College Basketball Nation: Illinois

The Minnesota Gophers' tournament hopes died on March 2. Or so we thought.

That's when Minnesota, after winning at Illinois, attempted to build on its late-season push with a win at Michigan. That, um, didn't happen. Instead, the Gophers were walloped by a bad Michigan team, 83-55, and if you ever needed a reason to exclude the Gophers from the tournament -- and, as of March 2, you didn't -- the Michigan loss was plenty.

But look now: Minnesota is still breathing in the Big Ten tournament after wins over Penn State and yesterday's upset of No. 3 seed Michigan State, giving Minnesota its 19th and 20th victories of the year. Unsurprisingly, those wins have boosted Minnesota's tournament stock considerably. What's more surprising is that Minnesota's tournament stock isn't just vaguely better -- all of a sudden, the Gophers have a legitimate chance to sneak in the NCAA tournament.

Joe Lunardi now has Minnesota listed in his "next three out," right below Dayton and Mississippi State. That has to be the first Minnesota bracketology mention since, when, October? Of that group, only the Bulldogs are still active. Minnesota still has work to do -- leapfrogging Arizona State, Memphis, Rhode Island and Seton Hall will be no easy feat -- but it remains genuinely remarkable the Gophers are even on the bubble radar. A win over Purdue today would surely boost Minnesota's chances again, putting them right on the cusp. Then there's the Big Ten final against the winner of Ohio State and Illinois, which, duh, could mean an automatic bid for the Gophers.

Will Minnesota get in? At this point, it's still unlikely. But you have to give the Gophers credit for not doing what some of their disappointing Big Ten counterparts -- cough, Michigan -- have done, which is fade down the stretch. The Gophers are still fighting. Good for them.

Video: Big Ten tournament preview

March, 10, 2010

A lot at stake for Illinois at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, which begins on Thursday.
Illinois is in desperate need of a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament. Sunday's home loss to Wisconsin moved the once-solid Illini bubble chances into "not-solid-at-all" territory, completing a slide in which Illinois has lost five of its last six and gone from 17-8 to 18-13, the sort of very mediocre record the selection committee will not be too fond of as it quietly gathers in Indianapolis this week.

And that, it seems, might be the least of Bruce Weber's problems.

Sunday didn't just deliver an ugly home loss to the Badgers. It also marked a rather disconcerting incident between Bruce Weber and Demetri McCamey, one in which McCamey walked past Weber, bumping his coach's shoulder before being physically restrained -- and loudly shouted at -- in the huddle. A brief description from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Things between Weber and McCamey became intense on the bench briefly after the guard bumped his coach while walking past. Weber grabbed McCamey's arm, pulled him back and gave him an earful.

"Love and kisses,'' Weber said. "Just trying to teach him how to make good decisions.''

Not a good decision: Staring off into space while your coach is trying to coach you. Also not a good decision: Bumping that coach as you walk past him, making it as clear as possible that you're not at all interested in what he's trying to tell you.

Illinois' chances at the NCAA tournament might very well come down to a high finish, if not a championship performance, in this week's Big Ten tournament. To do that, Weber will have to make sure Sunday's issues -- from the brutal offensive play to the brief feud with his best, most important player -- don't carry over. It might be his biggest coaching challenge yet.
Jacob Pullen & Sherron CollinsIcon SMIJacob Pullen and Sherron Collins figure to play prominent roles in Wednesday night's showdown.
Saddle Up is our daily preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. The big nights are coming faster and more furious than at any point during the season -- I've barely recovered from Saturday -- and Wednesday night is no exception. Here's the rundown.

No. 5 Kansas State at No. 2 Kansas, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN360: This one doesn't need much by way of explanation. The in-state rivalry. The Big 12 title implications. The seeding possibilities. The two-point Kansas win at Bramlage on Jan. 30. A freaky Frank Martin. Sherron Collins' senior night. The packed Allen Fieldhouse crowd.

Yeah, It's safe to say this is going to be a big game. A very, very big game.

Martin's team can secure a shot -- an outside shot, but a shot -- at a share of the Big 12 title if it wins tonight, but that's probably less of a concern for K-State than A) Beating its hated, abusive basketball big brother on the brother's own floor in Collins' last home game and B) Making a case for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. A win would without question put Martin's team on the selection committee's top line. First, though, the Wildcats have to figure out a way to do what they do best -- get to the free throw line -- while preventing the Jayhawks from doing the same. Kansas State is one of the best teams in the country at getting to the line. This is the sort of offensive attribute (alongside great outside shooting from Jacob Pullen) that gives the Wildcats hope against anyone, including a Kansas defense designed to keep opponents out of the lane. In the first meeting, Kansas won the battle of the freebies. The Wildcats can't let that happen again.

Oh, and as you've probably noticed, no, tonight's game isn't being televised. It stinks, I know. But look at the bright side: You get to test out ESPN360. It's actually pretty awesome, so don't knock it until you try it. And no, I'm not just saying that because I work here. Promise. Though I would totally say that anyway. I'm completely shameless. Which brings me to my next point: If you can't watch the game, come here for our live chat from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. I'll be here, as will a bunch of your favorite college hoops heads, answering questions and live-blogging throughout the evening. Don't miss it.

No. 4 Duke at No. 23 Maryland, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Speaking of big games, well, ahem. This qualifies. It would mean as much in College Park even if the Terrapins didn't have so much riding on the game, for there is little hatred in the country -- in college basketball or elsewhere -- quite like the purely distilled brand Maryland fans brew for all things Duke. And anytime Greivis Vasquez gets this sort of spotlight, you can expect sparks to fly. It's going to be rowdy.

There are more than taunts on the line here, though. With a win, Gary Williams' team could pull even with Duke at 12-3 in the ACC with one game each left to play. It won't be easy. After occasional stumbles, most of them on the road, Duke has quietly morphed into the most efficient offense in the country, and the Devils are finally starting to play the sort of defense that anchored them in last year's campaign. After a 1-4 start on the road, Duke has won its last four away from Cameron. Maryland's is no easy task. But the Terps have been underrated all year, though, and tonight is the perfect opportunity to showcase -- to the tournament committee, especially -- just how far perception lags behind reality.

Everywhere else: While you're futzing around with your laptop -- and totally chatting with us, remember! -- Connecticut and Notre Dame will be slugging it out on ESPN for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Neither team is guaranteed a berth, but both teams can nary afford a loss, and both teams would surely benefit from the win. ... Kentucky will face a test at Georgia, where the pesky Bulldogs have taken down Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia Tech and Illinois this season. ... Indiana travels to No. 6 Purdue, which should be a nice break from the post-Robbie Hummel meat-grinder Purdue is facing these days. ... Memphis and UAB will duel for bubble considerations. ... Oklahoma State at Texas A&M is an interesting battle between two tourney-worthy Big 12 squads. ... A-10 leader Temple will visit a St. Louis team that has streaked into the tourney-sphere in the last half of the season. ... The fading Demon Deacons have another battle on their hands at Florida State tonight. ... and lowly Fordham, the last team in Division I without a conference win to its name, will try to get that first win over Xavier tonight.
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best action. Try not to make it awkward.

No. 7 Ohio State 73, Illinois 57: There were zero upsets to speak of last night, and Illinois' bid for a tournament-securing win at Ohio State was no different. Instead, the night was a feel-good Buckeye festival. Thad Matta's team secured a share of the Big Ten title. Evan Turner got a national spotlight, not that he needed it (more on this below). And Mark Titus, the by-now-famous purveyor of Club Trillion, made the most of his senior night, notching one final trillion in front of hundreds of Club Trillion t-shirt-clad OSU fans -- not to mention raising a whole bunch of cash for sick children. Really, things couldn't have gone much better.

The most notable performance of the night -- other than Titus', obviously -- probably came from Ohio State sharpshooter Jon Diebler, whose seven 3-pointers for 21 points (this scoreline math is refreshingly simple) helped bury the Illini in the second half. After the game, though, the only national topic was Turner. More specifically, the topic was "Is Evan Turner the player of the year?" Every analyst ESPN had to offer on Sportscenter proclaimed it to be true. The only dissenters? America. In a SportsNation poll, 37 percent of the country voted for John Wall as the player of the year; Turner notched 33 percent of the vote. Which means one thing, America: You're on notice. I know Wall might be the most familiar name, but it's March now. There's no excuse for this. Inform thyself. Wall is a great player, but Turner has had a better season, and he deserves the award. I thought we Turner advocates had settled this issue already -- seriously, you have no idea how good it felt to see the unanimous pundit praise for Turner Tuesday night -- but apparently not. We have more work to do. Turner bandwagon team ... assemble!

No. 19 Vanderbilt 64, Florida 60: Again, no upsets here: Florida, like Illinois, could have sealed an at-large NCAA tournament spot with a win over the sturdy Commodores on Tuesday night. It didn't happen. Still, the Gators acquitted themselves nicely in the loss; Florida held a typically efficient Vanderbilt offense to a mere 64 points on 60 possessions. Billy Donovan's team was undone by its poor shooting, though, hitting 21-of-50 2-point shots and just 2-of-13 from 3 for a paltry 31.8 effective field goal percentage. Even in a solid defensive effort, that's not going to get the job done.

The Associated Press wrap of the game seems to think that Florida significantly hurt its tournament chances with the loss, but that seems slightly overstated. Sure, Florida didn't help itself, but losing by four to Vanderbilt at home isn't the worst result in the world, is it? Florida might have more work to do -- but no more work than before Tuesday, right?

Everywhere else: Cincinnati likewise needed a big win to keep itself in the at-large conversation. They almost got it, but insert the old koan about horseshoes and hand grenades here ... UTEP clinched the outright Conference USA title with a hard-fought win at Marshall ... Missouri's Zaire Taylor almost perfectly recreated Tyus Edney's famous game-winner in a thrilling overtime win at Iowa State ... North Carolina became the second team in the history of college basketball to get to 2,000 wins; one wonders if the current players felt strange holding that 2,000-win plaque, given this season's ugliness ... Syracuse had no problems with St. John's on senior night ... Baylor won at Texas Tech, handing Pat Knight's team its sixth straight loss ... Minnesota suffered a major letdown at Michigan, one which officially puts the final nail in the the already almost-entirely-assembled Gophers' coffin ... Trevor Booker did manly things in Clemson's win over Georgia Tech ... and Marquette shredded Louisville's zone in a 21-point win in Milwaukee.

Video: Ohio State clinches share of Big Ten

March, 3, 2010

No. 7 Ohio State clinches at least a share of the Big Ten title, putting away Illinois, 73-57.
Saddle Up is our daily preview of the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown.

Illinois at No. 7 Ohio State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Of any team facing bubble implications to play tonight, Illinois' situation is perhaps the most fluid. A win at Ohio State puts the Illini in the absolutely-in pile; a loss leaves them right about where they are now, if not worse off. Losing would make the Illini would 18-12 overall, the sort of record the committee will not be perfectly thrilled with, and Illinois would still have to fend off loss No. 13 when Wisconsin comes to Champaign, Ill. on Sunday.

The good news is Illinois has proven capable of beating top Big Ten teams on the road before. The bad news is that Illinois' style plays right into the Buckeyes' hands: Few teams prevent free throws quite like the Buckeyes, and few teams refuse to pocket their jump shots and attack the rim quite like the Illini. If Illinois can reverse this trend for a night -- if they can get Demetri McCamey to attack the basket and get forwards Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis some good looks against Ohio State's somewhat undersized, shallow front line -- Bruce Weber's charges have a chance. If not, well, Ohio State is better and more efficient than Illinois in just about every aspect of the game. Things don't bode well.

No. 19 Vanderbilt at Florida, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Speaking of bubble teams in need of help ... Florida, come on down. Joe Lunardi has Florida as a No. 10 seed in the tournament right now, but thanks to a close loss at Georgia (which is actually not that horrible loss, given how well Georgia has played at home this season), Florida could use a big win tonight before a daunting trip to Rupp Arena on Sunday.

Make no mistake: That's what a win over Vanderbilt would be. Big. The Commodores have been a steady force in the SEC all season. Their only league losses have been to Kentucky and a blowout at Georgia -- there's that pesky Georgia team again -- and while not a great defensive team, Kevin Stallings' bunch is very difficult to stop on the offensive end. Vanderbilt's attack is nicely balanced between forwards A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffrey Taylor, and guard Jermaine Beal, all who shoot a plus-50 effective field goal percentage. Florida's lack of a true post presence could hurt them against the 6-foot-11 Ogilvy. Then again, Florida's strength isn't its size; it's speed. Make Ogilvy work away from the hoop on defense -- the sudden offensive brilliance of forward Chandler Parsons applies here -- and the Gators can make Vanderbilt exceedingly uncomfortable. And then we can stop talking about the Florida's bubble issues forever. I'm cool with that.

Everywhere else: Cincinnati doesn't share Illinois' and Florida's bubble anxiety -- it's entirely out of the picture, now -- but a win over Villanova couldn't hurt matters, I guess ... Gonzaga would put the cap on another WCC title season by topping Cal-State Bakersfield tonight ... With a win at Marshall, UTEP would seal the outright Conference-USA crown ... Baylor will put its third-place standing in the Big 12 on the line at Texas Tech ... Likewise for Missouri at Iowa State ... Minnesota plays at Michigan in yet another battle of the upper midwest's most disappointing teams ... and deadlocked Big East teams Louisville and Marquette will play a game both teams want, but don't necessarily need, in regards to NCAA tournament hopes. Marquette is involved, so it's a safe bet the game will come down to the wire. That should be fun.
For weeks, Illinois has seemed like an NCAA tournament lock. Those heady days are officially over.

It's not that the Illini are in deep bubble trouble. Quite the opposite: Joe Lunardi has Bruce Weber's team still safely in the tourney as a No. 10 seed, and the Illini aren't among his last four teams in, meaning -- hypothetically, obviously, since Bracketology is inherently a hypothetical exercise -- that Illinois is, as of right now, safe.

That will serve as small comfort to Illini fans, though. Since their win at Wisconsin on Feb. 9 -- which came immediately after Illinois toppled a Kalin Lucas-less Michigan State team in a rowdy "GameDay" environment on Feb. 6 -- the Illini have lost three of their last four. The first two came to Ohio State and Purdue. Forgivable, right?

Saturday's loss to Minnesota at home is less so. The 62-60 disappointment leaves Bruce Weber's team at 18-11 overall with two difficult assignments -- at Ohio State and against Wisconsin at home -- left. Two losses would put Illinois at 18-13 overall. Combine that with Illinois' mixed nonconference results (including losses to Bradley, Utah and Georgia), and it's not inconceivable that the selection committee would look unfavorably on the Illini.

Is this fair? Maybe. Maybe not. The timing of that schedule certainly doesn't help. But the remedy is simple: Illinois must win. If Demetri McCamey and company get either of those last two games, blog posts like this can become immediately irrelevant, and Illinois' rabid fan base can take a collective deep breath. Until then? Not so much.
It was just last week that everyone -- including DeMarcus Cousins himself -- made a big deal of Mississippi State fans getting ahold of Cousins' phone number and calling him repeatedly before Kentucky's showdown with MSU in Starkville. Cousins got the last laugh there, but it was a commonly heard story: player's phone number leaks, player deals with taunts for a few days, player and fan base move on. End of story.

Rarely do you hear stories like this: An anonymous caller dialed up Illinois' Mike Davis last week, and instead of taunting Davis or asking if his refrigerator was running, the caller was downright inspirational:
A concerned fan somehow got ahold of his number last week and called to offer words of inspiration. The two chatted. And Davis was so fired up that he went out and had his best game in a month with 16 points on eight-of-14 shooting and 12 rebounds.

“It was an anonymous call,” he said. “Someone just called and talked some sense into me and said ‘Get back to what you do.’ … This guy called just man-to-man talking and said ‘You have so much ability. Don’t let it go to waste. Don’t let it slip out of your hands.’ He’s been watching me the last two years and knows how I play.”

What's even weirder than some random dude calling Mike Davis -- and let's not be totally gullible here and assume it was someone Davis didn't know; maybe it was just someone Davis would rather not reveal -- is Davis picking up the phone, listening for the first five minutes, and continuing the conversation for the better part of an hour. This stuff doesn't happen very often. But hey, that means the next time a drunk Illinois student sees the Illini at Station and decides to give the team some unsolicited advice, there's at least a sliver of hope Davis isn't totally blowing that student off. There's hope yet.
  • That's the argument made by Mike Miller at NBC. Most fans are probably noticing that Duke-North Carolina doesn't have the same flair in 2010 as it usually does, and that's for obvious reasons: The Tar Heels aren't very good. At 13-10 overall and 2-6 in the ACC, UNC has squandered a wealth of a talent and a high preseason ranking, and most sane predictions would have Duke rolling over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill tonight. Then again, Duke isn't the best road team in the world, and it's not like North Carolina lacks talent. So hey, maybe Mike's right. Maybe this thing is a classic. We can hope, can't we?
  • Similarly, Stewart Mandel argues that despite a loss of luster, Duke-UNC's stakes "couldn't be higher."
  • Much has been made of Duke's "decline" this year. After the Georgetown loss, the buzz was that Duke wasn't dominant anymore, and thus wasn't fun to hate. (You would think it would be more fun to hate a team that's not playing well; you get to point and laugh far more frequently. But I guess not.) In any case, UNC fan blog Carolina March actually dug up a decade's worth of tempo-free numbers and examined this so-called decline. Disclaimer: This is a UNC blog discussing Duke, so don't expect an unbiased analysis. But the numbers do speak for themselves.
  • Want the inside scoop on Arizona's NCAA violations? Here's your must-read.
  • John Calipari posted a Twitpic (something the youngs do when they're sharing photos online, or something) depicting John Wall sitting down for a Slam photo shoot in a blatantly mispelled Kentucky jersey. Rather than the normal spelling, the state is spelled "K-e-n-t-c-u-k-y," which would be very difficult for a play-by-play announcer to pronounce. The reason? Calipari wanted to test Kentucky fans' powers of observation. They're apparently better than mine, because it took me like five minutes to figure out what letters were misspelled. I need a Red Bull.
  • Gonzaga fans are loving the re-emergence of the Zags' big men.
  • Kyle Whelliston writes a typically excellent essay on the importance of a coach's name on the floor, and how that importance weighs against the celebrity status of the average major-college coach in 2010.
  • Speaking of "typically excellent," Mr. Mark Titus has a new blog post today. Are you excited? I know you're excited. Prepare for passages like this: "For the past few years, I’ve been told by various people throughout the Ohio State basketball program that I 'don’t do anything', and by various people I obviously mean Evan “The Villain” Turner. This idea stems from the fact that I’m not called upon to stay after practice and shoot extra shots, I don’t have to do all the drills the scholarship guys are required to do, and I’m really not expected to contribute in any way. I see where The Villain is coming from, but still, I like to think that putting up 19 points in a 90 minute practice last year counts as me doing something, not to mention the various other instances over the past few years in which I’ve been virtually unguardable." And that's only the first paragraph.
  • The CAA is kicking into high gear, and CAA Hoops has devised what I consider to be a awesome aptitude for alliteration. They're calling it "the official CAA Season Shaper Stretch." It rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?
  • The Quad has a full rundown of crucial mid-major conference games you should be paying attention to Wednesday night.
  • Dan Hanner asks: Why did Wisconsin abandon the interior so quickly against Illinois? The Badgers are usually preternaturally patient, and when the shots aren't falling, they're well-coached enough to use that swing offense to get post looks from block-to-block screens. And yet, after being punched in the mouth early by Illinois, they didn't do that. Weird.
  • Sidney Lowe may or may not survive this season at NC State -- his ability to get some serious competition out of a team most picked to finish last in the ACC bears some consideration in that decision -- but if he does, his group of young players could be dancing again, writes Jeff Goodman.
  • South Carolina's Devan Downey was held out of Tuesday's practice, but it looks like he'll be ready to play Florida tonight. I'm sure the Gators are thrilled.
  • Oh, in case you were wondering, Connecticut interim coach George Blaney will be coaching at Syracuse this evening. Blaney has no idea when Calhoun will return.
  • Jarvis Varnado is steadily closing in on the NCAA's all-time blocks record; Joe Lemire details the march.
  • And from the ESPN section of the college hoops world, be sure to check out Pat Forde's latest Minutes, which includes a rather awesome list of the best and worst cities in college basketball. Also see: Andy Katz's quick hitters from a snow-logged travel session Monday, Dana O'Neil's live chat at 2 p.m. ET today.
As always, follow me on Twitter to send me links and tips. Try to avoid the midwestern earthquakes.

The Morning After: Big Ten in flux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saddle Up: In search of Kalin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Saddle Up Purdue-MSU linkage!:

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

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

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

Everywhere else: Alabama will visit Kentucky and face the wrath of emerging monster DeMarcus Cousins ... Georgetown heads to Providence, apparently avoiding the countrywide snow fiasco, and will look to avoid a South Florida-esque letdown on the road ... The Illini head to the Kohl Center, where they're likely to find a stark departure from Saturday's jubilant festivities in Champaign ... VCU takes on George Mason; with a win, the Rams could get a share of first place in the CAA ... and two middling Big 12 teams will attempt to write their respective ships, as Texas Tech goes to Norman to face the Longhorn-killing Sooners.

McCamey's house, McCamey's night

February, 7, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- There are downsides to having one of the best crowds in the country. Just ask Demetri McCamey.

"It gets real loud, and I try to block some of that out because I'm trying to hear [Illinois coach] Bruce [Weber] on the sidelines," McCamey said. "And you know he's always yelling."

[+] EnlargeDemetri McCamey
AP Photo/Heather CoitIllinois guard Demetri McCamey had 22 points and 11 assists against Michigan State.
It's hard to hear yourself think in Assembly Hall -- especially when the Illini fans smell an upset win over a top-five opponent -- let alone hear your coach screaming from the sidelines at crucial moments. Fortunately for Weber, he didn't have much reason to yell at his star point guard on Saturday night. McCamey was just that good.

McCamey went for 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting Saturday night, leading Illinois to its thrilling 78-73 win over No. 5-ranked Michigan State. McCamey was most deadly behind the 3-point line, hitting 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, including the most important shot of the night -- a high-arcing 3 that gave the Illini an eventually insurmountable 73-68 lead with 39 seconds remaining.

This time, it was Demetri's turn to talk over the crowd.

"I turned and told them that this was my house," McCamey said.

It was McCamey's best, most important performance of the year, and it came on Illinois' biggest, most important night. With ESPN's College Gameday in town and a national primetime audience tuning in, McCamey put on a show -- dominating the ball for the Illini at the point guard position and showcasing versatility and maturity in the way he used cuts, found spots and made plays in Weber's motion offense. It was the kind of performance that gets you asked about your "national profile" in postgame press conferences. On a night when everyone saw Demetri McCamey, where does McCamey see himself?

"I'm not trying to prove that I'm one of the best players in the country," McCamey said. "I just want Illinois to go to the tournament and do big things."

One is surely connected to the other. With McCamey in control, the Illini looked as good as they have all year. They were fast-paced and efficient on offense, running out to an early 14-6 lead. When Michigan State came charging back -- and charging back and charging back -- they were resilient and tough on defense. When the game was on the line, they, just like the guard with the ball in his hands, delivered.

It was a marquee tournament win in front of a major audience, and if Illinois is going to make McCamey's tournament wish come true, tonight was a pretty good start.

"We took a step," Weber said. "But it's not like we've made it or anything. You enjoy tonight, enjoy the crowd, because you've got to celebrate sometime. And then we go to Wisconsin on Tuesday. It's going to be tough.

"But we improved," Weber said. "You want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. We're starting to do that."

And as for his guard? Yeah, maybe Bruce didn't need to yell after all.

"I get on Demetri a lot," Weber said, smiling. "But he was pretty good tonight."

Rapid reaction: Illinois 78, MSU 73

February, 6, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- What happens when you mix a tough, highly-ranked road team, an injured star, a potentially explosive offensive home squad and a spaceship-shaped bowl full of insane fans?

You get Saturday night's thrilling 78-73 Illinois win over Michigan State. That's what you get.

As sports fans, we place a big premium on the ability of those to predict what will happen ahead of game time, so maybe I'm revealing too much when I admit the following: I had no idea what would happen Saturday night. Was Illinois talented enough to keep up with a more athletic Michigan State team? Or would Kalin Lucas' injury cripple the Spartans? And just how much would the Assembly Hall home crowd -- pumped up from a full day of College GameDay festivities -- affect the outcome?

Consider those questions answered. Here's what we now know:
  • Demetri McCamey can fill it up. The Illini point guard went on a tear in the early part of the second half, helping the Illini build a six-point lead. Later, with 37 seconds remaining, McCamey's dead eye gave Illinois a commanding 73-68 lead. McCamey dominates the ball for the Illini, and when he's feeling it -- when he's breaking down defenders, getting to the rim, and catching the ball on curl cuts out by the 3-point line -- he's very tough to defend.
  • Michigan State is balanced enough to survive without Lucas, but it's doubtful it can thrive with him in street clothes as he was Saturday. It's a good thing Lucas' injury seems minor -- he was day-to-day before tonight's game and could be back for MSU's game with Purdue on Tuesday -- because without him, the Spartans lack a clear leader on the floor at crucial moments.
  • Still, Michigan State is tough on the road. This team built a 9-0 record in the Big Ten (before its ugly loss to Wisconsin last week) for a reason: They're really tough. In a jam-packed, loud-as-it-gets environment facing a hot, adrenaline-fueled Illinois team -- and, as mentioned, playing without their leading scorer -- the Spartans gave themselves plenty of opportunities to win. Perfect example: Durrell Summers' 3 to pull it within one with 17 seconds remaining. The Spartans have plenty of people who can make shots, and Saturday night, they were ready. The difference between this game and the Wisconsin loss was startling. (Sure, that has a lot to do with the relative talent of their opponents, but still.)
  • The Big Ten has a deserved reputation for being slow, but both of these teams seem to do their best work on the break. This is especially true of Michigan State, but Illinois had its fair share of open jumpers in transition -- shots after one or two passes on the secondary break -- and the Illini made them count.
  • Brandon Paul can rise. The 2009 Illinois Mr. Basketball's soaring one-handed dunk in transition at the 9-minute mark was huge in every sense of the word. Emotionally, it lifted the Illini fans into a defeaning frenzy; visually, it was breathtaking.
  • Speaking of which, UI's freshman are growing up. I saw them play Gonzaga early in the year, and they were full of little freshman mistakes -- bad shots, confused cuts, the occasional awkward turnover. Those mistakes are all but gone. Instead, for example, freshman D.J. Richardson iced two free throws in the final seconds to give Illinois a three-point lead. Richardson finished with 14 points; Paul with eight.
  • Students like to rush courts. Fans wasted no time spilling onto the hardwood after Illinois finished off the Spartans tonight, a questionable court-rush at best. Then again, Illinois is unranked, and it just beat the No 5 team in the land. Then again again, Kalin Lucas was injured, and Illinois went to the title game five years ago. So ... yeah. Questionable. At best. Then again again again, we should probably all stop complaining about bad court rushes now. They happen. Oh well, right? There are worse things in the world, probably.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Maybe we should have seen this coming.

After all, neither the Spartans nor the Illini are particularly tough defensive teams. The Spartans aren't their typically vintage selves on the defensive end, and Bruce Weber has struggled to get his young Illinois team to defend like Bruce Weber teams typically defend. The result: Two hot-shooting teams are on display at Assembly Hall Saturday night, and Illinois leads 35-34 at the half.

Both squads cooled down considerably in the last few minutes, giving us our decidedly sane halftime score. The first 11 minutes, however, were anything but. Illinois had 28 points with nine minutes to go in the first half, which would have put them with 56 at the break and 112 for the game. Michigan State wasn't far behind -- the Spartans shot 53 percent from the field, and were at 75 percent from the field at the 10 minute mark.

Why the hot hands? Two different teams and two different reasons: Michigan State was able to find easy buckets on the interior and better looks from mid-range jumpers in transition. (The Spartans were characteristically unwilling to launch the ball from behind the arc -- they had a mere six attempts.) Illinois, on the other hand, wasn't shy from distance, using Weber's typical motion screening style to get open catch-and-shoot looks all over the court.

As for the atmosphere? It's electric, but give the Spartans credit -- each time the Illini faithful have had something to really freak out about, Michigan State has found a way to answer immediately and quiet the crowd. Given the absence of injured star Kalin Lucas, who is sitting on the bench in a black fleece warm-up, MSU has been impressively resilient. That goes for Michigan State's substitutes, too. Tom Izzo has already played 11 men, including little-used reserves Austin Thornton (5.5 minutes per game) and Mike Kebler (2.0 minutes per game). Both have made contributions: Thorton's buzzer beater cut the Illini halftime lead to one and Kebler's spot defense shut down Demetri McCamey on three straight possessions.

Taken as a whole, it's been a great half. The game is up and down, the pace is speedy, the shots are falling, and the crowd is on fire. It's exactly what you'd hope for from Saturday night's College Gameday feature. Let's see if the second half will live up.