College Basketball Nation: observations 011213

More observations from Saturday’s evening slate:

  1. Welcome to the SEC title conversation, Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy’s program was an enigma as SEC play began. The Rebels’ numbers have been impressive (83.7 points per game, top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) all season. But their nonconference strength of schedule was so mediocre (242nd, per ESPN.com’s RPI) that it was difficult to know if those stats were valid indicators of their potential. Losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State only complicated the assessment process. But Saturday’s 64-49 home victory over No. 10 Missouri was a statement victory for the program. The Rebels are legit. Yes, Laurence Bowers’ absence (knee injury) affected the Tigers, but they lost because Ole Miss’ defense pressured them into costly mistakes (19 turnovers, 2-for-18 from beyond the arc and a season-low 49 points). And they couldn’t stop Murphy Holloway (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and a block). Ole Miss is officially an SEC contender.
  2. Colorado State overcomes 18-point halftime deficit in overtime thriller: I know No. 16 San Diego State’s 79-72 overtime victory over Colorado State says a lot about its standing in the Mountain West. It’s tough to argue that the Aztecs aren’t the best team in this deep league. They have one of the best defenses in the country (22nd in Pomeroy’s ratings). Plus, Jamaal Franklin leads SDSU’s talented and versatile offense. But I loved this game because of the heart that the Rams showcased. Colorado State was down 41-23 at halftime in this matchup. Colton Iverson (18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks), however, helped his team close the gap in the second half. He sent this one into overtime with a putback in the final seconds. CSU’s surge was more evidence of the depth in the MWC. And I actually thought this was the game of the day. So much action. Such an amazing comeback.
  3. [+] EnlargeChase Tapley
    Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsChase Tapley scored 12 of his 19 in overtime as San Diego State beat back Colorado State's charge.
  4. Arizona bounces back: I’m not saying this would have changed the outcome, but I’m disappointed that Oregon State’s Eric Moreland (10.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.7 bpg) did not participate due to a suspension. But I still give the No. 4 Wildcats credit for their 80-70 win in Corvallis, two days after they’d suffered their first loss of the year at Oregon on Thursday. Arizona was not flawless (16 turnovers), but it was too good (47.5 percent from the field) for Craig Robinson’s program, an average Pac-12 team at best. Mark Lyons (16 points) helped the Wildcats put together a performance that should help them put the Oregon loss behind them. Next up: Arizona State and then UCLA, two of the Pac-12's top teams.
  5. Temple wins, but Atlantic 10 still confusing: Before suffering a 64-54 loss at Temple, Saint Louis had won nine consecutive games. The Billikens were rolling entering the matchup, but Temple was aggressive in this crucial victory. Khalif Wyatt (24 points) led an Owls squad that shot 47.9 percent from the floor. Temple, however, lost to Xavier in its A-10 opener. And Saint Louis defeated UMass. So there’s still some confusion about the hierarchy in the Atlantic 10. I think Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are the two best teams in the conference, but what’s the order from there? I believe there are multiple teams in the league that could compete for the league title (VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s). At this point, though, the sample size is too small to establish a true pecking order. The Owls certainly proved that they’re one of the best teams in the league with the win over the Billikens.
Other notes:

  • Leonard Washington (16 points, 13 rebounds) helped Wyoming rebound from its first loss of the season with a 59-48 victory at Nevada. The Cowboys were coming off a 63-61 loss to Boise State by way of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Wednesday.
  • I feel for Buffalo. The Bulls were down 54-33 to Miami (Ohio) before they launched a 24-2 run to take a 57-56 lead, but Allen Roberts’ free throws in the final seconds gave the Redhawks the 58-57 win. Heartbreaking for Buffalo.
  • Need more proof that the Mountain West is legit? Air Force nearly upset No. 24 UNLV in a 76-71 overtime loss in Las Vegas. This league is potent top to bottom.
Six observations from an entertaining Saturday afternoon of college basketball:
  1. Southern (SWAC) might be better than Kentucky: I’m not one to get into a transitive discussion, but the truth is that Kentucky just lost to a Texas A&M program that suffered a 53-51 home loss to Southern on Dec. 22. I know it doesn’t work like that. And you can’t ignore the fact that Elston Turner (40 points, 6-for-10 from the 3-point line) played like Jesus Shuttlesworth (“He Got Game”) in the 83-71 win. But entering this game, the Aggies -- like the majority of the SEC -- were a mediocre squad. But the Wildcats are moving toward mediocrity with every poor performance. Remember when Rupp Arena was special? The Wildcats had won 55 consecutive games there before Baylor stopped that streak last month. This group managed to win five in a row. That’s decent, I guess. I’ve hyped the Wildcats’ potential all season. I’m done with that. This young group is a mess -- a lot of talent, no substance.
  2. [+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
    Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsForward Shabazz Muhammad, left, and UCLA continued their roll with a win against Colorado.
    The Bruins are coming: UCLA can officially put its Nov. 25 loss to Cal Poly behind it. This is not the same team. The Bruins’ 78-75 victory over Colorado in Boulder was their ninth in a row. What’s changed? Well, Shabazz Muhammad (18.5 ppg) is in shape now. And he certainly looks the part of the elite recruit that many expected to carry the program in 2012-13. But it was Travis Wear (23 points) who came up big against the Buffaloes. That was a crucial road win for a UCLA team (51.7 percent from the field) that has played its way into the Pac-12 title picture and evolved into a program that could be one of the nation’s best in the coming months. The Bruins’ defense is improving. (Colorado committed 14 turnovers and shot 5-for-17 from the 3-point line.) And their offense (19th according to Ken Pomeroy) is jelling. Watch out for UCLA.
  3. Hello, C.J. Leslie: The Wolfpack junior forward was a McDonald’s All-American. Talent has never been the question with Leslie. Effort? That’s a different discussion. Throughout his career, he has been accused of lacking a killer instinct. He’s often discussed in terms of potential. On Saturday, however, Leslie (9-for-16, 25 points, six rebounds, two blocks) quieted his doubters with a dominant performance in No. 20 NC State’s 84-76 home win over No. 1 Duke. It was NC State’s sixth win over a No. 1 team (6-27, per ESPN Stats & Info). Leslie hit a pair of free throws, a jump shot and a layup during an 8-0 run at the end of the first half. The Wolfpack carried the momentum established by that rally into the second half. Leslie wasn’t the only contributor in the program’s win, but his performance was vital. NC State is a different squad when he plays with that energy.
  4. Indiana and Minnesota win: No. 5 Indiana and No. 8 Minnesota did plenty to boost their respective national reputations in the Hoosiers’ 88-81 win over the Gophers in Bloomington. For the bulk of the game, Indiana proved that it is one of the best teams in the country with a dominant performance that nearly KO’d Minnesota. The Hoosiers were 7-for-11 from the 3-point line and led 52-29 at halftime. It was an amazing performance. A lot of teams would have been resigned to defeat if trailing by 23 points at the half, especially against a Hoosiers squad that had won 18 in a row at Assembly Hall. Not Minnesota. This gutsy crew, by far Tubby Smith’s most skilled, scored 52 points and held the Hoosiers to a 1-for-8 clip from beyond the arc in the second half. They kept fighting and had a legitimate shot at the upset late. That’s what matters for a program that could face the No. 1 team in the country Thursday when it welcomes Michigan in to Minneapolis. The Gophers can feed off that finish.
  5. Death by 3-pointer: The Illini shoot a lot of 3-pointers (435, second in the nation). They live by the 3-ball. Against the Badgers, however, No. 12 Illinois was hurt by that one-dimensional attack. The Illini shot 2-for-14 from beyond the arc in a 74-51 loss (Wisconsin led 39-19 at halftime) in Madison. Illinois went 3-for-24 from the 3-point line in its 84-67 home loss to Minnesota on Wednesday. Not only are the Illini struggling to hit 3s, but they also aren’t defending the 3-point line, as Minnesota and Wisconsin went 19-for-38 combined on their 3s. The Illini are 2-4 in their past six games after winning their first 12. They’ve won just two of their past 13 conference games. This is why it’s so difficult to trust fast starts. John Groce’s squad could certainly be described as overrated.
  6. North Carolina prevails in must-win over Florida State: The Tar Heels needed this one. They’d lost their first two ACC games (against Virginia and Miami) and had to avoid an 0-3 start in the ACC. They hadn’t cracked 60 points since that 79-73 win over UNLV on Dec. 29. They entered Saturday’s matchup at Florida State without Leslie McDonald, who tweaked a knee prior to the game. Yet the Tar Heels competed like a team that understood the stakes in their 77-72 victory over the Seminoles. P.J. Hairston led the way with a career-high 23 points (4-for-9 from the 3-point line). Marcus Paige sealed the game with a pair of late free throws. I was impressed with their relentlessness, especially since they were playing on the road.
Quick Notes:
  • Sure, Syracuse managed to beat Villanova 72-61 without senior James Southerland, who missed the game due to an eligibility issue, but any lengthy stretch (see: Fab Melo) without the sharpshooter (37.5 percent from 3-point line, 13.6 ppg) could jeopardize the Orange’s Big East title hopes.
  • Virginia opened ACC play with a win over UNC and then lost consecutive road games to Wake Forest and Clemson? Oh, that makes sense.
  • Short-handed Mississippi State (eight guys played Saturday) secured its second consecutive SEC victory with a 72-61 road win over Georgia. Rick Ray should celebrate. Seriously.
  • Pitt’s Lamar Patterson hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation, but the Panthers lost to Marquette 74-67 in overtime. Pittsburgh is 0-4 in games decided by single digits.
  • Butler’s Rotnei Clarke took a hard fall on his head in the Bulldogs’ 79-73 win over Dayton. He was carried off the court on a stretcher, but the school recently announced that he will be OK.
  • If only Notre Dame could avoid UConn. The Fighting Irish are 46-2 in their past 48 home games. Connecticut is responsible for both defeats, including Saturday’s 65-58 loss.

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