard John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne, Brad Tinsley and backup forward Steve Tchiengang. That's the entire core of coach Kevin Stallings' excellent four-year run in Nashville. With few proven reserves waiting in the wings, the 2012-13 Commodores are the biggest mystery in the league.

Even Bo Ryan wowed by Wisconsin

March, 17, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Forget the No. 4 seed. Toss out the top-20 preseason ranking.

Wisconsin again reaching the Sweet 16, after what the Badgers lost off last season’s Sweet 16 edition and certainly following an unprecedented three home losses at the Kohl Center, is a surprise.

Don’t let anyone say anything otherwise. You may have picked the Badgers in your bracket to reach the Sweet 16. I did not. President Barack Obama did and countless others did as well.

But step back and digest how far this team has come this season and you’ll realize that the Badgers have fooled the field yet again.

“This team has done some things that if you’re a real basketball person, you’ve got to go, wow,’’ said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan after the Badgers knocked off No. 5 Vanderbilt 60-57 Saturday afternoon at The Pit. “Everybody knows we have weaknesses. Jordan Taylor. Without Jordan Taylor, it’s not the same.

“I’d like to say it’s coaching but nobody would believe that,’’ Ryan said. “It’s guys working hard.’’

The Badgers lost Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankevil off last season's team.

“We have three starters that played reserve minutes [on last season's team],’’ Ryan said. “Some programs do that and put in McDonald’s All-Americans. That didn’t happen here.’’

The Badgers were dreadful in a home loss to Iowa at the beginning of the Big Ten season. That led to a 1-3 conference start. Taylor was in a shooting slump and the Badgers looked like they were going to be an afterthought in the Big Ten behind upstart Indiana and Michigan and well behind Ohio State and Michigan State.

“I had to go to practice and be up,’’ Ryan said. “It wasn’t about a lack of trying. You can’t yell at people for not making baskets.’’

But then the Badgers won at Purdue and stunned Ohio State with a win in Columbus. Taylor shook his slump. Ryan Evans became the unsung player on this team and the contributions from Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust and even Rob Wilson became better with each game.

When asked if this team had improved more than any other he has coached at Wisconsin, Ryan’s quick response was: “No question.’’

[+] EnlargeWisconsin
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireWisconsin star Jordan Taylor credited teammate Josh Gasser, who played ill during Saturday's win.
Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt was another example of how much.

The Badgers blitzed the Commodores with a 10-2 start as Evans made shots in and out of the lane. Vandy was in step with Wisconsin, though, and took a lead to start the second half. But just when it appeared safe for the Commodores, the Badgers, especially Taylor, would hit buckets late in the shot clock.

“Coach kept telling me in the huddle that I had to step up as a senior and take the shot,’’ Taylor said.

Gasser said, “If we get the ball to him late in the shot clock, he will make sure to always do good things. He’s been doing it all year and all of last year. He is the leader of this team and we want the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He usually makes it happen. He didn’t want this to be his last game and he definitely showed it.’’

Taylor buried a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to one second to give the Badgers a 59-57 lead. The Badgers defended Vandy well on the next few possessions and Taylor had a shot to deliver the dagger to the Dores with 19 seconds left.

But he missed. And that’s when Gasser hustled to get the loose ball rebound. Vandy’s Festus Ezeli, who was benched for the first three-plus minutes of the game in a coach’s decision, said it was a case of a long rebound that his team simply didn’t run down in time.

Taylor said Gasser was up until 3 a.m. sick. “I can’t say enough about him,’’ Taylor said. “He did a great job just coming in. He dogged Jenkins as much as he could. That’s why we’re able to have success because we have teammates like Josh.’’

Vandy had one more chance because Gasser missed a free throw. John Jenkins had a clean look at a 3-pointer to possibly win the game with four seconds left.

“It was a pretty good look,’’ Jenkins said. “I felt like I got a good chance of having it going in, just like a lot of looks I had. It just didn’t drop for me.’’

“He was wide open,’’ Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. “He’s a great shooter, period. He’s really a great shooter going left and he was going left and he was wide open. We ran the play, ran it to perfection and got it right where we wanted him. He’s made so many that have caused us to win games, and unfortunately that one didn’t go in.’’

Those close to the Badgers are in awe of their Sweet 16 appearance and that they have won 26 games, picked up a number of wins by shooting close to 40 percent and survived shooting slumps by Taylor and Bruesewitz this season.

The Badgers will play East Region top seed Syracuse on Thursday with a chance at an Elite Eight berth.

“They’re long and we’ll have to get inside-outside stuff going,’’ Ryan said. “Hey, how close is Boston to Syracuse? Pretty close, isn’t it?’’

It is much closer than Madison. But distance and fan support shouldn’t matter. The Badgers won’t be picked to beat Syracuse. But doubting this particular Ryan edition has already proved to be foolish.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A look at Saturday’s Round of 32 doubleheader at The Pit:

No. 5 seed Vanderbilt (25-10) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (25-9), 6:10 p.m. ET

Vanderbilt can see itself in Wisconsin. The Badgers see the Commodores as a mirror image as well.

These are two programs that have been consistently good under Kevin Stallings and Bo Ryan, yet constantly undervalued in their respective conferences.

They are never the first pick to win the league title. They don’t get the top choice in recruits. Yet they remain in the mix near the top of their conferences, usually have upperclassmen contributing at a high level and have had their share of NBA talent.

Wisconsin has won Big Ten titles. Vanderbilt finally won an SEC one, at least in the tournament. It still counts.

And now they will meet in a 4 vs. 5 East Region game Saturday afternoon with the chance to possibly take on top-seeded Syracuse in Boston next Thursday if the Orange can get past Kansas State -- no easy feat -- Saturday in Pittsburgh.

“I would say there is a lot of truth in all those things, but they’ve probably done it at a better level than we have,’’ Stallings said Friday. “We’ve tried to be a consistent program. And for the most part we’ve been able to accomplish that. They’re usually picked to finish lower in the Big Ten and they end up in the top two or three. They’ve done a great job there.’’

Vandy hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2007. Wisconsin went last year.

“For us the consistency is all about Coach Ryan,’’ said Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor. “Everyone buys into what they’re trying to teach. Everyone loves to say that we’re not athletic or not as athletic as other people. They say the same thing about Vanderbilt in comparison to Kentucky. But guys buy into what is being taught, they want to win and be successful.’’

Taylor will make money somewhere playing ball. Vandy has three players that will be in the NBA in John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli.

“Both programs consistently win a lot of games, but we’ve struggled to get over the hump,’’ Jeffery Taylor said. “It should be really fun [Saturday] since the team that wins has a chance to make a run."

Vandy should win this game. The Commodores, as Ryan noted, have senior starters that dominate the minutes. And the Badgers have overachieved the past month after struggling early in the season and losing a blasphemous three home games. But wins at Ohio State and over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, coupled with a convincing hammering of Montana in the NCAAs, have the Badgers believing in a Sweet 16 berth.

“I’m so happy with this team, especially what we did in Columbus,’’ Ryan said. “We came together.’’

The Badgers will have to make 3s to advance. But neither team will or should be tight. Vandy simply had to get that first win after losing in the first round three of the past four years.

Taylor said it was nice to sit around Friday and watch other teams in the tournament and know the Commodores were still alive.

“It was so nice to get that first game because it can ruin your season,’’ said Stallings. “You work so hard to get to a point where you’ve accomplished enough to be a 5-seed and get rewarded for it and then it can all go in the trash can if you don’t win the first game.

“There was a lot of pressure and high tension intensity,’’ Stallings said of the Harvard game. “Now we can relax and go play and let it hang out. Now we got past it and we can relax and hopefully just do our best.’’

No. 11 Colorado (24-11) vs. No. 3 Baylor (28-7), 8:40 p.m. ET

The Bears should be Kentucky’s most formidable opponent in the South bracket. Baylor has the length, the athleticism and the overall productivity at every position to match the Wildcats. But that matchup wouldn’t happen until the Elite Eight in Atlanta next Sunday.

But the Bears are playing a team in Colorado that may be as loose as any in the tournament. The Buffs weren’t supposed to be here. No, not just in the third round. They weren’t supposed to be in the NCAAs. But they won the Pac-12 tournament with four wins in four days. And then took down No. 6 seed UNLV on Thursday.

“They will be the most talented team we will have faced,’’ said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. “We’ve got to limit them to one shot. We can’t let them have second or third opportunities. We have to be physical against them. We’ve played against a team like them, but not as long or athletic.’’

But CU hasn’t faced a team as talented as Baylor during this five-game run.

The pressure is all on the Bears to win.

“We’re loose,’’ Boyle said. “We’re confident and have nothing to lose.’’

So much is made of the Bears’ ability to dominate the backboards with Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy, Deuce Miller and the sturdy yet disruptive play of point guard Pierre Jackson.

But the Bears may have an option that can really squash the Buffs’ ability to play catchup. If guard Brady Heslip is hot from the perimeter and makes 3s in bunches, then the Buffs may not have a chance.

“He makes the floor get spaced and you have to know where he is at all times,’’ Baylor coach Scott Drew said.

Heslip’s appearance as a key member of this team makes it even harder to fathom that Boston College passed on his services. Heslip was recruited by Pat Duquette and played on semester for Al Skinner before he was forced out at BC. New coach Steve Donahue didn’t think Heslip fit into the Eagles' plans, even though he’d be perfect for the Cornell-style offense.

“I didn’t take it personal but that’s how they viewed it and after meeting it made sense to move on,’’ Heslip said.

Heslip said it means the world to him to be in the NCAA tournament for the first time and now with a chance to be on a team that can advance deep.

Drew said Heslip deserves all the credit for losing 24 pounds and toning his body. He has made himself into a player.

And as a result, he can provide the necessary dagger for the Bears in a tight game or when a lead needs to be stretched.

Vanderbilt sheds its NCAA albatross

March, 15, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Vanderbilt finally solved its Kentucky problem by winning the SEC tournament on Sunday in New Orleans.

But that did nothing to answer its larger issue: winning in the NCAA tournament.

Double-digit seeds had flummoxed the Commodores in three of the past four NCAA tournaments with losses to Siena, Murray State and Richmond.

Harvard was a sentimental favorite in making its first NCAA tournament since 1946. Oh, and the Crimson were seeded No. 12, making this one of those dreaded 5-12 games.

“It’s well publicized that Vandy’s lost in the first round the last three out of four years,’’ said Harvard senior guard Oliver McNally. “So we knew if we were hanging around, we’d put that thought in their head and see what happened. And I thought we were going to do that.’’

Vandy had an 18-point lead on Harvard on Thursday afternoon at the Pit. And then suddenly it was five.

“Credit to them for coming out really strong after that and being strong with the ball and making free throws,’’ McNally said. “But we made a great run.’’

The Commodores held on to win 79-70 and looked every bit the part of a team that could beat No. 4 Wisconsin on Saturday in a third-round game for the right to possibly take on East top seed Syracuse (if the Orange can knock off Kansas State in Pittsburgh on Saturday).

John Jenkins was sensational with 27 points. The Dores got plenty of pop from Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and 11 boards from Festus Ezeli. Vanderbilt’s big four came through when it mattered most.

Vandy can exhale -- for now.

“I didn’t want to be in that tight of a situation with the way we had the game going in our favor,’’ said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings. “But since we won, I’m glad it unfolded that way.’’

Stallings knew the toughness question was relevant with this squad during the SEC tournament. The Dores simply didn’t have the track record to back up their belief that they were over their late-game issues.

And comments like Taylor’s that the big lead led to a bit of relaxation and too much standing on offense just contributed to the narrative. But there was something the Dores had that had been missing even in last-second losses in previous NCAAs to Siena and Murray State: composure.

Jenkins used a different word -- poised. “I think leadership is definitely a factor in that guys huddled up and decided we need to lock down and get rebounds down the stretch,” he said. “We did what we had to do. We hit big free throws.’’

The Dores had one possession that took the lead from 11 to 14 with a four-shot sequence that ended up in a traditional 3-point play for Jenkins. That lead ballooned to 18. Harvard made its run, but the hole was too deep.

“I think our maturity showed up a little bit there,’’ Tinsley said. “We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. You can never do that, especially in the NCAA tournament.’’

[+] EnlargeBrad Tinsley
AP Photo/Matt YorkBrad Tinsley, right, and Jeffrey Taylor cheer as Vanderbilt puts away Harvard during their second-round meeting.
Vanderbilt could finally talk about its albatross after the win.

“It really means a lot for the seniors to be our last time in the NCAA tournament,’’ Tinsley said. “We just kind of got that monkey off our back and win a close game in the first round. It just means a lot to us old guys, the coaching staff and the program.’’

Getting into the NCAA tournament did that as well for Harvard. The Crimson didn’t just show up for the first time in 66 years. They got off to a rocky start and scrapped their way back.

Harvard senior Keith Wright said that getting into the NCAA tournament and representing the Ivy League, especially after losing the playoff to Princeton at the buzzer last season, was a celebration of all the hard work put forth.

“It’s just really special and I’m really glad to be a part of it,’’ said McNally. “They sell you on all kinds of dreams but Coach (Tommy) Amaker had a plan and this plan was followed through. Not only were there good players but really good people. We made the tournament. We wanted to advance. That was obviously the ultimate goal.’’

But this meant more to the Ivy League and to Harvard to have its flagship name finally make the dance.

Alumni from the White House to an 86-year-old surviving member of the 1946 team — the Crimson's previous NCAA entry — could all feel good about this run. The latter was Don Swegan, who was at the Pit in his old Harvard sweater. He was in his glory, talking to other alumni. The Friends of Harvard hoops read about Swegan on and wanted to make sure he made it to Albuquerque from near Youngstown, Ohio, so they paid for his expenses. NCAA president Mark Emmert and Harvard alumnus and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott wanted to have their picture taken with Swegan.

These were good memories for him, the Harvard program and a clear signal that the Crimson aren’t going into NCAA tournament hibernation.

“For us to represent our school and conference for the first time in so many years and to have so many folks come and cheer us on means so much to us,’’ Amaker said. “This has been and is a big deal.’’

NEW ORLEANS -- As little as this game might have mattered to Kentucky, it meant the world to Vanderbilt.

The mighty Wildcats, winners of the SEC regular season by a dominant margin and champions of 27 other SEC tournaments, won't lose any face in light of a 71-64 loss at the hands of an inspired Commodores squad.

It took 19 games, and two prior losses, but someone in the SEC finally cracked the Wildcats.

But while the Cats lick their wounds and prepare for the NCAA tournament (where they'll still be a No. 1 seed), this is a moment Vandy will cherish for quite some time.

"Kentucky, they set the bar. They set the bar nationally this year, they set the bar in our league almost every year," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "We're proud to have beaten them -- proud to have won a SEC championship."

It's hard to pinpoint just one moment that showcased how badly the Commodores wanted their first championship since 1951. It could have been when Stallings received a technical foul for badgering the refs over a contested call. It may have been the Herculean effort from senior forward Festus Ezeli, who controlled the post for 17 points and six boards against Kentucky's otherworldly frontcourt.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and John Jenkins
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIREKevin Stallings and John Jenkins embrace following Vanderbilt's win over Kentucky for the SEC tournament title.
"First off, congrats to Vanderbilt. They got anything they wanted in the post," said Kentucky phenom Anthony Davis, who was frustrated in the paint all afternoon. "They got good position and it was hard for us to fight around it."

The emotion finally spilled over when the final horn sounded, as the Dores mobbed each other at midcourt and TV cameras caught Stallings crying into a towel.

It shined through in the winning locker room, where players blared music and took photos of each other posing with the tournament's hulking pyramid of a trophy.

Asked where the moment registered on a scale of 1-10, Ezeli broke the chart.

"I can't even describe. It might be a 15, I don't know," he said with a grin. "It feels awesome. It feels great."

It might have been even better for John Jenkins, who secured tournament MVP honors with 17 points against the Wildcats. Jenkins, whose grandmother died last week, needed several minutes to collect himself from the court after the score went final.

"It's been really tough for me. So just being out here with my teammates and the coaches has been kind of an outlet for me," he said. "To win the championship after 60-some years is incredible."

Like Kentucky, the Commodores were assured of a ticket to the Big Dance regardless of the outcome of this game. Vandy looks likely to receive a No. 4 or No. 5 seed to next week's NCAA tournament, but Stallings said his senior-heavy squad accomplished so much more Sunday than postseason seeding.

"They have done things today, it's just -- today is just another thing," Stallings said. "They have done things for Vanderbilt basketball that have never been done before. They have raised the awareness of our program. They have raised the status of our program."

To their credit, the Wildcats said nothing to cheapen that accomplishment. It would be easy to shrug off the loss as meaningless. Kentucky had not lost a game since Dec. 10, and the thought has been kicked around the Big Blue Nation that another setback might do their young stars some good before making a national championship run.

To a man, the losing Wildcats insisted that wasn't the case.

"We played hard like it was our last game, every game of this tournament," said sophomore guard Doron Lamb. "The teams we played played us three times, so they knew what we were going to do, and they know everything we've got."

Even senior Darius Miller, who caught fire for 16 points, was unwilling to let the loss go as insignificant.

"We all hate losing. We're pretty competitive people," he said. "The overall vision is, did we win or lose? And we lost tonight."

There will be other games for both teams. When this year's brackets come out in a few short hours, the Final Four will become the focus and the conference tournaments will be nothing but an afterthought.

Just don't tell that to the Commodores.

NEW ORLEANS -- A 22-point win tends to ease a team's missteps.

But for a team that relies as heavily on its shooting as Vanderbilt does, Friday's dismal first-half offense troubled coach Kevin Stallings.

The Commodores averaged 46 percent shooting as a team this season, and they led the SEC in 3-point percentage at 40. But in the first 20 minutes of the eventual 63-41 blowout against Georgia, Vanderbilt looked like it had forgotten what a jump shot looked like.

Those percentages, so vital to Vandy's success, dipped to 34 percent from the field and a troubling 23 percent from beyond the arc.

"In the first half, we were abysmal offensively, and it was really not good offense," Stallings said. "In the second half, we got more movement and [Festus Ezeli] started creating problems inside. We were just a lot more crisp."

It's true that the scoring effort picked up after the break. The shooting percentage jumped all the way up to 51 percent to bump the game average to a more respectable (and familiar) 43.9 percent. Most of that had to do with Ezeli causing problems in the paint, though, and the Commodores also added 14 points off turnovers.

"We did a better job of getting the ball to the basket, and things like that. ... We were getting the ball inside and trying to drive it inside, and not settling for as many jump shots," Stallings said.

A win is a win, especially in the postseason. But the road to that victory was unusual enough that Stallings looked nonplussed by it. The Commodores weren't just shaky, they were plain bad from 3-point range (6-of-25).

"You don't see us with 20-point victories when we go 6-of-25 from 3 and only shoot 11 foul shots," Stallings said. "Generally we're a good 3-point shooting team, and we get to the foul line a lot, and that's why we're a good offensive team. But tonight, obviously, it was much different than that."

[+] EnlargeFestus Ezeli
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireFestus Ezeli made his presence felt in Friday's second half as Vanderbilt put away Georgia.
Brad Tinsley was the only Vandy shooter who didn't seem to drop off against the Bulldogs. The Dores' usual duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, who lead the SEC in scoring, were ... OK. Taylor struggled to 6 points on 2-of-10 shooting. When he made his first and only 3-pointer of the night with 3:56 to play, he pumped his fists and looked toward the ceiling in exasperation, as if he had been worried he had lost his shot for good.

Jenkins' 15 points led the team -- perhaps it goes to show how valuable he is that his night seemed like a bad one. Regarding efforts like Friday's, Jenkins said the Commodores have to hope their defense shines the way it did against the Bulldogs -- who shot 22 percent as a team in the second half.

"We kind of wore them down a little bit with our defense, even though our offense wasn't clicking," he said. "We moved around a lot more and had the energy in the second half to make some shots, but not a lot."

Whatever issues Vandy has with its offense, the Dores don't have long to ponder them. The Georgia game ended a little after 11 p.m. Central time, and Saturday's semifinal against Ole Miss tips off at 2:30 p.m.

That leaves two issues to consider in not a lot of time: The Rebels put on a defensive showing of their own earlier Friday night. They held Tennessee to 28 percent -- a measly 18 field goals -- in an overtime game, no less. Granted, the Commodores bring better weapons to the court than do the Volunteers.

It's an interesting give-and-take. The Rebels looked stout in their win against Tennessee, while Vanderbilt's shooting fell apart against Georgia. Roughly a month ago in Oxford, the Commodores put on a terrifying shooting clinic against Ole Miss. They dropped 12 of 19 3-pointers and racked up 102 points.

So with a berth in the SEC tournament championship game at stake, who shines through?

"We played very well down there; still though, they're a different team now," Tinsley said. "It's the postseason -- a lot of teams are fired up and energized. It's going to be a tough one."
NEW ORLEANS -- A quick look at Vanderbilt's 63-41 victory over Georgia on Friday:

Overview: Georgia hung around against the Commodores using the same defense that baffled Mississippi State on Thursday night. The Bulldogs never got much going offensively, so it was good for them they kept up the defensive intensity. Georgia actually took a 25-24 lead into the locker room by holding Vanderbilt to a surprisingly low 34.6 team shooting percentage.

Yours truly opined that Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins would be two of the highlights of the quarterfinals. Taylor finished the first half with 1 point and only managed 6 total. Jenkins' 15 for the night fell short of his league-best average of 20 points.

The harassment continued well into the second half. The Bulldogs eventually fell behind, thanks to their lagging offense, but they managed to cut the deficit as close as four with about 13 minutes to play.

Turning point: Given enough time, the Commodores' weapons found their shots. Jenkins hit his stride, shooting 6 of 13; Brad Tinsley and Festus Ezeli chipped in 12 and 10, respectively.

When Georgia scored to make it 36-32, Vanderbilt went off. The Commodores went on a 27-9 tear to close out the game, burying the Bulldogs in every kind of offense. Jenkins and Lance Goulbourne hit consecutive 3s to start the run, and the Commodores went inside for 12 points.

In the span of about five minutes, it went from a scrappy fight to a Commodore runaway.

Key player: Jenkins' 15 led the Commodores in scoring, but it seemed like Tinsley sparked Vanderbilt to a stronger second half. The senior scored Vandy's first five points out of halftime, and he finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

Key stat: Georgia turned the ball over 17 times, shot 32 percent from the field and only 12 percent from 3-point range.

Miscellaneous: The Commodores hit 16 of 31 shots in the second half after burying only 9-of-26 in the first. It seemed like the Bulldog defense wore down toward the close, but who can blame them considering Vanderbilt's wide array of options.

What's next: Vanderbilt completes the field of four SEC semifinalists. It will face Ole Miss tomorrow afternoon for a berth in the conference title game. Georgia's season is over.

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 12, 2012
Saturday afternoon transitioned into Saturday night as smoothly as Kentucky transitions from an Anthony Davis block to the fast break. In the process, we saw Michigan State defend like crazy at Ohio State, Creighton take a beatdown by Wichita State and the aforementioned Wildcats again assert their dominance, this time at Vanderbilt. That and more in the evening edition of What We Learned.

[Editor's note: For recaps of all the afternoon games, click here.]

No. 12 Michigan State 58, No. 3 Ohio State 48: As far back as August, Tom Izzo -- in typical Izzonian fashion -- proclaimed far and wide how much he loved his team. Not necessarily because he knew the Spartans would be good or because he knew they would keep getting better (although he often seemed to assume as much), but because this Michigan State team, perhaps more than any other in recent years, does the two things Izzo seems to value most: It rebounds. It defends.

The Spartans began Saturday allowing the fourth-fewest points per possession in the country (adjusted, per Ken Pomeroy). They also ranked in the top 10 in both relevant rebounding categories, chasing down 39.9 percent of their misses on offense and yielding second chances on just 26.1 percent of opponents' possessions. Throw in the focused vocal leadership of forward Draymond Green, the back-from-the-dead reclamation of Derrick Nix, one of the toughest point guards in the country in Keith Appling and a batch of dedicated supporting pieces, and, well, no wonder Izzo loves this team. Compared to last season's incoherent, apathetic bunch, he must occasionally feel like he's coaching an entirely different game.

For as consistently as Michigan State has demonstrated those qualities throughout this season, never have they been more clear than Saturday night. Izzo's team held the third-ranked Buckeyes -- in Columbus, mind you -- to a mere .75 points per trip. How? How do you stop a team with so many weapons, with one of the best forwards in the country anchoring it all, in a building where it has won 39 in a row? The Spartans know how: You scrap. You claw. You fight. You make everything difficult for that team's best player. You frustrate him at every turn.

Jared Sullinger was, of course, the focal point of MSU's defensive strategy, and it worked. Sullinger still scored 17 points and grabbed 16 boards, but he needed a 5-of-15 performance to get there, and he committed 10 turnovers in the process. (The 17-16-10 is the first turnover-laden triple-double of the college basketball season, per ESPN Stats & Info. Former Buck Evan Turner had two of them in his final season. The Evan Turner Special lives!) Sullinger was noticeably frustrated throughout the game, arguing for fouls (sometimes rightly, oftentimes wrongly) and forcing shots into the teeth of State's interior defense, anchored brilliantly by forward Adreian Payne (who was also 6-of-6 from the field).

The performance reminded me of Ohio State's loss to Kentucky in last season's Sweet 16, when UK forward Josh Harrellson harassed and harangued Sullinger into a performance far below his usual standards. Harrellson was one of the few players in the country with the size and strength to hold his ground against Sully's girth. Nearly a year later, Payne and Nix demonstrated the same abilities. It's a testament to Sullinger's ability that he still grabbed 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive, but every putback was challenged, every touch contested, every dribble met with reaching slaps.

Sullinger didn't get much help from his teammates. William Buford and Deshaun Thomas combined to shoot 4-of-24 (!!), Aaron Craft was 3-of-7, and all told, the Buckeyes shot 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 26 percent overall -- its third-worst shooting performance of the past 15 years. Yikes.

The Spartans weren't great on offense (.91 points per trip). Ohio State's defense is its best quality, and the Buckeyes were again good on that end of the floor. But Michigan State didn't have to light it up to get this victory. When you defend this well, when you execute your defensive game plan this perfectly, when you thoroughly dominate one of the nation's elite teams in its own building, you don't have to put up points in bunches to get the job done. No team in the country this season has posted 40 minutes of defense this strong against a team this good.

So, yeah, Tom Izzo loves this team. Can you blame him?

No. 1 Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63: You have to hand it to the Commodores: They didn't go away.

That's the biggest positive Kevin Stallings' team can draw from this loss. From the opening tip, UK's brilliant defense was again, well, brilliant. As late as the 4:42 mark in the first half, Vanderbilt had scored just 13 points. The Commodores finished the first half with a whopping 23 as Kentucky led by 13. Terrence Jones was engaged. Anthony Davis was dominant. As it has so often in the past three weeks, John Calipari's team appeared ready to roll to another very impressive SEC victory. Ho and hum.

Then, only a few moments into the second half, things just sort of ... opened up. The Dores not only started finding open shots, they started making them. Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins came alive on the perimeter, while Festus Ezeli started finishing things down low. Soon -- almost before you knew it -- what "GameDay" host Rece Davis called Kentucky's "aura of invincibility" fell away. By the 8:26 mark in the second half, the Commodores led 55-51, the culmination of a 32-17 run.

They would score just eight more points the rest of the game. No one could have known it at the time, but Tinsley's jumper at the 4:09 mark would be Vanderbilt's last bucket of the day. Just as soon as VU had opened the game with solid man offense, crisp passing and accurate shooting, Kentucky shut it down. Davis recorded four blocks in the final seven minutes of the game; he finished with seven total. One of the major themes of the broadcast was Calipari's stated desire to see his team challenged, to see how it would respond. The Wildcats were. Vanderbilt kept swinging. Kentucky took Vandy's best punch. It absorbed a combo or two. And then, as all great fighters do, it emerged stronger and stronger as the game wore on. If Calipari wanted to see how his team would react to a challenge, he had to be thrilled with the result.

Kentucky played a solid, experienced team. It played said solid, experienced team in said team's unique building, with its weird sight lines and elevated court and baseline benches. It did so in front of a crowd that had spent all day goosed by "GameDay," hyped for the glorious chance at knocking off No. 1, something this school has done six times over the years. It didn't matter. Kentucky went 3-of-14 from 3. And it still emerged unscathed.

If Christian Watford's last-second shot doesn't fall in Assembly Hall on Dec. 10 -- back when Kentucky was still figuring things out -- the Cats are undefeated and we're talking less about this sudden surge of brilliance than whether UK could make it to the NCAA tournament with an unbeaten record. This team is one shot -- one 10-second defensive breakdown -- away from legendary comparisons.

Oh, well. As it is, Calipari's team is rounding into one of the most complete -- if not the most complete -- of his career. Davis is a transcendent force anchoring a team with zero defensive holes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best two-way players in the country. Jones can dominate when he wants. Doron Lamb is a lights-out shooter. Darius Miller is an underrated offensive presence and an all-around glue guy extraordinaire.

There's a reason this team is awash in that so-called aura of invincibility. The Wildcats aren't actually invincible, of course. But right now, they're the closest thing going.

Wichita State 89, No. 15 Creighton 68: When you've got a national player of the year candidate ripping through each and every opposing defense he sees with a rare blend of volume and efficiency, it's easy to disguise your team's warts. After Wichita State's end-to-end dismantling of the Bluejays on Saturday, those warts are now fully exposed.

The score line tells the story here, but it's nothing new: Creighton is, at best, a fairly mediocre defensive team. The Bluejays entered this Valley showdown ranked No. 119 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. They force turnovers on just 16.3 percent of their defensive possessions, which ranks them No. 336 out of 345 Division I teams. This so-so defense has been hidden well all season because Creighton outscores everybody. Doug McDermott and company have the nation's highest effective field goal percentage and its sixth-most efficient offense overall. But in the past three games -- losses to Northern Iowa, Evansville and now Wichita State -- the Bluejays' offense has suddenly cooled off. Creighton's effective field goal percentage figures in its past three games are 46.5, 44.2 and 44.7 percent.

And therein lies Saturday's problem: Wichita State is not a one-way team. Rather, Gregg Marshall's squad combines excellent defense (KenPom rank: No. 26) with efficient offense (KenPom: No. 11), tops in MVC play in both metrics. Despite their hugely impressive per-possession stats, the Shockers have flown below the radar recently thanks in large part to that triple-overtime loss at Drake in late January. But in basically every other Valley affair, even the 68-61 loss at home to Creighton in this series' first game, the Shockers have been comprehensively good.

Does that mean Wichita is 21 points better than Creighton, home, away or neutral? No. Is its offense as good as the 1.4 points per trip it poured in Saturday night? Probably not. But this lopsided result in front of a huge crowd in Omaha does reveal some notable truths about both teams. For Creighton, it laid bare just how important the Jays' offense is to their chances of making a run in the NCAA tournament; it's no coincidence this three-game losing streak came in three mediocre shooting performances. Greg McDermott's team can't afford to miss shots, because it can't get the stops it needs to keep things close.

For Wichita State, well, if you didn't know, now you know: The Shockers are good. Not "dangerous." Not "plucky." Just flat-out good.

Temple 85, Xavier 72: If you're still waiting for a team to round into its full form on Feb. 11, there's a good chance you'll still be waiting on March 11. That appears to be the case with Xavier. The Musketeers haven't been bad in Atlantic 10 play -- they ranked fourth in A-10 efficiency margin as of this week -- but they haven't been particularly good, let alone their usual brand of good, the one that led them to a 15-1 league record last season. Instead, these Musketeers are just sort of, well, mediocre.

Which is to take nothing away from Temple, which blitzed Chris Mack's team early and never looked back. Guard Ramone Moore went off, scoring 30 points on 9-of-16 from the field, while Khalif Wyatt put up 18 points, four assists and three steals, and Micheal Eric contributed 11 points and 16 rebounds. The Owls' backcourt is the undisputed strength of the team, and Fran Dunphy's squad continues to look more and more like the A-10's clear favorite each time that backcourt makes life so difficult for opponents on both ends of the floor. Temple is alone atop the league at 8-2.

The contrast between these two teams is glaring. One is whole, complete, playing its best basketball at the right time. The other is scattershot, struggling, not bad but far worse than it has any right to be, given its talent. The temptation to connect X's continued struggles to the Dec. 10 brawl is worth resisting here. Does it play a part? Maybe. Has guard Mark Lyons (who didn't start) been unpredictable and frustrating since? Oh yeah. But at this point, it's also possible Xavier just wasn't all that good in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the Musketeers -- perennial NCAA tournament fixtures -- are running out of time to figure it out.

A few more observations from the night of hoops:
  • Harvard's preordained run to its first NCAA tournament in decades -- the Crimson are clearly the best team in the Ivy League and were the heaviest of favorites to win it outright -- got just a little shakier Saturday night. Tommy Amaker's team fell to the old-world perennial Ivy favorite, Princeton, 70-62. It's a sign of Harvard's changed status that Princeton students -- who are fans of a program that is the historical Ivy elite, and which just beat one of the league's longtime losers -- rushed the court after their team's 23rd consecutive home victory over the Crimson. Despite the loss, Harvard's chances of winning the league are still very good. Its schedule -- which features Yale, Princeton and Penn at home before a season-ending two-game road swing at Columbia and Cornell -- is a major advantage. Plus, the No. 21 Crimson still own a one-game lead in the standings. But they will be eager to avoid any further slip-ups. If they end up in another one-game tiebreak (the Ivy League awards its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season winner), anything can happen. Amaker's bunch, which lost its trip to the tourney to Princeton on a tiebreak buzzer-beater last season, knows all too well what can happen when you leave the preordained to chance.
  • We let this one slip by in the afternoon frenzy, but Mississippi State's loss to Georgia probably deserves a mention. The Bulldogs were undone by freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's big-time step-back 3 in overtime (not to mention his other 17 points and eight rebounds), and hey, yeah, sometimes you take a tough OT loss. But Mississippi State's inconsistency is a bad sign for a team with major tournament aspirations. Not a good performance at all.
  • Southern Miss held on for a 78-74 home victory over UCF, yet another gritty, close win in a Golden Eagles season full of them. Don't look now, but Southern Miss is 21-4 on the season with a top-15 RPI. Wednesday night's loss at UAB is certainly a black mark -- especially considering the Blazers lost by 34 to Memphis on Saturday night -- but other than that, this team has a shockingly strong at-large case. Larry Eustachy is reborn!
  • Phil Martelli's team picked up another A-10 home win, as Saint Joseph's took down upstart UMass 73-62 and damaged the Minutemen's outside chances of an at-large bid. Massachusetts could have gone to 8-3 with a win. Instead, it moves backward, into the thick of the league's muddled middle, alongside the Hawks and many others.
  • If there is any justice in the world, tiny Wabash College will find its way to the "SportsCenter" top plays in the coming days. Why? Because of Aaron Zinnerman's shot, one of the more insane and unlikely you'll ever see. The YouTube clip is here. Enjoy. (Important correction! This post incorrectly cited Wabash as the alma mater of Butler coach Brad Stevens. Rather, as numerous alums have informed me, Stevens actually went to rival DePauw. I always mistake the two, but nonetheless regret the error. My bad, everyone.)

Playmakers: Kentucky in transition

February, 10, 2012
Earlier this week, the No. 1 Wildcats toyed with a Gators squad that might be the second-best team in the SEC. It was the kind of performance that suggested the gap between Kentucky and the rest of the league -- perhaps the rest of the country -- is wider than many realized.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
AP Photo/James CrispWhen the pace of the game picks up, Anthony Davis and Kentucky can be fun to watch.
There are so many challenges for teams facing the Wildcats. Go inside and your team runs into the best defensive player in the country. In the half-court set, teams get picked apart by a multitude of one-on-one creators.

One team, Indiana, found a way to crack the Kentucky Code.

Will Vanderbilt become No. 2 in Nashville on Saturday?

In college basketball, anything is possible. But Vanderbilt is similar to the Gators in that the Commodores will spread the floor and rely heavily on their key big man, Festus Ezeli.

To beat Kentucky, they’ll have to play a complete game and excel in multiple areas, especially transition defense.

Kentucky's transition game has baffled every team it’s faced. On the run, the Wildcats seem unstoppable. The Wildcats outscored Florida 16-6 on fast breaks Tuesday.

If the Commodores don’t get back on D, they’re doomed. A split-second defensive lapse and the Wildcats will find their way to the other end of the floor for an easy bucket.

Check out this sequence from their lopsided victory over the Gators (1:02 in the video) as proof:

After a Florida turnover, Anthony Davis secures the ball and illustrates one of the major problems for Kentucky’s opponents. The 6-foot-11 big man, a former high school shooting guard, is comfortable as a ballhandler.

This is why the Wildcats are so dangerous in transition. Davis demands attention in the open floor. The Gators seem confused. They’re watching like the rest of us.

Davis throws the bounce pass to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. And now a Florida team with two guys back is in major trouble.

Kidd-Gilchrist has options in a 3-on-2 situation. Doron Lamb to his right, Davis on his left. It’s an impossible predicament for the Gators, who just didn’t make the offense-to-defense switch quickly enough on this play.

Kidd-Gilchrist decides to make a play on his own. He splits two defenders and sails to the rim for a layup. Check out Davis’ position on the drive. If that ball comes off the rim, he’s going to get it and dunk it.

Such a complete team. But the Wildcats are at their best when they’re racing up the court. That’s one of the many weapons that Vandy will have to stop Saturday. Tough task ahead.
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.
As good as the afternoon was, with exciting upsets and huge road wins over top-five teams, the evening may have matched it in the vital FOPM statistical category. (FOPM stands for freak outs per minute. It's a tempo-adjusted metric, naturally.) Let's lead with what may be the result of the day -- Syracuse's very first loss of the season, at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame 67, No. 1 Syracuse 58

What we learned: Nobody's perfect. OK, yeah, Murray State is still perfect, but you get the drift: Everyone loses eventually. Sooner or later, the Orange were going to have a particularly bad shooting night. Sooner or later, they were going to struggle on the road. Sooner or later, they were going to do these things against a coach and a team that had designed the perfect gameplan to take advantage of this opportunity. As it happens, that coach was Mike Brey. That team was Notre Dame.

Of course, the Fighting Irish don't have a tenth of the talent available to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. What do the Irish have? The Burn. That's what Brey calls his team's intentionally slow, clock-killing offense, and while it isn't always the preferred strategy in South Bend, it is something the Irish keep in their back pocket when they find themselves facing a bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled, pretty-much-all-around-better opponent.

Indeed, as ESPN's Doris Burke noted late in the game, the Irish played a sort of semi-burn Saturday night. They lulled the Cuse into seven fewer possessions (61) than its average adjusted tempo (68) on the season (including a handful of late heaves when the game was out of reach), but ND was also opportunistic: When it broke SU's press, it didn't always pull out and set up the halfcourt offense. It was a clinic in opportunistic decision-making. (At one point, it ended in a contested fast-break dunk by Jack Cooley. Jack Cooley? Jack Cooley!)

Syracuse, being Syracuse, still managed to force a mess of turnovers. At several points in the second half, as Notre Dame forward Scott Martin struggled time after time to inbound the ball on his own baseline, it appeared the Irish were just a few possessions away from a late collapse. But the Orange's poor shooting (they posted a 40.0 effective field goal percentage) and ND's solid free throw shooting sealed this game in the closing moments.

Burke called it a "masterful" gameplan from Brey and, as usual, she was dead on: Notre Dame knew exactly what it needed to do to take a walk through any door Syracuse left ajar. When the time came, it executed.

Going forward, this loss may knock Syracuse out of the top spot in the rankings, but it shouldn't change the perception of this team much. First of all, the absence of leading rebounder and shot-blocker Fab Melo (due to an unresolved academic issue from the fall semester) was a blow to this team's inherent interior advantage. Second, Syracuse didn't shoot the ball well. Frankly, it didn't play well. Overreact if you like, but it's the opinion of this writer that, well, hey, these games happen.

For Syracuse, it was bound to go this way eventually. When it did, the Irish were ready.

No. 15 Mississippi State 78, Vanderbilt 77 (OT)

What we learned: The Commodores will struggle with capable frontcourts. They struggle late in close games. They struggle on the defensive end. They are, in other words, the same Vanderbilt Commodores we've come to know and love in each of the past three seasons. Their recent improvements created the notion that this team had turned some vague corner, that it was finally ready to assume the top-10, Final Four-worthy preseason expectations foisted upon them.

Instead, on Saturday, we saw the team that led us to doubt that status in the first place. Vandy yielded a 12-point second-half lead, allowed Mississippi State to score 1.14 points per possession and got vastly outrebounded on both ends of the floor. In the end, even with very good chances to win the game -- particularly the final shot in regulation, which ended up being an uncontested four-foot shot for Festus Ezeli (which he missed) -- Vanderbilt just couldn't make the key defensive plays.

In the meantime, Mississippi State deserves credit for a major road win. Forward Arnett Moultrie was brilliant (21 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, one block) and guard Dee Bost was just as good (24 points, five rebounds, four assists and a handful of key second-half shots). Even Renardo Sidney, who struggled for much of the game and suffered an injury in overtime, got in on the act, hitting a monster 3 with 1:22 remaining in the second half.

Three days ago, the Bulldogs went to rival Ole Miss and lost and looked vulnerable -- even downright overrated -- throughout. Their ability to rebound from that loss with a win on the road against a streaking Vanderbilt team, one that had won its past eight games -- including on the road at Alabama -- is to be commended. Surprising stuff, to say the least.

No. 12 UNLV 80, New Mexico 63

What we learned: UNLV is still the Mountain West favorite. Yes, yes, San Diego State certainly has a claim to that distinction, too, especially since its first two conference results -- a two-point home win over the Rebels and an incredibly impressive road win at New Mexico -- were among the most impressive back-to-back performances we've seen from any team in any league this season. New Mexico is no slouch, either. Before Wednesday's loss to SDSU, the Lobos had won 13 in a row. There are three very good teams in the MWC, folks. That much we know.

Then again, I'd say we knew that already. The main takeaway from Saturday night's best late-night matchup -- and this is a good old-fashioned eye-test thing to say, but I'm doing it anyway -- is that UNLV just looks like the best team in this league. The Rebels have few, if any, holes in their attack. They have talented players at every position. Their guards push the pace; their forwards run to the rim; their wings hit 3s with ease. Anthony Marshall, Chace Stanback, Mike Moser, Oscar Bellfield and even reserves like Carlos Lopez and Justin Hawkins -- these players are perfectly suited to Dave Rice's new emphasis on uptempo basketball, and when you watch them play, it shows.

The Mountain West race is going to be fascinating, and we'll hear more from the Lobos -- and, of course, the league-leading Aztecs -- before the season is out. Sure, I'd take UNLV as the favorite. But whatever happens, if two of these three teams are playing, it promises to be very entertaining.

A few more observations from the Saturday evening that was:
    [+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
    AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPitt lost its ninth game Saturday, matching the highest season loss total of Jamie Dixon's tenure.

  • Bad times got worse for Pittsburgh on Saturday night, as the Panthers fell to No. 21 Louisville at home, 73-62. In case you're counting, that's Pitt's eighth straight loss and seventh in a row in Big East play ... for the first time in Pitt hoops history. Ouch. Even worse? According to ESPN Stats and Information, this is the first time Pitt has lost four straight home games since 1999-2000. The loss is also Pitt's ninth this season. Jamie Dixon-coached Pittsburgh teams have never recorded more than nine losses in a regular season. There are myriad issues afflicting the Panthers right now, chief among them defense, but it's hard to see any major improvements coming any time soon. If this wasn't a lost season already, it is now.
  • Neither VCU nor Old Dominion are likely to end up with a chance at an at-large bid come March, but their meeting tonight was still full of implications for the CAA title race. Before Saturday, ODU was 6-1 in conference and VCU 5-2, both right there hanging around with George Mason and Drexel in the Colonial standings. In other words, Virginia Commonwealth got a rather massive 61-48 win, handling the lackluster Monarchs rather easily at home. Shaka Smart's team is still rebuilding after last year's miracle NCAA tournament run, but they're not nearly as far down as most would have expected. Keep your eye on the Rams.
  • The C-USA race is going to be interesting. Marshall appeared to have the best odds to challenge Memphis' purported superiority, with Southern Miss a notch or two below -- a dark horse at best. After Saturday -- when Southern Miss topped Marshall and tied the Thundering Herd at 4-1 in league play -- it seems clear things aren't quite that simple. There are no remaining unbeaten teams in the league, with UCF at 5-1 and Memphis, Marshall and USM all now residing in second place at 4-1.
  • I don't know if we'll call the Pac-12 race "interesting." "Mystifying" feels more appropriate. Either way, consider what went down in the conference Saturday: Cal fell at Washington State (not an unforgiveable loss, given how well Wazzu has played at home, but still) just as the Bears appeared set, thanks to a blowout Stanford loss at Washington, to create some separation between themselves and the rest of the league. Meanwhile UCLA -- which keeps struggling, week after week, to sort things out -- fell on the road at Oregon, which is now 6-2 and tied atop the league standings. Elsewhere, lowly Utah not only didn't lose, but actually blew out Arizona State in Salt Lake City; and Colorado held on for a one-point home win over Arizona. Those Pac-12 power rankings are going to be a bear to write. I can't wait.
  • Two results from the West that shouldn't be dismissed. Long Beach State, a team that played perhaps the most grueling nonconference schedule in the country, continues to see the dividends from that gauntlet. On the road Saturday night, LBSU went into the Thunderdome and absolutely obliterated chief rival UC Santa Barbara, 71-48, the talented squad that's beaten the 49ers in the Big West final in each of the past two seasons. And in Laramie, Wyoming beat rival Colorado State -- which had won eight straight -- 70-51 to improve to 16-3. Yes, 16-3. What a job by first-year coach Larry Shyatt. And what a performance by USC transfer Leonard Washington, who set career highs in points (32) and rebounds (14).
  • As for the momentum Nebraska created with that dramatic victory over Indiana on Wednesday? Ohio State did not seem to care. Buckeyes 79, Huskers 45. So much for that.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

No. 8 North Carolina at Virginia Tech, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The last time we saw the Tar Heels take the floor against an ACC opponent on the road ... well, you know what happened. The chances we see something similar Thursday night are almost zero. UNC is well aware of what Saturday's drubbing said about its team, well aware of the statistic that says no team that has lost by 33 points in the regular season has gone on to win a national title. As our UNC blogger Robbi Pickeral wrote in her game preview today, Roy Williams wrote the number "33" on UNC's white board, where it will stay for weeks to come. The Tar Heels have been chastised all week. They will be motivated.

That said, and despite Virginia Tech's paltry 0-3 ACC record to date, this game could be tricky in its own way. Seth Greenberg's team has posted the second-best per-possession defense in the ACC in conference play -- second only to UNC, who maintained that figure despite the FSU debacle. The Hokies have the highest opponents turnover rate of any ACC team in league play, and they've been particularly tough guarding the interior, where opponents average just 43.1 percent on their 2s. In general, the Hokies are not as bad as you think, and their record belies their per-possesssion performance to date.

But let's be real: Those minor sample sizes aside, UNC is the better team everywhere on the floor. This is not about how UNC matches up with Virginia Tech. This is about -- and, fair warning, this is going to get into intangible cliché territory here -- how UNC matches up with itself. (Told you.) Can it muster the focus and energy to quiet raucous road crowds? Can it summon the confidence borne of talent that seemed so lacking Saturday? Can it, once punched, come back with the counter? This could be the story of the Tar Heels' season. It begins anew tonight.

Vanderbilt at Alabama, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: With apologies to Duke and Wake Forest and the mothership broadcast immediately preceding UNC-Va. Tech, this is the second-most -- heck, maybe the most -- intriguing game of the evening. Vanderbilt has won eight in a row and repaired its damaged reputation after a disappointing (and Festus Ezeli-less) nonconference slate. The last time it went on the road against a truly quality opponent was its Dec. 29 thrashing of Marquette, in which it jumped out to a 31-6 lead (yes, 31-6) and never looked back. The offense of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor appears to be running at full speed again, and Ezeli's presence has been a major boost to the Vandy interior on a nightly basis.

And then there's Alabama. We wrote off the once-ranked Crimson Tide pretty quickly in November after back-to-back losses (57-55 to Georgetown at home, 74-62 at Dayton). That appears to have been a mistake. Sure, the Crimson Tide have plenty of issues. Namely: offense. But the defense that guided Anthony Grant's squad to the cusp of an NCAA tournament bid last season is back and better than ever in 2012. The Crimson Tide are holding opponents to the fourth-fewest points per possession of any team in the country, per Pomeroy; Alabama opponents are averaging an effective field goal percentage of just 40.7 on the season.

In other words, this is a great barometer game for both teams. How improved is Vanderbilt? Improved enough to get a tough road win against a punishing defensive team? Coming off a two-point loss at Mississippi State, where's Alabama's ceiling? High enough to compete in the top tier of this league? There are plenty of questions here. Hopefully, some answers are forthcoming.

Everywhere else: Duke hosts Wake Forest in what should serve as a tune-up for Saturday's challenging home date with Florida State. ... Virginia travels to Georgia Tech. ... Illinois will seek to remain the only one-loss team in the Big Ten tonight at Penn State. ... Long Beach State's trip to Cal Poly could be a tricky Big West situation for the Beach, which is perfect in conference play to date. ... And one game sticks out from the Pac-12's typically symmetrical Thursday night offerings: Cal at Washington, where the Bears will look to assert their apparent league superiority against a talented but inconsistent -- and really just insanely frustrating -- Washington bunch. Could be a good one.
Meyers LeonardDavid Banks/Getty ImagesIllinois nipped Northwestern on Wednesday despite big man Meyers Leonard getting limited looks.
It’s an epidemic that’s plagued the national college basketball scene for far too long. Too often, this issue is overlooked or dismissed.

But it’s time to address the madness that’s rocking programs throughout the country. I’m referring to Starving Big Man Syndrome.

Perhaps your favorite team suffers from this silent season-killer. Well, it’s time to identify the victims in hopes of rectifying this growing challenge.

  1. Meyers Leonard -- Why won’t the Illini feed the big man? He took four shots in Saturday’s loss to Purdue. Just eight in a Dec. 17 loss to UNLV. He’s capable of duplicating his 20-point effort against Minnesota last week and his 21-point performance in the Illini’s Dec. 3 win over Gonzaga. He should get the ball more often. He was 4-for-9 in a one-point win over Northwestern Wednesday, but his teammates failed to find him multiple times when the Wildcats weren’t doubling.
  2. Patric Young -- Florida’s big man has a 63 effective field-goal percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. He took 20 shots combined in Florida’s past two games. But he’s only cracked double digits in field-goal attempts four times this year. And he’s only responsible for 12.7 percent of his squad’s shots this season. Sure Florida is stocked with perimeter talent. But the SEC is a hotbed for talented bigs. Anthony Davis, Arnett Moultrie, Festus Ezeli and JaMychal Green anchor the league in the post. So the Gators will need Young even more in league play. It’s time to toss the ball inside.
  3. C.J. Aiken -- The 6-9 forward is ranked sixth in the Atlantic 10 in John Hollinger’s NCAA player efficiency ratings (23.59 PER). But prior to Wednesday’s 84-82 win over Duquesne (he was 5-for-10), Aiken had taken 11 shots combined in two previous games. The Hawks -- like Temple and St. Louis -- are going to make the Atlantic 10 race interesting, especially with Xavier’s recent struggles. Aiken is a key part of St. Joseph’s NCAA tourney hopes due to his defensive prowess (his 4.5 blocks per game lead the nation). But he’s more than a shot-blocker as his performance in the Duquesne victory proved.
  4. Anthony Davis -- Finding the best use for Davis’ expansive skill set isn’t simple. He’s 6-10 but he’s certainly not a traditional big man. And Kentucky is stocked at every position. But it never hurts to have an additional offensive weapon, especially one who’s shooting 65 percent from the field. But Davis’ offensive game might become a significant factor in March and April, despite the talent around him. Prior to his 22-point performance (9-for-11) against Arkansas Little-Rock Tuesday, Davis had taken seven shots or less in seven games.
  5. [+] EnlargeUConn's Andre Drummond
    David Butler II/US PRESSWIREPerhaps a loss to Seton Hall on Wednesday might have UConn emphasizing getting the ball to center Andre Drummond much more often.

  6. Andre Drummond -- Every legit mock draft board I’ve read places the UConn forward in the top five of this summer’s draft. Why would a lottery pick take five shots and score four points … EVER? That was Drummond’s stat line in Wednesday’s upset loss to Seton Hall. It just doesn’t make any sense. It was his second five-shot outing in three games. He shot two free throws combined in those matchups.
  7. Arsalan Kazemi -- He leads the nation in rebounding. And he’s on top of Conference USA in steals and field-goal percentage. But he’s averaging 7.7 field-goal attempts per game for Rice, despite boasting a 61.2 effective field-goal percentage, per Ken Pomeroy. But he’s been responsible for just 13 percent of Rice’s field-goal attempts so far this season.
  8. Eli Holman -- Detroit has lost three of its past five games with Holman in the lineup. The 6-10 presence missed multiple games due to an indefinite leave at the start of the season. He’s shooting 62 percent from the floor and averaging 12 ppg. Ray McCallum Jr. and Chase Simon handle the scoring load for the Titans. But Holman can be an offensive difference-maker in conference play. Detroit nearly knocked off nationally ranked Mississippi State when Holman went 6-for-8 from the field.
  9. Alex Len -- He’s only played three games after missing time because of an eligibility issue (he’d previously signed with a pro team overseas). But Len is living up to the hype for ACC sleeper Maryland. I know Terrell Stoglin (21.2 ppg, sixth in the nation) likes to eat. But Len is hungry, too. He’s taken 10 shots in his team’s past two games (he was 10-for-14 from the charity stripe in those contests). He’ll probably become a more viable part of Maryland’s offense in the ACC, where John Henson, Mike Scott and the Plumlee Clan lurk. He’s a dangerous addition for the rest of the league.
  10. James Haarsma -- UW-Milwaukee’s 6-7 forward has hurt himself with foul trouble in multiple games. But the Panthers could use an offensive boost that Haarsma should be able to provide. He had three points in a Tuesday loss to Western Michigan. According to Hollinger’s ratings, he’s No. 22 in the Horizon League in player efficiency with a 15.76 PER. Milwaukee won a slice of the Horizon last year, but the Panthers have lost three of their past four games. In two of those matchups, Haarsma only took four shots, even though his team shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc in those games. Might be time for UWM to look inside.
  11. Royce White -- He’s surrounded by shooters at Iowa State. And right now, there’s really nothing to complain about regarding his role because the Cyclones have won six in a row, including a solid victory over Texas Wednesday night. But the Big 12 is a big league. And White is capable of offensive fury. The league’s eighth-ranked player in Pomeroy’s offensive ratings has taken 16 shots in his team’s past four games. He still leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. So it’s not like Fred Hoiberg’s offense has ignored him. But White’s 22 points and 13 rebounds in a Dec. 3 loss to Michigan weren’t flukes. He’s that good. And he’ll get better with more scoring opportunities inside.

If your favorite team suffers from Starving Big Man Syndrome, please call 1-800-FEED-HIM. That’s 1-800-FEED-HIM. Or just call Bill Walton.

Games to watch before the weekend

December, 26, 2011
Five weekday games we'll be keeping an eye on:


No. 12 Georgetown at No. 4 Louisville (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)

What’s at stake for the Hoyas: Georgetown has been the surprise Big East team in nonconference play. John Thompson III has found a nice blend with role players elevating themselves into starring roles. Georgetown has already proven it can win on the road, as evidenced by its victory at Alabama. But winning at the raucous KFC Yum! Center is another matter.

What’s at stake for the Cardinals: Louisville has one more major nonconference test at Kentucky on Saturday. That game matters more in the state. But getting off to a good start in the Big East is just as important for this team.

No. 15 Indiana at No. 17 Michigan State (7:30 p.m. ET):

What’s at stake for the Hoosiers: Nothing can be taken away from what Indiana has earned in the nonconference. The Hoosiers have a home win against Kentucky and a road win at NC State to their credit. IU also won on a neutral court against Notre Dame. The latter two are NIT teams at best. Still, Indiana has improved dramatically and is proving to be a tough out. Stealing a road win at MSU would send a clear message to the rest of the Big Ten that the Hoosiers have arrived. A Big Ten home opener against Ohio State on Saturday looms large after this game.

What’s at stake for the Spartans: Michigan State has rebounded quite well since opening the season with losses to North Carolina and Duke. The Spartans took out Florida State at home and won at Gonzaga and have benefited from steadier guard play and improved frontcourt production. Now the Spartans must hit the ground running in Big Ten play and squash out the upstart Hoosiers at home.

No. 14 Mississippi State vs. No. 7 Baylor (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET in Dallas)

What’s at stake for the Bulldogs: Mississippi State can take a major step forward in becoming a legitimate contender in the SEC with a neutral-court win over Baylor. In terms of overall talent, the Bears will be the closest match to Kentucky the Bulldogs will face over the next two months. Mississippi State can match Baylor at each position, even off the bench. A win would put the Bulldogs into top-10 range heading into the new year.

What’s at stake for the Bears: Baylor has dismissed each challenger it has faced so far this season, winning on the road at Northwestern and BYU and beating Saint Mary’s and West Virginia in Las Vegas and San Diego State at home. Mississippi State poses the final test for the Bears before Big 12 play begins, and it will be the toughest they have faced yet.


Vanderbilt at No. 13 Marquette (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)

What’s at stake for the Commodores: Festus Ezeli is back for Vanderbilt, free from any eligibility or injury issues. That means the Commodores have no more excuses -- except that this is one of the toughest venues to get a win. Vandy nearly closed out a road win at Louisville earlier this month. If the Commodores can take down Marquette in Milwaukee, it will cancel out their two losses to Xavier and Louisville.

What’s at stake for the Golden Eagles: Marquette was pushed in New York by Washington and won. The Golden Eagles had to survive a scare from Norfolk State and prevailed. Marquette held off Wisconsin in Madison. But then the Golden Eagles couldn’t handle the strong guards and rebounding of LSU in Baton Rouge in a Dec. 19 loss. They can find their stride again heading into Big East play with a strong performance against Vandy.

BYU at Saint Mary’s (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET):

What’s at stake for the Cougars: BYU opens West Coast Conference play in what is easily one of the two toughest venues in the league. BYU can send a strong message to the rest of the WCC that the Cougars have moved into the conference to win it. This team is getting quite comfortable with UCLA transfer Matt Carlino having emerged as a do-everything guard since becoming eligible.

What’s at stake for the Gaels: Saint Mary’s has to let BYU know it can protect its home court and be Gonzaga’s top challenger in the league this season. But to do that SMC will have to do a solid job on the backboard to keep players such as Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock off the boards. Saint Mary’s can’t afford to start the title chase making up ground after a losing a home game to one of its conference's main contenders.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 9, 2011
Based on results and not preseason expectations, here's my attempt at ranking the SEC teams one month into the season:

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats played the toughest nonconference game to date and beat North Carolina on a buzzer-beating blocked shot. UK has the most talent in the league and will be the team to chase throughout the season. Nothing will change that going forward.

2. Florida: The Gators lost on the road in two places (Ohio State, Syracuse) where most teams will fall this season. Wednesday's OT victory against Arizona was a must-win for this team. Having Patric Young score 25 points is a good sign the Gators will keep getting better.

3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have the most intriguing frontline in Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sindey. Dee Bost continues to be a steadying force for MSU, which seems to have righted itself since the home loss to Akron. This has the look of an NCAA team.

4. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have played the toughest schedule of any SEC team so far, but the Dores blew leads against Xavier at home and at Louisville. Getting Festus Ezeli back in a road win at Davidson means Vandy can start its season anew. This is still a team with a chance to go far in March.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide lost at home to surging Georgetown and on the road to an erratic Dayton. Bama is still an NCAA-type team, but the Tide need to find some consistency before they hit the SEC season. The ceiling is still high for this crew.

6. Ole Miss: The Rebels squeezed out a win at DePaul when Murphy Holloway came through in the clutch. But that win and the one at Penn State aren't exactly jaw-droppers. The Rebs have a formidable frontcourt, but the guard play has to improve.

7. Arkansas: The Razorbacks lost Marshawn Powell for the season, but still showed they had plenty of fight in a loss at Connecticut. Mike Anderson has this team highly competitive with a chance for postseason play.

8. LSU: The Tigers have climbed up into the top eight after winning two in a row on the road, at Houston and at Rutgers. The rebuilding job by Trent Johnson might be turning a bit of a corner. A game against Marquette is still on the horizon, which could humble the Tigers.

9. Tennessee: The Vols have lost four of their past five, but Tennessee did show it can hang and play with passion and purpose in losing to Duke and Pitt in close ones, and to Memphis in double overtime in Maui. A soft part of the schedule is coming up. UT needs to take advantage.

10. Georgia: The Bulldogs have hit a skid in the schedule by losing five of their past six, all against power-six schools (no softies here). Georgia needs a win badly and might get one at USC on Dec. 17.

11. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were looking like one of the worst teams in any major conference early in the season (with losses to Elon and Tennessee State), but the win at rival Clemson keeps them out of the SEC basement. The problem is that Ohio State comes calling on Dec. 17. Uh-oh.

12. Auburn: The Tigers (4-1) have a better overall record than LSU, Tennessee, South Carolina or Georgia, but the four wins were against low-majors. The one time the Tigers played a power-six school they lost badly at Seton Hall. So judging is still incomplete with the Tigers.