- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Welcome to Saturday. Or, at least for college hoops fans, Saturday as it should be. There's no baseball, college football, NFL playoffs, or any other popular-but-inferior (kidding!) sport to distract the casual fan from the hoopy goodness you and I have been enjoying for two months now. No, it's just college hoops, and what better way to welcome in the sports tourist than with two huge conference games featuring two ranked league contenders apiece?
Yes, I'm talking Villanova-Syracuse and Ohio State-Illinois, both of which deserve the recap treatment. So, without further ado:
No. 7 Villanova 83, No. 3 Syracuse 72: Well, this was a surprise.
It's not so much that Villanova's double-digit win was surprising in and of itself, though it was; at this point, any double-digit win at the Carrier Dome must be greeted with some measure of shock. Syracuse entered the game having lost exactly five home games in the past two and a half seasons, the last coming Feb. 14, 2010, when Louisville legitimately shocked Jim Boeheim's team in Syracuse. The Orangemen haven't lost often in recent seasons, and they certainly haven't suffered many of those losses at home.
But more surprising than the win itself was the way Villanova got it. Jay Wright's team didn't just solve Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone. The Wildcats shredded it. The Cuse entered Saturday's top 10 matchup with the stingiest zone in the Big East, one that was allowing a mere .95 points per possession to conference opponents. Villanova scored 1.58 points per trip on offense Saturday afternoon (per scacchoops.com). That's a crazy number for any game -- Villanova came into Saturday averaging 1.13 points per trip against Big East foes -- let alone one against this rangy, athletic Boeheim zone.
With the exception of some late press-break trouble and a 9-0 Syracuse run in the closing minutes, believe it or not, this Villanova team made Syracuse's elite defense look downright pedestrian. Impressed? Of course. Surprised? That too. A few more assorted thoughts follow:
Syracuse's zone might have been shredded, but the Orange didn't play poorly on the offensive end. On a tempo-free basis -- Boeheim's team scored 1.39 ppp Saturday -- they were downright excellent. What was the difference? For one, Villanova simply made more shots. The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field, including an 11-of-24 mark from beyond the arc. Syracuse, by contrast, was 43 percent from the field overall and made only 10 of its 26 tries from 3.
And, as they so often do, free throws changed the game. Villanova got to the foul line at a much higher rate (48.0 percent to Syracuse's 19.4), which is an advantage in and of itself. But when you make 22 of 24 from the foul line, as Nova did, that advantage is exponential and difficult to overcome. (It should be noted that a chunk of those free throw attempts came late in the game when Syracuse needed to foul, but the Wildcats still made them count, and the free throw disparity existed before the game was in last-ditch-comeback mode.)
Villanova might have the perfect blueprint for Syracuse's zone. The Wildcats are a balanced team with a host of capable ball handlers and big men who can comfortably operate from the high block. Syracuse loves to extend its zone, trap guards, force long skip passes, and jump in passing lanes. They collapse on interior passes and use their length to challenge post shots. But when you've got guys like Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher -- who can not only handle those traps but split them, creating odd-man advantages and open shots -- as well as swingmen like Corey Stokes and forwards like Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou, you can get into the zone, break it down, get layups and open looks, and your life is that much easier.
Syracuse's poor perimeter shooting continues to be an issue. The Cuse have been winning in spite of their low (32.6 percent) 3-point field goal percentage for much of the season. That's because Syracuse's defense is tough, its transition game is great, and its athleticism is such that it can get interior looks for Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph almost at will. But when an opposing offense is taking your defense apart, you have to be able to keep pace -- especially when you need to put together a late rally -- and if you can't hit shots from long range, it's hard to do that.
What about the Big East? Where does this game put Villanova (which lost at Connecticut on Monday) and Syracuse (which lost at Pittsburgh) in the context of their conference? I think you might downgrade Syracuse just a notch; if this defense doesn't carry Boeheim's team, the Cuse will struggle to keep pace with Pittsburgh in the conference chase. You might also be inclined to upgrade Villanova (and maybe, by extension, UConn), because away wins against elite Big East teams are very difficult to come by.
Overall, though, I'm not sure this game moves the needle much. We still have three bona fide contenders for the Big East crown -- Pittsburgh, Villanova and Syracuse -- a potential outside challenge from UConn, and a host of teams (Louisville, Georgetown and the rest) that will win their share of games against the top three before the year is out. Syracuse could use some work on offense, and it did not have the best pair of defensive outings in its past two games, but overall, the conference picture looks pretty constant for now.
No. 1 Ohio State 73, No. 22 Illinois 68: If you pegged this game as the first loss of Ohio State's season, you weren't alone. Thousands of orange-clad Illinois fans -- and, as if you care, yours truly -- were right there with you.
It certainly had that feel, didn't it? A tough environment. A ranked conference opponent. An apparently vulnerable No. 1 coming off a couple weeks of unimpressive performances, including a four-point escape at Michigan and three-point home wins against Minnesota and Penn State. All the warning signs of a No. 1 upset -- which would have been only the third in Illinois hoops history, a stat I had trouble believing when CBS put it into my brain -- were there.
Instead, we got another impressive performance from Ohio State, another comprehensive game from freshman Jared Sullinger, and another example of why this Buckeyes team is now your undefeated No. 1 in the first place: They're really, really tough to beat.
For all of OSU's perimeter weapons, that toughness starts in the post, which means it starts with Sullinger. The freshman put up another classic line Saturday, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a full 40 minutes on the floor. But perhaps most impressive was Sullinger's free throw shooting. The big man, who is shooting about 73 percent from the line this season, made 13 of his 15 foul attempts Saturday. You probably don't need me to tell you just how lethal that is. Sullinger is so good at getting early position on the block, and so strong once he's there, that you practically have to foul him if you don't want him to get two easy points. But what good is fouling if Sullinger makes his free throws? Big Ten coaches of the world: You are now free to slam your heads repeatedly against your desks. (As if you weren't already.)
Sullinger isn't the only player that played 40 minutes for Ohio State on Saturday. That honor also went to Jon Diebler and David Lighty, both of whom played every available minute at Illinois. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta appears to have already settled on a seven-man rotation. Forward Dallas Lauderdale is still a starter, but he's averaging 18.7 minutes per game. Instead, Matta goes early and often to freshman Aaron Craft, whose 31 minutes also cut into the playing time of William Buford, arguably OSU's best all-around perimeter scorer, because Craft is the only thing resembling a point guard that the Buckeyes have.
This rotation also features spot duty -- Saturday, that meant 12 minutes -- for highly touted recruit Deshaun Thomas. Thomas is like a secret weapon: He doesn't get on the court all that often, but he's dangerous when he does. Unlike a lot of bench players, Thomas isn't remotely hesitant to shoot the ball; he has the highest usage rate of any Buckeye when he's on the floor, which basically means "he takes a lot of shots." You saw that in the second half Saturday. With the game tied at 50-50 and 9:34 remaining, Thomas hit the first of two quick 3-pointers -- one of which came on a wide-open fast break -- and then scored on a nice post move over Illinois freshman Jereme Richmond with 5:35 remaining. By the time he left the game, Thomas had scored a quick eight points, Ohio State built a six-point lead, and the Buckeyes would never trail again.
If you're a particularly positive Illinois fan, you might actually be encouraged by this home loss. Why? Because your opponent -- the ruthlessly efficient No. 1 team in the land -- played relatively well. Your best player, Demetri McCamey, did not. And not only did you lead for much of the second half, you had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. That's not so bad, is it?
And boy, did McCamey ever play poorly. It's safe to say that Illinois won't win too many games when McCamey goes 2-for-11 from the field, 1-of-5 from 3, and has nearly as many turnovers (four) as assists (five). It was fitting, then, that Illinois' final chance to tie the game came on a poor decision by McCamey, when the guard passed up a long three to enter the ball to Mike Tisdale in traffic. Tisdale lost the handle, and the game was over. McCamey has been brilliant all season long, so this is nothing to worry about. Everyone has bad games. Unfortunately for Bruce Weber's team, McCamey picked this day -- with a winnable upset of the No. 1 team on the table -- to have his ugliest game of the season. (And yes, as a few commenters below have pointed out, much of the credit for McCamey's bad day goes to Aaron Craft, who played a stellar on-ball defensive game.)
Another encouraging sign for Illinois: After facing transfer rumors last week, freshman forward Richmond continues to play well. Richmond scored 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and added 10 rebounds, three of which came on the offensive end. Richmond is one of the few players on Illinois who can bang down low and get easy buckets in the paint; unlike Illinois' guards and true forwards, he's not really an inside-out player. If Richmond can add that sort of offensive production to a team that is still a bit too reliant on the long two-point jump shot, he could change the face of Illinois' attack. This loss was not without its silver linings.
Hey, wait a second. Did I just spend 1700 words recapping two games? Yes. I did. The day's first fixtures were just that good.
But here's the best part: This day isn't even close to over yet. I hope your couch groove is ready. Mine certainly is.