College Basketball Nation: John Shurna

INDIANAPOLIS -- On Thursday night, the Northwestern Wildcats didn’t talk like an NCAA tournament team. They didn’t look like one, either.

Somewhere within the vicinity of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the NCAA selection committee will finalize its bracket in the coming days. And the Wildcats should not be included.

They had their chance to impress and they squandered it.

“I don't know. Hopefully, I won't be disappointed on Sunday,” said Northwestern star John Shurna. “But I guess we'll just have to wait and see. We'll be playing next week, and we like to compete no matter who we're playing against.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for good storylines, too.

Northwestern fans around the world will celebrate the program’s first-ever bid if it happens. The buildup to NCAA tournament No. 1 will consume all of Evanston, Ill. The players within the program certainly put in the work to position themselves for a shot at history leading up to the Big Ten tournament.

But decisions have to be made without consideration of TV story packages. The selection process should answer only one question: Who’s earned it?

And the Wildcats had to do more in Indianapolis to prove that they’d earned a ticket. Instead, they lost to Minnesota for the second time this season.

They led 61-57 with three minutes to play. But they missed three shots and committed two crucial turnovers in the final minutes of regulation. They then lost 75-68 in overtime.

I am not biased toward any particular program. But I do believe the best should earn bids.

And it’s hard to see how that team -- which had to make a statement following an 8-10 record in Big Ten play and a 1-10 record against the RPI’s Top 50 -- gets into the field of 68 after that performance Thursday.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoBill Carmody's Northwestern squad hasn't answered the bell with an NCAA bid on the line.
Minnesota freshman Andre Hollins, who averages 6.7 ppg, scored 25 against the Wildcats. That was the sort of clutch performance that would have made more sense for a Northwestern player based on the circumstances. But Northwestern fumbled down the stretch.

In my opinion, the Wildcats got an F on the eye test against the Gophers. They had something to prove and didn’t play like they knew it in crucial stretches.

They didn’t execute like a tournament team desperate for résumé-boosting victories.

This is not just about Northwestern. This is about the entire field.

This is about Drexel, a team that's lost two games since early December. This is about Tennessee, a team that’s won eight out of nine. This is about competition.

Teams deserve credit for their full body of work. Northwestern’s portfolio put the Wildcats in a pool of schools with similar arguments for NCAA tournament invites.

But if the selection committee aims to create the most competitive bracket, then it should rewatch NU’s effort Thursday night. It warrants scrutiny.

Every “must-have” performance within the bubblesphere does.

I watched the Northwestern-Minnesota game from press row at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And I did not see a team that belonged in the Big Dance.

Perhaps the selection committee has already penciled in the Wildcats as a tournament team. Well, that’s why we have erasers.

This is a great story. And it’s easy to root for a Northwestern team that has never participated in the NCAA tournament. History can be quite cruel.

But that shouldn’t factor into the decision to say yea or nay to the Wildcats on Selection Sunday.

They were presented with an opportunity to make a statement on national TV on Thursday. And the Wildcats ultimately offered an argument against their first bid.

“I'm still here. It's hard. It's disappointing, tough … but, you know, you come back,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said after the game.

Northwestern’s resilience has been well-documented in recent years. The Wildcats have approached NCAA tournament status in the past. But players admit they’ve never felt this close to a bid.

That determination is commendable. The annual conversation about if “this is Northwestern’s year” is a familiar one for fans of any program that’s struggled year after year.

But this can’t be about sympathy. It has to be about quality.

And that means Northwestern -- just 8-12 since mid-December -- is an NIT team.

That might not seem fair to Northwestern or its supporters. But it’s fair to the game and it’s fair to other teams that will prove their worth in the coming days, something the Wildcats didn’t do in their brief stay in the Big Ten tournament.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Was it too much to ask?

Was it too much to hope that just one time -- this time -- would be Northwestern's turn as fate's chosen beneficiary? Was it too much to think that maybe, despite all the reasons to believe the contrary, the Wildcats might just catch a break? Could Northwestern fans, besieged constantly by reminders of their program's historic futility, finally feel the freedom of belief?

The short answer? No.

"It's very tough," Northwestern guard Drew Crawford said.

"Disappointing," forward John Shurna said. "Kind of a tough way to go out."

Wednesday night was Shurna's senior night, an honor he shared with Davide Curletti, Nick Fruendt and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna & Co. are the school's all-time winningest class, one that also set a school record with three consecutive postseason appearances.

Of course, none of those postseasons has been of the NCAA tournament variety, which is why Wednesday night's game was so much more than a disappointing loss, so much more than an emotional senior night spoiled by a 75-73 defeat.

Indeed, the game against Ohio State was one of the biggest in Northwestern's history. That title is fresh, because we said the same exact thing in the wake of Feb. 21's home loss to Michigan. And we could say the same again Saturday, when Northwestern travels to Iowa to play its regular-season finale. At this point, every game Northwestern plays is abnormally important for reasons that go beyond conference record or pride or graduating seniors or even a one-year bubble scenario.

Why? You know why: The Wildcats are still searching for their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. This is the only team in a major conference to never visit the NCAA tournament. You have heard about this ignominious distinction more than a few times in the past few weeks (and months and years) because it's impossible to talk about this program without dwelling on its unique, defining story of woe.

Wednesday night was merely another page in that book. At first, the action looked predictable enough. After a quick six minutes of dominant interior play and hot shooting, a focused and freewheeling Ohio State team -- one that looked vastly different from the weekend's home loss to Wisconsin -- had opened an 18-8 lead. By the five-minute mark, the lead was 30-18.

Just before the half, it was all the way up to 39-26, before Shurna made a 3 to cut the deficit to 10, but no matter. Clearly, the Buckeyes were in control.

Ohio State was moving the ball seamlessly against Northwestern's zone, using skip passes and penetration to find easy first looks. Better yet, when the first looks didn't drop, OSU forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas pounced. Together, they combined for 15 offensive rebounds (and 28 total) and carried the Bucks to an eye-popping offensive rebounding percentage of 62.5 percent.

Northwestern -- for which Shurna, who shoots nearly as many 3s as 2s, counts as an interior player, and a team that plays 6-foot-1 guard David Sobolewski in the baseline of its 1-3-1 zone -- had nothing remotely close to an answer.

"They destroyed us on the backboards," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.

His team's only answer was hope: hope that enough 3s went down to stay within striking distance, hope that Ohio State caught a few bad bounces, hope that the game was just close enough to steal in the end. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. The Wildcats gradually cut OSU's lead throughout the second half, first to six, then to five, then to four.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's John Shurna and Drew Crawford
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter clawing back to tie visiting Ohio State, Northwestern's John Shurna, left, and Drew Crawford suffered another difficult loss.
And although Ohio State seemed to have an answer each and every time -- an Aaron Craft 3 here, a Sullinger putback there -- the Cats, led by Shurna and a 13-of-27 mark from 3, and aided by said bad bounces (and a huge JerShon Cobb steal), found themselves down by three. With the ball. With 16 seconds to play.

You've probably already seen what happened next. Guard Alex Marcotullio, against the advice of his better angels, launched what felt like a 30-foot 3. Like all great last-second shots, it seemed to hang in the air forever before splashing through the net and sending Welsh-Ryan Arena into convulsions of euphoria and disbelief.

The only problem: There still were 7 seconds on the scoreboard and Thad Matta called a timeout, and before you could realize it -- before Welsh-Ryan could process what was happening -- Craft was sprinting down the court and heaving the ball ahead to Sullinger, who had established the perfect position to quickly turn and score with his right hand, and now there's 3 seconds left, and Shurna is hoisting a half-court shot that hits the front of the rim and misses, and ... wait. What just happened?

A cynical fan -- or an out-and-out jerk -- probably would say Northwestern happened. This is what Northwestern does, especially in recent seasons. It takes its fans to the brink, to the point of ecstatic belief, before revealing some fresh new horror.

Frankly, if the aforementioned cynic said this to you, it'd be pretty difficult to disagree.

But while the short answer above might have been "no," it was impossible to talk to Crawford and Shurna after the game and not sense some lack of emotional weight. Both were positive, even upbeat, or at least as upbeat as a human being can be after what they had just seen. (Before shooting the above video, I cursorily asked Shurna, "How's it going?" His response: "Ha. I've been better." Note to self: Never use that phrase on a dreary Monday morning again.)

"Obviously it's tough," Crawford said, "but we played great down toward the end of the game, and we're all proud of our team. I think we're a resilient bunch, and we'll be ready to go on Saturday."

Maybe Shurna and Crawford are used to all the will-they-or-won't-they talk by now. Maybe they've chosen to ignore it. It was surely no surprise that every question, press-room murmur and speculative amateur bracketologism Wednesday night dwelled on whether this team would be the one to finally, mercifully end college basketball's most infamous streak.

It was the first question Matta faced when he sat down for his postgame news conference: Is Northwestern a tournament team?

"Yeah," Matta said. "Oh yeah. ... I know this. I would hate on Selection Sunday to have Northwestern come across, to have to play them."

Shurna was quizzed about how, with so much pressure and bubble speculation compounding in the final week of the season, his team could rebound. ("Gotta win," he said.) Crawford was asked whether Wednesday's loss "proved" anything to the selection committee about Northwestern's makeup.

"I don't think a loss means too much," he said, flashing a better understanding of the selection process than his inquisitor.

The truth is, a loss doesn't mean much, if anything. The good news, however, is this: Other bubble teams lost Wednesday night, too, and in Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket update, the Wildcats were still listed as the last team in the tournament. Nothing is guaranteed, but in Northwestern's case, that's a good thing. The Cats might not be safely in the tournament, the way they would have been had Shurna's final prayer been answered, had Matta and and Craft and Sullinger not so ruthlessly executed their final four-second game winner. But this group isn't obviously out of the field, either.

"Had we won the game, it would have been a great win for us," Crawford said. "But that's not really going to keep us down at all. We're excited to finish this season strong. And it starts in practice tomorrow."

And so another five days -- or 11 days -- of bubble speculation will continue. Can this star-crossed program get it done? Can Shurna go out on something more than disappointment? Can Northwestern fans, against all reason and rationale and evidence to the contrary, dare to believe?

The short answer, at least Wednesday night, was no.

But the long answer? Let's wait and see.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A quick rundown of Ohio State's 75-73 victory over Northwestern on Wednesday night:

Overview: The script was written. Northwestern didn't have enough size, enough athleticism, enough sheer basketball talent, and Ohio State did. The Wildcats were getting brutalized on the boards, and while their outside shooting kept them in the game, it didn't seem capable of actually pushing them over that last big invisible hump.

And then, suddenly, it did. Northwestern hung in and battled back from double-digit second-half deficits. By the final two minutes, the Wildcats had cut the lead to five, then four, then three, then -- suddenly, miraculously, from 30 or so feet -- Alex Marcotullio sank a game-tying 3 and sent Northwestern's tortured fan base into hysterics.

And then, just as suddenly, the euphoria vanished. Ohio State ran a perfectly designed play with 7 seconds left, leading to a shockingly easy Jared Sullinger layup. John Shurna's last-ditch half-court heave (just barely) missed, and there it was: 75-73, Buckeyes. Northwestern was close. So, so close. But the hump won again.

Star of the game: Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes big man found life in the middle of Northwestern's zone about as easy as you'd expect. He scored 22 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, 11 of them of the offensive variety. He and Deshaun Thomas (19 points, 10 rebounds) dominated down low, an advantage that for much of the game kept Northwestern at bay.

Stat of the game: 62.5. That's the percentage of its own misses Ohio State grabbed Wednesday night. For reference's sake, the national leader in offensive rebounding percentage (Quinnipiac, believe it or not) grabs about 42 percent of its own misses on average. Again, OSU dominated the offensive glass, and those second-chance points were the key difference.

What it means: It's impossible not to feel, if only a little, for Northwestern. In consecutive weeks, the Wildcats took a top team (first Michigan, then the Buckeyes) to the wire at home, either of which would have given them the marquee win that almost certainly would ensure a first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament. Now, their at-large bid is still shaky, with only one game -- a potential bubble-burster at Iowa on Saturday -- left in the regular season. This is Northwestern's second brutal loss in eight days.
Click here to read our afternoon recap. Now back to the lecture at hand, which comes in three parts:

The Rivalry

No. 2 Syracuse 71, Connecticut 69: One of the many things to love about this Syracuse team -- besides its great zone defense and incredible depth and talent and length and pretty much everything besides defensive rebounding -- is how well it handles close games. Since the Jan. 21 loss at Notre Dame, Syracuse has taken respective best shots from Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, South Florida and now at UConn, and each time the Orange have either pulled away late or made the key stop down the stretch to preserve the narrow win. It's a real skill, and it isn't entirely intangible; when you have a defense this good, you tend to get a lot of stops, and there's no reason why that wouldn't be true in the final minutes of any given game, too. But however you quantify it, the Orange win close games. Such traits tend to come in handy in March.

As for Connecticut? While the Huskies didn't get the win, they appear to be rounding into form, or at least starting to figure a few things out. UConn had its fair share of issues with Syracuse's zone, and there were plenty of bad shots to be had, but the Huskies were much more balanced (four players finished in double figures, while Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier combined for 13 assists) and competent on both ends of the floor in the second half. Unless it suddenly begins shooting the ball from outside at a much higher clip, this team probably has a ceiling. But there are plenty of realistic improvements to be made. Even better, many of them appear to be in progress. Let's not bury this team just yet.

The Upsets

Purdue 75, No. 13 Michigan 61: When Purdue guard Ryne Smith was asked what he thought about guard Kelsey Barlow's dismissal from the team last week, he was direct, even curt: "Addition by subtraction," Smith said. Apparently he was right. Whatever the reason, Purdue played its best game of the season Saturday at the most important time, containing Michigan's outside shooters and slowly stretching a second-half lead thanks to the heady play of point guard Lewis Jackson, forward Robbie Hummel and, most importantly, guard Terone Johnson, who scored a career-high 22 points and made a handful of key plays down the stretch, including two big and-1 finishes around the rim. Purdue is an unconventional team with no true post presence; the Boilermakers rely on Hummel's outside-in versatility and an extended, guard-oriented style. This makes them a great matchup for Michigan, and, in their own way, a dangerous team.

In any case, Purdue can now feel entirely safe about its at-large NCAA tournament chances. Beating Michigan at home -- the Wolverines' first home loss of the season -- is most definitely a signature victory. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

TCU 83, No. 21 New Mexico 64: Let's hear it for TCU! A round of applause is most definitely in order. At this time in 2011, the Horned Frogs were in the midst of a season-ending 13-game losing streak, en route to an 11-22 finish. This season is an entirely different story: TCU is playing its best basketball down the stretch, having won four of its past five (and eight in a row at home) and toppling ranked UNLV and New Mexico and a good Colorado State squad in the process. The key: great 3-point shooting. The Horned Frogs lead the league in long-range makes in conference play, and they're undefeated at home as a result. What a difference a year makes.

In the meantime ... um, what happened to New Mexico? Last Saturday, we watched in near-awe as the Lobos thoroughly dominated UNLV, which came just a few days after a 10-point win at San Diego State. Steve Alford's team, once a relatively unheralded efficiency darling with few good wins to show for it, looked set to run away with the Mountain West and make a deep run into March. Since then, the Lobos are 0-2 and are now in a three-way tie. A loss at Colorado State makes some sense; we know the Rams are tough, particularly at home. And this is not to take away from TCU, which (as you just read above) is giving everyone more than they bargained for in February, particularly in their own building. But a 19-point blowout loss? Isn't this the team that just rolled UNLV in the Pit and moved to 8-2 in the league? It's kind of weird, right?

Georgia 76, No. 11 Florida 62: This is an upset, of course, but I'm not sure we should be all that surprised. Frankly, I'm not sure if a Florida loss should ever truly catch us off guard. Don't get me wrong: The Gators are good. But they're a specific kind of good. When their steady diet of 3s are falling, they can shoot opponents off the floor before said opponents even have a chance to catch their breath. But if the shots aren't going down, Florida has no Plan B. Patric Young is the only true post presence, and his offensive game is still a work in progress (and he's still underutilized as a scoring threat to boot). The Gators' defense -- which ranks fifth in opponents' points per possession in SEC play, No. 10 in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in block rate -- still isn't good enough to hold opponents in check when the shots clanging off the iron and the opponents start turning long rebounds into secondary breaks and easy buckets. Florida might yet get there on the defensive end, but it isn't yet. If this UF team has a lower ceiling than it should, well, that's why.

The Bubble Specials

Alabama 67, Mississippi State 50: It was instinctively easy to write off the Crimson Tide when coach Anthony Grant suspended Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green; it was easy to predict a late collapse, even a fall off the bubble, for a team whose two leading scorers would be missing such important games down the stretch. Instead, the Crimson Tide keep, well, rolling. They've now won three in a row and prevented any hint of a collapse. Mississippi State, on the other hand, appears to be doing exactly that: The Bulldogs are collapsing. This is the Bulldogs' fifth consecutive defeat, a stretch that has included some good basketball (in the near-miss vs. Kentucky this week) but also some baffling losses (the loss at Auburn especially). It's no stretch to say Mississippi State -- which for much of the season looked like a tourney near-lock -- could wind up missing the tournament after all. The Bulldogs are, after all, 6-8 and tied with rival Ole Miss in the SEC standings. Ouch.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Rob Christy/US PresswireJohn Shurna's free throws pushed Northwestern past Penn State -- and kept an NCAA bid in sight.
Northwestern 67, Penn State 66: Breathe a big ol' sigh of relief, Northwestern fans: In the chase for their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, the Wildcats remain very much alive. Senior forward John Shurna made the game-winning free throws with just 2.6 seconds remaining, giving Bill Carmody his first win in State College since 2002. Big challenges still lie ahead: Ohio State comes to town on Wednesday, followed by next weekend's season-ender at Iowa, a team that just knocked off Indiana and Wisconsin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But for now, some minor rejoicing is in order. Northwestern's tourney hopes are still very real.

Rutgers 77, Seton Hall 72 (OT): Let's not take Seton Hall off the bubble just yet, eh? The Pirates got a great win over Georgetown this week, one that could have firmed up a previously shaky at-large profile. All Seton Hall needed to do the rest of the way was avoid bad losses. Well, losing to a young, 13-16 Rutgers team at home is just that. Next weekend, the Hall travels to DePaul. If the Pirates lose there, all the good vibes from the emphatic Georgetown victory will have almost entirely faded from the picture.

VCU 89, George Mason 77: First things first: Thanks to Drexel's one-point win at Old Dominion on Saturday afternoon, VCU's win over George Mason won't give them a share of the CAA title this season. Bummer, sure, but the Rams would surely settle for a spot in the NCAA tournament, something to which they're at least a little closer after this victory today. As a league, the Colonial's top teams (Drexel, VCU and GMU) didn't get quality nonconference wins (VCU's best came against South Florida, for example), so any at-large consideration will have to come from separation at the top and perhaps a pair of deep runs for both Drexel and VCU in the CAA tournament. A win here was a must, and Shaka Smart's team got it, behind Bradford Burgess' career-high 31 points.

Dayton 76, UMass 43: A home loss to UMass can't be called "bad," but for a team like Dayton -- which is desperately scrapping for a spot in the NCAA tournament -- it could have been disastrous. Instead, the opposite happened: UD won, and won big, looking very much like one of the A-10's best teams and a squad worthy of a tourney bid in the process. We'll see how the Flyers finish up, but if they're one of the last four in, they might just be one of the play-in game candidates, which are held in -- you guessed it -- Dayton!

Saint Joseph's 82, No. 22 Temple 72: Speaking of somewhat fringe Atlantic 10 tournament hopefuls, the A-10 can't offer a bubble team a better shot at a marquee win than Temple on its own floor late in the season, but the Hawks still had to overcome Fran Dunphy's typically peerless bunch, which had won its previous 11 games and 13 in the 15-game stretch beginning with its Jan. 4 victory over Duke. Phil Martelli's team is now 9-6 in the league and 19-11 overall, and it added the one thing it desperately needed to its profile: A legitimate top-25 RPI win. Temple is most definitely that.

Penn 55, Harvard 54: Just when you think it's time to plan a long-awaited Harvard hoops coronation, Penn's Zack Rosen comes along, scores 20 points, makes a huge jumper down the stretch and ices two game-winning free throws in the final 30 seconds. And all of a sudden the Ivy League race is legitimately up for grabs with both of these teams having two losses. (Another one-game playoff for the Crimson? Oh boy.) As an at-large entity, Harvard is still in decent shape, but its profile isn't so strong that it can afford to lose at either Columbia or Cornell in its final two games, lose out on the Ivy auto-bid, and still feel safe about being picked to join the group of 37 at-large teams. Big days ahead for Tommy Amaker's team.

Washington 59, Washington State 55: For the first 10 or so minutes of the first half, it looked like Wazzu was going to hand its in-state opponent the type of loss that would severely damage Washington's at-large chances. But the Huskies fought back and, as the AP report notes, won the game's most important battle -- at the charity stripe: "Ultimately, the game came down to free throws. WSU (14-14, 6-10) went 11 of 12 to keep the game tied at 28-all despite shooting 27 percent in the first half. In the second half, the Cougars shot 6 of 20 from the free throw line, while the Huskies, who only went 2 of 5 in the first half, finished 17 of 24." The win keeps Washington on the right side of the bubble for now, but UW's marginal profile might not be able to survive a loss at either USC or UCLA going away.

Xavier 65, Richmond 57: Kenny Frease's season highs in both points (19) and rebounds (14) helped carry Xavier to an ugly but ultimately victorious Saturday. A loss here would have kicked Xavier off the bubble for good and almost certainly, barring an upset in the A-10 tournament, ended Chris Mack's 100 percent NCAA tournament hit rate in his XU tenure. Instead, the Musketeers live to fight another day.

No. 21 San Diego State 74, Colorado State 66: The Rams pass at least two NCAA tournament bubble tests: The RPI/SOS numbers are great, and they sure do look like a tournament team. But will that be enough? A win in Viejas Arena would have provided a tidy bookend to this week's huge victory over New Mexico, but the loss isn't a huge deal. Colorado State, which is undefeated at home in Mountain West play, hosts UNLV in Fort Collins in just three days' time. Win that one and the Rams are probably set.

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 19, 2012
This Saturday was always going to be a bit more underwhelming than recent weeks, but boy, did it end well. Once it ended, that is. Creighton students rushed the court before the game was officially over. Their reverse storm, in which they calmly walked off the court, was one of the most surprisingly orderly things I've ever seen. Bravo, Bluejays fans. Bravo.

Read up on Long Beach State-Creighton, Michigan-Ohio State and the rest of Saturday night's action here. If you missed our afternoon recap, catch up now.

No. 19 Michigan 56, No. 6 Ohio State 51: Here's something I learned Saturday -- Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1986. As Dan Shulman said on the broadcast, that's kind of hard to believe. Here's something else we learned Saturday: The Wolverines have a legitimate chance to break that streak this season.

The race for the Big Ten title is officially a three-way affair. How did Michigan get there? By taking care of business at home. Saturday's win was the Wolverines' 16th consecutive victory in Ann Arbor. For much of the past 10 years, under Tommy Amaker and then John Beilein, Crisler was usually a cold, detached, almost lifeless place. On Saturday, it was rocking in Minute 1 and Minute 40 and constantly in between.

Of course, a home atmosphere is nice, but it doesn't mean much if your team can't play. And Michigan most certainly can play. Point guard Trey Burke continued his impressive freshman campaign against the Buckeyes, scoring 17 points -- including a flurry of much-needed late buckets, one of which he took straight at former grade-school teammate Jared Sullinger -- and dishing five dimes against the best perimeter defender in the country, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Tim Hardaway Jr. added efficient perimeter scoring, while forward Jordan Morgan scored 11 points and 11 rebounds against Sullinger. Those matchups -- point guard and forward -- should be Michigan's weaknesses, particularly against OSU. In this one, Burke and Morgan turned them into strengths.

That said, Michigan won the game on the defensive end, where it held the Buckeyes to .91 points per trip, and in some part it has the Buckeyes to thank. Shooting guard William Buford struggled yet again, going 3-of-12 and continuing his senior slump. Credit the Wolverines for forcing the Bucks into perimeter jump shots, but also blame Ohio State, which often settled for those jumpers without first attempting to get Sully into an iso situation on the low block. When Sullinger did touch the ball, the Buckeyes usually got a score. They figured this out eventually, which is what got them back into the game in the second half. But it was too little, too late. You wouldn't think you'd need to "figure out" that you should probably give the ball to Sullinger because, you know, he's really good.

Look, Ohio State remains a very good defensive team. After all, holding Michigan to 56 points on its own floor is no easy task. But the Buckeyes' offense, particularly its perimeter shooting (or lack thereof), looks like a serious liability. It lurched helplessly against Michigan State's defense last Saturday, and it played right into Michigan's hands tonight. As a result, OSU allowed its sworn rival to tie it in the league standings, a game behind MSU in the loss column. If the Buckeyes can't fix these problems, their March ceiling -- once as limitless as any team's in the country -- will suffer accordingly.

No. 14 Murray State 65, No. 16 Saint Mary's 51: How much fun is Murray, Ky., having right now? With a rare national audience and Dickie V in the house, the Racers played as well as they have all season, as their fans -- an intense, buoyant bunch -- gleefully soaked it all in. Judging by Vitale's rave reviews of the small burgh, I'd say Murray might be one of the best places in the country to spend this exact Saturday night. I kind of wish I was there. (My colleague Jason King is and had this to say about the game.)

In any case, the nation got a chance to see what this Murray State team was all about, and the timing couldn't have been better. After its loss to Tennessee State two weeks ago, the tone of the discussion around the Racers changed from "Whoa, this team could go undefeated!" to "Well, that was fun, but check out that at-large profile -- Murray State could miss the tournament!" I think we can put that debate to rest. The Racers might not be a national title contender, but with Isaiah Canaan leading the way (he had 23 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, a 5-for-8 mark beyond the arc and at least two or three downright crossovers that made this viewer yelp in enjoyment), they are certainly one of the better mid-major teams in the country and one that can give plenty of outfits issues in the NCAA tournament. Sure, some of the wins were shaky, and sure, the Ohio Valley Conference is bad, but when you win your first 23 games, guess what? You're pretty good.

Saint Mary's was far less convincing. The Gaels' offense was hobbled by Matthew Dellavedova's rolled ankle and Rob Jones' early foul trouble, but those weren't the primary causes -- and the road atmosphere and tough Murray defense don't explain it all, either. In reality, the Gaels, who have lost three of their past four (all by double digits), are just flat-out struggling. Over the course of the WCC season, the Gaels have posted about 1.17 points per possession (adjusted), best in the league. In their three recent losses, Dellavedova & Co. have failed to exceed a point per trip. Much like Creighton, this team's defense isn't nearly good enough to get the job done when the offense struggles. Much like Creighton, if the Gaels don't throw points in at something near their usual rate, they're going to lose. It's really just that simple.

Creighton 81, Long Beach State 79: Speaking of fun, how much fun was this? The finish -- Antoine Young's brilliant left-handed, last-second game winner -- was merely the icing on the cake. The 40 minutes that preceded that shot were chock full of high-octane mid-major awesomeness. LBSU's Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson trading deep 3s and inside moves with Young and Doug McDermott? Yes, please.

We couldn't have predicted the ending, but we should have seen the entertainment value coming. These teams both excel most at one thing: scoring the basketball. That's what Creighton does. When the Bluejays don't put the ball in at a high rate, they lose, as they did in their recent three-game losing streak, culminating with a home blowout at the hands of Wichita State last weekend. The defense simply isn't good enough to save Creighton from an off night.

Fortunately, Creighton has Doug McDermott. McDermott has been great all season, though he's struggled of late, and it's no coincidence his team had lost three of its past four in that span. But on Saturday night, he was amazing. Not "amazing" in a "wow, this sesame chicken is amazing" sort of way; McDermott was actually, literally amazing. He scored 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting and added 11 rebounds, six of which on the offensive end. The most impressive came late in the second half, when McDermott flew to the hoop and somehow tipped in a wayward shot arcing halfway over his head. Once it was clear McDermott was on, LBSU coach Dan Monson ordered his charges to begin aggressively double-teaming the opposing coach's son. But McDermott's eager passing and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands -- see the aforementioned tip-in -- neutralized that strategy. He was just so good. And at the perfect time, too.

As entertaining as this game was, as memorably as McDermott performed, the good news for Long Beach is that a loss at Creighton hardly hurts its at-large profile. Chances are, this team will continue its blistering Big West pace and get to the NCAA tournament in academic, auto-bid fashion. But if something goes awry in the conference tournament, LBSU's crazy nonconference schedule -- the toughest in the country by, like, a lot -- should be more than worthy of the committee's respect. Whatever happens, we'll always have Saturday night in Omaha. What a game, man. What a game.

Other observations from the night that was:
  • All season, Arkansas has been bad on the road (where it is still winless) but great in its own building (where it was undefeated). That trend ended emphatically against the Gators. Florida hung a 98-68 offensive blitz on the young, up-tempo Razorbacks, led by Erving Walker's career-high 31 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Walker has been criticized this season, and rightfully so; his insistence on forcing bad shots in bad situations (at Kentucky, for example) is maddening. But you can't really play much better than he did Saturday night. Insane line.
  • Harvard's vaunted defense handled rival Yale with relative ease, which immediately brings to mind images of old men in smoking jackets, teasing each other over cigars and snifters of cognac. (This is how I see Harvard-Yale. I know it's silly, but I can't help it.) This creates a rather compelling finish to the conference season: Harvard, the long-dormant program with sudden title expectations, will face traditional league powers Penn and Princeton at home this week. If the Crimson win, they'll sew up at least a share of the Ivy title, maybe more. There's something slightly poetic about that.
  • Huge win for Xavier, which held on to its slim margin in the final seconds of overtime to beat Dayton, 86-83. The Musketeers have been flagging badly along the bubble cut line lately and they desperately needed a home win tonight to stay viable. Oh, and here's a fun fact (unless you're a Dayton fan): This loss made it 27 straight for the Flyers at rival Xavier. Dayton hasn't won there since -- get this -- 1981. Yikes.
  • Speaking of fun facts, after an 18-point effort in a 64-53 win over Minnesota, Northwestern forward John Shurna became the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, toppling Billy McKinney's 35-year hold on the honor. That's all well and good, but Shurna is no doubt more focused on the here and now, where the Wildcats couldn't afford to drop this game and still hope to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid, at least if the bracket was selected tomorrow. The victory keeps Northwestern very much alive. Minnesota's chances, unfortunately, will suffer in proportion.
  • When it rains, it -- well, you know. The cliche certainly applies to Villanova, which is struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season but had, even without Maalik Wayns (knee) and James Bell (ankle), a 20-point lead in this game. Notre Dame came back and won in overtime and, well, yeah: That's a tough way to lose. Villanova could surely have used some brief flash of sunlight in an otherwise dark year. It was so, so close Saturday. And then it wasn't. Brutal. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won its eighth game in a row. The Irish don't always look pretty, but they get the job done.
  • Southern Miss lost at Houston. Yep. That happened. It's bad news for Larry Eustachy's team, of course -- it puts a definite dent into the Golden Eagles' otherwise stellar tourney résumé, which features gaudy RPI and SOS numbers -- but also bad news for Conference USA, which would no doubt prefer to be a multi-bid league this season. Speaking of which, Memphis took its own awful loss today, too, 60-58 at home to UTEP. Yes, Memphis lost to UTEP at home. The Tigers had been quietly working their way through C-USA play with relative ease, but the offensive inconsistency that plagued them in their nonconference slate crept back in against the Miners, and that doesn't bode well for the coming tournament. Mild C-USA intrigue abounds!
  • Speaking of bad losses by Mississippi teams, what is going on at Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were listless at Auburn -- Auburn! -- in a 65-55 loss, MSU's third in a row in a season that is stunningly spiraling in the direction of the bubble. The Bulldogs are just 6-6 in the SEC and have games against Kentucky and at Alabama this week. Uh-oh.
  • And speaking of uh-oh and three-game losing streaks, Gonzaga lost in the closing seconds at San Francisco -- the third consecutive year it's lost to the Dons on the road. The Zags shot 51 percent and yet still lost, falling into a tie with BYU for second in the WCC, one game behind 12-2 Saint Mary's.
  • Colorado State held on for a rather ugly win over Wyoming. This was a definite bubble elimination game, one Wyoming couldn't afford to drop if it wanted to preserve any chance of at-large consideration. The victory won't put CSU in the field by any means, but it keeps the Rams alive, if only barely.
  • Watching Georgetown, it's hard not to be impressed with the Hoyas' pinpoint Princeton offense. But this team's real strength is its defense. We saw that again Saturday, as Georgetown held Providence to 25 percent shooting at the Dunk, a win that pushed Georgetown to 10-4 in the Big East and should quell any lingering concerns its fans may have had about another late-season collapse. That's not happening.

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

February, 13, 2012
The Big Ten's tumult continues. Michigan State's win at Ohio State on Saturday changed the league's title race. It's still wide open with a few more weeks to go in the regular season. With that, I present my latest power rankings:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' weekend road victory over the Buckeyes solidified their top spot in my power rankings. The Spartans have held their Big Ten opponents to a 38 percent clip from the field, the top mark in the conference. They’re physical and versatile. And with Draymond Green's leadership, the Spartans have the potential to make a serious run in March.

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes took a tough loss against a talented team. Shots weren’t falling (26 percent from the field). Jared Sullinger was frustrated all game (10 turnovers). But it happens. Elite teams fall, especially when they’re up against other top-10 squads. If there’s one major question for the Buckeyes stemming from that loss, however, it centers on their struggles from beyond the arc. When they need the 3-pointer in a tight game (33 percent overall, 2-for-15 against the Spartans), who will step up and hit that shot? Deshaun Thomas was 3-for-11 from beyond the arc in the team’s four games before Saturday's contest, yet he took and missed all five 3-point attempts against the Spartans. Could be a major problem down the stretch.

3. Michigan: The Wolverines recorded back-to-back victories after last weekend’s loss at Michigan State, which looks even better considering the fact that Ohio State lost to the Spartans at home by the same 10-point margin. Tim Hardaway Jr. recently suggested that the Wolverines had some chemistry issues following his team’s loss in East Lansing last weekend. That might be an ominous indicator for Michigan’s future. The more immediate concern for the team’s supporters, however, should be Hardaway’s two single-digit scoring efforts in the team’s past three games.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers’ game will never change. They’ll work the shot block, play tough defense and hope for a grind-it-out victory. But will they have the necessary offense to advance in the NCAA tournament? The Badgers lost a double-digit lead at Minnesota on Thursday when they failed to score for the final eight minutes of regulation in a game they eventually won in overtime. But to contend for the Big Ten title, they’ll have to beat Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. Wisconsin lost to both teams in previous meetings because it couldn’t find the offense to squeeze out wins in those games.

5. Indiana: The Hoosiers have won two in a row. But that’s not the best news for a program that’s been subpar outside of Assembly Hall. Three of the team’s final five Big Ten games will be played in Bloomington, where the Hoosiers are 14-1 this season. They’re shooting 49.6 percent from the field. The Hoosiers have a favorable schedule that could help them gain some momentum entering the postseason.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers have lost five of eight. But all five losses came against ranked Big Ten teams. It won’t get much easier for Matt Painter’s squad, which will play Michigan and Indiana on the road and Michigan State in three of its last six Big Ten games. The Boilermakers continue to suffer from their limited interior depth. They have the worst rebounding defense (35.0 allowed per game) and field goal percentage defense (47.3 percent) as a result of their limited size. It could become an even bigger problem down the stretch.

7. Minnesota: The Gophers have won five of their past eight games and gave the Badgers hell Thursday. They don’t have a true star. They’re just winning with persistence. Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology projections list the Gophers as one of the “last four in,” a surprising position for a team that’s playing with so much youth and inexperience. A home win over Ohio State on Tuesday or Michigan State next week could seal their postseason fate.

8. Northwestern: The Wildcats had won three consecutive games before they lost to Purdue on Sunday. John Shurna (19.5 ppg) is a scoring machine, but his team has given up 70.4 points per game in conference play. And Northwestern is the worst free throw shooting team (65 percent) in the league. That’s not exactly the formula for a squad with limited athleticism and talent to climb the standings in the deepest conference in the country.

9. Illinois: It’s never a good thing when a school’s athletic director refuses to give a coach a vote of confidence with a month to go before Selection Sunday. Bruce Weber’s job will certainly be in jeopardy if this slide continues. The Illini have lost six of their last seven games. They’re just a bad team right now, and they could play their way out of the NCAA tournament. This is one of most disappointing programs in the country right now. They brought in a highly touted recruiting class and have a 7-footer inside who should be a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft. And still, perennial pitfalls persist.

10. Iowa: For all of the Hawkeyes' struggles this season, they’ve been solid at home, where they’re 3-1 in their last four games. Three of their final six games will be played at Carver Hawkeye Arena. Perhaps they’ll finish strong.

11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions continue to give squads fits in State College. Wisconsin and Indiana escaped with single-digit victories. Purdue and Illinois lost at Penn State. Three of the team’s final five Big Ten games are at home.

12. Nebraska: Yes, the Huskers have lost four straight. But they’re investing in basketball in Lincoln. A new practice facility and a brand-new arena will be ready next season. As difficult as it might seem, nearby Creighton is proof that Doc Sadler can build in Nebraska in the coming years. If he’s still the head coach.
1. A Big 12 source with direct knowledge of the expansion board said that the league continues to be told that West Virginia will be in the league in 2012-13, but doesn’t have official word yet. The football schedule isn’t done yet, but the plans are for West Virginia to be in the league, instead of schools searching for a non-conference replacement. Regardless, the Big 12 needs a decision sooner than later on West Virginia’s status. The Big 12 has two schedules working right now, one with West Virginia and one without — and it will be a scheduling nightmare if the Mountaineers are legally blocked from joining the conference.

2. Three players had a tremendous night Thursday on three teams that you might not want in your region on your bracket. Momo Jones scored 43 for Iona in a victory over Canisius. Damian Lillard put up 40 in a win for Weber State over Portland State. Isaiah Canaan scored 32 (24 in the second half) for Murray State in a win over Southeast Missouri State. Lillard and Canaan have been consistently good all season. Iona coach Tim Cluess said last week he was looking for consistency from Jones. He might have found it Thursday.

3. John Shurna scored 28 points for Northwestern in a win over Nebraska. But unless the Wildcats can get on a monster run at 3-6 in the Big Ten or win the conference tournament, Shurna will be yet another Northwestern player who had a stellar career that didn’t include an NCAA tournament berth. There have been a number of these players in the history of the program, all likely thinking they were going to be the one to lead the Wildcats to that first-ever NCAA trip.

What we learned from Saturday's games

January, 14, 2012
It didn't look like a great slate of games coming in, but Saturday turned out to be full of upsets and last-second thrillers. Here are some things we learned from all the action ...

The Top Three

Florida State 90, No. 3 North Carolina 57
What we learned: Wow. A true beatdown. Perhaps we don’t have an elite team in college basketball this season. North Carolina has as much potential as any team in the country to warrant that title, but Saturday’s meltdown -- the most lopsided of the Roy Williams era -- contradicted much of what we thought we knew about the Tar Heels. The Seminoles are always feisty against Carolina and Duke and tend to be giant-killers, but this was just silly. The Noles were 12-for-27 from the 3-point line in this victory. Deividas Dulkys was 8-for-10 from beyond the arc and scored a career-high 32 points. He had scored a combined 32 points in his previous nine games. The Tar Heels lost their fire once the barrage began. The Seminoles saw a vulnerable team and pounced. For the third time this season, the Heels lost a game outside of Chapel Hill. But in this loss, they were bullied and lethargic. How will UNC recover, and what on earth is the ACC about right now?

No. 2 Kentucky 65, Tennessee 62
What we learned: Cuonzo Martin’s Volunteers haven’t looked like an 8-9 squad over the past week. In their past three games, they’ve defeated Florida, nearly knocked off Mississippi State on the road and battled Kentucky for all 40 minutes. Freshman Jarnell Stokes, the highly touted prep player who joined the team Monday, recorded nine points and grabbed four rebounds in his debut. Once Stokes gets into shape, he’s going to have a major effect on a Tennessee squad that led Kentucky by eight in the second half and stuck with the Wildcats until the end. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (18 points, 4 blocks) are two of America’s best, but their squad is going to get caught in league play soon if it continues to show up only after halftime.

No. 1 Syracuse 78, Providence 55
What we learned: This game was over when Ed Cooley announced stud point guard Vincent Council would not play. The Friars’ leading scorer might not have affected the final outcome, but he could have helped his squad’s deplorable offense (3-for-14 from beyond the arc, 22 turnovers) against Cuse's press. Council was a beast in PC's 31-point destruction of Louisville earlier this week. But Syracuse proved, again, that it’s the undisputed No. 1 team in the country. SU has separated itself from one of the most competitive leagues in the country. The Orange’s 19-0 start matches the best in school history. With North Carolina losing to Florida State and Kentucky struggling against Tennessee, it’s about time that Syracuse gets more credit for its strong start. Best team. In the country. No debate.

The Midwest Upsets

Northwestern 81, No. 7 Michigan State 74
What we learned: Oh, Big Ten. How you always find a way to amaze us. Within the past week, the league’s top three teams all have fallen in upsets. At home in Evanston, the Wildcats (losers of four of their previous five entering the game) snapped Michigan State’s 15-game winning streak as John Shurna led four double-figure scorers with 22 points. This game meant a few things: (1) There’s far less separation between the top and bottom of the Big Ten than there appeared to be two weeks ago. (2) Much like Michigan and Wisconsin, the Spartans are looking for a consistent No. 3. Draymond Green and Keith Appling were the team’s only two scorers in double figures. (3) Northwestern needs to prove it can put together a string of games that resemble Saturday’s outing. The Wildcats have pieces, but they tend to showcase their potential in spurts. Wonder whether this season will be different.

Iowa 75, No. 13 Michigan 59
What we learned: I can’t figure out Iowa or the Big Ten right now. The Hawkeyes knocked off their second nationally ranked opponent in two weeks. And in a Big Ten that’s as hard to peg as any league in the country right now, the Hawkeyes look like a factor. I didn’t say contender. But the Hawkeyes prove the Big Ten doesn’t offer any easy victories. No pushovers in this conference (see Minnesota-Indiana, Northwestern-Michigan for further proof). For Michigan, this game just confirmed how much the Wolverines rely on Tim Hardaway Jr. He is 17-for-55 in the team’s four losses. The only way the Wolverines -- now 1-3 on the road -- will make a push toward the top of the Big Ten standings is if Hardaway is more consistent.

Oklahoma 82, No. 18 Kansas State 73
What we learned: Frank Martin was enraged after his team lost to an undefeated Baylor squad Tuesday at home. He preached defense in his postgame interviews. That was a major challenge for the Wildcats on Saturday, too. The Big 12’s eighth-ranked scoring defense allowed a Sooners team that lost its first three Big 12 games to shoot 55 percent from the field. K-State's performances against Mizzou and Baylor suggested the Wildcats deserve a spot among the Big 12’s elite. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, with the Wildcats having dropped three of their past four games. Their conference slate gets easier from here over the next few weeks, but the Cats will find themselves in vulnerable spots, especially on the road, if their defensive woes continue. That's now 3-8 in its past 11 Big 12 road games for KSU. After a strong debut, Lon Kruger’s squad fell hard (the Sooners had lost four of five entering Saturday’s game). But the Kansas State victory should be a major confidence booster for OU. The Sooners snapped a 14-game losing skid against ranked opponents.

The Mountain West Thriller

No. 22 San Diego State 69, No. 12 UNLV 67
What we learned: The Mountain West is going to make noise in March. The league’s top two squads, both nationally ranked, battled for 40 minutes in San Diego. This wasn’t a basketball game. It was a title fight. I wasn’t there, but it felt like a tournament game from my couch. This game had some of the best back-and-forth action I’ve seen all season. Neither team could pull away. Jamaal Franklin (team-high 24 points) tumbled over a photographer in the final seconds and hurt his ankle. But he returned to the floor moments later and scored the game-winning bucket. Steve Fisher continues to exceed expectations after losing Kawhi Leonard to the NBA draft and three other starters. The Rebels won’t beat the top squads in their league or the NCAA tournament if their two leading scorers, Chace Stanback (7 points, 3-of-9 shooting) and Mike Moser (9 points, 3-of-11), struggle in big games. But San Diego State is headed to Las Vegas on Feb. 11 for the rematch. Can’t wait to see that. This matchup wasn’t just a boost for the two teams on floor; it was a boost for the entire league. The Mountain West is tough. And don't forget about New Mexico, which won its 13th straight with a victory at Wyoming. The Aztecs and Lobos go at it Wednesday night.

Taking Care Of Business

No. 9 Missouri 84, Texas 73
What we learned: The Tigers aren’t conventional. They’re undersized in a league with a multitude of skilled bigs and they’re not very deep. But Frank Haith used seven players in his second consecutive victory since last week’s lopsided loss at Kansas State. Ricardo Ratliffe led the Tigers with 21 points (10-of-12). Marcus Denmon, who had six in a win at Iowa State on Wednesday, scored 18 against the Longhorns. Phil Pressey (18 points, 10 assists, 0 turnovers) continued his impressive play. Few teams possess the perimeter depth and skill to challenge Missouri’s talented backcourt for 40 minutes. J’Covan Brown scored 34 points for the Horns, matching the combined scoring tally for the team’s other four starters. But they couldn’t defend a Mizzou team that held a 43-30 edge at halftime and finished with four scorers in double figures. A week ago, folks questioned the Tigers' legitimacy. But they clearly have regained their mojo since the KSU loss and should pose a threat to any top-tier Big 12 team.

No. 20 Mississippi State 56, Alabama 52
What we learned: Alabama entered this game on a five-game winning streak. But Bama won’t beat most teams in the SEC by scoring 52 points. JaMychal Green (14 points) was the Crimson Tide's only double-digit scorer. The Bulldogs weren’t much better. However, Arnett Moultrie’s 25-point, 13-rebound output was the difference. The two teams combined to shoot 4-for-26 from the 3-point line, but Dee Bost was 3-for-3 from long range in the closing minutes and that was that. Man, the SEC is confusing. Kentucky is obviously the league’s best, but who are Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5? This was an opportunity for these squads to make a definitive statement about their places in the league. Didn’t really happen. I expected more from this one, but hey, Mississippi State will take the win.

Some more observations from Saturday

  • Baylor looked like a national champ in its 106-65 victory over Oklahoma State. No, the Cowboys aren’t an elite team. But the Bears shot 52 percent on 3-pointers (15-of-29) and had almost twice as many rebounds as OSU (48-25). Nine players scored for the Bears. Their depth is underrated, and it’s going to be a huge asset in March.
  • [+] EnlargeMaalik Wayns
    AP Photo/Al BehrmanMaalik Wayns, left, dropped 39 for Villanova in a loss at Cincinnati.
  • Iowa State blew a 12-point second-half lead and lost its second consecutive matchup against a ranked opponent in its 82-73 defeat at Kansas. But with Royce White (18 points, 17 rebounds), the Cyclones can win nine or more in the Big 12. By the way, a career-high 28 points out of Tyshawn Taylor should quiet a few of his critics.
  • Connecticut is such a different team when Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond are fully engaged. Drummond (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Oriakhi (12 points, 7 rebounds) were impressive in the Huskies’ 67-53 win at Notre Dame, ending the Irish's 29-game home win streak. The Huskies didn’t have Ryan Boatright, but they played like a complete team with their bigs being so active.
  • Pittsburgh played better Saturday but still lost at Marquette 62-57. The Panthers, the models of consistency over the past decade, have lost six straight and are 0-5 in the Big East. Holy cow. Let that one sink in.
  • His team lost once again in a close game at Cincinnati, but it's worth mentioning the effort by Villanova's Maalik Wayns, who had a line of 39 points (6-of-13 from 3), 13 rebounds and six assists, and put his struggling Wildcats in a position to win on the road.
  • Xavier has won three in a row, after topping St. Bonaventure 77-64. Mark Lyons and Tu Holloway combined to score 33 points in the victory. The Musketeers didn’t secure any signature wins during this mini-revival, but that doesn’t matter. X needed to get back to winning as it prepares for the Atlantic 10's toughest squads. Until someone in the conference knocks off the Musketeers at the Cintas Center (where they've beaten 42 consecutive A-10 opponents), this team is still the league favorite in my opinion.
  • Conference USA should be fun this season. Like Xavier, Memphis -- a decisive winner at Houston on Saturday night -- should still be considered the favorite until someone proves they can beat the Tigers on the road. But Marshall and UCF played a classic in a 65-64 Thundering Herd victory, and both could give Memphis trouble. Southern Miss is right in the mix as well.
  • Meanwhile, in the Mid-American Conference, Akron now has to be considered the favorite after a 68-63 victory over Ohio, which looked so solid in nonconfernece play but has faltered of late. The Zips have wins at Mississippi State and Marshall. If they make the NCAA tournament, look out.
  • Have to be impressed with the way Oregon swept the Arizona schools. Winning in Tempe is nothing to be overjoyed about, but winning in Tucson -- no matter how mediocre the Wildcats have been for most of the season -- is still special for any Pac-12 school. The Ducks are as good a bet as any to win this crazy league.
  • You know who won't win the Pac-12? The Ducks' rival, Oregon State. The Beavers have played great at times this season, but the bottom line is 1-5 in a down conference after a horrendous double-digit loss at Arizona State on Saturday.
  • You know who just might win the Pac-12? Stanford. The Cardinal now are 5-1 in the conference after a 20-point beatdown of Colorado, which began 3-0 (all at home) but got a rude awakening in the Bay Area by Cal and Stanford.
  • Gonzaga was shaky early Saturday night, but the Zags have to be happy with their 62-58 win at Loyola Marymount, a team that has knocked off UCLA and Saint Louis this season. Mark Few's team was absolutely humiliated at Saint Mary's on Thursday. A bounce-back victory was a must, and the Zags got it done.

Davide Curletti sparks Northwestern upset

January, 14, 2012

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior Davide Curletti doesn’t know precisely when he stopped caring whether he started or how many points he scored in a given game, but it happened sometime during the past four years.

Part of that came with Curletti dealing with reality. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has never seen him as a starter and his job for the Wildcats hasn’t been to contribute a double-double like he did as a high school senior. His role has been to be an energy player off the bench, or as Carmody puts it, “the Energizer Bunny.”

It’s not the most glamorous of roles, but then again, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Curletti isn’t the most glamorous of players. He doesn’t outjump opponents for rebounds; he outworks them. He doesn’t outmaneuver defenders for buckets; he outthinks them.

[+] EnlargeDavide Curletti
David Banks/US PresswireNorthwestern's Davide Curletti scored 17 points in a rare start on Saturday.
Curletti has embraced that role and been consistent in it. He averaged 2.9 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 rebounds in 11.9 minutes over 91 career games before Saturday, and his numbers this season hadn’t been much different. He averaged 3.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 16.8 minutes in his first 16 games.

So no one, not even Curletti, could have predicted his performance on Saturday. Making only the second start of his career, Curletti scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists, stole two balls and blocked one shot in 36 minutes while helping Northwestern to an 81-74 upset of No. 7 Michigan State.

Because Curletti has become such a team-first kind of guy throughout his career, he was even careful of how he accepted everyone’s praise on Saturday. Although inside he was feeling pretty good about himself, he made sure everyone knew he wanted the win to be about the team’s play, not his own.

“It’s not about trying to be cocky or anything like that, but it’s just that it feels really good and I’m glad it happened,” Curletti said. “Obviously, I hope it happens again, but at the same time you got to think beating the No. 7 team out-trumps all of that.

“Last year my best game was against Wisconsin where I had a similar game, but we lost. When someone asked me of my favorite game of my career, I said last year’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. I later realized I didn’t even think about Wisconsin. Big wins do really matter in the long run.”

Curletti did confirm that Saturday’s game leaped that overtime loss to Ohio State and became his No. 1 career highlight. And of all the individual plays Saturday, Curletti will never forget his backdoor cut which led to a wide-open dunk to give Northwestern a 57-50 lead with 12:27 remaining. As he flushed the ball, Northwestern’s bench and nearly everyone wearing purple jumped off their seats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“It was great,” Curletti admitted. “It was really awesome.”

So how did Curletti go from being a career role player to a star in one of the program’s biggest wins? He claimed he did nothing different.

“It’s kind of like you work hard and some games you’ll get only one offensive rebound and you’ll get maybe two points, but other games, if you stick with it, you’ll have a night like this,” Curletti said. “For me, coming off the bench, you always have to have energy. That’s what I try to do. That’s kind of what my role was the last couple years, so that’s what I’m just going to keep on doing.

“I like working hard, and I consider myself a hard worker. I feel my best way of contributing on this team is to do that. You always need a guy like that on a team.”

You also need stars like Northwestern’s Drew Crawford and John Shurna, and those were the names rolling off Michigan State’s tongues leading up to Saturday’s game. Afterward, it was all about Curletti. Spartans coach Tom Izzo took a stab at pronouncing Curletti’s first name (DAH-vuh-day), but he got his last name perfect.

“Curletti was the difference in the game if you ask me,” said Izzo, who had been quite pleased with his big men prior to Saturday’s game. “He’s the one who snagged those [rebounds] when we had them, and he took them and scored on them. Curletti was a big difference in the game and deserved the play and credit he got. I thought it was a brilliant move by Bill to start him.”

Carmody’s brilliance actually was a last-second decision. He opted against starting a smaller lineup with Shurna at center and went with Curletti at the 5. Curletti’s one and only other start came against Ohio State as a freshman on Feb. 18, 2009. He finished with two rebounds on that day.

When Curletti discovered just before the game he was starting, he didn’t jump for joy. He understood he needed to play as he’s always played.

“To be honest, it didn’t really matter to me,” Curletti said. “It has been a while [since I started.] I’m also a senior now. I have to put the team ahead. I can’t be nervous. I have to play my game.”

And so he did.

Last night, after Northwestern lost 66-64 in overtime at Michigan, a Wildcats fan/friend sent over the following postgame Gchat analysis:

"I'm done with Northwestern hoops," he said. "Just can't do it any more. It's like getting kicked in the [onions!] every year, five times a year."

[+] EnlargeDavid Sobolewski
AP Photo/Tony DingGuard David Sobolewski and Northwestern are familiar with painful defeats like Wednesday's loss at Michigan.
Can you blame him? On Wednesday night, the Wildcats had the opportunity to beat the No. 13-ranked team in the country, Michigan, on its home floor. And all things considered, Northwestern played well. The Wildcats shot the ball at an eFG% rate of 56.5. They committed a few turnovers (25.0 percent turnover rate), but John Shurna and Drew Crawford combined for 41 points on 31 shots, and Northwestern's defense held the Wolverines to barely more than a point per trip on the offensive end.

And then, in the end, things went crazy. Northwestern yielded an early 10-point second-half lead as Michigan battled back, eventually tying the game in regulation and earning a 66-63 lead with 6.5 seconds left in overtime. It appeared Northwestern was finally finished, but with 0.3 seconds left, Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. fouled Northwestern guard Alex Marcotulio -- who had yet to record a shot attempt all evening, and has shot just 37 field goals on the season (and just nine free throws) on a three-point field goal attempt. Yes, Hardaway Jr. committed this foul. It was one of the more ill-advised mistakes we've seen all season.

Naturally, it worked perfectly. Marcotulio missed the first. He had no choice but to miss the third intentionally, and there wasn't much the Wildcats could do from there.

It was a devastating loss, and it came in succession with another one-point defeat -- a last-second 57-56 home loss to Illinois -- last week. Northwestern also led by 10 in that game (albeit late in the first-half, as opposed to early in the second). It also had late opportunities to win. But Illinois earned a loose-ball foul on the final possession and seven-foot center Meyers Leonard blocked Crawford's last-ditch three, and Northwestern lost that game, too.

It's hard to decide which loss hurts more. In the first, Northwestern had the opportunity to get a solid home win against a decent but not great foe; now that Illinois has gone on to upset Ohio State at home, that missed opportunity looks even more glaring. But Thursday night's game could have been a breakthrough -- a sign that Northwestern could go on the road and win against some of the best competition in the Big Ten, in this case a team that just narrowly lost at Indiana and trounced Wisconsin on the same floor. It would have been a major statement. And, lest we forget, it would have been an awfully nice data point for the NCAA tournament resumé, too.

Therein lies the inherent difficulty of being Northwestern. When most programs lose back-to-back heartbreakers, fans chalk it up to an OK-can't-win-'em-all understanding, at least in the big scheme of things. For Wildcats fans, who have but one overriding goal -- get to the NCAA tournament -- these kinds of missed opportunities feel far more urgent. Northwestern is just right there. It's been right there for much of the past three seasons. Each season, they've found a way to fall just short.

Where this team goes from here -- whether these past two losses will be a breaking point, or a launching pad, or neither -- will be fascinating to watch. In the meantime, give your Northwestern fan friend a nice sturdy pat on the back. Buy him a root beer, or 10. As usual, it ain't easy being purple.
Wednesdays are always big nights in college basketball. Here are some predictions for this evening’s games (I’m including my take on Kansas State-Kansas in case you missed it at the bottom of my game preview):

No. 20 Marquette at No. 9 Georgetown

The Golden Eagles bounced back from a home blowout against Vanderbilt by beating Villanova 81-77 on New Year’s Day. Still, Buzz Williams’ team is struggling without 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule. Georgetown was far from impressive in a 49-40 victory over Providence one day earlier. Both teams are very well-coached and are considered contenders for the Big East title. The Hoyas get the nod here, but only because they’re at home. This could be the game of the night.

Prediction: Georgetown 60-57

No. 3 Duke at Temple

The Blue Devils have won their past three games by an average of 32.3 points, but Temple should provide a much stiffer test. Fran Dunphy’s squad has won three straight since a Dec. 17 setback at Texas, but the Owls don’t have enough firepower to upend a Final Four contender.

Prediction: Duke 82-69

Notre Dame at Cincinnati

The Bearcats have gone 6-0 without suspended center Yancy Gates, who will return tonight. The Bearcats have been playing with a four-guard lineup, so it will be interesting to see how they alter their game plan with Gates. Notre Dame is in rebuilding mode and will be hard-pressed to beat Cincinnati on the road.

Prediction: Cincinnati 75-66

Illinois at Northwestern

If John Shurna and the Wildcats want to have any chance of earning the first NCAA tournament bid in school history, they’ve got to win games against similar opponents at home. Stopping Illinois standouts Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson won’t be easy, but I think Northwestern can pull it off.

Prediction: Northwestern 68-67

Iowa at Minnesota

If the surging Hawkeyes can beat a good Wisconsin team in Madison, I’ve got to think they’ll have a chance at Minnesota, which is 0-2 in the Big Ten after road losses against Illinois and Michigan. This would definitely qualify as an upset, but not a huge one.

Prediction: Iowa 72-66

No. 1 Syracuse at Providence

The Friars lost by 24 points against St. John’s and then scored only 40 in a setback at Georgetown. Syracuse should roll.

Prediction: Syracuse 85-66

Wichita State at Evansville

Just two games into the conference season, and the Shockers are already in a difficult position following a home loss to Creighton on New Year’s Eve. They can’t afford a road loss to an Evansville team that upset Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day.

Prediction: Wichita State 74-68

No. 22 Kansas State at No. 15 Kansas

Kansas State has lost its past five games at Allen Fieldhouse by an average of 18 points. Kansas is as vulnerable as it’s been in years, but Kansas State relies on several young players -- namely freshmen Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez -- who have never experienced this kind of environment. The Jayhawks will win tonight but don’t be surprised if the Wildcats return the favor when Kansas visits Manhattan.

Prediction: Kansas 75-63

Upset of the night: Texas Tech over Oklahoma State

Gallagher-Iba Arena is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12. But Oklahoma State fans may not be as excited about this season’s team. Two more players -- Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell -- have decided to transfer in recent weeks. Third-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi tore his ACL last weekend and is out for the season, and highly touted freshman Le’Bryan Nash has been a disappointment. Texas Tech is rebuilding under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, who may have the conference’s top freshman in forward Jordan Tolbert.

Prediction: Texas Tech 66-59

Video: Analyzing Northwestern's victory

November, 29, 2011

Jon Barry and Rob Stone discuss Northwestern's 76-60 win at Georgia Tech and the team's star duo of John Shurna and Drew Crawford.

Numbers to know: Terrapins can't score

November, 18, 2011
Maryland scored only 42 points in a 20-point loss to Alabama on Thursday. It marked Maryland’s lowest scoring total since a 42-41 win at West Virginia in December 1985.

The Terrapins haven’t scored fewer points in a game since March, 1982, when they put up just 28 against North Carolina State, the lowest scoring total in school history. Maryland didn’t even have a player in double figures, as their starting backcourt trio combined to go 2-for-23 from the field.

The Terps were particularly woeful before halftime, shooting just 18.5 percent.

"We were a train wreck falling off a cliff in the first half," said head coach Mark Turgeon.

Huskies Hit the Boards

Connecticut outrebounded Maine 57-28 in Thursday’s 80-60 win. Connecticut's 34 offensive boards were its most since 36 against Syracuse in 2009 (that game went six overtimes). It’s the most offensive boards by a Big East team in a regulation game over the past 15 seasons.

Highly-touted freshman Andre Drummond posted his first career double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds. Of those rebounds, 11 came on the offensive end, the most by a Big East freshman over the past 15 seasons. It’s also the most offensive boards by a Huskies player since Caron Butler had 11 against Boston College in 2002.

Shurna Shines for Wildcats

John Shurna scored a career-high 37 points as Northwestern beat LSU 88-82. The Wildcats trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half.

Shurna’s 37 matched a Kevin Coble performance for the highest point total for a player in Bill Carmody’s 12 seasons at Northwestern. The last Wildcat to score more was Geno Carlisle (39) in 1996.

Shurna split up his scoring nicely: 12 points came via two-pointers, 12 came via three-pointers and 13 from free throws.

White Carries Camels

In just his third game there, Campbell’s Darren White set the Gore Arena scoring record with 33 points in a 94-66 win over North Carolina A&T. The last Camel to score more was Jonathan Rodriguez with 34 at Gardner-Webb in 2008.

This marked the first 30-point, 10-rebound game in the nation this season, and the first by a Big South player since Liberty’s Kyle Ohman in 2009-10. White played his freshman year at James Madison, where he was named to the CAA All-Rookie team.

College programs take on bullying

October, 5, 2011
Jeremiah Ostrowski is a native Hawaiian who grew up to become a two-sport athlete at the University of Hawaii, where he plays both basketball and football, but as he told the Associated Press, he was teased as a child. Why? Because of his Polish last name.
"No one knew how to say my name and they'd tease me about that," the wide receiver and point guard said. "I'd always be embarrassed to say my name."

So Ostrowski is the latest public figure to spread his anti-bullying message through a series of public service announcements. He and other Hawaii athletes are appearing in PSAs as state educators hope to discourage bullying while providing support for children who face it. Ostrowski was able to draw from personal experience, according to KHON-TV.
"You know growing up you know everyone kind of experienced getting picked on by maybe someone older, or like a cousin, or just people in school and stuff, and it's not a good feeling," says UH football and basketball player Miah Ostrowski.

Last month at Northwestern, star player John Shurna was among those to appear in the athletic department's video in support of The Trevor Project, which is focused on suicide prevention for LGBT youths through the "It Gets Better" campaign. Northwestern became the first college athletic department to help in the project, which is also supported by celebrities and professional sports teams.

"I absolutely wanted to jump on getting behind this message," Shurna told the Daily Northwestern. "It's important that people know bullying is just not acceptable."

Sullinger won't let Buckeyes lose

March, 11, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- When defending Ohio State, you must pick your poison.

You either double-team Jared Sullinger in the paint and risk being shot out of the gym by the Buckeyes’ array of shooters, or you let the big man operate one-on-one.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes Jared Sullinger
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireOhio State freshman Jared Sullinger came through at the line for the Buckeyes, making 16-of-18 shots.
After watching Ohio State make an NCAA-record 14-of-15 3-pointers Sunday against Wisconsin, Northwestern opted for the latter Friday. It spent most of the afternoon with just one lonely defender watching the freshman strong man.

It almost worked. The underdog Wildcats got the game into overtime, largely by controlling tempo and limiting Ohio State to just 3-of-15 shooting from 3-point range. But Sullinger wouldn’t let Ohio State lose, and made Northwestern pay for its defensive decision.

Sullinger used his broad shoulders and ample derriere to muscle for position, and his teammates delivered the ball. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound teenager wore out every big man Bill Carmody had.

He fouled out Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic and drew fouls from John Shurna when he was thrust into defend-the-post service. Sullinger had a Kevin Love line: 20 points and 18 rebounds, and he made 16 of 18 free throws to power Ohio State to a shaky 67-61 victory.

“Gotta make your free throws,” Sullinger said. “Free throws are a big part of my game.”

At one point he scored nine straight Ohio State points, from late in regulation through the first 2:17 of overtime.

“It’s the Big Ten,” Sullinger explained. “This is where you’ve got to be physical. Everyone’s going to foul you.”

Sullinger said the officials “are going to swallow their whistles,” but Northwestern fans would disagree after watching Sullinger’s parade to the foul line. The Wildcats were so frustrated that when Mirkovic was called for his fourth foul in overtime, he spiked his mouthpiece to the floor and drew a technical that got him fouled out.

Not the smartest play from a guy at a brainy school.

“You just can’t make that showy kind of maneuver,” Carmody said. “The ref is not there to interpret whether you did that because you’re mad at yourself or at him. He just sees the action.”

This was the second time Northwestern had pushed Ohio State to the brink, losing by a point in Evanston, Ill. in late January. In that game, Sullinger scored the winning point on a free throw.

“I can’t stand to lose, personally,” he said. “If we’d lost this game, I’d probably be punching lockers, throwing stuff around. You’ve got to hate losing more than you love winning.”

Ohio State has lost only twice this season, so Sullinger hasn’t had to experience much of that. In large part because he won’t let his team lose.