College Basketball Nation: Northern Iowa Panthers
"Are we satisfied that everybody's saying that we're not going to win this game?" he said. "That, hey, it was a nice little story, but we're not going to beat Kentucky? I say, if they change the uniforms and gave us Kentucky across our uniforms and gave Kentucky whatever team, they would be talking about us right now as one of the best college basketball teams in the history of this great game. Do you hear anybody saying that? No. Because they don't expect you to come out and do these things. They don't expect you to be able to beat the No. 1 [team] in the country in the preseason. We have proven all year long that we can do this. This is an unbelievable opportunity. You've gotta understand if you want to be David or Goliath, or both."
Minutes before the final game of Wichita State's season, coach Gregg Marshall was speaking to his players (and Sports Illustrated senior writer Luke Winn). Marshall was firing the Shockers up, preparing his peerless team for the latest, biggest moment of their basketball lives.
The paradox was evident. Wichita State, the No. 1 seed in a loaded Midwest region, was still undefeated entering the NCAA tournament's round of 32. The Shockers had already made history: They were the first team with 31 regular-season wins, the first to get 35 wins deep without a loss. Kentucky, the No. 8 seed, was a clearly talented but altogether frustrating 10-loss team. And Wichita State was barely the favorite.
Fitting, then, that it was in the Scottrade Center locker room before the defining 40 minutes of Wichita State's season when Marshall uttered that most trenchant description of the Shockers' unforgettable 35-1 season: "David or Goliath, or both."
All the while, mind you, competition-adjusted analytics were telling us the Shockers were one of the best five or 10 teams in the country. Not the best, necessarily, but one of the best. And it still took until March to finally prove it.
Weirdly enough, they proved it in a loss. The 40 minutes of basketball that followed Marshall's biblical exhortation was the best of the season, and the best of the tournament -- a tournament that was already better than its own impossibly high standards. (Oh, to relive that first weekend! I'd be willing to part ways with a toe. Maybe two.)
Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76 began with some brilliant Shockers offense, gave us bruising Wildcats rebounding and surprisingly grown-up cohesion, featured an NBA-ready Cleanthony Early in a masterful second half (3s, drives, step-back sticks, you name it), saw Kentucky's Harrison twins control the game with physical thrusts to the rim, and ended with a 25-foot Fred VanVleet jumper on a sideline out of bounds that would have caused us to have a full-blown mental meltdown had it somehow gone in. It's a month later, and we still haven't caught our breath.
The game was immediately and accurately deemed a classic. It propelled Kentucky to an eventual Final Four run; it made the Wildcats look like the preseason No. 1 we expected in October. Most of all, it finally, definitively quelled any and all doubt about Wichita State. The Shockers were never David, and they fell just short of Goliath. They were both, and also neither.
What we saw last season: Of course, the biggest reason the Shockers were even in the position to be 35-0 and a No. 1 seed and still the subject of vague doubt was because the Missouri Valley Conference -- rarely a powerhouse in the first place -- had a down season even by its own standards. Indiana State was a solid team (and one that gave Wichita State some real issues twice). And Northern Iowa ended up leading the league in per-possession offense, believe it or not. (The Shockers ranked second, and No. 1 by a ton defensively.) But at No. 94, the Panthers were the only other team to rank inside the adjusted efficiency top 100. With Creighton off contending for the Big East title (and putting Doug McDermott in the history books in his own right), Wichita State treated the MVC much the same way Daenerys Targaryen treats the powerful members of Slaver's Bay.
What we expect to see: Another Wichita State hegemon.
That's the No. 1 thing to expect. Even without Early and fellow seniors Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile, Wichita State will have Ron Baker and VanVleet, the reigning MVC player of the year, back next year. Another crop of juco big men join them, as do starters Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton. There is no reason to expect anything but another dominant Shockers campaign -- especially relative to competition.
How good will that competition be? Northern Iowa will have just about everyone back, most notably junior forward Seth Tuttle -- the only non-Shocker to crack the stats-based Pomeroy all-conference list. Indiana State will likely take a step back, but the Panthers should take a major step forward. A 16-15 finish is not the goal. A tournament bid is not outside the norm.
Other than that, it's hard to find other MVC contenders in the mix. The good news for Wichita State? Even if the Shockers spend another three months beating an overwhelmed conference to a pulp, no one will need convincing come March.
Wichita State used Creighton’s exodus to the Big East as its cue to take over the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers did like none other, winning all 18 games by an average of 15.5 points and having only three games decided by fewer than 10. They were the first team to go unbeaten in the Valley since Bradley was 16-0 during the 1985-86 season.
As teams converge on St. Louis for the conference tournament beginning on Thursday, the question looms: Are nine other teams just competing for second place?
“It’s going to have to be a game where somebody goes out there and beats them,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Wichita State does not make mistakes, and that’s at both ends of the floor. They defend and rebound as well as anybody in the country.”
The good news for the field? The Missouri Valley tournament almost never plays out the way it should on paper. Southern Illinois earned a No. 1 seed five times in six seasons from 2002-07 but had five agonizing tournaments that it did not win. Since 2000, the regular-season champion has claimed a matching conference tournament crown on only four occasions.
Since 2006, when a record four Valley teams received NCAA tournament bids, the league hasn’t sent more than two teams there. This season the league will end up represented by only one unless some team can dethrone the Shockers. The most likely challengers to Wichita State are the three teams that posted only single-digit losses to the Shockers.
Indiana State, which finished second in the standings, was one of just three conference teams to outrebound the Shockers in a game this season. In the closing minutes at home, the Sycamores played a one-possession game with Wichita State but lost 65-58. The Sycamores enter the tournament without any momentum, however, having lost their past three games.
“After we secured that second spot, I really think we were guilty of coasting a little bit,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “We had a stretch where those teams were more determined than us.”
No. 3 seed Northern Iowa played the Shockers close in both meetings before second-half runs broke the games open. During the Panthers' 82-73 loss on Feb. 8, they used nine 3-pointers to stay within striking distance.
“We’ve got two guards in Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun that have the ability to get in the lane that can put pressure on a defense that way, and that will open up shots on that 3-point line,” Jacobson said. “If somebody is going to beat them, your guard play has to be very good.”
No. 4 seed Missouri State led the Shockers by as many as 19 in January only to squander the lead late in regulation and lose the game 72-69 in overtime. In the rematch last week, Wichita closed out its perfect regular season with a 68-45 win on senior night.
“They can play and beat anyone in the country,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “As with anything in college basketball, you can get beat by a lot of people. That doesn’t matter what league you’re in.”
Team with the most to gain
Wichita State may very well be playing for seeding. There are still those who are skeptical that its undefeated run through the regular season merits a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers' win at St. Louis was arguably their best in nonconference play, but the Billikens' current three-game losing streak is sabotaging the value. The only way to lock up a top NCAA seed would be to win the conference tournament.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he believed the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed based on the regular season. But do the Shockers really want to take that chance?
“I don’t have to worry about that, I just have to worry about playing the games, and hopefully we can win and advance,” Marshall said. “If we don’t, we’ll be playing in the NCAA tournament regardless. Last year we went to the Final Four as a 9-seed, so I really don’t think it matters, just who is playing the best during those pivotal games in late March and April.”
The Valley has had one No. 1 seed in its history: Larry Bird’s 1979 Indiana State team that lost in the national championship game to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
College football was more exciting Saturday, and I don't love college football: "On a slow Saturday for college basketball, there just weren’t many gems. North Carolina struggled with Richmond but eventually pulled away to win 82-72. Louisville dismissed Fairfield 71-57, which set up a marquee Sunday matchup against the Tar Heels. Winless Tulsa gave Creighton a scare. But overall, it certainly wasn’t the game’s sexiest Saturday. But there were a variety of under-the-radar and mid-major programs that offered some impressive individual efforts." -- Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com
COACHES V. CANCER: Michigan State "got punched, almost KO'd' by Oklahoma; wins Coaches' title 87-76 anyway: "The Sooners came out with something to prove. The Spartans did not. They won anyway, 87-76, despite falling behind by double digits midway through the first half in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. And despite building an 18-point second-half lead, only to fritter it away with turnovers and missed free throws. … They might not have were it not for Keith Appling, whose 3-pointer in the first half ignited a run for MSU and whose three-point play in the second half stopped a run for Oklahoma. That driving layup and ensuing free throw began a run of seven consecutive points for Appling. He finished with 27 -- a career high. He scored many of them down the stretch, driving into the lane, tossing acrobatic floaters." --Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press
**HALL OF FAME TIP-OFF: No. 3 Louisville, No. 24 North Carolina survive in semis, give us marquee title game -- with one caveat: The tournament organizers at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT could rest easy Saturday afternoon. Defending national champs Louisville handled Fairfield 71-57 and continued to look impressive. North Carolina, on the other hand, was a little bit shakier against Richmond -- a more solid, healthier Richmond than in recent seasons, but Richmond all the same.
Strong recap from C.L.: "Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams. The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team." -- C.L. Brown, ESPN.com.
They're also not last season's team, in one very obvious way. The Tar Heels still won't have last season's leading scorer, P.J. Hairston, against Louisville on Sunday, though that is not exactly new news. What is new, now, is the open question of whether Hairston might ever come back for North Carolina. To put it simply, if Williams and UNC are worried that Hairston's summertime dalliances with convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas (and the rental cars Hairston was driving that led back to Thomas's payment info and addresses at rental vendors), then he can't play. If he did, and the NCAA ruled against Hairston or UNC in the future, every game it played in the time being -- whether Richmond or Louisville or wherever -- would be in dispute.
For the first time since Hairston was pulled over, North Carolina officials -- down to Williams himself -- aren't evincing optimism about his return.
— Will Williams ever coach Hairston again? "I think I will," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I think I will. But I don't know." To understand the weight of that quote you need to understand that Williams would never rule anything out until it's officially ruled out. He's forever positive and hopeful. But it should be noted that even the Hall of Fame coach has changed his position since the preseason. Back then, Williams admittedly seemed unsure about how much time Hairston might miss, but he never publicly entertained the idea that Hairston would not play for the Tar Heels again. Now, Williams acknowledges he just doesn't know, and that public uncertainty can be interpreted as serious doubt. … But the prevailing theory among sources around the North Carolina program is that Hairston might not have been completely honest with investigators about the extent of his use of rental cars connected to a convicted felon named Haydn 'Fats' Thomas that were seemingly occupied by Hairston in violation of NCAA bylaws." -- Gary Parrish, CBS
Oh, also: Louisville: It would be a shame to allow the ongoing North Carolina psychodrama to blot out Russ Smith and the Cardinals. Sure, Saturday represents Louisville's first test against quality competition -- besides Fairfield, the Cardinals have treated College of Charleston, Hofstra, Cornell and Hartford like a bored housecat with a mouse. But two things stand out about Louisville thus far:
- Much like VCU, it is still turning people over at the same rate as in 2012-13 despite the new handchecking rules.
- The Cardinals are not turning the ball over themselves. They finished No. 77 in turnover rate in 2012-13 -- coughing up on 18.3 percent of their trips. This season, with Chris Jones installed in place of departed senior Peyton Siva, the Cardinals are turning it over just 11.3 percent of the time.
The small sample size disclaimer applies here. Actually, make that a double disclaimer -- small sample size and poor competition. Jones is unlikely to make things look this easy all season. But the juco transfer junior hasn't missed a step in his first season in Louisville, Smith is even better offensively thus far, and the Cardinals are rolling as a result.
Paradise Jam (updated bracket) semifinal rounds: Seeds mostly held on Day 1 of the Paradise Jam, which I think we should abbreviate to "PJ," even if support among my colleagues remains tepid. Northern Iowa and Maryland square off at 7 p.m. ET, and La Salle gets Providence at 9:30 ET in the winners' half of the bracket.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (updated bracket): Will Act III be as crazy as the first two? Georgetown-VCU sounds like a pretty solid November nonconference game, right? By March, it might be possible for both teams to have fully shaken off the reasons why they played on the final day of Puerto Rico; they may have improved so much by then we'll look back on today's consolation -- yes, consolation -- in a whole different context.
Today, however, it's a product of the unpredictability of the week in Puerto Rico -- where Florida State manhandled VCU and probably should have beaten Michigan late; where Northeastern made Georgetown look like a fellow CAA team, and not a very good one; where Charlotte, a seemingly nondescript program at this point, finds itself in today's 6:30 p.m. ET title game in Bayamon, PR.
With all due respect to the 49ers, the Florida State game may well have hardened Michigan in crucial ways. The Wolverines were physically dominated and just straight-up played badly and still, thanks to some timely, late heroics, managed to dispatch Leonard Hamilton's team and progress to the title game. It's hard to see them losing to Charlotte now.
Then again, we've been wrong before -- which is how we got Georgetown and VCU in the 2 p.m. ET consolation game in the first place. VCU was the favorite coming in to Puerto Rico, but FSU did a number on the Rams in Round 1, and Long Beach State kept that crucial turnover number startlingly low in VCU's win in Round 2. Georgetown has not protected the ball particularly well to date. The Hoyas turn it over on 18.0 percent of their offensive possessions. And their one clear personnel advantage -- massive center Josh Smith -- may not be able to stay on the court in an uptempo affair.
And that's it: There are other tournaments out there, but only so much space on the Internet to discuss them. Enjoy the Sunday of hoops everyone.
Friday, Feb. 22
North Dakota State at Akron, ESPN2, 7 ET
Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State, ESPNU, 9 ET
Saturday, Feb. 23
Iona at Indiana State, ESPNU, 11 a.m. ET
Eastern Kentucky at Valparaiso, ESPNU, 1 ET
Canisius at Vermont, ESPN3, 1 ET
Pacific at Western Michigan, ESPN3, 2 ET
Montana at Davidson, ESPNU, 3 ET
Northwestern State at Niagara, ESPN3, 3 ET
Detroit at Wichita State, ESPN/2, 4 ET
Creighton at Saint Mary's, ESPN/2, 6 ET
South Dakota State at Murray State, ESPN2, 8 ET
Denver at Northern Iowa, ESPN3, 8 ET
Ohio at Belmont, ESPN2, 10 ET
The matchups for the BracketBusters games not on television can be found here.
1. C.J. McCollum's injury looks like a real bummer. Before we eulogize McCollum's season, it's important to note that we don't know exactly what injury caused him to watch Lehigh's near-miss 59-55 loss at Virginia Commonwealth from the bench, crutches in tow. During the game's broadcast, it looked an awful lot like McCollum said "I broke my foot" to a teammate. But that, revealing as it may be, is not an official doctor's diagnosis. After the game, Lehigh coach Brett Reed told reporters "there may be a break," but didn't want to say anything definitive until McCollum received more tests. In short, it really seems like McCollum broke his foot, but there's a chance that's not the case.
That uncertainty makes it hard to know whether McCollum is doomed to miss the rest of his senior season. It also makes it impossible to know how, or whether, his injury could affect his NBA draft status. Last season, McCollum exploded onto the national scene (and the NBA radar) with a sublime 30-point performance in No. 15-seed Lehigh's upset of Duke. He eschewed the NBA to return for his senior season -- his family didn't need the money, he wanted to get his degree, and he wanted to play his final season with his teammates. His performance has been just as good as last season -- at 25.7 points per game, McCollum entered Saturday as the nation's leading scorer -- and his draft status has only improved. He is widely considered a safe first-round pick (Chad Ford ranks him at No. 13).
All of which made it a huge shame to see him get injured, and disconcerting to wonder if that injury could play a role not only in his and Lehigh's season, but in McCollum's upcoming draft circuit. I don't know any college hoops fan, writer, analyst, player or coach (well, OK, maybe the Patriot League) that doesn't want to see McCollum on the floor this season. As Dana tweeted earlier today: fingers crossed.
2. Ohio State is worrying me. Don't get me wrong: Illinois was impressive Saturday -- Brandon Paul & Co. are looking as consistent and self-assured as ever -- and, yes, it is going to be hard to win on the road in the Big Ten this season. But Ohio State's offense just laid an absolute egg in the 74-55 loss. Actually, check that. That's an insult to eggs. (Eggs are delicious!)
3. Pittsburgh is making it hard for me to tell you how underrated it is every week. In fact, I'm starting to think the Panthers so much enjoyed spending their November and December miles below the radar that they decided to open Big East play with a couple of losses, just to throw everyone off the scent. Throughout nonconference play, Pitt's per-possession efficiency numbers painted the portrait of a top-10 team. Their schedule was so bad, however, that after a close loss to Michigan in Madison Square Garden, there was no win to point to to help back up the numbers. So I said Pitt was underrated. A lot. Like, every Monday, when they remained unranked. After a Big East-opening home loss to Cincinnati and today's loss at Rutgers -- well, I still think the Panthers have big potential, but I'll probably be a bit more demure about it for a few weeks.
4. Speaking of Cincinnati … Pittsburgh wasn't the only Big East team with a weird loss on its docket Saturday. The Bearcats followed their New Year's Eve Big East-opening win at Pitt up with a … wait. What? A 53-52 home loss to St. John's? Really? That is a reasonable approximation of how I reacted when I saw that result. The Johnnies entered this one 8-5, with losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville mixed in. But they managed to hold UC to .75 points per trip -- just a hair under their own mark of .77 -- and D'Angelo Harrison, a gifted but maddening offensive player, made the pull-up jumper in winning time. I'm not sure you want to draw any larger conclusions from this one, at least not yet. But we'll file it away nonetheless. Weird.
5. Bucknell-Missouri might have been the game of the day. Hard-core college hoops fans already knew. Mid-major enthusiasts did, too. And NBA scouts have long since gotten wise. But the rest of you: If you were not aware that (a) Mike Muscala is the real deal, and (b) Bucknell is to be feared, then at least Missouri's 66-64 home victory over the Bison gave you the gift of this knowledge. Muscala -- a real pro prospect, and as polished a low-post player as you may find in college hoops -- finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in Columbia, and the Bison would have won were it not for Phil Pressey's 26 points, many of which came at crucial junctures throughout the second half. This was a great game, and a great showcase -- not only of Pressey and a still-improving Tigers team but of one of the nation's best and most casually overlooked big men. (And by the way, with McCollum's injury, Bucknell is the overwhelming favorite in the Patriot instead of the slight favorite.)
6. Is Kansas State the second-best team in the Big 12? First of all, word to Kansas, because it's gotten to the point where the best any non-KU member of the Big 12 can hope for is "best non-Kansas team." That is dominance. This season, though, that dynamic is also thanks to the obvious dearth of quality in the Big 12. Baylor and Iowa State can't guard, Texas can't score, Oklahoma is meh and West Virginia has been a massive disappointment by any standard. (Speaking of which, what the Huggins is wrong with West Virginia this season?)
Oklahoma State and Kansas State are the two obvious contenders for non-Kansas honors, and K-State got a big win at Bramlage Coliseum today to further its case. That said … it is hard to win at Bramlage. I'm not quite ready to make the Wildcats the favorite runner-up over OSU. But as Jason King wrote, if Rodney McGruder (MCGRUDER! /guitar slash) plays like the star he was Saturday, Kansas State's defense and rebounding will give it a shot.
8. OK, Shabazz Muhammad. I see you. When UCLA's star freshman made his debut at Madison Square Garden, he was still a bit out of shape from his offseason injury, and UCLA was still in the midst of an early-season feeling-out period that threatened to devolve into something far worse, and quickly. But the Bruins have recovered since -- they've won seven in a row, including games over Texas, Missouri, Cal and, today, Stanford -- and Muhammad is starting to look really good. In UCLA's 68-60 win over the Cardinal, he dropped 23 points on 6-for-12 shooting, with 10 rebounds and a 10-of-13 mark from the free throw line. Muhammad isn't an Anthony Davis-level game-changer. We get too carried away with our hype sometimes. But he is playing some really great offensive basketball right now. It's no longer possible to be unimpressed.
9. Miami might be OK without Reggie Johnson. The Hurricanes' big man is likely to be sidelined until mid-February, and when that news first came down a couple weeks ago it was a real blow. Johnson was having a great senior season, and Miami was playing really well with him anchoring the low block. The consensus was the Hurricanes would take a hit, another bit of bad luck for a coach (Jim Larranaga) who has had nothing but since arriving in Coral Gables. But Wednesday's second-half domination of La Salle and Saturday's impressive road win at Georgia Tech make me think that Miami just might be all right without Johnson. It's not ideal, of course. But the Canes could make do.
10. I have no idea how good Maryland is, but I'm excited to find out. After the Terrapins lost to Kentucky in their season opener in Brooklyn, N.Y., there was buzz that this team -- led by transformed star center Alex Len -- would be one of the nation's great redemption stories, or at least a sleeper in the top half of the ACC. Since that opener, Maryland is undefeated: 13-0, many of those wins by double digits, nary a real scare in the mix. And I have absolutely no idea how good Maryland actually is! Its schedule has been so bad to date that it has been difficult to gain any real insights. The Terrapins' per-possession, adjusted-efficiency numbers are intriguing (they shoot and defend well, rebound their own misses and don't foul), but not without warts (they turn it over a ton, and force turnovers at one of the nation's lowest rates).
So, Saturday's 94-71 victory over Virginia Tech was nice, I guess, but the Hokies are fading fast. Coming up for Maryland is a home game against Florida State, a road trip to Miami and a home game with NC State. Now that should shed some light on the subject.
A few more quick-hitters:
- Purdue fans freaking out about the Branden Dawson "punch" on Travis Carroll: It was so egregious that neither coach nor player brought it up after the game. Let it go (and also stop using the word "thug," ew).
- Considering how bad Wake Forest has been this season, I was genuinely shocked to see the Deacons down only 15 points in the second half at Duke. Yes, I said "only."
- Emerging star Kelly Olynyk was too much in the end, but Santa Clara gave Gonzaga real problems Saturday night. The 12-4 Broncos haven't played the nation's greatest schedule, sure, but they're going to be a brutal out in the WCC. Nice bounce-back season
- Impressive win for Northern Iowa at Illinois State. After playing like one of the best mid-majors in the country in November and December, the Redbirds have lost their first three Valley games.
- Creighton got all it could handle from sneaky-good Indiana State, and Gregory Echenique -- who is often overlooked in the Creighton-praise calculus -- was the difference.
- And last but not least ... how about those Towson Tigers?! Last season, Towson was famous for going an entire calendar year without winning a basketball game. The Tigers finished 1-31 and were a Bottom 10 member far too often for anyone's taste. On Saturday, Towson won its seventh -- yes, seventh -- game of the 2012-13 season, a 69-66 victory at Drexel that made the Tigers 2-0 in the CAA. You might be tempted to lament how disappointing Drexel has been, and understandably so, but I'd prefer to celebrate the miraculous turnaround of the previously hopeless Towson Tigers, who also won at Oregon State last week. Hear hear.
But really, who needs the beach?
Basketball will be the main attraction at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, where eight of the country’s top teams will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis. In just its second year, the tournament boasts one of the most impressive fields of any early-season event in recent memory.
Or at least that’s how things appear.
No. 2 Louisville is a favorite to reach the Final Four for the second straight year. Fifth-ranked Duke is high on momentum after last week’s victory against Kentucky. Missouri, which is ranked 13th, is one of the deepest squads in America, and No. 19 Memphis has its best team yet under Josh Pastner.
That’s four teams ranked in this week’s Top 20 -- not to mention Minnesota, which received more votes than any team not in the poll. Stanford, last season’s NIT champion, is also in the field along with mid-major powers VCU and Northern Iowa.
Whoever wins this tournament will deserve a spot in the national championship discussion -- if it's not already -- and maybe an extra day or two to enjoy the resort. Goodness knows it won’t have much time to relax before Sunday.
The basics: Nov. 22-24 at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas
Thursday's set matchups: Missouri vs. Stanford, 1 p.m. ET; Duke vs. Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET; Memphis vs. VCU, 7 p.m. ET; Louisville vs. Northern Iowa, 9:30 p.m. ET
Louisville: No team in the field touts a résumé quite like the Cardinals, who are led by a Hall of Fame-caliber coach, Rick Pitino, and a point guard, Peyton Siva, who was named Big East Preseason Player of the Year. Louisville returns virtually every key piece of last season’s Final Four squad, and potential stars such as Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear have a chance to blossom into stars after showing flashes of brilliance as freshmen. Louisville -- in particular, forward Gorgui Dieng -- plays with a toughness that makes it one of the top defensive teams in America.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mason Plumlee, Duke: Not many big men in the country have opened the season as strong as Plumlee, who averages 21.7 points and 8.7 rebounds for the 3-0 Blue Devils. The future first-round NBA draft pick had 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting against Kentucky and heralded freshman Nerlens Noel.
Phil Pressey, Missouri: Pressey, whose quickness helps him blow by defenders on the perimeter and create for others, is having to become more of a vocal leader after the departures of Kim English and Marcus Denmon. The Bob Cousy Award candidate averages a team-high 15.3 points and 4.7 assists.
Adonis Thomas, Memphis: Thomas might have left school for the NBA draft if not for an ankle injury that cut his freshman season short. The 6-foot-6 small forward is a highly skilled offensive player who can shoot the 3, pull up from midrange or drive to the basket. He’s averaging 12 points on a well-balanced team.
Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Dieng’s numbers thus far (10.0 points, 8.7 rebounds) look somewhat pedestrian until you realize he’s playing only 21 minutes a game. His court time -- and his production -- will increase this week against tougher competition. Dieng, who's 6-11, averaged 3.2 blocks last season.
Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: The Gophers standout came off the bench and played limited minutes in Minnesota’s first three games following reconstructive knee surgery that ended his 2011-12 season after seven contests. Mbakwe, though, saw 27 minutes of action Sunday, a sign that he’s building stamina. Mbakwe is one of the country’s top forwards when healthy.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Who drew the toughest first-round game? The folks who made the bracket didn’t do Duke any favors by pitting it against Minnesota in the opening round. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad will be favored, and rightfully so. But Minnesota is a dangerous, athletic team with Austin and Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams Jr. and Joe Coleman. And if Mbakwe is close to 100 percent, a Gophers victory would be considered only a mild upset.
Will Michael Dixon Jr. play for Missouri? No announcement has been been made, but the Tigers will be on a different level once coach Frank Haith lifts the suspension on Dixon, who has yet to play because of disciplinary reasons. Dixon is a tough-nosed guard who plays his best in close games. He and Pressey developed a chemistry in the backcourt last season that was a key reason for the Tigers’ success. Missouri can’t win this tournament without him.
Who is the sleeper in this field? Memphis has enough talent to beat any team in the bracket. The Tigers boast experience, too, with veterans such as Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black and Antonio Barton. To win games in this loaded field, though, Josh Pastner’s squad must get significant contributions from Thomas, who is still adapting to the college game despite being a sophomore, and highly touted freshman Shaq Goodwin, who is averaging just 5.0 points in his first two contests.
What’s the best potential individual matchup? The dream matchup is obviously a title game pitting Duke against Louisville -- and not just because it’d be Coach K vs. Rick Pitino. The battle in the paint between Plumlee and Dieng would feature two of college basketball’s premier big men going head-to-head. Plumlee is more skilled, while Dieng is tougher physically. It would certainly be exciting to watch.
Will the Battle 4 Atlantis replace the Maui Invitational as the nation’s premier nonconference tournament? That’s definitely the case this season, although the Maui Invitational has a long tradition of putting on one of the best early-season tournaments in America. But hey, what’s wrong with having two marquee events? Nothing has been announced officially, but next year’s Battle 4 Atlantis will include Kansas, USC, Tennessee, Xavier, UTEP, Villanova, Wake Forest and a Big Ten school that likely will be Michigan State.
Quarterfinals: Missouri over Stanford; Louisville over Northern Iowa; Duke over Minnesota; Memphis over VCU
Semifinals: Louisville over Missouri; Duke over Memphis
Championship: Louisville over Duke
Blue Ribbon's in-depth previews of all 10 MVC teams:
More Valley content:
-- Brennan's Three Big Things on Creighton.
-- Jason King rates and analyzes the nonconference schedules of the Missouri Valley.
-- ESPN.com's Summer Shootaround preview of the MVC.
-- For more coverage of the Valley in the Nation blog, click here.
Toughest: at South Florida (Nov. 20), Michigan (Dec. 1), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Next-toughest: George Washington (Dec. 4)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Texas-Pan American (Nov. 12), at IUPUI (Nov. 17), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 24), at Central Michigan (Nov. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Considering it went 7-25 last season, Bradley certainly could’ve scheduled easier. South Florida will contend for a second-straight NCAA tournament berth and Michigan is a preseason top-10 team. The Braves will face Virginia Tech and either Colorado State or Portland in Vegas. George Washington won only 10 games a year ago but returns four starters.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24), at Cal (Dec. 15), BracketBusters (TBA)
Next-toughest: North Texas (Nov. 9), Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 1), Akron (Dec. 9)
The rest: Presbyterian (Nov. 18), Longwood (Nov. 20), Boise State (Nov. 28), at Nebraska (Dec. 6), Tulsa (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Although it’s not as soft as last year’s, the Bluejays’ nonconference schedule is a bit underwhelming for a top-15-caliber team. They’ll be challenged by Wisconsin and either Arkansas or Arizona State in Las Vegas, and a trip to Cal won’t be easy. North Texas, Saint Joseph’s and Akron all will pose threats in Omaha and will help the RPI. But Creighton’s best nonconference game may be its BracketBusters showdown with a to-be-determined opponent in late February.
Toughest: DIRECTV Classic (Nov. 22-25), at Nevada (Nov. 30), Saint Mary’s (Dec. 5), vs. Iowa State (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
Next-toughest: at Detroit (Nov. 17), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: William Jewell (Nov. 10), IPFW (Dec. 8), North Carolina Central (Dec. 19), Eastern Illinois (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Kudos to coach Mark Phelps for building one of the conference’s most challenging nonconference schedules. The Bulldogs travel to Horizon League favorite Detroit and will then face Cal and then either Georgia Tech or Rice in Anaheim. Nevada and Saint Mary’s are stiff tests from out West. The schedule could play huge dividends for Drake in MVC play.
Toughest: at Notre Dame (Dec. 10), at Colorado State (Dec. 1), Murray State (Dec. 8), at Butler (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 15-17), at Tennessee Tech (Nov. 20)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 26), Miami-Ohio (Dec. 5), Alabama State (Dec. 15), Oakland City (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- After opening on the road at Notre Dame -- an upper-echelon Big East team -- the Purple Aces play three straight home games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. But that doesn’t mean the wins will come easy. Buffalo, Yale and Western Illinois all return three starters from winning teams. Colorado State, Butler and Murray State will all contend for NCAA tournament bids. This schedule gives an improving Evansville program a chance to take that “next step.”
Toughest: at Drexel (Nov. 15), at Louisville (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12), South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24), Wyoming (Dec. 4)
The rest: Delaware State (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 20), Western Michigan (Dec. 8), Morgan State (Dec. 16), Austin Peay (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- For a fringe top-25 team hoping to earn its first NCAA berth since 1998, this is a relatively weak nonconference schedule. Louisville is an NCAA title contender, Drexel returns four starters from a 29-7 team and Dayton is a tough place to play. Otherwise, there are no marquee matchups on the slate. The South Padre Island Field is weak with UAB, TCU and Northwestern.
Toughest: at UCLA (Nov. 9), New Mexico (Dec. 1), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
Next-toughest: at Ball State (Nov. 2), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: Winthrop (Nov. 13), Truman State (Nov. 17), High Point (Nov. 25), at Morehead State (Dec. 8), IUPUI (Dec. 15)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- This slate provides plenty of challenges for a program that lost four starters from an 18-15 team. Opening on the road against UCLA looks to be an insurmountable feat, but the experience will pay off in the long run. The Sycamores will also faced a much-improved Ole Miss squad in the Diamond Head Classic, which also features San Diego State, Arizona and Miami.
Toughest: San Diego State (Nov. 17), at Oklahoma State (Dec. 8)
Next-toughest: Hoops for Hope Challenge (Nov. 24-25 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico), Oral Roberts (Dec. 1), Valparaiso (Dec. 15), at New Mexico State (Dec. 22)
The rest: Philander Smith (Nov. 9), Jacksonville (Nov. 19), Alcorn State (Nov. 21), at Tulsa (Dec. 5), at Alabama A&M (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Bears will have plenty of chances to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee with this slate. The problem is that Missouri State will be loaded with new faces, making victories against postseason contenders such as San Diego State and Oklahoma State seem unlikely. A championship in the Hoops for Hope Challenge (where the Bears open against rebuilding South Carolina) would provide a nice confidence boost.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), at UNLV (Dec. 19), Saint Mary’s (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: at George Mason (Dec. 8), vs. Iowa (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
The rest: Wartburg (Nov. 10), Toledo (Nov. 14), North Dakota (Nov. 17), Milwaukee (Dec. 1), Northern Colorado (Dec. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Panthers open play against Final Four favorite Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis, one of the most loaded tournaments in recent memory. Duke, Memphis, Missouri and Stanford are also in the field. UNLV will almost certainly be ranked in the preseason top 25, and Saint Mary’s -- last year’s WCC champion -- features one of the nation’s top point guards in Matthew Dellavedova. Iowa and George Mason will both contend for NCAA bids. What a schedule.
Toughest: at Saint Louis (Nov. 24), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 5), World Vision Classic (Dec. 20-22 in Logan, Utah)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Nov. 28), at Green Bay (Dec. 14), BracketBusters
The rest: at New Orleans (Nov. 12), Benedictine-Springfield (Nov. 17), at SIU (Nov. 20)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Other than Saint Louis, Barry Hinson won’t play many top-25 caliber teams in his first season at Southern Illinois. But the Salukis won’t face many patsies, either. One of the most difficult tests probably will come three days before Christmas, when Hinson’s squad squares off against host Utah State in the World Vision Classic.
Toughest: at VCU (Nov. 13), at Tennessee (Dec. 13)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21), vs. Southern Miss (at INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita), BracketBusters
The rest: NC Central (Nov. 10), Western Carolina (Nov. 15), Howard (Nov. 17), Tulsa (Nov. 28), at Air Force (Dec. 2), Northern Colorado (Dec. 8), Charleston Southern (Dec. 20)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Victories at VCU or Tennessee could go a long way toward enhancing the Shockers’ NCAA tournament résumé, but there isn’t too much to get excited about on the rest of the slate. It’s a shame Wichita State couldn’t schedule at least one marquee opponent to play at home. To be fair, teams from major conferences probably aren’t too eager to face Gregg Marshall’s squad on the road. Koch Arena is an incredibly difficult place to play, especially when the Shockers are on a roll, which they have been in recent years.
2. Harvard is unlikely to make an official announcement until practice starts, but the Crimson expect seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry to take the year off and return to the Crimson in 2013-14, if admitted, after being involved in the school-wide academic scandal involving a take-home exam in a government class.
3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said the Tigers had their first team workout and it was “sloppy." But that shouldn’t discourage Memphis fans. He’s confident in the development of the newcomers, and particularly confident in the returnees. Pastner said Tarik Black has done a quality job of improving his conditioning, and has become a more efficient rebounder. “He’s got to make his free throws since he’ll get fouled a lot," Pastner said. The junior forward averaged 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds but shot just 59.4 percent at the line last season.
The most important player for each team in the MVC ...
Bradley: Dyricus Simms-Edwards
Bradley finished 2-16 in Missouri Valley play and 7-25 overall. The Braves were ranked 306th (out of 345 teams) in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. They need help in many areas. But they'll finish at the bottom of the league again without an improved offense. That's why the program needs guard Simms-Edwards to play more efficient and consistent basketball. He took 333 shots last season, but made just 35 percent of those attempts. He scored 17 or more eight times, but also recorded single digits in 15 games.
Creighton: Grant Gibbs
Antoine Young was the facilitator for Creighton's potent offense. Now, Greg McDermott needs to find a replacement. Austin Chatman is just a sophomore, so it's Gibbs who will most likely man the point guard slot for the Bluejays. Doug McDermott is a great college player. One of the best in the country. But he's not a creator. He's the kind of talent who excels mostly within the flow of Creighton's offense. And Gibbs will be the catalyst of that group, one that shot better than any team in the country last season (51 percent).
Drake: Ben Simons
The Bulldogs finished 9-9 in the MVC, part of a five-way tie for third place. And they looked like a dark horse for this season before Rice's transfer changed expectations. Simons (16.0 ppg) was equally effective for Drake's offense, but that one-two punch of Rice and Simons would have been the league's best. Simons now anchors Drake's offense alone. He was ranked fifth in the league in offensive efficiency per Pomeroy among players who accounted for 20 percent of their team's possessions (113.6). Losing Rice hurts the entire program, but Simons' return is a boost.
Evansville: Colt Ryan
McDermott was the most recognizable player in the MVC last season, but Ryan nearly matched his offensive output. As a junior, he averaged 20.2 ppg, second behind McDermott. He scored 43 points in a one-point overtime loss to the Bluejays in February and scored 30 or more four times last season. He's an exciting player who's probably McDermott's greatest threat for MVC Player of the Year honors. Defense is key in any league. But with Creighton's high-potent offense controlling the conference right now, teams need offense to keep up with the Jays. Evansville, ranked 57th in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings last season, has it with Ryan returning.
Illinois State: Jackie Carmichael
The standout wowed during the LeBron James Skills Academy, a coming-out party to those who'd never heard of the Illinois State star. But MVC rivals know all about Carmichael, a 6-foot-9 forward who recorded 15 double-doubles last season. The Redbirds fell short of the conference tournament title, but the bulk of their significant players return. Carmichael has the skill set to help Illinois State challenge Creighton for the MVC title, especially if he cuts back on his turnovers (2.2 per game). This is a talented roster. New coach Dan Muller, however, needs Carmichael to lead the way.
Indiana State: Jake Odum
The junior guard is not just Indiana State's most important player because of his production (10.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.9 apg). Yes, he's one of the league's most versatile performers. But he has to play with more discipline next season to give the Sycamores an edge. He recorded five or more turnovers in six games and averaged 3.0 per game in 2011-12. The MVC should be a top-heavy conference again next season. But Indiana State could be in the mix, especially if Odum fulfills his potential. He's also healthy. He was hobbled by plantar fasciitis last season.
Missouri State: Anthony Downing
In a few weeks, Missouri State will take a trip to Costa Rica, marking the first international trip for the program. And it's good news for a team that hasn't received much of it in recent months. Top players Kyle Weems and Caleb Patterson have graduated. And Jarmar Gulley, a senior who averaged 10.4 ppg and shot 37 percent from the 3-point line last season, tore his ACL in a summer league game last week and is expected to miss the entire 2012-13 season. Downing is the top returning scorer on the roster. The departures and Gulley's injury make him an even more significant player for a program that hopes to stay relevant within the MVC.
Northern Iowa: Anthony James
James (12.9 ppg) went viral in February after he hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat nationally ranked Creighton. The Panthers will rely on James for more highlights next season, a promising one for the program, as they lost just one senior, Johnny Moran. Northern Iowa was the MVC's top scoring defense (61.9 ppg allowed), but it was seventh in scoring offense (65.2 ppg). The Panthers scored 41 points in a road loss to Saint Mary's last November and managed just 51 points in a road loss to Missouri State in January. So they'll definitely need James, the squad's leading scorer last season, to maintain his offensive prowess.
Southern Illinois: Dantiel Daniels
The sophomore led the MVC in blocks per game last season with 1.6. He also led the league in Pomeroy's block percentage ratings (7.90), a more accurate barometer of a rim protector's effect on a game. To climb out of the MVC's basement, the Salukis must enhance a defensive unit that allowed 69.2 ppg and finished No. 202 in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Daniels (8.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) proved to be a talented defender in his first season of college basketball. If he continues to evolve, he might become a frontcourt star for the SIU.
Wichita State: Carl Hall
No player in the league faces a greater transition than Hall. He earned newcomer-of-the-year honors in the MVC last season. It was the perfect situation for the junior college transfer, who played with a group that was anchored by five seniors. But they've graduated, and now Hall is the new leader for a team that will add seven new players. This is definitely a rebuilding year for Marshall's program. Hall, who was second in the MVC in offensive rebounding percentage per Pomeroy, will be the key component in Wichita State's effort to avoid a major fall -- the Shockers won 27 games and earned a 5-seed in the Big Dance.
Northern Iowa at VCU (7 ET, ESPN2): VCU reached last season's Final Four. Northern Iowa reached the Sweet 16 two seasons ago. But both squads enter this BracketBusters game in need of some late-season momentum and probably a conference tournament title to guarantee a berth. With both squads coming off losses -- the Rams lost to George Mason on a buzzer-beater Tuesday; the Panthers have lost two of three -- this could be the game that starts that late-season push. UNI is out of the at-large running, but VCU still clings to hope -- and this is a must-win.
Marquette at Connecticut (12 ET, ESPN): If there's any hope left for UConn, it has to kick in nowish. Despite the Huskies' tumultuous season, it's hard to ignore last year's finish. Few had expected much from the program before it reeled off a run that ultimately led to a national title. The Golden Eagles are playing for seeding in the NCAA and Big East tourneys. And they're still in the Big East title conversation. They have an easy stretch that includes just one nationally-ranked squad (Georgetown) in their final five regular-season games. But late stumbles, especially with three more road games, could alter their postseason position.
Wichita State at Davidson (12 ET, ESPN2): Both teams have something to prove in this BracketBusters matchup. Davidson has a chance to show that its December victory over Kansas wasn't a fluke. The Shockers are clearly one of the top 20 teams in America in my opinion. But their omission from this week's ESPN/USA Today Coaches' poll suggests that some still doubt the Missouri Valley leader. The Shockers are in the NCAA tournament. On the road at Davidson, however, they can prove that they're capable of a run.
Florida State at NC State (1 ET, ESPN3): The Wolfpack (No. 49 RPI) could use a signature victory to enhance their résumé, especially after blowing a 20-point lead against Duke on Thursday night. NC State faces Florida State and North Carolina, both at home, in their next two outings, crucial games for its NCAA at-large hopes. The Seminoles are still in contention for the ACC title. But their loss at Boston College last week and a shaky win against Virginia Tech on Thursday didn't exactly make Leonard Hamilton's squad look the part. There's a three-way logjam at the top of the league and the Seminoles have struggled on the road. They have to keep winning to stay in the mix, which is why Saturday's game is so significant.
UNLV at New Mexico (1 ET, CBS): Most figured that UNLV would enter mid-February as the top team in the Mountain West. Guess again. New Mexico's win over San Diego State elevated Steve Alford's squad to the top of the conference. But Saturday wins by UNLV and San Diego State (at Air Force) would create a three-way tie between SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico entering the final four games of the year. The Pit will be an absolute madhouse for this one. Should be a lot of fun.
Arizona at Washington (3 ET, FSN): Who knows what to expect in the final weeks of the Pac-12 season, but Arizona and Washington are fighting for the Pac-12 title (the Wildcats are 10-4 and the Huskies are 11-3). And they're also trying to boost their thin at-large résumés. Joe Lunardi has both teams in his latest bracket, but not exactly by a wide margin (UW is the last team in). A strong finish by either could solidify an at-large slot. And in the weak Pac-12, a string of losses could lead to an NIT invitation.
Seton Hall at Cincinnati (4 ET, ESPN3): Losing skids interrupted the at-large hopes of both. The Bearcats have lost four of their past seven. Prior to their current three-game winning streak, the Pirates had lost six in a row. Lunardi projected both programs as double-digit-seeds in the Big Dance, so they can't feel secure entering their final stretch of the regular season. They're out of the Big East title conversation, but a Saturday victory could go a long way toward impressing the selection committee.
Florida at Arkansas (6 ET, ESPN): The Razorbacks aren't in the field right now. But Arkansas can sneak in with three remaining games against top-50 schools and the SEC tourney ahead. They've struggled on the road, but have found success at home. The Razorbacks could change their postseason prospects with a Saturday win. After losing to Tennessee last week, the Gators beat Alabama in their next game. Any momentum would be beneficial as their March 4 matchup against No. 1 Kentucky approaches.
Yale at Harvard (7 ET): Tommy Amaker's squad leads the Ivy League with a 7-1 record entering Friday's matchup against Brown. Saturday's matchup against 6-2 Yale (the Bulldogs play Dartmouth Friday), however, could change that. The Crimson were expected to run away with the Ivy League. And their 30-point win over Yale last month suggests that they'll stay on top of the conference. Harvard, however, has found itself in an unexpected fight for the Ivy League's title and automatic bid.
Ohio State at Michigan (9 ET, ESPN): Big Ten title implications here. If the Buckeyes win this game, then they'll stay on top of the Big Ten with an 11-3 record, one that Michigan State could match with a win at Purdue on Sunday. A loss, however, would allow Michigan to tie the Buckeyes and give the Spartans a chance to grab sole possession of first place. With only a handful of games remaining, the Big Ten is still tight at the top. Big game for the Big Ten.
Long Beach State at Creighton (10 ET, ESPN2): Long Beach State (No. 44 RPI) hopes to avoid the drama from the past two years. The 49ers missed the NCAA tournament following consecutive losses in the Big West tourney title game. A road victory over Creighton could help the 49ers grab an at-large bid, but a loss could put them in the same scenario they've found themselves in the past two years. Creighton looks like a lock for the Big Dance, despite a recent three-game losing skid. A loss here, however, could jeopardize that position and lead to more questions about Greg McDermott's squad.
Michigan State at Purdue (1 ET, CBS): If Ohio State loses to Michigan on Saturday, the Spartans can seize first place -- alone -- with a road win over the Boilermakers. But Purdue nearly knocked off the Buckeyes in Columbus. They have won two in a row and they know that a victory over a Spartans squad that might earn a No. 1 seed would be a huge boost for their at-large résumé. Expect a battle in West Lafayette.
For a recap of this afternoon's games, click here.
No. 4 Missouri 74, No. 8 Kansas 71: This game was easy to scout. Missouri is small and quick and offensively oriented, with four guards and one big man. Kansas is big and strong and built around forward Thomas Robinson, the national front-runner for player of the year. How would KU stop Mizzou's spread attack? How would Mizzou keep KU out of the lane? These countervailing dynamics seemed destined to determine the outcome of this game. And to some extent, they did.
But if we learned anything from this one, we learned this: Stylistic assessments tend to fly out the window when it's the final minute in a packed house and things are crazy and it's just a player, the ball, the game on the line and a single-possession deficit. It's hard to overthink this: You either execute or you don't. The Jayhawks didn't execute. That simple. And that's why they lost.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. Kansas was not helped by an iffy late charge call on Tyshawn Taylor that just as easily could have been a blocking foul on Michael Dixon. It resulted in two Missouri free throws and a three-point lead for KU to overcome. Even worse, that call wasn't nearly as egregious as the one against Robinson with 1:43 remaining; that easily could have been a block on Mizzou forward Steve Moore, an and-1 bucket for Robinson and a potential six-point swing, given Marcus Denmon's huge go-ahead 3 a few seconds later. Kansas fans are not at all happy about this turn of events, and they have every right to their anger.
That said, the Jayhawks would have been in better shape had Taylor made either of his two free throws with 42 seconds remaining. Despite all the late blunders and questionable calls, Kansas had a chance to take the game to overtime on the final possession. Had Elijah Johnson decided to shoot the ball when he got his first wide-open look as the clock ticked down, he might have gotten a clean shot. Instead, Johnson hesitated. He missed his chance. The clock expired. Game over.
As always, it's about execution, and in big-time rivalry games in heated buildings, the game is so often about execution in the final minutes. As Kansas was suffering shaky whistles, missed free throws, so-so shots and four turnovers in the final three minutes, Denmon was coolly canning two straight 3s, which turned a 71-65 Kansas lead into a 72-71 Mizzou lead in a matter of 30 seconds. Denmon was brilliant all game. He shot 10-of-16 from the field and was 6-of-9 from 3 en route to a 29-point outing. And that's the difference: Denmon was brilliant all 40 minutes. Taylor, Robinson and the Jayhawks were brilliant for about 37 minutes. When the game tightened and crunch time came around, one team consistently executed. The other did not.
For as much as we analyze (and overanalyze) these games, for as much as we talk about styles and matchups and X's and O's, for as much as we'll debate the Robinson charge calls for the next week, when you get to crunch time, that stuff fades away. The game shrinks. It simplifies. Be smart. Get good shots. Play defense. Take care of the ball. Rebound. Make your free throws.
Missouri scored the game's final 11 points. After leading 71-63, Kansas didn't score once.
In the end, the difference between those two sentences wasn't a matter of deep analysis. It wasn't stylistic or strategic. It was so much simpler than that.
Northern Iowa 65, No. 12 Creighton 62: It's not about what we learned in this game. We didn't learn all that much, save for the fact that Northern Iowa might be a bit better than its paltry Missouri Valley record (6-7) would indicate. But forget the new knowledge; this game was all about a reminder of the old.
That reminder: College hoops is an imperfect, frustrating enterprise. But when college hoops is good, it's better than anything else in the world.
Maybe that's hyperbole. Maybe I am the wrong person to levy such judgments, because I happen to love college basketball more than most. (I admit it.) Still, I defy you to find 60 more purely entertaining seconds than the final minute of Northern Iowa's win over 12th-ranked Creighton. College basketball seems to produce exchanges like this more frequently than other games; every week, it feels like something insane happens. But this ending -- which featured two 3s in the final 15 seconds, both of which came in open play, with no timeouts to stop the insanity -- registered an 11 on the 1-to-10 excitement scale.
I won't recap the entire closing exchange. You can see the highlights here, if you haven't seen them already. I've watched five or six times. The moment the shot goes in, well, it's almost perfect, you know? The rush up the floor, the crazy step-back, the swish, the crowd eruption -- this is the fabric of college basketball. Forget provincial rooting interests, alumni loyalty, wonky enthusiasm. The final 15 seconds of Creighton-UNI are why we love this damn game, imperfections and all.
No. 20 Indiana 78, Purdue 61: With 2:23 left and Indiana leading rival Purdue 65-61, IU point guard Jordan Hulls found himself trapped near half-court. Purdue was swarming -- it had been swarming and slapping and clawing at the Hoosiers all evening -- and, rather than risk a turnover, Hulls decided to play it safe. He and his teammates ran to the sideline, with their tenuous, shrinking lead still intact, and regrouped for what was sure to be an arduous finish in front of the Boilermakers' rabid crowd.
Then something strange happened: IU didn't fade away. It didn't suffer its typical frustrating late-game collapse on the road. It didn't bend under Purdue's relentless pressure. Instead, it blew the Mackey Arena doors right off.
Two minutes, 23 seconds later, the Hoosiers' 13-0 run had capped the first non-Penn State Big Ten road win of coach Tom Crean's 3 1/2-year tenure. In 143 seconds, the Hoosiers had gone from "well, here we go again" to their first win over the Boilermakers in their past six tries. For the first Big Ten road fixture this season, or in any of the Crean-era years that preceded it, Indiana looked self-assured and confident, not shaky and timid. The Hoosiers looked eager to go get the win, not anxious to avoid a loss. And so they did.
The game wasn't nearly as one-sided as that scoreline suggests, of course, and for most of the afternoon, even as Indiana built a 33-22 halftime lead, this thing was ugly on both sides. The Boilermakers were unusually scrappy, doing everything they could to make life difficult for Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and the rest, trapping and slapping and angling for jump ball calls from the official. (These attempts were often fouls, and when they were called as such, Purdue fans frequently flipped out. It was exactly what a home crowd should do. Even better, it often seemed to work.)
For most of the game, the Boilers' staunch defense held strong. The only problem: Purdue couldn't keep up with even a marginal offensive pace. The team committed just three turnovers all game, and its first didn't come until the 5:10 mark of the second half. With possession protection like that, you would have assumed the Boilermakers could have posted better than .90 points per trip. But Matt Painter's team couldn't break down Indiana's man or zone defenses with much regularity, and without a true post presence (an ongoing, irreconcilable issue for this team), Purdue was forced to hoist its typical diet of long 2s and 3s. Robbie Hummel & Co. made just five of their 21 3-point field goal attempts. They finished 21-of-71 -- or 29.6 percent -- from the field overall.
So what does it all mean -- that is, beyond the first batch of message-board/water-cooler bragging rights Indiana fans have had in years? It might mean this IU team is making progress in its understanding of how to win on the road. That's a difficult, indefinable quality, something even good teams struggle with each and every season. But if you're the Hoosiers, and you have your sights set on the heights reached in November and December, you have to beat inferior teams on the road in conference play. You have to hold on to those leads. Actually, forget holding on to your lead. Extend it. Sweep the leg. Finish.
The Hoosiers -- for the first time on the road in four Big Ten seasons (against a team not named Penn State, that is), for the first time in six tries against their hated rival -- unleashed their inner Cobra Kai. It wasn't a flawless victory, but it was a victory. For a team that lost so many of these games in 2010 and 2011 and even in 2012, that's a legitimate sign of progress.
One more IU-Purdue note: Guard Verdell Jones missed this game, but most of his minutes went to Victor Oladipo, and Oladipo responded with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. When Indiana needed buckets, Oladipo always seemed to step in, ready and willing to attack the rim. Impressive performance.
Some other observations from Saturday night's games:
- Kentucky absolutely rolled South Carolina on the road, and Basketball Prospectus writer Drew Cannon summed up my feelings on the Cats with his perfect postgame tweet: "Can you imagine how high people would be on Kentucky if Watford's three rimmed out?" He's dead on. If Christian Watford's shot misses (Kentucky lost to Indiana at the buzzer in December), Kentucky is undefeated, rolling through the SEC with remarkable ease, and we're all talking about whether the Wildcats can make it to the NCAA tournament without a loss. As it is, the Wildcats are still remarkable to watch. For much of their 86-52 victory, they appeared to be playing a different sport than the Gamecocks. UK had eight dunks in the first half, as Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones finished easy buckets at will. Darrin Horn's team never stood a chance. Even scarier: This team, in particular point guard Marquis Teague, is still developing into what it can be. Considering how good John Calipari's team already is -- 23-1, 9-0 in the SEC, No. 2 overall in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, etc. -- that's a frightening thought indeed.
- Colorado got a major home win over Oregon on Saturday night, but in questionable late circumstances. I didn't see the game -- there was the small matter of Kansas-Mizzou, after all -- but here's how the AP recap describes the final play in question: "Nate Tomlinson was fouled with one second remaining by E.J. Singler and sank the first free throw before deliberately missing the second to give Colorado a 72-71 win over Oregon Saturday night." Naturally, the AP isn't going to say whether the foul call -- which came with almost no time left on the clock -- was right or wrong. According to the response on Twitter, it might or might not have been a foul, but the referees should never have made such a marginal call in the final second of a tie game. Oregon coach Dana Altman was furious. Ducks fans are furious. Colorado will feel lucky to escape with the victory and move to 8-3 -- an unlikely 8-3, given this team's early prospectus -- in its first year in Pac-12 play. It sounds like we'll be talking about this call for a while. Should be fun!
- Middle Tennessee lost its lofty perch as the Sun Belt's only unbeaten team when it fell 75-60 at Denver on national TV. MTSU is a fringe bubble candidate, but the loss will make things much more difficult for the Blue Raiders to impress the committee. How much it will help Denver remains to be seen. Either way, the lesson here, as in Wyoming's win over UNLV on Saturday: Altitude kills. As does Denver forward Chris Udofia, who had 27 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in the win.
- Really solid road win for Iowa State, which topped Oklahoma 77-70 and kept its NCAA tournament momentum moving. The Cyclones have had a week to remember, which began with last Saturday's last-second win over Kansas and included this week's two-point home win over Kansas State. Oklahoma has given Big 12 teams legitimate issues this season, particularly at home, and Fred Hoiberg's fighting transfers have to be thrilled to escape Norman with a win.
- Speaking of solid road wins: Iona (19-5, 11-2 MAAC) invaded the turf of one of its fellow MAAC co-leaders, Manhattan, and left with an 85-73 victory. Gaels star point guard Scott Machado continued his hyper-efficient, ball-dominant ways, scoring 18 points on 5-of-7 from the field (and 6-of-8 from the line) to go along with nine assists and four rebounds. A few days after a major contract extension for coach Tim Cluess, his team got one of its biggest wins of the season.
- Murray State's latest extension to its undefeated record -- the Racers are now 23-0 and 11-0 in Ohio Valley Conference play -- came in what is rapidly becoming classic Murray style: It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't definitive, being but a 65-58 win over a team with a 3-21 record before Saturday. But it was a win all the same, another notch on the belt and another potential step toward a remarkable regular-season accomplishment. Stay tuned.
- Harvard didn't look great in its 57-52 home win over a bad Columbia team, but as in the above bullet point, a win is a win is a win. The victory moved the Crimson to 6-0 in the Ivy League and 20-2 overall. Still, if Harvard wants to ensure its first trip to the NCAA tournament in six decades, it will have to muster something more than the disjointed offense it displayed Saturday.
- And in CAA play, George Mason asserted its superiority -- and its position atop the conference standings -- with a 54-50 win over Old Dominion. Neither team is vintage for either program this season, and GMU's at-large case is a major work in progress, but wins like this are always steps in the right direction.